I was contacted by Frank Albanese of Zodiac Empires asking me to give a review of their campaign world and player’s guide in exchange for a free PDF of both books. For reference, they did a kickstarter and now have their campaign setting for sale on amazon and drive-thru rpg (where I was given the free digital copies). None of these links are affiliate links, and I get no compensation for anyone purchasing from Zodiac Empires. If anyone else out there would like me to review their product, feel free to reach out to me with the contact link below or using my email admin (at) anarchydice (dot) com.
Ruined Tower from over at https://leicestersramble.blogspot.com/ (Note, he also has two runner-up ideas that he did not submit to this years contest too.)
Bubble Guble Super Raum by Herr Zingling and his kids over at http://zinnling.blogspot.de/
The Inverse Tower by Michael Raston at http://lizardmandiaries.blogspot.com.au/
Also, a reminder that you can get my one page dungeon right here, a floor depicting the remains of a dragon’s lair that failed to achieve lichdom. If you submitted your own One Page Dungeon contest entry, I would love to link to it here. If you do, I’ll give your entry some extra attention when I review all the dungeons this year, like last year.
Now for the review:
The book is well executed, and solidly consistent high-fantasy almost proto-steampunk with enough apocalyptic events to keep the world low-tech and isolated. Zodiac Empires has something for just about everyone inside, but it never felt like a patchwork of ideas or a smashed together mess. Descriptions can go a bit lengthy and I am not a fan of giving everything fancy new names (my player cannot even stay on top of remember the names of important NPC’s), but for those of you that like that sort of thing, the world building is solid. Zodiac Empires sits on the faultline of many different genres and can easily hop the fence to work for a grim-noir game, airship battles, classic dungeon delving, old school hex crawling, magic apocalypse, or a number of others. It has resources, art, and fluff to pull into most game styles and systems.
Starting from a high level theme introduction to the setting, the book follows a fairly standard RPG world backdrop of explaining the unique races, deities, magical forces, lifestyles, geographies, and political organizations. What Zodiac Empires does well is to suggest the different places and histories of the peoples of the races while carefully noting ways that individuals within that group may differ, an excellent way to get player buy-in sitting right in the second chapter. The unique races, my favorite are the animal inspired fey-folk, are the place that can most strongly pull in new players to be excited about this world, enticing them with cool character ideas that are hard to accomodate in a standard Pathfinder of D&D world. While the robotic people seem reminicent of D&D’s Warforged, I think that the artwork and history of this race are sufficient to distance it from the D&D race, although I wouldn’t be surprised if players don’t care about the distinctions.
The section on Cosmic Powers is just like any other pantheon-describing section of a world. The individual sigils and banners of the gods are interesting, but with so many gods, they will be hard-pressed to come up as an important detail except in specific games. I feel like cosmic powers and gods tend to be more relevant to books and published material for a setting rather than actual play, but I did like the direction a few of the gods took, like the goddess that has secrets, assassination, lust, and seduction. For writing purposes, gods that cross between the bounds of acceptable and unacceptable behavior are way more interesting than cliche’d gods of light or puppy-kicking evil.
A chapter on magic helps cross the gap of the narrative basis of the different schools of magic common to different RPG systems with the setting of Zodiac Empires. I read lots of fiction and fan fiction that explores the mechanistic nature of magic, especially ways to cheat or manipulate things, so while I didn’t find anything wrong with the consistency of the magic as it relates to the world, its hard to see how to relate the different magic systems mechanically into a game. Outside of the high-fantasy technology, such as airships or house heaters, magic seems to hold the same place as whatever game system you use, although it might have a different name here (that players will likely forget to use). For a story-driven game, players will likely enjoy a fresh coat of paint over the old divine vs arcane vs nature magical divisions.
Life on Vathis is an excellent chapter with routine, table-worthy examples of every bit of life in this setting. Everything from sky-patrols stopping your airship, with tables on how strict they are, to the type of Eldric (high-fantasy magic tech) devices to improve your home. Other places can just as easily be in an area driven to poverty or disaster by history or current abuse. I wouldn’t personally use their changed calendar or every little detail presented in this concise cross-section of Vathis-society, but they are there for your use if your game calls on them.
