The Primal Order outlines the rules for gods and their worshipers, and then has an appendix that explains how to use the rules with games like AD&D, TORG, Runequest, Ars Magica, Shadowrun and other games. Obviously the conversion notes are specific to the editions that were available at the time this book was first published, so there might be a little work involved in bringing this supplement up to speed with the current versions of games.
I talked with Adkinson via email about The Primal Order then and now.
Dorkland: First off, let's set the stage for The Primal Order. As best as you can remember, what was the impetus for creating this line? What was it that you felt at the time was needed in gaming that The Primal Order filled?
Peter Adkison: The answer to this question is intertwined with the question of why we started Wizards of the Coast in the first place. Mainly, we wanted to turn our hobby into a business. We wanted to work in the hobby games industry, making games. Then it was a question of “What should we make?” Until we met Richard Garfield our focus was mainly on roleplaying games and we created a big list of things we thought would be cool. After lots of debate we decided that the work we’d done in our own roleplaying circles around the topic of gods was the most interesting. Of course we wanted to do something new, to take a topic and dive deeper into it than anyone had done before. So of all the roleplaying topics that looked interesting to explore, we decided mythology would be where, perhaps, we had the most to share.
Dorkland: I remember, from the time, that not all of the publishers were as thrilled about the conversion notes in the back of the book. Was it difficult to coordinate all of those conversions, and can you remember if there were any interesting stories about dealing with the other publishers (that you can talk about)?
Peter Adkison: Yeah, that was a disaster that almost put us out of business. We were young and naïve. We didn’t coordinate with any other publishers, we just did it. We consulted an IP attorney about how to do this legally, but it didn’t matter, we got sued anyway. The best story was how Mike Pondsmith, then head of GAMA, intervened on our behalf and negotiated a settlement to the lawsuit and we were able to continue on with a slap on the wrist.
Dorkland: How did this re-release of The Primal Order come about? Do you own them again, or is this licensed from Wizards of the Coast? Will other books in the line also receive a similar release?
Peter Adkison: When I left Hasbro, as part of my severance agreement, I retained the rights to The Primal Order. In other words, I own it. Then recently my old friend, Steve Wieck, came to me and suggested they put it online. They offered to do the work and all I have to do is sit back and collect royalties. What a deal!
Yes, our arrangement gives them the rights to do the TPO supplements as well.
Dorkland: There was talk, back at the time that The Primal Order line originally stopped that there were manuscripts of other books in the line. If they exist, any chance that they might finally see the light of day? What about some of the other "capsystem" lines, like The Military Order?
Peter Adkison: Several TPO supplements were actually published: Pawns and Chessboards made it into print. But, no, there are no manuscripts secreted away. When we decided to discontinue the line we finished the manuscripts that were in process. It was one of those rare times in publishing where we were able to power down gracefully and get the stuff in the pipeline to press.
It’s still a fantasy of mine to write the other “Orders” someday. I have definite thoughts about how I would approach them, especially the military, economic, and government ones. Right now I want to keep focused on projects that have a chance of making real money because, well, I’m also an entrepreneur at heart. But in another 20 years or so I suspect I’ll slow down to the point where I won’t want to have employees, investors, and all that and I dream that I’ll sit in the nursing home nodding off to old reruns of Game of Thrones while typing away at The Military Order using long run-on sentences---like this one.
Dorkland: Writers and designers like Greg Stafford have put a great deal of importance on the power of myth in role-playing games. What role do you think that myths and mythology play in RPGs? What role do they play in your own games?
Peter Adkison: I love myths and mythology. TPO is based on systems for deities that we came up because we had to for the type of play we experienced in our own D&D campaigns. The old TSR book, Deities and Demigods, was just enough to whet the appetite. In our campaigns, the gods were always very active and several player characters became gods themselves. So we needed to do game design work to figure out what that really meant, mechanically.
Dorkland: In what ways do you see The Primal Order books being able to expand people's campaigns?
Peter Adkison: The mechanical stuff we came up with about gods should be interesting, especially to more mechanically-oriented gamers (like most D&D and Pathfinder groups). But what I think is truly interesting about TPO is that we propose a definition of what a god is. Meaning, what is the fundamental difference between a divine entity and a mortal entity? We came up with a concept we thought was intriguing and then in the book we explain that and follow it through to its natural conclusions. Our proposed definition works well. It’s a reasonable model for how we imagine gods were believed to be, and from there how gods create avatars, support priests, power minions, imbue artifacts, and, ultimately, how the most powerful gods use the “omni’s” (omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence) and create life.
Dorkland: What about The Primal Order books do you think that you most "got right," even when looking back at them today? What, if anything, would you have liked to have changed, in retrospect?
Peter Adkison: I think the stuff in the previous paragraph is what we did best, defining gods and providing a rationale for how they function---and by extension, all sorts of things related to gods, like churches, artifacts, blessing, priests, and so on. It’s a decent intellectual exploration. The mechanics work okay, but I think a more experienced RPG designer like Jonathan Tweet or Monte Cook could have done better.
If I could change one thing it would be to try and introduce more tools to support mysticism. By defining gods, by reducing them to statistics and points, the gods in The Primal Order essentially become superheroes. Now that it’s 20 years later (almost exactly) I realize that I didn’t adequately discuss the experience of religious conviction, or mystical experience. Simply put, I’m older now and I’ve had more life experience. It would be interesting---and daring!---to talk about things like enlightenment and ecstatic experiences. You mentioned Greg Stafford earlier. I’ve never talked to him about TPO but I’ve sometimes imagined that if he read it he would say to me, “Peter, you missed the point. You wrote about gods, but you didn’t write about Gods.”
Dorkland: There may not as many gamers who know of The Primal Order books these days. Why should a GM add the book to their GM's toolkit?
Peter Adkison: The Primal Order will help you think about gods in fantasy roleplaying. You’ll find stuff you’ll disagree with, but that’s great---put your own spin on things, that’s what we roleplayers like to do. And it is 20 years old, so it probably shows it’s age a bit. But I guarantee there’s a great deal of thought-provoking material in here. And, it’s comprehensive. Just about any topic related to gods is discussed.