[CONAN] Game Well Done

Don't you just love it when your players exceed your expectations? I jump for joy when that happens. It makes being a GM that much more enjoyable.

Game sessions like this are what we keep in our pockets and pull out, years later, when we're standing around, telling the tales. "Hey, remember when you guys...."

So far, my campaign has been proceeding like clock work. Man, I love the way this tale is playing out. It's final version, told via the game after both GM and player input, is being spun like a good Conan novel. I really like that.

In a nutshell, and just hitting the high points:

We started with the players playing young Cimmerian barbarians, age 11, members of a clan in north-central Cimmeria, living in the foothills of the Eiglophians. Our first game sessions focussed on soaking in the way of life for these rugged people. Game session one started on the eve of the PCs reaching age 12, during the Beltain festival, when they would run the Ras Croi. It's a rugged endurance race designed to determine which children are physically mature enough to begin warrior training. Those that finish the race move on to a new part of their lives--an intense three years, taking them to adulthood, at age 15, where they will become warriors for the clan.

The early game sessions skipped a game year, or so, each time we played. The Ras Croi was a grueling race, indeed. It took the entire game session to run it, using lots of Jump, Swim, and Climb skill checks, plus lots and lots of running, bringing in the exhaustion rules. Game seesion two began a year later, when the PCs were 13, focussing on the physical elements of training.

During year two, and the next couple of game sessions, as the were 13-14 years of age, they began weapons training. An example of the game comes from this scene that happened in our game:

Drachena is one of the older warriors (and the only woman warrior in the clan). "Graiis" is a Cimmerian word that describes those that are in training. It's synonymous with the English word "Class" "Ras Croi", of course, refers to the "Race of the Heart"--the race that each PC had to finish to become a member of the graiis:

The first day of weapons training. The boys in the Graiis have waited for this. They've been waiting for over six moons after finishing the Ras Croi.

Caelis, one of the PCs, didn't complete the Ras Croi with the other PCs, so he's a step behind (a year behind). But, his player keeps the character tagging along with his brothers. He's basically in the Graiis but not officially.

Various members of the clan have been teaching the Graiis. Clansmen teach what they know, like going to the best person to learn each topic. Drachena begins their first day of warrior training. Ean, the Clan War Chief, comes over to watch the boys on their first day.

Drachena shoos Caelis away. The player had the character leave, but then the player has his character climb up a tree to watch what his brothers are doing.

Drachena walks out in front of the boys with two spears in her hands, a tall war spear, and a shorter hunting spear. "You always, always carry more than one weapon," she begins. "Always."

She hefted the hunting spear like she was testing it's weight and balance. Then, in a flash, she throws it with all her might at the wooden training dummy. "It can be a long distance weapon," she says, "with it, you can hunt and feed yourself, and you can use it for war. With a sword, you can only use it for war."

With the war spear, the grips it close to the base of the shaft with both hands then swings it about herself in a circle. "See the reach? With a long weapon, you can attack out to about ten paces."

She stops the twirling, then runs to the hunting spear in the side of the training dummy, using her foot to step on the spear head like a step. "With a good quality weapon, you can lodge your spear in the tree or a fence. It will help you climb, jump, or see over obstacles."

Pulling the hunting spear from the dummy, she walks calmly, using the stick to balance, acting as if she were on uneven terrain. "Your spear can be your walking stick." Pulling the head of the spear around so that the boys in the Graiis can get a good look at it, and if your weapon is made to be used thus, you can..., " she runs a distance, shoves the spear into the ground, and uses it to vault over the training dummy, "....use it to leap over small obstacles."

Shoving the spear into the ground in front of her, she then pulls a strip of cloth from her pouch, tying it around the end of the spear so that the spear stands like a flag pole, the cloth serving as its flag. "You can use it as a signal if you are Scout and your clansmen are following up behind."

At this point, a voice came down from above them. It was Caelis, in the tree. "Why not just tie the cloth onto a tree or bush?"

Draechena looks sternly at Caelis, but shakes her head. "Yes, you can do that, too."

A laugh from the edge of the ground is deep, from a large chest. It's Ean, watching the introduction to spears, laughing at Caelis' remark. "Caelis, no more out of you, now."

Ean pulls out his big two-handed war sword and calmly walks over to the training dummy. Then, he proceeds to bash the hell out of it, destroying the wooden and straw thing.

