Saturday, September 29, 2012

Adventurer Conquerer King: An honest look

Months ago, I had a mini-rant against Adventurer Conquerer King (ACKS) due to my initial perceptions of the project based purely on conjecture and having seen some pre-release material. I saw a physical copy of the book at NTRPGCon, and punched Tavis Allison in the face; however, I did not buy it at the time, spending my money on Carcosa instead. My plans to order were interrupted by numerous factors, but I finally got around to it earlier this week, my copy arriving Wednesday evening. So what follows is a short, honest assessment of the book. No ranting this time as I'm in a pretty good mood because college football starts in only two hours.

Good Things

Only 14 Levels - It's not exactly rocket science, but cutting off levels at 14 means much less room for power creep. It also means the meteoric rise some characters experience will be quelled due to no place to go after a while.

Limited High Level Spells - If you want to cast anything over 6th level (5th for clerics), you first have to pretty much max out and then research it yourself. Just the fact that those spells aren't on the charts is nice; it lowers expectations at higher levels of play.

Magic Item Research - Goes with the above. I think this is laid out very nicely, and is a serious cash sink for wizards.

Proficiencies - I'm not a big fan of skills in D&D, but these are binary abilities gained as characters level up. My favorite part would have to be the customizability of the base classes, especially if you use a little DM fiat. If a player wanted to play a paladin, for instance, starting him off as a fighter then allowing him to select proficiencies from the cleric list would pretty much do it. No other tweaks required. I like it a lot and might steal this.

Spell Signatures - Isn't this how it SHOULD work in D&D? Dungeon Crawl Classics goes to the extreme with this idea, ACKS not quite so much, but again, probably needs to be in a D&D-like game.

Assassins and Bards - Probably the best versions of these classes I've seen in a D&D-like game in a long time. I'm stealing the assassin.

Charts - Hey, I like charts a lot. While I'd probably never roll on these charts, their presence provides some good ideas.

Neutral Things

Economics - Yeah, this game is all about economics or something, but I don't know...just sort of falls flat. It's not exactly poorly implemented, but for whatever reason I can't buy into the idea that there are 50 people/square mile, even if that was the population density of the "Roman Empire". The authors keep referencing Roman cities and whatever, but they must have glossed over the part of their history books where the Roman Empire was mostly confined to costal regions, large tracts of unconquered land left pretty much alone. Yeah, the cities were densely populated, but I highly doubt rural Gaul, for instance, had 50 fucking people per square mile. That's ludicrous. Plus, what does that really have to do with medieval populations, anyway? Rome went from literally millions of people to sparsely populated by the time the black plague rolled around; did they just forget that?

The worst part is probably the uniformity of prices. What incentive is there to be a merchant in this game if everything costs about the same in all parts of the game world? Is there a guild system not mentioned that is fixing prices or something? Is the teamsters union controlling flow of goods between cities? No idea, but it's unrealistic. I have NO PROBLEM with it being unrealistic; it is, after all, a fantasy game. But don't keep talking about historical stuff if you're going to ignore history when it doesn't suit you. There is an example given about buying a boat in a town. The DM can roll a bunch of times to determine availability and cost. It's not a bad system. My problem with it is just this: how hard is it for the DM to make that determination using their own brain? Again, not against charts and rolling, but that sort of makes the DM irrelevant if everything is decided with die-rolls. Plus, the dumbest part is that in the example given, there is no ship available for purchase. Okay, I can see that. However, if I roll into town, see a ship in the harbor and decide I want to buy it, I'll walk up to the captain and make an offer. He'll probably refuse. If I offer a million gold pieces for a ship worth 50k, do you think he'd still refuse? Fuck no he wouldn't. All that die-rolling removes the roleplaying element out of the game, which makes the economics system completely unlike anything in history. Well, it's exactly like modern times: I order shit from Amazon, and there is no haggling. Either they have the product, or they don't, and it costs a fixed amount. This is nothing like historical reality. Again, fine, it's a fantasy world.

I suppose this is neutral because even for all the gripes I have about the economics system, it's still Not Bad if you want to use it in a game that accepts the outlined premises.

Domain Rules - I have the same complaints about the domain rules as I do with the economics system, namely that they don't really model anything historical, but try to pass themselves off as such. Plus, lots of rolling to determine things; my high-level fighter cracked a lot of skulls even after he was king. He didn't sit around telling people what to do. I know the game has king in the title, but rolling a bunch of dice to handle problems is pretty boring. I dunno, the rules themselves are fine, but I can't see this as being very interesting to play.

