Here’s a review of the Adventurer-Conqueror-King System core rules from Autarch; 274 page PDF, hard copy also available, $10 at time of review.
Summary: OD&D retroclone expanded to cover strongholds and other things for high-level PCs to do.
There are a foreword, 10 chapters, and some reference sheets and forms. I’ll be brief in reviewing much of the book, as chapters 2-6 can be thought of as a retroclone of B/X D&D – the artistic style of the numerous black and white internal illustrations is very 1980s D&D.
PCs can safely read up to the end of Chapter 7 without compromising any GM secrets. Chapters 8-10 are for the GM’s eyes only.
FOREWORD (4 pages) and CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION (6 pages)
This is part fiction, part overview of the product and its purpose. The fiction is a character’s-eye view of the sort of thing a high level character in this game gets up to. The purpose of the game is to follow the careers of adventurers as they grow in power, until they command guilds, domains, kingdoms or even empires of their own. It’s all very Conanesque.
There is also the usual "What is an RPG?" stuff – what is the game about, how do you win, what are all those funny-shaped dice and so on.
CHAPTER 2: CHARACTERS (23 pages)
Character creation is Old School; roll 3d6 and add them together for each of the six attributes – no point-buy, no swapping them around, yer takes what yer gits. You also start with 3d6x10 to buy gear. You have to choose a race, a class, an alignment (law-neutrality-chaos) and some proficiencies (a rare break-out into AD&D here), roll your hit points and record attack and saving throws.
Classes depend on race. Humans can be fighters, clerics, magi or thieves; there are four extra classes provided as examples of how to customise the base classes for a specific campaign; assassin, bard, bladedancer (fighter-cleric) and explorer (ranger). Dwarves can be vaultguards (fighters) or craftpriests (clerics); elves can be spellswords (fighter-magic users) or nightblades (fighter-magic user-assassin). There are no hobbits – errm, sorry, halflings – half-anythings, gnomes, or what have you.
Each class has a template for an initial character, listing his proficiencies and gear, to speed up generation.
It would be easy enough to add other races and classes from any of the other retroclones such as Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry. The game assumes that characters go no higher than 14th level.
CHAPTER 3: GEAR (17 pages)
This chapter has the usual list of armour, weapons, mundane gear and hirelings for a fantasy world, and the encumbrance rules. The game’s economic focus starts to show through here, as habitations are each assigned a "Market Class" which determines the chances of buying any particular type of equipment based on its cost, or hiring a particular henchman based on his or her profession, or getting someone to cast a spell for you based on its level.
A nice addition is the table of monthly living costs for various social classes, adventurer levels, and professions.
CHAPTER 4: PROFICIENCIES (10 pages)
These are the game’s equivalent of skills and advantages/edges/feats. A character starts with three proficiencies, one of which must be Adventuring, and by the time he reaches 14th level will have 9-10 of them; some are available to all characters, and some only to specific character classes.
Proficiencies either allow a character to do something, generally if he rolls 11+ or 18+ on 1d20; or give him bonuses when he tries, typically +2 or +4. Some proficiencies can be taken multiple times for extra bonuses, or to allow specialisation in several related fields (types of performance art, for example).
CHAPTER 5: SPELLS (26 pages)
While spells are rated in terms of level and magical vs clerical as per standard D&D, the model isn’t strictly Vancian magic – characters choose what spell to cast at the time of casting, so long as they have a spell slot of the right level left. There’s quite a bit of good explanation of why spellcasters only know so many spells, what they do to learn new ones, what they do when they lose their spellbooks, and so on.
Up to 9th level, characters have guilds or masters who teach them new spells when they level up. Beyond that, they must research spells themselves, or recover them from lost tomes and scrolls.
The list of spells themselves will be familiar to anyone who has played any version of D&D.
CHAPTER 6: ADVENTURES (25 pages)
Here are the game systems; types of adventures, encounters, trap detection, combat, damage, travel, gaining experience, evasion and pursuit, saving throws. All of this follows standard OD&D / d20 conventions, and if you’re reading an RPG blog at all, it’s a safe bet you’re familiar with those, so ’nuff said.
The main things that stand out to me as different are the tables for mortal wounds, and tampering with them. Once your character reaches zero hit points, you roll 1d20 + 1d6 on the Mortal Wounds table. The results range from "just dazed" to "instant death", with a variety of gruesome permanent wounds and scars available between those two extremes. Attempts to Restore Life and Limb (5th level divine spell, seems to have replaced Raise Dead) require a like roll on the Tampering With Mortality table, with results ranging from instant and full recovery to permanently dead, through a list of possible side effects such as becoming vegetarian, losing confidence (experience point penalties) or going blind.
Also worthy of note is that a high level of PC mortality is to be expected. This is partly addressed by allowing players to "bank" treasure and convert it into experience points for the next character. However, frequent death is one of the features of Old School campaigns, and is one reason why character generation must stay simple – players need to be able to create a new PC on the fly.
