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Wednesday, 13 November 2013

RPGPundit Reviews: Adventurer Conqueror King System

RPGPundit Reviews: Adventurer Conqueror King System

This is a review of the old-school RPG, “Adventurer Conqueror King System”, hereby (mercifully) abbreviated as ACKS.  I’m reviewing the print version of the game, which is a hardcover, with 270 pages.  The cover has a very impressive full-colour image that features a couple of people about to ambush a wizard in some kind of temple; the central focus being on a scantily-clad babe with swords that for some reason consistently reminds me of chainmail-bikini Princess Leia.  The interior features a great deal of black and white images, most of them of very high quality. I do have to note that in my book the binding (which appears to have been glued onto the spine) is already starting to come loose at the back, though this might be a unique problem for all I know, and not a typical flaw.

Anyways, the first thing to cover about ACKS is that its an old-school RPG; at this point, one of dozens and dozens of old-school RPGs inspired by D&D.  And one has to ask at this point, when doing a review for another Old-school RPG, just what this one has that will differentiate it and make it worthwhile compared to any of the significant number of other old-school D&D options?  I mean, you have various old editions of D&D itself, then you have the pure clones (games like S&W or Labyrinth Lord or OSRIC) that just directly copy one or another edition of D&D, then you have a number of games at this point that are clearly based on old-school D&D without being a direct copy of any single version (games like the excellent Lamentations of the Flame Princess); plus a few other odd choices, like Rob Conley’s Majestic Wilderlands, which is not a full game but a supplement intended to fundamentally modify the basic rules of any given D&D game. There’s even the DCC game, which came out while I was writing this review.

So what need is there for another? Or more specifically, what does ACKS do better than the other ones out there?
The claim, as we’ve heard it on the message boards, is that ACKS is meant to provide a greater deal of support for running a dominion-level game; for handling domain-management, running a manor or a county or a kingdom.  The book’s back cover itself says that ACKS “provides the framework for epic fantasy campaigns with a sweeping scope”, and perhaps more arrogantly that “ACKS is the ultimate RPG for sandbox campaigns”.

Let’s see if this holds up on review.

The book opens with a pretty confusing foreword, which tries to mix something I really hate, in-game fiction, with snippets of information about the game itself; as in, the in-game fiction gets interrupted every few paragraphs with a paragraph explaining how this part of the story is connected to some concept of the game. I found this foreword pretty pointless, myself, but I won’t hold it against the rest of the book. Nor will I hold it against them that in the next chapter (“introduction”) they go into the standard “what is roleplaying” spiel where they show you what a d20 is, or explain what experience points or hit points are, or what a dice roll is, as if they’re playing pretend that a significant chunk of their readership hasn’t actually been playing D&D for over 20 years now.

From about page 16 onwards, the filler now done filling, we get into the brass tacks of the actual game. The basic system is, of course, a clone of D&D, but with a number of important changes.  I’ll be pointing these changes out as I go along, but not the similarities, since I (unlike ACKS’ authors) am under no illusions about the fact that pretty much everyone reading this knows what D&D is already.
The game features the four standard core classes (fighter, mage, cleric and thief), but also has some “campaign classes” (which they say are meant to be just examples of any number of other sub-classes you could use or invent), which are the assassin, bard, bladedancer, and explorer.  It also has demihuman classes; the “Dwarven vaultguard”, the “dwarven craftpriest”, the “elven spellsword” and the “elven nightblade”.  No halflings.

