MONGOOSE CONAN THE BARBARIAN ROLEPLAYING GAME -- A Review.
This is absolutely one of the best adaptations of the d20 3.5 rule set. It captures the atmosphere of the Hyborian Age like no other game I've played. And, although it's subtle, the game is quite different from a traditional d20 3.5 game. I've seen players and GMs who think they know d20 like the back of their hand go into this game and not realize how different it really is.
In this game, armor protects a character from damage instead of making the character harder to hit. Each weapon is given a AP value (armor piercing value) which, when combined with STR bonus, is compared to the target's AV (armor value). This allows armor to soak up some or all of the incoming damage.
A character uses two main defense types in this game. He can Dodge, which is DEX based, or he can Parry, which is STR based. Sometimes, a character will switch between the two. Sometimes, only one option may be available, as in a case where there is no real room to Dodge. Some classes are better at Dodging, and some are better at Parrying.
There are also two types of main attack types. There's your standard STR based thrash and bash, where the character attempts to shove his three foot length of sharp steel through his enemies' guts. Then, there's a more refined method, which is DEX based, called a Finesse attack, where the combatant aims for the weak points in armor, attempting strikes that avoid armor all together. A successful Finesse attack ignores the target's AV (armor value), but a Finesse attack has a harder target number to be successful. A failed Finesse attack still has a chance to become a successful normal attack, where the attacker missed avoiding armor but still landed a blow that is protected by armor.
Shields provide a bonus that increases the user's Parry defense in melee. Shields do not improve a Dodge (except versus ranged weapons, where shields provide a bonus to Dodge only).
Shields can also be used as weapons, and each and every shield in the game is provided with stats, just like a normal weapon.
MIXING IT ALL TOGETHER
If you mix all of these elements together, you can easily create a thin, city wastrel, wearing only a loin cloth and turban, carrying only a dagger, and still have this character be quite effective--even deadly--in combat. He'll most likely focus on Finesse attacks with his dagger, avoiding armor with his precise cuts, because otherwise, he has no hope of piercing a city guard's armor. This thin city urchin doesn't have armor himself, so he must rely on his Dodge defense, and he can increase his Dodge AC by class bonuses, picking certain Feats (special abilities that come with class and level), and using certain fighting styles, like Fighting Defensively. He may have a low STR, but if he has a high DEX, the bonus will apply to Finesse and Ranged attacks (like throwing daggers) as well as to his Dodge AC.
Unlike D&D, a thinly clad street urchin, wearing rags and armed with only a knife, can be quite a dangerous foe.
Plus, if the fight is not going well, the loser can always rely on grappling his foe, taking his advantage away from him (his armor and his heavy weapon), and either strangling or banging the foe's head on a rock.
In standard d20 D&D, magic makes combat interesting. In Conan, Sorcery is quite rare, and often, you can have entire adventures that feature no sorcery at all. To keep combat from becoming a boring back and forth of you hit then I hit, there are lots of combat options in the Conan RPG. This is brought to the game primarily through the use of Combat Maneuvers that any character can use as long as they character has the prerequisites for such a move. For example, if an attack is less than half a foe's Parry AC (and the foe is Parrying), then the foe can use the Riposte maneuver to where he recovers from the weak attack by attacking himself--in essence, the weak attack provides an opening for the foe to get a free attack!
If you are new to this game, I do strongly encourage the GM to read the Combat Maneuvers section over and over and implement these interesting moves into his game. Not only will the game benefit from a strong "Conan" influence by using the maneuvers, but combat will become an bloody, enjoyable highlight of the game.
BLOODY, GRITTY COMBAT!
Speaking of bloody, the game uses a Massive Damage rule such that any attack that delivers 20+ points of damage from a single blow requires the target to make a Fortitude save or die from the blow. This is how heads are chopped off and limbs go missing in combat.
In addition, those familiar with D&D and other d20 games will find that the damage done by weapons in this Conan RPG are higher than their counterparts in other games.
