Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of has the feel of a love letter to Robert E. Howard. There are discussions of his life and writings and how this Conan roleplaying game is based on Howard’s original vision of the character and stories (which were later subject to much revision and expansion). If you’re a big fan of Conan, that sort of thing may be very important to you. It’s clearly important to the authors. But I’m not a diehard Conan fan, so what I’m going to look at today is how Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of generally implements the setting and how it works from the game side of things.
Conan the foundation stones of the sword and sorcery subgenre, so the general feel of Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of is unlikely to come as a surprise to most players. Although the frame sword and sorcery was specifically created as a descriptor for Conan, the subgenre title is nonetheless a bit unhelpful for those not familiar with its particular meaning – there is, after all, not really very much sorcery in Conan. It is rare and, in game terms, almost exclusively the province of NPCs – it is ultimately a corrupting force, even as it empowers. The label aside, Conan – and the sword and sorcery subgenre generally – is on the ‘low fantasy’ side of things. Sometimes Conan operates on a big stage (he becomes a king at some point, after all), but Conan stories are usually more personal, more gritty, and less heroic – characters are more likely to be sellswords looking for a paycheck than setting out on a quest to save the world. Conan is morally ambiguous, although his worst acts (e.g., armed robbery) are almost always referenced as past actions or future plans, rather than something he’s doing in a given story. In part because Howard was friends with H.P. Lovecraft, there are also some Lovecraftian/mythos elements in the setting.
Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of (which clocks in at a hefty 440 pages or so) uses Modiphius’s default in-house 2d20 system (it does get modified, often heavily modified, from game to game). Characters have attributes and skills. Actions are accomplished by rolling 2d20, with a target number equal to the sum of the applicable attribute and skill. Higher attribute/skill values are good, so that makes lower rolls better. A die roll equal to or less than the skill value is worth two successes (note: it’s a bit more complicated than that later on, but it’s true at character creation). A natural 20 creates a complication, even if the action succeeds. More successes are required for more difficult actions.
The second primary mechanic is momentum/doom. Characters gain momentum from rolling extra successes. Momentum can be spent immediately for enhanced effects on that roll, or banked for later use. There are a plethora of uses for momentum, but the most basic use is purchasing an additional d20 on a later action roll. The effects of momentum can also often be gained by generating doom, which is used by the GM to fuel NPC actions in much the same way that momentum is used by players. Personally, I have found that the momentum mechanic may requires some discussion among players (or extra tracking by the GM), in order to avoid situations where one player is constantly generating doom to make their character’s actions successful, which is then used by the GM to mess with everyone.
Six-sided dice (referred to as combat dice) are also used to determine damage.
Characters have three primary mechanical elements – attributes, skills, and talents. Character creation is spread out over a lot of steps (Homeland, Attributes, Caste, Story, Archetype, Nature, Education, War Story, Finishing Touches, and Final Calculations), all of them providing some combination of attribute modifiers and/or adding in either skills/talents. All of these steps can involve random rolls, but (as you may recall if you’re a long-time reader of my reviews) I really don’t like random character creation, and so they can also just be chosen by the player.
The seven attributes are agility, intelligence, personality, brawn, willpower, awareness, and coordination. The skills available in a game can sometimes say a lot about what sort of activities the game expects the characters to get involved in. With that in mind, the skills in Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of are acrobatics, alchemy, animal handling, athletics, command, counsel, craft, discipline, healing, insight, linguistics, lore, melee, observation, parry, persuade, ranged weapons, resistance, sailing, society, sorcery, stealth, survival, thievery, and warfare.
Talents are tied to skills, and provide improved ways to use skills (the most common initial talent for a skill is being able to re-roll a d20 when using that skill). Each skills has a small talent tree.
A character’s homeland provides a starting language and talent, such as cosmopolitan (easier understanding of languages) or strife (the ability to ferret out civil unrest). Characters start with seven in all attributes, or can start with a mix of sixes, sevens, and eights. These values are then increased in by a multitude of +1 to +3 boosts, with the average attribute at the end of character creation being about nine (values are capped at 14, and 13-14 marks a character as belonging to an ancient bloodline). Caste provides a starting social standing (which has a number value), a skill, and a pair of talents that most commonly related to maintaining lifestyle (such as subject or tradesman). Stories is a purely flavor step.
Archetype, the closest thing to a “character class,” provides the biggest allotment of skills (7), plus a talent and some gear. Options include archer, barbarian, mercenary, noble warrior, nomad, pirate, priest/priestess, scholar, scoundrel, and witch/shaman. Most of the skills are dictated by the archetype, with +2 to the most important and +1 to another four mandatory skills. A very limited selection is available for the final two. For example, the barbarian gets +2 in melee, is required to take acrobatics, animal handling, athletics, and survival, and gets to choose two out of healing, parry, or stealth.
