From the very beginning there was an idea that D&D would have an endgame, a point at which after a long career of adventure and dungeon-delving the player characters would clear out some patch of wilderness, build a stronghold or a tower or whatnot, and settle down to ruling a domain either mundane or magical. This idea would persist through AD&D 1st edition, whose Dungeon Master’s Guide contained a lot of detail about clearing wildernesses and what it cost to build strongholds. The D&D Companion Set, released in 1984, provided some fairly solid rules for this kind of thing, while in AD&D support was pretty sketchy, and it atrophied pretty quickly, to reappear in a redirected way in 1995′s Birthright for AD&D2e. In recent years, and in an environment where many have rediscovered the older iterations of D&D, the idea has resurfaced. And in the recently released Adventurer Conqueror King system from Autarch, it’s back with a vengeance.
ACK is being called a “second generation retro-clone,” meaning that it has been constructed, with the tools made available through the OGL, to resemble in play an older edition of D&D — in this case, largely the Frank Mentzer-Revised Basic/Expert/Companion sequence with some additional inspiration from AD&D1e. The guts of the system should be accordingly familiar to anyone steeped in pre-3.x D&D. However, ACK does not stop at emulating one of the crusty old variations of D&D but is in many respects a significant evolution of them in its own right.
ACK starts with the four basic classes of Fighter, Mage, Cleric and Thief, but expands on them with two classes for each of Elves and Dwarves and four additional human classes based mostly on classes from AD&D — the Explorer, for example is reminiscent of a spell-less Ranger, the Assassin and Bard are essentially BECMI iterations of the 1e and 2e versions, respectively. The Bladedancer is a new class, an all-female caste of temple warriors with both fighting ability and proficiency with clerical magic. Using the existing examples it’d be easy to design new classes or adapt something like the Druid to fit into this loose structure.
The ACK Mage and Cleric cast spells in a similar way to 3.x Sorcerers, limited by slots castable per day rather than by what’s been memorized or prepared, but with a limited selection of available spells as suits the much more compact BECMI-derived spell lists. Spells above level 6 (for Mages, and 5 for Clerics) are powerful but demanding and costly rituals instead of the kinds of things that can be cast in the context of a fight. Creation rules for magical items, constructs and undead are well developed.
One novel rule is that of spell signatures, which lets casters customize the cosmetic appearance of their spells, but which can also allow others knowledgeable in arcane matters to identify them by their aftereffects. It’s an elegant implementation of an idea some older groups had long used that removes such objections as “why can’t I play a fire mage?” and allows a caster to give more character to his or her repertoire of spells.
ACK also brings back AD&D’s proficiencies, but here they provide largely static bonuses to specific activities. In a way they resemble the feats of 3.x, and some of them have concrete combat effects, but they are scaled correctly to a system that tops out at level 14 and which is much less gonzo and anime-esque than later official D&D versions. The feel of the whole package is very old school but not strictly old school D&D per se — there are sprinklings of Tékumel and RuneQuest in its implied setting, and room for the kind of technomagic that we saw in something like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, if the DM chooses to insert such things.
Combat works pretty much as you’d expect out of red box D&D, with a few notable enhancements. For one, it uses ascending Armor Class, no doubt causing the most regressive grognards to shudder in horror — but this is a good thing in my book. For another, there are critical tables very reminiscent of those in Rolemaster, and similarly entertaining — but you’ll only roll on them when characters hit zero or fewer hit points or when they’re resurrected, which is a nice balance of having the interesting charts but not making you reference or roll on them too often. There are also some straightforward rules for special combat maneuvers and environments, but generally the modifiers are kept to a minimum.
The included bestiary is pretty lean, limiting itself to a bare-bones selection of mostly stock critters. ACK has gotten some mild criticism for this, but I have to think it was done for carefully thought-out reasons. By giving us a picture of how the basic monsters are handled, DMs should be encouraged to create their own foes, which is easy to do since the system is so loose anyway. And of course, most creatures from BECMI or AD&D1e products should be trivially easy to import, and there’s quite a wide selection of those. For those wanting weirder but still pre-generated monsters there are a number of retro-clone resources available which should be similarly easy to implement.
