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.

9 thoughts on “ACKS First Impressions

  1. George

    Wow – solid write-up. Sounds like a good systems with a lot to mine from it. I have a friend in my group who might really like this. He loves old school vibe but with some modern mechanics.

  2. Beedo

    Brendan – one thing you missed about the Mage Int bonus: the Mage is still limited to casting 1 spell per day at 1st level, but the bonus spells means he has more choice in his spellbook. The bonus is increased versatility.

    It’s to help even out how most classic magic users all end up looking alike in spell choices.

    Mapping proficiency is not required to map, but it does say a player can recall a map from memory; maybe it’s a patch for lazy and bad mappers. “We don’t feel like mapping, can we just give someone ‘mapping proficiency’?”

  3. Brendan


    You’re right! I totally misunderstood those rules. I’ll need to axe a big chunk of that paragraph.

    Re: Mapping proficiency, it’s just really hard to see how that would work in play. Player: “I have mapping proficiency, so I follow my map back to the entrance.” Referee (after having screwed with players thoroughly with elevator rooms and rotating chambers) “???”

    It seems like if you have players who don’t like mapping, you should just roll whatever Mapping proficiency is into the Adventuring proficiency.

    Did you see the Caving proficiency (page 59)? That seems to have the same problems:

    The character has learned to keep a map in his head of where he is when exploring underground caves, cavern complexes, and rivers. On a proficiency throw of 11+, the character with this proficiency will be able to automatically know the route he has taken to get where he is, if he was conscious at the time.

    1. Brendan

      For the sake of posterity, and so Beedo’s helpful comment remains coherent, here is the text containing the invalid argument that I cut from the paragraph on spell casting:

      The intelligence bonus provides extra spells for each accessible spell level. For example, a mage with a +2 intelligence bonus and the ability to cast up to fourth level spells will have an extra 8 spells per day. These are some interesting house rules and certainly make low-level spell casters more powerful and more versatile. I don’t think the suggested “3d6 in order” ability score generation method will survive contact with these rules. Players will want their mage characters to have 18 intelligence because the power differential between a highly intelligent mage and a less intelligent mage is so great. At first level, this is the difference between being able to cast one spell per day and being able to cast four spells per day. At third level, this is the difference between being able to cast 3 spells per day and being able to cast 9 spells per day.

  4. Anathemata

    I sympathize with your dislike of the proficiencies. I wrote a little about it a while back, and further play has confirmed that the system is quite pleasantly workable despite my design/aesthetic quibbles. The question of skills still haunts me, despite the myriad of solutions I’ve encountered and tried. Although I already play the system, thanks for the review! Thoughtful as always.

  5. Lee Reynoldson

    Damn. Yet another book I now want. I read the page on the ACK implied setting that someone in the blogosphere linked to and that along with the domain game stuff practically sold me. Din’t realise it was so close to B/X which is my favourite.

  6. Brendan

    There is one other pro to the proficiency system that I meant to mention, but forgot about before publishing this post. Deferred proficiency selection is explicitly allowed. In other words, you don’t have to commit to a proficiency until you think it will be useful in play.

    This is something that I have house-ruled in for a long time (I first saw something similar with the LotFP language rules).

  7. Alexander

    Brendan – the intent of the design, there’s not supposed to be a skill tax. Adventuring proficiency covers any basic task that a B/X PC could do. I detested that, e.g., in 2e D&D, the introduction of the Riding proficiency meant your character couldn’t ride without it anymore.

    Mapping proficiency has two aspects (1) mapping complex layouts and (2) mapping from memory. With regard to #1, it’s an in-game justification for the common DM practice of giving map guidance to the players, such as sketching the map layouts on a whiteboard or battlemat.

    As for #2, mapping from memory, it’s use in game is a bit more subtle. Think about it this way: The average D&D player’s map is far better made than an actual map created in a dungeon on parchment with quill and ink by torchlight on the move. #2 is partly an in-game justification for that — it suggests that the PC is actually mapping from memory back at the tavern, or polishing up scanty notes. It also helpful if the PCs are captured by orcs and have lost the physical copy of the map.

    1. Brendan

      I agree strongly with the sentiment on 2E proficiencies. I remember there were several like that. Swimming, riding, fire-building, and fishing are all examples.

      I admit I’m probably overly critical of any kind of skill system, even a rather simple and hard to optimize one like ACKS proficiencies.

      Regarding the mapping proficiency examples you gave specifically, I have a hard time believing that a referee is not going to give map clarifications to a PC who doesn’t have the Mapping proficiency, so I don’t think that’s a good example. Recreating a lost map, or making a copy from memory back at the inn however are excellent examples, and certainly not something I would normally give PCs clarifications for otherwise. So I guess it seems like mapping is really more like a form of eiditic memory? I don’t mind PCs creating relatively accurate maps because moving only 120′ in 10 minutes is really, really slow.

      I hope my conclusion didn’t come off as too negative. I did give a paragraph and several comments worth of pros about the proficiency system also.


      I do think that some tables by proficiency type would have helped (those comma separated lists are rather hard to read). Maybe with some numbers attached, so that people could roll for proficiencies like they can roll for spells.


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