Tag Archives: ACKS

A Tale of Two Books

Swords & Wizardry Complete

Swords & Wizardry Complete — gorgeous Erol Otus cover

ACKS core book

ACKS core book

That is, the ACKS core book and the recently reissued Swords & Wizardry Complete. For those that are not familiar with these systems, ACKS is a second generation clone that adds proficiencies and detailed economic domain rules to a base inspired by B/X D&D. Swords & Wizardry Complete is a first generation clone of OD&D and all the supplements with a few new ideas (like a single saving throw, support for ascending AC, and a challenge rating system). But I’m not going to talk about either of the game systems here. Instead, I’m going to consider at the physical books, both of which have notable strengths and weaknesses. I find the content in these books valuable, and would recommend both texts to anyone interested in old school D&D or its simulacra.

ACKS binding flaw -- click to enlarge

ACKS binding flaw — click to enlarge

The ACKS books is nicely laid out. However, the binding is terrible. It is glued (like a perfect binding), not sewn, despite having a hard cover. My copy has never seen play or a game table, and I have only occasionally leafed through it physically (I had access to the PDF well before the hardcopy arrived, and did most of my ACKS reading digitally). Despite this very light use, the back endpapers have somehow separated along the line of the spine, and the pages have begun to pull away from the spine.

Excellent sewn Swords & Wizardry binding

Excellent sewn Swords & Wizardry binding

The binding on the Sword & Wizardry Complete book (done by Frog God Games) is excellent. It is signature sewn and feels durable. All the Frog God books I have are similarly high quality (the recently kickstarted Rappan Athuk and the Tome of Adventure Design, for example). However, some of the internal images are horribly pixelated. I’m not sure what process was used for image transfer, but I can get better results with my iphone camera and home laser printer.

These criticisms are made in a spirit of love, not malice. I like both of these systems, wish them success, and may even play them directly some time. Even in the age of deluxe original reprints, and cheap PDFs of the Basic and Expert rules, there is still a place for the simulacra, especially when they introduce innovations (such as ACKS lairs and the Swords & Wizardry single saving throw), maintain communities dedicated to older styles of play, and offer free downloads (such as the “3 LBB” version Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox). However, some of the pleasures of this hobby are the physical artifacts, both in terms of art and book quality. Especially for their price, both of these books deserve better construction. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, in comparison, with a similar customer base, has managed to put out virtually flawless books (in terms of their physical qualities, at least).

Swords & Wizardry pixelation -- compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry pixelation — compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry pixelation -- compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry pixelation — compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry pixelation -- compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry pixelation — compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry Complete -- excellent stitched binding

Swords & Wizardry Complete — excellent stitched binding

ACKS -- perfect binding pretending to be a proper hardcover

ACKS — perfect binding pretending to be a proper hardcover

Lead Character Charisma

I was recently browsing my copy of ACKS, and I noticed this passage about the impact of charisma on reaction rolls (page 99):

In cases where the reaction of the monsters to the party is not obvious, a reaction roll may be made. The Judge rolls 2d6, adding the Charisma bonus of the “lead” character (or applying his Charisma penalty) along with any other adjustments he feels are reasonable, and consults the Monster Reaction table below…

This is, of course, just the standard 2d6 D&D reaction roll (the best social mechanic in the history of RPGs). The part that stood out for me was the application of the lead character’s charisma to the check. For games with a Moldvay style ability score modifier, this would lead to an interesting trade-off, as the character with the highest charisma is unlikely to be the best frontline fighter. Do you want to expose a potentially more vulnerable character to frontal assaults in return for a greater chance at indifferent and friendly reactions? Trade-offs like this are what make the game interesting to me.

For comparison, here is how the D&D Rules Cyclopedia handles charisma and encounter reaction rolls (page 93):

After the first round, the DM should modify the 2d6 roll of the character talking for the group by the character’s Charisma bonuses or penalties. For the first reaction roll, the DM shouldn’t take Charisma adjustments into account.

