I love both characters, and have read every word of both authors related to them. This post is, therefore, not an attempt to play favourites, but rather a “What if…?” exploration. What if both characters were real and, through magic or time travel, encountered each other? I am only considering what Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard wrote about their respective characters.
Now, we also all know that, in an actual story, they would fight, and the fight would probably be inconclusive, before joining forces to defeat the story’s actual antagonist. This is especially true because both respect their opponents, and Tarzan at least prefers to observe an opponent before acting.
(This might, in fact, be a liability for Tarzan in such a battle; while he hesitates, Conan acts.)
Let’s try to put both characters into stats using the Dungeon Crawl Classics system. Off the top of my head, if I was doing a "career-average" version of both, I would use the following:
Conan: Str 18, Agl 16, Sta 18, Int 17, Prs 17, Luck 10.
Conan is as strong as a human can be, but not necessarily faster than everyone he encounters. In DCC, warriors add their level to initiative, so part of Conan's speed is represented that way. This helps explain the difference in reaction time in stories like The Tower of the Elephant vs. stories later in his career…he levelled up. His intelligence is extremely high, and he has a great force of personality, but he doesn't generally rely on luck. I would argue that his starting Luck was 18, but that he burned some of that Luck in The Frost Giant’s Daughter to increase the results of critical hits against his enormous foes.
Conan has a birth auger of “Born on the Battlefield”, but due to training and background is a polyglot, speaking most of the languages of the Hyborian Era that he encounters. Class-wise, Conan is a Warrior, but he can climb using a d20 (all Cimmerians are trained in climbing), and has a +2 bonus to such checks (on top of his +3 for Strength). Again, if Conan had an 18 Luck at 0-level, his birth auger grants him a +3 bonus to damage.
At the mid-range of his career, I would put Conan at 6th level in DCC terms (roughly 12th level in 1e AD&D or 3e terms). Alignment-wise, Conan is Neutral, walking the line between civilization and savagery, neither shunning all magic nor embracing it. So long as a magician is no threat to him personally, Conan can work with the fellow. None of the REH Conan stories are so gonzo as to suggest a level higher than 7th or 8th in DCC terms.
A note on Conan’s Strength: Conan is said to have broken the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull at the age of 15, but it is important to remember that Howard doesn’t tell us what a wild Cimmerian bull is like. If Cimmeria is a hilly forested country, this is not a creature of the plains, and is probably not as large as an aurochs, or even a modern bull. Since Conan is otherwise shown as at the peak of human strength, rather than being superhuman, an 18 seems more likely than a higher score.
Tarzan: Str 20, Agl 18, Sta 18, Int 15, Prs 14, Luck 18.
Tarzan is stronger than a human being, and as agile as humanly possible. He is smart, but not always as smart as everyone around him. He can be imposing, but he can also blend into a crowd, and an actor can take his role successfully, fooling even Jane, so Tarzan’s Personality is definitely lower than Conan's sheer animal magnetism.
Tarzan is, on the other hand, extraordinarily lucky. In DCC, when reduced to 0 hp, you get a chance to "recover the body" by rolling under Luck; this is the best mechanic to describe Tarzan's repeated survival from things like getting shot in the head.
In terms of Tarzan’s strength, he has thrown a spear that passed through a charging Rhino, and can successfully (and easily) wrestle apes into submission or death even as a youth. By the time we are witnessing Tarzan at his prime, he can handle dinosaurs, giant cave bears, any form of ape he encounters, lions, leopards, etc. Where the animals of the forest feared Tarzan before for his cunning, they now also fear him for his strength. It is notable that Tarzan can brachiate (see below) while carrying an adult male human being with no noticeable loss of speed or effort.
(Conan also handles a “dragon” which appears to be a dinosaur, but he does it with poison.)
Birth auger for Tarzan is “Wild Child”, granting him a +15’ bonus to movement. He is also a polyglot, able to learn any language he encounters, and is even able to speak to beasts in a limited fashion. As a special ability, Tarzan can brachiate, travelling through forest as though on a road in terms of speed. He can climb at the same rate as he walks. When taking his time, he rolls 1d24 for Climb checks. Due to his incredible sense of smell, he can track at speed using 1d24 for checks, even when he is brachiating and tracking something that passed on the ground.
Several things that Tarzan does could be represented by either a high Deed Die (indicating a very high Warrior level), or a higher than normal chance to gain a critical hit. I am going to assume the second, and give Tarzan the Thief class. This follows from his known abilities for stealth, disguise, climbing, and attacking from ambush. Moreover, the Thief class has an unusual relationship to Luck that models Tarzan well.
If you want to understand just how lucky Tarzan is, consider this: He finds his father’s dagger just in time to kill a gorilla with it (and he is not yet 15!). Over the years, and in many stories, things happen where that knife should have been lost many, many times. Somehow, Tarzan always manages to recover it. Although non-magical, it is never broken, and never so worn or damaged that Tarzan must replace it.
Like Conan, Tarzan is 6th level at his career average. Tarzan, unlike Conan, is immortal, having gained perpetual youth through both science and magic. At some point beyond the time of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, Tarzan could obtain a far higher level, simply because he will not grow old. Within the ERB stories, Tarzan tops out at 7th level.
