Friday, November 18, 2011

Conan: TSR's Lost Game

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.


  1. The original box set is one of my most cherished RPG buys (hotly contested on eBay). If only I could get people to play it!

  2. Ooh cool - I always assumed it was substandard crap. I'll have to take a look.


    - Ark

  3. @Fabian
    It's a rare and hot commodity apparently. I picked my beat up copy at $33, but that was only after a long spell of patient waiting.

    It's nice that ZeFRS has an at-cost print-on-demand publication, not a bad buy at $8.

  4. I never gave it a chance either, but will look with renewed enthusiasm! Thanks for the link to ZeFRS.

  5. TSR had a huge clearance sale on this game about a year after it was out. I believe for $15 I got the game, all three modules, and two boxes of Conan minis. It was from an ad in Dragon (I'll look up the issue number when I get home from work), and you had to order directly from TSR.

    Unfortunately, I was hugely let down by the game itself. At the time, I was big into Rolemaster, so a single table resolution mechanic was completely laughable to me. The other problem was the "World of Hyboria" book that was supposed to detail Conan's world. It was extremely sparse, and horribly illustrated.

    I've got extras of a few of the modules, if anyone is interested.

  6. @Fabian
    Sometime I will have to get a G+ or Skype game going on it. Which means, yet again, that you need a webcam and mike.

    Without a doubt I would have hated it at the time too. I really disliked MSH back then and was--like many of our generation at that time--leaning more to heavy, detailed games. Obviously that pendulum was swung for me recently.

    Nearly all the art for the game was horrible, the Vallejo cover for the second module being the exception to the rule. The sourcebook is pretty forgettable too and that kind of "fake found object from the notebook of a professor" trope is not well executed.

    There also some strange rough patches in the game that seem to me to point to some stalled game design choices. There are mentions of "squares" mentioned through the text and one of the combat diagrams is clearly designed to work on a map grid.

    It makes me think that originally it might have been in development as more of a hybrid rpg-boardgame like Indiana Jones game or at the least something like Gangbusters or Boot Hill with a map and counters for skirmishes.

    If I hadn't had such fun playing consistently over those three sessions, I wouldn't be singing its belated praises as much as I am.

  7. A beggar with a high persuade is a thing of beauty!

  8. @Eric
    Ah, your Stormbringer love shines through. In the hands of a good player agreed. I can always be convinced that my prejudices are just that.

  9. I was on the threads that got ZeFRS kicked off on although I'd never seen it. I got the boxed set and a couple of modules cheap on eBay before it became the big thing.

  10. There's a fellow at our table who is perfect for the Stormbringer beggar character class. He's the same one who plays a non-combatant monk in Pendragon (v5, the one with no real way for a player character to cast any magic). He still goes all out on adventures, manages to contribute to the success of the party and risks the character's life while developing a personality in these quirky outcast classes.

    Its a wonder watching him at the table. He's totally unpredictable and constantly throws curve balls for me to adjudicate.

  11. I was initially unimpressed when I bought it in the mist-cloaked age of 1988, but these days I think that I REALLY OUGHT TO BE PLAYING THIS.

  12. Thanks for unearthing this treasure. A real forgotten find.

  13. Back when I first starting playing D&D I got a module for Conan from a bargain-basement shop that sold irregular clothes. I never even saw the full rules until ZeFRS, but damn if that module didn't seem exotic back in the late 80s...even the pre-gen characters in it seemed cool.

  14. I'm actually shocked. I thought this game was common knowledge, and I thought it was a pretty big deal when it came out (was to me anyway), after those conan modules had proved popular. I always thought the Indy Jones game was a kind of step child/series follow up to Conan.

    I liked the free form magic system, that and the sourcebook are my favorite parts.

    Anyway, it's not lost. It's been sitting on my gaming shelf since 1985. :)

  15. I've only ever played D&D, but this looks really good.

  16. Conan is mostly public domain, in copyright terms.

  17. This game was a favourite back in the day in my group of players. Its lean and fast and it was way more fun than it looked. We learned a lot about role-playing too as there wasn't a lot of mechanics to bog us down. Light rules systems were all the rage then too. I recall WEG Star Wars coming out shortly after. We played the crap out of that one too.

  18. There was a single Dragon article for Conan, as it happens. It was some optional added crunch for weapons, adding an "impact factor" that increased the range of results on which a weapon could produce a specific wound. I've got all those values pencilled in on my copy of that two-page rules handout, but the mag was lost years ago.

    While I'm here - would anyone with a Kindle mind checking out the .MOBI version of the rules? I haven't got one, so I have no idea how the conversion from PDF turned out.

  19. 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.

    That sounds great.

  20. I know this is long after the conversation is over, but I ran across this discussion and thought I'd chime in.

    I bought TSR's Conan game new back in the day. I also eventually picked up all the modules (and I'd already gotten the AD&D Conan modules with Arnold on the cover, and the AD&D Red Sonja module). I only ever got a chance to try it out a little, because at the time the system just wasn't what I was looking for.

    I think I'd like it much better now. The game itself is not bad, and is definitely a change of pace. The gazetteer is better than it's given credit for, and gives a lot of leeway for individual interpretations of Hyboria.

    The modules made for it are...OK. Not great, but OK. I think Mongoose did a better job at adventure design in the Hyborian setting.

    The AD&D Conan and Red Sonja modules get a bad rap; I ran them back in the day and found them to be...well...OK. They're hampered by being tied directly to Conan. I mean, who isn't gonna want to play Conan (or Red Sonja, in her module)? These modules seemed especially constrained, besides Conan being expected to be the "main character." I think TSR would have been better off producing an entire boxed set for Hyboria as a setting at least the size of their other setting boxes. They just didn't seem to quite know what to do with the license.

  21. I would not that Conan is mostly a trademark. Aside from a few recently published unexpurgated tales it is all public domain and can be printed or sold at will. Only 'Conan' on the cover is not allowed.

  22. I was speaking to Kim Eastland at a Xenocon in Davenport IA, this past weekend and he brought up both Conan and Indiana Jones. He worked for TSR back when and said he was tasked with writing 2 adventure modules for Conan before he even had any rules to go by. He said he essentially wrote D&D type adventures that were supposed to be adjusted as needed after he had a ruleset.

    Not sure if he'd have more info on it or not, but one would think so. I am not sure how to reach him, but the folks at Xenocon ,org probably could put you in touch with him. Kim also did some pretty cool writing for a few issues of The Unspeakable Oath.