So, I’m way late on this but I just got a chance to flip through an awesome campaign setting for 5e. Primeval Thule was first published in 2014 by Sasquatch Games when it came out with a version for Pathfinder and Savage Worlds. Last year a 5e version came out so I’m going to treat it like it’s a lot newer than it really is!
First up, I have to get something off my chest. It’s been weighing on me for years and I might lose some friends over this but here it is: I don’t like Robert E. Howard or Conan. The bits I’ve read of the original books just don’t grip me at all, but more importantly I’m always uncomfortable with the “primeval” versions of various real-world ethnicities. I understand that Howard’s depictions of strong, noble, pale-skinned Northerners facing off against swarthy demon-worshippers from the south and cruel slavers from the east isn’t necessarily meant to mirror Nazi propaganda but it just fits it so well… I realize that by most accounts Howard himself was at least offput by Nazi ideologies and I love H. P. Lovecraft who was also a deeply flawed person. I also know that tales of Hyperborea and Thule were co-opted by the Nazi occultists and not invented by them. I just don’t really care to wade into those themes, especially in this political moment.
I say all this by way of introduction to something I really do like: the Primeval Thule setting for D&D. It lets me explore the savage and wild genre of barbarian pulp that Howard fans are always recommending to me (and the reason I’ve tried multiple times to get comfortable with the Conan tales) but with far more distance and little in the way of direct analogs. This might be a weird way to put it but it seems like Primeval Thule is what you would get if Howard, Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith were writers in Greyhawk imagining a strange dawn time for their magical world.
The setting chapter really spells out something different from your usual D&D campaign: a land of tribal warfare, savage brutality, and forbidden knowledge. Some of these, of course, are found in other campaign settings, so what makes Primeval Thule so different? Let’s take things one at a time.
- Savage Wilderness, Ruined Cities, and Lost Lands: Wild lands are not particularly new to Dungeons & Dragons but in Primeval Thule this is all there is. This is seen in some campaign settings like Dark Sun but that setting is a world exhausted and crumbling whereas Thule is a land of potentials for those willing to scratch and claw their way to a better future. There was a time before this one, but it was not a time for humans, elves, or dwarves. It was a time of monsters and lost gods, a time that has passed to make room for a brighter future if the young races can purge the infection of the past.
- Tyranny, Corruption, and Inhuman Evils: The continent of Sarlona in Eberron, the kingdom of Thay in Forgotten Realms, and the world of Midnight are tyrannical nations with powerful rulers whose reach is inescapable. That’s not the tyranny in Primeval Thule, though: here you can easily escape a tyrant’s reach by leaving their city! The trick is, outside of those cities is a vast and open land full of inhuman evils and horrific cults. So the tyranny and the corruption in the cities is actually a powerful campaign choice. The players have to decide whether to ally themselves with one of the fifteen-ish cities in the world.
- Gods, Cults, and Secret Lore: Again, there’s a choice here. There are gods in Thule just as there are in every D&D setting but they aren’t stalwart figures like Bahamut or regal figures like the Raven Queen. There are the Nine Powers, gods of the city-states, and the Forest Gods of the woods and beasts. Not all of these deities are known or accepted in every part of Thule (opening the door for religious wars and heretical confrontations) but all fear the power of the Great Old Ones which consists of all the heavy hitters from Lovecraftian lore… plus Lorthnu’un who seems to be an original creation and a bit of an unknown quantity.
There’s a full chapter on the geography of Thule showcasing cradles of civilization, haunted realms of ghosts and demons, and pirate coasts. I won’t try to detail all of these in this limited space but it’s a well-detailed setting with lots of diverse areas. There are also notes for running particular types of campaigns from pirate-adventurers to thieves guilds.
All of the classic D&D races are here: humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings. Each comes with a “Thulean” subrace to fill that aspect of D&D 5e and they make the races particularly primeval. Thulean dwarves are the only ones who can start with steel-crafted equipment (effectively a magic item) while Thulean halflings are master of the forest. Humans just get ethnicities without mechanical adjustments while Thulean elves are effectively high elves from the Player’s Handbook but tending towards selfishness and evil alignments.
On top of this is the Atlantean race, most of which you can supply on your own but with the added benefit of being well-educated in a setting that has mostly illiterate characters (see below). It’s possible to have other races (there’s a short sidebar) but the idea is that they would be the only member of that race that most people have ever seen, hailing from beyond the mountains or in the depths of a swamp or something.
Again, a lot of what you’re used to in D&D 5e can be found in Primeval Thule but with a distinctly Thulean flare. Barbarians are, of course, a major feature of the setting as are druids, fighters, rogues and rangers. Clerics are conduits of primal power without the usual regard for their communities’ wellbeing (also with a few new domains). On the other hand, righteous paladins are all but unknown in Thule where the visceral religions of the land hardly match their ideals and without the advent of wuxia no one tries to be a monk either. Oh yeah, and there are still bards performing on the street corners. Truly, this is a dark time.
The arcane classes are usually conflated by the common folk and they’re universally feared for their dealing with unnatural sources. Sorcerers are an exact embodiment of this fear, mortals with the blood of monsters running through their veins. Warlocks are the classic image of the twisted soul working with dark powers but unlike other settings their patrons are neither distant nor obscure. Lastly, wizards are not that common mostly because few people even know that this much learning is an option. They are well-read scholars in a land of savage tribes.
Speaking of well-read, something that affects every class is the illiteracy rules. Most characters are assumed to be functionally unable to read and the DC for attempting to read something depends on your class. Barbarians have to beat a DC 20 Intelligence check while Bards and Clerics are DC 5. There are ways around this like feats and backgrounds (called Narratives here and more of a story than a history) but it seems like a fantastic campaign option.