RPG Review: Primeval Thule

Primeval Thule is a Sword & Sorcery campaign setting that was released last year for Pathfinder, D&D 4th Edition, and 13th Age. It is set in the “Pre-cataclysmic Age” of Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu, which has been the backdrop for the worlds of many Sword & Sorcery stories and RPGs, like Conan and Kull, Barbarians of Lemuria, and Atlantis: The Second Age. Primeval Thule adds a fourth mythic continent to this famous group, which takes the form of prehistoric Greenland. In the world of Primeval Thule, is a place very different from the one we know today. A vast tropical island covered by lush jungles and home to many strange beasts.

133780As someone with a passing interest in geography and geology, the map of Thule is quite interesting. For one thing, all the maps have west “up”, which I find pretty clever. Greenland is so far north that the difference between the axis of the Earth and the magnetic pole becomes quite significant and any compass would be pointing to a spot off the northern coast of Canada. Which seen from Greenland is in the west. A somewhat odd thing though, is that the map seems to be based on the geography of the rock below the modern Greenlandic ice and all the fjords and clacial valleys would not be existing yet before the coming of the ice. But hey, this is a pulp fantasy setting, so it’s not like that would actually hurt the world in any way. Another nice touch is that even though you’ll recognize all the islands of the northern Atlantic, Iceland is missing. Because Iceland is geologically speaking a very recent addition. By which I am saying 16 to 18 million years old, which was long before the evolution of the first apes. Scientifically widely incorrect, but I still like the idea.

Primeval Thule reads a lot like an honest attempt to merge Dungeons & Dragons with the Prehistoric Sword & Sorcery of Robert Howard, much more so than even Dark Sun. But my feelings about the result are a bit ambigous. Thule is inhabited by humans, atlanteans, beastmen, and serpentment, but also D&D races like elves, dwarves, and rakshasa. The elves I feel are done very well. They are in fact an alien race from another dimension that created a colony in Thule a long time ago and had several big wars with the local serpentmen and rakshasa. Which they did defeat, but ultimately they also fell into decline and were pushed back by explorers and conquerors from Atlantis in the south and are now almost disappeared. The center of remaining elven culture is a single large city which is increasingly falling into ruin and decaying anarchy, which I think integrates them very well into this type of fantasy setting. On the other hand, dwarves are just boring. They have a single small kingdom somewhere in the mountains, which is of no significance to the rest of the setting as a whole. It feels like the dwarves are only there because the rulebooks of the three games the setting is written for have them as a player character race. But they are just shoved into a back corner and then forgotten. Why bother then? I even saw a single case in which a village of halflings is mentioned. And that’s all. For any intents and purposes, halflings don’t really exist in Thule. I don’t think there was any mention of orcs or goblins and I am not sure if I’ve seen any instances of dragons and ogres. Other than that one dwarven kingdom, there isn’t really much D&D specific in the setting, which works quite well for integrating it with the Precataclysmic Age.

The book looks great, being in full color and the background of the pages of each chapter is tinted in a different shade, which makes it quite pleasing to look at. The art is also quite nice, but most of the time I had the impression that the images were ordered before the book was written and then put onto various pages pretty much at random. Often I saw a picture of an interesting location and wanted to know what kind of place it is, but couldn’t find any description on that double page or the one before or after it that would match it even remotely. That’s rather week and disappointing. In the pdf for the Pathfinder version all the maps are really blurry and often almost unreadable, which is just bad and should not be happening. The big continent map is better, but I can’t really say I am a fan. Even though Thule is supposed to be this wild and savage land, the map is absolutely cluttered with markers for villages and ruins, the majority of which doesn’t even have a description in the book and is just a name. As a result Thule feels very overcrowded and not really wild and unexplored at all.

Which brings me to my main problem, which is the geography chapter. On the plus side, the amount of great and evocative ideas for various kinds of is very high. There is tonnes of stuff that made me really think I want to have an adventure set there. But the problem is that each of these places appear to have been written and existing almost in a complete vacuum. Nothing is ever connected or related to anything else on the continent at all. You could easily take any place in Thule and drop it into any space of the map you want to. You could even drop them into pretty much any other setting. There are plenty of factions with various interests, and many of them are pretty interesting ideas. But again their interests are entirely restricted to a single place, which quite often is not much more than a short paragraph or two. Combined with the overcrowded map it just doesn’t feel like a living world. Despite all the flavor it is still somewhat stale and lifeless. That’s often good enough for one-shot adventures and mini campaigns, but in that case you probably don’t want to read a 280 pages book on the setting.

