Is ACKS (or ACKS II) the system for me?

Hello all,

Warning: long theoretical post. I am looking to talk through some system and world-building ideas to get a feeling for whether ACKS will do (or Already Does) that. I am a longtime gamer, from AD&D through 5E with lots of other games in between. I liked 5E a lot at first, but I have become disenchanted with the overpowered characters, the wild hodgepodge of races, classes, and their powers, and other things. Also I went down the rabbit hole of the BrOSR–Jeffro Johnson’s ideas on 1:1 time, total autonomy, patron play, and the DM acting more as referee of a living world rather than running a planned story. I’d love to participate in or run a game like that but I don’t think I go back to AD&D with all its incoherency. I own ACKS but haven’t played it or run it (but did play in and run an old-school game using OSRIC).

My ideal system would have:

  1. the coherence, elegance, and ease of play of 5E.
  2. a magic system with the feel of ACKS’ eldritch magic, but that is easy to use. I’m not convinced the ACKS system is.
  3. resolution mechanics that strike the right balance between just making a skill roll, and trying to roleplay everything out. I’m frankly not sure what this should be. I see the flaws of handling things by skill check, but running every search, for instance, with a long dialogue of “I try to tip the statute. No? Ok, I try rotating it. I tap on the flagstones,” etc., etc. doesn’t seem workable either (and I often find it boring in play).
  4. classes/character generation that has the right flavor. I think I like race as class, as a way of setting the demi-humans apart and keeping the campaign world centered on humans. But something about how it is handled in ACKS doesn’t seem quite right. (It might simply be the class names–humans get “fighter”, dwarves get “vaultguard”–something is off, to my taste.)
  5. An alignment system that makes sense to me. I think there are core contradictions in the way different systems have handled alignment. As I understand it D&D started out with a linear law vs. chaos system, with an emphasis on either pushing back the boundaries of chaos, or at least venturing into the chaos of the wilderness or underworld to bring back treasure. And with a presumption of a core church analogous to the medieval church (paladins, clerics and their spells). But AD&D shifted to the 9-alignment grid and a polytheistic world. These aren’t really compatible. ACKS uses law vs. chaos, but that has issues too. 1) it isn’t very compatible with quite a bit of fantasy literature–Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser would sneer at the idea of choosing sides in a battle of law vs. chaos. Also, ACKS describes chaos as everything inimical to human flourishing. That is not how it was depicted in Three Hearts and Three Lions. There, chaos wasn’t just evil and destruction. It was an alternate way of being with its own charms, and indeed the hero (and reader) is tempted by it. In the Sinister Stone of Sakkara, care is paid to describing all the stores of food and supplies that the humanoid forces in the temple have amassed. I appreciate the attention to detail. But I don’t believe that large numbers of humanoids could support themselves, and amass such stores, only by raiding. It would take farms, an economic base. But that isn’t compatible with howling chaos and the mythic underworld.

What makes most sense to me–what reconciles these elements–is a system in which most beings in the world and their actions are morally neutral, from a cosmic perspective. But a few things things (black magic like necromancy, blood sacrifice, demons and dealing with them) do have cosmic significance–they are tainted and dark. Like the demonic things Conan runs into sometimes. And some forces–clerics and paladins, and the sources of their power–are devoted to opposing those things. There could also be powers in the world that are of a fey nature, more like chaos as in 3 Hearts–strange and opposed to humanity in some ways, but not blackly evil.

This should all be represented in the mechanics, e.g. by how things like protection from evil work. Ideally there would be the possibility and temptation of using black magic, which offers a path to power but at a risk.

Also, my ideal system would encompass leading armies, battles, and founding and ruling domains, but in a way that doesn’t overwhelm me with rules or bookkeeping. I know that this is core to the idea of ACKS but I am concerned that in practice it would be too much for me (looks like bookkeeping gets down to the level of how many families reside in each hex of a domain and by what small percentage that number goes up and down each month…)

ACKS is the closest I have found to what I want. Does ACKS already do the above? Or will ACKS II be modular and tinkerable enough to run it with, say, an eldritch-feeling magic system that is easy to actually use in play and that has a tainted black-magic system? And to tinker with races and classes until the feel right to me? To eventually run domains and wars without too much effort and complexity?

