Friday, March 29, 2013

Designer’s Q&A with Alexander Macris


Today, March 29th, is the one year anniversary of my Adventurer Conqueror King System blog!

To celebrate, I asked Adventurer Conqueror King System lead designer Alexander Macris if he would agree to an interview. Not only did he graciously agree to my request, it turns out he has a lot to say! More than I can easily present in a single post. Therefore, I am presenting the interview in multiple posts.

I asked questions covering four subject areas: the Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS), the ACKS Player’s Companion, Domains at War and the Auran Empire Gazetteer. For those of you who may be new to ACKS, the Adventurer Conqueror King System and the ACKS Player’s Companion are existing products published by Autarch and available in PDF and print. Domains at War and the Auran Empire Gazetteer are upcoming products.

First, I present the Adventurer Conqueror King System questions and answers. (At the risk of stating the obvious, I am “CDM” and Alexander Macris is “APM”.)

Adventurer Conqueror King System

CDM: How and why did you choose a “B/X” foundation for the Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS)?

APM: It wasn’t so much that I chose B/X as our foundation as that ACKS just organically grew out of B/X. Back in March 2009, my friend Allen Varney penned an article on The Escapist entitled “Internet Killed the Tabletop Star”. (My day job is publisher of The Escapist). In the article, Allen discussed the “old school movement” and talked about how “unreconstructed grognards” were gathering in places like Knights & Knaves Alehouse, writing games like OSRIC, and penning magazines like Fight On. Reading Allen’s article galvanized in me a desire to play old-school D&D. For me that meant B/X; B/X was the first role-playing game I ever played and the first I ever DMed  (back in 1981-1982). Rummaging through my game room, I found my original boxed set!  So I invited over some friends and we started playing that weekend. I set the B/X campaign in the Auran Empire, which is a setting I’ve been working on since about 2006.

Over the course of the next eighteen months, as the play group grew from four to eight players and advanced from 1st to 14th level, I found myself continuously modifying, expanding, and updating the game until eventually I had what was, more or less, ACKS. I am a huge believer that the best game designs emerge organically and iteratively through extensive real-life play. This is how ACKS was developed.

CDM: The ACKS Fighter Damage Bonus and Cleaving rules are an elegant addition to the game. How did these rules come about?

APM: The Fighter Damage Bonus and the Cleaving rules were my attempt to solve the “Linear Fighter / Quadratic Mage” problem. I had noticed that with every edition of D&D (up until 4th, at least), magic-users had become more and more powerful relative to fighters. This had been particularly painful in a 3.5 campaign I ran in the mid 2000s. I wondered if this disparity had existed in the earliest version of the game - and if not, why not?

One of the things I noticed was that in the early versions of D&D, fighters got multiple attacks even at a relatively low level. In OD&D using Chainmail, fighters could make one attack per hit die. In AD&D, fighters could make one attack per hit die against creatures of 1HD or less. In Dave Arneson’s First Fantasy game, fighters could attack until they failed to kill (the “chop-til-you-drop” rule). In Empires of the Petal Throne high-level fighters gained spillover attacks onto nearby targets. A 4th level fighter in any of those early games might kill 3 or 4 orcs in a round. A fighter in B/X could only kill 1 orc per round…even at 14th level.

I decided that the earlier games were closer to my Platonic ideal, and resolved to implement some sort of boost for fighters. Over a series of about 25 sessions, my playtest group humored me as we tested each of these different variations in turn.

I started with various Gygax-inspired mechanics. The first was to allow fighters one attack per level against creatures of 1HD. This played well when most enemies were 1HD or less, but it created a weird discontinuity when the fighters fought 1+1 or 2HD monsters. 12 orcs was an easy fight, but 12 hobgoblins – virtually identical creatures – was a brutally tough fight. I didn’t like that.

