The funny thing about this game is that, in many ways, it’s one that I’ve already been playing for years. It takes the Basic and Expert D&D sets of my youth as a starting point and then develops from there. I’ve said before, those sets are the purest, most refined, best designed iteration of the original fantasy roleplaying game. They look simplistic maybe and a bit clunky, but I get a surprising amount of mileage out of them. Under those rules, I’ve seen players completely fall apart facing “cream puff” monsters in Keep on the Borderlands that characters from more recent systems would just roll right over. I’ve seen The Isle of Dread eat a large party of adventurers one by one as they made their way its central plateau. I’ve seen high level characters pull out every trick they could muster in order to survive a session-spanning combat in Steading of the Giant Chief. Even if I was otherwise indifferent, it’s hard to argue with the fact that people will just flat out play this game.
So yeah, I’m glad to see that Alexander Macris and company had the savvy to use my version of D&D as the basis for their take on the their iteration. Still, picking this up, I initially had to wonder how they could possibly improve on such a quintessential work. Can they entice me away from my beloved red book with the Erol Otus cover artwork? Or will I see things that I intend to steal for my own game and then somehow never get around to it…? There’s nothing for it but to check out what’s inside and see how it stacks up….
The surprising thing here is that the most obvious changes were not made. Thieves still have only d4 hit dice. Clerics still don’t get a spell at first level. Attributes are still rolled 3d6 in order without any monkeying around besides maybe dropping a stat by two points in order to raise a prime requisite by one. Most people can’t leave this stuff alone. Heck, not even Gygax could leave this stuff alone. This is a very good start in my opinion, because these choices mean that this is a proper version of D&D where the players don’t get a lot of handouts and they’re forced to learn how to work together. That’s just how things should be in my book.
One subtle change is that the option to reroll pitifully low hit points or to possibly even throw out “hopeless” characters is eliminated. You know, maybe it is kind of tacky to set the character generation process up in such a way that the Dungeon Master has to start making judgement calls almost immediately. The solution presented here is that, if you want to be sure to get something you’ll actually want to play– because you’re a sissy and all, obviously— then you have to roll up five characters. You get run with the best one, but you have to take the next best two as backups to use next when your favorite dies. Then you have to give the remaining two to the Dungeon Master so that he doesn’t have to spend so much time creating non-player characters like henchmen and hirelings himself. That’s pretty harsh for some sort of mercy rule. If you want favors from the DM in this game, you have to be willing to lighten his workload! Heh.
The classes are going to be fairly familiar except that the halfling has been replaced with two new variations of the other demi-human classes: a dwarven cleric and a fancy elven thief/magic-user. (Note: there are halflings in the monster section, so you can still kill them for fun if you are of a chaotic bent.) These new demi-human options have fully developed class descriptions and they are given first class treatment throughout the rule book. These are not at all some kind of “multi-classing” type hack, though it’s obvious they were put together from some sort of balanced and generic class toolkit. (I couldn’t tell you if the loss in charm is made up for in flexibility or playability, though. That’s your call.) The other classes are adaptions of the assassin, the bard, and the ranger from AD&D. The one surprise here is the sword dancer, a female-only cleric variant.
There are so many ways to mess this sort of thing up. It seems like every new version of just about every role-playing game has added more and more skills, feats, options, chrome, and cruft… often to the point where they become unplayable monstrosities. When I was a kid, I was a sucker for anything with “Advanced” slapped on the cover like anyone else. But as I grew older, I seemed to have less and less of a desire to turn this aspect of the game into a chore. I am quite happy to just tell people that whatever it is that they wanted to do just worked™. If they’re asking for something that sounds iffy, I might ask them to roll a relevant attribute or less on a d20. That’s the Basic D&D way, after all… and it works just fine. So I don’t need this stuff.
But I will say this section accomplishes a great deal for the system in a mere ten pages. Firstly, a great many of the class abilities show up in these lists, including most all of the thief skills. That means there is a very simple way to capture the gist of multi-classed characters without having to bolt on kludgey rules or gradually adding in an interminable series of custom character classes. Secondly, several things that often become the subject of house rulings are codified here. For example, people that want a way to give non-clerics a chance to patch people up after a fight have to give up some other perk in order to do that. People that want a little something extra for combat-related advantages have to do without things that might make them more flexible or otherwise better fulfill their class role. Finally… many of the NPCspecialists-for-hire from early editions of D&D have their skills broken down and explained here. This means you can not only work out how the players might take on various do-it-yourself type projects at less than expert level proficiency, but you can also see how all of the specialist characters can be generated from “classless” normal human characters.
I have to say, there is some pretty deft design work here. The proficiency system captures a lot of the flexibility of point-build systems like GURPS… but without sacrificing the overall accessibility “old school” gaming. At the same time, a lot of the undeveloped aspects of the old games are addressed with concise rules, saving the Dungeon Master from having to make ad hoc rulings in order to bring them into play. And we’ve already seen that proficiencies end up having a great impact on the mass combats of Domains At War. And there’s a few other nice touches how the system favors fighters pick up new proficiencies at a much faster rate than mages, further differentiating the classes in a believable way. These rules add a lot to the game; they solve a problem I don’t really have, sure… but you wouldn’t have to twist my arm too hard to get me to use them.
The big change here is that magic-users can cast from any of their known spells. This is an incredibly common modification in rule sets that came after classic D&D, so it’s not really a surprise to see it crop up here. But it is a surprise that a rule set that keeps such venerable traditions as the d4 thief and the spell-less first level cleric would go down this decidedly “new school” path. This just isn’t how real Vancian magic works, after all.
