RPG Review: Adventurer Conqueror King System

One of the more interesting D&D variants to come out of late is Autarch LLC's Adventurer Conqueror King System (henceforth referred to as ACKS).

At its core, ACKS, like many other variants of D&D, uses the d20 System Reference Document to recreate the flavor of a specific version of the D&D game. In the case of ACKS, the version in question is the D&D Basic and Expert sets with a touch of the Companion set thrown in.

As I've grown older I've had to remember that shorthand like referring to various versions of D&D may not be as illuminating to gamers who have never played those games as it is to old-timers like me. So what were the D&D Basic and Expert games like, with the 3.5/Pathfinder and 4e rules for comparison.

D&D Basic and Expert Overview

To begin, the Basic and Expert ("B/X") rules make use of the same stats as D&D 3.5 and 4e. However, the expectation is you will roll 3d6 and assign them in order for all your stats. Bonuses and penalties are a little bit different than those found in 3.x/4e:

Rating Bonus/Penalty Rating Bonus/Penalty
3 -3 13-15 +1
4-5 -2 16-17 +2
6-8 -1 18 +3
9-12 0

D&D B/X makes use of four basic classes, fighter, magic-user, cleric, and thief. Non-humans, or "demi-humans" are their own unique classes. Dwarfs are essentially fighters with some racial abilities thrown in. Halflings are also similar to fighters, with additional abilities with stealth and throwing. Elves are a combination of fighter and magic-user. The demi-human classes are limited in how high a level they can reach - in B/X halflings were limited to 8, dwarfs to 10, and elves to 12 while the human characters could conceivable go as high as 36th! (This caused all sorts of issues which supplements tried to address to prevent topped out demi-humans from becoming useless.) The D&D Basic rules covered levels 1-3, Expert 4-14. Originally the Companion rules were to cover 15-36 but when released it covered 15-25 and the Masters set covered 26-36. However, it was a long time between the release of the Expert and Companion rules, leading to many people to gain a preference for B/X play with 14 as the level cap - and this is the level cap that ACKS uses.

D&D B/X did not make use of things like feats and skills, though later supplements (such as the various Gazetteer books, D&D Rules Cyclopedia, etc.) added weapon mastery (a form of weapon specialization and feats) and a very primitive skill system. Again, D&D B/X used none of these.

D&D B/C had three alignments, Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. This was very much in keeping with Moorcock's Eternal Champion saga, one of the deficiencies in my readings that I'll need to remedy at some point. Chaotic was usually, but not always, considered "evil" while Lawful was typically "good".

D&D B/X used a descending armor class system - 9 was the worst armor class ("AC"), with lower ACs being better. It used a series of several saving throw types that were eventually consolidated into Fortitude, Reflex, and Will with D&D 3.0/3.5.

Like D&D 3.0/3.5, magic-users (wizards in 3.0/e.5) and clerics had to prepare their spells in advance and their spells would be forgotten after casting. Thieves made tests of their abilities by rolling percentile dice, with starting thieves having pretty horrific chances (a 1st level thief, with his d4 hit points, was a character to pity, even more than the 1st level magic-user).

ACKS Overview

With our basic background of D&D B/X in place, let us now explore the actual ACKS book and see what we see and what we think of it.

To begin with, I have both the hardcover and PDF version of the book. The book is illustrated with black and white art throughout and is about 270 pages long. There is a nice index int back of the book. The PDF has lots of PDF links within it, including at the place where the physical table of contents is. This is very nice, but one annoyance is there is not a separate table of contents accessible via bookmarks - you need to go to the page representing the physical table of contents or index in order to be able to jump to the page you want - this is a little bit of an annoyance.

In terms of tone, ACKS is very well written but is very clearly a rules-manual, staying very matter of fact. It isn't boring but rather it is to the point without a ton of color.

Chapter 1: Introduction

The introduction to this book is farily typical for RPG books, discussing dice, abbreviations, basic concepts, etc.

Chapter 2: Characters

As might be expected this section details the creations of ACKS characters. It is similar to the character creation of B/X though the character class options have changed.

