Thursday, September 10, 2009

Conan the Barbarian, B/X Thief

One of the books I picked up at the used bookstore this weekend was the Gregory Manchess illustrated Conquering Sword of Conan, the third volume in a collection of un-edited Howard writings, apparently compiled by Patrice Louinet. Yes, I realize I should probably be reading Sallinger before I dive straight into the “fun” literature of Conan…sue me.

This particular collection showcases Howard’s works in the order that he published them, culminating in his (recently reviewed) masterpiece, Red Nails…which I have never read, by the way. I’m looking forward to it.

Anyway, as I read ol’ REH’s wonderful description concerning his most well-known protagonist, I can’t help but come to the conclusion: in B/X terms, Conan is a thief.

Not a fighter. Certainly not a demi-human or spell-user. But a thief.

I know I mentioned this (briefly) before, but it was more an off-the-cuff remark (I have a tendency to make those a lot). But I am totally 100% in bed with the idea now. If I was modeling a character after Conan for B/X play, the Cimmerian barbarian (rolls off the tongue, don’t it?) would totally be a D4 hit dice thief.

Of course, he’d be a D4 hit dice thief with an 18 constitution; that much is clear. Everything in Howard’s writing details how healthy and wholesome (and ironed stamina) Conan’s constitution is compared to civilized folk and men of lesser stature. He out-lasts and out-paces everyone…that is the mark of a solid 18 in Constitution. And with +3 hit points per die, he’ll have a better hit point average than a standard fighter (5.5 per level as opposed to 4.5). Once he hits name level, of course, his hit points increase just as any other fighter (+2 points per level).

In fighting ability, being a thief doesn’t make Conan much less than a fighter in the hand-to-hand department. In B/X play, a fighter’s chance to hit increases by 10% every three levels, a thief’s increases 10% every four levels. A name (9th) level fighter and a name level thief have the exact same chance to hit. After 10th level, the hit differential is separated by at least 10%. However, I’d argue the strength of Howard’s Conan is at least 16 (forget Schwarzenegger for the moment) which provides a +10% bonus to hit, allowing our thief to keep pace up until level 22.

Of course, if one looks at the opponent’s Conan fights, one doesn’t see many of particularly potent armor class anyway…if all you’re fighting are dudes in standard armor, a high level thief will need the same to hit in melee (“2”) as a fighter.

Conan uses any and all weapons, just as does a B/X thief. Contrary to his film depictions, he generally goes clothed (often wearing a shirt), though he is more likely to wear little or no armor when adventuring (in warfare he wears mail and carries a shield). This latter IS a bit of a sticky point as B/X thieves are not allowed to wear any armor other than leather. However, I don’t have references to Conan using any of his thief skills while "armored up"…perhaps in his DM’s home-brew the price one pays for violating class restrictions is an inability to use special class abilities? This makes a bit of sense when you figure anyone can “wear” a chain shirt (but you’ll end up a D4 hit dice fighter with neither thief nor magical abilities).

And Conan DOES exhibit thief abilities. Sure, he bludgeons his way out of prison in the story Rogues in the House, but that’s only because he was jailed without lock-picks! In The Servants of Bin-Yatkin he shows his ability to climb sheer surfaces and read languages as a high level thief (in fact, the description of the latter ability perfectly jibes with its explanation in the Cook/Marsh Expert set). If Conan doesn’t “pick pockets” it’s only because he’s a character more prone to the “direct approach” (I know the feeling!). Even so, he still moves with cat-like stealth and often ambushes opponents from the shadows.

His attitude is certainly one of the opportunist and adventurer, not the fighter. Howard’s Conan isn’t motivated by honor, duty, or loyalty (except to his men…see below). In general, he is motivated by sheer greed and looking for an easy score. Even though he eventually becomes king of Aquilonia, it is through assassination and usurpation, rather than carving out a dominion and building a castle (the way for a B/X fighter to obtain a baronial title). More often than not, Conan is a thief, outlaw, pirate, highwayman, and bandit lord. The dude is a thief.

