A Few Observations About the Adventurer Conqueror King System

Monday , 23, March 2015 16 Comments

Okay, after spending a great deal of time with this game last week end, there are a lot of things that strike me about it. On the one hand, this is all rather esoteric… and in some cases I’ll devolve from raw opinion to pure speculation and on the generalizations based on a specific group of players. But in another sense, all of this is the point of the rules even if not all of it derives from them. I can’t really explain why people feel so strongly about some of this stuff, but people will get their feelings hurt reading this. If you can’t handle that, go play a game where your character can’t die and where you’re guaranteed to level up every session.

  • First, I have to say that the cleaving rule is a very big deal in this game. It dominates gameplay. If you ever thought that fighters got short shrift in any other edition of D&D, they are on fire in this one. With the fighter damage bonus combined with the usual bonuses for high strength, first level fighters not only hit often, they hit hard. When they make to-hit rolls, chances are that their foes on the first level of a dungeon are going down. It was a rare battle last weekend where a fighter didn’t cleave his way into killing two combatants in a single combat round. When they get to second level, they gain another potential cleave. At third they gain another… along with a bump in damage bonus and yet another class proficiency to boot. The thieves and clerics that are backing them up start getting cleaves when they reach second level, so a party that collectively levels up together is looking at a tremendous increase in combat power.
  • (Oh yeah, monsters generally get the cleave effect, too. Sorry about that, y’all. I didn’t realize it in our sessions!)
  • In spite of all the perks and freebies this system doles out, I still heard rumblings about hopeless characters and so forth. If you’re one of those people, next time you roll up an ACKS character, make five. Just roll the attributes 3d6 in order for each, choose the classes, and then roll the hit points. Keep the three best ones for yourself and give me the other two to use as NPC’s for you to beat up on.
  • From my side of the screen, the character generation looks way too overpowered. I blame the way that you can reduce even Constitution and Charisma to raise your prime requisite. This does not seem to be that big of a change over strict B/X play, but it means that almost all of the player characters are getting a +10% experience bonus. If everybody’s awesome, then nobody’s awesome.
  • I can live with that, I guess. It’s the way that players abuse the proficiency system that gets on my nerves. I mean, if the fighters take berserker or the “double damage on 20” thing… and if thieves just take a bonus to their favorite skill… and if the cleric and the mage sink all of the prerequisites into healing… then you’ve added nothing to my game except a headache. None of those choices really add any color or character to the game. Everybody just does their class niche even better… while getting the benefit of healing spells at first level in a game that expressly forbids clerics from casting spells at first level.
  • Can I blame the players for that, really? No. I mean… they don’t want to just go into the dungeon and die. I don’t think that they like it when things play out such that the party is completely decimated. Different strokes and all that, sure… but looking back, that sort of thing just tends to end campaigns. And the people that are playing role playing games in this crazy internet age, it seems like they want to play a campaign that basically lasts forever. I mean they will just keep going as long as it’s running. It blows my mind to see people like that, but the people that are role playing… that’s what they’re like.
  • I have to say, though, that strict B/X gaming results in some utterly outlandish action at the table. I mean just crazy action. People can’t rely on “cleave” effects and healing proficiencies to bail them out, so they get crazy. They get creative. They can’t win by the rules, so they keep the scope of play outside of their scope as much as possible. The rapid shift from unsurpassed glory to unparalleled terror is hilariously entertaining, too. For the game master if not actually for the players.
  • And yes, folks, you can get off my lawn! But really, I think we do lose something by not learning how to play the old game. ACKS does accommodate the tastes of present day gamers… but there is a cost.
  • Not that there isn’t cool stuff happening under ACKS. But I would say that… just at first level and with the first twelve hours of a Dwimmermount campaign, the old school elements that are emerging from the course of play have to do with the wandering monster encounters that are popping up on a large and thoroughly Jaquay’ed dungeon map. The best example of this is when the players were about to go back the way that they came, but found a gelatinous cube knocking at the door. They spiked the door closed and went back a different way… making a lot of noise that brought on a surprise orc charge in the ensuing chaos. So the environment is dynamic and nonlinear, but the system seems to discourage the sort of “old school zen” embodied in Matt Finch’s lesson of the Ming Vase. B2, X1, and G1 consistently produce this sort of wild play because of the interaction of the minimalistic rules with extremely deadly environments. If the players think they can win just by rolling the dice, then they will settle for just taking their chances.
  • And there are plenty of opportunities for tactical thinking here. When to toss the flaming oil, when to burn the laying on of hands, when and how to manipulate the initiative sequence. ACKS provides a rich and granular decision making environment that feels far less capricious than standard B/X play.
  • Still, one of the things that was most disappointing to me was that in preparation for running the game, I carefully reviewed every proficiency that would impact the players knowledge of the setting and background. Theology, Lore, Loremastery… even Magical Engineering and Alchemy. I really wanted to get that right. The players of course had no interest in any of these types of skills. They are only interested in surviving the five or six sessions it’d take to level up. I can’t say that I blame them given how many of their player characters I’ve killed over the years, but… you know… it sorta hurt my feelings. There’s just so much untapped potential here…!
