Lovecraft in the Ice Age – Canyon of the Snow Cairns

May 12, 2020

The ice age is probably the most ignored RPG setting. It’s also one of the best historical settings for Lovecraftian horror. Let me make my case:

  1. Every element of the setting makes for sheer desperation. In the ice age, civilization is viscerally surrounded by the dangerous unknown. Night IS dark and full of terrors. This is a world where actual predators are every bit as deadly as a Deep One. There are no shops to go buy bigger weapons, and even the best ones are unreliable and break easily. And if you get mauled… well, first aid won’t be invented for another 20,000 years, so good luck.
  2. There’s a tremendous amount of storytelling flexibility because we don’t really know what it was like. What was society like? Who held the power? Were the local religions bizarre and cult-like, or benign? Every part of your ice age campaign can be as familiar or as alien as you need. And there’s no need for conformity – every pocket of civilization the PCs discover can be radically different. If you need the next tribe over to be evil snake-worshippers, no problem.
  3. It’s deeply personal. In an ice age settlement, PCs probably know everyone. Every victim is someone personal to the PCs, every betrayal is more horrific. It’s brutal to find out that your uncle was the one sneaking into the forest to worship a fallen meteor versus a random professor from the university.

For the ice age to really work as a desperate and alien setting, you need to fully embrace the setting’s quirks. If the ice age just feels like a fur-clad variant of medieval times, it’s not going to play right. For this month’s adventure, Canyon of the Snow Cairns, I decided I’d fully embrace all prehistory’s quirks and challenges.

First, I decided to brutally enforce the terrible tech. The ice age was 30,000 years ago! I made sure first aid was worse, barely viable, and was sure to talk about the festering wounds that appeared when those rolls inevitably failed. I also enforced breakage of stone weapons. While GURPS already has great rules for making stone weapons truly suck, I gave Call of Cthulhu weapons a Malfunction % to keep them truly unreliable.

Because my adventure is a one-shot, I made sure all the pregenerated characters have a history with each other. Many are related, some were foes in the distant past. Similarly, most of the NPCs are related in some way. Even when minor players from another tribe show up, I give PCs the chance of recognizing them and remembering their deeds. “Ohhh, that’s the girl from the other tribe that killed that big sabertooth last year with a lucky arrow shot!”

A warning of a shantak…

The most difficult challenge was enforcing the complete lack of literacy. Lovecraftian horror is full of old tomes, ancient manuscripts, and letters of correspondence. Avoiding these cliches was really hard, but I managed to replace written artifacts with messengers, primitive paintings, and visions.

To play up the feel of desperate survival, I made sure the adventure’s natural challenges were as hard as the supernatural ones. The cliffside mastodon hunt has just as much of a chance of killing a PC as the Lovecraftian monster in the middle of the adventure.

(And to not be a total jerk GM, I did warn my players in advance that every situation was going to challenge their survival. This, so far, has worked…)


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If you’re interested in a video overview of Canyon of the Snow Cairns, check out my YouTube channel:

What other settings compete with the ice age for sheer savagery and terror? Let me know in the comments below.

Related: More Lovecraftian Horror

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  1. Hey Thalcos,

    just wanted to let you know I ran Canyon of the Snow Cairns with some friends.

    We used Foundry VTT and thanks for the tokens and the handouts you added it worked great.

    I found some suitable battle maps for free online and it came together great.

    I had a lot of fun as a GM and my friends had a blast. Really great premade chars and backstories.

    One of my Players choose “Fels” and talked to trees and asked the underbrush for advice on how to find
    “Kusim-Aha”. He did critically failed his Safe throw for On the Edge and attacked the Old One.
    Also “Snirl” died while defending “Kina-Aha” in the final battle. Creel survived every HT roll and was taken by the Old One.

    There is a lot more to tell, but I assume you know a lot of Stories from this great adventure.

    As I had to translate it into German it took me some time to prepare, but it was more than worth it.

    Also it took us about 10 hours to complete the Story. Could have been faster without chatting and getting used to Foundry and Gurps,
    But that’s half the fun 😃

    They want me to run “Harry Potter and the Warlock’s Tunnel” next.
    And I plan on using “The cold bounty” as a kick off for a campaign.

    Really looking forward to it.

    Thank you!

  2. I played in a session of this last night. I really adored the game! It had some great moments and I love how interconnected the characters are. I really look forward to running it myself in the future!

  3. This was a movie quality good! Seriously. You should seriously consider a movie script for this. I LOVED this adventure. I will be sending you an email on some stuff about it. Tell me what you think! I loved the addition of the Voormi men and the fact that you included a conflict between two old-ones in this story and made these simple tribesmen warriors in that proxy battle is amazing. fans of Cthulhu will love these points while others will not know what is going on but still be affected by it.

  4. The only other settings I know that are savage like this would be the Conan setting (at its peripheries) and the Dark Sun setting. I adored the dark sun setting but even it doesn’t have the total lack of technology that the Ice Age has.

  5. This looks great, and I hope to be running it soon! I’ve honestly wished that there was more material available for Ice Age roleplaying, so I’m really glad you wrote this.

    Question: have you considered making up a character sheet for Neelia, so she can be used as another replacement PC in the event that the PCs get a good enough reaction roll with her?

