A Conversation with Alexander Macris: The Sinister Stone of Sakkara

Monday , 20, April 2015 10 Comments

Jeffro: Okay, why an adventure? I mean, a lot of people say they want adventures for their favorite systems. But most game companies have a hard time justifying them. Back when there was some semblance of a market for roleplaying games, Wizards of the Coast set up the Open Game License so that everybody else could jump in and “not make money” by creating adventures for D&D– so that they wouldn’t have to bother! Is there something different about this product that you think will make it more successful than the rest…?

Alexander Macris: Adventures are necessary for playing traditional role-playing games. The only question is whether the adventure played will be created by the gamemaster, or created by a third-party. In business terms, it’s a “build or buy” trade-off for the gamemaster: Should he invest his time into writing his own adventure or invest his money into buying one?

The old argument was that any gamemaster skillful enough to sustain a campaign was skillful enough to write his own adventures; and further that no published adventure could ever be as precisely customized to the needs of the GM’s gaming group as an adventure he himself wrote. So it was more-or-less expected that a good GM was investing the time to create his own adventures every session.

But today, consumers feel pressed for time. For some, older gamers in particular, they genuinely have less time than they used to because of adult responsibilities. Younger games have as much free time as ever, but they have more fun options available for the time they have, so less goes to any one hobby. As a result, consumers want to save time, and they are willing to pay some money for that convenience. You see this in the rise of pre-painted miniatures, for instance, and in the rise of free-to-play games that charge you for time-saving power-ups. And I think that is true of published adventures, too. Consider how many megadungeons have been published lately: Dwimmermount, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, Barrowmaze, Rappan Athuk, Stonehell, etc. – there have been more published megadungeons in the past 5 years than in the entire history of the hobby prior.

So I think I disagree with the core conception that published adventures are a bad investment for a system. Nowadays I think they’re a very good investment.

Jeffro: I know that for me just keeping the campaign running is plenty enough work as it is. The one time I did design a real adventure, I had to run it five times before I could completely work the kinks out. Given just how much work it is… if I have something handy where all the design and development and testing have already been done, I pretty much always run with that instead.

But some of this stuff with adventure design really is beyond me. For instance, a friend of mine sent me a set of AD&D monster manuals. I was rolling up random monsters to maybe drop into a particular hex of my Dwimmermount campaign. On the tenth level of this dungeon, I ended up getting this Type V demon. And I had to stop right there, because my first thought was… that this demon was not going to just stay put in a dungeon and wait for some adventurers to come kill her. No, she was going to polymorph into something a little more presentable, head for the nearest domain, and use her charm person ability to basically take over. Never mind the fact that she could gate in an entire army of demons.

I think that’s about where I stopped with the whole exercise. I’m very comfortable running adventurers through a bunch of sorties into an unending dungeon. But dropping this sort of thing into the campaign would quickly take me into uncharted territory. The funny thing is… it looks like this module you’re working on has answers the the very sort of problem that stymied me there!

Alexander Macris: Integrating an old-school dungeon into a realistic campaign setting is always a challenge. And there’s no question that The Sinister Stone of Sakkara is very much a dungeon in the old-school sense: It’s primarily a location filled with monsters that the adventures are supposed to kill and loot. We very much wanted it to have the feel of that classic adventure B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. In fact, in the original Auran Empire campaign that launched the Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS), the spot in the borderlands where this adventure takes place was actually where I had placed the Caves of Chaos. So Sinister Stone is literally filling the exact same niche as B2 did.

But ACKS tries to be more internally consistent and historically-minded than Classic D&D, so we wanted the adventure to do a better job than The Keep on the Borderlands did of putting the dungeon into the context of its world. The challenge I set forth to the dungeon’s lead designer, Matthew Skail, was to provide a rationale or reason for why there would be a dungeon filled with baddies not far from a fort. The answer he came up with for that question is, of course, the eponymous stone itself. Matthew’s idea transformed what might have been a purely gonzo monster bash into a dungeon that enjoys internal consistency and verisimilitude within its world.

