Into the Stone Age: Classes, Part One

I seem to be making a habit out of being late to return to series that I’ve started. But still, better late than never. This time we’re back to focusing on what it’d be like to try and run a Pathfinder game in a Stone Age setting.

Classes are perhaps the most important part of character design – which, since the characters (those run by the players, at least) are the center around which the campaign revolves, makes them the de facto most important part of the game. That’s an oversimplification, to be sure, but not that much of one.

For a Stone Age game, perhaps the most salient detail regarding classes is knowing which ones not to allow. Yes, you read that right: there are some classes which should be completely ruled out as viable choices, not only for PCs but for any characters. The reason for this is self-evident, in that some classes are simply to “modern” in their feel for a game set in a prehistoric world.

A more in-depth way of looking at this principle is that the more you cut out, the more what’s left over is magnified to fill the void. If you remove several spellcasting classes, those left over become much more important, since they’re now the only viable choices for spells. Also, the feel of a campaign is largely defined by what’s available – removing certain choices makes a campaign setting feel distinct in the variety of things that can be taken.

In essence, this bit of design philosophy is the flipside to introducing new crunch into a campaign; whether you’re adding new material, or taking existing material away, what’s left is what determines the paradigm for your campaign world.

With that, let’s look at the various Pathfinder classes and analyze how they’d work, or not work, in a Stone Age setting. We’ll look at the Core PC classes, the NPC classes, and the new classes from the Advanced Player’s Guide.

Adept: The adept functions quite well in a Stone Age game; it’s already a primitive divine spellcaster, akin to a shaman, and such roles are highlighted in a prehistoric society. This is the mysterious hermit or witch doctor who communes with the spirits, making sense of the world by interpreting the inscrutable forces that drive how things operate. Verdict: allowed.

Of course, an NPC class is still an NPC class. Players hurting for class choices might be tempted to consider the adept (or another NPC class) as a viable choice. While there’s nothing wrong that taking levels in adept, it should be discouraged – the players will be lacking in so many things in a prehistoric game that taking levels in a class not meant for PCs will only end up further handicapping them. As we’ll see, there are PC spellcasting classes that are viable choices – steer the players in that direction if they start contemplating taking adept levels.

Alchemist: This is an easy one. The alchemist can be safely ruled out for a Stone Age Pathfinder game; the entire concept is simply too advanced for a primitive culture. People haven’t yet tumbled onto the idea of chemical extracts, bombs, mutagens, etc. Verdict: banned.

But if you just replace the dress and goblet with a leopard skin and hunk of meat, she'd fit right in...right?

Aristocrat: Do I really need to say anything here? Verdict: banned.

Barbarian: Again, this class seems like a no-brainer, but in the opposite direction from the previous one. The barbarian is perhaps the most common combat class in a Stone Age setting. It already has a primitive slant to it, and fits right in with the idea of living in a savage, untamed world. Verdict: allowed.

Bard: The bard is one of those classes that occupies the grey area between what’s acceptable and what’s not for Stone Age classes, depending on its overall flavor. On the surface, it seems easy enough to toss this one out – after all, the professional minstrel won’t come into being for millenia. But on the other hand, toss out the more refined, cultured bard and you get the idea of the primitive war-chanter, singing songs and dancing around the fire at night, or howling a wordless tune during a fight to rally his tribesmen, and you have a more palatable idea.

That aside, however, focusing on the class powers, this character still seems a bit too modern as-is. Arcane spellcasting, for example, is ill-defined for bards, seeming to come from the bard picking up a little bit of everything on his travels. That’s too slick for a Stone Age character; magic is a mysterious, ill-understood force – not something that you can just pick up along the way. Verdict: banned (but may be allowed if you can find fitting alternate class features).

Cavalier: No, just no. While some classes might have the odd animal companion as a mystic ability, having a dedicated mount through non-magical means is beyond what people accomplished in the Stone Age. As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, domesticating animals is one of the hallmarks of advancing out of the Stone Age; presumably using them as mounts and other beasts of burden is a step beyond simply keeping them for food. Throw in the idea of joining orders, and this class is altogether beyond the pale for a Stone Age game. Verdict: banned.

Cleric: Like the bard, the cleric occupies a broad enough theme that it’s difficult to immediately rule them out – however, the cleric has a more strict sense of what being a member of this class entails. Even if it’s only through comparison to the druid, the adept, and other “primitive” divine spellcasters, the cleric is the refined, modern priest who treats his faith as his occupation.