Alignment-wise, Tarzan is Lawful in DCC terms. He has a group of warriors he is chief of throughout most of his career. He clearly sides with civilized people over natives, imposing British rule in the parts of Africa nearest his home. He longs to be free in the jungle, but volunteers for military service, and often travels to the Americas or Europe, living for extended periods in Great Britain. He is loyal to a fault, and correct enough in his behaviour to allow a friend to kill him in a duel over a misunderstanding (the man, obviously, does not kill Tarzan).
Generally, From the Stories…
…I would have to say that it would depend upon the circumstances of the battle. Tarzan likes to fight from ambush, and seldom misses with a ranged attack. He can throw a spear through a charging rhino, which means that he is stronger than Conan. When REH was writing Conan, he put Conan at the top of human potential, while ERB made Tarzan superhuman.
A fight with no weapons in close proximity would be close, but I would give it to Tarzan. Conan is as fast as Tarzan, and undoubtedly smarter than Tarzan (at least in street smarts), but Tarzan's strength gives him the edge. Hell, when you read the stories, Conan isn't always unscathed at the end of his battles, but Tarzan at most gets reduced to savagery by a bullet creasing his skull.
Give them weapons in close proximity and Conan's skill more than makes up for Tarzan's strength. Under those circumstances, Conan wins every time. In fact, Conan beats Solomon Kane or John Carter with weapons. John Carter may be the best swordsmen on two worlds in the period of the ERB Mars stories, and he may be far more studied that Conan, but Conan would rip him apart. Indeed, John Carter meets close to his match more than once on Mars, where he has exceptional strength, agility, and stamina due to being from Earth.
Finally, Tarzan is repeatedly shown to be very naive, while Conan is repeatedly shown to be extremely shrewd. Given reasonable notice, Conan could gull Tarzan easily enough.
Both of them are likely to respect the other, though, and I have a hard time seeing a contest ending in either dead, unless one came upon the other suddenly and just reacted. In this circumstance, despite his fantastic senses, Tarzan would be easier to surprise than Conan...Tarzan is surprised more than once because someone happens to be downwind.
Dungeon Crawl Classics Stats
Conan the Cimmerian (6th level Warrior): Init +8; Atk by weapon +1d8+3 melee (by weapon +1d8+6) or by weapon +1d8+2 ranged (by weapon +1d8+3); AC 17 (chain + Agility); HD 6d12+18; hp 60; MV 25’; Act 1d20+1d16; SP Deed Die (d8), +3 to hit with longsword, 18-20 crit range, crit 1d30/V; SV Fort +7, Ref +6, Will +9; AL N. Str 18, Agl 16, Sta 18, Int 17, Prs 17, Luck 10. Chainmail, longsword (1d8 damage).
Tarzan the Ape-Man (6th level Thief): Init +3; Atk by weapon +8 melee (by weapon +4) or by weapon +7 ranged (by weapon); AC 13; HD 6d6+15; hp 40; MV 45’; Act 1d20+1d14; SP thief skills, brachiate, track by scent, Luck die (d8), crit 1d24/II; SV Fort +5, Ref +7, Will +3; AL L. Str 20, Agl 18, Sta 18, Int 15, Prs 14, Luck 18. Loincloth, dagger (1d4), spear (1d8), short bow and 12 arrows (1d6), rope.
Relevant Thief skills: Backstab +9, Sneak Silently +12, Hide in Shadows +14, Climb Sheer Surfaces +14 (d24), Disguise Self +6.
Using these stats, you can easily set up a battle between these two legendary Appendix N icons. It should go without saying that, if you disagree with these statistics, you can also change them to better match how you see the characters.
Certainly, these stats do not necessarily take into account how Tarzan avoids getting hit by clinging to foes, or his trick of picking foes up and throwing them. This might be described by (1) allowing Tarzan a Deed Die, (2) allowing Tarzan to spend Luck to attempt these deeds, or (3) allowing Tarzan to make backstab attempts at the start of even a close melee due to his speed and skill. In DCC, you can “Quest For” special modifiers like this, so none of these are entirely out of the question.
If you do adjust Tarzan in this manner, it may affect the scenarios below, but I would argue that none of these abilities should affect an intelligent Warrior of Tarzan’s level, and thus they wouldn’t affect Conan.
If you use a multi-classing system, like this one, giving Conan one level of Thief and Tarzan one level of Warrior. That would grant Tarzan Mighty Deeds, a little more damage, and an average of 18 more hit points. Conan would gain the ability to hide against a set DC in order to avoid Tarzan’s ambushes, and give him an average of 11 more hit points.
Scenario One: Tarzan attacks from the trees, ambushing Conan. In this scenario, Tarzan gains his backstab bonus, firing an arrow with a +18 bonus to hit, automatically doing a critical if he hits. He hits on anything but a natural “1”. It is impossible for him to fail to achieve surprise, and if Conan somehow survives the attack (which his high Fort save bonus makes possible, even with the best crit at Tarzan’s disposal), he is able to use his second Action Die to hide again. This is actually a trick Tarzan performs more than once during his career. Conan discovers that facing a horde of Picts is easier than facing a single Ape-Man.
