Monday, 5 September 2016

VaporWare Contrails in the Prehistoric Sky

Reading through 'Wolf Packs and Winter Snow' made me think a lot about prehistory. It made me think about things I would add and take away. Vaporware contrails. What would 'my' Prehistoric game be like?


Perhaps classless. Prehistoric and tribal societies are less likely to have 'jobs'. Or at least their lives are less job-like. Everyone essentially has the same job: be an effective hunter-gatherer, from there people branch out a bit into different skill sets as provoked by talent and circumstance.

I spoke about this a long time ago in Godz Without Limitz. I think older less densely populated societies with a lower tech level regarded their individual members with a much lower degree of specialization. When you thought of a problem and needed help you considered the shape of the problem and cast your mind through the varied talents of your friends, looking for a matrix of capacity within a particular person, not for someone with an assigned role.

"I've gotta butcher this animal. Blue-teeth is really good at butchering, I'll see if he's around." Rather than. "I've gotta butcher this animal, better call the tribes butcher, who is called Blue-Teeth."

So it makes sense to have, maybe a developing skill system related to the basic stat line with skills growing as you try new things, (as promised in every fucking Elder Scrolls game until you jib it off and become a super-armored-mage-knight-assassin.)


I might not include INT as a stat. I would tell new players that they are portraying among'st the most intelligent people ever to exist in the human race.

This might not be literally true, its likely that prehistoric man was pretty much 'as' intelligent, or, as capable as we are. It's an interesting question as to how you account for intelligence vs 'capacity. So much of how we understand intelligence is based on our culture or our mind state having a *lot* of abstract information to move around. And dealing with abstract information teaches familiarity with abstract information, it feeds on itself.

How do you measure intelligence in a world where almost nothing is abstract? Where everything is sensory? Being able to guess or predict the path of migrating deer is a bit abstract. Tracking an animal through broken terrain is hyper-complex, but not abstract. Facing off with a live animal that you want to eat in a situation where, if it gets away, you starve and if it doesn't, it dies, is hyper-complex with multiple highly sophisticated result paths interacting with each other at high speed and in a situation of significant stress, but I'm not sure how you would measure the IQ factor in it.

We remind the players continually that they are playing intelligent people to remind them to act in an intelligent way, even though they have few of the signs, signifiers and mental tools of intelligence as we measure it. These people are smart, they just don't have very much to think *with* (by our standards).

In the same way I might not include WIS. Let's just assume that everyone is as observant as its possible for them to be. The way Into the Odd insists you tell people stuff if it is there to be seen is interesting so lets continue with that.

Not only the discovery of technology but the transmission of knowledge would be important
dancing, storytelling and performance would all be vital for forming culture-groups.

(It's kind of staggering how much we don't know about dance. I've been reading Wendigo papers and all the time they say "This was communicated with his dance", "they were frightened by his dance", "his dance was tamed by their medicine dance", "in winter, the society was organised by dance", but we never find out how the dances fucking work or even what they are like to see.

We have no good language for describing dance and apparently don't give a fuck about it. It's like an alien watching white people and saying "Ah, of course they manipulated the actions of their sub-group with a book", "much of the continent was inflamed by war after reading a book" "he was hanged and his books destroyed because of something he had put in a book", "books are a vital medium of exchange and influence for this culture" but no-one talks about whats in the fucking books.)

Since you wouldn't speak the language of most people you encountered and they might seem racially or morphologically very different to you you might simply view them as monsters or 'other'. The role of peacemaker, translator or culture-transmitter could become a powerful one.

MAGIC - whooooo

There are few, or no, spells in this setting. In "our" world, or the more common fantasy world, reality is a given and magic users unleash spots of unreality, thereby defining the boundaries and rules of the imagined world as well as their own distinctive natures in it.

In the prehistoric world mild magic is everywhere. Shamans use magic a lot less than they investigate and refine the borders of reality.

the concept of 'dreams' doesn't exist, or at least not to the same extent or in the same way we understand it. People know that what happens while you sleep is of a different quality that what happens while you are awake, but, what happens while you sleep is still important, worthy of consideration, decision and even worth sharing if it seems necessary.

You might meet dead people when you sleep, you might meet them when you are awake, neither of these would necessarily be more or less frighting or important than the other. There aren't that many people and if you don't like the people around you, you can usually leave  go somewhere else
so the terror of people is more about what they mean to you, rather than numbers.

If you see a dead person you know well while you are asleep and *don't* tell people when you wake up, then that might be a mistake. Good or bad, they wouldn't come to see you for no reason.

In the same way, laughing or making fun of what someone tells you about what they saw when they were asleep doesn't make sense (most of the time). It's just more news, more information.

One of the most important things a Shaman does is keep the dead in their place and maintain a very clear boundary between them and us so they don't just come back all the time and do stuff.

In our own time we might regard Shaman as psychopomps, people defined by their ability to go back and forth between this world and the other world, but I suspect we have it the wrong way round. Yes, they cross the border, but as custom officials, border guards or ambassadors, reaffirming the reality of the border even as they cross it.

Animals and places and people have spirits, the exact difference between a spirit and a real thing is permeable. Shaman can tell the difference and work out how they work Everyone else pretty much has to deal with what they get. What we call 'dreams', 'spirit' and the material world, all interpenetrate. PC's and shaman mark things, perform rituals and tell stories to mark  boundaries, between sleep and waking, death and undeath, solid and perceived. The difference between 'corporeal' un-dead, ghosts, dreams and just someone who has recovered from what seemed an impossible illness or wound, is unclear.

