I feel like there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to Conan. Everything from Robert E. Howard’s views and understanding of different cultures that informed the creation of Hyboria, to the theme of “barbarism” vs. civilization that permeate the narrative, to the aesthetic of the musclebound, loincloth-wearing warrior and his mighty thews.
But I’m not a Conan scholar – I’ve seen the movies and read most(all?) of the Kurt Busiek Dark Horse comic. There are parts I enjoy and parts I’m not as fond of when it comes to the franchise, but as a game, Modiphius has done a very good job of keeping to the feel of what I understand Conan to be, while updating and repurposing the content to make it a game that can be enjoyed by as many people as possible.
The world of the Hyborian Age is one of fallen lands and nameless horrors, lords and bandits, mighty warriors and vile sorcerers. If you’re not already familiar with it from the stories, it’s a hidden past to our world, composed of great kingdoms, isolated lands of ancient peoples, and cities of thieves and spider gods. It’s shrouded in mystery and soaked in blood, peopled by civilizations that will eventually become those of our own recorded history. Locations and cultures are sufficiently detailed so that GMs can describe and depict them clearly and evocatively.
Character creation in Conan is lots of fun and honestly one of my favorite parts, though that’s true of all the 2d20 games that feature a Lifepath. Through making various choices or rolling randomly at each stage, characters are organically fleshed out, naturally develop backgrounds and histories, and are assigned Attribute and Skill levels. There’s even a handy web version you can play with.
As one of the earlier 2d20 games, Conan is crunchier than later offerings, but I like my swords & sorcery and gritty fantasy crunchy, so it totally works for me. It makes it easier to communicate the visceral, brutal nature of the Hyborian Age where the die rolls can inform description.
The 2d20 system uses, unsurprisingly, 20-sided dice – primarily for skill tests, with 6-sided dice as “combat dice” to determine damage. It’s a dice pool, roll equal to or under system. Skill challenges are resolved by adding the score of one of seven Attributes (innate capabilities) to a Skill rating. You roll 2d20 and try to equal or roll under the sum of those two scores. Any die that falls in that range counts as a success, any die that equals or rolls under the Skill a Focus rating counts as 2 successes. Challenges are rated in a Difficulty between 0 and 5 and typically only one is required.
Excess successes turn into a pool of points called Momentum, which can be spent in a variety of ways, like adding d20s to future rolls, increasing damage in combat, and effects like obtaining information or creating obstacles. Besides two twenty-sided dice, Momentum is another signature element of the system and one that I love. It works really well in play and is lots of fun to use. The gamemaster also gets a pool of points, generated by bad player rolls or other circumstances. In Conan this is known as Doom and the gamemaster can spend points from that pool similarly to Momentum.
Characters also possess Talents, with access opened by having certain Skills or events, which act as special abilities or enhancements to your actions. Some may give you extra dice to roll, some may give you a Patron who begins to teach you the sorcerous arts.
Some of the other combat elements I like are Initiative and distances. Unlike many other games, players go first in Conan and decide their order themselves. It saves time rolling and encourages tactical thinking in combat, especially as the GM can spend Doom to interrupt a turn. Movement and Range are also abstracted, using Zones of no fixed size but based on narrative impact, and distance categories rather than precise measurements.
Damage is taken off a Stress track, eventually inflicting Harm, which will incapacitate a character over time. Physical damage can be linked to hit locations, which means it’s worth being well-protected, and can also result in players cobbling together piecemeal armor, which feels right for the genre. Armor can also break, furthering the emulation. Consideration is even given in combat to allow your barbarians and warriors to terrify their opponents. “Displays” allow you to cause mental stress and trauma to your opponents, opening up a new arena to conflict for social characters.
Sorcery in Conan is a dangerous undertaking. Even if entered with the best of intentions, the practitioner is doomed to damnation. It’s learned from teachers, organizations, bestowed by the gods or pacts with spirits, or even the shades of the dead Acheronian sorcerer-kings of the ancient past. Effects are organized as Petty Enchantments like blinding powder and reinforced fabric, created through Alchemy and usable by anyone, or Sorcery – traditional spells that require a patron and training. Sorcery is very flavorful – there’s scope to their effect and every casting attempt risks creating complications for the caster or generating Doom for the gamemaster.
Enemies are nicely designated. There are various tiers, from Minions, who are eliminated quickly, to Nemeses, who are the equivalent to player characters. There are a good number detailed, natural and supernatural, which should cover most of your initial needs.
The gamemastering chapter is very good. As any licensed game should, a lot of the focus is on helping the GM present the action in a way that makes it feel like Howard’s stories. Thankfully, there’s a robust rules set already established to help and the chapter helps show how those systems accurately depict Conan stories. From the use of Momentum and Doom, to designing stories of action, horror, and/or intrigue. Even the more universal topics, like framing scenes, table management, and infighting amongst the party are given expert treatment. Of special interest are the rules on Carousing. Capable of great mirths, the downtime activities of the heroes deserve examination, and receive their own rules covering meeting with patrons, rumormongering, gambling and entertainment, and the trouble one could get into when engaging in those acts.
The introductory adventure has the players begin as the survivors of a battle. It’s a good hook that gives them a reason to be together, with their attempts at survival showcasing the harshness and horror of the Hyborian Age.
A solid entry in Modiphius’ 2d20 line of games, and a masterful depiction of the Hyborian Age, Conan: Adventures In An Age Undreamed Of brings intense and exciting swords and sorcery action to the game table.
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Artistic depictions of Conan are probably one of the most prevalent ways in which he’s become part of pop (or fandom) culture. How many barbarian characters in fantasy roleplaying have been informed by his look? How many tombs or ancient temples drew their misty shrouds and ruined architecture from depictions of the Hyborian Age?
Modiphius has also released a mechanic-free sourcebook on The Art of Conan. In it you can find select pieces from the various sourcebooks and a discussion of the art direction. The artwork for Conan is very well-done and I would say mostly achieves their stated aims of grounded depictions of the world. It’s pretty diverse and inclusive, some more grandiose and mythic than others, but full of swordspeople, sorcerers, and sinister specters and terrifying creatures. Perhaps my favorite works are drawn from Conan the Mercenary and Conan the Brigand, with a big shout-out to the lavish, baroque works in Kull of Atlantis.