Embracing the Primitive: the Wilderness Setting.
I enjoy "primitive" adventures -- characters in a wilderness setting. I've run Elfquest several times, a Mage game with lots of ideas stolen from Clan of the Cave Bear, and a few Werewolf games in the frozen north.
Not everyone would enjoy the primitive games I run. For example, Dee played a wolf for nearly 6 months of game time, compressed into about 3 hours real time. There was no intrigue or complex plots. Just simple character development with bits of adventure thrown in. She hunted, slept, played, and mated, with the very occasional confrontation (evil yankee hunters, and a vicious alpha wolf female). Many would find it boring. But the level of emotion she felt towards her character's mate (who dies at the end) made it a very rewarding adventure for me.
To make a wilderness adventure work, the atmosphere has to be right. This includes description that takes in as many details from as many senses as possible. It also requires (for me) that the storyteller has a knowledge base about the subject at least as large as (preferably larger than) that of the players. My suspension of disbelief suffers greatly when the gamemaster gets details wrong. As a gamemaster, I try to err on the side of over researching a subject, so if the players try to throw me for a loop, I know enough about the subject to wing it plausible. It makes the game go well, and makes you look good.
In no particular order, there are a few considerations about settings in wilderness and/or primitive society. There's much more that can be added, but this will start you off.
Using senses are important for any game, but more so in a wild setting. One reason is the unfamiliarity most players will have with the situation. If the characters are walking down a street in New York, everyone can imagine what it's like, even if nobody in the room has been there. After all, we've seen it on TV and movies enough times to get the idea: depending on the neighborhood, you can have noise and traffic, neon, tons of people; or conversely, dirty streets, stripped cars, hookers and gangbangers. It may not be accurate, but it works for the game. Now, if the game takes place in, say a taiga forest in Alaska or a pine scrub in Florida, most folks I know would be hard pressed to come up with a vivid image of the sights, sounds, and smells associated with these areas. And, of course, most people don't care. But since I do, I want any game I run or play in to have the proper atmosphere. After all, this is vicarious living, we should make the picture as clear as possible (non sequitur: did anyone else get annoyed by the X-Files featuring an alligator-infested natural lake surrounded by fir trees and within sight of mountains, in Georgia? Maybe it's just me.).
Survival of the Fittest
A Montignard moves with supernatural stealth, appearing and disappearing with ease. A native American can look at a track and tell that it's a pregnant cougar with a hip injury on the right side. An Aborigine can find food and water in a barren desert. A bushmen knows every tree and every hill and creek by name. We've have heard these things about every native culture Europeans have blundered into. And to a large extent these rumors are true. Why? Because they have to be; those that don't have superior skill and knowledge died through starvation, accident or predation. We may look down on these peoples as unsophisticated rubes because they can't use computers, can't drive in New York traffic, or negotiate million dollar deals over a power lunch. Put the techie, cabbie, or exec in the wild, however, and we'll see who's inept.
In the wilderness, travel is dangerous. The river we cross without a second thought on a steel and concrete bridge would cost our ancestors soaked belongings, half a day's travel, and possibly their lives. In the days before gore-tex and electric space heaters, you could freeze or otherwise get hypothermia fairly easily if you didn't know what you were about. Similarly, a scratch we might wash and band-aid would go septic in the time before hygiene and antibiotics. Even today, hikers get lost fairly frequently, and occasionally die of exposure, injury, or even hunger (a guy who wanted a dose of reality a la Thoreau trekked off to Alaska; his emaciated body was found months later).
Hunting was also quite dangerous. A scientist recently compared the injuries of Neanderthals (who were much stronger and tougher than modern humans) to those of rodeo riders and rodeo clowns. Skull fractures, broken ribs, snapped limbs -- all these were common to both groups. Neanderthals hunted up close and personal against critters that took offence at being attacked.
Beauty in the Eye
Wealth and status dictates our image of beauty. These days, when someone has to have lots of free time to work out in a spa and lay out in the sun, thin and tan is the way to be. In hunter-gatherer societies, people spent most of their time engaged in the acquisition of food, and oftentimes went hungry anyway. To be fat in 12,000 BC was to display wealth and status as surely as dazzling people with the diamond cufflinks on your Armani suit as you drive past in your Lambourgini in 1997.
We all know this, but probably few think about it. Outside our society, the things we think of as wealth are phantoms. In hard currency, money is worthless except for starting fires; electronically, money doesn't exist at all.
In primitive society, you don't get rich; you may have wealth of a kind, but it's liable to be tied to status (the shaman with a prime part of the cave all to himself, the wealthy chief who has two mates, or the chief hunter who always gets the choice share of the kill). A wealthy man may be one who can't carry all his possessions in one load.
