In our continuing search for something fun and new we came across an interesting concept in a magazine. It said play in a different time. It gave ideas on what to change and how to do it. If I could remember that particular edition number of Dragon, I believe, I would pass it on because it had some good info. I’ll pass on to you what we did and how it worked out for my group, and, as always, there are serious issues that only ever seem to plague us.
Kings of the Stone Age
Our DM decided that it would be interesting if we played a Stone Age game. It meant first of all, that we had to adjust our weapons and inventory. We ditched everything that had metal in it, or at least made sure that they were made of more primitive materials. Those that were adjusted like this usually received a penalty to damage or attack. We also got rid of the more advanced weapons like the repeating crossbow and the composite bow. We also didn’t use anything on the extended item list like sun rods, or tangle foot bags.
We also changed the magic system some. This was my biggest beef with the game. The DM, Ray, decided that magic would be more primitive as well. Since we couldn’t mine he cut out any spell that required silver or gold (even though the Incans and many other ‘Native’ cultures could). Then he cut the spell list in half, saying that we didn’t have access to any spell above 5th level. Magic was supposed to be rare, and mystical so only a very few could use it so that the few spells we had were supposed to be game changing. It did add some excitement and allure, but it didn’t quite work out the way he intended.
There was also a huge change in the way we saw the world. Our society was based on being farmers who were still big on the migrant hunter/gather roots. There weren’t large cities or businesses, but there were still artisans and craftsman who worked on a sort of clan need/ barter system. It really changed the way we saw things and the way we adventured. We didn’t work for ‘want’ because there was no personal gain, I don’t think we even had money. We just did what we could for the greater good of all and that was something we had never done before.
Secrets Within The Game
Playing a game in the past Ray wanted to remake one of great moments in the game. He secretly wanted me to replay one of my old characters with a twist. He named my new character with a perfect combination of my old character’s name so that unless you said the whole title really fast you couldn’t make the connection. As it was, no one made the connection until the DM and I connected the dots for them. I was playing the death shaman, not that I was necessarily evil as we worshiped the cycle of life. It didn’t work out very well for several reasons, and it had a lot to do with the limitations the DM placed on me and the imbalance it created in the game.
The shaman was a cross between a sorcerer and a cleric with d6 hp and weakest attack rate. Not being able to have silver or gold in the game was a pretty big problem from a spell component stand point. I couldn’t create holy water, or use many of the clerical spells I was given. That led me to start creating rituals to compensate for the missing spell components. I came up with some pretty cool and gross stuff that impressed the group. After that I made up seasonal rituals and magic creation rituals. One of my favorite ones was to shrink heads. We killed the Gregarian, our word for dragon, and I used the ritual to shrink the dragon’s head on a staff and tried to turn it into a badass magic item, but no dice. Seeing as no one else was willing to play an impaired mage there was no ‘good’ shaman so I created some rituals that restored hp based on death of another creature. That really turned out to be my most useful skill, but since I couldn’t do it in mid-combat it became pretty useless really fast.
Then Things Went Terribly Wrong-
Even with a significant handicap I was pretty strong once I got some better spells. The other players, however, were persistently murmuring complaints about the game, and they were less and less willing to play unless some changes were made. The DM caved, restarted the game, and then added in so much CRAP it wasn’t even funny. Everyone but me got to roll up a new character which was stupid because they now knew everything about me and acted accordingly (ie ooci). There was nothing I could do to sway them the way I wanted. Plus the DM saw how I over came the enemy’s ridiculously high SR’s and saves so the few spells that I had used were useless. Then he added more healing, because not being able to heal efficiently in the last game slowed it down terribly, and I became a bystander and more often a victim! That wasn’t even the worst of it.
He added a class called the scout. It had ranger feats and favored enemy along with some of the badass Su abilities of the Arcane Archer class! That’s not all! It also had the casting ability of the ranger! I was supposed to be the big bad with casting power even though I was capped at lvl 5 spells, but this guy had oodles of combat power and could cast as much me! I had nothing that I could offer the group and I was often made to slink by in their shadows lest one of them decided to use me as a scratching post! I had never before, or ever since, been so humiliated. The thing that made me quit was that one of the guys wished to be a good shaman at level 20. He had made it there with super combat powers, and then got to switch over just as my class was getting good! I had to give up 7 levels because a ritual I used to save my life and I could never get any exp to catch up with the rest of the group! At that point I could no longer see the value of my character, not even as a wise man with sage advice.