Some important details about the various classes: Fighters gain a bonus to henchmen’s reactions at 5th level, and can build a castle at 9th level. Mages gain a number of bonus spells at each spell level they can cast equal to their Intelligence modifier; 5th level mages can make potions and scrolls, and 9th level mages can make other magic items, and can also build a sanctum and a dungeon. 7th, 8th and 9th level spells are apparently cast as rituals, and a mage starts being able to use these at 11th level. Clerics start casting spells at level 2, and can make magic items and cast rituals (6th and 7th level cleric spells) at the same levels as a mage can; at 9th level they make a “Fortified Church”. Thieves have standard thief skills, read languages at level 4, can make a “hideout” at 9th, and can read scrolls at 10th. Assassins are relatively similar to 1e assassins; bards are kind of similar to 2e bards, except that they can only “dabble in the arcane”; they can have a chance of using magic items usually restricted to mages but don’t actually have any spells of their own.  Bladedancers are apparently “human women who have dedicated themselves to the service of a goddess of war”, that seem to be a strange mix of stuff that comes out of the implied setting that ACKS is based on. Explorers are wilderness scouts, like non-magical rangers.  Dwarven Vaultguards are basically Dwarf Fighters, craftpriests are basically Dwarf Priests, Spellswords basically Elf Fighter/mages, and nightblades are these acrobatic elf thief/mages.

A couple of important notes: the game has a level limit of 14, apparently that’s the highest level of the game, so you’re basically doing Basic/Expert D&D here, in that sense.  Demihumans have lower level limits (as low as level 10).

Alignment is Law/Neutral/Chaos, and (much to my liking) the definition of Law and chaos are that Law means you want to uphold civilization while Chaos means you want to destroy civilization.
The equipment section is mostly fairly standard, except that in following with the whole thematic of ACKS it has a very extensive set of rules and procedures for hiring Henchmen. Also, markets are divided by “market class” (with 6 different levels of market class), where items of a certain price are have limited quantities or may not be available at all in certain types of markets.

The game has an extensive Proficiency system, which is listed as being “optional” somewhere, but importantly not in the actual section on proficiencies. The class descriptions provide a single set of pre-baked proficiency choices per class, but assuming you don’t want to use that one, there’s no random option available; you’d need to look through the long list of proficiencies (divided into “general” and “class” proficiencies) and pick a certain number of each type. Not the type of skill system I care for, generally speaking.  Proficiencies generally grant bonuses to doing things, but there are all kinds of other special proficiencies (for example, “elven bloodline” which when taken means the character lives three times longer than the usual for his race, doesn’t age, and is immune to paralysis).  I have to say I’m not very enchanted by the proficiencies on a purely personal level (too much garnish of characters for the type of old-school I like, and the temptation for players to read through the roughly 100 proficiencies while making a character, slowing the character-creation process to a crawl while trying to cherry-pick which bonuses or special powers would be the most mechanically advantageous for them, does not appeal to me in the slightest.  I can only hope that the Proficiencies are as “optional” as is claimed.

Magic is mostly as standard for D&D, though the spell list is fairly slim (only 12 spells per level for mages, and 10 for clerics or “bladedancers”).

There are extensive rules for wilderness travel (land and sea), encounters, reactions, and combat, mostly following the standard D&D format. One change I should note here is that combat uses neither ascending nor descending AC, and neither to-hit bonuses or THAC0; instead, for reasons I myself can’t fathom, they came up with a new method, whereby each class has an “attack throw value”.  To hit you roll a D20 and add any bonuses from attributes or magic or other modifiers, and compare it to your “attack throw value” (based on level) plus the AC value of the creature or person you’re attacking. If the roll is equal or greater than the modified “attack throw value”, you hit.  So for example, if you’re level 1 you might have an “attack throw value” of “10+”; let’s say you have a +1 attribute bonus, and you’re trying to hit someone with AC 4 (because they’re wearing chain mail).  You’d need to get a 14 or more (rather, a 13 or more on the die, because of your +1 bonus), because the “attack roll value” would be 10+4.

I really don’t get why they did this.  It adds nothing to the game, it doesn’t make things simpler; on the contrary the lack of familiarity makes it harder to wrap one’s head around it.  We’ve had descending AC for ages, and ascending AC for at least 12 years now, we’re used to either of those. But this? Why??

