In 1932, Robert E. Howard published his first story about a warrior and his adventures in a time before the rise of ancient civilization. The combination of fantasy, horror and pulp made the tales of Conan the Barbarian into a cultural icon. Eighty-five years after that first story, Conan is getting new attention thanks to the recent release of three high-profile games. Each offers a very different way to play in the Hyborian Age.
If you just want to jump right into Howard’s world without having to pore over any rules or find people to play with, Funcom's early access title Conan Exiles channels the brutality and savagery of the setting. The makers of the Age of Conan MMO draw on their nine years of experience to bring Howard's world to life with stark visuals, depicting endless sand dunes, ancient ruins and great cities populated by hostile fighters.
Players begin the game crucified for some randomly generated crimes before being rescued by Conan and told to make something of themselves. To do that, they must survive the wasteland long enough to become one of its rulers. Gameplay closely resembles the online survival game Rust, encouraging players to pick up everything they can carry to eat or use to craft weapons, armor and, eventually, a home.
At one point, I realized that I didn’t have a torch on me, or the means to make one, and darkness fell while I was scraping bark off trees in hopes of building a tannery and upgrading my armor. As my screen went black, I was attacked by a monstrous turtle, which I barely managed to beat back before blindly staggering back to my camp.
I spotted a small fire in the distance and wondered who I’d have to kill to take it over. As I moved toward the light, I hit the edge of a river and realized I was in serious risk of drowning if I tried to swim toward it. I just had to wait for night to pass.
Exiles is brutal, especially when it comes to basic needs. Eating most foods doesn’t make you any less thirsty, and even cooked food can give you a lethal dose of food poisoning, something I found out for myself when I tried to eat an imp.
I spent hours living like an animal, looking for an opening to visit the river for a drink when there weren't any crocodiles around. Death meant corpse runs back to my body, a process complicated by enemies that did not scale to my level. While the similar Rust has abandoned leveling, Exiles embraces it. The game even uses it to limit what you can craft, with the better items all requiring you to build crafting stations like an armorer’s bench or tannery. The game has an impressively deep crafting tree, constantly pushing players to gather new resources as they unlock the ability to work with more sophisticated materials.
Once you've mastered basic survival, you can start building a well-defended fortress with your own Wheel of Pain, raiding NPC villages for captives you can bring back to bind to your will. You can even build a shrine and make human sacrifices to Set for power. Just don’t get too attached, as Funcom has been regularly wiping structures during Early Access.
Conan the board game
There are bits of story and references to the many nations that populate Howard’s world scattered throughout Exiles, mostly found on corpses, but the connection too often feels limited to aesthetics. The middle chapters of Conan the Barbarian focus on the title character making friends, finding love and drawing on those connections to help him finally avenge his family. If you have some friends to play Exiles with, you could get the feeling of banding together to take down a dire challenge. But you’d be better off inviting them over to play the Conan board game, released by Monolith late last year.
It’s a dungeon crawler, following a similar format to Fantasy Flight’s Descent or the 1990s classic Hero Quest. One player takes on the role of the Overlord and controls all the antagonists, while one to four others play as Conan and additional characters from his stories, such as the pirate Belit or the thief Shevatas. They're well balanced, so that while Conan is powerful in combat, he doesn't feel like the only player character that matters. That's helped by a mix of traditional fantasy archetypes, like Shevatas' ability to open locked chests containing valuable equipment and Belit’s ability to command her own squad of minions perfect for fighting the Overlord's forces.
The game offers numerous scenarios played across two double-sided game boards, with a host of miniatures representing barbarians, sorcerers and monsters. Each session gives the players and Overlord their own objective pertaining to a Conan-inspired plot. In one scenario, the players have eight turns to find a princess hidden in one of eight huts, kill a sorcerer, and flee the scene with both the girl and their foe's head. In another, the Overlord has eight turns to kill Belit while the players try to kill both of the named villains on the board. The Overlord is forced to change up their tactics during the course of a session as they pay resources to activate each of their bad guys, and that price goes up based on how recently an antagonist was used.
The problem with the variety is that not all of the scenarios are created equal. Sometimes, the most effective strategy is just trying to waste time and let the clock run out, which doesn’t really make for a fun evening at the table. The published rules are also poorly written, made extra confusing by the fact that the information is disjointedly spread across two books — one for the players and one for the Overlord.
Monolith has published revised versions of the game’s manual online along with additional scenarios, so it's a good idea to print those out ahead of time or have them open on a mobile device when inevitable questions arise about the many abilities and spells that characters have access to. But when you can get past the hurdles of learning the rules, the game nails the feel of Conan, as a small band of characters with questionable motives their wits and personal strength to battle powerful opposition in the form of near-endless hordes of minions and devastating bosses.
In one scenario, the heroes started aboard Belit’s ship. Archers on another ship, led by a Captain Zaporavo, were harassing them. His leadership allowed nearby enemies to reroll failed attacks. Meanwhile, a band of raiders braved shark infested waters to jump onto Belit’s ship.
