Sunday, November 20, 2022

ACKS: Neo-Clone or Fantasy Sandbox?

I heard the term "neo-clone" used when people talked about Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS), and a neo-clone is a game that uses the framework of B/X to create a new experience - and one not afraid to deviate from B/X compatibility to deliver gameplay improvements. You see this in games like Stars Without Number, Mork Borg, Dungeon Crawl Classics, White Star, and a bunch of other great B/X style games that start with what we are familiar with (B/X style rules) and then go their own way.

The retro-clones are games that stick to rules compatibility first. Even if an obvious choice exists to improve gameplay, they do not take it since compatibility with older materials is more important than new experiences or gameplay improvements. Swords & Wizardry, Old School Essentials, White Box, For Gold & Glory, and a bunch of other games fall into this category.

Labyrinth Lord is sort of a particular case; it is a retro-clone since it is backward compatible, but the "system" it emulates is a mix of D&D and AD&D books back when players assumed everything was roughly compatible. We all just hacked it to work together. The game still feels more retro-clone than neo-clone, though the system it emulates did not officially exist other than "this is what we all did back then." The game is based on B/X assumptions and makes a mix of content work well together.

The Castles & Crusades game feels like another system spiritually close to Labyrinth Lord. The system it emulates is AD&D, using a D&D 3-style framework. C&C is compatible with almost everything, but the experience feels like AD&D without much of the crunch and detail. The only other game that does this is Basic Fantasy, which is a recreation of the older B/X games through a D&D 3-style lens. I love these games since they are essentially the "best of" a specific edition but with gameplay improvements.

With strict retro-clones, you need to be sold on the original experience. And once you are in a retro-clone, the experience is about the same in any of them - with a narrow range of differences in mechanics. Castles & Crusades is more of a retro-clone emulator that throws away dozens of tables, charts, and needless cruft and unifying mechanics under the ability score. Of all of them, this is the easiest to run; you do not need a book or referee's screen full of tables, and characters can play straight from index cards.

With ACKS, I keep coming back to this system. It survived being boxed up and put on storage shelves many times, and it keeps finding a way to my "most played" shelves, where I keep the best games and the ones I love reading. One factor helping this game is it is a neo-clone, and while it is like a B/X game - it is not a B/X game in playstyle. There is a focus on the three layers of play: adventurer, conqueror, and king.

This is like one of those great JRPGs where the game starts innocently enough, with you going to shops, buying heal potions and gear for your party, going to nearby dungeons, and grabbing loot. And then, at a critical moment, the entire game changes. You and your friends find yourselves in a middle of a war or uprising, and you become important. The mid-level game starts, and you are finding your place in the world. You begin changing the world. And at the highest levels, you are ruling a kingdom or the world.

D&D 5 and many retro-clones are based on the flawed "adventure until max level" grind. The reason many games stop at low to mid levels is because things are more of the same and uninteresting. So what that your damage doubles and the monster hit points also do? So your loot is now more powerful, but you need it anyway to keep up with the challenge rating? It all gets boring after a while.

Hence this is why you see a lot of monster and treasure books with challenges and rewards that scale to the maximum level of the game. You need higher number-value monsters to fight higher number-value heroes! It all feels like a mobile game after a while, where your level 878 fighter and level 799 wizard are taking on some monster in the high-hundred-number monster rating.

The stories are always better than the rules in these games. I don't doubt that. But the rules with the scaling numbers are often atrocious and unnecessary for fun and only exist to give you that mobile game progression hit.

With ACKS, you have that "first-level" character experience three times during your character's path - once at every play tier. Your character is a beginning adventurer. Then, your character is a beginning conqueror. And finally, your character is a beginning king. The game uses a simple B/X-style system as its design language, but it stops there. It adds a few systems the game needs to deliver on the experience (proficiencies), simplifies a few things (encumbrance), and provides a balance of familiar classes and new ones.

The paths of higher-level pay are also expanded, with rogues being able to establish a thieves' guild, warriors having armies, constructing domains, divine classes gathering power and establishing temples, and magical classes with experimentation, crafting new spells, and creating magic items. There is much to do at higher levels, reasons to spend gold, and many sandbox-style options for changing the world around you. And at the highest levels of play, you are running a kingdom, building settlements, and engaging in epic world-changing adventures of great importance.

The issue with a lot of retro-clones and even newer games is the "adventure to max level" assumption and providing little or no options for sandbox play. You get put in the adventurer box, and you can never escape from it. ACKS feels like a fantasy "Grand Theft Auto" where at the lower levels you are running around a sandbox doing minor missions, and then as you gain influence and notoriety - the nature of the sandbox changes, and you are taking over the map, destroying enemy strongholds, and getting involved in new things to do. At the highest levels, you work towards changing the world, or at least a part of it, and establishing a kingdom or other organization that becomes a part of the world's lore.