Now, if this sounds like a blood fest to you, it can be. Combat is tough in this game. It's not like D&D to where some players seek out combat and rush towards every monster and fight that they can see. Instead, in this game, successful players respect combat. The deadliness of the game encourages more use of non-lethal combat, like bare-knuckle brawls. Players should fight smarter and more tactically, using their Feats and their own strategies to knock enemies into fires or over cliff ledges instead of continuing melee.
It's a harder edged, more realistic way to play combat. And, once you get the hang of it, it is damn fun.
FUN AT THE LOWER LEVELS.
The game is meant to be played at the lower levels. Experience is awarded totally at the discretion of the GM. Forget all that you know of D&D formula based XP. In this game, experience is story based--in the estimation of the Game Master.
Most of the game world should be kept in the 1-10 level range. A level 1 character can be a 15 year old guardsman who just learned how to hold a sword, or it can be a 50 year old barkeep who's had to deal with drunkards, here and there, over the years (and now he's getting old and slow).
Remember that the standard people in the game world are classed as Commoners. A 1st level Soldier is quite a tough individual when compared to a higher level Commoner. So, don't always think of 1st level characters as "beginners" even though some are.
On the other hand, your chiefs and kings and legendary figures are level 10. Those characters who grow into myth, like Thulsa Doom, Thoght Amon, Red Sonja, King Kull, and Conan himself, are characters in the 11-20 range.
The second edition (only in this edition) features a section that gives the GM an idea of each of the character levels. Further examples are given in the Beastiary where foes like savage Picts or Belit's Black Corsairs are shown to be in the 1-3 level range. Again, compare that to a Commoner, and those (what you think of as low) levels present quite a frightening foe that fits Howard's stories.
Armor and weapons can be damaged in this game, and often are. A character will spend time and money having these items repaired after engagements.
There are tons of ways to customize characters. You might want to specialize in fighting with a bill, for example, which allows you to Trip your foes, then gain a bonus as you slice at them while they are on the ground, at your feet.
Multiclassing is easy--mostly at the agreement of your GM--giving you lots of ways to combine abilities and bonuses to make all sorts of characters beyond the six basic classes.
I could go on and on about this game. There's lots I haven't mentioned. But, I think I've shown you enough to show you that (A) this is a much different game than standard D&D even though the Conan RPG looks like D&D on the surface with its d20 attack roll thrown against AC, character classes, and other D&D standards.
HYBORIAN AGE ATMOSPHERE
There are lots of little rules in the game that create for the game a gritty, Hyborian Age atmosphere. For example, there's the Weapon Length rule that gives an advantage to the bigger, heavier, longer weapons. So, if you are a Nemedian that is scouting the snows of Vanaheim, and you come across a massive, snarling Vanir brandishing a two handed war sword. You pull your short sword and prepare to do battle with this monster that rose from the ice, and you'll find that your Parry AC suffers a -2 penalty (because it is damn hard to parry that big-arsed sword with your little gladiator weapon), and the Vanir gets a +2 bonus to his Parry AC when you strike him. This may encourage you to switch to the Dodge defense, and try to jump out of the way of the Vanir's swings instead of parrying them with your sword. The Vanir, though, will certain take advantage of his weapon and use it to parry your meager blows.
There's the Weapon Breakage rule, too, to where if your attack is exactly equal to your foe's Parry AC, then the attack is considered to be a successful Sunder attack against the foe's weapon. You roll damage against the weapon, possibly destroying it, rather than rolling damage against your foe.
The game is just bloody amazing!
Lastly, the classes are different from what you are used to. There is no "mage" class. Sorcery is done by those who learn how to do it. Although there is a "thief" class, anyone who steals is a thief, regardless of their class. Conan never earned more than 1st level as a Thief class, yet he became a master thief in Zamora.
Classes in this game are weak when compared to D&D. You can combine classes to make all sorts of specialized characters. There is no "cleric" class, either. Those that become cult leaders and leaders of churches come from varied backgrounds.
