Adventurer, Conqueror, King Review
Today, we are going old school. So grab your 10’ pole and your torch bearing hireling! Thanks to the Open Gaming License, many gamers have been creating and producing games that recapture a style of gameplay or a ruleset from the early days of our hobby. This movement, known as the Old School Revival (OSR), has produced a variety of great games. For me, one stands out from among the rest: Adventurer, Conqueror, King, by Autarch. It is the game that I will be using to plan my Dark War game, which is the highest praise I can give a game.
So I felt, given the fact I was going to be talking about it for the next couple of months here on the blog, it was long overdue for a review.
Adventurer, Conqueror, King Core Rules Review
The Adventurer, Conqueror, King System (or ACKS) was created by Alexander Macris, Tavis Allison, and Greg Tito. They produced a great looking, high quality 270 page rule book. The cover art is gorgeous and the interior art has a great retro feel to it without sacrificing quality. This is a black and white book with two column layout that is very easy to read, which is important to ACKS as there are a lot of tables that are mixed into the book. If you have the PDF, you will find it nicely hyperlinked. Without its clear layout, I feel like ACKS would be much harder to run.
We are greeted by the writers with a foreword to ACKS and the world of the Auran Empire. They present the concepts of the game interspersed with a narrative woven around the designer’s home game. It shows us the type of world the rules seek to emulate and some of the unique features of ACKS. The main feature that stood out to me my first time through this book was the concept of ‘end game.’ The game is designed to see characters evolve from itinerant wanders to the rulers of domains and to support this transition mechanically.
Chapter 1: Introduction
Here we find the traditional ‘what is a roleplaying game’ section. There is a small blurb on each of the chapters before laying out the basics of the game. Most of what you will find here is very familiar, as ACKS is derived from Dungeons & Dragons, the OGL, and traditional fantasy gaming. However, ACKS makes a distinction between ‘rolls’ and ‘throws’ of the dice as a core mechanic. Rolling is used when there is a range of results. Throws use the d20 for pass/fail scenarios. Things like saves, to-hits, and proficiencies are all handled with throws. This takes a bit of getting used to, but at its core is a very simple way of handling the math of the d20. Autarch explains the difference here on their website.
Chapter 2: Characters
Character creation will be very familiar to any player of D&D. You generate abilities scores for the six common abilities, choose a class, roll for HP, record statics, and get gear. The differences in ACKS however, require subtle shifts of your mental model. First off, this is an old school game. You are not starting off as an epic hero like in 4th Edition D&D, or even as a powerful commoner like a Pathfinder character. One of the best analogies for OSR gaming I have encountered is that you start off as an average guy and someday end up as Batman. You’re still mortal, but you’re at the far end of the capability bell-curve. This fits ACKS perfectly. You are the son who picks up his father’s sword for the first time to make a place for yourself in the world. Assuming you survive.
We find a number of older RPG tropes in this chapter. Abilities are generated by rolling 3d6 for each ability and recording them in order. You then see what class you qualify for. Races are not part of character generation in the way that they are in Pathfinder or modern D&D. Humans can chose from a total of 8 classes, while Elves and Dwarves can each choose from 2 racial classes.
Each class has a prime requisite, an ability score requirement that you must meet or exceed to qualify for the class. And if you have an exceptional ability in that score (13 or higher) you gain an experience point bonus. Have a high Wisdom? Then you will learn how to be a cleric far quicker than someone who just meets the requirements. ACKS leaves behind the three save standard of recent years and uses a five save hierarchical system instead.
We are presented with four core classes for humans: fighter, mage, cleric, and thief, and four customized classes: assassin, bard, bladedancer (an example specialty cleric), and explorer. (More on customizing classes will be explored in the Player’s Companion review next week). For Elves, we are given the Spellsword (a fighter/mage) and the Nightblade (a thief/mage). Dwarves can be vaultguards (fighters) or craftpriests (clerics). Each class also has a template that gives you starting gear and proficiencies for the class and enables you to start playing sooner.
Alignment is boiled down to Law, Neutrality, and Chaos. This view of the world is very much a throwback to the old school days of gaming and Appendix N reading. Readers of Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock will be very familiar with the ideas of Law versus Chaos being the crux of the battle for the world.
This chapter ends with a note about Adventuring Parties. Make no mistake, the style of gaming in ACKS is not for a party of 4 players, one of each class. Henchmen, which used to be a major part of fantasy gaming, are mentioned here as being a good idea. As a number of my players can attest to, bring henchmen; they can be the key to surviving a dungeon encounter.
