Welcome to the Hyborian Age
‘Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars — Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.’
– The Nemedian Chronicles (from The Phoenix on the Sword)
The Hyborian Age refers to the scant few hundred years during which the kingdoms descended from the old Hyborian tribes became civilised and powerful, dominating the lands around them both economically and militarily. This is a mythical time thousands of years before recorded history, when even the continents were shaped differently than they are now.
Aquilonia, a richly fertile land, dominates the Hyborian kingdoms. It includes within its capacious borders some of the doughtiest soldiers in the world, including the fierce pikemen of Gunderland, the stalwart archers of the Bossonian Marches and the superb knights of Poitain. These men, armed by Aquilonia’s highly skilled armourers, ensure that this nation is virtually unassailable and allow Aquilonia to get the best of the raiding in its sporadic wars with its traditional enemy, Nemedia.
Despite this, Aquilonia can sometimes be a victim of its own success. It is landlocked and its surplus population has nowhere to expand without going to fullscale war with Nemedia. Various attempts to settle in Cimmeria and the Pictish Wilderness have been repulsed by the barbarians of those lands. Aquilonia’s ordinary farmers and craftsmen look longingly upon the vast forested estates claimed by its nobles for their hunting. A strong leader who offers to cut down the forests and let the people settle there might one day gain enough popular support to wrest control from Aquilonia’s ancient monarchy. Indeed, this is exactly how Conan eventually becomes King there.
Aquilonia’s Hyborian neighbours are its old rival Nemedia, which is a civilisation almost as powerful and perhaps more ancient; Brythunia and Corinthia with their citystates; Argos, the great maritime trading nation; and Ophir and Koth, two kingdoms somewhat weakened morally by the influence of the pleasure-oriented culture of the east. Like Aquilonia, most of these countries revere Mitra, an enlightened, civilised god, though Koth and perhaps Ophir have allowed the Shemite pantheon to displace Mitra in their reverence.
The lands to the north and west of Aquilonia are beyond civilisation. The Pictish Wilderness extends up much of the continent’s western coast and only the heavily fortified strip of land known as the Bossonian Marches prevents the Picts from surging into Aquilonia on constant raids. South of the Wilderness is Zingara, the lifelong rival of Argos for maritime trade and influence, a land of expert swordsmen, chivalry and frequent civil war. Just off its coast are the Barachan Isles. These are pirate strongholds largely settled by Argossean sailors, who regularly plunder Zingaran ports and do battle with Zingara’s own buccaneers. North of the Aquilonian province of Gunderland is Cimmeria. This misty, barbaric hill country is the original home of Conan himself. Beyond Cimmeria are the two nations of the Nordheimir: Asgard and Vanaheim. These are grim, icy lands populated by warriors who are grimmer still. Also to the north is Hyperborea, the culture of which mingles those of Nordheim and the Hyborians. The sparsely populated Border Kingdoms form a bulwark between Cimmeria and the Hyborian countries of Brythunia and Nemedia. East of the Hyborian kingdoms is the ancient civilisation of Zamora. Bordering on Brythunia, Corinthia and Koth to the west and the trackless steppes between Shem and Turan to the east, Zamora is famed for its complex religion of spider-worship, its unequalled thieves and its superb Bhalkhana warhorses.
South of the Hyborian kingdoms is the vast expanse of Shem, with a pastoral meadowland of city-states to the west and desert populated by nomad tribes to the east. Shem has almost no maritime trade but Shemite merchants send caravans far to the north, east and south, across trackless desert, through jungle and to almost every nation of the world. South of Shem is the ancient sorcerous theocracy of Stygia. Beyond that lies the unexplored, savage continent of Kush.
East of the Shemite desert is unknown territory for most Hyborians. It is said the kingdoms of Turan, Khitai and Vendhya control the lands beyond the desert and steppe and caravans do sometimes come out of these mysterious lands with exotic goods and strange artefacts for trade. The folk of these lands are often strange to Hyborian eyes. The nomads of Shem are fierce and primal; they travel from Turan to Zamora with only their mounts, a few herd animals, white robes to ward off the harsh sun, lances and bows for hunting and war. The Kshatriya warrior nobles of Vendhya belong to a heavily stratified society which has endured and prospered for centuries. The upstart Shahs and warriors of Turan, recently no more than Hyrkanian horsemen, now control much of the east and its wealth. The cat-footed men of Khitai, sorcerers and priests, chime brass bells in their lost jungles. The savage warriors of Kush and beyond, clad only in feathered headdresses, are as ready to bash in an enemy’s skull as they are to breathe. Adventuring within the Hyborian kingdoms is well suited to more martial characters who are happy enough to join a mercenary company and fight where they are ordered. For those thieves content to rob the occasional merchant caravan or rich household, the Hyborian lands can also provide a good life, if perhaps a short one.
