This is an article that originally ran in the OSR fanzine Fight On! back in 2014. As my mind has lately been meandering around a campaign set up like this -- and I've learned I'm not the only one interested in this style of adventure -- I wanted to post it here to get it out in the wild again. Thanks to the inimitable Kelvin Green for the artwork! Be sure to check out Fight On!'s stuff for sale HERE and especially Kelvin's still-rocking blog HERE.
On September 23, 1999, NASA lost the Mars Climate Orbiter. In a calculation error that has since become known as the “metric mixup,” the craft approached the red planet from a dangerous angle and disintegrated in seconds.
That's the story we heard, anyway. In fact, that's the story that NASA believed. Until a few months later...on Christmas morning, when technicians lucky enough to work the holiday at Cape Canaveral arrived to find a rather unexpected gift in Hangar AC – the orbiter, in pristine condition. Pristine except for one major alteration: The craft had been gutted of most of its scientific instruments. In their place stood what appeared to be a large, golden music box. The orbiter was carefully transferred to an underground lab, and its reappearance was wiped from NASA records.
It took many months of serious examination before scientists felt it was safe to wind the box. They started the music on the morning of August 21, 2001. Its ethereal harmonies resonated through the hallways of the laboratory as the massive golden cylinder turned...and turned...and turned. It soon became clear that the music box was powered by more than our usual physical laws. What's more, each time the cylinder completed a revolution, when the tune should have repeated itself, new patterns appeared to take the music into entirely new realms.
On May 28, 2006, researchers finally had a breakthrough. The songs were more than music; they were a code. And they told stories. Stories of magical lands filled with creatures from myths, from faery tales, and from nightmares. There were tales of knights and dragons, of war and exploration, of death and treasure. And most importantly, there were stories of outsiders venturing to these lands, and descriptions of how they did this. A few officials immediately organized the Commission for Research on Otherworldly Narratives (the CROwN) and began to recruit their team in secret. Early in the morning on February 19, 2011, the world's very first extraplanar traveler – half-jokingly referred to by CROwN leaders as the world's first “dungeonaut” – prepared to set foot in the realm of the fantastic...
Those who adventure for the CROwN perform a variety of jobs on their journeys. While some agents are skilled in multiple areas, there are four key roles that many agents fill: CROwN Soldiers are the combat masters of each group. This is no trivial task, as the use of modern technologies is largely forbidden on missions (in order to avoid unnecessary attention). Soldiers, therefore, must be trained in the use of weapons common in the lands they visit: swords, axes, and the like, along with the occasional black powder firearms. CROwN Spies are experts at subterfuge, helping the adventuring party in tasks such as disabling traps and picking locks and pockets. Spies are typically agile and sneaky, and other members of their teams often debate the level of trust they should be granted.
Many stories told by the music box include characters with the ability to manipulate reality in ways that researchers can only refer to as “magic.” The means of wielding this force is gradually being unraveled by the CROwN, and some agents are trained in these mysterious arts. CROwN Scientists spend hours studying arcane texts and practicing spellcraft in secret labs. As a result, they gain the ability to alter the world around them in a wide variety of ways. CROwN Medics, meanwhile, do not gain the wider perspective of the scientists, but their magic is seen by many as much more practical in nature. Medics often learn spells of healing and of fighting undead nuisances encountered on missions.
Adventuring for the CROwN
Most CROwN missions involve a very specific objective that will add to human knowledge of wonders, advancements, and threats from outside our world. The ease of sticking to the objective varies greatly by mission. Some recent adventures undertaken by CROwN agents include:
Exploring a dungeon to retrieve a sample of “living metal,” an alloy reported to grow organically and behave much like a plant or colonial animal. Naturally, such a dungeon attracted a sizable population of rust monsters...
Investigating the twisted grove of a mad druid to search for clues to the origin of the fearsome owlbear.
Collecting tomes from libraries on various worlds in order to conduct an analysis of multiversal linguistics.
Missions are often quite deadly, especially for new agents.
Besides the standard and mission-specific adventuring equipment carried by agents, CROwN scientists have developed some items that are now considered standard issue for all adventures:
Orb of Vision – All agents are issued one of these small crystal globes, which can be carried or worn attached to the uniform. The orb of vision magically illuminates a 30' radius around its wearer. It also records all that the agent encounters, so that adventures can be easily reviewed by CROwN officials upon the return of the orb.
Planar Scroll – Each agent also receives one of these scrolls, which provides transport back to our world. By reading the scroll's inscription, an agent is quickly warped into our reality. However, the agent must read the scroll while in the exact location where he or she arrived in the fantastic realm. For each 10' in any direction that the agent is located away from this spot when reading from the scroll, there is a 5% chance that the adventurer will be transported to a random world or plane, rather than back to CROwN headquarters.
Good Green – Agency botanists have managed to cultivate, in limited amounts, a rather remarkable herb encountered on an early mission. Every agent begins travel with one dose of this plant, which has received the simple nickname “good green” for its ability to cure all diseases and curses encountered thus far on adventures, as well as providing 1d6 of healing when eaten.
Infinite Worlds of Wonder Await!
Now is the time to show your loyalty to the CROwN!