Clerics are characters who actively proselytize, minister to the faithful, advance the agendas of their god, etc. They see their deity (and quite likely all members of a specific pantheon) as being not only understandable, but worthy of service based on the ideals and portfolio that they represent. This is antithetical to a primitive view of gods, which sees them as primal, poorly-understood, omnipresent entities which must be placated in order to get along in the world. Even overlooking mechanical issues such as how clerics can casually toss out healing or harming energy, the cleric is a little too polished for the rough world of the Stone Age. Verdict: banned.

Commoner: The single most flavorless class, the commoner’s only failing is just how common it is. That is, in a savage world where people survive by hunting and gathering, can a mere commoner survive? If not, then what class represents the common, non-adventuring people? Looking this over, I’m of the opinion that discarding this class as being too weak to survive in the Stone Age is probably going too far – life back then was surely a struggle, but even in a fantasy world rife with monsters, it wouldn’t have been a constant battle. Commoners still work just fine to represent the everyman, even in a prehistoric society. Verdict: allowed.

Meet the villain for your Stone Age Pathfinder game.

Druid: The druid presents an interesting conundrum. It’s orientation as a nature-themed class seems to line up perfectly with a campaign set before the rise of any true civilization. However, the very fact that the druid lives in such harmony with nature, drawing power from it and acting as its protector, seems to fly in the face of the whole “nature as savage and uncaring” angle that seems to fit better with a prehistoric game.

This, however, is one of those times where the flavor of a class is easily discarded. Instead of the “druid as nature’s proxy” angle, it works better to look at them as a person who’s given up their humanity for power. The druid isn’t some tree-hugger who feels that nature as an abstraction is deserving of worship; rather, he’s the loner who has given up being a person in favor of the sheer ruggedness that animals display, gaining mysterious powers (e.g. spells) and other unnatural abilities. Treat the druid like a blood-thirsty Mowgli, and you’ll have a Stone Age class with a flavor all its own even without changing any mechanics. Verdict: allowed.

Expert: A specialist in a single area, the specialist seems benign enough, but carries with it the hint of civilization. After all, the idea of working in a specific area to the point of specializing in it falls apart when you realize that, that far back, there weren’t any skills that required that much practice. Yes, making fire was hard, and drawing those cave paintings wasn’t so easy either…but can you really see a tribe of people having a dedicated cave-painter or fire-maker? I can’t. Hence why I don’t think the expert is viable in a Stone Age game. Verdict: banned.

Fighter: Ah, the fighter. Usually seen as the most mainstream combat class, its Pathfinder incarnation has a slightly different flavor from earlier editions, and of course every class is different, even if only a little, in the Stone Age. The fighter can be thought of as someone who makes their living in fighting, like a soldier or a mercenary…both things you won’t find in prehistoric times. While combat is certainly no stranger to people even that far back, the idea of individuals who focus on fighting professionally, instead of as needed to secure food and shelter, is more difficult to reconcile.

Further, the Pathfinder fighter is notable in that it gains specific bonuses with weapons and armor – things that, as we’ll see, are more limited in the Stone Age. Does that mean we shouldn’t have fighters at all, though? That’s more difficult to answer. Tentatively, I’m going to say that fighters are redundant compared to barbarians…there are clearly differences between the two, but in such a primitive age, there isn’t enough latitude for those differences to be developed to any meaningful degree. It’s enough that there’s already one class focused on hitting things hard until they stop moving – having another one requires it to bring its own unique twist to that idea, and the fighter doesn’t rise to that level. Verdict: banned.

Next: Classes of the Stone Age, part two!

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7 Responses to “Into the Stone Age: Classes, Part One”

  1. Chicagowiz Says:

    Saw the “Stone Age” title and clicked on over, because Stone Age/Mesopotamian gaming is a secret fun thing of mine. I don’t play Pathfinder, OD&D/AD&D being my game, but I wanted to ask a few questions.

    First, are you basing your choices off of known Stone Age knowledge/understanding of the cultures or just your gut feel?

    Instead of banning classes, it seems like you could scale them for Stone Age or merge them? Is that the jist of what you’re doing?

    Yes, there were dedicated experts in Stone Age gatherings – if you look at primitive cultures, there are always those who know more about things than others – whether it’s natural skill or passed down. Perhaps the concept of “expert” can be merged with other classes.

