A week or so ago I got my hard copy version of the Conan Adventures In an Age Undreamed of RPG. I was reading it when a friend asked what it was like and I lit up. I was so enthusiastic he made a character on the spot. The story goes a little further back than this of course. Last free RPG day the folks at Modiphius offered up an adventure using this new game which you can access the PDF of here. Out of the pile of games this was the pick and so I ran this adventure as part of the day in my store. Reading through it it got me excited. I wanted to see the full rules and looking through the credits I realized I knew one of the guys involved. A week later I had a review copy of the rules in PDF. Needless to say I now have a physical copy because it is that good. I have finally finished my full read of the book and have run a couple of games. Let us have a look at the nuts and bolts of this great game.
Sword and Sorcery
I have never been a major Conan fan. Not that I disliked it, I just never really gave it focus. This book has changed that. When I started reading this and found out that it is based off just the writings of Robert E. Howard I got all of those stories to read. I am slowly getting through them and I can now see the appeal. I do love the traditions of the past where much of the material that we base our games off today were pulp fiction for magazines from last century. Howard is a good writer and the short stories I am reading are great. A real struggle of human versus situation. Sorcery and magic is deep in mystery and feared. Humans are also the most dangerous things you could ever face!
I truly understand the difference between fantasy and sword and sorcery now due to this role playing game. I can even see the differences between the comics, the writing of Howard, other collaborations and the movies – both new and old. This book covers an exciting genre that is perhaps underrated by a lot of role players today. It is excellently presented and uses extensive quotes from Howard’s writings to inspire both players and GM’s alike.
The system is known as the 2d20 system. Largely because the players make each test at a base of 2d20. Through gaming shenanigans they can get up to 5d20 but I suppose the 2 to 5 d20 system is a bit wordy. The idea is to roll under a target number (normally a skill test) which is made up of an attribute plus a skill expertise (rank). The difficulty is set by the Games Master (GM) to a number of successes required and for each d20 that rolls under the allotted number you achieve a success. Each skill may also have a focus rating assigned to it – if the natural number on a d20 is equal to or less than the number of focus in the skill it generates an extra success. If a natural 20 is rolled you have encountered a complication – you may still pass the test but something else arises out of the test. Score more successes than the difficulty and generate momentum which can be used in different ways, including helping other players!
At the heart of this system is actually a currency of a few different types of tokens. This may sound like too many tokens when I spell it out but it really isn’t. In play this was seamless and effective so do not get daunted when I explain it.
- As a player you start a session with fortune points (represented with tokens). Normally this is three but they can be handed out during the session (by the GM) so you may have between 0 and five when you get into spending them. Fortune points are powerful and allow the player to buy additional d20’s that are automatically said to have rolled a 1 (possibly scoring an extra success due to focus). They can also be used to grab extra actions, refresh a tiring character, grit your teeth and overcome danger or even add elements to the story;
- A player pool of tokens is the momentum pool. Limited to 6 tokens at any one time this pool is dynamic and generated by gaining extra successes over and above the difficulty of tests. Momentum tokens can be spent on a wide variety of things like halving the time to do a task, adding a d20 to a roll (maximum three bonus d20’s), disarm an opponent, increase an opponent’s difficulty on tests or ask questions of the GM that must be answered honestly; and
- For the GM we have a doom pool. The GM starts with a doom pool based on the number of fortune points the players have. The players can add to the doom pool if they want to add dice to tests and they don’t have momentum or if they want to avoid complications. The GM can use doom points in similar ways to the way the momentum pool is used or some opponents may have actions that are triggered by a doom spend. They might trigger environmental effects or even add opponents by spending doom points.
Doom and momentum economy
There is a real economy between the doom and momentum pool. The players, when they are rolling well will have a strong momentum pool and the GM will spend doom to create more tension. If the players find their back against it they are forced to add to the doom pool to get out of predicaments or suffer the consequences. The interplay of this dynamic economy is brilliant and has some surprising effects.
