Monday, July 18, 2005

Primitive Fudge

by David Jaquith (davidjaquith @ gmail .com)

Imagine a world with ice walls from coast to coast, so high you could never hope to climb them. Where you must survive attacks from lions nearly as big as a horse while you hunt for woolly mammoths. A world where you must hunt and gather for all your food because there simply isn't a means for growing your own. This is the world of the Wisconsin glaciation, the last ice age to occur in North America.

Imagine a world with ice walls from coast to coast and so high you could never hope to climb them. Where you must survive attacks from lions that are nearly as big as a horse while you hunt for woolly mammoths. A world where you must hunt and gather for all your food because there simply isn't a means for growing your own. This is the world of the Wisconsin glaciation, the last ice age to occur in North America.

There are many books and even a few RPGs that tell the story of the last ice age in Eurasia while there are precious few books and hardly any RPGs that deal with the last ice age in North America. The glaciation that lasted from 70,000 years ago to roughly 10,000 years ago created an America that is so different as to almost be an alien land when compared to the modern landscape.

Since there is so much material to cover, the scope of this article has to be limited. This article will cover the Tioga ice age, the last period in the Wisconsin glaciation. The Tioga ice age lasted from 30,000 years ago till around 10,000 years ago and was the least severe ice age in the Wisconsin glaciation. This article will include many facts, and where facts are used links will be included in the bibliography. There will also be quite a bit of non-factual material included, both to make the article more interesting and because there simply isn't a lot known about the Wisconsin glaciation.


The setting is North America, approximately 12,000 years ago. It's a landscape completely different than the current one. There were many types of animals that no longer exist and cultures that modern man can only wonder about. It is a place where anything is possible and very few facts are known.


The terrain of the Tioga ice age was completely different than it is today, with most of North America under ice and the weather greatly effected by that. Somewhat like modern times, there were forests to the northeast and to the northwest of what is modern America, with a drier climate towards the southwest. Unlike modern times, the seasons were much different. Winter lasted much longer than it does in modern times, and Summer was more like the modern Spring.

Ice Sheets: A giant sheet of ice covered most of Canada and came down somewhat into what is currently the United States. This sheet of ice was caused by a global drop in temperature, but overall this was mild because the Tioga ice age was the the turning point towards a warmer climate. The gigantic glacier greatly effected the landscape due to the weather conditions produced by it. The glacier absorbed all the moisture, so the landscape was actually fairly dry and snow-free close up the ice. Further from the ice, snow could be quite heavy and everywhere the wind was very strong.

Rivers: The water coming off the glacier as it melted caused rivers that provided a clean water supply for animals and for the humans who inhabited North America. Many early cultures developed close to rivers, so it makes sense that rivers should play a big part in the setting of an RPG based on primitive cultures.


There is an almost infinite variety of animals in ancient North America. Described in this section are just a few of the more common ones.

Primitive Modern Animals: Many of the animals we see in modern America were present in ancient America. Just about any animal seen in the wild today would have been encountered by primitive Americans, with the exception of introduced species. Some examples include wolves, bison, and bears.

American Lion: This was one of the largest cats ever to exist on Earth, comparable in size to Europe's Cave Lion. The giant cat was an average of eleven and a half feet long, with the males weighing a quarter of a ton and the females weighing about two-thirds as much as the males.

They resembled a larger version of the modern African lion, except that they had longer legs and possibly had stripes. Due to their longer legs it is possible that they could have sprinted faster than modern lions, though nowhere near as fast as the modern cheetah.

With the largest brain-to-body ratio of any lion ever to have existed, they may have had more complex social structures than modern lions. This may have contributed to the fact that there are fewer lions than other predators in the tar pits.

American lions were most common to the southwest, but may have spanned all of America, though no remains have been found to the northeast. They likely used caves for shelter in the winter and may have lined their dens with grass and debris, much like the Siberian tiger of modern times. They also likely hunted deer, bison, and young mammoths and mastodons.

Mammoth: The mammoths of America were actually the largest species of mammoth. These were called the Imperial Mammoths and stood thirteen feet tall. They had very large tusks and a long trunk. They were covered in thick fur, consisting of a heavy overcoat and a fuzzy undercoat, providing the elephant with extremely efficient fur. They thrived in cold weather, though its likely they didn't do well in heavy snow. They might well have migrated with the season changes, coming north towards the glaciers in the Winter, where snow wouldn't be deep, and south during the Summer where the feed would be good. Like modern elephants, they were herbivores.

Dire Wolf: This animal is closely related to both the grey wolf and hyenas, though it is not the direct ancestor of any modern animal. It was about five feet long and weighed a little over 100 pounds. It co-existed with the grey wolf and lived all across America.

