Last Saturday morning I went out to see the new Conan the Barbarian movie at my local cinemaplex – as I am sure that many of my fellow D&D, Pathfinder, and general heroic fantasy fans did! I shelled out the few extra bucks to watch the 3-D version of the movie, figuring I was getting discounted tickets anyways by hitting the first morning matinee of the day.
Being a big fan of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, I went into the theatre hoping the writers could come up with a script and story for the movie that was evocative of the original author’s vision for the mighty-thewed Cimmerian. Of course, one of the difficulties with portraying Conan is that he is a constantly evolving character, even in the mind of Howard. Howard wrote about Conan at various points in the Cimmerians career, from when he was a foolishly brave thieving youth through times of being a mercenary-for-hire, a pirate captain, a warlord of armies, a tribal chieftain, and finally a king. So any film with Conan as a main character could have a very different take, depending upon what part of his life the script was trying to capture.
But while I entered the movie as a fan of Howard’s Conan and heroic fantasy, I could not help that another part of my mind was analyzing the movie on quite a different level. Being a Dungeon Master, it was only natural that not too long after the light dimmed and the movie got rolling, that I was looking at the plot as an adventure campaign and making notes in my head about what worked and what didn’t from a fantasy gamer point of view.
So what follows is sort of a combination movie review, paired up with a bunch of Dungeon Master tips all from watching Conan the Barbarian (2011). And be forewarned: there is a ton of spoilers in this blog, so if you haven’t seen the movie, chances are good I’m going to ruin some part of it for you. If you have seen the movie, then read on, and see if you agree with my assessment of the film!
In the beginning…
Hollywood loves origin stories of superheroes and adventurers, and both Conan the Barbarian movies (1982 & 2011) have been of that genre. Both scripts take on the task of writing about Conan’s childhood, even though the character’s creator never wrote about it. There is one small comment made by Conan in the novella The Hour of the Dragon referring to his parents: “I have no royal blood,” ground Conan. “I am a barbarian and the son of a blacksmith.” But both films latch onto this factoid and insist upon creating an Conan origin story in the snowy wilds of Cimmeria involving Conan’s daddy, the blacksmith.
Of the two films, I must say I like the 2011 origin story much better, portraying Conan as a child-prodigy at slaying, and young berserker barely held in check by Corin, Conan’s smith father. And the young actor that played “childe Conan” was quite convincing, and even captured much of the intensity later seen in Jason Momoa’s face as he played out Conan the man.
While the story of a mercenary army coming to Cimmeria to destroy Conan’s world, to retrieve the last piece of a magical artifact was also carved of whole cloth, and had nothing to do with Howard’s stories, but set-up a vendetta which would drive Conan through the rest of the movie. And this Cimmerian boy, left to die with his father after his village was destroyed, was much more what I would have expected given the stories of Conan’s teenage adventures The God in the Bowl and The Tower of the Elephant.
- DM Tip #1: Use your Characters’ Backgrounds in your campaign – Like in the movie, a character’s background helps to define him or her for the player. So it’s important to take elements from the back story your players create, and weave them into an adventure now and then. Shine the spotlight away from your NPCs and let it fall on a player now and then, and it will make the game much more memorable for all involved.
He said… what?!
As mentioned before, the main plot of the story is about a ruthless warlord seeking out to rebuild a powerful artifact of the lost civilization of Acheron, and use it to bring back his wife from the dead. It’s sort of similar to the story proposed by Howard in Hour of the Dragon, where Conan’s enemies raised a long-dead Acheronian sorcerer to gain his powers to depose the barbarian King, so I thought it was a pretty decent spin-off of existing material. Howard’s Empire of Acheron is not unlike the ancient Suel of Greyhawk or Netheril from Forgotten Realms, so recovering an artifact made by them is usually considered a bad thing!
I really enjoyed the evil warlord, Khalar Zym, as portrayed by Stephen Lang, best remembered by me as the maniacal colonel in Avatar and as crazy Ike Clanton in Tombstone. He was actually a great villain, because the writer remembered the “golden rule” about making a villain not just a bad guy, but a bad guy for a reason – wanting to bring back from the dead his witch-wife who had been burned at the stake!
- DM Tip #2: A “good” evil villain does not think of himself as a villain: A villain has a reason for doing ruthless acts. The reasons can be noble, passionate, and even “good”, such as righting a personal injustice, so that the villain feels justified, but of course his choice of actions will always be flawed.
