Running Your World in Multiple Systems

Welcome back! Are you all still there?  Good.

Today, with my triumphant return, I want to talk about settings. During an interview (coming to the internet later this month) with Rich Baker and Dave Noonan for the Iconic Podcast, Dave explained how Primeval Thule developed and how building for the 13th Age rules influenced the design of the world. This articulated an idea that has been rolling around in my head as I continue to build out Ta’nar.

You should be running your setting in multiple systems.

That seems counterintuitive, I know.  We, as GMs, pick a ruleset that fits with the style and genre of game we are going to play.  Some of us even develop a setting specifically out of a game we want to try.  And all that is ok.  But there is something very beneficial to viewing your world through the lens of multiple systems.

When I started Ta’nar (back when it was Ta’an Nar), I was writing it for the Hero system.  This was fantastic as I was able to build anything I wanted.  Yes, it was time consuming, but it was also freeing.  The world was my limit. And I ran a number of great games with that iteration. Ta’nar was a world I wanted to keep playing in, so when I became intrigued with ACKS, I started a conversion of the world to that system.  ACKS, as you may already know, is an OSR game that has a heavy focus on Domains. While I was trying to convert Ta’nar, I discovered that the ACKS ruleset add a lot of verisimilitude to the world.  Suddenly, I had a mechanical reason to look at the nations, the towns, and even the map of the continent.  This is content that I might not have gotten around to writing for years, but ACKS forced me to dig into it.

13th Age forced me to take a good look at developing the movers and shakers of the world and the conflicts I wanted to explore.  DnD Next/5e helped me define the new races I wanted to incorporate.  And RQ6 is guiding me through establishing the pantheons, cults, and magics of the world.

Again, this is all material I might have eventually come up with.  But by interpreting my world through different systems, the content is developing in ways I could not have imagined.

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Domains at War: Battles Review

Here is the second half of my Domains at War (D@W) review (the first part can be found here).   The second book that makes up Autarch’s mass combat supplement is Battles.  Where Campaigns looks at the sweeping scope of war, Battles focuses on the individual engagements.

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Domains at War: Battles Review

Domains at War: Battles is a 132-page PDF.  You can get it either by itself or as part of the Domains at War: Complete Set at drivethrurpg.com.  Like all Autarch products, D@W is a sharp-looking book with great art.  What differentiates Battles from Campaigns is that Battles is designed as tabletop wargame where you will play through the individual mêlées of your war campaign.  It is fully compatible with Campaigns as well as the Adventurer, Conqueror, King System.

Introduction

Battles starts off with a two-page introduction which includes a brief retrospective look at the origins of the RPG hobby.  From tabletop wargaming we have come, and to tabletop wargaming we return.  The introduction covers an outline of important terms and how to use Battles, either as a standalone game or in conjunction with Campaigns.

Chapter 1 – Basic Rules

This is the backbone of the Battles system.  With this and the first scenario in Chapter 9, you will be ready to play your first game.  The game is played on a hex map with markers that (at the basic scale) represent units of 120 infantry or 60 cavalry.  Units are broken up into divisions, which places a number of units under the command of a division commander.

Units are divided by type (foot, mounted, or flyer) and sub-divided based on formation.  Each entry on formation gives great historical and fantastical examples of that type of troop, except for flyers:  “Historical examples are sadly absent.”  In the basic rules, commanders help determine initiative order, morale bonuses for units, and have a pool of activation points used to control their division over the course of their turn.

Each round of Battles has the same sequence: Initiative Phase, Command Phases, and Morale Phase.  In the Initiative phase (which is happens each round), each division commander makes an initiative roll, establishing the order of the Command Phases.  In the Command Phase, commanders spend their activation points to move and attack with their units.  And in the Morale Phase, the overall army’s morale is diagnosed, and players’ check to see if their army breaks.

