The reviewer is writing this review using his own personally bought copy of the product
Adventurer Conqueror King System (or ACKS) came into existence back in 2011. It was right at the height of the OSR's first big boom, where most of the products went from PDF only affairs to offering more traditional dead tree format. While there have been literally well over a hundred different variations of old D&D rules, you would be deceiving yourself to think once you have seen one you have seen them all.
ACKS did not come on to my radar until much later through a Bundle of Holding offer. At the time I was playing 5E and Swords and Wizardry. Swords and Wizardry will always be near and dear to my heart, but I found myself wanting something with a little more teeth. Something that really took the old idea of character progression into something other than just more advanced murder hobo adventures. Sure as a DM I have control over the world my players are in and all the intricacies available therein. But having a mechanics system in place to handle the heavy lifting sure is nice.
I was looking through my DrivethruRPG library and what pops up but this package from Bundle of Holding I purchased a year and a half ago. I began skimming the product and was kind of shocked at what I was seeing. I had assumed (boy never a good thing to do) that it was another B/X clone. Not a bad thing mind you, but not exactly what I was looking for. What I found was something else.
Becoming an Adventurer
First of all, let's discuss or define what a B/X game looks like in comparison to more modern renditions of Dungeons and Dragons. B/X typically only took you to level 14. Levels 1-3 were the basic level of the game chiefly revolving around dungeon crawls. Levels 4-14 were focused on the exploration of wilderness environments, and once characters reached level 9, the idea of ruling a small domain with many servants or followers to assist you. Race and class were one in the same with only humans actually selecting a class type and the others being relegated to racially stereotypical pursuits.
ACKS keeps the same level scheme of 1-14 but changes several other aspects up quite a bit. First of all, ACKS provides many classes in the core book beyond the standard affair. Humans have the options of being Fighters, Mages, Clerics, Thieves, Assasins, Bards, Bladedancers (clerics that are slightly more functional at fighting and mobility at the cost of wearing certain armor types), and Explorers (rangers of a sort more focused on actual outdoor survival without the spell component).
Nonhumans instead of being one singular class are divided up into different aspects of their society. Elves can choose from Elven Nightblades (think sorcerer/assassin) or Elven Spellsword (fighter/mage combo). Dwarves have Dwarven Vault guards (typical iconic dwarf), and Dwarven Craft priest (combine cleric and fighter together without the hefty restrictions of a paladin).
No halflings appear in this rulebook (though do not worry they do appear later in another product) and nonhumans do still get restricted on level gain, though this is less of an issue with ACKS leveling system ending at 14 for human classes.
Optimization in droves
ACKS utilizes a proficiency system. While this is not a new idea, the way it is utilized is both efficient and really changes ACKS from being just another retroclone restating the same tired ideas. Within ACKS, Proficiencies fall somewhere in between feats and skills. Couple this with the use of templates and you can really make a customized version of whatever class you decide on that further individualizes without having to make yet another class.
Proficiencies are unique to certain class types. There are of course shared proficiencies, but by and large, this is more within a template (something I will go into more detail about on the Players Companion review). This makes a sword and board fighter operate differently from say a 2 handed fighter. The Mercenary template for instance: you throw in 2 proficiencies, Combat reflexes and Manual of Arms and a customized equipment package flavored to the more iconic mercenary role and voila your fighter is instead a professional soldier for hire.
Magic by the numbers
Magic in ACKS will be both familiar and unique compared to other OSR systems. I realize that is a fairly vague statement. So in most d20 systems wizards have a pool of spells in their spellbook. ACKS is no different in this. Where the differences come in is how those spells are utilized. Normally arcane spellcasters are restricted to only using those spells they have memorized unless we are talking about 3.X era Sorcerers. The problem with Sorcerers is that not everyone wants a spellcaster that does not have to "pay" in the traditional sense for their power. What this did is set what some looked at as an unfair imbalance to the more traditional mindset of spellcasting based around Vancian rules.
ACKS, however, says any spell in your repertoire can be used provided you have the spell slot left to cast it. This might seem like a minor change but in effect what it does is make the magic-user more flexible. Now the spellcaster can safely go into dungeons knowing that not only do they have offensive magic usable but also all those oft unused utility spells that could potentially make or break an encounter. I was skeptical at first until I saw this in practice. It worked very well and was in no way overpowering. The limitation of so many spells cast per day keeps it railed in while giving the benefit of far more utility.
ACKS has little touches inserted all over the place to individualize itself. The author encourages folks playing spellcasters to add little signatures that are aesthetic in name but really help to flavor their caster individually. The example that is given in the book is of a necromancer character that whenever he casts magic missile the magic manifests as a shard of a bone. It is a simple nonmechanical storytelling the device that still helps to further the idea of not relying on a hard mechanic to define your character.
