AKA- Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of
Let me start by saying that, technically speaking, the RPG game I will be referring to simply as “Conan” is more properly called “Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of”. That title is a mouthful-and-a-half and beyond the first few pages of the book, it is only ever referred to as “Conan” and so that is what I shall do also.
When the opportunity to review Conan came up, I was hesitant. I don’t have the grand memories of the character from my youth that many people do. My first real exposure was thanks to the amazing work of Broken Seas Audio, who were making free audio dramas based on the Howard stories that had entered the public domain. Things happened, they got the short end of the stick, and I’ve avoided anything Conan ever since. I could go on, but I won’t. I’m only even bringing it up to give you a quick idea of my mental starting point.
The book starts with a pair of Forewords by two of the main writers who helped develop the game. As they gave some of their own histories with Conan and Robert E. Howard you could feel the excitement and wonder, both as children and as adults. Next up was an introduction, not to the game or even to Conan. The introduction was about Robert E. Howard, his writing of Conan, and the legacy his work left behind. After his death, many of Howard’s stories were heavily edited or rewritten, with new stories woven into the tapestry of the Hyborian Age. Modiphius has taken the more challenging approach, by stripping out all the edits and pastiches, and presenting a work based on the original stories, as originally written.
Character creation in Conan is uniquely detailed, with many of the ten steps in the process being background and story related, rather than actual stats and mechanics. It reinforces that players are probably here to play specifically in Howard’s literary sandbox, not just to play another fantasy RPG. If you have players who are less knowledgeable, or opinionated, there are tables to roll random elements, and a variety of alternatives to use during the process.
Chapters on Skills and Talents, Equipment, and Sorcery, are all to be expected. Although encountering sorcery is a relative rarity in Howard’s writing, and is appropriately treated as such in the game. While the Skills and Talents section uses an interesting talent tree to show which talents flow into which other talents as prerequisites.
Chapter 8 focuses on The Hyborian World. It takes a look at the different countries that can be explored in the game. Many of these lands are, or will be, featured in greater depth in various sourcebooks from Modiphius. But what makes this chapter so unique, is that it isn’t written as a bland academic gazetteer. Each section is written from the point of view of different “Voices of The Hyborian Age”. On top of that unique perspective, there are also asides (and a full three-page article) written by “Prof. John Kirowan” who was the protagonist in many of Howard’s contributions to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. The two writers were close friends, and many elements of Lovecraft’s Mythos appeared in Conan, and occasionally vice-versa.
Robert E. Howard not only wrote the stories of Conan’s adventures, he also wrote ABOUT writing those stories, including many glimpses into his own writing techniques. It was these ancillary writings that Modiphius drew on in creating the chapter on Gamemastering. Howard had a very distinctive style and interspersed with the responsibilities and art of running a game are tidbits on what Howard’s approach to such-and-such thing may have been, right down to crafting your own adventures.
Although if you’re like me, and don’t want to create your own adventures, This book contains a complete introductory adventure, Vultures of Shem. On top of that, one of the currently available sourcebooks, Jeweled Thrones of the Earth Adventures, contains seven full adventures, plus the Modiphius webstore has two more free adventures and a free conversion guide to use any of the adventures from the 2004 Conan: The Roleplaying Game by Mongoose Publishing. So there’s a ton of adventures to play!
Playability aside, this book is physically gorgeous. There is a reason I prefer reviewing physical copies of things, you gain a whole extra sensation when you have that in your hands. Most RPG books have glossy covers and paper. There are reasons, they are irrelevant. Conan’s cover and pages are dead flat. Combine that with aged look of the background and it gives a tactile boost to the feeling of this game. There’s even a permanent ribbon bookmark in the binding that isn’t just smart, it fits.
Conan could have ended up just another sword swinger, but it’s so much more. Coming from someone who expected the worst, I think it says a lot when I say it’s an exceptional game.