Thursday, 5 October 2017

Why I won't be buying the new Conan RPG

A new Conan RPG is born!
The new Conan role playing game is now out from Modiphius, and I'm sure it is very nice too. A great deal of effort has been spent on coming up with something that sports fantastic artwork, and I'm sure it plays well. But I won't be buying it. As a Robert E. Howard fan, you might wonder why I'm not going to shell out for it.

Some years ago Mongoose published a d20 version of Conan, and I loaded up on those books. They were a mixed bag, but the system was easy to introduce to people already playing Dungeons & Dragons, as it used very similar rules. I can't say the interior art was very good, but I wasn't really buying it for that.

I think I've reached a point in my game purchasing habits where there has to be a very good reason to buy something. I have not bought the new edition of Call of Cthulhu yet, largely because I think 6th edition CoC does a good job, and there are also other rules systems (e.g. Trail of Cthulhu) which can do as good, if not a better job, when exploring the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos.

A new Conan game means learning a new system before umpiring it. I have been playing RPGs now since 1984, and have absorbed an awful lot of different rules, most recently the Cypher system from Monte Cook Games. I am, however, reaching the point that I'd rather convert a setting to a rules set I know than buy a new game and a new rules package purely because a publisher has acquired a license.

I hear the guys at Happy Jack's are playing in a Star Wars campaign using Traveller, and good on them. If you know how to play Traveller, why bother buying the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games - just use an existing science fiction system and adapt it. There is SO much information available on the Star Wars universe online, you really don't need to buy new source books. I was flicking through the old Rebellion era campaign guide from West End Games a few weeks ago, and realised the vast bulk of the information in there is available online, and not only that, but much, much more. Indeed, half the fun of the Star Wars universe now is researching the obscure references, IMHO!

Back to Conan. After you have read the stories, and maybe some of the comics, you probably have a good grasp of the canon. Everything else can be filled in from either further online research, painting in the gaps yourself, or doing what Howard himself did, which is plundering real world history.

Yes, let's talk about Robert E. Howard


Conan the Valorous - meh!
I've had something of a revelation about Howard in the last few years. When I was a teen, I loved his stories, and read them voraciously, as well as all the knock offs by the likes of L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Jordan, Andrew J. Offut et al. I think I finally ran out of steam in the late 1980s with Conan the Valorous, when I realised that the general quality of the writing and story telling was going into decline.

Howard plundered from the pages of ancient history unashamedly. He was obviously well-read in history, and also produced a lot of historical novels. Many of his medieval stories have been 'converted' into Conan stories - Hawks Over Shem anyone? Oh yes. Based on historical fact. I've read up on it.

When I was 17 I was studying ancient history at school, and part of the program was to read and virtually memorise the entirety of Herodotus' Histories. Imagine my surprise when names and places from the pages of Conan jumped out at me. Yes, the Cimmerians were a real tribe who indulged in many of the same activities as Howard's Cimmerians, as were the Picts, the Kushites, and many more. What this taught me is that if you are happy freely porting historical material into Hyboria, you're on the right track.

Go beyond this, however, and the exotic locales Howard dreamed up in Texas begin to ring a little hollow once you have actually crossed the Sahara desert, walked the foot hills of the Himalayas (and almost died of altitude sickness) or jostled your way through the bazaars of Lahore or Malacca. Some of his visions are accurate, possibly poached from the pages of travel books, others, not quite so. That's not to say he should have been shooting for historical or geographical accuracy when writing his stories, but reading him now in my forties I sometimes wish he had had the opportunity to travel more widely himself, like Hemingway or Twain.

Finally, I'm reading now the complete stories of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle was a doctor and died at the age of 71. He wrote his first Holmes story, as far as I can tell, in 1887 (A Study in Scarlet). At that point he was still in his late twenties. But he was a trained doctor who had also spent time at school in Austria. As he progressed, his writing, including his Holmes tales, reflected his wider experience of people and places. Howard, on the other hand, seems to have kept himself to Texas, and wrote most of his output over seven years, between the ages of 23 and 30. Coming to his stories again, in later life, they somehow do not have the depth of scene and character that once they exhibited. Conan Doyle, on the other hand, does.

Yes, but where are you going with all this?


There are many interpretations of Hyborian geography.
This takes us back to running games in Howard's world. This is not, I think, a 'canon' world. Even the original maps were dreamed up by fans, not by Howard himself. He never imagined it as a cohesive world to the degree that Tolkien imagined Middle-earth. Yes, he made it up as he went along, and so, I would argue, should GMs. I was looking through the very substantial source book that Mongoose published for their iteration of Conan role playing on the mystic realm of Stygia. It is all very nice, and there are some useful tidbits in there, but this is not the Stygia of my imagination, perhaps not that of Howard's either. Mongoose did a good job of compiling a large amount of information on Stygia from a broad range of sources, including the somewhat suspect Marvel comics of the 1970s, but it comes across as something of a mish-mash, and not how I would want to present Stygia to players.

What I'm getting at is this - you don't really need to buy Conan source books or Conan role playing games. Take the Hyborian world at a high level - the kingdoms, the cultures, the peoples, the gods, and then make it your own. Sometimes people who play RPGs get a little too obsessive about settings. We've seen this in a recent Forgotten Realms versus Greyhawk debate on Facebook. Forgotten Realms is praised for its vast and detailed canon, which is great if you like vast canon, but frankly I don't. Greyhawk was great when it was just one boxed set. It had maps, high level details on kingdoms, religions, armies, encounter tables, and suchlike, but as a GM I had more fun dropping adventures into less detailed corners of Greyhawk or setting my own there - basically, designing the parameters myself. Greyhawk had room for the writer, just as Howard's world had room for the writers that followed in his wake.

I'm finding this difficulty with the depth and detail of Glorantha at the moment - you really can get lost in that world, particularly in areas like Dragon Pass or Pavis which have been heavily detailed over the years. Luckily, there are still parts of Glorantha that seem to have just had the bare bones sketched out, and that is how it should be!

My take on Conan then: I'm more than happy to play a character in someone's campaign, but I won't be spending a cent on the new game myself. There are just so many rich resources available online, and so many excellent rules systems in print already. I'm not a Robert E. Howard completist. I will still enjoy his stories and watch Arnie prance around on television once in a while, and all that will be enough to spark my imagination. I think that, personally, I've just reached a point where a new line of Conan RPG books fails to excite me. Sorry Modiphius.

1 comment:

  1. On the plus side, Ben has gone all in, so we'll get to play it at some point!

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