Using ACKS for a historical game?


Initially the mass combat system caught my attention, and now following subsequent discussion elsewhere, I’m interested in possibly using ACKS the whole of my game, not just the battle-scale stuff.

For a little bit of background, what I’m intending is something set in the Hellenistic era (note this is not “mythic Greece” or even “ancient Greece”, but the time after Alexander the Great), possibly around 300BC when lots was still in flux and every Macedonian aristocrat fancied themselves king of the known world. There’s an explosion of Greek culture amid incessant warfare and intrigue - in other words an era ripe for roleplaying in. If you haven’t already seen it, check out the (free) BRP game Warlords of Alexander which is a great sourcebook even if you don’t use the system.

The impact of this is that there’s no magic, no monsters and no dungeons. I’m not interested in playing an alt-history game of “it’s like the real world, but there’s magic” and it would make a nice change from our usual pace to have a game without those usual tropes. Same goes for monsters, I’d hope the players might be a little more hesistant about wanton slaughter when their opponents are people. The third is my own personal preference, I can’t stand dungeons and don’t want to run them. Besides which, between raiding, trading and sellsword-ing there should be plenty of opportunities to make money.

Obviously what I’m planning is a pretty significant hack of the system, including dropping swathes of content. But I think the base of ACKS is robust enough to survive my ministrations.

Let’s get on to some specifics that I’m curious about…

Classes and XP

Obviously, the Cleric and Mage classes are binned, along with anything else magic-oriented (and the non-human classes). That leaves me with Fighter, Thief, Assassin, Bard and Explorer. In the Homebrew forum, someone’s done an Aristocrat, which seems to perfectly cover the D&D4e Warlord, which I was hoping to cater for.

How easy would it be to come up with an Expert/Scholar class, that covers things like philosophers, tutors, engineers and so on?

Onto a more fundamental question, the second part of this subsection: XP. I don’t do beancounting and I refuse to get dragged into calculating, awarding and tracking the stuff. I like unified XP (ie it costs everyone the same amount to level up) precisely because it allows me to drop XP altogether and simply award levels at sensible-seeming intervals or junctures.

Given the rules for creating your own classes in the Player’s Companion, and the rumoured expertise over here, what would you need to do in order to balance the Thief, mechanically, with the Fighter? Ie bring them up to the same XP progression. Same goes, I guess with anything else built on the Thief frame that assumes faster level progression.

Or alternatively, could I let everyone simply make up their own class, but with the same XP progression as the budget?


Relatively brief one. I’m not a big fan of the old-style five saves; is there an easy way to map them to the three used later on, ie Reflex, Fortitude and Will? If there isn’t I’ll just have to suffer them, but it’s worth seeing if anyone has considered it.


Next one isn’t a major one, just an admin/housekeeping sort of thing. I’d like to use period-appropriate notations of wealth; silver owls and Persian gold darics, significant wealth measured in talents of weight, that sort of thing. How easy would that be to do, and has anyone considered an exchange rate?

A gross simplification would be to just call gold pieces silver pieces and shift everything along a category, but I thought I’d check first.

Levels and rulers

I really like the demographics that have been built into assumptions about level and frequency. They’re a good benchmark for how good a character is. I’ve got a strong inclination, for the purposes of this game to cap level advancement at 9th. Will that cause any problems?

Something that doesn’t quite sit well with me, though, is the automatic assumption that a ruler is high level. The tyrant who hires a group of PCs might be 0th level, but connected and with the political nous to keep themselves in their post. I could easily see the sort of situation arise where a PC is individually able to squash some lord like a bug, but that lord is connected and has bodyguards and armies at their beck and call, who could ruin the PC’s stuff if they tried it.

Am I going to break anything by severing this connection, ie a lord could be any level whatsoever, the captain of their guard might be a higher level than them, members of the assembly would be all over the place from 0th level up and so on?