So I think this “lead character charisma” thing is an ACKS innovation (please correct me if you know otherwise). Moldvay does not include any mention of charisma in his section MONSTER ACTIONS (page B24), though his section on charisma (page B7) does mention the applicability of charisma to talking with monsters (implicitly, this seems to agree with the RC version, that the initial reaction should not be modified by charisma):

The adjustment to reactions may help or hinder “first impressions” when talking to an encountered creature or person (see Monster Reactions, page B24, and NPC Reactions, page B21).

It’s interesting how many variations on this there are, even just within the original and basic D&D traditions. OD&D, for example, does not list charisma as something that should affect random actions by monsters. See The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, page 12:

The dice score is to be modified by additions and subtractions for such things as bribes offered, fear, alignment of the parties concerned, etc.

As expected, the OD&D version plays down character attributes in favor of player skill and strategies.

For me, the ACKS passage brings to mind images of monsters slithering in the darkness of the underworld, but still fascinated by the otherworldly beauty or presence of some character like a bard, paladin, or elf. For some reason I find this compelling. It’s an interesting idea, though if followed strictly it might lead to characters with leaders that have 18 charisma (+3 in ACKS) never being attacked immediately by creatures that use the reaction table (some creatures, like undead and mortal enemies, are of course a special matter).

Scout Draft

The scout is a warrior with wilderness skills. Most commonly, they are outriders and skirmishers for armies, but may also be trappers, hunters, hermits, or barbarians.

  • Hit die: d6
  • XP advancement as fighter
  • Attack bonus as cleric
  • +1 individual initiative
  • +1 missile attack
  • Hide: wilderness 5 in 6, underground or in civilization 2 in 6
  • Bonus to “getting lost” throws (see below)
  • Tracking 5 in 6 (one check required per 6 mile hex)
  • May use any weapons and any armor (though armor penalizes stealth)

Adventurers have a chance to get lost when adventuring in the wilderness. Standard probabilities by terrain type can be found here. A party that contains at least one scout improves those chances by 1 pip in each category, and thus will never get lost in average terrain, will get lost on 1 in 6 in moderate terrain, and on 2 in 6 in difficult terrain.

Edit: changed attack bonus progression from fighter to cleric based on comments.

This is the third of my human replacements for the demi-human classes. The scout is a substitute for the halfling. My first attempt at a halfling replacement was actually a monk, but monks don’t fit all settings (though I am still fond of that saving throw dodge mechanic); I think the scout is more general. The scout is intended to represent the ranger archetype, though without the magical accretions that have built up around that class over the years (animal companions, druid spells). Incidentally, I would probably allow any character class to have an animal companion using standard retainer and morale rules if they role-played it out.

As Charlatan notes on the ACKS forum, this is very similar to the ACKS explorer class. I have been considering this replacement for the halfling class from before I knew about ACKS (credit should probably go to this post over at B/X Blackrazor and this comment by BlUsKrEEm). My scout does not rely on a general skill system (like the explorer relies on ACKS proficiencies), so I still think there is some independent value to an explicitly B/X ranger option.

My other demi-human replacements are the fighting magic-user (for the elf) and the scientor (for the dwarf). I’m very happy with the fighting magic-user and the scout. I like the scientor, but it is only appropriate for a certain kind of science fantasy or gonzo campaign.

Originally, my ideas for dwarf replacements included a morlock racial class (not really appropriate now, as I’m going for all human PC classes) and a dungeoneer class. Perhaps it’s still worth writing up the dungeoneer for use with a more vanilla B/X setting. Or maybe I should just ditch the dwarf archetype (underground mechanically-oriented class) entirely or replace it with something entirely different like a necromancer (but then that deviates even more from the core B/X seven classes).

The problem with the dwarf class is that, absent the culture elements, the dwarf is not a very distinctive class mechanically. And, in a traditional D&D game, pretty much everyone is a de facto dungeoneer. This is an argument that I have seen made about the thief too, but I think it is even more true for a potential dungeoneer class. Any other ideas for a new human class that can take on the dwarf abilities?

ACKS Setting Part 3: Isle of the Dead

Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead

Conspectus: Resting on warm but brooding seas, the Idle of the Dead is a palimpsest of ruins. Many different civilizations have in the past settled on the Isle. The wilderness is haunted by the hidden realms of Faerie, visible only to those with the second sight. The Isle is scattered with abandoned colonies, restless dead, ghost towns, and the cast-off outposts of past inhuman visitors. The fragile but tenacious settlements of recent colonists cling to the coasts and ply the shallow seas. Spirits and wizard kings have set themselves up as petty gods demanding worship and tribute.