Next I tried something loosely inspired by the mechanics of Empire of the Petal Throne. I gave fighters one attack per level, but said that they had to “spend” the target’s HD in creatures on the attack. So an 8th level fighter got 8 attacks against 1HD foes, 4 attacks against 2HD foes, 2 attacks against 4HD foes, and 1 attack against 8HD or more foes. This proved awkward in actual play when the math wasn’t even. Worse, since a fighter could never get less than 1 attack, it was asymmetrical: For instance, imagine an 8th level fighter with 8 1st level henchmen fighting an 8HD giant and 8 orcs. If the fighter attacks the giant and the henchmen attack the orcs, there are a total of (1 + 8) 9 attacks occurring. Whereas if the fighter attacks the orcs while the henchmen attack the giant, then there are (8+8) 16 attacks occurring. This was not elegant.

Dave Arneson, before he passed away, had made several posts on the OD&D Boards suggesting his “chop-til-you-drop” rule, where fighters got to keep attacking until they failed to kill a target. I decided to test that out and it worked well. When I allowed fighters to move 5’ between strikes, it began to work very well – suddenly a high-level fighter really had the killing power of a Conan or a Musashi. Since hp are continuous, rather than discrete, between HD, there were no weird discontinuities where fighter effectiveness suddenly collapsed.

While this had been going on, I had meanwhile decided to return the game to a simple mechanic wherein any one handed weapon dealt 1d6 damage. Since being able to deal 1d8 damage with a sword was a key advantage that low-level fighters traditionally have had over clerics, giving fighters a +1 damage bonus was a natural solution.

I realized that by increasing the damage bonus for fighters when they leveled, I could create a feedback loop: As fighters gain levels, they deal more damage. Dealing more damage means they kill more often. Killing in turn unlocks an additional chance to deal damage. This feedback loop makes mid- to high-level fighters much more effective in ACKS than in B/X, OD&D, or 3.5. Since ACKS fighters can move after each cleave, they can carve deep into enemy formations….

The cleaving mechanic also creates a very cooperative relationship between bards, clerics, mages, and fighters. For example, consider a 4th level party of adventurers confronting a group of 12 bugbears (hp 15 each). The bard can inspire courage (+1 damage). The cleric can bless (+1 damage). The mage can hit the bugbears with burning hands (average 7 damage, leaving the bugbears with 8 each). Assume the fighter has 15 STR and a +1 sword. He’s dealing on average (3.5 + 1 STR + 1 sword + 2 fighter damage bonus + 1 bless + 1 inspire courage) 8.5 damage. As a result, the average hit will kill a bugbear, letting him cleave and attack again. Suddenly the fighter is a whirling dynamo of destruction, killing up to 5 bugbears per round. In B/X, the fighter would deal only 6.5 damage, not enough to kill, and even if he did kill, he wouldn’t cleave.

CDM: The Assassin, Bard, Bladedancer, Explorer, Dwarven Craftpriest and Elven Nightblade classes are unusual additions to a fantasy roleplaying-game first product. Why did you decide to include these classes?

APM: I have to answer this on a class-by-class basis, because the answer is different for each one.

Assassin: Highly-stealthy damage dealers are a perennial favorite among gamers. They are also well-represented in history and myth, whether it be the Middle Eastern ashshāshīn, the Indian Thugee, or the Japanese Ninja. The only place they don’t fit in very well is in a traditional Medieval European setting, but ACKS does not heavily lean on that environment.

Bard: Every group has one player who wants to be a bard. The inspiring, charismatic hero is a popular archetype – it’s been in every version of D&D since AD&D 1e. I wanted to have a similar class in ACKS. It’s worth noting that our version of the Bard has more in common with Croaker from the Black Company than Alan-a-Dale of Robin Hood. The Magical Music proficiency was inspired by the exploits of Luthien in the Silmarillion.

Bladedancer: The Bladedancer combines love and war, sex and violence; it’s an ancient archetype – the Amazon, the Valkyrie. TV Tropes calls it the Lady of War. My specific implementation was inspired by the real-world mythology of Inanna, Sumerian goddess of love and war (from whom I derived Ianna in the Auran Empire). The first Bladedancer was my wife’s player character, Allyria. Since then it’s been a perennial favorite in my gaming group.