Thanks to anyone who read this far.

Tom

I can not speak to what you would find “easy to use” with respect to a magic system. I would think you would have to read the rules and determine that for yourself?

The Heroic Fantasy Handbook Eldritch magic system includes a version of White/Gray/Black magic.

Similar to your magic question, what you would find overwhelming in terms of bookkeeping is too subjective for me to answer with any relevance, but the tone of your post seems to me to be looking for something much more narrative in nature when dealing with dominion and war.

Race-as-class in this system is extremely similar to the original D&D system, except the original system made no distinction among demi-humans. For example, all elves were “Elf” class, period. No Rogues, no Clerics, … nothing but Elf’s. You could try that if you prefer it to the distinctions offered in the core system. You can find rules for Class creation in the Player’s Companion.

Alignment sounds like you have a homebrew in mind. I would think you would have to implement your version in whatever game you ultimately decide upon.

Best of luck!

Point by point:

  1. I wouldn’t call it simple in a vacuum, but I find ACKS far simpler and more elegant than 5e (and certainly more accessible than AD&D). 5e relies on a lot of special powers and activated abilities with lots of edge cases, and the combat chassis in particular is quite complicated (split moves, reactions, concentration, free object interactions, etc.) to actually run. ACKS is much faster in play, and the building blocks are simpler. ACKS II is more complicated than ACKS 1e, because it adds more options, but is still considerably simpler than 5e. In terms of resolution speed, I regularly run high level fights with dozens of combatants in half an hour or less. It has more rules, but they’re function-specific, so you don’t need to know e.g. the domain rules or the arbitrage trade system or naval warfare or mass combat until you’re actually doing those things (none of which 5e or similar systems really develop - ACKS has a bigger rulebook because it covers a lot more stuff).
  2. I’ve run two campaigns now with eldritch magic across many levels, and have really enjoyed the way it changes things up. Eldritch magic is not yet updated for II, though it can be used as-is with minor changes. To people unfamiliar with RPGs, I’ve found ceremonial magic more intuitive than spell slots (most fiction is non-Vancian); to those familiar with spell slots, there is a learning curve to get used to ceremonies. It is worth noting that most campaigns don’t (initially) see both, because the eldritch setup makes spellcasting classes very rare relative to ceremonialism. If you have specific concerns I’m happy to speak to them.
  3. ACKS follows a synergistic model of player and character skill, where the player selects actions and the character executes them. In the context of a search, the player would choose to make a search, and where to search, and then dice resolve the result. Same for combat - player chooses to make an attack and selects a target, with dice to resolve the outcome. ACKS uses a proficiency system rather than a skill system, so it’s not the presumption that anyone can try anything, but rather that trained individuals are generally competent in their sphere (more like Traveller). This allows rules to be encapsulated, so a player only need to know how their own skills work rather than needing to know the rules for everything. See here for more of the designer’s thoughts on the matter.
  4. ACKS treats each distinct cultural tradition as having its own set of classes. The human core class names tend generic because they’re inherited from B/X, “Fighter” could perhaps be more accurately rendered as “Legionnaire” or “Soldier”. The legion’s scouts will instead be Explorers, warriors of a nomadic clanhold will be Barbarians, the defenders of a dwarven citadel Vaultguards, and the patrollers who ward an elven fastness Rangers. ACKS 1e has quite a few classes across various books; ACKS II consolidates the best of them (if you want to use 1e classes in II that weren’t updated, I made an educated guess at what they’d look like in II here on my blog). A lot of the default setting flavor then gets loaded into the differences between these classes, and the additional options presented, e.g. how different deities have different divine spellcasting classes so that the goddess of community, charity, and civic virtue has priestesses rather than armored crusaders. If you don’t like some or all of them, there are well developed rules for making your own classes and races instead (which I will note, all of the existing classes actually follow - this isn’t a system the designers tacked on and ignore for their own work, every class that’s ever been published for ACKS follows these principles).
  5. ACKS alignment is chosen for simplicity and clarity, and is ultimately summed up as Alignment as Allegiance. Someone is Lawful who fights on the side of Law, Ammonar, Empire, civilization, and virtue. Someone is Chaotic who fights on the side of Chaos, Iskara, Tyranny, decadence, and vice. In that context, I think it fits quite well with much of the Appendix N, with perhaps some slight changes to the specific characterizations. Conan is initially Neutral, but ultimately has become Lawful by the time of The Phoenix on the Sword. 3H&3L is similar - Chaos has its charming vices, but is ultimately not a real alternative to Law for a good human (though it is of course natural to fae and demons, who are explicitly on the same side). Fafrd and the Grey Mouser are more generally Neutral in the stories I’ve read. John Carter is archetypally Lawful, as is Aragorn; Sauron is Chaotic, not because he is disorderly but because he is a tyrant who opposes the natural order of the Valar.
    On the concern of beastmen farming, it is generally the assumption that beastman clanholds do engage in limited farming and pastoral grazing, supplemented with raiding. Axioms 2 discusses this in more detail if you are interested. The Temple of Sakkara is more of a special case, which can support itself purely by raiding in the same ways that brigands have historically.
    ACKS does generally assume that the great majority of people are Neutral. Those who are powerful will tend more often to be aligned, because they play a role in the cosmic struggle. Likewise, all of the things you list are overtly Chaotic, and under Shaded Magic (part of eldritch magic) would inflict Corruption upon the user. ACKS doesn’t do a lot with fae, and where it does it differs from 3H&3L in making them more Neutral with little role in the dualistic cosmic war and a more local focus.

