'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,' the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. 'Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'

-Robert E. Howard
Beyond The Black River

Friday, October 19, 2018

Conan 2d20. Skill Trials

In previous articles I have talked about how success in Conan2d20 aren't simply pass/fail. There is a measure of how well a character completes a skill test; how well you attack, observe or hide. Momentum is an easy way to track this, each point you generate allows you cause more damage, do cool stunts or learn more about your environment.

Generally failure is, however, still failure. The one place this is different is combat. If I am fighting a skeleton and I make a melee skill check to hit and I fail, the skeleton is still there. I get to try again to succeed in the next round. Compare this to your party sage trying to decipher ancient runes on the wall. If he rolls a failure, it's all over and the meaning of the writing is lost forever, beyond the abilities of our heroes. Certainly there are mechanics in games that work to address this, such as "taking 20" but most of these make the assumption that the player and their character has essentially unlimited time to solve the puzzle or make the skill check.

Today we are going to try and address this potential issue with something I am calling a "Trial". I didn't invent this mechanic. Several other systems use it, such as ICRPG and the AGE system. (It has been noted since I published this that both the Infinty and Star Trek 2d20 RPG systems have similar mechanics.) These "Trials" also works well once it is placed alongside the "TIMER" mechanic from ICRPG. Now rolling a failure, in a time sensitive encounter, doesn't mean they will never know what it says. Now it just takes them longer to figure it out. How long it takes might be a key part of a combat encounter; can the sage get the door open before the horde of ghouls overwhelms the party?

Some ideas for skill tests that might benefit from these "Trials" are deciphering runes, solving puzzles, exploring ruins or jungles, negotiating costs etc. It can give your non-combat characters the ability to work to complete something during combat and contribute to success of the party instead of taking the backseat.

The Basic Idea

The current iteration of the system is quite simple. I make a note like 10-D3, which signifies a 10 momentum D3 challenge. Succeeding at the challenge lowers the total by 1 and momentum generated goes towards solving the puzzle or being stored in the pool. When challenge momentum reaches 10 you have solved the puzzle, deciphered the runes, made it through the jungle etc.

Probably the easiest way to track this is to pick a momentum score that is a multiple of one of the types of dice we use for general RPG play, this way you can easily use a die to track how much progress a players has made. You could even get a special set of dice that you use only for "Trials", this way players can easily tell what they are and how much work still needs to be done.

Round 1:
Our Sage, Altan, has come across a series of strange runes at the end of a corridor. He suspects deciphering the runes is key to opening the passage, and so sets to work.
Player: I try and decipher the runes.
GM: Ok it's a 5-D3 test.
Player: I will roll 4d20 against his Lore score of 13/2 and get 8,9,15,13.
Altan looks over the runes and begins his work to decipher them. At first he doesn't recognize anything, but finally he thinks he has a good place to start and continues to work on them.

Round 2:
Altan continues to work on deciphering the runes, as his work continues his fellow adventurers hold off the ongoing things in the dark, but time runs short and his friends are being to fall back.
Player: I continue to try working on the runes.
GM: OK, since you succeeded last time it is now a 4-D3 test.
Player: I will roll 5d20 against his Lore score of 13/2 and I will use a Fortune for one of the dice. 10,5,17,19,1. Giving me 1 point of momentum.
GM: The test has been reduced to a 2d3 test. Altan works hurriedly decoding and deciphering, he believes he has slightly more than half of the words figured out, but they still don't make much sense.

Round 3:
In the darkness, something large stalks towards the party. Four warriors standing, heaving with exhaustion. Blood and sweat drip down their bodies. Behind them, seeking the way out, an older man in robes hurriedly works, scrawling in a notebook.
GM: Something large will be upon your party next round
Player: I continue to work!
GM: OK, We now have a 2-D3 test! All you need is success and a momentum! .
Player: I will roll 5d20 again agains his Lore score of 13/2. I roll 17,10,4,4,12, giving me 4 successes!
GM: You solve the runes! They are an ancient version of Turanian your didn't initially recognize. They tell you to how to open this passage and so you do, allowing you and your fellows to escape the coming doom.

Lending a hand

Assistance generally works the same as before, players can try and lend a hand by rolling an extra die and hopefully adding momentum to the pool. It was suggested another way to handle this is to allow the players to choose which skill they will roll against to offer the assistance. All they have to do is narrate their character using the skill in the scene.

Our Heroes set out into the desert looking for a long forgotten tomb of an ancient Stygian king. All they have is a map and the setting sun.
GM: It is going to take you 10-D2 Survival Trialto navigate the desert with the information you have. Failing a test will cause fatigue to occur. Player 1: I have the highest Survival test so I will make that as a roll.
GM: Will anyone assist?
Player 2: My alchemist would like to use Lore to assist to better understand the map.
Player 3: I would like to use Observation to keep a keen eye on the horizon and make sure we are not going astray.
Player 4: I use my counsel skill to keep everyone's spirits up, hoping the high moral will keep our heads about us.
GM: Ok. make your rolls!
Player 1: As lead I roll 5d20 against my Survival of 14/2. I roll 13,7,8,8,16 = Success and 3 momentum.
Player 2: I roll my assist vs my Lore of 13/1. 10 = +1 momentum
Player 3: My roll vs. my Observation of 12/2 is 3 = +1 momentum.
player 4: I roll against my Counsel of 12/2. I get a 5. +1 momentum!
GM: Your total is 7, reducing the "Trial" to a 3-D2 test on your next round.

Fatigue and Despair

If your players are exploring a deep oppressive dungeons, parching desert or big infested swamps, it might be worth while having a negative effect to an outright skill check failure. Perhaps if the party is working on a Survival Trial, rolling to navigate the desert and they fail it can be assumed they wander hopelessly and gain 1cd Fatigue, and likewise if trapped in the oppressive dark of a dungeon and they fail they gain 1cd Despair.


The simplest complication is to raise the difficulty of the next test by 1. But other things could occur depending on what the test is. In a dungeon? Perhaps they set off a trap. In a desert? Perhaps they encounter a snake and they take 2cd before killing it. Negotiating in a tavern? Maybe they have been pickpocketed and lose 1cd+1 gold. Another idea is, especially if they are burning through the test too fast, to extend the length of the test by 2 per complication, or some variant depending on how much you want to slow them down.


I have used this a few times and find it to be a decent way to abstract explorations without having to focus on mapping. It allows you plenty of places to use combat and encounters to spice things up. It also allows non-combat characters to participate more and at a similar level to combat characters. Going forward I have a few more articles planned that will utilize this mechanic to enhance your sessions of Conan 2d20.

Till next time, don't forget to Keep it Weird!


  1. Gostei, me lembrou dos Desafios de PerĂ­cia do D&D4. Vou usar a ideia em minha campanha de Mutant Chronicles!