Hither came Conan… Part 1

Originally posted by Brianna Heine on the other (now defunct) version of this site.

Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of.

Pencils by Cary Nord, colors by deviantART bek76

I am a serious fan of Robert E. Howard. I’ve read all of Howard’s Bran Mak Morn, Kull the conqueror, Solomon Kane, and Conan stories. So imagine my joy when In 2004 Mongoose publishing released CONAN: The Roleplaying Game. I cracked open the massive 300+ page tome and began to read. Imagine my surprise when I realized that besides the familiar names of characters and locations this book was nothing like the world and atmosphere Robert E. Howard presented in his classic short stories. I wondered if the writers ever actually read an original Conan story or if they just watched that dreadful Arnold film and decided to write a game. In the Game Masters section it actually suggests that from time to time you should strip the party of their gear, throw them in prison, and provide little to no explanation on how they got there. Their explanation for this was that it happened to Conan a lot…

No it didn’t.

So eight years ago I grabbed as many books published by as many different companies and set out to create the PERFECT Conan RPG. Unfortunately I never finished. My hope, starting today, is to explore the concepts that I think would make a great CONAN RPG here on this blog.

The elements I think are absolutely necessary in a Conan RPG are as follows;
1) Complex characters. As Howard described “… sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer…” Conan was many things in his life. Among other things he was a pirate, king, soldier, adventurer, general etc. The system should allow a player to create a character that has many skills, advantages, or features.
2) Little to no armor. Conan often just wore regular clothes that were common for the part of Hyboria he was visiting. Often times with just a shield for protection. A player’s character should be as safe in or out of armor. I can remember some stories that he did wear armor though so armor should have some important purpose in the game.
3) Racial variation. The races of Hyboria, though technically all human, should have different advantages. Otherwise your only reason for choosing to be Cimmerian is because of Conan and your only reason to choose a Pict is… because… well I can’t think of a reason. So if every race is different you choose that race for a reason; just like to choose to be an Elf or Dwarf. It’s not because of the ears or beard it’s because of their abilities.
4) Mortality. In the world of Conan people die quickly and violently. Battles shouldn’t drag on for minutes they should be brutal and end quickly. Players should feel like their characters are exceptional but mortal. This is quite a step away from traditional RPGs where players tend to get attached to their characters. In a Conan game you shouldn’t.
5) Magic should be limited and dangerous to use. Spellcasters in the Hyborian age and scary things, certainly, but those that use it are physically affected in some way. And in very few examples is magic blatant. People fear spellcasters not because they hurl fireballs but because they can do unnatural things and make pacts with malevolent entities from other realms. Magic items also shouldn’t grow on trees. They should be rare and precious.

I think these are just right to get started. I’m sure I could add more but let’s focus here first. In my next post I’ll start to explore the systems I’m familiar with and their pros and cons relating to my first five necessities.

Author: John Carr

Gamer, comic guy, office drone.

33 thoughts on “Hither came Conan… Part 1”

    1. You are correct that Howard never called it the continent Hyboria. I think it’s the Thurian continent but I could be thinking of the time of Atlantis. That being said Hyboria is commonly used by many Conan fans. If I had to take a guess it’s probably because saying “Hyborian Age” over and over in a post or conversation can get cumbersome. As English speakers we often shorten or invent words whenever we need something easier to say to encompass a larger thought.

      Also there really is far less information on the Hyborian age than your average RPG setting. Howard didn’t set out to create a campaign setting, he wrote a series of short stories, in no chronological order, about a single bad-ass warrior. Can you blame fans for wanting more information or wanting to add something to the mythos?

      Although the use of “Hyboria” is debated in Conan circles I don’t dislike it and I’ll probably keep using it.

      Thanks for the comment though! Hope you keep reading.

  1. I realize I’m jumping the gun here, since you’re going to be talking about systems in your next post, but as I was reading your criteria, it occurred to me that, with few modifications, Pendragon would work very well. The game already treats different cultures as different “races,” giving them attribute bonuses and a special skill that no other culture has. Its combat system is very deadly and runs quickly; characters fighting out of armor get a hefty bonus to their weapon skill, but go down fast if they’re hit. Highly-skilled characters tend to hold the upper hand against unskilled varlets, but even they can get taken out with a lucky shot. The Traits and Passions system, too, would be well-suited, I think, to the “great mirth and melancholy” of the genre’s characters. You would mainly just need to address points 1 and 5–Pendragon is not focused on producing “multi-class” characters, and there’s no magic system in the current edition (although 4th edition sported a rather nifty magic system that worked pretty much exactly how you want one to).

    I could be wrong, but doesn’t Conan mostly don the heavier armor (mail shirts and so forth) when he goes into battle? Regardless of the system you choose as your base, you might consider making heavy armor only really valuable in a mass battle situation, when you’re surrounded by dozens of sharp blades and heavy sticks.