In terms of not overwhelming you with bookkeeping for domain play and warfare, I would recommend ACKS II as the most streamlined and playtested option, or if you prefer 1e to use Axioms 3 domain rules rather than those in ACKS Core (basically a patch) and Domains at War: Campaigns rather than Battles (Campaigns being the abstract system with a more strategic focus, Battles being a tactical tabletop wargame). You will want a spreadsheet to run a domain, but the ACKS Discord community has good ones made that make it very straightforward. There are rules to get down to the level of bookkeeping you mention, but for my own purposes I use a slightly more abstract setup that just tracks families per domain and only changes that total when events occur that would impact it, and such things are built into the rules - there are very intentionally rules to make the system more or less abstract as desired, while preserving the same general outcomes.

Overall, I’ve been able to update my ongoing 1e eldritch magic campaign to II smoothly, and consider it the best campaign I’ve yet run (though it is not yet finished). I quite like the default race/class system, but if you end up disagreeing with it in places, the Imperial Imprint Judges Journal contains all the rules from which those classes and races can be built with the explicit intent of equipping judges to make their own and overhaul it as desired (along with a similarly robust system for spell creation and custom magic types).

A general principle that ACKS follows is to offer scalable systems that let the participants choose the level of abstraction and granularity they prefer, and to compartmentalize complexity so that you can opt-in as desired or only bring in rules when they become relevant because you’ve started doing something new. I find this gives it a lot of breadth, and think you’d enjoy it if you give it a shot.

Yes, I read the eldritch magic system. I liked the idea of it but I wasn’t so sure about the implementation. I forget the terminology, but casting spells using the speeded-up version–i.e. casting spells in combat–seemed prohibitively difficult. I felt that players would only use the method of preparing spells before combat (fetishes?). The end result seemed like it wouldn’t be much different than Vancian spellcasting, but with a lot more prep and bookkeeping, as each magic user would have to go through the process of preparing fetishes in advance, with all the rolling and tracking that involves. A lot more complexity with little in-game benefit, was my impression.

I felt the same way about the white/grey/black system: good idea, not so sure about the implementation. It’s been awhile since I read it.

