Barbarian at the Gates: Old-School Conan Role-Playing Game Boxed Set
Where Strength Intersects with Passion
The mid 80’s was a crazy cool time for Fantasy Role-Playing Games (often abbreviated FRPGs). TSR, the first publishers of Dungeons & Dragons™, dipped their toes into all sorts of genres and intellectual properties to ride the wave.
There were boxed sets based on pure Sci-Fi with Star Frontiers™, post-apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy with Gamma World™, superhero fun with Marvel Super Heroes™, and pulp adventure with Indiana Jones™.
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I never owned the Indiana Jones RPG, but I imagine if it were to be found anywhere, it would be in crate #9906753, along with the Ark of the Covenant.
One of the best RPGs, in my opinion, was released in 1985 – the Conan™ Role-Playing Game.
Recently unearthed from an unmarked plastic tub in the bowels of our home, I found my original set.
Feelings of excitement and adventure started coursing through my veins, seeing the box lid after so many decades. There’s Conan, in a broadsword-wielding stance in front of some ruins - flexing of course - defiantly screaming towards the viewer, while a wicked lizard creature slowly slinks towards him from behind. An ape creature is silently watching from a distance, seemingly not a threat, but you KNOW Conan is going to have to take him out too.
Removing the lid reveals the original dice, game books, map poster, reference aides, and a single white crayon.
The dice that came with TSR’s boxed sets back then did not have the numbers colored. They were the same color as the surrounding plastic, making them near impossible to read, but a quick rub with the crayon would fill in the etched numerals, giving the contrast necessary for serious play.
Looking through the game books, I am amazed at the care and quality of the contents.
It was a totally different system than D&D™, using a unified d100 gaming mechanic that was based on difficulty levels. It simplified the play by not having to reference dozens of tables, but still allowed for a substantial amount of variation to individual skills & feats. It also gave a ton of room for leveling up, and had unique-to-me features of talents, weaknesses, fame points, and interesting weapons that I never saw in D&D.
Beyond that, the books smacked thickly of lost arcane knowledge and profound history.
There were even a few quotes throughout the materials from Robert E. Howard, the author who created Conan. This gave a more solid feel to this world into which you were embarking in.
“I did not dream far enough, Prospero. When King Numedides lay dead at my feet and I tore the crown from his gory head and set it on my own, I had reached the ultimate border of my dreams. I had prepared myself to take the crown, not to hold it. In the old free days all I wanted was a sharp sword and a straight path to my enemies. Now no paths are straight and my sword is useless.”
-The Phoenix on the Sword
Viewing the illustrations in the rulebook felt like seeing old friends again. The depictions of serpents, warriors, and arcane tomes awoke old memories of imagining being in Conan’s world of Hyboria.
These were masterfully done by Jeff Easley, one of the most prolific & respected fantasy artists of the day. Not surprisingly, he did many covers of the Savage Sword of Conan™ magazine as well as front cover artwork for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ hardback rulebooks.
In researching Jeff, I found an interesting story. He got his job at TSR through a fellow artist, none other than Larry Elmore (another old-school fantasy great). His first job in his own words:
"I... started here in March 1982. My first project was to paint gemstones on the spines of the first four Endless Quest books, but it was definitely uphill from there."
Here’s a short bio about Jeff along with some of his famous illustrations
Here’s an active Facebook group where Jeff shares his art and takes part in
You can get some of Jeff’s SIGNED art in poster format at this store
One of the coolest features of the Conan RPG boxed set was The World of Hyboria manual. It was in the format of a field journal and written as such. The fictional professor “Ervin Howard Roberts” ( no relation whatsoever to Robert E(rvin) Howard 😊 ) put forth his “real-world” research about the Hyborian Age. It included alphabetical typed summaries of the flora and fauna, geography and peoples of Hyboria.
(Featuring artwork from Clyde Caldwell & Luke Eidenschink!)
What was really neat was the aged look of the journal, with hand-drawn illustrations and annotations beside many of the entries. There were even faux ink blots, coffee mug stains, scotch tape, staples, and paperclip illustrations that added to the authentic feel!
A later section of the journal gives the stats and concise descriptions of the beasties you could encounter. From these descriptions, I deduce the creatures on the front cover box are a Chaken and The Crawler, but if you have a different opinion, please let me know in the comments below.
The rest of the journal gives short descriptions of Hyborian gods, major personalities, magic items, ruins, and lore. What I really liked about this part is that it left a lot to the imagination. The descriptions gave enough of a seed, but it was up to you on how you wanted to incorporate these elements into your gaming sessions.