Scenario Two: An unarmed Tarzan and Conan meet each other, both in loincloths. Tarzan expects his speed to help him against this adversary, but Conan gets a large initiative bonus as a Warrior, and strikes before the Ape-Man suspects it. The odds are very good that Conan hits, and is able to perform a Mighty Deed (say, tripping or throwing Tarzan). His Deed Die also adds to his damage. This occurs twice before Tarzan can act, for a range of 16-20 damage. Tarzan, though, has a good Reflex save, and can burn Luck if he needs to, so he keeps his feet.
Tarzan is then very likely to hit Conan, with a +8 bonus against AC 13 (Conan with no armour). He burns Luck if need be. He does 1d3+4 damage (5-7), barely a blip on Conan’s radar. Realizing that he cannot survive another round fighting the Cimmerian in this way, Tarzan burns 10 points of Luck to do an additional 10d8 damage.
It’s a good effort, but it’s not good enough. Conan drops him in the next round. Because unarmed combat results in subdual damage, and because Conan respects an adversary capable of fighting as well as Tarzan, he leaves him alive. Tarzan now knows to respect Conan as well, both for his prowess and for his mercy.
Scenario Three: Conan and Tarzan meet at melee range, each armed with their normal gear. Again, Conan surprises Tarzan with his pantherish speed, striking twice with his longsword for 2d8+6 with each blow (average 15 per attack, or 30 points total), with a 15% chance of a fearsome crit on the first blow, and also allowing Conan to disarm the Ape-Man with his Mighty Deed (no save, so Tarzan’s Luck doesn’t come into play). Conan will skewer Tarzan if he attempts to recover his spear, or to run away, so Tarzan draws and slashes with his dagger. He has a little better than a 50/50 chance of hitting, and will burn Luck if he needs to, leaving far less to add to his damage. Never having met such an opponent, Tarzan instead attempts to save his Luck and run. After all, he can always attempt Scenario One later. Conan gets a free attack, reducing the Ape-Man to 0 hp.
Later, one of the Waziri discovers Tarzan’s body. Rolling it over, he discovers that the Big Bwana still lives…but Tarzan is never as cocky going into a physical confrontation again. The damage permanently reduces his Stamina by 1. Had he burned the Luck and stayed to fight, Tarzan would probably have been slain, not having enough Luck remaining to survive the check to recover the body.
Scenario Four: Conan and Tarzan meet, armed, but at range. Conan surprises Tarzan with his speed, but cannot close before Tarzan has the chance to launch his spear. Having no idea how potent Conan is, Tarzan spends 2 Luck to increase his damage to 3d8, dealing 13 points to Conan. Seeing that this is only a scratch to the Cimmerian, Tarzan spends his second Action Die to literally disappear into the foliage.
At this point, we have a partial repeat of Scenario One. Tarzan begins shooting lethal arrows at Conan, and then changing where he is. But this time, because Conan goes first and Tarzan is not in the trees, Conan has a chance to locate Tarzan despite his stealth. By this point, Conan has taken 28 points of damage, and has had to save vs. instant death more than once. Spending two of his Action Dice to close with the Ape-Man, Conan manages to hit for 2d8+6, a serious blow for Tarzan.
Close up, Tarzan can do 1d4+4 damage without burning Luck. He has burned 6 points of Luck, and is willing to reduce himself to 5 Luck, therefore having 7 more points he can use. Two points give him a +2d8 bonus to Initiative, leaving 5 points for a +5d8 bonus to damage. Depending upon the initiative rolls, Tarzan might not need to spend both, or any, points of Luck on Initiative, leaving a possible +7d8 damage bonus.
At this point, it all comes down to the die rolls.
Here is the thing, though….Where Conan wins, skill decides the day. Where Tarzan wins, Dame Fortune decides, both in terms of the initial scenario and in terms of the massive “lucky breaks” Tarzan would need to defeat the Cimmerian when Conan has a chance to fight back. And this is well in keeping with how their respective creators described the adventures of the characters.
In fact, Howard’s heroes tend to use their intelligence to mitigate against bad fortune, while Burroughs’ heroes tend to rely on luck to avoid the worst ramifications of bad decisions. There are a few exceptions in both cases, of course. Howard could write the naïve character who relies upon blind luck and a strong right fist to carry him through, and Burroughs could write the character who uses his brains to solve a mystery. Overall, though, Conan relies on smarts and skills, and Tarzan relies on strength, sense of smell, and luck.
If Burroughs and Howard were somehow to meet in the Afterlife and write the story together, you know that Burroughs would introduce a tribe of apes, an elephant, or the Golden Lion just to get Tarzan out of a direct confrontation with Conan. And, the whole thing would turn out to be a plot between a sorcerer in the Hyborian Age and a mad scientist in our time, each trying to get rid of the hero who had foiled him at least once already....
I would love to read that story.
And this post doesn't even examine those characters designed to be tougher than either. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser? They don't stand a chance against Conan and Tarzan.
I don’t imagine that this post is going to end the “Conan vs. Tarzan” debate. Or even slow it down.