The Box

Conan Role-Playing Game Unboxing

Here’s some photos of the old TSR Conan RPG that I just won on eBay. This is actually the first time I’ve bid on something like this, so I’m pretty excited.

The game is by Dave “Zeb” Cook, and uses a universal chart resolution system based on the TSR Marvel Super Heroes system. You can get a free version of the system, with the Conan IP stripped out, called ZeFRS (Zeb’s Fantasy Roleplaying System). Like MSH (also free), it’s pretty elegant if you don’t mind having to roll  and look-up on that one chart all the time, though unlike MSH Conan uses a roll low percentile system.  Still, it would be pretty easy to reverse that if you wanted to create a new chart.  It seems silly but I know my players are always disappointed when a roll of 99 turns out to be bad.

The Rules

(32 pages) Pretty much everything you need for an RPG, from back in the day when they could fit it all in 32 pages: Introduction with “what is roleplaying”, Combat, Movement, Dangers and Perils, Magic, Living in Hyboria, Improvement and Ultimate Goals, Refereeing Adventures in Hyboria, Creating Hyborian Adventures, and An Adventure in the World of Hyboria.  The core mechanic is a simple one: decide what Talent is being tested, look up its rating on the resolution chart, and roll to see whether you get a fail (white), or higher degree of success (green, yellow, orange, red).  For opposed actions you first subtract the opponent’s talent score before finding the column on the chart.  Modifiers come from shifting columns left and right rather than changing the die roll.

Character creation is by point-buy1. Interestingly, you don’t really have attributes in Conan. Instead you have a number of talents grouped into six pools: Prowess, Fighting, Endurance, Knowledge, Perception and Insight .  Your rating in the overall pool is the sum of your talents in that pool, divided by 10 and rounded down.  You can use the pool rating both as the default if you have no applicable talent and if it’s better than your specific talent (putting points in a talent will never make you worse than if you used the default).

Just glancing through it, one unusual feature of the system is that whenever combat begins or a new combatant enters the fray, there’s a roll so see if you’re “caught off guard” and get some number of extra actions. This differs from traditional surprise rules because you can be caught off guard even when you’re facing off against your foes with weapons drawn, and even if you’re the one initiating the violence: it’s really a test of reflexes, not awareness, and quite in keeping with the Conan stories. In fact they quote a snippet from one of the stories when introducing the rule.  Bits from the stories are interspersed throughout the text to justify what comes next.

Another interesting bit is that even if you haven’t won extra actions through catching a foe off-guard, you can attempt multiple actions; instead of a standard penalty, though, you roll on the resolution chart to see if you can, and if you fail to get a “Red” result (the highest possible on the chart) not only does the second action not come off, but you have a significant penalty for the rest of the current turn and the next.  Since the chance is quite low, 8% – 15%, I’m not sure whether it would come up in play except as a desperation move.

The World of Hyboria

(32 pages) is a brief compendium of what’s known about the various lands and peoples of Hyboria, oddly presented as if it were the notes of a fictitious professor Ervin Howard Roberts.  I say oddly because the introduction, after talking about Professor Roberts’ notes, goes on with a perfectly clear biography of Robert E(rvin) Howard, Conan’s creator and a bibliography of the then-in-print Ace collections of the Conan stories edited and supplemented by L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter.  I guess the fiction is a wink at the prevalence of “these are a bundle of notes unearthed about the adventures of this fellow in a far off land/time” as a framing device for pulp stories such as Burroughs’ John Carter or  Akers’ Dray Prescot series, but Howard never really went in for that.  His approach was typically more mythical, a long-lost ancient chronicle of a still more ancient time: “Know, o prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the sons of Aryas…”  and so on.  The World of Hyboria is useful, in that it keeps the referee who wants to run a Hyborean campaign from having to scour the stories taking notes on what’s known about the various lands Conan visits, and often has direct quotes from the stories which helps with the flavor,   What’s lacking, though, is much by way of directly gameable info, although it does have stats for a number of dangerous creatures as well as some examples of famous NPCs like Thoth-Amon and Valeria of the Red Brotherhood.  Still, stitching these together into some kind of adventure is pretty much entirely up to the referee.

Reference Guide

(15 pages) lists specific information for each Talent and Weakness you can take, as well as a random hit location chart, a list of combat modifiers, another copy of the resolution chart from the back cover of the rules book, an equipment list, the table for specific wounds (when you roll a Red result on fighting), a list of languages and, unusually, a chart of jewels and their typical values.  I supposed when you’re treading the jeweled thrones of the world beneath your sandals you’re going to want to know the cash values.

