This article originally appeared in Pyramid #15

Tools are Just a Fad

Another look at GURPS Ice Age
by Greg Porter and Jasper Merendino

Ice Age struck me at first as a particularly boring game idea - "Well, time to go out and chip some flint, hunt some game and die at an early age..." - until I actually played a game that had a different twist to it. Our ancestors believed in spirits, the afterlife, and a host of other religious concepts that still exist today under different trappings. How about an Ice Age campaign where the world is still young, and the forces of creation abound all around? That is, an Ice Age campaign that uses a modified version of the Very High Mana rules. To the characters, magic is the everpresent spirits of nature: spirits of the wind, water, animals, the earth and virtually everything else. Shamans had access to ritualized magic in the form of blessings, curses, healing and the like, but almost anyone can try magic by appeasing the spirits and giving them the strength (i.e., fatigue) to do your bidding. Of course, the spirits are fickle and if you didn't cajole them just right, they might smack you, turn the spell against you, or even possess you while you are vulnerable.

Character Generation

All characters can buy Magery with no unusual background needed. With this, anyone with Poetry skill can speak to the spirits of nature and ask a boon. The spirits, if pleased with the sweetness of your words and voice, will in payment, generate the spell effect you asked for.

Characters can also buy abilities normally reserved to GURPS Supers, with limits imposed by the GM. These are things the character was born with. At birth, your parents risked the chance of asking the spirits for a boon for their child (you), and it was granted. "Spirits of the earth, the stone the water flows through, grant our child your strength . . ." And you grew up with skin that had a DR of 6, making you tough as the rocks. Of course, your parents never mentioned your other sibling, the one that got turned into a little stone statue when they tried this for a second time . . . Any character with more than 30 points in superheroic powers must have an Unusual Background as an added cost. These unusual powers can also be Knacks, as per the normal Magic rules. These cannot be bought or improved on after character creation, they are an immutable birthright.

Population-wise, about 80% of the population has Magery-1, 5% have Magery-2 or better, and 15% have no magery at all. The latter are the "afflicted," and while this is not a social stigma, it means that the characters can do no magic at all, and the spirits cannot hear their words, no matter how sweet. As a consolation prize, they often have Magical Resistance, making it much harder for the spirits to affect them as well. Those that have Magery-2 usually end up as tribal shamans (when they get old), able to do the more powerful shamanic spells. About 10% of the population that can use magic will have a knack or a magic boon of some type. Most of these are common-sense survival type of knacks. For instance, being able to ignite fire is very useful when travelling, or being able to turn earth to stone lets you make excellent spear points from clay, or pottery containers without a kiln. This preponderance of minor magical talents is one reason why technology has not been developed. Someone out there can do it faster and better with a knack, which economically ruins any labor-intensive technological solution. It also changes pricing of items in areas where it would make a difference, the spear points being an example.


As stated earlier, magic is all around. Characters may purchase the shamanic spells, but no others except as knacks or "super" abilities. Characters can buy the Poetry skill, and use this to entertain the spirits in order to do mighty magics.

Poetic Magic
Anyone with Magery-1 or better can cast magic through poetry. This is considered risky, and Poetry is always a self-taught skill. Since there is no writing, it is difficult to communicate a poem to another person without actually using it to generate a spell, and this has its own risks and drawbacks. Children are never taught poetry. Can you imagine the havoc that could be wrought by well-meaning children with Magery-1 and doggerel? "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!" As a result, people learn poetry on their own, and anyone who uses poetry around others may be shunned, because it is like trying to juggle live grenades.

Time Modifiers
Naturally, how long a poem is will influence your chance of success. The longer it is, the more likely the spirits are to be entertained, and therefore do your bidding when it is done. This is done using the size/speed range table, and substituting seconds for yards of range:

Poem length1 sec1.5 sec2 sec 3 sec4.5 sec7 sec10 sec15 sec 20 sec30 sec45 sec70 sec100 sec
Skill Modifier-2-1+0+1+2+3 +4+5+6+7+8+9+10

These times round down, so a six-second poem would only get a +2 modifier, not a +3.

To compose a poem that actually accomplishes something takes 1,000 times as long as the poem itself, and a successful Poetry roll. So, to compose a good 2 second poem takes 2,000 seconds, or a little more than half an hour. You can just make up something on the spur of the moment, but this will cause a penalty to your Poetry roll of -5, and you get only half of any time bonus.

