How ACKS saved my sword and sandal fantasy game

Hello everyone. This is my first post, and I just wanted to thank everyone for their work on ACKS and on all the house rules that have made my life as a DM considerably easier. About two years ago I came up with an idea for a campaign I wanted to play with my normal players. A campaign heavy in theme, but with magic that was more limited than traditional fantasy games. The world is Karethor, and it is a savage realm, something more akin to the worlds seen in the Conan, Red Sonja, and Beastmaster films. Those films so impacted me that I genuinely wanted to capture the world and yes the flavor of sword and sandal.

Warnings: Emotional Triggers

This campaign is a fantasy campaign based on a bronze age setting. As such, fantasy violence, slavery, and gender inequality are all significant parts of the game.

Before ACKS

Originally I attempted to use the Conan d20 rules, but these seemed far too complicated for such a simple world. Correction: the world is not simple, the world is interestingly complex, which is why I wanted the rules to be fairly simple.  Then I looked at Iron Heroes. It captured the theme considerably well, but it totally removed feasible spellcasting, and introduced far too many classes and rules that were too complicated for the campaign. Next came Pathfinder - but that started losing the theme again, and then D&D 5E. I began to realize very sadly that these new rulesets captured high fantasy, high magic campaigns far better than any lower magic/ancient fantasy setting that I would have preferred.  So, dejected, I shelved the project completely and began working on something for 5E. The Dragonlords of Aedenne will have to wait since I discovered ACKS.

The Campaign as it now stands

ACKS seems to be the perfect rule system for this bronze/early classical age campaign: It is a period when much of the planet is wilderness, shining city states and roaming warbands attempt to carve out what they can from the darkness. At least one empire in the past has fallen. And in the west, where the silver cities are uniting under a single banner, a new empire is emerging.  But for the most part, this is a world of savage warriors, strange and relatively rare magics, and a potential death awaiting at every corner. It is a world I have fallen in love with and had gone into some despair when I could find no rule system to faithfully represent its demeanor.

The Common Classes as they now stand

Most of the classes from the ACKS rulebook are allowed, with the exception of demihumans. There are no demihumans on Karethor, with the exception of beastmen. Clerics are somewhat rarer than normal, so to represent that I indicate that Clerics must have trained at one of the cities for considerable years, and must have a Wisdom score of 12. So that leaves magic firmly in the hands of the Spiritspeakers, Wizards, and Sorceresses.

Spiritspeakers are either Shamans or Warlocks (from the Player's Companion), while Wizards are the classic Mage from the rulebook, though much of their magic relies on ceremonies, ancient rites, and rare components, and of course (my favorite) is the Sorceress. And interestingly enough, the Witch (from the Player's Companion) fills the role easily.  And as any readers may have noted, the Sorceress is a class requiring a certain gender. I can explain some about the philosophy behind that. Wizardry is typically only trained to males, but Sorcery requires something of the natural life-giving power within the human female.

Again, this is to fit the ideals of a world in the bronze age/early classical age, and a variety of tropes within that ideal, as well as the ideas of mysterious powers belonging to schools separated by gender. This was a very big part of the western classical age.

It feels right, for this campaign, to do it this way, and it can make things interesting for Sorceresses when they engage in their secret blood feud battles with other covens or schools of Sorceresses.

In my campaign, I do have a male player as a Sorceress. And so far it's going well. We seem to be aware as a whole group that many of the themes of a fantasy early classical age would be fairly different/archaic/old fashioned when compared to the statutes that our modern society lives by.

In any event, I hope to be able to post more here in the future about the campaign as it unfolds.

That's my experience with ACKS as well - it brings about sword & sorcery thoughts and creative juices. D&D 5E is wonderful for (very) high fantasy, but is extremely overpowered, compared to sword & sorcery literature - once you hit levels 5-7. And ACKS gives me many more options than Swords & Wizardry or BFRPG - two other favourites - do.

