Using the Aboriginal Dreamtime as inspiration for Primal 4e characters

This Australian Aboriginal rock art depicts what could be a creation ancestor. This sort of art, and the creation story that inspired it, is a useful source of inspiration for DMs designing adventures for primal heroes in D&D. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Virtually every culture, whether real or created for a fantasy role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, has a story about how the world was created. While the fourth edition (4e) Player’s Handbook gives some hints about how some of the standard D&D races view the creation of their milieu, the official rules provide insufficient detail about the D&D world’s creation story for the primal character classes presented in Player’s Handbook 2 – characters like the druid, shaman and warden, who have intimate ties to and draw their unique abilities from nature. These characters need to have a clear understanding about how creation works in their game world, as their powers are derived from that creation.

Some may suggest that, from a game mechanics point of view, such details don’t matter. From a game mechanics point of view, they are correct. A druid character doesn’t technically need to know how a river came to be in order to use her daily powers. This writer submits, however, that if the character knew that the channel of the river was carved by the passing of the flame wyrm at the dawn of time, that detail would provide a richer play experience for both the players and Dungeon Master (DM). It is for that reason that this post was drafted.

The Players Handbook 2 provides only the vaguest details about the creation energies that fuel primal powers. The barbarian connects with “nature spirits and other primal forces,” while the druid relies upon “primal spirits of nature” and “unleashing” the latent energies of her own spirit; the warden taps “primal power beneath [his] feet.” Some of the power names give clues to what some of these forces may be called in the game, like the barbarian’s Frost Wolf Rage attack, but players and DMs seeking a greater level of depth wouldn’t – and shouldn’t – be satisfied with only that.

Fortunately, there is a broad array of real-world cultures and historical sources that can assist a DM in adding flesh to the skeletal framework of primal forces set forth in the rules. From this writer’s research, one such culture that inspires creativity in that task is the Australian Aborigines, particularly with their view on creation, which they call the Dreamtime.

In summary, the Dreamtime is the earliest period of creation, although many Aboriginal people hold that the Dreamtime is ongoing, as every event makes a mark upon the world as the great Dreamtime story unfolds. Beliefs about creation, animism and the human condition are expressed in Dreamtime art, stories and songs. An outstanidng resource that provides the look, feel and sound of Dreamtime art can be found at the Dust Echoes Web site, which features flash animations that tell Dreamtime stories, in addition to providing study guides and supplemental information. Dreamtime stories and customs are passed down through generations, and those dwelling in a given region view themselves are caretakers of the stories and songs pertinent to their region; these songs and stories may explain anything from how a group of mountains were formed to why birds of the region have feathers of certain colors.

An especially interesting element of Dreamtime tradition is the concept of the Songline, which is a path across land or sky blazed by the creator beings. The journeys described in songlines can span vast distances, so much so that the language of the song can change as it passes through the lands of various tribes; its tones will rise and fall with the contours of the terrain it traverses, and the song tells the singer when various landmarks are reached. In some cases, it may be sacrilegious to travel the path of a songline in the reverse direction.

Mindful that these are religious beliefs for which people in the real world show reverence, and meaning no disrespect for those beliefs, some Dreamtime concepts can be mimicked while creating a campaign history in a D&D setting, especially for characters who take their powers from primal sources.

For example, consider a campaign which includes, as part of its ancient history, a battle between a great abyssal beast bent on destroying the world and an immortal nature spirit dedicated to protecting it. Surviving writings and/or oral histories from the period include references to the route taken by the nature spirit to locate and confine the beast, which also make reference to a song or poem that would enable a traveler to follow that same route, much in the manner of a Songline.

Imagine that, during play, the heroes discover a group of cultists who have apparently located the fallen beast’s prison, and are setting a plot in motion to release it. Fortunately, a primal hero in the party hails from a land where Dreamtime-like traditions are in place, and that hero can, with great effort, learn the song and lead his companions to the same location, all the while racing against the cultists to prevent the resurgence of the destructive beast.

Even from that feeble example, it is apparent how being mindful of such traditions can give depth to campaign cultures and heroes who hail from them, as well as providing the DM with another avenue for bringing players into an adventure.

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