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Saturday 25 January 2020

The Barbaric North

Conan the Barbarian is a supplement for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of published by Modiphius Entertainment. It is the first in the ‘Conan the…’ series of supplements which focus on and take their inspiration from Conan himself at various stages of his life and what he was doing. Over this series, the supplements will track our titular character’s growth and progress as he gains in skills and abilities and talents. Thus this first supplement looks at Conan as a young man and his life among the people of his homeland, at the beginning of his career which will take him from barbarian to king, essentially the equivalent of a starting player character. Yet whilst the stats for Conan himself at this stage of his life do appear in the pages of Conan the Barbarian, they are more a side note than a feature, for the supplement is an examination of the countries of the north in the Hyperborean Age—Asgard, Cimmeria, Hyperborea, and Vanaheim. It includes new archetypes, talents, backgrounds, and equipment to help players create more varied barbarian characters and Game Masters more varied barbarian NPCs; a gazetteer and guide to the bleak lands of the north, either shrouded in fog or smothered in snow and; an array of detailed NPCs and monsters, including unique nemeses; and mechanics to help bring barbarian activities and attitudes to your game, including raids, contests, battle tactics, and more.

Conan the Barbarian opens with four new Barbarian castes and some changes to the castes given in the core rulebook for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. The latter are minor in nature, mostly name changes and slight adjustments in terms of Social Standing, whereas the five new castes are Barbaric, Law-speaker, Renegade, and Skald, each supported by new Talents, such as Savage Dignity and Uncivilised for the Barbaric caste, followed by Stories for each of the new castes enabling the creation of backstories for the characters of said castes. These are followed by four archetypes—Bard, Hunter, Raider, and Slaver. In addition, there are Barbarian Natures and Educations, and Talents, the latter the Skald and the Bard. Along with a small selection of equipment, including sun stones used as navigation aids and several sorcerous items, these options combine with those of the core rulebook to provide greater choice in creating characters from the barbaric north. This can be simply to create and play something different from the core rulebook, but it could also provide the diversity needed to create a party of barbarians from the north, whether for a campaign set there or looking to escape the frozen north…

Supporting these new character options is a gazetteer of the north. Beginning with the coming of the barbarians it looks in turn at the peoples, way of life, geography, and places of note in Cimmeria, Nordheim, and Hyperborea, with Nordheim being rent into two by great rivalry between Asgard and Vanaheim. Although other nations may look at the north as being wholly barbaric, the gazetteer begins to separate the four peoples and so emphasise their differences. So the Cimmerians live in clans belonging to four tribes and mainly live in independent villages dotted across the dreary Cimmerian Marches, their inhabitants only coming together when invaders, like the Aquilonnians, attempt to capture or colonise what the Cimmerians regard as their territory. The inhabitants of southern Nordheim recognise kings, queen, jarls, and more, whereas those of the north band together in nomadic tribes, constantly moving across the icy reaches of the north. Vanaheim also has a coast, enabling its inhabitants to build boats and fish and raid—their raiding ships with their carved figureheads being known as the ‘dragons of the sea’, whereas Asgard does not. To the East, the land of Hyperborea is known for its fortified cities and its participation in the slave trade. Again, there is a lot here to brought into a game, whether it is rolling on the Cimmerian village generator or nomad camp features table, or visiting the charm-bedecked Witch-Oak in Cimmeria said to be home to a witch, a crone to some, matronly to others, capable of lifting and bestowing curses.

If the gazetteer explores the cultures and places of the north, ‘Events’ describes the regular doings of the north. First and foremost is the ‘Thing’, a combined festival, council, and reunion, held by kings as much by lesser nobles. Here disputes and other matters are settled, to which the Game Master can add events from the accompanying table. Equally dramatic is the decision of a Nordheim tribe to migrate its camp across the snowy wastes or the members of Vanaheim village deciding to build a ship and conduct raids further along the coast. These are raids akin to those of the Vikings, rather than piracy, which will of course be covered in more detailed in Conan the Pirate, including ship-to-ship combat. There is a lot here to make all of these exciting and involving. 

The often dreary and unforgiving nature of life in the north is reflected in the discussion of its peoples’ gods and legends in ‘Myth & Magic’. None more so than the Cimmerian afterlife, which is even more dismal and dreary than their actual lives! Vahalla, the Hall of the Mighty is a more inviting prospect amongst the valorous of Nordheim. As well gods and legends, it presents rules for using geases and taboos, and Runes and inscribing them onto objects for one-off or even permanent benefits and the first Nemesis NPC in Conan the Barbarian. This is Atali, the Frost Giant’s Daughter, who plagues and plays with the lives of mortals. The following chapter, ‘Encounters’, includes even more Nemesis NPCs, from the generic Chieftain and Witch to the Lindorm, a two-legged serpent, a solitary hunter through the snow, and Bragi the Unloved, a seasoned chieftain who usurped his predecessor and who rules with an iron first, his ambition driving him to declare on his neighbours. This is in addition to the other thirty or so NPCs and creatures of varying capability. Not just Snow Apes, Boars, and Mammoths, but also Banshees, Draugrs, Were-Bears, and Wyrms. 

Rounding out Conan the Barbarian is ‘Hither Came Conan…’ which places our titular hero in the context of the supplement and provides a playable version of him early in his long career, rough equal to that of a beginning character. Running campaigns set in the north are explored in ‘The Barbarian Way’, discussing campaign set-ups—warbands and raiding parties in the main, whether the player characters part of or leading them, plus missionary and colonisation expeditions into the north; barbaric rites and traditions, and war and carousing, the latter including a lengthy table of carousing events. Lastly, Ali is a presented as a ‘Hero of the Age’, a female hero born to chattel slavery, a potential player character or an NPC, developed by a backer for the Kickstarter campaign for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of.

Physically, Conan the Barbarian is a slim hardback, presented in full colour, illustrated with an excellent range of fully painted artwork. It is well written, although it needs to be edited in places. Otherwise, it is accessible and comes with a reasonable index.

As is, there is not really anything missing in Conan the Barbarian. There are plenty of ideas, places, NPCs, and monsters in its pages to spur a Game Master’s imagination, but perhaps for the neophyte Game Master, new to running Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, some scenario hooks or adventure seeds would have been useful. Nevertheless, it is clear from Conan the Barbarian that its author has delved deep into Hyperborean lore and presented much of it in what is a multifaceted supplement. Although based on Conan’s early life, it goes beyond that to bring the world around him not just to life, but also to make it accessible and playable. Whether that is as Conan himself, using the provided write-up, or more obviously, as player characters. For the player who wants to create a barbarian character from the north, Conan the Barbarian offers welcome options, but for the Game Master wanting to run or take her Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of in or to the frozen, savage north, Conan the Barbarian is an excellent sourcebook.

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