As for domains, it isn’t that I want something narrative. I want it to be a game with rules, not something the dm handwaves. But I want rules that are suitable for adults who aren’t going to obsess over them for umpteen hours, the way I might have as a teenager.

  1. That’s encouraging!
  2. I’m confused; is ACKS II available? I thought it has a release date of November 2024. My concerns about ceremonial magic I described in my other reply–seems like it would add a lot of complexity and bookkeeping, in terms of all the advanced prep magic users must do, for little reward in terms of how it plays. Also I was put off by how eldritch magic comes with a whole alternate set of magic-using classes, for game balance (because it is a little less powerful than traditional spellcasting I guess).
  3. From what I can tell, the standard skill/proficiency roll in ACKS is 18+. Anything you try, unless you have a specific class ability or proficiency or something that affects it, your roll is 18+. Regardless of your ability scores, level, or anything else (I guess the DM could impose situational modifiers). The proficiency system seems to be a mix of proficiencies that give a bonus to certain actions, e.g. intimidation; proficiencies that allow you to attempt something others can’t, e.g. loremastery; and proficiencies that confer some special ability that isn’t related to a proficiency roll, e.g., running or lay on hands. This is pretty interesting and seems fun, but I don’t see how it represents “trained individuals are generally competent in their sphere”, nor is it really a general task-resolution system that can handle all sorts of non-combat actions–except in that you generally have an 18+ chance. Compare that to 5E where almost anything you attempt is covered by a skill. Not saying 5E is better necessarily. I agree to some extent with the idea that if a game has a skill system, it swallows up player initiative and imagination. But if I am right that ACKS defaults to “you have an 18+ chance”, that isn’t exactly a sophisticated resolution system.
  4. I am excited about ACKS II consolidating classes and providing clear rules to design and modify classes–sounds really good. Again, is it available? Sorry for the perhaps-dumb question.
  5. We could probably discuss the law and chaos system for a long time. I don’t think the fantasy literature it is drawn from is very consistent. Are the both necessary, a sort of yin-yang? Some versions imply that, for instance by describing the neutral alignment as for those who seek a balance. Whereas no one would believe that Sauron is necessary to the proper balance of the world. Presenting three alignment choices suggests to me that there are three valid positions a PC might take–a question of whether one values freedom or order, perhaps, or whether one is more aligned with eerie fay magic and dark splendor, or with the church and simple virtue, as in Three Hearts. But ACKS presents chaos as pure destruction and entropy, followed among humans only by cultists, madmen, and others who wish to destroy everything good. Conan was explicitly identified with barbarism over civilization and often rode with bandits, brigands, and pirates. But he was revolted by black magic and the taint of evil outsiders. I guess you could call this neutral but to me it doesn’t map very well onto a three-alignment system. Unless maybe almost everything is neutral, with only dark wizards, etc. on one side and the occasional priest of Mitra on the other. Which is sort of my conception–not so much a cosmic struggle in which everyone is called to choose a side, as a mostly morally neutral world that is occasionally intruded into by the unearthly. I don’t know, my ideas on this aren’t settled and maybe need to be explored through play, with others. I suppose they are close enough to ACKS that ACKS would work fine, must maybe with a change in emphasis.

I am encouraged by the idea that ACKS II offers domains and wars and whatever level of detail you want. Sounds great. Thanks for your response.