"Cimmerians used to favor the spear," he turns to the Graiis, holding the sword up for all to see. His eyes glitter like he's looking at gold. "But, your countrymen have the secret of steel. It's the sword...the SWORD is a man's weapon. And a spear? A spear is no match for a good yard of steel."

There is a thump, thump, swish, and a knock behind him. Drachena has run to the training dummy--to what's left of it--and rammed the war spear deep into a big section of wood, sliding it across the ground a by a pace or so.

"You don't need to obliterate your opponent's body, " she says, "You only need to down him. Killing can be can be done with as much as one puncture."

She pulls her war spear from the dummy. "Regardless, you must train with many types of weapons. You never know what you'll have at hand, or what you'll be able to obtain on short notice. Sometimes it may be the jagged edge of a clay pot or the leg off a table or chair. You fight with your hands if you have to, but always employ a weapon if you can and gain that edge that will make you victorious over your enemies."

Ean agrees, "Yes. She speaks true. Find that weapon that compliments your skills...that highlights your abilities. Find that one with which you are comfortable." He smiles at the young boys, raising his eyebrows, "Then find a few more in case you drop that one, eh?"

The boys in the Graiis laugh.

"Part of being a man, " Ean continues, "is taking care of yourself, your family, your clan. Obtaining a good quality weapon is one of the first challenges of manhood."

Drachena adds, "I tell you this now, because you've got two full seasons to find and obtain the right weapon for yourself. Create a weapon, if you have the skill. Trade for one. Ask a favor of one. Or, pick up a stick and use it as a club until you can find a way to get yourself a better weapon."

Most of the game sessions during this part of the campaign centered around roleplaying and getting to know the PC's kinsmen. Most of the PC's extended family was established, and there was some early dramatic roleplaying as the young characters discovered the more pleasant aspects of the fairer sex. Roleplaying also happened between the PCs and their mentors as each PC found a path to follow through life--a craft, and a way to make a living. One of the PC's became a hunter. Another became a trapper. And the third became a smith. Whenever I felt, as GM, a need to put some action in the game, I did by featuring an axe throwing competition, mock fighting with wooden swords, a hunting expedition, or a good old bare-fisted brawl between the PCs and other NPCs their own age.

The climax of this fist story arc of the campaign was to be when each player went through the "deasgnath". That's a Cimmerian word that describes the final trial of becoming a warrior in this clan. Around the age of 15, a member of the graiis goes out alone, by himself, into the wilderness, with the goal of bringing back a kill. The kill can be anything and is usually a wilderness beast like a wolf or a bear. All who return with a kill are welcomed as warriors in the clan, but those that bring back the heads of an enemy, such as a Pict or a Vanir, are held in high regard as new warriors with true promise.

As a warrior returns from his deasgnath, he is presented with a mantle. This is a large, heavy traveling cloak made of hides and other various materials. It can be spread between trees as a tarp in the rain or snow. It will keep a warrior warm when he lies on the ground at night in the wilderness. There are many pockets inside its folds where a warrior will store various items he needs for survival in rugged Cimmerian wilderness. The clan's colors are woven into the brim on the cloak, in a swirling Cimmerian style. Every member of the clan has a hand in the creation of each mantle, from the hunter who brought in a kill, to the tanner who created the leather, to the shepherd who donated the wool, to the trader who provided the buttons, to the weaver and leatherworker who sewed it all together. The mantle becomes the clansmen's first possession obtained as a warrior, a mark of accomplishment, and one of the most useful and valuable possessions the warrior will ever own. The length of the mantle is directly related to the size of the kill the warrior brought back with him from his deasgnath. The warrior who brought back a wolf head might have his mantle reach his knees while the warrior who brought back the head of a Pict would be presented with a mantle that dragged the ground.

This is the goal of the first campaign story arc--to get that mantle and become a true warrior for the clan. But, first, I introduced a new element to the story.


Traditionally, orphans do not exist among Cimmerian tribes. It is a fact of life that Cimmeria is a ruggest place that takes the lives of many, every year. Those young ones who find themselves without parents are readily adopted by other families in the clan. An extra pair of hands and a back to do the work usually exceeds the burden of having another mouth to feed. Two of the PCs and the NPC character Drachena, from the game scene above, are adopted characters with parents who have been killed or gone missing, and have found a home among their clansmen.

