Converting The Sinister Stone to 5E: How We Did It

Fans of our other products will know that this adventure was originally written for our old-school Adventurer Conqueror King System. This was the first time Autarch has adapted an ACKS product to 5E. The exercise was interesting enough that I thought I'd share how it got done.

Adapting an adventure module from one game system to another has similarities to translating a text from one language to another. Translators distinguish between "formal" and "dynamic" translation, which is to say "word-for-word" and "overall meaning" methods. Which method is the right method very much depends on the goal of the translator and the nature of the original text. 

In adapting TSSOS, I initially began with a "formal" translation. The ACKS version of TSSOS was designed for 1st to 3rd level characters, and so was the 5E version. Each monster, item, and treasure in the dungeon was replaced with its 5E equivalent. When this was complete, a few major problems became apparent:

1. The relative strengths of PCs, NPCs, and Monsters no longer matched the assumptions of the adventure. For instance, what were 0-level guards in ACKS became 2 HD guards in 5E with more hit points than the adventurers. Gnolls in ACKS are twice as dangerous as orcs, and as such were used as the main antagonists on the second level of the dungeon. Gnolls in 5E are the same challenge rating as orcs (1/2). 

2. The adventure was far too hard. The easiest section of the dungeon - the kobolds - had encounters that rated anywhere from Hard 1st level encounters to Deadly 3rd level encounters. The adjoining orc section was even worse, with encounters starting at Deadly 2nd level and rising to Deadly 4th level. In the absence of ACKS's cleaving mechanic, the large mobs of humanoids in the dungeon are just too tough for low level 5E characters. 

3. The adventure had far too many magic items. There were 25 magic items in TSSOS, including eight magic weapons and two sets of magic armor. In contrast, for a 1st-3rd level adventure, 5E recommends 14 magic items, with no more than two magic weapons and one set of magic armor. 

4. The adventure had far too much treasure. TSSOS was designed to carry a party from 1st level to 4th level. ACKS assumes that 80% of experience comes from treasure, and that reaching 4th level will take around 8,000 XP per character; a party of four characters will need  25,600 GP in treasure. 5E, of course, detaches XP from GP, and instead broadly recommends treasure placement based on challenge rating. For 1st to 4th level, 5E recommends placing 2,632 GP in treasure. The difference in recommended treasure was an order of magnitude! 

Now the discrepancy between treasure was particularly remarkable because 5E and ACKS actually agree on what things cost.  Consider:

  • Quarter of wheat: 4gp (ACKS) v 4.8gp (5E)
  • Pound of saffron: 15gp (ACKS) v 15gp (5E)
  • A Sheep: 2gp (ACKS) v 2gp (5E)
  • A Donkey: 8gp (ACKS) v 8gp (5E)
  • A Sword: 10gp (ACKS) v 15gp (5E)
  • A Longship: 15,000gp (ACKS) v. 10,000gp (5E)
  • A Keep: 75,000gp (ACKS) v. 50,000gp (5E)

That's remarkable consistency across everything from wheat to castles. But treasure allocation varied by 10 fold!

As it turned out, most of the problems above could be solved with one change: Instead of translating TSSOS into 5E as a 1st to 3rd level adventure, I translated it as a 3rd to 5th level adventure. How did that address our four problems?

1. Since 3rd level 5E characters were being treated as the equivalent of 1st level ACKS characters, there would be 2HD unclassed NPCs in 5E occupying the equivalent role of 0-level NPCs in ACKS. And that's exactly how the Monster Manual does it. The bandit and guard NPCs in 5E are presented as 2 HD unclassed NPCs.

2. The challenge ratings for the encounters made sense. The kobold and bandit encounters now ranged from Easy to Hard, the orc encounters from Medium to Deadly, and so on. 

3. The discrepancy in magic items was reduced. The 5E recommendations for 3rd to 5th level characters permitted 18 magic items instead of 14, with better items permitted.

4. The discrepancy in treasure allocation was greatly reduced. 5E's treasure recommendations for a party are 1st level - 376 GP; 2nd level - 376 GP; 3rd level - 752 GP; 4th level - 1128 GP; 5th level - 13,635 GP; total 1st - 5th, 16,267 GP. That is, there's a huge jump in treasure allocation at 5th level. That brought the treasure recommendation much closer to the values that TSSOS was built on! 

From this key insight - 1st to 3rd in ACKS is 3rd to 5th in 5E - the rest of the translation followed swiftly. There were, of course, some more qualitative factors to address. I've already written about how I designed Zakiti and The Sinister Stone itself. The other challenges were minor. For instance, 5E gnolls are very different than ACKS gnolls, and didn't fit into the dungeon as written. Since their challenge rating was wrong for our purposes anyway, it was an easy swap to replace them with bugbears.

The translation of The Sinister Stone of Sakkara into a 5E-compatible adventure has raised a lot of other questions about how I might convert ACKS's domains and warfare systems to 5E, but "that is another story..."

Seriously, you oughtta convert the ACKS domains and warfare systems to 5E. Please? Pretty please?

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Great article, thanks. I’m already running a 5e game with the Acks domain/war rules, so this is all very interesting to me.

Thanks an interesting article.

5th ed seems to have the notion that characters dont really hit what ACKs would call Adventurers, until about 2/3rd level (ACKs feels like that is when you take a class).  In a discussion it was either Mike Mearls or Jeremy Crawford that mentioned levels 1-3 being essentially an apprenticeship stage for the characters.  Though even goblins are typically 2HD in 5th ed.

Likewise I'd expect the treasure aspect has mostly to do with xp. OD&D was always a direct correlation from treature to XP, 3rd-5th ed not so much.  XP needed for levels is much lower as well, 300 in 5th ed to ACKS around 2000 (on average, for the typical character) to reach 2nd level.  This isn't far off if you remove the 80% xp for treasure presumption of ACKs.

A bonus for ACKs too is there are alot of treasure skinks for players to use that treasure, not all that many in 5th ed.