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. 

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.