This massive and beautiful work brings the world of Conan the Barbarian back to our role-playing tables with all the impact that Conan himself has... richly illustrated and replete with detail to help you bring the Hyborian World to life. The foreword by lead developer Jason Durall tells us why: it's been written by people who really know and love the Conan stories and have been inspired by them in their role-playing for a long time before this project (or even previous Conan RPGs existed). Durall feels a kinship with Robert E. Howard, having grown up in a similar small town and escaped into fantasy, whilst I feel a kinship with Durall, having discovered Conan as a youngster and swept him into my role-playing, working this wonderful setting up for use with whatever ruleset was to hand at the time.
Interspersed with quotes from original Conan stories, the Introduction continues this theme of a desire to create a role-playing game that is true to the original stories, working hand-in-hand with them to build setting and game mechanics that will recreate the epic feel, the excitement of Conan himself striding forwards, sword in hand. We then move on to Chapter 1: Getting Started, which deals with the basics of what role-playing is all about and what you need to play.
Next, Chapter 2: Characters starts in on character creation (although those in a hurry can scurry to the back of the book where some pre-generated ones await those who don't want to work through the process to create their own). To make your own, there is a ten-step process. It's an interesting mix of random results and personal choice, and rather neatly it states that if you have a clear concept in mind, go right ahead and pick the options that work best for what you want to play. There's also a quick version of the process that is completely random, as well. If you want to follow the full sequence, you start by deciding on your character's homeland. This gives him a talent and a native language. Next, sort out your Attributes (which are Agility, Awareness, Brawn, Coordination, Intelligence, Personality, and Willpower). There's a rather complex system to decide which of these he's best at, you may need a scratch pad to work it all out, but it combines choice and chance rather well. Next decide on Caste or social class, which determines two more talents, a skill and a story. Most people are born to their caste but there are exceptions. Story is used to build background, with snippets of your past life being used to pose questions that help develop a sense of who he is and how he came to be that way. Plenty of examples are there to help you on your way. This is followed by archetypes, again you pick (or roll for) one and gain the associated skills, talents and equipment for your character. In effect, archetype tells you what your character does. Then it gets interesting as you need to determine his nature - or why he does what he does. Step 7 of the process determines what education he got, if any. This is followed by the intriguing 'war story' - war is everywhere and however sheltered, it is unlikely to have passed your character by completely. Step 9 involves various finishing touches and Step 10 leads you through the final calculations necessary.
There's a lot to take aboard in this chapter: take your time and you'll be rewarded with very realistic and personalised characters. When all of this is done, you can settle down to determine what he's actually like - and you'd better give him a name! (There's a selection of typical names by homeland for both males and females if you're stuck.) As mentioned above, there's a quick random method of character creation as well, also ideas for alternate methods if a particular focus or style of game is preferred. These need to be discussed with the GM and if used, should be used by the whole party to maintain balance. The next chapter - Chapter 3: Skills and Talents - provides all the background details and examples of use for the various choices you will be making, then Chapter 4: Rules lays out how you turn this character-sheet full of numbers into a representation of what your character can actually do, centred around the concept of task resolution.
In the Rules chapter, we find out about the dice required - d20s and d6s - along with the notation used to show how many of what dice you should roll when and a note about the special custom dice Modiphius are marketing for this game. This is more for visual effect than anything else, regular dice will do just fine. A skills test is only needed when the character is distracted or threatened, or when there are consequences for failure - the rest of the time, you can assume success. When you do need to resolve a task, attributes as well as specific skills come into play - as always, it sounds more complex on paper than it is once you start playing and get used to it! However there are additional complexities due to how hard the task is of itself and whatever else is going on: this is stuff the GM needs to understand to set a target number for a roll. There's plenty of explanation and examples to help, though. In addition, there is an interesting mechanic called Momentum - a kind of cumulative effect that if you do well at one roll, you gain extra points to add to it or a subsequent success - your character is on a bit of a roll, so to speak. This is balanced by the GM's Doom points, which are used to throw a spanner in the works.
The next chapter is Action Scenes, which dives straight in with the turn sequence used in combat. There's a neat little note that if the players spend too much time deciding what to do, the GM should start adding points to his Doom pool as a warning... the bad guys getting an advantage due to their indecision! There's material about ambushes, distance, terrain, movement and much more - this is not solely about brawling although of course combat is important, and rightly so. Any RPG needs to provide this sort of excitement, even more when in a milieu such as this! In combat, each character has a range of actions they can undertake, and also can make a reaction to what someone else does. Again, there appears to be a huge amount to grasp here, but it becomes much clearer once you have run through a few combats.
Chapter 6: Equipment follows, with some interesting notes on money and on obtaining items by theft or violence if you don't fancy paying for them. You can even abstract 'earning' (if that's the right word) money from petty thievery if your character wants to spend time roaming a market or similar crowded place pilfering and picking pockets. There's a vast array of items large and small to purchase, as well as lists of armour and weapons.
Next, Chapter 7 deals with Sorcery. Most of the time in the Conan stories, sorcery is evil - or at least, those who practise it are. The GM might decide not to allow player characters to learn or use sorcery at all, or may limit it severely. Here, however, you can learn how it works. Essential for GMs, and recommended for players who have managed to persuade their GM to let them wield magic. There is a whole range of different things that you can learn and do, different kinds of magic even; and of course loads of spells and magical items.
This is followed by Chapter 8: The Hyborian World, which is a gazetteer of the setting. It makes for a fascinating read, whether or not you are already familiar with the setting from the stories (or past attempts to game here). It starts off with history, then goes region by region, repleat with quotes and illustrations. There's a sort of 'shorthand' relating each nation to which ancient Earth culture it's loosely based on... Ignore it! Treat them as fascinating places in their own right and let the alternate reality form in your mind. Articles about customs, heritage, and much more contribute to our understanding... it all makes you want to go there.
The last part of the book is aimed at the GM, with chapters on Gamemastering and Encounters as well as a full adventure to get you started. In Vultures of Shem the party comes across the aftermath of a battle between Shem and Khoraja and have to deal with far more than they bargained for... unspeakable horror, no less. When the action is over, there is no shortage of ideas for follow-up adventures, making it easy to use this adventure as a spring-board for an entire campaign.
Finally, there is a chapter on Heroes of the Age (fully-developed characters to use as enemies or allies), based on contributions from backers of the Kickstarter campaign that brought this work to your hands. Of course, if you are in a real rush to get playing, you can choose your character from amongst them. There's twenty-odd of them, so something will probably appeal. An index and a blank character sheet rounds out the set. If you buy the PDF, you get a selection of different character sheets and a big single-sheet map as well.
This is definitely a magnificent presentation of Conan's Hyborian World, all ready to adventure in. By Crom, I'll fetch my sword and sandals and go exploring!
[5 of 5 Stars!]