So, orphans do not typicaly exist in Cimmeria. But, a few do slip through the social cracks. Those who's families died of the plague may be shunned by the clan. Young ones of a rival clan or rival race, found in the wilderness, would also become true orphans among a Cimmerian clan. In my game, one of the orphans is a PC who's father was of the Rex, which is a Cimmerian term meaning that his father did something so traitorous to the clan that he is never spoken of, remembered, or even acknowledged that he existed (and his son is inconvient proof that he did exist).

I've established this homestead, on the edge of clan terriorty, that is home to an old woman and a few orphans that she cares for. During a game session not too many sessions ago, these orphans loaded up into a cart and came to the village proper during clan's festival to celebrate the coming of Summer. It was during this session that more intrigue came to the campaign. Who was this orphan (the PC)? His father was of the Rex? Why, what did he do? Oh, we can't talk about it?

It became obvious that the clan chieftain was hiding something with regard to this new orphan. But, what that secret is, nobody knows, not even the orphan. Stranger still was the fact that the chief allowed the orphan to join the graiis--quite untraditional. Quite mysterious.

As the festival came to a close, a couple of the young boys (the PCs) were tasked with a short trip to the nearby forest edge to gather wood. It was here that they heard the screams. Off they raced to investigate, and what they found was the orphan wagon, returning to their homestead. It had been flipped on its side. One of the donkeys lay dead. The other moved in the spasms of death, a spear errupting from its neck. Bodies from the cart lay around the wagon, and walking among them were two young Grath warriors, using their javelins to stick the bodies that still twitched. The Grath are a nearby Cimmerian clan--one for which the PC's clan have a Blood Feud.

The PCs moved into action. The Grath ran. A chase ensued.

Over the next couple of game sessions, the young PCs chased the Grath and something that they had taken from te wagon--one of the orphans. The youngest. A four year old girl babe. Why? The PC's learned from a Grath captive that her blood was pure. Whatever that meant.

The chase took the PCs away from their own village, through a bewitched area of forest where time is not constant. They encountered proto-Cimmerians, half-ape, near-human, tribal monstrocities, and they battled and skulked and politicked their way along the Grath's trail, over mountainous terrain and wild, rushing mountain rivers, until they found the camp of the Grath where they hoped to rescue their young orphaned clansman.

Now, this is the point of this entire post: How the players reacted to the (what I thought was) insurmountable obsticles I had placed in front of them.

I wanted to continue to use the little girl as a "pull" to get the PCs away from the village and off by themselves on a quest that they could not turn away from. I had sufficiently roleplayed the little girl on previous game sessions that the players were enamoured with her. I could see it in the players' faces. When they found out it was Mallie, the little girl of four years, that had been taken by the Grath, they felt it. That actually felt it.

That's roleplaying gold, when your players are emotionally attached to NPCs. And, the players know that I'm such a sick fuuuck GM that there's no telling what I'll have these Grath do to that poor little girl. This is a dark and gritty Conan story, after all.

So, I had set up the Grath base camp. Howling Cave. I pictured these kids as the Cimmerian version of Hitler Youth. They're off by themselves, with a few older men among them. But, what they're doing out here, away from their clan, has not yet been discovered by the PCs.

I pulled no punches. The PCs are level 2 at this point. But, I had to stock the camp realistically. So, I did. I would also introduce the Hyperboreans to the PCs once the players got inside Howling Cave. That would be another piece of intrigue to ponder. What were the foreigners doing here, in the central part of Cimmeria, living among Cimmerians!

And, why were Cimmerians capturing little girls, anyway!

My plan was to capture the PCs. I figured that there was no way that two (we had lost one of our players from the beginning, so his PC became an NPC) 2nd level Barbarians, with little equipment (remember, the PCs are only 14 and 15 years old at this point), would be able to succeed against an entire dungeon's worth of enemy Grath, with a few Hyperboreans sprinkled in, for good measure. I thought that I would capture the PCs, strip them down to their loin cloths, then have the Grath guards laugh and throw them in with Mog. Mog is a giant spider that the Grath have closed off in part of the caverns. The game was supposed to follow the PCs as they battled a giant spider, Conan-style, with just their bare hands and what they could find lying around them. Then, I'd follow the players as they tried to puzzle out an escape.

That didn't happen.

I couldn't believe what did happen.