But in that same vein, Zym’s witch-daughter Marique (portrayed by Rose McGowen) got on my nerves, because she was merely crazy-evil, and had no real reason for her wickedness other than it being fun. Although, I have to admit the constuming done to transform Rose into Marique was amazing, and it reminded me in some ways of Brom’s Dark Sun artwork, with her hairdos, make-up, and strange finger-claw jewelry.
- DM Tip #3: Fantasy fashions are never out of style: It never hurts to create vivid descriptions of NPCs, from clothing to hair to jewelry, to make them come alive!
I certainly have no complaints about Jason Momoa’s portrayal of Conan either. I had mentioned in a blog last March http://www.neuroglyphgames.com/from-hyperborea-to-athas that I thought he was a good match for the physical appearance of Conan, and he certainly did not disappoint on the screen. The movie’s action sequences and sword-play were awesome, and plenty gory enough to match the fight scenes portrayed in Howard’s writings. Momoa also brought a certain intensity to the screen that I felt Conan would definitely have, and the character was down-right intimidating at times, just as a good Cimmerian barbarian should be.
But where the plot and characters were fairly well steeped in Hyborian lore, the dialogues left a lot to be desired. Khalar Zym had some great speeches, but both Marique and Conan had some lines that had me cringing in my seat. And although Momoa portrayed a great Conan, and had a great delivery of his lines, some of the things he said just felt very un-Conan-like to me.
- DM Tip #4: Speak in character and say the “appropriate” thing: Try to stay in character when portraying NPCs, and more importantly, say things that make sense for the character. Don’t make an orc quote Shakespeare without a darned good reason, and don’t have a nobleman reply back to the characters in “d00d sp33kz”. Nothing ruins a role-playing moment faster than a non-player character that speaks in a way that makes no sense to their race/class/background.
But it looked great on paper…
So we have a new “origin” movie for Conan, a great physical actor to play the battle-hardened Cimmerian, and a plot that, in principal, draws upon some of the Hyborian Lore proposed by Howard. But there also needs to be a certain amount of attention paid to the setting of Hyboria, and the film did a pretty good job in that department.
It looked like the script-writers did some decent research into Howard’s prehistoric world, and there was a decent homage given to many of the major races in Conan’s Hyboria, beyond the mention of the ancient civilization of Acheron. There was a whole village of Cimmerians to start, as well as Pictish raiders for boy Conan to hack apart to prove how awesome he was. In addition, there was a whole army of Aquilonian mercenaries to destroy Conan’s home village – and frankly you’d need an army to wipe out a pack of Cimmerians – plus some Nemedians, Zangaran thieves, some guys that might have been Kushites, and a ship full of Zamoran pirates. There weren’t any Stygians that I saw – which was a pity – although they never completely identified the ethnicity of Khalar Zym and his charming witch-daughter.
- DM Tip #5: Expose your players to a variety of cultures: Make the world come to life by introducing new cultures, manners of dress and behavior from NPCs. And you don’t have to make your characters travel all over the world to interact with a variety of cultures: armies and raiders from other areas can bring foreign influences to the characters, without much travel at all!
On paper, all this would seem to be a solid formula for getting the film rolling in the right direction. But alas, there were a few problems with the “Acheron artifact” plotline that just did not add up, and no amount of sword-hacking was going to fill in the gaps of the plot.
For instance, the evil artifact from ancient Acheron – a wicked looking tentacle mask made of bone – could only function by using the “pure blood” of a descendant of the Acheronian sorcerers. As it so happened, some monks of Shai-pur happened to be cultivating the last remaining descendent of the ancient Acheronians. The damsel, named Tamara, would have to be sacrificed to activate the mask and to restore Khalar Zym’s wife back from the dead.
Ok, so if the only purpose of this mask is to do terrible evil and it can only be activated by the pure blood of Acheron, then exactly what were the peaceful Shai-pur monks hoping to gain by keeping the last scion of Acheron alive in their monestary?! I get that Conan needs to have a reason to rescue a lady, which is a stock formula in a number of Howard’s stories, but the pure-blood-damsel-macguffin just doesn’t make any sense if she is the only one capable of restoring a major Acheronian artifact! Why keep the bloodline pure in the first place if it’s so darned dangerous – it would seem insane for the monks to meticulously keep an Acheronian breeding program going!
