Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What Does the Gaming Future Look Like for Conan Fans?

There has recently been some discussion at The Cimmerian and on the Savage Worlds gaming boards regarding the news that Mongoose Publishing's license to produce Conan related roleplaying game material will expire later this year.

In announcing the pending termination of the Conan license in their annual "State of Mongoose" report on November 25th, 2009, Matthew Sprange wrote the following:

A disagreement between ourselves and the licence holders has resulted in Conan being suspended in limbo. It is a tricky position – we cannot produce more material for the game (sales of further OGL Conan supplements will simply not justify the work required), and we have been forbidden to move the sword-swinging barbarian to a new games system.

It is a shame, but our loss is your gain. We have resolved to do the following in 2010.

First, we are bringing the price of all existing Conan books down to make it the best value fantasy RPG around. If you were debating about whether to dip into the Hyborian Age or wanted to complete your existing collection, now is the time! From January, the glorious 424 page main rulebook will be retailing for just $29.99 or £20, for example, while the Player’s Guide to the Hyborian Age will be just $14.99 or £10.

Second, we are going to be unleashing the power of Signs & Portents to support Conan throughout the year. We have built up a huge stock of player submitted adventures and writers’ rules-doodles. They will now be made available, for free, in the online magazine. Just click to download!

An earlier post regarding the topic had led to the internet board "Conan Properties Inc sucks and is trying to kill gaming" hyperbole so typical in online discussions. The Conan Properties boards had some more muted disgruntled comments. These earlier posts caused Conan Properties to respond with the following:

In light of Mongoose’s announcement on Friday Oct 2, 2009, and subsequent posts, we feel there is a need for Conan Properties to comment on the matter.

First of all, keep in mind that CPI’s President and CEO, Fredrik Malmberg, has been involved in the RPG industry for many years. Around 1979/80, he was an intern at Chaosium and playtested the first editions of Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer. Gaming has been a part of his working life since then and all decisions are based on these years of experience in, and love for, the gaming industry.

Mongoose has had a six-year run with the Conan RPG. There have been some ongoing contractual issues and quality standard concerns which we are working with Mongoose to correct. We made a decision not to automatically renew a third term when the present license expires, which is little more than one year from now. Instead, we will open the category up for all RPG publishers, including Mongoose, to submit proposals. Thereby we have given Mongoose a significant amount of time to correct the problems prior to the expiration and have welcomed them to present their new proposal and marketing plans.

A system change is not ruled out. We are neither bound to d20, nor opposing any other system for a future Conan RPG. From a business and player perspective, we feel a system change this close to the expiration of the license would be unfair to customers as there is a risk the new system would be abandoned a year from now, if a new licensee is selected. Until their license expires, Mongoose may continue to develop d20 supplements.

The Mongoose license has always been for RPGs and supplements only. The proposed atlas series was never included in the license. Unfortunately, work was started in lieu of this without prior approval and license amendment. CPI has been considering developing a deluxe atlas to explore the Hyborian Age for quite some time, receiving interest from major US publishers.

Jay Zetterberg, Director of Publishing
Conan Properties International

I don't think that there is really any room for "picking sides" between the "evil intellectual property holder" or the "plucky game publisher." I think that Conan Properties has been generous with their IP enforcement when it comes to fans, and I am a wonderfully content mega-deal subscriber of Mongoose's Lone Wolf reprints.

Al Harron, over at The Cimmerian, had some very interesting comments discussing the merits of the Mongoose rpg and how it will be difficult for another rpg product to live up to the high standards that the Mongoose product offered -- high standards that included a deep knowledge of Conan lore. Harron also goes on to offer a couple of ideas regarding who he'd like to see/who might be selected as the new holders of the license. His list includes Chaosium, Wizards of the Coast, Steve Jackson Games, and Fantasy Flight Games. My thoughts are that it won't be any of the above, nor do I think it will be Mongoose again, and my hopes are that it will be Pinnacle Entertainment who gets the go ahead.

Argument Against Chaosium

In any argument against Chaosium, one must also advance why one might consider Chaosium for the production/distribution of a Conan roleplaying game in the first place. That's easy. Ever since the 1980s, and Ken St. Andre's excellent adaptation of Michael Moorcock's Elric stories into RPG format, the folks over at Chaosium have made a number of excellent licensed rpg products. The Chaosium "Eternal Champion" series of games are a high quality adaptation of Moorcock's IP into the Chaosium house "Basic Roleplaying System" used in their Call of Cthulhu and Runequest roleplaying games.

Which brings us directly into the argument against Chaosium. They no longer produce the "Eternal Champion" line of roleplaying games based on the Runequest version of the "Basic Roleplaying System." Mongoose produces the new edition of Runequest, is the publisher of the Eternal Champion line of games, and publishes a Fafhrd and Grey Mouser rpg to boot. In fact, when I read the "State of Mongoose" discussion regarding why Conan Properties Inc. allowed the license to expire, I read the following sentence, "we have been forbidden to move the sword-swinging barbarian to a new games system."

