Saturday, July 30, 2022

Off the Shelf: Adventurer Conqueror King

I had the Adventurer Conqueror King System and the sourcebooks on a back shelf and forgot about it for a while. To me, it didn't do anything special, it was an AD&D-style mod of a game, and what it did could be done easier by a game like Castles & Crusades (C&C). ACKS totes around some of the legacy cruft, like saving throw tables, thief skills, and proficiencies - so it isn't too different than a B/X-style game. ACKS is also focused on end-game kingdom management, so there are changes in how some of the classes and many of the spells work, so I did not really feel it was worth the time learning all the differences and spending the time to really dive deep into this game and world.

So I put it away for a while. I had better things to read and play. C&C became my go-to B/X style game since it simplified the experience to a smooth and fast core mechanic. ACKS is a traditional AD&D-style game, a lot is left up to you. There is no "ability score roll" system, and the game has a proficiency system with "per skill" throws, modifiers, or other loose guidelines for how to use them.

So why come back?

C&C does it all, right? Or B/X, if that is your game.

Modern High Fantasy

There is very little difference between a high fantasy game published today and the modern world.

I get the feeling Pathfinder 2e and D&D 5 are way too modern for my tastes. One of the current adventure paths from Paizo has guns and robots everywhere, and D&D has coffee shops and colleges. We have robots, trains, airships, and anachronisms everywhere - even in social constructs.

Yes, you can pull this all out, but it is a lot of work. Part of why I like B/X is that it models the early era of roleplaying when I felt like I was entering another world and I had to learn how things worked and how the people of the time got things done.

I was immersed in a new world, not a fantasy-themed version of this one.

To enjoy fantasy is to enjoy escapism, which means putting yourself in an unfamiliar situation and world, in the shoes of another person entirely, and experiencing something new.

Not a repainted version of the familiar.

Middle Ages Fantasy

ACKS is a Middle Ages game that can dip into high fantasy with an optional book, but it stays grounded in a pre-Renaissance world. Why is this important?

The Renaissance is the birth of the modern era, and this is when a lot of the "bad things" began to take root, like colonialism, slavery, exploitative capital markets, industrialization, wars of the state, and the extreme divide between rich and poor. The world is explored and divided up by colonial powers. Native societies are being subdued and killed en masse to seed the birth of nations. Industrialization is blooming, with bodies being thrown into wars and the environment stripped of beauty and resources. This is why I love Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) for this era since every one of these colonialist "heroes" participates in a corrupt society based on the suffering and exploitation of others, the only way to play Renaissance and get this puritanical "all sinners must die" sort of satisfaction is as a horror game.

A Middle Ages world is a lot like beginning a Civilization VI game. The old empire has fallen and ruins of the Imperial age are everywhere. The world is unexplored and forgotten. The land is being discovered and settled by those who live there. Tribes, families, and local cultures are stronger. Travel is dangerous, but those who can establish trade routes and commerce will find great wealth. Not everything is done, there are no large merchant classes, and the structure of society falls under a powerful church - and the church is more powerful than the state.

You may wonder about that point and not prefer to have the dominant church. But I say if your players want to change things and build their own "ideal society" you have a cleaner starting point here than in a Renaissance Era where you not only have to deal with empowered states, a wealthy class, often armed merchant classes, and so many other factions. This is why ACKS does an incredible job, it picks a starting point that gives players a clean slate for building a dynasty, and it opens the door for them to create the type of society they dream of.

And honestly, having the church be the default power gives you something to either fight against, work with, or shape the power of in your world. Freedoms are limited, and even serfdom puts every peasant in an area under the thumb of a lord. But this power structure is a very simple one and it is an ideal blank slate, to begin with.

Do you want a society that tolerates all gods, even evil ones? How about just good ones? One god of many? A few? How powerful is the church in your kingdom? Are there limits to divine power over society? How does your government enforce that? How does your kingdom treat native peoples? If you learn about another kingdom exploiting others, do you oppose them? Does your society ban forced servitude? Is your society inclusive and more modern, or more savage and tribal?

Since ACKS is a kingdom-building game, the choices of how you build the world are yours. None of the Renaissance baggage is loaded onto you, or "conveniently forgotten" to present a family-friendly fantasy. The Middle Ages is less technologically advanced, but still in that familiar realm of fantasy.

But all of the choices on how the world is built are up to the players.

In C&C, I am back in the Renaissance model. If I want to ignore the societal and political aspects of this era and just play Keep of the Borderlands, C&C or B/X does a great job of delivering a playable game without all the guilt and baggage. If I want the moral struggle and horror game, LotFP is my choice.

But if I want a fantasy game where "the players build the world" and their choices matter, like a game of Civilization VI with all the great 4X action - ACKS is the game that sets the bar in both design and the model of the world it presents.

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