Fantasy economy done right
One of the surprises and delights of Adventurer Conqueror King System is the extensive study of 4th-8th-century history that the authors have done. A great deal of analysis has gone on to properly represent from a socioeconomic point of view the very real financial and labor challenges living in that era would have produced. Your first introduction to this is the equipment section, in which equipment availability by market size, as well as pricing conventions based upon supply and demand. This is not done in a time-consuming fashion. Everything is lined up in easy to follow tables that very quickly let the Judge scan for the market type based on domain size. In a clear manner, this tells the Judge how to price objects, if they are available, and if not if it is possible to get the product in and how long it will take.
A lot of folks hear the word tables, and that turns them off thinking this is going to be a game where they have to nonstop consult table after table. I am here to tell you, the information is oriented in a fashion in which it's easy to find in a time of need without disrupting gameplay for long periods of time. Later when the rulebook begins discussing domain management and creation, the game offers meticulous detail about acreage, production of resources based on peasant morale, population, and natural sustainability. A desert offers different financial and logistical differences than an overgrown forested region. All of this is presented in a fashion that a Judge can find and use with ease.
This land is my land
It was always the intent of Dungeons and Dragons B/X era gaming to guide players from lowly dungeon delver to wilderness explorer, to notable and important heroic figure and eventually to ruler. While a system to do this has been included in just about every iteration of D&D since B/X days, only in the BECMI rendition is the concept actually given real depth in the core rules. Yes, supplements have been offered in one fashion or another, but a supplement makes it more of an optional thing than an actual feature or focus of the game.
ACKS chooses to instead really dial in this oft-neglected aspect of gaming. Sure your adventurers will dive into pits of despair. But around 3rd to 4th level they spread their wings and begin to focus on exploring the wilderness surrounding them. As tales of their heroics spread, so does their notoriety. The movers and shakers of the land begin to take notice, and with this also comes those who will seek the players out.
However, this is just where the fun begins. In order to create a stronghold or a domain, the players must first clear or "conquer" the surrounding hexes from their chosen build site. This is the only way they can hope to attract not just followers, but peasants and commerce to come to their domain. The costs in labor, time, pedigree of hireling required (engineers for instance) is laid out in digestible bits that neither overwhelm nor undersell the reader.
Once the project is complete and the domain established now the mechanics of actually running a realm come into play. With such an eye for historical accuracy and logical population disbursement (you won't find a town of 50,000 people in a medieval desert setting where it would have been impossible to sustain it) you can easily weight the requirements of maintaining and growing your kingdom.
A lot of products shy away from the idea of letting players construct or build things. Specifically, most of this kind of detail did not become available until the 3.x era of gaming, and even then as an afterthought or option without the true details needed to fully convey this process. ACKS however does not shy from tackling this topic.
Complete rules are given for creating magic items, researching and creating new spells, building magical constructs, and necromantic minions and more. What is more interesting is that it also gives rules on how to infuse this into the domain aspect. A mage might have a few apprentices, which instead of just being fluff actually serve the purpose of advancing the mages personal goals and acquisition of power. This is done through harvesting ingredients, researching spells, writing scrolls or a myriad of other various functions. Your retainers, hirelings, and followers are more than mere torch wielders and trap finders.
This idea that a player can create items worthy of the magic item index is not new, but rarely has it been portrayed in the common sense fashion that it is in ACKS. Once again all of this is presented in an easy to follow fashion that is modular, use it or don't use it at your leisure. If you want the total ACKS experience use it, but if you just want it to be basic, the game runs fine without it.
Summary of my thoughts on ACKS
ACKS is not a retroclone as much as it is a reinforcement of the B/X foundation, then a layered approach of adding complexity to this style of gameplay. All this is presented in a very modular format. Meaning you can easily remove this aspect if you dislike it as a gamemaster without breaking anything. I think that is important to folks who look for flexibility in a system. It can be as complex or as clean a B/X inspired game as you want it to be. The foundation has been refined to perfection so that other aspects of ACKS can sit comfortably atop it.
The core rulebook follows a very predictable pattern in how it presents information. Chapters roll into one another in a common sense placement. You can tell time and understanding of gaming has clearly helped the author to conceive a functional layout. Every chapter progresses on the groundwork of the chapter before it in a clear and concise pattern.
The author has constantly worked towards individualizing the product. Attack Throws or To hit numbers are neither the Thac0 system nor the ascending system as it is used in 3.x products. It falls right in the middle still following an ascending pattern and more common sense approach of simply needing to add the respective armor class to a base roll to figure out the number needed. Unarmored foes start as Armor Class 0, and armor increases positively from there.
The artwork is superb with gorgeous color cover art and amazing interior Black & White illustrations. The author's tone is easy to follow and even subject matter that would have put me to sleep in other games is presented in a fashion to keep the reader interested. Most of this is done by using constant examples to make the idea shown click.