    1. I’m definitely going to check out Pendragon as soon as possible. Thanks for the tip.

      On the subject of Armor Conan certainly used it when he knew he was facing odds that called for a layer of steel between him and the enemy. Often times however Conan would walk into town wearing leather pants, a shirt, and a sword on his hip. Someone would come gunning for him and he’d finished them off without any protection. Once, he wrestled a giant, savage gorilla-like monster, and killed it with with his bare hands while wearing nothing more than a loincloth. A typical adventurer in an RPG might walk around all day in Full plate Armor basically because he HAS to so he doesn’t die. I’d like a system where the player can choose to be a valiant knight in armor or a savage barbarian in regular clothes and both still feel safe.

      1. I think Conan actually used the type of armour that was commonly used in the lands that he visited. You can notice for example that his armour becomes more and more mixed as his adventures progress chronologically. When he was fighting alongside the Aesir he wore their armour, and in the Queen of the Black Coast you see him with all kinds of foreign types of armour on him. Naked Conan is the movies’ doing.

        Anyway, I think you did a fine outline of Hyborian RPG (I think if age was Hyborian it is safe to assume that the RPG could also be Hyborian). I am looking forward to reading the rest of your work and thought.

      2. Actually in the first 7 stories collected in “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian” from Ballantine Books Conan does not always wear armor.

        Phoenix on the sword – Yes
        Frost Giant’s Daughter – Yes
        God in the Bowl – No
        Tower of the Elephant – No
        The Scarlet Citadel – Yes & No
        Queen of the Black Coast – Yes
        Black Colossus – No

        In summary Conan is only wearing armor half the time he has to fight someone or some thing. We can draw a few conclusions from this from the perspective of a roleplaying game (which is the whole point of this series of posts). 1 – Conan’s player is crazy and likes risking his life in battle without protection from time to time, 2 – The Dungeon Master is trying to kill Conan because he’s a min/maxed character so he keeps taking his armor away, 3 – Everything Conan fights is CR 1 and Conan is 20th level, or 4 – A character receives different benefits from wearing armor than not wearing armor. I’ll be discussing this soon.

        You could argue that it’s only when he’s trying to steal something that he takes his armor off. However I’ve never had a PC decide that the penalty to his Stealth was too much to bear and he’d rather the Minotaur in the Maze eat him alive if it caught him there. Also in The Scarlet Citadel and Black Colossus he didn’t decide to not have armor, he lost it.

        Now the Mongoose RPG works exactly off that last point. However If my DM routinely took away my equipment and left me with a 10 AC every other session I’d stop playing.

      3. Correction: In Black Colossus Conan DID wear armor. I ALWAYS confuse “Black Colossus” (which has NO black colossus) with “Iron Shadows of the Moon” (which has black statues that remind me of Colossus from the X-Men).

        If we examine the rest of the stories in the collection I mentioned in the previous response you get these results:

        Iron Shadows of the Moon – No
        Xuthal of the Dusk – No
        The Pool of the Black One – No
        Rogues in the House – No
        The Vale of Lost Women – No
        The Devil in Iron – No

        So as you can see the reason I want there to be an armor-less option is, if Conan is an RPG (again that’s my goal), then we have to include it as a possibility. Otherwise d20 characters will just die when they enter combat without armor. Not very Hyborian Age.

      4. Would a fix for the “armor problem” be an approach similar to what they use in “d20 Modern”? Characters have a Defense Rating that is tied to their class and increase as they gain levels. Armor can be worn, and when it is, it adds to the Defense Rating. Or you could change armor entirely… keep the Defense Rating–characters get “harder to hit” as they go up in levels–but armor reduced damage received when they ARE hit.

      5. Steve Miller that is exactly what I was thinking. I first saw that in Unearthed Arcana for 3ed and it made total sense. I wish I had seen that the last time I ran a game. One of my players would have been able to have his armor-less Paladin he was asking for.

  2. Also, I just purchased Carcosa for Lamentations of the Flame Princess a few hours ago – it implements all of the things you have described in a very… adult framework. Not for the weak of ego

    1. Wow! Another suggestion. Thanks for the information! I don’t know when I’m going to have the time to read all of these systems.

  3. Brianna, as someone who spends a great deal of time researching and writing about Robert E. Howard and in particular his world-building efforts, I just wanted to say that I very much enjoyed this post. You obviously understand some of the critical points of Howard’s fictional world that many adaptors and pastichers (whether in RPGs, films, comics, video games, or novels) have failed to grasp.