But For You It Can Be Different
There is a way to have a really cool Stone Age game. Just follow some of these suggestions and I’m pretty sure that you can have a pretty enjoyable game.
Weapons will be the first major area of concern for you. The Stone Age is marked by the fact that metal working wasn’t possible, or at least wasn’t wide spread. Just go down the list and mark off every weapon that is made mostly of metal. That means swords are gone for sure, as well as throwing stars, and other such things. It will take a DM’s judgment call. Axes are a good compromise because they have a mostly wooden shaft and the metal part can be substituted with well worked stone or high quality/ magical wood. Spears and daggers and can be modified exactly the same way, and probably even easier. You should nix any weapons with moving parts, which means no repeating crossbows, and the more complex weapons, so that means no recurve, or composite bows. You’re arrows are also going to be made of stone tips instead of metal like steel or iron. In some cases you may want to say these improvised weapons are more awkward or unwieldy so they impose a -1 to attack, or that they are less effective so they impose a -1 (or 2) to damage (remember successful attacks always deal at least 1 point of damage unless mitigated by something, like damage reduction.) Not all weapons of the Stone Age suck as they can be quite vicious like say a club with jagged spikes of metal, rock and wood.
There is one hitch with this variation. D&D is based on the medieval times and incorporating magic powers into your weapon which usually requires major weapon smithing. Think about it, you are in the ‘beginning’ when legends walked the world and everything was new. Legends often start because something is special or something unexpected happened. Once we had a character that made a one in a million shot at maximum range with no special feats and scored a double critical killing the target in one hit. The NPC’s and PC’s alike knew that this guy was no crack shot so the mojo must have been in the weapon. Many people heard it and more and more began to believe it. The bow became a thing of legends that ended up having a bunch of bonuses. In practice the weapon gives the player bonuses to attack and damage just like any other magical weapon ever made and as the weapon ages it can become more powerful.
Another example could be like the people crafting the first metal weapon. Since it’s so much more powerful than anything else around and so unique or rare that they believe it is magical. The weapon gets passed down by a family through the ages, or passed from strongest to strongest in conquest. In later ages the weapon can break and there can be a quest to reforge it. It is also possible to have your shaman or witch cast a hex upon the weapon. You can even have ancient symbols or other such things carved into the blade or haft of a weapon to give it power. Honestly, that’s why I love paper and pencil play because you are only limited by your imagination.
The next big wipe out of your equipment will be the extended items list. Just think ‘would the hunter gathers have used this?’ If it seems too refined or complex then feel free to dump it. They had a way to do things back then, and it’s something you really need than do some research on the thing. When you go fishing use a gig stick instead of a fishing pole. There are many more tricks to catching the little buggers as people have been eating them since the dawn of time. It’s even better if you don’t know a whole of what went on back then as your players are free to come up with whatever answers they can find and that can be a laugh riot.
Ray had good intentions when he wanted to remake the feel of magic, but just cutting a primary spell caster’s ability to nothing isn’t the way to go. If you want to remake the feel then change certain spells. Change the spells components to more rudimentary elements like crows claws, eye of newt or frog tongues. Make certain spells have more exotic components that require quests, or require long, drawn out rituals. Some spells can be banned completely or at least out of play for the PC’s. One such spell I always ban is True Resurrection. It’s lame for someone to just jump back into their meat suit with no draw backs, or strings attached. In my games, even the more advanced ones, only the chosen few may return from the great beyond and it’s at great cost. If you want a good example of what it should be like to bring people back then watch Conan. It’s fair to me and sound game mechanically sound if it’s banned equally from the PC’s and NPC’s alike. In Ray’s game I was boned because I couldn’t scrounge enough power together to cast 6th level spells while the bad guys were throwing 9th level spells with the flick of a wrist.