The core classes remain fighter, cleric, mage, and thief. Each of these characters has a template (more are included in the forthcoming Players' Companion) which provides a shortcut for starting proficiencies (see Chapter 4), equipment, spells, etc.

Fighters have the best combat abilities and also get a bonus to the damage they do. Mages cast arcane spells which will be discussed further in the Magic chapter. Clerics have access to divine magic and can turn undead. Thieves have access to special Thief Skills tested by rolling a d20 vs. a target number which decreases as character level increases.

All of the core classes are limited to 14th level. As characters reach 9th level they may construct strongholds and gain followers.This is an important part of the game, as ACKS assumes that higher level characters will aspire to leadership positions. They aren't required to but there is clear benefit in doing so.

Beyond the four classes there are campaign classes. These are essentially variants of the bases classes, with more in the Players' Companion (which also includes rules for making new classes). The campaign classes are:
  • Assassin - considered here a variant on fighters
  • Bard - a thief variant
  • Bladedancer - a cleric variant for priestesses of the goddess of war
  • Explorer - Another fighter variant that resembles rangers
Finally there are demi-human classes. Unlike B/X each race has access to more than one demi-human class. The classes are limited in level, though this level limit is not as much a hindrance as it was in D&D with the Companion and Masters rules. The demi-human classes are:
  • Dwarven Vaultguard - a dwarven fighter class, limited to level 13
  • Dwarven Craftpriest - a dwarven cleric class, limited to level 10
  • Elven Spellsword - an elven fighter/mage combination class, limited to level 10
  • Elven Nightblade - an elven thief/mage combination, designed to specialize in the fine art of murder. Limited to level 11.
The Players' Companion has more demi-human classes, though amusingly, none for halflings. It seems the makers of ACKS has something against halflings, though they do appear in the monster list.

Chapter 3: Equipment

As one might expect, a list of adventuring gear. This chapter also includes rules for hirelings, henchmen, mercenaries, and specialists. Similar to the original B/X and AD&D games, it is expected that players will make extensive use of hiring help.

Chapter 4: Proficiencies

Here we come to something that is new to ACKS. Characters have access to general and class-specific proficiencies.Characters start with 1 general proficiency (modified by Intelligence modifier) and gain another every 4 levels. They also start with 1 class-specific proficiency, gaining others at varying rates dependent upon class.

Proficiencies are kind of a cross between feats and skills. Some give you bonuses to certain types of actions. For example, diplomacy gives a +2 to reaction rolls when the character attempts to parley. There are others which give access to new abilities, such as Familiar, Lay on Hands, Prophecy. 

I find the Proficiencies a nice addition to the game. They are nowhere near as complicated (or important) as feats or skills from D&D 3.0 and beyond but they provide a nice way to make characters of the same class more distinguishable from one another.

Chapter 5: Spells

At first glance this chapter resembles the list of spells that can be found in the B/X rules. However, a closer examination shows this is one of the concepts from the D&D game which has undergone some rethinking. In ACKS, a character does not memorize or forget spells like he does in D&D B/X. Rather he has a repertoire of spells.These are a list of spells for each level that he cast his spells from. He still has a limited number of spells per day for each level he can cast, but he does not need to select a subset of his repertoire.

For casters of divine spells, such as clerics and bladedancer, the repertoire is the entire list of spells of a given level that are in their class list. The default cleric and bladedancer lists are slightly different from one another, much like how in AD&D the cleric and druid have different spell lists.

The arcane casters, such as the mage and the elven spellsword, have access to the same list of spells. An arcane casters repertoire consists of the number of spells he can cast per day of that level plus a bonus equal to his Intelligence bonus. This bears some resemblance to the sorcerer of D&D 3.0/3.x, though in those games the sorcerer can typically has a small list of spells known (i.e. his repertoire). It is possible for an arcane caster to have access to spells beyond his repertoire - i.e. having access to spellbooks with more arcane spells per level then can be fit into his repertoire. In such cases it is possible, through an expense of time and money, to swap spells out the repertoire and replace them with new ones. The game explains this by stating an arcane caster can properly monitor the various conditions, taboos, etc. for only so many spells at a given time and swapping spells in and out of the repertoire involves neglecting such conditions for some spells and focusing/researching the conditions for the new spells.

