Friday, 3 February 2012

ACKS Eats 5E's Lunch, Belches Heartily

[All content-creating efforts are going into another project ATM. Breaking blog silence only to post an opinion piece/review.]

Note: this is based entirely upon the PDF version of ACKS, released 01/02/2012.

Adventurer Conqueror King System
Authors: Alex Macris, Tavis Allison, Greg Tito
Format: 8.5" x 11", pp270.
Colour cover, black-and-white illos throughout.

Adventurer Conqueror King System (hereafter ACKS) is a Kickstarter funded semi-retro-clone that basically does what WOTC want to do with 5E: namely, nick the best elements from preceding editions of D&D and kludge them into one (hopefully) all-conquering whole. That said; ACKS does borrow more from some versions of D&D than from others.

Expected Elements
ACKS is basically the BEC- of BECMI, with mechanics rationalised and extended to suit authorial taste.
  • Most of the mechanical chassis - classes, spells, proficiencies, equipment, adventuring mechanics, monsters, magic items, stocking dungeons, encounter tables - will be pretty much home ground to any fan of Classic D&D. Even ACKS' (well-executed) new classes will look more than a little familiar.
  • The integrated 'roll over' core mechanic of ACKS owes something to the SRD. Where ACKS differs is in being a close-ended system: you always roll your d20 hoping to exceed the target number. This puts a hard cap on difficulty and keeps bonus inflation within the bounds of sanity. No one "falls off the RNG" in ACKS.
  • Magic item creation looks to be straight from 3E, albeit with a BECMI-style success roll required.

Nice Touches
There's a lot to like in ACKS, though it does tend to conceal the more subtle system interactions which illustrate its cleverness. I don't want to derail myself by talking about those, go see the games' developer blog for that.

My personal favourite take aways are things that look - at least in isolation - like simple, elegant "I wish I'd thought of that" house rules:
  • The formalisation of the 'henchmen as vassal' idea, and accompanying henchmen-of-henchmen trees as the basis for a feudal structure, is an ingenious idea.
  • Carousing (blow stacks of cash to no benefit) as an XP bank for your next character.
  • Abstract combat you can either keep simple or complicate as much as you like. 
  • Grapple rules? Sure. One paragraph. And you can boil them down further to: "roll to hit, he saves vs. paralysis or ends up pinned."
  • High level magic (L6+) is situational one-shot rituals. No wish-per-day breaking of the setting.
  • Created monsters - wanna make constructs, undead, or hideous hybrid monstrosities? Certainly Mr Mad Wizard, here are the rules. Go crazy you cackling maniac you...
  • Tapping the faith of the masses and/or sacrificing them on unholy altars for magic makes Cleric happy.
  • Hijinks and skullduggery rules for when the Thief gets back to civilisation.
  • Build dungeons, then exploit their monster infestations for XP and reagents.
  • Rule tribal humanoid domains (poor and backward, but swarming with Orcy cannon fodder).
  • Gain XP from your profits as a merchant prince, feudal lord or arcane experimenter, but only over a certain threshold (dependent on character level). You can do much more than just adventure, but adventuring still gives the best XP return on effort invested.
  • All magic items require reagents in their creation.
  • Formalised rules for creating PCs above level 1, along with equipment, batcaves, and accompanying cadres of vassals and pet monsters.
  • Sharktipedes.

