Posts Tagged ‘Stone Age’

Into the Stone Age: Classes, Part Two

September 18, 2010

Picking up where I left off, here’s the analysis of the remaining classes (minus the magus class from the upcoming Ultimate Magic supplement) in Pathfinder for a Stone Age campaign setting. While it’s not too far back, I’ll link to part one of this feature anyway.

Inquisitor: The inquisitor is the person who fights enemies of their god/religion – not so much a holy warrior as a dedicated slayer of heretics. Unfortunately, in a prehistoric period, “organized” religion doesn’t yet exist – there’s no set of religious dogma and practices for people to follow, meaning that there’s no need for an inquisitor who punishes those who don’t follow them. Like many classes, this one is based around ideas that won’t happen for quite a while after the Stone Age. Verdict: banned.

Monk: While you can certainly have lawful cavemen, the idea of a monk in the Stone Age just doesn’t work. Concepts of martial arts, enlightenment, and internal ki energies won’t be developed for a while, which undercuts the thematic basis for this class. Verdict: banned.

Oracle: Even with a casual glance, the oracle is a superb class for a Stone Age Pathfinder game. This class has the character being chosen by the gods, rather than the character choosing them, and the gods strike the character with some sort of personal defect even as they grant them strange powers such laying down curses and learning revelations. This is what being a divine spellcaster in a primitive age should be like – that makes the oracle the class of choice for PCs who want to play a divine spellcaster in a Stone Age campaign. Verdict: allowed.

Paladin: Even moreso than the cleric, the paladin carries a lot of thematic baggage. Beyond simply having an inherent reverence for religion that dispels the fearsome awe it carries in the Stone Age, the high-minded morals of the paladin clash with the “life is a struggle” attitude that’s universal in the Stone Age. When you’re worried about hunting and gathering, finding shelter, protecting yourself from natural predators (which people surely still have in a fantasy Stone Age), is chivalry really going to be a concern? As such, this class just doesn’t fit. Verdict: banned.

Ranger: The ranger is a toughie. On the one hand, it’s a class that specializes in functioning in nature (without worshiping it like a druid), something quite appropriate for the Stone Age. Even its animal companion can be overlooked if we treat this as something aberrant that only a ranger can do – a precursor, perhaps, to true domestication practices. However, we then start tacking on divine spellcasting (remember, gods/spirits are to be feared and placated more than worshipped), and specialized fighting styles (can you really elect to two-weapon fight when it’s all rocks and sticks at this point?) and that’s some truly impressive baggage weighing the class down.

This is made more difficult if we take a hard look at the ranger options in the APG, which can potentially fix several of these problems. A ranger with the spirit ranger archetype, and using the natural weapon combat style goes a long way towards being appropriate for a Stone Age game. However, that’s a pretty tight needle to thread. Ultimately, the ranger is undone by small elements that alone aren’t any big deal, but altogether make it (in its basic incarnation) inappropriate for a Stone Age campaign. Verdict: banned (but may be allowed if given appropriate alternate class features).

Rogue: The rogue is like the fighter in that it’s one of those classes that covers such a broad theme that it can make getting a good read on this class difficult. A rogue seems to be anyone with a penchant for numerous skills, striking from an advantageous positions, and learning a variety of “tricks.” That’s pretty nonspecific, isn’t it? Given that, it seems fair to say that a rogue can be flavored however you want it to be, which certainly makes it allowable for a Stone Age character. In fact, the rogue makes a good stand-in for the absent ranger (since it has enough skills to devote several to wilderness prowess), as well as an alternative combat class to the barbarian (since the fighter is also banned), making them highly useful in a primitive game. Verdict: allowed.

Sorcerer: The sorcerer is often played up as some sort of mutation; a character who develops their magical powers spontaneously, often as a result of having a “tainted” bloodline. In a savage setting, where gods and spirits are seen in everything, and the entire world outside of your small tribe is a scary and poorly-understood place, the sorcerer fits right in. Like the oracle, these are people who’ve been touched by unknown otherwordly powers, and have gained strange abilities because of it.

Personally, I wish that the sorcerer’s bloodline abilities played up their physical mutations more. In 3.5, I enjoyed using Octavirate Games’ Octavirate Expansions: Feared and Hated which used “sorcerer domains” (a precursor to Pathfinder’s bloodlines). These limited a sorcerer’s possible spells known down to a thematic list (e.g. fire, speed, etc.), but provided other powers, which came with various physical alterations. This let you really play up the “sorcerers as freaks” angle. In a world where quasi-religious overtones are given to everything that people don’t understand (which definitely includes magic), that works great. Verdict: allowed.