Overall I find this a nice change. It gives your 1st level mage access to a few spells at the beginning of play and allows him to choose which one will be of most utility It still preserves the image of the mage in his tower pouring over his spellbooks and deciding which spells to make use of in a given adventure.

One additional change in ACKS from B/X D&D is that higher level spells never become a part of a caster's repertoire. Rather they are learned through lengthy rituals. If a caster wishes to have access to these in the midst of an adventure he would do so by preparing a scroll or similar item to be able to cast the spell from that source.

Chapter 6: Adventures

Here we get to the nuts and bolts of the rules. The Adventures chapter has, unsurprisingly, the rules for going on adventures. It has rules for underground and wildnerness movement, encounter distances, rules for getting lost, etc. These are the types of rules that appeared in the B/X rules and their lack of inclusion in Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG was one of my few disappointments with that game. So their presence here was clearly welcome.

This is also the home of the rules for combat. The rules are quite similar to those that could be found in the B/X rules with some interesting additions made such as:
  • Spellcasters much declare their intention to cast prior to rolling for initiative (which is rolled every round)
  • When a character downs an opponent, depending on class he may have the option to take a cleave action - basically a free attack against a nearby foe. And fighters can keep on cleaving...
  • When brought to 0 hit points a character must roll on a Mortal Wounds table when someone tries to heal him to see if he can be brought back and if so, with what consequences.
  • When being raised from the dead a character must make a roll on a table to see if the gods allow the character back and if so, with what consequences.
I think the additions to the B/X combat rules are useful. They add some unpredictability, while also providing additional chances for survival.

Like B/X D&D combat is not grid-based, though nothing would prevent you from using miniatures in your games.

Chapter 7: Campaigns

If Chapter 6 was a guide to "tactical" action, this is a more strategic. It begins with familiar concepts such as magic item creation. Magic item creation has a set cost, much like D&D 3.x rules, but taking a page from AD&D 1e and D&D B/X typically involves some odd ingredients that require harvesting of icky monster parts.

The bulk of this chapter is about the various strongholds that characters can make upon reaching 9th level. This is reminiscent of the options in the D&D Companion rules, but handled in a different manner.

The default is for characters to rule over their own domains, with rules for populations, resources, morale, stronghold costs, etc. Characters can expand their domains by having their henchmen rule over other domains on their behalf - and when maximum number of henchmen is reached, those characters can have their own lieutenants ruling domains on their behalf. Characters with high Charisma will be quite happy with their ability to have a higher number of henchmen.

Mages can rule over domains as well but they also may wish to create their own monster-infested dungeon to make getting those icky magic item components easier. This attracts adventurers and may require an additional expense in guards to protect the citizens of the domain - failing to do so will make the peasants quite unhappy - giving me visions of the classic peasant mob armed with torches and pitchforks.

Thieves and assassins have the option creating hideouts.This allows the creation of thief and assassin guilds with rules on judging the success of various escapades and the profit that can be realized them. And as they advance such characters can try to take over rival guilds - or perhaps convince them to join.

Yeah, let's talk business, Mike. First of all, you're all done. The Corleone Family don't even have that kind of muscle anymore. The Godfather's sick, right? You're getting chased out of New York by Barzini and the other Families. What do you think is going on here? You think you can come to my hotel and take over? I talked to Barzini - I can make a deal with him, and still keep my hotel! 
- Moe Green, The Godfather

Chapter 8: Monsters

This is a pretty straightforward monster chapter, focusing on the types of monsters originally found in D&D B/X, with some new monsters that bear some resemblance to monsters not found in the d20 SRD, but with different names and tweaks.

The monster illustrations are black silhouettes - to be honest I haven't decided if this is a style I like or not.

Chapter 9: Treasure

High-level characters in ACKS have on of the more amusing excuses to go on adventurers, as their treasurer approaches them and warns them the vault is empty. "M'lord, perhaps you could vanquish the dragon and place his gold in the treasury..."

Beyond treasure in cash (which ACKS characters will probably want, even at higher levels), there is a fairly familiar list of magic items. You've got your potions, your magic rings, your magic weapons and armor (which seem to cap out around +3), etc. Like the Monsters chapter, what we've here got will be familiar to those with older versions of D&D.