Master Reference Sheet

(4 pages) contains a summary of pretty much every rule you’d need to consult at the table, some errata for missing talents, and succinct advise for the referee.






Map of Hyboria

Huge and colorful wall map.  Torn between wanting to frame it and maybe wanting to actually use it some time.

Character Folio

Weird useless four-page character brochures: too slick to write on on the outer (character) sides but not slick enough to be erasable, with room for recording a single adventure and its gleanings in terms of fame and treasure on the insides.  The mad-libs part at the top where you fill in your character’s story with the name and occupation of father and mother, where you were born and what you learned as a youth (you have to take at least 1 point in the talent of your father’s occupation) is kind of neat and evocative, but I have trouble picturing these actually getting used except as a template for what you need to write on your sheet of paper.

Two sets, which would be enough for four characters to each have a single adventure if you cut them apart. You could photocopy them, I suppose, but even so you’d only need one master.

Other Stuff

Apparently the boxes originally came with two ten-siders and two crayons for coloring them in, though my box only had one crayon left.  No big, since nowadays every gamer I know has ten-siders and to spare.


I’m really happy with this purchase, and somewhat to my surprise I’m actually tempted to try running a game instead of just mine it for ideas for my DCC Sword & Sorcery campaign. I can definitely see some people I play with digging this unified approach and ability to design a character over the more particular everything-is-a-separate-subsystem mechanics and random character generation of D&D and its successors like DCC.

  1. though naturally people have come up with random generation methods if you can’t stand the fiddliness of point-buy or just want to be surprised. 

Numenera Quick Hits

Some quick impressions of Numenera from Monday’s game:

  • I like the mad-lib character generation. I might even steal it.
  • The names Glaive, Jack, and Nano for the character types aren’t particularly evocative for me.  Nanotech is the new phlebotinum and it already feels worn out.
  • Cyphers is a bad name for the one-use devices. The one thing they’re not is mysterious, since to make them worthwhile you know exactly what they do (I guess they come clearly labelled).
  • The hard limit of two Cyphers (or three if you’re a Nano with Expert Cypher use), while clearly a good idea to prevent characters from accumulating a huge pile of them and spending too much time staring at their character sheets looking for the right device to solve a problem, seems pretty contrived.  I’d prefer some kind of sliding scale of increased chance of mishap and wilder catastrophic failure.
  • Multiplying by 3 all the time is kind of a nuisance.  Not sure why it’s better to have everything ranked in difficulty 1-10 with bonuses and penalties applied to that number, but have to multiply by 3 to derive the d20 target.
  • Having the player roll both attack and defense vs. target numbers is fun, though our GM made a minor goof and had us rolling low for defense as if we were rolling the opponent’s to-hit against us.
  • The GM Intrusion mechanic is immersion breaking.  Personally I’d get rid of the choice to accept or spend an XP to reject _and_ the compelled give XP to another player; both those decisions can’t be made from an In Character POV, and the latter can’t even usually be attached to the fiction.
  • The game is an odd mix of broad strokes and fiddly details.  I’d prefer to stick to the broad strokes.
  • I think it would be nice to encourage more colorful character descriptions and abilities; the characters depicted in the game art seem much more exotic than what the character generation process turns out, though that might just be a failure of imagination on my part.
  • I’m not sure what I think of spending your stats (which are also your hp) for extra effort or to power your abilities; I am sure I don’t like spending XP for temporary bonuses.

I’m planning on playing in Jonathan Henry’s Numenera campaign once he gets that up and running, but what playing this did for me was make me want to work on a far-future science fantasy setting for Zap! more than run a game of Numenera myself.

Fate Accelerated Non-Review

Not a review, just an impression

I was flipping through Fate Accelerated at the game store yesterday, and it seemed like the mirror-universe version of my own SFX!  There are strong similarities (maybe because I played and hacked so much FUDGE back in the day), but almost every concrete difference I noticed was the exact opposite of how I like things to be.  Starting from the very beginning with the description of the purpose of this tabletop RPG being to gather around with your friends to take turns telling little parts of stories, through the FUDGE special dice, the use of names that need to be continually converted to numbers and back, and the damnable economy of points that need to be spent to actually have the fiction of the world have any bite, the meta decision whether to have a failure or a success at cost, negotiating back and forth over “compels”… I can practically feel the game staring at me, stroking its goatee and toying with its agonizer.

