Lushly illustrated throughout, the book launches into an introduction of the setting: The Hyborean Age as imagined by Robert E. Howard. This paints a word-picture of the nations and peoples of Hyboria that just makes you long to grab sword and spellbook and rush off to take a look... an excellent opening to both introduce anyone who doesn't know the Conan stories to the setting and to rekindle the desire to play therein for the rest of us.
On a more practical note, the Introduction also highlights the differences between the Hyborean Age and more conventional fantasy role-playing settings. Here, adventurers's skills are focussed on combat and stealth. In this world, religions and deities serve to comfort the soul of the believer rather than weilding the more practical power of divine magic that a player of, say, Dungeons & Dragons, is familiar with. Magic, too - generally referred to as 'sorcery' - is uncommon and feared, and its practitioners are both rare and probably damned for all eternity by the dark secrets they have delved into. Swords and sorcery indeed, but one in which the sorcery is generally either a backdrop or practised by your enemies rather than your friends.
Next, an Overview describes what is contained in the rest of the book: primarily, the rules necessary to create and play your character, along with information on the actual setting as well as how sorcery and combat work, some of the beasts to be encountered and what sort of campaigns you might run. There's also what is billed as the shortest-ever introduction to role-playing - all of a brief paragraph which does sum it up admirably if you are looking for a way to explain your hobby to someone!
The Overview also presents a clear... well, overview... of how the rules work, and an outline of the character generation process, highlighting the differences between this system and other D20/OGL rulesets. It then launches into an explanation of the ability scores and their effect on the game. Everything is very clearly explained and once read there is no doubt as to how each aspect - encumbrance, light and vision, movement and so on - is to be handled.
The next chapter deals with the Races available. It's a human-based world, of course, and so for oncw we really are talking about different races as in the natives of different parts of the world. Admittedly somewhat stereotypical of each given race, it does allow for the fact that not all Cimmerians are big fellows with coarse black hair, blue eyes and powerful muscles - but a lot of them are! Each race has its own characteristics, reflected in some background freebie skill levels in things members of that race are likely to know and favoured classes. Unlike many D20/OGL games, you gain advantages for playing your race's favoured class, rather than disadvantages for playing outside it. There's also a note on languages - there is no such thing as a 'common tongue' so to communicate with someone from a distant land you need to have a language in common. Fortunately, learning languages is easy with automatic languages for each race, bonus languages you can learn if you have a good intelligence and level-based extra languages... the average Hyborean adventurer is an excellent linguist! It is worth paying close attention to the races and their characteristics, as this will provide the foundations for some fascinating role-playing and characterisation by those prepared to make the effort.
The third chapter looks at Classes. You can be a barbarian, a borderer, a noble, a nomad, a pirate, a scholar, a soldier, or a thief. Scholars - and only some of them, depending on the background you choose - are the only ones with spell-casting ability. To gain the most advantage from your class, it's recommended that you stick with the same one for the first 10 levels and multiclass thereafter to round out the character; otherwise you can end up with a character who is not particularly good at anything but has a smattering of abilities in a wide range of things - of course, if that's what you want, go for it. Changes of class may require a good in-game reason, you cannot just declare that you are going to become a noble or a nomad, you need to earn (or grab) noble status, or spend considerable time living with nomads to learn their ways.
This chapter also covers Fate Points (used to sway the result of the dice at critical moments), starting equipment and cash, and Codes of Honour. There is no alignment system in this game, but many characters have, or develop, a personal code of honour to which they adhere. Two examples are given, a barbarian and a civilised code. Each imposes restrictions but gives benefits both from the role-playing standpoint, and in terms of a bonus to saving throws. Each character also has a Reputation, which grows as he adventures and becomes known; and rules are provided to provide a tangible counterpoint to the role-playing aspects of being well-known for whatever it is you do or have done.
The next chapter looks at Skills. Here there is a variant on the normal class skill/cross-class skill cost - any skill points gained due to a high Intelligence bonus can be spent freely on ANY skill, class or not. This is designed to reflect the self-sufficient nature of the average Hyborean adventurer, where being smart enough to learn how to do lots of things is a considerable advantage. The use of skills and how to determine difficulty and opposed checks is very clearly explained, one of the best descriptions of how to use skills in the D20 system I've seen. Equally, each skill is explained excellently enabling you to see precisely how it can be used in various situations, and what other things will affect its use.
Next, Feats get the same treatment. Most are familiar, although there are some regional ones such as Akbitanan Smith (who has mastered the skills of the fabled metal workers of Akbitan) and useful ones like Carouser (no matter how much you drink it doesn't really seem to affect you). There are even a few unpleasant feats which allow evil sorcerers (there are few if any good ones in Hyborea) to gain magical power by ritual slaughter of a helpless foe.