First off, the PCs passed every check and got by the sentries at the opening of the cave. The Grath didn't know that they were there (that was the first obstacle of the night's adventure).

Next, the PCs spent a coule of hours observing the cave entrance, trying to collect data. It was mid-day. I thought this was a good, though unexpected, idea, and I wanted to portray the cave as a living-breathing place (as opposed to the NPCs just waiting for the PCs to attack). So, I rewarded the idea by having the PCs observe a large contingent of people leave the cave's mouth. Many of the older (higher level) characters left. This was a patrol, a hunting party, an convoy to another camp--the PCs didn't know.

But, they did know that their time was now when the numbers in the cave were thinned.

This took us into a night of combat. But, the players were smart. They didn't just rush into the cave. One climbed above the cave, carrying a couple of javelins and spears they had taken off of some Grath before they learned the location of this cave. The other PC snuck to the mouth of the cave to peek inside.

The guard dog got a whiff of the sneaking PC and brought the guard to the cave's mouth. The guard and the dog went into melee, and we were off to the race.

It was a huge fight. The PCs fought one 1 HD dog (young dog), and his 1st level Grath Barbarian master. Then two more 1st level Grath Barbarians and a 2nd level Grath Barbarian in leather armor.

That, right there, in a game where one to two hits can kill you, should have been enough to neutralize the PCs.

Nope. Didn't happen. The PCs waded through these guys like a hot knife through butter. One PC was it, losing half his hit points, but at the end of the encounter, the PCs stood victorious and relatively unscathed.

Deeper into the dark they went.

I had most of the upper level Grath leave earlier, when the PCs saw the large group emerge from the cave. The PCs were doing so well that I had to give them a chance. I'm that type of GM. If the players do something that alters the conditions of the game, then so be it. What I planned will be thrown out. I want my players to feel like they are the masters of their own destinies. I want them to know that their characters actions do have an impact on the game, for both ill and good forturne.

In this case, it was good fortune.

The PCs found a locked door, and for some reason that still baffles me, they thought the object of their quest--the four year old little girl, Mallie--was on the other side. So, they began to beat down the door with their weapons, which took about 30 seconds (and was plenty of time for anybody else I still had in the dungeon to pick up a weapon of their own and come investigate).

As it stood, I only had three remaining warriors in the caves. Everyone else had left. But, the ones that stayed were no slouches when compared with the PCs.

I had 1st and 3rd level Hyperborean soldiers, plus a 2nd level Grath Barbarian wearing leather armor. It was mid-day, and, in reality, people don't wear armor unless there's a reason for it. I rolled dice to see if the enemy wore armor at this time of day, skewing the dice towards the negative. Only the Grath Barbarian succeeded in this throw.

But, still, I had rolled extremely well with the Grath Barbarian (I roll up my NPCs). He had 27 hit points! And, the 3rd level Hyperborean Soldier had 34 hit points, even if he didn't get lucky to be wearing his chain mail.

All of this against two 2nd level Cimmerian Barbarians. Niether of them wearing armor. Only one with a shield. Both effectively naked (both were shirtless!), and one wounded to half hit points (one had 17 hp reduced to 9. The other was fresh with 13 hp). The enemy carried weapons that, with the right hit, could kill or incapacitate with a single stroke.

As the banging on the door went on, the three enemy came from around the corner to engage the PCs, right there in front of the doors that the PCs were trying to destroy.

The game was on. Tight confines. A narrow ten foot corridor. God knows what else around them or on the other side of the door they were destroying.

Here they come. It was rock-n-roll time.

If I was surprised at the entrance to the cave, then both eyebrows sprang up during this encounter. We've got no magic here. It was strictly feats and tactics and steel on steel and the luck of the dice.

It was incredible. Man, what a fight!

One of the PCs rolled a critical on the enemy in the leather armor just as the Grath approached. It couldn't have gone better for the PC. The PC fought two-handed with a light hammer and his father's dirk (this is the PC orphan who's father was of the Rex). The hammer caught the Grath right under the chin, cracking his chin and breaking a few teeth in his mouth. The Grath slumped down, on both knees. His left hand went to the wall to steady himself. He had exactly 0 hp. On the PC's second attack, he swung his father's dirk into the side of his enemy's head, piercing it to the handle and slamming the body to the wall. He thrust his foot on the Grath's chest to steady the body then pulled his dirk from his foe's head with a sucking sound.

