Fight Analysis: Conan the Barbarian

Inspired by Hans-Christian Vortisch‘s wonderful Gurps breakdowns of shootouts from movies and TV shows (here‘s a recent one), and Mailanka‘s equally meticulous turn-by-turn analyses of Star Wars lightsaber fights (like this one), I decided to try my hand at the same. Now, it’s a point of pride and principle that my favorite film is Conan the Barbarian (John Milius, 1982), one of the great flawed masterpieces of auteur cinema. It’s got plenty of fights – Conan’s first pit fight is, and I write this with no irony whatever, a fantastic depiction of brutal, terrifying, personal violence – but I figured I’d focus on one particular gem. The one with the camel.

Watch the scene first. It’s only a 23-second clip, and the action starts at 0:11.


Conan and his buddy, Subotai, are high on Stygian black lotus, wandering about town like a pair of regular barbarians. It’s night, but the area of the city they’re in is well-lit, for only a -2 visibility penalty. Conan sees something amusingly unnatural going on in a tent and points it out to Subotai. The camel (p. B459) is minding its own business, standing still.

1st second

Conan fails a Vision roll, at -2 for the black lotus (we’ll assume the effects are equivalent to Drunk, p. 428), -2 for darkness, and +1 for the size of what he misses: the camel. This can be treated as an inadvertent Slam (p. B371).

Neither one of the combatants is expecting trouble, so this is a case of Surprise Attacks and Initiative (p. B393). Both sides surprise each other, so as per Partial Surprise, this requires an initiative roll, one of the very few cases in Gurps where you don’t roll 3d6. Conan is the leader of his side, so he gets +2 for Combat Reflexes, and another +1 for having the higher IQ, but the -2 for intoxication is certainly appropriate here. The camel just rolls 1d. Conan wins, so the camel is mentally stunned, and must take the Do Nothing maneuver, and gets -4 to defend against the slam.

The camel fails its dodge roll at -4, and the two collide: at a velocity of 1 yard per second, both Cimmerian and camel deal each other 1d-3 damage. Neither one is injured, or forced to make a DX roll to stay on their feet.

2nd Second

Conan takes the All-Out Attack (Strong) maneuver (p. B365), using a Brawling punch with the Telegraphic Attack option (Martial Arts, p.113), targeting the camel’s skull. He takes -2 for intoxication, -2 for darkness, and -7 for hit location, but gets +4 for Telegraphic Attack and +1 for the camel’s size: -6 total. The attack roll succeeds, and Conan takes a step back, out of close combat.

The camel gets to dodge, but suffers -4 for stun. On the other hand, it gets +2 because of Conan’s Telegraphic Attack; the attack comes from the side, but camels have Peripheral Vision, so there’s no defense penalty for that. At -2 total, the camel has to roll 6 or less to dodge, and fails.

Assuming ST 19 and at least 4 points in Brawling, Conan deals a total of 2d+2 crushing: 2d-1 thr, -1 for punch, +1/die for Brawling, +2 for All-Out Attack (Strong). He needs to deal 12 points of injury to cause a major wound to the camel, with its HP 22. With DR 2 and a ×4 wounding modifier, this requires only 5 points of damage, easy on 2d+2.

The camel makes a HT roll at -10 for a major wound to the skull. This gives an effective HT of 2, which normally would not even permit a roll, but since the consequences depend on the margin of failure, we roll anyway; failing by 5 or more, the camel falls unconscious. The fight ends.

It’s a goofball scene, but writing this analysis did prompt me to read the relevant rules more carefully. Here are a couple of things that surprised me:

Firstly, Total Surprise is murder on animals. If the camel were totally surprised, it would have to roll against its IQ 3 each turn to recover. There’s no cumulative bonus, and no modifiers are specified for being attacked, wounded, told to “snap out of it” etc., so at a 0.46% chance of recovering each second, there’s roughly a 75% chance a camel would miss a fight that lasts a whole minute. That’s right, if you surprise attack an animal without Combat Reflexes, it will pretty much never manage to run off or fight back! This needs to be house ruled immediately; I would say you can replace the IQ roll with a Per-2 roll, if better.

Secondly, defense rolls apparently don’t suffer visibility penalties, only a -4 for not being able to see the attacker. I assume that a darkness penalty less than -10 would not qualify. I think this is slightly problematic, because if attackers are severely penalized but defenders aren’t, fights will drag on forever. From the perspective of realism, I also don’t really see the reason: why would bad visibility degrade the ability to swing a stick at someone, but not to see the stick coming and get out of the way? Then again, if the darkness penalty is, say, -8, most fighters will end up using All-Out Attack (Committed) anyway, so two fighters in such a situation will not be defending all that much. Still, I think I’ll go on imposing visibility penalties on defense rolls as I mistakenly have, but maybe capping them at -4.

One question not addressed above: why does Conan attack the camel? While certainly a player might just decide to do something pointlessly violent like that – why play Conan if you’re not going to get into fights – this is just so random that I have another theory: Conan has either Bad Temper, Impulsiveness, or a Compulsive Behavior for fighting. Compulsive Fighting or Compulsive Brawling don’t appear in any of the books, but they sure make sense for some people. Conan’s Self-Control is 12 or maybe 15, so he could usually laugh something like this off, but the rules for drunkenness include an interesting detail: a -4 penalty to Self-Control rolls. Another option, going a bit into house rule territory, is to have drunkenness impose a temporary Impulsiveness disadvantage – quite realistic, in my opinion. So, on a boys’ night out, Conan tries Stygian black lotus for the first time, gets way higher than planned, and ends up punching a camel. It could happen to anyone.

4 thoughts on “Fight Analysis: Conan the Barbarian

  1. The camel has an effective IQ of 12 for surprise and recovery, as stated in the GURPS 3E Bestiary – does 4E have equivalent rules? That may negate the requirement for a house rule.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point about 3e. If there is an equivalent rule in 4e, I haven’t run across it. Nor would I think it’s a very good rule if there were: 4e is pretty devoted to not treating animals as some kind of special case, they’re just characters with IQ 5-. Now, I think there are some shortcomings in the way the system actually handles this, but I think it’s a great principle. In fact, I’ve run a scenario (the first session of Sleepless Nights) where one of the player characters was a dog, fully on equal footing with the other characters!


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