Nations & Cannons Core Rules
A Revolutionary Campaign Setting for 5e
Author: Patrick Mooney, Collyn Messier, Kate Devorak, et al
Publisher: Flagbearer Games
Page Count: 116
Available Formats: PDF & Print
PDF (DTRPG) – $4.99
Print (Softcover) – $19.99
Print (Hardcover) – $44.99
I find historical games and settings fascinating; it may have something to do with the fact that at one time in my life, I was pursuing a Master’s degree in two different historical disciplines. While at GenCon ’22, I had the opportunity to chat with the folks from Flagbearer Games about Nations & Cannons, their Revolutionary War setting for 5th edition (5e).
As a setting for 5e, players and Gamemasters already accustomed to the game mechanics will find familiarity under the hood, but as you might expect, there are many outward changes to better fit the theme. This review will assume readers have a fundamental understanding of how 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons works. However, I’ll point out and highlight those things that are substitutionally different.
Note: Flagbearer Games provided Rolling Boxcars with a review copy for this article. Please visit our Product Review Request page if you have an item you’d like Rolling Boxcars to review.
Nations & Cannons embodies the spirit of the thirteen colonies during the American Revolution. Although built upon a fantasy game’s engine, much of the fantasy elements have been removed or replaced, leaving players with a solid historical footing. The setting puts players in the shoes of colonials, indigenous peoples, formerly enslaved peoples, and a myriad of others living in the colonies at this critical turning point in American history. These are not just non-descript people; they are vital to the war effort.
The setting allows players to explore a range of possible narratives that may or may not follow historical realities—that decision is left to the Gamemaster. Scenarios, or missions as they are called, require a deft touch from those not beholden to the conventional warfare rules of the day. Players take on the role of unconventional heroes able to react quicker and stealthier than a larger military force. Ideally, you and your compatriots can execute your mission, slipping in and out without being spotted, and return to camp to report findings, return stolen documents critical to the war effort, or some other covert operation while more conventional war wages on.
Much of what the book contains will replace or, in some cases, supplement existing material. Great care has been taken to make the material inclusive and racially sensitive. For example, “Heritage” represents your cultural upbringing and first language. At the time, across North America, Patriots and Loyalists came from every creed, color, and nationality to take up arms for one side or the other. The authors have ensured these peoples are all well represented. This includes indigenous peoples, formerly enslaved, and a variety of Europeans from England to Russia.
Character creation follows its own order of operation, and although players may, in a limited capacity, use some of the classes and backgrounds from existing 5e material, most are not appropriate to the setting. To this end, some advice is provided on which core Classes and subclasses are suitable to port over. For historical accuracy and immersion, it is recommended that players keep to those available in the Nations & Cannons book. Creation begins with defining your Origins, selecting your Class, and finally, your background and some finishing touches. It is recommended that characters start at level 2.
Origin is a broad term used to replace “Race” in 5e. When creating a Nations & Cannons character, you need to think a little outside the box. Within the scope of Origin, you are both designating a character’s Heritage and their actual Origin. Heritages represent a cultural upbringing and establish a character’s first language. There are 30 different Heritages to choose from. Origins—Officer, Pioneer, Renegade, Scholar, Scout, and Veteran—give all the same mechanical elements that a “Race” in 5e provides.
In keeping with the period, those who took up arms came from all walks of life, not just those with a profession of arms. Nations & Cannons offers one new Class, the Firebrand, complete with level progression and other base features one would expect in a 5e Class. Several new setting-specific subclasses exist for the Barbarian, the Fighter, The Ranger, and the Rogue. Like all subclasses, they use the Class’s level progress chart and basic features while adding their own distinct features. The available classes represent a cross-section of those who might have answered the call.
The Firebrand, represented by its subclasses, the Chaplin and Demagogue, are the types of people who can inspire and whip a crowd. The Chaplin is the meeker and milder, while the Demogugue is truly the embodiment of the Firebrand. As malcontents, they seek to manipulate the emotions of others to achieve their goals. The other available subclasses are the Grenadier (Barbarian), Turncoat (Fighter), Trailblazer (Ranger), and Marksman (Rogue), which provide a small but nice selection of military-oriented options to choose from.
