Friday, January 23, 2015

Inspirations Friday: RPG Campaigning in Colonial America

Fridays are typically reserved for posting some "Inspirations" you can use to drop into your existing RPG campaigns or even to create new ones.  Many of these are things that helped inspired portions of my ongoing World of Samoth campaign. I'm expanding that now to try to give some ideas for new campaigns, mostly in somewhat non-traditional settings.  Long-time readers will notice that I've kind of done this already on various occasions, most notably on Wednesdays during which I've taken some recent comic book titles like Black Science, Lazarus, and Royals: Masters of War, and pointed out the parts that could make an awesome campaign setting.

For today's post, I'll be talking about fantasy role-playing in a world reminiscent of Colonial America, which is a time period often overlooked in fantasy RPGs. Way back in 2005, a cool book called Northern Crown: New World Adventures was published by Atlas Games. It's a fantasy campaign setting based on ideas like "What if Cotton Mather's paranoid fantasies about the Salem witches were all true?" or "What if Ben Franklin was a natural philosopher whose inventions blurred the border between science and magic?"

There's a lot of really great ideas in a Colonial America type setting if you think about the variety of cultures involved that helped to settle, and integrate into, the "New World." Add in 1700s era technology and science along with the creatures and magic from fairytales actually being real in this world, and you've really got the basis of a great setting.

The idea must be catching on - there's actually a great historical fantasy-horror themed comic book out right now of a slightly later time period called Manifest Destiny by Image Comics that follows the Lewis & Clark Expedition but from the standpoint that the West was actually full of crazy and dangerous fantastical creatures that need to be cleared away before American pioneers can settle there. And, the government doesn't want anybody to know that those things are out there for fear that people won't try to settle those areas and therefore the fledgling United States will lose that territory to other more adventurous colonists from other European powers. It's an awesome book if you love historical fiction interlaced with horror-fantasy elements. That comic, in conjunction with a lot of stuff from the Northern Crown RPG book would make a really cool, and different, campaign setting.

The first short section of the Northern Crown book is all about the history of the world along with a description of the continent and a short bit about its inhabitants (it goes into depth later in the book). It also gives a very short overview of things like the animals, vegetation, minerals, monsters, religion, cosmology, magic, and technology of the world. This is all great stuff because it's not overly detailed, but gives enough to be really great idea starters. In the technology section, for example, the book breaks down how the various different cultures of the continent approach technology.

Some of the most fun and the best section for campaign building in this book is the section on Cultures. The author of this book, Doug Anderson, did a really cool thing by taking familiar real-world cultures and then putting a "fantasy glaze" on top to make them really unique and interesting.

The cultures featured are:

  • Albians: Servants of the Faerie Queen
    • People who used to live in what was once called England but now called Albion as it is ruled by the Faerie Queen and her Court
  • Buccaneers: Brethren of the High Seas
    • Basically like the pirates of the Caribbean
  • Carolingians: Exquisite Cavaliers
    • These people consider themselves to be the "true heirs" to England, unlike their Albian cousins
  • Cherokee: People of the Mountains
    • The most populous of the "First Ones" cultures of the New World
  • Cimarrons: Nyamban Liberators
    • This was a neat touch: Anderson used a culture from another Atlas Fantasy Campaign Setting called Nyambe: African Adventures and added those people as settlers of the New World as the descendants of captives who were brought there but eventually fought back and won their freedom
  • Common-Wealthers: Soldiers of God
    • Basically, think Puritans
  • Courerus: Forest Runners
    • A wilderness people who are descendants of French and First Ones cultures intermingling
  • Espaniards: Servants of the Empire
    • These are the Spanish equivalent of the world, and the center of the Hapsburg Empire
  • Francais: Courtiers of the Sun King
    • The French, obviously. Described as "the most quintessentially Uropan [European] of all the powers in Northern Crown..."
  • Kelts: People of the Fey
    • "... a fey-touched people, like the people of Albion, but are even more profoundly tied to the fey world." Basically this group represents the Scots who settled in the mountains to the West of North and South Carolina.
  • Mohawk: Guardians of the Eastern Door
    • I love that evocative sub-title of their name. Described as the easternmost members of the Five Nations Confederacy. 
  • Nederlanders: Free Traders
    • The mercantile masters of Northern Crown. Basically, the Dutch. 
  • Ojibwa: People of the Lakes
    • Another of the First Ones peoples, described as one of the largest and most powerful nations in Northern Crown. 
  • Shawnee: Forest Guardians
    • Another of the First Ones peoples, found primarily in the Ohio Vale. 
  • Sophians: Freethinkers and Rebels
    • This is a fun unique culture based primarily on the idea that a Freemason-like culture developed their own society, the Republic of Sophia. 
  • Vinlanders: Sea Rovers and War Wolves
    • The descendants of ancient marines who crossed the sea from "Uropa" many centuries ago. Basically, these are like the descendents of Vikings who settled in Greenland and Newfoundland. 
  • Witchlings: People of Magic and Shadows
    • The survivors of an ancient faith who take arcane power from evil beings and use it to do good works. 
All of these cultures are described in great detail. In the game rules of this book (which are very light actually, but based on a d20 OGL type variant), they each get a few cultural bonuses, mainly to a few skills and perhaps some weapon proficiencies. The thing I really like about it is the depth of the cultures in the book, and how Anderson did some good research to develop a few different Indian Nations instead of just lumping them all together, and then also brought in ideas of the rebellious Freemasons who were instrumental in founding the United States, and even something as depressing and touchy a subject as slavery and turned it into something unique and, dare I say, "positive" without ignoring how completely awful that era of real-world history was (in the book, the time when the Uropans come to the New World and use disease to control the native population as well as relying on the slave trade is referred to as "The Dark Years").

