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Thanks to Claes F for the image.
In my continuing quest to explore the modernization of D&D, I’ve been digging into quite a few OSR games. My personal inclinations typically lean toward elegant-and-modern updates of the basis of D&D, rather than true retroclones. But I have an inexplicable soft spot for kingdom-building, so my next stop on the OSR train led me toward the Adventurer, Conqueror, King System (henceforth, much to my chagrin, ACKS – saved from Bill the Cat only by its almost-plural endpoint).

This is a game built around the conceit of kingdom-building, taking BECMI as the starting point (and especially inspired by the Dungeons & Dragons Set 3: Companion Rules). It draws on the “spine” of that system but adds a great deal, partly inspired by later editions of D&D and partly entirely new.

Which sounds promising, considering that I have very fond memories of BECMI (more so than AD&D, certainly). And yet…reading ACKS showed me just how far I have come from my teenage self….

Note that I will assume some familiarity with the basic structures of D&D in this review – if you are coming into this cold, I wouldn’t really recommend ACKS. The presentation is clear enough, but there are much more elegant renditions of D&D out there with which to get your feet wet.

The Product

ACKS is available both as a hardcover and pdf. I only have the pdf (acquired through the OSR Bundle of Holding, amusingly decorated with the author’s DriveThru RPG watermark) and will be reviewing that.

It is a 272 page document with a spartan but clean layout: easily readable but uninspiring. The pdf is bookmarked and hyperlinked: spell names link directly to the descriptions, for example. The bookmarks are a little mysterious, though, and they have a strange hierarchy (at least in Apple’s Preview, my reader of choice). There isn’t a lot of art, but most of it that does exist appears in full-page pieces. Everything is black and white except for the cover. The illustrations definitely have an old-school feel, in a cartoonish sort of sense.

The editing is good, for the most part, and the only thing that really bugged me was the lack of female pronouns or characters. While they are not entirely absent, they do feel much, much more rare than I’m used to in recent games – enough so that I noticed it pretty quickly.

Adventurers

At the outset, ACKS feels like a fairly well-done blend of BECMI mechanics with post-d20 character options. The basics of the game – stats, hit points, saving throws, class/level – will be entirely familiar to any D&D player.

The primary innovation from a character-design standpoint is the proficiency system, which is a blend of the skill system from BECMI and feats from later editions. In short, each character gets a number of slots for these (accumulating more as they level up, though slowly). Each class gets a list of allowed proficiencies, which include both non-combat skills (like alchemy) and special combat abilities (like swashbuckling). There’s some elegance here in sweeping so much (including some traditional racial abilities) into this system, and it is quite extensible for incorporating new ideas and character abilities.

The character classes include the obvious (fighter, cleric, thief, and mage) but allow room for many more – the core book includes the assassin, bard, bladedancer, and explorer (basically a ranger), and supplements include more. ACKS also builds upon the BECMI idea of race-as-class – mostly, at least, as it actually provides a couple of different options for both dwarves and elves. (Halflings are, sadly, absent in the core book.) Character classes accomplish about as much as you would expect in an OSR game: they determine your attacks, hit points, and saves, provide a few special abilities (thief skills and spells), and not much else. Customization happens entirely through the proficiency system.

Gameplay follows the BECMI paradigm, with some updates. Combat uses 1d6+Dex for initiative; spellcasters must declare actions, but others are more free. Characters can move and attack on their turn; there are no attacks of opportunity, but movement options are tightly circumscribed if you are ngaged with an enemy. Attack rolls – excuse me, attack throws (this game has an inexplicable obsession with using “throw” when roll would suffice) – use a d20, comparing the roll to a base difficulty (determined by class and level) + opponent’s AC (the game uses ascending AC, but in a fairly non-intuitive way). Damage subtracts from hit points (annoyingly, the damage “table” is in the combat chapter, rather than with the equipment table), and special attacks usually grant a saving throw (there are five types). All pretty standard stuff, though it might take you a session or two to get used to the way ACKS accounts for the math.

One of the big changes is to mortality: when PCs hit zero (or fewer) hp, they remain in an indeterminant state between life and death until an ally treats them. At that point, they roll a d20 and d6 and cross-reference the results on a table. The results determine both the PC’s current condition and whether any lasting wounds are dealt. These results are often, to me, quite brutal: enough so that I’d rather just create a new PC than have a hand severed or crushed. At higher levels, healing magic can circumvent these injuries, but then you have to roll on another able for side effects (amusingly entitled Tampering With Mortality).

There’s also slightly more richness to combat than BECMI had, thanks largely to concepts borrowed from later D&D editions. For example, there are rules for disarming, sundering, knocking down, etc. The proficiency system provides more customization. All in all, combat plays largely like old-school D&D but with some opportunities for 3.5E custom moves.