To demonstrate how effective ACKS has been for developing rules and ideas for works I already had in place for this campaign, but could not complete because of rules that did not fit the playstyle I was searching for, I think I will introduce one of the majestic cities that defines this world, and its ruler, Qatarina, the Sorceress-Queen of Forleras.

I still have not yet adopted rules for regents ruling only a city and not an accompanying domain, but I will try to stay primarily with the campaign rules from the rulebook. And it would make sense that a city state would have a small amount of territory outside of the city proper. For my world, I think I will make it a single 7 hex territory, with the city being one of the hexes itself.

Qatarina is a 10th level Sorceress, and Queen of the City of Forleras. I went ahead and made her as a Conqueror player character, with the exception of her defining elements. Forleras is a city of slavers, where human life is valued fairly little except for the blood sacrifices required by Qatarina for her devotions to the Moon God***.  Because most of the city, which includes about 5000 families, has to maintain slaves as well as pay taxes, I felt it would be appropriate to reduce the city's taxes by 1 to 2 gp per family. But first, her "stronghold" - a massive 170 foot tower in the center of the city (effectively a small tower on a large tower on a keep): The Tower of the Moon, around which is a large arena/basin through which flows the River Arn. At the solstices and equinoxes, a great festival is held where the Moonbeast is summoned to partake of slaves that will be sacrificed to it.  Qatarina is a Dark Sorceress, (Chtonic Tradition) - and a great beauty as well. It is said that the city grew overnight at her behest, by the hundreds of men unable to deny her power and beauty.

The city holds a population of 20,000 citizens and close to 60,000 slaves, but these are mostly incorporated into the families. Some slaves are kept in large camps in the city with very poor living conditions. Qatarina maintains a garrison of 500 heavy infantry and 500 crossbowmen. 

***A Note About Deities***

On Karethor, there are seven primary deities, though they are known by different names in different locales. Also, they can be worshipped in their light or shadow natures.  The Life Goddess, The Death Goddess, The Marble God, The Beast God, The Sun Goddess, The Moon God, and the Elder God. Some cultists also reach out for the mysterious powers beyond this life, powerful demons and the like.

this is all great stuff and i'm so glad ACKs is working out well for your setting! Welcome to the forums!

One of the things I've been interested in finding is some type of city-building system which can give meaningful life to a city and aid in map drawing. Right now, it seems like the city building rules from Paizo's Kingmaker campaign (later published in Ultimate Campaign) works, although 4000 gp per BP is much higher than the costs of buildings in ACKS. I've reduced the value of BP to 2000 gp.

A block of housing (3 BP) thus costs 6000 gp in this system and could contain:

-5 stone townhouses

-20 wood longhouses

-120 clay or wood huts

-240 sod or wattle huts

-20 cottages

-400 pit huts

-42 wood roundhouses.

The Tower of the Moon, Qatarina's fortress at the center of the city costs about 144,000 gp or 72 BP. Just to help me with deciding how much housing to build in the city, I've gone ahead with saying that each special building requires at least half the amount of BP in housing. So 72 BP halved is 36 or 12 blocks of housing. 6 Inns (10 BP each) scattered throughout the city require another 30 BP in housing (10 blocks), and the northern and southern garrisons (28 BP each) - defensible fortresses in their own right require another 28 (9 blocks of housing). A central market, 3 shops, and a stable complete the special buildings, adding another 48+24+10 BP and 41 BP of housing (13 blocks)

5000/44=113 families per housing block (that's a little tight quarters for everyone) so back to the city map.

I decide to add shrines for the remaining 6 recognized deities, even if worship of the Moon God is preferred. (48 BP) and 24 BP in housing (8 blocks)

5000/52 = 96 families per housing block. I decide to go with this number. I know it seems a little high, but most of the low income families live 100+ per block.