    The limited and usually-malevolent role that magic and the supernatural plays in the Conan stories is often misunderstood and you end up with something that is too D&D-like and with magic-using characters as common as rogues and fighters. In the case of some of the RPGs and video games I think the creators were probably well-aware of this problem, but felt like they had to make concessions to players that like to use magic. That may well be true, but as you said, it fundamentally alters the nature of the in-game universe so that it no longer truly feels like the world of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. If the creators of these various Conan media would stop thinking of the Hyborian Age as just another post-Tolkein, post-D&D fantasy world, and view it for what it truly is — a realistic historical adventure setting with the occasional *intrusive* supernatural element — they would come much closer to the mark.

    You seem to understand this very well, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what you come up. Also, I like your suggestion of the various races and cultures of the Hyborian Age having different abilities, because that to who capture some of the spirit of Howard’s stories. Though of course this would have to be handled tactfully and with modern sensibilities in mind — Howard was obviously a product of a less-enlightened age on such topics. The Elder Scrolls games might be a good model for this in how they handle different human races with differing abilities.

    I look forward to your future posts — good luck!

    1. You’re absolutely correct. Howard’s descriptions of the African race in particular are very… unflattering to say the least. I also agree that Magic in RPGs is tailored to player’s expectations, not the original subject matter. LOTR RPGs suffer from a similar problem. Thanks for the comment. Glad you enjoyed the read.

  4. Here’s a major shift I would suggest to anyone making a Conan RPG…

    There are NOT PC wizards/magic users and the best cleric-types ever get would be 1st level spells. Your typical RPG mage should be relegated to monster/NPC status. They are foes for the most part.

    I think this is a great project (as a huge REH fan myself, even if my RPG efforts have been directed toward his non-Conan creations mostly, even if I DID produce “ROLF!: Conan vs. Conan.” 🙂

  5. I plan on tackling the problem of magic in a future post. Although wizards only appear as villains in Howard’s stories I can imagine it must attract others looking for ancient secrets. Whether that works out or not will be discussed in that post. One of my early thoughts was to remove from the list of available spells, and to steal a concept from MAGE the Ascension, all vulgar magic. Player wizards could for example enhance an ally’s strength but could not cast a lightning bolt.

  6. Saying Mongoose as a game does not relate to the Original short stories might well be true for you, but decrying “That Horrible Movie”, is a bit unfair. The idea of rags to riches to rags is to illustrate world ranging adventures and changing circumstances. It works as a game, in playing out the Conan setting as a much better alternative than AD&D, or 3.5’s richness in golf bags of magical swords and gear, and wizards everywhere, as PCs no less.

    But you as an aspiring RPG author must certainly justify to yourself your drive to tear down the old, and make the new. So good luck on your project, when it is finished, and released and distributed, someone else can take their cracks at it, and find it wanting, as you have for the efforts of the Mongoose team.

    1. In Brianna’s defense, I can say with a pretty good degree of confidence that she is not an “aspiring RPG author” and has no interest in seeing this published and distributed. It’s a purely hobbyist approach to building the game she’s looking for when it comes to Conan.

      That said, any criticism if her creation is just as valid as her criticism of Mongoose. However, I tend to find the attitude that it is wrong to be critical of something a bit unsavory — especially the implication that it must be somehow inherently superior for being a commercial product.

    2. Thanks for the comment James. It’s nice when someone reads my posts and I’m a big girl. I can take it as good as I give. John is correct; I don’t want to publish anything. I chose a public forum 1) cause I felt I have something to say and 2) cause I’d like to run a Hyborian Age game and I value your (everyone’s) opinion.

      Thanks again

    1. Thanks for the comment Vince. Let me try to clarify my position; The mongoose RPG was fine. It introduced a lot new concepts that I don’t recall seeing in other RPG’s at the time. My problem was that, when I read it, it didn’t feel like REH really inspired it. Maybe it matches some of the non-Howard Conan material but I haven’t read them. I wish I could make the claim that I definitely know better than everyone else but I know that’s not true. I’m looking for honest opinion on my thoughts from both fans of RPG’s and REH himself.

      Hope you all keep reading

      1. Other than a few place names and monsters, I stayed away from the pastiches as much as I could. I did use a lot of non-Conan REH material (for example, the spells in “Across the Thunder River” mostly come from REH’s Black Canaan) for additional stuff. It probably didn’t feel like REH because REH didn’t write RPGs. I wrote the sourcebooks like sourcebooks, and not like an REH short story. It’s up to the Gamesmaster to give the game an REH feel. I also researched a lot of historical material that REH seems to have been inspired by. So the sourcebooks wouldn’t “match” the pastiches so much either, as I don’t like the pastiches much. Indeed, in several places I state that the pastiches are wrong. In playing the game, my group always had a sense of inspiration from REH – but that’s about the gamesmaster setting the tone well.

