Friday, April 5, 2013

Designer’s Q&A with Alexander Macris (continued)

Continued from Designer’s Q&A with Alexander Macris.

ACKS Player’s Companion

CDM: The ACKS Player’s Companion provides eight pre-generated templates “ready for adventure” for each character class in the core rules and the Companion. How did templates develop as an important feature of ACKS?

APM: There were a few factors at work.

First, fast character generation is an important part of old-school play. Characters die and need to be replaced. Random NPC parties show up in dungeons. Henchmen get recruited. I think part of the reason henchmen disappeared from later iterations of D&D is that it became such a pain to roll them up! ACKS has a lot of equipment options and a healthy chunk of proficiencies available. I didn’t want the expanded set of options to slow down character generation.

Second, Tavis Allison pointed out that since players roll 3d6 to determine their character’s starting gold, “Wealth” was effectively a 7th ability score. He had the idea that you could use the Wealth ability score to guide whether your character was starting as an outlaw or a noble, a pariah or a princess.

The templates combined fast character generation with a wealth result in a flavorful way. When you use the template system, you roll 3d6 on the table for your class. The templates are organized such that the lower results represent lower positions for the class on the socioeconomic rung, while the higher rolls represent higher positions. This isn’t obvious if you don’t compare the results across the templates. But here’s an example showing the bottom, middle, and upper rung for three classes, which makes it clear:

3d6 Roll
Elven Spellsword
Hedge Wizard
Magic Scholar
Winged Knight
Court Magist

Randomness is also a great way to introduce flavor and setting material into the game without forcing the player or Judge to read a lot of narrative. I tried to build each template so that it implied a backstory.

For example, the Dwarven Fury “Foe Eater” template has Goblin Slaying and Craft (cooking) and comes equipped with 6 weeks goblin jerky. You know just how this character is going to respond to an encounter with beastmen. The Bard “Charlatan” template has Prestidigitation, Alchemy, Performance (oration), and comes equipped with a mage’s cassock, a blank spellbook, and 4 pints of wine in potion vials. It’s obvious how this Bard behaves in a tavern. These templates tell a story that makes it easy to start role-playing.

CDM: The ACKS Player’s Companion includes a method for creating custom classes, the same method used to create the classes in the core rules and the Companion. This is a rare addition to a published fantasy roleplaying-game. How did you decide to develop and publish a method for creating custom classes?

APM: Way back in Dragon issue 109 there was an article called “Customized Classes” that I had used as a teenager to make my own classes. D&D 2nd Edition had a similar system. Later I stumbled on the elegant mechanics that had been developed on for developing custom classes, and those are the primary ancestor of the system that appears in Player’s Companion. In a sense the custom class creation system was meant to be the real “meat” of the supplement. The classes themselves are just instantiations of the system.

Domains at War

CDM: Domains at War is Autarch’s next scheduled ACKS product, but a free “starter” version is already available. What should ACKS players and Judges know about this starter version of Domains at War?

APM: First off, it’s a thank-you to all of our backers who supported us on the original Adventurer Conqueror King System Kickstarter. We promised it as a bonus goal! I’m sorry it took so long to publish, but I wanted it to be great.

Second, although it’s the free starter set, it’s still a complete set of rules. It covers mustering troops, going on campaign, handling supply, and handling pitched battles and sieges. It’s at least as detailed as the War Machine rules in the Rules Cyclopedia, and it’s better integrated with the underlying mechanics and activities of the player characters. For Judges with low-level characters who aren’t engaged in domain play; or for Judges who are not overly interested in mass combat; or for Judges who just want a baseline to improvise around, it’s probably all they need.

But if you want the same level of detail for your strategic and grand tactical gaming as you want for your dungeon crawling, you will want the Domains at War Complete Set.

CDM: What should ACKS players and Judges know about the upcoming full version of Domains at War?

APM: Domains at War is actually two books, Campaigns and Battles. The Campaigns book is an advanced edition of the free starter rules. It is incredibly comprehensive. What happens if your army gets dysentery? What happens if you steal the flag of an enemy unit? How long does it take to build a circumvallation around an enemy stronghold? How much does it cost to fire a trebuchet for a week? How long to build a trebuchet? How many men can a huge siege tower hold, and how long will it take to cross the 200 yards to the enemy walls? What information will you glean if you capture an enemy commander and interrogate him with ESP? All covered.

The companion volume is the Battles book. It offers a tabletop wargame that’s 100% compatible with ACKS. It lets you fight your domain battles right on the tabletop using miniatures or counters. It uses a hex grid, rather than rulers, because RPG players are more familiar with grids. And it’s designed such that your PCs and NPCs serve as commanders, lieutenants, and heroes in a way that is fun but also is coherent with the “reality” of the game world. It will appeal to both RPGers and wargamers.

Ever since D&D spun-off from Chainmail, there have been many, many efforts to make a wargame based on its framework: Swords & Spells, War Machine, Battlesystem, Birthright, etc. None of them have ever really succeeded. For instance, gaming groups never said “let’s play some Battlesystem for fun” the way Warhammer is played for fun. Since the games weren’t fun, no one wanted to use them in their campaign, and they failed as campaign supplements, too. If you’re going to include a wargame in your campaign, it has to be a great wargame that you look forward to playing.

I think with Domains at War: Battles we’re going to be offering a great wargame. It captures the essence of ancient and medieval warfare. Someone who enjoys military history, or DBA, or Armati, or Battelore, or Warhammer, can play Domains at War and really get into it.