I’ll note that the combat rules have it that a 20 always hits, and a 1 always misses. They also have a “cleaving” rule: if you take down an opponent, you can get an immediate free attack against another adjacent opponent. Fighter-type characters and monsters can do this a number of times equal to their level; other classes a number of times equal to half their level.  Saving throws use the standard types from old-school D&D, and thankfully do not have a weird new method of adjudicating this.
There is a Mortal Wounds Table, which is meant I think to be something similar to the type of tables we all love from WFRP or Rolemaster.  The table itself is pretty awesome, though it has a tricky set of modifiers that have to be taken into account and the actual mechanic feels somewhat awkward to me, adding a layer of complexity to the relative simplicity of injury in normal D&D.  There’s also an equally cool-but-awkward table for “tampering with mortality”, that is rolled when you use some kind of magic to cheat death.

From here, we get to the part where ACKS is supposed to really shine: the next large section of the book deals with campaigns, dominions, high level play, all that jazz. Up to this point, all you got from ACKS was a slightly quirky D&D clone with some really weird to-hit mechanics.  But now, we get detailed information on spell research, libraries, magic item creations, ritual spells and other high-powered magical weirdness, and of course, the highlight of the game: stronghold and dominion mechanics.

The latter rules are really, really thorough.  I think its safe to say that I have never seen a set of rules and guidelines for stronghold and dominion management in any other D&D game (or even any other game remotely similar to D&D) that were this complete.  The mechanics in the BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia books pale in comparison.  Even Pendragon, which probably has the most detailed rules on manors that I’d seen systematized until now, doesn’t really match up. You get complete rules for just what kind of stronghold each class can make, how many followers it will attract, what every little bit of it will cost, how many peasant families you can attract and support, and what kind of revenue you can collect.  On top of that you get rules for how to expand your domain, what kind of various expenses are involved on a regular basis, rules and tables for being a vassal of a lord or king, morale rules for your dominion to see if the peasants are revolting, rules for building and running villages, towns and cities, and building and managing markets.  There are variant guidelines for non-human strongholds and settlements, rules for running thief operations, hideouts and guilds, rules for crime and punishment, and really awesome rules for high-level wizards to build their own dungeons (the justification being that dungeons are used by wizards as environments to “cultivate” the various rare material components they need for high-level magical research; but this isn’t just lip-service, its actually backed up by the magical research rules themselves).

There are also rules for mercantile ventures, which are equally thorough; though in this case there are past mechanics that do approximate its level of completeness; I’m thinking of the traveller rules, as well as the blatantly-ripped-off-from-traveller rules that you found in the D&D Mystara supplements for Darokin and Minrothrad. Here you get all kinds of details and tables on potential types of merchandise and their value.

Of course, while it would be enough motivation to do all this stuff just because its cool, the game provides additional motivation in the form of having rules for XP awards for domain management, mercantile trade, magical research, and underworld hijinks.

In all, the entire chapter covering all these rules adds up to about 30 pages; so it would seem like not a huge chunk of the total page-count; and yet that’s far more than what most games of its kind would dedicate to the subject, and these rules are extremely dense in terms of the amount of mechanics and information they pack into those pages.  Does it live up to the hype? Certainly; some might say perhaps to excess.  If I were to be nitpicky, I would say that it could go into TOO much detail for my liking; having myself somewhat lost the sense of excitement for figuring out the “total calculation of peasant tax revenues versus castle expenditures per hex” and that sort of thing. But in this case, that’s meant to be the whole point, isn’t it?  The reason you’d choose ACKS over Labyrinth Lord or LotFP is because you WANT to make a big deal out of that stuff.  So if I look at it objectively and benevolently, I would say that the mechanics for domain management are incredibly detailed without committing the critical mistake you sometimes see in this sort of thing of devoting great attention to minutiae that doesn’t actually matter; everything they touch on in the rules actually does matter, it isn’t just busywork for busywork’s sake.

The rest of the game goes back to being relatively D&D-standard after that; you get some 50 pages of monster listings, quite well done, and some very detailed treasure listings (but not beyond what you’d find in a number of other books, including a number of actual D&D editions).  There is one area that does somewhat stand out, and that is the chapter called “Secrets” which gives GM-instructions on how to map and develop the setting.  Obviously, all those detailed domain rules would not really stand up to muster if the world-setting itself didn’t also have attention to detail of the kind that would prop the domain rules up, and so here you get Realm-level rules for things like population density, revenue (by social class type), frequency and structure of settlements, determination of prominent trade routes, and modifications of all these sort of things by demi-human type.  The table that I think best exemplifies all this kind of thinking is found in this chapter; the “Environmental adjustments to demands” table, which lists a huge number of trade goods (fish, salt, coffee, metals, pigments, wood, spices, books, gems, etc etc… though to their eternal shame they fail to include Tobacco), and a huge list of potential modifiers to the market demand for these items based on the type of region, elevation, terrain, and climate. That’s quite the attention to detail there.

