Roleplayer #15, August 1989

Cavemen and Conquistadors

Campaign Suggestions for Ice Age

by Kirk Tate

The most frequent comment I've heard about GURPS Ice Age has been something along the lines of "Hmmm, but what would you do with it?" As the book's author, I spent a substantial amount of time pondering that very question – just what kind of adventures and campaigns would a GM build around a group of hairy, stone-age tribesmen? Most of my answers found their way into the Campaigning chapter, but a few of the crazier ones did not survive editing. Others didn't occur to me until after the final draft had gone to the printers. Here are three of my favorites:

Thundering Hooves

There are several tantalizing pieces of evidence that Cro-Magnon Man had domesticated animals thousands of years earlier than is generally believed. At two sites in France, engravings of horses – estimated to be 15,000 years old – have been found with what appear to be rope harnesses carved into them. At another cave, a harnessed reindeer is depicted. Even more interesting are the fossilized teeth of two horses that lived in northern France about 30,000 years ago. These teeth show a distinctive pattern of wear, called "crib-biting," normally seen only in domesticated horses.

Although this scant evidence is not enough to convince anthropologists that Cro-Magnon Man had domesticated the horse, it conjures up some curious images. Imagine our fur-clad heroes wandering the tundra, with food, clothing, shelter, even children packed neatly on horse-drawn sledges, rather than toiling along with their meager belongings on their backs. Better yet, picture them descending upon their enemies at full gallop, each hunter mounted on his trusty steed – or their enemy descending upon them.

The domesticated horse could be to the Cro-Magnon man what fire was to Homo erectus. An entire campaign could revolve around the capture, taming and training of horses. In a Warring Tribes campaign, the horse might be just the edge the Good Guys need to defeat the Bad Guys. Remember, Ice Age horsemen won't have saddles, stirrups or bridles with bits; at best, the mount would be controlled by a rope looped around the animal's nose and held in one hand (-3 to Riding skill). Also, these horses aren't trained, specially bred destriers; they're more like timid brown zebras. Our heroes will fall off – a lot.

Texas, 1540

In the year 1540, Francisco Vasquez Coronado set out from what would one day be called Mexico City to search for the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola. Stories brought back by the explorer Cabeza de Vaca told of streets paved with gold and beautiful women adorned in magnificent jewelry. Coronado never found the legendary cities, but he was the first European to encounter the primitive Indian tribes of the southern Great Plains.

These tribes, probably the Apache, Comanche, Wichita and Kansa, were at Tech Level 0 – the stone age. They had no knowledge of metals, firearms or the wheel. They had never even seen a horse – horses were not at that time native to the Americas. In fact, when they first saw the mounted Spaniards, they thought that rider and horse were a single creature, the upper part being armored like the armadillo. They were completely shocked when the creature split itself in two, and the upper half walked up to them on two legs and started talking.

A campaign in which Indian PCs encounter the Spaniards could be challenging. The players would have to roleplay their amazement at the European technology, as well as their inability to understand it. Having seen how easily the mounted foreigners move about, it will occur to them that they could use some horses themselves, but the Spaniards will be most unwilling to part with their mounts. A raid to steal horses might be staged, but then the tribesmen will have to learn to ride. . .

Religion will play an important role. The Indians practiced an advanced form of totemism, and the Spanish priests will be anxious to convert them to Christianity. Not only do individual tribes, clans and families have totems, but the tribesmen worship several major nature spirits. The Buffalo, Coyote, Eagle and Raven are important, and the Great Spirit is above them all. The Indians will find it almost impossible to understand the abstract concepts of Christianity, removed as it is from the world of nature.

Sources for adventure ideas include the Western novels of Don Coldsmith, beginning with The Trail of the Spanish Bit. These novels – there are ten of them – are all told from the Indian point of view, and set in the Great Plains during the 16th century. For source material on the Spanish in America during this period, check out GURPS Swashbucklers.

Monsters of the Mist

This was inspired by the book Eaters of the Dead, the travel account of Ibn Fadlan, an Arab ambassador who visited Scandinavia in the year 922 A.D., translated and edited by Michael Crichton. It describes a series of battles between Vikings and the wendol – short, stocky, hairy brutes with sloping brows and incredible strength. These "monsters" attack on dark, mist-shrouded nights, and carry off humans to eat them. When the Vikings attack their lair, they find, among other things, piles of stone flakes used for skinning and figurines of pregnant females. Fadlan's description of the creatures and the figurines lead Crichton to speculate that the wendol may have been a tribe of Neanderthals that survived in the mountains of Scandinavia as recently as a thousand years ago.

This could provide a way to bring a conventional fantasy campaign and an Ice Age campaign together. The Neanderthals might prey on the strange men with the metal swords and wooden caves, or they might be prey themselves. The tribe could be engaged in a grim fight for survival, being driven ever farther into the cold mountains by the frightening metal-skinned giants. As it becomes more and more difficult to get food, they conduct more shamanistic ceremonies, but the magic no longer works (perhaps the shamanism of the more numerous Vikings overpowers their magic). Eventually, they are forced to prey upon the flocks of the Northmen, and perhaps the men themselves.

An enterprising GM might even run two separate parties, one of Neanderthals, the other of Viking warriors. (They don't have to be Vikings, of course – the setting could be any isolated, cool environment.) The players of the two groups, meeting on different days, could be kept in the dark about the fact that they are really fighting each other. Then, at the climactic battle, a player might find his enemy being played by his best friend on the other side of the table! The results, while bloody, could be interesting. Who knows . . . the final result might be a party made up of both races.

(Back to Roleplayer #15 Table of Contents)

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