[RPG Blog Carnival] Pimp a Game: Northern Crown

rpgblogcarnivallogoIn this carnival of sharing our under-loved favorite role-playing games, I’d like to talk about Northern Crown.

Picture a history of the world mostly as we know it, but painted with the palette of d20 Dungeons & Dragons. Amid the hardworking artisans and farmers of Uropa stride adventurers: trained soldiers, paladins of God, wizards and more.

The powers of western Uropa have turned their gaze to the west, where a massive, uncharted land, called Northern Crown for the distinctive constellation in its night sky, has been found by explorers. Those Uropan nations have unsurprisingly taken to the prospect of new, open lands with alacrity, settling all up and down Northern Crown’s eastern coast.

Of course, Northern Crown isn’t empty of inhabitants at all. Wild, fantastic beasts dwell here: catamounts, horned serpents, stony elementals, fairies and more. Moreover, people live here. The nations of the First Ones span the landscape, blending into the existing environment that most Uropan settlements don’t. As you can tell, it’s a match for the ages as the First Ones struggle against foreign interlopers in their lands.

Northern Crown stands out from other fantasy settings in several ways for me, who’s accustomed to most fantasy settings being “Okay, it’s pretty much standard Dungeons & Dragons, but darker!”:

  • Anachronistic alternate history. Part of the world’s charm is it’s not only an alternate history of the world as we know it, plus magic, fell beasts and all that, plus it’s the greatest hits of renaissance/reformation Europe and colonial America. Fantasy Thomas Jefferson and Wizardly Ben Franklin lead a nation of freethinkers in the 17th century, while exiled King Charles plots against the half-fey Gloriana reigning over Albion.
  • Humans only. The dominant sentient species in Northern Crown are humans. There are fairies and outsiders, but they start off as non-player races. There are no elves or dwarves, etc. Replacing the racial axis in the Cartesian grid system of character creation is culture. Players choose a culture in which their character grew up and receive feats and abilities based on what that culture values. Albions learn minor glamer magics, Vinlanders train for the life of a sea wolf and Sophians prize education and reason.
  • Straddling the divide between medievalism and industry. True to its historical roots, Northern Crown incorporates advances in technology from the default pseudo-medievalism of Dungeons & Dragons. Firearms are relatively common, though the rules as written make them more of a pain than they’re worth, which is how I think the designer wanted them. The apex of melee combat is fencing, more intricately developed than the art of swinging a greatsword. Natural philosophers have begun to categorize and plumb the depths of phenomena observed in the world — they’re mechanically a kind of spellcaster that relies on specific tools, but the process and effects are wholly scientific.

To the goal of getting Northern Crown into the game-playing public’s eye, in December I began the project of extracting the setting’s declared open content — so wonderfully much of it; indeed, nearly everything — and updating it to Pathfinder, presenting it in the style of d20pfsrd.com. You’ll find Project Boreas, currently a work in progress, available for perusal and populated with ever more material for exploring the lands of Corona Borealis.

Updating the source material to Pathfinder has been interesting. So far I’ve focused on things that don’t need a lot of change. But I’m coming to the point where Northern Crown‘s unique classes — agent, natural philosopher, rake, raider, soldier and witch, namely — need attention. Sometimes, there’s a Pathfinder class or archetype that does most of the job, or there are already written class features that can transport over pretty well. The question is: when is it worth making a change to something already written?

My own inclination is to change as little of the source material as possible. Let GMs and players make their own decisions. Some things, like upgrading a class’ hit die, are no-brainers. Northern Crown‘s unique classes also need level 20 capstone abilities. Other things, like the fencing rules, perplex me. They were written before the codification of combat maneuvers into CMB and and CMD rolls. How does one gauge the utility of a hilt smash or rondo against the venerable charge and bull rush? Plus, there shouldn’t be a feat to gain access to fencing moves. So either all the classes that get Fencing for free either need a new free feat, or that Fencing feat gives a CMB bonus to fencing maneuvers; CMB bonuses are reportedly rare as hen’s teeth in Pathfinder, outside the cad. I may like Pathfinder, but I certainly don’t have the level of system mastery to know when tugging on a string knocks down a load-bearing column on the far side of the rules complex.

Fun questions, right? That’s what I’ll plug away at as I can for the next few months. Spending more time observing conversation on the Paizo forums has proven very instructive in getting a read on things that are considered vital, over-powered or lackluster in the eyes of forum-going players.