I’m not saying there aren’t exceptional rulers, because this period is full of them. But there are also puppets and figureheads, politicians who’ve never handled a spear in anger, children being run by their regents and so on. What I’m arguing for here is variety. For every Demetrius Poliorcetes there’s several Amyntas the Milds, non-entities who’ve ended up on the ivory chair with a diadem on their head because the assemblies of soldiers and coteries of powerful men decided to install someone pliable with the right heritage rather than split the kingdom in civil war.

Unarmed Combat

In the period I’m looking at, pankration is an essential part of a warrior’s training. Are there any Profiencies for unarmed combat, so that the warrior who has spent lots of time on the sands of the palaestra is notably better than less-trained people at striking and grappling?

How easily can it be used in armed conflict? I’m thinking particularly of stuff like grappling a close opponent after you’ve been disarmed/broken your spear/lost your sword, or doing things like grabbing enemies shields and attacking them with them (twist to break their arm or slam it up into their jaw).


Another brief one, how would you map period-appropriate armours? I see them vaguely in three categories:
Light - leather or linen corselet.
Medium - light armour with greaves and vambraces; scale corselet, back and breast plate, mail (which is exceptionally rare outside of a few rich Celts).
Heavy - Full hoplite panoply, full-body suit of scale armour.

A brief question on shields, do they work against missile weapons? Reason I’m asking is there’s a Persian arm protection made of lots of iron rings worn over the shield arm. In melee it functions as a shield, but of course it’s useless against missiles.

Print availability

I’m in the UK. The only way I’m getting a print copy is if I can buy it here (shipping is extortinate). So far as I can see, Leisure Games seems to be the only UK company that stocks ACKS. Is there anyone else?

“How easy would it be to come up with an Expert/Scholar class, that covers things like philosophers, tutors, engineers and so on?”
It’s not too hard, I wouldn’t think, but it may be difficult to come up with one that players would want to play. Most of this stuff is covered by proficiencies in any case. It depends on what you want the class to be able to do.

“I like unified XP (ie it costs everyone the same amount to level up) precisely because it allows me to drop XP altogether and simply award levels at sensible-seeming intervals or junctures.”
It probably depends on your players, but if they’re reasonable people, I’d just do this and not worry if everything’s exactly balanced. Without mages, and especially without elves, I’m not sure that there’s enough of a difference in power levels between the classes to worry too much about it if you don’t want to do the math.

Saves: I’m not sure you save enough energy in going to three saves for it to be worth the effort.

Armor: My understanding is that the ACKS armor table is already appropriate for the time period. But I’m no historian, so I could be wrong about this.

One more comment, on the level of rulers: Note that using the rules as written, a first level character ruling a domain is going to be getting scads of experience for it, and so won’t be first level for long – they’ll be dead or they’ll be an appropriate level.

The Scholar/Expert doesn’t have to necessarily be appealing to a player (though I never know with my lot whether someone might actually want to try it), but it would be useful as an NPC class if nothing else. I want them to be primarily a skillmonkey, one with loads of Proficiencies.

Given the Player’s Companion gives you the guts of making a class, surely it’s fairly simple to just alter the Thief, or make a new class to fill that role with the same XP progression?

I won’t be awarding XP for anything, so I’m not seeing any reason to preserve the “ruling gives you XP” rule. Thus we could have 0th level rulers who’ve been there a long time - if it doesn’t make sense for them to be anything else.

I tried to resist, but I’m going to go ahead and be “that guy”. Ahem.

This may not be the droid you’re looking for.

ACKs is a well-oiled machine, and while it’s also pretty durable, at its core its XP-for-treasure, bean-counting, and 14th-level-rulers. All of the politics and maneuvering and such are emergent from the rules, not the other way around.

Maybe I’m completely off base, but it seems like a lot of work for little gain, while simultaneously gutting what makes ACKs special.

Bah. I don’t know. I’m a bad roleplayer anyway, and I don’t see the point in leveling at all if it’s just an arbitrary thing that happens for no real reason, so maybe my opinion isn’t meaningful.