Then there is a look at Equipment, with particular reference to wealth and objects of value, the favourite objective of most Hyborean adventurers. This isn't the sort of game in which you keep accounts, you either have sufficient for your needs or it is time to go adventuring again! This chapter goes through the different types of weapon available, grouping them appropriately for the use of specific weapon feats and describing their qualities as well as what they look like and how much damage they deal. Armour gets a similar treatment. While possessions are not regarded as important, things like clothing and adventuring supplies are described for those who don't intend to survive solely with a big sword and whatever's around them - with some nice touches like soap, underwear and whetstones along with the more usual items presented in equipment lists.
Next we move on to more rule mechanics, the all-important Combat section. There's nothing particularly complex or new, but again this is a wonderfully clear and concise explanation of how D20 combat works in practice. The ay in which it is presented lends itself equally well to the fluid role-playing approach or to the more mechanistic approach that works well for those who like detailed maps and maybe use miniatures to work out everyone's position in a brawl. Combat spell casting, movement and recovering from the damage you've taken are also included in this section. The chapter rounds off with a fascinating selection of special combat manoeuvres, some rather cinematic moves like a Decapitating Slash (an attempt to take your opponent's head clean off, but leaving yourself open to attack) or a Patherish Twist (use when fighting two opponents to sucker them into hitting each other by getting out from between them at the last moment).
Then comes a chapter on Sorcery. This isn't the nice academic magic that most fantasy games purvey, you study sorcery to acquire power. A few scholars say they are after knowledge, but most of them are lying (possibly to themselves as well). You learn it from grimoires (if you can find them), from other sorcerers or from some deity or demon who will at the very least want your soul in repayment. A power point system is used for spell casting, and the majority of spells take meticulous preparation and a long time to cast, you don't just mumble a few words and Hey, Presto! you have your effect. To gain extra power, many sorcerers either get some friends or followers to perform a ritual or use darker methods such as sacrifice of a helpless victim. And if all this doesn't put you off spellcasting, there can be unwelcome side effects such as magical backfires or insanity to contend with as well. These awful warnings done with, an extensive spell list is provided to give those who do dare to practise sorcery something to cast. These are grouped into sorcery 'styles' - you choose to learn one or more styles as your skill in this area develops. So you may study counterspells, curses, divination, hypnotism, nature magic, necromancy, oriental magic, prestidigitation or summoning. Each style begins with a basic spell which you must master before learning more powerful ones of that style. Many of the spells described have their origins in the pages of the Conan stories. After the spell lists comes a section on magical items, herbs and other compounds which many sorcerers and scholars will encounter in their studies. Given that sorcerers often learn from other, more experienced ones, the chapter ends with a section about some of the common paths that one can follow to study the dark arts.
The next chapter is an essay on the Hyborean Age written by Robert E. Howard himself, which he used to keep his own stories true to the setting and to provide the history against which they were told. Essential reading for the Game Master and perhaps also for those characters who have immersed themselves in a study of the past.
This is followed by a Gazetteer of the world as it is today. It is somewhat of a whistle-stop tour, with a note that there is plenty of room for individual gaming groups to develop their own areas - and of course later books published by Mongoose fill in specific areas. But as an overview and introduction to the setting it provides suffient detail for adventuring to begin, and just reading through it spawns ideas for what might take place... A few scenario ideas are provided, in the main drawing on existing Conan stories.
This is followed by a chapter on Religion - despite deities and the worship thereof not being a particularly central part of Hyborean life. Whether or not there actually are 'gods' at all is open to debate, but there certainly are powerful beings such as demons around. There will be benefits, however, from becoming a worshipper of the deity or pantheon of your choice. These depend on whom you worship, but in general you can get a +2 faith bonus to Will saves and priests or other spellcasters associated with the cult may be willing to perform magic for you at a reduced cost (or at all!). The requirements for being a worshipper generally revolve around making a financial contribution to the cult, while some require obedience to the dictates of the priesthood or even human sacrifices.
Then comes a Bestiary. Most of the opposition you'll face is human so there are extensive notes on NPC races and classes, but there are quite a few animals and even 'monsters' to be slain as well. Useful animals such as camels, horses, dogs, elephants and farm animals are here as well.
Finally, there is a chapter on running campaigns in this setting aimed at the Game Master. It's packed with advice on how to create and run adventures that are true to the spirit of the Howard stories - and indeed suggests using them as inspiration or even verbatim if your players have not read them.
Overall, this is a masterful recreation of Hyborea in role-playing form and should satisfy anyone who's dreamed of treading the jewelled thrones of the earth under his character's sandalled feet.
Return to Conan: The Roleplaying Game Atlantean Edition page.
Reviewed: 26 December 2006