Early on, I learned a lot about wargame design from my mentor Arty Conliffe. Arty designed some classics of miniature wargaming: Armati, Crossfire, Shako, Spearhead, and Tactica. If you are into historical miniatures gaming, you will know about these games. I wrote my first wargame supplement in 1997 under Arty’s tutelage. A few years later, Arty gave me the chance to co-design Modern Spearhead, a 20th century division-scale micro armor wargame. Modern Spearhead was reviewed as “the best game there is for this level of modern warfare” by the Society of Twentieth Century Wargamers and is still actively played, almost 15 years later. And that’s because we captured the essence of modern warfare in a fun, playable way.

My goal is to succeed at that same level with Domains at War: Battles, so that in 15 years people are still playing it.

CDM: On the Autarch forums, you mentioned the possibility of posting sample ACKS statistics for great military leaders from history. Recently, I was reading about the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae, and I couldn’t help but wonder about possible Domains at War statistics for Athenians, Plateans, Spartans, Thespians, Thebans, Immortals and other Persian forces. The cultural differences between these historical forces seem as striking as the fantasy differences between beastmen, dwarves and elves. Have you used Domains at War to replay any historical battles?  How does Domains at War handle differences like this?

APM: Yes, we’ve fought several historical battles using ACKS. We usually use my DBA miniatures to fight the battles, so there have been a lot of fights pitting the Carthaginians against the Romans, and the Macedonians against the Persians.

D@W: Battles represents the differences between armies in several ways.
1.       The command characteristics of the army general. This will determine how many divisions the army can have, as well as its overall morale. Armies with many divisions tend to be more flexible and responsive. Armies with a few, big divisions are more cumbersome and hard to deploy.
2.       The number and characteristics of the division commanders. Skilled commanders seize the initiative more often, can control more troops at once, and have a wider span of command.
3.       The number and characteristics of the unit lieutenants. Skilled lieutenants allow a unit to react more effectively when it’s outside of its commander’s span of command, or when it’s disordered.
4.       The number of veteran units in the army. Veteran units are stronger, tougher, and less likely to break.
5.       The divisional structure of the different armies. Does the army keep all of its cavalry units in one division in reserve, or does it assign half its cavalry to a “left wing division” and the other half to a “right wing division”?
6.       The type and formation of the units in the army. Does the army have light infantry? Slingers? Bowmen? Light cavalry? Horse archers? Cataphracts? All of these play very differently.

Auran Empire Gazetteer

CDM: How would you describe the Auran Empire campaign setting in a sentence?

APM: The Auran Empire campaign setting offers a world of adventure, where a once-majestic empire is slipping into oblivion, and bold and ambitious conquerors are rising to forge new realms from the ashes of the old.

CDM: My sense of the Auran Empire campaign setting is that it is influenced by the real-world ancient and classical periods as much or more than swords and sorcery literature. Do you agree, and, if so, where does this influence come from?

APM: I do agree, yes. The Auran Empire resembles the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity. I was an ancient history major as an undergraduate, so the easy answer as to why the Auran Empire is an ancient setting is because I studied ancient history in school. But that would just lead to the question of why I studied ancient history….

I think the genuine answer is that there is an aesthetic to the world of Late Antiquity that resonates with me very deeply. In Late Antiquity, the most advanced and powerful civilization that ever existed was falling apart. The wise could see that it was falling apart, but the problems were too big and they were endemic to the system. They were almost insoluble given the demographics and the culture. So it was a moment of existential despair. And yet brave men and women kept struggling for their civilization. Think of a man like Aurelian, who almost single-handedly saved the Roman Empire and gave it another two hundred years! Awe-inspiring, tragic grandeur.

Although it’s more of a medieval feel, Middle Earth’s grandeur is very much rooted in this same ethos. Tolkien called it “the long defeat.” But Tolkien offers a vision of ultimate victory for good, whereas in the Auran Empire the prophecies are of ultimate victory for evil. That’s not to say that the prophecies are true, only that they exist, and hang over the setting darkly.

CDM: Do you know yet what we can expect the first Auran Empire Gazetteer to cover?

APM: Presently the sections are: Annals (overview of history and timeline); Census (overview of ethnography, races and classes); Atlas (overview of climate, geography, and special features); Gazetteer (overview of the sixteen major regions); Mythopedia (overview of the major gods, cosmology of the Spheres, and religious practices); Guidebook (“traveler’s guide” to law, culture, and custom); Primer (an overview of the Auran language); Bestiary ( listing 30 new monsters); Catalogue (a list of new magic items and ancient marvels); and Apocrypha (covering obscure facts and hidden secrets of the setting). I have about 100,000 words written and a lot more content waiting to be consolidated from various adventures, notebooks, session reports, spreadsheets, and so on.

One thing I haven’t fully settled on is to what extent the campaign book will be written subjectively (from within the game world), versus objectively (about the game world). For instance the Greyhawk campaign setting and the Dark Sun campaign setting were both written subjectively, while Ravenloft was written objectively. Subjective campaign guides have more flavor, while objective campaign settings tend to be easier to integrate into game mechanics.

CDM: Will we see any new Nobiran, Thrassian or Zaharan classes?

APM: Definitely! I currently plan to include the Nobiran Champion, the Thrassian Stalker, and the Zaharan Sorcerer-Priest. The Nobiran Champion is a steel-jawed warlord who leads his men to hell and back. The Zaharan Sorcerer-Priest is a Chthonic cleric/mage. The Thrassian Stalker is a cold-blooded killer in the night. This is an area where backers will help guide the product, though.

CDM: Thank you very much!


  1. Shoot, guess I better write up the Zaharan Sorcerer-Priest version I was working on first, then! Good stuff, though; I think the "long slide into ruin" bit might've sold me on the Gazetteer.