  • The implications for this in running Dwimmermount are that the game master will want to figure out where the people NPC sages with Lore proficiencies are and what rank they have in this stuff. The players will want to talk to these people, sell information to them, and generally pick their brains. But you just can’t expect them to burn proficiency slots to get this kind of information themselves. (Even if they did, you’d have the problem of a player maxing out one of these proficiencies to get access to information, killing off the character, and then coming back with another one maxed out in something else– so that they can have the benefit of this stuff without really being serious about it. Meh.)
  • What really sticks in my craw is the mage and the cleric loading up on healing proficiencies. It’s perfectly reasonable just going by the rules alone, sure. But really… those characters are like the detective on the BBC show that majored in Sociology. He’s a great guy that can do his job, sure… but he’s in for a mess of ribbing from his peers and immediate superiors. These characters are definitely in for some negative reaction rolls when they try to buddy up with other people of their class…!
  • This ties in to another thing that the players complained about: Wisdom does crap in this game. Strength gives a bonus to to-hit and damage in melee. No one denies its awesomeness. Intelligence gives you extra proficiencies and increases mages’ spell repertoires. Epic. Dexterity? It gives you an initiative bonus in a game where initiative is life. Sweet. But Wisdom just gives you the bonus for saving against spells. And that’s it. Part of me would much rather hand out bonus spells to the cleric based on his Wisdom bonus like in AD&D rather than have the characters sink all of their proficiencies into ludicrous amounts of healing, but it’s more complicated than that.
  • In the first place, clerics are not healers. They are ass kickers that get a fortress before anyone else and that get insanely loyal troops that aren’t doofusy hireling mercenaries. Their spell list eliminates the need for a logistic train, turning a party of adventurers into the independent special forces outfit that they are. They are Van Helsing in plate armor and it’s sick that people treat them as glorified medics. Honestly, I’d rather see them take all combat related proficiencies rather than the healing stuff. Why would they want to put themselves in the role of “supporting” unwashed berserkers and barbarians? Why aren’t they more concerned with smashing skulls? There are apostates and evil doers at work in the wide world, people, and they must be stopped!
  • No, if you want a healer character you should go with the Priestess class from the Player’s Companion. It’s interesting to see just how much it costs to get a “cleric” that can cast spells at first level here: she cannot wear armor, her weapons and hit points are more in line with mages, and she cannot kill humans and demihumans. Harsh! I don’t know that anyone would want to actually play that even if they are obsessed with the need for healing. (Maybe she should be an NPC that the players can get to join their group like in Ultima IV?) Anyway… the ability to cast healing spells at first level is a big deal… which is why it’s so weird seeing healing in the general proficiency list. If I had my way, it would be removed from both the “cleric” and the “general” list and have it only available to the priestess class. I won’t actually do that, but I will be very very happy when clerics and mages with healing proficiencies die. Good riddance to them!
  • One more nitpicky thing on the rules here: the only fancy stuff we’ve used so far is charging and beserker. We have not seen a berserker implement a charge while beserk, but that could be awesome if combined with cleave. If it worked, anyway. I have explained how to set spears against a charge, but no one has done it yet. Note that this implies that charges have to be declared along with spells before initiative is rolled… and that there is a Sorcerer style “all clear” phase before the combat round is worked out. I think that morale is checked in this phase as well.
  • Also… the players are counting the turns because they have to have rested every hour of game time dungeon crawling or else suffer a to-hit and damage penalty. Their “five minute work day” is really more like two hours at this stage and they are counting their torches.
  • I don’t recall playing in a game where this level of mundane adventuring items actually got kept up with. (The bookkeeping is simpler when everybody dies.) The stuff the party uses the most are the 2 gp flasks of Military grade oil and the 10 gp bundles of Woundwart. Going by the ACKS rules for availability… the class II Market of Muntberg that is the players’ current base of operations should have had only thirty each of these items in stock. Going with the assumption that these stores are replenished once a month, the players can’t really use them all up. Of course… if there are three or four NPC parties making expeditions to Dwimmermount from there, you could expect a shortage to occur. Also… if brigands sacked the resupply caravan, you could have another justification for a shortage.
  • Which leads to the question if/when the players need to go to Adamas for some reason, how is that actually played out under ACKS? Well… it’s maybe thirty miles away through the clear hexes. (We’re ignoring the mountains and the river for now.) Their exploration rate is 60′ a turn, which is going to be a wilderness rate of twelve miles a day. So… three days journey to get there. That’s technically three chances to get lost unless they force march. In clear terrain, someone with Navigation proficiency eliminates that chance of getting lost. (Ah, my shaman character probably needs that more than he does Naturalism.) If I’m reading it right, the Wintertop mountains are “borderlands” and the hexes on the Makrano reiver are “civilized.” I don’t think there’s a lot of monster encounters to be expected in these locations by default.