And you can play good or evil characters and work towards any goal without the "shackles of the adventurer" being put around your wrists. Your goals are very sandbox-driven. Do you want to be an evil worshipper of the fallen ancient gods, discovering power, uncovering secrets, gaining followers, and destroying good kingdoms? Go ahead. Again, the GTA model applies here, be paladins or bandits, generals or merchants, divine clerics or cultists, rulers or destroyers, and you are even free to join the bad guys' side and rule over orcs and beastmen.

The default assumption of "playing an adventurer" is a lot of games rob players of control and agency. The upgrade tracks and paths in many games make "farming the treasure, power, and spell lists" the entire game. Traditional dungeon games make you the servant of the rules. ACKS is a fantasy sandbox game, and your motivations for "why you are here" comes from you.

And you can start new characters and adventure in a changing world and still go back to your rulers and play high-level adventures of great importance every so often (or set tax rates, deal with bandits and rebellions, and do all that cool 4X stuff). It does not do "lip service" to domain management like some games that merely say "and you can" - it gives you the rules to do all that cool stuff.

And since it uses old-school sensibilities, if you want to change a rule, add a system, or make a ruling on the spot that "X happens," you don't break the game. Does it fit the moment and story? Then it happens. Fun is more important than making something fit into the rules.

It is rare to find a B/X style game that "does it all," but ACKS is that game.

Friday, November 18, 2022

The Safety Brand

As IP becomes increasingly integrated with other brands and popular culture at large, it gets blander and blander. Taco Bell will not want to make the Forgotten Realms Nacho Grande if a game is associated with demons, horror, dark fantasy, or violence.

Welcome to the world of becoming a "safety brand."

It happens to everything that achieves a certain level of popularity in the culture. Bart Simpson used to be an alternative punk symbol and counter-culture icon, but then he started appearing on every product, from candy bars to video games, and became "uncool."

To make the most money with D&D, I feel Wizards must purge any controversial content and massively tone down the violence. I bet  part of the reason you see college life and other nonviolent expansions is because the "brand is changing" and "it needs to move beyond its violent past."

This is not me speaking; these are New York and Hollywood brand managers.

I have worked with these people before. They will come into a company with the "Wall Street agenda" and push to make your brand more like other successful brands, and work to increase the "synergy" and "cross-marketing potential" of your brand so you "play better with others."

And they will change your game, and try to leave their mark on it, make no doubt.

They would sit in those skyscraper conference rooms, put the words "dark and violent past" on a whiteboard under "problems with the game," and then ask the people who run D&D, "how are you going to address this?"

  • Do you have demons and a "Hell" in your game?
  • Your game leverages Christian beliefs in its divine magic system?
  • Does your game show blood or promote violence?
  • Are the spells and powers that take away consent?
  • Does your game have mysticism and magic?
  • Does your game include real-world religious parallels such as druidism, wiccanism, or paganism?
  • Your game includes horror elements?
  • Your game requires players to "kill things" to "level up?"
  • Your game requires you to "steal wealth" to "gain experience?"

China banned video games from using mysticism and magic, so while some of the above seem outrageous, they are not too far off the mark. I know "barbarian" is a frowned-upon word in some circles, and it does not feel too far away from "druid" and "witch" to join those "culturally sensitive" classes and be banned. Even "thief" became "rogue" in some games.

When a game goes pop and mainstream, this happens. It may not be how you and your group play, but the forces and corporate manipulation are always there.

A lot of players use roleplaying as a way to work through mental health issues and conquer fears. I love that games can sometimes dive into mature content to help serve as a "harmless fantasy exploration" of feelings and issues in players' lives. This is why we socialize and have communities - to help each other work through challenging and complicated lives. To ban that from our games is to tell us we aren't allowed to use fantasy to work through real-life issues.

This is also why we have systems to talk about the content in our games, know our players, and talk about things we are okay (or not okay with) within a game setting. But we are allowed to have them, the switches and toggles are there, and the game has not "written these options out."

This is part of why I like the OSR and these smaller indie-game communities. They do not have the smell of Wall Street and corporate meddling in the game's content, nor do they force you to avoid specific topics or exclude content from your game. There are times I feel in some games, the "how to play the game" writing approaches the level of "cultural police," and they put the expectation on players and DMs to "get people in line" or face ostracization from the community.

All in the name of profits.

And "push players to police their games" would be one of those solutions that would get written on the whiteboard.

DMs, please keep your players from doing anything above a PG rating because, you know, we need that Taco Bell deal, and we don't want people to think negatively about the game "we all enjoy."

Don't you want to be a "good" member of the "community?"

