Born from Ice: Stone Age RPG – An Interview With Loren Small (Small Cog Creative)

Born from Ice is a 5e variant set on Earth during the Stone Age. Designed as three books that include a multi-generational, 20-level campaign and a bestiary covering mammoths and saber-toothed cats, this is an ambitious project. Before those, he has a free quickstart and adventure. Since it is coming to Kickstarter, I spoke to Loren Small of Small Cog Creative to learn more about the world, the system, and how he is making this project happen.

Born from Ice 01.png

EGG EMBRY (EGG): Thanks for talking with me. What is Born from Ice: Stone Age RPG?
LOREN SMALL (LOREN)
: Hi Egg! Thanks for the opportunity! Born From Ice is a new 5e Stone Age setting and epic adventure path, currently on Kickstarter! Set against the backdrop of the last 70,000 years of the Ice Age, the game offers players an unprecedented journey into the life and struggles of our prehistoric ancestors, combining detailed historical research with engaging gameplay. It is designed from the ground up using as much current peer reviewed scientific material as possible, while not intending to ever be a textbook or full simulation; rather, it is an engine for realistic Stone Age adventures, an interpretation of the past through the combination of our current scientific understanding, game mechanics, and imagination.

EGG: This is an attempt to produce a “real world” Stone Age Earth experience, correct? What will the world be like?
LOREN
: The world is Earth, just ancient and untamed, and largely empty of human life (although people are starting to take a foothold). The end of the Ice Age was the end of a period of global cooling, so there were lots of challenges and opportunities that happened environmentally due to climate change. Because of this, survival will be a paramount challenge during the game. These challenges might present themselves as dealing with specific one-off weather events, longer term effects like drought that causes a tribe to migrate, or larger concepts like land-bridges that form and create opportunities for tribes to travel across what was once a sea to a new continent. The world is teeming with life during this period. It is almost impossible to imagine today (given how segregated we are from nature) how much wildlife would have covered the face of the planet. Massive herds of aurochs (ancient bovine ancestors), elk, wild horses, and other such creatures would be almost uncountable, and the smaller mammals and birds would be pervasive. The megafauna (the giant, now extinct creatures that are likely the first things you think of when picturing the Stone Age) like mammoths, cave bears, and saber-toothed cats were not only part of the landscape, but shaped the way early humans had to interact with their environment. These megafauna were both a threat and an opportunity, providing immense challenges in hunting and cohabitation but also offering resources essential for survival, such as fur for warmth, bones for tools, and meat for sustenance. It’s also a world where our ancient human ancestors still live: Neanderthal and Homo floresiensis (our smallest cousins). We don’t know much about these relatives, save from bones, fragments of tools and weapons, and the remnants of sites where they lived, but we do know a few things. We know they had cultures of their own and were able to produce sophisticated tools and weapons. We know they encountered humans (and in the case of Neanderthal, we know there was some mating, as we share DNA with Neanderthals), and we know they went extinct some time after that meeting. These ancient people, so close to us, are a fascinating shadow that helps shape the world of Born from Ice (and will be fleshed out in the setting). Humans (Homo sapiens) during this time were identical to us, equally as intelligent and creative, just without all the knowledge we have today. Daily life would be entwined with the immediate environment, and all of their knowledge and traditions would be passed orally through countless generations and revolve around dealing with the environments, threats, and survival techniques they had learned. This connection to the environment would also lead to an animistic point of view, one that would help explain the mysteries of life, where all parts of nature are sacred and contain part of the spirit of the world. Relationships and social structures, despite the people groups being very limited in number and contact with other humans, would have been very complex (much like relationships today), although the social norms would have been different from our modern society. I think I should also mention here one of the core things about developing the setting, which is a commitment to inclusivity and authenticity. There has been a pretty long history of gender and cultural bias in prehistoric research, which has led to common tropes like the “dumb primitive caveman” or “man the hunter, woman the gatherer.” The current peer reviewed research is really dispelling these harmful concepts on the grand scale. In most early societies, people were incredibly smart and resourceful, and the groups were so small that it required everyone working together in a much more egalitarian way. The books will also include setting information to allow playing anywhere on earth during this period that humans had a presence; I don’t want it to be just Euro-centric, like much prehistoric material related to this time is. In Born from Ice, anyone can play and feel authentically represented.

