If you know D&D, you probably know the name Rich Baker. From his role in development of settings like Birthright, games like Alternity and the new Gamma World, many Forgotten Realms supplements and novels, war games, and much more, Baker has many years of industry experience on all kinds of products.
Now, Baker has teamed up with two other familiar faces from the D&D world (Dave Noonan and Steve Schubert) to form Sasquatch Game Studio. Their first product is now up on Kickstarter: a new campaign setting called Primeval Thule for D&D, Pathfinder, and 13th Age, inspired by the works of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. We asked Baker a few questions about the world of Thule and what makes the setting unique.
Critical Hits: What’s your favorite or what you feel is the most important feature of the Primeval Thule setting?
Rich Baker: For me, it’s the look and feel of the setting. So much of the D&D artwork that’s been done in the 3e and 4e eras is firmly settled in a sort of Renaissance gearhead mode where adventurers are depicted “realistically.” Characters are shown armored from head to toe, key magic items are standardized and carefully displayed so that you can tell exactly what a character is wearing or using, and PCs carry pockets, pouches, bandoleers, all kinds of practical accessories. That’s fine, but Primeval Thule draws on a different tradition of fantasy artwork—the brooding, lurid, brawny swords-and-sandals style of artists such as Frank Frazetta, Roy Krenkel, or Brom. This isn’t a world of knights in armor or wizards in Gandalf-like robes. It’s a world of half-naked barbarians, gladiators in fighting harness, and sorcerers in exotic costumes.
I’m a writer, not an artist. I can’t personally illustrate the world of Primeval Thule. But the art gracing the covers of old Conan or Tarzan books was the springboard that got me thinking, “Why doesn’t more D&D look like that?” and “What sort of D&D world could I create where PCs and monsters would fit in this style? How would that be different from the sort of worlds we’re used to now?”
Primeval Thule grew from those inspirations; we built a savage, splendid world lost in time to give us the style of fantasy we didn’t see in the current offerings of game worlds. Fortunately my partners and I found some concept artists who could see where we were going and bring our ideas to life!
Primeval Thule is being offered in three popular, modern fantasy games: Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and 13th Age. How do you anticipate handling support for three different game systems?
Steve, Dave, and I are all experts in both Pathfinder and 4e D&D, having worked professionally in both systems. While 13th Age is new, we’ve been playing it at our own game table, and it’s close enough to existing systems that we’re reasonably proficient there, too. For us, it’s not very hard to take an idea such as the beast-man monster description or a Thule-specific magic item and create iterations of that idea in any of these game systems.
When you think about it, something like 90 percent of the words and all of the art in the setting book don’t need to change to support these different rules sets. We’ll keep the book organization and layout nearly the same across all three versions, and just replace the specific mechanics and stats we need to change out. We’ll have to be a little clever with how we lay out the book to make that manageable, but we’ve got some ideas on that front and we’re confident we can pull it off.
For those game systems, what can backers expect to see as far as unique classes, races, etc.?
We actually view both Pathfinder and 4th Edition D&D as very mature systems that don’t need a great deal of additional expansion in terms of mechanics. 13th Age is newer, of course, but it’s a little more story-driven than the other two, so it’s not hungry for a lot of new classes either. When we introduce something mechanical, we want to do so because we think the world really needs it. We don’t expect to introduce any new classes, but we do have plans for a new race, the Atlanteans. You might think of them as a “high men” race analogous to high elves or (for your Lord of the Rings fans out there) Dunedain.
The place where we’re introducing some mechanical innovation is a system we call character narrative. A narrative is similar to a 2nd Edition character kit, Pathfinder’s trait system, or 4th Edition’s theme system. It’s a third pillar of character identity that provides some moderate benefits, but more importantly serves to anchor your character in the world and give you a sense of how other people would see you. For example, the “ice reaver” narrative means that you’re a native of one of the raiding tribes of the frozen north, and the narrative doesn’t really care if you’re a barbarian, ranger, rogue, or cleric—characters of almost any class might come from the ice tribes, after all.
What are some of the threats that the players will have to oppose in the world of Thule?
Savage prehistoric beasts such as saber-tooth tigers, dire wolves, and angry mammoths. Brutish, primitive beast-men barely more advanced than apes. Sinister serpent-men who hate the younger and more vigorous civilizations of Thule. Cultists dedicated to the worship of Great Old Ones. Brutal slavers and cruel corsair princes who plague the wicked cities of humankind. Proud rakshasa lords hungry for power and dominion. And, of course, the remnants and survivors of vastly older races, star-demons and elder horrors that slumber in the hidden places of the world.
Everyone working on the setting has a lot of experience developing settings and worlds, especially for D&D. What are some of the lessons you’ve taken from previous experiences working on such worlds as Forgotten Realms that you’re trying to apply to Primeval Thule?
We see a campaign setting as a toolbox or cookbook for the GM. There’s plenty of room for inventing fictional history and introducing compelling characters, but you really need to *show* the GM exactly how to use that material at the table. For lack of a better term, you need to make it actionable—otherwise, the setting is something people read but don’t play. Our setting book includes dozens of new Thule-specific monsters, several ready-to-play adventures to help you start your campaign, a number of mapped and detailed adventure sites that can serve as the frameworks for adventures the GM creates, and even a section on campaign arcs—broad storylines that show the GM what he can do with the setting and help him plan the story he wants to tell.
After the Kickstarter, what kind of further development can we expect for Primeval Thule?
We’re pretty focused on making the best campaign setting we can—we want to knock Thule out of the park before we do anything else. Naturally we’re considering plans to produce follow-on adventures or sourcebooks, and we have corporate partners who have expressed interest in supporting Thule too. But it really comes down to what the customers tell us they want to see. The Kickstarter is a big step in that conversation, and we’ll continue to engage our backers down the road to gauge the interest in various follow-up products.
Why do you think backers should jump aboard Primeval Thule right now?
We’re confident that we are going to fund successfully, and the book that we produce at that “minimal funding” level is going to be a setting book of the highest quality—256 pages with full color art and great maps, written and illustrated by the most talented folks in the industry. But if we exceed our funding target and start knocking down stretch goals, the book gets bigger and better for everybody. If you wait to buy Primeval Thule through retail outlets sometime next year, well, you’ll get that great 256-page book. But if you get on board now and help us hit our more ambitious goals, you’ll get a bigger book with more poster maps, more character narratives, more monsters, and additional adventures for the same amount of money. Maybe we get there without your help during the current campaign, but if you’re thinking about supporting us anyway, now’s the time to do it!
Anything you’d like to add?
Audience awareness is the biggest challenge in any Kickstarter, and we’re fighting that battle just like any other Kickstarter project. Please, please, please help us spread the word about this awesome world we’re building! If you think Primeval Thule is something you want to see, tell you gaming buddies about us and post about us in your favorite social media or forums.