The resolution system will be very familiar to ACKS players; units have AC, Attack Throws, and Hit Points.  Attacks are resolved by rolling a number of d20 equal to the unit’s attack profile, adding the opponent’s AC to the unit’s Attack Throw value to determine what you need to roll.  Each hit nets 1 damage on the unit. Morale checks are resolved with 2d6 rolls along with a table of modifiers.

Autarch does a great job of making the integration of D@W with ACKS smooth and simple.  If you have played ACKS, especially to the point where your characters are eligible to participate as commanders in D@W, you will come to the table with a good grasp of the resolution mechanics.

Chapter 2 – Terrain

This chapter covers the placement and use of terrain for your Battles game.  With just the basic rules, it is assumed that the armies found an open level ground to battle each other on.  This chapter, plus the hex-token sheets provided with the Token Set, enables you to create a variety of diverse battlefields.

Terrain types are given special rules and characteristics, which affect movement and line of sight.  Look at the summary of the terrain types on page 33; it provides a nice overview of what you will need to keep in mind when using the different types of terrain.

Chapter 3 – Strategic Situations

When you are using Battles with Campaigns, not every battle will be fought in the same way.  Based on your choices during the campaign turn, your army might encounter another in ways besides a pitched battle. This short chapter gives you the setup and special rules for each of the battle types found in Campaigns.  The scenarios change the basic deployment rules as well as impose a variety of conditions upon one side or another.  FYI, ambushes are brutal in Battles, so set those up as often as you can.

Chapter 4 – Heroes

This chapter covers the full rules for heroes, including how to convert them from the base ACKS game and how to use heroes independently of units.  The rules here also cover the scenarios that would arise from taking a fantasy hero from an RPG and throwing them onto a battlefield. Heroes may use their spells, special abilities, and magic items at their disposal while on the battlefield.   The rules give you plenty of options for what heroes can do within a unit or out on their own.  This will provide your players opportunities to shine even in the midst of a mass combat.

Chapter 5 – Assaults

Sieges get their own chapter here, and I feel like this chapter is tied directly to its sister chapter in CampaignsCampaigns covers the initial siege, which will eventually flow into the assault of the stronghold, which you can play through with Battles.  This chapters covers the specific special rules needed for using fortifications, as well as siege engines.

Chapter 6 – Scale

Battles defaults to a company scale, meaning your armies will have between 600 and 3,000 bodies on the field.  This chapter covers how to adapt the unit stats to account for a larger or smaller encounters, as well as how this will affect heroes on the battlefield.  Spells, items, and Assaults can also be scaled.  This chapter highlights the level of detail and thought Autarch puts into their products.  The scaling changes are simple but effective, and the fact that they are included is a huge boon to the usability of this product.

Chapter 7 – Rosters

Much as you would expect, the unit stats are found here.  If it is mentioned in ACKS, or D@W: Campaigns, its statistics are found here.  Interestingly enough, unlike games like Warhammer, there is no way to ‘purchase’ units to build an army.  All of the mustering rules are found in Campaigns and are not based on a balancing of armies but what a player can realistically draw (or dares to draw) from their domain.

Chapter 8 – Conversion

This chapter contains the rules for building units for use within the Battles system.  Much like chapter 3 of Campaigns, this chapter will allow you to pull in creatures and races from other OSR and d20 based games.  If something has AC, Hit dice, HP, and To-Hit modifiers, you can convert it for use on the battlefield.  Examples are plentiful in this chapter, which is a huge help.  And at the end of the chapter, the rules for calculating Battle Rating and Wages (both very important stats in Campaigns) are listed here for a complete conversion rule set.

Chapter 9 – Scenarios

Two scenarios are given in the main book.  The first, Peril at the Fangs,is intended as an introductory scenario for use with only the basic rules.  Battle of Zidiumuses the full rules of Battles and moves the scale of the battle from the company to the brigade.  Both scenarios are grounded in the history of the Auran Empire (the ACKS’ default setting).  Peril at the Fangs pits beastmen against an understrength Auran legion, while Battle of Zidium is an epic conclusion to a massive war.  If you are familiar with the history of Rome, this battle is based on Zama, where Scipio Africanus fought Hannibal!