Born from Ice Raven Totem.png

EGG: That’s a fantastic sampling of the setting. Mechanically, this is Stone Age 5e, no magic. Magic is a huge part of the D&D ruleset, especially magical healing. How will are you working around these core differences?
LOREN
: Removing magic from the Born from Ice setting certainly presents a unique challenge, given how integral magic is to the traditional D&D 5e experience. However, this has also opened up a creative opportunity to explore and emphasize aspects of gameplay that don't rely on magic, trying to find ways to lean into the flavor of the game world for mechanics. I should also specify, in the setting lore, every character and NPC operates under a strong belief in magic and its influence on the world. This belief shapes their understanding of and interaction with their environment, infusing the roleplaying aspect of the game with a sense of wonder and mysticism. For instance, quests will be undertaken for reasons believed to be supernatural. For adventures and setting content, I am writing sidebars for the GM that will provide an explanation for the seemingly mystical, because I want there to be a scientific or natural explanation for every phenomenon, even if the characters in game never know what that is. That helps keep the writing honest and everything bounded within the setting I’m trying to define. To address the absence of magical healing and other staples of D&D mechanically, I’ve had to rethink character classes, abilities, and the overall approach to challenges and combat. The six new classes introduced—Mighty Champion, Quickfoot, Unbreakable Survivor, Strategist, Intuitive Sage, and Silver Tongue—each bring a unique set of skills and abilities to the table, focusing on physical prowess, strategic thinking, and social interaction rather than spells and magical effects. For example, the Strategist class (the INT class, replacing wizards) leverages intelligence and careful planning to approach challenges. By analyzing opponents and situations, Strategists can gain advantages or special moves in combat, or bolster their party's performance, empowering abilities through knowledge and tactics. Similarly, the introduction of Totem Paths as a replacement for subclasses allows for further customization and depth. Totem Paths can be used by any class, enabling characters to specialize in ways they might not normally in a traditional subclass that can reflect both their personal growth and their culture and beliefs. One example a lot of readers might be familiar with is the Cave Bear Totem, which has a lot of similarities to the 5e Barbarian Rage system. In this example, the Strategist (an INT based character) could go into combat with a working rage system. As an alternative, I have an article up on my blog that shows the Raven Totem Path, which is an interesting example, because it is kind of the shaman subclass that allows for a journey into the spirit realm. This touches on magic a bit, as the Raven Totem has specific mechanics that can lead to in-game prophecies, curses, power over intelligent creatures, and other outcomes. But it is all fueled by a hallucinogenic drug. In terms of healing and recovery, the game places a greater emphasis on natural remedies and resting. There is an herbalism system in the game that provides some healing benefits, and the short and long rest system has also received some tweaking to help with the survival aspects of the game (and with that, certain classes or Totem Paths have abilities that provide some healing benefit). Equipment and armor have also been reimagined to fit the setting, since armor, as we think of it, really didn’t exist at this time period. There aren’t truly magical items, but there will be items that are important and can carry cultural weight and meaning, potentially affecting interactions and morale both within the tribe and in encounters with others (and thus providing benefits a traditional magic item might have).

Born from Ice All books.png

EGG: You’re creating a Core Book, a Player’s Guide, and an Adventure Path. This is a standalone game, correct? Are you creating a bestiary for the core rulebook?
LOREN
: There is a bestiary, which will be included in the Core Book. The Core Book has everything a GM needs to run the game plus all player facing material. The Player’s Guide is a smaller book specifically designed as a spoiler-free experience for players. The Adventure Path is a level 1-20 adventure that enhances the whole experience and really showcases what a Stone Age campaign can be. The bestiary will focus on a lot of the megafauna and primary creatures that would pose a threat or prey. I don’t have an exact count yet. I can tell you my spreadsheet currently has 357 line items on it, but a number of those will get combined as I figure out the best way to consolidate creatures. For example, how many mammoths does the bestiary need? There were many types of mammoths on different continents, so can one stat block handle all of those, with some variant notes to handle exceptions? I’m really having to look at the science, as well as the game necessity, to figure some of this out.

Born from Ice Core Book.png

EGG: The correct answer is all of the mammoths! All of them! This book comes with rules and a 20-level campaign. What does the campaign revolve around?
LOREN
: The campaign is pretty epic right now as outlined. The story is presented in a number of Acts, each of which jumps forward generationally. Players will be able to continue play either as a descendant of their previous character or as someone inspired by them, gaining a specific boon for their new character depending on what their previous character accomplished in the previous act. Player accomplishment in previous acts will also impact the tribe and game world, with specific guidance for GM’s on how to adjust in reaction to the players. Act 1 revolves around a small clan (in the game setting, clans are the smaller groups of people that live together day-to-day, while a tribe is the larger grouping of those clans) that is displaced from its long term territory. If they can survive long enough, players can lead the clan to safety and a new beginning. In Act 2 and beyond, the story will shift into two areas: the larger meta of growing the clan into a full tribe, and individual significant events that present themselves as a chance for heroes to rise and shape the meta. I don’t want to spoil too much, but you can expect a mammoth hunt, intertribal tension, a trade mission, revenge, angered spirits, ancient prophecies, a drug fueled trip into the spirit realm, and a number of other surprises I’ll hold onto for now. These manifest in different ways, including some open ended wilderness exploration and some interesting dungeon delving (one dungeon I have mapped out is pretty terrifying).

