Greg Stolze’s Progenitor (Arc Dream Publishing, 2010) originated with a thought experiment conducted by the author on the RPG.net forums in late 2008, growing from there into a 380-page alternate history of the last third of the 20th Century. The book provides a setting for Wild Talents, a tabletop roleplaying game where players portray characters with superhuman abilities, dice are rolled, and foes are vanquished (or not.)
What sets Progenitor apart from other gaming material, however, is Stolze’s commitment to examining the consequences of his premise, resulting in one of the best recent examples of world-building. Any writer assembling their own speculative-fiction setting has something to gain from examining Stolze’s work.
Editor Frederik Pohl once said that a good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam, a vital principle that permeates Progenitor.
The book lays out an alternate world where, in 1968, Kansas farmwife Amanda Sykes is struck by a nebula of energy that plummets from the sky, granting her vast superhuman abilities. She discovers that, whenever she uses her abilities on someone, there is a chance she will pass powers on to them, though they will be more limited than her own. Amanda can empower ten individuals, each of whom can empower nine, who can empower eight…
Within months, Amanda and her “descendants” have begun to reshape the course of history. Stolze constructs an elaborate timeline extending from 1968 to 1999, detailing some of the countless ways in which those thirty years are changed by the rise of the metahumans. He delves down into intricate examinations of technology, politics, and sociology in the world of the Progenitor, positing entire cultural trends, schools of political thought, and scientific innovations that arise as a consequence of this one event. Given the way that superpowers can be “transmitted”, the book is very concerned with cause and effect, and every repercussion that Stolze discusses can be traced back through neat chains of causality.
On a gaming level, such a volume of information might seem overwhelming, but Stolze emphasizes that readers need only use what they want, and not worry about the rest. In fact, he provides a rules system for interpreting the consequences of players’ actions within the context of the game world, and how those actions might go on to affect the timeline, up to and including invalidating it entirely. His stated intention is that his chronology should only hold true up until the moment the game starts, at which point he fully intends it to be run into the ground by the players.
As a tool for writers, however, Progenitor is an inspiration, in all of its minutiae-laden glory. Stolze’s thorough explanations and attention to the effect of metahumans on every aspect of 20th-century life are a potent reminder that an author can’t just drop a science-fiction or fantasy premise into the cultural template of their choice and write away. Time and thought must be spent on examining the whole and understanding the outlying implications of the changes made — a difficult task, but one that rewards the attentive writer with a richer tapestry on which their stories can unfold.
Progenitor is available on Arc Dream’s web store in hard copy ($39.99 plus shipping) or PDF ($23.99). The hard copy includes the PDF for free, and both options include a PDF of the Wild Talents rules.
Stolze’s latest project for Arc Dream, Better Angels, finished its Kickstarter this past weekend, with over 400% funding, and should see print towards the end of the year.