SO… now that I’ve actually played this thing, I have to say that the ACKS rules system is very solid. Oh, I have my quibbles… but people will play it and they will keep on playing it. And that’s what really matters about an rpg rule set. I think it addresses the most commonly perceived problems with the iconic B/X rule set… but it does so in a very even handed way. Like I said in my review, it gives you what you think you want, but there is always a catch or a tradeoff involved. This undercuts some of my favorite things about old school play in some cases… however, if your players have already picked up a lot of new school assumptions, this may be as close to the old school approach that you’re liable to be able to drag them. And note that these comments are entirely focused on play at the first level. We’re not really applying any of the domain rules which are the primary draw of the system. (After all, no one’s going to want to play the domain system if the bread and butter adventuring rules don’t hold up.)

The real surprise here is just how useful the Player’s Companion is. It’s something that comes off at first as being ACKS’s answer to Labyrinth Lord’s Advanced Edition Companion, but in reality it’s more of a Generic Universal Old School System. I’m amazed at what all is in it, really. While the ACKS core book is really sort of a souped up retroclone, the Player’s Companion is really where the game earns its “S” for system. And it’s not just neat in theory, either… it’s loaded with stuff that can actually be used in role playing campaigns that are run by mere mortals. Someone else has dealt with all the painstaking game design issues so that I can just focus on running the game. I love it!

You know, when people walked past my table at Madicon 24, my battered old B/X rule books with the Erol Otus covers would stop a lot people in their tracks. Those sorts of people would invariably look crestfallen when they’d find out that we were actually running this “ACKS” thing instead. Just based on these sessions, though, I have to say that it’s well worth the effort to takes to master. You see, as long as I’ve been into gaming I don’t think I’ve ever legitimately overseen players that succeeded in making it to second level in this sort of “classic” style game. The gamer equivalent of ADHD and the difficulty of of getting people together regularly was just too much for me to seriously pull that off. But ACKS and Dwimmermount gave me that experience– an experience I’ve wanted ever since I was a kid when I stumbled across that Moldvay Basic Set at a teachers supply store. That a game like this could accomplish that in today’s frenetic and jaded world is a big deal. I’m pretty happy that these rules combined with a flagship adventure product could pull this off. Thank you, Autarch! (And thanks for the players sticking to it– this couldn’t have come off like it did without you guys…!)

