Friday, November 2, 2012

Theremin Thursdays - Conan, Basil, and Gaming

One of the best soundtracks from a fantasy movie, in the opinion of GwC HQ staff, is the soundtrack for the original 1982 Conan the Barbarian Movie.  The soundtrack is by Basil Poledouris.

 "Know, O Prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold.  But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.
Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the earth under his sandled feet." - The Nemedian Chronicles

The movie was an effort to capture the feel of the fantastic Robert E. Howard stories (and the many writers who have contributed to the ongoing Hyborian Age stories, some good some bad).  It is not based on any one particular Howard story, but it does try to capture the feel and look of the setting for the stories, and there are some parts of it that are very true to the character of Conan, and some parts not so much...  But in this article we are concerned with the music from the movie, and the presence of Conan (and his world) in gaming.

The soundtrack was written by Basil Poledouris.  And it is great.  It was listed by AFI as one of the top 250 soundtracks of all time (I don't know what number it is).  The music has a sort of archaic feel to it, with a sort of alien-ness, or foriegn-ness.  Almost a pseudo-eastern influence.  And it is wonderful -stirring stuff, and perfect for an adventure film.  The Hyborian Age world is supposed to be our world, only ages before any history that we have recorded to us.  As such, the main lands feature a sort of Africa/Europe/Asia super continent, sort of a midpoint between Pangea and today's continental shapes.

For gaming, this is great because it retains some sense of familiarity, but is different enough so that many different narratives can take place within the setting, without it starting to feel "wrong".

Howard, in his stories, and in his fantastic essay (which lays out the history of the world) called "They Hyborian Age" gave a lot of details about the countries, cultures and peoples.  And many of them have historical approximations in our own real world history - again, this is very useful for gaming.  It makes finding similarities easy - to get a grip on equipment, military capability, finding miniatures for different countries, and so on.

Before going on with the Gaming, here is one more music clip.  This is Basil Poledouris, in 2006 (only a few months before he passed away) conducting the Andalucian Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus.  There are two pieces of music here - the Anvil of Crom (wow - grab a broadsword and join the fray!), and then the Riddle of Steel leading into the Riders of Doom (that second piece will certainly evoke images of "Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery" if you allow it to).  Evidently, this is the only time that Boledouris performed a live concert of the soundtrack pieces.

That was part one of the symphony production, there is also Part 2 (Gift of Fury, the Atlantean Sword, and the Love Theme), Part 3 (Funeral Pyre and the Battle at the Mounds) and Part 4 (The Orphans of Doom, and The Awakening).  This was then followed up by an encore presentation of the Anvil of Crom (again - but really, who can get enough?), Part 5.

There is no shortage of information available online about Conan and his world.  For starters, once could do worse than consulting the Conan Wiki.  It has information about the many stories and novels (by Howard, and others); the tons of fantastic Conan comics that were done, both by Marvel and the more recent masterpieces by Dark Horse, and others.  It even has a (incomplete) listing of some games - both tabletop RPG and also Computer - that feature Conan.

Conan and his world (also the world of Red Sonja, thank you very much) have been a part of the world of gaming since the 1950s and 60s.  In Tony Bath's legendary Hyborian Campaign, the nations of the Hyborian Age were the nations that wargamers were rulers of, and they would fight out their battles using miniatures.  Tony's rules date to 1956, and they were published in a Don Featherstone book in 1962 - these rules were all for the Hyborian Campaign.  There is a nice series of articles about many aspecits of this campaign over at the Hill Cantons blog (Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4) that makes the (very good) case that although it wasn't called a "roleplaying game" that by the end of the campaign, that is very much what it became.  Or at least it became what the early days of Arneson and Gygax were running, when they morphed medieval campaign wargaming into the early states of roleplaying. I believe a strong case can be made that so many miniatures rules sets for the pre-gunpowder world treat the whole milieu (from Bronze Age chariotry up through High Chivalry of the 14th and 15th century) as one ruleset, owes to the work that Tony Bath (and later Wargames Research Group) started with his Hyborian campaign.

For original material from Tony Bath, check out Rudi Geudens' website on the subject.

In 1975, Fantasy Games Unlimited (FGU) published a set of miniatures rules for fighting out battles between the various nations of Hyboria.  It was titled "Royal Armies of the Hyborean Age", and was written by Scott Bizar (of FGU) and Lin Carter (fantasy author, and writer of some Conan stories).  It had some very nice information on the countries - military makeup, some background information, and even info on the uniforms (if any) and national battle standards.  It was (and remains) a great little miniatures game, based on FGU's Medieval miniatures rules, Broadsword (with the "Hyborean" er, Hyborian rules adding in things like Elephants and Chariots, for nations such as Vendhya and Stygia that employ such weaponry).  There were never specific miniatures for the Hyborian Age produced at the time, but there was a line of knock offs.  Minifigs produced a line of miniatures called "Swords and Sorcery".  There is a catalog listing over at The Stuff of Legends.  It was a pretty typical mid-70s fantasy line, but with a lot of soldiery based on the nations of both the Carter/Bizar book, and the Howard (and others') novels.  The names were changed to protect Minifigs, so instead of Hyrkanians, for instance, you get "Hyrkranians".  Instead of Vendhya Warriors, you get "Vandan" Warriors - "Zampora" in lieu of Zamora, etc.