I envision the Bladedancers as being the daughters of poor nobles who cannot afford a dowry. Instead, they send their daughter to the temple of Ianna where they are trained in ritual battle-dancing. The power of their goddess enables these lightly armored warrior-women to face down armored hoplites. Ianna imbues them with lightning speed (swift sword) and deadly blades (striking) and hardens their flesh against steel (invulnerability to evil). When they leave the temple, they wander the world as warrior-pilgrims protecting the helpless.

If I had a do-over, I’d probably remove their Turn Undead ability and replace it with something similar to the Ruinguard’s powers. I’m considering that as a variant rule in the Auran Empire campaign guide.

Explorer: Explorers entered ACKS as a re-skin of the Halfling class from B/X. I hate halflings, you see. The whole point of Frodo carrying the ring in Lord of the Rings is that halflings were *the most unlikely adventurers imaginable.*  Tolkien was trying to tell us that what matters ultimately is the grace of God (which he calls the “eucatastrophe”). But because there were halflings in the Fellowship of the Ring, every author and gamer since has felt like halflings should be included as an adventuring race.

So I replaced halflings with Explorers, who were the same thing mechanically, but without being 3’ tall and fat. Over time, the class evolved into a wilderness scout and pathfinder. Given ACKS’ emphasis on wilderness adventure and exploration, it’s turned out to be a very useful addition to the game and is a popular class for my players.

Dwarven Craftpriest and Elven Nightblade: One of the unique features of ACKS is that we kept racial classes, like B/X had, but then created several racial classes for each race. This allows for some diversity for players who want to be Elves or Dwarves, while giving the demi-humans a lot more flavor than a simplistic race + class combo system permits.

The Dwarven Craftpriest was my vision of what Dwarven clerics would be like. Dwarves are generally understood to be master craftsmen. No one achieves mastery without a near-religious devotion to their craft. It seemed like a neat twist to make it a *genuinely* religious devotion to the craft. It also had a built-in role-play hook, as Craftpriests seek out ancient ruins to recover that-which-was-lost.

The Elven Nightblade was inspired by the Nightblade class in the Morrowind CRPG and by the Mage-Assassin in the Shadowbane MMORPG, with a dash of Oriental Adventure’s Wu-Jen/Ninja. I’ve always personally enjoyed characters that rely on cunning, treachery, and dark magic.

My personal PCs in my co-worker Greg Tito’s campaign are a 5th level bladedancer and a 3rd level Elven nightblade.

CDM: What, if anything, has surprised you about the reception ACKS has received?

APM: Well, I had hardened my heart for bad reviews and bad sales. Everyone knows that fantasy games are heartbreakers, and ACKS faced no little competition in the market. But then when it released, we got very positive reviews. My favorite quote was by The Butcher, on TheRPGSite, who said: “ACKS is probably the closest to my own Platonic ideal of D&D that I'll ever see.”  The Platonic ideal? You *literally* cannot do better than that…. On a more specific level, I’ve been surprised and gratified by how many people have enjoyed ACKS strictly as an adventure/sandbox game, without even worrying about its end game. It had never really occurred to me that folks who weren’t interested in domain-level play would adopt ACKS.

To be continued one week from today.


  1. Thanks for the interview! I appreciated the opportunity to talk about ACKS.

  2. Good interview, Charles, thanks to you and Alexander for this and congratulations on your blog's anniversary.

    I'm working on the setting to get my first ACKS campaign going. Shooting for my first session in a couple weeks.

  3. Looking forward to the next parts!

  4. Great interview so far and +1 for the Croaker reference.

  5. Wow Alex, thanks for the shout-out. It wasn't actually in the review (it was on a thread titled "Favorite Retroclone":, but I meant it all the same!