Chapter 10 – Armies

The final chapter is a list of special armies and units co-created with backers of the D@W Kickstarter.  These two armies are full of exotic units and special rules that were created specifically for these armies.

Glossary

Like Campaigns, any bolded word throughout Battles is found here with a definition. Also, like Campaigns¸ I suggest printing this out if you buy the PDF copy and annotating it with page reference numbers.

Conclusion

Autarch has created a lens with D@W.  This finely crafted piece allows you to view mass combat within your game.  It is up to you to focus the lens, choosing when to pull back and see the whole of a war campaign and when to zoom into a single battle.  The rules of D@W work seamlessly, allowing a group to flow back and forth between both rule sets as the story of the game and their interest demands.

While you can buy the D@W books separately, if you have even the slightest interest in Battles, I would highly recommend buying the Complete Set.  This set comes with Campaigns, Battles, the battlemap PDF (which I printed out and looks gorgeous), and a token set.

As a Warhammer player, I was not really interested in another fantasy miniatures game when D@W was announced, but I wanted to give this book a comprehensive review.  So my buddy, Chris, came over, and we worked our way through the first scenario.  Despite being trounced soundly by the beastmen who rallied to Chris’ banner, I had a blast.  (Chris really seemed to enjoy the trouncing as well.)  The basic game was simple to pick up, and within a couple of turns, we were hardly referencing the rules.  I am sure there were things we did wrong, but we had a blast and are going to get together and play the advanced scenario soon.

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Domains at War: Campaigns

Disclaimer: This pdf was provided as a backer reward for supporting the Domains at War kickstarter.  All opinions within the review are my own.

Autarch was the third company to get money out of me on Kickstarter.  By that time, I had already found Adventurer, Conqueror, King (ACKS) and was feverishly working my way through it.  As I stated here, ACKS’ rules reminded me a lot of what I loved about Birthright.  I found myself wanting rules for mass combat so that PC kingdoms could go to war.  Then Domains at War popped up on Kickstarter, and much money and many months later, I have the PDF copies of the Campaigns and Battles books.  (My hardcopy is in the mail!)

Domains at War (D@W) is actually two books (one that focuses on abstract campaigns, and the other is a table top wargames) so I will be giving each book their own in-depth review.

Domains at War: Campaigns Review

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Domains at War: Campaigns is a 105 page PDF.  You can get it either by itself or as part of the Domains at War: Complete Set at drivethrurpg.com.  Like all Autarch products, D@W is a sharp looking book with great art.  Alexander Marcis, the author of the book, does a great job distilling the abstract and concrete elements of rule set into a readable format and provides great examples every step of the way.

Introduction

This one page introduction gives us a brief overview of the book’s inspiration, what to expect as a reader, and important terms.  Take time to read the fourth paragraph on this page, and look at the references that were listed.  This is a book that is grounded in a classical understanding of war.  ACKS cleaves to a simulationist style of game design (especially in world design), and D@W is no different.  However, what makes ACKS so attractive to me is the verisimilitude that this historical grounding gives the game.

Chapter 1 – Armies

This chapter covers how to create and manage armies within your D@W (and ACKS) campaign.  Hiring mercenaries, conscripting peasants, levying militias, deploying followers, buying slaves, and calling up vassal troops each receive detailed rules for every aspect of using them in a campaign.  Costs are given for acquiring, equipping, and maintaining these units.  Want to figure out what the standing army of a kingdom is?  There is a table for Vassal Troops.  Want to know how much an Ogre trained as a heavy infantry will cost you at market?  D@W covers that (it is 2,625 gp in case you were curious).

The chapter then goes into how to structure your armies, what command requirements your PCs must meet, and what military specialists are good for and why you need them in your army.  Chapter 1 finishes up with the Unit Characteristics tables for a huge variety of troop types.

