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52 Pick Up: Reshuffled. A New Game each, err... month or so

Stonepunk

by Frank J. Perricone (hawthorn@starband.net), selected by Chris Czerniak
December 26, 2001
Duece of Clubs

Welcome to 52 Pick up Reshuffled. This column is an outlet for readers of rpg.net to publish their games as columns. I encourage everyone to write a game. Visit my submissions guidelines for more details!  

What the steampunk genre is for the Age of Steam, stonepunk is for the Stone Age.  Put simply, take the world of The Flintstones, with all its juxtapositions of the modern world with the primitive; take out the sitcom shenanigans, and replace them with action and adventures, with as serious a tone as you want.  (Of course, your first reaction to a world you remember from a silly comedy show will be to imagine a silly comedy game -- and if that's what you want, you can do it -- but there's no reason you have to.  The stonepunk world makes a surprisingly good setting for serious adventures of all kinds, despite its comic inspiration.)

It's definitely not a semi-realistic look at adventures in the primordial world (see GURPS Ice Age or Clan Of The Cave Bear), or a time of creation myths steeped in the power of symbols (see CORPS Dreamtime or Everway).  In Stonepunk, the people, places, objects, and situations of the modern world are mapped onto the Stone Age.  From the incongruity comes comic overtones, a different perspective (everything is being done for the first time in history), and a new feel for well-worn stories and themes.

If you're not familiar with The Flintstones, the premise is simple.  It's the Stone Age, but people don't make do with gathering berries and living in caves.  Instead, they drive cars made from stone, read newspapers chiseled from granite, listen to records using a pterodactyl as a needle (the beasts never seem to be having any fun acting as vacuum cleaners, motors, cranes, and garbage disposals, but for some reason they do it anyway), and sit on comfortable stone sofas in stylish stone houses in neat suburban rows.  After a hard day at work they go bowling, catch a movie, or eat at the drive-in restaurant.  On the weekends, they pack the kids for a beach picnic, tend the garden, or drive all day to visit the in-laws.  The original TV show reflects the 1960s, but your stonepunk game doesn't have to; the world of Y2K+ maps with just as much strange wonder onto the Stone Age, with shell phones in every pocket, politicians building bridges to the 21st century B.C., protests about free trade with the Cro-Magnons, TV personalities telling Australopithecus "you are the missing link, goodbye", troubles counting the butterfly ballot (some of the butterflies flew away), and the inventor of the wheel spending a fortune to buy a berth on Alpha, the world's first tree-house, while it's still in construction.

Adventure Types

Here are some ideas for adventures and how they'll fit into the world of Stonepunk:

  • Corporate espionage: The stone-mining operation in the next village is driving us out of business; rumor is they have some new invention called "metal" that gives them an advantage.  Find out what this "metal" is and whether we can steal it.
  • Law enforcement: Stop someone from carrying off a great heist, or try to carry one off yourself.  Solve a murder, frame an enemy, rescue the mayor's daughter, or try to stem the tide of that illegal, highly addictive stuff coming from the rainforest that's making all the kids hyperactive.  And maybe the law enforcement people have a special division for investigating the strange goings-on by that pyramid-shaped mountain, and the theories that gray-skinned strangers from faraway tribes keep coming from the campfires in the sky and taking away our young people?
  • War: Perhaps the lizard men are still hoping to inherit the earth.  Perhaps those pesky Cro-Magnons think they're such hot stuff.  And of course, those people from up in the mountains... well, there's something not quite right about them; best if we just kill them all and take their buffalo hides and their hi-fi stereo systems.  But first let's spy on them and see what they're up to.  Maybe they're the ones that gave all our motor-lizards that disease, and they have the cure we need to find before all our engines fail?
  • Science: There are so many new frontiers to explore, with strange creatures and stranger people, you could stay busy for lifetimes.  What's at the end of the earth, and why does the river flow one way and not the other?  Better go find out.  Besides, maybe we'll find something that'll make a neat new invention.
  • Safari: The rich have always loved the hunt, and there are always more beasts to be hunted.  I hear that guy who invented the shell phone wants to go hunt brontosaurs and needs some guides.
  • Commerce: Accompany a trade caravan to sell the finest baby mammoths to the folks in Overtheriver.  Find a new source of pteranadon eggs to sell to the Post Office.  Make a killing on the stock market - livestock, that is.

Atmosphere and Props

Even though there is writing and even newspapers (chiseled by hard-beaked birds called "presses" every night), numbers won't be invented for a while.  So if you need to see if one set of wedges is more than another, you match them up and whichever has some left over wins.  You don't write down a number of stones, you have a bag of stones (and you don't count it, either).  Try to get in the habit of not using numbers.  The GM can use numbers internally, but not out loud.  Instead of "you see four lizard-men", say "you see a lizard-men and another and another and another", or "you see as many lizard-men as there are wheels on a car".  In the text below, this convention is followed; when there are references to numbers of fingers, polydactyl players get no bonuses, and Frodo wouldn't come up one stone short, either.