I then built the framework of Türos Tem (the fort) and its cast of characters around his idea of the stone. By the way, Türos Tem translates to “Castle’s Fort”, e.g. “Keep” in Classical Auran. The name is a little homage to the original Keep from B2.

Jeffro: I’ve noticed with things like the Keep or Muntburg… I tend to play out the “town” sequences of the game much more when I have novices. It’s a chance to get them used to moving around, an opportunity to give them some hints, and it allows them to play the game for a while without having the threat of something randomly trying to kill them at any moment. When I’ve got a regular group of players, though… I tend to just gloss over the “town” stuff and treat it largely as a bookkeeping phase. The players seem to like dungeon crawling… so that’s where I try to keep the focus.

Have you got anything in Türos Tem that could possibly tempt me into playing out those interactions in town in a little more detail?

Alexander Macris: I think we do! As with the classic B2, the adventure begins at the gates of the fort. From the gates, the adventurers are quickly directed to a headquarters building where they can discover some “side quests” and get introductions to the various NPCs that populate Türos Tem. Depending on their choices, that can lead them to an audience with the fort’s legate, a trip to the market, a stop at the hospital, a visit to the bathhouse, or a meal at the local eatery (based on the fast food restaurants of antiquity).

Each of these areas is filled with little bits of color that I hope will interest even the most diehard dungeon-crawlers. For instance, if the adventurers befriend the patricians, there’s a Profligate Imperial Feast Table to randomly generate a banquet for the evening (“Dominus, tonight’s meal begins with baked chickpeas with almonds. Afterwards you shall dine on fattened goose liver with butter accompanied by spiced mallow and sorrel mush, with a dessert of honey-soaked wheat cake”). If the adventurers browse the holy books in the hospital, there’s a Random Philosophical Meditations Table with deep thoughts drawn from Stoic philosophy (“It is not death that a man should fear. No, he should fear never beginning to live.”) There’s an Auran military archive dating back 150 years that has hints at the backstory, and an arcane library with helpful excerpts from ancient tomes. There’s a waiting room with petitioners to the legate who can share rumors (“Elves still live in the forests of Southern Argollë, but they’ve gone feral, and crave nothing more than the flesh of man.”)

Now, if your players just want to dive straight into dungeon crawling, it’s easy enough to hand wave through these situations, but conversely if your players do enjoy carousing and role-playing and investigating, having a fully-fleshed out town is a nice benefit.

Of course, the fort and village are fully statted out for use with ACKS, so you get the domain size, income, costs, garrison, and mercantile demand modifiers for the settlement and all its trading partners. That should be helpful to any Judge who is planning on running an ACKS campaign – they could just pick up Türos Tem and use it as a sample legature anywhere in the Empire. Or they could use it as the basis of a campaign where the PCs start off as the domain ruler and various allies, and have to protect their turf.

Jeffro: Looking over the dungeon portion of the module, I can see that you have indeed addressed the most common complaint I’ve heard regarding B2 The Keep on the Borderlands: the diverse collection of monsters in that adventure have no clear reason to be living next door to each other like they do in the Caves of Chaos. Are there any other deficiencies along those lines that you’re specifically setting out to address?

Alexander Macris: Well, I hate to even begin to answer a question about “deficiencies” in B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. I’ve used B2 as a starting adventure in virtually every D&D campaign I’ve ever run and hold it up as one of the defining modules of the era. So let me instead just speak of “differences” from B2. I speak of thematic differences of course, as obviously in details (map, monsters, treasures) they are very different.

One major difference is that The Sinister Stone of Sakkara is more embedded within its setting (the Auran Empire) than The Keep on the Borderlands ever was. B2 was released before there even was an official setting for D&D (that came with X1 The Isle of Dread). Nowadays game consumers seem to prefer more flavored, setting-based content. So whereas the Keep was led by The Castellan, Türos Tem is led by Legate Ulrand Valerian, and Valerian has some fluff associated with him. And so on.

