So I’m contemplating starting up a summer campaign with a set of completely new players who have no familiarity with the system. What I’d like to do is create a short list of ‘ACKS distinctives’, rules that uniquely distinguish the system from a variety of other similar-looking retroclones or modern-day descendents of D&D. I’m not talking here about the developed end-game, or the extensive class design options in the PC. I’m thinking here of basic aspects of gameplay that might look at first like a throw-away paragraph in the core rules, but would be instantly relevant to play – even with a group of completely new players starting at 1st level using classic fighter-mage-cleric-thief characters.
A few things that I think belong on the list:
A fondness for spears and polearms. ACKS makes these useful in a symmetric way, both for charges and being set to receive a charge. This makes the system feel a little more like combat in a Homeric epic, where fighter-types have some incentive to open with a spear, and switch to a sword at close quarters.
A baseline implementation of noise checks that makes stealth possible for all characters. Monsters actually have a decent change of ignoring a lone scout (even a non-thief) if they are distracted or inattentive. And thieves don’t have to fret so much over their terrible starting skills, which are just bonuses to that baseline.
A ‘repertoire’ magic system intermediate between free-casting and strict Vancian memorization.
An emphasis on making henchman available throughout the entire game. Even at 1st level you can hire ‘0-level’ men-at-arms, and even level them up into normal fighters.
Intermediate lethality options. Death isn’t just a binary problem that resolves itself away once someone can cast Raise Dead. It tends to leave residual effects, some of them potentially pretty nasty.
I’m sure there are plenty of other items which I’ve overlooked myself that belong on the list. Any candidates you can suggest?
Cleaving, which allows fighters and fighter-types to cut through swathes of weak creatures. Even at level 1, a fighter can cleave every round, and against goblins and kobolds he is reasonably likely to do so.
Engagement, which allows for ‘tanking’ without any need for complicated mechanics. If you’re in melee with someone, you’re probably not moving.
Combat maneuvers, available to all characters and monsters. The engagement rule, taken in a vacuum, might make people think combat is just ‘stand and hit till someone falls’, but combat maneuvers change that. Especially Overrun, which makes a giant rampaging ogre actually feel like a giant rampaging ogre; being behind the fighter isn’t necessarily safe.
The first and the third are good examples. The second I was going to demur, on the grounds that the text for Defensive Movement looks almost identical to B/X or BECMI. But after looking it up in more detail, it does seem that the original restriction was only on running in combat, not on normal combat movement. So ACKS does lock down combat quite a bit more.
Looking at this section of the rules also reminds me that ACKS makes the “fire a readied missile weapon on a charging opponent’s impulse even when you lose initiative” rule explicit, when it’s only indirectly referenced in B/X. (Moldvay uses it in one of his combat examples, but never actually includes it in the rules!)
Equipment availability / market class is pretty distinctive and makes itself immediately felt at low levels in small markets, because you just can’t buy as much military oil or plate or henchmen (or later, horses and mercenaries) as you might like - it imposes supply-side resource managment constraints, and also leaves you with leftover cash that you can use for…
Reserve XP, also uniquely ACKS, blunts the edge of unrecoverable death that tends to happen at low levels while also providing something to spend all the extra money (that the local market couldn’t absorb productively) on.
The encumbrance system is fairly distinctive in its per-stone granulatiry, which makes tracking it way less painful than using pounds, but nobody ever gets excited about encumbrance
Great list! I would add:
*Damage bonuses for fighters and related classes that scale with level.
*Fighting styles that allow characters to emphasize hitting (two weapons), blocking (weapon and shield), or damage (two-handed weapon).
*Proficiencies to allow minor character customization
I would also add my two favourite aspects - the Mortal Wounds and Tampering With Mortality tables. As a GM they can bring extra flavour to the whole death and dismemberment side of play, and as a player, they give you scars to show off, quirks to role play and reasons to fear combat while loving anyone who chose to take the Healing proficiency!
Proficiencies certainly, but I wouldn’t call them minor. They can create quite a lot of differentiation between two characters who are ostensibly the same in other respects.
I just noticed how this table interacts with nonlethal damage. Doing even a small fraction of nonlethal damage greatly improves the outcome on the Mortal Wounds table.
This is obviously useful for PCs trying to interrogate the last enemy they kill in a group. But it has the secondary benefit of giving monsters lots of incentives to avoid killing PCs, in situations where they have gained an upper hand. ACKS already makes prisoners valuable in a lot of explicit ways (slaves, ransom, human sacrifices, weird magical/necromantic experiments) so there’s a logical reason to have most intelligent enemies try to capture adventurers alive. This is useful to allow the group to play past an apparent TPK and provides an in-game rationale for the monsters to pull punches and allow the survival of valuable captive PCs. (Not just “the GM feels sorry for you and is fudging the dice”.)
Of course you can always handwave this stuff (“the monsters revive you after you apparently died”), but it’s satisfying to see it directly supported by the rules.