All of us at RPG Knights have been having fun with the Conan game! I recently received a package that included all the physical copies of Conan the Mercenary, Conan the Thief, Conan Players’ Guide, Conan GM Screen and Toolkit, Jeweled Thrones of the Earth and The Book of Skelos! They are all gorgeous books and tools with beautiful covers around the 130-page mark (apart from the screen of course). Once I had them in hand I realised that the Conan: The Book of Skelos was not a bunch of adventures. It was an expansion to sorcery for the game. I immediately fell into reading it for purposes of review and expanding my own game! It was a marathon read – but worth the investment.
The Book of Skelos
Welcome to a world of sorcery
These are the words emblazoned on The Book of Skelos’s back cover. It is one of the busiest backs to a book I have ever seen! I read the back and wondered how this one little book could cover all these topics? To the name of the book first. It was the name of this book that caused me confusion over its purpose for the game. I had thought that this would be some form of adventure surrounding finding the Book of Skelos or sorcerer’s using its dark powers. The Book of Skelos is an artifact of Robert E. Howard’s own creation from The Pool of the Black One short story. Inside this tale, it is referred to as the Iron-Bound Book of Skelos. Inside the book are spells and incantations to bring the dead to life, control the elements, and to summon extraterrestrial demons from the Outer Darkness. I realise now my folly with the naming of the book leading to me thinking it was an adventure. Modiphius is hardly going to name a book Conan the Sorcerer are they?!
Gamers familiar with other styles of fantasy gaming will likely to expect different things from the Book of Skelos. I want to be very clear from the start of this review. The Book of Skelos is an expansion designed to meet the vision of sorcery in the Conan world. Magic is huge, powerful and often alien. You will not find spells that lob fireballs and missiles that never miss in this book. You will find an exploration of Howard styled magic which is atmospheric and powerful. I am going to follow Cameron’s lead from his other reviews of the Conan books and take a chapter by chapter look at what this book offers.
The History of Sorcery
Beyond the introduction which talks about the Book of Skelos as I have above, we move into the likely sources of magic. Not that it does so from a mechanical perspective! Largely this is from the perspective of academics researching the phenomenon. This is a style used right through a lot of the Conan: Adventures In an Age Undreamed of books. They are written from the point of view of Alcimedes in the times of Conan or from the perspective of Professor John Kirowan of Miskatonic University. I want to specify right now, that magic in Conan is magic. There is no overarching description of how it works. It is a mystery that seems to be manipulated by Elder Gods and other patrons. Also, there is Weird Science and other sources. A games master (GM) of this game can rightfully answer the question how did that happen? with one simple phrase.
This is a brief chapter, and I feel that it is here to open the eyes of some to the Conan ideals. If you only had exposure to movies of Conan prior to playing this game you would not have had the true Howard perspective to magic. This brings you back to the true Howard stories and vision. It shows you that some of this world is also connected to the world of H.P. Lovecraft’s own creations. There is a different take on this in Howard’s work but they are the same mythos.
Artifacts of the Hyborian Age
Magic items you may think! If you play other fantasy games you may dream of your characters wandering around in mystical cloaks. Perhaps even wielding weapons of power with artifacts of ages gone by. In truth, Howard’s heroes rarely relied on magical items to get through. They relied on human ingenuity and strength. Though there are enchantments a hero may rely on in the game, they are far from commonplace. What this chapter looks at is eight items of great sorcerous power. They are items that could easily have a major campaign built around their influence or acquisition. These entries are again written from the perspective of Howard’s characters. The rules for these items (and there are few) are in sidebars for use by the players and GM.
Kingdoms of Dream and Nightmare
I believe that the History of Sorcery chapter was there to open the mind of the reader to this chapter that follows. Here are seven pages of almost pure setting material that needs to be absorbed. This describes the core of Howard’s view from the standpoint of his characters. Again, this does not describe where magic comes from, just the cosmological view of Howard’s world. In particular, it looks at three kingdoms. Kuth of the Star-Girdle, Andarra Realm of the Immortal Dream and Tothra the Realm of Time. The Book of Skelos leads us through how some sorcerers describe their interactions with these realms in finding and using magic. These are weird places that perhaps adventures could be set in.
Again, most of this chapter is setting material. The familiar green sidebars in the chapter offer both clarifications for how this may affect the rules. These same sidebars also offer advice on how this section could be used in the story. Both are welcome additions as there is some serious reading packed in these seven small pages. If you do not live and breathe Conan lore, here is a lesson that seems worth its space in this book.
Sorcerers in the Mortal Kingdoms
We turn to the next chapter and it brings us back to the familiar Hyborian world. Here is a wealth of information that talks about how sorcerers are seen in various parts of the world. Not only how they are seen but also how the native sorcerer of that area may manifest. What style of sorcery do they use, shamanistic, book studied, animalistic? This chapter is beautiful and gives players and GM’s a way to feel how sorcery is experienced in the world. It is, in fact, a small chapter that adds a huge amount of information to the feel of sorcery to the game. I was very thankful to have read it and know that my games will be better because of it.
Sorcerers and their Followers
This chapter steps out of the in character descriptions of the world of sorcery. It provides a system to track the interactions of sorcerous organisations (cabals) in the game. I reached this point of the book and it was a bit of a shock to find myself in a place that was almost wall to wall rules! The way the discussion had lead to this point was not so much about organisations, though it was obvious that cults and cabals must surely exist. It was not until around halfway through this section that I realised what they were trying to do with it. This is a system, largely for the GM in my opinion, for tracking what is happening at a meta-level for the sorcerous cabals. There is mention of players forming their own cabals and the like in this section. But it also spells out that if a player adventure touches a cabal then the results of the adventure take precedence over the mechanics of this section.
