Tobold's Blog
Monday, March 27, 2017
Bitten off more than I can chew

The Zeitgeist Adventure Path is an epic campaign. It has 13 adventures for either 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder (5th edition conversion is in the works) that go from level 1 to the maximum level of each system. Printed out the campaign is over 1,500 pages long. It has its own campaign world, in which not just the history but even the planar constellation is part of the story. And it has as many storylines as Game of Thrones, often touching deeply philosophical issues and rejecting simple good vs. evil categories.

Now the attraction of such an epic campaign is obvious. It is why I started that campaign with my group nearly 2 years ago. But of course I didn't even read all 1,500 pages before starting, preparing just one adventure in advance at a time. The first and second adventure went well, but cracks are starting to appear in adventure 3: The "grand conspiracy" which is the main story line is getting more visible, but at the same time the DM can't reveal too much of it so as to not spoil the next 10 adventures. One of the consequences is that the group is now traveling to explore a ziggurat without really knowing what they are looking for. The players "meta-gamed" to make the decision to go there, as going to the next available dungeon tends to be a good idea in this sort of game. But the characters, members of the Royal Homeland Constabulary have no compelling reason to do so: What modern policeman who gets a case involving artifacts coming from an Egyptian pyramid would decide to explore that pyramid to find out more? And the rest of adventure 3 has a lot more of such events which might be fun to play, but don't really make much sense.

So this weekend I was reading adventure 4 to see what is coming. The setting is kind of a "Murder in the Orient Express" type of game. The constables will be undercover in a train, trying to identify a conspirator in a cast of 42 NPCs, of which several have unrelated storylines and events related to those happening during the trip. There is so much going on on this train that they will gain 2 levels in 5 days of train voyage. And I don't think that me or my group are up for such an adventure. To come back to the Game of Thrones comparison, do you know the feeling when you start watching a new season and realize that you have forgotten a lot of what happened in the previous season and don't remember quite who each of the characters is and what they are currently doing? As we only play once or twice per month, our roleplaying sessions are all a bit like that. Complex investigative adventures with tons of NPCs and side stories are just leaving everybody confused. The group is more likely to decide at some point to blow up the train to kill everybody than to interrogate everybody one by one discreetly in order to find the target.

So I was looking at ways to make adventure 3 and 4 a lot less complex and eliminate a lot of the red herrings and side stories. But the campaign already accelerates level gains far too much for my liking: In the 4 sessions with 2 fights they had in this adventure they already gained one level. If I shorten the adventure I'll end up giving them one level after every fight in order to keep up with the level requirements of the next adventures.

Ultimately the problem is that roleplaying games are an oral media: All the 1,500 pages of information from the Zeitgeist Adventure Path has to get from the pages somehow into my brain, and from there via my narration of the events to the players. That is a lot of story to tell, and a lot of story for players to keep in mind in order to make sense of what is going on. Maybe we are just getting old and forgetful, maybe we play too infrequently, or maybe we just aren't all that interested in such deep a story. Us playing in 4th edition, where sometimes it takes us a whole evening to play through one fight isn't helping. More and more I come to the conclusion that my plan to play this campaign to the end is doomed. It took us nearly 2 years to get from the start to the second chapter of the third adventure, and I don't see us spending many more years to get to the end of adventure 13. More and more that prospect looks like more work than fun. And fun is the ultimate purpose of playing games.


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