Historical Accuracy and Gameplay in Born from Ice

Loren SmallDeep Dive, Game Dev, Game DevelopmentLeave a Comment

cave drawing of mammoth hunt

How To Make A Game Historically Accurate

A major question I wrestled with while designing Born from Ice was, “how do I make a game historically accurate?” This isn’t a new question for game designers, because while it sounds simple and innocent (and maybe even easy to answer), it actually opens up a whole lot of secondary questions that end up being about much more than accurately reflecting a time period and instead become about less glamourous ideas like game mechanics and the actual fun of playing a game.

With Born from Ice, there was an added layer, as the historical eras the books are dealing with are times we have very limited views and understanding of.

So, how do you translate that into a game that’s both fun and somewhat reflective of what life might have been like 10,000 or 50,000 years ago? That’s the challenge I wanted to tackle.

Historical Accuracy: What We Know and What We Don’t

Before we dive into the mechanics and storytelling elements, it’s crucial to understand what we actually know about this time period. Science has certainly given us glimpses into the lives of our ancestors. From the cave paintings of Lascaux to the remarkably preserved body of Ötzi the Iceman, science has unearthed fascinating artifacts and remains that help us piece together a narrative. But let’s be clear: much of it is broad strokes.

Anthropology: The Study of Humankind

Anthropology is like a time machine that allows us to explore the depths of human history, providing insights into the social, cultural, and biological aspects of human societies across time. From this field, we glean valuable information about early human societies and how the people in them lived.

For instance, through studying ancient bones and teeth, anthropologists can tell us about early human health, diet, and even migration patterns. Techniques such as stable isotope analysis have revealed that some societies were primarily vegetarian while others had a diet rich in seafood.

In addition to physical artifacts, anthropology also delves into social and cultural aspects. It gives us valuable insights into kinship structures, which are crucial for understanding social hierarchy and community organization. Early forms of religion, rites of passage, and even early systems of trade and commerce come under the purview of anthropological study.

Amazing Discoveries

Recent advances in DNA analysis have given us startling insights into human evolution and migration. For instance, the sequencing of Neanderthal DNA has shattered many myths and revealed that modern humans share a small percentage of Neanderthal genes.

What it Can’t Tell Us

While anthropology offers a wealth of knowledge about human societies, its limitations are noteworthy. Aside from often wrongly treating existing tribal societies as “living fossils,” anthropology is also limited by the data it can collect. For example, while we may have skeletal remains that provide clues to diet and lifestyle, they can’t give us a full picture of the social hierarchies, the individual personalities, or the day-to-day dramas that would have influenced human behavior.

Moreover, a lot of anthropological theory comes with a large side of speculation and extrapolation. While it’s based on evidence, it’s also subject to interpretation, debate, and revision. There’s also the challenge of ethnocentrism, the tendency to view other cultures from the perspective of one’s own, which can distort how we understand prehistoric societies. These gaps mean that while anthropology can guide us, it can’t provide a complete, unambiguous picture of prehistoric life.

Archaeology: Unearthing the Past

If anthropology is a time machine, then archaeology is the treasure chest it uncovers. From the tiniest arrowheads to vast, buried cities, archaeology supplies us with the tangible artifacts of human history. From the intricate cave paintings in Lascaux that offer a window into the artistic skills and perhaps spiritual beliefs of our ancestors, to the tools, weapons, and household items that have been unearthed, each discovery adds a piece to the puzzle.

Amazing Discoveries

Take, for instance, the site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. Dated to around 11,000 years ago, this site has reshaped our understanding of Neolithic societies, showcasing advanced levels of social organization and monumental architecture way before the advent of agriculture.

What it Can’t Tell Us

Archaeology has its own set of limitations. Yes, we find tools, bones, and sometimes even amazingly well-preserved settlements, but these are like single frames from a long-forgotten movie. We can guess at the plot, but we’ll never know for sure. And because these items have often been separated from their cultural context for thousands of years, our interpretations can be flawed. Plus, the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. Just because we haven’t found it doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

Additionally, the process of excavation itself can sometimes alter or destroy contextual clues that might have been crucial for understanding an artifact’s purpose. Another important point is that archaeological evidence is subject to preservation bias. Organic materials like wood, leather, and fibers usually deteriorate over time (which makes the few finds that include these objects so amazing), so what we’re left with is often just the “durable goods” made of stone or bone. This can skew our understanding of what prehistoric life was really like.

Geology: The Earth’s Chronicles

Geology offers a complementary perspective, focusing not on the human actors but the stages they performed upon; understanding the Earth itself provides context for human history. By studying sediment layers, geologists can tell us about past climates, volcanic activity, and even sea-level changes. All of these environmental factors had a profound impact on human evolution and migration, creating environmental challenges our ancestors faced.