So, what are the basic classes?
NPCs are typically of the Commoner class. This is used for your standard, average person. You can make a farmer, a beggar, a tavern wench, a bar keep, a street urchin--whatever you need. Commoners range in level from 1-10.
PCs are typically of the six basic classes, or some combination there of (but there are also some prestige classes and other classes that show up in supplements.).
Temptress: This is a new class added to Second Edition. The temptress is typically female, and she uses her sexual attraction to manipulate others to do her bidding. We're talking about Lady MacBeth, here. Or, a tavern whore who has smitten a frequent city guardsman. Temptresses often know some Sorcery but practice it secretly.
Scholar: This is a learned person. He may be a traditional "scholar" who knows a lot about a particular subject, like the Royal Lineage or Lost Languages. In game terms, the the character focuses on Knowledge skills. Of all the classes, Scholars make the best Sorcerers because of their Knowledge backgrounds. They get bonuses to that effect. Scholars also make good clerics and priests and cult leaders, for the same reason. But, also, Scholars make good characters of any type that specializes in any type of skill. A Scholar can be created to be a master merchant, or a master weaponsmith, or whatever, by taking advantage of the class' skill bonuses.
Noble: This is a person of higher standing and usually a person of some means. Often, this class is used to create leader types. Obviously, a King or a Prince can easily be created from this class. But, also, think of a young noble among the cavalry guardsmen, or maybe the leader of the thieves den. A captain of a ship. A high priest of the national religion of Mitra. The leader of a mercenary company. All of these can be of the noble class or created by multi-classing the noble class with another class.
Thief: This is one of the most used classes in the game. A background that can be adjusted to your traditional thief is easy to creat using this class--a character that can hide in shadows, pick locks, do backstabs, etc. But, you don't have to create your thief along that route. You can customize him any way that you see fit. The Thief class gets the least amount of Feats in the game, but it, by far (rivals that of a Scholar!), gets the most amount of Skill Points and has the biggest selection of class skills. Where the Scholar is usually not combat based, the Thief does have some combat capabilities, backed up by high bonuses among the selected skills.
Pirate: A pirate is basically a thief that sails the mighty seas--the vast Western Ocean, and the great Vilayet Sea. Pirates are specialized thieves, who get more Feats and less skill points, where all are ocean based.
Barbarian: The Hyborian age is full of barbarians, from the Picts of the forests to the west, to the dark skinned savages of the Black Kingdoms, to the frozen north of Conan's Cimmeria, and even farther north to the lands of the Aesir and Vanir, to several dark and unexplored parts of the Known World. The barbarian listed in the core rule book is meant to create a Cimmerian barbarian, but the rules can be easily used to create any sort of non-civilized character from the Hyborian Age.
Nomad: The Nomad class is a specialized barbarian class. The class in the book is meant to create the horse nomads from the steppes of Hyrkania or the desert dwelling nomads of the south, like the Zuagir. Of course, you can create whatever type of nomad you need by customizing the rules and through your Feat picks.
Borderer: A Borderer is an interesting class--a civilized person who lives at the edge of civilization. The class focuses on those Aquilonians who are living at the edge of the Pictish Wilderness, but, of course, you can use the class to create any type of civilized character who lives in the wilds. The class is sometime compared to that of a Ranger in D&D, but it is quite different in many respects.
Soldier: Besides the Thief, the Soldier class is one of the most used in this game. Of course the Soldier class is used for town guards, mercenaries, and those who serve in the King's army. That's the focus of the class. But any character who learns how to wield a yard of steel can be classed as a Soldier. At the higher levels, Soldiers learn to work together and fight as a unit. In game terms, a group of three or more Soldiers, working together, gain bonuses for certain types of attacks and defense. It's an awesome thing to see a line of guardsmen, with these bonuses, standing side by side in a line, using long pole arms. It's the Hyborian Age version of a tank running over the civilians.