Example: Urt of the Bear Clan is carried aloft by some winged chaos creature. He kills it before it can rend him with its talons, but he is now plummeting to the earth at an appalling rate. He didn't have any poems ready for this situation, so he throws caution to the winds and mutters a hastily rhymed plea to the wind spirits to slow his descent. This takes 2 seconds, for no time bonus or penalty, but he takes an additional -5 to his Poetry roll. If he fails, the critical failure result will be the least of his worries.

Players with no rhyming talent can simply figure a list of poems and count any leisure time towards making new ones, like "Iron Arm, 7 second poem", "Seek Plant, 10 second poem", and so on. This time does not apply towards gaining experience.

Other Modifiers
In addition to the length of the poem, other circumstances will apply modifiers to the chance of success.

Unknown Effect: If a character wants to generate an effect they have never seen or heard of before, they take a -3 modifier. This tends to slow down players who rifle through the Magic book looking for an effect they want, even though their characters have no idea how to do it. A character who can make a History roll with a -5 can remember a tale from the clan's oral history and reduce this modifier to a -1. Likewise, a character who doesn't have any idea of what to do can make their History roll by this amount and the GM should give them a hint of what kind of poem to try.

Example: ". . . and then Sunwolf, beset by the dark mist snakes, called upon the Sun shakt to aid him, and the sun smiled upon his chosen one, and rose in the east, though his appointed time had not yet come. The mist snakes, rightly fearing the sun's wrath, fled to their dark holes beneath the tainted earth, and Sunwolf continued on his journey . . ." Obviously, if the characters were beset by some creature of the night, this would be a hint to try some sort of high-powered illumination spell.

Fatigue Cost: Each two points of fatigue cost in the spell (round down) will be a -1 to the Poetry roll. The more work it takes the spirits to grant your boon, the better the poem required. And if you make them sit and listen through a bad poem and then ask them to do something for you . . . that's what the critical spell failure table is for. This is optional, for GM's who want to keep the power level of poetry down to a reasonable level. While it only means at most a -1 or -2 for commonly useful spells, it makes doing impressive magic very hard to do, something that is already covered by the penalty for using HT instead of fatigue to power impressive spells.

Singing: The spirits are moved by the rhyme of your words and the beauty of your voice. A complementary skill roll on Singing is worth a +1 to the Poetry roll, but failure is a -2 penalty. Characters with Voice or similar advantages can use them at normal effect. Dancing or other visual arts usually will not apply, although the GM may allow them if appropriate to the campaign. For instance, sand paintings could be a variant of rune magic, or dancing could be a visual equivalent of poetry.

Prerequisites: For most poetry, prerequisites and minimum casting times do not apply. If a character actually has all the prerequisites for a spell that requires them, they do get a +2 to the poetry roll for this knowledge. They know better how to speak to the spirits, what to ask for, and how to say it. This does mean that certain shamanic effects can be done much quicker than normal if you are willing to try a poem instead of the more reliable trancing method.

Multiple spells: If the poem requires multiple spells to get the effect requested, the poem does not take any extra minuses per additional spell, except the possible penalty for the combined fatigue cost of the spells.

Player Poem: If the player actually makes up a poem for the spell and can speak it appropriately, this is worth a +2 modifier to the Poetry roll to reward good roleplaying. However, since the player is speaking the poem to the GM, the GM gets to be the spirits, and if the GM is not pleased with the poem, the total effect is -1 instead of +2. Be careful!

Generating Effects
Usually, magic is intent-based rather than word based. If your poem says "he" and the target is a "she," this will not have any negative effect unless you fail the roll. Remember, your characters are in all likelihood speaking some language unrelated to modern languages, and English trivialities like gender, tense and syntax are assumed to be translated into their Ice Age equivalents. But, if you fail the roll, the GM does get full rein to use any ambiguities against the character's intent. At the end of the time period for the poem, all the modifiers are added up and the character's chance on 3d6 is figured. The GM rolls this secretly, but before they do, the player can hedge their bets.

One, they can say "I am only spending up to x fatigue on this poem." If the spell effect costs more than "x" fatigue, then regardless of how good the poem is, the spell does not work. This does count as a use of the poem, and while there can't be a success, there can be failure, with normal effects. This is for when the player doesn't know the fatigue cost of the spell and wants to be careful. For instance, a +1 Accuracy on a weapon costs 250 fatigue. This would pretty much cause a normal character to spontaneously combust from HT loss if they tried to do it as a poem.