Um, anyway, ACKS does have “Combat Trickery (Maneuver)”, which adds +2 to a certain maneuver (trip, grapple, etc) and penalizes the opponent’s save by -2.

As for saves, if there’s no magic and no dungeons, you’ll hardly ever use them anyway. You might, however, map Petrification & Paralysis to Reflex, and Poison & Death to Fortitude. Without magic, there’d be no call for a Will save, but if you had to have one, I’d go with Staffs & Wands.

Anyway, good luck.

I agree with Ludanto. For the most part, the stuff you’re pulling out is the stuff that ACKS added in. Have you considered just running something like E6 with Domains at War tacked on?

Or, you could abandon your quasi-cinematic, story-gamey, everyone-who-isn’t-a-PC-or-a-villain-is-a-schmuck, I-don’t-do-beancounting-we-level-up-whenever-the-mood-strikes-me style and embrace player agency and actual consequences. I did, and it’s great over here.

I agree with you about saving throws though. I houseruled those.

Ludanto - thanks for the saves-mapping, that’s really helpful. Looks like I’ll have to make up some Proficiencies for pankration, shouldn’t be too hard.

I don’t agree that it’s a lot of work (frankly it’s much less work than trying to bash Saga Edition’s Feats into something sensible), and of course if I didn’t think there was much gain, I wouldn’t even be doing it!

I can certainly see that treasure is pretty essential (feeding into trade, domain management, building armies and so on), can’t see that XP really matters, though. It’s ultimately a pacing mechanic and nothing more.

I might have said this on the RPGnet thread, but I’d add the unarmed combat proficiency from the player’s companion onto other class’s lists besides the Mystic if you want to make pankration a major feature.

(Just as an aside, XP in ACKs isn’t just a pacing mechanic. It’s a score. You can’t just show up and expect to live past a couple of levels. When played as written, you have to earn that XP. Having a 10th level character doesn’t mean you’ve played a lot, it means that you’ve played well.)

Ooh. Forgot about the PC.

Sorry Ludanto, that’s the typical sort of old school thinking about levels I don’t subscribe to at all. I’m intending this game to start at 5th level, I’ve go no time for shepherding a bunch of incompetents through the early levels. Neither I, nor my group have to “earn” anything in our entertainment time. The only yardstick that matters is our enjoyment, and low level D&D is far from fun for me.

Kiero - Great to see you giving ACKS a try! Hellenistic Greece is one of my personal favorite eras of history, and is ripe for ACKS-style gaming. As it happens, I’ve also given some thought as to how you can introduce high level characters into a plausible historical world. So here’s my advice!

You absolutely can have your players use the Player’s Companion to design their own classes.

If you have the Player’s Companion, you should include the Barbarian and the Venturer into your campaign. You’ll need to modify the Venturer so that at higher level he gains bonus proficiencies instead of spells.

You might also consider introducing a version of the Machinist (removing the Dwarven racial powers) that could simulate a character like Archimedes of Syracuse or Hero of Alexandria. Allowing the PCs to field some of the wonders of Hellenistic technology could be justified from the history. Archimedes is attested to have built marvelous weapons such as “the ship shaker” and the “heat ray”, Hero to have built a working steam engine, and of course Demetrius I built a “taker of cities” (125’ siege tower) and 180’ long battering ram. Not to mention the marvelous anthykera mechanism.

The Mystic, with minor tweaking, could be an exotic character class hailing from the mysterious kingdoms beyond Bactria.

In terms of balancing the classes, one thing that’s worth noting is that plate armor is less common in this setting, so the ability of fighters to wear plate is less useful. Therefore fighters are probably only at about 1,850xp/level instead of 2,000xp/level. That means the thief, assassin, and bard need to be increased to about the range of 1,850xp.