Summoner: The summoner is a spontaneous arcane spellcaster, with powers related to summoning creatures, particularly his eidolon. This is a problem, because while summoning creatures doesn’t clash with the ideas of a Stone Age campaign per se, this class doesn’t really add anything that the sorcerer isn’t already doing better. The sorcerer’s spellcasting can already include summons (as can the witch’s), and the sorcerer plays up how this power is strange and frightening, since it warps him. By contrast, the summoner pays no such price. Moreover, the inherent awe that comes with summoning a creature from thin air is diminished when the summoner does it so often.

This class isn’t really a bad fit with the ideas of a Stone Age Pathfinder game; it’s just that it’s not filling any particular niche. A summoner and his eidolon could certainly be portrayed as a sort of shaman and his personal demon, whom is the religious focus of the tribe, for example. But that’s nothing you can’t really do with another arcane spellcaster who knows a summons or two. There’s just not enough here to really make the summoner worthwhile. Verdict: banned.

Warrior: Like all of the NPC classes, the warrior is a fairly mundane class with very little feel to it. These are people who fight, but have no training for it (though there’s no such training available in the Stone Age), and can’t summon up the fury of a barbarian. As such, the warrior can conceivably fit into the same background role of a Pathfinder Stone Age game as they do in a normal game; they’re the combatants who exist because they fill a need, but they never grab the spotlight. Perhaps, if commoners are the background members of the tribe who don’t fight, then the warriors are the ones who do; the “hunters” to the commoners’ “gatherers.” While not quite as distinctive from commoners as I’d like, they’re still different enough that their inclusion helps to flesh out the NPCs of a setting. Verdict: allowed.

You just know that in her tribe, nobody wears fox-fur.

Witch: Described as gaining her power from an unknown, otherwordly source, and delivered to her via her familiar, the witch fits seamlessly into a Stone Age campaign. The witch is perhaps an even better arcane spellcaster in this regard than the sorcerer. The mysterious nature of her powers, the fact that they’re delivered via an animal (which haven’t been domesticated yet, remember), and her ability to lay down hexes all make her a powerful presence in a tribe, and play up the feel of a mysterious, unexplored, and poorly-understood world. Verdict: allowed.

Wizard: The wizard is, to put it bluntly, too studious, too scholastic, and overall too civilized for the Stone Age. Their approach to magic is like that of a scientist – studying it, performing experiments, creating things with formulas and theorems – it’s all too modern for a savage age. The fact that wizards need to use a spellbook rules them right out – books haven’t been invented yet; for that matter, writing itself hasn’t been invented yet, which means that you can’t even swap out the “book” of a spellbook for something else (e.g. no mystic tattoos…not that tattooing’s been invented yet either). Wizards just take the mysticism out of magic, and as such aren’t appropriate for the Stone Age. Verdict: banned.

It’s worth noting that, of seventeen PC classes and five NPC classes, we’ve kept – between both parts of this article – only six of the former (barbarian, druid, oracle, rogue, sorcerer, and witch) and three of the latter (adept, commoner, and warrior). For PCs, this can seem monstrously restrictive, as they’ve lost about two-thirds their possible class choices!

However, it’s really not as restrictive as it might seem at first glance. There’s still two divine spellcasters, two arcane spellcasters, a martial class (the barbarian, though a rogue can conceivably work in this role also), and a skill-user. This covers all four of the traditional roles in a Pathfinder game, and even allows for some variation if two players want the same role (e.g. a sorcerer and a witch if both players want arcane spellcasters).

Also, don’t forget that a Stone Age game is limited by its very nature. As we get further into this series of articles, we’ll see how a lot of the things that are taken for granted in traditional medieval fantasy simply aren’t present here. It’s part of the challenge of the setting, and overcoming those challenges is part of the fun.

Next: Skills of the Stone Age!

Into the Stone Age: Classes, Part One

August 17, 2010

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!

Into the Stone Age: Races

July 5, 2010

Okay, it’s taken me way too long to get back to this particular topic, so here we go.

One of the first questions that comes up in a Stone Age Pathfinder game is what races will be available. On the surface, this seems like a pretty standard query; after all, there’s no real reason not to have the standard seven races available, right?

Wrong. See, setting a campaign that far in the past brings up questions of creationism versus evolution, and depending on which answer you choose, there’s more questions after that.

Let’s say that you decide that all of the PC races are available, and that they’re all the beginnings of a long evolution for those species. Hence, you now have cave elves, cave dwarves (which seems a little redundant in nomenclature, if not execution), cave gnomes, and cave halflings all living alongside cave humans.

Now, even overlooking the oddity of neanderthal elves and cro-magnon gnomes, this hurts the suspension of disbelief somewhat. For example, it’s usually understood that in most campaign worlds, elves already have a flourishing civilization that’s at its high point when humans are still struggling with weird new concepts like agriculture and domesticated animals. Given that, if you go back so far that elves are just cave-dwellers, shouldn’t the humans still be monkeys?