Anyway, you can currently get the pdf (or epub or mobi) version as Pay What You Want over on RPGNow.  If you ever wanted a game that has many of the elements I like (rules light, freeform chargen, resolution driven by genre-logic, shared responsibility for the details of the world) delivered in a way that makes me cringe, check it out.

Fate Accelerated

Fate Accelerated

Huzzah! It is Mine!

Starships & Spacemen (via that is.  This was one of the earliest SF roleplaying games, and I remember enjoying the heck out of it with my brothers and sister.  It was basically an unlicensed Star Trek game, with the PCs serving as crew on a “Confederation” starship.  Classes represented various branches of the service, and there were various races that were analogs of the races of Star Trek: the logical emotionless Taurans, the telepathic Andromedans, the space-mercenary Rigelians, or the boring old Humans.

I was tempted to pick up Space Opera while I was at it, but my recollection of that was that it was so complex that by the time we had finished rolling up characters we had pretty much exhausted our interest in the game.  I think we made it through a couple of sessions before giving up and going back to Traveller.

Thinking of the Children

I’m going to be running a game for my friend Mac and her three children (ages 7 through 12) in the near future.  She’s been playing D&D with them for a few months now, and I’ve been a player for some of the sessions.  When I mentioned that even though I sometimes had a hankering to run the kind of dungeon-crawlish games that she runs, none of my regular players was into them,  she suggested that I should run for them sometimes.  Among other things, she’d like them to have experience with GMs other than her, so they don’t become one of “those kind” of players who insist that there’s only one right way to play, coincidentally the way their first GM ran things.

I’m not quite sure what I want to run, though.  Mac has been running what she calls D&D pretty much the same way, in the same setting, for almost 27 years now, but with house rules so extensive that it scarcely seems like D&D sometimes (e.g. rolling 3d6 lower than Dex to hit, armor doing damage reduction only, magic via a spell-point system, clerics using a different seemingly ad-hoc system, etc).  That’s what the kids and I have been playing, but I wouldn’t be able to run it even if I wanted to since so much of it seems to exist only in her head.  I gave the two elder children their own copies of one of the retro-clones for Christmas (Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game, not to be confused with the Chaosium Basic Roleplaying) and the younger of the two has actually been using it, more or less, to create dungeons and play with his friends.  He’s already added a new Body Builder class to the game though I’m not sure anybody he’s played with has yet met its rather stringent stat requirements….

So my first thought was to run that, since the rules are sort of familiar to them, and I would rather spend my time playing the game than explaining the difference between the rules they have (or their mom uses) and the rules I’m using.  My second thought, though, is to use Tunnels & Trolls, since I’d kind of like to try GMing that…. but I know that there’s some stuff about it (particularly the very abstract combat) that may be just too different from what they’re used to.  Mac basically uses a blow-by-blow accounting of combat, with turns lasting a couple of seconds, if that.  So my third thoughts have to do with either swiping a couple of things I really like from T&T and putting it into BFRPG, or vice-versa.  One thing I always get hung up on is that I don’t really like the magic system in the retro-clones.  Magic as ammo loads just doesn’t thrill me, unless you go full out Vance with it as depicted in the Dying Earth… but then you have to tweak both the spells and the MU’s combat capabilities anyway.  And Mac hates Vancean magic almost as much as she hates point-buy systems where you can design a character that’s practically a super-hero from the outset.

And finally, my fourth thoughts are to go ahead and finish the retro homebrew that I was working on, which would finally give me an old-school inspired system that really fits the way I’d like to play as well as players who will be happy to play it….  as usual with me when I start a project I ping-pong back and forth, unable to settle on any one option. I have a couple of weeks, at least, before we’d first play, so I don’t have to decide tonight, but I should decide soon and start working on a dungeon for them.

The Rule of Cool: A Useful Tool

The Geek, at Geek Related, writes:

    • I’ve been following the debate about the so-called “Rule of Cool.”  It’s a “TV Tropes” concept extended to RPGs by  the Chatty DM, (original post “The Rule of Cool” here, and clarification “The Rule of Cool Takes Flak” here).  A number of people gave it drive-by disses, but I think the most on topic one is from 6d6 Fireball, with Rule of Cool – Only for Idiots and Of Coolness and Idiocy.

      In short, the Rule of Cool states “The limit of the Willing Suspension Of Disbelief for a given element is directly proportional to its degree of coolness. Stated another way, all but the most pedantic of viewers will forgive liberties with reality so long as the result is wicked sweet and/or awesome. This applies to the audience in general, as there will naturally be a different threshold for each individual in the group.”