A second major difference is that the antagonists in The Sinister Stone of Sakkara are much more purposeful and, well, evil, than those in B2. The Caves of Chaos are really just presented as the domicile of tribes of humanoids. The module tells you that the humanoids are a threat to the realm, but it doesn’t show you that much (at least until the Temple area). There’s no particular suggestion that the humanoids are aggressively venturing from the Caves, or united in any purpose; and half the population of the caves is made up of the tribe’s noncombatant women and children. Heck, that fact has caused more arguments within my own gaming groups than virtually anything else! “Can a paladin kill baby orcs?!” Half of my players have always argued “yes, baby orcs are no different than facehuggers in Aliens – little monsters that are best killed so they don’t grow up to be big monsters”. The other half argue that “no, orcs are only evil because they are acculturated to evil, and baby orcs are as innocent as baby humans.” I think such moral debates can be interesting in the right context, but the starting adventure of a fantasy game is not the right context. In the Auran Empire campaign setting, there are many shades of grey, but the grey is all within the realms of Law. It’s very much the morality of Conan – Conan isn’t a good man by modern standards, but he’s certainly a better man the human-sacrificing priests of Set or man-eating monsters from the Outer Darkness. (Which is not to say that you couldn’t play The Sinister Stone of Sakkara as a bunch of Chaotic ruinguards. You could probably start in the dungeon, find allies among the humanoids, and then go adventure in the fort!)

Jeffro: Okay, about your adventure’s equivalent to the “threat to the realm.” One thing I expected to find in here is the specs for a Domains at War miniatures scenario– something to hold back as the climax of the adventure along the lines of The Battle of Five Armies. You could tie that to the adventure by providing notes on what the players can do to gain or lose allies and/or to really mess up the bad guys coordinating their armies. Or maybe they can prevent the big battle altogether through superior play. Does this sort of thing not fit with the overall situation you’re presenting… do you expect miniatures gamers to be able to improvise this stuff on their own… or is this just outside the scope of this product altogether?

Alexander Macris: ACKS treats mass combat as something one advances towards. The game is designed such that leading troops and fighting company-sized battles should become part of play around 5th level – a lot of game mechanics tie together to make that a tipping point. It’s when mages get their first effective mass combat spell. It’s when fighters get their morale boost to hirelings. It’s when party wealth tends to be sufficient that a platoon of troops is readily affordable. And it’s also when the implicit demographics of the world suggest characters SHOULD be leading platoons and companies and battalions.

There are certainly lots of hooks that a savvy Judge can use to build out a mass combat engagement if he chooses. But at this stage in the player characters’ careers, the climax of an adventure is still a personal confrontation, and not a clash of armies. Adventurer-tier gameplay should have the feel of young Conan slaying Yara in the Tower of the Elephant, not mature Conan leading the armies of Aquilonia against Xaltotun in Hour of the Dragon.

Jeffro: Can you tell me a little bit about Matthew Skail? Which parts of the adventure are his baby and which parts are your contributions?

Alexander Macris: I knew early on that I wanted to bring the Auran Empire’s “borderlands” region into print. It was an area that I had extensively developed over 100 sessions of real play, and much of what ACKS is arose from that play. I envisioned a whole series of adventures, starting with the border forts and nearby beastmen lairs and eventually reaching the ruins of Zahar. Unfortunately, the starting dungeon of the borderlands was B2! So to start to bring the borderlands to print, I had to replace B2 with a new dungeon – something that could fill the same ecological niche, but be fresh and fun for our playerbase.

