Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Primeval Thule vs. Dark•Heritage

Well, since discovering the Primeval Thule website (admittedly, a little belatedly.  The Kickstarter's long gone.  I guess I just don't pay attention to RPG biz news anymore.) I've been giving some thought to how it compares (and contrasts) with my own setting, since they're built on somewhat similar conceits.

Primeval Thule is built firmly on an old-fashioned sword & sorcery take on the genre, with an emphasis on the Lovecraftian.  As I've said before (in fact, on my own take on the definition of SWORD & SANITY which is maybe a little cheeky of me, since I didn't coin the phrase) sword & sorcery already comes with a hefty dose of Lovecraftiana, or Yog-Sothothery as it's often called.  The original writers of the genre were firmly in Lovecraft's Weird Tales inner circle; Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith were all amongst the "Three Musketeers" of Weird Tales, and were good friends, and while they all had their own personal takes on things, they also purposefully worked in the same ouvre, and borrowed liberally from each other.  That said, as sword & sorcery evolved, its focus on Yog-Sothothery waned; even later writers of Conan, for instance, didn't really get it.  Later writers of other characters either purposefully eschewed that aspect of the genre, or didn't understand it.  In that sense, the SWORD & SANITY label remains useful, because it refers to work that emphasize the Yog-Sothothery, rather than minimalize or eliminate it.  Now, DARK•HERITAGE, keep in mind, is not necessarily built on a sword & sorcery chassis to begin with, as Primeval Thule clearly is.  Rather, DARK•HERITAGE freely borrows elements from all kinds of adventure tales--old-fashioned westerns, swashbuckling pirate stories a la Rafael Sabatini, hard-boiled or even noir crime stories--and, of course, Yog-Sothothery.  Why it "counts" as fantasy is because I've made a regular "secondary world" fantasy setting, complete with exotic races and everything.  It just doesn't have the pseudo-Medieval or pseudo-sword & sandal feel to it that most fantasy does.

So, that introduction out of the way, let's make some specific comparisons.  There are two pages on the Primeval Thule website that are useful for this, because they summarize the setting.  First, Primeval Thule in seven sentences, and then also sword & sorcery or D&D?  The latter is more about contrasting sword & sorcery to D&D as it's become, which is still useful, because of course most gamers are more familiar with D&D than with any other mode of fantasy.  But both pages give me a format I can mimic to compare and contrast Primeval Thule with DARK•HERITAGE and by doing so, help better define what I think SWORD & SANITY really is.

First, "Thule is barbaric."  Savage tribes, and Bronze Age-like cities are an important part of the sword & sandal feel that created the first sword & sorcery stories.  This is true in some senses for my setting, but not in others.  Savage tribes of barbarians are certainly important, but DARK•HERITAGE doesn't feature cities that reinforce that First Civilization feel; rather, its cities are old, decadent and baroque.  Characters don't wear loinclothes and sandals as they explore the wilderness; they're more likely to be in buckskin and fur caps. 

Next, "The Wilderness is Savage and Spectacular."  Yes, indeed.  One of the conceits of my setting is that it features Pleistocene megafauna, that is, animals like you'd find on Stone Age cave paintings in Europe, or dug out of the tar pits at La Brea.  The Wilderness is like the Old West in some ways, and like a safari in Africa on steroids in others.

"Cities are Wicked Places."  I also agree strongly with this in my own setting.  I've said many times before that every city in DARK•HERITAGE  is by default, a "wretched hive of scum and villainy."  That has not changed, and will not.  I prefer that corruption to be just below the surface, rather than overt--a convention that I probably got from noir type stories.  Organized crime, piracy, dangerous cults, corrupt leadership--these are all daily facets of life in my setting.  But the inhabitants of the city at least put on a show of being civilized.  They're not so brazen as to openly claim to be party to the iniquity, because it's still unacceptable to get caught red-handed involved with it.

"The World is Mysterious."  Yeah, geographical knowledge is relatively scarce, and there's a lot of odd things in far corners of the setting (which, lets not forget, is hardly the entire surface of my planet.  I've mapped out an area that's maybe roughly equivalent in square mileage to the lower 48 states or Europe (which, for the curious, are about 3.1 million square miles and 3.9 million square miles, respectively.)  Even in relatively well-known areas, there are lots of broad expanses of wilderness, and who knows what's hiding in it.  Some of this is because the great "empires" of the age have fallen into disrepair.  Loose connections along thin ribbons of road or caravan route connect the cities, which are often islands under seige, surrounded by barbarism.

"Magic is a secret Man Was Not Meant To Know."  While my current m20 set of rules doesn't necessarily punish spellcasters too much, and it hews a bit closer in mechanics to D&D than I'd like in many ways, magic is still a perilous endeavor to undertake in DARK•HERITAGE and as in Primeval Thule, sorcerers are feared and shunned.  Magic is not, fundamentally, a human endeavor, and the human mind is poorly equipped to handle it.  The secrets of magic were almost certainly stolen from... something else.  Something inhuman.  And powerful sorcerers, the real movers and shakers of magic, are more like the Ten Who Were Taken (from The Black Company) then thay are like Gandalf or Merlin.