It had shorter legs than the grey wolf, which suggests that it might have been a poor runner and thus was probably a scavenger, but would likely have hunted any slow herbivores or wounded prey animals.

The dire wolf had much larger teeth than the grey wolf and likely used these teeth to crush the bones of their prey as they ate.

Glyptodon: These creatures were a very large, very heavy version of the armadillo. About the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, they likely could only move one to two miles per hour, as they weighed between one and two tons. Glyptodons had an armored shell, consisting of more than a thousand one-inch plates. They didn't have the ability to hide their heads, instead they had a hard bony shell on their skulls. They may have had a trunk to make getting food easier (they probably ate the plants found around rivers and lakes), but there is little evidence to support that theory. Most predators would have had trouble turning the glyptodon over to reach its unprotected underside.

Mastodon: The mastodons were very similar to the mammoths, only about four feet shorter than the Imperial Mammoth and with teeth more suited to leaf-eating than grazing.

Giant Sloth: Also known as the ground sloth, the giant sloth was found mostly in the Midwestern area of America. There were four species of giant sloth in America, though they were all very similar. They reached heights from around three to eighteen feet, the largest having the bulk of a bull elephant. They had large claws that might have been used for digging for roots or for harvesting food from trees.

Arctodus: Also known as the short-faced bear, Arctodus were the most powerful predator in America during the last ice age. While they were likely scavengers, they could have easily hunted just about any creature in North America. One species, Arctodus simus, was the biggest bear ever to have existed, standing five feet at the shoulder, though the most common Arctodus was merely four feet tall. They were extremely strong and had very powerful jaws.

Smilodon: Also known as the Saber-toothed tiger, the Smilodon was a species of cat best known for its rather large fangs. These big cats weighed more than seven hundred pounds and were about the size of a modern African lion. With seven inch long canine teeth and jaws capable of opening a full 95 degrees, their fangs were likely used to puncture their prey's neck, quickly killing any animal.

The Smilodon species that existed during the Tioga ice age were not good at running and likely hunted in packs to overcome this. Though its legs were not good for running, they were very strong and could likely hold down most prey.


Modern man inhabited North America during the Tioga ice age. These people were known as the Paleo-Indians and were very similar to the Cro Magnon people found in Eurasia. They hunted with spears and had stone tools.

Little is known about actual societies in the Tioga ice age, so most of the following is fictional.

Hunting and Gathering: The Paleo-Indians had to struggle to get food. With the major prey animals migrating and the short warm season limiting the available food, much of the ancient Americans' time was invested in gathering food and storing it. These people likely hunted just about any animal they could get their hands on, either for food or for tools. While the men hunted animals, the women likely gathered what plants they could, which ranged from mushrooms to grain to roots.

Shamanism: The Paleo-Indians likely had a form of shamanism, much like modern Native Americans. In this shamanism the spirits of the ancestors, the animals, and a few major gods were worshiped. Whether it was true or not, the Paleo-Indians really believed that the spirits and gods shaped the world around them. It is up to the person running the game to decide whether the spells that a shaman casts are real or not, but it is important that Paleo-Indians characters believe that the spells are real. A simple system for shamanistic spells follows this section.

Social Structure: The Paleo-Indians had a hierarchical structure. There was the leader, often the oldest and wisest of the tribe. Then there were the elders, the men who were too old to hunt but had years of experience. Below the elders were the hunters. The hunters were respected because they provided the most food for the tribe and were also responsible for keeping the tribe safe from predators and competing tribes. Below the hunters were the women and the men incapable of hunting and without elder status. These lower people were the ones to gather vegetation for the tribe and often made most of the non-weapon tools. At the bottom of the social structure were the children.

Equipment: Many things were used in the daily life of the Paleo-Indians, though not all of them can be mentioned here.

  • Baskets and Backpacks: Baskets and backpacks made from woven reeds and grasses or leather were often used to carry raw materials from a gathering site or to carry food and tools. The backpacks were attached to a wooden frame, making them sturdy and strong enough to hold heavy items.
  • Clothing: The clothing of the Paleo-Indians was made from leather and decorated with animal fur and simple beads and even some feathers. Their clothing was much like modern Native-American clothing.
  • Shelter: Many Paleo-Indians lived in caves or under rock outcroppings, but many also lived in man-made structures such as tepees. What the Paleo-Indians lived in was mainly determined by their habits. A nomadic tribe would likely use tepees, while a tribe that never moved would live under a rock outcropping or in a cave.
  • Tools: The Paleo-Indians were stone knappers. They shaped flint into tools, such as spear points, knives and hide scrapers. These tools required skill to make and were fragile, so areas with flint deposits were highly prized and were likely the cause for many territorial battles.
  • Spears: The spears of the Paleo-Indians were unique. They were made using wooden shafts about five feet in length, but it is the tips that made them special. They had a stone point, known as the Clovis point, that was designed to break off in the target, keeping the wound open. These spears were used for hunting small animals, such as ducks, and also for larger animals, such as mammoths.

