Create Compelling Deities With The Primal Order

Recently I picked up the print on demand version of The Primal Order by Wizards of the Coast founder Peter Adkison. I have the original edition of the book, I managed to grab a copy of it back in the day, and I have the other published books for the unfortunately uncompleted game line. The idea behind The Primal Order was to build what they called a "capsystem" that would work as an overlay to other game systems, expanding them into new directions. The Primal Order line dealt with gods and clerics, an important part of many fantasy role-playing games.

This capsystem was in conjunction with a series of conversion notes in the back of the book, explaining how to use the book's rules in your favorite fantasy game. Systems such as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS, Ars Magica and Runequest were among those that had conversion notes in the book. These conversion notes were also the book's greatest stumbling block, as Kevin Siembieda of Palladium Games sued Wizards of the Coast for copyright infringement, over the inclusion of the Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing Game among the notes. The suit was settled out of court, but it lead to a second printing without Palladium Fantasy in the conversion notes (also, strangely, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was dropped), and with the addition of conversion notes for the World of Darkness, Earthdawn and Kult (among others).

It is this second printing that is available through the OneBookShelf sites. A couple of years ago I spoke with Adkison about the background of The Primal Order, and that interview might be of interest to some of you. There are also art and layout changes between the two printings as well.

In the interview, Adkison brings up what I have come to think is one of the major conceptual issues with the book. It falls into that pit that was common in fantasy games in the 70s and 80s, mostly that gods end up being treated as being little more than "super-heroes," ridiculously high powered characters that become little more than another fight for the player characters. This ends up taking the mystery and the "godliness" out of these beings in a lot of cases. Adkison sums this up himself in the interview by saying "Peter, you missed the point. You wrote about gods, but you didn’t write about Gods."

This approach can drain much of the myth and mystery out of deities in fantasy role-playing games. It isn't necessarily a bad approach to using gods, but it might not be the most flavorful way to approach the material.

Where The Primal Order really sings is in how it makes clerical characters stand out as something interesting and unique, rather than being a magic-user with a different set of special effects. At the core of this is what the book calls Primal Energy. If you have ever read a Jim Starlin comic where Adam Warlock and/or Thanos monologued about using their cosmic powers, you have an idea of what Primal Energy is supposed to be. It is a fundamental energy in the universe that makes gods into gods. It gives gods their immortality, their godlike powers and it is what allows them to do things like cast mortal magic. It is also the Primal Energy of the gods that empowers clerics, letting them heal and do things like cast spells.

Primal energy is used by deities as a "wrath of god" style of energy attack that no mortal protection can stop. Primal energy can also create shields that no mortal magics can penetrate. The idea behind primal energy is to come up with a mechanic that can make fantasy game gods into something more than just high powered characters. No matter how much they try, mortals can never take on primal energy to use as their own. The very nature of primal energy is what defines the divine in The Primal Order. Sort of like how Doctor Doom always failed in the end when he would steal the power of The Silver Surfer or Galactus or The Beyonder. There are energies that are just not meant to be contained by a mortal body. The primal energy mechanic is point-based, new gods start with a base primal energy of 100 points with which to empower their abilities, and to imbue their followers with powers and abilities. Primal energy is regenerated by deities, but it can also be replenished by worship of the deity or sacrifices to them. As gods become more "powerful" and do their equivalent of leveling up, they also can access more primal energy.

I think that this approach works better for some games than others. I think that it would work well in a system like Runequest, or a game like GURPS, better than it might for Dungeons & Dragons. But the rules on creating religions and church structures would have more utility for a broader spectrum of games than the primal mechanics themselves might. While games like D&D prominently feature religion with Clerics, the organizations that they are a part of are often left vague. What does it say about a deity that they create numerous ass kicking traveling martial orders that wander their universe? How does that deity form an organization that will train and support those types of people? These are the kinds of questions that The Primal Order was written to answer. There are sections talking about secular concerns like a church's sources of income and how does the organization interact with other churches, and the secular powers of cities and nations. There isn't always a lot in a fantasy role-playing game to differentiate the different churches of the different clerics in an adventuring group. What do "dueling" clerics have to accept, or ignore, in order to work together in a group? These aren't always addressed by role-playing games, but when a book like this does give GMs and players some options about these things it can increase the depth of opportunities for role-playing by the players.

There is also a discussion of how deities can craft spheres of influence and domains of power in order to not only empower their followers, but to also spread their power and grow their influence. All of these little moving pieces come together to form a greater machinery that adds depth to campaign worlds.

All deities have a place of power, their home plane. There is a chapter that discusses how to create interesting home planes for the deities in a campaign world that reflect their nature and their power. Not all deities may have them, but a home plane is the place where a god is most potent, and where they go to heal and regenerate their primal energies. How do the domains of power of a deity influence their home plane? These are some of the things that the chapter on planes discusses. But this chapter has a greater utility than just creating homes for your deities. You can just as easily use these rules to flesh out any extradimensional plane that player characters might visit.

