[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.

Planning for Carnage the 13th

The cast of Dr. Nik's Celestial Decision 2006 at Carnage. http://www.flickr.com/photos/sponng/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s over nine months away, but playing at TotalCon — and knowing my long-ass development cycle — fired me up to start thinking about role-playing adventures for Carnage the 13th. Writing two separate adventures tend to be feasible for me — although as I’ve noted in the past, one tends to get a lot more time and attention paid to it than the other. I can toss an Arkham Horror session in there and call it a good weekend.

Yes, We Now Know Whom to Call

This year, I have a different kind of quandary over what to run. I know I want to do another Ghostbusters adventure, using the same group of characters, so that reduces time spent there. With all the plot seeds I’ve run across in the last year, I have plenty of resources to draw on for that one, too. I had a particular McGuffin in mind, but now I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be a good fit for another setting, one which I haven’t had the opportunity to run before, Northern Crown.

I’m tempted to switch over to Cinematic Unisystem, as well. I’m coming to think that at the complexity level I actually run GURPS — i.e., the lightest form of GURPS Lite possible — it could give some people the wrong impression. Besides, Cinematic Unisystem has Drama Points, which I like a lot. Decisions, decisions. It would mean rebuilding characters, but that’s less of a chore in Unisystem.

But Then What?

But I’m not sure what else to run. I have this notion of using one of the old school mega-dungeons floating around the internet, like Greyhawk Grognard‘s Castle of the Mad Arch-Mage in either a free fantasy retro-clone or Pathfinder, just ’cause I have that book. But that’s never really been my oeuvre. I don’t know if I’d do it justice or be sufficiently versed in a fantasy-based system by then — though I certainly could do it in Unisystem or even GURPS.

Given that Carnage has a horror theme, I could resurrect Band on the Run, which I ran a few years ago. Monsters hide in plain sight as members of a touring rock band. The game went wildly off the rails — as they do — for which I felt it suffered, but most of the people who played expressed their enjoyment, so I try to think of it as one of those “gone so gonzo, it’s fun no matter what” games.

I could take another stab at Unknown Armies, brave the intimidating depths of GURPS Cabal, try The Day After Ragnarok or hell, run my beloved Mage: The Ascension. I need to narrow these possibilities down, find what fires my enthusiasm. That’s what energized me last year and I spent so many enjoyable hours bashing out characters and plot seeds for Lurker in the Limelight and Highway to Niflheim.

At some point I will feel comfortable recycling previously written adventures — namely BPRD: The Celestial Legion — but for now, I want to keep building my stable of material.

Suggestions, requests or pleas, Carnage-goers?

Who Ya Gonna Call?

One of the resources I’m drawing on for my Ghostbusters adventure, The Lurker in the Limelight, is a fan supplement written for the d20 Modern system, Michael Tresca’s Ghostbusters: Who Ya Gonna Call? It’s a very elegant PDF, downloadable for free from his site.

Admittedly, I’m using GURPS as my system of choice, so the stats aren’t of immediate utility, but this PDF is really helpful as a guide to what might be useful to the average ghostbusting PC. Sure, we all remember the endless font of information that was Tobin’s Spirit Guide, but what about The Roylance Guide to Secret Societies and Sects or Who’s Who and What’s That?

The reminder that ghostbusting can easily become an extra-planar activity alone gave me some terrific ideas. So thanks, Michael, for taking the time to write your PDF and share it with the gaming community.