Prehistoric fantasy has long seemed like an underutilised setting in fiction, one only trotted out as a backdrop to time travel shenanigans and that odd action flick from the late 2000s. New tabletop RPG Primal Quest would likely agree, while also adding that a little bit of primal magic and weird twists only enhances the experience.
Primal Quest is the creation of Diogo Nogueira, a Brazilian designer who set out to create rules for what he describes as “weird stone & sorcery” adventures. Everything takes place in The Primal World of Thaia, a planet quite similar to the Earth where early humans live alongside dinosaurs and other strange peoples - swamp-dwelling frog cultists, ancient forest protectors and territorial apes who distrust their less hairy neighbours.
Travelling across Thaia means inviting danger at every step. Humans live in small tribes and largely trade among each other, but not all of them are ready to settle down and cooperate peacefully. The environment itself still shudders and groans with primal forces that might swallow whole villages without noticing, but it could also reveal long-forgotten ruins and the dark places of the earth perhaps better left buried.
A playthrough of the board game Dinosaur World by Dicebreaker's video team.
Players use a fairly straightforward system of six-sided dice pools in Primal Quest - positive dice represent advantages, boons and favourable positioning, while negative dice are earned from conditions, environmental hazards or the efforts of your foes. When attempting to overcome a rated challenge, a player rolls that pool and subtracts the highest negative die from the highest positive die. If, after adding the appropriate attribute, the roll is higher than the target, that player succeeds. Either outcome is weighted by degrees which can lead to near-death scrapes or overwhelming victories.
As early humans, groups will only have access to wood and stone gear, but they can always augment their capabilities with magic, old and primal, that is always dangerous to use and always taxing on the wielder. Those who would spurn the gifts of the earth might instead happen upon strange and otherworldly artefacts from ruins and structures that seem to morph the land and creatures around it in strange, unpredictable ways.
This is a game for groups who want to keep close track of their supplies and encumbrance, who want their equipment to break at the most dire moment and are prepared to meet death every time they step beyond the safety of a village. Primal Quest makes it clear that threats are not always meant to be faced with a club or spear in-hand, and the unknowable earth may just reward the inquisitive and the cautious.
The essential rules for Primal Quest are currently available as a pay-what-you-want download on the game’s Itch.io page, which includes the Mother’s Vale hexcrawl as an introductory adventure. A quick read-through shows a sheltered valley full of secrets, simmering tensions, and plenty of supernatural occurrences that might not be of this world. Oh, and plenty of dinosaurs.
Nogueira is further supporting the release with a compatibility license for any designer who wants to add to the prehistoric setting, along with a game jam, Primal Jam 2022, to host community hacks and creations using his ruleset. Printed copies will be available in the future through Exalted Funeral’s shop - at least in the US - but no date on their arrival is currently available.