Shamanistic Magic

A shaman should have the Gift "Respected by the Spirits," the Meditation skill, and several skills related to areas of magic, as noted below. This system uses a word system for casting spells, using nouns for the target of the spell and verbs for the actions of the spell, each noun and each verb being a skill.

The nouns are as follows:

  • Water: Refers to any liquid, from rain to rivers, and even things like soup. It can also refer to snow.
  • Fire: Refers to energy, of which Paleo-Indians only knew of lightning and heat.
  • Earth: Refers to any stone or soil, but can also refer to any solid, such as bones.
  • Wind: Refers to the unseen force of the Paleo-Indian world. It includes both air movements and air itself. It can also refer to sound.
  • Spirit: Refers to the spirit world in general, from the ancestors, to the animal spirits, to the Gods. It can be used in both good and bad ways.
  • Man: This refers to any human and any body part thereof.
  • Animal: This refers to any living thing that is not human or plant yet is alive.
  • Plant: This refers to anything that is alive but doesn't move on its own.

The verbs are as follows:

  • Summon: This brings something from afar to nearby. It does not create things.
  • Banish: This makes things nearby go away, it does not destroy things.
  • Shape: This alters the target, for good or bad.

To cast a spell, a shaman must first meditate and then combine a verb with a noun. To meditate, the shaman must roll his Meditation skill against a difficulty set by the gamemaster. The gamemaster should choose a base difficulty based on how easy it is to contact the spirits in her game and should modify this difficulty based on several factors. If the shaman is in good standing with the spirits, the difficulty should be lowered by a level or two. If the shaman is in bad standing with the spirits, the difficulty should be raised by a level or two. If the shaman takes something like a hallucinogen the difficulty should be lowered a level or two, as it is easier to reach the spirit world when in an altered state of mind. If the shaman is distracted, the difficulty should be raised by a level or two.

If the shaman successfully reaches a trance state through meditation and thus has contacted the spirits, the shaman must state the goal of his spell. The GM will decide the appropriate nouns and verbs and set a difficulty based on how difficult the spell should be to cast. The shaman rolls against this difficulty using the lowest involved skill.

If the roll is successful, the spell is cast and the shaman remains in the trance and can attempt to cast further spells. If the shaman fails the roll by more than -2, he comes out of the trance. If the shaman rolls a natural -4 the spell automatically fails and the shaman is stuck in a trance for at least a half hour, seeming to be in a coma. After a half hour the shaman can attempt to come out of the trance, rolling against the same difficulty used to go into the trance. A roll of a natural +4 gets the shaman out of the trance automatically. If the shaman fails to come out of the trance, he can try again every half hour, the difficulty lowering by one level every try.

An example casting of a spell: The shaman attempting to enter a trance, rolls his Meditation skill of Good against a difficulty of Great. He rolls a +2 and easily enters the trance. He then says that he wants to banish the evil spirit that is causing the little girl of his tribe to be sick. The GM decides that that spell requires the Banish verb and the Spirit noun. The lowest of these skills is at Fair and the GM decides that the difficulty will be Fair because the evil spirit isn't very strong. If the shaman rolled a Fair or above, the spirit would be banished and the girl would get better and the shaman could try casting another spell or could come out of the trance at will. If the shaman rolled a -1, he'd only fail the spell by -1 and thus the spell would fail but he could try again or try a new spell. If he rolled a -2 or below he would fail the spell and would automatically come out of the trance but he could try entering a trance again if he wanted. However, the shaman rolls a -4, which not only fails the spell, but gets him stuck in a trance. After a half hour he can try to get out, having to roll a +1 or better because the original trance difficulty was Good. He fails the roll, and after another half hour he tries again and gets a +4, instantly dropping him out of the trance.

Scenario Seeds

The following are short scenario descriptions to get a gamemaster going with this setting. If you intend to play as a player in this setting, you should not read further.

The Mammoth Hunt

The mammoth hunt was one of the more exciting moments in a Paleo-Indian tribe's existence. In short, it involves scouting a mammoth herd, hunting the herd, and finally killing a mammoth and then defending the kill from large predators.

Since there is a lot of work involved in hunting a mammoth, the entire tribe will go on the hunting expedition, though only the hunters are likely to go anywhere near a live mammoth.

The Scouting Party

The player characters are told by the chief to scout ahead for the mammoths. It is fairly easy to follow the trail of the giant mammals, as they tear a path of destruction through the vegetation as they go. All is fine until the scouts have to scare off a rogue Dire Wolf. If they successfully scare off the wolf without spooking the herd, the mammoths shouldn't be too hard to spot. If the mammoths are spooked, they will be harder to find and the scouts may have to return to the tribe to tell them the bad news, which will lead to hardship as another scouting party has to go out looking for the mammoths, possibly with help from the shaman.