Amazing Discoveries

The study of ice cores has revolutionized our understanding of Earth’s climatic past. Each layer of ice is like a page in a history book, capturing a snapshot of the atmosphere at a particular time. By examining the layers of ice in glaciers, scientists can identify the concentrations of atmospheric gases at different times, providing a timeline of Earth’s climate. This helps us understand the challenges of living in a post-glacial world.

What it Can’t Tell Us

Geology gives us an understanding of the Earth during different eras but falls short when it comes to the human experience within those landscapes. For example, we might know that a region experienced a prolonged drought, but we won’t know how individual communities coped with it. Did they develop new irrigation techniques, or did they engage in rituals to bring rain? Geology can’t answer these questions.

Another limitation is that geological records can offer broad timelines but can’t provide the “minute-to-minute” environmental changes that would have had immediate impacts on daily life. So while we can discuss the general trends of glaciation or desertification, the local, immediate conditions remain speculative.

Paleontology: The Prehistoric Ecosystem

Paleontology introduces us to the co-stars of our ancient drama: the fauna of the era. From mammoths to saber-toothed tigers, the animals that coexisted with humans not only posed threats but also offered opportunities for food, clothing, and tools. The discovery of fossilized footprints and coprolites (fossilized dung) has even given us clues about ancient hunting strategies and diets.

Amazing Discoveries

One of the most iconic discoveries is the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, which have yielded a treasure trove of Ice Age fossils. From these pits, we’ve gained an unparalleled view into the kinds of creatures that roamed North America around 10,000 to 50,000 years ago. The findings include not just predators like saber-toothed cats, but also mastodons, dire wolves, and even some human artifacts.

What it Can’t Tell Us

Paleontology introduces us to the fauna of the prehistoric world, but it can’t tell us about the complex relationships between these creatures and humans. For instance, we know that mammoths and humans coexisted, but was the relationship primarily predatory, or was there an element of coexistence that we can’t understand from fossil records?

Also, paleontology usually can’t tell us about animal behavior, especially behavior in relation to humans. Did saber-toothed tigers avoid human settlements, or were they a frequent threat? How did early humans interact with animals that are now extinct? Were some of these creatures part of myths and legends? The bones and fossils can’t tell us that.

Bridging the Gaps with Creative Interpretation

Science gives us lots of big answers. But when it comes to the minutiae (outside of very specific discoveries), science often shrugs its shoulders. Not because it wants to, but because we don’t have discoveries and research to fill in those gaps yet. What were the daily routines like? How did interpersonal relationships work? What did people actually feel? For these, until science makes more headway (which it does, all the time), we have to rely on educated guesses, and this is where Born from Ice takes creative liberties to offer a gaming experience.

The Game’s Intent: An Engine for Stone Age Adventures

My aim with Born from Ice was never to create a textbook or a simulation. Instead, I wanted to offer an engine for Stone Age adventures, an interpretation of the past through game mechanics and, of course, a good dose of imagination. If we were aiming for strict simulation, let’s be honest, the game would be pretty dull. Life, no matter the time you live in, is generally fairly mundane, punctuated by brief moments of high adrenaline or other drama. Simulating the day to day is an interesting concept that might appeal to some, but doesn’t make for a fun shared adventure storytelling experience for a broad group of people.

So, how do we make it interesting? Here’s where gameplay comes in.

