The Paleolithic Role-playing Game
WHAT IS CAVEMASTER?
According to the designers Jeff Dee and Talzhemir Mrr, Cavemaster is a serious stonepunk tabletop fantasy roleplaying game of Pleistocene adventure. Homo Habilis, an early ancestor of modern man from approximately 2 million years ago left no written language or interpretive records for us to know exactly how lived or what they precisely did. Hence why this game is a fantasy game; though the authors theorize that Homo Habilis may have used these rules to play a similar game 2 million years ago. Cavemaster uses a unique mechanical system called “Habilis” that, according to the designers, is simple and could have been passed down verbally from a Cavemaster (CM) to their apprentice. So, what is it really? The designers are attempting to model, in a sense, the types of adventures early man, as represented by evolutionary branches of the genus Homo, may have gotten themselves into.
WHAT IS THE HABILIS SYSTEM?
The Habilis system is unique and I can’t personally think of any other game that uses a similar system. The core of the Habilis system is the use of stones to represent each of a character’s abilities. When you face a challenge, you pick up the relevant ability’s stones and secretly divide them between both of your closed hands. Your opponent or the Cavemaster will do likewise. Each player will now have two closed fists, each with some, all, none of their selected ability’s stones. Each player selects one of the other person’s hands and then they both reveal. The player with the most stones in their hand succeeds and their character has accomplished whatever they were trying to do. The Habilis system is a pass/fail system, but degrees of failure have an impact mechanically.
Let me preference this section by saying, the designers took some thematic license when writing this game and some of that will come out in the following descriptions. Character generation is relatively fast and easy once you wrap your head around the notion that this game is purpose-built to be thematic and simple.
Gather and do the following: every player will start with a piece of skin, a scrap of animal hide will suffice so long as it is big enough to cover two hand spans. If you’re a modern player (which I suspect is the case) you can use an 8.5×11 inch piece of paper. This is your character sheet. Next, you will need to char the end of a stick in your communal fire (or use a pencil). With your charred stick, draw a large fist-sized circle on your skin, this will be for your “core” stones. You’re going to need core stones too. Place 6 stone in the big circle. The core stones represent the innate abilities of your character.
Now, we move onto making some selections that will really define who your character is and what they can do. To accomplish this, you will first select your “breed”. There are four different breeds represented in the game. Each represents a different evolutionary branch of the genus Homo. Once you have chosen a breed, draw a smaller circle on your skin. Inside this new circle, draw a simple pictograph that represents the breed to you. Now, move one of your core stones into this circle. This represents your racial abilities. There are some caveats in the rules for different breeds and gender roles.
Now it’s time to select your job. Jobs represent groups of abilities directly related to the job role your character fills. The rules outline each job and the types of abilities and actions that are connected to it. There are some restrictions based on breeds as well. Once you have chosen a job, draw another small circle on your skin and inside it, draw a pictograph that represents your job. Then move one core stone into this new circle. This represents an advantage you get from your job.
Every character will have one perk, perks represent unique, personal advantageous traits that fall outside the area of “jobs”. Perks range from Agile to artistic, charismatic to fast, keen-eyed to spirit lore, and everything in between. After choosing your one perk, drawn another small circle and inside, like before, drawn a pictograph that represents your skill. If you’re not artistically inclined you can just write the name in a modern language. Now, move one core stone into this circle. It now represents a 1-point advantage you get from your perk.
There are just a few things left and a character is ready for the Pleistocene era. Next, a name must be chosen. The authors suggest you draw a pictograph on your skin that represents what your character is called. As before, you can write it in a modern language if you so choose. Now, for every stone you have in each circle, draw one little line radiating from each circle. This is meant to be a visual reminder of how many stones are in each circle should they get moved accidentally.
Now it’s time to choose your stuff (equipment). All characters are assumed to possess all the standard equipment that goes with their job. Every character now gets one elective item in addition to their default equipment. The book presents a wide array of different things a player could choose. For example, there are options under categories such as apparel, boats, companions, materials, status, tools, and more. Each particular item is described in short and most items give the character some type of advantage, but usually in particular circumstances. Once you have selected your item, draw it on your skin as a reminder of what you have.