- DM Tip #6: Make sure your plot elements fit logically together: Think plot elements through, and use your macguffins carefully. Sure they help drive the story forward, but there is nothing quite so embarrassing at the gaming table to have your players look at you across the DM screen and say, “But that makes no sense!”
Gimme blood and guts!
If the plot and dialogue were a bit lackluster, at least I can say that I liked the action. There were tons of great fight scenes in the movie, an action packed horse-carriage chase scene, and lots of blood and gore. One of my favorite fight scenes in the movie was the battle against the “sand warriors”: zombie-like creatures conjured by Marique to kill Conan, and capture Tamara.
The creatures looked creepy and spawned out of the dust, and could dive right back into the dust, and were destroyed with a single strike. As I watched them, I immediately thought, “Hey, Conan’s fighting minions!” It was a perfect lead up to the first confrontation between Conan and Khalar Zym, and he barely escaped with his life and Tamara in hand.
- DM Tip #7: More Minions: Lately, I’ve been using a lot more minions in my encounters, usually 6-8 per encounter, and giving them some cool powers to make them scarier and more dangerous to ignore. Minions make great additions to any fight, and waves of them are perfect for leading up to a “boss” fight against a major NPC villain or a big-bad-monster.
Another aspect of the movie I liked was the use of minor villains that worked for the Khalar Zym. These villains were readily recognizable to Conan, as they were part of the raiding force who destroyed his village when he was a boy, and gave him signposts to know he was getting closer to finding Zym. Each of the minor villains were of a different Hyborian race, had unique fighting weapons and armor, and made for some of the niftier fight scenes in the movie.
- DM Tip #8: Mini-bosses FTW: When working out a campaign or adventure plot, figure out places to put in minor villains or “mini-bosses” for the characters to defeat before meeting the final boss. A “mini-boss” can be created by adding a leader power to a standard mob, and up a defense or two and you have a terrific bad guy to face on the way to meet the mastermind villain. Elites made with a template work too, and make sure to give the monster or NPC a specific name, to make sure the characters know this is an important fight in the adventure.
But one thing that was lacking from the movie, which was a seen many times in the Howard stories was the big nasty other-worldy creature! Demonic and bizarre creatures were forever plaguing Conan in the pulp fiction stories, usually threatening his lady-companion, but just as often planning to have itself a snack of well-muscled barbarian. The only creature that even remotely fit the bill was the tentacled horror known as the “watcher”, but it turned out to be fairly lame, trapped as it was under a grate in a pool of water. It was too easily avoided, and hardly made for an epic fight that Howard would have portrayed.
And the Acheronian Mask of Pure Evilosity? Also lame. When you see a mask drink the blood of a sacrificial victim, and start wiggling its tentacles like an alien face-hugger, you kind of expect it to be way more cool than just making the wearers voice louder and more resonant. And when the big bad ritual gets interrupted, one would expect that surely then the mask of eviliciousness would turn on the wearer and make him turn into a demon or something for screwing up the magic. But no, nothing like that. In fact, all I could tell about the mask was that it had this power:
Power (Daily) Cause Localized Earthquake: Once per day, the wearer of the Bone Mask of Pure Acheronian Evil can cause a small localized earthquake in the area, and collapse any buildings on top of themselves and their companions.
So in the end, the climax was, frankly, anticlimactic, and not really in keeping with the traditional ending for a Conan story as Howard would have written it.
- DM Tip #9: Make the final battle an epic: Pull out all the stops in the final battle of an adventure or campaign arc! Use hazards and terrain effects to create added threat to the heroes, and add plot elements like puzzles, traps, or devices to deal with, to keep the players plotting how to win even when it is not their turn to swing at the villains. If there is an artifact or ritual involved in the final battle, make sure it is spectacular and dynamic to make the fight all that more exciting and visual for the players.
It seems shocking that anyone could have done enough research to make a script which included so many great “Conan” elements, some awesome fight scenes, and was giving a decent homage to the Hyborian setting created by Howard, yet fail to come up with those landmark story elements, such as otherworldly demonic creatures and creepy magic spells, or even some decent lines for the adult Conan to shout out at his enemies.
Still, the movie was fun to watch, and for fans who are not quite so much a Conan-grognard as I am, will probably enjoy it pretty well. It was good enough to make me want to see Jason Momoa play Conan again in a sequel, but I hope they get a decent script next time, and a writer who pays more than a passing deference to the amazing world that Robert E. Howard created!
Oh, and don’t bother going back to see it in 3-D… I wasn’t all that impressed with the added “depth”.
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!