This week on the Campaign Trail I’m taking a quick break from the Adventure Building series (which will continue next week) to preview a new series I’ll be sharing with our readers for most of the summer. This article is my first look at campaign settings that go beyond the typical fantasy worlds most of us play in each week. In each article in the series I’ll provide notes on running a campaign (or adventure) in a campaign setting inspired by less typical D&D settings and genres such as ancient mythology, pirates, colonial America, steampunk, gun fu, science fiction, fairy tales and more. This week we look at running a prehistoric or lost world campaign setting.
I use a campaign outline as a way for me to quickly jot down everything that makes this campaign setting unique and questions I need to answer. If I was going to run a prehistoric setting campaign I would need to answer the following.
- What type of adventures are a good fit for this setting?
- Which rules are the best fit for this setting?
- What is the climate? Hot Jungle or Ice Age? Are there raging volcanoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters to worry about?
- Are dinosaurs are extinct?
- Or are most dinosaurs extinct and only some dinosaurs around still.
- You could have feathered pteranodons or fill the seas or land with huge prehistoric beasts that evolved from the regular size dinosaurs
- If there are no dinosaurs, is this an age of large beasts and monsters?
- What races and classes should be allowed? Do I need to homebrew anything?
- What is the level of magic?
- Unless the PCs are from a time with more advanced technology…
- The people have very limited technology such as simple tools and no written word
- Weapons are made of wood, bone, teeth, stone and obsidian
- Any armor made out of metal does not exist.
- Light armor should be allowed such as armor created from animal skin (leather and hide)
- Other natural materials such as bone, scales, shells or wood could be used to create a heavier armor, something equivalent to scale mail
Adventures / Genre
A more primitive version of any fantasy adventure genre would fit in this setting. If your PCs are primitive, I think political intrigue and swashbuckling style adventures are not as good a fit as adventures filled with hunting evil cults, survival, warfare, hunting and scouting. If you bring in the non-primitive PCs to a Lost World setting, then a pulp/swashbuckling feel would be great or you could even do a survival horror as the party is picked off an eaten by dinosaurs.
Which rules are the best fit for running a game in this setting?
- I’d run a prehistoric campaign using D&D or Pathfinder since I am curious to see how traditional classes and gameplay adapt to deal with a prehistoric setting.
- FATE and other more narrative focused rules could work well too. Especially if you want to bring back modern or Victorian era heroes to a primitive setting via boat or time travel. For extra fun have the heroes bring back a dinosaur or giant ape to escape into the city.
- For a one-shot I’d try out Og (see listing on RPG.NET)
Og and its second edition Land of Og are short, humorous role-playing games where the PCs are cavemen in a world full of dinosaurs. When speaking in in-character, players are limited to a 17 word vocabulary (you, me, rock, water, fire, tree, hairy, bang, sleep, smelly, small, cave, food, thing, big, sun, go). The game uses 5 attributes (Strength, Brains, Speed, Hitting, Health) which range from 1 to 18, and a simple leveling system using 5 classes (Strong Caveman, Smart Caveman, Fast Caveman, Hitting Caveman, Healthy Caveman). “Things You Can Do” are skills, and characters also pick “Things You Can’t Do”, which are generally pretty obvious (Magic Missile, Pick Pockets, Teleport, etc). Combat use a dice pool variant.
I’m going with a warm, jungle like setting with various humanoid tribes living alongside dinosaurs, huge mammals and other monsters. The entire world is primitive. You could also go Ice Age with no dinosaurs and huge furry mammals with tusks.
Alternatives to a completely primitive this world would be to:
- Discover the setting as a lost world. This works well with typical fantasy and steampunk genres. You could even go the route of the Dinotopia books series and have shipwrecked humans and sentient dinosaurs coexisting peacefully in a symbiotic society.
- Sci-Fi – Time Travel. Your PCs travel to a primitive time. This could be lots of fun if you bring back historic fantasy PCs via a magic portal to blend swords, magic and dinosaurs.
- Sci-Fi – Space: crash landing on a planet of dinosaurs and primitives. Your players could investigate the planet while the ship is repaired. You could give the PCs science that allows them to understand primitive tribes and be drawn into a conflict between two rival tribes.
If your PCs are visiting a prehistoric land, then any classes should be allowed. But if your campaign is set in the past (like the one I am building here), I think some classes really need to be unavailable for a prehistoric campaign setting. The following things should be considered.
- A prehistoric campaign should be set before the invention of writing. Without the ability to read wizards and many other magic would cease to exist. Magic would need to be innate or passed as knowledge from master to apprentice through stories. It might be best to provide only primitive magic users such as druids, shamans and geomancers.
- Clerics need gods and you’ll need to set up a primitive pantheon based on natural elements like the sun and stars, the animals they depend on for survival or things that are important to them like life and death. You could even have them worship huge godlike dinosaurs (see terrasque) descended from their common ancestors
Gods of art, trade and literature are millennia away from emerging.