Out of combat, proficiency throws are the norm: if you have a proficiency, you can attempt to do something interesting (like heal wounds) with a d20 roll. The difficulties for tasks are (usually) fixed: a character who has double Healing proficiency can effectively cure light wounds on an ally with a roll of 18+, but that doesn’t get any easier as the PC advances in level. Some particular proficiencies – like the canonical thief skills – do get easier with level, but most remain luck-based. I find this rather unattractive, but of course that is partly my conditioning as a D&D 3E/4E player; it may be just fine for you.

Other than these proficiencies, there’s not a lot of structure to determine, mechanically, the effects of your PC’s actions. The one exception is exploration movement, which receives quite a bit of explicit detail. Movement, etc. are spelled out very clearly, though the rules themselves are largely what one expects from old-school games – there’s no attempt at an abstract, game-ified chase mechanic, for example. (Instead, just count movement rates!) But there are rules for oversea movement and even ship combat.

One of the big problems for me is the lack of any resolution system for actions outside of the specific proficiencies. How do you persuade the king to side with you? How do you leap over a chasm? How do you trick the kobolds into attacking your enemies? There’s no system offered for these questions (not even Ye Olde Standby the ability check, whose structure actually runs counter to the way proficiency throws work). I find this deeply unsatisfying in a modern game.

The game also uses reaction tables and a simple morale system to determine how NPCs and monsters approach the PCs. These are easy to use and described quite clearly.

Magic basically sticks to old-school D&D expectations. The only real change is a compressed spell list, as the game only reaches 14th level (see the next section). Mage spells go up to level six, while divine spells top out at level five. The lists basically hit on all of the iconics, and the mechanics hew pretty closely to other old-school games. Higher-level spells aren’t completely absent, though: ACKS has separate rules for ritual spells, which require costly research and time (but can then be stored in magic items for instant use later). There are only a few examples of these spells, but they are clearly meant to allow (expensive) access to the old higher-level spells.

No D&D game is complete without monsters, of course, and ACKS has a healthy list (filling over 50 pages). There are a few “new” monsters here, but for the most part the list sticks to BECMI expectations. The statblocks are also similar to that game, except that there’s quite a bit of standardization in definitions, types, and such. All in all, there’s nothing really remarkable about monsters in this game.

Conquerors and Kings

So far, ACKS looks like a BECMI base spiced up with some systematization, a bit of special jargon, and a few new elements from D&D 3.5E (mostly to do with character customization). That’s not entirely fair, though: it finally enters its own at higher levels, when the PCs pass into the conqueror and king phases.

The basic idea is summed up like this (taken from a section about creating advanced characters):
ACKS wrote:
Advanced characters may begin as adventurers (4th-6th level characters); conquerors (7th-10th level characters); or kings (11th or higher level characters). Adventurer tier is suitable for action and exploration oriented campaigns with experienced players who don’t need to learn the game by starting at 1st level. Conqueror tier is appropriate for campaigns focused on establishing and expanding new domains. King tier is appropriate for campaigns where the characters manage vast realms and fight wars.

Mechanically, two basic structures reinforce these expectations. First, at 5th level many classes get special “downtime” abilities, like crafting magic items, researching spells, etc. At 9th level, PCs can found strongholds and start attracting followers. Each class has their own story for how this would work, which is pretty cool: fighters build castles, wizards towers, and thieves hideouts.

(I should note that ACKS characters max out at 14th level, or even lower for demihumans.)

Now, this isn’t particularly unusual for old-school D&D: these concepts has always been there. But ACKS mechanizes the process of establishing domains, building strongholds, attracting followers, and – perhaps most importantly – doing things with those followers. This is, by a good margin, the most comprehensive rulership system I’ve seen in any RPG.

At mid-levels, most PCs will have henchmen, hirelings, and other paid followers. I have almost always ignored these systems, even in old-school play, and that’s worked just fine in most iterations of D&D (at least if you have a decently big group). But it’s really against the spirit of ACKS, where this sort of leadership is built into the conceit of the game.

The backbone of the domain system is the economy, which ACKS treats very carefully. And this is probably the key litmus test for whether you will like the game: if managing a detailed, simulationist fantasy economy appeals to you, ACKS will fit like a glove. If not, then you’re like me – and you may appreciate the achievement but find yourself backing slowly away, gibbering in terror at the prospect of managing such a game.

So, basically, you establish a domain, track its population and morale, which determine the revenue and expenses, and you slowly grow that over time. Eventually you’ll reach a point where you need vassal domains, which introduces a system to manage those relationships. Meanwhile, you’ll also be building and growing settlements and maintaining an army. (Notably absent from this section, though, are rules for mass combat – Domains at War: Complete remedies that.)