Two, they can say "I spend as many fatigue as it takes." This is for more desperate situations where you don't have any other option. If the spell doesn't work, you're dead anyway. The problem is that if you use all but one of your fatigue for the spell (so you can stay conscious), the rest come straight off your HT, and each point of HT lost is a -1 to the Poetry roll.

Last, they can say "I am spending exactly x fatigue on this poem." This is not too dangerous, but if an area is locally only at regular mana levels rather than the normal very high level, the character may waste fatigue.

If the secret roll by the GM is successful, the poem works and the spell goes off. It is treated just like a regular magic spell, and the character can maintain it without further Poetry rolls as long as they can physically manage. If the roll is failed, the GM tries to secretly check the magical Critical Failure Table and sees what evil befalls the character as a result of their bad poetry. A critical success means the spirits are so pleased that they grant the character insight to the spirit world. If the character has points to spend (or allots experience from this adventure), they may put 12 point into knowledge of that spell, which may then be cast normally and improved with further experience, without having to resort to poetry! This is the only way characters can get spells outside the normal Ice Age shamanistic spell list. These spells cannot be taught to others, since the knowledge of sophisticated magical theory does not yet exist, but the character can give a +2 to anyone (including themselves) working on a new poem for that spell. Also, the character must continue to use poetry to cast the spell if it has prerequisites which the character does not yet have. They "know" the spell, but cannot use it as a spell until all the normal requirements are met. Note that poetry is considered "magic" for purposes of wishes, so the lesser wishes can't be used to get a critical poetry success.

Repeated Poem: When the GM makes the Poetry roll for the character, they should make a separate note of how many points the roll was made by. If successful, the character knows it was successful, and that particular poem can be used again and again to get the same spell effect, and it takes the same time to say the poem each time. Handy, eh? But, the amount the roll is made by is the maximum number of times that poem can be used. The spirits are easily bored, and each time that poem is used, they are less enthralled by it, until it no longer works at all (critical failure time again). So, characters can have a repertoire of poems, some of which have the same effect, with only a vague knowledge of how many times they can use it before the spirits demand something new.

To add insult to injury, any poem a character does that duplicates the spell a previous poem did will be a -1 to all future poetry rolls, since the poem will have an overlapping theme with previous ones.

Example: Urt of the Bear Clan succeeds in having the spirits safely carry him to the ground, but he has a gut feeling that the spirits weren't very happy with his poem (since it had a -5 modifier, he can't have made his roll by too much). He wants to compose a better poem in case this happens again in the future. However, since he has already done this spell once with a different poem, he automatically starts with a -1 penalty to his future rolls for this spell. When this poem runs out, he will have a -2 on the next flight poem, and so on.

So, old poets need to compose longer and longer epics to get the same spell effect, since they have done so many previous poems. And, they have their secret poems that they save for critical situations, old poems without much life left in them, risky poems that spirits have heard many times before, and so on.

Or, since this is a pain to keep track of, you can simply require a new poetry roll each time the poem is used, with a cumulative -1 to the skill for the same poem, and a cumulative -1 for duplicating the effect of a previous poem. The player should keep track of poems used and the current penalties on them.

Usefulness: With magic such an ubiquitous force, normal spears and flint knives often aren't enough to handle the dangers of the wilderness. Sometimes, poetry is the only thing that will save the day. Of necessity, these are usually short poems. Trying to rattle off the Odyssey while some hellhound is chewing on your leg is unlikely to work. So, players should attempt to compose a number of 1-4 second poems for a variety of emergency situations, and not use them unless it is an actual emergency. For times when you have a lot of warning, work on some poems of 10 seconds to a minute to provide you with the bonus you need to make a powerful spell work. For instance, an interclan battle might use the GURPS mass combat rules. Using the Dexterity spell to give yourself +5 DX would greatly improve your survival chances, and as long as you do it on the same day as the battle, you have a chance of recovering from any critical spell failure.

One side effect of such pervasive magic is that there are many areas "aspected" to a particular magic. There are larger areas of "good" magic (creation, growth), and "bad" magic (chaos, death), and these may have great significance in the campaign. All characters will know of certain places that are "bad," places people do not live near unless they have to. Unwholesome creatures come forth from these regions at times, and beneficial magics are harder to do (bless, healing, etc.). Those who would use the spirits against the Earth Mother will often set up shop in these areas, and make it difficult for adventurers to go in and weed them out.