Which leads us to economic demographics. Of the 5000 families, I would guess 40% are lower class, 30% are lower middle class, 20% are upper middle class, and 10% are upper class. 2000 families lower class (roughly 20 blocks of housing), 1500 families lower middle class, 1000 families upper middle class, 500 families upper class (I further decide that about 50 families are "nobles")

10 blocks of stone townhouses (or manors as I will probably refer to them) = 50 families

9 blocks of wood longhouses, and 8 blocks of cottages = 340 families

11 blocks of wood roundhouses = 462 families

6 blocks of pit huts = 2400 families

1 block of wood huts = 120 families

7 blocks of wattle huts = 1680 families

Total housing blocks: 52

Housing for: 5052 families.

Welcome Stardust!

It’s awesome that ACKS is working well for you. Thank you for sharing your campaign setting! I do love some 80s fantasy movies. And for no apparent reason, I’m reminded of The Sword and the Sorcerer … Maybe we should start an 80s fantasy movies thread in the Inspirations forum.

I’m looking forward to learning more about your campaign setting.

I think there's quite a few 80's movies listed already on an Inspiration thread, at least as "good examples" - but for those times when I am in the mood for a "mediocre example" (but at least its an example) of this type of world, I do like 2010's Tales of an Ancient Empire.

I went ahead and calculated supply and demand for the city of Forleras.

Apparently such a large number of slaves are needed for the salt mines, one of Forleras's main exports. This, almost surprisingly, makes sense. It would be a market requiring massive amounts of labor with poor to disastrous working conditions. Most of the city's industry is engaged in the production of salt, beer and ale, tools, armor and weapons, and dyes and pigments. The production of dyes and pigments would also require large amounts of labor with poor to disastrous working conditions, so again something that might require slave labor. As for the metal workers of the city, while there are quite a few production centers, they are silent, more often than not, awaiting the raw materials to craft tools, weapons, and armor, namely in the form of the common metals of iron, tin and copper.  Products in high demand include grains and produce, tea and coffee, and common metals. Silver and even gold flows easily through the city, however, and Qatarina has provided high bounties for the pirates and slavetraders who respond to her commands for the materials her city lacks.

More About Sorceresses (and Gender)

As I mentioned earlier, the Sorceress class and the Wizard class are the only classes reserved for a specific gender. The reasons for that are varied, and there may be rare exceptions, but thematically it makes sense. Again, this is a presentation of a bronze age society, something on the verge of becoming western classical, and the division of labor is as strong and thematic as it is because of the strong perceptions and themes associated with gender. The divine feminine for instance has major themes associated with it that the Sorceresses also are attributed with. We need only look at the deities as they are currently understood to see the difference between the divine feminine and the divine masculine. Goddesses of Life, Death, and the Sun. Gods of Marble, Beast, and Moon. It becomes apparent that the feminine is strongly associated with natural life giving processes, but also with death and undeath, as well as with a force of power that turns the undead. It is an organic flow of power, something that is purely feminine at its core, instinctual and visceral - deep within the blood.  The divine masculine on the other hand is more associated with the imposition of order, mental reflection, a degeneration into bestial violence, perhaps, much like the tides controlled by the moon. The tide between chaos and order instead of life and death. Wizards are trained in this venue: the imposition of order over chaos through meditations, chants, and mantras, through rituals and rites, and through the focusing of one's will through the limited magic that is available in this world.

This is not to say that this is a politically ideal system, or a system enlightened by any modern understanding of gender, but I believe it represents a fairly accurate archaic, "bronze age" belief about gender that fits the campaign strongly. In a way, it fits strongly with many of the short stories and novels by Ursula K. Leguin that I have read, and reminds me of the Earthsea chronicles and the practices of that world.

Sorceresses may be able to read wizard's spell books, but they can rarely understand the spells of a wizard unless they have a full intuitive grasp of the realities of the spell. They use their magic intuitively, as a natural response to the natural world that flows around them... This is antithetical to a Wizard who instead of responding to the world that flows around him, will instead seek to impose his will on the world around him.  In some ways, this might make it seem like a Sorceress is undervalued in comparison to a Wizard, but there are some special rules that apply to Sorceresses that help to balance their roles.

