Saturday, December 1, 2012

Adventurers Conquerers Kings Review #1 of the PDF

So my brother asked me to let him know if my interest in ACKS stayed high as I read the PDF. Here goes my public response. I am reviewing the deluxe PDF version, and going along as I read. I wanted to get a beginning response to him ASAP-- so this goes up through classes and races.
Cover: Very cool, but you can see that online. Very REH, Conan like in flavor. Hearkens to much of the Appendix N flavor. Nicely done work by, I believe, Ryan Browning and John Bingham in concert. Makes me want to read it.

A note here on too on the title: Adventurer Conqueror King. I find in this a rather blatant reference to Conan the Adventurer, Conan the Conqueror and Conan the King. Not by any stretch a bad thing. In fact I think it does two things. It communicates an obvious swords and sorcery genre feel which is an ethos of old school play; and it also connects the game's purpose to a lifetime of adventure and epic storytelling that the game was intended to bring to the table. I have come to really appreciate this title even more so than many others I also like.

Table of contents: nice and serviceable, my PDF copy as links to each page number by subsection. Each major section is as follows: Introduction, Characters, Equipment, Proficiencies, Spells, Adventures, Campaigns, Treasures, Monsters, Secrets (DM stuff).

Each section is divided into 5 or more subsections so navigating is fairly easy. The whole PDF counts out to 274 pages including the front and back cover. Not unwieldy, but it seems plenty packed with good info.For reference the first edition Dungeon Masters Guide was 242 pages with both covers and 8 3/4 " x 11 1/4" and the ACKS hardcover  seems approximately the same size.
I already told you what I thought of the Foreword in my last email/post. But once again I loved the game story example once I understood what the designers were presenting. I can only hope that the actual game lives up to the promise this well written introduction extends. I have to believe this has to be the case, as it is drawn from actual play, but we'll see.

Chapter 1: Introduction
This section includes obligatory information in most RPGs these days, which introduce the concept of the game, and how to play, dice use, abbreviations, and the like. Nothing will appear very new here, in fact if you're an old school D&D player everything feels very comfortable and familiar, which I found very reassuring. There are a few changes though. DMs are called Judges (for copyright reasons, I'm sure), and they introduce the terms strongholds, domains and realms as being a central goal for high level play. Otherwise everything you are used to is here, hitpoints, armor class, levels, abilities, etc. etc. No new jazz to gum up the elegance.

The highlight of this chapter is a marvelous justification for the method of old school D&D games. In this day of universal mechanics many have derided the apparent wonkiness of  old school mechanics. This is a sad state of affairs that misses the central point of why Gary and Dave may have done the things they did. The designers here offer a way of "seeing" the old school game mechanic in terms of Throws and Rolls. Basically Throws are when you throw dice vs a target number. Rolls are for generating a range of possibilities, not to hit a certain number. Simple examples are an attack or saving throw, and reaction or damage rolls. Now this isn't some earth  shattering revelation. We all knew it worked that way in the old days. But it is, I think, a nice way to preserve the old school mechanic and explain its underlying structure. And I like it because I'm an old school gamer, and I like the basic way that old school systems work. That being said, ACKS does take a cue from many modern designs that simplify dice use as many throws are against a target number, though not as generic as say the d20 system.

A word about the inside art: All black & white, and I'm sure that may turn some gamers off. Art is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder--and I'm certainly no art critic. But I know what I like, and I really like this. It has an old school feel that borders on 2e or Mentzer basic in its more Swords and Sorcery moments. I find it evocative and helpful for setting the tone as I read. Several full page splashes are included and very nice to look at. Nothing you couldn't let the kids take to school, but still very kick***. Perhaps as Autarch moves forward they might offer a full color Kickstarter project or something, but I will cherish the black & white, just cause it's my style of choice.
Chapter 2: Characters
Basic character creation outline:
  • 3d6 for ability scores
  • Choose class, record abilities
  • 0 XP, start at level 1
  • Roll HP
  • Record attack and saving throws
  • Pick proficiencies & spells (if applicable)
  • Generate starting gold
  • Buy equipment
  • Figure AC & encumbrance
  • Record weapon damage & modifiers
  • Develop background
  • Choose alignment
Which is nothing new either, and like most good games should take less than 15 minutes on your second or third time creating characters. Ability modifiers are -3 to +3 from 3 to 18 and work exactly as they have always done. There are prime requisites for classes, and percentage XP bonus for high ability scores. HP are wholistic and they present as an option, starting with max HP at first level. 0 is "incapacitated and possibly dead"--no details on that yet. HP are also seen as wholistic, representing a combination of "fighting skill, stamina, luck and the favor of the gods"--just are Gary intended.

