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Sunday 29 January 2023

Conan & War

Conan the Mercenary is a supplement for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of published by Modiphius Entertainment. It is the third 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 third supplement, following on from Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Thief, looks at Conan as a young man and his life what he did after he left his homeland and took his next steps on 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 Mercenary, and so hint at his step as covered in the next supplement, Conan the Pirate, they are more a side note than a feature, for the supplement continues the path south begun in Conan the Barbarian to examine and explore more of the countries of the centre, where East meets West in the Hyperborean Age—Khoraja, Koth, Ophir, and Shem. Not necessarily the most warlike of countries, but the most likely to hire and in need of mercenaries, or sell-swords, dog soldiers, and sword-sisters. Conan the Mercenary supports the role of the mercenary and warfare in Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. It includes new archetypes, talents, backgrounds, and equipment to help players create more varied Mercenary characters and Game Masters more varied Mercenary NPCs; a gazetteer and guide to the fractious lands where the rulers have good reason to employ mercenaries of all kinds, whether that is to protect borders, put down insurrection, buy off rampaging mercenaries, and to strike at their rivals—whether internal or external an array of detailed NPCs and monsters, including unique nemeses; and mechanics to help bring mercenary campaigns and other activities and attitudes to your game, including sieges, battles, skirmishes, small operations, and more.

Conan the Mercenary opens by introducing new options for the Mercenary 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 fact that the mercenary can have two Homelands (although only gains the benefits of one) to reflect how well-travelled he is, and has access to two new Mercenary Castes, Born Soldier and Child of Camp Followers—the latter tying to the vivid description of the camp followers later in the supplement, and both complete with stories and associated traits, whilst there is just the single new caste Talent, ‘Scrounger’. Similarly, there are two Mercenary Natures—Professional and Blood-crazed, whilst the Archetypes include ‘Asshuri’, ‘Captain’, ‘Champion’, ‘Messenger’, ‘Unseasoned’, and ‘Veteran’. Mercenary Educations add tables for War Stories, Personal Belongings and Garments, notable Weapon and Provenance, possible Mercenary Names. These add flavour and detail, whilst the Mercenary Talents are primarily built around the ‘Veteran’ Talent tree, only available to those who have served in a mercenary company, whilst the other ten Talents, such as ‘Hostage Taker’ or ‘If it Bleeds…’, are available to all Player Characters. The new ‘Tools of War’ begin with ‘Engines of Destruction’, the siege weapons employed by armies and mercenary companies to break castles, fortresses, and cities, but they get more personal with oddities such as the mancatcher and repeating crossbow. Perhaps more interesting for most players is the examination of high quality Akbitanan steel, whose forging is kept secret by the skilled craftsmen of Shem. The resulting weapons can strike fear into the opponents of anyone wielding them and so they are in great demand.

Supporting these new character options is a gazetteer of the lands in the centre of the West—Khoraja, Koth, Ophir, and Shem. Khoraja is a nation founded by mercenaries. They captured the city of the same name from the kingdom of Koth, taking advantage of the mountains which separates it from the rest of the kingdom. It also controls Shamla Pass, not only an important trade route through the mountains, but also the route that a major invasion force would take going north or south. The kings of Khoraja repudiate their mercenary origins, but that does not stop them from employing them. Koth itself employs mercenaries not only to protect its borders, but to put down insurrections that intermittently arise as one city ruler or noble aspires to the throne. The country’s fractiousness severely hampers the efforts of King Strabonus, its much feared and much derided ruler, to chart its future, not helped by the presence of Tsotha-Lanti, the sorcerer who at best is regarded as an advisor to the king, at worst the power behind the throne. Ophir is the opposite of Koth, a settled, extremely wealthy, and decadent nation, unambitious under the rule of its king, Amalrus, but not his wife, Queen Yrrane, who secretly plans to take the throne from her husband. To that end she has gathered the fealty of many mercenary captains who would command their companies to aid the ambitious spouse. Shem, known for its highly skilled craftsmen, is divided between meadowlands and desert, the latter providing a protective bulwark against invaders from the east. In each case, an overview of each country is provided, along with a look at their major cities, traditions, culture and faiths, ruins, notable features and citizens, and more. In each case, the content of Conan the Mercenary is set before the events of Conan’s stories, enabling the Game Master to run them as adventures for her Player Characters.