Therefore, if you want to put all the classes on the same foot XP-wise, without rebuilding everything from scratch using the PC, the following “hacks” could help:

  1. Thief: Increase thief HD from d4 to d6 and allow thieves to fight with weapon-and-shield.
  2. Assassin: All assassins get Skirmishing as a class power.
  3. Bard: Allow bards to wear medium armor and use shields. All bards begin with Performance (rhetoric) as well as one other Performance proficiency.
    These are not perfect, but certainly very close.

With regard to XP as “book-keeping”, in ACKS at least XP is intended as an incentive. The assumption is that all player activities are driven by a desire to get XP, so that real-world behavior of getting XP drives in-game behavior of accumulating wealth, establishing kingdoms, conquering domains, etc. If you have players who will “do what makes sense” in the context of your setting without this incentive, you can certainly do without it, but I’ve found that in an ACKS-like sandbox the XP is a meaningful incentive.

If you want something more rules-light that allows you to increase the character’s level while still incentivizing them, you might try a staged system like this…

  • To reach 3rd level, you must have accumulated at least 50% of that level’s XP in wealth and possessions
  • To reach 5th level, you must have at least 4 henchmen (or max by CHA)
  • To reach 7th level, you must have established a domain
  • To reach 9th level, you must have established a realm (domain with vassals)
  • To reach 10th level, your realm must be at least county sized
  • To reach 11th level, your realm must be at least
  • To reach 12th level, your realm must be at least principality sized
  • To reach 13th level, your realm must be at least kingdom sized
  • To reach 14th level, your realm must be empire sized

ACKS prices were actually designed to be historically accurate, although because precious metals and various items varied in price in time and place, it’s not perfect for any particular era. That said, it’s really easy to convert ACKS to Hellenistic Greece.

In ancient Greece, these were the main currencies:
8 chalkoi = 1 obolus
6 oboloi = 1 drachma
100 drachmae = 1 mina (or mna)
60 minae = 1 Athenian Talent

1 Athenian talent is about 60lb of silver. In ACKS, there are 100 coins per pound, so 1 Athenian talent is 6000 coins. There are (100 x 60) 6,000 drachma per Athenian talent.

However, during the Hellenistic era the average soldier received 1-2 drachma per day in pay. We can associate this with D@W wages of 6gp (light infantry) to 12gp (heavy infantry) per month. With 1gp=10sp and 1 month = 30 days, that translates to a wage of (60/30) = 2sp/day to (120/30) = 4sp/day.

Therefore, you can convert ACKS to historical prices simply by halving all prices, wages, and loot drops; or by saying there are 200 coins per pound instead of 100 coins per pound while keeping the ACKS numbers the same (so the same weight of silver has equivalent value).

An Unarmed Fighting proficiency is available in Player’s Companion. I’ve excerpted it below for your convenience.

Unarmed Fighting: The character is an expert in striking with fist and feet. When brawling (see ACKS p.109), he may deal lethal damage. He can punch or kick characters in metal armor without himself taking damage.

Combat Trickery (Force Back, Incapacitate, Knock Down, Overrun, and Wrestling) would also be appropriate.

By default, ACKS assumes that every normal man possesses the ability to become 14th level. To have rulers who aren’t high level, change this assumption. Maximum level is a characteristic rated 0 to 14.

When a character is created, roll 1d100 to determine max level. Add the character’s CHA bonus and his father’s maximum level to the die roll.

01-77 1st level
78-91 2nd level
92-97 3rd level
98-99 4th level
100+ Roll again on Heroic Level table (1d100), adding any value above 100 to next roll

01-60 5th level
61-75 6th level
76-83 7th level
84-88 8th level
89-91 9th level
92-93 10th level
94-95 11th level
96-97 12th level
98-99 13th level
100+ 14th level

EXAMPLE: Alexander of Macedon (CHA 18) is born to Philip of Macedon (13th level Fighter). Alexander rolls for his maximum level. He rolls an 94 on 1d100, for a total of (94+3 CHA bonus + 13 father’s level) 110. That means he gets to roll on the Heroic Level table at +10! He rolls 1d100 and gets a 90, +10 = 100. Alexander can achieve 14th level. Everyone who interacts with him at a young age can tell he has great promise of greatness.

