Review: Conan Atlantean Edition
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Type of Product: Complete game book
Conan The Roleplaying Game: Atlantean Edition, was supplied to me for review by the publisher, Mongoose Publishing. It's a complete game in one book, though there are several commercial product supplements and online freebies available for it. The game is based on the Open Gaming License, which for you and I basically means if you know how to play D&D 3.x, you'll know how to play this game, give or take a few new or variant rules.
The book is harcover with 352 colour, glossy pages. Its solid binding means you can lay the book comfortably on the game table without the pages flipping around, and it means your book should last a long time under normal wear.
- Very high production quality makes it valuable to the collector, an essential product for Conan fans, and a solid rulebook for the gamer.
- It's a complete game with all the fluff and crunch one needs to play a one-shot or to game a campaign.
- It's an OGL game, so D&D players and OGL players will already understand most of the rules and concepts already, greatly reducing the learning curve.
- The game was designed to reflect the atmosphere and world-rules of Howard's books, so there are game balance issues that might catch novice GMs unawares. I feel this design approach is actually a plus, but some GMs might be uncomfortable with it.
- The game is geared towards mature audiences. As above, I don't feel this is a con for every GM, but the product might not be applicable to all groups.
Thoughts For GMs To Consider
Hyboria Brought To Life
It's possible for a GM to use the core D&D 3.x rules in a home-brew Conan world; however, I feel that this new book by Mongoose would be a worthwhile investment and indispensable aid, if not a viable replacement:
- There is a detailed Gazetteer chapter, as well as a ton of other content to help flesh out a Conan world and campaign.
- There are several maps detailing the world of Hyboria. One large, colour, continental map is provided inside the book cover. And in the Hyborian Age chapter, thumbnail maps containing city and settlement locations per country are provided. Geography is also roughly communicated on these maps.
- The Conan RPG has a ruleset specifically crafted to reproduce the detail of Howard's books, the atmosphere of Hyboria, and the feel of Conan's action-packed adventures. Based on my initial reading, I feel the game would play out with a distinct campaign feel, as opposed to a generic, typical D&D fantasy experience.
Sorcery Rules Could Create Wonderful Plots
The world of Conan is low fantasy. When magic does appear, it's often powerful and worthy of fear.
- In the game, there are primarily two paths to spellcasting: the Dabbler feat and the Scholar character class. Taking Dabbler provides any class with sorcerer-like spellcasting powers and a limited amount of spell power points. I like this; it lets a GM create some interesting NPC possibilities and allows players some freedom to achieve certain character visions. The scholar class is a bucket for several variants. It's not your typical PC class--in a way it's almost like a group of classes, so don't think of Conan as having only one magic-using class.
- There are many rules associated with sorcery, and the Sorcery chapter is 50 pages long, making it longer than the Combat chapter. Fortunately, the rules create a framework that provides many, many hooks for GMs to craft plots, adventures, and encounters with.
For example, pacts allow sorcerers to consort with demons and other dark forces and derive power from them. This provides an easy hook for adding intelligent, evil critters into your games on the PC side and/or NPC side. These critters can be directly involved in your main plots, or provide endless side-plot fodder as scholars with pacts journey along their paths to power.
Another example would be sacrifices. Coup de grace actions derive extra power points for sorcerers. This gives PCs a grim new option. NPCs can use this option to increase their own power, providing GMs with seamless encounter set-ups and accessible plot devices.
- Spell effects can have a large scope. For this reason and more, the game advises inexperienced GMs to not allow PC sorcerers, which, after reading the Sorcery chapter, I would agree is good advice. Some example large-scope effects would be:
- Black Plague: the caster can kill thousands of people over several miles with a weeks-long plague-infested wind.
- Awful Right of the Were-beast: the caster can permanently change a human into a werecreature and replenish his own power points in the process.
- Runaway Magic failure result: Rock the Universe. Should a sorcerer unleash a "mighty spell" and fail a Will save, this result causes an earthquake, flood, meteorite, or some other disaster to assault a region d6 miles in size. There's lots of storytelling opportunities here!
- Power points can be refreshed and increased in numerous ways, such as rituals, sacrifices, and certain spells. I can envision many cool encounters and plot threads spawned from the schemes of NPC sorcerers who crave more power.
- A complete spell list rounds out the Sorcery chapter. The Scrolls of Skelos product from Mongoose contains new spells and styles (a style is similar to a magic school), but the core Conan RPG book contains enough to play and GM a campaign.
Well Organized = Great Usability
I like the book's design, layout, and organization. The inside covers contain a map of Conan's world. This is a big plus in my books, pun intended. The covers are the easiest part of a hardcover book to turn to in a hurry, such as when you're GMing, so I feel this is important real estate from which to maximize value. Having a map of the world on the inside covers means it's just a flip away at any time. The same world map is duplicated in the inside front and back covers though, and my preference would be to have a map in the back and key charts and info inside the front cover. Perhaps it's a printing or cost issue, and this is a minor, picky point, but a suggestion I'd like to put forth for Mongoose.
Pages contain chapter labels along the outer edge, page numbers are clearly printed in the bottom outer corners, and page backgrounds contain a subtle, non-distracting or interfering texture. The font used for major headings is fantasy themed, not too difficult to read, but not the clearest either. These are all minor points, but often bad design means finding stuff in a hurry mid-game can be stressful and difficult. The Conan book has an excellent design--playtesting will put this assessment to the test though. :)
There's a table of contents and a five page index. Both seem to be accurate. There's also a two-page character sheet. Its pages have a textured background though, so I'm not sure how well it will photocopy. Fortunately, Mongoose has a couple of free PDF versions for download at their site. The character sheet has a couple of interesting sections I haven't seen on too many sheets before: a combat maneuvres chart and a languages chart. Great ideas!
Good Campaign Advice
The book finishes with a chapter of advice and tips to help GMs run Conan campaigns. It's a bit sparse for my liking at 15 pages in length, but it does contain good advice on a number of topics, as well as some inspiration for GMs stuck for ideas.
The Art Is Useful
Your opinion might differ, but I look to art in game books to serve some game purpose in addition to adding to a book's esthetics. For example, it's nice to base NPCs and encounter locations on book images and then show those to the players in-game as visualisation props. The art in Conan is of several different styles, and I feel the quality varies a bit, but most of the pics are usable for GMing purposes, so I'm giving the art a thumb's up.
Exceptional Game Support
Another factor to consider for a campaign-level type of product is support. Mongoose has made the Conan RPG excel in this category. At the time of this writing, there are regular monthly product releases covering a range of supplement categories: adventures (I'd like to see more though, please), world books, and rules expansions.
What's even more telling is that Mongoose's website contains a lot of freebie downloads to help support the product line. This is great news for fans and GMs. You can get a world map (it's currently my desktop wallpaper), FAQs, Errata, character sheets, and NPC worksheets/GM aids.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but community support seems poor. This is not a knock on the product itself, but I'd love to see Mongoose add more Conan community elements to their website. Currently, there is a Conan forum, but no fan site listings, fan submitted content areas, or gaming guilds.
I think the Conan Roleplaying Game is an excellent product. It boasts great physical design, rules set, developer support, book construction, and information organization. The writing is solid and the book contains everything a GM needs to run a one-shot, a multi-session adventure, or an entire campaign. I will be doing a playtest in the future, but from an initial, thorough reading, I feel the game accurately depicts Robert Howard's grim, violent, low-fantasy world. I do not hesitate in recommending this book to fellow gamemasters and Conan enthusiasts.
Final score: 90%