First major innovation talked about in detail is the fact that there are two types of classes in the Adventurer Conqueror King System: human classes and demi-human classes. Though this too is rooted in race as class concept. The idea here preserves the uniqueness of the demi-human cultures by giving them their own classes that humans don't have access to.

Major Human Classes: Fighter, Mage, Cleric & Thief
Optional Human Classes: Assassin, Bard, Blade Dancer, Explorer (these are variant classes that are examples of how campaign specific classes can be built by the Judge for his/her own campaign)
Dwarven Classes: Dwarven Vaultgaurd, Dwarven Craftpriest
Elven Classes: Elven Spellsword, Elven Nightblade

I really like the idea that demi-humans are rare and different from humans. This is as Gary first designed the game, and adds in an element often lost in today's games. ACKS says right in the text that this is the way they are to be seen in the game. I've written about this before--but if anyone is interested I can revisit the topic. The innovation is that it avoids the race as class argument so prevalent today, but preserves the demihuman uniqueness. They are special and they should feel that way.


Fighters get 1d8 for HP, can use any weapon and armor, can fight shield and weapon, two weaponed or one two handed weapon. They get bonuses to hit and damage as they advance and at 5th level get Battlefield Prowess to lead foes in battle. At 9th level they can build a stronghold and attract followers. Also mentioned for the first time in the fighter section, evidently unarmored combatants have an AC of 0, and most can hit AC 0 with a 10 or better. This is a slight variation on ThAC0 but makes it more intuitive after the fashion of d20--only better in some ways. Each class has an attack and saving throw table, showing target numbers for saves and to hit AC0, as well as an XP advancement table.

Mages get 1d4 for HP, cannot use armor or shields, and can only use staves, clubs, daggers and darts. They may not fight two handed either. They get spells as per their spell list, which allows one spell at first level, modified by their Intelligence score. At 5th level Mages can brew potions, research magical spells and scribe scrolls. At 9th they can construct a stronghold called a Sanctum, attract apprentices, and build dungeons which can attract monsters for their various magical experiments--which is a pretty cool option! At 11th level mages can cast ritual arcane spells, build magical constructs, and create magical cross breeds. Evil mages have necromantic options as well!!

Each section has a sample template that can be chosen for quicker play. Fighters have the Mercenary template and Mages the Scholar. An interesting aside is that mages and fighters both hit AC 0 with a roll of 10 or better. Granted fighters advance much quicker in this ability than mages, but it is a bit odd that mages and fighters both hit with the same degree of ability--at least it seems so initially.

 Clerics get 1d6 for HP and use weapons and armor as per their religious order but they may not dual wield.Clerics can turn undead with a d20 Turn Throw, and Chaotic Clerics can control them. Clerics get spells at 2nd level; at 5th level can brew potions, scribe scrolls and research spells; at 9th level Clerics can create magic items and build a fortified church, attract followers and worshipers for his/her God; at 11th level Clerics can cast high level rituals, construct magical beings and if Chaotic create necromantic beings. The Cleric template is called the Priest.

If you've read the Demographics of Heroes blog post on Autarch's website you'll understand why all classes so far are limited to 14th level. Which by ACKS reckoning is of extremely high level.

