Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Retrospective: Conan Unchained!

Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian and Dungeons & Dragons have been connected since the beginning. Volume III of 1974's OD&D makes explicit reference to him in the section describing the "Angry Villager Rule," for example, while 1976's Gods, Demigods & Heroes includes one interpretation of his game statistics. Gary Gygax offered up a different interpretation of the character in issue #36 of Dragon (April 1980). And, of course, the barbarian character class, which Gygax first presented in issue #63 (July 1982) seems to been greatly inspired by Conan, right down to his distrust of magic. 

Consequently, it probably came as little surprise when the AD&D module Conan Unchained! appeared in 1984. If anything, one might have reasonably wondered why it took so long for something like to have occurred. I suspect that it was the increased pop cultural presence of Conan following first the 1982 John Milius movie and then its 1984 sequel that led to this formal marriage of Howard and TSR, as the still of Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover makes clear.  

Written by David Cook, Conan Unchained! is a fascinating module – and, by "fascinating," I mean that it in its fullest sense. To begin with, simply seeing an official Conan module for AD&D is enough to hold my attention. Conan is given game stats that are very impressive. He's a 13th level fighter and 7th level thief, in addition to having ability scores ranging from 10 (for Wisdom) to 18 (90) (for Strength, obviously) and 100 hit points. Statted up alongside Conan are Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, Juma the Warrior (possibly based on a comics character of the same name), and Nestor the Gunderman (from REH's unfinished story "The Hall of the Dead," who also appears in the Conan the Barbarian comic from Marvel). Naturally, one might ask: why are these character included at all? As written, they're intended to be used as player characters, though Cook does allow for the possibility that players might wish to use their own characters, provided they're adapted to the rules changes intended to reflect the Hyborian Age.

Chief among those rules changes are the addition of "luck points," which can be used in a variety of ways, from making an extra attack per round to knocking an opponent unconscious with a single blow (armed or unarmed) to performing "a heroic action beyond the scope of the rules." My natural inclination is to look askance at such things, but I suspect that, in play, these luck points work reasonably well, emulating the action of the Conan movies, if not necessarily Howard's original tales. Also introduced are fear checks to simulate the "instinctive fear of the unnatural" felt by characters like Conan. Failing a fear check results in the inability to attack for a round, with new checks being allowed every round. Again, it's not a terrible idea, though I do wonder why a saving throw, such as paralyzation could not have been re-purposed for this. Other rules changes include an accelerated healing rate, since healing magic is rare or non-existent in the world of Conan.

Equally fascinating is this section, which I reproduce here:

The most relevant portion of the above is "the choices the characters have will be very limited. You must be careful to gently control plot encounters." As you know, I'm no fan of heavily plotted adventure modules, but I am willing to make some allowances in limited circumstances. This, however, goes far beyond anything I can countenance and is very much in keeping with the style championed by Dragonlance. It's too bad, because I'm a huge fan of David Cook's work at TSR. 

The adventure itself isn't especially notable, consisting of a mix of exploratory encounters, random encounters, and the aforementioned plot encounters. The action pushes the characters along from Turan, where a war is brewing, to the Sea of Vilayet, to the mysterious citadel of an evil sorcerer. It's a bit of a mess, even viewed through the forgiving lens of pastiche and I found it hard to care much after a while. The only real interest to me was that the action takes place roughly in the same location as "The Devil in Iron," which I discussed earlier this week. 

At the end of the day, Conan Unchained! is yet another oddity from the period between 1982 and 1984, when TSR was casting about mightily in an effort to harness the burgeoning mass market popularity of D&D so as to secure its long-term profitability. The results were decidedly mixed and quite possibly laid the groundwork for TSR's decline and eventual demise. That future is more than a decade in the future at this point, but, even so, I can't help but feel that chasing licenses like Conan was energy better spent on other creative avenues that might have yielded more fruit.


  1. Two types of question come to mind:
    1. Does anyone know why TSR decided to publish the Conan RPG as a separate game, rather than as a boxed supplement for AD&D?
    2. If the AD&D adventures for Conan had been better designed, or if there had been a Hyborian Age boxed set for AD&D, might this have actually found a market and done really well? Was there a lack of interest in Conan among AD&D gamers, or was the failure of the line due to its poor design or lack of support?

    1. All excellent questions, for which I don't know presently know the answers.

  2. The adventures for the Conan RPG also have little in them to recommend. The best of the bunch is CN3, Conan Triumphant, by William Carlson, which centers around a succession crisis in Ophir. It has a hex map of the kingdom, city geomorphs for neighborhoods in the capital city, a detailed map of the palace (which can be used for rooftop chases), some building floorplans, and a halfway decent dungeon map. The plot seems like a linear snoozefest, but might be convertible into something more sandboxy, albeit with considerable effort. The Conan RPG boxed set itself is fun and inspiring to read, with a colorful (but not very detailed) map of the Hyborian Age, but the setting booklet is very light on details, and the game book contains only one very short and not fully developed adventure (based on the Tower of the Elephant). The Hyborian Age is a great setting for RPGs, so it's a shame that TSR was not able to develop a game or series of adventures that realized the setting's potential.

  3. I don't own CB1 (though I recall perusing it in the store in my youth...loved the "manotaur"); however, I *do* own CB2. Authored by Ken Rolston, I haven't been able to find any of the "plot encounter" text from CB1, despite having all the setting specific rules about adventuring in Howard's Hyboria. Neither does Anne McCready's RS1 ("Red Sonja Unconquered"). It appears TSR dropped the concept - and the directive of massaging player choice - after CB1.