The Hunt

Once the mammoth herd is found, the rest of the tribe stays behind as the hunters try to get the elephants to run into a trap, preferably a valley with only one entrance or a cliff wall. When the elephants go towards the trap, the goal is then to separate one from the herd and then plunge as many spears as possible into it without getting hurt. Even if successful, it is likely that a few hunters will be badly hurt or even killed.

The Aftermath

As the women and the others butcher the mammoth, the hunters must stand guard. They are likely to have to fight off many predators, as the smell of a large dead animal is enough to draw in nearly all nearby carnivores. By now it is likely getting dark and the predators may still try to steal the meat despite the fires. The hunters will have their hands full and there is a possibility for several exciting fights.


This scenario shows what can be done with a little imagination and a little stretching of the truth. It has a strong horror element and should be kept scary if at all possible. It involves a small Paleo-Indian tribe having to fight off the cannibalistic Neanderthal tribe that's doing whatever it can to avoid extinction due to starvation.

The Build-Up

The scenario opens with a hunting party returning. This party should have a dramatic return, such as two hunters carrying a wounded third hunter into the camp when the original hunting party had at least ten members. The returning hunting party should tell the story of monstrous humans attacking them in the night and stealing their kill after killing most of the hunting party. The monstrous humans should also be described as having taken away the dead bodies of the attacked hunters.

The Discovery

The shaman, horrified that the fallen hunters won't be put to rest with honor, demands that the chief send out a party of hunters to attack the monstrous humans to get the bodies back and to exact revenge.

The chief picks the player characters, the best hunters in the tribe, to go find the monstrous humans and to do what it takes to get the bodies back.

The player characters are told where the attack took place and it is very easy to find. There is blood everywhere and the smoldering remains of the hunting party's fire. Blood trails and footprints can be found leading towards a swamp. The player characters, if they go into the swamp, will discover an empty village made from primitive straw huts. There are bones everywhere, most of them belonging to animals, but some also belonging to humans. If the hunters search the huts they will find one with the dead bodies of the hunting party, in various stages of being butchered. The details should be made as gruesome as possible to convey the feeling of horror the characters would experience.

The Battle

Shortly after the discovery of the butchered bodies, the Neanderthals arrive back at their village, having gone hunting some more. The Neanderthals will attack the player characters. The battle should be harsh and long, but the Neanderthals lack the technology and resources to be much match for the player characters with their comparatively advanced weapons and techniques.

Sample Characters

The following are example characters using this setting. The first is a hunter, the most likely player character choice. The second is an example of making non-humans an important part of the story.

Paleo-Indian Hunter

Name: Thunder Voice

Tribe: Hunters of the Wolf

Background: Thunder Voice is named after his very loud voice, and he is quite proud of it. His people, the Hunters of the Wolf, worship the wolf spirit and model their hunting behavior after this sacred animal. Thunder Voice is a hunter, and a very experienced one at that.

  • Attributes
    • Strength: Great
    • Agility: Fair
    • Intelligence: Fair
    • Constitution: Good
  • Skills
    • Spear: Good
    • Knife: Fair
    • Hunting Tactics: Good
    • Leadership: Fair
    • Tracking: Fair
    • Rituals: Mediocre
  • Gifts
    • Respected by his tribe.
  • Faults
    • Afraid of drowning.
  • Equipment
    • Clothing: A leather tunic, and leather pants, both with wolf fur decorations.
    • Weapons: A spear with a bone tip (+3 ODF) and a flint-blade knife (+1 ODF).
    • General: A leather tent with tent posts, a fire starting kit, and enough food to last him through a month.

One-Eyed Wolf

Name: One-Eyed Wolf

Background: This wolf has been the bane of the hunter Walks with a Whisper. The wolf came and attacked his family while they were bathing in the stream after a hunt. The wolf was a rogue and was very hungry. He mortally wounded Walks with a Whisper's wife and her child. Walks with a Whisper fought off the wolf, managing to take out its eye with his knife. Since that day, Walks with a Whisper has been hunting this wolf to get revenge.

  • Attributes
    • Strength: Fair
    • Agility: Great
    • Constitution: Good
  • Skills
    • Hunting: Great
    • Stealth: Fair
  • Gifts
    • Wolf: +2 to all sensing rolls (except sight), natural weaponry (+1 ODF teeth), and can run for fifteen or twenty miles non-stop.
  • Faults
    • Rogue: This wolf has been kicked out of his pack and must start one of its own.
    • One-eyed: -1 to all sight rolls.