Writing Savage Fantasy – Conan’s Queen of the Red City

August 17, 2020

There are many sub-genres of fantasy adventure — high fantasy, low fantasy, style sword and sorcery, whatever Planescape is, and lots more.

But my favorite type of fantasy for a one-shot adventure is savage fantasy. Savage fantasy’s defining pillar is that it is dangerous, unpredictable, and unbalanced.

Tough and unpredictable adventures are perfect for one-shots, largely because players tend to be more reckless with their characters. Everyone has fun when heroes get in over their heads, and then barely scrape by with their lives. And like a Call of Cthulhu game, if a character fumbles and dies horrifically, that often makes for a better story.*

The thrill and danger of savage fantasy comes from three sources:

Savage Foes

In savage fantasy, the enemies don’t care what level the PCs are. If you sneak into a sorcerer’s tower to steal his diamond, you don’t know whether it will be guarded by a single, sleeping cultist… or a colossal snake demon that will devour your soul. And to keep players from getting too overconfident, savage fantasy GMs surprise players with exotic and unfamiliar monsters. Even if you’re using the statistics of an off-the-shelf orc, a savage fantasy GM describes it as a malformed, barbed half-demon with three eyes — something that players will think twice about charging.

Not key to the adventure… but a mysterious side-story!

A Dangerous World

A savage fantasy world is dangerous, mysterious, and often unexplored. Savage adventures often take place in primeval jungles, lost ruins, and faraway seas. These are locales where the PCs will feel surrounded by the dangerous unknown and have the sensation that the natural world will eventually overcome them. Also, savage fantasy worlds often allow some degree of exploration and hint to adventures past and future — Atlantean swords buried in unexplained tombs, assassins who inexplicably know the heroes’ plans, or a famous warrior has an unheard-of grudge against one of the PCs.

Bold Choices

Savage fantasy adventures let players make bold choices. A one-shot adventure is typically episodic, with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. But a savage fantasy adventure leaves opportunities for open-ended adventure, and always presents players with options to recklessly charge into the unknown. GMs should place plot hooks inside the adventure that give players agency, invite them to craft more of the storyline themselves, and hang themselves if they choose carelessly.

I decided to embrace sword and sorcery, savage fantasy in this month’s one shot adventure — Queen of the Red City, available for both GURPS, D&D 5E, and Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Hither Came Conan

A classic, savage solo adventure

Set in Hyboria (the world of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories), Queen of the Red City is a sandbox adventure set on a lost jungle isle. I think it checks all the boxes of savage fantasy — a primeval jungle makes for a treacherous setting, there are varied and dangerous creatures, and the sandbox format means that players can be as cautious or as reckless as they want.

While there are no outright deathtraps in the adventure, there are definitely regions where PCs can get way over their heads. (I yet to have a party captured by armored man-apes and sacrificed to sarchosuchus crocodiles, but I’m hoping it happens…)

Because savage fantasy genre often features strongly self-motivated characters, I made sure to include a clear propelling force for each of the pregenerated characters. This is really key to a strong savage fantasy one-shot. Give each of your PCs a clear goal from the start. In Queen of the Red City, all the PCs have reasons to explore the island, some obvious (legendary treasure!), some personal (finding a lost sister), and some more complex (proving herself to be a better captain). But from the moment their PCs step off the boat on to the island, they are in charge of the adventure.

Download Queen of the Red City here:


Get QUEEN OF THE RED CITY - GURPS Conan - Printer Friendly


Get QUEEN OF THE RED CITY - D&D 5E - Printer Friendly

Get QUEEN OF THE RED CITY - Dungeon Crawl Classics

Get QUEEN OF THE RED CITY - Dungeon Crawl Classics - Printer Friendly

Get QUEEN OF THE RED CITY - VTT Tokens & Assets

What are your favorite game systems for savage fantasy? Let me know in the comments below.

Related: Savagery in the Ice Age

*But if your adventure is REALLY dangerous… always provide backup characters to account for those unfortunate deaths!

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  1. Well for Conan, I use the Modiphius Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed of. It works perfect, not too rules heavy, but still with a bit of crunch behind it. Our group plays Star Trek Adventures as well as John Carter so we all know the system. Good thing is, I know (and still love GURPS – cant stand D&D5e , although my group seems to love it) GURPS back to front so I convert to and from it.

    1. I have a bunch of the sourcebooks (I used Conan the Pirate on this adventure) but haven’t actually tried the system out yet myself. Otherwise I would have converted Red Queen over to 2D20 too!

  2. If you have the books, I heartily recommend you try the system. There are several free adventures available. Pit of Kutalu , for example, is a great introduction to the game.

  3. I really like your one-shot adventures. I just suggest that you put your website address on the pdfs to help people that come across it on the web to find you and your work.

  4. Have you ever done Kingdoms of Kalamar? Not sure if theyve done a 5e yet but I could definitely see a savage adventure in the lands of For an, Skarnna and Drhokker and the menacing Theocracy of Slen could produce some pretty terrible creatures.

  5. Hello!

    I just read through this one-shot and I really like it!
    I will myself DM it tomorrow with some friends of mine, curious how everything will end up 😀

    One remark: Between page 7 and 8 it seems that there is something missing.
    Page 8 starts with “structures. A DC 10 Religion check marks it as a grave-stone, […]” Though I think the word “structures.” might be too much ^^


    1. Awesome – lemme know how it goes! And thanks for the catch on the layout. Something went awry there and I’ll fix it and update the file.

    1. All the adventures here are built for 4E. As you suggested, there’s not a huge difference (especially at low tech levels). I really like the 3E Conan book because it packs a lot of great world detail into its pages, even if some of the crunch is a bit outdated now.

      1. Awesome! Thanks for the information. This Conan one-shot you wrote will be my kick-off adventure; if the players like it we’ll consider making it a longer campaign! 🙂

  6. Just a heads up that the link for the Printer Friendly edition of the Dungeon Crawl Classics version currently results in a 404.

    Thanks for sharing this and all your other adventures. It’s very generous of you!

  7. Looking forward to every Gurps adventure you provide, they are high quality and a loveletter to the system. As I want to run that adventure for players new to roleplaying but know Conan and friends as larger than live characters do you have any advice how to make the pregen players more “resilient”? Some of my players are very young and I want them to feel heroic to hook them for more Gurps RPG.

    1. Give all of them Luck plus a level or two of Hard to Kill – this makes a huge difference in survivability, without cheapening the danger. Also, I typically run bad guys so they flee or are knocked out when they reach negative HP – unless they are “big bads”. Finally, if you are going for a more cinematic feel, the Impulse Buys supplement is awesome. I’ll typically give them 5 points to spend on rerolls or turning a bad wound into a 1 HP flesh wound.

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