(Un)holy Symbols

The sorceress is capable of wielding a crystal sphere as a holy symbol (a symbol of life, genesis, and in a way resembling the egg, which has often been associated with the divine feminine) or a human skull as an unholy symbol.

The Wand

A sorceress is also capable of wielding a powerful wand, a ranged weapon that can fire bolts of magic inflicting 1d4 points of damage. It is a sorceress's final task in her training to craft a wand of her own making. These devices are not charged with spells, and only allow the sorceress an opportunity to channel her magic into the arcane bolts mentioned above. If her wand is ever broken, she must wait until she advances in level before acquiring a new one.

I just received a few notebooks to help flesh out my campaign, now that I have some idea where its going: isometric, 5 mm. graph paper, and hex paper. My first isometric drawing was of course the Tower of the Moon. (the Tower proper, not the dungeon underneath - which will be graphed out today after work.) A truly gothic piece of architecture, isometric paper helps to put it into 3d more than my previous drawings did, and as a result the design changed a little from what I originally thought it would look like. Throne room, banquet hall (with fire pits for roasting meat), bedrooms, baths, and storage, as well as a lounging area where the sorceress-queen Qatarina can listen to her favorite music and poetry, then up onto a dangerous balcony, with large piercing daggers of metal serving as crenellations, her magical and religious library and workshop, an alchemical laboratory and the infamous Moon Garden, and then up once again to the ritual chamber, open to the sky above. All in all, an effective living and working space fit for an imposing queen.

Of course, what I am really waiting for is my hardback campaign workbook. Now that the world is alive again, I definitely want to flesh it out in detail.

Very cool. if you get a chance to scan some of this stuff, be sure to share it!

Well, my scanner/printer is out of commission at the moment, but here is a map of the City of Forleras from the free trial version of Inkarnate. (Google Drive)

Here is a colorless hex map of the entire planet. (Google Drive)

very cool. i've heard good things about inkarnate and that's a pretty impressive map you've drawn with it.

Dungeon Design

I have to admit, I am not the best at designing Dungeons, but I believe I've come up with something interesting for the dungeon beneath the Tower of the Moon in Forleras.

I used the cards from Darklight: Memento Mori (which is a game very similar to (and possibly the spiritual successor of) Warhammer Quest) to help flesh out the dungeon and build a narrative for the way Qatarina may have built the dungeon and "invited" monsters from the nearby vicinity to claim it as part of their territory. When dealing with intelligent monsters who wish to make a dungeon a lair, I imagine that some level of politics is needed, and Qatarina is nothing if not imposing and charismatic. As a Dark Sorceress she can manipulate others easily, especially those who might be attracted to her.

The first level of the dungeon is inhabited primarily by Rhodin, a humanoid creature with the stats of the hobgoblin, but stronger in appearance to a human sized minotaur with ram's horns. The group includes a relatively powerful shaman who has the special task of keeping the treasures protected. Qatarina keeps a sizable amount of personal funds in the dungeon, where it is protected from the bureacracy and corruption of the political court (primarily her own Moonguard). A Temple to the Moon God, a Dweller's Chamber, an Arcane Chamber where a lesser demon is bound, a combat Arena, and a large natural cavern with a magma chasm connected by a series of natural tunnels to the Rhodin lair north of the city in the depths of the Arnwald. These same tunnels also connect to the lower level of the dungeon, but through secret passages only known to the shaman.

A secret door beneath the altar of the Moon God leads down to the second level of the dungeon, directly into a Tomb, where a number of undead await unwary trespassers. Also on this level can be found the Moonbeast's Sanctuary, a Hall of Shadows, a Torture Chamber, a Pit of Sacrifice, and a sealed door the leads to more natural caverns that eventually make their way back to the Rhodin lair. Interestingly the Rhodin lair includes a storage cellar that Qatarina had built for them, as well as a room for the Rhodin's primary deities - idols to both the Moon God and the Beast God are featured here.