It is a truly adversarial relationship that makes the players work together. I played the Pit of Kutallu with three of the most argumentative adversarial players that I have ever role played with. There is one player that always wants to be an anti-hero and likely to stab others in the back, one that always wants to be the joker and one that wants to just fight everything. I introduced this mechanic and after some amazing rolls my doom pool swelled and things became difficult. The group noticed this and despite all of the reasons their characters never get along in every other system, in this one they worked seamlessly as a unit. It literally allowed me to herd cats (because they all want something different from their games). They decided to allow me to spend the doom but not conduct any action that would allow me to gain doom. It was effective and made encounters a breeze for them when I got down to one or two points.
The game says quite clearly at the front that the GM should be a fan of the players. This mechanic though puts the GM in an adversarial role from the players perspective. I just love learning what is going to happen as a GM so I am never a fan of the players but I never place myself against them either. I find this economy will provide great tension and drive in the game but does work against the grain of the GM being seen as a fan of the players when every doom spend works against them.
Characters use a skill based system in this game. The creation process is a thing of beauty. It creates characters that are fleshed out with backstory and feeling. There is the option to create a completely random character (though statistics are selected, not rolled) which makes for interesting characters. The players in my Pit of Kutallu game made their own characters after the first session (it ran over two sessions) and made very combat focussed characters. This game is not just about combat though.
A lot of the material, including weapons, armour and equipment works off of keywords. These keywords can be activated through effects (rolled on damage/combat dice) and sometimes momentum. This is insanely good! Gone are the days that every character is kitted out with the same weapons because they deliver the biggest bang for your buck. Instead now you select your weapons, equipment and armour based on how their effects may operate in imagined situations. So much better and much more suited to a realistic style than a one build suits all situation.
There are character archetypes, but they really only offer up skills that are suited to your warrior/priest/nomad etc. The true nature of the character simply comes from the skills that the player chooses and the way that he builds the character over all 9 steps in the creation process.
Mentioned before, skills are associated with statistics. From the statistic that is related you add the expertise number and that is the skill rank that you must roll equal to or less on a d20 to succeed. The number of successes required is the difficulty of the test. Achieve a number of successes equal to the difficulty and you succeed at the test. For each success over the test difficulty you generate momentum. Each skill may also have a focus value associated to it. If you roll your d20 and it is equal to or less than your focus in the skill you generate two successes instead of one on that d20 roll. It is a simple, yet elegant system.
But wait, there is more! Each skill offers up a talent tree that you can purchase talents from. This enables you to further gain benefit from the skill. Let us take Persuade skill as an example. Its expertise is added to Personality to work out the target number for rolls. Beyond that there is a tree that begins with Force of Presence and follows along three branches. Force of presence offers you a damage boost to mental attacks (which are a thing available to everyone) and allows access to the other three branches. Among some of the other talents there are things that allow you to blend in to any social setting, pick out others weaknesses or barter for goods or favors. Brilliant little talents that offer your character that little bit more specialization wherever you want it.
Advancing your character (who all start pretty impressively) is based off experience points. These points do not build for a threshold to reach next level but are instead spent to increase expertise, focus or talents in skills. It is a true skill based system and offers your character the ability to be phenomenal adventurers on a gradual basis, in specific directions that the player wants to build in.
Beyond experience there is a renown system that reflects your characters notoriety. This assists in your characters upkeep in downtime. The downtime system is a brilliant little addition that allows for characters to develop themselves and also face random occurrences that truly work toward building their characters. Gold is handled slightly abstractly and may be a fickle thing that may see you rich after an adventure and penniless at the start of the next!
Being the Gamemaster
The core system of this game is where it shines. Unfortunately once you reach the game mastering section there are some disappointing decisions that make this game harder to run than others on the market. I will say it is harder to run this than other modern systems like FATE and Cypher but the overall package and system of this makes me want to run this game more. There is a heap of great material in the game mastering section that helps you build a game and get a feel for the Sword and Sorcery genre but there were areas that made me feel this section needed more work.
The first of these is Fields of Expertise. This mechanic is used for NPC’s to replace skill expertises. The paragraph that introduces this states;
For non-player characters, listing all the same skills a player character is likely to possess provides an unnecessary degree of detail. In their place, non-player characters are listed with six Fields of Expertise, representing their skills in these broad areas as a single number.
