The Primal Order
Once upon a time (before Magic: The Gathering), Wizards of the Coast was just another small, independent RPG publisher. In 1992 they published a book called The Primal Order (which was followed up by three more supplements -- details below).
In a nutshell, Primal Order is about gods and how to play them. It's not a stand-alone RPG. Instead, it is a "capsystem" meant to provide a meta-framework for running deities in an existing system. One of the appendices contains conversion notes for almost 20 different game systems, including pretty much all of the major ones on the market at that time. (Interestingly enough, Palladium then proceeded to sue Wizards of the Coast for including conversion notes for the Palladium system. Reportedly, WotC almost went under as a result. I'll bet Peter Adkison looks back on that with a chuckle....)
TPO is primarily oriented toward a traditional fantasy setting (though there are Shadowrun conversion notes in the appendix). If your gods are organized into squabbling pantheons, contest each other for power and influence, occasionally take corporeal form and meddle with mortals, and seek more worshippers because it makes them stronger, TPO is excellent for quantifying their abilities. If you have a more unusual model for deities, or if you prefer to handle them as literal dei ex machina (e.g., Zeus can do whatever you feel like letting him do, who needs game mechanics or statistics?), you may still find TPO useful for the way it models divine power. You don't need it for dealing with munchkins who want their 25th-level Paladin/Magic-User/Cleric to fight Set, since no GM needs rules for saying "Set smites you. You die." However, it gives a great rationale for why gods are able to do this. Be warned also that quantifying is what TPO is all about; if you use all parts of the system seriously, it can become calculator-fodder. If you prefer to have gods accomplish divine miracles with a wave of their hand and no game mechanics, TPO won't do much for you.
The basic concept behind TPO is "primal energy." Primal energy (or "primal") is defined as being the most fundamental and most powerful energy in the universe. It trumps everything else -- magic, psionics, and physical forces are to primal as butter is to a hot knife. What makes a god a god is his ability to store and manipulate primal energy. Only gods have primal (though they can create artifacts and servitors invested with primal energy). The mightiest sorcerer in the world, who wields spells of earth-shaking power that even the gods don't know, will still lose in a confrontation with a god because 1 measly point of primal energy will go right through his best wards.
Gods are quantified by the amount of "primal base" they have. Primal base is their stable reserve of primal energy. Gods are classified in ranks according to the minimum necessary primal base to achieve that rank:
How do gods get primal base? First, advancing in rank automatically gives them the minimum necessary for that rank (I'll cover how they advance below). Secondly, they have to control planes, which is one of the flaws in the system. It assumes a multiversal setting, ala AD&D. Gods try to take over multiple planes because each plane they control adds to their primal base. If you want to run a game on Earth using TPO to model the Greek or Egyptian gods, and assume Earth is the only planet in the game, you'll have to use a different measure of control (perhaps taking over regions or countries could have a similar effect). Gods also accumulate more primal base over time; the more you have, the more you accumulate.
What can you do with primal base? Well, "primal flux" is primal energy in unstable form. Gods get a daily allotment of primal flux. Most comes from their primal base (10% of their base points per day, so a lesser god with a primal base of 8,000 would have 800 points of primal flux to play with every day). Gods also get primal flux from any planes they control (up to 1,000 points per day for a large plane), from any holy sites consecrated to them, and from their worshippers. More worshippers means more primal flux. Gods can also drain primal flux from captured primal artifacts, or from captured deities. Finally, in an emergency, a god can burn his primal base and convert it to primal flux. You can basically think of primal base as a god's "savings account," and primal flux as his "income," some of which is interest from his savings.
So what do you do with primal flux? You can't "invest" it, unfortunately; primal flux can't be converted directly to primal base. What you don't use, you lose.
First, primal flux is used to power any divine stunts the god wants to perform. In its raw form, it can be wielded as a devastating attack (called a primal blast) which will obliterate anything not protected with a primal shield. However, gods who know magic or have psionic powers or other abilities can use those powers, but "lace" them with a single point of primal. Thus, a god can cast a conventional fireball spell laced with a single point of primal flux, which will cause that fireball to work with 100% success, going right through any non-primal defenses. Likewise, your basic force wall spell laced with primal becomes immune to any non-primal attacks.
There are other powers particular to gods. They can exert their will directly to various effects, categorized as "omniscience" (being able to see or know things), "omnipotence" (basically, make a wish and have it happen), and "omnipresence" (being in multiple places at the same time). These powers cost primal flux, and for some advanced uses, primal base as well.
Gods can alter any planes they control, thus permitting the "home plane advantage" where the laws of physics (or magic, or anything else) operate in any manner the owner desires. This requires long-term investments of primal energy, and also a daily cost in primal flux to maintain.
Lastly, gods can create servants, all of which require primal energy to empower. Your typical cleric who receives a daily allotment of spells might cost a point or two of primal flux each day. But gods can also create more powerful servitors, beings who are themselves powered by primal energy. These beings take primal base to create, and a daily cost in primal flux to maintain. These can range all the way up to "supported demigods," who are demigods that are given primal energy by a more powerful god. Greater gods can even elevate mortals to godling status.
