Sunday, February 11, 2024

Primeval Thule 5E

Primeval Thule is still a fabulous setting. I played this using Savage Worlds and always held a soft spot for its "Conan meets Cthulhu" bronze-age world. This is not your 'pantaloons and plate mail' pseudo-Renaissance 'magic as modern technology' D&D setting or a modern world, but 'we veneer it with the word Steampunk' campaign world. There are times I get tired of the fake Renaissance that modern media and D&D try to foist on us; this was the birth of the nation-state and colonialism that robbed the primitive world blind to feed European wealth, cultural supremacy, and the high standard of living. The era planted the seeds for every problem we live with today, yet it is constantly whitewashed as an innocent, generic fantasy setting.

Steampunk in fantasy settings is also lazy these days, allowing writers to write for a modern world with Starbucks, Instagram, mass transit, and DoorDash equivalents with magical steampunk technology. When steampunk started, terrific alternate-future retro tech forced you to think differently. These days, it is fantasy world writer laziness.

Also, planar settings, as infinite multiverse worlds, are super lazy. This was the D&D-inflicted curse on our games for the last 40 years, where the stakes were lowered to a point where no one cared, and heroes felt so miniscule that nothing mattered.

Anytime the worlds were gritty, low magic, limited access, and players were forced to stay in the sandbox - those were terrific games and settings. We ran Forgotten Realms, Golarion, and Nerrath like that and loved those worlds. When the "planar escape hatch" was opened, the games died.

If I ran Thule, that is what it would be. You live here. You die here. There is no escape to happy planar land. You will never have a cell phone or a Pokémon. You are not playing a Muppet. No one is developing 20th-century technology with the knowledge their characters don't have. It sounds harsh, but the player pandering and entitlement level in modern fantasy gaming would ruin a setting like this.

Please care about the world; it will not be as forgiving if you don't.

Thule is a bronze age, pre-steel, pre-glass, pre-age of sail, pre-printing press, no-stirrups, low magic, a world with no royals, only brutal warlords and savage sorcerer-kings. Yes, no stirrups, meaning no mounted combat or horse archery. There is no walking around in jousting plate mail, which means AC values are capped.

No steel production exists; you have bronze, hide, tin, copper, wood, and bone. Steel is a lost art relegated to the ancient world and a few dwarven smiths who guard the knowledge fiercely. Prepare for your weapons to be unreliable, which need constant repairs and will likely break when you critically miss an attack roll. Anything made from bronze will be 50% heavier than steel.

Level Up A5E has excellent rules for variant weapon and armor materials that do this world justice (p322-323, Adventurer's Guide). Most quality weapons and armor will be bronze. Low quality will be iron, and warlords who are cheap will equip their thug-like guards with iron weapons or just clubs and whips to beat people into submission. City corruption will be high, so a guard may sell their iron weapons and claim they were stolen, so why give them good stuff? There will also be many bone and stone weapons among monster tribes and cultures in the wild, which will be standard. Weapons and armor made of steel and other exotic materials are rare treasures.

This is another reason to play A5E; since the community of designers wanted this game to play Dark Sun with it, the rules for all the standards of that setting are baked in. The game also has a firm survival and exploration pillar, which makes a savage world dangerous.

Yes, your stuff will break. Mark "equipment entitlement" off your checklist of "things the players can be certain of." Some games go out of their way to enshrine everything on the character sheet as untouchable by the game master. Telling a player "your weapon breaks" is a personal attack and reason to pound the X Card.

Ask anyone in this world what it is like to go to war. Everything you bring into a battlefield is on a timer, and you will never be able to predict when and where. All of it will break someday. And when it does, it may mean the difference between life and death.

Honor the warriors by being one.

In Thule, magic is also low, and superstition and fear of the unknown are high. Magic items in treasure hordes are halved and can never be bought and sold - making them insanely valuable. Not every class has magic; if you do, learning to hide it and not flaunt it will increase your chances of surviving. The chances of meeting someone who knows magic are low.

There are no laws, just the iron fist of warlords and their edicts enforced by thug guards. The wilds are dangerous lands with fearsome beasts and the ruins of forgotten empires. The cities are corrupt, decadent, crowded places of forced servitude and vice. Powerful sorcerers with dark magics enslave entire cities to build their grand temples to dark gods. Secret cults of unknown gods seek to corrupt the souls of the world and plunge them into madness.

You also get XP for GP.

What is this, an OSR setting?

We have this world for 5E this time, and it is sad to see this place go under the radar for many. This is like a Conan for 5E without the Conan lore and baggage. It has room for 5E and the standard selection of races and classes while still having that gritty and savage feeling. It feels like "genericized fantasy Conan plus 1980s fantasy sword & sorcery movies," which is beautiful.

And all the faux-Renaissance, planar multiverse, and Steampunk tropes are gone.

This setting is as close as possible to a Dark Sun for 5E, minus the magical wasteland deserts and defilers. I like this sort of savage game world better than a Dark Sun since the magical wastes and deserts became one note and a bit heavy-handed. Dark Sun also had this theme of civilization destroying the world, and it runs counter to a game world theme of the world being so fierce and savage that just surviving in it is a small victory.

Humanity will never destroy this world.

The world will destroy humanity long before civilization even has a chance.

Speaking of which, Thule is being invaded by the Cthulhu mythos. This is a part of the setting that I felt did not belong, but as I thought deeper into it, having a primitive world invaded by invaders from beyond space and time makes sense as the "big bad guys" of the setting. In most settings, dragons and demons are the big bad guys. Having an incomprehensible alien intelligence invade a Conan-style world sounds fun.

The above book is strongly recommended for playing here if you lean into the Cthulhu lore, as it deals with the cults and monsters of this mythos extensively and can be used to understand what happens when the cults of a particular alien intelligence take hold in the area, and what madness spreads. There are also levels of influence, which progress naturally to the next, to the point the world is destroyed. This book is technology-neutral, so you are not dealing with the 1920s and can run these in 5E and fantasy worlds.

Primeval Thule is a solid setting and, with the suitable Open 5E game, is a fantastic place for telling savage stories. I would lean more towards A5E for this one (for the materials, survival, and exploration rules), though ToV would also work well. I will need to wait until September for the GM Guide's release to see if the optional rules support some things A5E does out of the box.

What makes this setting so compelling is it subverts your fantasy gaming expectations. The things you rely upon heavily (plate mail, steel, social norms, everyday magic, technology, planar travel, player entitlement, reliable equipment) are taken away, and you are forced to think hard to adapt and survive.

Not being in your comfort zone makes a great story.

No comments:

Post a Comment