      2. I reference the fact that REH wasn’t writing an RPG as well. Setting a mood is fine and certainly something that ever DM should do but my goal in this blog is to read the original material and provide a framework that I feel mirrors Howard’s Hyborian Age. The Mongoose game (and other attempts by other companies) create systems for the players of RPG’s. This is perfectly understandable because if gamers don’t buy the game (they got my money) then the creators lose time and money. In this blog my goal isn’t profit so I have far more leeway when it comes to “cutting the fat” so to speak. For instance I chose to not include the Barbarian class. Your casual reader (or moviegoer) of Conan would balk at that decision since the word “barbarian” is said approximately 100 times in every Howard story. I think I make a valid argument why in my posts “When I was a Fighting-Man part 1 and 2”.

      3. If I were doing it of my own accord, I would have used a classless system (as being a barbarian is a cultural thing, really, relative to a culture considered by insiders to be “civilized”), but we were bound to use the d20 system. Mongoose was actually working on making it a classless system when the license was lost, unfortunately.

      4. Classless is definitely the right direction. Possibly Unearthed Arcana’s ‘Generic Classes” could be a framework. I’ve seen numerous “point-buy” systems as well but they’ve all seemed unnecessarily cumbersome. The problem I face is that I’m not planning on publishing this. I just want to take a single rulebook of a single game (if possible), tell everyone “use only this stuff”, and add as little in the way of houserules as I can manage. Simple is my goal (since I actually have little time and effort to apply to this.)

      5. I hate (HATE) point-buy systems. Conan is not the product of an even-playing-field. He’s a random anomaly, a product of a unique set of parents with their own genetic heritage in a particular cultural and geographic spot. A point-buy system can’t build a character like Conan – because if it does, then it generates every character to be as superior as Conan – and Conan becomes the norm, the mundane. I always go with random generation of characters, especially in a Hyborian setting (I even wrote an article about this in Mongoose’s Signs & Portents magazine, and reiterated the point in the Player’s Guide to the Hyborian Age).

  7. When I mentioned point buy I meant something similar to Mutants and Masterminds where you could customize your entire character, not just ability scores. Conan, and his contemporaries, don’t really fit into molds. Classes are… a necessary evil so to speak since I, too, am working in the framework of d20.

  8. I’m a little late to the party but I’d like to offer my own suggestion for a roleplaying game that nicely fits the Conan-esque Sword and Sorcery genre that you were exploring in this post.

    The game title is “Blade of the Iron Throne” and if the already mentioned Barbarians of Lemuria consitutes perhaps the shining example among rules-light S&S game systems, Blade is in my opinion the best fitting rules-heavy system for the genre, at least among the games I know about. By far.

    The system matches almost every concern of yours:

    1) By design, Player Characters are meant to be especially fine, experienced samples of mankind, both physically and mentally, but they are definetely mortal and vulnerable to even the most insignifcant mook, especially when they are not fighting for something they really care about. The system expect players to play protagonists and so PCs are better than the average inhabitant of the world but they are not invulnerable at all.

    2) Not wearing any kind of armor is a viable choice… as long as you make sure you don’t get hit. Because if your character is hit while not wearing armor there is a good chance that he will die or be immediately incapacitated (the combat system is not based on attrition and a single solid hit can take out most characters). So, if you expect to get into a big fight, you better wear some fine armor in advance. Like Conan in Howard’s stories.

    3) More than racial variation, the game accounts for the kind of broad cultural tropes that are commonly found in the S&S genre. During character generation (which is based on priority picks) the player has to choose the cultural heritage of his character: enlightened (a survivor of an ancient and superior civilization), savage (barbarians and the like), nomad, civilized, decadent or degenerated.

    4) The combat system is very deadly and dinamic. It’s basically the polished version of The Riddle of Steel roleplaying game combat system (with some major improvements). It helps generate a vibrant fiction and always keeps the player on the edge of his seat. For sure it doesn’t drag. Getting into random fights is a bad idea: you want your character to draw its weapon only when it’s abslolutely necessary and/or only when he is fighting for what he believes in or what he really cares about and desires.

    5) Magic is mysterious, rare, unnatural and corrupting. It definitely is possessed of a strong Sword and Sorcery vibe. It includes six Lesser Mysteries (Cursing, Enslavement, Mending, Prophecy, Scrying, Witchfire), two Greater Mysteries (Necromancy and Goety) and a number of Arcane Secrets (powerful and very specific spells meant to accomplish devastating but narrow effects). Every time a sorcerer makes use of his power he is at risk of gaining Taint. Taint measures the consequences of dealing with unnatural powers who defies logic and reason and makes social interactions much more difficult since the creepy and alien nature of the sorcerer tends to unnerve common people. Sorcery in this game offers a lot of power… at a price.

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