My guess is that the mystery system Mongoose was contemplating using for the Conan RPG, if CPI approved, was the Runequest system that they currently use to fuel most of their in house licensed fantasy roleplaying games. I could imagine them using the Traveller system, but that seems to be their in house science fiction system. I could also imagine them using the, as yet unreleased, multiplayer non-d20 Lone Wolf system they are releasing this year. Though I can understand why a publisher wouldn't want to risk their IP on a "new" system that isn't familiar with the gaming community.

Put simply, Conan Properties is unlikely to choose Chaosium to publish their game as the system Chaosium would use is currently being published by the company Conan Properties has currently licensed. If they wanted a Basic Roleplaying version of the game, they would renew Mongoose's license.

The Case Against Wizards of the Coast

Any consideration of releasing a licensed product must include the "leader in the field." Wizards of the Coast, publishers of the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game and the Magic: The Gathering card game, are the absolute leaders in the roleplaying game marketplace. Add to this the fact that Wizards is a subsidiary of Hasbro, the world's largest game manufacturer, and you know that you have some pretty good marketing potential. The potential for "synergy" is almost endless, particularly with a future Conan feature film in pre-production. As an aside, I would love to see a Heroscape: Conan set.

That said, I cannot see Conan Properties going with Wizards.

First, history has shown that D&D and Conan don't mix as well as one might hope -- especially given that Robert Howard was one of the main influences on the creation of the D&D game. The D&D Conan modules from the 80s were entertaining, as far as they went, but they were a far cry from what Conan deserves as an IP. Wizards seems to be focusing on their "core strengths" when it comes to the rpg industry, and in this case that means that most of their roleplaying products are D&D related -- they have only recently given Star Wars the rpg support it deserves. There are no non-D&D/non-Star Wars rpg books in the advertised pipeline, and Wizards is re-releasing campaign settings from older versions of D&D in the new 4th edition rules set. I personally think that 4e could emulate Conan style play very well, but as a stand alone game and not as an integrated game. The way that magic works in a Sword and Sorcery tale, versus a high fantasy tale, would require certain mechanical differences that would affect balance.

Add to this factor, Wizards poor track record with licensed IP -- outside of Star Wars. Their roleplaying game based on Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series was a good product, but it received almost no support. Wizards lost the Dune license when they didn't properly think through how licensing is affected by corporate buyouts.

Back before pretty much anyone on staff at Wizards worked for the company, TSR (the creator of D&D who was purchased by Wizards) did release a Conan product using a system developed by David "Zeb" Cook. The game has an excellent underlying mechanical system, which emulates Conan Sword and Sorcery quite well, but the game reads as if it was hurriedly written and the game support was minimal -- ZefRS the current Old School Revival "knock-off" version has more support material for a long standing campaign than the original. In fact, if one wanted to play "original" characters, the game provided almost no support material for the creation/continuation of a campaign. The product made the common licensed product error of promoting the title character, which leaves everyone in the gaming group fighting over who gets to be Conan.

I don't think that "ancient" history will weigh heavily in the minds of Conan Properties when considering Wizards as a licensee, but I do see Wizards' treatment of the Robert Jordan series -- and the Dune/Star Trek debacle -- as something that might concern them. As much as I'd like to see Wizards' take on Conan, and a Heroscape: Conan game, I don't see much possibility here.

The Case Against Steve Jackson Games

This one will be short and sweet. Steve Jackson Games has already had the license. Their products were quite good, but the products did seem to get lost in the wave of GURPS products released around the product. Steve Jackson's GURPS: Conan didn't stand out enough as a product outside of SJ Games GURPS line of games. It even required the ownership of the GURPS main rules to be playable. It lacked a rule set within the product. This has been a problem for most of the GURPS licensed products. SJ Games has tried, by including "lite" version of the GURPS rules, to mitigate this effect when they released the Hellboy and Discworld based GURPS products, but it didn't really work. The GURPS rules are very complex, and can add wonderful depth to game play, so purchasers of GURPS: X might feel that their game would be better if they also bought the main GURPS books (a requirement in the case of GURPS: Conan). These people would be right.

While it might seem a "good for everyone" occurrence if a player buys the licensed product then buys more non-licensed products from the licensee, and it is, that isn't necessarily what an IP holder wants. Conan Properties wants people to buy more Conan merchandise and not more "Game company X" merchandise instead of more Conan merchandise. It's natural. A robust GURPS: Conan book/set would be huge and expensive if it wanted to be a "complete" game. Given SJ Games recent focus on board games and card games (actually a long standing focus), there recent emphasis on pdf supplements, and their recent Vorkosigan saga GURPS supplement, I don't see SJ Games producing something that would meet the desires of Conan Properties. Steve Jackson games puts out great products, and the GURPS system can be a good match for the IP, but I don't see them wanting to put out enough content on a consistent basis to warrant a license. Add to that the complexity of GURPS mechanics, and how that might limit the market appeal, and I don't really see Conan Properties going with Steve Jackson games again.