CHAPTER 7: CAMPAIGNS (32 pages)
This is where the real difference between ACKS and other retroclones becomes evident, in that it explains what high-level (i.e., 9th level and above) characters do all day, once clearing out dungeons is less attractive to them. ACKS speaks of domains, which are specific areas of land, and realms, which are groups of one or more domains.
Campaign activities generate money and experience points for the PC, and story hooks for the GM. Losing one’s stronghold, however, also loses the experience gained in creating it, which may cost the PC an experience level, encouraging him to protect his investment.
Any such character can build a stronghold as the core of his realm, which gives him a base of operations and attracts lower-level followers and peasant families, who establish a revenue base. Strongholds may be in wilderness, border, or civilised areas, and can be advanced from one state to another by investing money and time in the welfare of the inhabitants. The more civilised they are, the more revenue the ruler gets. The more expensive the stronghold he builds, the more followers it can house and the better the facilities it has, but the more expensive it is to maintain. Rulers must carefully balance the revenue from their domain against the upkeep of its facilities; one way to leverage this is by subinfeudination, granting one’s henchmen vassal domains which they control on one’s behalf, paying their overlord a portion of the revenue in exchange for the grant of land.
Vassals can be asked to carry out duties, and may be persuaded to do them by means of offering favours. Asking too much of a vassal triggers a loyalty check, and possible unpleasantness. Most of this is left in the hands of the GM, other than mentioning the possibilities. The PC is himself most likely a vassal of a superior lord, who may in turn ask duties of him – there is a table for randomly generating these.
The PC’s noble title, if any, depends on the size of his realm. The realm’s morale depends on the PC’s Charisma and how he treats it; festivals, large garrisons, and low taxes improve morale, while small garrisons, high taxes and so on decrease it. If morale gets low enough, heroes emerge to challenge the despotic ruler; at the upper end of the range, thieves and spies find it harder to operate, and revenue increases.
The realm’s population will eventually reach the maximum the land can support, at which point the ruler can choose to get more land, or build a village, which he can then grow into a town or city.
If ruling a realm doesn’t appeal, the PC can turn his hand to trade, seeking out products and markets, and transporting one to the other. A range of commodities and price adjustments by market are listed, along with rules for buying and selling cargo and transporting passengers by caravan or ship.
Character Class Specific
Magic-Users research spells, and create golems, undead, and new types of monsters. To do this they need huge quantities of treasure (which they probably have by this time) and the body parts of heroes and/or monsters, depending on their alignment. Their strongholds need libraries and workshops, and the more expensive these are, the better the chances of success. Rather then mount expeditions to get (say) hell-hound fangs, serious makers of artefacts create dungeons and lace them with treasure to attract monsters, which can then be harvested at leisure. I really like that idea.
Clerics can do similar things, but they can call on divine aid to assist them. They do this by creating and maintaining congregations of the faithful, which requires them to build a temple or gain control of a domain, when they can make worship of their deity the state religion. Chaotic clerics may also conduct blood sacrifices to gain bonuses.
Spellcasters of 11th level and above can learn magical spells of 7th-9th level, or divine ones of 6th-7th level, according to character class. These are cast as rituals, which must first be researched, and then require the creation of one-use magic items for each casting.
Assassins and thieves build a hideout, and can then despatch their minions on "hijinks" or missions to acquire loot. The maximum size of the hideout, and thus the number of henchmen it holds, depends on the size of the nearest town – so the larger thieves’ guilds occur in the larger cities. "Hijinks" include assassination, smuggling, gathering rumours, stealing, and finding treasure maps; they are essentially a means of introducing rumours and secrets on which the PC may act, as well as a source of revenue. Henchmen must make a proficiency check to succeed, and if they fail badly enough, are arrested; punishment ranges from a small fine up to death by excruciating torture, depending on what they were caught doing, what their previous record is, and how much help the PC boss gives them.
Henchmen who reach 9th level can be used to start subordinate guilds, a kind of feudal structure emerging as this happens. PCs may take over an established guild by disposing of the current crime boss, but this triggers reaction tests for the other members.
CHAPTER 8: MONSTERS (56 pages) and CHAPTER 9: TREASURE (24 pages)
The usual selection of OGL monsters and treasure; the layout and sequence reminded me more of AD&D 1st Edition than anything. Again, if you know any version of D&D, you’ll be right at home here.
Halflings and gnomes are mentioned as monsters, where they are said to be dwarf-human and dwarf-elven hybrids, respectively.
Interesting twists on treasure are the adjustment of hoard types based on the type of monster (hoarder, raider, or accidental gatherer), and the tables to replace coinage with other goods ("you defeat the monster and find six barrels of salt fish, and two pouches of saffron").
