In what might be the first in a series of “I’m dumb” posts, can someone talk me through the way ACKS judges appropriate threat levels?
I’m squinting at the encounter tables provided on page 243, but is there a fast and easy CR-like rating?
Fer instance, I can see that a gang (1d8) of troglodytes is a possible encounter for 2nd level characters, as are a pack (1d6) of ghouls. Presumably it’s because they’re both 2HD and the gang and pack are the basic encounter group for each one.
Where I start falling apart is in the assumed party size. Is the gang of troglodytes intended for 3 PCs? Five? Five PCs plus 6 henchmen?
Then we get into wilderness encounters where troglodytes and ghouls (to continue the example) can be encountered in even larger numbers (up to 10x larger in the case of trogs). How is THAT intended? Is it assumed PCs will have larger armies with them in the wilderness or that they’ll have an easier chance of running away outdoors or that they should be attacked one gang at a time?
“Encounter balance” is less of a thing in ACKS, balanced to the dungeon level rather than the party. In the wilderness, all bets are off, but the “running away” chart makes it clear that a small group of adventurers has a significant likelihood of escaping a large band of monsters.
Beastman is quite correct that "level-appropriate encounters" are less of a thing in ACKS. This is less of a problem than it might be because:
1) The surprise and reaction roll rules mean that many potential combat encounters will call for a lot of discretion from the Judge. For monsters that are too weak to represent a meaningful fight, this gives you a chance to play them as seeking to avoid combat. Vastly superior monsters that win surprise, or get a middle-range reaction, may parlay with the players, using their position of strength to extract a toll or use them as cat's-paws to weaken an enemy; unintelligent monsters may look for a way to swoop in, grab a mule or a straggler, and get out without risking a fight.
2) Combat is quick, so the process of dicing out a fight where the party's lives are not at stake is less boring than in WotC editions. Character creation is quick, so the process of recovering from a TPK is also fast :)
Dungeons are a special case because dungeon level is the original measure of level-appropriateness (beginning with the Dungeon! boardgame, where a key decision is whether to descend for a higher risk but also higher reward.) In making up the random dungeon encounter tables, a goal was to stock dungeons such that clearing a dungeon level would cause the party to advance in XP enough to be ready to descend for the next level. The calculations were based on XP coming from monsters (average encounter size) and treasure (average hoard size) and being split six ways (assumed to be five PCs and two henchmen). Note that the roll for whether randomly encountered monsters come from a higher or lower level serves to enforce the guidelines seen in 3E (and probably derived from the same source), where some percent of encounters will be unusually weak or strong compared to the party's level.
So if you're looking to gauge whether an encounter will be a challenge for the party, the implicit way from the dungeon design is to look at how many XP the encounter would yield and look at that as a percentage of how many XP the party would need to advance to the next level. This is probably more work than you'll want to do on a regular basis!
A better approach is, if the encounter seems like it is going to pose a real threat of TPK, look for ways to increase the players' choices going in. Have the hallway around that dungeon room littered with bones and reeking of troll, or have the wilderness around the troll village abnormally desolate. If they don't wise up and avoid the encounter, give them some chances to try to talk or buy their way out of the situation, or use your leeway in deciding the environment in which the encounter occurrs to provide some escape routes. If the party still wades in over their heads and sinks, that's a learning experience for them; if they emerge victorious it's a chance for you to better estimate their capacity next time!
Let’s call that Plan B…
I suppose that answers the basic question (if nothing else I now have an idea of what the mean party size is intended to be).
It really does enforce the unpredictable danger to the PCs when they go exploring in the wilderness. Even the GM doesn’t know for sure…
Many of the old school modules were intended for 6-10 pcs or even 8-12! But really there is no such thing as ‘expected party size’ in old school games. And stay out of the woods! It’s really dangerous in there!
I at least tried to play Basic and AD&D when I was a teenager, but never trusted my Lethality Meter enough to do run anything but pre-published modules, especially because we could never mount 6-10 players for the suggested party size.
I recall being quite thrilled when 3rd Edition came out and the assumed party size was four.
Now I’m totally digging on ACKS, but now I’m forced to rely on my non-existent Lethality Meter.
you may want to read what the ACKs designer has to say about lethality and the possibility of players getting wiped out:
fletch137, IMO, figuring out your own Lethality Meter through gameplay is one of the perks of old-school style gaming! Experience is the best teacher in this instance.