There are also detailed rules for constructing cities, including stuff like the market level, the level-range of the city’s ruler, how many of each PC class you’ll find in the city, what kind of criminal guilds you’ll get, etc.  There are dungeon-creation rules too, which again tend to completely side-step the standard totally-random determination methods in favor of methods that work with the aforementioned assumptions about demographics and the material justification for the dungeon’s existence.

The gamebook finishes off with some reference tables for combat (including a reprinting of the “Mortal Wounds” and “Tampering with Mortality” tables), and then some very nice character sheets, plus sheets for keeping track of henchmen & followers, specialists & mercenaries, your domain mechanics, and spells & magic research.

What can I say in conclusion about ACKS?  Its definitely not just a clone; and yet at the same time its not actually as innovative in either inspiration or mechanic as other non-clone games.  Its got less atmosphere than LotFP, and its less daring with the actual rules than DCC or Majestic Wilderlands.  Its as though really, ACKS moved away from the strict-clone game in a different direction: instead of doing something radical with the game as a whole, they decided to focus on one thing in particular: domains and realms for high-level play, and focused all their real innovation on that one particular thing, to make their game stand out by being the absolute best version of D&D for that specific area.
And I think in that sense, they definitely succeeded.  If what you want is a game where you can reach high-level play (well, relatively high-level, remember here we’re talking about levels 9-14, because that’s as high as the game goes) and have as much or more interesting stuff to do than you did at levels 1-3; and where you want that stuff to involve being able to systematize, tweak, and keep careful track of small, medium and large-scale domain-management, this will no doubt be the very best OSR game for you. On the other hand, if that’s not really what you’re looking for, there won’t be anything particularly bad about ACKS but there won’t be anything particularly special about it either (and with details like their weird to-hit system and their ponderous proficiency system, I’d certainly say that there are better old school games out there in terms of basic mechanics).  I think that if you’re somewhere in between, the situation gets trickier; because it seems to me that what you can’t actually do is pick and choose just how much detail you want to get into.  This game is made for going ALL-IN with the domain mechanics. You could perhaps pick off some little tidbits to use as inspiration for any other D&D game here, that’s true; but what you can’t do is play ACKS using only half the domain mechanics; it seems to me that the whole book-keeping system would fall apart if you tried.

So if there’s one criticism that you could make of the way they handled the one thing ACKS is really excellent at, its that the rules don’t easily allow for various degrees of commitment.  A guy like me, who might want some simple but sensible rules to manage the basic details of a stronghold but doesn’t want to go with the full blown book-keeping package won’t really get his needs met.  Its hardcore or bust.

That said, if you want to be hardcore about your stronghold management, and are looking for rules that give you that level of sophisticated detail without getting bogged down or lost in irrelevancies, ACKS will be your best friend ever.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario Egg + Germain’s Special Latakia Flake

(Originally posted June 22, 2012; on the old blog)


  1. I've been eagerly awaiting a review of this. Thanks! This may go on my buy list since I love this kind of "strategic" game layer.

  2. Thank you; though as noted, this review is actually from a year and a half ago. If you're looking for a review of an RPG, you might wish to check to see if someone hasn't posted on on the reviews forum of theRPGsite.

  3. I must have missed that. Well, it's appreciated in any event.

    Do you by any chance have "echo resounding" from Sine Nomine publishing? I'd be curious how the two systems of domain management compare

  4. That's one I haven't received yet; Sine Nomine has sent me quite a few review products, though, so its likely that sooner or later I might end up getting and doing a review of that one.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Chivalry & Sorcery has always done well on the manor hold campaign front so has Harn.