Since D@W focuses on mass combat in a fantastical world, it doesn’t just give information for the troops of men, but for Dwarves, Elves, Beastmen, and other exotic creatures.  The information for fielding a unit of werebears, 12 headed hydras, or Ancient Dragons are all here practically begging to be used.

Chapter 2 – Equipment

Chapter 2 covers all the gear you and your army will need on the campaign trail and in the field.  Like the ACKS equipment section, do not just read the little table at the front and move on.  There are subtle rules for a number of pieces.  If you don’t read the whole description you will miss things like the rules for helmets or the mirrored shield.  Following the PC-focused gear, we get to costs and statistics for siege weapons.  What mass combat book would be complete without catapults, trebuchets, and ballista?

One small paragraph explains how armies become their own market based on their size.  It got me thinking how you could run an entire campaign on the campaign trail, with the camp counting as a mobile home base.

The rules and costs for building strongholds to assault or defend are also found here.  This section, which will be very helpful when using D@W in your ACKS game, refers the reader back to chapters 3 and 7 of the ACKS main book.  This section will play out in your conquests as you assault, defend, and conquer strongholds with your army.  The Sieges chapter will refer to a number of statistics that can be found in these tables.  While D@W does give options for abstracting strongholds, I feel you would be missing out on a significant chunk of the game’s enjoyment if you didn’t flesh out your castles with these rules.

Chapter 3 – Campaigns

Before you can get your armies from Chapter 1 to Chapter 5, you have to move them around the map.  Each campaign turn is broken down in to a simple four step process.  And I do mean simple; only 13 pages of rules are given to this section.  And it covers moving armies, supplying armies, reconnaissance, and what do with domains once you conquer them.

Each turn, which lasts about a week of game time (plenty of time to players to get their characters into all sorts of adventures between turns), breaks down into four phases: Initiative, Movement and Battle, Supply, and Occupation and Conquest.  Each phase is well laid out, easy to understand, and presents a number of clear and influential choices for players who are in command of the armies.  One thing that stands out is the use of magic in D@W.  The book provides guidelines for how scrying will influence an army’s ability to hide itself or track the enemy. It is easy to read this book and become entranced with the idea of seeing ancient world or medieval battles played out.  The author does a great job of remembering these rules are intended for use with a fantasy game, even if the reader might sometimes forget.

While some of this chapter is clearly designed to dovetail into the ACKS domain rules, a large majority of it can be picked up and dropped into almost any OSR or modern d20 based game.

Chapter 4 – Battles

And now the rules for fighting.  After you establish the type of battle (based on choices made during the Campaign turn), you are ready to engage in either bloody conquest or righteous war.  We zoom into a 10 minute turn, and each turn is again broken down into simple steps.  Army leaders select participating units, calculate their strength, PCs get to be awesome, each side rolls to hit and removes casualties, checks are made for morale, and then see if they want to (or can) fight another round.  The abstract combat is fast and deadly, giving the game a feel of the grinding wheel of war wearing down the masses.

Rules are given for calculating battle strengths, including formulas for calculating unlisted monsters and PCs.  This is where D@W shines as a product for systems other than just ACKS.  Want to figure out what the Companions of the Hall would be like as a unit in an army?  Do it.  Want a squad of floating spheres with one large eye and multiple other eyes on stalks?  If it has an armor class, hit dice, and a list of special abilities, you can abstract it with D@W.

But what stands out for me is the Heroic forays.  Once problem with mass combat in most RPGs is how they tend to handle what the characters are doing while the battle is happening.  Let’s be honest, RPGs focus on the character level, and mass combat…well has mass in the title.  The story lens can pull too far back for the players to feel like their characters have any say in the outcome.  D@W does a fantastic job of preventing this from happening.  First, and simplest, your PCs could just be one super awesome unit.  It is quick, and allows the overall combat to move faster, but still might cause the story to be too panoramic for most players (I know my players are like this).