The Case Against Fantasy Flight

Fantasy Flight already publishes a Conan based boardgame, which was discussed in the post on The Cimmerian, and produces excellent licensed products -- and excellent products in general. The primarily obstacle I see to FFG producing a Conan RPG is the massive workload they have ahead of them in the projected future.

They are currently writing RPG products for their popular Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay lines of games and producing new boardgames at a breakneck pace. Add to this the long list of other projects that Fantasy Flight is working on, which I hope includes new episodes of their Midnight Chronicles series, and I don't see any time to work on another licensed product -- especially if they want to do a good job.

Fantasy Flight is another company, like Steve Jackson, that I'd be happy to see get the license, but I don't see it fitting in with their production schedule. I'd even like to see how their Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay die pool system translated to Conan style Sword and Sorcery. Yes, production schedules can be set aside for big money flow producing projects, but would Conan produce more revenue than Rogue Trader? I don't know, and I doubt it.

The Case for Pinnacle Entertainment Group

The case for Pinnacle is not a perfect case. They are not rapid in their product development, and they haven't put out enough "support" products for some of their other licensed properties. There are, though, two strong arguments in favor of letting Pinnacle Entertainment Group have the license to a Conan RPG.

First, they produced the excellent Savage Worlds of Solomon Kane RPG. The game uses the Savage Worlds rules system, but contained the complete rules and didn't require consumers to buy "non-Solomon Kane" merchandise to play. The game includes good player and GM support, it contains a full scale campaign, and it doesn't fall for the "who gets to be Solomon Kane" pitfall.

Second, the Savage Worlds rules set is easy to learn and complex enough to satisfy the experienced gamer. I am actually continually amazed at how fun and exciting this game's mechanics are. So...yes, my argument for a Savage Worlds based Conan is essentially, "I know it doesn't make more business sense than any other deal, but it would be AWESOME!" Not the most sophisticated reason, but a damn good one from my point of view.

Oh, and did I add that Savage Worlds was essentially created to emulate the stories of Robert E Howard? Just look at the cover for the first edition! See Conan lurking back there?

Thoughts on Mongoose

I don't think Mongoose has much of an opportunity to get the license renewed. I see two major contributing factors to this. First, it seems that Mongoose's attempt to release a "Conan Atlas" is part of why the license wasn't renewed, they might have been attempting to "step outside the license" in the eyes of Conan Properties. The Director of Publishing for CPI pretty much says as much in the post I quoted above. Second, the merger between Rebellion and Mongoose was a boon to the Mongoose fan, of which I am one, but it is a game changer when it comes to other licensees offering Mongoose product. The Rebellion merger gives Mongoose access to the 2000 AD library of characters, and to an excellent printer for their products, but that rich library is exactly what might make a company balk at the idea of licensing other IP.

What is a Gamer to Do in the Meantime?

For gamers who want to play Conan based games now, there are a wide variety of options. I am going to list a few below. The GURPS: Conan book is hard to find, and often expensive on eBay, so that will not make the list, but the options are really quite good. While I look forward to seeing who gets the Conan license next, I am not lamenting what is currently available.

1) Mongoose's Conan Roleplaying Game -- The game's license doesn't expire until later this year, and the products are very reasonably priced for the time being. The books are very complete and provide everything you need for years of gaming.

2) Call of Cthulhu: Cthulhu Invictus -- If you have a good knowledge of the Conan fiction, or you own the Mongoose stuff/GURPS: Conan, but you want to use the Basic Roleplaying rules set, you cannot do better than to buy this product. While Howard's Conan lived in a pre-historic mythical time, the rules for playing Cthulhu in a "classical" setting translate well to Conan emulation. Howard's tales of the barbarian are filled with Lovecraftian weird horrors.

3) Simon Washbourne's Barbarians of Lemuria -- This game has been simmering in the cauldron of the indie game movement for some years. The most recent, Legendary Edition, of the game is a very good Sword and Sorcery game. An earlier edition pdf) is free, but I recommend the Legendary Edition. It may cause a slight gag in some of the anti-Lin Carter crowd that the game is based on Thongor rather than Conan, but if you have a rich understanding of the Conan milieu these rules translate to Howard's Hyboria as easily as Carter's Lemuria.

4) ZefRS -- the game is based on the old David "Zeb" Cook TSR Conan RPG. The system works quite well for a Sword and Sorcery game and the people who worked on the game have added enough material to start a real S&S campaign. Not a lot of support for the novice game master, which is a mark against the game, but the system itself is quite good. This game is a part of the Old School Revival movement that is attempting to keep older game systems alive, under the argument that specific game content may be copyrightable but mechanics aren't.

5) Savage Worlds -- I wouldn't be so excited about this game becoming the engine for a Conan RPG if I didn't think that it was good to go as is. You'll need some other sources for your Atlas and campaign information, but this game has all the rules you'll need.

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