On Mighty Thews is an independently published RPG by Simon Carryer that is available as a PDF for the low, low price of $5 through the indie rpgs un-store. As anyone who is familiar with Robert E. Howard’s writing, the title is a reference to Howard’s best known character: Conan. Aimed squarely at creating pulp swords & sorcery short stories in the style of Howard, Moorcock, and Leiber. It’s a story game that focuses on creating interesting, action filled stories without bogging down in five-foot shifts or counting experience points. It’s also designed to be virtually prep-free, making it an ideal game for a convention or a night when you find yourself short a player or two.
The PDF is a 51-page, black & white book with a color cover making it inexpensive to print-out. However, the book also sports a hyper-linked table of contents which is a really nice touch since it makes running the game straight from a reader or computer very easy and thus printing it isn’t really necessary.
The layout of the book is fairly straight-forward and utilitarian, which while not highly exciting to look at, does make the book easy on the eyes and easy to use. The book’s art, while fairly sparse, is good looking with a nice cover and some cool, genre appropriate art. It is also well edited and proof-read: I spotted no typos or weird layout issues, nor did I run into any sections I need to read three times to parse the language. Taken together, the book is well put together, with a fine attention to detail.
The Game Itself
Character creation is a very fast and simple affair: Each character is defined by three attributes which describe a broad skill set – Warrior, Sorcerer, & Explorer. Each of these is assigned a die type (d4, d8, & d12). The higher the die, the better the character is at that area.
Next each character is given two extra abilities which define what makes the character unique. You can think of these as skill specialties but chosen to be a bit broader rather than highly specific. These abilities are brought in when applicable. To each of these another die is assigned (d6 & d10). Again, the higher the die, the better.
Finally each character is given a d20 Trait. This is a single word that defines how the character acts the majority of the time. Think of it as defining your personality, beliefs, or motto. It’s called a d20 trait because you assign a d20 to it.
After character creation, the group deals with setting creation, working together by discussing their basic ideas for the world and looking at the characters’ abilities and traits. They then take a sheet of paper and draw out a map of the world, establishing poles on the map – each player marks a point on the map and writes the name of their character’s d20 trait next to it. From there, each person at the table draws a few things on to the map, using the labels on the poles to influence what surrounds it. For example, if one of the poles is “Blood-thirsty” then the area around that pole may contain cannibals, or could involve a demonic cult, or sport a landscape of sharp, black basalt that cuts those who try to cross it. They can add exciting places of danger or adventure too.
If this sounds like an odd way to run a game, it is, and that’s what makes it so cool in my opinion. What the group is doing is creating a setting which reflects the traits of the characters, mirroring back what makes them special and quickly providing a rich tapestry of ideas for the GM to use as he creates the story. In addition, the fact that everyone at the table is contributing to the “world” everyone has a stake in the setting and the GM’s job of finding what interests the players is virtually effortless. The map doesn’t have to represent an entire world by the way: It can be limited to a single country, a city, or even just a cave complex.
Once the map is completed (or more accurately just barely fleshed out), the group picks an area that excites them all and the adventure begins.
Actual play is broken in to scenes. The GM sets the scene, describing who’s there and what’s going on, and then play is handed over to the players. Details are filled in by the players asking questions and interacting with the world. In other words, play is pretty traditional, but because the whole setting and adventure is being improvised, the GM is relying more on the few details created by the group during the map-creation process as well as personal inspiration. In other words, you’re improvising the entire adventure (though obviously you can steal ideas from books, movies, etc) which to some GMs may be a rather terrifying prospect but it’s fairly easy since you’re feeding off what the players say and do, and the rules are simple enough to handle virtually any situation that might come up.
So far I’ve described the game as if it’s just a lot of talking and that’s a big part of it – roleplaying by describing what you do and say. However, in certain situations, the dice hit the table; specifically when a character attempts something dangerous, when two characters are competing, or when two or more characters are fighting. Again, this is very traditional RPG stuff with the exception of the first bit: You don’t roll dice for “skill checks” unless there is some obvious danger to the character – otherwise they automatically succeed. In other words, you don’t roll perception checks to find a secret door unless that door conceals a horde of orcs behind it.
There’s one exception to all this and that’s the lore roll – it represents what the character already knows about the world and as such when he or she succeeds, the character gets to define a fact about the world. Once again, for a prep-free, collaborative game, this is very appropriate since it both lightens the GM’s workload as well as provides inspiration.
Tests are simple to resolve. Simply put, the player states what want to achieve, the GM says what the price of failure will be, and some dice are rolled.
In terms of dice mechanics, the game uses a fairly straight forward, roll to hit a set target number or roll against your adversary system. Dangerous situations (i.e., the “skill” check) roll against a target of 4. This means that a character with an attribute of a d4 will succeed 25% of the time, while a character with a d12 will succeed 75% of the time. The ability and d20 trait dice are brought in when they apply (e.g., if you have a d8 in “wrestling” you roll that die when you do something related to wrestling), with the higher result from the dice rolled being the one that is used to determine success or failure.
That’s all there is to the conflict mechanics, although there is quite a bit more detail provided to the mechanics in the actual game. This includes a system for degrees of success (i.e., for every 2 points by which you beat the target, you get one degree of success) which is used to gain bonuses on future actions or define a fact about a success, as well as rules which provide for a rich, cinematic, narrative combat sequence. However, I won’t go in to details about all of there. Suffice it to say that I found them well thought out and very story-rich: Injury doesn’t just kill you but instead is evocative of what happens in the literature from which the game takes inspiration: Characters persevere through their injuries, and may be hampered by them, but ultimately they overcome them.
The d20 trait also is brought in to play, granting either a re-roll token at the end of any scene in which the character acts in a way that fits the trait or if giving the player the actual d20 to roll if they are doing something that goes against their trait. While I think this rule is cool and fits the genre, I’m not sure there’s enough of a difference between a re-roll or rolling that d20 in many cases (figuring out which involves some math on the fly which ruins counter to the rest of the game’s design). However, I’d like to see how the rule worked in actual play before passing judgment on it.
That’s about it for the game. It does include some extra material at the end, including some tables and sample maps to help serve as inspiration. These are a thoughtful addition. In particular the maps were great for helping me fully understand how the map-making mechanics work.
I really like On Mighty Thews because it’s a game designed to tell Robert E. Howard short stories – not birth to death sagas, but rather episodic stories of heroics, adventure, and exploration. It’s also something that doesn’t require a great deal of prep, can be learned on the spot by players, and is just the kind of collaborative world-building and story-telling game that I like. Although I haven’t played it yet, I am planning on running it with my group in the near future and even am considering trying it out with the after-school club kids since I think it would be an incredibly easy game to teach.
While the game is clearly set-up to support one-shot play, the making of the map means that the group can return to their world as many times as they want to tell new and exciting stories. Much like Howard’s Conan, the game’s heroes are timeless and thus stories can jump forward or back in time, and there’s no need to worry about advancement, aging, or even continuity.
I also would be remiss in not pointing out that the way the system is designed it will work with nearly any sized group from one on one play to a table of 10, although my gut tells me 2-4 players plus a GM is the sweet spot for the game. This makes it ideal as a back-up game when you happen to be missing players or as an impromptu game at a convention. In any event, On Mighty Thews is definitely worth a look if you’re in to Conan, or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and aren’t afraid of a little improvisational story telling some evening. For $5, it’s a steal.
Full disclosure: I received a complementary review copy of the game from its author.