Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Retrospective: Conan Role-Playing Game

In my opinion, one of the things TSR did right during its existence was produce a wide variety of roleplaying games rather than endlessly churning out material for Dungeons & Dragons. There are several reasons why I think this is so, the most important of which is that these new games provided an outlet for players and game designers alike to try new things without feeling the need to inflict their desire for novelty on D&D. By this I meant that a great many of the slings and arrows D&D suffered over the years have been the result of people getting bored of its ways of doing things and then trying to change it to suit different tastes. Far better in my opinion is to play or to create new games specifically that speak to those tastes.

In my early years in the hobby, my friends and I regularly stopped playing Dungeons & Dragons when we felt the call of a different genre or even style. TSR happily provided us with plenty of other games from which to choose -- Gamma World, Gangbusters, Star Frontiers, Top Secret -- as did other game companies. We rarely stayed away from D&D for long, but I think our regular "sabbaticals" from it helped keep us interested in it over the long term. I still think that way today, which is why I see it as a good thing for a group to play many different RPGs (so long as it doesn't give way to the dreaded "gamer ADD").

I bring this up because one of the last non-D&D TSR roleplaying games I remember buying was 1985's Conan Role-Playing Game. Designed by David "Zeb" Cook, it's a complete game in a single box, consisting of a 32-page rulebook, a 16-page reference guide, and a 48-page guide to the Hyborian Age. I remain amazed at how often TSR produced RPGs whose rulebooks were 64 pages or under; it's frankly a thing of beauty -- all the moreso because, in most cases, these games didn't need to be any longer. Conan was a fairly "light" game, using a series of six "talent pools" to adjudicate every action a character takes in the game. The pools are broad in nature (Prowess, Fighting, Endurance, Knowledge, Perception, and Insight), under which are more specific talents that represent areas of unusual skill, like Brawling for Fighting or Reading/Writing for Knowledge. Talent checks are resolved using percentile dice and compared to a color-coded result chart, as was the style at the time. In cases where a character is attempting to do something an NPC is opposing (combat, for instance), two talents are compared, with the opposing talent subtracted from the active one to determine what line on the chart to read. Though the rulebook didn't do a particularly good job of explaining all this, in practice, the system was quite easy to use.

For my friends and I, though, what made Conan such a fascinating game, aside from its source material, was its character creation system, which encouraged players to think about who their character was and how he fit into the Hyborian Age. The "character folio" (i.e. record sheet) included a section entitled "story" with a series of blanks for the player to fill in, like Mad Libs. So, it would say "(Character Name), (Sex) of (Father) and (Mother), was born in the land of (Homeland). (Character Name) grew (Appearance). As a youth, (Character Name) learned (Talents)." And so on. The idea is to frame one's character abilities into something that is coherent, interesting, and fitting for an adventurer in a Robert E. Howard yarn. It's a simple thing really, but I can't stress how revelatory this approach was to my friends and I. We found it so much easier to get into the spirit of things this way.

Of course, it probably helped that Conan Role-Playing Game was clearly a labor of love on the part of David Cook. His fondness for the stories of Conan is well known and this game is like a love letter to the tales of the Cimmerian. For example, the game's magic system is mechanically loose and difficult for characters to master, with many opportunities for both disaster and long-term consequences. This is, of course, as it should be, for magic in the Hyborian Age is usually a dark affair not to be trifled with. This didn't stop one of my friends from creating a sorcerer character, named Talon after the twisted bird-like claw he had on one hand -- a reminder of his playing with things Man Was Not Meant to Know. Just as well presented is the game's setting, which is presented in the form of a faux notebook written by an archeologist named Ervin H. Roberts who was convinced that there was "an age undreamed of" in prehistory. It's a little silly, of course, but in a good way that I think encourages fun rather than hinders it.

I vaguely recall that TSR produced a handful of modules of to support Conan Role-Playing Game (in addition to those produced for AD&D), but I may be misremembering. Regardless, I don't believe the game did very well for the company, or at least it didn't do well enough, because it wasn't on store shelves for long. I think that's a shame, because Conan was well-presented, straightforward, and fun. It could never replace Dungeons & Dragons in the eyes of my friends and I, but that's hardly the benchmark by which a game ought to be judged. Unfortunately, I think that's exactly the benchmark TSR used, which is why most of their non-D&D RPGs had extremely short lives. A pity.


  1. I find it an interesting TSR game simply because I can convert it over to D&D (Rules Cyclopedia). I have the two adventure modules for it and the box set. 

    Perhaps most useful of all was the assumption that zero xp characters never have more than 13 in any ability stat. it meant that a Zero Level Human might be a blacksmith with 13 Strength but anyone from a character class could have more.

  2. There were at least three Conan modules: Conan the Buccaneer, Conan the Mercenary, and Conan Triumphant.  There were also several AD&D modules of the Conan genre: Conan Unchained, Conan Against Darkness, and Sonja Unconquered.

  3. There were indeed modules for TSR's Conan game:
    TSR7401 - CN1 - Conan the Buccaneer
    TSR7402 - CN2 - Conan the Mercenary
    TSR7403 - CN3 - Conan Triumphant

    People should also know that 'Zeb' Cook's rules live on, as the open-source ZeFRS rules, available here:

    (I'm not affiliated with the site, I'm just a serious fan of the game.)

  4. I didn't know about this game.  I  just recently grabbed the Steve Jackson GURPS PDF editions of their Conan game.  I will need to hunt down this TSR game.

  5. This game still has legs! I played it for the first time in a Google+ Hangout game a few months ago. The GM had the Conan rules and the rest of us used the free download of the ZeFRS PDF (basically the system and setting with all the Conan references scrubbed off) to make our characters.

