This is the Player’s Guide for the Zeitgeist Campaign. It’s a thorough and well-fleshed out setting guide, complete with lots of detailed setting information (fluff), as well as a healthy variety of new character options (crunch).
In theory, you could use this as a standalone setting guide to run your own adventures in the world of Zeitgeist, but the intent is that you’ll be playing the associated adventure path. I want to contrast this with other free Player’s Guides that are generally available for Pathfinder adventures: this isn’t just a quick “here’s how the party comes together” followed by “and here’s what favored enemies your Ranger should pick” like you might expect. This is a robust guide that can stand as its own product. Again, you could use this as a complete setting guide for your own homespun adventures, which is pretty good deal for a free product.
There are five chapters, which I’ll review separately:
- Character Options
- World Overview
- City of Flint Overview
- RHC Overview
- Naval Combat Rules
The first chapter is where you get the standard “player’s guide” stuff: how the various fantasy races fit into the setting, what classes make sense, a few house-rules, etc.
This is where you also get nine character “themes”: these are distinct roles that highlight key aspects of the setting. (They remind me quite a bit of the “social splats” from nWoD.) These include things like the Skyseers, who are part of the old traditional order who spiritually guides society with their astrological insight, or the Technologists, who focus on developing the cutting edge of the revolution, or the Dockers, who represent the interest of the common workers and their plight against government oppression, to more esoteric roles, like the Vekeshi, a secret society who seeks to sculpt destiny through selective assassination. Every player is supposed to choose a specific theme, which helps define how they fit into the wider fabric of Zeitgeist. It’s important to note how well integrated these themes are in the setting, and how they are continually reinforced (complete with organized-play-esque faction-quests) in the associated campaign. I love the idea on paper, and I’m thrilled to report, that in practice, my players took to these with gusto, and really ran with these ideas. Each theme has enough information to give you a lot to work with (and again, natural setting elements will “call out” to these themes frequently, to help reinforce this), but also each theme is loose enough to allow every player to define what it means for themselves. My players have ended up comparing the themes to the various guilds you can join in Skyrim and other Elder Scrolls games … honestly, that comparison doesn’t ring as true for me, but that’s my PCs' perspective.
Each theme ends up being a prerequisite for a specific three-level Prestige Class (thus, there’s nine PrCs in included in this guide). Most of these are pretty awesome, and my players are very excited for them, as they offer up really interesting crunch, and are exquisitely flavorful. (Mostly: of the nine, seven are great, but two of them I feel like they dropped the ball.) Unfortunately, they have the normal problems that PrCs have (for example, a halt in the caster’s casting progression, but I just houseruled that.) To give a brief taste: the Monument of War can call up memories of dead comrades to defend him in battle or launch artillery strikes, the Mad Shootist crafts experimental weapons and overpowers his gear mid-combat, and the Applied Astronomer taps into the powers of the stars draws them down to earth.
While all of this crunch is designed with the Zeitgeist campaign in mind, my players have asked if they could use it in subsequent campaigns, which to me suggests they worth it.
This chapter also includes rules for spending “prestige”, (which we call “favor” at my table). This works like the old World of Darkness LARP rules, where you can have influence in various political structures in the city, and spend your influence to accomplish setting-tasks. For example, run a false news story, get a priest defrocked, cause a riot downtown, etc. It’s a fun way to mechanically represent political power or social pull.
The second chapter is a 15-page gazetteer of the entire world, with the longest section being dedicated to the country of Risur, which is intended as the PC’s homeland. As the Zeitgeist campaign is geared towards one of international intrigue and conspiracy, and as such, it focuses on six countries with detailed histories and politics, rather than a huge grab-bag of varying locations. Each of these six countries is given notes on their geography, political structure, cultural touchpoints, and in particular, ascendant philosophies. In keeping with Zeitgeist’s pseudo-18th-century feel, each of the heads of state and other movers-and-shakers are detailed as interesting NPCs. The game assumes that you will be playing on a level such that you have to interact with heads of state.
This chapter also includes a discussion of the setting’s metaphysics, namely, the planets that orbit the world, the various planes of existence, and even a bit about the fey courts that rules one of the other planes. The guide also explains the setting’s dominant religions and philosophies. However, it does not contain a staple of other Pathfinder setting guides: a list of deities (and the all-important list of domains and favored weapons). This was intentional, rather than an oversight, and players are encouraged to read up the description of their religion, and invent their own deity within the described pantheon. It certainly strikes a unique tone, but at least for my group, it caused my players to rule out anyone playing a Cleric or Paladin.