Let’s talk about his other abilities. He is certainly literate (Intelligence of 9+) but speaks only a smattering of many languages, not being necessarily fluent (depending on how one runs a campaign with multiple human/”Common” tongues). Wisdom he does not possess in bulk, except for the wisdom of experience. This he gains quickly which would indicate a high Dexterity (the Prime Requisite of the thief class). As Howard most often describes Conan as panther-like in grace, movement, and reflexes (as well as possessing the speed of a striking cobra), I think it safe to assume he possesses a 16+ in this attribute.

As a leader of men, Conan is described as having a very magnetic personality…a high Charisma, able to inspire his followers by his own deeds and actions, if not any particularly flowery speeches. This and his usually favorable reaction from the lady-folk indicate that he has at least a 13+ in Charisma and quite possibly 16-18. There is, of course, no requirement of being a fighter in order to lead mercenaries in B/X play (oh, and though Conan never creates a “thieves guild” there are instances from the stories that might be considered the establishment of “hide-outs” and the attraction of 1st level thieves, i.e. “bandits”).

Personally, I can’t think of any other genuine way to model Conan in B/X play other than as a thief. At least not given the rules as written (I mean, one could house-rule a bunch of “barbarian abilities” but this simply pre-empts the thief…you know, the way the cavalier class one-upped the fighter in AD&D?). The more I read of his exploits in Howard’s original literature, the more convinced I become. To me, it simply exemplifies how versatile the B/X rule system is…not every thief has to be some glib-tongued con-man a la the Grey Mouser. A brawny, taciturn Hillman from the North makes a fine thief as well!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I don't think that there is one class that Conan really fits. Sure he was a thief, mostly in his early days. He was a barbarian brawler first, he was also a pirate (which is basically the same thing as a thief), a military commander, cheiftain and a king.

    I think the classes might be too restricting for Conan, but thief would work for his early days.

  3. I agree with virtually everything you've written except for the d4 hit dice part. I continue to believe that thieves are fighting men who learned sneaking and skulduggery skills instead of advanced combat skills, not regular men who know thief skills. Conan is an extreme example of this, and I agree with Atom Kid that no single class really fits Conan.

  4. Agreed. Conan is definitely a thief when brought over to B/X. Especially with how little armour he wears in most of his exploits.

  5. From an OD&D or Swords & Wizardry standpoint, Conan could very well be the ultimate justification for the Fighting Man class, in a system where there is no default Thief class, just smart, dexterous, lightly-armored Fighting Men with roguish dispositions.

    But yes, in B/X, I don't think a high-level thief with remarkable scores in Str, Dex, and Con would be an inappropriate representation of Conan, especially in a world of mostly 0-level humans. When you offer up archetypes like King Arthur or Siegfried as examples of what the Fighter class is supposed to represent, the distinction becomes even more appropriate.

  6. Nice post, per usual.

    If you're interested and don't have the mod to see this, here's how Conan is stat'd out in the 1984 AD&D module CB1 Conan Unchained!:


    Fighter: 13
    Thief: 7

    Hit Points: 100
    Luck Points: 12

    STR: 18/90
    INT: 14
    WIS: 10
    DEX: 18
    CON: 18
    CHA: 17

    Weapon Proficiencies: sword (all types), bow (all types), axe (all types), club, mace, dagger

    Secondary Skills: fletcher, forester, gambler, hunter, sailor, trapper

    Special: Conan is only surprised on a 1 in 8

    Equipment: leather armor, broad sword, dagger, 50 gp

    I understand you're doing the B/X route here with him, but just as an additional take by TSR in 1st ed AD&D, I thought you might find some it interesting. I think I have some other stats for him, in other systems...I'll look now and hit ya back here again, if I find any.

    Oh yeah..."Luck Points?" Just something they used to allow for some more "superhuman" abilities of a stud like Conan. All characters could do these things, just some not as good as others. A character could spend Luck Points to try extra "heroic, amazing, or impossible feats." Ah well, that's how they put it, anyway.