    1. That’s a great idea – don’t know why that didn’t occur to me. I’ll put one together for her and update the adventure.

  6. I’ve been pouring over the GURPS weapon-breakage rules in prep. According to B275, stone only counts as cheap when parrying swung weapons made of metal or high-tech material. According to the expanded breakage rules in Low-Tech, breakage on attack (not due to using too much strength or a critical miss) only occurs if the weapon is cheap and attacking inflexible DR of 3+. So according to RAW, it seems that stone weapons aren’t going to break much. Am I missing something, or did you modify the rules but not include them?

    1. No, looks like you are correct and I quoted the rule wrong on the character sheets. I just updated them to be RAW accurate.

        1. Well if it makes you feel better I ran it at least three times with them counting as cheap! It worked fine – it’s honestly the DR penalty that makes them suck worse.

          1. Hi thalcos. First of all thanks for the great work on these adventures!

            On a related topic, I noticed that on B275 it says “A stone blade has an
            armor divisor of (0.5) on its cutting and impaling damage” but on the character sheets you mention “Any DR is doubled against stone weapons”.

            Not sure if this is an oversight, simplification or simply mentioned on some other supplement. I gave a quick check to Low-Tech but didn’t find anything on this. Maybe I missed it?


          2. I think it was an attempt at simplification. I ran this one at two conventions and new GURPS players were always confused by the (0.5) nomenclature.

  7. This is a really cool scenario, and I’ll be running it soon for Savage Worlds. Just wanted to point out that there are no pregens in the SW link. Not sure if that’s on purpose because of the experimental tag, or an oversight. E

    1. More because it is experimental. I’m not super familiar with Savage Worlds and didn’t get to the pregens. But if you know the system and convert any, lemme see them and I’ll update it!

      1. Hi, thank you for this amazing one shot!

        I plan on running a session for SWADE this weekend and I’d really be interested in converted pregens for my players. That would really help, as I’m new to SWADE and kind of having a hard time with it!

        Thank you for any tips!


    2. Hello Hippo!

      I’d really like to run this one shot in SWADE, but I just found out the pregens were missing. I wonder if you would accept to share if you have them converted? I’m new to SWADE and it’s a challenge for me to convert it from CoC or Gurps.


      1. Unfortunately, I don’t – I’m new to SWADE myself, and a fan helped convert the adventure over to begin with (and I think he let PCs play their own characters). Would love some help from a SWADE pro to convert these over.

  8. Hey Thalcos,
    I ran this with four players using the Call of Cthulhu system and everyone had a blast! Having the pre-gen characters made everything much easier, and we all enjoyed the detailed backstories.
    Ten Men perished fighting the Gnoph-keh, being able to sub in Bearface was clutch.
    The wolves were great, they really added to the players’ fears in being in the forest. They also liked being able to recruit the NPCs – they got a great roll and Neelia became fast friends with the whole party.
    One of the players did glimpse Ithaqua, and by a stroke of luck did not go totally insane.
    Kusim-Aha was not so lucky – made it back but totally insane haha!
    We were all familiar with Pathfinder and the Star Wars d20 systems but not the Call of Cthulhu system before running this, and the limited skills that came with Call of Cthulhu really amped the intensity and realism of the dangers.
    This was my first time DM’g, and with a few hiccups starting out this ended out being a great campaign! You did an awesome job writing this.

    1. Thanks for the recap and the compliments! Poor Ten Men… he never seems to survive this one. Maybe because any player who picks the neanderthal loves to go down fighting…

  9. In the experimental Savage Worlds version, on p. 3, Meelo is at –2 HP… but Savage Worlds doesn’t use hit points. Should he be Incapacitated, with one Wound, instead?

    1. Yes, that looks like a mistake from the port from one of the other systems. I’ll fix it! (Appreciate any of you Savage World players’ help, since it’s my least familiar of the systems here…).

  10. Hi Thalcos,
    Just wanted to let you know that I used this adventure as a base for two different sessions. It went down a blast both times!

    As a pretty new GM with less than 10 games under my belt I found lots of things really instructive. The Mammoth fight, in particular, was the first time I had a combat that was tactically interesting and develop in interesting ways as it went on.

    The Ice Age setting was really helpful, too, because I didn’t have any complicated fiction to establish before players could start getting invested (“you caveman!” is much simpler than trying to establish what New York was like in 1930 or how common magic is in your fantasy world). It’s was also really nice not to have to worry how much anything the players finds might cost if sold back at base or what have you. It was really liberating actually.

    I ended up toning a lot of supernatural elements down (while trying to still keep things creepy) which seemed to have worked out ok for me. (My rational was that a big wolf with a third eye isn’t necessarily more intimidating than just a big wolf. The otherworldly quality also gets a bit lost when you have things like Ground Sloths bigger than a Grizzly Bear hanging around.)

    I’m now looking for material to plan a follow up session so I’d gladly take any pointers, if you (or anyone else) has!

    1. Awesome, glad you had fun, and I’ve also downplayed the supernatural a couple of times I’ve run it – or at least made it feel more like superstition vs. straight out magic. (E.g. telling one PC they swore they saw a third eye on a wolf, but no one else did.) Unfortunately, I don’t know a lot of other adventures set in this sort of ice age setting. I know the original GURPS Ice Age included an adventure, but I don’t remember much about it. I’ll have to track it down and see if it’s worth rebooting.

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