Look, I’m going to come right out and say it. This is my favorite fantasy RPG system I’ve played. It feels really heroic, it has a delicious level of crunch, and you can give someone the stink eye until they die. If you have other qualifications as to what makes a great RPG, I’d love to know what they are. I can’t imagine what would top that.
Don’t get me wrong, I do truly love D&D. It’s been around for as long as it has for good reason. I’ve been playing it for a long time now and don’t plan on giving it up. That said, the Conan rpg gives me an experience that D&D doesn’t. I’ve tried to sum it up before and came up with the following: D&D is like a novel and Conan is like a comic book.
Let me explain that a bit. When I run a D&D campaign, it’s full of all kinds of moments. It’s a slow build full of mystery, romance, danger, puzzles, and lots of world to explore. It’s big and encompasses a lot. An entire session might just be taken up my a social encounter where the players role play and do some deep humanizing of their characters.
I love that.
Conan, on the other hand, starts when the action does. True to its pulp roots, there is no down time. The characters are tough, gritty, and larger than life. They’re at their best when things are the most desperate. This isn’t a novel with time to explore the emotional depths of a character. It’s a comic book, so get to the pretty pictures and cinematic action.
The core mechanic keeps that quick moving pulp feel. On your character sheet, you have attributes and skills, which isn’t unique. Attributes are raw potential, such as coordination or personality. Under each attribute are the skills, such as parry or sailing. You add the ratings of the two together to get your target number. Then you roll 2d20.
For each dice that rolls under the target number, you have a success. If it rolls under your focus rating for your skill, it counts as two successes. Tasks can have a difficulty of anywhere between 1-5. If you get enough success you… well, you succeed. If you get more than enough, you get this beautiful meta resource known as momentum.
Momentum (and its sister doom for the GM) is this currency you can spend for all sorts of awesome things. Want to roll more dice? Spend momentum. Want to do more damage? Momentum. Think it’d be really cool to disarm an opponent? Sill momentum.
It gives the players some control over meta aspects of the game. Spending it usually helps your chances of success greatly. True to its name, the more of it you have and spend, the easier it gets to regain it. Run out of momentum, and life gets hard for your heroes. The ebb and flow of this resource really effects the game.
Combat is abstracted in some ways, yet oddly detailed in others. The mix somehow works for me. Movement, for example, is done by zones. Distance is abstracted to short, medium, long, or extreme. There are no feet involved here, so it is a bit arbitrary. I don’t really need it to be more exact than that, personally. I just need to know if you can hit or not, and this system covers that.
On the other side of the coin, how long a weapon is actually comes into play. You have to be closer to hit someone with a dagger than you do with a spear. This gives the person with the spear an advantage at first. You can get inside the reach of the person with the spear, however, making it more difficult to be hit. This gives both sides an advantage depending on what happens during the tide of combat.
Imagine a combatant with a knife and a combatant with a huge two handed sword. Put 8 feet of distance between them. In this visualization, the person with the sword can keep the person with the knife far enough away that they aren’t a threat. It’ll be much easier for the sword bearer to harm the knife bearer. Now imagine the same scenario with the knife combatant standing chest to chest with the swordsman. How will they be able to wield the sword to hit someone that close?
Weapons and equipment have other neat mechanics as well. Many weapons have effects that, when rolled, can do any number of things. Sometimes it’s a grappling ability, or, which is the case with the whip, it can do mental damage as well as physical as you break someone’s spirit. Many items are consumable, meaning you can use them to gain dice or other effects.
Speaking of mental damage, did I mention there is mental damage? Because there is mental damage. You can die by sword, or you can die by terror and intimidation. Some monsters are so inhuman that they threaten to drive a character irreparably insane. If you’ve played call of Cthuhlu, it’s a fun take on madness mechanics. Given Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft’s relationship, this makes a lot of sense.
Sorcery feels dark, dangerous, and rare. There are many different kinds, from weird science to summoning. Magic isn’t some bland thing that everyone gets to access. It feels tailored to your character and their background. One magic user might summon terrors from beyond, while another might throw glass globes of combustible liquids. Both risk their sanity and well being as they ply their trade. Woe be to a sorcerer who rolls a complication (A nat 20). Their life is about to get bad.
Finally, the core book provides a great gazetteer of Conan’s world. This is a game with an embedded setting, and that setting is presented in an entertainingly readable way. Each other book adds to it, zooming in on specific regions and adding more details. They also add to the large host of character options available. This game is impressively expansive in both lore and character abilities. If your character isn’t cool, it’s your own fault.
I remember when I first saw the book at my local game store. I waited for weeks before I bought it, trying to ignore the impulse to buy another fantasy game system. I’m a big Conan fan and all, but I didn’t want to buy the book and have it just sit on the shelf. After still wanting it weeks later, I bought the book. Each time a new book comes out for the system, I buy that too. I have never regretted any of them once.
If you’re interested in more, check them out in the links below.