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Off the Shelf: Adventurer Conqueror King System

Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS) is one of those games I just keep coming back to. On the surface, it is a strange B/X retro-clone with many custom modifications to the classes and spells to make them work better with the game's 4X-style domain management game. This means re-learning is needed, and double-checking magic spells "you thought you knew" to ensure your interpretation matches the game.

But this is B/X, not a new game, so the differences are minor, and the amount of "getting used to" the game is way less than an entirely new set of rules.

The game is also more Middle-Ages than Renaissance, and that is a fantastic thing since you can pull in the conflict between the older "Conan Era" of the world with old magic and the barbaric ways versus the "New World" of the state - with religion providing the counterbalance and driving force to rebuild lost empires into nations and vanquish the evil magic of the ancestors - and they will not go quietly. I love this fight of the barbaric era versus nation-building, which is an excellent background for framing a dominion game.

So why play a variant B/X game?

Because it is one.

ACKS has your standard B/X classes, so you can feel right at home, but where it shines are in the incredible collection of specialty classes and specialized racial classes that make those cultures come alive. Many B/X games (and even 5E, C&C, and Pathfinder 2) do the race + class thing, where you pick a shape and put yourself in a cookie-cutter class mold. Every fighter is the same, but your shape is one of a selection.

ACKS gives the races in the game unique and exciting classes that let these ansecteries do things "their own way." How elves fight and use magic is different than how humans do it. Dwarves have entirely different skill sets and professions than humans. And there is a class design system that encourages you to do the same, take a race, create a custom class for that ancestry, and come up with a new and different "non-human" way of implementing class mechanics the way it should be for an entirely different culture.

5E and Pathfinder 2, and frankly, most of the B/X race + class games? You are an elf-shaped fighter. All fighters work the same, and some games may have class specializations, so you can be one of a few subtypes. Only the older "race as class" B/X games do things similar to ACKS, but ACKS takes the concept and advances it into many race-as-class options - and encourages you to run with it. Old School Essential Advanced Fantasy also does new race as class options, but they typically have "one race per race as class" selection, and ACKS gives you many of them.

I love the base "human fighter" being the "human way of fighting" and other races having their own unique way of doing things. Elves may mix war-dancing or magic into their fighting and not have the "elf being a human fighter" option - but that is cool. The culture has its own way of doing things, and the game respects that.

You have a progressive distaste for colonialism, yet D&D 5 says, "all races do things the same way as humans" with their race plus class options. Forcing other cultures - that may have unique identities - into one "Western-culture-approved" way of doing it - is a form of racial colonialism. Being a fighter is one thing, and all races better fit in this mold and conform.

Why not celebrate differences?

Why can't a race mix how they fight with magic, divine power, or even thievery? And that is how things are done in these lands. ACKS has dwarven machinists, craft priests, delvers - and a whole bunch of dwarven specialty B/X-style classes, and it makes me excited to play them. This inspires me to spin up a dwarven party of specialists and take them through B/X adventures - which is something many B/X games do not inspire me to do. Am I going to play a game with a generic dwarf-shaped fighter or a game with a dwarven fury or vault guard? I will pick the latter every time since that sounds cool.

I feel that many games are copying other games - because that is what people are used to. As a result, we get a lot of bland options with no discernible differences or class options. Background means little, and it is just a shape plus class choice.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

One D&D: No OGL, No Thank You

There are rumors that One D&D is dropping the OGL. This could be pre-marketing hype where they eventually "reveal it anyways" and expect praise, or it could be a trial balloon to altogether drop the OGL.

If they do drop it, I am not buying or covering the game. I will cover 5E alternatives. I will support Pathfinder 2. I will continue to support the OGL.

To have a monopoly on the tabletop RPG market and cut out dozens of third-party publishers, I feel, is selfish, unfair, and downright wrong. You will put hundreds of artists and writers out of work. I feel this is what an exploitative mobile game developer would do, not a tabletop RPG publisher. 

This rumor could be 100% wrong, so take it all with a grain of salt.

They did mess with the D&D 4E license, so this would not surprise me - but we need to give them the benefit of the doubt and wait and see. I just hope they don't get selfish and lock the game down tightly since everything around it - even "let's play" videos, could get copyright struck, and the game (and the community it exists in) is changed forever.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Paizo Honestly Does a Better Job

Honestly, Wizards, I feel Paizo does a better job at inclusivity and sensitivity than you.

I have been gaming all my life, so not a lot bothers me or gets under my skin, and I like for writers to have more freedom and not be second-guessed. If you hire good writers and artists and tell them your audience expects a certain level of tolerance and inclusion, like Paizo, then you will not make these stupid mistakes and need to hire yet another reviewer before your work goes out the door.

Which will add time and cost to all Wizards' products.

