ACKS Lethality

I purchased ACKS this past week and I have already judged an ACKS session. I was also impressed enough on my read-through to become a Player’s Companion Kickstarter. Alex, Tavis, Greg, and all of the other folks involved with the product should be truly proud of their accomplishment.
This post can be seen as a sort of response to Alex’s post in this thread but it’s really an open question that I’m interested in discussing and is based my own desire to find a solution that will allow me to share my enjoyment of this game with my players.
How can a group realize the assumption of reaching 9th-14th level?
Character mortality is shockingly high to the point where one of my players asked tongue-in-cheek how the hobby ever got off the ground. This is anecdotal, but I’m pretty confident that my group has averaged out to a little more than one character death every combat between ACKS and BC D&D sessions. Character ascendency is practically a pipe dream.
I already have my own ideas for weighting the odds a little more in the favor of my players but this is an honest effort to get feedback on how other folks run or play their games. Neither I nor my players are looking for a “We Win” button. However, I do want to find a way reduce that near certainty of character death once initiative is rolled.
Some quick personal gaming background…I started playing 30 years ago with Holmes D&D and moved onto AD&D shortly after that. AD&D is where I spent the majority of my play time but it’s been a while. I have since played 2nd, 3rd, and 4th editions of D&D and a few other games on and off over the years - meaning short term campaigns of maybe a few weeks in length sometimes with years in between. I am almost always the GM. I have a large collection of roleplaying games across a wide range of genres and mechanical family trees. In short, I’m probably an academic gamer with more theoretical knowledge than recent practical experience.
Thanks for your time folks and good gaming!

I am already taking advantage of the following optional rules:

Five character stable (for those players that want to make five characters)
Maximum hit points at first level

This may have been a bit overboard, but we were very interested in keeping the characters around so a story could be made around them. We started first level with max hit points, plus bonus hit points equalling half a hit die and a roll of half a hit die. So a fighter would start with 8HP + Con Mod + 4 + 1d4. This actually made it easier on our DM (Duskreign here on the forum) to design challenging encounters without unintentionally squashing us to goo.

Hello! Great question.
In the original Auran Empire campaign, we used maximum hit points and 5 starting PCs per player, of which there were 5: Marcus (Fighter), Quintus (Mage), Decimus (Cleric), Calvus (Assassasin), Dalwhynnie (Elf), for 5 players. Of these, Marcus and Quintus survived to make it to 14th level. Calvus died and was replaced with Balbus (Cleric), who made it to 14th level. Decimus died and was replaced with Corwin, who was replaced with Cork, who was replaced with Morne, who was replaced by Viktir, who made it to 14th level. You can read my actual play reports here:
After three sessions, roughly 18 hours of play, the party had suffered 18 casualties: Colvus, Decimus, Cork, Massimius, and 14 mercenaries. Session 2 remains the worst session to date, with 2 dead player characters and 4 dead retainers, for a staggering 55% fatality rate. Session 3 represented the first session where the party didn’t lose a player-character, though they did lose 4 mercenaries. Having since run and played in many other ACKs 1st-3rd level trips, these casualty levels seem to be about standard, e.g. brutal.
For 1st level PCs, the keys to survival are (1) hiring as many henchmen and mercenaries as possible, (2) using formations with 2nd rank spearmen and lots of use of bows, oil, etc, (3) timely and effective use of sleep and charm person, and (4) running away a lot.
That said, lethality decreases dramatically once level 2 is reached, and dramatically again once level 3 is reached. It stays constant until about level 7, when Clerics get their 5th level spells, when it becomes close to non-existent except from egregious screw-ups (party wipes). Basically, not every character will make it to 2nd level, and some will not make it to 4th level, but virtually every character who makes it 4th level can make it to 7th level, and virtually every character who makes it to 7th can make it to 14th.
If “Saving Private Ryan” style casualties are not your cup of tea (and it’s not some peoples’) I’d suggest one of the following:

  1. Just start at 2nd, 3rd, or 4th level. There are rules at the end of ACKS for this.
  2. Have the early adventures be milk runs rather than meat grinders. Baby dragons, bandits with a bounty, etc.
  3. Start the PCs as the henchmen of a powerful PC who helps them on the first session, when they get their major XP chunk. (This is the computer RPG way to do it - a tutorial with a mentor!)

The early focus needs to be on hiring retainers to help, and avoiding anything that appears close to a fair fight. Generous use of tactics such as flaming oil, ambushes, trick and traps help. Also, remember that the early level goal is to get treasure, so try to avoid any combat without a clear and direct financial reward attached. Once a couple of characters reach about level 3 they can be a huge boon in shepherding the rest of the group up to power.

I think Brainleet just posted one of the most concise and intelligible descriptions of low level play ever! Totally stealing that as a ‘tip’ for new players.