My opinion of Primeval Thule is that it is a great source of ideas for Sword & Sorcery campaigns, and in that regards it is one of the most interesting settings I’ve read. But as a campaign setting it falls somewhat flat and I don’t see myself ever getting excited to actually run a campaign in it. For people interested in learning about various types of Sword & Sorcery settings, I really do recommend it. But I would not expect to find something that is as compelling to start a campaign with like Dark Sun or Spears of the Dawn.

Nonhuman characters in Sword & Sorcery

When talking about Sword & Sorcery and the essential traits and themes of the genre, there is almost always at least someone making the claim that the absence of nonhuman character is outright essential and that a work can not be Sword & Sorcery if it has any nonhumans that are not monsters. Yesterday someone made the commendable effort to provide a reason and supporting evidence why nonhumans are not a thing in the genre, by stating that there are pretty much no works of Sword & Sorcery which have nonhumans as counter evidence. Now obviously that gets us to a True Scottsmen argument. If your definition of Sword & Sorcery includes “no nonhumans”, then of course there are no works that have them. You could also say that Sword & Sorcery doesn’t have guns. But Salomon Kane has guns and I haven’t seen anyone claiming that he isn’t Sword & Sorcery. Guns are just uncommon, but not conflicting with essential traits of the genre.

However, I want to argue that there are in fact many works that have all the relevant traits of Sword & Sorcery and also nonhumans, and in which the inclusion of nonhumans doesn’t in any way conflict with with those essential elements and themes.

  • Atlantis: The Second Age (rpg)
  • Bound by Flame (videogame)
  • Dark Sun (rpg setting)
  • Dragon Age II
  • The first three Drizzt novels.
  • Elric
  • Primeval Thule (rpg setting)
  • Rune Soldier (anime)
  • The Witcher

I admit, most of these are fairly recent. But just because something is not found in the oldest works doesn’t automatically make it incompatible with a genre. It still walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks as a duck.

Things I still plan to review

This list is actually getting longer instead of shorter because I constantly forget that I wanted to write reviews for these. Hopefully I get around to do them someday not too far in the future. And if you want to, you can bug me about them still being late. That usually motivates me quite a lot. ;)

  • A Princess of Mars
  • Atlantis: The Second Age
  • Barbarians of Lemuria
  • Conan (Comic)
  • Dark Sun Campaign Setting
  • Death Frost Doom
  • Demon’s Souls
  • Gargoyles
  • Heavenly Sword
  • Hellboy
  • Knights of the Old Republic (Comic)
  • Metal Gear Solid
  • Mirror’s Edge
  • No Salvation for Witches
  • Pitch Black
  • Primeval Thule
  • Red Tide
  • Riddick
  • Seirei no Moribito
  • The Savage Frontier
  • The Witcher 2
  • Thief: The Dark Project
  • Trawn Trilogy

This looks even worse that I thought. oO

Primeval Thule Campaign Setting: Having a William Gibson moment

Damn you, Richard Baker! Did you steal my notes?

While browsing around on my continuous search for inspirational material for my Ancient Lands setting, I stumbled on Primeval Thule, a new RPG setting by Richard Baker, David Noonan, and Stephen Schubert that had a Kickstarter last year, but never really got a second glance from me. The final version was completed and released just last month, and with the 272 pages pdf being only 15€, I decided to make the gamble and give it a try without any helpful reviews of it being around it. And it looks good. Really good. You might even say too good!

Just after the first two pages I was starting to get a William Gibson moment. The story goes that Gibson was just in the process of finishing up the last touches on his groundbreaking novel Neuromancer, went he went to the theater and watched an obscure sci-fi movie called Blade Runner. And realized with a shock that he was seeing almost exactly the same thing as his own original and entirely new vision. Primeval Thule looks a lot like the outline for my own Ancient Lands setting on which I have been working for the last four years. A large, mostly unexplored continent of wild forests, where humans have arrived just 300 years ago, finding a world inhabited by the remains of the kingdoms of elves, snakemen, rakshasa, and cyclops, with much older and stranger beings slumbering underground and the weapons and armor technology being primarily bronze. Replace “cyclops” with “mountain giant” and make the elven kingdoms still powerful, and the description matches perfectly with the Ancient Lands as well.

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