Thieves get 1d4 for hit points, can use armor up to and including leather, may not use shields, but have access to all missile weapons and can dual wield. Thieves have backstab and the standard retinue of thiefly skills: open locks, find and remove traps, pick pockets, move silently, climb walls, hide in shadows, hear noise. The thief template is the Tomb Raider.

The other human classes are unique in their own ways and as stated in the book, campaign classes may or may not be suited for use in some campaigns. I won't go into detail on each one, other than to say the assassin is a fairly classic interpretation, the bard is classic to later D&D interpretations (RC and 2e); the blade dancer is a very unique class of female adherents to the Goddess of War--very cool, but probably the most campaign specific class of the 4. Lastly the explorer is a broad interpretation of the scout concept, and I like it so much I would likely make it a default class.

The demihuman classes are also very unique and I won't give a play by play for each one--you can get the idea that class structure is very classic in feel with the major differences being in the nature of the individual class. But to give you a rough idea of each one:

The Dwarven Vaultgaurds are the Dwarvish take on warriors, trained from youth to gaurd the vaults of their rocky homes. The Dwarven Craftpriest are similar to Dwarven clerics that can cast spells but are dedicated to craftsmanship, and of recovering the lost artifacts of old, as much out of veneration as use itself. The Elven Spellswords are the epitome of what Elves are, skilled artisans of magic and fine and strategic fighters after the Elven fashion. And nowhere is that fantastic Elven combat apparent as in the Elven NightBlade that are a cross of warrior/thief-acrobat/assassin. Do NOT cross the Elves! : )

The short remainder of the Character chapter mentions alignment which is defined on a LAW-NEUTRALITY-CHAOS axis. Law and Chaos are not necessarily evil, and you can see the influence of Moorcock's Elric series on these concepts. A very nice touch, which I have become a convert too as I've read more Classic D&D. There is a brief few paragraphs on well balanced party building, and using more than one character if necessary. Also is the suggestion that adventuring parties take on henchmen to aide and strengthen the parties make-up. I like this as not only a blast from the past, but as an element of the game that has been sadly neglected on too many occasions--even in my own play.

Which brings us to Chapter 3 Equipment, which I'll begin with next time. In summary I can say that this game is like a comfortable old gaming chair. And a game with an interpretation on the spirit of classic D&D that fires my imagination and makes me excited to sit down and give it a go. Thus far no rule innovations make me uncomfortable, and truly there are few variations from the classic interpretations. Thus it is this fact, that makes me wonder just a bit. I see this works (ACKS) thus far as a cool take on Mentzer style Classic D&D play that seeks to stay as close to true as possible to Gary and Dave's original works. I actually like it better mechanically than LotFP which I really do like as a reinterpretation of an old classic. And it has the added bonus of being friendly for audiences under 18 (which LotFP is by its own admission not). The main difference between this and say RC is that it is presented so much more intriguingly and invitingly. The central idea or ethos of the game is to go through the stages from adventurer, conqueror to king. And it's more than passable nod to exotic appendix N style fantasy as it's genre of choice makes the game much more appealing than the somewhat generic medieval fantasy that can come across in some games. And of course as mentioned above the obvious reference to Conan the Adventurer, Conan the Conqueror, and Conan the King, make clear this game is destined to fulfill all the desires promised in the original game.

One might ask if ACKS is different enough to warrant purchase if one can simply play RC or BECMI or 2e or download a retro clone. But ACKS is not a retro clone and it does "fix" a few grumbles that people have always had with some of the other old school systems. So far I really like the race class fix and the idea of throws and rolls as the mechanical structure of the game. I'm not sure about the combat yet (I'll know when I get there, but the changes seem minimal). Even more so I also like the promise the game yet holds out in other areas as well.