All this game mechanic work is in service to running a Northern Crown game someday, of course; hopefully after we finish Carrion Crown. Picture it: the hard-set Free Republic of Vermont lies in the nebulous marches between Nouvelle France and Nieu Amsterdam, antagonistic Uropan powers, sharing that contested space with First Ones bands and the fantastic fauna of Northern Crown. After a rough winter, its citizens — some of whom may not agree that they “belong” to any such republic — need new leaders to succeed the aging Ira Cole, chief of the Green Mountain Rangers. Leaders who ought to be handy with swords, flintlocks and spells to defend their lands and neighbors.

“Your pickle wife, while beautiful, is a gopher.”


Auberon Crane puts the mayor of Illmarsh in his place.[1]

[1] That gem floated up out of my deep memory last night. As it was uttered during the great recap hiatus, I must ensure its existence outside the Twittersphere.

[Carrion Crown] On the Road to Caliphas

Cover of Ashes at Dawn.This week in Carrion Crown, a Dan (Auberon Crane), Geoff (Andris Kreitov), Joey (Thadeamus Straw), Toby (Solis Lightwarden and his eidolon Gea) and Tyler (Alexandros Callimachi) and GM Hunter struck out on the road to Caliphas.

. . . Only having once completed their shopping errands, of course. After a retreat to the Stairs of the Moon in the Shudderwood to help Solis convalesce from his sharp break with good ideas, the adventurers return to Lepidstadt to pick up commissioned items and release Thadeamus Straw from the cell in which he slaved away, crafting wondrous items for his new “friends.”

“Don’t take any wooden pickles.”
— advice from Judge Daramid

The dark rider’s letter spoke of Caliphas, so that’s where they head, urged on further by Judge Daramid, who suggests checking in with the Esoteric Order of the Palatine Eye’s membership there. Viktor the coachman happens to be available for hire, so there’s a familiar hand at the reins as they travel across Ustalav to the nation’s capital, a hive of debauchery and excess, by all accounts.

The first night, sleeping by the roadside, Andris hears a coach passing by during his watch. When he investigates, the coach instantaneously halts. The door opens, as if in invitation. Andris, for once in his impulsive life, stands his ground. The coach moves on. In the morning, Viktor is shaken to hear of the incident, recounting the old tale of the black carriage, whose chosen passengers disappear after its second passing.

“Why would you ask questions? They’re already dead. Aside from ‘What’s that worth?'”
— a Dan

Later, as the coach approaches a bridge, as Gea and Andris detect the scent of rot, they catch sight of dire wolves stalking through the trees. Across the bridge, a mounted figure blocks the way. Unflappable, stoic Viktor is at a loss, so as Callimachi yells, “Drive!” Kreitov grabs the reins, whipping the horses into a frenzy to cross the bridge.

The horses gather steam. The rotting dire wolves keep pace initially. Crane and Callimachi awkwardly fight them off from inside the coach. Once they build up a lather however, the now-panicked horses leave the undead monsters well behind. The figure ahead in the road smartly moves out of their path.

“This went differently in my head. *urk*”
— Andris Kreitov

As the coach passes, Kreitov gets a good look at the figure, noticing it lacks a head. And that it’s astride a fiery, smoking nightmare of a mount. Andris’ impulsive nature returns from its holiday. He launches himself from the coach in a flying tackle of the headless horseman. They struggle briefly before the Ustalavian hunter finds himself bodily lifted by the throat into the air.

The horses have their full head as Viktor clings to the bench for dear life and the reins flap uselessly. Solis crawls out of the coach to take charge of the situation once Callimachi gives him a boost. Thadeamus looks back to block the wolves’ progress across the bridge with a wall of ice. Crane rolls from the runaway coach while Gea flies overhead, both making to join the fray against the headless rider.

Looking back down the road, Callimachi gestures for Straw to move the two of them back into the action via dimension door. This has the unintended side effect of putting them right in the path of the ghoulish dire wolves creeping out of the river, but not before Callimachi gets off a bolt of searing light on the rider.

The nightmare breathes gouts of smoke as its rider swings an improbably long flail through the air. Andris, Auberon and Gea are at it hammer and tongs to put the rider down, even forcing him to dismount.

Once the horseman and wolves are dispatched and Solis has reined in the frothing horses, reflection suggests this was a dullahan, a sort of fairy. Checking its possessions, Andris receives yet another shock of searing pain as he discovers a particular amulet reacts negatively to his touch — and that of anyone else in the group. Almost as though it were opposed to being in the possession of someone who might be called “good” . . .[1]

[1] And that’s all that happened that night. Despite the brevity of the recap, that was a long-ass fight against the dullahan and ghoulish dire wolves. Some very nice cinematics, with the runaway coach and Andris leaping off to confront the rider. Apparently we missed some expository dialogue, but you’ll have that when putting the NPCs on the defense. Apparently the dullahan didn’t expect to be charged by a rattletrap coach with a wolf and a snake on the roof.