In other words, going with the evolution answer brings up issues with how these races, due to both their staggered lifespans and reproduction rates, and probably somewhat due to emerging cultural differences as well, develop at different rates. So much so that – notwithstanding the “universal early renaissance” period most fantasy RPGs are set in – it’s very difficult to put all of these races at the same level of development, either biologically or socially.

This may make it seem more tempting to go with the creationism answer, which lets you hand-wave the races into existence whenever the gods decide to get around to creating them. “No, there are no elves in the world at this point. Why? Because Corellon Larethian hasn’t made any yet.” And in fact this is a perfectly valid answer, so long as you’re using it to remove a given race from the campaign world entirely.

Where creationism fails is when you do want to use it as the answer for a given race existing at a primitive level. If you want to have cave elves and cave humans living side-by-side, for example, and justify it by saying that cave humans evolved from monkeys whereas cave elves were made whole-cloth by Corellon, you start running into some problems.

The big one being, why did their god create them at such a primitive form? Why didn’t he just make them as the “renaissance elves” that they become later on? If he’s the god of swordplay and magic, why not create them with a civilization that has metallurgical and thaumaturgical studies?

The above questions don’t even get into the harder theological questions, like “do mortals predate their gods, and so THAT’S why they didn’t just give us a better civilization?” Cosmological problems of this magnitude will be dealt with in a future article though, so don’t worry. Here at Intelligence Check, we don’t duck the hard questions!

But back to the races. Unless you’re planning to ignore the question altogether (“Your character doesn’t know enough to ask why the elves are still a prehistoric culture, despite having existing for far longer than your own race, okay?”), having all of the standard races share the world as primitive hunter-gatherers can race some difficult meta-game questions from players who think it through.

In fact, the easiest answer may be simply to reject the premise of the question altogether. After all, this campaign may be set at a prehistoric level of development, but that doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily evolve into the standard fantasy game world. You could just as easily say that yes, all of these races do co-exist as primitive peoples, and that means that someday the humans will be the FIRST to develop a culture, with elves eventually becoming the young race that comes into their own during humanity’s twilight years.

Once you’ve settled the question of what your characters will be, then you can turn to issues of what they can do.

Next: Classes of the Stone Age!

Into the Stone Age: Introduction

June 17, 2010

Having started playing D&D back in the days of Second Edition, one of the things I enjoyed most about the game was the myriad campaign settings for it. Virtually all of them had a setting that was quite dissimilar to other campaign worlds, and by extension, created a very different “feel” for the game. You had campaign worlds giving you a fantastical Arabia, a mystical Orient, a Gothic land of terror. They hit most of the classical high points for fantasy game worlds, with one exception.

The Stone Age.

Now, I really can’t blame TSR (nor WotC, nor Paizo) for that. You see, I tried to put together a Stone Age game once, and it didn’t take me very long to come to the same conclusion that I’m sure those companies came to: setting an RPG in the Stone Age is fucking difficult to pull off! In fact, I’d call it the most difficult of all campaign settings to create, simply because so much is so different from any other sort of campaign. So many things that are taken for granted – particularly basic materials – just aren’t there.

Hence why I’m starting this new series of articles. Into the Stone Age will examine various parts of what it means to set a Pathfinder game in the Stone Age. I’ll be covering each part of the game – such as races, classes, equipment, etc. – in its own post. For this post, we’ll start with a basic overview of what a Stone Age game really means.

Setting a game in the Stone Age means defining what exactly the “Stone Age” is. According to Wikipedia, it began somewhere between 2.5 to 2 million years ago, and ended a few thousand years ago, depending on what part of the world you’re looking at.

More germane to the idea of an RPG setting, the Stone Age was not entirely devoid of inventions. Quite a few weapons were developed during this period, including the bow and arrow. The first attempts at artificial structures were constructed. Basic pottery was made. Food was still mostly acquired by hunter-gathering, but around the last part of the Stone Age – the Neolithic period – even this was starting to give way to the rise of agriculture.

Of course, the Stone Age still lacks many basic elements that more developed campaigns take for granted. For example, there is no writing system. The domestication of animals, much like agriculture, begins right around the end of the Stone Age. And of course, tools and weapons were created with bone, wood, and the eponymous stone; there’s no metal whatsoever. Presumably, these limitations have some fantastic equivalents in a Pathfinder Stone Age game – regarding things such as the invention of magic, the advent of the gods, and the rise of certain races; any of which may not have occurred yet, or is in the very early stages.

Starting next time, we’ll go through Pathfinder topic by topic, examining and critiquing them for a Stone Age game, until we’ve found the path we want this campaign to take. Stay tuned.

Next: Player races of the Stone Age!