CHAPTER 10: SECRETS (27 pages)
Where the Campaigns chapter focusses on aspects of creating and running a realm that a PC can safely know, this one is aimed at the GM constructing the campaign setting initially, using a sandbox approach. While tools for creating a setting from scratch are presented, one could easily use them in an existing setting, or use Autarch’s own setting when it becomes available. For purposes of this review, I’ll assume the GM is creating her own setting.
This begins with two maps, each 30 x 40 hexes; a campaign map at 24 miles per hex, and a regional map at 6 miles per hex. There is not much guidance on how to do this in the book, but it’s a topic widely discussed on the internet by gamers and fantasy authors.
Step two is to assign areas of the map to various realms. There are tables showing sample realms from baronies to empires, so that you can quickly work out how many hexes each occupies, what the population and revenue are, and so on. Your campaign map is about the size of the Mediterranean and will hold an empire or several kingdoms, while your regional map is roughly as big as Greece and covers a principality or a fistful of duchies.
Further tables now show the largest urban settlement and its market class by realm population, and the GM should next generate the demand modifiers for each commodity in each market; the point of this is to allow him to place trade routes between settlements, based on their market classes and the distance between them.
The fourth activity is to assign NPC rulers. For each realm size, demographic tables show how many characters of each level there are, and what level the best one is. There’s a tacit assumption that the highest-level NPC in a realm controls it, which I’m not sure necessarily follows; it implies a level of meritocracy that I don’t think often existed in reality.
Now, the GM places about 45 points of interest on the regional map, and writes a paragraph of description for each. The rules at this point give guidelines for how many points of interest are settlements, how many are dungeons, and how big each dungeon should be. The rest of the map is filled during play with randomly-encountered lairs; these are created in advance, but not placed on the map until they are discovered by the PCs. This has the result of growing the map organically, with the most interesting things wherever the PCs have decided to go.
The GM is encouraged to make the regional map a borderland, with about half the map safe and settled, and the rest of it dotted with sites whose danger increases the further from the border you go. (If I did this, I think I would make this an encroachment by a successor state into the territory of a fallen empire.)
Step six is to pick one of the settlements and flesh it out as the PCs’ base town. Tables are provided to show the base town’s size, likely ruler level, and the number of NPCs with classes and levels by class, as well as the size and wealth of the local criminal guilds. Other cities are fleshed out later as the need arises.
Step seven is to create the dungeons. The GM is encouraged to make free use of published or downloadable dungeons to minimise his time investment, and focus his effort on a few signature dungeons. There’s advice and tables to stock a dungeon, but nothing to help in the way of mapping them. (That’s not a criticism, just an attempt to make sure you know what you’re buying.) The game assumes that dungeons will not be much deeper than 6 levels, and that dungeon delving PCs won’t be much more than 10th level.
The rules now segue into random encounters, both dungeon and wilderness, including NPC parties.
Finally, a set of miscellaneous rules; aging, poisons, slaves, sinkholes of evil that develop around chaotic altars, handling PCs who get transformed into intelligent monsters, and starting play at higher levels so that you can get straight into running a realm.
REFERENCE SHEETS AND FORMS
OGL licence; combat round summary; tables for mortal wounds and trying to fix them; character sheets for PCs, henchmen, specialists; record sheets for domains and spells; alphabetical index, plus separate indices for spells, equipment, proficiencies, monsters and tables.
The Old School Revival movement over the last couple of years has been debating the presumed endgame of OD&D; the consensus seems to be that characters were intended to build and operate their own strongholds, bridging into the tabletop wargaming that the original authors also enjoyed. However, most players don’t go there, and this aspect of the hobby has atrophied. ACKS is an attempt to re-invigorate it by providing rules for it, albeit light ones in line with the complexity level of other parts of the game.
It also tries to use these as a basis for developing a sandbox campaign, intimately affected and driven by the actions of high-level PCs and NPCs. I could see this working, even up to generating wars between states caused by population pressure, but it demands a high initial level of effort from the GM. Autarch promises a setting book later, and that will be interesting to see. NB: One could read the blurb to mean that this book includes some high level details of that setting, but it really doesn’t. I’m not bothered by that, but if you would be, now you know.
I like the tables for Mortal Wounds and tampering with them. I like the way that the Campaigns chapter rewards high-level characters for doing what they ought to be doing, and penalises them for not doing it well. (Of course, if they don’t want to, they can just carry on as wandering adventurers.) I like the demographic-driven approach to constructing campaign and regional maps in the Secrets chapter. These make me want to run the game.
I don’t like the amount of effort it would take me to set up an ACKS campaign. This puts me off running the game, but as per The Manifesto (see tab above) I tend towards pulp action-adventure more than immersive simulation.
So this will probably join the pile of games that I read occasionally for inspiration, and daydream about being able to run someday, but never actually do.
Overall rating: 4 out of 5.