It's a wicked world of desolate wilderness and decadent cities. Thieves and assassins wait around every corner, and worse things — mind-wrecking things — lurk in the shadows of the lost places. In Primeval Thule, a player survives by skill with a sword and a steely will, or doesn't survive at all.
RPG veterans and Wizards of the Coast alumni Richard Baker, David Noonan and Stephen Schubert have teamed up to create Sasquatch Game Studio. Their first project? A multi-system campaign world called Primeval Thule that blends the sword & sorcery of Robert E. Howard with the cosmic horror of Lovecraft. This heady blend of pulp action and horror will be available for Dungeons & Dragons 4E, Pathfinder, Pelgrane Press' 13th Age, and the Call of Cthulhu RPG. If you order a pdf of any version (available now through their ongoing Kickstarter), you'll get pdfs of every version.
Richard Baker answered all my questions about the dark and mysterious world of Primeval Thule, and Sasquatch gave us some great concept art to show off as well.
io9: What was the genesis of Primeval Thule? There's a tradition of mixing some of the pulp shared universes this way, but what made you decide to create an RPG that does it explicitly?
RB: I was doing a lot of long commuting earlier this year, and I started thinking real hard about what sort of world I would create if I could build any world I wanted to. I found myself spending a lot of time daydreaming about a setting anchored in the "sword-and-sandals" pulp fantasy tradition rather than more Tolkienesque medieval fantasy, a world that looked like a Frank Frazetta painting and played like a Conan story. We all know what that world looks and feels like; it's visceral, it's exciting, it's evocative. But none of the big shots in the RPG biz were publishing that world right now, and that struck me as a shame.
As I thought that over, it occurred to me that a lot of Robert E. Howard's stuff quietly blended in with the expanded Cthulhu mythos. I've been fascinated by the genre of "fantastic horror" for many years now, and I found myself thinking about the assumed ancient world or forgotten history that was shared by the pulp fantasy writers. Lovecraft's Dreamlands, Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborea, and Robert E. Howard's Conan stories all brew up a strange mix of action stories with elements of horror (or horror stories with elements of action) in fantastic D&D-like worlds... and that helped seal the deal in my own mind. I went to my colleagues Dave and Steve and shared my half-formed idea with them (in a bar, of course, where all great adventures begin). The serious brainstorming began, and Primeval Thule was born!
io9: Can you describe the world of Primeval Thule? What sorts of characters will the players portray? What kinds of threats will they face?
RB: Primeval Thule is a world lost in time, an ancient epoch of human history now forgotten in the modern world. It's the day of Atlantis and Lemuria, when the wide lands of the north are just beginning to succumb to the advancing glaciers and Thule itself remains an island-continent of spectacular mountains and steaming jungles. The human race is young and civilization is new; many people are still barbarians, and the few cities that have arisen are wicked and tyrannical places. Humans aren't alone in this world: sinister serpent-men, brutal beast-men, and horrible unnatural survivors from the dim eons of the past still linger in Thule.
In this world, your characters are brooding barbarian swordsmen, bold and clever thieves, wizards dabbling in dark powers, and priests who jealously guard secrets of power. You're mercenaries and freebooters up against a savage, untamed world, where unimaginable horrors slumber in the desolate places and fantastic treasures await the hand bold enough to seize them.
io9: Aside from the obvious (Howard and Lovecraft), what books or films best capture the feel of this world?
RB: Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborea stories were perhaps the most direct inspiration for Primeval Thule, but there's also a fair amount of Edgar Rice Burroughs here, too—the Pellucidar stories or some of the Tarzan stories where Tarzan encounters lost civilizations are definitely rooted in the DNA of Primeval Thule. As far as film goes... none of these are great cinema, but movies such as The Scorpion King, 10,000 BC, 300, the Beastmaster, Prince of Persia, or the old Sinbad movies start to capture the look and feel. But maybe the best way to "get" Primeval Thule at a glance is to take a look at the swords-and-sorcery artwork of Frank Frazetta or Roy Krenkel. That's the kind of world we're creating with Primeval Thule.
io9: How do you build a game world so that it emphasizes sword & sorcery rather than epic fantasy? Is it just a matter of setting the tone, or are there specific elements that can lead players and GMs in that direction?
RB: The first step is to give the players the tools they need to create characters that fit the setting, so we've created a new character system we call "character narrative" that helps to guide the players toward characters that really fit in the world. They work a lot like themes or kits in various editions of the D&D game, and give you a key piece of character identity you can bolt onto your standard race and class combination. Choices such as Ice Reaver, Jungle Hunter, Sacred Slayer, or Atlantean Noble do a pretty good job of anchoring you in the world and telling you what sort of adventures you would naturally care most about.
On the GM side of the screen, we can provide tons of monsters and villains built to convey the right sort of experience.
More broadly, we think that sword and sorcery play tends to be a very episodic. This is a world that is largely unexplored, so you might find anything in the next valley over. This might be the one spot in the world where manticores live, and you don't have to have an ecology of manticores throughout the whole setting to explain them here. Sword-and-sorcery characters are also a little more opportunistic and avaricious than heroes sworn to serve something other than themselves. That means heroes in this genre are self-directed and anxious to seek out great prizes for their own sake, not to advance some great cause.
io9: What are some of the challenges or advantages of developing something for multiple RPG systems? Do some systems affect the flavor or tone of the world? I can see these general themes playing out very differently in 4E compared to 13th Age.
RB: All three of us Sasquatches are veterans of 3e, Pathfinder, and 4e, and we like what we see of 13th Age so far. The biggest challenges are that we're going to have to be a little clever in how we physically arrange the book to change out stats efficiently, and we're going to have adventure material where the featured monsters are level X in one version and level Z in another. But, we think those are solvable problems. The advantage is that we're really required to come up with the *story* behind something instead of just relying on an interesting mechanic to make it worthwhile. The mechanic of a character narrative or new monster might not translate if that's all that's interesting about it, but if we have a rock-solid concept to start with, it's going to look great no matter which game system we interpret it for.
io9: Do you have any favorite anecdotes from playtesting that show off the Primeval Thule world?
RB: We were playing in the first session that Dave Noonan ran for us, in which our characters were unwilling arena slaves forced to fight for the amusement of the decadent elven nobles of Imystrahl. Naturally, a jailbreak ensued. My character, a brawny barbarian named Zonn Durjat, cut down several guards in spectacular fashion (rage + greatsword + critical hit = carnage!) but was dropped by the guards. On the next go Dave had a guard try to coup-de-grace my character! Now, it's kind of an unwritten rule in D&D that DMs leave the downed characters alone, but Dave just shrugged and pointed out, "It's a savage and brutal world, and you are clearly too dangerous to leave alive." Fortunately, the coup-de-grace failed, and Zonn lived to fight another day. But I thought that was Thule in a nutshell: The bad guys will kick you when you're down!