I so much enjoyed the artwork in this journal, even though it was designed to give the appearance of rough sketches. The title page reveals that these could have been done by Jeff Butler and/or Ruth Hoyer.
For an excellent detailed review of the Conan RPG game mechanics, check out Thoth Amon’s recent article here: https://gritandvigor.blogspot.com/2023/04/conan-role-playing-game.html
Jeff Butler did the cover for this set – another famous TSR alum. He did work for Dungeons & Dragons™, Marvel Super Heroes™ RPG and some Dragonlance™ novels. After leaving TSR, he has had a prolific freelance career illustrating comic books and computer game art. Today, it sounds like he is teaching comic book art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I wish I lived up there!
Learn more about Jeff in his own words and see his gallery here (When you click on his art pieces, they bring up a dedicated page where he shares some thoughts/insights on the piece.)
I especially love his line art gallery
UPDATE: Rediscovered Realms had the privilege of interviewing Jeff Butler after this article! You won’t want to miss it:
I wanted to find out more about Ruth Hoyer but wasn’t coming up with anything other than her name being credited in the D&D module Lathan’s Gold.
2 pages of Bing search results weren’t delivering. So I tried Google.
O.K. several more references, but nothing with anything more than a credit mention:
The War Rafts of Kron D&D module
D&D Master Players Book
The Star Frontiers™ supplement, Zebulon’s Guide to Frontier Space
Dragon™ Magazine #87
So, Ruth was definitely important to that time period of old-school fantasy, being at the hub of TSR. I wanted to shine a light on her contributions. Who was she?
I was about to put a pin in this to revisit later, when …
Hold on! What’s that?
I found a reference to her from Dragon Magazine #109 in May of 1986.
Not an issue I owned. Darn. Alright, I’ll keep trying.
No way – Here’s that issue online! But she wasn’t listed in the front credits. Ugh, what is this madness?
Last attempt: Search for her name throughout the entire magazine.
A whole 1-page article ABOUT Ruth. She was TSR’s art director.
“Ruth Hoyer is TSR’s Art Director. She designs the overall “look” for all of our product lines, creates advertisements for DRAGON® Magazine, prepares catalogs that we send to trade buyers on our upcoming releases, and supervises our graphic designers and keyliners. “I really love graphic design,” she says, “especially typography, logo design, and colors.”
“I love my work, because I get to design the look for an entire product line. I created the formats for DUNGEONS & DRAGONS®, STAR FRONTIERS®, the DRAGONLANCE® Legends novels, and the BOOT HILL® revision. Recently, I did the new department headers for AMAZING STORIES® magazine. Some of the individual products I’m most proud of are the 2001™ and 2010™ modules for STAR FRONTIERS®, the Art of the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® Fantasy Game book, and the new AGENT 13™ novel series."
Wow, was she important to TSR or what! Her career journey was like so many of us - non-traditional and non-linear. But once at TSR, she went from keyliner to graphic designer to senior designer to art director.
So, it sounds like, me and millions of others have a lot to be grateful for to Ruth. She obviously played an instrumental part in the look, feel, design and final result of so many TSR products. Thank you Ruth!
One last find within the confines of this barbarous box deserves mention - the very first adventure that I designed for my brother and our friend. It was for this very Conan game.
Looking through my carefully organized pages, I can’t help but be proud of the imagination, creativity and most of all, follow-through I took at an age when I didn’t follow through on much. Carefully thought-out scenarios, enemy stats and maps – I had it covered. I recall even being extra careful to make my handwriting neat even though I would be the only one to see it – it was somehow important to me.
I realize now that fantasy books & games served me as both a life coach and a motivational speaker.
What a personal revelation, breakthrough, and confirmation. In fact, finding this self-written adventure is one of the biggest reasons I started this blog and am writing my own fantasy gamebooks.
Career advice I received often in my life fit into one of two options:
Option 1: Go to school, find a good company, work hard, and one day retire so you can THEN enjoy the things you want to do
Option 2: Find where your strengths intersect with your passions and do that, so you’ll never have to work a day in your life
I tried Option 1 for most of my life, too scared of Option 2. I put aside the “childish” things into crates, boxes, and the shadowed corners of my mind where they collected cobwebs and could-have’s.
Life’s too short. I don’t know where Option 2 will eventually lead me, but By Crom – it sure is fun.
If you enjoyed this article, make sure to check out some of my other recent ones, including:
Coming Soon: Another Fabled Finds article about FaNaTtiK’s 40 year anniversary Dungeons & Dragons products!
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