All-in-all, it’s a good setting guide, and I really like the world that is both succinctly as as well as thoroughly developed. Here’s the weird thing about it though: everything is Chekhov’s gun. In case you’re not familiar with that literary term: everything mentioned in the guide is of direct relevance to the Zeitgeist campaign. Passing reference to an abandoned city? Your PCs will go there. Sidebar on an old legend? Not only is it true, but your PCs will become the heroes mentioned in it. Any NPCs mentioned? Your PCs will definitely meet, and likely have to kill him/her. Historical event that just sounds like setting dressing? Your PCs will travel back in time and interact with it first-hand. Before you realize that this is what’s happening, the gazetteer just reads like a cool setting. But after you realize every detail exists to be exploited in the coming adventure, the guide becomes a bit surreal, almost like it’s a giant check list of all the things that have to be explored or killed before the end of the campaign. What finally clicked for me is that Zeitgeist is not a western RPG, in the vein of Baldur’s Gate or Elder Scrolls, but is rather a JRPG.
The third chapter is on the city of Flint, the second-largest city in the country of Risur, and is intended as the PCs’ home-base. Risur is otherwise a traditional (read: non-tech), agrarian society. However, Flint is the one city in Risur where industry has been allowed to flourish, and it’s bursting at the seams with cultural strife. We get an overview of its nine districts, two nice maps, and its power players: from its political powers, to crime lords and eco-terrorists. The city gets a lot of love, and my PCs have learned to really call it home. The Zeitgeist setting takes care to detail depth in its urban environment, and supports running entire adventures exclusively within the city of Flint. The city is multi-layered enough (and enough of a powerkeg) to handle such adventures. And no need to resort to sewer-crawls to do it!
The fourth chapter is on the Royal Homeland Constabulary, the FBI-meets-CIA-meets-JackBauer that the PCs are supposed to be apart of. Here you learn about the organization’s chain of command, meet your coworkers, get a map of your office, learn about rules and regulation, and get a list of boats you can rent. It’s up to each GM how much they want to emphasize this part of Zeitgeist. It’s possible to play in Zeitgeist without including the RHC, or by playing it down. My group, however, took to it with a passion, and detailed out all their relationship with their coworkers, office protocol, and even put together their in-game schedule and Scrum-board. But my players are weird. :-)
This section also includes some rules on how to shadow a suspect, and perform advanced interrogation. I tried to use these, but they didn’t feel natural for my group, so we don’t use them anymore.
The fifth chapter is a bit incongruous: it’s naval combat rules. Unlike all of the above, which is very setting-speciifc, this chapter is not, and feels like it’s been imported in from another product. Anyway, it’s included because Zeitgeist exists in the age of sail, and canon-battles on the high-seas are a thing. (As are blowing up smuggler’s boats in the harbor, or trying to evade experimental u-boats hiding in a reef, or battling the kraken out at sea, etc.) The rules are serviceable. They’re probably my second-favorite naval combat rules (I like them better than Paizo’s Skull & Shackles, but they’re not as elegant as FGG’s Razor Coast). Also included are some stats of other ships the PCs might commandeer. Since the Zeitgeist campaign has naval combats built-in to the adventure, these rules get brought out every so often. The rules are certainly generic enough to spin up your own ad hoc naval combats as well.
So, would I recommend you buy it? And by that I mean, “is it worth the $17 DTRPG charges for a print copy & shipping?” and the answer is “yes.”
If you’re planning on running the actual Zeitgeist campaign this book is essential. Full stop. You need a copy to design your character and play. And since so much from the player’s guide is referenced during the campaign, you’ll want your players to have that print-copy handy.
If you’re not planning on running the Zeitgeist campaign, this book is still worth a purchase. Yes, even if you’re not playing the campaign. It’s a fun setting, it’s got great ideas, and has some awesome ways to get your PCs enmeshed in the setting, and the moods the setting is trying to invoke.
This review written from the perspective of a GM who has been running from this guide for over half a year now. I actually got my players to read the thing. When's the last time you were able to say that about a 70-page player handout?