Your character is now complete! That was pretty simple and painless, right?
HOW DOES THE HABILIS SYSTEM REALLY WORK?
Above, I outlined what the Habilis system is in its most basic form. This section will give you more detail into how the system is used and some of the considerations that go into the challenges which are the main mechanic for adjudicating in the game. The Cavemaster, through the story, will present situations and challenges that characters will need to attempt to overcome in order to move the story forward. Readers should note that even failing a challenge will also propel the story forward, but maybe not in the way the characters would like.
Standard Challenges: Standard challenges follow a straight forward six-step process to resolve.
1) The CM sets the difficulty (2=simple and 10=extremely hard).
2) The CM will take a number of stones that correspond to the difficulty and secretly divides them between their hands. The player will now take their core stones (big circle) and split them between their two hands just like the CM.
3) Opponents choose hands
4) Reveal stones
5) Stones assigned to an applicable ability, perk, job, etc are now added to the player’s revealed hand of stones; all modifiers are cumulative. Thus, creating a new total.
6) Determine the outcome – if the character’s total is greater than the number of CM revealed stones they’re successful in accomplishing whatever the challenge was. Ties result in either a success with a negative consequence or a failure with a positive consequence. This is left up to the CM and what’s best for their story. Failures result when the CM has more stones than the character. A failed result means simple that the character failed in their task. A catastrophic failure, a failure margin of three or more. In these cases, the character will suffer additional negative consequences.
Competitive Challenges: These arise when one character is attempting to perform an action against another player or a CM controlled character. Resolution is very straight forward. Much like Standard Challenges, Competitive Challenge difficulty is determined by the opponent’s stones. When you face a Competitive Challenge, you pick up the relevant ability’s stones and secretly divide them between both of your closed hands. Your opponent or the Cavemaster will do likewise. Each player will now have two closed fists, each with some, all, none of their selected ability’s stones. Each player selects one of the other person’s hands and then they both reveal. The player with the most stones in their hand succeeds and their character has accomplished whatever they were trying to do. Readers should note that occasionally disadvantage modifiers could be applied as determined by the CM.
Combat System: Combat is turn-by-turn. If using some type of miniatures at the table, distance is determined by hand spans or half hand spans. Distances are not precise. The combat process is like many other roleplaying games in that it follows a specific sequence to ensure everyone gets a turn and things happen in the correct order. The initiative is determined (provided there is no surprise) by the CM secretly placing a stone in one of their hands and a player selecting one hand. If the stone is revealed the players have the initiative if not, the CM has initiative. Combat now moves into the “phases” in initiative order, each character will each complete the following and then play is passed to the next character. A move option is followed by an action. There are several move options available and a character has to decide if they move or not in this phase. Once that phase ends, they then execute the action phase. During the action phase, a character can attack, mark a target, dodge, surprise, retreat, or rescue someone. Each option is detailed in the book, but suffice to say, these options are pretty straight forward.
Damage & Recovery: Whenever a character suffers any type of physical damage, 1 stone is temporarily set aside per point of damage taken. The stone is physically moved outside of the circle it originated from. This is a visual representation of injuries and these stones cannot be used for future challenges until they are recovered. Should a character lose all of their stones, they fall unconscious. If they suffer any additional damage after falling unconscious, they’re dead. Wounded characters heal at a rate of 1 stone per week so long as they’re resting. Non-magical, mundane, healing is possible once per day. Mundane healing is treated as a Standard Challenge (see above) whose difficulty equals the target’s size in stones. Human characters are a 5. If the healer wins the challenge, the character heals 1 stone. Spirit Magic is possible and it has its own set of simple rules to determine the outcome. Food shortages and starvation can negatively impact a character’s ability to accomplish things as well. For every three days without food, set aside one stone to represent the physical impact the lack of food has on a character.
Character Advancement: At the end of each game session the CM awards one stone to the character that stood out the most. Think of this as an MVP award. This is a group vote. In groups of 5 or fewer players, this award is given out every other game session. The player who receives this new stone assigns it to either their job or ability circle or they can create a new ability and updates their skin accordingly. No character may receive two advancements until all characters have received one.