"Ancient Evils Threaten to Destroy Humankind."  Yes, this is the crux of Yog-Sothothery.  If neither of our settings featured this, they'd be hard pressed to claim any kind of link to Lovecraft, wouldn't they?

"Thule is a world of adventurers, not heroes."  I've long made a similar claim about my setting; I almost prefer amoral, mercenary, freebooter types of characters to a goody-two-shoes "hero."  This is, of course, totally in line with the old sword & sorcery stories, where Conan, Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, and others were pretty rough around the edges, although basically honorable.  Other characters like Kane, Cugel and more were even worse.  But they were always entertaining!

In comparison to high fantasy, which has suffused D&D in many ways, the Primeval Thule people consider sword & sorcery to be more action driven.  This is, as they point out, also a feature of D&D, which was always a hybrid of sword & sorcery, high fantasy, and a number of other things as well anyway.  Now, I certainly like action as much as the next guy, and I'm not going to say that DARK•HERITAGE is lacking in action, but my setting, on the other hand, does overtly feature a lot of horror elements--and not just in terms of having horror monsters for you to shout huzzah at and go beat up with your sword.  In terms of pacing, in terms of tone, and even in terms of what you should expect to do (after all, running in fear for your life is also action, if not quite as heroic as standing to die horribly at the claws of some kind of elder evil) I think there's a difference between how I expect the game to feel compared to either D&D or sword & sorcery.

Sword & sorcery, unlike many D&D games, doesn't really feature earth-shattering threats on a daily basis.  Not every game is about saving the world from the Dark Lord.  These are features of high fantasy, and neither sword & sorcery nor sword & sanity should see that as the default mode.

In comparison to D&D, sword and sorcery (and sword & sanity) is relatively low magic.  Now, this means a few things.  The Primeval Thule folks created four separate bullet points as sub-headings of this category of description.  I think all are interesting:

First, it's humanocentric.  There are fewer non-humans, and they will be less fantastic in many ways.  In fact, most sword & sorcery is completely  humanocentric to the point where non-humans are just monsters, not potential player character races at all.  In PT, this means that they've still gone with the high-fantasy influenced races (elves, dwarves, etc.) but "savaged" them up a bit, and made them rarer.  I, on the  other hand, have completely disregarded the "typical" fantasy races, in favor of a collection of fantasy races that mostly consisted of human bloodlines that have been altered, or perhaps even cursed, into something a little more exotic.  Many folks complain about science fiction and fantasy aliens (or races) just being men in funny suits, but in my case, that's exactly what they are; men who were cursed or altered which brings out some of their human characteristics in sharp relief.

As in Primeval Thule, spellcasters are rare and not-trusted.  That doesn't mean players can't play them, but it does mean that they won't find a lot of NPC sorcerers around, and if they do, they will likely be rivals, opponents, or at best, folks who are completely uninterested in interacting with the PCs in any kind of friendly way at all.

There is also no magic item market.  You don't buy and sell magic items.  They are rare and mysterious, and if you find one at all, you'll probably use it forever.  I don't even anticipate that magic items play an important role in any DARK•HERITAGE game except as plot devices.  After all, magic items is also synonymous with "cursed item" in most respects.  Magic isn't every something that one uses lightly.

The last point they highlight as "Monsters, not ecology."  This is, no doubt, a reference to a popular set of articles in the old Dragon magazine called "Ecology of the..." followed by some D&D monster.  As in Thule, in the land of the Three Empires, monsters are more likely to be almost singular rather than members of a species.  They don't have ecologies, they're monsters.  Remember: DARK•HERITAGE is as much informed by horror conventions as by fantasy ones.  If you meet a monster of any kind, it should be very memorable.  Monsters are never random encounters; the occurance of one is the subject of an entire module worth of trouble for the PCs.

In summary, I found a lot of elements of commonality between Primeval Thule and my setting; but many of them were not as marked as I thought they would be.  Primeval Thule is sword & sanity in the sense that it's seeking to restore D&D to its sword & sorcery roots, Yog-Sothothery and all.  It feels, in fact, very highly informed specifcally by Clark Ashton Smith and his Hyperborea Cycle (although other elements of pulpish sword & sorcery are evident, and it is, of course, an original setting.)  It's "old school" in a sense that even the oldest version of D&D never was, since D&D was written after fantasy had matured and evolved quite a bit from its sword & sorcery roots, and has done so even more since 1974.

DARK•HERITAGE, on the other hand, often has similarities that are superficial, and come from a different place, even though they might seem to bear a close resemblance to sword & sorcery.  Taking a more amoral, noir-ish approach, focusing on the horror aspects even more than the fantasy aspects, and grafting in genre conventions that aren't even associated with fantasy as its typically known today at all, make DARK•HERITAGE a perhaps even more unfamiliar place, at least to those who don't stray far from fantasy normally.  Much of what is common between my setting and PT is based on our shared emphasis on Yog-Sothothery and Lovecraftiana.

As an aside, for that illustration, from the PT website, I sure hope that guy isn't going commando under that loincloth...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very nice and informative comparison.

I especially liked the bit about Pleistocene fauna. Until you have mentioned it I never realized how much S&S feeling those animals evoke in me.