Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rules for a Conan RPG

A few weeks ago, Mrs. Kaiju was chatting with a friend and former colleague. He said that he would be interested if I planned to run a Conan RPG in the future. I haven't talked to him for a while, and I was very flattered that he suggested it.

Our current Freeport campaign will be wrapping up soon, although I'm not sure when I might be able to start up another campaign. He is also starting his own game very soon.

There are several RPG settings that I would like to run. Freeport was one of those, and the Hyborian Age of Conan is at the top of the list. We had great fun in the game(s) that S. ran. I've been putting together background notes for a Conan game since at least 2005, and regularly think about ideas for it. It's the setting that I feel most comfortable with running, particularly for improv riffing and winging it. In my mind, it's as real as any fantasy setting could be.

The uncertain part of my planning has always been what rules system to use. At various points I've considered:

There are four main points that I'm looking for in a rules system:

Rules that play quickly and resolve smoothly. In my experience, the best RPG moments involve the storyline and the interaction of all the players, not necessarily crunching numbers. The suspense of a crucial die roll or card flip is great, and can ratchet up the tension. That's not what I'm referring to here. I'd rather that the rules help facilitate the role-play rather than cause us to spend time looking up obscure rules in several books. I've tried to be better about making a ruling and moving on, and looking it up later, but I still need practice in that area.

Rules that simulate pulp action. Howard's Conan stories are prototypical sword-and-sorcery and firmly rooted in the pulp tradition. Pulp action, in an RPG, should have that over-the-top feeling. "Cinematic" is used often when referring to RPG rules. I think pulp is similar. The PCs should be heroic, in the sense that they are better than the average human in abilities. Pulp generally follows what is often called "gritty", as it's more human-focused than the usual fantasy setting with elves, dwarves, orcs and the like. I'm also very enamored with some of the mechanics from the pulp RPG Spirit of the Century, especially the idea of Aspects. I'd like to use that or something with the same literary style to play up the trappings of the genre.

Give a variable level of "crunch" to those who want it. I would like to use a system that allows players some latitude on how detailed they want their stats and special abilities to be. It should be simple for the players to add extra detail to their characters, as add-ons (feats, special abilities, etc.) beyond the standard, if they wish to do so.

In-print and available or, even better, free? Used copies of out-of-print rulebooks are possible to find, although it can make things complicated. It's much easier if the books or documents required to play are readily available, particularly if the game is currently in print and actively supported by both the publisher and the fan community. Additionally, I do not want players to feel that they need to buy books in order to play. Players may want their own rulebook or player's guide but it shouldn't be necessary. I can make table copies available. Even better if the system is free to download, where as many copies as needed can be printed for all.

Currently l'm considering:

A retro-clone? Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, Castles & Crusades, OSRIC... one of the old-school games might give the proper vibe.  Related to this is ZeFRS, the free retro-clone version of TSR's Conan rules.

Shadow, Sword & Spell. I first learned about this system from Zach's posts on RPGBlogII, and I was so impressed by his comments about it that it was number one on my list to investigate at Gen Con last year. It's a human-centric sword-and-sorcery RPG with Howard, Lovecraft, Smith and Leiber as direct influences.

OpenQuest d100. I have experience with Basic Roleplaying as the system behind Call of Cthulhu, and its use in RuneQuest seems like a good system for pulp fantasy. OpenQuest is a project to create an open d100-based fantasy RPG using the RuneQuest SRD along with the best ideas from Chaosium's RuneQuest and Stormbringer.

Crypts & Things. A recent development from the folks that brought us OpenQuest; a Swords & Wizardry variant using house rules, changes and additions to promote a pulp fantasy feel to the game.

Maybe even Action Cards?

Plenty to think about...

Update: I forgot to mention Barbarians of Lemuria in the list above. I haven't read it yet, although it has received great reviews.


Lowell Francis said...

Spirit of the Century is on sale today through Loot so that might be a way to pick up a couple of cheap spare copies if you went with that. Plus there's a 10% off coupon from the blog Held Action which you can use. I did sort of like the old Mongoose Conan, at least as a reference point. We've been doing Action Cards with diced damage as well which creates another set of tensions and I think works for fantasy. I'd think you'd want something like that- a damage system that has some visceral appeal to it.

Kaiju said...

Good point, variable diced damage would add to the experience.

I didn't know about Loot -- thanks for the tip!

Undeadhost said...

For myself, the hard part is finding a system where the magic is representative.

Personally, I would go with BRPS, Savage Worlds (at a high livel), Action Cards, C&C, or maybe OSRIC.

I don't think ZeFRS would be fun for more than a few sessions.

True 20 magic is pretty broken, so you would need to limit the number of magic users.

I'm unfamiliar with Mongoose's Runequest.

I'm not sure I would go with too many of the retro clones. They are as clunky as I remember.

Oh, and I'm interested if/when there's an opening. :)

Kaiju said...

Agreed. Magic should be uncommon and very dangerous. I'd also agree about limiting spellcasters to one, maybe two, at most. Good points on the rules systems, too.

I'll keep that in mind. :)

Undeadhost said...

But is it metal?

Kaiju said...

Yes. Yes, it is. :)

Undeadhost said...

You know what you/we could do? Why not set up scenarios and run tests with the different systems? Just do them as one shots or two shot kills with the statement that you want to try out the system.

You could run all of them or could share the GM duties.

Are you looking to get away from True20? I think one has to consider changing systems (or sticking to) from game to game. I know the next game I run will very likely not be Unisystem based. Not that I don't like to use it, I just need a fresh lover. I think I'm actually looking for more combat crunch.

From what I've read of Lowell's Action Cards with diced damage, it sounds interesting. Maybe you should run (or "convince" him to run) a one shot using those rules in a Conan-esque setting.

And if you need to fill the void with a game to play in, you can always jump in my current game...or whatever it's next iteration is in June/July.

Kaiju said...

Sure, some one-offs for testing would be fun. Just like what we did with Run Club.

I think I would look at something other than True20. I still like it, but it seems to work better at lower levels. I'll be thinking about that more when I write up the post-game report here.

I appreciate the offer very much! I'll be taking a short break in the meantime -- I think Mrs. Kaiju would like to have me spend time with her on some Friday nights. :)

Undeadhost said...

I'm being told Labyrinth Lord is the way to go.

Kaiju said...

I like LL very much; it would be fun to give it a try.