My ACKS niggles are totally matters of taste. What bugs me will probably make the next gamer priapic with joy.
  • The sections on arbitrage trading, generating a setting, determining local trade goods and suchlike are comprehensive and appear to scale well. But they are a bit, well, spreadsheety for my tastes. Less BECMI domain system, more Birthright-style abstraction would have been nice here. But then I consider anything more complex than counting on my fingers just too damn fiddly.
  • My old bete noire of Treasure Types ("Five types of coin? GTFO!") rear their ugly head, albeit rationalised somewhat for the 2010s. Type A is least valuable, R most. Statistical average value is given right there on the table. Supplementary gem, jewellery and "replace cash type with equivalent value in trade goods" sub-tables are good. The same treature types are used to generate monster swag and dungeon loot. Believe me, it's high praise when I say that I probably hate this take on Treasure Types the least.
  • The suggested magic item reagents are sadly WoW-esque ("bring me a dozen troll hearts") rather than mythic ("bring me the sound of a shadow"). But that's easily amended...
  • I'd love to have seen some of the inevitable D&D standby monsters - especially the interchangeable humanoids ("Kobold, Goblin, Morlock, Orc, Hobgoblin, Gnoll, Neanderthal..." *snore*), scaling animals (bears, big cats, crocs, non-giant snakes, rodents, birds of prey, etc.) and niche-encroaching wastes of space (*cough* hippogriff, caecilian) - dropped or rationalised in favour of new Auran Empire beasties.
  • I know the writers were limited by page count, but it would have been nice if they'd been able to include a couple of their excellent ACKS blog articles (economics from the ground up, the magic ratio of worldbuilding, etc.) in the book as sidebars. It would have made some of the figures generated by the system a little more transparent to the casual reader. Don't hide the clever, dammit!

Easter Eggs
Things that tickled me, because I am small of brain and easily pleased.
  • I'm not sure why a sheep (80lbs) is considered a form of lodging (p42). I don't know, and I don't want to know.
  • Spotted on the ACKS patron list: the name Mike Mearls. Nah. It couldn’t be that Mike Mearls, surely? Must be some other guy. ;)

Is ACKS worth the money? Well, it's no Vornheim in terms of immediate open-and-play utility (what is?), but I still bought it sight unseen on the strength of a few developer articles. The lads at Autarch talked a good fight, and they delivered. The book appears well laid-out, well cross-referenced, the writing is clear and coherent, the artwork thematically unified without being straitjacketed by a corporate 'house style'.

Issues of taste and "I wouldn't have done it like that" aside ACKS is a damn fine distillation and extension of Classic D&D. The writers manage to integrate the rulership end game into the main killing-and-theft game without having the economy go to pot. As anyone who's played 3E knows: that's an achievement in itself.

So, ACKS scales all the way up without breaking, gives us new mechanical toys to play with, and it still looks like D&D. Your move WOTC...


  1. Excellent review that really highlights the game's strong points and suggests improvements. Nice work.

    I was a backer of ACKS nearly from the get-go, so I saw the system go through many, many revisions. The MMO-ish monster part collecting was one of the things several people (including myself) suggested changing, but for whatever reason that suggestion wasn't taken. As you say, it's not that hard to change, though.

  2. Ditto Blizack, on.. well.. all points really :)

  3. Thanks for this cogent and well thought out review. We've been curious about ACKS ever since the Chris over at the Hill Canton's announced that he was going to try to work with the ACKS guys in regards to the whole 'Domain Game' play-test. So, one big question for you sir: Is ACKS modular enough that someone could swap-out or exchange some of those fiddly-bits? How customizable is this chassis? could it be adapted to support play in say the Vaults or some similar setting?

  4. Does it use old school saves and descending AC, or my preferred: fort, will, reflex, and ascending AC?

  5. I can only imagine you are meant to slice the the sheep open and use it as an emergency shelter like a tauntaun during a snow storm.


  6. I knew you were still breathing!

    Good stuff, interesting and all that. :D

  7. @Chris, sometimes as a third party publisher you get tired of euphemisms like "world's most popular roleplaying games" and are glad when others name the trademarks you can't. But OMG this is over the top! We all really like Mike; for my part, after running in the same circles since the Forge taught Behemoth3 how to not make out too badly in the d20 glut of '05, it is great to see local boy make good. So we were beside ourselves when he backed our Kickstarter, and we like to think it will make him a little bit sad if suspicion of having nibbled his lunch causes us to be nuked from orbit.

    @Blizack, all the forum threads with those discussions are public now, so it's OK to link to 'em. I honestly don't know if magic item components was one of the things we meant to do more with that got lost in the shuffle. An expanded list of trade goods specific to certain kinds of spell components and magic items, so that you could see that increased demand for black opals meant a necromancer was out there somewhere, was on my to-do list but I never figured out how to boil it down.