Stupid Things

Tax Revenue - " coin paid directly to the adventurer by his peasants." What in the literal fuck? I thought this was supposed to be rooted in historical accuracy or something. No one in fucking history sat on giant bags of money except Scrooge McDuck, and he's not even real. It doesn't say 2gp of "worth" or "value" or "services", it literally says coins. This is directly from D&D, which again is FINE if you want to say people actually used money instead of barter (they didn't), but hey, I thought you wanted something more historical..? This sort of thing makes it hard for me to tell the intent of this game.

Elven Spellsword - And Dwarven Vaultguard and Elven Nightblade. The classes themselves are just fine, but these names are gay as hell. When I was reading the class descriptions I was almost embarrassed about these. Elves are fruity enough, there was no need to go with the full-on faggotry.

Really Bad Things

Attack Rolls - This is the only deal-breaker in the game, but it's irritating enough to give its own section. There are two major ways to roll attacks in D&D-like games, and ACKS does neither of them. I'm not a huge fan of ascending AC, but rolling is super easy: d20+STR bonus+class attack bonus. I tell the DM what I got, he compares to the AC of the monster. Pretty easy. Descending AC usually means I have to refer to a chart, so I can either tell the DM my total roll and he looks it up, or I say something like "I hit AC 2". Either way, it works fine. ACKS, however, requires the player to roll over a certain number added to the AC of the monster. So the chart says something like +5. If the monster is AC 4, this means I need to roll 4+5=9 or over on a d20. What's the problem here? It's fucking stupid, that's the problem. In both of the previous two cases, it takes literally 1 second to determine if an attack hit; in ACKS if the DM decides not to tell players the AC of the monster, that's just more fucking math to do for absolutely no reason. None whatsoever. Everyone starts with an attack throw of 10+, why not just roll this into the monster ACs like 3rd edition does? Why the FUCK did you feel the need to lower AC and put this in the attack table? It's just stupid as hell. Arrg. Seriously, the only explanation can be that the designers wanted something "different", but really, it's just ascending armor class made more opaque. That is fucking worthless and dumb. I said I wasn't going to rant, but this is annoying.

Overall, with the exception of the idiotic attack rolls, ACKS is a decent D&D-like game that has a some good things going for it. As a game that tries to unify low-level play with high-level domain management, it leaves a lot to be desired. I browsed my old Mentzer sets when typing this up and cannot see any reason whatsoever to use ACKS over the system described in those books. What someone needs to do is either goad WotC into reprinting the Mentzer sets, or clone the domain rules outlined in those sets. $40 was a bit much to spend on ACKS, I think. The PDF is probably worth the $10, but print it out yourself and skip the hardcover.


  1. Dude, aren't you a professor or something? I know it's your blog and all, and you're probably just going to tell me to shove it, but why the homophobia? This is otherwise a pretty spot-on review of ACKS.


    2. Content blocked in Canada. Based on the URL, I'm guessing the meaning is "fuck you" and that you're fine with seeming to express bigotry.

      If you were trying for something more nuanced, you going to have to try again with more words.

    3. How about this:

    4. I'll try to find a copy of that episode to watch some time, but I think I have the basic idea now from the Wikipedia summary.

      I'm still having a hard time seeing how that applies to the above paragraph though. What meaning were you trying to communicate? Because what it seems like (and I don't think I'm alone in this, based on the other comments) is that elves remind you of gay people (by being "fruity enough") and that these names make them seem even more so... maybe by trying to be artificially cool? I don't really know; it's not clear.

      Also, a comparison to the South Park episode is not really valid. SP is in the context of satire. Your blog is in the context of RPG reviews and commentary. Unless you provide other context, people are going to assume that words have their generally accepted meanings. In any case, if that South Park episode was trying to change the meaning of those words, it failed. It may have added a few new connotations among a relatively small community of South Park watchers, but it did not remove the previous meaning. If you call someone a fag on the street, they are going to assume that you are saying they are homosexual and that that is a bad thing.

      Rather than go on about the mutability of language, it's easy enough to say that you didn't mean it as homophobia, if in fact you didn't. According to Wikipedia, the SP episode attempts to reclaim and disempower the word "fag". Are you saying that is what you were trying to do here?