So, players can make Heroic Forays.  These boil down to heroic gambles that the players make to cause the tide of battle to swing in their favor.  They wager their unit strength (the GM presents them with enemies equal to that strength), and you play out an encounter right there while the battle rages on around them.  If they win, those casualties are inflicted on the opposing army right then and there before the standard attacks are rolled.  Players can choose to foray multiple times over the course of a battle.  There are also some slick rules for Hero vs. Hero Forays, but who runs games with pvp?…. Oh wait.

How battles end, what the winners can do to the losers, how casualties are treated, and what makes up the spoils of war round out this chapter.  Just remember, if you are leading a horde of carnivorous warg riders to glory, captives are not just for interrogation or ransom.  Wargs gotta eat….just saying.

Chapter 5 – Sieges

This chapter covers everything you would want to know about Sieges.  It also provides rules for abstracting those sieges.  We find rules for blockading to starve out defenders, breaking their defenses, and how to assault their broken walls. It includes simplified rules for quickly establishing how long a siege would take if it happened in the background of a game.

Once again, we see how magic will affect combats in a fantasy world.  Rules for how spells can be used against strongholds are looked at here.  Your clerics and wizards will be able to raze to strongholds with spells, while the rest of the party climbs through the breach in the wall the fighter made with his horn of blasting.

The rules for this section, as I stated earlier, refer heavily back to the stronghold creation section of Chapter 2.  This is another part of D@W that can be ported directly to another system.  Ignore the building costs, create your castle, then throw a siege at it.

Chapter 6 – Vagaries

The last chapter is devoted to tables of how the twists of fate may affect a campaign.  There is a table for vagaries of recruitment, war, and battle.  These table interject those things that are uncontrollable but inevitable over the course of a campaign.  The quote by Julius Ceasar at the start of this chapter sums up what you will find.  ‘Fortune, which has a great deal of power in other matters but especially in war, can bring about great changes in a situation through very slight forces.’

Glossary

Finally, the glossary.  Any bolded word throughout D@W is covered here.  In fact, I printed out the glossary immediately before I read through the book for this review.  It is a great reference which I recommend handing out to your players so they have it as well.

Conclusion

As you can probably tell, there is a lot crammed into the 105 pages of this PDF.  D@W: Campaigns is a great supplement for people who want mass combat added into their game but still want it abstracted into in an evening of play.

ACKS books are well thought out, and there is a high level of interplay between all the moving pieces of the rules.  D@W is no different.  So much of the structure of D@W ties back into the ACKS rules about economics and domains.  So when you get this, I would advise reading through it at least twice.  Once to get a wide view of the Campaigns system and a second to dig deeply into each section.  D@W provides cross-references to the other ACKS books where they apply, which is very helpful.

If you are looking for a rule set for a d20 game that abstracts mass combat in a fun, simple way, while still providing players influential choices, check out D@W.

Iconic Announcement

After weeks of dropping hints about a secret project, I get to pull the curtain back today and share the news with you all.  I am starting a podcast!  It is called Iconic and you can find the website here.  My co-hosts (Nick and Mark) and I will be bringing you 13th Age goodness twice a month starting on the 21st.

On the 14th you can download our Episode 0, which will serve as a brief introduction to the show’s hosts and format.  We have already recorded an interview with Rob Heinsoo as our third episode, and we are lining up interviews with Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan (author of the 13th Age Free RPG Day adventure, the upcoming Eyes of the Stone Thief living dungeon, and the Book of Loot) and Tim Brown (of Dragon Kings) as well.  The plan is to also do bonus episodes unrelated to 13th Age.  Currently we have plans to talk about ACKS, Cypher, DnD Next, Mice and Mystics, and my world of Ta’nar.

So tune in, leave feedback, comments and, ideas for the show here or at Iconicpodcast.com.