That’s where Matthew Skail came in. Matthew was an early backer of the Adventurer Conqueror King System. He began posting actual play reports from his campaign on the Autarch forums, and they had a swords-and-sorcery feel that really resonated with me. We eventually became friends and he volunteered to write our starter dungeon. I gave Matthew the background of the borderlands region. Quickly summarized, the Auran Empire is in sharp decline. The Borderlands is a province in the south-east of the Empire that was once the heart of the Argollëan (elven) Empire, then the Thrassian Empire, then the Zaharan Empire. Auran colonists have now settled it, but it’s a dangerous place due to the wasteland of former empires nearby. The Auran garrison that once guarded the borderlands has largely been stripped away to fight in distant wars in the west. The local leadership doesn’t have troops to spare for adventures, exploration, or troubleshooting. And trouble is brewing.

From that basis, Matthew developed the idea of the Stone, the abominations, and The Lady Below; he worked with the cartographer, Chris Hagerty, to map the dungeon; he advised the artist, Ryan Browning, on how to illustrate the primary antagonist; and he stocked and keyed all of the rooms with monsters, traps, and treasure. I then fleshed out the dungeon as a “technical expert” in the setting. (I have hundreds of thousands of words of material written about the setting but it’s not necessarily in formatted as a setting bible that anyone else could easily work from.) So for instance, where Matthew had noted “+1 sword, made by Zaharans”, I would write out what a Zaharan sword looked like. Where Matthew had noted “Zaharan prayers line the walls,” I added specific prayers. So I basically put the setting frosting on Matthew’s cake. Fortunately Matthew immediately grasped the “feel” of the setting and he created a dungeon that was not only fun and challenging, but one that really reflected the world of the Auran Empire. From the module introduction:

The default setting of ACKS, the Auran Empire, was also designed to support the player characters’ advancement from adventurer to king. The Auran Empire setting was inspired by the collapsing empires of earth’s Late Antiquity (250 – 750 AD), a turbulent era in which ancient glories were drowned in a torrent of violence. However, in the Auran Empire setting, the horror of civilization’s imminent collapse is worsened by the existence of nightmarish evils lurking in the world’s dark places, threatening to strike mankind at its weakest moment. The established leadership is too preoccupied by the empire’s political and military downfall to take these shadowy threats seriously, leaving them to be handled by adventurers, fortune-hunters, and would-be heroes. The adventurers’ success in dealing with such threats is, however, what garners them the fame, wealth, and strength they need to take power and restore order. Of course, the adventurers are not certain to win; indeed, the odds are stacked against them.

These premises of ACKS’ setting are evident throughout The Sinister Stone of Sakkara, most notably in its backstory. The adventure begins with local hamlets and villages suffering from beastman raids because the troops that ought to be protecting them have been sent to stem an invasion at another border. With the local military barely able to garrison its strongholds, it falls to the adventurers to deal with the monstrous threat. If they do not, no one else will, until it is too late. The setting premises are also evident in the design of the dungeon itself. The upper level of the dungeon was inspired by real-world ancient architecture, and the brigands and beastly barbarians that populate it would not be unfamiliar to any Late Roman centurion (albeit the barbarians who menaced Rome were only figuratively beastly). Conversely, the lower level of the dungeon is a warren of weird horror wherein lurks an insidious evil that is far more threatening than mere beastmen. The dungeon thus represents the Auran Empire setting in microcosm – visibly endangered by mundane threats, appallingly imperiled by hidden horrors.

Even if the typical gamer doesn’t consciously notice that sort of thematic effect while playing, it’s there for those who do.

As for the rest of the material, the stuff on the borderlands and the fortress of Türos Tem and its cast of characters, that was my responsibility. One of the things that is characteristic of ACKS and the Auran Empire is that the world is much more historically grounded than, say, Eberron or the Forgotten Realms. I believe that the fantastical is more exciting and impressive when it is reflected against the mundane. So I did a lot of research into making the fort and village feel real, and I hope that comes through when players stroll through those areas.

