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Saturday, 17 November 2018

Conan III's First Seven

Conan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth is an anthology of seven adventures for use with Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, the swords & sorcery roleplaying game published by Modiphius Entertainment. Reflecting the nature of Robert E. Howard’s novels, these adventures are designed to be played episodically, as and when, rather than as a campaign. One of the suggestions is for the Game Master to run them as flashbacks, the idea being that player characters are referring back to them when they are travelling or carousing between other adventures. This gives the Game Master free reign when to run this septet, although the anthology includes advice to help her decide if and when. ‘Where’ is another matter, the scenarios being set across the known world, from beyond Stygia in the far south to the Bossonian Marches and Pictish territory in the west, from deserts to stormy seas, and deep into the past.

The anthology opens with ‘Devils Under Green Stars’ which finds the adventurers far to the south beyond Stygia where they come across the last outpost of Zukundu, a long long, long forgotten civilisation which occupies an entire island. Although it looks abandoned, the adventurers find it home to not one tribe, but three! Each has devolved to one degree or another. The scenario is quite linear in structure, the adventurers being led around on something of wild monster chase which turns into a tour of Zukundu’s best and worst features. What this means is that the scenario is really set up to tell the one tale, but possibly a more experienced Game Master might be able to provide an alternative, perhaps more open approach the given set-up of three warring and each oddly different tribes. In the meantime, the Game Master gets to chew the scenery with some vile NPCs and the adventurers might get away with a sack full of gold.

‘The Pact of Xiabalba’ is the second scenario and begins with the player characters at sea aboard a ship as a mysterious storm shipwrecks them ashore a strange island. To survive they need water and to find water, they need to explore the ruins on the island and it is here that things turn a little strange. Suddenly they find themselves amidst a city just as it falls to an assault by a barbarian horde. Not in the present though, but in the distant past where their mission is to change time as otherwise they are not coming back and the campaign goes in a whole new direction. Advice is given as to what might happen if the adventurers fail, but again, this is a fairly linear and straightforward scenario. There are a couple of decent NPCs for the Game Master to portray, but ‘The Pact of Xiabalba’ is really all combat and action.

‘The Caves of the Dero’ feels like a traditional fantasy adventure, but its set-up is easy and it can be located just about anywhere. A treasure map leads the adventurers to a long abandoned villa below which they find a mine full of Morlock-like degenerates in search of treasure for their master. The villa ruins feel nicely creepy and the dungeon has suitably weird feel to it. The adventure does push the adventurers onwards with a cave-in—not the only time this device will be used in Conan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth—and as decently written as it is, the promised, but missing map of the dungeon complex would have been useful.

‘The Ghost of Thunder River’ sends the player characters to the Bossonian Marches, the frontier territory which serves as a buffer between Aquilonia and lands of the Picts. The player characters find themselves in the frontier fortress-town of  Velitrium as part of the militia just as the garrison learns of Picts actively raiding across the river and taking prisoners. If the player characters are to act, they will have to do it in secret or persuade a very reluctant garrison commander to let them, but once they do, they will soon be able to discover what is behind the rash of Pictish raids. Not for the first time though! The scenario actually starts with a prelude in which the players roleplay a band of Pictish hunters who come across some strange ruins and in exploring them set everything in motion. Once this background has been set, play switches back to the immediate present and the player characters can act. This is a nice device and provides the players and their characters with some foreshadowing of events to come.

A MacGuffin pulls the adventurers into the dread clutches of a criminal mastermind in the urban adventure, ‘The Thousand Eyes of Aumag-Bel’. It opens with their carousing and enjoying the fruits of their looting when all of a sudden, armoured thugs rush in, demanding that they hand over said MacGuffin. Failure to comply leads to a fight and probable ostracisation by the inhabitants of the city where Aumag-Bel holds horrible sway. Like the first scenario, ‘Devils Under Green Stars’, this another linear, straightforward affair, a combination of social pressure and a chase after a gang of young pickpockets drive the adventurers forward into a confrontation with Aumag-Bel in his sordid base of operations.

The penultimate entry in Conan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth is a scenario rather than an adventure, essentially a setting and set-up rather a fully rounded series of events that the player characters can play out. In ‘The Red Pit’, the player characters find themselves enslaved and being worked to death in a stone quarry when they have a chance to escape. The rest of the scenario involves their climbing to the top and overcoming their brutal guards to eventually escape. Rather than an adventure, this is a highly detailed set-up and extended battle, one that works as memorable set-scene which can used to showcase how a group of disparate individuals—that is, the player characters—came to be together.

The last adventure is ‘The Seethers in Darkness’ and is perhaps is the most Lovecraftian of the seven in the anthology. The adventurers are hired as guards to provide protection to a scholar who wants to search for lost ruins that many say do not exist in the desert southwest of Zamboula. When he gets lost in a sand storm, they are bound to follow him deep underground into a weird tomb complex and Hyborea’s past in what feels just a little like a dungeon bash. Fortunately, it does not feel quite as linear as other adventures in the collection even though it is.

The last chapter in the anthology is ‘Seeds of Glory’. Although Conan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth is not designed to be run as a campaign, one of the things that the advice for the Game Master in this chapter does, is actually suggest how it can be run as a campaign. One of the suggested campaign outlines starts off with the characters not so much on the bottom rung of the ladder, so much as not yet on that ladder, as slaves in ‘The Red Pit’ and then takes the Game Master through the other parts of campaign as the player characters gain gain fame and fortune. The advice suggests how Conan himself—using the stats for him included in Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed OfConan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth can be brought into the adventures, but without him sidelining the player characters. Rounding out the chapter is a good collection of scenario seeds that the Game Master can develop and bring into his game.

Physically, Conan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth is a slim and attractive hardback. It is illustrated throughout and both the artwork and the cartography—when the latter is not missing—is decent enough. The writing needs editing in places, primarily because of the occasional piece of missing text, but also because the events in the scenarios are quite detailed as they play out.

The seven scenarios in Conan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth are each quite short, offering a session or two’s worth of action and combat-orientated play. They each work better as occasional episodes or diversions rather than a campaign, since they are geographically diverse and too many tell the tale of an ancient evil discovered—either a civilisation or an act of sorcery—which needs to be thwarted by the player characters. This is where the flashback device of adventures and times remembered comes into its own, giving the Game Master more options in how she uses these often thematically similar adventures. Overall, Conan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth is a solid collection of adventures that nicely takes the player characters back and forth across Hyboria and down memory lane.