Treasures of Interest: The rhodin horns have some value as beast parts. The shaman is wearing a necklace of ivory (800 gp), a silver chalice with turquoise accents (1000 gp) is a central device of the Temple of the Moon God, and the chalice itself is filled with 200 silver pieces, the Arcane Chamber has a large opal embedded in the ceiling of the chamber, in direct moonlight the room is filled with a dull rainbow glow (1000 gp). The tomb contains the remains of one of Qatarina's previous foes: a wizard intent on reclaiming Forleras to the forces of order. He was buried with all his regalia, including a wand of magic missiles, potion of growth, potion of polymorph, scroll of ward against elementals, a robe of garishly colored fabric, an alabaster jewelry set with a large alexandrite, a brass jewelry set with a large tigereye.

Back to Campaign Design

Fatgoblingames The Gamemaster's Worldbuilding Journal finally arrived, in all its hardback glory. 1050 pages waiting for the world of Karethor to fill them. And fill them it will.  The book is divided into 12 sections, with 10 of those sections representing continents or "campaign areas". (I believe there is a more expensive version made with thicker paper that is only divided into 9 sections.)

I am having a tremendous amount of fun building this world to my heart's content within these pages, as each "continent" is divided into 11 further areas, and room for mapping out some cities and smaller settlements as well.

The Silver Cities (Areglanthian Empire)

The Ravenlands

The Blessed Isles

The largest of the Blessed Isles is Lemlas, where Forleras is one of its southern capitals.

The Mountains of Madness

The Lands of Einlalon

The Maelstrom Coast

The Rheno Vale

The Wastes of Maila

The Wyvernlands

The Ashlands (Mountains of Fire) 

I decided to start with the Silver Cities, the rising empire that I mentioned earlier. I won't go a lot into the history of the region (primarily as that is still being developed), but it is sufficient to say that this is probably the most population-dense continental area on Karethor, and represents a large political power with far reaching economic and political power. We could even say that one of the planet's common tongues was born in this region: Areglasian. The Island Capital of Areglas is a naval power in the world, and the primary driving force behind the rise of the Areglanthian Empire. (represented by a silver eagle with golden wings on a red or purple field).

The campaign areas of the Areglanthian Empire include the following:

The Howling Desert

Corwe Forest

Desolation of Nini

Desolation of Amur

The Ghostlight Woods

and The Jira Waste

At least those are the regions that are visible in the world map that I posted above. But I still have some regions left in my campaign book. Hmmm..... So looking back over the map I try to find regions which are solidly in this area's domain of influence.

The Crindy Coast

Islands of the Silver Sea

Valley of Rogues

Vale of Mists

Southern Deilo Forest

I didn't include them in alphabetical order or anything. This is how they are written in the book, so its what I will stay with for now. I'm sure at some point, it will be rescribed once I have a suitable hardback journal.

So now to make a campaign map of one of these regions: I decided to go with the Howling Desert since (oddly enough) I had written it in first.

I decided to use Paizo's Ultimate Campaign book again, and this time used the exploration charts to come up with something alarmingly good (in my humble opinion).

Steep cliffs and rocky crags litter this dry region, making it inhospitable. The wind moving through this terrain howls and moans loudly. Ruins of an ancient kingdom can be found scattered around the cliffs but the area is plagued by bandits assaulting the caravans of Cnabryeg. The Oasis of Daggers (IV) is a small settlement where bandits meet to trade illgotten goods. To the far east can be found the Deadwood, the skeletal remnants of what was once an extension of Corwe Forest. To the west can be found thick tar pits, including the Burning Murkand in the far north a maze of rocky cliffs guards the way to a small river canyon - only the bandits know the secret pass to the Silent Canyon. Large and imposing on the northeastern horizon, the Screaming Mountain is constantly visible over the cliffs and crags.

