|Conan Illustration by Mark Schultz|
- Robert E. Howard "The Phoenix on the Sword" (1932)
Read that aloud with the Basil Poledouris 'Anvil of Crom' theme in your head and I guarantee that you're thinking of gaming in Hyborea right now! When this huge larger-than-life Cimmerian hit the shelves for the first time in December 1932 in the pages of Weird Tales they surely could not have imagined that he would still be going strong eighty six years later, cleaving his way through the imaginations of millions of people worldwide, and yet here we are. There's an excellent roleplaying game from Modiphius out now and there's a TV show in the works which is going back to the spirit of Howard's original stories - although, we heard a similar thing when they were making the Conan movie that came out in 2011, and all we got was a horrible messy mish-mash of sources, mainly from the 1982 John Milius movie (saying that, I liked Momoa as Conan, and with a little tweaking of the hair and an accent change I still think he'd fit the part quite well).
As with most people, no doubt, my first exposure to Conan was the 1982 movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger smashed his way through a pretty good film with plenty of atmosphere. I enjoyed it, and I continue to enjoy it, but I came to realise early on that this movie really wasn't Conan.
I realised this when I started buying the Marvel comics a few years later. There was a difference in tone to the movie, a world richer in history and a Conan character more boisterous and dramatic than what I had seen on the screen. From this I managed to get hold of a copy of a book by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter from a second-hand bookshop, and upon reading this I began to see that the movie was far removed from the stories. However, it wasn't until I bought and devoured the Gollancz two-volume edition and then the 'The Complete Chronicles of Conan: Centenary Edition' that I realised just how far removed from the world of Hyborea the movie was. In fact, I felt the comics reflected Howard's world much better. Don't get me wrong - I still like the 1982 movie and I even have a soft spot for the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, but these are not Conan to me, now, just fun fantasy stories.
Oh, and I did see the Conan the Adventurer cartoon and the Conan TV show with Ralf Möller. The cartoon was trash but I kind of appreciated what they tried to do with the TV show, but it ended up being a cheap attempt to get in on the success of Hercules and Xena.
As all these parts started falling together and Howard's rich world was laid open to me, my thoughts quickly turned to gaming. What kind of game could I run, and what system would I use?
I missed out on the TSR Conan RPG from 1984 but, to be honest, I don't remember even seeing it available. If I had I would have most certainly bought it as it was then I was getting into gaming and I was experiencing Conan for the first time. I've read it and it seemed like a playable game and I'm always on the lookout for a copy. I also didn't see the two modules they created for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, either.
The GURPS versions totally passed me by. I wasn't that into GURPS and my gaming at the time mainly consisted of Star Wars, MERP and Warhammer FRP so it wouldn't have got a look-in anyway.
My first attempt at a Conan game was using the Cthulhu: Dark Ages rules. I thought the historical feel to the game would reflect the Hyborean age nicely and it mostly worked. There's a creepy Lovecraftian feel to the nameless horrors that Conan comes across and this game was pretty good for it. I feel that with a few passages from Howard's books and an introduction to the world of Hyborea, Cthulhu: Dark Ages may have made a pretty good Conan RPG.
My biggest success was using 13th Age, the Tweet/Heinsoo game that came out in 2013. It was heroic, fast-paced and a lot of fun, and the Icons were replaced by Hyborea's Gods (of course, everyone worshiped Crom because he laughed at all the other Gods from his mountain). As the players started out pretty damned heroic straight away it was easy to throw them into the fray with no real fear of dropping them into the 1st level meatgrinder. In fact, it was the players that ended up doing the grinding so managing to carve their way through a host of mooks gave them an immense feeling of satisfaction as well as give the game that feeling that they were carving their way through the hordes of evil. It was suitably epic.
I wrote an article a while ago about how I felt about running a game in Tolkien's Middle-earth and how difficult I found it because I was emotionally attached to the source material. As I had already been exposed to the 'wrong' version of Conan through the 1982 movie, the better interpretation through the comics, the edited version from L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, the cartoon, the TV show and then - finally - the true version, I didn't have the same emotional connection to Conan and his adventures as I did to Tolkien's work. I can't compare them - they are very, very different kinds of fantasy literature - but I did find it so much easier to game in Howard's world because it was so much fun, and I felt no qualms about making changes here or adding things there because it had been done so much previously, so much so that when the phrase 'Conan the Barbarian' is used most people will think of long-haired Arnie in a pair of furry pants swinging a sword - and that's a real shame, truth be told, because Howard's stories are so much more than that.
'Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of' from Modiphius Entertainment. By Crom, this looks good. I've read the quickstart and intend to purchase the main game but if the core rulebook is anything like the quickstart - if they have put even half the love and attention into that game as I felt coming off the pages - then I think I'm going to have fun with this. The 2D20 system seems flexible and easy enough to use, the layout is gorgeous and the book itself seems to invoke what I love about Conan; dark and dangerous yet adventurous.
I have a lot of love for Conan, for the world he inhabits and the journeys that he has taken me on. It's only been since the turn of the century that I have truly appreciated Robert E. Howard's work and the sheer energy that leaps out of his Conan tales, and the world of Hyborea is one I wish to travel again, and crush the shining dice of civilisation under my slippered feet. My venturing into the world via RPGs has been brief but always fun, and it's getting the right system for the setting that counts; high adventure, brutal combat, mind-bending mysteries and monsters and the chance to be a larger-than-life hero.
'What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs—I was a man before I was a king.'
- Robert E. Howard "The Phoenix on the Sword" (1932)