Zeitgeist #13: Avatar of Revolution
This is it. The finale of the Zeitgeist AP clocks in at 89 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 84 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This being the FINALE of the Zeitgeist AP, the following, unsurprisingly, will contain copious amounts of SERIOUS SPOILERS. Potential players should definitely jump to the conclusion.
Only GMs around? Okay, when the PCs were in Av, the world of dreams and fey, a massive blast left reflections back in the gyre and sent the PCs back into reality – but due to mutable time in Av, months have gone by in the real world and Obscurati control has been more than solidified. Few beings still resist the all powerful New World order, one of them being none other than Benedict Pemberton. If his daughter did not survive #6, he’ll be a shaky ally at best, but in the rich tradition of reaping what you have sown. When the PCs awake from the shock of Av’s destruction, Pemberton will bring them up to speed – just in time before a powerful killer-commando of the obscurati, with Nicodemus hijacking one member, offer a final chance to come to his side (He has cookies! … Sorry, old goth joke…)…and the PCs will find out the hard way that the Ob now have the metaphysical power of their strengthened godmind behind them….it is also here that the eye of rot and a chance for the PCs to find out means to subvert hivemind control happen…they’ll need every bit of strategy and power they can muster.
Pemberton also has a subject, Pardo the gnoll – which is good, for in order to subvert the sacrament, the PCs will have to actually wrestle people from the hivemind control of the Obscurati…which is very much required. Why? Because Nicodemus sees the big picture. He sees the PCs for the demigod-power threats they are…and he is willing to torch every single city on the planet, kill millions, if the PCs continue to thwart his plans. After all, who will care once utopia’s reached? Who will mind in a thousand years? This is where Pemberton comes into play: He is convinced that, if the PCs can deal with Harkover Lee, who lords over Risur, that he can jury-rig his duplicant-magics to allow the PCs to enact a ritual in several cities at once, simultaneously breaking the hold of the Ob and foiling Nicodemus’ scorched earth protocol.
However, at this point, we return to adventure #12.
Speaking of which and the dragon formerly known as Harkover Lee: Scorched earth here is to be taken literally. The gas lines are ready to erupt with elemental fire directly sapped from the plane, as the heroes with their attempts of freeing folk from obscurati mind-control, witness firsthand the fruits of Nicodemus’ age of reason. Foiling literally scorched earth is one thing…but the dragon still needs to be dealt with – and the dragon tyrant is not a foe to be trifled with – CR 23, all death. Oh, and you know all those other metropolises, all those other characters the PCs interacted with, from snipers to shamans? this is where pretty much everyone becomes important, for, within a scant few minutes, the scorched earth protocol must be stopped EVERYWHERE. While the pdf acknowledges that players tend to care less when their PC’s not “on stage”, it should still be noted that the duplicants and their control can make for an amazing “simultaneous” run, if your GM-mojo is really strong. Then again, you have run one of the most challenging APs ever written to the final chapters, so I think you should be able to handle that!
One final task. The Axis Seal ritual. Nicodemus and his colossus Borne. All forces of the Obscurati. The PCs now truly reap what they have sown. They need to gather their forces and allies, deal with the Obscurati armies and the aforementioned entities. The goals can diverge: Stop Nicodemus. Complete the ritual themselves. Redeem William Miller and thus allow them to redeem, to an extent, Nicodemus and put him to rest…or reject the divinity and new world by utterly destroying the half-completed ritual set-up. Nicodemus is basically the god of this world by now – empowered by all minds who want him to complete the ritual, hampering his ability to do so may make him vulnerable.
Know how #12 had these cool tracking sheets? Well, the axis ritual (full color map included) and the massive energy tendrils involved here make for a final combat that cannot conceivably be solved by brute force – it is, at once, a massive puzzle to reconfigure the pillars with icons to determine the new world’s form…and better yet, we actually get sample taunts and even a proper grandstanding monologue for Nicodemus…and a GM checklist for the encounter. You know, usually, I’d follow that up with “but a good Gm can handle that”-blabla…but frankly, this encounter is so complex and cool at the same time that the inclusion is very much appreciated!
In fact, PCs can actually get a cool series of handouts that helps them grapple with the axis seal’s ritual, for each manipulation actually changed the rules of the world! Nice: You can duplex print two pages and print them out as cards, if you want. And yes, if the players wish to engage in the sacrament of apotheosis, that is similarly covered in a handout.
Indeed, the ends are complex and reward attention: Destruction of Nicodemus…amounts to genocide. Completion of the ritual…just delays him and makes the world, changed, basically a partial success for him. Making Miller take control can subvert Nicodemus and allow for his destruction…and finally, rejection of any form of change, of a realignment of the world, can similarly sever his quasi-deific link…and allow the PCs to end him. Oh, and guess what? The campaign ends in style, with a proper denouement for each character theme.
Editing and formatting are very good, I only noticed a couple of minor hiccups. Layout adheres to Zeitgeist’s two-column full-color standard and the pdf has full-color artworks. The pdf is layered, allowing you to customize it for printing out. The pdf is also fully bookmarked for your convenience. Cartography is in full-color and nice.