There’s a lot more to the campaign section than domains, though. One of the more intriguing options is the opportunity for thieves to essentially found their own guild and then send their minions on hijinks missions to earn treasure. The problem is, again, that resolving this for a moderately-sized guild will either require lots of rolling, without much story payoff, or lots of averaging. One of the least intriguing options is a system for trading goods. I can imagine some players would have fun gaming this and earning extra gold (and hence XP), but not me!

The campaign chapter also contains a bunch of amusing rules for magical research – not only can you create your own spells, but you can also cross-breed monsters and turn yourself into a lich! Perhaps the best part, though, is the conceit that wizards can build dungeons somewhere (probably not directly under their tower), wait for monsters to settle inside, and then send adventurers inside to harvest their parts. It sounds tremendously inefficient both for the PC (hoping you get a sufficiently interesting creature!) and the player (dungeons get stocked by making wandering monster roll…after roll…after roll).

That pretty much exemplifies my opinion of the chapter: this is a system for players who like detail, preferably in spreadsheets, and feeling growth through the proliferation of detail. If you’re like me and prefer growth through narrative and story, this is likely too much work for the payoff.

The Rest

The final chapter of the book is for the DM (called a Judge in ACKS). This isn’t an advice section, though – it’s more a catalog of options and tables. I want to mention a couple of these sections as typifying how ACKS approaches the game.

The first is the world creation mechanism. Keeping with ACKS emphasis on PCs becoming world-level political figures, this emphasizes a top-down approach, beginning with a huge map, dividing it into realms, and then following the economic system to build the domains, populations, economy, etc. If you followed the procedure here, designing a multinational region would be a tremendous amount of work – after all, if your PCs might found a merchant venture, you need to know the demand modifiers in all of your cities! There are big tables for environmental adjustments to demand, for market types, etc. This is, again, very different than my philosophy of design – there’s no mention of story here, or adding elements with conflict where the PCs can do real things. Instead, you get a living, breathing world driven by population and economy. (I got excited when I saw a section called “Adventure Hooks” – but it lays out the ultra-generic possibilities of exploration, fighting evil, magical doorways, rescue missions, and – wait for it – quests as your options.)

The advice gets more interesting when it zooms in to the starting region, largely because it provides some more clear expectations for how the campaign should work. The area should basically be written like a hex-crawl, with about 30 monster encounters or dungeons (!). The book recommends detailing the smaller lairs at the beginning but leaving the dungeons and megadungeons (about half the total encounters) only lightly sketched until needed. It also recommends building some “dynamic” lairs that can be used when called for in a random encounter. (Of course random encounters are a strong expectation of the game, which even recommends actually using the % In Lair stat.)

There’s an interesting section about balancing the challenge, which basically says not to do it explicitly. Instead, focus on a borderlands environment, in which the most dangerous regions aren’t terribly far away, but aren’t the closest challenges to civilization. The game will balance itself, then, as the PCs will gradually grow bolder and venture farther from home base.

The dungeon design section is very old-school. There’s no attempt to have a “high concept” for the dungeon – instead, they are populated more or less randomly, with any kind of story developing organically.

The Bottom Line

I wanted to like ACKS: it marries my fond memories of BECMI with some modern design elements (most notably increased character customization) and caters to my longtime hope to find a fantasy RPG that supports rulership, politics, and war.

But, while it very much does do all those things, what I mostly learned from reading ACKS is how far my tastes have changed since my youth. My version of BECMI is simply a rules-light fantasy RPG, where the PCs start extremely fragile but have the potential to achieve unheard-of power (both personal and political, thanks to the Companion rules). To me, it’s a system that enables fast play but that accommodates story quite easily.

That’s not really the point, though: BECMI has a lot more to it, with dungeon design “rules,” lots of randomness, and, of course, old-school sensibilities of the pre-I6: Ravenloft sort, eschewing story in favor of environment and exploration. It’s easy enough to ignore most of these “rules” (and that’s how I do it, but ACKS embraces and amplifies all those aspects of old-school gaming that I have forgotten. A good part of that is the detailed economic system, which in turn enables the “King” part of the title to be meaningful. But the wholesale embrace of random dungeons, the proliferation of tables and decisions executed by die rolls (excuse me, throws), and the lack of a real resolution system for actions outside of combat really emphasize that style of play.

ACKS isn’t just a heartbreaker vision of old-school gaming with some new-school mechanics, though: the economic system and detailed (detailed, detailed) rules for domains, thieves’ guilds, wizard towers, etc. do add a new dimension to play. If that appeals to you – and if you look forward to micromanaging your account ledger, hirelings, and strongholds, ACKS may just be the game for you. I learned from Paizo Publishing’s Kingmaker Adventure Path that this definitely isn’t for me…but, given that series’ popularity (not to mention Ultimate Campaign, which is quite analogous to ACKS, but pitched toward Pathfinder), I may very well be in the minority on this one.