Jeffro: Well thanks so much for providing me with this “behind the scenes” look at your new ACKS product. As you know, even though I am a die hard apologist for Moldvay Basic, I am now pretty much stuck with running your system because the players in my area insist on continuing to explore Dwimmermount. I have to say, though… more stuff for a system that my players are already up to speed on is a good thing in my book!

Alexander Macris: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, Jeffro. I personally hold no TSR rules set in higher esteem than Moldvay Basic so the fact that I’ve even temporarily wooed you away from it is a compliment!

Alexander Macris is a Senior Vice President at Defy Media, where he oversees The Escapist, GameFront, GameTrailers, as well as a dozen other websites. He has also designed and written numerous tabletop games, including Blaze Across the Sands, Modern Spearhead, Adventurer Conqueror King System, ACKS Player’s Companion, ACKS Domains at War, and Dwimmermount.

The Kickstarter for page for The Sinister Stone of Sakkara can be found here. Note that if you don’t already have physical copies of the core books, the $75 pledge level will set you up with the full role-playing rules. (The player companion is loaded with additional classes, spells, and point-build rules for both! It’s not essential, but it is the point where the game transitions from “retroclone” into something more deserving of having “System” in the name.)

For more information on the Adventurer Conqueror King System and how it actually plays, see the following Castalia House posts:

  • Darius says:

    Well – between this and talking to you the other day Jeffry – I think I’ll not only go with this, but stick with this. I like the fact that it is explicitly intended to be a starter sandbox and a template for working your way up. I like the fact that it is explicitly built to be part of a larger world.

    THAT said – any advice from Alexander on how to handle the campaign – especially starting out level one, when there are typically only 5-6 players at the table any given week? (the rotating pool and “Sven couldn’t make it this outing” I can handle)

    • Jeffro says:

      Just a note on the gameplay:

      Downtime matters. Your frontline fighters will often be spending one or more weeks recuperating from mortality checks. The party will have to decide if they want to wait on that or not– if time is of the essence, then the game has a strong push in place to vary party composition. This feels different from both vanilla B/X and new school games where PC’s either just die and are immediately replaced or else PC’s don’t die or get hurt much at all.

      Note also that it’s possible for starting mages to start with enough alchemy proficiencies that they can brew potions from the getgo. This is a great thing for these characters to work on when their players don’t make it and also it’s something the party can drop cash on besides “banking” XP in the event of player death. ALSO… it provides something that can be done with the various monster parts that the players are always harvesting. (I’d make a proficiency check if the mage is around during a fight and point out the goblin gibblets are a key ingredient for such and such potions.)

      Finally… when the players drop out or rotate, consider having the players look for continuing hirelings rather than try running multiple PC’s. This is the first step towards managing a domain generally… and new school players (myself include) all too reflexively overlook it.

      And yeah… I look forward to Alexander Macris’s response to your question myself…!

    • As the dungeon author, I can give you some advice. Hirelings, hirelings, hirelings! Also, this isn’t a single delve sized dungeon…your party will be in and out several times (most likely). Since you might miss a player every now and then, frequently returning to Turos Tem is a great idea.

      • Archon says:

        I concur with what Matthew said. I’ve run his evil dungeon a few times and it is definitely going to require several delves.

        The smaller your group, the more important henchmen and hirelings become.

  • Daniel says:

    That summoned demon V problem on the wandering monsters chart seems like a good problem to have, Jeffro…

  • luagha says:

    Greyhawk had the old ‘wheels within wheels’ idea of balance. That every force had a counterforce or perhaps multiple counterforces all in precarious balance. The player-characters are doing well when they fight counterforces at their level and succeed, but they really tip the balance when they encounter forces slightly above their capabilities and help out the levels above them unexpectedly. Similarly, they may be called upon to rescue the levels beneath them at times for what may be a mopping-up operation to them, but which saves many lives of those below. (Yet takes valuable time from facing those at their level.)

    That Type V demon might well be hiding there, knowing that if she departs, her actions become magically detectable to her enemies and forces capable of dealing with her may swoop down upon her.

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