Below is the announcement that we will be plastering over the internets:

Greetings, 13th Age fans.  On July 21st, we are launching the Iconic Podcast, a show dedicated to 13th Age and gaming goodness.  We will be posting new episodes every other week, and each will spend around 30 minutes looking at different aspects of the 13th Age system.  On occasion, we will also have interviews with contributors to 13th Age (eg Rob Heinsoo, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan).

Part of what makes 13th Age so great is the fan community.  Because of this, we plan on reviewing fan-created resources and sites and would love to interview you about your 13th Age game.  If you are interested in appearing on a show, or if you have an idea for a cool segment, a question about the game or rule, or just want to tell us about your game, please email us (info@iconicpodcast.com) or call us (720-924-1706).

As a preview, we will post our Episode 0 on July 14th, where we introduce the hosts and show. Be sure to tune in!

Bonus Content:  Domains at War, Autach’s mass combat system for their game Adventurer, Conqueror, King (which I reviewed here) is available for sale now at Drivethrurpg.com.  Go check it out, the playtest rules were fantastic and promised to be easily adaptable to any d20 style game.  I am planning on writing reviews on both books in the upcoming weeks.

ACKS Player’s Companion Review

Last week, I looked that the core book for Adventurer, Conqueror, King.  It was a lengthy review, primarily due to the amount of great content that Autarch crammed into the book.  Seriously, for a 270 page book there is a lot of mechanical information that is clearly and concisely detailed.  The depth of the rule set is staggering.  But Autarch did not stop with just one book; they followed the Core book up with the Player’s Companion.

Player’s Companion Review

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The Player’s Companion is 158-page book that follows closely in the footsteps of the Core ACKS book in terms of art and layout.  There are some full-page pieces of art in the Player’s Companion that are stunning; and the cover for the book is even more striking than the core book. 

Chapter 1: Introduction

A one page introduction to the book gives us a brief outline of book’s content as well as a very interesting note to the Judges of ACKS.  “Every campaign is a law unto itself,” is Autarch’s motto, which is prominently displayed on their website.  This book gives a lot of options to make your campaign world unique.  If the Core book provides the mechanics to realize the world and domains of your setting, the Player’s Companion gives you the tools to make the races, classes, and spells just as realized.

But the writers make it very clear, the rules in this book are optional.  Nothing in here is mandatory, which is reminiscent of the 1st and 2nd edition days of fantasy gaming.  The authors give ideas on how to use the Player’s Companion in a campaign.  Whether you want a modern approach where everything is fair game, an à la carte rules and class selection, or an old-school, highly specialized class game, this book has something for every campaign.

Chapter 2: New Character Classes

The Core book gives us access to 12 character classes.  The Player’s Guide over doubles our choices with 18 new classes.  Iconic fantasy classes such as the Paladin, the Anti-Paladin, the Barbarian, the Mystic (monk), and the Paladin are all realized within ACKS.  Dwarves and elves each get three new classes, and we get a gnome class as well as a Thrassian gladiator (which is essentially a lizard man).

The Player’s Companion, however, does not just contain classes that you have seen in a myriad of other fantasy games.  Some classes, like the Thrassian Gladiator, the Nobiran Wonderworker (a class that can cast both arcane and divine spells), and the Zaharan Ruinguard (a chaotic necromantic knight) are tied to the mythology of the Auran Empire, while others like the Venturer (a bard-like master of a world’s economy) are designed to tied directly into the unique campaign rules of ACKS.  There are other classes that stand out, like the Dwarven Machinist (who creates and uses automata), the classic archetypes of the Elven Enchanter and Elven Ranger, and totem aligned Shaman.

The classes presented in the Player’s Companion open up a lot of gaming options for players and Judges.  While players will love the new classes, in my opinion, they are not the true gem of the Player’s Companion.

Chapter 3: Character Class Templates

The whole of this book, much like the Core book, is packed with fantastic mechanics.  But if the Player’s Companion only consisted of Chapter 3, it would still be worth the $10 they are asking for the PDF. 