Beyond the civilised lands lies adventure: lost cities still populated with mysterious civilisations, ancient tombs filled with sorcerous artefacts, unexplored jungles, weird kingdoms whose customs and even language are utterly unlike anything known in Aquilonia. For those who are not afraid of the unknown and are prepared to risk everything on a wild venture, untold wealth awaits – riches from before the dawn of time, hidden pirate treasure-caches and the war chests of defeated kingdoms are there for the taking. Here, too, can be found monsters – the legendary manapes, the dragons of Kush, the primeval forest beasts of the Pictish Wilderness, the enormous serpents of Stygia and many a strange, unique creature, created or summoned by sorcery in past aeons. All these foes are terrifying to behold but it is said that most can be slain by a man with a stout heart, strong arm and sharp blade. The demons of the Outer Dark, called up by sorcery or trapped on Earth by bad luck, can be quite another matter.
The open seas provide another set of challenges. Pirates abound in the Western Sea, up and down the Black Coast and far to the east in the Vilayet Sea. So successful are these raiders that most are as confident about attacking a fortified port town as they are when simply taking merchant ships. Whether hired to guard against pirate attacks, engaged in a spot of buccaneering themselves or exploring the seas for mysterious islands and new continents, adventurers can get into a lot of trouble – and gain a lot of coin – sailing these blood-drenched waters.
On a more spiritual note, most nations have a religion of some kind. Few have any proof that their religions provide anything more than comfort for the soul but this does not stop them believing. The only folk who know of such matters with certainty are the sorcerers, who are for the most part assured of damnation.
Many of the movers and shakers of society, particularly in the sorcerous land of Stygia, are either sorcerers themselves or regularly employ sorcerers to get what they want. Occasionally a genuinely pious priest will learn a little sorcery to fox the wizards of his enemies but he must be careful. Sorcery carries a risk of corruption even for goodhearted folk, for sorcery is power. Those scholars driven to the study of magic purely by a quest for knowledge are often the first to abandon their lofty ideals when they develop a taste for the pure power of wizardry.
The sorcerers speak of other realms beyond the Earth of the Hyborian Age. The Outer Dark is home to demons; hell itself is home to more diabolic creatures and to lost souls. Beyond the Outer Dark are more planets, often cold and accursed, the sources of many a weird monster travelling through the void.
The Nature of Conan`s Hyboria
Is the Hyborian Age a Low Magic or Low Fantasy Setting? Emphatically not. Most of the Conan stories, even those that focus predominantly on battling armies or conflicts between individual warriors, feature at least one evil sorcerer and often whole societies, priesthoods or covens of them. Magical items abound too, though not the beneficial swords of power and useful wands of typical fantasy games. Almost all sorcerous objects are unique and come with their own price and risks. Likewise, strange creatures are relatively common in the lands beyond civilisation, whether created by foul magic, left over from an earlier age, or somehow degenerated from savage humans over the centuries. Though an ordinary citizen of Aquilonia may never encounter a sorcerer, weird ghoul or alchemical preparation, the adventurer will have to become used to such things.
However, Conan as originally visualised by Howard is not ‘high fantasy’ but sword-and-sorcery. It has much the same relationship to the works of Tolkien and his lesser imitators as the hard-boiled crime fiction of Raymond Chandler has to the more proper detective tales of Agatha Christie. This is visceral, dark, weird fantasy.
There are no elves, gnomes and dwarves to befriend. If one does meet a monster it will be a figure of terror, not a convenient way to garner a few experience points. Furthermore, characters do not begin the game with some great destiny to fulfil, as the descendant of a legendary kingdom or the inheritor of some great artefact. Each must wrest his destiny from life with his own mighty arms, or cut one from it with his sword!
It should also be noted that despite its apparently common presence in the Conan stories, the supernatural is always mysterious and terrifying. A supernatural element is deftly woven into the main plot but it is often scheming human foes whose plots provide Conan with his most dangerous adventures. The weird non-human creatures one meets must often be fled from rather than simply battled. On several occasions Conan elects to abandon any chance at a staggering bounty rather than be destroyed by its dreadful guardians. The wise adventurer should consider doing the same.