  2. Also, what did you think of the pseudo-Vancian mage system? I found it kind of convoluted in the same way that the attack roll thing is convoluted. Like, it's an extra step to do the repertoire versus spell book thing without much benefit. Easier to just allow mages to cast without preparation, if that is what you want.

    1. Not a fan, but doesn't really bother me, either. Just another thing in the game that seems like it was put in there to make it "different".

  3. I like the Repertoires for spellcasters. Allows for basically spontaneous casting while also not having every wizard or cleric know the same selection of spells.

    Now, the Attack Rolls, I really don't fully get why they did it the way they did. It works and is easy enough to use in game. 'My character needs a 6+ to hit an AC 0 with his sword and I rolled a 12, so I hit an AC 6'. But it is an extra step that doesn't really seem necessary.

    1. I guess that's true if copying spells between PCs is costless. If copying spells is not costless (or not possible) then PC spell casters would probably still have different spells (even if spontaneous casting was possible).

  4. A good review, but Brendan's right - I expect gay-slurs from an ignorant thirteen year-old, not an adult with a blog.

    1. Watch the Southpark episode before assuming anything.

    2. The South Park episode is apparently about the fact that words get their meaning from contexts and usage. Fair enough. But not terribly mitigating.

      There is a whole lotta usage out there establishing the terms I assume people were objecting to -- "gay", "fruity", and "faggotry", and the usual meanings any American English speaker would interpret them as having are as slurs against homosexuals, South Park episode notwithstanding.

      Brad, are you saying you meant "faggotry" in the sense SP was pushing? Seriously? Or just that words mean what you want them to mean?

      I never equated elves with bikers...

      Still, apart from the one paragraph, very help review.

    3. Ooh, just found about

      All is forgiven, Brad. Ignore my bellicose comment above.

    4. What does Brad running a file hosting site have to do with this?

    5. Christ, really? This many replies about me calling elves fruity fags?

      I know you guys have a sense of humor, take my remarks how they were intended; don't try to put words in my mouth. It's like when I bought tacos for my buddies the other day and told one of them I knew he'd like it because "he's a Mexican". Is that racist? I dunno, who cares? I it was funny and we all laughed. This blog is not PC, and if you know me at all I'm never serious. Ever.

    6. Fair enough. I didn't mean to go all PC on you. It all depends on context, and I probably don't have enough here.

  5. One of your best points above:

    "Charts - Hey, I like charts a lot. While I'd probably never roll on these charts, their presence provides some good ideas."

    I just disagree on some of your other points, but if you can at least read ACKS and take something away from it, that statement is one of them. There is a lot of good "information" you can steal and use.

    I appreciate that you took the time to read the whole book, and that you laid out exactly what you liked and disliked. I still think you could easily get past the things that grate at you and play it next to others that love it.

    1. "I appreciate that you took the time to read the whole book"

      Peter, isn't that the whole point of an "honest look"? I can't merely react and post drunken rants (well, I can, but I admit those are never fair).

      Anyway, I'm sure you're right; there are plenty of games I think are stupid in some way or another that I play and enjoy. I would play in an ACKS game for sure if someone else was running it. The attack roll thing, though...that's just so fucking annoying to me. But, hey, I love Palladium games and those have some of the most retarded systems ever.

  6. One thing I will point out, take another look at Chapter 10, especially section Adjusting Population Density, and Adjusting Urban Demographics. They discuss adjusting exactly what grates your eye-balls as far as densities go. One thing that is missing across the board is a full description of the implied setting. The Auran Empire, from what I've seen of its' continental map, and its description in other ACKS books you may not be privy to, is basically, the Roman Empire / Byzantine Empire. With that in mind, ACKs takes a domain snapshot more along those Republic / Empire days of history, but then they slap on Arbitrage possbilities more likely found in Renn or Late Renn time periods. You end up with an anachronistic combination as an end result. I'll be touching upon this in my final reviews of ACKS domain level over on here - I think a vast number of the issues folks may have with ACKs comes from this combined backdrop which kinda throws things in two historic directions overall in design. Anyhow, I digress.

    1. Here is the continental map I refer to...
      So you can see how arbitrage might come much more into play in a Mediterranean styled campaign setting then in lets say Dark Ages (or even low middle ages) Europe.

      I'll shut my pie hole now. : )