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Saturday, 14 May 2022

Conan & Crime

Conan the Thief 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 second supplement, following on from Conan the Barbarianlooks at Conan as a young man and his life what he did after he left his homeland, at the beginning of his career which will take him from barbarian to king, essentially the equivalent of a Player Character having taken the first steps in his adventuring career. Yet whilst the stats for Conan himself at this stage of his life do appear in the pages of Conan the Thief, they are more a side note than a feature, for the supplement is an examination of the countries of the centre, where East meets West in the Hyperborean Age—Brythunia, Corinthia, Nemedia, and Zamora. It includes new archetypes, talents, backgrounds, and equipment to help players create more varied Thief characters and Game Masters more varied Thief NPCs; a gazetteer and guide to the waning lands where the rule of law and civilisation force the poor and the needy, the greedy and the driven to steal and trade in what is not theirs; an array of detailed NPCs and monsters, including unique nemeses; and mechanics to help bring thievery and other activities and attitudes to your game, including burglaries, heists, assassinations, and more.

Conan the Thief opens by introducing new options for the Thief type character, building upon the content in  the core rulebook for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. This includes the Outlaw, a new Caste, which gives numerous reasons why a Player Character turned to thievery, such as ‘Nobility in All But Name’, ‘A Victim of Justice’, and ‘An Example Must Be Made’, and presents seven new Thief Archetypes: the Assassin, the Bloody Right Hand, the Fence, the Highwayman, the Master Thief, the Relic Hunter, and the Spy. In addition, there are Thief Educations, like Burglar, Rustler, Lock Breaker, Quack Physician, and Thug, enabling a Player Character Thief to specialise or to add thiefly elements to another character type. To these are added themed War Stories, Thief Talents, and kits and weapons. The latter includes the punching dagger, the katar, the duelling sword, and the garrote, along with the typical tools of the trade such as marbles, tripwires, smoke bombs, and more. Augmenting the core rulebook, this enables a player to create an interesting character or the Game Master interesting NPCs.

Supporting these new character options is a gazetteer of the lands between the East and the West—Brythunia, Corinthia, Nemedia, and Zamora. Zamora is famed for its thieves and for the city of Shadizar the Wicked is infamously home to the most notorious of all assassins’ guild, The Black Hand; Corinithia for its merchants and economic power, as well as its fractious cities cannot agree anything more than mutual self-defence, paying for their mercenary armies; Nemedia for being dominated by the Church of Mitra and being obsessed with the ancient cultures and ruins it is built upon; and Brythunia for being a backwater with its fractious clans, one of which could easily turn on the other at a moment’s notice or slight. The fortunes of all four have fluctuated over the centuries, being both conquers and the conquered. In the main it focuses upon the cities in each of these lands, typically the site of Conan’s adventures. So ‘The Tower of the Elephant’ in the city of Zamora in the land of Zamora and ‘Rogues in the House’ between Zamora and Corinthia (here given as Magyar, the Red City), for example. In each case, the content of Conan the Thief is set before the events of Conan’s stories, enabling the Game Master to run them as adventure for her Player Characters, but there are notes for adjusting them to be used after their events too. The emphasis is firmly on the cities in detailing Zamora, Nemedia, and Corinthia, if not least for the fact that the city is the natural home of the thief, and also because they are on major trade routes which the cities’ thieves can prey upon. However, Brythunia is different, suggesting that the fractiousness between its four kingdoms can be scaled down to the village level, and using ‘Brythunian Village Design’ table, to create a rural campaign which might build into something more political.

If the gazetteer explores the cultures and places where thievery is rife, ‘Events’ goes into the types of occurrences that might beset the Thief or that the Thief might instigate. These include Personal, City and Town, and Kingdom-level events, so go from Rivalries, Framed or Set, and Debt, to Wars and Rumours of War, Steal the Heir, and Plague and Other Such Chaos via Gang War, Watch Crackdown, and The Prince of Thieves is Dead! These joined by Unnatural Events like Just Another Snake Cult or Obtainer of Rare Antiquities, and there are notes on combining them too. Effectively all of them work as potential story hooks.