The primary visual inspiration is obviously Böcklin’s piece above, but I’ll post more images in the future. I don’t want to clutter this post up too much. Here is information about some of the past inhabitants.

The Monument Builders. Their works are crude but of immense scale. No one knows anything else about them.

The Old Empire. This was a civilization of tremendous advancement. They built wonders of engineering including bridges, aqueducts, soaring towers, and cities beneath the ground. Little is known about the society of the Old Empire. In fact, it is unknown whether it even was an empire. It is assumed to have been an empire due to the vast extent and uniformity of obviously related ruins. It is so old that nothing is known of its history or rulers, and few artifacts other than the architecture itself has survived. Many Old Empire structures have been repurposed by later settlers.

The Visitors. These ruins are obviously not of human origin and sometimes contain strange devices. Sages differ on whether the remnants of the Visitors came before or after the Old Empire.

The Hundred Kingdoms. The beginning of written history as far as most scholars are concerned. For the most part, the kingdoms did not extend to the Isle, though there are ruins of small outposts, perhaps the homes of heretics or outcasts. Other islands, and of course the mainland to the east, are the primary sources of Hundred Kingdoms ruins. The religion of the Kingdoms held that past the western seas lay the land of the dead. Some believe this is the origin of the name Isle of the Dead.

The Great Empire. The Great Empire arose on the mainland to the east when the Hundred Kingdoms were unified.

The First Expedition. During the zenith of the Great Empire, armies and settlers were sent in all the directions of the compass to explore and subdue. This was the first of two waves of colonization, and was a direct political extension of the metropole. Not much is known about these earlier colonies because after several generations contact was lost. The legend is that they rebelled against the homeland and so were cursed by the gods. That was 500 years ago.

The Second Expedition. Founded approximately two hundred years ago, the Second Expedition followed in the disastrous footsteps of the First. Unlike the First Expedition, the Second was led by adventurers and frontierspeople. At this time, the Great Empire was in a more inward-looking mood. When the settlers arrived, all they found were ruins and ghost towns. Initially, the colonies flourished, and spread around the edges of the Isle. Trade and commerce with the homeland was strong, but over time fewer and fewer ships returned until there was no contact. It has been two generations since the last successful voyages, and many assume the Great Empire has either suffered some disaster or disintegrated once more into feuding kingdoms.

The point of this detail is not to have an extensive history, but to allow me to differentiate between different types of ruins, and to create meaningful connections between them. I am trying to avoid engaging in world building for its own sake, so if something doesn’t add to the experience of the game as game, I don’t want to spend (much) time on it. I’m trying to build from the bottom up as much as possible, but I find I still need some level of thematic framework before I can begin creating domains and points of interest on the map.

As I have been detailing this setting, many things have surprised me. For example, the degree of Mediterranean influence. I wasn’t really planning that to begin with. And the influence of the sea. I guess I will need to become more familiar with nautical rules.

ACKS Setting Part 2: Zoom

Before I can proceed further with my Adventurer Conqueror King System setting, I need some actual geography. Note that I’m a “learns best by teaching” kind of guy, so don’t take any of this as gospel. This is just a record of what ended up working for me. I would love to hear about different methods that work for other people.

I was playing around with generating random terrain with Hexographer, and one of the areas that stuck with me was this island:

So I decided to use this fragment as a portion of my 24 mile per hex “campaign level” map and my first region. It’s 8 by 8, so that’s one sixteenth of the entire campaign map. I have some ideas about the surrounding area, but I’m not going to worry about it at this point. The fact that this is an island helps somewhat also; it is unlikely that the PCs will accidentally wander too far afield near the beginning of the campaign (Trollsmyth took a similar approach in his hex mapping series). It also means that PCs can either begin as natives or as victims of a shipwreck.