In this variant, the concept of repertoire is introduced and what is actually kept in spell books is more carefully delineated. The idea is that each mage will have a small set of spells in active rotation. Your spell book might be full of all kinds of esoteric formulas, but you cannot just cast them willy-nilly until you’ve done the work to get them into your routine. It’s like a musician who could conceivably play just almost any piece of music that’s at his skill level, but to actually perform them he has do a significant amount of work first. If you want to change your magical repertoire, though, you’re looking at spending one week and 1,000 gp per spell level. This is yet another example of the designer giving players what looks like a “free” perk when he’s simultaneously taking something significant away that they would otherwise take for granted.
But by setting things up this way, the designer also has an opportunity to address a longstanding problem. Everyone seems to think that a mage with high intelligence should be able to do a much better job than his not-so-bright competitors. In the Greyhawk supplement and again in AD&D, Gygax took a stab at incorporating this idea by having the players roll a chance to know for each spell based on their intelligence score. It’s cumbersome and wonky and rarely used in actual play. In these rules, though, the mage gets a number of randomly chosen first level spells in his repertoire equal to his intelligence bonus. I have to say, I really like this rule because it preserves the simplicity of the old Basic rules, it allows to players to start the game with their beloved Sleep spell, it gives a significant but not overpowering edge to high-intelligence mages, and it also gives an avenue by which some of the less commonly used first level spells might come into play. Not bad!
But even that’s not the most significant rules change here. If you’ll recall, the classic Basic D&D rules forbid magic-users from both moving and casting spells within a single combat round. If you play out your combats in the old “theater of the mind” style, this may not be that big of a deal. But as soon as you switch to using miniatures, it has the profound effect of turning the magic-users into artillery units. You practically have to limber and unlimber them in order to get them into position to cast a combat spell…! Another lesser known aspect of the game is that there is no explicit way to spoil a spell caster’s casting within the rules. This is pretty much a staple of fantasy gaming, and finding a way to work that in requires some creative interpretation.
Adventurer Conqueror King preserves the old rule of forbidding the mages from moving on the combat round that they cast a spell, but if he wants to cast a spell, he must declare it before initiative is rolled. If anything happens to him to cause him damage or force him to make a saving throw, then his spell is not only spoiled, but it also counts against the number of spells he can cast each day! Come to think of it, I’m just not entirely sure how I would have adjudicated a duel between rival mages under my well worn D&D booklets. Even better, just as in Steve Jackson’s classic microgame Wizard, a mage with a high dexterity is a force to be reckoned with…!
I admit, I’m as much of a purist as anyone. The past several years, I’ve been more interested in seeing what happens when you assume that classic D&D is not broken than in fixing any of the perceived problems in it. I’m just not that big on house ruling my games. And when I play “new school” games, I really chafe at how clerics, for instance, don’t have to pick out specific spells when they do their morning prayer thing. But the restrictions on mage’s repertoire and the explicit rules for spoiling spells are so devious, I think I can be convinced to set aside my normal preferences for this rule set. These design changes are not changing things in the manner of the typical house ruler. Several related things are being fine tuned at once here in order to produce a very specific, understated tone. I would never have been inclined make any one of these rules changes. (I would never think to embrace individual initiative on my own, for instance.) But I have to say, I quite like the way they all work together. It’s like “real” old school gaming is suddenly snapping into focus into something tighter and cleaner.
One more thing: from the standpoint of a student of the Appendix N reading list, one rule here particularly stands out. In AD&D where magic-users can only gain new spells for the spell books by copying them from scrolls and so fort, but here– starting at the fifth level– mages can research spells that they don’t have formula for without having to luck into them in a treasure horde or purchase them from some sort of guild. If he has amassed a sufficiently large library of magical tomes, he can work it out for himself if he dedicates time, money, and makes Magical Engineering proficiency check. Those wonderful “shelves stacked with volumes, folios and librams” that you read about in Jack Vance’s Eyes of the Overworld now have an explicit application in these rules. That’s really cool.
Okay, I haven’t even gone into the how domain game is addressed in this system. Yeah, there’s a lot here for that but you probably won’t want to touch it if you can’t abide the relatively radical changes I’ve covered here with regards to character generation, proficiencies, and spellcasting.
I admit though, what’s particularly nice about this game is how you can instantly determine how many mercenaries, specialists, and henchmen are available at a given Market Class. Similarly, you get a breakdown of how many spellcasters are available for hire, what their rates are, and the rate at which they can cast spells of a given level. Both of those things are something I’ve had to pull out of thin air for nearly every adventure I’ve ever run and I finally have playable rules that do that which actually make sense! Basic campaign demographics are also covered in detail and you can tell at a glance the number of NPC’s of a given level that will be in a particular realm. Whether you want to start fighting battles at the domain level or whether you want to set up a thieves or assassins guild at a major metropolis, there are concise rules here to help get you started. And there is comprehensible advise for converting real world kingdoms and existing campaign settings into the Adventurer Conqueror King system.
On the whole, it looks like the things that are added to the game solve far more problems than they create. Even if you don’t leave classic D&D altogether, there are plenty of things in this volume that can help you run your game. It is clearly written for “modern” gamers and many common things that players today would ask for are incorporated into the rules, but this is nevertheless done in such a way as to preserve the elusive “old school” flavor of the earliest editions of the game. Even though a great many aspects of the old games are nailed down in a systematic way, these new systems seem to be able to account for the feel of a great many fragments and oddities from the old editions in a coherent manner. This is not the result of some sort of “grail quest” to find the authentic, “totally for real” ur-D&D that was actually played in the seventies. But it is a game that will let you tackle the themes those old grognards seemed to take for granted even though they never really explained how to do it.
In short, this is a very fine product that deserves every ounce of praise and buzz that it has generated in the gaming blogs and on social media. It may sound like an oxymoron, but the state of the art in old school gaming really is moving forward. This is the sort of thing that helps make this the best time ever to be a tabletop gamer.