Conan Wore Armor, Dammit

    • Recently, in our D&D sessions, I decided to resurrect the idea of a continuous initiative system. Continuous initiative means just that – it is continuous – and does not have a one person acting per combat round order.The order is determined by how high the initiative values are (like normal) but then instead of going back to square one after all have moved, the higher initiative combatants may be acting multiple times over low initiative value combatants. This fundamentally changes combat.

      Part of my reasoning in trying this out was because we have a number of house rules which we agree on (me as the referee and the players) and its fun to try new ideas out and see which ones stick. The other part is that if the players ever wanted to create a character like Conan the Barbarian, as it is, the game system would completely punish them for this choice.

This is a much simpler (and therefor probably workable) approach to the idea of continuous combat rounds that I talked about previously in Fluid Combat Rounds Rules, but that’s not what I want to talk about.  What I want to grouse about for a moment is the notion that in order to simulate Conan, you need rules that don’t penalize characters who go around in nothing more than a loin-cloth. Recursion King is hardly the first game designer to have that notion.  For instance Clint Black at Pinnacle Games proposed rules that he called Pecs and Pulchritude for giving people armor based on Toughness and penalizing their Parry scores for armor, even going so far as to name one of his example characters Konan.  [update: Clint objects that I make it sound like his intention was to mimic the Conan stories and that he failed, when that wasn’t his intention at all–his P&P optional rules were just intended to fulfill the request of a fan who was looking for suggestions on how to make gear count for less and character abilities count for more.] At one point it was even a common objection to D&D–armor was too important, so it wasn’t even a good simulation of its source material like Conan.

When it comes to the Conan stories, that’s just dead wrong.  Conan wore as much armor as he could afford given his circumstances (in terms of both personal wealth and what was available in the culture he found himself in), up to and including full plate (when taking the field as King).  Indeed, in the very first story he appeared in, his survival was attributed to the fact that he managed to don at least some armor before the assassins got to his sleeping quarters.  Even much earlier, when he had barely left Cimmeria, he wore a helmet while among the Aesir and a point was made both of it saving his life and how many other tribesmen might have survived fighting the Vanir raiders if they had taken similar precautions.  Robert Howard, and Conan, appreciated the value of armor.

Even in the movie with Arnold, which was shall we say extremely loosely based on the stories, Conan armors up when it comes time to have a big stand-up fight at the end instead of skulking around stealthily.

So where did the stupid notion of Conan fighting naked against guys equipped with chain or better come from?  I blame the comics by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith.  Despite the fact that quite a few of the stories were close adaptations of the Howard stories, the depictions of Conan, particularly on the cover, tended to have him wearing barely anything at all.  Partly it’s because most of the comic stories are set very early in Conan’s career, when he’s a penniless theif or a pirate, rather than a mercenary captain or king, and partly because, well, half-naked muscular men is somehow an important selling point for action-adventure comics, for reasons that probably don’t bear too close examination.  It’s those pictures that seem to have been seared into the public consciousness, to the point where even in our hobby people who set out create rules to emulate the feel of Conan stories seem to think the first thing they need to do is make armor less important.

No, what you need to do to a system to make it suitable for Conan-style action isn’t to reduce the relative value of armor, but make it possible to survive battles while lightly armored as long as you’re facing lightly armored foes.  You want a career of piracy or being a desert raider to be possible, while still leaving the heavily armored Aquilonian knights kings of the battlefield.  That is something that D&D and the retro-clones could use some tweaking to adjust, since the armor means you get hit less abstraction makes its lack just too dangerous even against identically armed and armored opponents.  Possibly you could adjust the charts so that they reflected armor on a relative instead of absolute scale, but it’s getting late and I’m not sure I can specify exactly how that would work.  Still, I’m pretty sure that, at least as far as Conanism goes, what you don’t want to do is let the fighter wearing nothing hit so many extra times that his expected damage per round is the same or almost as the fighter in plate attacking him.

6 thoughts on “Conan Wore Armor, Dammit

  1. The answer is easy. Don’t make game stats or functions for armor, just have characters avoid deadly blows or damage based on their own prowess (levels, etc.) If they happen to be wearing armor, then it’s explained as being the armor which saved them from the blow. If they aren’t wearing armor, then by Crom it was their panther-like reflexes that saved them! After all, that’s how it did work in REH’s Conan stories. Conan always survived any situation by virtue of being Conan, and the presence or absence of armor just informed the description of how.

  2. I don’t know, it certainly worked for us; note that in my chart, everybody acts in order initially – making the fast, lightly armoured characters vulnerable to damage as per normal if they cannot pull off a hit and a killing blow on that first action (extremely unlikely with a low damage weapon and a high AC enemy).

    Anyway, I’d encourage you to give it a go and see what you think. Remember that in terms of dps, the highly armoured characters are harder to hit, so two attacks against them is not the same as two attacks against a lightly armoured character – in the first case, two hits are unlikely, whereas in the second case, two hits are very likely.

  3. About halfway through your second paragraph, I thought, “Well, I blame Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith.” I was greatly amused when I got to paragraph 4.

  4. @Recursion King – I should have made it clearer that I don’t have any objection to your house rule per se, which seems reasonably simple and elegant, just the rationale that rules like that are required by fidelity to the Conan concept.

    @Jack Colby – while it’s completely true that the real reason for Conan’s survival was narrative, I find that unsatisfying as a principle for game rules because they cease to offer the players any guidance on what the characters ought to do. The players can no longer reason about the game world, but only about the narrative. A player faced with Conan’s predicament at the start of The Phoenix on the Sword wouldn’t bother trying to put on as much armor as he could even if he couldn’t fully lace it in time if all it was going to change was the description of how he didn’t get hurt.

  5. I always thought instead of being forced to wear light armor that a Barbarian class should have bonuses for moving in armor.

    So, in D&D a barbarian would treat for movement/encumbrance hvy as med, med as lt and lt as no armor.

    Conan was strong enough to remain panther like even while wearing that armor.

    I also wonder were the hell the rage came from? I guess bezerkers. Hmmmm, actually the various incarnations of D&D barbarians are more like and should be called bezerkers.

  6. @njharman – that’s actually pretty good, depending on your version of D&D. As for the rage thing, Conan at least sometimes experienced it (e.g. in The Frost Giant’s Daughter), though I wouldn’t say it was really part of his standard fighting style.

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