    What I enjoyed most was the total departure from the resource management of D&D. It was more of a creative use of what you find lying around game. Maybe it was just our GM, but the gaming experience felt like a Conan story. It's too bad TSR didn't put a little more effort into marketing this game. It is an excellent fantasy RPG that isn't just another version of D&D.

  6. I have fond memories of this game. One thing that left a strong impression with me was the way your general stats (i.e. your "talent pool" ratings) were derived from the aggregate of your specific skills ("talents") rather than vice-versa. This was a revelation to me after years of D&D and similar "top-down" systems. The thought of a character being the sum of all the specific experiences he's had and skills he's developed was, I thought, a great way of handling both character generation and character advancement in a pulp-style picaresque game.

  7. I received the Conan game as a Christmas gift when I was 11 or 12, I think.  While I never had a chance to play it, I can remember thumbing through the books that came in the box.  I specifically enjoyed the anthropological notebook that described Conan's world.


  8. Nicholas BergquistJune 6, 2012 at 12:29 PM

    I loved the Conan RPG back then, it was definitely on top of the stack of TSR's many efforts at other RPGs. Was also glad when it returned as ZeFRS, although finding players experimental enough to try it today is a bit tough. Definitely in agreement that it was great back when TSR was willing to experiment and crank out more RPGs than just D&D. I was hoping the new boxed set Gamma World would inspire WotC to try their hand at this again, but it was not to be.

  9. I remember being confused when this came out. Why was TSR creating a game that competed with their flagship product? Especially when D&D/AD&D did Conan-style Swords and Sorcery so well?

    Now I appreciate it as a classic in game design. Back then, not so much.

  10. One of the modules, Conan Triumphant I think, featured a city map and building geomorphs which I used and re-used for a number of games. The city map used the geomorph number and a directional arrow to show orientation of the building, and the individual geomorphs were given multiple scales. It was both simple and brilliant. There was also a great map of a fortified palace which featured multiple building heights for climbing and jumping when sneaking in (or out).
    I don't remember ever playing the module as written, but the maps were a staple of my games for years.

  11. There were indeed three modules published for the game, as  Dain Lybarger lists above. "CN1 Conan the Buccaneer" and "CN2 Conan the Mercenary" are middling at best, reading like D&D manuscripts that were converted due to a strong generic fantasy feel and dungeon-based play-style (notably not written by Zeb Cook). However "CN3 Conan Triumphant" is much better, being a political-themed scenario with a gazetteer of Ophir and a quick mass-combat system (it includes other rules expansions as well).

    Annoyingly, the core boxed set mentions a Referee's Pack that was never published. At that there's other hints that the game was hit by corporate politics of some kind. The boxed set seems to have gone through some kind of rush or rewrite, given that the combat chapter mentions chits and combat maps that don't exist,  and a supplementary sheet had to be included to explain all the fundamental rules oddly missing from the booklets. Barely a year after the game was released Dragon ran a full page ad announcing a fire-sale on the complete line, and never was it mentioned again.

  12. By the time this came out, most of the people locally (including me) had grown pretty jaded with TSR. After the (in our view) horribly failed design of the TSR Indiana Jones RPG, we had no confidence in the design abilities of any remaining TSR personnel. So, I had no idea until recently the value of this game.

  13. Yup very nice game; although the AD&D module by David "Zeb" Cook was also quite good, also providing a small introduction to the setting and a few setting-specific rules. The other AD&D module was not as good, but still fun (and it features Akivasha!)

  14. I was one of those disappointed it wasn't for AD&D.  I had D&D alternatives, didn't need another.

    I think the later Lankhmar stuff showed that AD&D could be altered to suit that sort of game pretty well.

  15. I took advantage of that Dragon mag fire sale and got the game, three modules, and two boxes of minis for like, $20 or something (does anyone know which issue the ad was in?  I've looked for it a couple of times).  At the time, I thought the game sucked horribly.  I was just starting to really enjoy Rolemaster, and was not down with a single chart resolution mechanic.  I also found the field guide and modules to be mostly useless.

    When the G+ game popped up a few months ago,  I gave the game a fresh look.  Now, I can definitely appreciate the elegance of the system and would love to give it a try.

  16. This is a game that I like to play around with from time to time.  Like others in the comments, I own the box and the modules.  The one thing that I found a tad irksome was that characters created through the initial creation process couldn't be used in the adventures as written, they are just too inexperienced.

    While I like to come up with my own adventures, I have always been a "working" gamer.  Whether it was baseball, soccer, sky team, and wrestling plus work at the grocery store as a kid, or as a busy manager with twin daughters, my time to design is pretty limited.  That makes intro adventures a thing of great value to makes things like Vornheim by Zak S. a godsend as it lets me design in no time.

    Time to pull out the books to see what I can garner from them.  Oh, and speaking of Indiana Jones...the Judges Pack has some great chase rules.

    I think the largest problem that Indy and Conan faced as games was that their primary modus operandi  was to create rules with which people could play Indy or Conan, and not rules where players could play people in the worlds of Indy and Conan.  Conan suffers this less than Indy, but it still suffers it.

  17. The Recursion KingJune 12, 2012 at 8:42 AM

    There's nothing silly about an undreamt of age in prehistory. History extends back in time for a very short span in the big scheme of things, about six thousand years. What happened before this was not written down and is the domain of myths and legends and folk lore. 

  18. I'm pretty sure that when Mark was putting ZEFRS together, Cook confirmed that the game was released at a not-quite-finished stage. Can't recall the reason.

    I think the most distinctive thing about the game is the way that your skills create your pool, rather than the other way round.

  19. >
    Especially when D&D/AD&D did Conan-style Swords and Sorcery so well?
    What? D&D is the opposite of Conan swords and sorcery.