16 Comments
  • Aurumvorax says:

    That last part makes me wish I would’ve put my Moldvay Basic book on the table with your Holmes one–but then there wouldn’t have been as much room for snacks!  It would be nice to play someplace with an actual conference table (Madicon didn’t provide that), but if you keep on running once a month I think at least most of your current players will keep coming back…and I can always bring that actually AADD guy.  I’m already in games that meet once a week and every other week, so if you can present once a month as a compromise (with your wife) I know I can make it.
    You should’ve had players leveling up before.  It took an epic second session, but it is happening now.  I’m a True Actor, the college student is a Dickhead Actor; the player who complained about rolling a 16 and an 8 is a Dickhead Gamer (and I hope they read this), so there are people whose characters aren’t awesome by default.  J’accuse!  My first character had Caving proficiency, and I was too drunk to be making a statement when the second took Alchemy & Loremaster (and boy, did the others rib me for taking Detect Magic as my spell)!
    I absolutely agree that whatever their age, players today want to get to the bottom of the dungeon (end of the empire, whatever) no matter how long it takes.  Having powerful character-building options just gives them a way to work toward that goal, whatever their play styles.  And I’m not concerned about the perceived weakness of Wisdom; as in other Third Edition-derived games, it’s vital to the all-important Perception ability; and in this game as well, it increases the saving throw opponents need to make against Cleric spells, making that appealing class even more awesome at mid- to high-levels.

    • Jeffro says:

      That case of beer was nearly the death of the party. We gotta dial that down to maybe just a six o’ 1554 next time.

    • Aurumvorax says:

      I have no idea what “1554” is; it’s probably not in my budget.  I was dedicated to recreating the “beer and pretzels” scenario just one time; I don’t think you saw the pretzels as “Dickhead Gamer” and I scarfed them down.  I would like my clunky glasses back!  I was disconnected while you were typing the reply above, and managed not to see that you had kindly removed the “previous version” to which I refer below.

  • Aurumvorax says:

    That last needed an edit; the previous version was virtually unreadable.  I would like to add a play-based observation about the use of Armor Class in ACKS.  Although it seems awkward and arbitrarily different from other D & D variants, it is as well-designed and counterintuitive as Second Edition’s THAC0 (to which it is equivalent).

    Alexander Macris’ players probably already figured out that they need to shout at the DM when rolling to hit.  Unlike in 2E, the AC 0=unarmored scheme doesn’t lend itself to telling the Dungeon Master your “THAC0” when you attack.  However, I believe it does lead you to get in the habit of subtracting your “roll-to-hit,” as I believe it is called in ACKS, from your d20 result.  I expect that by the time my fellow players and I begin to hit AC 0 on an 11, we will already be accustomed to illustrating the narrative with the familiar statement, “I hit AC ___.”

    • Jeffro says:

      I do not understand the commotion over AC in D&D circles.

      I DO like how armor class translates directionly into encumbrance under ACKS. Also… adding it to base to-hit targets is easy.

    • Aurumvorax says:

      I’m glad you said that last thing!  Makes the math clearer, and it’s still very “D & D-like.”  I think the fighter’s base-to-hit goes down to 9 at third level (I misspoke when I indicated that it goes up).

      As far as your first point, a retrogame with any veracity (some would say atavism) has to somehow preserve the precedent of descending to-hit and save targets.  ACKS’ approach to AC is elegant, welcomes the preconceptions of players migrating from later editions, and only that inobvious step in its final comprehension keeps it from being altogether brilliant.

  • Wow, thank you for the incredibly kind words! I’m thrilled you and your players are having such a blast with ACKS.

    If you want a game world with less min-maxxing and more verisimilitude, you can require that the players roll for a Template (from Player’s Companion). Some Judges are reluctant to do this because it takes away a lot of the character generation choice that is otherwise presented to the players, so you have to decide how “new school” your group is.

    Over time, your players will end up with 2-3 characters each, typically a main PC and 1-2 henchmen. It’s a great opportunity to add breadth to the classes and proficiencies that are in play. Even if you don’t use the Templates for PCs, I *highly* recommend you use them when rolling up NPCs for them to encounter as henchmen. It’s vastly more fun to have them hire “Shakoth, the Eunuch Sorcerer” and “Malekith the Templar” and it makes for a lot more variety.

    • Jeffro says:

      I complain about the player “builds”, but I’m loathe to take away their autonomy. That’s a really good idea for using those templates there, though. That never crossed my mind, but I could see that getting a fair amount of play!

    • Aurumvorax says:

      We players are working hard to learn the ins & outs of ACKS.  While I don’t see a core rulebook in my immediate future, others in the group are in better financial shape than me!  I was surprised to learn that the Engineering proficiency is not involved in the operation of ballistæ and catapults.  I may be failing to appreciate the fun of building the edificial infrastructure of an empire, but I think I would rather enjoy a skill that let me drop rocks on my opponents/drop them onto rocks.  On a related note, is there a proficiency you would use to build mechanical traps?  I am also critical of the illumination power of a lantern.  If nonmagical means are only capable of lighting the surrounding 30 feet, I wonder what alternatives there are which would allow one to see danger farther away in a dungeon.  Faerie Fire, perhaps?

