Thursday, May 17, 2018

The State of Conan Gaming

I feel a bit bad for saying this. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I generally don't write negative reviews of product, as I find them unhelpful and only harmful to the product sales. However, this one in particular has been grating on me for quite some time and I need to get it off my chest.

Thus, I'm going to say this up front: Do not fail to give this game a look based on what I say here. a LOT of people are enjoying it and by all reports it's doing well. The guys I've spoken to at Modiphius are nice guys and should be supported. I congratulate them on doing well. The following is my opinion only, and I have reason to believe I'm in the minority on it.

Okay, so here goes.

The more I read the Modiphius Conan RPG, the more I try to get into it...the less I like it. I love Conan more than any other fantasy property except Star Wars, and when this game was announced and I heard the dream team behind it, I was so excited. Then the playtest previews came out and my heart sank. I stuck with it, bid at a higher pledge level in the Kickstarter, hoping it would improve on final release.

It didn't.

I've tried for well over a year now to try and get into the game. I've delved deeply into it, ran simulations with the system, tried my hardest to sift through the arcane mechanics. At some point I have to accept that my beloved Conan has been taken away from me by a company more interested in foisting their pet house system on the world than they were in doing justice to the character and world through the rules presented.

The Rules System

The system just grates on me with its overly complicated, molasses-slow, "leave the dice on the table," "wait for everyone to figure out what they want to do with their momentum" method slowing the play to a crawl. The system itself is clunky and suffers from a dependence on several different and wildly disparate core design concepts--dice pools, success levels, sliding difficulty numbers, the generation of momentum points to drive the story (which should be driven by role play)--all cobbled together to form a largely incoherent whole.

First, you have to determine the target number for your check, which is a roll-under target based on your abilities and skills. Then, you have to determine your dice pool for the check, which is a base of 2d20 plus other situational factors, and any momentum you want to spend that you were smart enough to think to save from prior dice rolls, plus if you want to give Doom to the GM, who can then spend that like momentum for his guys, and you then need to obtain a number of successes based on the difficulty at hand, with each d20 rolling under your target number as a success.

Any leftover successes are that coveted momentum, and you'll need that because that's the only way you can do special things in the game, like disarm opponents or win social contests. In any contest, the winner isn't the person who better succeeds on their roll, it's the one who generates the most momentum, which is really splitting hairs because when you think about it, the person who succeeds better is probably going to generate more momentum anyway.

The magic system, for all the insistence that it's deliberately vague to be in line with Howard, just reeks of lazy design. The books call it "flexible." I call it indecipherable. No sorcerer character in this game will ever feel the kind of power or temptation to gain more power that a sorcerer should feel in a Conan game. In fact, the most they're likely to feel is frustration as they have to continually dwindle the very resource they rely upon to use their magic. It reminds me of the old d20 Star Wars games where Jedi had to hurt themselves to use the Force.

At what time in any Howard story did a necromancer seem weak-willed? And yet, you have to sacrifice Resolve to learn any spell, sometimes in huge quantities. Learning new spells absolutely requires a patron or teacher, and there are no spells...just vaguely defined styles of magic that you can just make up whatever you want with them. It's even less codified than the old Mage the Awakening game, and that's my all-time least favorite magic system. 

In short, there's no reason for a sorcerer in this version of the Hyborian Age to seek out the mythical Scrolls of Skelos or the notes of Xaltotun...because ancient texts are all but worthless without some demon to call forth and feed your Resolve to...and if you can call up that demon, you don't need the books you've just sacrificed everything to obtain. Sorcery, in this game, is not about arcane knowledge and the secrets of Acheron. It's thinly-disguised Satanic soul-selling, and nothing more. 

The system, as it sits, is a shining example of a rules set that tries really hard to be "innovative," "clever," "different" and "unique," at the expense of basic functionality, while also utterly failing at any level of innovation or cleverness. It's overly complex, slow to a crawl, and utterly fails to capture the excitement and pace of Howard's yarns, because it's all about figuring out how many dice you can roll, then how many get under a sliding target number, then how much momentum you've got left over, then how exactly you want to spend that momentum. Then it moves onto the next person.

In short, it's the nu-skool indie darling approach that everyone has latched onto instead of a simple system that gets the hell out of the way and lets you focus on telling a story. Nobody liked it in Mutant Chronicles, but they figured with the Conan license they'd force it on everyone and people would love it because it was Conan and they'd convince themselves that because it was Conan it had to be a great system...and that's exactly what happened. Then they snatched up Star Trek and John Carter, and well, now it's just ramrodded into everything.

I enjoyed the way the lifepath system worked, except that we had seven players create characters, and every last one of them ended up (via random rolls) with the ability to create minor magical/alchemical items, which itself goes entirely against the constant assertions that magic is mysterious, otherwordly and rare.  The movement system is exceptionally clever, I'll give them that, as it's designed to work seamlessly with the miniatures and game boards from the Monolith board game. That's a nice touch.

Sadly, I feel like the board game does a better job of delivering the feel of a Conan story than the 2d20 RPG ever could, and my issues with Monolith and the way they do business, flipping the bird at retail and then complaining that retail won't support them, and then eschewing all sales but single-print-run Kickstarters at premium prices, refusing even to set up their own online retail store--are not a secret. That's all a shame because the Conan board game is top-notch and if they'd taken a more retail-friendly approach I think it'd be wildly popular. I certainly have no desire to sell mine, despite not supporting their future efforts. 

The Fluff and Physical Design

The books look pretty. The fluff is solid, as it should be since it's written by notable Howard scholars...but even there I find myself just turning back to my complete set of Mongoose d20 books for world information. I didn't use the Mongoose system, either, as it, too, was too clunky and slow for the breakneck pace of Howard's prose, suffering as it did from d20 3.x reliance upon tactical combat...but at least they were enjoyable to read, and were stuffed full of good information that was easily translatable to other systems. 

The 2d20 version reads like a scholarly text (and indeed is in fact presented as such by a fictional scholar writing about the Hyborian Age) and it traps you firmly in their system--conversion takes a Master's Degree in studying that rules set to have a prayer of making it work elsewhere.

Incidentally, the actual reason that the text reads like it was written by a scholar because, in fact, it was--a whole group of scholars, in fact. All too often it's dry, formal and reads like a textbook instead of evoking the mystery and wonder of Howard's world. Instead, it just tells you every few pages that the Hyborian Age is full of mystery.

Conclusion

The current state of Conan tabletop gaming depresses me, and video games do nothing for me. At least I've still got my Age of Conan OD&D campaign for my home group. I've been running that for years, and it's gone fantastic. It would be nice, just once, to have an official game I could really throw my support and love to, though. Cubicle 7 gave me that with Doctor Who. I briefly had it with the Star Wars Saga edition from WotC, and those books are still my group's go-to for Star Wars gaming.

Currently, however, the Conan and Star Wars RPG licenses are in the hands of companies whose systems have ruined the gaming experience for me insofar as these worlds are concerned.

3 comments:

  1. Out of curiosity, do you think OD&D is the best option currently for gaming in the Age of Conan?

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    1. I do. See http://www.grey-elf.com

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    2. Actually, I use a hack of OD&D that uses combat and magic based on Chainmail (with a corruption mechanic added to magic) and a universal d6-based task resolution. It's essentially my Spellcraft & Swordplay RPG with modified magic, but we use OD&D books for that authentically old-school feel.

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