      If you interpret it very loosely as “Hey, toss in some cool stuff to spice up your game” it’s fine.  But the way it’s stated is setting up “cool” as being carte blanche to roll over realism/suspension of disbelief.  “If it’s cool enough, it can be incoherent and it’s all good.”

First off, as a psychological observation, The Rule of Cool is simply true.  This is a form of “Confirmation Bias“: people find it very difficult to notice discrepancies and logical errors in things that they are favorably disposed towards.  Contrariwise, they’ll nitpick to death something that they find disagreeable, boring, or challenging to their preconceptions.  Indeed, I’d say several of the bloggers who strongly object to Chatty DM’s post are displaying that very behavior.

Second, the Rule of Cool is part of the basis of the hobby.  Practically every RPG relies on the Rule of Cool to excuse inconsistencies and absurdities in the setting.  If your players see a dragon and don’t immediately start in on how such a creature violates the square-cube law and should barely be able to walk when not buoyed up in a swamp, let alone fly, and breathing fire is absurd, why the caloric requirements alone…that’s because they think it’s cool and are willing to suspend their disbelief to that extent.  Magic, psionics, Cthulhoid horrors, vampires, sexy secret agents licensed to kill, giant mecha, Wild West zombies, super heroes, intelligent bunnies, faster-than-light travel, net-running deckers, swashbuckling pirates, private detectives solving murders, artificially intelligent robots, aliens…if it’s fodder for RPGs, it requires a large dollop of willing suspension of disbelief, and that disbelief will only be provided by people who think those things are cool enough to be worth pretending to believe.  Geek culture has become so entwined with pop culture in the past few years that fans of fantastic literature (which is most RPGers) can lose sight of the fact that not everybody really thinks this kind of stuff is cool; there are still plenty of people who think it’s all dumb and puerile, absurd escapist crap that doesn’t deserve any suspension of disbelief.  There are people who look at Spider-Man or The Dark Knight with the same visceral revulsion for the CGI and melodrama being offered as “cool” that others do for Michael Bay or Uwe Boll movies.

Third, as a piece of advice Chatty’s take on the Rule of Cool provides a useful approach to what to spend your limited time and effort as a GM to prepare and convey during a session.  You are better served spending your time making sure that your game is going to be enjoyable to your players so that they’ll want to overlook the inevitable holes than trying to make sure there are no holes to be found without regard to whether it satisfies the players.  It’s an RPG, it’s going to have holes–you can’t present an entire world, even a perfectly mundane world, in its entirety, in the form of a game without gaps or errors–if the players are in the mood to, they’re going to be able to quibble over events and raise objections even if you’re doing nothing more than reprising your day at the office in a session of “Papers & Paychecks.”  No matter what you and your players think of as cool, there is a hurdle to overcome in RPGs that isn’t there in more passive consumption of media in getting the players to engage the world…they can’t let it just wash over them and still be playing, so you have to make them want to play.  And to do that, you’re going to have to grapple with what it is that they think is cool enough to be worth it.

Finally, it’s completely irrelevant whether you happen to be tickled by Chatty’s particular examples; if you don’t think that stuff is “cool,” substitute what you do think of as cool.  And you can’t weasel out of it by claiming that cool by definition means CGI explosions and running up streams of bullets to kick somebody in the face…that’s a straw man.  If you and the players actually think that’s cool, then it wouldn’t be an objection; it’s only when you believe that it’s over-the-top and uncool that you re-engage your critical faculties, and the whole point of the Rule of Cool is to provide what the audience/players actually think is cool.  The TV Tropes site that it’s taken from is absolutely explicit:

Note that you only get to invoke the Rule of Cool if the end product is, in fact, cool. Note also that different opinions on what is “cool” create the most arguments over this.

Instead of trying to come up with an uncharitable reading of the Rule of Cool to make it self-evidentally stupid (If you add enough CGI explosions you can hide any ludicrous inconsistency or plot-hole! Not being obsessed with consistency is the same thing as not caring about it at all!), detractors ought to think about what it is they find cool about the settings they enjoy playing…and then try to think about what somebody with a more jaundiced eye would find absurd and disbelief-destroying about that setting.  Then they might begin to apprehend both what the Rule of Cool is really about, and how to use it to improve their games by emphasizing what the setting provides in preference to all other settings (what they really do find cool about it) to help the players enjoy the setting for what it is and ignore the inevitable gaps and debatable points. It’s not carte blanche to roll over suspension of disbelief, it’s an encouragement to analyze what it is that causes people to engage their suspension of disbelief and provide more of whatever that is.