Friday, December 29, 2006

The Conan RPG from TSR

The following is an article of mine that appeared in issue #108 of Knights of the Dinner Table Magazine.

Lost Game Safari: The Conan RPG from TSR
By Jeff Mejia

Conan. With the exception of the works of Professor Tolkien, no other character of the 20th century embodies the spirit of fantasy gaming more than the grim, blue-eyed Barbarian from the magnificent stories by Robert E. Howard.
The hard fighting, hard drinking, savage warrior has been the favorite character of countless players through the years. Currently Mongoose games has a well supported version of the world of Conan based on the D20 system, and about 10 years earlier, Steve Jackson Games gave Conan the GURPS treatment. But did you know that once, long ago, an ancient gaming giant known as TSR took a stab at Hyborian Adventure with “Conan the role-playing game”?
It was over 20 years ago that veteran game designer David Cook created the system for TSR’s Conan game. The game comes boxed and contains two slim books, a fifteen-page reference guide, a map, some character sheets, and dice. The actual rulebook is a mere 32 pages, all crunch, no fluff. The second book is a combination Gazetteer and monster manual, written in the style of an archaeological notebook, with short snippets outlining the various countries, cultures, beasts and characters of the Hyborian world. Again, to call the entries brief would be an understatement. The reference pages are surprisingly one of the more important pieces of information; these 15 pages contain all the information for the various talents as well as several key tables containing wound charts, equipment lists, and combat modifier charts. Why these reference pages were simply not put in the rulebook completely escapes me (it almost seems as if they were an afterthought, and rushed to the printer at the last minute).
There are a number of unique innovations used in The Conan game. First of all, the mechanics are surprisingly simple with both task and combat resolution being decided off of one percentile chart, called a resolution table. “Talent pools” replace the traditional attributes of strength, intelligence, wisdom, etc. and their corresponding number ratings.
Combat of course is the heart of gaming; many people speak of the “role-playing experience” or “character development”, whatever. Gaming is about rolling dice and killing your opponents. The Conan game understands this and makes no apologies for it. The Combat in this game is both quick and brutal.
For example Khoraj, a mercenary from Turan is facing Anteus, a Bounty hunter from Ophir in an alleyway. Khoraj has a movement talent of 4 and is armed with a saber (talent 5). Anteus has a movement talent of 5 and is wielding a large club (talent 2). It is determined that Anteus will be attacking first. Anteus declares that he will be aiming for Khoraj’s head. To determine if Anteus hits, we take his fighting talent (Club 2) and subtract Khoraj’s movement (4) the difference is 2 this is the combat differential, find that column on the chart, roll percentile dice, and pray for a low roll. The roll is “23” so Anteus hits, he didn’t roll low enough on the chart to cause a specific wound to the head like he wanted to, but still he did hit (a Percentile roll on the location chart shows a hit to the right leg). The resolution chart is colored and a successful hit in a specific color indicates the amount of damage done, in this case three points of base damage are done, to this number we add any damage modifier for the weapon and any strength bonus (in both cases zero) and subtract the protection value of the opponents armor (if any). Khoraj has no leg armor so he takes the full 3 points of damage. Khoraj’s damage talent (which are basically Hit Points) is only 5 so these three points cost him dearly. Khoraj now declares an attack to Anteus’ head as well. Khoraj’s talent with the saber is 5 and Anteus’s movement is 5 which comes to a zero differential. Khoraj rolls a “02” well within the “specific wound” range. Khoraj declared a headshot as his intended target. He rolled a specific wound. The result of a specific wound to the head for an enemy is death. Khoraj’s blade slices through muscle and bone and Anteus’s head goes flying down the alleyway into the shadows. End of combat.
The rules continue with an overview of movement and travel as well as the dangers of falling, fire, drowning and poison. All of this information is covered in two pages, once again very little is given over to fluff.
The next chapter deals with magic. In the Hyborian world, mages are a rare and mistrusted bunch. The path of the arcane in the “Conan” game is lonelier than in just about any other fantasy game world. There are no Magic stores, kindly absent minded wizards, or schools of Sorcery. This however, is in keeping with the flavor of the original stories, priests and mages were adversaries to be thwarted. In some rare instances a spell caster would provide assistance, but the focus of the Conan stories were on the ability of a determined man, wielding cold hard steel to overcome his foes. The magic system In the Conan game was truly original. It was one of the first open-ended systems ever published. Basically the player and the Game master get together and agree on a spell, it’s parameters, and it’s effects. But that’s just the start.
Magic is a long and arduous process in the Conan game. To begin with the mechanics are heavily skewed against a magic wielding character; the rulebook itself discourages player character sorcerers. But just like someone always has to be the Elf with a nineteen dexterity in D&D, someone invariably is going to want to play a sorcerer in Conan.
Mages begin the game with the obsession disadvantage right from the beginning and they gain various additional weaknesses as they progress in magical talent, for every simple illusion they learn to create, or cloud of fog they summon, they are burdened with additional mental and physical disadvantages. As stated earlier there are no “wizard schools” so spell casters are tasked with researching through dusty tomes and raiding crypts to unearth scraps of long forgotten spells. And when its all said and done, the fruits of their labor are still nowhere near as powerful as their fireball-slinging brethren in other games.
The “Living in Hyboria” section gives rules and advice on currency, haggling, cost of living, dealing with NPC’s, and employment.
The “Ultimate goals” section handles the use of fame, expertise, and luck. Fame is a reflection of a characters notoriety it could be a positive or negative value. For every heroic deed, act of bravado, or victory in battle the character can earn fame points. Consequently for every cowardly act, notable defeat, act of pure stupidity etc. fame points may be detracted. Giving the character a negative or “Infamous” rating. The value of a high fame score is of course obvious, more free drinks come your way, wenches are more willing, and you tend to recruit a better class of henchman. Using your talents in an adventure is rewarded with additional talent points awarded at the end of the game. These points may be applied to increase current talent scores or to purchase new talents that the character was exposed to during play. One additional feature to encourage the reckless and heroic style of action that can be found in sword and sorcery stories is the awarding of “Luck” points; good role-playing and originality earn these points. In the Conan game heroic deeds call for heroic rewards. Luck points are valued for enabling your character to re-roll a failed result or to reduce the ill effects of damage, you can also apply them as a modifier to aid in performing extraordinary actions. Even “Codes of Honor” are touched upon in these rules, reminding the players that despite Conan’s barbaric ways and bloody adventures, he held himself to a strict barbarian code of honor. The rules encourage players to emulate the heroes of the genre and have their characters act accordingly.
The remaining three sections consist of general “how to run an adventure” type advice, including tips on preparation, mastering the rules, character death, creating adventures and campaigns, all the stuff you have all no doubt read before, but its still good to revisit every once in a while. The final section is a small mini adventure loosely based on the Conan story “The tower of the elephant” it’s a whopping four pages long.
Three modules, “Conan the Mercenary”, “Conan the Buccaneer”, and “Conan Triumphant” were all the official support the line ever received. There were no source books of the various Hyborian nations, no splat books filled with new talents, weapons, monsters or magic items, not even a measly GM screen.
But despite its minimal support there were die-hard fans out there willing to give it a shot, Fans for whom frolicking with faerie folk in the magic rich worlds of Dungeons and Dragons and other Fantasy games held little appeal. They wanted to slink through the streets of “Shadizar the wicked” making dark deals, or test Aquilonian steel against the blood red hatchets of Pictish warriors on the frontier. And for that they turned to Conan the role-playing game.