    I’m not sure what the focus of your Stone Age campaign is, but primitive cultures tend to be very in tune with nature and are less “savage” than you might think. A druid would probably fit with your concept of a shaman, or a specialist who communicates with the spirits of nature (not sure what kind of supernatural spookies or googliedoos you’ll have). They had to be in sync with nature, their lives depended on it.

    Maybe you can unpolish the cleric. Depending on your pantheon, the gods that must be placated would have had emissaries or spokespersons in the tribe – the concept of goddesses and worship has been established in Stone Age cultures – the cleric could be an interesting class to use.

    Damn, now all this has me wanting to go back to my Mesopotamian idea and backtrack it to do a “pendragon” type approach starting in the Stone Ages…

    • alzrius Says:

      I suppose I’d have to be honest and say that these choices are more “gut feel” than working off of any sort of anthropological knowledge of the Stone Age – my research for this series of articles consisted of perusing the page about the Stone Age on Wikipedia.

      I don’t think that’s a problem because it’s more about issues of game design and balance than trying to accurately recreate prehistoric conditions. A Stone Age campaign isn’t meant to be an accurate model of the Stone Age anymore than a medieval fantasy game is meant to be an accurate model of the Dark Ages.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “merging” classes with other classes. If it’s in reference to a class’s particular role – both in an adventuring party, and the in-game society – then that’s basically what I’m doing. We don’t need a fighter, for example, because the barbarian eclipses the role a fighter is supposed to play, rendering it superfluous. Likewise, if someone can be an “expert” at something by reallocating a few skill points and maybe a feat, there’s no need for an entire class built around the concept of being dedicated to a single task.

      If you meant merging them in terms of game mechanics, however, that’s a much trickier option…one that seems like more trouble than it’s worth. I suppose one could use the old gestalt rules from 3.5 to literally blend two classes together – and there’d even be some argument for it, given how punishing a Stone Age game can be – but I’m not going to overtly advocate such a major change here.

      Regarding the idea of “savage” characters, it wasn’t meant as any sort of pejorative – I’m using it as a euphemism for characters that haven’t developed any sort of society or culture yet. Similarly, the way I’m envisioning “nature” is that such characters don’t see it as some sort of holistic entity that can be easily summarized as a single, greater force or concept. It’s a patchwork of many different things, a significant portion of which is beyond most people’s understanding.

      Being “in tune” with various spirits is something alien and scary to most Stone Age people (again, as I’m envisioning them). They may listen to their tribal shaman or oracle, but they don’t pretend to understand it, and want to keep such a person at arm’s length. I could unpolish the cleric to get that effect, but why bother when the adept, druid, and oracle already do it better?

      These articles aren’t meant to be totally definitive, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with the conclusions I’ve reached – I’m just trying to measure the scope of the changes necessary to run a workable Stone Age campaign with the Pathfinder rules.

      • Damien RS Says:

        “that haven’t developed any sort of society or culture yet”

        That’s a terrible way of putting it, IMO. You want to tell an Australian Aboritine they have no society or culture? No carefully learned skills, no complex religion, no social roles?

        Better would be that there’s not a whole lot of specialization in roles. Hunter, gatherer, shaman, elder, maybe some handicapped crafters, “big man” who is probably also an active hunter. One could argue there should be maybe two classes (magic-user and everyone else), with lots of shared base skills (woodcraft, weaponcrafting, hunting/fighting) but variations in just how good.

      • alzrius Says:

        Damien, I think you missed the part where I wrote “A Stone Age campaign isn’t meant to be an accurate model of the Stone Age anymore than a medieval fantasy game is meant to be an accurate model of the Dark Ages.”

        Likewise, the lack of specialization is sort of the point of this article, in that classes that are specialized into roles that a Stone Age society wouldn’t have are discarded.

  2. teamglister Says:

    If you’re in sync with nature, by definition you’re savage; nature is savage.

    The idea that nature is kind and benevolent is a fairly recent, civilized idea completely divorced from reality.

  3. Animism and Axes Part 1 « The Laboratory Says:

    […] I read a series of articles on Intelligence Check about playing pathfinder in a stone age setting (Part 1 and Part 2). While I felt that the articles were excellent, they did not go into much depth, and I […]

  4. Animism and Axes Part 2 – Technological Boogaloo « The Laboratory Says:

    […] my earlier post (based upon Intelligence Check’s “Classes of the Stone Age”, see part one and part two), I will be attempting to convert the four base classes from Iron Kingdoms: Character […]

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