I really like this particular map because it has two major sections with a nice small choke point in the middle. I’m envisioning those connective lowlands as the center of civilization on this island with deep, forested wild mountains to the east and more wild interior to the west past the barrier of the rocky mountains. Flipping the assumptions of Keep on the Borderlands, I think the mountains will contain chaotic border forts (like the gates of Mordor, but smaller scale) protecting the western interior from the settled lowlands. In addition, other lawful settlements will be scattered around the edges of the island, much like the way settlements hugged the shore of Ancient Greece. Communication between the lawfuls will be by short range sea vessels, but more on that in later posts.

To proceed, I need to zoom in on that map and translate it to 6 mile hexes. The Welsh Piper has some wonderful hex templates that can be used with Hexographer, but unfortunately they assume 25 mile and 5 mile hexes (thus 5 subhexes per superhex), which is not compatible with the dimensions I am using. So this is what I did to make sure that the maps line up at different scales.

I started by marking the center of the 24 mile hexes using an arbitrary hex icon that will go away at the end. I chose volcano hexes because they stick out. All hex centers should be equidistant and separated by three hexes in any direction. To see why I placed the centers where I did, check out this picture from my previous post.

Then, I grew the terrain type outward one level:

After that, I filled in the rest of the hexes that would be entirely contained in any of the 24 mile hexes. The remaining gaps between them are liminal hexes that could go either way:

Contiguous terrain of the same type is then connected and the 24 mile hex center markers are removed:

Finally (for this post, at least) we have the “filled in” terrain, with the beginnings of some local variation:

This is still far from complete geographically. You can see that I started to add some details, such as small variations in terrain type at the 6 mile resolution. I don’t plan on creating all the variations prior to play, even just within this single regional map, but as I start to place locations such as domains and dungeons, I’m sure more terrain variation will creep in. My personal rule of thumb is that the majority of subhexes should share the terrain type of the superhex (for example, if the 24 mile hex is forest, at least 7 or 8 of the contained 6 mile hexes should also be forest). Exploring this geography also finally led me to a setting name, which I will reveal in the next post.

ACKS Setting Part 1: Intro

Grognardling recently wrote about some problems he was having making maps following the guidelines in Adventurer Conqueror King System. Here are the recommendations (ACKS, page 229):

A standard sheet of hex graph paper, 30 hexes wide and 40 hexes long, covers an area 1,200 hexes total. When creating the recommended two maps, one sheet of hex paper should be used with 24-mile hexes for the campaign map, while a second sheet should be used with 6-mile hexes for the regional map.

This sounds good, and 6 miles is a good scale for regional maps, but 30 by 40 doesn’t “zoom” well. That is, a small section of the 24 mile scale map can’t be conveniently represented by another 30 x 40 map at the 6 mile scale. The confusion is compounded by the fact that Autarch makes example hex maps available at three different resolutions, and it is unclear how these fit with the guidelines in the book (other than to show the proper way of fitting four 6 mile hexes into one 24 mile hex). Also, the example map dimensions are not 30 by 40.

I would suggest using 32 by 32 rather than 30 by 40, as that has a number of pleasant mathematical properties (this should not be surprising, as all of the numbers turn into powers of 2). A 32 by 32 hex map at the 24 mile scale divides evenly into 4 by 4 (16 total) sub-maps which can each be represented as a 32 by 32 hex map at the 6 mile scale. Thus, it is obvious how to create zoomed-in maps with added detail for any particular region. 30 by 40 yields 1200 hexes, while 32 by 32 yields 1024 hexes; the two are thus approximately the same area (certainly close enough for tabletop RPG purposes).

Example 32 by 32 campaign map at 24 mile per hex scale:

Example 32 by 32 region map at 6 mile per hex scale (large sharpie hexes correspond to individual small hexes on the campaign map above):

I was going to wait and post my thoughts on the ACKS setting guidelines all at once, but I found that it was taking me a while, so I’m going to do it in parts instead so that I can maintain momentum.

ACKS Endgame

The domain rules for Adventurer Conqueror King System are mostly contained in chapter 7: Campaigns. This chapter covers advanced magical research, accumulating divine power, building strongholds, and mercantile ventures. Basically, this chapter is about what high level characters can do. First up are options for high-level mages.