Through the magic of dice and little dashes of imagination thrown in, I have a reasonable geographic area mapped out that actually makes sense in the context and theme that I was hoping for!  The area contains at least three bandit hideouts, a lair of some creature yet to be discovered, a tomb and several ruins from an ancient time, as well as a few mysteries and places of note, such as the Bloodroot Forest. This forest is very much out of place in the Howling Desert, as it appears to be a deciduous wooded area only lightly dusted by the dunes that surround it, its leaves a bright red foliage as might be seen in the rolling hills far to the south on any Autumn day. Closer inspection might reveal something more sinister about the place, though, and why the locals have given it such an ominous-sounding name.

I'm not familiar with the supplement you mentioned above. What is it? 

I believe it's just a journal that is laid out in a way meant to be condusive to fleshing out a world:

Yes, that's it.... But it is a 1000 page journal... :)

As I complete another regional map for the Agleranthian Empire, the Jira Waste, I am struck by how many ancient ruins populate much of this land and the lands of other kingdoms as well. I am beginning to have the sneaking suspicion that the land is not as virgin as I once believed it to be. But I will still describe it as such to the players so that they can discover for themselves what I am about to tell you all. Much of this world, even if it is locked in some chaotic magical effect that prevents it from fully developing as a planet, was once covered by magically sustained empires and kingdoms that fell centuries ago. Some not so long ago as others. There is still lore the can be found from time to time in ancient libraries that describes the kingdoms that came before the great wars and devastations that struck them.

But why is this happening? Why do empires fall and rise so rapidly on Karethor? What force drives the political machine? These questions and others plagued me quite considerably for a time, but I've come up with a solution that I think will work very well. Each of the campaign areas of the planet has its own ambitious individuals, intent upon establishing the greatest empire that has graced the face of Karethor. But perhaps this desire is not entirely original and has manifested before (in times immemorial for the campaign).

We know from looking at Qatarina, Sorceress-Queen of Forleras, that she has in her possession a unique and powerful artifact, the Moonstone Crown. What if this was not the only device with similar powers? And what if these devices had a deep intelligence of their own that slowly awakened and "took over" the personality of the character that wore them? What if these devices have plots, plans, and vendettas of their own that span centuries, if not millennia?

And so were born other crowns and wondrous jewelry: The Crown of Glory, The Raven Crown, The Jeweled Diadem, The Stormcrown, Crown of Daggers, The Crown of Madness, Wyvern's Crown, Maila's Veil, The Crown of Flame. And some lesser items of similar story and venue, of which the only one I currently know anything about is the Eye of the Eyeless (a diamond of significant size and beauty that has quite a few magical powers, not the least of which is the ability to call and control earth elementals). 

I know this is skirting high magic fantasy, but as a story/rpg element for this world, I don't mind the occasional burst of high magic, particularly if there is some danger involved in using or abusing it. 

[quote="Stardust"] We know from looking at Qatarina, Sorceress-Queen of Forleras, that she has in her possession a unique and powerful artifact, the Moonstone Crown. What if this was not the only device with similar powers? And what if these devices had a deep intelligence of their own that slowly awakened and "took over" the personality of the character that wore them? What if these devices have plots, plans, and vendettas of their own that span centuries, if not millennia?

And so were born other crowns and wondrous jewelry: The Crown of Glory, The Raven Crown, The Jeweled Diadem, The Stormcrown, Crown of Daggers, The Crown of Madness, Wyvern's Crown, Maila's Veil, The Crown of Flame. And some lesser items of similar story and venue, of which the only one I currently know anything about is the Eye of the Eyeless (a diamond of significant size and beauty that has quite a few magical powers, not the least of which is the ability to call and control earth elementals). [/quote]

It sounds to me as if the powerful mages of an ancient civilisation made a practice of casting Magic Jar.