Chapter 10: Secrets

This is primarily a chapter for Judges (hey another game which uses that term), though there's nothing in it that will ruin the game for Players.

The bulk of this chapter is about creating a setting. The recommendation is to create a campaign map using a hexmap with 24-mile hexes along with regional map using 6-mile hexes.

With that as a starting point, this chapter has rules for demographics, determining starting cities, trade routes, etc. 

Chapter 10 also has guidelines on creating encounters, wilderness and dungeon procedures, encounter tables, etc. As I mentioned earlier, I like finding this sort of guidance - it's the sort of thing one could ignore if desired but it is nice to see.

Finally there is a miscellaneous section with lots of ruling guidance on items like lycanthropy, aging, etc. 

Overall Impression

There's a lot to like here. As I've stated earlier in this blog, I like games that take older versions of D&D as their starting point and do their own thing with them. A game of ACKS would be easily playable by someone familiar with most versions of D&D but it clearly breaks out in its own directions in many areas, both major and minor.

The tweaks to B/X classes are nice as they allow for a nice variety of classes, especially with the addition of Proficiencies. I mentioned that the Player's Companion has additional classes, including rules for creating your own classes. It isn't officially out yet though those who pre-order it can gain access to the current draft of the Player's Companion.

The tweaks to magic make lower level spellcasters more useful and fun at lower levels and I suspect it would greatly reduce bookkeeping at higher levels.

You're going to need that reduced bookkeeping though. One thing I'm a little undecided on is the emphasis on domains, hideouts, etc. If this is what you want out of high level play then those rules are wonderful. For example, they would be excellent at handling games like Robert E. Howard's Conan (who became a king later in life), George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, Andre Norton's Witch World, etc. In those books our heroes range from people ruling over kingdoms down to their lowliest soldier. Indeed ACKS suggests one could run a campaign featuring characters of different levels of play, with the three default tiers being "Adventurer", "Conqueror", and "King" oddly enough. Back in the 1990s I ran an AD&D campaign along those lines which was quite enjoyable.

On the other hand, if you are looking for adventures like those of Jack Vance's Dying Earth or Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar you might find yourself ignoring a lot of the domain rules. Nevertheless I'm sure you could have an excellent game, especially if the tweaks I mentioned hold a lot of appeal to you.

One thing which is missing from the core ACKS book is rules for mass conflict - with characters ruling their own domains it is quite likely that armies will clash. Autarch indicates they will be releasing a supplement entitled Domains at War to cover that. The basic version of it will be free at their website while the deluxe version (which sounds like it will be more tactical) will be free to those who sponsored ACKS during its Kickstarter phase and available as a premium download for anyone who wishes to purchase it. This is something I hope they release soon as it will most certainly be required for most campaigns. 

The voice of the game is a bit more mundane than that of my previous review, Dungeon Crawl Classics. DCC seemed like it wanted to grab you and shout PLAY!!!! MAGIC IS DANGEROUS!!! READ APPENDIX N!!!!  ACKS on the other hand is a little bit more subdued in its tone, giving the Judge tools to build his game. Both styles work fine and most importantly, the tone stays consistent. 

"Sandbox" games and "hexcrawls" are getting a lot of discussing in gaming forums and blogs of late. Could ACKS support this kind of game? Absolutely. As characters explore the wilderness and clear out dungeons and defeat vile beasts they will begin adventuring in areas without any homebases. Therefore the domains the characters establish can become the homebases for further adventure, perhaps encouraging adapting the multi-tiered play mentioned above with the higher level characters ruling their domains or similar concerns while other characters handle the more mundane stuff - though surely there will be some challenges most appropriate for the "big guns". This seems to mimic the play expected as far back as the original "white box" D&D which included rules for clearing out the wilderness.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed my reading of ACKS. I can easily see running a game with this system - and even if I don't, it has tons of stuff worth raiding for other games. It reminded me a lot of the B/X game where I got my start in gaming but it also took its own direction. Its easily compatible with similar games so even if one weren't to use it as-is it still has lots of material which can be ported to other games.

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