What to Expect in the Game

  1. Ideas for Telling Interesting Stories: The game will offer themes and plot hooks that GMs can use to craft engaging adventures. This is the primary goal, and everything else about the game design is in service to it.
  2. 5e Engine to Make Gameplay Familiar and Easy to Pick Up: At the core of the game is the 5e D&D game engine. This is a game engine that is familiar to millions of players already, and the goal is to use the good parts of the engine to build a recognizable play experience that is easy to use and understand.
  3. Rules that Enhance the Setting: Gameplay rules and systems will be revised to reflect the setting. Not everything about baseline 5e makes sense to use in Born from Ice (such as removing magic), and new rules will be introduced to help make the game function or make more sense (such as rules for poison-craft and herbalism, offering additional methods of damage and healing).
  4. Verisimilitude: While we may not be able to capture the exact daily life of the Stone Age, the game aims to present a world that feels real and consistent. Big ideas will be presented in the setting material and will be based on as much research and evidence as possible. Game systems that are built (such as equipment or classes) will fit within those big ideas.
  5. Logical Consistency: Every rule and setting is designed to make sense within the world of Born from Ice.
  6. Abstraction. Not every tiny detail needs to be included in the game to make the world come alive. Since this isn’t a detailed simulation but instead an adventure engine, there won’t be tons of small systems to handle every facet of life. Rather, the systems that are created will be to enhance aspects of gameplay.
  7. Sensitive Topics Informed by History and Science. It is important to the historical nature of the game to provide not only information on various topics that would impact life during the period, but also to provide context and guidance around areas that can be potentially difficult to grapple with today. The game will provide Session 0 support to help groups make sure they steer clear of or properly frame any problematic areas, and any sensitive topics in the books will be handled as respectfully as possible, including a historical perspective around the topic. Some topics will likely include:
    • Illness
    • Physical disabilities
    • Fears (such as claustrophobia, severe weather, starvation)
    • Medical treatment
    • Death
    • Violence/Oppression (such as kidnapping, animal death, hunting, slavery, cannibalism, interpersonal combat, genocide) – we are dealing with a time of violence and insular tribalism, which also sees the end of the Neanderthals. While not every interaction is violent, it is certainly one of the ways people will deal with their problems within the game.
    • Drugs/Psychoactive substances – used in religious ceremonies or even for healing, various natural drugs will come up in the game.
    • Gender roles – the good news is there really aren’t significant gendering of roles in a Stone Age setting; discoveries and research continually show women and men were on generally equal footing during this time. The game will happily address the lingering gender bias from 19th century and early 20th century works that have long colored the study of prehistory.
    • LGBTQ+ – again good news; the science we do have available shows that most ancient people groups had traditions of same-sex relations and gender fluidity.
  8. Emotional and Cultural Exploration: The game will allow for nuanced emotional storytelling. Players can expect to face moral dilemmas and form complex relationships, offering opportunities to explore different cultural practices and beliefs within the Stone Age context.
  9. Pillars of Gameplay: Exploration, combat, survival, and social interaction remain the core pillars that drive the game’s mechanics and storytelling.

What You Won’t See in the Game

  1. Strict Historical Accuracy: The game aims for a balance between historical plausibility and engaging gameplay. So, while you can expect a game rich in historical texture, it won’t be a rigidly accurate simulation of Stone Age life.
  2. Detailed World Modeling: The world is set, but not to the extent that it restricts creative freedom. Again, this is a game about adventure storytelling, not large-scale world simulation.
  3. A Text Book or Scholarly Work: While I would love for educators to be able to use the materials in this book to enrich learning, the game is not designed as an authoritative text or study.
  4. Rules that Could Cause Distress: We’re steering clear of creating rules around elements that could be overly distressing. It doesn’t mean these elements can’t exist in your game, or that these topics might even be discussed within the setting material, but rather that we won’t be making specific rules or systems around them. Here are some examples (this is not an exhaustive list, I’m highlighting these specifically because I have seen specific questions about why so much other Stone Age material revolves around these topics):
    • Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Mortality Rates: While these are certainly aspects of Stone Age life, they won’t be mechanized in the game.
    • Sexual Content: No rules for this. It’s not the focus of the game.
    • Gender and Orientation: While the game will address these topics in an inclusive way that reflects current understanding, there will be no rules or mechanics around gender or sexual orientation.
  5. Anachronisms: The core material will not include elements that don’t fit the setting. While certain things may get “gamified” (such as healing herbs providing a certain dice roll of Stamina Points), this will not stretch to becoming features that don’t fit the setting (such as a gun becoming available). This isn’t to say there might not ever be a book specifically about anachronisms in a fun “Lost World” style, or that a GM could mix other 5e material in to create a fantasy Stone Age game, but the idea is for the core material to always avoid these types of immersion breaking intrusions.
  6. Pop Culture Cave People: This isn’t The Flintstones, Geico ads, or single syllable “me no talk good” representations that often show up in pop culture representations. It is intended to be a nuanced, rich exploration of prehistory and the fully-realized people who lived in that time.
  7. “Power Fantasy” Elements: While the game aims to be exciting and adventurous, it won’t cater to traditional power fantasies. You won’t find “god mode” abilities or items that make your character invincible. The struggle for survival is real and ever-present.
  8. Modern Sensibilities: While the game will be respectful and sensitive to modern social issues, it won’t impose modern-day values or social structures onto its Stone Age setting. The aim is to be historically plausible while maintaining a level of sensitivity to current-day issues.

The Struggle for Balance

Creating Born from Ice has been a constant struggle for balance. On one hand, I wanted to honor the rich tapestry of human history; on the other, I needed to make a game that was fun to play. The game is built on research and informed by science, but it’s also filled with creative liberties. And that’s okay. At its core, Born from Ice is a storytelling platform—a way to explore themes that are as ancient as humanity itself, like community, survival, and the indomitable human spirit.

So, if you’re looking to experience a world that’s harsh yet awe-inspiring, where every decision can mean the difference between life and death, I invite you to join me in Born from Ice. It’s a game that offers a different kind of adventure—one that’s raw, authentic, and deeply human. Remember, this is not a history lesson but an adventure waiting to happen. I hope you’ll be as excited to play it as I have been to create it.