“Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars — Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”
— The Nemedian Chronicles.
January 22nd 1906 in the small community of Peaster Texas, Robert E. Howard was born. While his career, and his life, would be short, his impact would be immeasurable.
During his brief but prolific career Howard created many memorable characters, from Kull the Atlantean, Solomon Kane the Puritan, Bran Mak Morn the King of the Picts, and merchant marine / prize fighter Sailor Steve Costigan. But none would have the impact of his black maned Cimmerian Barbarian who would rise to be King of Aquilonia.
In 1932 Weird Tales Magazine published the first Conan story “the Pheonix and the Sword” and the legend was born. Howard would write twenty more Conan stories (16 of wich would be published in his lifetime), one poem “Cimmeria”, and an essay “The Hyborian Age” before is death in 1936. L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter would publish 9 more based on pieced together fragments, notes and outlines. And in the 80 years since Howards suicide, more than 50 novels and dozens of short stories by various authors have been published.
Then in the early 80’s a resurgence of interest in the character would take the world by storm. Tor books would start publishing original Conan novels by Robert Jordan and others
with tantalizing cover art by Boris Vallejo, Frank Frazetta and dozens of imitators. And of course the Arnold Schwarzenegger Movies would happen, but I wouldn’t see them until they came to HBO or VHS
Those days you could find the eleven year old version of me planted on the floor of the book aisle in Kmart, while my mom and sister shopped, nose buried in the newest mass-market paperback tale of high adventure. On their way to the checkout they’d collect me and I’d beg my mom for the $2.95 so I could take it home and finish it that night.
Around this time I was first getting a taste for fantasy and dabbling in Dungeons and Dragons with some older kids in the neighborhood. At that same time, TSR would get the license to publish the role playing game interpretation of the Conan title.
First, in 1984 TSR would publish Conan Unchained! Module CB1 was a standalone adventure for Advanced Dungeons andDragons that was intended for up to four players who take on the characters listed in the book, Conan, Valeria, Juma and Nestor (of course, the biggest problem here is, who gets to play Conan?). This 32 page book includes a few new rules like luck points and fear checks, and with four linked stories and random encounters, this supplement is a fun, if disposable, side game to break up the usual campaign.
Then in 1985 TSR published the CONAN Role Playing Game. Designed by Jeff Grubb and Dave “Zeb” Cook, this stand alone game system allows the players to make original Hyborian characters with a simple, story based character creation system that encourages roleplaying and back story over stats and weapons. Among the interesting things about this system is the lack of detailed magic system. Players are actively discouraged from playing wizards with automatic penalties in place for magic use and every pc who chooses that path is destined to turn evil. Also of note is the slim weapons section with only a few choices and very little stat differences between them. That’s not to say that there’s no risk. This game can be a brutal meat grinder and every character is at risk of being killed by even the slightest wound since starting characters can have no more than 5 points in damage (the equivalent of health), and a successful hit doing 1 to 3 points of damage before modifiers.
That system is also its biggest flaw. The conflict resolution system chart that they carried over from the Marvel Super Heroes RPG is clumsy and the writing of the rules section is confusing in places with overall layout problems making fast rule research, even in only 32 pages, a real chore.
In 1988 Steve Jackson Games acquired the license and began production of the CONAN supplement for their new Generic
Universal Role Playing System. CONAN was one of the first new settings for the highly acclaimed 3rd edition.
Like every GURPS supplement the CONAN book is thoroughly researched and rich with detail. All aspects of Hyborian life are fully detailed with religion, magic, culture and history covered allowing game masters to explore the world and create detailed campaign settings. GURPS CONAN is yet another example of how deserving Steve Jackson Games is of the many RPG awards they’ve received since the 80’s.
In 2003 Mongoose Publishing took over the license and released nearly 40 supplements and multiple editions using the Open Gaming License D20 system in just under 8 years.
Today the license has gone to a new company, Modiphius, who are planning a kickstarter for February to create “Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures In An Age Undreamed Of” using their 2D20 game system.
No matter what the system or who the publisher, the original spirit of the Conan stories lives on, inspiring sword and sorcery adventures generation after generation.