There’s a school of thought which argues that a role-playing game’s mechanics should reflect or evoke its genre. I don’t agree that it’s always necessary — a good GM and her players working with a flexible set of rules they all enjoy should be able to make any genre work — but it can sometimes be fun to have a “full-immersion” experience. And some genres are better suited to this approach than others. Horror comes to mind. And four-color supers.
And Ice Age adventure fantasy.
Admittedly, that’s a very niche genre, and it’s one that doesn’t adapt well to standard tabletop RPGs. The problem is that most RPGs build advanced technology into their rules, and can only simulate primitive existence by limiting character options. Sure, we can build a campaign about shamans and hunters following mammoth herds through the Land Of Black Ice… but, uh-oh, look at all these spells that become useless because no one’s wearing armor or carrying metal. Oh, and all these skills that become pointless. Not to mention all of these magic items that haven’t been invented yet.
Needless to say, no player likes having their toys taken away, and any group interested in playing an Ice Age adventure with native characters is going to have a lot of shoe-horning to do. Which might be part of the reason that such campaigns, while often proposed, rarely get off the ground for long. Few gamers relish the idea of having a shiny game full of options they mostly can’t use, because “realism.”
That’s where UNIgames’ Cavemaster: The Paleolithic Roleplaying Game comes in. Rather than starting with a familiar set of rules and taking things away from them to create a believable “prehistoric” experience, Cavemaster presents a game full of options that feels complete on its own terms. And it does so by making its game mechanics evoke the setting in a fun, elegant way.
Cavemaster‘s rules are designed around a central conceit that’s fun to indulge: it’s not just a RPG about “cavemen,” it’s also the RPG that cavemen played. That is, it pretends to be a set of “primitive” role-playing rules used by Homo habilis and later species as they sat around Pleistocene fires, reconstructed through meticulous archaeological research. It thus does not require the use of written language, complex record-keeping, or dice. Instead, it uses materials that would have been available to our earliest ancestors, and task resolution methods that even an ape-man could get the hang of.
The fun starts right away with character creation: the CM (Cavemaster, the game’s referee) assigns her players a number of “core stones” that reflect their characters’ starting power levels. The standard beginner character gets 6 stones to work with.
And these are, ideally, actual stones, preferably about the size of a bean, that she and her gaming troupe have gathered from their local surroundings. In a pinch, modern-minded groups could substitute coins, dice, beads, or similar small objects for stones, but where’s the fun in that?
Anyway, the players gather up their six stones, and place them inside a circle they’ve drawn at the center of their character record “skin” (that is, the blank piece of paper that serves as their character sheet). This circle is called their core, and it is where they place their core stones.
Next, players choose a job, a breed, and a perk for their character. Each of these aspects grants their character a particular set of skills or a special ability, and each is represented by a pictograph. Jobs and breeds are mandatory, perks are optional. As with their core, the pictograph for each of these aspects is drawn inside a circle on the character skin, and has one of the player’s core stones moved from the central circle to the pictograph. At the end of the process, a starting character will have six stones allocated between up to four pictographs, but only one stone each for any pictograph outside the central circle.
For example, say you want to play a H. sapiens warrior who’s a natural leader. You begin by placing all six of your beginning stones in the central circle on your character skin. You then draw a separate circle for your breed and inside that circle draw the pictograph for the Yorwa people (the implied setting’s name for H. sapiens). Next, you take one stone from your core and put in the circle for your breed, leaving you 5 core stones and 1 stone representing your breed’s special ability.
Follow a similar procedure for your job (warrior) and your perk (Charismatic): each gets its own circle, its own pictograph, and its own beginning stone. At the end, you have a character “sheet” that represents the stats of Core 3, Yorwa 1, Warrior 1, and Charismatic 1 using nothing put pictographs and little stones. On the perimeter of each circle, you then make a tick mark for each stone it contains; as your character gains experience, you can add more stones to your abilities, and make tick marks for those on the appropriate circle, as well. This allows you to unroll your character skin, look at the pictographs, and immediately know how many stones to put on each symbol.
It goes on in this fashion, remaining just as charming at every step. You’re encouraged to represent your name, your stuff, and so on with pictographs of your own design. Of course, there’s nothing to stop you from just writing it all down in words and numbers like a high-falootin’ Holocene hominid, but if you did, you’d be missing half the fun. Cavemaster‘s character creation process is designed to get you into character before you even have a character, and it succeeds wonderfully here.