Henchmen are embraced in ACK, and there are extensive but loose rules for hired NPCs of all kinds, fit neatly into the game’s reimagined D&D economy. Henchmen are also valuable to domain rulers, and can be used as replacement PCs should one’s main character meet an untimely demise.
The largest enhancement that Adventurer Conqueror King brings to the D&D canon is in the way it establishes a mode of play at high (9+) levels. At this point, common adventurers become Conquerors and may aspire to become Kings. Fighters can build castles, Mages can erect towers, Thieves hideouts, and so on as was described in the AD&D1e and rules, but here we’re given an array of subsequent things for them to do. It’s elegantly developed, structured without being confining and evocative of player and GM creativity. It plays like high-level D&D instead of Civilization in a D&D world, as was the case with other approaches to similar subject matter like Eden Studio’s Fields of Blood. It is unfortunately not quite complete, and the book’s lack of mass combat rules — the kind of thing that GMs running domain-level games would really want — is its greatest flaw. These are slated for release in the line’s second volume, Domains of War, which is supposed to be out fairly soon.
On the other hand, part of ACK’s approach is to allow domain conquest and rulership to develop organically through play, rather than simply handing the character a domain when the campaign begins as was done in Birthright. The game’s economic model, which has been rebuilt a priori, supports this completely. It’s not a real-world economic simulator, but it takes the pieces of the D&D economy and fits them together in a way that both makes internal sense and shouldn’t fall apart as play progresses. In this sense, not having mass combat rules immediately might not be a deal-breaking flaw, since games starting at first level won’t need them right away, but they had better be out before too long.
Campaigns in ACK are strongly oriented toward the sandbox hexcrawl — the GM sets up a largely unexplored wilderness, scatters adventure sites, dungeons and interesting encounters all over, and turns the PCs loose on it. This is a style of play that’s been around since the very early days but seldom have there been such good guidelines in print for actually running this kind of game. You get strong advice on setting up the map, managing encounters and stocking dungeons, but the game never strikes a tone of “this is the official way it must be done,” always subtly encouraging GMs to tweak and modify as they see fit, both in the rules text and in the very cleverly crafted examples. In this way, by the time characters start hitting the “name” level, they’re already familiar with the lay of the land and have probably traversed much of it, and have developed friends and enemies within it. This should allow plot threads to develop in the late game in a very organic way.
Graphically, the book is not a masterpiece, although it’s attractive by indie standards. The cover art is very striking but the interior pieces range from decent to mediocre, and the layout is workmanlike. I’d wager a simple and clean layout was something the creators were going for, though. The table of contents and multiple indices are well-done, but the PDF suffers from a lack of bookmarks for easy flipping to well-used sections of the book, though there are hyperlinks within the text itself.
Adventurer Conqueror King definitely captures old school ideals in their broadest sense. Although it doesn’t strictly emulate any particular elder D&D, it sticks quite closely to everything up to and including AD&D1e and conversion of those materials to its format should be very easy. For those that want a lot of tightly-defined rules infrastructure, look elsewhere; ACK leaves a great deal to player and GM imagination and interpretation. Those wanting a solid core rulebook presenting a system akin to elder forms of D&D with a little bit of 1e/2e flair, plus a broad but solid and playable framework for running high-level games involving domain rulership should give it a very serious look.
Personally, picking a particular iteration of D&D to run is something I’d been pondering lately, and I mentioned the other day that Wizards of the Coast, with its upcoming D&D Next, might make the choice easy for me by, in their words, “unifying the editions” in the same way Mongoose had with their version of Traveller. To my mild surprise, I find that Autarch has already done that — Adventurer Conqueror King is the edition of D&D that I want to run. I’m not sure I can praise it more highly than that.
Disclaimer: This review, though lengthy, is a capsule review of ACK. I have not playtested it, but I’ve given the rules a thorough going-over and have a reasonably good idea of how they will shake out at the table, especially since I’ve played a number of domain-level games in the past. The version reviewed was the PDF version.
Adventurer Conqueror King is available through GameSalute in Hardcover ($40) or PDF ($9.99). It is also available via DriveThruRPG in PDF format for the same price. Physical copies should be available in retail shops through the Bits and Mortar program.