Chapter 3: Equipment
What fantasy game would be complete without an equipment chapter? When you are flipping through the book, you might be tempted to just look at the tables for pricing, AC, and damage then move on. DON’T! Threaded throughout this chapter is a wealth of information, not just for Adventurers, but for Conquerors, Kings, and Judges (GMs). We find information on gear by market size, which is important for the Judge to understand when creating his campaign region. For instance, the larger the market is, the easier it will be to find the things you are looking for.
The equipment descriptors give great mechanical information that you can miss if you don’t take the time to look. Gear that modifies proficiencies, herbs that heal the user, and special effects for weapons are all threaded through the descriptions. So take the time and dig deep. In fact, that is perhaps the single greatest piece of advice I can give for ACKS: Dig Deeper. There is always something more to find in this game.
The last half of this chapter is about hiring NPCs. Hirelings are commoner NPCs that you can take on adventures with you. They receive a share of the XP and treasure, can level up, and can provide the bodies you need to get through the dungeons. Henchmen are followers your players attract as they level up. They are far more capable and loyal than hirelings. Mercenaries aid in conquering and keeping a domain, and specialists are all the other NPCs your players need to have access to over the course of a game. Scribes, healing priests, armorers are all examples of specialists.
Chapter 4: Proficiencies
Proficiencies take the place of feats and skills in ACKS. Each player starts with 2 or more (depending on Intelligence) and gain general and class proficiencies as they level up. Some give you bonuses to actions, open new action options, give your character special abilities, or new skills. The writers show a clear love for all levels of play here, as there are proficiencies that aid in every tier of the game.
Chapter 5: Spells
Magic is divided between Arcane and Divine magic. Both types of magic function as a hybrid of a sorcerers and clerics/wizards found in the 3.x versions of D&D. Divine casters can spontaneously cast from their repertoire (a list of prepared spells or the list of spells provided by their gods). But Arcane casters still maintain a spell book and can learn and swap spells out from their book into their repertoire. Arcane spells only go up to 6th level and Divine cap out at 5th. Many spells listed here are reversible, which cuts down on the length of the book while still providing a lot of options.
Chapter 6: Adventures
This is the main game rule section for the Adventuring tier of play. Within it, we find the rules for exploring dungeons, wildernesses, and seas, how encounters works, and how to fight and die. There are some very slick mechanics in this section that make playing and Judging this game very simple. Special maneuvers handle common actions, while things like fighting with two weapons give you a +1 to hit. These stand out as simple ways to handle what had become a very complex set of rules in old-school gaming systems. Every class but the mage get cleave attacks to simulate the heroic nature of their skills, by letting them drop multiple foes in a round. When a PC drops an enemy, they may make another attack. How many attacks depends on the character’s level and class.
Combat in ACKS is fast. Even with gangs of monsters and players with hirelings, gameplay moves quick. The combat rules are robust enough to handle tactical play, while still be loose enough to allow Judges to make rational rulings of anything a player may attempt. Mounted combat and ship-to-ship combat are both handled in this chapter as simple extrapolations of the character rules. XP is gained not only be defeating monsters but by bringing their treasure back to civilization. You earn 1 XP per gold piece you bring back to town.
ACKS has some rules that can take some getting used to when transitioning from games like Pathfinder. Initiative is one that stands out. It is rolled every round, and you must declare some actions (like spellcasting) before initiative is rolled. Spending money in town for no other reason than to live the adventuring lifestyle actually has an in-game benefit. Money spent on wine, company, and (in my game) exorbitantly fancy dresses, gets tracked. If your character dies, then 90% of those funds spent is converted into XP for your new character, giving you a leg up.
Finally, the Mortal Wounds table deserves a mention. ACKS is deadly. You have few hit points per level, you stop rolling for HP at level 9 (gaining a flat amount from 10 on), and you could very well be walking around with fewer than average HP if you have a low Constitution. The Mortal Wounds table mitigates this a bit by replacing having a character die when they reach 0 HP with a roll on the table instead. This can prevent character death but still makes hitting 0 HP dangerous and have consequences. Your character still die, and you may want to retire a character too crippled to continue adventuring, but this mechanic gives the character a chance for survival. Its companion table, Tampering with Mortality, is a similar table for when a character is brought back from the dead. I love both of these tables and the type of game play they foster. I can see some people seeing it as a list of bad things the GM inflicts on the players when they die. But honestly, I believe it is a resource that a GM should embrace as a way to keep the characters in the game after they take a wound that should have killed them. Present it as such, and your players should embrace it.
