Thursday, May 30, 2013

Obscure RPG Appreciation Day: Conan the Roleplaying Game (TSR 1985)

S&W Appreciation Day (and before that Basic Fantasy RPG Appreciation Day) may have set some balls rolling. Today is Obscure (Fantasy) RPG Appreciation Day. I’m always up for more appreciation of tabletop roleplaying games. They are fascinating things, little (or sometimes major) quirky artifacts of game design that should be played with, analyzed, taken apart, and put back together (I’ll settle for just playing these games at the least given the volume of games out there).

As organized by the Mesmerized by Sirens* blog, Obscure RPG Appreciation Day is confined to RPGs published between 1975 and 1989. As much as I want to participate, the topic is out of my league. I didn’t get into RPGs until about a decade after that cut-off and it would be about another decade before I started to really accumulate games. Suffice to say, all the games I own are firmly of the “modern” advent.

Err ... wrong game.
What’s a new school gamer to do? Nothing I guess. Then I remembered David “Zeb” Cook recently auctioned off a bunch of his old gaming stuff. It was mostly the usual D&D stuff to be sure, but amongst them were some interesting items such as WIP manuscripts for games like Star Frontiers. One of the items was a shrink wrapped copy of Conan the Roleplaying Game by TSR published in 1985. Until this point I had never seen this game before. I was aware of the D&D modules based on the movie franchise and the more recent d20 based Conan RPG by Mongoose. A quick search also reveals a GURPS Conan, but this 80s TSR game had its own system, a chart based system. Seems such systems were in vogue during the mid-80s. I believe the Pacesetter games and TSR’s Marvel Superheroes also used charts (and in a way AD&D in the hit tables as well, come to think of it). Charts are cool.
Closer ... but wait, what? The Darkness!

Conan RPG was a short-lived affair, one boxed set and three adventure modules. Probably didn’t sell well and never had a huge publication run. Copies of this game and associated modules are a bit hard to find, as far as I can see, and expensive, definitely so last I looked. Now in truth, I don’t actually own this game, given the aforementioned uncommon availability and cost. That’s okay, there’s a retroclone for that (and this is something I can say with increasing regularity nowadays as more obscure games receive the retroclone treatment).

With the blessing of Zeb Cook himself, Mark Krawec has reimagined and restated the rules of the system (scrubbing the IP) into a retroclone engine dubbed ZeFRS (Zeb’s Fantasy Roleplaying System). Available in on site HTML, PDF download, and even RTF (Rich Text File) for your own formatting and hacking. It’s even one of the systems available with the Legends of Steel campaign setting from Evil DM Productions (other systems paired with the setting are Barbarians of Lemuria and Savage Worlds). That’s right, the system is actually utilized in a new property.
There we go!

With a retroclone to distribute, this relatively obscure system is far from dead, but even the retroclone is still fairly obscure. I haven’t heard much about it and it’s been out since around 2007-2008. Aside from the Legends of Steel release, it hasn’t been implemented in other products as far as I know. Even then I knew of Legends of Steel from the designer interviews discussing the Barbarians of Lemuria version.

I appreciate Mark Krawec and the other contributors to the system, with David “Zeb” Cook giving his nod or go ahead, compiling the ZeFRS so newcomers like myself can have a version of the game to try out without having to track down a print copy of the original. Having a retroclone raises the profile of games that simply don’t exist in useable (gameable) quantities after they’ve been out of print for decades.

* I highly recommend blogs like Mesmerized by Sirens, which covers the lesser known games of the hobby. For people who haven't been following tabletop RPGs since their inception, in particular the wild first two decades, it's like going through history books in the library to discover entire civilizations and historical periods I had no prior cognizance of. Some of the games covered are the definition of "lesser known, forgotten, obscure or neglected". In all likelihood, I will never lay hands on a copy of such games, thus following the exploration of such games from those who have access to them is quite educational.


  1. I remember when ZeFRS first came out. But I also remember when Connan first came out too. I never go it, but I did the Red Sonja module.

    The Other Side: Quest of the Ancients: The Obscure Fantasy RPGs Appreciation Day

  2. Coincidentally, I saw some of these for a decent price up on eBay and went for it. Managed to grab the three adventures but not the main box set. Someday I'll get it, hopefully for less than "collector's price".

    Also missed the bid on a set of Skyrealms of Jorune (2nd edition, circa 1985, I think), a game I've heard of, but don't know much about. (As opposed to most of the games discussed on Mesmerized by Sirens, which I've neither heard of or know about.)

  3. thank you for the last notes of this post.
    This sort of considerations get me more motivated to go on :)