Primeval Thule: Sword-and-Sorcery, or D&D?

As you might expect, we’ve been paying attention to a dozen different message forums and blog chatter about our Primeval Thule Campaign Setting Kickstarter. One of the themes that’s come up in a few different places is the question of just how much D&D needs to bend in order to be faithful to the expectations of the sword-and-sorcery genre, or vice versa. The short answer is that we’re aiming for something that falls in between. It’s more D&D-ish than Conan, and less fantastic than most full-on D&D worlds. In other words, we see Thule as basically a D&D world that is no longer right down the middle of the fairway, but leans hard toward sword-and-sorcery tropes.

So what defines sword-and-sorcery as a subgenre of fantasy, at least as compared to D&D? Most people regard the terms as interchangeable, after all. However, folks who read a lot of fantasy stories would generally agree that sword-and-sorcery settings tend to be lower-magic, lower-stakes, and more action-driven than the big sprawling “worlds in thousands of pages” epic fantasy settings. Let’s take a quick look at how Thule looks and feels in each of these regards.

1. More action-driven. This is a place where we don’t actually see a lot of difference between a typical D&D adventure and a sword-and-sorcery D&D adventure, to be honest. D&D in all its incarnations is intensely action-driven, and Primeval Thule isn’t going to put your PCs in situations where they fight more than they already do. We have some good ideas about pacing and adventure design that we’ll put to good use—techniques such as the in media res start, cliffhangers, cutaways, all that fun stuff—but those would work well at any D&D table. So let’s move on.

2. Lower stakes. That doesn’t mean sword-and-sorcery adventures matter less than epic fantasy adventures—to the characters involved in them, they matter quite a lot! But the stakes are much more likely to be personal rather than world-shaking. This is the difference between, say, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories and the Wheel of Time. Both are great fantasy yarns, but no one ever counted on Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to save the world. We think that keeping the stakes in the adventure or campaign at a more personal level gives us a lot of room to treat Primeval Thule as a much more “sandbox”-style campaign, where the player characters are encouraged to self-direct to some degree. We don’t need a cosmic conflict to explain why heroes from Thule might decide to pursue a rumor of a lost treasure or strike out to try their fortune in the next city over. Once again, there’s no reason you couldn’t design adventures this way in any D&D world.

3. Low magic. This is the characteristic where Thule’s deviation from worlds such as Faerun or Golarion is most noticeable. In sword-and-sorcery stories, magic is a dangerous and mysterious force. Characters wield few supernatural powers—magic is usually an obstacle, not a tool. That’s clearly not the case at most D&D tables. “Low magic” also implies that a sword-and-sorcery world is less fantastic and more realistic, gritty, and savage than an epic fantasy world.

It goes back to the pulpy, action-driven roots of sword-and-sorcery stories; magic you know too well is science, and using it to solve problems is puzzle-solving instead of action. So how do we lower the magic of D&D and make it less fantastic without making it less fun? Here are a few of the tactics we’re going to use in the Primeval Thule Campaign Setting to do that very thing.

  • Fewer, Less Fantastic Nonhumans: Nonhumans to take a back seat to the human powers of the setting, so that the problems and challenges of the world demand essentially human (and therefore less overtly fantastic) solutions. Elves, dwarves, and other races are not especially common in Thule; PC elves and dwarves come from isolated, rarely encountered peoples. We also bring our own unique Thulean spin to these standard fantasy cultures—savage them up, if you will, so that they fit better in a savage world. For example, elves are advanced and knowledgeable, but their culture is decadent, dying, and often cruel.
  • Fewer Spellcasters: No, we’re not going to ban player character wizards. However, the typical city-state in Thule is home to maybe one or two mages, instead of the scores of mages you’d find in a big city in the Forgotten Realms. Common people fear and distrust wizards and other magic-using characters—and while that may help you intimidate folks, it won’t help you make friends.
  • Fewer and More Mysterious Magic Items: Don’t expect to buy and sell magic items the way you can in Pathfinder or 4th Edition D&D. There isn’t a market for such things in Thule—magic items are rare in the world, if not necessarily at your table. When you do find a magic item, you’re likely to keep it a long time; instead of trading it in for a better sword, you might instead unlock hitherto unknown powers or secrets in the item, and make it part of your ongoing story. (13th Age already does this to some extent.) Anyway, sword-and-sorcery feels better when a character has one or two signature items, and relies on muscle and wits instead of an arsenal of enchanted items.
  • Monsters, not Ecology: Thule’s jungles and mountains are home to many different monsters, but these tend to be unique or highly localized creatures, not representatives of a species spread across a whole range of suitable biomes. You can find manticores, chimeras, frost giants, or harpies in Thule—but you’ll find them in the specific locales where they live, not everywhere they *could* live. Some of the more common monsters from traditional settings such as orcs or goblinoids aren’t featured in Thule, but that’s because there are Thule-specific monsters such as beastmen and Thule-specific tribes of headhunters or raiders that are featured in their place.

In your Thule campaign, you might very well have an elf swordsman and a powerful wizard in your party—but that elf swordsman is the last hero of a dying race, and you are the only ally that wizard has in the entire world. You may set your eyes on fantastic prizes, but they’re gems the size of your first or thrones made of gold, not magical artifacts. And you’ll battle hordes of savage raiders, but instead of orcs and ogres and dark elves, they’re beastmen and cyclopses and serpent-men. You’re playing D&D, but it’s not the middle-of-the-fairway D&D you’re used to. It’s savage, it’s brutal, it’s lurid… it’s Thule.