When I first read this I was excited. I thought it was a great way of simplifying things. Until I realized that it really made things a lot worse when I ran the game for the first time. The six fields of expertise are Movement, Combat, Fortitude, Knowledge, Social and Senses. Inside these headings they simply list the skills that belong to that field. Seems simple enough. When you come to make the skill check, let us say it is a Parry check, the Field of Expertise to be used is Combat. But what statistic do I use? You see, each test in a Field of Expertise may fall under a variety of statistics. With Parry it is Coordination but if I used a melee attack straight after (also a Combat Field of Expertise) I would need to use Agility. There is NO table that explains this. So for this to be effective the games master must have memorized what skills are in which field of expertise and also have memorized precisely which statistic is used for every skill. I have created a table, just to give you an idea of the complexity of this. It makes for all but the most familiar games masters with the game to have to stop the flow nearly every time they need an NPC to make a check.
Among the encounters section which give you a lot of stat blocks and the rules for keywords with the individuals/creatures and the like are rules. Some of these rules are never applied, and others are applied incorrectly. This is purely down to poor editing/proof reading and really annoys me in a game of this quality. Take for example the keyword Mount x which is described as creatures that can accept a mount. The number placed in the position x is the number of riders the mount can accept without any issues. Beautiful rule – simple and efficient. When reading the creatures Camel, Riding Horse, War Horse each is described as a mount but none of them have the Mount keyword used on them. If you are not going to use a rule, why make it? In fact, no creature throughout the entire book has the Mount keyword applied.
There are other examples of this. The Bear is listed as having an Inhuman Attribute (Strength) 1 despite the fact that Strength is in fact not an attribute at all in the Conan game. It should be applied to Brawn I am imagining. Simple mistakes that really hurt the brilliant appearance and play of this. Three people are credited with editing and proof reading and I can pick up at least a dozen errors on a review read through?
Then there are the contradictory statements. In the Game mastering section there are a bunch of sections that aim to help the GM make an exciting, dynamic game. Let us take the Dividing the Group section as an example for this though it occurs in many of these mini advice sections. It explains in two long paragraphs why this can increase tension and drama and how it will make for a better game. Then in a much shorter paragraph it tells us not to do it unfairly but does not really explain what that means. To me this is saying do this, going at length about why you should and then saying don’t do it. Completely contradictory to the previous two paragraphs. I actually (because I have lots of experience GMing) get what they are saying – but if I was a new GM I would be conflicted. Though I have used one section to illustrate this, multiple sections in the book do exactly the same thing.
The Player’s Guide
When I bought the main book for myself I noted there was a much cheaper Player’s Guide available. I decided to get it as well and am really happy that I did. The Player’s Guide really lifts the Character Generation, Skills, Equipment and Rules section out of the main manual. Nothing about being the game master and avoiding the source material. It is a much smaller hardback of super quality. As a GM I would have a copy of this on hand when you go through character generation as it saves wear on the bigger, much more precious book. It is also super cheap and I am going to be encouraging all of my players to pick up a copy of this. It is straight forward, easy to read and covers all the bits the player needs. Great addition Modiphius!
I do not buy hard copies of games unless I am really in love with them. I have revealed some criticism at the game in the above review but I do love this game. It has an ability to make a cohesive group of players out of any group (herd of cats) in my opinion. The feel of this game is brilliant. The system is smooth, the book is beautiful and the subject is compelling. I like this game so much that I am even considering purchasing the Conan Official d20’s and d6’s. I use poker chips of different colours for tokens but I want everything in hard-copy and official. The issues of this game are all on the GM side and are technical and also poor description for new game masters. All of this can be fixed in a reprint or some form of errata. I am hoping that the GM screen may have some kind of chart like the one I made up (above) for Fields of Expertise. Really, what I hope this review, and this conclusion, does is make you want to play this game. In my opinion this is probably the best fantasy(ish) RPG on the market today. If you don’t get that feel from the review go to the link in the introduction and get the Free RPG Day PDF that is a cut down version of the full rules. Read it. Get a feel for it. Play it. Tell me I am wrong or buy the game if you don’t. I just spent two months building a campaign in 2nd edition AD&D and now all I want to do is play Conan, Adventures In An Age Undreamed Of!