Role-Playing Conan, Old School

Category: Conan
Last article published: 10 December 2017
This is the 15th post under this label

These days, you Modiphius Entertainment has the license to publish Conan-licensed role-playing products, and I'm sure they're doing a good job. Before that (2004), Conan was a d20 game from Mongoose Publishing. But I want to go back to the start. I want to look at old school Conan. And for that, we have to start with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons' 1984 modules Conan Unchained! and Conan Against Darkness, basically timed with the second Conan film, Conan the Destroyer.
While Howard's Hyborean adventures were definitely part of D&D's DNA, and Conan the Destroyer had a D&D adventure feel to it, Conan stories are much less fantastical than your usual D&D campaign. And it shows in these modules. While Against Darkness has a magic-user, a couple of magic items and more monsters, Unchained is more grounded, and the resulting opinion is that D&D just isn't the best fit. To give the adventures the proper flavor, designer David Cook adds a Fear Factor to monsters, Luck points that allow your heroes to do Heroic Feats, and quicker healing (in part because Conan's world doesn't have clerics. I guess Conan, a larger than life figure, doesn't scale so well with leveling heroes. Here's what he looked like in AD&D terms:
Dual-classed Fighter/Thief. Pushing the Strength Attribute to its limits. The result of impossibly high rolls. I mean, this guy shouldn't really need a party, and that's reflected here.

TSR may have tested the waters with these two products, but they didn't wait long to get an actual Conan RPG into stores. In 1985, we get...
Instead of trying to fit Conan into a game not meant for him, they could now look at Conan and build a game AROUND him. Well, almost. Waste not, want not - TSR actually adapted the system from their Marvel Super Heroes RPG, which makes sense since Conan is a fantasy superhero (and indeed, existed in the Marvel Universe). d100, resolution table, that kind of thing. Like a superhero game, it's not as attached to random rolls. You buy talents (and weaknesses) based on chosen backgrounds, and those talents determine what you're good at. Let's look at Conan's character sheet here:
As you can see, there's more Conan-specific flavor, like Animal Reflexes and Personal Magnetism, and just the way you have to specify who your parents were, etc. This is a more streamlined game and a pretty cool introduction to old school fantasy role-playing. The boxed set was followed by three adventures, and then TSR lost the license. Well, Conan was never gonna sell as well as AD&D anyway.

In 1989, Steve Jackson Games picks up the baton and publishes not only GURPS Conan, but a bunch of solo adventures (acknowledging that the ol' Cimmerian isn't all that suited to party play).
Actually, the first solo adventure came out the year before simply using GURPS Fantasy as an umbrella franchise. GURPS - the Generic Universal Role-Playing System - claims it can model any genre, and it can, but it's better at the grittier, more realistic end of the spectrum. Its superheroes work better as, say, Wild Cards, then in four-color comics, for example. What about Conan? On the one hand, we have a world that's less fantastical so it plays well with GURPS Fantasy. On the other, does Conan "break the bank", as it were? Well, he's certainly not built on 100 points like most starting characters! The sourcebook even suggests you start characters off with 200 points to buy their abilities for a "cinematic campaign". I'll say this about GURPS though: Even if you don't plan on using the system (which I do like, don't get me wrong), you should try and find any sourcebook that fits the type of game you want to play. The sourcebooks are full of information quite beyond the rule mechanics. I haven't seen the newer Conan games, admittedly, but GURPS Conan is pretty thorough resource. How thorough? Well, it doesn't just give you one set of stats for Conan, it gives you five. Here's Conan the Thief:
But you also get write-ups for Conan Captain of Turan, Amra the Lion, Conan the Kozak, and Conan King of Aquilonia. Use him at whatever point in his story you care to! There are also stats for friends, enemies and the women in his life, as well as monsters, magic, lands (with maps), religions, history, and how to best replicate the feeling of Howard's stories in your games. I'm a GURPS-head, so I'm biased. Mileage might vary.

And of course, today it's much easier to find the post-2000 games, even on your store's used books shelf. I don't even WANT to check on eBay to see how pricey 80s Conan games have become. And the newer games have many more supplements, better graphics, etc. Have you, in fact, gamed in Conan's Hyborean Age? If so, which RPG did you use? I'd love to hear about it.


Mike W. said...

Ah, another GURPS fan! I've only skimmed the GURPS Conan stuff, but like most GURPS products it's very thorough. I've stolen (er, I mean borrowed) so many ideas from GURPS sourcebooks ... Cliffhangers is my personal favourite (more of that grittiness you mentioned), but they're all good.

I vaguely remember the old TSR Conan modules, but we never played them, being Mystara fans all the way.

Siskoid said...

I have over a hundred GURPS books in my collection. I think there are a few posts about it here and there.


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