Born from Ice Player's Guide.png

EGG: For Born From Ice, are you creating this with others?
LOREN
: So far, everything for the project has been done by me – writing, layout, art (other than a few images which are either royalty free or creative commons licensed). Definitely one of the points of the Kickstarter funding is to bring on more artists for the books – there is no way I can finish writing and create enough art for three books. But I don't know who those artists will be yet. My professional background is video and design, and I've been working on this project for a couple of years now. For a lot of my art process, I work in kind of a collage method, using lots of elements to pull a finished piece together (it is part of why everything has the specific look it does - I'm working with a post-processing set of filters that creates a uniform look across all the art, which helps with the few relatively unmodified licensed images I'm using, but the primary benefit is it hides a lot of the seams). I'm using a fair amount of stock licensed content and assets (especially a lot of photo references, fur textures, etc.) that I'm heavily modifying through this process, as well as creating original elements. My style and ability with the art process has really changed/improved since my first created image (the one of the three silhouetted figures moving through the forest, which I made about two and a half years ago - although it is still probably my favorite image) to my more recent stuff. I also edited the Kickstarter trailer, wrote and voiced the script, did the audio mixing (I did not write or record the music - those are licensed music tracks!), and did all the animation.

Born from Ice Campaign.png

Born from Ice: Stone Age Role-Playing (5e) from Small Cog Creative
Quickstart Guide and Character Sheets and a Born from Ice: Stone Age Role-Playing adventure are available at DriveThruRPG.
  • “A 5th Edition Stone Age adventure. Level 1-20 campaign, setting, and player options. Play D&D in a dangerous prehistoric world!”
Egg Embry participates in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program, Noble Knight Games’ Affiliate Program, and is an Amazon Associate. These programs provide advertising fees by linking to DriveThruRPG, Noble Knight Games, and Amazon.
 

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Egg Embry

Egg Embry



Loren the GM

Adventurer
Publisher
I really love the idea of this! The 5e part has me hesitating - I'm curious how playtesting has gone.
We have a 50 page Quickstart Guide and a 34 page adventure you can try now to play for yourself!

In playtesting, it has really changed the feel of the game. Without magic, everything feels more dangerous, and players definitely feel more vulnerable. Characters tend to play more tall than wide, with more focus on the areas of play they are specialized for. This really pushes for cooperation and team play, as each character brings something valuable and essential to the party.
 




ngenius

Adventurer
Looks like a great role playing game to introduce into schools and it also reminds of the prehistoric novels by Jean Auel.

I wish someone asked why levels 1 to 20? I have several low magic D&D books like Adventures in Middle-earth and Trudvang Adventures and both stop at 10th level to avoid mythic or superhero role play.
 

Loren the GM

Adventurer
Publisher
Looks like a great role playing game to introduce into schools and it also reminds of the prehistoric novels by Jean Auel.

I wish someone asked why levels 1 to 20? I have several low magic D&D books like Adventures in Middle-earth and Trudvang Adventures and both stop at 10th level to avoid mythic or superhero role play.
With the complete revamp of the system, even the higher levels don't necessarily feel like superhero/mythic play. Removing magic, coupled with some of our revisions on how enemies work, changes the leveling experience of the game. That said, some of the power level is also worked into the conceit of the world and storytelling; that is part of why we are also creating a level 1-20 adventure, as a lot of this will be somewhat new ground for players and GMs who are used to classic 5e.
 

ngenius

Adventurer
With the complete revamp of the system, even the higher levels don't necessarily feel like superhero/mythic play. Removing magic, coupled with some of our revisions on how enemies work, changes the leveling experience of the game. That said, some of the power level is also worked into the conceit of the world and storytelling; that is part of why we are also creating a level 1-20 adventure, as a lot of this will be somewhat new ground for players and GMs who are used to classic 5e.
Wow! The author responded, and I am grateful. Thank you; I am very much won over to try this long D&D campaign that does not end up with all Players getting flight ability and magic gizmos galore. And my Survivalist's Guide to Spelunking by Douglas Niles, can finally pose a challenge for Players at multiple levels.
 

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