You see, a Cabal is made up of assets and three simple statistics. There is a turn-based structure that is used where the Cabal may take a single action (with a multitude of actions offered) that plays out. This action may strengthen their own cabal or attack another. Once all the cabals listed play out this turn, modifications are made on statistics and assets and that is the state of the Cabal at that point. It is a meta-system of campaign tracking that produces a living breathing world for the players. Say a Cabal exposes a hidden asset of another Cabal who happened to be a PC contact. They find out the contact was entwined in the Cult of Set and suddenly the world seems more real or fantastic.
Will I use it?
I really like this section. It is reminiscent to me of the things I like in Stars Without Number, Silent Legions, Apocalypse World and Dungeon World. Each of these systems has a way of tracking the organisations and threats. The games work on a basis that the world changes, with or without input from the player characters (PC). If the PC’s take a month off, the sorcerous Cabals do not stop and say “We can’t be thwarted this month, let us have a break!” No, they work as they always have toward their goal. What this system does though is offer a lot more crunch (23 pages of crunch) than the systems I have mentioned above. I am on the fence as to how well this would operate behind the scenes. Once I have settled into my own style of game though I intend to give it a run.
Advanced Rules for Sorcery
I wish the previous chapter had mentioned rules in the name. Then I would not have been so disoriented from the change of in character to out of character style. This chapter was clearly the one where rules were the focus. This chapter covers most of the book too, weighing in at 49 pages. It starts the chapter with a set of optional rules for building a sorcerer character. It walks through the process of character generation as presented in the core rulebook and adds tables or replaces them for those that would like a character with a sorcerous background. This includes the offering of the new castes Alchemist, Charlatan, Sage, Sorcerer and Witch Doctor. Following this, there is also an expansion of the Sorcery skill. This expansion broadens it so that the user of the skill can identify the uses of sorcery and enchantments.
Beyond Character Generation and Morality
The Book of Skelos begins to look at very Conan styled things. The first of these is ritualised magic and the art of sacrifice. Certainly in both of the adventures I have run they focussed on a ritual magic incantation for the climax. The rules here tell us what sacrifices can do for the sorcerer and how to handle it all mechanically. It also does this without a moral standpoint that the PC’s should not be involved in this. I might just mention that Conan as a game does not have the expectation that the players are heroes that stand for right. Often many fantasy games do this and I was asked the question just recently about this. Conan was a thief, a pirate, a barbarian. He seized control of a kingdom not to wrest it from an evil dictator. He did it for power. The game itself seeks to recreate the style of Howard’s books and so there are no moral judgements inbuilt to the rules.
More sorcerous cool stuff?
Beyond sacrifice, the rules then go on to offer specialisation to the style of sorcery if wanted. It begins with Necromancy and then Astrology. It also looks into pseudo sorcery in the form of mummery (kind of like stage magicians) and Mesmerism (hypnosis like). Much of the sorcerous power in Howard’s books was simple trickery, sleight of hand and attempts at hypnotism. The real sorcery was always grand in scale and a culmination of great power. Herbalism then is explored in some depth. It is a general covering of an in-depth topic. It looks at it from a place to have offerings for sorcery as well as the creation of ailments and the cures of such. Past this, the rules cover more petty enchantments (petty – some of these are brilliant), weird science and finally some spells that can be added to the repertoire of those presented in the core book.
This part of the Book of Skelos moves largely into the GM’s realm. Inside here they suggest that there are things players are better not to know. It would ruin the illusion of Howardian magic. I have to say, after reading it, I did not think this was the case. Sure, there are discussions as to what they feel Howardian magic is, but they are just that. There is nothing here that a player could hold up and say “This is not right!” if the GM did something. In fact, inside it there is a discussion that could warrant a particular NPC to do things completely differently to what has been presented before – that is what Doom spends are for after all!
There are some great spells in here too. Spells that can only be cast at certain alignments of stars and such. One spell can only be cast once every 1217 years! These make for great goals of Cabals and insane sorcerers that the players must work against. Maybe that is why they were included! This chapter is perhaps my favourite of the whole fook. It comes in at 15 pages and does a really nice job of discussing how to pull all the material together. It gets me excited about having sorcery styled threats in my games.
A Taxonomy of Terrors
A sorcery campaign should be filled with the weird and wonderful. To do this from an enemy standpoint the penultimate chapter looks at offering a system to generate them. Rather than a set “bestiary” style, it offers up a broad taxonomy of enemies and then tells us how to increase their power. Beyond that, it also offers up a bunch of qualities that can be added which have flow-on effects to the statistics of the creatures. It is a brilliant little system that made me entirely comfortable that I will use it often. The only problem I had with it is that they describe many of the types as “impervious to mundane weapons” but they don’t have any quality that does this. Sure, those that say that have high armour soak – but even if I set it to 6 I have seen much more damage rolled than that. It is a small annoyance and one I will have to house rule in some way.
The final chapter and my thoughts…
The final chapter is an example of a sorcerer. It is the reward of a Kickstarter. I hate these additions to these games but they are a sign of the times. Despite that, I did not mind this NPC which is high praise compared to what I thought about the ones in the back of the core book! So how did I feel after reading this addition to the Conan game? I felt exhausted but totally rewarded! This is a heavy book and because I do not live and breathe Conan, some of the concepts are very different to games I normally played. I feel rewarded also because that is the case.
This is a new style of adventure that I am not used to. The rules here are exciting and on the whole, right on point. I am getting deeper and deeper into this Conan thing and I am loving it. There are some things I am uncertain about in the book (e.g. how Cabals will play out) but they are unique enough for me to give them a run. Would I recommend this to you? Of course I would! Especially if you want dark sorcerous threats in your game. What are you doing still reading? Go get it! And keep rolling!