Two days journey, north of Kulalo, off the Black Coast....Up the river Zikamba...through the Valley of Darkness you'll find a Ruin, ancient and nameless. Whatever cult of man lived there, they are long vanished and only dead men guard it's treasure. In my youth when I still had eyes to see, I worked as a sailor on a ship that went into the Black Kingdoms bringing back hoards of Ivory.
A jade crocodile with emerald eyes as big as a man's hand. The natives talked of in whispers after their tongues were loosened on our skins of fortified wine. The ruins are thought to be cursed by the locals and are forbidden entrance. A village lies just to the south of the ruins along the River.
So went the lead up up for the one of the more rocking—and rare—chances to actually play a rpg, in this case an obscure “Silver Age” entry, the Conan rpg designed by Dave “Zeb” Cook. Between that evocative opening set up by my buddy and GM Scott in Seattle (aka Scalydemon), the chance to play the brooding REH Pictish hero Bran Mak Morn (pictured above in that Jeffrey Jones cover), and the fast and furious fury of the session, I was impressed by the game.
It was a grudging respect admittedly. I had quite simply never heard of it and when Scott floated some barebones description at first I had a fair share of skeptical internal groaning. A color-coded Marvel Superheroes-like unified resolution system? Groan. Skill-based system with point buy? Groan, groan.
It felt also strange to think that TSR could have put an entirely new fantasy rpg game in 1985 without me ever noticing. My first thought was it must have been as big as a steaming pile of offal as that other TSR turkey of the time, the Indiana Jones rpg.
Back then, even with the drift that would lead me out of the hobby picking starting up, I tended to still be highly focused on things revolving around that ill-fated company. Dragon magazine was the first periodical I ever had a subscription to and receiving that rag in it's porn-like plain paper wrapper was a cherished monthly ritual.
But that's exactly what happened. Sure I remember the release of the much disdained (even by my friends at the time) modules featuring the muscle-bound Governator of California, but the game itself until last year I had heard nary a hide nor hair about. This morning I (virtually) flipped through all the issues of Dragon from that time, outside of a short blurb in upcoming products in a single issue not once did it grace an article—let alone a promotional ad. Strange.
Perhaps TSR decided that it didn't need to create a competitor to its own monolithic entry into fantasy roleplaying game; ran afoul of IP restrictions; or simply got lost in the mismanagement and excess of post-Gygax TSR. There is a backstory there that I have yet to hear. (And would be worthy the telling, shot-in-the-dark plea to the Internet cough cough).
|Cover art from Boris Vallejo|
The tragedy of its obscurity is that it's a fast-paced, mechanically-elegant, mercifully-lite Swords and Sorcery game. It quite simply played very well--and had any number of elements that jived with my prissy sensibilities.
Although it has skills, called “talents”, they are thankfully short, immediately sensible, and completely lacking the subjective mental skills that I tend to grognardly despise as cheap substitutions for player skill. (You know the kind, the “Persuades” and “Sees” and others that were replete even in my favorite Chaosium games of that time).
The sorcery system is dangerous to its user (magical talents increasingly raise an “obsession” score), open-ended and mysterious in a satisfying way. To gain spells you must not only design your own but must quest through Hyboria for scraps of time-forgotten eldritch books and arcane objects to make it happen.
And best of all is that it supported a wider range of crazy Howardian action antics. The system quite naturally lends itself to kicking over tables, grappling/tossing ape-beasts down yawning pits, jumping over the backs of opponents to stab them from behind, etc.
In other words, some good shit.
You will note the frequent use of the present tense back there, it so happens thanks to the beauty of this free-wheeling age that this game is not only kept alive, it's kept alive as a virtually untouched freebie. Called Zeb's Fantasy Roleplaying System (ZeFRS) it's pretty much the most faithful retro-clone around as it's virtually the same system verbatim only lacking the explicit Conan IP property (still owned by anyone but the Howard family, Gigantacorp...err Conan Properties).
If you haven't acquainted yourself with the system a quick mosey over here to the ZeFRS website can set you up at the right price.