I mentioned in my review of the core book that the classes in the core book came with a single template.  This template was a selection of gear and proficiencies packaged together to make customize your class (like making a Fighter a Mercenary) and let you jump right into the game.

This chapter gives 8 templates for each of the 30 classes now available for ACKS.  Now your fighter can be a Thug, Ravager, Corsair, Guardsmen, Mercenary, Gladiator, Legionary, or Lancer.  They make character generation fast and easy, supply great role-playing and background cues for players, and provide a level of customization to each of the classes.  Look at the variation of the fighter provided above.  And, from a GM’s perspective, the templates make it easy to generate NPC parties for your game.  7 sets of 3d6 and you are done, gear and all.

 Chapter 4: Custom Classes

Autarch also provides you with the tools to create your own classes and races.  They both work very similarly.  Building a class requires the Judge to allocate points among the classes: Hit Points, Fighting skills, Thieving skills, Divine skills, and Arcane skills.  Each point spent in a category gives the Judge choices to make for the class and its abilities.  It is a simple process that contains a lot of flexibility.  Races are built much in the same way, with point allocation. After establishing the race, you can start building its custom classes.

The chapter ends with a huge list of custom powers and some great guidelines for developing your own powers.  At first blush, it seems that all of the custom powers from the classes within the Player’s Guide are available to Judges in designing their own classes, once again showcasing the internal consistency of ACKS. 

An important thing to point out is that ACKS is not looking for game balance across the range of classes, at least not in the way modern games define the term.  ACKS balances classes with their XP chart.  In ACKS, a first level fighter is far more versatile and durable than a mage.  However, as the mage levels, her power expands far beyond the scope of the fighter, so her XP table is tougher.  Like-wise, Elves have more bonuses than humans, so their classes are inherently tougher to level in than a similar human class. 

Chapter 5: Spells

This chapter covers some supplemental rules to the ACKS magic system.  The main expansion on the system is for improving the results of all the magical research possibilities in the Core book with experimentation.  However experimentation is not without its risks, as can be seen by the many mishap tables provided.  There is also a great table for generating random spell signatures, the personal flavor each mage gives to the spells they cast.

Autarch provides rules for creating your own spells for ACKS as well.  Again, there is a simple elegance to the way you construct spells.  The book takes you step-by-step through the design, allowing you pick and choose the effects till you get the spell that you desire.  I have designed a variety of custom spells for my Dark War game, and I have found that with a good idea of the final effect in mind, you can create a custom spell in under 10 minutes.

This chapter ends with updated spell lists and an index of new spells and high level rituals.

Chapter 6: Supplemental Rules

The Player’s Companion wraps up with a mélange of various additional rules.  Character starting ages and aging effects, new equipment, and modifications to the follower tables for the new classes are presented here.  New proficiencies and the costs of adding pits and traps to your structures round out this chapter and the PDF finishes off with a nicely hyperlinked index.

Conclusion

Aptly titled, the Player’s Companion contains a wealth of information for any player of ACKS. For a book that declares that its entirety is optional, I find that I would be hard pressed to run an ACKS game without the majority of the Player’s Companion.  I know I could, but I feel like I would have one hand tied behind my back.  I can’t stress how useful the templates are or how simple the custom creation rules are.  This book is a great addition to the ACKS system, as well as any OSR game, for much of the material in here could be easily ported to another game of choice. 

If you are running ACKS, this book will help tailor make the system to your world.  If you are on the fence about ACKS, check this book out.  Its flexibility and substance just might make you a convert.

You can buy the Player’s Companion PDF here or here and can order the physical book here or through your FLGS.  

Focus of Dark War

Now that I have selected Adventurer, Conqueror King as my game system for Dark War, I wanted to outline what Dark War would be about. (Players in my games beware, as there could be some spoilers for Dark War ahead).