The Geography section of this campaign setting is where this book shines for me. I am quite invested in my own campaign setting so my bias will likely keep my games there, but the regions in this chapter are almost perfect. A few pages describes the history of each region, its relation to its surroundings, influential groups, major settlements, the feel of it, and its important places. Then, at the tail end of each region, a list of adventure hooks ties these things together into ways to draw your players into the region. With minimal work, I could see myself stealing or repurposing a number of these regions for their sister-region in my world. The artwork routinely elevates the text and the inclusion of each region’s banner and quote are little high-density drops of world-fluff. I am glad they do not overstay their welcome though, and each region takes no more than a dozen pages for even the largest kingdoms, while most are only a handful of pages. As a DM, I hate having to read through mass chapters of text to find that one paragraph that I remembered and want to use. I would have liked to see actual encounters to match these notable locations, as something that can be dropped into a game with little preparation for when players wander a region. A table of rumors would also help flesh out each region by the gossip it trades in. The cities themselves feel hollow, without a map or any game-level material to use except for overview statistics.
A chapter on Organizations is solid material able to be dropped into most games. From a crime syndicate run by dragons, each color matching to its own industry of ne’er-do-wells, to the large chartered corporations dealing in the high-technology of the world. From using these groups as patrons for the players to opposing forces to be fought against, or anything in between, the organizations chapter is full of powerful inspiration. It falls short though, in actual material implementable in game. Each group lists membership, goals, a few example names, and some notable locations, but gives no individual members to interact with. When I write more organizations in the future, I am copying their idea to add notable locations, but I would request that Zodiac Empires gives some specific people that can be dropped into a game with little prep like I do for mine. Another game aid would be to add a sample of rumors or adventure hooks dealing with each organization, detailing ways that the players might interact or encounter one of its agents.
At the end of the book are conversions for races, organizations, and star-powers to use them in a Pathfinder or D&D 5e game. By the looks of them, they are unique power-sets that don’t offer overwhelming power or are unusably weak, although those things are heavily influenced by what type of game you run. I would likely allow these races or similar variants into my game without worry.
Usability and Design
The PDF is well organized, and easy to return to specific areas later (as I’m doing while reviewing this after reading it last week). A point of criticism on this point though, is I would prefer a digital PDF to have its Table of Contents work as hyperlinks pointing directly to the section they reference, although this is less of a requirement because Zodiac Empires is fully bookmarked.
Artwork follows a consistent high-fantasy style. When I say that, I mean that its pictures are detailed and evocative of a feeling of power or progress. Magical energies and intricate detailing show off the technology level and influences of the world. Simple banner or flag designs are presented for each faction, region, god, and organization. Something that would be very useful to me as a DM is if Zodiac Empires could make those images available for download so I could do things like print them out in miniature to make table figures or game props. Being able to digitally edit those constellations to make puzzles, now that I think about it, would also be crazy awesome although certainly a niche application. Sometimes the banners can feel almost WWII propaganda-stylized, but I find that oddly well paired with the setting itself.
The book has enough color and design on each page to be pleasing to look at but not so much that I would worry about printing off any sections in grayscale and losing vital detail.
The players guide holds much the same information as the campaign setting book, although it is differently organized and tailored to the needs of a player.
The chapter on races is tuned more towards how a player can roleplay as that race, including statistics and such, rather than a historical overview of that race’s place in the setting. The cosmic powers chapter is mostly untouched, available for players that are interested, but slightly trimmed down. The section on Ether and Magic is reduced in scope to avoid spoiling any of the specific artifacts or entities, while giving the lore backstory of the various magic types. Life on Vathis is also unchanged, with information ready for whatever type of game the player is in. The Geography chapter is the most edited from the Campaign Setting. Each region is described in a single page with the opposite page bearing an enlarged banner or symbol of the region, handy to get players the overview of a region without assigning them take-home work. Organizations are similarly pared down, hiding information not useful to the players while still informing of the basic structure, aims, and benefits of each group. The end of the Player’s Guide holds conversion statistics to run this campaign setting with either Pathfinder or D&D 5e, same as the campaign setting.
At a price point of $29.99 for the Campaign setting, and $19.99 for the Player’s Guide (both on sale for $5 off as of the writing of this post) I would recommend Zodiac Empires for those of you looking for a high-fantasy, content-rich new campaign world. DM’s looking to build out their array of sources and content they can pull from, I would have a harder time recommending this book at that price point just for more resource material, but it definitely would not be a wasted purchase if that’s what you like to have in your digital or physical bookshelf. I cannot speak to the quality of any physical copies of the book, as I have not received any.
Thanks to Frank Albanese and the Zodiac Empires crew for sending me a free PDF of the Campaign Setting and Player’s Guide in exchange for a review.