Tag Archives: conan

When is a table not a table?

Where I game has a huge impact on how I game.

For example, I have a group of players that I have gamed with since the late 1970s/1980s. We have got together a few times a year every since we left school. Now we have wives, partners, children, grand children, pets and horses and all those other things that get in the way of spending time gaming. Despite all of that we still get together to game. We normally rent a house somewhere, meet up on the Friday and game for 3 days solidly. When we game like this we tend to be sat around on sofas and in arm chairs as we have an entire house to make ourselves at home in. The games have a tendency to veer towards hack and slash. The reason being that if the game only happens twice a year or so we simply cannot keep subtle clues in the forefront of our memories, we cannot make the connections between what one person said compared to another. Investigative or political campaigns simply do not work without continuity.

I also game online using a play by post site. Now here I love really getting into the character. As everything is written there in black and white the character has perfect recall. The way we play you do not get to know who is a PC and who is an NPC so you end up treating everyone with equal respect. I can happily go weeks and months simply role playing and combat is so low on my list of priorities that I don’t miss it at all. I like to play different characters and professions as soon as the pressure of having to be good in a fight is taken away.

So what has this to do with anything?

So now my impression of the 2d20 mechanics in Conan was very negative. One of the reasons was that I perceived that the combat rules looked incredibly slow and as Michael said “A friend of mine has played in a Conan campaign with some of the Modiphius people and he confirmed me that the 2d20 in Conan works great as well – although combat tends to be a bit slower than he’d liked.” I think that is probably about right. Combat tends to be the slowest and most laborious part of RPGs and if you are playing with the people who write the game and combat is ‘slower than he liked‘ then a newbie like me is not going to make it zing along. If you only get to play twice a year in a game with a lot of combat then slow combat is not fun and it could turn even the superficial stories of our weekends into a dice rolling grind. Without a table even the symbolic big momentum dice would not work for us if you had to keep getting up out of your armchair to walk across the room to turn it over.

So what brought these ideas to my mind was reading Mutant: Year Zero and it certainly seems to read like a really social game with cards playing a part and the players collaborating over the map. M:YZ seems to scream out to be played around a table. I think it would lose something if it was played PBP or even in our, for want of a better description, open plan gaming weekends with us spread out around a larger room. This is no reflection on the game. My own Devil’s Staircase game system is intended to be played around a table like a game of poker, the GM being dealer. We have degenerated from Knights of the Dinner Table to the knaves in the feasting hall.

I still have not had a chance to play M:YZ yet and I not think it is really fair to review a game you have not played. I wouldn’t review a book I hadn’t read or a CD I hadn’t listened to and games exist to be played, not just collected. Despite every GM I know having shelves full of unplayed RPGs!

And finally….

To finish the title of this post, When is a table not a table? When there is no table. Now that sounds more like something from the Matrix “There is no spoon.” than Mutant: Year Zero.

Mobs and Brutes

Two games I have looked at recently have had a very similar concept. 7th Sea uses Brutes as the low level treat. Up to six brutes can be treated as a single entity as regards attacks and if you hit a gang of brutes then the damage spills over to the next. In effect you could kill or incapacitate many brutes with a single attack.

Conan uses a similar mechanic for Mobs. Minor foes can be bound together into a mob and when you attack the mob damage also cascades from one member to another enabling you to take out many mob members in a single attack.

Both of these games are very much in the pulp literature or cinematic genre. Imagine the hero dropping into a guard room. She flicks a switch, killing the lights. What follows is a few muffled thumps, grunts and groans. The lights come back on and the guards are sprawled across the floor. Our hero glances at herself in the mirror, dabs at a point of her makeup and strides off further into the villain’s lair.

In Conan these low level, no real threat, encounters are used “to build Momentum for use later in the adventure.” to quote Pit of Kutallu.

On the other hand, if these encounters are no real threat then why bother running them? If the adventure requires a typical 5 or six points of momentum for survive the big fight over the monster’s pit then why not just give the party the 5 or 6 points of momentum? If the encounter is no threat then is this not dice rolling for the sake of dice rolling? The one sided inconsequential combat is something that is taking place instead of role playing or the excitement of the adventure?

If the brutes and mobs are being used for flavour and cinematic effect then do they even need stats? Rather than creating a gang of brutes just to have them knocked down why not either have them as a ‘power’ of the actual villain, almost like a D&D monster may have a Bite, claw, claw attack pattern so the villain comes with these semi-autonomous appendages that can rush at the PCs and cause a distraction or whatever. If the fight needs to happen for narrative reasons, such as to raise an alarm or to cross a Rubicon; do the players fight or flee? Do they kill or not? Then at that point it makes sense to have the fight. If the fight is purely to use up bullets or arrows or build up momentum then why slow the game down to combat time just to do some resource management?