It is time to wrap up character creation now that the major decisions are out of the way. Like any other 5e-based character, the background must be chosen, and the character must be kitted out for war. There are a wide variety of backgrounds to choose from, everything from career soldier to convict, from immigrant to Son of Liberty, and more. The backgrounds provide proficiencies, additional languages, and some starting equipment.
Using 5e as the basis for the Nations & Cannon setting obviously presented challenges for the design team. One such challenge was how to address magic in a non-magical setting without having to rewrite entire Classes or potentially violate the OGL.
To address this situation, the designers reskinned the magic system into what they call Gambits. Gambits represent ploys or tactics used to gain the upper hand, whether in a social setting or on the battlefield. So as not to completely rewrite the entire magic system, the Gambit system functionally works the same way. Gambits have target DCs for Saves, are categorized by level, some have concentration, and essentially function the same as spells. Where they differ from spells is in their non-magical nature.
Only two of the Classes available in the book can use Gambits. The Firebrand and its subclasses have Gambits aimed at manipulating people, while the Trailblazer’s Gambits affect their surroundings.
The design team put a lot of thought into how Gambits work and how this reskinned system is different while remaining familiar. Where possible, Gambit names and effects are inspired by historical events from the American Revolution. For example, “In 1778, Benjamin Tallmadge developed the Culper Ring, an Intelligence Network used to spy on the British occupation of New York.” (p. 61) Intelligence Network lets the character contact an agent loyal to their cause; said agent will provide specifically requested information (within specific parameters, of course).
Every campaign setting needs a menagerie of enemies to thwart the good intentions of the characters. Nations & Cannons is no exception. The short but quite robust roster of enemies is comprised of artillery units, beasts, irregulars, partisans, and soldiers.
Aside from the small number of beasts in the roster, enemies are human and fall into one of four categories based on hit die. First are the Irregulars units. These are special forces, mercenaries, and warriors and have a d8 Hit Die. Next are the Partisans—typically militia or tradesmen, not battle-hardened, and have a d6 Hit Die. Finally, the Soldiers are trained military men (or women), ready and waiting for orders, and have a d10 Hit Die.
Within each category is a nice selection of enemies to pit against the players. Each is historically represented and culturally accurate. Each enemy comes with a complete stat block; many entries include additional information or tactical information to further bring each to life.
Nations & Cannons includes one full-length scenario, “Invasion of Canada,” which gets players to the table and highlights what the game is all about. This three-act scenario is playable in approximately three hours. However, there are two optional bonus objectives—each adding roughly one hour of gameplay.
In the “Invasion of Canada,” the characters travel with Ethan Allen in advance of the Continental Army to scout the region and, with any luck, recruit locals to their cause. Ethan Allen and John Brown attempt to join forces to mount an attack on Montéal, but plans change as the tides of war are constantly shifting. The characters eventually rejoin the Army besieging the fort in the Siege of Fort Saint-Jean.
“Invasion of Canada” perfectly showcases what the setting and a historical game are all about!
Firearms & Artillery
The use of firearms and artillery in 5e-based games is not new or revolutionary. Their use here is different because of the historical framework. The use of weapons on a battlefield takes time and skill. Even the best rifleman could only fire a few rounds in a minute because of the time it took to reload. Nations & Cannons does an excellent job modeling this without bogging down play.
Adding to the chaos on the battlefield, weapons of the period often misfired. Misfiring is a replacement for fumbling. Every firearm, grenade, mortar, or artillery piece has a Misfire rating. Anytime that number or lower is rolled, the weapon Misfire. When this happens, the weapon in question fails to fire, jams, or something else happens, and it must be cleared or repaired before it can be fired again. Clearing it is a separate action and requires its own test. An optional Misfire Deck is available for purchase, which expands the Misfire effects.
Artillery has an entire sub-system of rules, but believe it or not, they are pretty short and streamlined. These are “crew-served” weapons, and it takes a team to fire them. Where the barrel points (or its facing) is critical to firing. To fire, each crew member designates which action (Aim & Fire, Search & Clear, Swab & Reload, Reposition) they will perform. Each action contributes to the efficiency of the next shot fired in some meaningful way.