When I tried to suggest to my players that “you might want to hire some retainers to help you with your first run” they laughed, waved it off and said “but then we’d have to share the treasure, forget it!” I swear it was like a KoDT strip.
Then in their second fight, the party Cleric dropped from a goblin’s spear. He survived but required 2 weeks of bed rest. (They roleplayed around this by sweet-talking a Dryad who let him rest in her tree. He came back in the morning fully rested, but aged 12 years).
Anyway, I’m hoping they’ve learned their lesson, but just in case, I’m going to share this link with them, especially Alex and Brainleet’s advice.

Also pertinent is this posting (very long but interesting reading) highlighting the two (not completely exclusive) approaches to combat: as war (much more in-keeping with the Old School approach) vs. as sport (much more in-keeping with the D&D4e approach):
The important excerpts:
Combat as Sport: the PCs approach the bees and engage them in combat using the terrain to their advantage, using their abilities intelligently and having good teamwork. The fighter chooses the right position to be able to cleave into the bees while staying outside the radius of the wizard’s area effect spell, the cleric keeps the wizard from going down to bee venom and the rogue sneaks up and kills the bee queen. These good tactics lead to the PCs prevailing against the bees and getting the honey. The DM congratulates them on a well-fought fight.
Combat as War: the PCs approach the bees but there’s BEES EVERYWHERE! GIANT BEES! With nasty poison saves! The PCs run for their lives since they don’t stand a chance against the bees in a fair fight. But the bees are too fast! So the party Wizard uses magic to set part of the forest on fire in order to provide enough smoke (bees hate smoke, right?) to cover their escape. Then the PCs regroup and swear bloody vengeance against the damn bees. They think about just burning everything as usual, but decide that that might destroy the value of the honey. So they make a plan: the bulk of the party will hide out in trees at the edge of the bee’s territory and set up piles of oil soaked brush to light if the bees some after them and some buckets of mud. Meanwhile, the party monk will put on a couple layers of clothing, go to the owl bear den and throw rocks at it until it chases him. He’ll then run, owl bear chasing him, back to where the party is waiting where they’ll dump fresh mud on him (thick mud on thick clothes keeps bees off, right?) and the cleric will cast an anti-poison spell on him. As soon as the owl bear engages the bees (bears love honey right?) the monk will run like hell out of the area. Hopefully the owl bear and the bees will kill each other or the owl bear will flee and lead the bees away from their nest, leaving the PCs able to easily mop up any remaining bees, take the honey and get the hell out of there. They declare that nothing could possibly go wrong as the DM grins ghoulishly.
Combat as Sport: valuing the separate roles of the quarterback, linebacker and wide receiver and what plays you can use to win a competitive game.
Combat as War: being too busy laying your end zone with caltrops, dousing the midfield with lamp oil, blackmailing the ref, spiking the other team’s water and bribing key members of the other team to throw the game to worry about all of those damn squiggles on the blackboard.

So plan, play cunning and dirty, know that sometimes you have to run and re-assess and regather your strength, know that not everything is always going to be balanced, hire henchmen, and remember that even in the LotR, the heroes spent a lot of time running away. :wink:

I love this thread more and more.
I ran a pick-up game of ACKs at a local con this weekend using the “Lair of Evil” One Page Dungeon.* The party ran across a chamber filled with webs and a human-shaped bundle on the far side of the room (possibly a villager they were supposed to rescue). Some careful looking with (nonflamable) fire beetle antennae revealed four giant spiders patiently lurking near the ceiling. The players spent 10-15 minutes formulating a (perfect?) plan!
The Dwarf battlerager bellowed at the spiders, luring them to him while the archers and spearmen formed up behind him with the cleric ready to heal or hammer. Meanwhile, the thief used her acrobatics and stealth to slip past the webs and cut open web bundle, rescuing a poisoned gnome.
Once the thief and gnome were clear the other adventurers backed away and lit the webs on fire, burning the wounded spiders to a crisp. Even with all this planning and tactics, the party’s Spellsword still managed to get his legs bitten off. He died of his wounds shortly thereafter, cursing the cleric with his dying breath. “Learn… to… heal…”
I turned to my friend, another old-school player, put my hand on his shoulder and said. “See this is why I love old-style D&D. No healing surges or death immunity. Just guts and cunning.”

That’s awesome!
One of the things I am proudest about ACKS is that when someone dies from getting their legs bitten off, it isn’t just aesthetic description. There’s really a table that said they got their legs bitten off.

Best, last, words, evar!

Glad folks enjoy my summary. We’ve been discussing the CaW v. CaS thread form ENWorld over at RPGGeek and so it has been on the mind.