Even in later times, wealth was based on real things. To a Baron, wealth wasn't tied to a title, wealth was tied to the arable land that came with the title.
Before the abstract thing we call money existed, barter was the way you exchanged goods and services -- if I want that lump of pretty yellow rock or the fine otter pelt you offer, I'll make a fine spear point for you. If not, I won't. And I'll help you hunt tomorrow for a share of the meat.
Here are some things that I have used to put together games. By no means is this a comprehensive bibliography of available resources, just things that have inspired me.
The Earth's Children Series by Jean Auel. My favorite was Clan of the Cave Bear, but they all have useful cultural and natural history elements of a world in transition between Neandertal and Cro Magnon. While Auel takes some license and theories have changed since she wrote the early works, she has thoroughly researched the subject and it shows. If you can wade through all the obligatory romance, they are worthwhile reads.
GURPS Dinosaur If you don't have time to read Earth's Children but want to do some prehistoric gaming, this may do in a pinch. A good third or so of this supplement is a revision of GURPS Ice Age, and has stats and culture speculation for a number of different homid species. For later period, say the Native American cultures in the 1800's, try GURPS Old West.
Time Life. I went through a caveman phase in grade school, so I had several of the Time-Life pop books on the subject: Early Man, Neanderthal, etc. The stuff is somewhat dated, but still useful. I bet libraries or used book stores have these resources.
Field Guides. Plant and Animal guidebooks are invaluable if you don't know much about species in an area. Peterson and Audubon are among the most popular, but there are others as well.
Advanced degrees in Wildlife Management, Anthropology, Forestry, Paleobiology or Zoology. Admittedly, the expense in time and money might turn off some people doing research for games.
How about travel? Not quite as expensive, and definitely quicker, than a college degree, seeing the place you're writing about or gaming in is useful for ambiance. My trip to Alaska (officially for a bear conference) was invaluable for both my Alaska wolf adventure and the Crun adventure. First-hand views which include all the senses will make the game setting that much more vivid.
Cave guidebooks. I found one or two during my planning of the Crun adventure, and they helped me get some ideas about the structure of caves in different parts of the world.
Region books. Again, Time-Life has helped me here. For example, a book on Wild Alaska gave me some good visuals for the Crun adventure.
Critter books. There are a blue million books on wolves out there. The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species by L. David Mech. is the definitive book, although some might find it dry. Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez is more accessible. The beginning gives an excellent view of a wolf interacting with its environment and other wolves. There is also a good history of the persecution of wolves, as well as a discussion of how wolves were viewed by the church various Indian tribes, and others. My biggest problem with this book is a chapter of metaphysical nonsense that the author tries to pass off as fact.
Tom Brown Field Guides. These have lots of good info on wilderness survival, natural food, tracking, and so on. Field Guide to Wilderness Survival is the best one to start from.
The various Elfquest comic and novel series. Good for more than just running Elfquest games. Though I like most of that stuff, my favorites have always been the stories about Wolfriders being wolfriders (i.e., being hunter gatherers without having to deal with intriguing Gliders and other tribes).
Movies and TV. For an earlier period, Clan of the Cave Bear was fair (the book was great). I don't remember much about Quest for Fire except my Mom was embarrassed by the sex. Don't remember much about the Saturday morning show Korg, but I'd be surprised if the Sci-Fi channel didn't show it on occasion.
Moving up 15,000 years or so, Dances With Wolves and Last of the Mohicans -- The movies, not the books, for I thought the movies were actually better for my purposes. They are both decent (if Hollywood) portrayals of Indian life in 2 cultures 100 years apart. There are also a number of movies and TV shows in this range, like Jeremiah Johnson or Grizzly Adams.
Pertinent movies of the modern-day are more common, but I can't recall many at the moment. My Side of the Mountain was a good kid's book and probably made a decent movie. The Earthling, about an orphan in the wilds of Australia, might be worth a look. Even Deliverance has its moments: there are no hospitals to run to in the wild, and the river can kill (if the inbred toothless banjo players don't get to you first).
This is always important in a storytelling game. The nearly perfect setting might be at a campout, but barring that, how can you set the mood?
First off, get rid of as much modern distractions as possible (the TV is numero uno). Use low lighting. Play music that fits the setting, if any such exists. There are albums of Native American songs; environmental CDs (wind in the grass, babbling brook, distant thunderstorm) work quite well. IMO, there's never been a wilderness setting anywhere, even it the World of Darkness, that's complemented by Bauhaus or Nine Inch Nails in the background. If you play during the winter, burning logs in the fireplace is useful for many setting (evokes a campfire, smoky cave, tavern or great hall).
If you're having dinner before the session, try cooking out -- there's something primal about eating food cooked over a fire. For those with the resources, use simple foods, foods seasoned with herbs from the local you'll be playing in, or something else which draws a connection to what you'll be doing (Buffalo is expensive, but worth a try if you're playing a western prairie game).