I am not criticising the concept. I am genuinely interested. I love the idea of 7th Sea and would play it at the drop of a hat if I had a GM or would run it if I had the players. I even suggested to my Rolemaster players the idea of two tier critical tables. I would strip out the instant death criticals and replace them with knockouts or other incapacitating injuries that the minor monsters do to them. An incapacitated PC left behind adds to the story and necessitates a rescue. A dead PC holds everything up while we go through character creation and then finding a coherent way of getting the new character into the party. That is all hassle. The players would still know that the main bosses were still firing on all cylinders and just as dangerous as they were. My players bulked at the idea. It felt like cheating. I suggested the same thing to the wider Rolemaster community and they thought that without the threat of death then the combat would have no meaning.

You can see that I am somewhere in the middle ground on this. I know many GMs would rather fix a dice roll to keep players alive or games that have the concept of Fate points that allow the character to get out of jail free or dodge the bullet. Is it better to kind of know that the GM isn’t going to kill you as long as no one says it out loud? It is OK to know you would have died but you had to use your Fate point to save yourself? But it is not OK to know the game is fixed in your favour? That you are supposed to win? Surely that is the whole point of being the hero? Is it that playing with a stacked deck is not heroic?

Maybe the point of the brutes and mobs is that the players do not know when they rush the guards if they are facing a gang of brutes or a genuine lieutenant or a named villain, not until the first blow is struck?

Conan II

I have based this look at the Conan rpg on the quick start rules and the Conan Free RPG Day 2017 version Pit of Kutallu.

When Michael reviewed the full rule book the overall impression I came away with was ambivalence towards the game but then Michael is not a real Conan fan. Conan was my way into RPGs in the first place.

So putting the 2d20 system aside (more about that later) how has Conan and Hyboria been treated? With the greatest respect is my impression. The books are littered with vignettes taken from Robert E. Howards original works and these set the scene and bring the setting to live. The quick start book even starts with an essay on what is canon and who Howard’s creation was taken and expanded upon.

I have read through two adventures; Pit of Kutallu, which showcases the dark Cthulhu-esque shared background of Hyboria and To Race The Thunder which is set on the very edges of Aquilonia.

I may be somewhat biased here but these adventures are written in the same style as I tend to write my own. I am not a lover of maps and room by room descriptions. These adventures describe challenges or encounters and the GM may use or ignore them as they see fit or are needed to challenge the players. There is another quality to them and this is ‘relative encounters’.

‘Relative Encounters’

In many classic published adventures; a location will be described and then you are told there are 5 guards stationed here, what they are carrying and any treasure. When the PCs roll up they meet or avoid the guards depend on their choices. These static encounters have the danger of being over powered or under powered depending on the make up of the party. We play a game based upon dice and random things happen.

All the adventure encounters in these publications use a more relative way of describing the numbers encountered such as ‘one less than the number of characters’ or ‘three times the number of characters plus two more’. It doesn’t matter how many characters are in the party, the danger level of the adventures self-regulates. I don’t know if this is a Conan ‘thing’ or just a modern adventure writing ‘thing’, either way it is excellent and I will adopt it for all my future adventures.

Another feature, this may just be because the sample I have looked at are intended to be single shot adventures, but NPCs are designated as being suitable for use as PCs. Should a player die in the game session they can take up the reins of one of these NPCs to complete the adventure. This points to the adventure being well written. It also gives the GM a free hand relating to danger. I am not a ‘killing’ GM. I do not go out of my way to stack dangers against the PCs. At the same time I like to let the dice fall where they may. I am running a game set in the Forgotten Realms right now and the party have two possible options for raising a fallen character, both of which are single use, one is a scroll and the other will be consumed when used. Giving them that ability means that my hands are free to play my monsters and NPC opponents to the best of their ability. Seeding the adventures with potential pregen characters also frees up the GM.

So, as published Conan is a 2d20 system but Modiphius also publish a d20 to 2d20 conversion document to help those moving from the Mongoose Conan game. WotC incidentally publish a D6 to d20 conversion guidelines document relating to the StarWars franchise. This means that junking the 2d20 system, the only element that I don’t like, and adopting either d20 or an OpenD6 system are viable options. My D6 bookshelf has grown to 5 books now and I like what I am reading.

Conclusion

So will I buy Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of core book? It is a relatively cheap book and certainly good value for money at nearly 500 pages. I think this is a good possibility and kills two birds with one stone, to use the cliché, I could tempt my main group of players with Conan and feed them the D6 system at the same time. So right now Conan is on my ‘I want to play’ pile.