A tall wedgeUnless you have stone tablets, chisels, and a lot of time, you can make the cuneiform wedges with a pen on paper.  If you feel really classy, use a calligraphy pen and make the wedges in the style of the Babylonian sexagesimal numbering system, as depicted here; if not, just draw horizontal and vertical lines.  Lay in a supply of stones and bones.  The best kind of stones are the gravel they use for driveways, or the small marble chips used for flowerbeds: cheap, plentiful, and they have the right rough-hewn, primitive Stone Age look about them.  But smooth gaming stones are widely available in discount stores or from Chessex.  Bones can be found in Native American craft centers (bone hair pipes are inexpensive; one source is Matoska Trading Company); toy bones can be found at dime stores or in old "Operation!" games.  If all else fails, use white d6s (get it?).

Character Creation

Characters are described by wedges, stones, and bones.  Wedges are cuneiform chisel-marks in a stone tablet, so they represent things that, once they're there, never go away (though they can be added to).  Stones and bones are gained and lost frequently.

Wedges

A flat wedgeA tall wedgeWedges come in two types: flat (drawn horizontally) and tall (drawn vertically).  Flat wedges indicate talent, skill, or ability in one thing, and tall wedges, in its opposite.  Each character can have wedges in the following traits:

Trait Flat Wedges - Tall Wedges |
Brains Instinct: intuition, memory, artistic talent Smarts: cleverness, logic, puzzle-solving
Thumbs Attunement: make beasts do your bidding Tools Use: create tools from materials, operate complex tools
Blood Cold-blooded: endurance, stamina Warm-blooded: speed, reflexes
Tails Brawn: strength Agility: nimbleness
Fur Willpower: self-control, resistance Charisma: empathy, persuasion

For each trait, a starting character has as many wedges as fingers on one hand, total.  Players can choose how many are flat, and how many are tall.  For instance, Albert Einstone's wedges might look like this:

Brains: | | | | | (read as: tall tall tall tall tall)
Thumbs: - | | | | (read as: flat tall tall tall tall)
Blood: - - - | | (read as: flat flat flat tall tall)
Tails: - | | | | (read as: flat tall tall tall tall)
Fur: - - - - | (read as: flat flat flat flat tall)

Here we can see that Albert is very smart, but he's evolved away from his instincts, so he's not very intuitive.  He has very little charisma; he's almost (but not quite) entirely unaware of other people, and unaffected by them.  He's somewhat average at speed and endurance, and more agile than strong.  While he'd be pretty good at making spears, chimneys, and cameras, he'd never be able to convince a bird to stand inside a camera and peck out the picture.  (In fact, since people who are good at tools are rarely good at convincing beasts to power them, most technology is collaborative; see Technology below.)

The order of the wedges doesn't matter, only how many there are.  When making a character, you can point your wedges flat or tall at your whim, so long as every trait has exactly as many as fingers on one hand.

Wedges never change, but in some cases, you may get to add more (see Character Advancement below).  NPCs and creatures can have more or fewer wedges.

Stones

At the beginning of every adventure, the GM gives each character a number of stones (the same number for each character).  How many?  That depends on how challenging, and how long, the adventure is.  (The GM may divide long adventures into sections and give out stones at the beginning of each.)  A simple trek through the forest guarding goods against bandits might be a twenty-stone adventure, while a daring raid on an enemy fortress to rescue a captured spy, who turns out to be a double agent and betrays the characters to the enemy, might well take a hundred stones in total, distributed in several batches.  (Of course, the GM won't say "twenty stones", just hand over a bunch of stones; remember, no counting, except in the GM's head.)  In general, the number of stones should be about twice as many as the number of challenges that will require each character to resolve an action; more makes for a more cinematic game.  The GM will also give a character bonus stones at any time, as a reward for doing something particularly brave, clever, or noteworthy, or even take away stones for breaking out of character or genre, or making really bad puns.

Stones represent luck, effort, mojo, and a general pool of ability and talent.  They are used to make challenges go in your favor.  NPCs and creatures also have stones (the GM decides ahead of time how many stones each has).  Players may give or trade stones to one another, with the GM's permission (but it's frowned upon to offer someone a stone in exchange for fetching a drink from the fridge).

Bones

All characters start with as many bones as they have fingers.  Bones represent health and energy.  Usually, they're only lost in combat, though at the GM's discretion they can be lost to exhaustion in extreme circumstances, or to disease and poison.  A character who runs out of bones is incapacitated and unconscious and remains so until he gets another bone.  Any incapacitated character or creature can generally be killed by a single blow.