And also, frankly, water them down to something worse than AD&D 2e's level of mass-market, safe-for-everyone, non-controversial "pop fantasy" mush.

You wait, demons and angels - removed.

Humanoid races - removed.

Alignments and the notion of evil - removed.

Death - removed.

Even spells like "hold person" will be scrutinized as a "non-consensual interaction" mechanic and instantly become problematic.

Once everything is fixed, these consultants will try to keep their jobs and find new things that are problematic. It does not stop, and it will not stop.

We head down the AD&D 2e road again, folks, and I get this feeling this is a huge mess and possibly the high-water mark for D&D before it begins its decline. Everything will be hyper-analyzed and picked over, not just by consultants but by the public and media. Everything will be potentially problematic. Any release will have problems, and they will constantly be backtracking and revising books.

This feels like the moment we point back to and say, "This was when the game started to go downhill."

But it doesn't have to be that way.

A better team of writers and creative professionals can create a better product and still be inclusive while allowing players to take the training wheels off. And you don't need layers of sensitivity consultants because, guess what, that is what your writers and artists are supposed to do.

Paizo has lots of controversial content in their game, and they do a better job at inclusivity and representation than Wizards. They don't need to publicly shame themselves. I disagree with how far Paizo sometimes goes because I feel it draws in too high of a technology level for a fantasy game, but that is not a slight against inclusivity. It is a nitpick with design and them going "too steampunk" for my tastes. And Paizo gives you the freedom to include "sensitive topics" because - you know - horror gaming is a thing. And Paizo treats the subject maturely and talks about how you can include things like that in your game if your players are cool with it.

And Paizo's fans are highly progressive, and I have not really heard of any controversies with their game and how it is set up. The door is at least open with Paizo to run an edgy game. They still understand adults are a part of the audience and that adults have free will and can make choices for themselves. Paizo feels like the more progressive company that respects freedom and free will better, and Wizards feels like the creative team that needs "detention monitors."


I feel bad for Wizards, because I know where this comes from. I feel Wizards embarrassed Hasbro with Spelljammer. And I feel the company "got them on a call" and "forced them to publicly address the issue."

This happens.

This is Wall Street.

There is no freedom or creativity here, only profits and not rocking the boat.

But honestly, I feel Paizo and Pathfinder 2e do all of this right. And even better, they allow you to turn all the "safety switches" off and let you play the game how you want.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Indiegogo: Amazing Adventures - New Printing!

Very nice, a 3-book set for the Amazing Adventures game? And they are making this more "multi-genre" than "pulp" themed? They are doing new artwork and reorganization, folding in all of the options from expansions, and creating three traditional books (player book, GM book, monster book) for the game.

Since I love Castles & Crusades, I am all-in on this one.

More soon and this is a definite look forward to release!

Castles & Crusades: Play Without the Book

Castles & Crusades is one of those genius games where I do not need to open the book to play. I tried getting back into Savage Pathfinder, and I was amazed at all the supporting rules needed to make the dicing system work. Savage Worlds works exceptionally well, but it does require a pretty substantial framework of supporting rules to keep everything working and to provide enough options to keep players happy. There are many things to keep in my mind when playing Savage Worlds, and it feels like I have to "load the operating system" and keep a ton of things in mind when I play the game.

Savage Worlds is great, but it is a lot to process and memorize, and there are a lot of "minigames" baked into the rules, which require extra toys and items scattered about the table to play. Everything in that game is terrific and works together like a well-tuned game, but at times I just want to focus on the story and characters rather than the mechanics. They are great mechanics, though, but sometimes my mind does not want to spend time working through them.

Give me a character sheet, and I can make C&C sing. I don't need to open a book to play. Everything I need is on my character's notecard. This is not "me knowing the rules"; this is more "there are no rules to reference" - the entire framework and model of the system is built into the ability scores and Siege Engine.

Castles & Crusades is very iPhone-like. A lot is hidden from you, and the best, most configurable parts are exposed to the user. The things you want to change are there. The pointless things people associate with "power users," such as charts, tables, math, and paragraphs of rules, are not.

One of the other games like this for me is Tunnels & Trolls, one of the best "beer & pretzels" RPGs where you grab a bucketful of d6 dice and roll a Saturday afternoon away. This is another game where "no book at the table" is needed, and you can play from your head without referencing rules.

I can play many B/X-style games in my head, but a few B/X games are more "rules-y" than others and require constant book reference. Swords & Sorcery, with its single saving throw, hits my sweet spot, and games like Old School Essentials are great - but at times, I feel B/X is more about your interpretations and inspiration than a well-organized reference book. B/X is not centered around organized A-B-C rules - it is a game where you and your interpretations are 50% of the game. I still love Old School Essentials as a reference guide, but games that slow down and give me a lot of flavor and inspiration call to me more these days.