Adventurers Conquerers Kings -- I Buy the PDF

Recently, I sent this email to my brother:

"""Hey! So I was cruising around looking at various game systems and came across this again. I have seen it before, but have now compared it in relation to all the other game systems coming out as of late. Recall our discussion of story based games? That's kind of what led me down this latest route. But The Adventure Conqueror King System isn't really a different mechanic than we are used to. In fact it's very much D&D-esque. Take a gander at its front page blurb:

"In a world of fallen empires, some relics of the past are good only for a beastman's bludgeon; others make ruin delvers rich. You may start out with no higher ambition than a sack full of ancient coins, but each gold piece you spend ties you into a dynamic realm of commerce and carousing, driven by the hidden engines of court intrigues and distant wars. As you grow in power, will you fight to hold back the darkness looming at the borderlands of an aging civilization, or will you pull down the last decadent barriers to the coming of a new dawn?

Autarch's Adventurer Conqueror King SystemTM fulfills the promise of the original fantasy role-playing game by providing comprehensive, integrated support for play across all levels of a campaign. Any referee who has ever checked for random encounters, and every player who's has rolled a twenty-sided dice to hit a wandering monster, will find the rules of Adventurer Conqueror King as elegant, familiar, and comfortable to wield as an heirloom sword. The system's cutting edge is the way every table, chart, and assumption in the game encodes Gygaxian naturalism, Arnesonian barony-building, and the designers' own experience of hundreds of sessions playing and running old-school games. With Adventurer Conqueror King, you get both the verisimilitude and consistency of thorough world-building with the power of improvisation and discovery through play. We look forward to seeing what you do with these tools!"

And if you doubt how D&D-like it really is check out a sample character sheet: ACKS Character Sheet

I personally love their "Demographics of Heroism"

Yep, Merlin a 12th level Mage and Bilbo a 6th level Thief. Not 30th level Astral Walker/Death Knight/Angelic Archon with Nuclear Explosion Dailies.

Old School Mechanics?

Their take and rationale on Vancian Magic

And I love their thoughts on what a campaign world should be and allow--very Gygaxian. Even if you didn't run their world, the idea is the game is set up to support a game world like this.

If you want to hear what the designer says about the game and their purposes check out his old kickstarter video.
I really like the idea of not starting out as some big bad *** but picking a direction you want to get to and working your way towards that. For the longest time I struggled with how to give players a say in what they want without jacking them up in power level from the start, and this game really seems to aim for that. This is what we've talked about again and again--getting players invested in the storyline! Now they are of course invested, because they have to be to achieve their aspirations. They don't come to the table saying they want to be a sword wielding elementalist and get to start that way. They start as a rather humble 1st level wizard, better than most in their village and set out into the world with a dream to become such. Through hard work, bravery and luck they might just get there! Does this RAWK or what?!

Just check out the sample file of the first ten pages. I'm sending it as an attachment. The storyline is boss! At first I didn't quite follow, but then he explains it as the results of an 80+ session campaign they had, with their actual characters. Their characters are Lords and Ladies of the realms having worked their way up from adventurers with aspirations to conquerors to kings and queens. They are wrapped up in the storyline of the realms in ways I hve never personally played, but that D&D always said was possible. The story possibilities are awesome! Anyway, they don't show much of the actual game rules, but it gives you a pretty good feel for what it's like.

Pretty awesome huh? Remember the old school books promise of running a thieves' guild? Or building a wizard's tower? Or having massive battles with armies run by a fighter warlord? All of it is here:

And remember all those rules for spell research and creation of magic items? I never used 'em--but they're here too, and as an integral part of the game.

See the thing is, I was going around looking at various games and their focus on storydriven mechanics. I really haven't liked them, as they seem to "fall apart as soon as you breathe on them" as one guy put it. Some examples are Dungeon World and 13th Age--but though they have gotten good reviews, I'm just not into "soft" mechanics. And then I ran across ACKS (pronounced Axe) again and decided to give it a closer look. And here is a game that is pretty much updated classic D&D with a focus on developing a character's story within a greater fantasy world in truly Gygaxian-Arensonian manner. It's really got my interest piqued.

I just got the wife's go ahead to spend $10 on the PDF. The hard copy is $40, and I can't swing that now anyway. I'm ordering it as soon as I send this off to you. I'll let you know if my interested stays high a few more pages into it.

Anywho--Merry Christmas!