Mages can create many different kinds of minions: constructs, undead, cross-breeds. The general formula is 2000 GP per hit die plus 5000 GP for each additional special ability plus 5000 GP per plus on the magic research throw (and some one-time facility costs). There are some other minor differences between the required components, but the creation template for all minions is approximately the same. The limit here is fundamentally economic, as it seems like there is no other limit to the number of minions that can be created. Individual minion hit die total is restricted based on caster level. As a player, I’ve always loved having minions (that is probably why the necromancer is one of my favorite classes), so I think this is great.

It also helps answer the naturalistic question of where all those damn weird monsters came from. A mage did it. This has been the backstory to plenty of D&D locations in the past as well, but somehow encoding it in the rules like this makes it feel more internally consistent. Trivia regarding cross-breeds: the chaotic alignment is a dominant genetic trait. As in, if you crossbreed a lawful and chaotic monster, the result is chaotic. I wonder if this holds for PCs too? (Take away: be careful who you breed with.)

On to strongholds. In OD&D, everyone built castles, though guards and retainers varied by class. The list of possibilities given in ACKS are highly class dependent, and include, for example, border forts for the ranger-like explorer class, castles for fighters, sanctums for mages, and vaults for dwarves. It’s a nice list and we are treated to the standard info about how much gatehouses, towers, dungeon corridors, and walls cost. Personally, I would probably disassociate many of the strongholds with classes (or at least make some of them open to all classes). Not all thieves want to run a crime syndicate, for example. And if a mage wants to build a castle, become a king, and attract soldiers, why not? What better cover for the dark and arcane rituals that proceed deep beneath the keep? In any case, there is nothing wrong with the guidance given, and it is easy enough to overrule on a case by case basis.

I find the whole issue of demihuman and humanoid civilizations working analogously to human civilizations, but with only slightly different input parameters, highly problematic. Perhaps there is no other way to design the rules in a way to allow demihuman PCs. This was brought into focus for me by this sentence from page 127:

Elven fastnesses are settled by elven peasants.

There are elf farmers? Do elves do everything that humans do, but just take longer and do it in a different language? To me, these elves and dwarves are really more like another nation of humans, but readers of this blog will know that this is more of a longterm personal issue of my own, and so it probably won’t come up for most players of ACKS (who I’m guessing are probably fine with standard fantasy elf nations and dwarf nations). I mention this only because in ACKS these assumptions about the nature of demihumans are baked into the domain rules.

It is even suggested that PC mages build a dungeon and stock it with monsters. These rules are pure win and a triumph of Gygaxian Naturalism. Apparently, many magical research procedures require materials such as 4 basilisk horns. Yuck, right? Way too much like an MMORPG grind. But wait, there’s more. Check this, on page 141:

Many mages devote their later careers to magical research. This vocation demands a constant supply of rare components, generally monster parts, such as the fangs of 20 hellhounds or skulls of 50 ogres. Rather than squander their time hunting beasts for these components, many mages build dungeons within their domain with the aim of luring monsters to lair within. There they can be harvested at the mage’s leisure.

The text goes on to explain how more powerful monsters will displace weaker monsters in the lower levels, creating a natural sorting effect such that monsters residing deeper will be more dangerous. Sound familiar? I could see this turn into an odd role-reversal game, as the referee roles up parties of low-level adventurers to delve the PC’s dungeon. Man, that sounds like fun. In fact, reading further, that’s almost exactly what they suggest (page 142):

Some results on the Wandering Monster table will indicate that NPC men, dwarves, or elves have arrived. These results mean that adventuring parties have come to clear the dungeon! Such encounters are best resolved by having the player whose mage owns the dungeon run a one-off session with the rest of the group playing as the wandering adventurers. The dungeon-owning mage may, of course, intervene personally when his dungeon is invaded.

Thus, it all ends up tying together, almost seamlessly. Endgame PCs are the nemeses of starting PCs. It’s almost too clever. In fact, though this justifies pretty much every classic D&D dungeon delve, it does do away with one of the central old school dungeon design principles, which is that dungeons were originally built for something else and only later populated by monsters. It seems to me like a dungeon actually designed for housing monsters would have dramatically different architectural principles and dungeon dressing. Maybe I’m just being too picky though.