Human beings have incredible minds. We can model reality with a sophistication and range no other animal can match, but it won't. stop. we can't turn it off. A huge amount of what the religions and social guardians of early societies have to do is just dealing with the overwhelming sophistication of the human mind and all the incredible things it can do, and keeps doing. you need to repress and transform so much to get get human beings acting together, but you can never repress anything directly, its like pressing bubbles on plastic over glass, instead you have to divert, transform, persuade, suggest, and you have to invent the culture to do it with.

In this game the job of a Shaman is less 'doing spells', but controlling magic, controlling otherness, naming it and giving it it's boundary. Investigating and reaffirming the borders of reality, of 'what is'.

I'm imagining something a bit like the Civilization tech-tree, but showing different ways of dividing up reality. No-one knows where the dead go, or how to keep them there, or what spirits are where or how they work, or where people came from, or where they are going, you would have to 'discover' these things, and by discover I don't mean just make it up, you would need to come up with a coherent set of culture rules that *make sense* according to the experience of the people who hear them and which deal with the pressures and strangeness of the human mind.


The big problem (if you consider it a problem) with putting so much effort into making things from the natural world and noticing things IN that natural world is that the game becomes one where whomever paid most attention to the survival manual is a badass and its hard for PC's to subtly investigate the natural world if the DM doesn't them-self have a deep knowledge of it.

This is really different to the investigation of imagined worlds based on genre or story type or fictional constructs. Someone can know more about Faerun than you, depending on how you run your game, but its hard for them to know more about how a dungeon works, or about how horses work in a fantasy setting (you jump on them to go somewhere, they eat at the end of the journey, they rarely run away, they fade into the background when not needed, they poop only when it would be funny). Horses in *reality* are probably much more complex and weird to deal with and the same goes for all natural things. Can you make a canoe from the bark of that tree? Well can you?

Fuck knows.

I don't have a great answer for the Ray Mears problem. I guess you would put together a simple yet interesting crafting system, that would help. But crafting is never interesting. You could maybe take the OSR route of breaking down sophisticated world-information into attainable objects, except the objects are aspects of the world. Like understanding part of an ecosystem is like a treasure. No idea how that might work.


It's the Bronze Age. Even though that doesn't make sense, the idea is too cool for it not to be. The adventures of your neolithic PC's become the seed for the hero-cycle of a Bronze Age culture. "Hey, you remember when those guys fought that giant thing, and it looked like they were going to lose? But they didn't? Well its thanks to people like that that we currently have a unitary culture."

You might not start with a class but maybe you can end with one, depending on what you do.

God King. Or legendary hero for a fighty person, like the Herakles or Gilgamesh of a culture, someone who made the world safe for humanity, or (if you're a hippy) founder of something like the Iroqois Confederacy.

Crafty Dude."I literally invented bronze motherfucker! you remember flint? It was a shitshow!" or maybe you are the person who invents agriculture, or writing. Or you could become the Trickster-figure who dicks the gods around to help humanity.

Magicy Person. This could be the  revealer of a core religious faith and cosmic schema capable of creating and linking an entire culture, think Zoraster, less someone who named the gods, but someone who laid out the cosmos, discovered where the dead go and how that relates to us. You'll need a big mad religion to help the God-King make people live in your terrifying cities.



In-depth interviews with David McGrogan, David Fucking McGrogan hes a _Doctor of 9the philosophy of) Law you ding-dongs! creator of Yoon-Suin, Chris McDowall (did you even know he invented a whole bunch of wierd games before this one??  II bet you didn't!!) creator of 'Into the Odd' the very game we were playing in this AP and Patrick Stuart, (I want that fucking ennie Zak, I want the whole fucking thing) winner of half a silver ennie for Maze of the Blue Medusa, all as one purchase. Not to mention art by Scrap Princess, Matthew Adams, Jonny Gray, Kathry Jenkins, Anxious P and Jeremy Duncan!!!!! I'm going to keep copy-pasting and adding to this bullshit till they are sold out motherfuckers!!!


  1. Discovering the material use for stuff and having a list of that stuff on your character sheet, like badges of honour, might be cool. For example, your character knows the secrets of tar coating (water proof any of your shit ), Basil (+1 to CHA when presenting a dish), Fire creation type I (+10% camp security when in brushland) and Silocybe Cubensis (ask the logos one question when ingested, 5% chance of permo attracting a spirit, say).

    I think my point, is that rather than create some kind of mini game for crafting (surely central to the prehistoric experience), different aspects of crafting instead provide some discreet effect. It's up to the player to combine those aspects in entertaining fashions, discover synergies, etc.

    Anyway, time for bed.

  2. Have you looked at Mazes & Minotaurs? Seriously, it comes at all these problems from a different direction from D&D but at the same time, recognizable

  3. Really like the idea of dreams blurring over into the spiritworld. I don't have an afterlife in my own setting but you could still have interactions with all kinds of spirits in dreams.


    Just kidding. It does make me wonder, though, if there is a place for a meta story game called Vapourware, in which the PCs' actions all fizzle to nothing but it doesn't matter, because they have gone onto something new in the meantime. They begin as a set of D&D type PCs in a pub planning to explore the nearest dungeon and get all excited discussing what might be down there. But then somebody says "Yeah, but then there's that wizard's tower - what might that contain?" And then they're discussing that instead.

    This game IS ITSELF VAPOURWARE because I will never make it.

  5. Make wisdom and intelligence two new abstractions Instinct and Intuition - instinct for gut feel, intuition for abstract reasoning and problem solving through latent intelligence. Might be a better term for it, but I'm on the bus typing with my thumb.