THE WORLD OF CAVEMASTER
Approximately one-third of the 107-page book is dedicated to the world in which these stories unfold. In addition to laying out the physical world, the authors give us a good in-depth look at some of the lore behind the breeds and how that lore can be used by both the players and the CM. I would like to point out that within this section there are additional sub-sections that delve into specific topics. For example, section 9.5 addresses interbreeding of the various breeds and how those interactions (off camera) should be addressed with regards to the ability to mate and grow a society.
The creature section will give the CM a good look at all the possible physical threats characters can face during the course of a game or longer campaign.
The Cavemaster section layouts a modest array of prep considerations, game ideas, and even a beginner scenario. Following this section are a number of appendices that give a deep look into several tribes that are intrinsic to the world. The last appendix in for an advanced job called “The Herder”. This should not be used unless the CM is confident that it will not negatively impact their game.
The book ends with a few black and white hex maps and a full-color world map.
PLAYING THE GAME
Several years ago I had the chance to play a game of Cavemaster with none other than Jeff Dee behind the screen as our Cavemaster. I really enjoyed the game and the mechanical aspects as they were and still are refreshingly simple and rather intuitive to use. In no way do they slow gameplay down. My time playing this game is very limited and that is an unfortunate reality that I do need to rectify sooner, rather than later. This game was at a virtual online convention and the online medium presented some unique challenges when adjudicating Challenges within the game, but we managed and it all worked out very well. Mentally transcribing that game to a physical table, I can see it being equally as enjoyable or more so.
For the life of me, I couldn’t remember how Jeff Dee dealt with the issues of hiding stones during our online game so, I asked him. He recollects having created a deck of custom cards for Roll20; that jarred my aging brain. Each of us would have cards of specific values in front of us (hidden from his view). We would arrange them, when needed, into left and right piles and he would do the same for Competitive Challenges. I recall it working pretty smoothly, but obviously, it’s not ideal. I’m sure there are other methods people who are more creative than I, could devise.
Like any other roleplaying game, the in-game experience is heavily focused on the narrative unfolding and less on the mechanical aspects of the game. As you can see from above, the mechanics of the game are simple and intuitive, yet engaging and robust enough to convey the theme well and leaving little to question when adjudicating challenges, combats, etc.
HOW’S THE QUALITY?
Quality means something different to every person, but there are some standards that most publishers try to achieve — the quality of the writing and overall presentation of the book. Some are better than others and Cavemaster is on the better side of things. The overall quality of the writing is very good. As someone who does freelance editing and proofreading, nothing notable jumped out at while reading the book. The writing is clean, clear, concise, and at times a little whimsical. The presentation of the book as a whole is easy on the eyes, but it’s all black and white. There are no color illustrations save for the covers and the world map. The artwork is simple line drawings which are more than thematically appropriate. The lack of color artwork, in my opinion, does not detract from the overall presentation, but I have to admit that some color pieces would have been nice.
WHAT DID I LIKE?
Unique mechanics that are thematically appropriate
Stonepunk! need I say more?
A vibrant world with plenty of “space” to carve out your own piece of it
Prehistoric history seamlessly blended with a believable fantasy
Interactive adjudication adds enjoyable tension
The whimsical writing style (tactful, not overdone)
WHAT DON’T I LIKE?
Something about the term “Breed” rubs me the wrong way
Limited additional published material (one additional sourcebook and one intro scenario at the time of this review)
Cavemaster is a unique game on several fronts. First, it places the game in a factually-based pre-historic time and seamlessly blends it with fantastical elements. Albeit, it’s not hard to do since we have no written records from the early proto-human species and cultures. The overall vibe of the game is richly thematic which is something I place a lot of value in. I’m not sure that everyone will enjoy the theme as it is very grounded in more realism and reality than the whimsical fantasy that some gamers are likely to prefer. Second, the mechanics are really different, in a good way. The physical and tactile nature of the Habilis system is something worth trying. There’s not a lot of fluff or modifications that are applied to most situations. Therefore, it’s quick and fun to resolve challenges. The Habilis system is fast, tense, and fun!
This is one of those games that I think most gamers should try, if for no other reason than to get exposure to something new and radically different, both in terms of the theme and the rules system. If you’re interested in checking it out, follow the links at the top of this review.
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