There are other things you can do at the domain level. If you are running a thief, assassin, or elven nightblade, the default stronghold is a hideout and your followers end up being a criminal gang. You can earn passive income from your underlings, as they provide all kinds of shady services (ACKS calls them hijinks). Some examples are thievery, information gathering, and assassination. There are tables provided so you can (mostly) just roll for this rather than roleplaying it out. Once you accumulate a certain number of underlings, it would really be impossible to roleplay it all out anyways. There is also extensive information about penalties and costs for underlings that get caught.

The system for resolving trade looks really complicated. Here are a list of some of the numbers and modifiers you may need to take into account to resolve a trade expedition: market price, base price, demand modifier, monopoly bonus, moorage and stabling fees, market class, market toll, modifiers for economic and political factors, labor fee for loading and unloading, customs duty, extra earnings for taking on passengers, and extra earnings for taking other shipping contracts. Whew! That’s a lot of moving parts. Maybe it’s easier in practice than it looks on paper, but if I had a character that was doing this regularly, I would probably write a program or build a spreadsheet to automate it.

I should mention the tremendous number of prices that ACKS provides. It doesn’t matter to me if these numbers are exactly realistic so much as that they seem to make sense within the context of the other prices in the game. The price of land per acre is given. And many more such things. This is very useful, even if you don’t really care about all of the sums tallying. All these numbers really show the scale of the protagonists in ACKS. A single stronghold securing a portion of wilderness must cost at least 30,000 GP per six mile hex. The land value of 16 such hexes is given at over 1 million GP.

One nice side effect is that hexes can only support so many people, so if you have a healthy and growing domain there will be expansion pressure. You need to send out the legionaries to secure more land. Which in turn requires increased defense investment to maintain the conquered land. Another option is to build a city, which can support a higher density of population.

It looks like this will lead to a nice little sim city minigame. How many peasants do I have per hex? What do I have to spend to maintain the infrastructure? What do I earn in taxes? Has my population grown this month? That is determined by what looks like an exploding random walk to me, but I haven’t investigated the math in detail. I’m not sure if this is for everyone, but it certainly captures the actuarial spirit of AD&D.

Finally, characters earn standard XP from many of these domain activities, such as building strongholds, earning domain income (if above a leve-based threshold), trading (also if above a level-based threshold), and expensive magical research. So you could theoretically sim city your character up a few levels, though of course any decent ref will present continuous challenges.

I would like to close with a quote from Frank Mentzer about high-level characters from the Companion set (Player’s Companion: Book One page 2):

Characters are more independent. When the characters started their careers, they needed each other just to survive. But now a few trolls present nothing more than exercise, rather than deadly danger. Now the characters aren’t as dependent on each other; each can survive and prosper as an individual. The persons with whom a character adventures are now more important as friends, than as as each others’ bodyguards.

I think this is an important point regarding how the game changes from explicitly team-oriented at low levels to more self-reliant by the time characters start building strongholds. I have not read much discussion of this change in ACKS so far. I imagine many referees will by default favor an “Avengers Assemble!” style of play regarding domain level characters. By that I mean that between adventures, PCs will probably separate and go their own ways but then reunite to investigate the mysterious floating citadel (or whatever). Given that so many of the new rules that ACKS provides (over and above classic B/X) are focused on domain level play, it would be nice to see more discussion about adventure design and how it should change to accomodate powerful PCs. I haven’t read chapter 10: Secrets (the referee chapter) fully yet, so maybe there is more guidance there.

My next post on ACKS will focus on the setting creation guidelines.

ACKS First Impressions

Adventurer Conqueror King System is a dialect of B/X D&D with highly elaborated endgame and domain rules. As such, it is easy to lift elements from it into other similar games, even if you don’t want to play it all as written. There is a lot to like here. It would be easy for anyone familiar with basic D&D to jump in and be able to play based on their knowledge of that game. In some ways, it is even closer to Moldvay than Labyrinth Lord. But it does not idealize an old school feel. Would I play this game straight, either as a referee or as a player? Without the proficiencies, absolutely. Also, I realize that this is a silly and subjective thing, but I like that they refer to the referee as a Judge rather than inventing yet another title for the Dungeon Master.