ACKS is a reasonable iteration of old-school D&D that offers some clever ideas and a well thought out vision of conquerors and kings. But it fails to modernize the mechanics enough – leaving big gaps in the out-of-combat action – and emphasizes detail and randomness far more than I’d like.

This is my thirteenth review in the 2014 Iron Reviewer contest.
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You've captured almost perfectly my own feelings about ACKS: I think it's an impressive achievement, but I don't have the urge to bring it to the table. My tolerance for crunch seems to be way down these days.

(I have similar reservations about the direction in which Pathfinder has been going, too, and like you, first really noticed it while attempting the Kingmaker Adventure Path series. I'm sure this crunchy approach is fun for some, but not for me.)
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Excellent review, this is exactly the sort of thing I wondered about when I was first heard of this system. Are you familiar with Reign? Does that scratch your story/narrative kingdom management itch more?

(Also, I'm a bit surprised that the term "throw" strikes you as unusual. It's a regular synonym for "roll", although maybe it's much more common in wargaming, or as a British-ism. I'm not sure. But it is, after all, where we get the familiar term "saving throw" from!)
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Re: "throw." I think it's unusual to hear it outside the context of a Saving Throw. We usually say "I roll to hit" or "roll your Perception," etc.

In ACKS I believe they try to standardize the terminology. So a "roll" is used to describe anything with a range of outcomes, while a throw is something with a binary pass/fail outcome. So attack throw, saving throw, skill throw. But damage roll, reaction roll, and so on.

Given that "a roll of the dice" and "a throw of the dice" are basically synonymous, it seems like a distinction without a difference. But if it works for them....
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Yeah, it's not that I don't know what "throw" means in this context, it's that the game uses it so religiously for an action that is quite familiar to role-players. (And, if this is your first RPG, God help you!) For a game that builds so much on D&D, it's jarring to read about "attack throws" etc.

It ends up bugging me because it seems like one of many changes ACKS makes just for the sake of changes. The clumsy attack throw v. AC mechanic, "proficiencies," "throws"...none of them really clarify the rules for me, they just get in the way of the familiar.
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Thanks for good and thorough review. I liked this book as a toolbox rather than a main system for a campaign, it's quite easy to use the parts you like with a little tweaking in almost any D&D based systems.

One thing puzzled me though:

Quote:
...and the only thing that really bugged me was the lack of female pronouns or characters.


It's been a while since I learnt English in school and always thought that he was used as a generic pronoun when needed. How has this changed in recent times?
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LtUrban wrote:
It's been a while since I learnt English in school and always thought that he was used as a generic pronoun when needed. How has this changed in recent times?


There are competing views. Always using "he" as a generic pronoun is seen as sexist by many. (Although many people have no problem with it.) Alternatives include:

"He or she"/"His or her." Awkward.

"They"/"Their". Ostensibly this is plural, but using it as a singular third-person pronoun has a long history.

"He" for players; "she" for GMs. (Or vice versa.) Has the added advantage of clarity in sentences where you're talking about both players and GM.

Rewriting sentences in ways that don't use pronouns. E.g. instead of "Step 2: Every player chooses his equipment;" go with "Step 2: Players choose equipment" or something similar.
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Thanks Dysjunct. These gender pronouns are a pain sometimes. Use of they/them was somewhat familiar for me, I'll refresh my memory on that. Using "he/she" is indeed awkward. Mixing up he or she in the text would seem logical.

I've also found that writing polite but not too formal letters and emails in English when recipient is unknown is impossible for me. Well, over polite inquiries over small matters tend to get great responses, so no complaints there I guess.
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To add to Kevin's alternatives, you can just alternate between he or she as you introduce new people into your examples, rules explanations etc. The What is Dungeons and Dragons? book from in the early 1980s by Eton schoolboys has an apology that states something like: 'we claim that the fault here (in not using more female pronouns) lies with the English language and not us.'

Good review! I think I'm past using boardgame-type rules for ruling kingdoms, and would rather use story-based ones.
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vestige wrote:
Yeah, it's not that I don't know what "throw" means in this context, it's that the game uses it so religiously for an action that is quite familiar to role-players. (And, if this is your first RPG, God help you!) For a game that builds so much on D&D, it's jarring to read about "attack throws" etc.

It ends up bugging me because it seems like one of many changes ACKS makes just for the sake of changes. The clumsy attack throw v. AC mechanic, "proficiencies," "throws"...none of them really clarify the rules for me, they just get in the way of the familiar.

Personally, I think it's only "clumsy" if you're already set on another system. In actual play, particularly with new players, it's pretty seamless. The direct explanation for it is on Autarch's website, here.

Good review, by the way, even if I disagree with a lot of it.
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