As an example of the use of a "primitive" setting, I present here a one-session Mage adventure. I drew very heavily from Jean Auel's books for this.
Thea Corrigan is a Mage of the Celestial Chorus, and sister to a Fianna Garou of renown (Thea's stats are in one of Dee's 'zines from a couple years back). She wanted to be more in touch with the world of the spiritual, and so sought to learn the Sphere of Spirit. She tried to pray until she fainted from hunger, but the One wasn't going to make it that easy for her. She is about to have her paradigm shifted, and hard.
Unable to find the truth of spirits on her own, she goes to Eric, a Theurge (a spiritual leader of the spirit warriors of Gaia, the Garou). He doesn't know if he can teach her, for speaking with spirits is an almost instinctual thing for his folk. He does know of a mage of great repute among his kind, and will send her to see him.
Gussied up in L L Bean's finest, she is sent through a Moon Bridge (a kind of spiritual transporter beam) to northwestern Canada. She finds herself in a taiga forest beside a glacier-fed stream. Have no other ideas, she sets up her alpine tent and goes to sleep.
Breaking camp the next morning, she suddenly realizes that she's being watched. A short, rather ugly man, wearing uncut hides wrapped around his barrel frame, leans on a heavy spear, observing her (for more description, see the character sheet below). After a while, he begins to answer her questions in short, choppy phrases. It turns out that he is the mage she seeks; his name is Crun. That she was sent by a wolf spirit seems to make a difference, and he agrees to teach her if she agrees to learn.
At his instruction, she piles all her gear and clothes in a hide, which goes into a pit to be covered with dirt and stones. For the rest of the adventure, she was to wear a more or less formless wrap of animal hide. Luckily, she doesn't have many body taboos, having grown up in the company of the Changing Kin.
So for weeks, Thea does menial and seemingly pointless stuff. She digs roots, fleshes hides, carries great loads during hunting forays. Her body grows hard with exertion. The fierce pangs of hunger fade as body uses her meager meals more efficiently. Her body and spirit becomes more pure, and her mind is more focused without the distractions of the modern world. Time in this place of almost perpetual sunlight acquires a different flow without the strict regimentation of the digital watch. Thea learns the herbs and plants and their properties, and even learns how to hunt.
Thea nearly rebels when, upon finding her inattentive, Crun buffets her. "Don't know how to listen. Not alert," he says, ignoring her indignation.
As the days pass timelessly, Crun begins a slow process of teaching her about the spirit world. He insists that he doesn't really control spirits; "I speak to the spirits. With their help, I interpret what they do." Crun explains that a spirit lies in everything and everyone; some spirits sleep, others are alert. He shows her how to speak with spirits, to be strong and forceful with some, flattering to others, and meek to the greater spirits. Above all, spirits must be respected. When you ask a spirit for something, you should offer to do something for it, a task of equal or greater worth. In some cases, this may simply be to sing songs of Power in its name. In others, sacrifices or journeys may be required. The spirits of the newly dead are to be avoided, for they may wish you to come with them.
As her training progresses, she is shown how to feel the barrier between our world and the spirit world (known by most mages as the Gauntlet).
Late in the summer, Crun tells his pupil that to speak with spirits, she must find her totem which will protect her and intercede on her behalf. The rite for this includes a 3 day vigil far from the cave, during which she may only consume a special tea. On the third night, a porcupine walks up to her, sniffing and muttering to itself. Her Avatar (here in the form of a demanding Mother Superior) spoke to her. She was (Thea thought) disparaging of the notion that this totem, and the whole animistic view of the Dreamspeaker, could conceivably be equal to her own paradigm. (In actuality, the Avatar was trying to make the point that they were equally valid. But hey, can't expect them to pick up on everything.)
As the sun arcs south and the night waxes, preparations are made for the coming winter. When all that is needed is gathered, Crun secures the hide flap across the cave entrance.
During the winter, they spend much time in the cave. Crun mends gear, makes tools, and tells stories of ancestors and spirits. One night, with the wind howling outside the skin which covers the cave mouth, he says it is time for her to partake in one of the Great Ceremonies. For one night and one day, she must eat nothing. At the end of that time, she purifies herself as she was taught -- with ash and old urine (astringent). Imagine, a good Catholic girl doing this!
Crun crushes dried roots taken from a deep storage room, then chews them and spits the pulp in a wooden bowl, which is dark lined with the white of previous uses. "These roots are very sacred, and very rare," he tells her. Both of them are skyclad (naked). Crun is painted with designs in red and black, and Thea does likewise.