ACKS goes out of its way to provide a modern facade while maintaining a classical essence. It has actually retained many of the most controversial aspects of old school D&D, such as race as class, but the essence is obscured because there are multiple classes for each demihuman race. For example, there are two elf classes available: the spellsword (fighter/mage, basically the traditional B/X elf) and nightblade (thief/mage). These classes are only available to elves, and are also the only classes an elf may choose. This retains the special demihuman flavor provided by race as class while sidestepping the issue of why elves can’t be thieves (or whatever). And all classes have level limits (ranging between 10 and 14). This is how I would play B/X, it just makes the human level limit explicit, and softens the level limit blow by not including any classes with extremely low level limits (like the B/X halfling, which only shows up as a monster). I think this design is masterful.

Another example is that many resolution mechanisms have been replaced with a d20. Elves detect secret doors by casual inspection on 14+ (i.e., 35%). That’s close enough to the d6 roll in B/X to be functionally the same, though it is phrased as a proficiency check. Thieves use d20s for their skills. I prefer d6 checks, but I realize that this is a cosmetic thing. Interestingly, they seem to have been much more consistent about “modernizing” the player-facing rolls than the referee rolls. For example, surprise and monster reaction still use the d6.

There are many other cases of classic game mechanics. Save or die poison. 1 in 8 chance of encountering a dragon on many of the wilderness random encounter tables. Does that sound familiar to anyone else? It is from page 18 of The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures. There are five saving throws and they vary by level (even though there are no death rays).

One more example of this kind of updating, regarding doors in dungeons from page 93:

Some dungeons are so drenched in evil that the doors themselves are antagonistic. Such evil doors automatically swing shut when released unless spiked or wedged open. Evil doors always open easily for monsters, unless the door is spiked shut, held firm, or magically closed.

That is a wonderful way of making the original rules for doors acceptable to a modern audience. Someone familiar with the old rules will nod knowingly, while someone encountering this for the first time might just think it is fun and creepy.

Some notes on spell casting. Mages work like 3E sorcerers; no spell preparation is required. They have spells in both their repertoire (immediately accessible) and their spell books. It costs money to replace spells in the repertoire (though adding new spells to the repertoire as a result of gaining a level does not cost money). Incidentally, spell selection is also reminiscent of OD&D and B/X; the highest-level arcane spells are sixth level and the highest-level divine spells are fifth level. The are provided in nice d12 and d10 lists.

What about the proficiency system? First, I have to warn you. I hate reading lists of skills and feats. And that is what proficiencies in ACKS are: a mixture of feats and skills. The list is quite long. I count 97, but the real list should be longer, because some have sub-proficiencies which must be selected such as Combat Trickery. Some of them provide a minor mechanical bonus. Some of them open up abilities from classes that are not included in the core. For example, there are Sensing Evil, Lay on Hands, and Berserkergang proficiencies. Another category of proficiencies are 3E-style profession skills (such as the Art and Perform proficiencies) which allow adventurers to earn a mundane wage when not adventuring.

Here’s what I like least about the proficiency system: it contains skills like Adventuring and Mapping. Does that mean that a party sans mapping proficiency cannot map? It’s not clear, but I think that is the implication. If not, why have the proficiency at all? Thus, a skill tax. Adventuring is given to all PCs, regardless of class, at first level, but the fact that it contains a clear list of capabilities helps foster the attitude that a PC can only attempt to do things that are spelled out on the character sheet. I don’t think there is any need to systematize cleaning weapons or setting up camp.

There are some good aspects to the proficiency system. Each proficiency is relatively simple and self-contained. The chance of success is not generally modified by ability scores, so the ability to optimize is limited. There are a number of well-written proficiencies that I think would make great class abilities. Example: Sniping, a ranged backstab. Many of the social proficiencies are designed as a modifier to the reaction roll, which is exactly the right way to do social skills (in fact, I think that general idea might deserve a whole post of its own). This is not the worst skill or feat system in the world, but it is a skill and feat system.

There are now two old school games in print that I think may appeal to new or modern players directly: Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Adventurer Conqueror King System. Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry are great, but they require the appreciation of a certain aesthetic. ACKS is the first of the retro-clone or simulacrum games to tackle the possibilities inherent in the third LBB (specifically, the rules for generating wilderness domains). In some ways, the endgame and domain rules are the strongest parts of ACKS. I will discuss them in a follow-up post soon.