The ACKS armors are already correlated with historical armors of antiquity. No modification is necessary. Plate Armor could, in theory, be worn (it would be a full hoplite panoply plus arm armor) but the heaviest armor is usually AC 4 (chain) or AC 5 (hoplite panoply without armor armor, or lamellar armor).

I agree that xp calculation can be a tedious exercise, but it “earning” something doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun. In fact, many get more attached to their character having dragged them from a humble adventurer to a heroic conqueror. XP gives the party a sense that they are increasing in power gradually, through their own accomplishments and efforts, not just because the GM feels that (s)he wants to play with higher level monsters now so is arbitrarily handing you a level. I’m not saying you have to go with an xp system, only pointing out that there are reasons for it to exist.

One difficulty with dropping xp for ACKS is the different leveling speeds of the different classes. If you are looking to make classes with uniform leveling, consider different races as a possible model. Dwarves, for example, have little mechanically that can’t be explained as a different skill set, but add skills and xp cost. Make a dwarf-thief type class to make a class with lots of different skills and proficiencies (maybe your scholar class?)

Look at the Venturer class in PC. It does have a little magic to take out, but it is an interesting mostly-non-magical class. Variety something you will need to boost if you take out half the classes in the game.

I totally understand. I don’t mean to imply that you have to “earn your fun” or anything, just that it’s a score, just like in nearly every other game out there. If you’re just out there tossing the ball around and not keeping score, that’s fun too. I’m just saying that it’s a design consideration that you’ll want to take into account.

Indeed, didn’t mean to come out as harsh as that, I’ve just heard this argument many, many times over the years. :slight_smile:

Alex - thank you for a great game! I never thought I’d be looking at an OSR-type game, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Classes - good thoughts there, lots to work with. As you say, there’s plenty of historical precedent for inventors and the like. I just finished Christan Cameron’s Tyrant: Destroyer of Cities today, which features the siege of Rhodes.

XP - those tweaks to existing classes are really useful. Does anything need to be done about their variant save/Proficiency progression?

With regards XP-as-incentive, my group doesn’t need it. But having progression milestones (have this much wealth, gather this many followers, etc) isn’t a bad idea at all.

Treasure - thanks for that. Rather handily, once the treasuries of Persia had been opened onto the market, for a goodly time the silver:gold exchange rate was conveniently around 10:1. So I have an idea how much the odd bit of Persian gold is worth, when it turns up.

Unarmed combat - those two are probably more than sufficient to turn the pankrationist into an engine of destruction, even without a weapon.

Ruler level - that works. Part of the fun is that rather than always assuming a ruler is going to be high level, the player simply won’t know. Is the guy who seems to be an ineffectual puppet really a fool or just a good actor with a setup that catches out potential enemies?

Armour - I figured as much, there isn’t really much conversion necessary in any of the D&D standard armours. There isn’t much mail around, though, unless someone’s playing a rich Celt.

Oh, and one other thing. The only UK outlet that seems to stock ACKS is Leisure Games, and they seem to be all out. When is the second printing planned?

Thanks for the kind words on the game. I’m glad you are digging it. I haven’t read Christian Cameron’s Tyrant, but it sounds awesome! I was an Ancient History major as an undergraduate, and did my senior seminar on siege weaponry of the ancient world.

XP - I don’t know how to account for the variant saves, really, in the XP progression; given no magic, no giant scorpions, no giant spiders, etc. saves will be less important, so I wouldn’t worry about it. You might consider giving every class the Fighter proficiency progression (the fastest one) - that will enable your players to have more proficiencies with which to differentiate their characters in the absence of magic and magic items.

As far as UK retail, we are working on the second printing right now. We are probably 1-2 weeks from going to print, which means 8-12 weeks from distribution. If you need a hardcopy ASAP, I could ship you one of our 1st printing books from here in the office if you can Paypal us the price + shipping; but with freight charges being what they are these days it’s an expensive option.