If the Gazetteer examines the places where mercenaries are most frequently employed or stationed and particular reasons why, ‘Events’ is more about the general reasons for war in the Hyperborean Age—not just war between kingdoms, internecine warfare, barbaric raids, and religious upheavals, but also natural events such as plague and famine, and unnatural events like the rise of a sorcerer and incursion from the Outer Dark. These are relatively short overviews so feel slightly generic. Fortunately, the supplement shifts away from this when it focuses on the NPCs in the setting in ‘Encounters’. This includes both a look at Conan’s involvement in the politics and events of the nations of Khoraja, Koth, Ophir, and Shem, in particular, his command of mercenary companies in the defeat of the Thugra Khotan and later defeat during Prince Almuric’s uprising against King Strabonus in Koth. These are backed up by a good range of ‘Encounters’ or NPCs. Even the most basic of mercenaries, such as the Asshuri, the Free Company mercenary, or Khrajan Solider are all given good write-ups alongside their stats, those done for the persons of renown, such as Thugra Khotan—self-entombed sorcerer in the city of Kuthchemes in Khoraja, King Strabonus, and Tsotha-Lanti, are excellent, helping to bring their ambitions and resulting plots to live and ready for development by the Game Master. Oddly, although mentioned in the gazetteer, there are no stats or write-up for Queen Yrrane and given its focus later in the supplement, there are no camp followers detailed here. Nevertheless, the ‘Encounters’ section enables the Game Master to have her Player Characters encounter them if running her campaign before the events of Conan’s stories.

As with previous supplements for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, ‘Hither Came Conan…’ places our titular hero in the context of the supplement and provides a playable version of him early in his long career. This also ties him back into the contents of the previous two chapters and in doing so, outlines one possible plot for the Game Master. ‘The Mercenary Way’ explores mercenary life in the Hyperborean Age. It is the most entertaining chapter in the supplement, starting with a discussion of camp followers and their way of life training behind a mercenary company. Technically called a ‘tross’, it looks at the different roles—blacksmiths, camp boys, cooks, gamblers, healers, priests, prostitutes, and more—all of which lend itself to a scenario or two, if not a mini-campaign around the ‘tross’. Despite their not being involved in the thick of the action, such a setting still lends itself to plenty of conflict, roleplaying, and social dynamics that would lead to good, if likely grubby and sometimes desperate, storytelling. Several mercenary companies, from the good to the bad, from the Nemedian Adventurers which only serves the King of Nemedia to the Free Companions, are described and a Mercenary Code of conduct is given as well as an explanation of how mercenary companies are structured. Tables provide loot to be taken from a battlefield and a city, events whilst ransacking, and events whilst carousing as a mercenary. The latter are always fun, providing a nice selection of random encounters and events that the Game Master can develop. The loot tables though, do feel as if they could be longer.

Supporting the earlier discussion of reasons to go to war in ‘Event’, the section on ‘Mercenary Adventures’ looks at the types of scenarios and campaigns that the Game Master can run with the supplement. These start with scouting and reconnaissance missions, patrols, securing prisoners, and more before slipping into the weird looking how cursed ruins, ancient battlefields, and even demons and gods of the Outer Dark could get involved in a mercenary campaign. These sections are fairly broad in their overview and should be treated as starting points for the Game Master.

Surprisingly, it has taken to almost the end of Conan the Mercenary to include rules for battles and mass combat. Part of that is due to the format of the series, but it does seem like a long wait. In general, the rules for small skirmishes are provided in the core rules for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, but here they scale up to handle full battles and sieges. These are not wargaming rules, but a means to handle a battle in a more narrative fashion whilst still involving the Player Characters on an individual level. To that end there is advice on ‘Narrating Battles the Howard Way’ and using cut scenes for ‘Heroic Actions’ where a Player Character has an opportunity to influence the battle and be courageous, such as opening a gate to let soldiers through or sabotaging a siege engine. It does add complexity to play and the Game Master should definitely run through a few examples to get the feel for it before running it for her players. There is an example too, which can be studied. Lastly, ‘Heroes of the Age’ adds a pair of potential Player Characters or NPCs developed by backers for the Kickstarter campaign for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. Of the two, Freya the Red would make an interesting mercenary commander for any campaign, whether as employer or enemy.

Physically, Conan the Mercenary 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. The maps of the nations detailed in Gazetteer are a bit bland though.

Conan the Mercenary opens up new campaign and scenario possibilities, whether that is as a special operations squad involved in civil war or a rebellion in Koth or going to war against the forces lead by Thugra Khotan, as Conan did, or surviving in the tross from one campaign to the next. However, it does take a while before it comes together and begins to feel like a supplement for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, doing so when it begins to draw more directly from the adventures of Conan himself and the characters he involves himself with in Howard’s stories. The book needed more of that and so it comes across as being a rather slight book in places, not helped by it being shorter than other supplements in the series. 

Conan the Mercenary does feel slightly underwhelming in paces, but it shines through where it counts—and that is on the personal level. For the Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of Game Master who wants to send her Player Characters into the heat, blood, sweat, and hell of battle, to let them sell their martial skills to the highest bidder, and have them influence the fate of kingdoms at the point of a sword, Conan the Mercenary unsheathes its sword and strikes the right blow!

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