  1. Excellent!
  2. ACKS II is available to backers in PDF drafts, yes. For an eldritch game, the alternate classes can basically replace the standard classes wholesale, they’re just better calibrated to that style of play. There’s not much prep at low levels, and even by high levels it’s mostly just keeping a list of boxes by each spell in repertoire to record the number of trinkets you have of it.
  3. The 18+ throws are generally for things adventurers are able to do because of their training as such, without it being tied to a specific class. That’s not their sphere, that’s just putting those options on the table - whereas a common peasant who doesn’t have Adventuring proficiency won’t be able to Hear Noise on an 18+, he’ll just miss those faint noises, unless he has other training that enables it, e.g. Alertness proficiency. Likewise, he can’t ride a horse. Adventuring is the catchall “these are all things advneturers should be able to do.”
    Actual areas of specialty would be where you’ve taken a specific proficiency to be good at something. Someone with Military Strategy has an 11+ throw to recall expert commentary on military history, identify standards and sigils (automatic if from his own military), etc., so he’s got a 50/50 shot on anything that comes up. That’s solid. Same for someone with Knowledge (beastmen), or Healing, or most other general proficiencies.
    Class proficiencies such as Loremastery work a little differently from the general proficiencies I describe above. They’re more directly related to your class function, and do tend to scale with level. Loremastery starts out a hard throw because it’s so significant when it succeeds - it saves you 1000gp in identification costs and a week of time spent identifying a magic item, or recalls esoteric lore that you couldn’t possibly know otherwise. Climbing lets you scale sheer walls on a 6+, and also gets better. I can explain more on that as needed.
  4. See above; also, an earlier form of the class creation rules is available in the Player’s Companion.
  5. The Neutrality-as-balance ethos depicted by Moorcock is very much not what ACKS uses, correct. Law is good and right and proper, balance being an aspect of Law. My read of 3H&3L put it very much in that camp, with fae being foes of civilization to be driven back by righteous men. Likewise, Conan was initially Neutral, someone who would profit off civilization but hardly want to destroy it, but by the end is a stout defender of Aquilonia who fights the pawns of Stygia and leads his kingdom with wisdom, benevolence, and justice. It’s not a struggle between Civilization and Wildness, but something closer to Enlightened Law and Destructive Tyranny, those being the sides in the cosmic war.

I was able to get a look at the ACKS II players handbook and I am totally sold. The new spells satisfy my desire for a more flavorful magic system I think, without getting into ceremonial magic. Classes like the warlock satisfy my desire for a system where black magic offers power but has consequences. The proficiency and action-resolution systems for all kinds of tasks seems more robust. I think any quibbles I have with the alignment system are just matter of emphasis and flavor.

I’ve been reading and listening to Archon’s stuff on Arbiter of Worlds and elsewhere and I am very impressed, which gives me confidence that ACKS II will be awesome when I get to see the whole thing. Can’t wait!

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Funny question – what’s your stage of life? 1:1 time is glorious, but it often becomes the enemy of playing at all unless you can reasonably devote 4+ play sessions per week.

Stage of life aside, I don’t want to play 4+ sessions per week. What have you observed about 1:1 time that makes it the enemy of playing at all? People like Jeffro Johnson who advocate 1:1 time and related innovations–very much including real player autonomy like Archon advocates–say that it reduces the workload on the DM, because the DM doesn’t have to script his story in advance. The players drive the story, and soon the emergent events of the campaign world as various actors make moves generate plenty of adventure opportunities.

Related question: One question people including myself have about 1:1 time is about the forced stoppage of PC activity than can occur. E.g., during the weekly session you play a dungeon delve that consumes one day of game time. Then you adjourn until next week. The PCs therefore have to be idle for 6 days, doing no more than downtime activity. Or, if they don’t get back to town, they have to not only be idle but be idle in a dangerous place, like a camp outside the dungeon or in the dungeon itself.

Could this be avoided if the players at the table choose to finish the dungeon delve with half an hour of real time to spare, then use the last half hour of the session to play out at least some of the intervening 6 days? That is, reach their camp outside the dungeon and then say, “ok we rest for 6 days, do we have any random encounters?” That way if anything attacks the camp, that can be played out at the table. 1:1 only applies when no play is happening; it permits fast-forwarding while playing (if the characters take a rest during a delve you don’t have to stop play for 12 hours, you can jump ahead). Jeffro says many of the seeming problems with 1:1 time–like being forced to sit in the dungeon at great risk for 6 days due to meta-game reasons–don’t come up because the players adapt. This is a possible adaptation I haven’t seen mentioned–players deliberately choosing to use up some of the intervening time, stretching out the amount of game time used during the session to reduce the amount of forced downtime.