Bones are regained by rest or medical attention.  Full bed-rest without any kind of activity allows a character to regain a bone every four hours.  Slower rates are possible for less effective resting (for instance, sleeping in a moving car might take six hours, or eight if the road is rough), but no bones are regained at all while a character is active, even if only walking.  Bandaging and medical care can restore up to half of the lost bones, but only rest can restore the rest.  Desperate players can trade in a bone for a pair of stones, but not vice versa.

There is not normally any game effect of losing bones until you run out; it's up to you to roleplay your character's fatigue and damage.

Resolving Actions

The first step to resolving an action is to determine which trait applies, and whether it's the flat or tall wedges of that trait.  For instance, a foot-race is clearly determined by tall blood wedges.  In some cases, more than one trait might apply; in this case, the characters simply use the wedges for both of them.

All actions are resolved by a simple comparison.  If Ace, with blood of - - - | | , races against Flash, with blood of - | | | | , Flash wins.  Match up tall wedges, and after you've taken away the matched wedges, Flash still has a wedge and another wedge left over.  This not only shows you that he wins, but by how much; the more wedges left, the more solid the victory.

However, if Ace's player isn't happy with the outcome, she can spend stones to change it; each stone is worth the same as a wedge.  She spends a stone, narrowing Flash's lead, but Flash still wins.  She spends another one, and now the race is a tie.  And she spends yet another stone, and now Ace draws reserves of determination out of somewhere and takes the lead, or perhaps Flash simply stumbles.  But wait; perhaps Flash's player has stones to spend.  No reason he can't turn the race around again, matching stones and restoring the lead to Flash.  This can continue until someone runs out of stones or decides to stop, figuring he'll need the stones later for more important things.

When circumstances give one character an advantage, the GM will simply give or take away wedges to reflect that advantage.  For instance, if Flash were carrying a boulder while Ace was running unburdened, the GM might take one of Flash's wedges away for the duration of the action.  Since stones and wedges are equivalent, the GM can simply put stones on the table on the side of whoever has the advantageous circumstances.

The same technique is used when a character is trying to achieve a challenging task like breaking down a door.  The GM gives stones to the task and the character needs to come up with that many to succeed.  Most tasks have variable levels of success, and the GM can set different thresholds for them; for instance, this many stones to break a hole through the door, but this many more to shatter it and come barreling through it.  If the task involves multiple trait aspects, the GM should increase the difficulties accordingly, since characters will get to use more of their wedges.  Here are some example number of stones that it takes to do different things:

TaskStones
Find a source of water in the forest
Find a source of water in the desert
Read a simple map
Figure out when there will be an eclipse
Get a cow to go to the cave
Get a hungry tiger to attack someone else
Get a hungry tiger to attack someone else specific
Calm a hungry tiger
Make a hinged door
Make a door that opens automatically
Make a door that opens automatically only for one person
Walk steadily for half a day
Jog all day
Outrace a raccoon
Outrace a deer
Open a normal door
Open a stuck door
Open a firmly wedged door
Balance a rock on another rock
Walk a tightrope
Don't scratch an itch for a few minutes
Stay still while a hungry tiger sniffs around
Stay quiet while being tickled with an ostrich feather
Convince someone to scratch your back
Convince someone to give you lunch
Convince someone to let you borrow his shell phone
Convince someone to kill for you

In some cases, several characters can pool their wedges and stones against a difficult task or opponent, but this is at the GM's discretion.  Two characters can attempt to lift a boulder too heavy for either of them, but two characters pooling their tall blood wedges can't run faster than either did individually.

Combat

If you're in a hurry, the fastest way to resolve combat is to treat it as an action.  Let each player describe her character's strategy and use that to choose the relevant wedges to apply; someone attacking with brute strength would use flat tail wedges, while someone trying to shoot a gun would use tall tail wedges.  Players should also state character intentions: disarm, incapacitate, kill, run away if wounded, etc.  Then match wedges and stones as above, and the victor gets to choose the outcome based on how many wedges or stones the victory is made by, and the stated intentions.

For more color and strategic possibilities, let each attack be an action.  Determine who acts first by a contest of tall blood wedges.  Characters act one at a time, choosing whether to attack, run, or whatever.  When attacking, the attacker and defender describe intentions, the GM chooses which wedges to let each of them use accordingly, and the action is resolved.  If the attacker wins, for each wedge or stone he has left, take away one bone from the defender; if the last bone is taken away, the action ends with the defender's incapacitation (there are no "negative bones" counted).  If the defender wins, the attack is blocked (at the GM's discretion, a decisive win by the defender can leave the attacker disarmed, knocked down, or otherwise at a disadvantage).  GMs can also assign stones to reflect the efficacy of different types of weapons and armor, and include them in the resolution; making charts of such things is left as an exercise for the reader.