- Rogues might not have as much to do as in a more traditional campaign, but sneaky characters can work.
- A primitive version of a paladin could work, but the class will lose some of its clout without the ability to wear heavy armor – since it has not been invented yet.
- Monks just don’t feel prehistoric, but you can decide that on your own.
- I really like the idea of focusing on classes such as Fighters, Shamans, Barbarians, Rangers, Druids and Bards.
- Good and noble people who descended from the dinosaurs
- The dragonborn live to bring honor to their self sufficient clans
- Their sworn enemy are the evil lizardfolk
- Could be re-flavored to descend from specific dinosaurs rather than chromatic or metallic dragons.
- You could replace their Draconic Ancestry with a new racial trait based on which type of dinosaur they resemble.
- You could provide 2-4 subraces for dragonborn where you map the traits for each subrace to a specific dinosaur type such as strength for T-Rex and dexterity or intelligence for raptors.
- nimble and acrobatic, half the height and size of humans
- you could have them live in trees top settlements or in small hidden riverside villages
- could be re-flavored to be a furry monkey like people
- strong and stout people which are even more hairy than your regular dwarf
- Dwarves would be without the ability to forge metal, but should still be experts with stonework of any kind
- You could have them be masters of obsidian and creators of edged weapons
- Mountain dwarves have started to live in caves and caverns to hide from slavers
- could be a favorite source of slaves for Lizardfolk who are looking for miners or people to build stone temples
- Gnomes, Forest
- hide in small settlements in the jungle, living under or in large trees
- magical people who use illusions to hide from their enemies
- choose to live with nature and do not hunt
- a great fit to play a druid or illusionist
- inventive people who are masters of tools.
- hunter and gatherers
- quickly growing into most populous people who are able to adapt to nearly any environment such as arctic, forest, desert or living in caves
- perhaps they have started to live in larger villages to be able to better defend themselves
- Elves, Wood
- tall and slender with tan or darker skin
- tribal looking tattoos
- strong connection to nature and magic
- live in villages hidden deep in the forest/jungle, mostly keeping to themselves
- I would stay away from High Elves, Rock Gnomes and Tieflings
- Adding monkey-like Vanara, Goliaths, Half-Orcs, Aarakocra and Half-Elves are other options for PCs that could work well too.
- If you are going primal, this could be a time when you bring in races based on mammals such as lions and tigers and bears.
- You might even want to bring in Thri-Kreen to have PCs that evolved from insects.
- Tarrasques, mammoths, saber-tooth tigers and anything giant or dire.
- Giants apes to get a King Kong feel.
- Anything that is more natural and primitive could work too such as treants, fungi, giants, orges and trolls.
- I might even add in some elemental based enemies.
- If you are going more ice age bring in yeti and ice monsters.
- Create rival tribes of people
- Make them cannibals or have them worship a dark, primative god.
- Evil Lizardfolk, evolved from dinosaurs
- Dominant power of the land
- Cruel slavers and worshipers of dark gods
- You could give them a technological advantage such as writing or metallurgy
- Slaves are needed to work mines or create huge temples to their evil gods
- Mix and match smaller goblins and large orcs and bugbears
- Live in villages and are known to raid each other and other humanoids to get food, supplies and captives
- Prefer to eat captives versus making them slaves
- Look at Troglodytes, Gnolls, Kobolds, Yuan-Ti as additional enemy tribes too.
- For more prehistoric enemy ideas see Monsters for a Prehistoric Encounter
- Have your PCs find a crashed UFO or dead time travelers and give them access to modern weapons
- Give your PCs a limited vocabulary that they have to use to talk in character like the humorous prehistoric RPG Og
- Have dinosaurs or giants lizard monsters attacking the capital city in a modern setting. Tanks and guns versus giant dinosaurs has to be fun.
Sources for More Prehistoric, Lost World and Ice Age Ideas
- TV/Movies such as The Croods, King Kong, Godzilla, Quest for Fire, Jurassic Park, Land of the Lost, Star Trek, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Encino Man, One Million Years BC, Yor, the Hunter from the Future
- Books: Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton), The Lost World (Arthur Conan Doyle), Journey to the Center of the Earth (Jules Verne), Dinotopia (James Gurney), The Land that Time Forgot (Edgar Rice Burroughs), Far-Seer (Robert J. Sawyer)
- Critical Hit Podast: Paladins and Dinosaurs
- “Thrills and Chills: Ice Age Adventures” by Arthur Collins in Dragon #68 (December 1982).
- Tribality.com: Monsters for a D&D 5e Prehistoric Encounter
- Og – RPG, see details about Og near the top of this article
- Land of Og – sequel to Og
- Paizo: “Ancient Lands”: Basics for a “tribal / prehistoric” campaign setting
- The Isle of Dread – a classic D&D adventure launched in 1981 focused on wilderness exploration
- Frostburn (D&D 3.5) – ideas to run icy campaign with cold weather conditions, monsters, races and classes including Neanderthals
- Gurps: Ice Age