In general, all magic gets a +1 modifier if done in an area that is properly aspected. For instance, water magic gets a +1 on a river bank, fire magic gets a +1 near a bonfire, wind magic gets a +1 on a windy peak, and earth magic gets a +1 on fertile soil with growing things. Likewise, there may be certain areas that major spirits find attractive for some reason. Each clan will have a clan shrine, where there is a bonus to contacting the clan spirit, and the different animals may also have areas where their patron spirit is easier to contact. For instance, if you could not find antelope, you might journey to the place where it is said you can speak to the patron spirit of the antelope and ask why she withholds her blessings from the people of your clan.

With magic being real, herbalism is less important, but the Earth Mother has seen fit to create many herbs that help those who know how to use them. Some are magic, while others are simply raw pharmaceuticals. Most are fairly well known, and thus very scarce around populated areas. They do not grow where you want them to, and those who have tried to cultivate them find that they have no potency once the hand of man has interfered with their life cycle. Most of the time, a half-day search is required to find any special herbs, although one roll at a -3 is allowed for chance encounters for a day hiking in the wilderness. Finding a supply means one "dose," with an extra dose per 3 points the roll is made by. If multiple characters search the same area, those who search last get a -1 per success anyone before them made, and this penalty lasts for at least a week. Trying to find something out of season is at an extra -5 if it can be found at all. Someone with the Find Plant knack can be a really good herbalist, but will constantly be looking for areas that haven't already picked over.

Styp Grass: When crushed, the juice from the stems will stop bleeding. It provides a +1 to all First Aid rolls involving cuts or bleeding injuries. Find on a Herbalism-1 or Naturalist-3 roll (spring through fall).

Bac Grass: If the bruised leaves of this grass are bound over an injury, the character gets a +1 to HT for recovering hit points or resisting infection. Find on a Herbalism or Naturalist-2 roll (spring through fall).

Fireeyes: A small rare flower, if you burn the dried flowers, you can automatically cast Divination and ask a question of nearby fire spirits. Since range modifiers do apply, you usually do this while sitting next to the campfire. Fire spirits aren't all that bright, however, and tend to answer things based on the way they see them. Find on a Herbalism-3 or Naturalist-5 roll (fall only)

Magic Mushrooms: Chewing one of these automatically places you in a trance state, which may be beneficial when spellcasting or searching for a vision from the spirits (+1 bonus). Find on a Herbalism-3 or Naturalist-5 roll (spring through fall).

Marion Berries: A powerful stimulant. When chewed, they add +1 to your Speed for about half an hour and a +2 to resist any sort of sleep spell. If crushed and mixed with water, the juice will wake unconscious people on a normal HT roll, and if a dried berry is placed under the tongue, the character gets a +1 to avoid falling asleep for up to six hours (does apply vs. sleep spells). These are real popular before any kind of fight. Find on a Herbalism-4 or Naturalist-6 roll (summer through fall).

Wolfsbane: The stems of this plant ward off evil spirits so long as life remains in them. Fresh stems only last a day or two, but if treated correctly and kept cool and moist (Herbalism or Naturalist-3) they will last for up to a week. Wearing fresh wolfsbane will prevent a person from being possessed by a critical spell failure result. Find on a Herbalism-3 or Naturalist-5 roll (spring through fall).

Bluetongue: The berry of this small plant lets one see into the spirit world for a short time. The distracting effect causes a -2 penalty on all physical actions, but a +2 on all skill rolls relating to magic, including poetry. Find on a Herbalism-6 or Naturalist-8 roll (late spring). Gonzoweed: The fresh or dried seeds of this uncommon grass will lower IQ by 3 and raise HT by 3 for up to an hour per dose. It may also produce visions or aggressive behavior, and makes one susceptible to temporary possession by nearby spirits. Find on a Herbalism-3 or Naturalist-5 (fall only).