In some ways, The Primal Order is rooted in the game design concepts of the 90s, but in other ways the material is very forward looking, to the point that the book would still be useful for gamers running games today. If you want to run a game where the characters interact with deities, or if the campaign world has an active contingent of deities that are involved with it, The Primal Order is a book that you should have on your shelves. There is a lot of really good guidance for creating deities that have character, and using that character to help define the world that they are a part of (or that they created).

One flaw with the book is a physical one. After having picked up a number of print on demand books from the OneBookShelf sites with excellent physical quality. The copy of The Primal Order that I received wasn't as well done. The printing in the book had uneven ink coverage, and a number of pages had that shininess that comes from a poorly maintained photocopier. After having received so many high quality print on demand books from the sites, this was a major disappointment. The printer could have stood to make a closer quality inspection of the book before sending it out.

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Community Supporter
I love this book; I just never had the discipline to use the math involved to accurately create a deity (much less a pantheon).


Staff member
I have several of the books. My group at the time was going to do a God’s Campaign, but I was one of the few who actually completed designing one.


The EN World kitten
In the interview, Adkison brings up what I have come to think is one of the major conceptual issues with the book. It falls into that pit that was common in fantasy games in the 70s and 80s, mostly that gods end up being treated as being little more than "super-heroes," ridiculously high powered characters that become little more than another fight for the player characters.

Personally, I've always seen this as a feature and not a bug. I like the idea that ultra-powerful characters can eventually challenge deities. The problems, to my mind, were always two-fold:

1) "ultra-powerful" characters became the province of rules lawyering and point-whoring, often to the point of completely eclipsing actual role-playing, rather than being the natural conclusion of long character progressions over the course of an epic campaign (i.e. if you ever wanted to reach that level of power, you better be prepared for the long haul and hope your character makes it!), and

2) Deities tended to be treated as lone NPCs rather than individuals at the head of vast, powerful organizations that they'd built up around them. Challenging a god should be more than a matter of planeshifting to their home (or gating them to yours) and rolling for initiative; rather, it should be like a modern-day group of mercenaries who declare war against a major military country. You're not just going to walk right up to the commander in chief and pull a knife on him or her. (And whatever tricks you have, you better believe that a divine hierarchy will have those and then some.)

By contrast, crafting deities as being of mystery and lore always struck me as being not only comparatively easy to do, but also - to be completely frank - rather boring. Most PCs don't want to get in-depth readings about old legends, but rather want to be out their living their own. Hearing the story of when J'dal fought the Sun-Serpent is useful only insofar as it relates to actual play; background material is nice, don't get me wrong, but window-dressing is far less of a priority than on being able to introduce something more directly relevant to an adventure. That tale becomes far more interesting if it gives a clue on J'dal's secret weakness when the PCs are figuring out how to potentially force him into a direct conflict.

There's also the fact that, insofar as world-building goes, knowing the exact capabilities of the largest players on the field (i.e. gods) helps to design top-down campaign worlds that avoid problems of internal logic. Being able to clearly define why the gods don't just fix everything, or why they prefer to use mortals in a cold war rather than just duking it out across the mortal world, etc. helps the GM to avoid pitfalls if and when their campaign ever gets to the point where those questions become directly relevant. Most campaigns won't ever get that far, to be certain, but I like that there's something out there for those that do.

To that end, The Primal Order remains one of the best RPG sourcebooks ever written.

Steffen Haeuser

First Post
Sounds interesting, though I have to admit I do not like this "primal energy" approach. Sounds much too "technical" to me, taking away the mysticism. I was always a bit taking the approach they took in german RPG system Midgard - the power of the gods comes from the beliefs of the mortals believing into them. The more believer the more powerful (though if I remember right the fanatism played also a role, very fanatic cults could cause the god to be powerful with less followers). They also had something like primal energy in that system - but that was strictly for arcane magic, it was how arcane magic works (casters open a portal into the arcane space and take energy from there - the technical stuff fits better there).

Interesting was the campaign world of Myrkgard (Dark Midgard) where a "dark emperor" kind of ruler made himselves the "god" of the Myrkgard world, and due to the beliefs of most people he in fact got godlike powers (godlike, not equal to a true god, if I remember right). Cleric spells on the other hand were weaker in this world, if I remember right (but not sure on this anymore).

Another interesting concept on gods I found in the (recent) D&D campaign of Primeval Thule. Basically they say "The outer planes are not a DESTINATION. They are a SOURCE." That means it is possible for stuff from there come to the primary worlds, but it is not possible to travel there. Does wonders for more "down-to-earth" adventures. And no "go to his homeplane and slay him there" at Thule.

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