Move forward to 1985, and enter a world where there are a lot of computer games being hosted on computers, where the players would mail in commands to the referee (or company), and these would be entered into a campaign management system, and the results would be produced and sent back out to the player.  There was a Conan based game at this time that was immensely popular - Hyborian War.  You would choose a Small, Medium or Large country, and then you would have to write regular orders for that country - it's developments, economic and cultural; it's military movements; and the actions of any leaders or heroes associate with it.  The computer would generate the results.  There is a website with Lots of the Hyborian War data available on it, today, and a lot of it is very interesting to a gamer (wargamer or otherwise).  Just check out the details on the kingdoms here.

In 1984, following the movie from 1982, TSR published two Conan based modules for the basic Dungeons and Dragons game.  Module CB1 was "Conan Unchained" and Module CB2 was "Conan against the Darkness".  They were pretty bad.  Nobody loved them, not even Conan fans.

There was a series of GURPS books on Conan, the first one (GURPS Conan) having an introduction written by L. Sprague DeCamp (who wrote a LOT of Conan stuff, and is either adored or despised by Howard fans, depending on whether they view him as a loving fan, or a despoiling pirate).  Their stuff consisted of a basic book on the world, and building characters, and then a handful of (well written) adventures.  Much better, IMHO, than the TSR stuff for Basic D&D.

For Roleplaying, however, by far the best and most voluminous effort has been by Mongoose Publishing, for their Conan the Roleplaying Game (both 1st and 2nd edition).  Loads of settings books (kingdoms, cultures, etc) and a lot of adventure material.  To compliment the RPG, they have also been (although this may have been halted) working on a set of Skirmish miniatures rules. Mongoose officially ended the Conan line, but many of the products are available.

In boardgaming, Conan has existed for a long time. First, during the hayday of play-by-mail Diplomacy games (60s, 70s), it seemed like there were a half dozen different Conan variants (using maps and countries, as described again in Howard's Hyborian Age).  Some of these had more or fewer special rules to give the game a more "Conan-like" feel.

More modernly, there has been a great design from Fantasy Flight games, with their 2009 game Age of Conan.  This is a really good looking (I haven't played it yet, but I plan to soon - and I will write a review for Gaming with Chuck).  It is for 2-4 players, with the players running the nations of Aquilonia, Turan, Hyperborea and Stygia.  There is a great map, and really good looking pieces.  BoardGameGeek rates it as a respectable 6.76 out of 10.

By the entry information at BGG it is a 90 minute game.  Not bad for a four person strategic wargame, even one in a fantasy world.  Here is a copy of the Overview of the game, from BGG:

In Age of Conan, you control one of the major kingdoms of the Hyborian Age – Aquilonia, Turan, Hyperborea and Stygia.
You will build up and use your armies and emissaries, you will enhance your actions with your kingdom cards, and you will try to take advantage of the adventures of Conan to increase the power and wealth of your kingdom.
The game is played over the course of three ages. At the beginning of each age, four Conan adventure cards are drawn and used to create the adventure deck. At the beginning of each adventure, players will bid to decide who will be the Conan player for that adventure; when an adventure ends, a new one is drawn and a new bid determines who will be the new Conan player.
The roll of the fate dice is used to determine the actions available to the players. The dice are rolled to form a common pool from which all players will pick their dice. Each player, in turn, will choose and use one fate die and will be able to do one of the actions allowed by that die result.
When the fate dice are all used, they are rolled again and the game continues in this way until all four adventures in the adventure deck are complete. At that point, the game will temporarily stop so that players may earn gold and take several kingdom–building actions in preparation for the next age.

In 1981, in issue number 37 of Space Gamer, Lewis Pulsipher published a set of rules, and a map, for Hyborian Risk.  A few special rules, and the map.  Interesting, I wonder if it would catch on today?

There are also a couple of successful Conan card games.  First, there was a Conan collectible card game from Tempo Games (2006).  But, perhaps more wide reaching, in 2011 there was a Munchkin: Conan base set released, after an individual pack that contained a few Conan themed cards for the main game.  With the Juggernaut of gaming that the Munchkin franchise has become for Steve Jackson Games, I suspect it will be the much-more-successful of the two card games listed here.

Last, the modern wargaming miniature rules from WRG, DBA (De Bellis Antiquatis) and HOTT (Hordes of the Things) have both had versions of the Hyborian World nations written up as army lists - with lists of the various troop types that would make up the armies.  Who knows, maybe one of these days Gaming with Chuck staff might actually run a Hyborian campaign, a la Tony Bath style.  Who knows?

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