Nations & Cannons is available in both digital and print. The print version is an offset printed, full-color, letter-size hardcover, not a POD. The book is beautiful. Chapter and other major titles and quotes are in a period script but are still easy to read. The sepia-toned artwork used throughout combines public domain and custom pieces. It is the custom art that really shines. Speaking of shine, the paper is a semi-gloss that feels a little on the thin side, and I noticed it is prone to creasing easily.
The spacious two-column layout and large type made for a wonderful experience. I did encounter a few scattered sentences that were hard to parse as if they were a result of the editing process. However, it is nothing serious and should not affect gameplay in any way.
What I Liked
- The level of research is very evident in the writing.
- Small unit operations.
- Conducting special forces types missions that have larger implications on the war effort.
- The philosophical change from magic to Gambits.
- The use of a familiar game engine makes it very approachable to a broader audience.
- Its inclusivity is baked in from the beginning.
- A broad representation of indigenous and formerly enslaved peoples
- Appears to model warfare in a playable yet fun way.
- Historical tidbits are scattered throughout the book.
What I Think Needs Improvement
- Using the term “creature” in a historical setting to represent enemies or combatants. This may be tied to the OGL, but it feels so out of place.
- Definitive boundaries on what existing spells can be used as Gambits or, better yet, a historical reskinning of those spells—if permitted under the OGL.
- In the “Running the Game” section, I would have liked to have seen some of the following.
- 1–2 page primer on the war for those not well versed on the subject.
- A historical timeline of significant events related to the war.
- A brief roster with descriptions of key figures during the war.
- A list of mission seeds to inspire Gamemasters
Other Products Available
Misfire Deck – This 55-card deck expands existing Misfires rules by providing randomly generated effects for different weapons—small arms, artillery, and grenades. The random effects range from minor inconveniences to catastrophic explosions. In addition to the descriptive impacts, there is a set of six icons denoting effects. The left corner of each card is colored one of three colors, representing the Misfire’s severity. I really like the ad-hoc battlefield chaos these Misfire cards add.
Nations & Cannons fills an interesting niche in the gaming space. Not everyone wants to roleplay within historical settings, let alone roleplay historical warfare. But don’t let that dissuade you. There are a lot of fun and exciting things going on in this setting.
The painstaking research and passion for accuracy are evident. The level of inclusion and representation is fantastic and not something seen all that often in this type of roleplaying game. So kudo to the design team for making it a priority. Mechanically, nothing comes across as overly complex, perhaps a little wonky, but it should still feel familiar for those already comfortable with 5e.
I think using the 5e OGL was a solid decision. However, I am left wondering if a skill-based system like Basic Role-play (BRP) might have actually been a better design choice. I think everything could have been done using BRP, including Gambits, Misfires, artillery, etc., while eliminating the ambiguities from 5e like the need to reskin “magic” or referring to everything as “creatures” despite them being humans 99.9% of the time.
Some may wonder how Nations & Cannons compares to Flames of Freedom, its nearest competitor. Flames of Freedom and Nations and Cannons are not comparable other than to say they take place in the same time period. Each game is unique in itself and cannot possibly be compared to the other. However, I will go out on a limb to say Nations and Cannons is more approachable from the standpoint of the 5e platform, with a smaller number of character options and fewer mechanical sub-systems.
Nevertheless, Nations & Cannons is a fantastic campaign setting. If you like historical settings, it is absolutely worth your time. Check out the free Nations and Cannons: Starter Rules for a more basic version of what the Core Rules offer. If you like what you see there, grab the Core Rules so that you can run the “Invasion of Canada” for your gaming group.
I personally look forward to running this mission and seeing what else this company has in store for the product line in the future.
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3 Comments Add yours
I enjoyed reading this. Saw these folks at Gen Con as well and have been meaning to take a closer look. Sounds interesting, though I think I’d need to explore the gambits a bit more before taking the plunge.
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Thank you for reading the review. The Gambit system is interesting, but I think it warrants exploring to ensure you have a firm understanding of how it works and what fits within the game’s scope.