Magic Items
Enchanted items of any kind are reasonably rare. The main reason is that none of the enchanting spells are standard shamanic spells, so anyone who learned them did so by getting a critical Poetry success and survived the fatigue loss these powerful spells entail. Most of the time, any sort of magic item is one that was made directly or indirectly by the greater spirits. In the 20th century, we would say these items came from violent natural events. For instance, a rock split and melted by lightning might be a small (1-2 point) Powerstone. A tree split by the lightning might make a +1 Accuracy spear or a few arrow shafts. A rock hurled into a tree by a tornado might be a natural magic club. A stone that fell from the sky might be a magic item that contains a spell that can be used. These items are uncommon and very valuable, especially weapons, since some creatures are affected only by magic. Since poetry is a dangerous tool, most would rather have a spear with a magic point. The other way to get a magic item is to have a powerful spirit give one to you, since nature spirits have vast amounts of fatigue for spellcasting purposes. If you get a good enough reaction roll, they might be convinced to grant you a boon, but they almost always have something they need done in return (sigh). Any sort of Charisma, Diplomacy, Fast-Talk or Reputation may help here, but remember that even a slightly negative reaction from a personified force of nature is likely to be quite a whammy! (possession, -2 curse, new quirks, delusions, etc.).

Adventure Seed

The characters are pulled from their normal lifestyles by stories of chaos creatures coming from the "Bad Place" (a large evilly-aspected place a few weeks' walk away). This slowly builds up as a background to the campaign. In addition, the patron spirit of one of the clan's main food animals has been imprisoned somewhere, and without this patron spirit to protect them, they are beginning to sicken and die, affecting the future survival of the clan. First, the characters must go to a smaller bad place inside another clan's territory, and free the patron spirit. It is imprisoned on an island in the middle of a small lake, protected by a few lesser chaos creatures and a clever shaman of the other clan, who will attempt to bedevil the characters by "befriending" them and providing false information and numerous curses and taboo violations. "Yes, you must eat this special jerky and meditate into the fire to avoid the evil spirits that surround the lake . . ." Of course, the jerky is made from human flesh (big taboo or Curse), and laced with magic mushrooms that will send the characters Death Visions. The shaman isn't a combat character, but a worthy opponent nonetheless.

If they free the spirit, they get to ask a boon for their clan, which may vary depending on the type of animal. For instance, if they rescued the spirit of a pack animal, a boon might be "We want to ride your children, and all their children . . .", thus inventing horsemanship! The characters are also likely to get a personal boon, like a Lesser Wish or +2 Bless, things that are intangible but very valuable.

In the process of freeing the spirit, they find that it was trapped there by an evil shaman from their own tribe, who is trying to get revenge for a great perceived wrong.

". . . Once, many years ago, there was a woman whose voice was sweeter than all others, whose words could almost charm the birds from the skies. But, she was afflicted, and no matter how sweet her words, the spirits would not hear her. There were those who were sorry for her, but others who mocked her, and she grew very angry, and left the village, claiming that she would command the spirits, regardless of the price. No one ever saw her again, but it is whispered she went off to the Bad Place and made a deal with the evil spirits that live there . . ."

Now, it appears she was successful in some way. Bad things come out of the place in greater numbers. Things with multiple heads, things that float in the water and attack our boats, creatures of unwholesome nature that pain the Earth Mother by their existence. Divination by the shamans shows that the characters must go to the Bad Place and root out the evil that threatens the People. The Bad Place is about four days' walk from edge to edge. The first day towards the center is aspected at -1 towards all creation, blessings, healing, banishment or exorcism and +1 towards all curses, summonings or pestilences. The next half day in is at -2/+2, and the last half day is at -3/+3, with -4/+4 near the very center. The ground becomes less fertile, and game becomes harder to find, while there are increasing numbers of chaotic creatures that will confront the characters, along with the occasional evil spirit or zombies of previous heroes who came here and failed. While the area is only two days' walk to the center, fights, magically created bad weather and a host of other problems will likely cause this to take a week or more, with increasingly difficult survival rolls to find wholesome food and water. Characters may well have to retreat and plan a better-provisioned assault if their skills are not up to the task. Of course, the evil shaman at the heart is a master poet, and uses Divination to track the progress of and harass the characters at every turn: "What is the path my enemies will take tomorrow?" She acts alone except for one apprentice, but vast forces are at her command.

If the characters overcome all the obstacles and defeat the shaman, the chaos forces will abate, and while the Bad Place will still be there, no new chaos creatures will appear for a while and the aspect of the area will get better by a point for a number of years, thus increasing the effective land your clan has to dwell on. The reward for this is a reputation among the clan, like a permanent increase in reaction rolls, and the blessings of the clan spirit, which could take the form of a blessing, lesser wish, or a free point in some skill relating to the clan as a whole, like area knowledge or history, depending on the character's contribution to the success of the adventure.

Article publication date: October 1, 1995

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