Friday, June 4, 2010

Gygax on Conan

Gygax devoted the entirety of his "Sorcerer's Scroll" column in Dragon Magazine #36 (April 1980) to a dossier on Robert E. Howard's Conan character. He says in the first paragraph that this was inspired by the Schick-Moldvay "Giants in the Earth" series that had recently garnered some attention. I think it's interesting in a number of ways. Without reproducing the entire article, I'll present the summary table and briefly outline the rest of the article afterward.

Looking at this table, we see a number of interesting design decisions. As Gygax writes, "All ability statistics are based on the assumption that Conan was a prime example of the physically and mentally superior individual...". All of his ability scores vary up and/or down over the course of Conan's life, not wholly unlike the rules in the DMG. (Intelligence in parentheses was "potential"; Charisma after a slash was with regard to females.) More interestingly, his class levels in Fighter and Thief also go up, peak, and then degenerate later on in life. (While this was never codified in any ruleset, I think it's an excellent idea.)

The rest of the article presents details on Conan's various skills, proficiencies, and special abilities, which take up most of two magazine pages (an immense length, considering standards of the time). These include -- Weapon proficiencies (14 types by age 40), thieving abilities (various bonuses), armor class (usually light armor), number of attacks (specially increased, up to 3 per round), damage per attack (normal weapons act magical, up to +3), special attacks (modified hit roll of 21+ does double damage), special defenses (surprised 1-in-20, saves get +4 bonus, can't die from poison, heals 10 hp/day), magic resistance (25% if aware), psionics (latent, stress situations only, see table above), special abilities (parry with 2nd weapon, run for a day without fatigue, 75% to hide his trail), secondary skills (6 types by age 25), nonlethal combat (special bonuses to pummeling, grappling, overbearing), and weaponless combat (attack with bare hands as a club). Phew!

Another interesting thing is that if you take this list of special abilities, and compare it to the later Barbarian class writeup for AD&D, you'll see that more things overlap than don't. Conan, appearing first in this "Sorcerer's Scroll" article, clearly served as the template for AD&D Barbarians as they would be constructed later.

Final note: You might also compare this to the much shorter writeup that came earlier in OD&D Sup-IV (Gods, Demigods, and Heroes) by Kuntz & Ward. There he's presented as a Neutral Ftr15/Thf9 with hp 117 (S18/00, I16, W10, C17, D18, X15; surprised only 1-in-12), this being somewhat similar to Gygax's writeup between the ages of 25 and 30. Of course, that work has the further advantage of detailing all the other interesting figures in REH's Hyborea, such as Crom, Set, Thoth Amon, several pages of special magic items, and so forth.


  1. I can't figure out why Gygax would want to present characters like this. The effect of reading that article (and others like it) was "Gee, D&D really isn't very good at this sort of thing." They basically go out of their way to show how the rules fail to accommodate the character (or, his very inflated version of the character IMO).

    It took me decades to be able to say, "Hey, you can basically do Conan as 10th level thief and call it good."

  2. @Matthew - I think the same sort of attention to detail (one might say obsessiveness) that gave us long lists of polearm types and prostitute encounter tables will lead inexorably to articles like this.

  3. There's a point there in that Gygax, in his solo-AD&D phase, was prone to creating a lot of not-so-playable cruft like the random bonuses, psionics, skills, etc. seen here.

    However, I think that there's a quality kernel of classes, levels, and abilities shown here in the table. Every time Conan is mentioned by name in D&D (in Chainmail, Gods Demigods & Heroes, and Dragon #36), there's agreement that he's primarily a high-level fighter, and a thief secondarily.

    You'll probably appreciate the weirdness of Gygax's priorities at the time from this standout quote from the article:

    "Please let me know if you detect any glaring errors—and notice I emphasize the word glaring; I don’t particularly care if you rate him as a 14th-level Thief or a 22nd-level Fighter, for there is no profit in quibbling over this sort of detail. For example, if Conan used a sling with skill in a story, and I have, in fact, omitted this weapon from the list of those he uses with proficiency, that is a glaring error!"

  4. I have a lot of respect and love for Gygax. This sort of stuff though. Let;s say it was counter-productive.

  5. I agree that stuff like the UA Barbarian class was a wrong move. I do think it's interesting to see the origins of that class here: as an attempt to encyclopediacally document everything Conan ever did.

  6. Its interesting to note that even Gary Gygax fell into level bloat at times.

    Otherwise I really can't disagree with Matthew on the the issue, Conan is a 10th or so level thief with a high STR and CON

    If multi-classing is allowed for humans ala the Lankhmar Supplements I am OK with something like a 10/10 fighter --thief too.

    Rules breaking messes like this and Gord however, well -- just yuck.

  7. I think that he may have done this write up for fun.

  8. Not sure why Conan has to be proficient with every weapon he uses in the books. Part of why a high-level Fighter is so powerful is that he can pick up anything and be able to hit most people with it - of course, the most difficult-to-hit ones he will draw his primary weapon for.

    It'd also be interesting to see a combat simulator match between the various monsters Conan fights vs. various Conans, to see (based on the combat outcome in the books) about what level Conan would have been at the time - and whether the single-class Thief assumption could actually work.

    I also wonder whether the fact Gygax was 42 at the time of writing affected his treatment of Conan's physicality in his 40s being on par with 25. A little defiance?

    1. Nice. :-) Reminds me of Frank Miller's motivation for "Dark Knight Returns" to maintain Batman as older than himself.

    2. I would have to go through the stories one by one to confirm this, but at least in the original REH stories, Conan usually runs away wildly from monsters, only fighting them as a last resort, if at all. He flat-out runs away in 'The God in the Bowl' and 'A Witch Shall be Born', and I believe he collapses a stone wall on the Iron Golem in one story. I'm sure Robert Jordan had him mowing through monsters in his books.