Note: this is based entirely upon the PDF version of ACKS, released 01/02/2012.
Adventurer Conqueror King System
Authors: Alex Macris, Tavis Allison, Greg Tito
Format: 8.5" x 11", pp270.
Colour cover, black-and-white illos throughout.
Adventurer Conqueror King System (hereafter ACKS) is a Kickstarter funded semi-retro-clone that basically does what WOTC want to do with 5E: namely, nick the best elements from preceding editions of D&D and kludge them into one (hopefully) all-conquering whole. That said; ACKS does borrow more from some versions of D&D than from others.
ACKS is basically the BEC- of BECMI, with mechanics rationalised and extended to suit authorial taste.
- Most of the mechanical chassis - classes, spells, proficiencies, equipment, adventuring mechanics, monsters, magic items, stocking dungeons, encounter tables - will be pretty much home ground to any fan of Classic D&D. Even ACKS' (well-executed) new classes will look more than a little familiar.
- The integrated 'roll over' core mechanic of ACKS owes something to the SRD. Where ACKS differs is in being a close-ended system: you always roll your d20 hoping to exceed the target number. This puts a hard cap on difficulty and keeps bonus inflation within the bounds of sanity. No one "falls off the RNG" in ACKS.
- Magic item creation looks to be straight from 3E, albeit with a BECMI-style success roll required.
There's a lot to like in ACKS, though it does tend to conceal the more subtle system interactions which illustrate its cleverness. I don't want to derail myself by talking about those, go see the games' developer blog for that.
My personal favourite take aways are things that look - at least in isolation - like simple, elegant "I wish I'd thought of that" house rules:
- The formalisation of the 'henchmen as vassal' idea, and accompanying henchmen-of-henchmen trees as the basis for a feudal structure, is an ingenious idea.
- Carousing (blow stacks of cash to no benefit) as an XP bank for your next character.
- Abstract combat you can either keep simple or complicate as much as you like.
- Grapple rules? Sure. One paragraph. And you can boil them down further to: "roll to hit, he saves vs. paralysis or ends up pinned."
- High level magic (L6+) is situational one-shot rituals. No wish-per-day breaking of the setting.
- Created monsters - wanna make constructs, undead, or hideous hybrid monstrosities? Certainly Mr Mad Wizard, here are the rules. Go crazy you cackling maniac you...
- Tapping the faith of the masses and/or sacrificing them on unholy altars for magic makes Cleric happy.
- Hijinks and skullduggery rules for when the Thief gets back to civilisation.
- Build dungeons, then exploit their monster infestations for XP and reagents.
- Rule tribal humanoid domains (poor and backward, but swarming with Orcy cannon fodder).
- Gain XP from your profits as a merchant prince, feudal lord or arcane experimenter, but only over a certain threshold (dependent on character level). You can do much more than just adventure, but adventuring still gives the best XP return on effort invested.
- All magic items require reagents in their creation.
- Formalised rules for creating PCs above level 1, along with equipment, batcaves, and accompanying cadres of vassals and pet monsters.
My ACKS niggles are totally matters of taste. What bugs me will probably make the next gamer priapic with joy.
- The sections on arbitrage trading, generating a setting, determining local trade goods and suchlike are comprehensive and appear to scale well. But they are a bit, well, spreadsheety for my tastes. Less BECMI domain system, more Birthright-style abstraction would have been nice here. But then I consider anything more complex than counting on my fingers just too damn fiddly.
- My old bete noire of Treasure Types ("Five types of coin? GTFO!") rear their ugly head, albeit rationalised somewhat for the 2010s. Type A is least valuable, R most. Statistical average value is given right there on the table. Supplementary gem, jewellery and "replace cash type with equivalent value in trade goods" sub-tables are good. The same treature types are used to generate monster swag and dungeon loot. Believe me, it's high praise when I say that I probably hate this take on Treasure Types the least.
- The suggested magic item reagents are sadly WoW-esque ("bring me a dozen troll hearts") rather than mythic ("bring me the sound of a shadow"). But that's easily amended...
- I'd love to have seen some of the inevitable D&D standby monsters - especially the interchangeable humanoids ("Kobold, Goblin, Morlock, Orc, Hobgoblin, Gnoll, Neanderthal..." *snore*), scaling animals (bears, big cats, crocs, non-giant snakes, rodents, birds of prey, etc.) and niche-encroaching wastes of space (*cough* hippogriff, caecilian) - dropped or rationalised in favour of new Auran Empire beasties.
- I know the writers were limited by page count, but it would have been nice if they'd been able to include a couple of their excellent ACKS blog articles (economics from the ground up, the magic ratio of worldbuilding, etc.) in the book as sidebars. It would have made some of the figures generated by the system a little more transparent to the casual reader. Don't hide the clever, dammit!
Things that tickled me, because I am small of brain and easily pleased.
- I'm not sure why a sheep (80lbs) is considered a form of lodging (p42). I don't know, and I don't want to know.
- Spotted on the ACKS patron list: the name Mike Mearls. Nah. It couldn’t be that Mike Mearls, surely? Must be some other guy. ;)
Is ACKS worth the money? Well, it's no Vornheim in terms of immediate open-and-play utility (what is?), but I still bought it sight unseen on the strength of a few developer articles. The lads at Autarch talked a good fight, and they delivered. The book appears well laid-out, well cross-referenced, the writing is clear and coherent, the artwork thematically unified without being straitjacketed by a corporate 'house style'.
Issues of taste and "I wouldn't have done it like that" aside ACKS is a damn fine distillation and extension of Classic D&D. The writers manage to integrate the rulership end game into the main killing-and-theft game without having the economy go to pot. As anyone who's played 3E knows: that's an achievement in itself.
So, ACKS scales all the way up without breaking, gives us new mechanical toys to play with, and it still looks like D&D. Your move WOTC...