The following was read during the game:
You crawl for maybe 20 yards through a twisting tunnel barely large enough to accommodate you. Gradually, the space widens, and you find yourself in a small chamber. As you enter, raising to your hands and knees, a glow springs up. Topping some rocks, you see Crun, crosslegged before a small fire. On the walls are drawings of horses, wolves, bison. . .
Lifting the bowl, he drinks half of the thick liquid, and then hands it to you. The drink tastes earthy, reminding you of the rich loam of deep, ancient forests. A wave of nausea nearly overcomes you, followed by a brief vertigo; both pass.
Crun begins tapping quietly and rhythmically on a hide-covered drum. Minutes pass, and you are suddenly aware of that your perceptions are altering. The fire seems to expand and contract, and, completely focused on the flame, you glean every detail from it. . . A distant, sustained rumble intrudes on your consciousness as it crescendos -- looking to your right, you see its source: a herd of buffalo stampeding across the plain beside you! but you aren't on a plain, you are in a cave and the bison are paintings. . .
The drumming becomes more rhythmic, stronger, until after much time it matches your heartbeat. Crun begins to speak (Per+Alert to notice that it isn't English, but something more guttural, more primitive, but understandable nonetheless).
"This man thanks the Great Spirits for protecting and guiding him, and he hopes that he is found worthy. This man asks that he be guided to the proper way of honoring you.
"This man calls to the spirits of his forefathers, the mog-urs, the dreamspeakers, the ones who talk to spirits. This man and this woman would ask that these spirits teach them their wisdom, that they would guide them in their search for understanding."
The drumming grows louder, louder, and then there's a snap and you are above your body, floating into darkness. You are alone, with no up or down, nothing tangible, but as you begin to panic, a presence reaches out to you. Together, you move. Darkness gives way to a flickering mist, and through the mist, a field of ice giving way to a great body of water, which you pass at incredible speed. Then, ice and rock, and the scene darkens.
You are hovering in a cave, similar to the one you left. Three men, all stocky with long, flattened heads -- Neanderthals -- sit before the skull of an enormous bear. The eldest speaks with words and gestures in the dim firelight. Suddenly, you feel a great presence is in the cave with you, and hear a deep, low growl. In the chamber beyond, you glimpse a human skull mounted on a stick. . .
. . .A Cro Magnon woman stands before several sitting youths. She is naked, save for a beaded bag around her neck; lines paint along the length of her body. She tells a sacred tale wordlessly, hands weaving words accentuated by her posture in a storyteller's dance. Firelight dances across her, throwing grotesque shadows on the wall of the cave. She finishes, and tells her audience to go. She sits composing herself. Then her eyes roll open again, and she looks into the air. . .at you. . . her face is your face. . .
. . .you float back, into the blackness. You feel diffuse, lethargic. The presence urges you onward, and you comply. Off in the distance, you hear a slow, steady drum beat. You move to its source, gaining speed as the sound grows louder. You fall into your body, which tingles painfully as you nerves awaken. You are very cold.
As the winter grudgingly gives way to spring, Thea and Crun hunt and collect new herbs. After replenishing their stock, Crun tells her "You have learned what you can from me for now."
As a parting gift, Thea is given a medicine bag containing, among other things, part of a porcupine quill. I can't remember what Thea gave Crun, but I'm sure it was something she made.
Thea collected her buried gear and returned to civilization. She incorporated her newfound understanding of spirits with her religious paradigm (going skyclad and drinking strange brews wouldn't go over well in a cathedral. . .) In game terms, she came out of the adventure with Spirit 2, Herbalism, Survival, Spirit Lore, and an extra dot of Strength.
These are some of the rotes used during the game.
Find the Prey: Asking the spirits of hunting beasts to help him, or the spirits of prey to reveal themselves, Crun stretches his perceptions to draw him to food. With this magic, he can sense the weak and the sick, even from a great distance (Life 1, Correspondence 1).
Thank the Prey: This is used to show reverence to the spirit of the slain animal, so that it will be placated and take another body. (Spirit 2)
Spirit Drums: The shaman drums quietly, listening to the silence between beats. In his trance, he hears the names of spirits active in the vicinity; he feels their auras. (Corr 2, Spirit 1. Diff 4, -1 for focus=3)
Follow the ancestors of memory: A sacred and difficult rite, whereby the participants can reach back into time and space to observe bits of life from millennia past. [Corr 2, Time 2 (Mind 2), Diff 5 (-1 for sanctum, -1 for focus, -1 near a Node, -1 for extra time +2 for Monumental task = 3, modified by meditation and/or spirit lore roll and Quintessence used, and whether another person is being brought along; 20 successes required in an extended ritual] Because of the herbal concoctions he uses, participants must roll against stamina (Diff 6) or be ill in the morning (lose 2 health levels); a Botch means the character has a reaction to the drink (takes damage, hallucinates, or whatever the ST decides).