Nature (a personality type) is a potpourri – an attribute here, a few skills there, and a new talent. Education also provides a selection of skills and a talent. Types of education are not subject-specific, but rather methodology-based – apprenticed abroad, on the battlefield, traditional, largely absent, etc. War story, unlike normal stories, is mechanically relevant, gives a couple of skill boosts. In this context, “war” is not literal – a character’s war story might be about a shipwreck or surviving a stint at court. Finishing touches provides a few attribute and skill points without restriction, plus a talent, a second language, some trinkets, and a weapon.
Note that skills are technically two values – skill expertise and skill focus. One value increases the target number for success; the other increases the chance of a critical. At character creation, these values are identical. When improved with experience, only one is increased at a time.
Combat in Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of refers to standard actions, minor actions, and free actions, but this essentially translates to the classic one attack action and one move action per round. Free actions include adjusting (the equivalent of a five-foot step), speaking, dropping items, and dropping prone. Non-movement options for the minor action include drawing a weapon, standing from prone, and reestablishing a guarded stance. Standard actions other than attacking include longer-range movement and exploiting (observing a foes weaknesses and taking advantage). Range bands are used for distance.
Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of tracks both physical and mental damage. As is standard for 2d20 games, this can be short-term or, if things get bad enough, long-term (e.g., stress v. harm). Mental damage can represent either psychic/magical effects or morale (courage soaks mental damage like armor soaks physical damage). The psychological effects of combat are represented by displays, a form of attack. Displays include brandishing a flaming brand to fend off a mob, holding a knife to an enemy’s throat, or demoralizing opponents after a spectacular series of kills.
Conan is not minimalist when it comes to mechanics, but it isn’t excessively detailed. So there are a page of rules on surviving in the wild, but it mostly comes down to a skill roll. There are tables for damage location, but this mostly relates to what the armor value of the location is, rather than referencing a bunch of different damage charts. Reach is not an absolute, but depends on whether the defender is guarding, and there are further modifiers for when the shorter range weapon gets through to interact at closer range. Encumbrance is a thing. Weapons specifications are somewhere between D&D and Pathfinder in – damage, reach, 1H v. 2H, and a bunch of modifiers like piercing, vicious, or knockown.
As noted earlier, true sorcery is primarily the realm of NPCs, although players can be involved in non-magical activities like the creation of alchemical items.
Howard’s word is primarily lifted from/inspired by various real-world nations and cultures, mostly during medieval time frames. So across Hyboria one can find equivalents for a bunch of medieval European nations, viking-era Denmark, steppe warrior tribes, Iran under the caliphs, Persia, the Byzantine Empire, the Seljuk Turks, a mash-up of Native Americans and the Scottish highlands, the iron age middle east, ancient Egypt, Mughal India, Spain during the Reconquista, ancient China, and a selection of sub-Saharan African nations.
I mentioned earlier than Howard was friends with H.P. Lovecraft. And Lovecraft’s racist views are well-documented at this point. I am not a Howard scholar, so I can’t tell you what his personal opinions were. Conan seems to have been clearly infused with exoticism – a world primarily centered on variations of European nations, with mysterious or savage nations further out based on Asian or African peoples. Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of does not grapple with this topic (Modiphius’s John Carter of Mars RPG did address the source material’s depiction of women and gender roles), but I get the sense that, for example, the African-inspired “Black Kingdoms” (yes, that’s actually what they’re called) are more ‘civilized’ than depicted in the source material (although still existing only on the edge of the setting). The source material depicts some strong women, but also tends to depict women as objects of Conan’s lust. This element is not present in Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of.
There are about 50 pages of foes for the GM to use, from ‘normal’ humans to wild beasts to traditional monsters to cthonic horrors. Opponents are classified as minions, toughened, or nemesis, with the lower categories of enemy using simplified rules (minions, for example, only get one die per roll and are taken out by a single harm).
There’s no shortage of fantasy roleplaying games, but Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of doesn’t really overlap with most of them. Genre stalwarts like D&D and Pathfinder are high fantasy, and Conan just isn’t playing in that space. The fighting is more bloody. Looting treasure for riches really is the point. And those riches will likely be spent on carousing, not upgrading magical gear. There’s probably no epic evil, just corrupt advisors – more “us vs. them” than “good vs. evil.” Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of successfully evokes the more rough-and-tumble adventure setting of the source material. The 2d20 system itself is not exactly flavorful, but the material around that – the writing and the details of the mechanics – bring the setting into focus.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.