Chapter 7: Campaigns
This chapter covers the ‘Conqueror, King’ portion of the rules and is what separates ACKS from the other OSR games that I have encountered. This is the ‘end game’ chapter, filled with mechanics for what to do with all that gold your high level character has accumulated.
Here we find rules for spell and magic item creation. Rituals cover the higher level spells (7-9 for Arcane and 6-7 for Divine) that Clerics and Mages must toil over just to cast once. Spellcasters can design constructs, crossbreed monsters to create terrifying new species, and engage in horrible necromantic rituals.
Domain management rules are also found within this chapter. Players and Judges will use these rules to capture land, build strongholds, and attract followers. Players will be able to earn revenue and XP from these endeavors and see their scope of influence and involvement in the game world grow.
Thieves will find that they can build thieves guilds that will aid them in hijinks. Hijinks are missions of dubious legal nature that thieves and assassins can engage in for fun and profit. Finally, all players can use their domain resources and new found wealth to expand their influence and cash through mercantile ventures.
While not all of these mechanics will appeal to all players, there is something for everyone. And the fact that the game rewards your use of these rules with XP reinforces their importance.
Chapter 8: Monsters
ACKS is a complete rule book, and everything you need to run a campaign is included, including monsters. Stat blocks are simple and easy to read. Monsters are given a ‘% in lair’ chance, as well as a treasure table to roll on, so generating encounters is quick and simple. Autarch even provides a random treasure by type generator here.
Chapter 9: Treasure
A chapter full of magical potions, armor, weapons, and items? Check. We are still firmly in the realm of fantasy gaming. This chapter is the most universally D&D of all the chapters in this book, with its familiar magical items, tables for treasure generation, and +1 weapons. However, the unique thing is how it ties back in with the rest of the book. Treasure tables give loot from a variety of different monster type/motivations, from hoarders to raiders. The non-magical items, which in other games would be hand-waved into their GP value can be put into mercantile ventures and sold at a profit or loss depending on the town your characters head back to. This in turn can generate new adventures as the characters head out to sell their one-of-a-kind tapestry in a neighboring city where it will be worth more.
Chapter 10: Secrets
The finally chapter is perhaps the true gem of the book. It covers all the behind the scenes rules for the Judges. The writers walk you step by step through setting creation, from top down. First they show you how to set up the domains of your campaign world to make sure the game’s systems fit within it: including populations, cities, revenue, and market modifiers. Then they zoom in to the region your game will take place in, with advice for constructing that level of play. Then they zoom in again, and cities and dungeons come into view. Generating a dungeon for ACKS is fast and interesting, and once you have a map, you can populate it in under ten minutes. Some additional rules and recommended reading round out this chapter.
This chapter is as pivotal to an ACKS game as the Campaign chapter. While you can play without the rules in these chapters, you are missing the lion-share of what makes ACKS so unique. It take some time to absorb the rules in these chapters, but it’s well worth it. Also, the forum at Autarch is friendly and knowledgeable, so if you have any questions, be sure to hit them up.
What you get when you buy ACKS is a great game that feels like old-school Dungeons & Dragons, while bringing its own unique rules to bear. And as the title Adventurer, Conqueror, King suggests, these rules refer to the development arc characters will undergo as they advance. From dungeon delvers, to domain builders, to the rulers of what they have created. This arc was why I first looked at this game.
The more I read through this book and its companion books, the more I am impressed with Autarch’s game design. Everything is interwoven, well thought out, and supports the mechanics around it. It is an old school game, but rebuilt from the ground up with solid design.
So if you are a fan of OSR, the Birthright setting for AD&D 2nd Edition, the tales of Conan and Holger Carisen, or have even wondered what you should do with the leadership feat, you need check out Adventurer, Conqueror, King. You can buy the ACKS PDF rule book here or here and can order the physical book here or through your FLGS. Keep in mind, Autarch has a deal where buying the PDF saves you money on the physical book, and if you buy the physical copy, you get the PDF for free. Check out the ad at end of the core book or here for details on that deal.
In the upcoming weeks, I will be showing how I have constructed the Desolates area of Ta’nar using the ACKS rules. Hopefully, as I walk through this series, you can see how ACKS works behind the screen. Also, next Thursday, I will be reviewing their Player’s Companion, which I feel is a must-have for any ACKS game. I also promised my editors it would be a shorter review.