Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Review of Adventurer Conqueror King (ACKS)




So did Conan return the wayward daughter of King Osric to her home. And having no further concern, he and his companions sought adventure in the West. Many wars and feuds did Conan fight. Honor and fear were heaped upon his name and, in time, he became a king by his own hand…

It's no surprise that I'm predisposed to liking Adventurer Conqueror King.  I've often mused here on the blog that the goal of adventuring in the traditional versions of Dungeons & Dragons is to become a king by one's own hand.  It's right there in AD&D, you can gain a stronghold and followers, clear the wilderness, then build out a domain.  But there weren't any systems back then to facilitate that facet of the game.

To understand how a late comer like ACKS fits into the crowded mix of retro clones and neo clones, this is where I like to start, with the idea that a D&D campaign isn't limited to endless dungeon crawling.  The real objective in the game is the acquisition of power:  personal power, power through wealth and magic, and ultimately, political power and conquest.

The campaign system in ACKS is a major competitive advantage.  It gives groups that want to extend play beyond the dungeon the means to run a coherent campaign in that space.  ACKS starts by outlining how the core classes develop followers and a power base in the campaign world while striving to reach name level and gain wide renown.  Fighters and clerics are primarily interested in growing their followers and building political realms, but clerics can also develop the faith and gain divine favor towards crafting items.  There are systems for magic users to create laboratories; gather apprentices; create constructs, magic items, and monstrous cross breeds;  even build and seed their own dungeons.  Thieves get an interesting treatment, creating hideouts with gangs of lesser thieves that can perform hijinks such as spying, assassinations, robbery, smuggling, rumor-gathering, and discovering leads to fantastic treasures.

In order to rationally support domain level play, a considerable effort went into ensuring the numbers square top to bottom in the ACKS economic system.  Domain revenue and peasant earnings align with the price of mercenaries, and the prices on the equipment chart.  Even if you don't use the domain rules anytime soon, it's valuable knowing the underlying assumptions make sense.  This logic extends to other aspects of the campaign world, as well.  For instance, how many fifth level fighters should exist in a kingdom?  Using the demographics by level chart, a game master can quickly determine the relative levels of power in the wider world.

If I had to use one term to describe this overarching philosophy in ACKS, it would be Fantasy Realism.  ACKS presents a set of game rules for a functioning fantasy world that makes sense economically, but also explains why the areas beyond the borderlands are littered with dungeons, why adventurers looting vast treasures makes sense in the context of both the fantasy world and real world history, and why legitimate rulers should always be high level characters.

I've appreciated the idea behind the game since the Kickstarter was announced.  Although I haven't played pure Mentzer D&D in quite a few years, I've long had appreciation for the vision of Mentzer, and how he extended the D&D experience horizontally from dungeons to the wilderness to domain rulership.  ACKS is a true spiritual successor to Mentzer.  The similarity extends beyond treading into domain rulership; ACKS uses a similar class list, race-as-class, 3d6 in order for ability scores, a similar spell list, and a similar monster list to Mentzer.  Except for the Skittering Maw, the shark-headed, poisonous, giant, centipede, monstrosity that has become the unofficial poster monster for ACKS...

There are some differences between ACKS and the classic versions of Dungeons & Dragons that will be readily apparent.  Various dice rolls (throws) are expressed in ascending difficulty, mirroring modern design sensibilities in the d20 world.  A modular proficiency system is included, giving a flavor of 3rd edition's feats and supporting a bit of character customization, such as distinct fighting styles.  Many abilities from classic D&D classes are included in the proficiency system, supporting the emulation of advanced favorites like the paladin or ranger.

A recent post here on Mentzer, Metnzer Madness, bemoaned the 36 level grind in the Mentzer system; I feel like the D&D sweet spot for wrapping up a campaign is somewhere between levels 10 and 14.  Classic BX only went to level 14, and ACKS also tops out at level 14.  (It's like they read my mind).  A ritual spell system has been added to allow the cleric and magic user classes limited access to the higher level spells that showed up in AD&D or BECMI past level 14.

One of the more interesting chapters is the guide on setting creation.  It presents a comprehensive top-down approach to generating and stocking a large campaign area with wilderness and dungeons, and just reading it makes my campaign creation OCD bubble into a rapid boil.  If ACKS were published 20 years ago, it's likely I wouldn't have finished college.  As it is, I have a fairly clear idea on what my ACKS campaign world is going to look like; now I just need to clear a handful of other projects and I'll get right to it.  But you know, that next campaign is only a TPK away…  muhaha.  My players love it when I kid around like that, really.  They say it's motivating.

This discussion of the game book is waxing long, so let's start to wrap things up.  My group has had some history with the system, so this isn't a blind review; a few of my players attended the play test with the designers while we were at Gencon last year, and  a few of us also made it up to New York one weekend for a game day with Tavis.  ACKS plays like D&D, and you can play it like a straight update of BX or Mentzer, and never even crack the chapters on campaigns or setting design.  (Fair warning:  Those chapters are a bit table heavy; ACKS is crying out for someone to put together a good macro-driven spreadsheet).  But if you want to play a game where all that stuff makes sense, ACKS leads the way.  We've been playing other games while the guys finished their ACKS Kickstarter, but I've been using ACKS assumptions in the background of my campaign for quite a few months with our play test copies of the rules, so I'm already adjudicating my group's current domain building efforts with ACKS.  Having witnessed many of the great discussions on the development forum, I can vouch for the thorough testing of the systems.

The physical hardcover book isn't out yet, but the PDF is nicely hyper linked and is well indexed; I enjoy being able to jump from the table of contents, or one of the indexes, to quickly get to the right section or table.  I like this new trend of hyperlinked PDFs that are both tablet and table friendly!  For you folks that love artwork, there are plenty of excellent full page black and white pictures that show classic adventuring situations, or capture some of the new campaign mechanics, like hijinks, in action.

Would I recommend ACKS?  Sometime ago, I pointed out how there's an evolution in what people want from a campaign: Beedo's Hierarchy of Campaign Needs.  Many folks are totally satisfied with a game that revolves around characters, monsters, and dungeons.  As you climb the pyramid, different priorities emerge, like the desire to leave a legacy on the campaign world, to build castles, to conquer lands, to exert some power.  ACKS is the first new generation game that climbs that pyramid, and for that I give it a hearty recommendation.  A version of their mass combat system should be on the way soon (though real life has prevented me from trying the play test versions) and they have some interesting products in the pipeline, like their Auran Empire Gazetteer.  With a heavy nod towards BX, Mentzer, and the various Known World Gazetteers, ACKS is a sturdy bridge across nearly 30 years of gaming.  If D&D 5E doesn't work out for those Seattle guys, I've got my long term campaign game right here.