  7. I'm waiting for the character sheet. . .

  8. @ Yoyo: Thanks. I actually have CB2 somewhere (with Thoth-Amon!) so I’m aware of the OLD way of D&D “did Conan.” Personally I was never quite satisfied with it. I guess it always seemed like a cop out to me: “Oh, the characters of literature are too complicated to model in our game system, so we’ll break the usual rules to better model it.” Just bite the bullet and make him a strong Thief already! Hell, if you’re writing him up, give him max hit points per die. Lord knows, in B/X play 7 hit points per die is more than most fighters have (and 8 hit points per die, which would be the maximum for D6 +2 for Con in AD&D, is more than the average AD&D fighter as well!).

    @ Lord KG: I expect nothing less than your regular harping on the D4 subject.
    ; )

    @ Everyone Else: Glad I’m not the only weird one out here!

  9. Yeah, I've always argued (to AD&D players) that Conan is the textbook example of a thief who dual-classes as a fighter later in his career... Take away dual-classing, add in the Dominion rules, and he's a land-owning thief in his later years. As interesting as barbarian cultures can be, they don't need a super-powered class ;)

  10. "...he's a land-owning thief in his later years..."

    That's how I see him, too. Hmmm...the idea of usurpation leading to Dominion may be something that should be included in my B/X Companion rules. What of the person who simply DISGUISES himself to look like the king? Or uses magic to mind-control a ruler?'s at least something that bears mentioning.

    Must ponder...

  11. Great post. An interesting and thought-provoking take on Conan!

    Still, at lower levels, thieves have pretty lame abilities in B/X D&D (IMO), and it's hard to imagine a young Conan having only a 20% chance of hiding in shadows, or whatever. If so, Howard's tales would have been far more comedic!

    It is my dissatisfaction with the inability of classic D&D (whether 0e, Basic, or 1e) to model such iconic characters as Conan and the Gray Mouser that led me to design my own version of the thief class. (In case anyone is curious, it can be found here:

  12. "I've always argued (to AD&D players) that Conan is the textbook example of a thief who dual-classes as a fighter later in his career... "

    Yeah, in AD&D terms, the thief --> fighter dual class certainly makes the most sense when trying to stat up Conan.

  13. @ Akraysia...I find several of Howard's tales to be comedic; I like the one where Conan knocks himself out running into a wall while drunk. But in the final analysis, consider this: in D&D terms, Conan survives to a "high level" through a mixture of daring, cunning, and luck. The tales we read are only his "best adventures" (where he succeeded at the majority of his "rolls").

    Personally, I am a fan of B/X D&D precisely because it CAN be used to model these iconic personalities...with a little bit of thought.

    By the way: cool thief class. ; )

  14. Now that I think about it, didn't Gygax do a write up of Conan as a character in an old issue of Dragon back in the 80s?

  15. @Matthew:

    So freakin weird that you ask about Gygax's Conan take in an old '80s Dragon mag...

    ...Cuz I just snagged that issue at my FLGS, literally 5 minutes ago.

    It's from issue #36 from April 1980, in the From the Sorcerer's Scroll section.

    I'll post some of the article, at least the stats later for ya'll. I'm on my cell phone here and text entry kinda sux.

  16. Conan is almost always wearing at least chain armor unless he is in the wilds. He wears FULL PLATE whenever he can in battlefield situations. He uses 2-handed melee weapons at times. He moves silently with utter perfection wearing a full chain shirt and criticizes others for not wearing enough armor. Your characterization, while clever, is wildly inaccurate to someone who knows the character well.

  17. Replies
    1. @ Motley:

      Admittedly, not all that often in Howard's original stories (it's more incidental looting than picking pockets). I'm certain my perspective when writing this was influenced by the character as depicted in film and Marvel comics.
      ; )

    2. In "Tower of the Elephant" he breaks into a tower to steal. In "God in the Bowl" he was robbing a temple. Both take place early in his career but he was definately a thief.

    3. Though, to be fair, most D&D characters are well versed in burglary.
      ; )

    4. He never picked pockets or backstabbed anyone, but hiding in shadows and climbing was a big part of what he was doing. This is the part of his life the movie picked up on.