Round One over for the first PC. And, then there were two enemies. And the fight raged on.

It was gruesome. Sticky blood all over the floor. No light except for that from an oil lamp the PCs had set next to the door that they had battered.

The other PC got it, and now the game became a race to see who would hit next. Because, at this point, every character in the fight was so low on HP that the next successful blow against them was extremly likely to down them. The PC who had rolled the critical against the first foe in the leather armor only had 3 hp left.

The fight wore on. I blinked, then all the NPCs were dead. Both Cimmerians still standing.

I could not believe it.

What a game!

C'mon. You've got two PCs. Both 2nd level barbarians. One with 17 hp, no armor, a dirk and a one-handed hammer. The other, also without armor, carrying a shield and a one-handed axe, with 13 hp. And, these guys took out a 1 HD guard dog, 4 1st level Barbarians (1 in leather armor), 2nd level Barbarian in leather armor, 2nd level Soldier, and a 3rd level Soldier. Without resting? Without magic? Without healing?


I watched it happen.

It was truly amazing. It was truly a game a pleasure to experience.

I've been gamemastering games a long time, and you don't see players overcome those kinds of odds that often. Think of how bloody dangerous the Conan game is. At any time, a single lucky hit could have killed either of the PCs. Two hits certainly would. The 3rd level Soldier, at the end, was using a broadsword that does 1d10 damage, plus his STR rating. And, he was using it with two hands, getting STR Bonus x 1.5.

My players decimated them!


Here's where the Conan Experience system shines. I always look back on a session and try to discern the high points of the session, then award XP based on that.

In this case, one PC was about half the way to 3rd level, needing 1500 XP. The other was about one third the way to 3rd level, needing 2000 XP.

I'm fairly stingy when it comes to XP. 250 points from me is a BIG achievement. 500 XP is the most I've awarded up to this point.

It's only fair that I raise both characters to 3rd level in reward for their incredible, Conan-like showing during this game session.

Yessir, I'm making both characters 3rd level, and I'm giving them 2 Fate Points to boot.

A job well done deserves high praise and appropriate reward.

I'm proud of these guys.

Man, that gets my blood boiling, yearning to get back into the saddle and design our next game session.

Crom was pulling for these guys. The God on the Mountain is always intrested in the underdogs that suceed in spite of the odds.

Yes, Crom had to be among them.

What a game.
What an awesome post!
Sounds like you are making it work, bigtime!

I cant wait for the youngster to go on their first raid into Pictland, or to go on a cattlethieving raid into the border kingdoms/ gunderland!
Spectator said:
What an awesome post!
Sounds like you are making it work, bigtime!

I cant wait for the youngster to go on their first raid into Pictland, or to go on a cattlethieving raid into the border kingdoms/ gunderland!

Yeah, we're having fun. It is a good game. It's a bit slow--we can't play all the time. But, when we do get together, it's really working.

As you know, we started at age 11 for the first game session. Game #2 skipped a year, seeing the characters at age 12. Then, we did several game sessions as the PCs aged from 13 to 15 or so.

The idea was to run the first story arc of the campaign with the PCs as children, giving the players a base to grow from. They know their parents (or, who raised them), their immediate family, their village, their customs, and all that. The goal of the first story is to tell how the PCs became men.

We're getting close to the climax of that first story arc now. In a session or two, I'll skip the game ahead again a few years. The PCs will be in their teens. Young men. Maybe 18 years old (I haven't decided exactly how old yet). And, we'll play another story arc.

The campaign was designed from the beginning to be long term and to have story arcs like this that peek in on the PCs during different parts of their lives.

If all goes well, we'll end the campaign once the PCs are old men.

I wanted the campaign to mirror the collection of Conan stories. You read a short story about Conan, and he's young, running around with the Aesir and chasing the Frost Giant's Daughter. In the next story, he's a bit older, new to civilization, attempting to be a thief in a city of thieves, climbing up the Elephant's Tower. Later, he's a mercenary. Then, he becomes the head of an outlaw band. Then, he's a pirate. Then he's on the Pictish frontier. Finally, he's a king. In each story, he's an older character.

That's how I'm running this game. We play a story-arc--really, it's a mini-campaign--and we skip time a year or more and catch up with the PCs when they're older.

With each game session, we're living through the most important events in the characters' lives.

So far, I'm very pleased with the results.