What makes a god "lesser," "greater" or "supreme"? A recently-ascended mortal starts out as a godling. He can smite any lesser creature with ease, but given his limited amount of primal energy, even mortals could overwhelm him with sheer numbers, and compared to a lesser god, he's a gnat. In order to become a demigod, a godling must gain a sphere of influence. This is what makes one a "God of -" something. Gaining a sphere requires accomplishing some great feat, going on a quest, and convincing others that you're notable in that area. Beating up a more powerful deity, for example, might allow one to secure "Strength" as a sphere, and thereafter you can be known as the "Demigod of Strength." Acquiring a sphere also requires an investment of primal base, but thereafter you can develop special divine abilities relating to your sphere.
Demigods become supported demigods either by gaining control of a plane, or by being supported by a more powerful deity. To ascend to the status of lesser god, a demigod must turn a plane he controls into his home plane. Once he does this, he makes an enormous leap in power (see above -- jumping from supported demigod to lesser god means going from 300 to 5,000 points of primal base!). Lesser gods become greater gods by controlling at least 5 planes. A supreme deity is a greater god who is acknowledged by the other gods in his pantheon as foremost among them.
Various abilities become possible as gods ascend in rank; the more potent uses of "omni"-powers are only available to lesser or greater gods, for example. Higher-ranking deities can also acquire multiple spheres of influence.
You may be thinking that gods take an awful lot of bookkeeping, and you'd be right. No GM is really going to want to detail every last point of primal base for all the gods in his campaign, unless you're running a game where gods are player characters. However, even using a simplified version of TPO lets you quantify and compare the power of your gods, and also simulate their evolution over time.
The Primal Order is packed with ideas. It's a very dense book -- 231 pages of small type, and most of the artwork consists of little drawings in the margins; there is very little interruption of the text. Adkison gives tons of examples, sample deities, spheres of influence, planes, planar constants and how to change them, artifacts, pantheons, religions, and a complete set of tools for designing all of the above. If you want to go into exhaustive detail designing your gods, TPO has everything you need. If you just want to skim it for ideas, you can, but be warned that it's not the lightest reading.
The Primal Order is, in my opinion, one of the meatiest RPG supplements ever published. It's a big thick book chock full of stuff to use for your campaign, no matter whether you play AD&D, GURPS, Fantasy Hero, Rolemaster, Runequest, or any other FRPG (all of which and more are detailed in the conversion notes). Even for non-traditional fantasy games, it has uses. For example, TPO could easily be adapted for In Nomine to quantify the powers of Archangels and Demon Princes. In a superhero game, it could be used for those ultra-powerful cosmic beings like Galactus or the Eternals.
At the time TPO was written, WotC said they planned more "capsystem" supplements, such as one to model economics in a FRPG setting, and another to model military systems and mass combat. Those never came to be, alas; Magic: the Gathering supplements soon proved a lot more profitable. However, there were three Primal Order supplements which I'll summarize here, rather than writing separate reviews.
Pawns: The Opening Move
Written by the legendary Nigel Findley, Pawns is basically a Primal Order bestiary. It contains a bunch of extremely powerful monsters suitable for use as divine servitors, minions, or foes. They're written up in a "generic" format, with conversion notes for various systems in the back. The creatures are interesting and original, and even if you're not interested in TPO, this book should give you lots of ideas for a high-powered fantasy game.
Knights: Strategies in Motion
Knights was also written by Nigel Findley. This supplement presents three sample deities, with full
Primal Order stats, and a complete organization, including subordinate demigods and minions, religions, and planes, for each. The three deities cover three different spheres of influence, and illustrate how religions and societies modeled after those spheres might evolve under divine influence. Toshi Yamatetsu, God of Combat, has a host of warlike servitors and a very militant church. Netheron Soulbearer, Goddess of Death, bears a striking resemblance to a certain Neil Gaiman character... Nimboal Mana-Shaper, God of Magic, is an amorphous deity with an interesting following. Both as an example of how to write up a god in full detail for TPO, and as sample deities usable in a campaign, the book is quite a good read.
Chessboards: The Planes of Possibility
This was the last Primal Order supplement. (Supposedly Loren Miller was to write Bishops: The Eternal Crusade later that year, but one finds an ad for a new card game called Magic: The Gathering, to be released that summer, in the back of this book...) Written by Dave Howell, Chessboards goes into more detail on planes. It's a combination of setting material (with several strange and interesting planes detailed) and rules book. It describes how to design planes and metaplanes -- you can create an entire multiverse with these rules. There are chapters on planar physics, and how deities can control and alter planes. (And for those who really like number-crunching, there's an appendix that actually gives instructions for creating a spreadsheet to model planar evolution and how much primal energy they generate!) Any GM running a multiversal, dimension-hopping campaign will find something useful and interesting here.
The Primal Order and its supplements are out of print and rather hard to find. However, if you have any interest at all in deities, I recommend TPO highly. It won't be to everyone's tastes, having a lot of material devoted to number-crunching and some that's mostly of interest to power-gamers, but the world-building advice and sample characters are excellent in their own right. To me, TPO represents one of the greatest tragedies of the CCG phenomena. While some people now look at Wizards of the Coast as the great Evil Empire of the gaming industry, I look at what they published before they hit it big, and wonder how many other promising games were killed by Magic. If you can find The Primal Order, buy it.
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)