Sunday, April 3, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: The Pleistocene Adventure, an Irwin Allen Production

It was pointed out to me in the comments that the catastrophic landscape changes that occurred at the end of the Pleistocene are perfectly good stories to be found in geology, and this is true. The geology of the Channeled Scablands of the Columbia River Basin is dramatic enough for any adventure novelist, and if you're willing to get your scientific data all tangled up in religious arguments you can follow some pretty dramatic byways concerning the question of whether or not there was ever a Black Sea flood and, if so, whether or not it was the source material for the Mediterranean flood tradition most Americans know best as the Genesis Flood. When I researched the end of the Ice Age for 11,000 Years Lost, reading about the repeated formation and breaking of ice dams on the edges of glacial lakes, causing periodic catastrophic landscape changes, intrigued me.

For a time I thought obsessively about such a catastrophe as the starting point for an RPG campaign. Mentally, I built a campaign setting, composed of riverine grassland, hills/mountains, and the oceanic edge. Each setting contains a distinct society of hunter/gatherers, with trade and genetic connections to each of the other societies, each specializing in the skills necessary to exploit each habitat, each dependent on trade connections with the others to get necessary resources and desirable luxuries.

The oceanic edge culture specializes in maritime skills: they live primarily off foods gained from the sea; are expert boat builders; understand wind, currents, and navigation; use bone and shell extensively; and are highly mobile. They know the coasts and islands of their region intimately, but the interior is a mystery to them.

The riverine culture is more sedentary, moving camp with the seasons and exploiting different resources at different times of year: they specialize in basketry and fabric crafts, trapping, exploitation of plants, and the use of nets, with big game hunting as a seasonal group occupation. They know the drainage areas of the rivers intimately and probably have invented ceramics, though they don't make pots, and horticulture, though they mostly seed an area in one season, go away, and come back to harvest it later.

The upland culture specializes in lithic and wood technologies, hunts big game year-round, exploits plants seasonally, and understands more about minerals than both other cultures put together.

Once a year, in spring, these cultures come together in the valley of the biggest local river for an enormous trade fair. The maritime culture takes small boats upriver carrying salt, seashells, and the skins of sea otters and seals; the upland culture follows the drainages into the valley bearing tool stones, ochre, and the skins of megafauna; the riverine peoples bring out their basketry, river otter and raccoon skins, and feather work. Probably they all have medicinal substances that the others can't get; probably they also trade around nuts, dried fish, dried fruit, and grains. In addition to trade, of course, there's games, courting, dancing, courting, storytelling, courting, feuding, courting, conflict resolution, courting, and probably mass hunts, bake-offs, weddings, and divorces.

As a DM, I'd give this brief cultural outline to the players and tell them to choose a culture and make a character from it. Each culture would have a set of skills unique to it, and a knowledge base and geographical/social map of the world differing from those of the others. Female characters would have different skill sets than male characters. Someone who came up with a plausible culture-overlapping character concept (say a Riverine woman who married a Maritime man and went to live with his people; or a shaman called by the spirits to wander the three parts of the world) would have to work with the DM to build someone balanced and in keeping with the concept. Each player may also create a secondary, less competent, character dependent on the first, like a younger sibling or a child, but this is not required.

The last requirement is that the player must produce a plausible reason why this character, with the dependent if appropriate, is not actually down in the river valley on the Day the World Ends. Because, having created this campaign setting, the first thing the DM must do is destroy it when the ice dam breaks and a glacial lake the size of the Dead Sea comes pouring down the main river valley in a wall of water that sweeps all before it.

The PCs, and their dependents, witness this catastrophe, but cannot prevent or ameliorate it. It's like 9/11, only there's no one to blame and far fewer survivors; plus, the geography of all three known regions changes drastically. Because this happens in spring, plant and animal resources are both affected for the rest of the year. The campaign consists of the survivors coming together and pooling their resources, figuring out where to go, what to do, and how to survive the coming year in this lonely new world. Do they go up and down the coast looking for the extent of the damage and unaffected populations? Do they scavenge their dead? Do they strike inland because 2/3 of them are Uplanders and they hope the normal world still exists on the high ground? Do the characters all pull in different directions because the logical next step looks different depending on which culture each came from? What happens when they meet intact tribes - do they have to prove themselves trustworthy? Are they shunned as unlucky?

As usual, this campaign idea is way too work-intensive for me to carry out. In addition to my usual problem of wanting the players set their own agenda, with which I would then have to scramble to keep up, I'd be limited by the existing game systems. Most RPGs, focused as they are on "interesting times" and wanting to provide adventure, excitement, and rewards, suffer from power creep. Ordinary daily challenges like finding food and keeping healthy tend to be hand-waved because they're boring. Also, even the most dangerous normal animals aren't real threats to most RPG characters. It doesn't help that the people who write the stats for most gaming bestiaries apparently never saw an animal in their lives, and don't understand why, for example, a hippo is the most dangerous animal on the planet; or how the saber-tooth adaptation works; or the difference between a Dire Wolf and a wolf. All this sort of thing would be crucial to a Pleistocene survival game.

I would probably have to invent a gaming system with mechanics simple enough for me to use them, which nevertheless rendered foraging for berries, fishing, exploring new terrain, and building boats as interesting as a head-on confrontation with a mammoth and interpersonal combat. And "I" in that sentence would probably have to mean "Damon and the other person in our group who is truly enamored of game mechanics for their own sake."

So, no, not happening.

The same set-up could lead off a kick-ass set of blockbuster novels that would appeal to the same public as Jean Auel's Earth's Children; but since I couldn't set it in Texas (no glacial lakes!) it's a lead pipe cinch I won't write it.

Too bad.

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