Conan and the Ambiguous Text

There is a big ambiguity in the Conan Role-playing Game rules mentioned on the ZeFRS site that the referee will have to resolve before trying to play, which is that modifiers to the die rolls call for shifting the columns to the left or right,  but there are two kinds of columns on the resolution chart and apparently no consensus by the fans of the game exactly how they’re used.


Specifically there are small columns corresponding to individual numbers, except at the extreme edges of the chart where they become ranges, and then there are larger groupings of the numbers together into bands of five.  It’s pretty clear that when you roll against a particular talent, or attack by subtracting the defenders Move from your Fighting, you’re looking up a particular number in the column… but when you then shift that right 2 or left 1, do you just go to the next number left or right, or the next big band left or right?  While shifting number by number is simple and seems obvious, it produces really tiny changes in the die rolls needed for success. E.g. even being completely blind is only a -6 shift, which would take marginal success from, say, 72% to 54% and great (red) success from 10% to 7%.  And that’s the largest penalty there is in the reference guide.  More typical penalties and bonuses of 1 or 2 columns barely budge the needle. It would have been simpler and completely unambiguous to describe the modifiers as adding or subtracting from the rating itself, instead of shifting columns. Plus interpreting a shift column as a “band” means the dark vertical lines are there for a purpose more than just a visual aid to keep which column you’re looking in straight.  In addition when using bands for shifting +/- 6 to an action is actually the largest modifier the chart can support, making it quite natural to say that attacking a bound foe (the biggest bonus) is +6 columns and attacking while blind (the biggest penalty) is -6.

Despite that, I suspect the original intent was probably just shifting the rating up or down, firstly because it would have been really sloppy to write up the rules without discussing the difference between the minor and major divisions on the chart if the major divisions were critical to using it. Secondly, having the shifts be by the minor rating columns allows more leeway for stacking modifiers, such as fighting from a lower position and in the darkness. But since tiny modifiers aren’t worth the mental effort, and I think attacking a helpless foe ought to give you a bigger bonus than a paltry 18%, if I were to play I’d probably choose to interpret column shift to mean the big bands.

If you’re doing that, though, you have one more nicety to address, which is when you shift a band where in the band do you roll?  Are you shifting the minimum necessary to fall in the band (closest column to original), the maximum (farthest), smack in the middle, or proportional to your position in the starting band?  Personally I’d go with the last interpretation, so that if, say, your rating is 9 (second highest in the 6-10 band) if you shift left by 1 you’d look on column 4 (second highest in the 1-5 band).  Similarly, shifting right by 1 from 9 would take you to the 21-25 column (second highest in the rightmost band). That way you keep the relative ordering of the characters: If Anna has Dirk 10 and Beryl has Dirk 9 and they both get a -3 shift for fighting with two weapons, Anna is still better than Beryl (rolling on the -1 column instead of the -2 column).

Doing this tends to make stacking modifiers pretty irrelevant: you hit the limit of the chart pretty quickly.  If that bothers you, you could make it so that once you reach the extreme left or right band each additional shift is one column within the band.  Since the columns themselves are in groups of 5 that even makes a certain amount of sense, but it does add extra complication.  As D&D 5e’s advantage/disadvantage rules show, it can be really liberating to not have to care whether you’ve accounted for every conceivable bonus.  In fact, that suggests an alternative way of doing it, which is to ignore the chart of the exact modifiers and count anything that gives you a left shift as one band left, anything that’s a right shift as one band right, and if you have both they cancel regardless of how many are stacked on one side or the other.

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.