Story

There are many ancient evils that have long plagued the peoples of Sentali, the eastern most continent of my world, Ta’nar.  The ancient god-king of Abin-Syl, the fallen line of Pathihn Kings, the dark lord known as Thoan, the Daemon lords Demoloth and their respective cults have threatened entire the continent at various points in the millennia of Ta’nar’s history.  This does not take into account the world wide threats from entities like Thoan, or Dragon Emperor’s.  One of these ancient threats was recently revived due to the misguide efforts of a handful of PC’s.  This has set into play a malevolent power on an unprepared world. 

The peoples and nations of the 7th Age have just established themselves, and are starting to build something lasting on Sentali.  This revived power seeks to return the land to a more malleable state.  To do this, it has targeted the primary bastion of law on Sentali, the Kardane Empire.  From the outside, there will be no Dark War.  There will be many smaller conflicts, which will each threaten to plunge the Lawful Empire into Chaos.  Events like the Plague of Spectres, A Threat From the North, the Fall of the Dead, an Infusion of Chaos, and the final conflict that will reveal the fell hand behind Dark War.

 

Theme

I really want this game to focus on the conflict between Law and Chaos.  ACKS has simple three point alignment that really resonates with me.  Law stands for the light of civilization.  Neutrality stands for its own self-interests, those who enjoy the benefits of law without fighting to preserve them from evitable erosion.  And Chaos lurks in the dark edges of the world, subverting Neutrality and waiting for the time to strike to bring Law crashing down.

Chaos is not just found in the enraged faces of beastmen and Var.  It is not just the corruption of flesh from dark magics and deals with Daemons.  Chaos is seductive.  It is enticing.  It is manipulative and fell.  This is the Chaos that I want to oppose the players.  A beautiful one that beckons from the darkness, and whispers ‘join me’.

The 7th Age is still new, and has yet to find a tone.  This game will seek to define the Age as one of light or darkness. 

Feel

I want this game to have a threefold feel: paranoia, a looming threat, and hope.

First, I want to portray the hand organizing Dark War to be way smarter and subtler than I am.  I want to lay clues that go unnoticed at first to build upon each other, till the preponderance of evidence threatens to crush the characters.  And then I want them to know that few believe that any one creature, let alone ‘that’ one, could be behind something like Dark War.  It will be a tricky thing to pull off, and require some heavy planning on my part.

Secondly, I want that paranoia to lead to a realization that there are things out in the darkness waiting for them.  Not ‘them’ in the sense of all members of Law and Neutrality.  But the player character’s personally.  This ancient evil has been put down before, and knows how much fate loves its group of 4-6 beings with class levels.  So while some threats will be global, some will be very personal.

The final feel I want to thread through Dark War is hope.  It may seem in bright contrast to the previous two goals.  But, hope, and the events that provide characters hope, are what drive the story forward.  I want players to have moments of silver lining from hard won victories, when they can look at events and say ‘this is why we did this, this is why we took our stand here.”  I am shooting for more of a Steven Erikson feel, than a George R.R. Martin one.

Goal

Definition and change are the goals I have for Dark War.   Up until now, Ta’nar has had some events shaped by the characters in the game, but the big events have all been in the past.  I want the characters coming out of Dark War to have shaped the nature of the 7th Age.  Do they succeed and declare this Age to be one of Light and Law, or do they succumb and usher in an Age of Darkness and Chaos? 

That goal goes hand in hand with change.  I have set up a lot of behind the scenes moving pieces to Ta’nar.  I know how the world works (much better since I started using the Secrets chapter of the ACKS core book).  It is time to truly see how this world interacts with players, and allow them to leave a lasting mark on the world.  I hope to see gods die, characters walk the Paths of Divinity, important NPCs change, and even, possibly, an entire city redeemed. 

Who knows what will happen in the course of Dark War, but I for one want to see my world bloodied up, and to be able to see the boot prints my players leave on its surface.

Adventurer, Conqueror, King Review

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

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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.

Foreword

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.

Conclusion

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.