‘Myth & Magic’ discusses the myth of the thief and thievery, in particular, the myth that all thieves hold to, and that is ‘Honour Among Thieves’. It quickly dispels the notion that it is actually practised, thieves typically owing loyalty and friendship, but being fundamentally selfish. It makes clear that thieves do not necessarily worship a thief deity, but rather their local gods, although several gods of thievery and darkness are given, including Bel, the God of Thieves, and the Cult of the Spider God. Potential boons are given for worshipping both, for example, Bel grants a thief who takes him a patron an extra Talent, but expects the thief to leave stolen goods somewhere where they may be easily stolen on a regular basis, whilst the Cult of the Spider God gifts its followers tokens that will poison any non-believer who touches it, a ghastly object used as a means of assassination. There suggestions here too, for the purposes to which the body parts of thief can be put once he is dead, like the Hand of Glory or rope woven from the hair of dead women. A few examples would have been useful here.

‘Encounters’ details a good mix of generic NPCs, like the assassin or the watchman, and named individuals. Several of these come from Howard’s stories as you would expect, thus Yara from ‘The Tower of the Elephant’ or Demetrio, the Chief of the Inquisitorial Council of Numalia from ‘The God in the Bowl’. There are a lot of nemeses here. They are joined by fearsome creatures like the Giant Rat and the Giant Skeleton Warrior, and worse, Yag-Kosha, from ‘The Tower of the Elephant’. These again enable the Game Master to have her Player Characters encounter then if running her campaign before the events of Conan’s stories.

Rounding out Conan the Thief 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. Thieving and criminal campaigns are explored in ‘The Way of Thieves’, which examines how campaigns built around thieves will be different to other campaigns for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. It notes that Conan himself was a thief for just two or three years, that thief campaigns should avoid descending into farce as thieving is serious business, and whether the city authorities or the head of the guild, there will be checks and balances on the activities of any Player Character thief. There is solid advice here and it is supported by guidelines and rules for joining and running a thieves’ guild, along with descriptions of the guilds of note in the cities described earlier in the supplement. The ‘Heists’ chapter presents a chapter of tables with which the Game Master can generate potential jobs and targets and then develop to run for her players and their characters. It comes with a fully worked example. Lastly, ‘Heroes of the Age’ add a trio of potential Player Characters NPCs developed by backers for the Kickstarter campaign for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. Of the three, ‘Jamil the Thieftaker’ is a great addition to any campaign set in Zamora, whilst the boastful Inarus feels out of place, being more pirate than thief.

Physically, Conan the Thief is a slim hardback, presented in full colour, illustrated with an excellent range of fully painted artwork. It is well written, is accessible, and comes with a reasonable index.

Conan the Thief switches in emphasis and feel from Conan the Barbarian, exploring thievery and civilisation at the heart of the Hyperborean Age in lands which though often rich—for some, at least—are in decline. Both depict worlds of cruelty, one of the rough, frontier lands, the other of inequality and poverty in great cities. The advice for running a thief-based campaign is excellent, though perhaps a campaign outline for taking a band of thieves from their lives on the street into the guilds and onwards, encompassing a similar two or three-year period to that spent by Conan himself, would have been useful. Similarly, the advice on adapting the stories which the supplement directly draws upon, such as ‘The Tower of the Elephant’, could have been stronger and done with an outline or something similar to help the Game Master, especially given how pivotal these stories are in the Conan oeuvre.

Conan the Thief opens up whole new possibilities for running and playing Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. It expands upon the options in the core rules for the player who wants to create a Thief character, and thus also for the Game Master to create interesting NPCs  for the Player Characters to encounter in a city, perhaps if they are just passing through on the way to somewhere else, However, what the content of Conan the Thief really lends itself to is entirely city-based campaigns built around thieves and thieving, where the Player Characters can all be different types of thieves and have different roles in the campaign. Such that a whole Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of campaign could almost be run without ever leaving that city or even going anywhere near the background and information presented in its other supplements. It is actually a pity that such a campaign does not exist for the roleplaying game.

Conan the Thief is a solid supplement for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, which really comes alive as a campaign supplement. In fact, Conan the Thief would make a good supplement for any Game Master wanting to run a Swords & Thievery style campaign. is an excellent sourcebook.

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