To disrupt the enemy, Conan leaped aboard the enemy ship and slew Zaporavo with a massive attack from his sword. As the Overlord, I swarmed him with reinforcements from below decks and despite Conan’s armor they began cutting into him, applying wounds that decreased his ability to fight back. Shevatas, who had been ridiculed by his fellow players for spending the early turns looking for treasure instead of engaging with the enemy, got to prove his value by following Conan on board to deliver a healing potion that kept the barbarian going.
The fight was close, but after a 90-minute skirmish the heroes prevailed. Everyone left the table exhilarated and ready for the next scripted adventure, which can be played independently or as part of a campaign mode where both characters and the Overlord accumulate power based on the results of played scenarios.
Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of
If you really want the freedom to explore Howard's world on your own, you should pick up Modiphius' Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of tabletop role-playing game, which launched this past January. The core book, currently available as a PDF, is a true labor of love, filled with quotes from Conan stories and explanations of how the mechanics are meant to embody the spirit of Howard’s world.
The gamemastering section repeatedly asks the question "What would Howard do?" when it comes to considering the role of treasure, the nature of heroism and just how to structure an adventure. From the book:
Environments: What would Howard do?
The scope and scale of a roleplaying game is limited only by the ability for the gamemaster to describe things. The environment is the tableau into which encounters are set, and therefore the gamemaster should think about it in dramatic as well as tactical terms: a battlefield can be the common room in a tavern or a field of war covered with the newly dead. Each of these suggests different situations, and the gamemaster should consider what happened prior to the player character’s arrival in these spaces.
Howard regularly sought to create interesting and dynamic set pieces for his encounters, such as the bloody battlefield and aurora borealis-lit ice plains of “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” the mountainous gulleys and mystic cavern inside Mount Yimsha in “The People of the Black Circle,” the jewel-encrusted Tower of the Elephant, the primal dark dungeon beneath the Scarlet Citadel, the strange interior city in “Red Nails,” or even Khosatral Khel’s revivified dream-city of Dagon in “The Devil in Iron."
The system puts narrative first, encouraging players to work with the gamemaster to come up with the backgrounds and stories that have shaped their characters, though there's a huge section of tables they can roll on for inspiration. There are a lot of rules that players and particularly the gamemaster will need to get a grasp on. While my group of veteran Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder players figured them out quickly -- sometimes enlisting one person to look up how to handle healing or ammo while the game proceeded -- it would be easy to feel intimidated by grappling with both an unfamiliar setting and system. Luckily the RPG encourages creative problem solving and cooperation that can keep things dynamic even as you grapple with the learning curve.
Much like in Monolith’s board game, players and the gamemaster have opposing resources in the form of Momentum and Doom that can be used to improve their chances of success on a die roll, to gain information, or to upgrade or impair bad guys. Bad rolls on the players' parts can reward the gamemaster with Doom or let them introduce a complication to make the character's life more difficult and interesting. Those resources also mean that players can't get stuck. If they fail to make a roll to notice something they need to find to move the plot forward, the gamemaster can give them the information anyways — at a price.
Antagonists come in three tiers — minions who are quickly mowed through, toughened creatures that provide a bit of a challenge, and nemesis enemies that can require a mix of ingenuity and luck to defeat. Howard was friends with H.P. Lovecraft and incorporated some of the horror author’s themes into his work. They make a strong appearance here too, with characters as likely to be traumatized from facing an otherworldly horror as they are to be severely wounded by an enemy warrior’s blade.
Players share their Momentum, meaning they're rewarded for each other's successes and encouraged to use the resource to help one another. Characters feel powerful as soon as they are created, capable of solving a variety of problems out of combat without having to trade too much ability to fight. That means you don't need to play multiple sessions to feel like you're making progress. In fact, the book encourages a somewhat serialized approach to running the game, rolling on some tables to show what your players get up to while carousing between adventures and then starting the next session with the group in an entirely new predicament inspired by your imagination and Howard's writing. While there’s only one full adventure within the base rulebook, it’s full of seeds of plots that a creative gamemaster can use to come up with their own.
All three of these games are actively growing. Conan: Exiles will release its first expansion on Aug. 16, which will take players beyond its current desert domain to a frozen wilderness. That same day it will launch on the Xbox One Game Preview early access program. The Conan board game has also headed north in the Nordheim expansion and further adventures in the works will be set in the lands of Khitai, a stand in for ancient Mongolia where Western travelers are viewed with suspicion and contempt, and Stygia, a version of ancient Egypt where sorcerer priests worship Set and darker powers. Modiphius released an updated version of its core book in June and has published an adventure collection and a guide to running games focused on heists and the criminal underworld. They've also promised to release many more books in the series focusing on different types of characters and areas of the world.
The Conan stories predate The Hobbit by five years, but Howard’s tales have been far less present in fantasy gaming than Tolkien’s stories of elves, dwarves, orcs and goblins which form the basis of Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft and so many other titles. Howard’s vision of a savage world inhabited by diverse peoples is 85 years old, but it’s still fresh for many players who are looking for a new setting for their adventures. These games offer the chance to play in versions of Conan’s world but also provide a template for other spins on the genre that are more human but no less action-packed.