The GM can assume each action takes five seconds, and that during one action, a character can move five yards for each tall blood wedge (allow the player to spend stones to go faster).  The players needn't worry about exact distances and times.

Technology

Some Stonepunk technology requires no beast involvement; for instance, the Flintstones' car is powered "through the courtesy of Fred's two feet", not, as one might expect, by a "motor-lizard" running around inside the wheels, or some other beast.  Such devices, when they're practical, can be built using only tall thumb wedges.  However, most of the more interesting technologies of Stonepunk require the use of some kind of beast, which means someone with many flat thumbs wedges must be involved.  This person's job is to find the appropriate beast and, somehow, convince it to become part of the device being built.

Beasts are always annoyed or affronted by this, but people with many flat thumbs wedges have a mysterious ability to get the beasts to do their bidding anyway, and even the beasts don't know quite why.  They may rationalize that "it's a living", since the device's owner will feed and care for them, but they're just as likely to wonder aloud why they do it.  (Whether humans can understand their musings depends on how silly the game is; the GM can decide if animals speak the same language as humans, or don't speak, or perhaps only parrots speak.  But even if animals don't speak, their expressions of disgust still convey their irritation.)

Characters wishing to invent something should be encouraged to do so; after all, part of the joy of Stonepunk is that everything is being done for the first time.  The characters will need to have a plausible description of how the device will work (where "plausible" is taken in the sense that allows a pterodactyl's beak to be the needle of a phonograph playing a granite record); the necessary materials and tools; beasts if necessary; and successful action resolutions for both tall and flat thumbs wedges (tall only, when the device doesn't involve a beast).  Devices that mirror the technology of today (or the 1960s or whatever time period the GM has chosen to mirror) should be encouraged, but "futuristic" technology should prove almost impossible to develop, except when it's more fun to let it work.

For instance, a character wants to invent the shell phone.  The "plausible explanation" offered is this: a shell is chosen that, through its acoustics, converts the sounds of a human voice into clicks and clacks.  A hermit crab living inside the shell hears these clicks, and repeats them with its pincers, relaying them to another hermit crab in another shell.  The second crab repeats the clicks, and the second shell's acoustics convert them back to the original sounds.  (When the crab is silent, of course, one can hear the roar of the sea, which is usually called the "dial tone".)  Range isn't a problem, because these click-clacks are high-pitched enough that they can be heard by a sensitive hermit crab, clear across to the other side of the village, and who'd want to talk to anyone beyond that?

This is a moderately difficult tall thumbs challenge, perhaps five stones; collecting the shells with the right acoustic properties to convert human voices to click-clacks and back is hard, but not that hard.  It's also a moderate flat thumbs challenge, four or five wedges; hermit crabs like to live in shells, after all, but they need to be trained to relay clack sounds, and only the ones addressed to them personally.  Of course, once you have one working shell phone, making a second one is easier, and after a few, it becomes so routine the GM shouldn't even require an action.

In an extended campaign, the impact of these inventions on the village and the world might be noticeable, but most Stonepunk games won't be quite serious enough to really worry about sociological and economic ramifications of inventions.  But it's your world, do what you want with it.

When choosing the flavor of the game, the GM might want to spell out a few inventions that are widely available and a bit about how they work, but one can just as easily assume most things in our world exist in some parallel form, and make it up as you go.

Character Advancement

If a character has stones left over at the end of an adventure, the GM takes the first ten automatically.  If there are more, the character can either save them for the next adventure, or use them to add wedges or bones.  In the latter case, every full set of ten he has can buy one bone, or one wedge added to any trait that the GM agrees the character had a chance to use and improve during the adventure.

Optional rule: if GMs feel this rule encourages characters to hang back, stay out of the action, and hoard stones in hopes of getting advancement, the solution is simple.  Have stones of two different colors on hand, say, white and black stones.  The stones given out at the beginning of an adventure are white, and at the end of the adventure, the GM takes them all back.  Black stones are given out during the adventure for exceptional actions, and at the end of the adventure, the player can use all of them to buy new bones or wedges, using full sets of five black stones.

Credits

Thanks are due to Dan Gordon, storyboard illustrator for Hanna-Barbera and probable inventor of the "modern stone age" concept; Gareth-Michael Skarka, for his "bitter, brutal failure"; Chris Czerniak, for reshuffling; and my own gaming group, for playtesting and brainstorming.

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Reshuffled: 52 Pick Up, edited by Chris Czerniak

52 Pick Up original run, by Gareth-Michael Skarka

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