Ryan Nock’s finale to the Zeitgeist AP is one I see with a laughing and a crying eye: I am honestly glad that this book was made, that this glorious AP managed to reach its end. I am also exceedingly happy to report that the saga managed to maintain its exceedingly high standard, its high concepts, its courage to expect smart players. It is a fitting end for one of the best villains I have ever encountered in any roleplaying game, a conclusion of epic proportions that may not reach the far-out OMG-level of #12, but instead brings things full circle – where #12 was about averting destruction, this book is about creation and what we’re willing to risk for it; it is a question of how we’d act when confronted with absolute power. It takes the various decisions and consequences of the AP into account and represents the most challenging, rewarding final encounter I have ever read in a published AP. Zeitgeist ends with a bang quality-wise, though failure on the PC’s side may indeed make it an in-game whimper for them. In short: This is a masterful conclusion to the AP, though one that absolutely REQUIRES being run in conjunction with #12. The final verdict will, unsurprisingly, clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval.
I should talk a bit about the AP as a whole. PFRPG, D&D (whether 4th or 5th edition is irrelevant), 13th Age and similar rules-heavy systems have a bit of a bad reputation in some gaming circles. One complaint is that the rules get in the way of invested storytelling, often pointing towards rules-lite games and their investigation scenarios and then towards the fun, but mindless dungeon-crawling that is often the default modus operandi for these systems. The Zeitgeist AP is, in one sentence, the furious and definite rebuttal that the systems can’t carry complex, amazing and intellectually engaging plots. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy mindless dungeon-crawling as much as the next guy. I don’t need highly complex plots in every module. In fact, please spare me – more often than not, complex plotlines end up being a colossal mess. Particularly if you insert metaphysics, philosophy and the like – most modules fail hard at being smart and just end up being referential – which is NOT the same. (Brief tangent: That’s why current comedy is often not funny to me. References to 80s, 90s etc. are not funny or clever in and of themselves.)
Well, guess what? Zeitgeist handles one of the most complex and rewarding plot-lines I have ever witnessed in any medium. It also accomplishes two additional milestones as far as I’m concerned: 1) The AP features one of the most compelling and relatable villains ever put to print. 2) For perhaps the very first time in a published sequence of modules or mega-adventures, I did not find myself rationalizing some dumb flaw in the plan of the opposition. You see, nothing irks me more than, as a GM, having to play a supposedly almost all-powerful conspiracy of hyper-smart folks and failing due to transparent fiat. The opposition in Zeitgeist is exceedingly clever, potent, acts in a concise and well-reasoned manner and feels internally consistent. There is no “a wizard did it/he’s mad/he’s arrogant/etc.” lame justification here – the plans are clever, the responses are similarly smart and the AP expects not only GMs, but also players to be smart, involved and clever.
In short, if your group consists of intelligent people (as most of us are, knowing roleplayers!), if you ever had to insert x plot-fixes to account for players punching holes in plots, if you ever had to insert a ton of complications (or blend multiple modules into one) to challenge your players and provide a sufficiently engaging storyline, then it’s time to take the plunge and give this a try. If you’re burned out on the xth dungeon crawl against a villain with a lame, flimsy motivation or a dumb guild…then it’s time to look at this. This AP is indeed an action-packed AP that very much stays true to its tenets of being smart and being an investigative/espionage-saga. This AP is a monument as far as I’m concerned, one that should be on pretty much every self-respecting GM’s shelf.
The AP is not perfect, though. The main issue I see lies in the horrid naval combat rules, which I’d strongly suggest to ditch and replace with those of Fire as She Bears/Ships of Skybourne. While the latter book is hard to get at first, it is the perfect toolkit to making this AP’s naval combat less reliant on the basics. The AP also has, here and there, some minor hiccups that stick out like sore thumbs in the rules-department of minor components like hazards etc. – these are never many, but they do show up, which means that you’ll here and there need to make some minor modifications. That being said, the absolutely fantastic storyline, the sheer level of involvement, the visuals – pretty much everything about this saga makes this work more than justified. In the hands of a capable GM and an experienced group of smart players, this may well be one of the best complete campaigns ever penned, regardless of system.
Now the campaign can also be found in massive books. While I have reviewed and own Act I, as per the writing of this review, I have not yet had a chance to read the Act III-compilation. It’ll grace my shelves, though – and frankly, you should give this series a shot. Act II and III’s compilations, in time, will get their own briefer reviews in which I will comment on the compilation and less on the plot and respective single modules, mind you.
Smart, glorious and very cinematic, this saga is phenomenal and frankly leaves me puzzled how EN Publishing ever wants to top it. Again: Monument. Get it. If you’ve been disillusioned by published modules and their bugs or just the relative simplicity of many a plotline, this is the ultimate panacea for your roleplayer-weltschmerz.
P.s.: Since someone asked: I’m not affiliated in any way with the AP or EN Publishing; I had my nick long before the first zeitgeist-installment hit shelves.
P.P.S.: If someone playing this module makes an endzeitgeist, drop me a line. 😉
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