    I can attest that I tried a number of treasure systems that I thought would be more elegant, and couldn't make any of them work. If an enterprising Judges Guild type wants to release PDFs of pre-made treasures, I will do my best to sort out the spreadsheet that worked from all the ones that went phlooey.

  8. Thanks for the *very* kind words!

    About the reagents for magic items, the reason that monster parts are the default fuel for magical research is, in part, to justify why evil archmages build dungeons stocked with monsters and good archmages send adventurers on monster-killing quests. "The sound of a shadow" is cool and mythic, but "10 ogre hearts" is something you find on an adventure in in a dungeon. So the need for monster parts is an attempt to close the loop of adventuring and archwizardry.

    That said, we actually did make a change in the game based on our backer feedback, although it's more Judge empowerment than anything else. I put *stars* around the new text in the paragraph below.

    "Creating magic items requires special components for each
    spell effect in the item. Components are *usually* organs or blood from one or more monsters with a total XP value equal to the gp cost of the research. *The Judge will determine the specific components required for each item. Different formulas for the same item may require different components. For instance, one formula for a wand of fireball might require the fangs of 20 hellhounds, while another formula for a wand of fireball might require the ichor of four efreeti.*

    In other words, rules as written the Judge can make the special components rat-tails and ogre-hearts if desired, but he's purposefully within his rights to say a particular spell needs "the fires of doom" or "the sound of a shadow" or what not. I did not what players to use the rules against a Judge who felt particular components should be rare or special.

    Even in my house campaign, Wish and Permanency require a really tough-to-get component called a Fragment of the Tablet of Destiny. Lesser magic spells and items require monster parts, though.

    As far as the sheep... no comment.

  9. @blizack: Ta. The more I read ACKS the more clever little system interactions jump out at me. I reckon it'll be making me eat my words more than once.

    @garrisonjames: Most of the ACKS system is similar to Classic D&D in its modularity. The unified game mechanic makes it even easier than to kitbash to taste than, say, Labyrinth Lord, and definitely easier than OSRIC. The main exception to this are the intricate domain economics rules (population, demography, taxes, trade routes, price variation, etc) with their cascading setting information outputs. This is one of the jewels in ACKS' crown and the component elements interact in such an elegant manner that I'd be loathe to tinker until I grok it in fullness.

    @Dan: Old School saves, ascending AC (starting at a base of +0 and a base #to-hit of 10+).

    @Matthew: Still around, but finally learning to shut up when I've little enough of substance to say. ;)

    @Tavis: Thanks for dropping by. I don't mean that ACKS literally ate 5E's lunch in a 'poached their fanbase' way. I just saw your opus as setting a (respectably high) benchmark for the new Official Version of The Classic RPG. Sort of:

    "This is what a rationalised 21st century dungeoncrawling RPG can look like: enough old school aspects to appeal to grognards, but with enough mechanical crunch to appeal to new(er) school players. The systems maths is robust enough that it doesn't fall to pieces if you breathe on it, but simple enough that you only need to do simple-addition-up-to-20 in play. And we did it crowdfunded and with substantiative fan base interaction and customer feedback."

    A lot of the things Mike+Monte talk about doing for 5E, you seem to have achieved.

    If an enterprising Judges Guild type wants to release PDFs of pre-made treasures, I will do my best to sort out the spreadsheet that worked from all the ones that went phlooey.

    This is part of why Autarch are such class acts: no 'walled garden' mindset.

    @Alexander: Thanks for unpacking the whys-and-wherefores of reagents for the more confused among us. This is why I'd love to have seen some more authorial sidebars in ACKS. Even the things that I'm all 'dog that's been shown a magic trick' about make perfect sense when you explain them like that.

  10. @Chris, the lack of garden walls is actually so we can slip out easily and nick other people's stuff, for example your quote above which I am proud to steal for the Autarch site.

    @Alex, thanks from me too for shedding light on reagants! I should have learned long ago to always assume there is a reason for everything. Even the sheep.

    Internal debate over whether to make ACKS a how-to book with lots of explanations, or a lean and functional car repair manual, will eventually be resolved by having the PDF hyperlink to appropriate design essays and explications, while keeping the basic layout uncluttered by sidebars.


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