The next chapter discusses the culture of the various Uropan peoples in Northern Crown. 
Social rank plays a big deal in the world of Northern Crown, and the various ranks are described (royal, noble, knightly, gentry, and the common classes of burgess, tradesman, yeoman, laborers, and "marginal"). There's also a short section on using social rank in game play. The common ideals of the day are given treatment (honor, sangfroid, good humor, courtesy), and then a section on Daily Life which covers topics as diverse as medicine, travel and leisure, retainers and servants, various religions, arcane magic, and much more.

Following that is a chapter with a very similar layout to the chapter above, but this time discussing the First Ones cultures.

After that is a section which is a bit hit-or-miss for me, which is on Core Classes. As I discussed in my posts on Classes, I actually really like new and different classes for game systems that are Class-and-Level based. However, in this case, the author created new classes that really didn't seem to have a need. For example, rather than use the standard "Rogue" class from the core rules and just tweak it here and there to make the necessary changes to fit the setting, he instead split it into two different classes - the Agent and the Rake. The Barbarian is replaced with the Raider, but they're almost identical in terms of class abilities. Rangers are replaced with Scouts which at least have enough differences to them, but those differences aren't really needed for the setting (for example, the Scout gets sneak attack damage in addition to combat styles, tracking, and animal companions).  Fighters are recast as Soldiers, with the main difference being that at first level the player chooses a "troop type" due to his or her military training, such as Dragoon, Grenadier, Halbedier, Muskateer, Royal Guard, etc. This troop type dictates the bonus feat that a Soldier earns at fist level.

There are a couple of new classes that make a lot of sense. The most unique and fun is the Natural Philosopher - basically a science-based Wizard. These scientific thinkers in this world have essentially replaced wizards as the archetypal "learned person" of the age. They have the ability to craft inventions and know "phenomena" rather than spells (although the phenomena replicate some of the better known Wizard spells, but they are non-magical in nature so are not subject to spell resistance. It's a fun twist on the familiar spellcaster role and very appropriate for this time period and setting.

The other new class that probably deserved to be its own separate class rather than just a mere re-skinning of an existing class is the Witch.

The book also includes the old 3rd Edition era concept of Prestige Classes, such as the Falstaff (who elevate bad behavior and unhealthy living to a truly heroic level), the Fencing Master, the Firebrand (a living symbol of a struggle to achieve a noble ideal), the Frontier Legend, the Officer, the Sea Captain, the Sower (think Johnny Appleseed here, but the seeds contain divine power), the Tall Tale Hero, and the Wild Brawler. None of these are really necessary, but some of the accompanying text to the class descriptions does help to paint a more thorough picture of the world and setting, especially the Falstaff, Firebrand, Sower, and Tall Tale Hero classes.

The next section describes new skills and feats, if you're into that kind of stuff. Even if you don't use rules for these things in your game, just casually perusing the section can again help you wrap your head around the setting and provide world-building ideas. The lengthy lists of new Craft and Profession skills provide ample ideas for what types of non-adventuring type people to populate the world with, and knowing that there are feats like "Evil Eye" and "Bear Ancestry" again help from a world-building perspective even if you don't use the actual mechanics in play.

There's a short, but good, section on firearm combat, as well as some new ideas for fending, greatsword, and polearm combat, which is followed by another short section on weapons, armor, and equipment.

The magic section describes not only new spells (which actually breaks them up into Supplemental First Ones spells and Supplemental Uropan Spells, so the different cultures won't be copy-cats of each other, which is a neat idea), but it also describes something called "Natural Power Levels and Effects" - essentially, parts of a land that effect druid spell-casting, the health of animals in the area, and Survival skill checks. It's another interesting way of building the world and showcasing that the natural world does have mysterious and unexplainable effects. The power levels are Very Strong, Strong, Normal, Weak, Absent, and Corrupted.

The book rounds out with a short section on new Psionic Knacks, and brief rules for Item Creation that will help the Natural Philosopher player character. There's also a bibliography for further reading on the era.

This is really a great book that's chock-full of ideas for running a Colonial-themed campaign, or even just for running a campaign that's set in that type of era with magic, mysticism, and folklore still very much part of everyday life but which was starting to give way to the Age of Science and Exploration. All of the cultures in this book can be re-named and used in a variety of different settings even if you don't want to do a pseudo-Colonial America type setting. 

Anybody else out there every run or play in a campaign setting in this time period? Have you used any of the "trappings" of a fantasy version of Colonial America in a more "standard" fantasy game?

Hanging: Home office (loaner laptop)
Drinking: Stone Arrogant Bastard
Listening: "Alice in Wonderland (Take 2)" by Bill Evans


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