Running Conan, I got to thinking about the world. I rate it as one of the best worlds for running a RPG, possibly the best fantasy world I’ve run across. I may be a high fantasy sort, but high fantasy IPs often make for junky worlds to run in, just as how I find Star Wars to be a terrible world to run a game in.
There are obvious reasons why The Hyborian Age differs from The Young Kingdoms, why even whatever Traveller’s milieu is is better than Star Wars for gaming. Most of the fantasy fiction I read involves protagonists who are essential to the story. Thomas Covenant is unique. Elric is either unique or the infinite Eternal Champions have a unique role. Jon-Tom Meriweather unique. Etc.
That unique importance runs into a bunch of issues in gaming. Take the most common Star Wars problem. Most folks are attracted to being Force-wielders, yet the point of the good movies was having one messiah hero who mastered Forcestuff. Pretty much every Star Wars game I’ve played in has been scum on the edge of the galaxy, whether PCs had Force powers or not, which could just as easily be Traveller or some other gritty game (with psionics) that is, like, the opposite of space opera in tone.
Anyway, nothing new about that. I started thinking on another level, as I haven’t run a Conan campaign before or even run it much at all.
Okay, swords and sorcery or dark fantasy or horror fantasy if you read the stories and don’t watch the movies (I don’t remember the movies virtually at all) already has a dark element. Well, read about human trafficking, forced prostitution, bestiality, and a bunch of other stuff from Conan RPG supplements and you get plenty of less-than-light.
But, as dark as the world gets portrayed, it doesn’t come across as a downer world, except when I’m reading through the Shadizar boxed set and have to read repeatedly about what it’s like for women in the city and Zamora, in general. I’ve probably passed along just how depraved, perverted, and negative the world can be to my players.
Because extremes are more interesting. The reality (of the fantasy) is that Conan is a world where you determine your fate. May be terrible to be certain NPCs in the world, but PCs can be the Valerias or whomevers who aren’t just lifelong sex slaves, demonic sacrifices, or whatever.
Okay, still not that interesting. What I got to thinking about was how the world is neutral towards PCs. By this, I mean that some worlds will tend to be friendly, some will be hostile, some will adjust depending upon the power of the PCs. One thing about high fantasy is that the stakes are always the highest possible that the protagonists can deal with. For Camelot, that might just be some annoying knight or wizard or monster on a quest, where Lord of the Rings is about putting an end to living evil. As the protagonists up their games, the baddies up theirs. Sure, that might be the difference between the fate of the world and the fate of the world, so it’s functionally already on the highest mode of difficulty.
Conan gives a world in which the world just doesn’t give a shit about the PCs. Not just that it doesn’t matter how powerful you are (the savages will eventually conquer your empire). But, that you can be a 20th level whatever and still have a brawl in the marketplace with level one commoners. Not that that is so likely since it shouldn’t be much of a challenge, though the scaling in the game is such that you can challenge high level characters with lower level opposition or monsters with obnoxious abilities (involving grapple, much of the time). Offense far outstrips defense as you go up in levels, so you don’t have to worry about invincible PCs, plus there’s the lack of magic items and sorcery is limited in many ways.
There’s just something about how the world comes across to me where the PC interaction with the world is different from so many others. I feel like PCs can make the world friendlier or more violent, depending upon the tactics they use. I feel like the world’s baseline adjustment to PCs going up in levels is not very noticeable. Compare to how many worlds become arms races, not just of mechanical power but of such things as the Status race in L5R. Some worlds may have an inverse reaction to PCs, where early on everything is ridiculously difficult but gets ridiculously easy when you progress.
To keep trying different words for the same thought, there’s just something about how the experience in Conan seems more controlled by the players than in other worlds. Again, a lot of this may be due to how unimportant the PCs are. If you can take care of yourself better than the masses, people won’t mess with you (normally) – you don’t get into situations where people will mess with you because you are stronger, weaker, or even because you are PCs. There’s no good versus evil battle. You can do horrible stuff and fit right in. Or, you can be a shining beacon of virtue and not fit right in but still not have The Society of Injustice on your ass all of the time. If you pick fights, you will get into fights. If you don’t, you won’t.
Well, yes, you will get into fights because combat is a core thing to do. But, as I’ve pointed out a couple of times recently, our Conan play of yesteryear was notable for how social our party was and how often we didn’t fight normal humans because we Diplomacized them or Bluffed them or Intimidated them. We almost always were fighting monsters or faceless hordes (often inhuman), with the occasional sorcerer.
The lack of external authority, the lack of repercussions to actions, etc. all make Conan virtually the opposite of L5R in terms of heroic fantasy. While both games have Glory/Reputation and Honor/Honour, it’s just … it’s just opposite day, otherwise. Where I find Rokugan to be depressing any time the legal system comes up or the “why don’t we just all get together and kaminuke the Shadowlands today?” questions come up, I find Conan has the potential for being optimistic and happycheeryface because you can decide how to live your life (up until the point you fail a climb check and fall into a hellbeast that consumes your soul, or until you blow your magic roll real bad and roll really high on the runaway magic chart and have your soul ripped out and consumed, or you get turned into a doll and have your soul consumed by a demon, or …).
Now, I really haven’t had a lot of D&D campaign play. One campaign saw very little actually end up happening and another was a dungeon crawl with zero story. There were a couple of others that were shorter. But, anyway. Where D&D so often strikes me as lacking in any sort of narrative, Conan seems inclined to having some sort of narrative, which is weird. It’s weird because it’s really easy to play Conan as either a dungeon crawl or a lost green stone city crawl. It’s weird because Conan also lends itself to episodic play, which is akin to having D&D sessions that are dungeon of the week.
Another feature that I mention for Conan and a reason I favor it so much is that it’s relatable to a degree that Middle Earth isn’t. D&D just killed me on taking elves and dwarves seriously. I may not know what it would really be like to live in a preindustrial society or even just to live among the many cultures of Earth, but I get the historical mishmash that is The Hyborian Age in ways that I wouldn’t even be able to with the nations of The Young Kingdoms. Why this is important to the thrust of this post, which is about a different player experience to most RPG play I engage in, is that players can bring as much real world knowledge as they want into play. The verisimilitude is not dependent upon “getting” the world. If you can get Mongols, you can project what you know about them on Hyrkanians. If you get Spaniards (with maybe some Italianness thrown in), you can project on to Zingarans. I may not have an easy time getting Zamorians, but I don’t find Stygians hard to grok. At least we have stereotypes to use for a world full of stereotypes.
Then, while I’m a fan of modern day play, especially modern supernatural, and I’m a fan of historical play, including historical supernatural, The Hyborian Age is enough fantasy to not be constrained by modern thinking or trying to put yourself into a particular historical period.
As much as someone can embrace the racism and sexism prevalent in the world, someone can also not and the world still works. Rokugan, being far more artificial and far more constrained in terms of cultural standards, really doesn’t give you much of a choice in terms of how you view situations, at least up until the point where you are so comfortable with the norms that you specifically defy the norms.
Ultimately, I guess I can summarize by saying that PC identity is much more controllable by the players for a number of reasons. One reason is that the world has a personality, but that personality is complex where many worlds have simple personalities. Another reason is that the world doesn’t need the PCs, so the PCs have freedom of choice to a much greater degree.