The task resolution mechanic is just as evocative: players resolve actions by gathering stones from their core circle and secretly allocating them between their two hands. The CM does the same, and then they each pick one of their opponent’s hands, which has to be opened to reveal the number of stones it holds. Whoever has the most stones in their open hand wins the contest, after their total has been modified by adding stones from their other pictographs/abilities (where relevant), and/or subtracting any penalties imposed by the CM. There’s a system for rating the difficulty of static tasks according to the final number of stones that a player must be holding in their revealed hand (Easy = 2 stones, Extraordinary = 10 stones, and so on), and contested actions are handled simply by comparing totals between the opposing parties. In combat, the difference is applied to the loser’s total pool of stones as “damage.”
There are plenty of nuances for thing like assisted actions, dodging attacks, and so on, along with rules for creatures, invention of new technologies, and magic, too, all of which use variations on these core mechanics.
In addition to its evocative rules, Cavemaster comes with an implied setting: a fantasy version of the Pleistocene populated by four distinct species of bipedal primate, each given its own “homeland” inspired by a particular real-world Ice Age ecology.
The four breeds (PC races) are: standard humans (the Yorwa); an elf-like species (the Tanui) that specializes in boating and trade; a cave-dwelling race of not-quite dwarfs (the Rogok); and a furry race of monkey folk (the Maheechee) who have tails and can swing from branches with the best of them.
As noted, each race has its own homeland on the map: Esplandia, inspired by the LaBrea Tarpits and Pleistocene California in general, is home to the Yorwa people; Croatan, based on the east coast of North America from Maine to Virginia, hosts the Tanui; Orinoco, based on the Amazon jungle, is where you’ll find the Maheechee; and Teutonis, modeled after Ice Age Germany, is where the Rogok make their home.
These four lands each host unique assemblages of fauna and flora that are, as far as I can tell from my geology notes, historically accurate to the regions that inspired them (so you won’t be finding any woolly mammoths in Orinoco, for instance). And dividing them all from each other is the mysterious, mist-shrouded Lost Valley, a place that may or may not contain anachronistic creatures like dinosaurs, time-travelers, or other weirdness the CM would like to throw at her players.
Speaking of which, there are stats for a wide variety of relevant creatures, including all the stars of the Ice Age, a few dinosaurs and pterosaurs, a couple of the aforementioned time travelers, and even an ancient astronaut. Supplementing these is a nice, simple, yet comprehensive set of creature creation rules, enabling the CM to quickly homebrew any beasties she likes, along with a starting adventure that gives both players and CMs an idea what life in the (fantasy) Ice Age was like, and what sorts of challenges they can expect to encounter throughout a campaign.
Finally, I wouldn’t be doing Cavemaster justice if I didn’t mention its self-described status as a “stonepunk” game. This is meant to imply that it explores how Stone Age technologies might have been used to develop analogs to modern (or at least more advanced) devices, an idea that immediately made me think of “The Flintstones.” Thankfully, Cavemaster doesn’t go there; it keeps the tone serious, and only provides a set of flexible, free-form Invention rules to help CMs push that aspect of the game along. Nothing here railroads a campaign into “stonepunk”; instead, it just makes it easy to head down that trail if CM and players are interested. This was a wise decision on the designers’ part, as I wouldn’t have looked twice at Cavemaster if my first glance had made me wonder what Bam-Bam’s stats would be.
HOW I’D USE IT: There’s a region on my old Greyhawk maps called “The Land Of Black Ice.” Maybe you’ve heard of it. I’ve often imagined what that region and the lands just south of it must have been like during Greyhawk’s Ice Age: the black glacier receding, leaving behind deep, dark lakes and rivers of evil-tinged waters that spawn unspeakable horrors, and hardy, primitive people fighting back the darkness using spirit-magic and often-inadequate stone tools. Cavemaster would be perfect for a campaign in that setting, since it wouldn’t require me or my players to “subtract” anything from the D&D rules to get the right Ice Age feel. The game’s magic rules are free-form enough to represent the earliest, barely-understood foundations of the D&D game’s more sophisticated spell system, and there are enough character options in the rules to provide lots of grist for a satisfying campaign of Stone Age action.
FINAL VERDICT: Cavemaster wins. It’s cleanly organized, easy to understand, has nice art, and evokes its subject matter like few genre games I’ve ever read. And playing it doesn’t require you to buy anything else you (or a caveman) wouldn’t already have on hand, anyway. It’s perfect for quick one-shots, and would make a great introductory RPG for young children, as there’s no complicated math, reading, or writing involved. It’s caused me to move “Ice Age fantasy adventure” from somewhere in the nether regions almost all the way up to the top of my list of Things I Want To Play Right Now.