Incidentally, I worked this up a while back:

ALEXANDER THE GREAT, 14th level Fighter
Strength 14
Intelligence 18
Wisdom 12
Dexterity 18
Constitution 18
Charisma 18

Alignment: Lawful
AC: 9
HP: 82
Languages: Greek, Macedonian, Persian, Thracian
Class Proficiencies: Combat Reflexes, Command, Endurance, Manual of Arms, Running
General Proficiencies: Adventuring, Diplomacy, Knowledge (Philosophy), Leadership, Military Strategy 3, Riding (Horses)

Equipment: Lance, short sword, shield, lamellar armor, heavy helm

Domains at War Characteristics
Leadership Ability: 8
Strategic Ability: 6
Morale Modifier: 6

Strength: Alexander is notably fit and strong but not overly so.
Intelligence: Alexander’s undeniable brilliance in war and politics certainly place him in the top 0.5% of human intelligence. Whether he was solving the Gordian Knot, capturing the Sogdian Rock, or besieging Tyre, his ingenuity knew no bounds.
Wisdom: Alexander was strong-willed and confident, but also prone to bouts of drinking and emotional excess. I have assigned him a Wisdom which is above average, but not high enough to help him avoid his nemesis.
Dexterity: Alexander frequently accomplished great feats of dexterity. As a child he mastered a powerful warhorse. He famously beat his own bodyguard, Cleitus the Black, in a key initiative roll. He was reputed a very swift runner who might have competed in the Olympiad 200m but refused because the other runners were not kings.
Constitution: Alexander’s endurance is legendary. He survived wound after wounds that would have killed most men. He survived the march through the Gedrosian Desert when all around him men dropped dead of sunstroke and dehydration.
Charisma: One of the few historical figures labeled The Great, he was worshipped as a god in his own lifetime and proclaimed ‘master of the Universe’ by the Egyptians. One doesn’t rate Alexander’s Charisma relative to an 18. One rates Charisma 18 relative to Alexander.

Proficiencies: Combat Reflexes, Command, Diplomacy, Manual of Arms, Leadership, and Military Strategy 3 are all self-evident from his historical accomplishments. Endurance represents his almost super-human stamina on the march. Running reflects his reputed Olympic-level speed. His taming of Bucephalus and lifelong positions as a cavalryman justify Riding (Horses). (He probably merits Animal Training, too, but alas Alexander had no more proficiency slots.) Knowledge (Philosophy) is from his tutoring by Aristotle.

Domains at War Characteristics: These are all at the maximum possible rank. Simply put, you do not want to face Alexander on the battlefield.

[People on the forums mostly think that I rate Alexander too highly, but I say they’re just jealous they didn’t roll 4 18s. :P]

XP - I was wondering about just giving everyone the Fighter progression for Proficiencies, now I’m convinced I should.

Given my inclination towards capping advancement at 9th or maybe 10th level, I’m wondering about giving out a General Proficiency every level, since that does a nice job of rounding people out without making them demigods of battle (well, except mass combat if they go with Military Strategy).

UK retail - I can wait; our group is waiting to reform after a birth-related hiatus, and even then it’s back to historical Mage: the Awakening before I get a slot. Unless the GM is too knackered to run anything.

Alexander - he makes an appearance in the second Tyrant novel, and gets beaten for his troubles (this is against the Scythians). Cameron also wrote one of the many, many historical fiction novels about Alexander’s life.

Ever thought about statting up the equally colourful (if not as brilliant, due to how erratic he was) Demetrius Poliorcetes? I’ve heard of fewer figures from history who could have been described as dying from boredom.

RE: Demetrius Poliorcetes, I'd have to refresh myself on the details of his history, but from what I remember he certainly merited a high INT and CHA, but perhaps a WIS that was not as high as one might like...

One of the bonus goals for Domains at War is a series of historical battles. I wonder if doing the assault on Rhodes should go in there. That would be amazing to play on a tabletop at brigade scale.