My game plays in 2017 really dialed in on my personal preferences. Lots of the new Arkham Horror LCG and the Northern Crown role-playing campaign. Cat Tower is the weird outlier, because it’s easy to play 3 games of that in one sitting, especially when observing International Tabletop Day at the local barcade.
This week in Northern Crown, the Sophian contingent resumed their assault on the Stag Lord’s fortifications. Somehow, despite the party’s best efforts, Ethan Allen survived the frontal assault, so that’s an issue. Ivy and the pukwudgies arrived in time to turn the tide, helping keep the Stag Lord and his minions confused and in disarray while watch towers burned.
Now, once all the level-up goodies are dealt with, there remains the question of precisely what is hidden under the Stag Lord’s stronghold.
This past week in Northern Crown, the Sophian colonial militia — aka the heroes, plus some interlopers to the nascent colony that no one important would mind losing to the crossfire, like Ethan Allen — decided it was time to cement their claim to the territory of Vermont by removing the other apparent power: the Stag Lord, in his own home, no less.
Foxglove led Ethan and the other expendables on a frontal approach, while the remainder of the group, including our pudwudgie ally, scaled the rear of the stockade.
We all knew there was a good reason the rear approach looked so unguarded. Turns out it was a burial ground teeming with restless dead.
 Families and loved ones excluded.
One of my bucket list role-playing games has been Northern Crown ever since the setting was first published in the mid-aughts. In a fantasy-infused version of North American in 1650, the Republic of Sophia has sent an expedition in support of a lonely trading post on the western shore of a long lake named after the French explorer de Champlain, charged with exploring and claiming the lands there for the republic. And so the heroes arrived at Ira and Jerusha Allen’s trading post, just in time to fend off marauding bandits who have come to raid the storehouse.
The layout that our GM, Tom, came up with to represent the trading post was pretty damn impressive — especially because he had it hidden under the surface of his game table. We started thinking we were just going to be using a Lego canal ship, then Tom broke out the Heroscape terrain for the interlude where we freed the sasquatch from cruel portagers, and then he said, “We need to move all this,” and started pulling up the table surface to reveal the diorama pictured above.
 I’m told it’s loosely the plot of Pathfinder‘s Kingmaker adventure path, reconfigured for the lands and peoples of Northern Crown, using an equally loose implementation of Pathfinder rules, with elements from Dungeon Crawl Classics and FATE.
It’s not a list without me bringing up Northern Crown, an alternate history of North America’s colonization period mixing d20 fantasy tropes with a “greatest hits” version of Earth’s history. It’s fantasy with a gun powder twist!
The honorary mention is Blue Rose, and not so much because it was exceptional — it was pretty good — but more because it got up the collective nose of people whose collective nose needed to be got up. Congratulations to Green Ronin for their pretty amazing crowdfunding of a new edition!
The #RPGaDAY prompt was concocted by Dave Chapman of Autocratik. Grab the list and join in!
Northern Crown is a alternate fantasy history of the colonization of North America. There’s magic, quasi-magical natural philosophy, strange creatures and wondrous civilizations to meet and it’s generally an accessible, fun though not necessarily light combination of early American history with the tropes of Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve written a bit more about Northern Crown previously.
The unfortunate part about Northern Crown is it hit the market after the d20 wave crested and began to roll back. It’d been in publishing development for a long time — and had been a freely available thing on the early web prior to that — so when it finally got to the market, all anybody saw was another d20 fantasy campaign world with the usual smattering of additional classes and new magic items. Northern Crown never got a fair shake.
The creator, Doug Anderson, is focusing on an introductory role-playing game for younger players called Dungeonteller these days, and some very cool isometric printable dungeon tile packs. He seems to have pretty much moved on from Northern Crown. Back in January, Atlas Games announced Battlefield Press planned to compile the setting material, adapt it to the Pathfinder rules and expand the game world to include the continent of Southern Cross. Battlefield’s own web site is silent on the project so far, but in the run-up to GenCon, I asked someone I think was associated with Battlefield via Twitter — certainly, he was publicizing a panel the company planned to hold at the convention — and the reply was the Northern Crown project was still a go, so far as I knew. I wish I could dig up the conversation, but my Google fu is failing me at the moment.
So here’s hoping Battlefield Press sees this project through. And if not, honestly, it can run pretty well in Pathfinder without much more work.
In 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.
In pursuit of perfecting my home’s feng shui last night, I stumbled across a number of folios holding printed PDFs I accrued in the dawning days of role-playing’s adoption of the medium. Highlights include:
- Issue 1 of Franklyn’s Almanack, the rapidly discontinued supplement series to Northern Crown. I liked the setting a lot, but never got to reading the first issue, let alone printing the second — which I did purchase, mind.
- A host of Hero Games’ quickie Pulp Hero PDFs. My favorite remains Inner-Earth, a mini-setting describing a hollow Earth set-up with Aztecs, dinosaurs, Nazis and more. I got good use out of that setting for an Adventure! one-shot.
- Executive Decision and …In Spaaace!, a pair of freebie — early subjects of the ransom funding model, perhaps? — games by Greg Stolze.
- A pair of Trinity supplements, Terra Verde and Asia Ascendant; the latter only made it to manuscript stage, as the line was discontinued.
- Many of Ronin Arts’ Mutants & Masterminds Archetype Archives. These were great: tons of archetypal starting characters to help games get underway. Only the one time I got to break them out, the players were insistent nothing there suited their individual visions. So it goes.
- Kithbook: Pooka, my first-ever PDF purchase, and really, emblematic of my experiences with the species: buy PDF, print PDF, read print-out, forget about it. And I even slipped it in a super-fancy folio, with frosted transparent cover.
Some of this stuff is going away. I’ll keep the Almanack, Pulp Hero stuff and Stolze games, as they could still come in handy. The Trinity stuff I’m going to recycle. The Pooka book I will pass on to the fine fellow who cleaned out my Changeling: the Dreaming collection last month.
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?