      • Jeffro says:

        Ah, what you’re looking for is the general proficiency called Siege Engineering.

        I believe the core rule book is silent on trap construction, but if you combine regular engineering with some other relevant proficiency, I’m sure we can work something out. Cribbing from the magical engineering rules, if you don’t have a specification, it will have to be researched first. Once you have the spec, you can build it. I think you’d be lest likely to have a total loss on a failed construction roll– I’d let you retry once or maybe twice.

        As far as lights go… I think the obvious solution is hiring someone to cast continual light on something that you can throw in the dungeon. A kickball, maybe? You could keep in a sack when you need stealth….

        • Right-oh! Siege Engineering will let you operate ballista and catapults. Without this proficiency, you fire them as a normal man at one-half the normal rate of fire (see Domains at War).

          The core book is silent on crafting traps. On the forums I suggested treating it as a construction project. You could use Engineering, Siege Engineering 2, or Trapping proficiency to craft traps with the following estimated time and cost for improvised and professional traps:
          http://www.autarch.co/forums/ask-autarchs/how-does-trapping-work

        • Aurumvorax says:

          Siege Engineering sounds like the way for my mage with Detect Magic & Read Languages to go.  As I said, I have to borrow the DM’s book–but I think if I throw in my class proficiency I can be level 2 in it at level 2!  Also, I can always hire Engineers if I decide to take more academic proficiencies later, but the ability to discharge a catapult (or aim an arbalest) accurately is likely to come in handy in the short term.

          I think it’s just too bad there isn’t a bullseye lantern, but we’re getting by pretty well by throwing that Military Oil at things 30 feet away.…

  • Theodore Meyer says:

    I’ve been a player in an ACKs campaign that’s runs about a year’s worth of weekly 4 hour sessions, and I’ve got to say “Wow!” In regards to hopeless characters and Min/Max Proficiencies, I’ve found that theft-of dungeon activities are as engaging, if not more so, than the actual dungeon crawl, and I LOVE dungeon crawls , my characters ability scores topped at 13 (Con) and bottomed at 8(DEX), and CHA and WIS of 10(+0 MODs). My GM (approx. 40 yrs of GM and game design experience) assigned prerequisites to class, and I only qualified for the Grunt class (slightly underpowered fighter. Magic items are minimal (found while exploring or commissioned, with the expense, uncertainty and time span that accompanies creation). Customized Classes are the rule, and are usually underpowered compared to the standard ones.Due to events in the mega-dungeon we are exploring, character switched class to Oath-Sworn (Divine Fighting class, more of a Deacon rather than Paladin). At the current time, my character is a 6th Level Oath-Sworn/ 4th Level Grunt, owns 5 buildings in town, transformed a ruined temple in the city into a profit making Mead Hall, picked up Man at Arms as a proficiency so as to train 30 street kids as Light Infantry (Leather and Dual Kukris), and employee 2 henchmen, 1 Master Level, 2 Journeyman level and 6 Apprentice level specialists full time, as well as the Urchin Light Infantry (with sergeants, uniforms, unit badge and funding the unit’s healing GP reserve.) Kids have been contracted by the Duke’s Guard to maintain order in half the capital while the Duke engages Orks on his borders.

    The amount of out-of dungeon play really affects the choices all of the group’s players make when leveling up characters, and the system is very successful at creating not just a “You are standing at the top of an entrance in the cliff face. Stair Lead into darkness” experience, but a fully fleshed, logical and engaging world. I’ve never played in a system where encumbrance (and containers) were so viscerally present. Where the attitudes of towns folk mattered so much. Where the party had to ride for a week in order to purchase 3 war dogs due to availability. where the demographics show how many spell casters are available in a location when searching for someone to create magic items. It’s Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarion instead of Tolkien’s Aragorn.

    I’ve played and read a lot of rule systems over the last 35 years, and ACKs is by far the most enjoyable system I’ve played in (with the possible exception of Mazes and Minotaurs).

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