The really fun part is remaking the rest of your word! In a more primitive age magic abounds almost everywhere in everything. Trees can walk and talk, rivers could have spirits that can become overly interested in players and other things just like that. Just literally let your imagination run wild. I mean if your players are looking for information about who went where who would know better than the mountain spirit that eternally looks over the road ways. Seriously, have pixies and dryads run through the trees and play pranks on the PC’s or even have them ask for help when it’s appropriate. Just make it a rustic, mythic play land. The coolest part is that you can have primordial gods (as avatars) just walk up to players and interact with them just like any other NPC. I think it could totally remake your gaming experience when you can just brush shoulders with them immortals, their chosen and the most powerful of creatures your world may ever know.
The quest concept of your game may need some tweaking, too. Where the Lord of the Rings had the poor fellowship trekking across the globe hitting every major city and populace center, a Stone Age game would work a little differently. At this point and time your people are somewhere between hunter/gathers and creating large settlements. Most people never leave home because not only is there nowhere for them to go, but their ability to travel is nominal and separating yourself from the ‘herd’ is near suicide. So you quests aren’t usually going to have a whole lot of travel. With magic and spirits roving about, and the powers that be lurking around every corner your adventures are going to be centrally located. Great evils can exist in caves, spring up in caverns ripped open in the earth or at the mouth of rivers to drown mortal men. A lot of your conflict can revolve man vs possessed nature or primordial forces.
The purpose of questing will, or, at least, should change. This is the age where humanity is just beginning to pull it together. Everyone must pull together just to survive. Your players will less likely be playing for personal gain like gold and magic items, but for mere survival for themselves and for those that depend on them. They will fight for honor, quest for prestige and fight against the primordial forces of nature itself.
They will undoubtedly become the strongest force within their village. They will become heroes and champions of the people and spoken of in reverence for ages to come. In such a way they can become bigger than life. Further quests maybe against the strongest warriors of other villages for rights to hunting and land, or to settle blood feuds. It can involve reshaping the landscape with feats of strength and self sacrifice (think of Paul Bunyan!). Those of the truly epic persuasion can challenges the gods themselves to bring order and peace to the world, or to become gods themselves (hey they have to come from somewhere).
Fights With A Twist!
Since you won’t have access to every metal in creation, and magic weapon smithing maybe limited, you may have to change the way players fight, or have to kill monsters. I suggest making combat more ritualistic. If you need an example of what I speak of, then watch a few episodes of Supernatural. These are average humans who have to follow a prescribed course of action to kill all the baddies they meet. Certain things must be staked I the heart, others can’t cross salt lines and the worst can be trapped in hex symbols until they can be exorcised (by a shaman?). If the creature has some kind of super high damage reduction and the players don’t have the means to bypass it then create something else that will work, or make it a ‘survival’ fight where they have to last for so long (like until sunrise).
Oh, and please, be creative. If you’re looking for new options then you may feel like (and probably do) know everything about the game. I suggest that the DM describe things as if you’re seeing them for the first time. Use the lack of light, or confusion to your advantage and tell them what they see, or think they see. If it’s a monster with a very signature look then change its appearance until it’s unrecognizable, or create one of your own monsters with similar properties. We once went toe to toe with a troll and didn’t realize it, the DM described it and left the name for us to come up with since we were the ones who discovered it. This bitch haunted us for games since we didn’t figure out who to kill it the first time the fear of fighting the ‘unbeatable one’ was enough to keep us from tangling with it! Dragons were worshiped nearly as gods and fed sacrifices! Just see how your players react to the same old same old when it wears a new face!
There are bound to be more advanced civilizations in your game than the one your players are immersed in. Just like our world, not everyone was on the same page at the same time, and those who were ahead of the ‘game’ conquered all the known world. Just think of when the Spanish ran into the Native Americans, or the English ran roughshod all over Africa. Often times the lesser civ loses out and then the conquered people come up to par with their conquerors after sometime of stigma (either slavery, or being 2nd class citizens). If you want to keep your Stone Age ‘pure’ then make some reasons why this won’t happen. Mountains, gorges and raging rivers make great natural barriers that can keep the masses separated, but allow for a trickle of visitors each way. The more advanced civ can operate off of a non-interference clause, or deny the lesser civ the better tech because they aren’t ‘ready’ for it yet. It’s okay to let your PC’s to have better equipment than what is averagely available as long as it doesn’t saturate the game, and change the feel of it. If it does then make changes such as above by limiting contact and intentionally holding back.
Game on people!
I hope you found this useful and enlightening J!