Thanks for all the great feedback folks. There are definitely some built in system implications to which my players need to adjust and that I need to better facilitate - hirelings, scouting, and falling back to reassess the threat, for example.
That post on Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War was particularly interesting Colin. Truth be told, I suppose a part of me wants the cake and wants to eat it too, which is probably why I like something about every version of D&D. :slight_smile:
We used class templates to get up and running more quickly. One thing we noticed about them was the lack of gold. As we reviewed our session, we realized the characters were not in a position to hire mercenaries. Something to keep in mind if you’re a new group and using the templates. They were certainly very handy to help get us up and running quickly though!
There does seem to be a suggestion of keeping it simple or close to home. The rumors I handed to my players were to sites days away on my campaign map. This exposed them to the perils of random wilderness encounters. Early on, I think I will try to keep them close to home with a medium-sized dungeon less than half-a-day away from town. I am also considering customized encounter tables - generally, the further away from town the players travel, the more dangerous the wilderness becomes.
Are these standard recommendations from those of you with more old-school experience?

Some Sun Tsu seems appropriate:
“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
“If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”
“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.”

On another note, if you lack the monies to pay mercs straight off, you could promise them larger shares of any treasure in lieu, the value being not less than they’d have been paid anyway. Admittedly that goes beyond the rules as written, but it’s something I’d permit players to do to try and convince mercs to hire on if money was tight. Rules are just guidelines and all that jazz.

@Jim - the idea that the first dungeon should be not far from town is definitely right on point. Then set up the wilderness so that the farther one travels from the march or borderlands, the more dangerous it becomes. Low level groups have no chance against many of the encounters (and numbers appearing) on the wilderness encounter tables - just look at the pics in the book of the dragon tearing up the caravan, those halflings getting mauled by the griffin. Caravans are large and well-armed for a reason.
The War vs Sport approach, and heavy use of meat shields, er, mercenaries, is solid advice, too.

Also remember to use the Reaction Rolls. Not every encounter ends up in combat!

There’s some very practical advice along these lines in Chapter 10 (Secrets). Look under “Constructing the Region” and “Constructing the Starting City” for some heuristics about dungeon placement, and getting a campaign started. Don’t be scared of the tables- you can read past them and still get some useful ideas.

When I have the next opportunity, one thing I would like to try is having an overly powerful monster attack a caravan. How many 0th, 1st, and 2nd level characters does it take to take out a griffon or dragon? Hopefully this would demonstrate how teamwork and a plethora of meatshields, mercenaries, &c., can take out a superior foe.
I just had a group of 5 4th level characters have a tough fight with about 10 orcs. They did okay, but having 2-4 archers screened by some fighters put the party in a tough spot.

Figure out the average attack throw of the party. (Adjusted by STR, etc.) Let’s assume it’s 9+.
A griffon has AC 4, so they’re hitting 7 times out of 20. Let’s assume their average damage is 3.5 – matching a d6. Average damage done by character in a round: 3.5*7/20 = 1.225
A griffon has 7HD, so on average 31.5hp. So it takes an average of 25.7 attacks by characters to bring a griffon down.
Assume the characters have average AC 6.
Griffon’s attack throw is 4+: it hits 50% of the time, doing on average (2.5+2.5+9)/3 = 4.667 per hit. Three attacks per round make it an average of 7hp damage per round.
Let’s assume that’s enough to kill one character on average.
So, 24 characters should be more than enough: first 24 attacks may bring the griffon down in the first place, and unless you’re unlucky at most two character should die.
With 12 characters it’s the same, but expect to lose three guys on average:
1st round: griffon kills one, takes 11 attacks
2nd round: griffon kills one, takes 10 attacks (total 21)
3rd round: griffon kills one, takes 9 attacks (total 30, should be dead)
With 6 it starts getting into TPK zone:
1st round: griffon kills one, takes 5 attacks
2nd round: griffon kills one, takes 4 attacks, (9 done)
3rd round: griffon kills one, takes 3 attacks (12 done)
4th round: griffon kills one, takes 2 attacks (14 done)
5th round: griffon kills one, takes 1 attack (13 done)
6th round: griffon kills one, TPK!
However, if the characters had 7-14hp each, it would on average take the griffon 2 rounds to kill one – in which case 6 should be enough, though casualties would be heavy:
1st round: griffon takes 6 attacks
2nd round: griffon kills one, takes 5 attacks, (11 done)
3rd round: griffon takes 5 attacks (16 done)
4th round: griffon kills one, takes 4 attacks (20 done)
5th round: griffon takes 4 attack (24 done)
6th round: griffon kills one, takes 3 attacks (27 done – should be dead now)
…and a bit of bad luck could easily turn this into a TPK.
That said, if the character levels are very variable, the averages might lie. If most of the damage is coming from one or two characters, even taking out either one might be enough to defuse the threat to the poor griffon. Similarly, if there’s a bunch of rabble constantly dealing small amounts of damage the griffon might be able to clear up to 3 of them each round… and then deal at the real threat at its leisure.
Spells also obviously complicate things, but as long as it’s “just damage” it should be relatively easy to factor in.
Hope this helps. :slight_smile: