The D&D 5th Edition Basic Rules Reviewed

It’s time to give my thoughts in detail on the new D&D Basic Rules. This will be a long one, so settle in. The current version of the Basic Rules is v0.1, so I’d expect some details to change over the next several months as the document is added to and tweaked — and I can see a number of things that need tweaking, as you’ll find below.

The first four pages of the document are an introduction to Roleplaying games, going over all of the basics of RPGs and how they work for the newcomer. Now, I highly advise directing actual newcomers to the Starter Set (which I’ll be talking about in depth in what will likely be the next post,) but if you’ve played a session or two this should be plenty of information to get started with.

In particular I like the discussion of the “three pillars of adventuring,” named as exploration, social interaction and combat. Veterans will recognize that there is plenty of nuance left out of this equation, and some game angles (political intrigue, mystery and horror, for example) left entirely absent. But it’s a good start, and the section as written probably describes an optimal mix for many tables.

The following sections get into the mechanics, starting with character creation, which is laid out in an orderly step-by-step fashion. This is where players of earlier editions will start to notice the differences.

Character abilities (the traditional six) are rolled on 4d6 (drop the lowest and arrange as desired,) which has been around since 3rd Edition — earlier, really, but 3.0 made it part of the core rules. You also have the option of spending points to raise scores or distributing a set array. The average in the array is 12, which is about a quarter-point lower than the average you’d get from rolling the dice. Note that you determine your ability scores after choosing a race and class. Which has howls of disapproval coming from some quarters, but it is, I think, the way most people have played anyway at least since 3.0.

DDNextLogoInstead of just choosing a race you pick a subrace as well. For Dwarves, for example, these are Hill Dwarves and Mountain Dwarves. Some of your stat modifiers come from the parent race, while the rest come from the subrace, and each also has some side benefit as well. High Elves, for example, get a few extra weapon proficiencies (in the Longsword, Longbow, Shortsword and short bow,) a free Wizard cantrip and an extra language, while the Wood Elf gets the same weapon proficiencies as the High Elf along with an increased movement speed and a situational ability to hide. Each race also has a number of abilities from the parent race; Elves get their natural longevity, a size and speed, darkvision, proficiency in the Perception skill, advantage (more on that later) against charms and an immunity to sleep, and the Elven language.

The races available in the Basic Rules are the Dwarf, Elf, Halfling and Human. It’s known that Half-Elves, Half-Orcs, Dragonborn and Tieflings will be in the Player’s Handbook, and probably Drow as well, as a subrace. Humans have no subraces, but a number of different cultural groups from the Forgotten Realms (which is 5E’s default setting) are briefly described. All of the races have lists of common names, and each also explains their outlook toward the other Basic races.

On the whole, I find this way of handling races to be highly agreeable; it builds in a way around the standard demi-human monoculture problem, and one could very easily create new subraces for a homebrew setting without much system overhead, since much of the work is already done along with the parent race.

The classes (Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard) are handled in a similar way. Each class has some sort of specialization available to it; Clerics have Domains, chosen at first level, while Fighters pick a fighting style at 1st and then a martial archetype at 3rd. Rogues also have archetypes, while Wizards have Arcane Traditions, chosen at 2nd level, which are analogous to the schools of earlier editions — at least so far.

In theory the specializations should obviate the need for discrete classes like the Assassin, and possibly the Ranger or Paladin as well, but since there is only one example given for each class, representing the most common image of that class, it’s hard to say what we’ll see done with this down the line. Too, they are more intricate than subraces, so making custom versions could be awkward with only a single example to work with. The PHB will doubtless contain more, but those also might rely on other options — feats, for example — being used.

Chapter 4 is dedicated to “Personality and Background,” which encompasses the character’s name, physical description, languages and alignment, but also some new stuff: personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws, which all stem from the character’s choice of background. This represents his or her early life before embarking on an adventuring career. There are five available (the Acolyte, Criminal, Sage, Soldier and Folk Hero,) the first four of which are each aimed at a specific class (Cleric, Rogue, Wizard and Fighter, respectively,) with the Folk Hero serving as a kind of catchall. But I can see doing some interesting things with a Fighter with the Acolyte background, for example, or a Rogue who goes with the Sage. Each background also gets some social benefits as well; Criminals, for example, have an underworld contact that they can use to access criminal networks. There’s a lot of possibility here, especially when you can tie it to a subclass. Together, the subclasses and backgrounds function kind of like 2E kits, except that half of the equation isn’t class-specific. This is another area where I can see a lot of room for additional and customized backgrounds.

Next up is equipment. You won’t find anything foreign in the actual lists, but each class and background has some default equipment that you can take instead of buying stuff the traditional way.

Both armor and weapons have some changes, however. Light armors allow you to apply your full DEX bonus to your Armor Class, while medium armor caps that bonus at +2. You get no DEX bonus at all while wearing heavy armors, and suffer a 10′ movement penalty unless you meet a minimum STR requirement.

Some weapons have special properties, like two-handed or reach. The finesse tag allows the wielder to use either their STR or the DEX bonus with the weapon. Versatile means that you can use it in either one or two hands, with the latter providing higher damage. The longsword is the archetypical such weapon; the bastard sword is nowhere in sight.

Now we get into the meat of the game system with a discussion of how to use ability scores. Which covers a great deal, including saving throws. You now save with your ability modifier directly, so that you are saving against a specific stat. This is an idea that dates back to Bard Games’ Arcanum system, and it’s one that I have always favored. It opens the save system up for new kinds of rolls, like saves against INT or CHA, although there really isn’t any discussion of this.

Advantage and Disadvantage is perhaps the new system’s most compelling new feature. If you have advantage on a roll, you roll 2d20 instead of one, and take the higher die. If you’re disadvantaged you take the lower. I find this very clever for a number of reasons, the most important one being that it eliminates all other situational modifiers from the system, except for cover. Invisible opponent? Disadvantage on the attack roll. Flanking? Take advantage instead. It’s pretty granular — advantage gives you about a +4 to your roll on average — but it’s also pretty elegant.

There is also a proficiency bonus, which is used for many different things. It replaces Base Attack Bonus, for example, and goes up as you level — but it’s the same for every character. So a wizard gets the same bonus as a fighter as longs as she is proficient in the weapon… but fighters will be much more effective in physical combat for a variety of other reasons. You get this bonus in anything in which your character has proficiency, so it applies to tool sets, skills and spell casting DCs as well as weapons. The skill list itself is closer to the 4E skill list than the one from 3.5, and each is given a concise description free of bloat and endless tables of modifiers.

Importantly, though, the progression of this bonus is much flatter than it was in previous editions of D&D. It ranges from +2 at 1st level to a mere +6 at level 20. Progression is therefore more about additional hit points and new abilities. This design principle, touted as “bounded accuracy,” has huge ramifications all throughout the game system. Flattening the bonus curve should make it easier for GMs to balance encounters, for example, and in principle monsters remain viable for a far larger level range, because AC is assumed to be higher because a monster is harder to effectively hit, rather than simply because it’s balanced to be a tougher monster. A band of 30 orcs including some archers and a spell caster or two will still be a tough fight at high level, even if the PCs can reliably dispatch individual orcs with a single hit.

System difficulties remain static and don’t need to be scaled relative to the party’s abilities. There’s no expectation that a lock that’s DC 20 to pick at 3rd level will be anything other than DC 20 at 13th. Characters at the higher level will be better at this, but they’ll be 15% better rather than 50% better, and there’s no need to have DCs well into the 40s. The whole difficulty range tops out at around 30, which may as well be regarded as a hard cap.

This may create the impression that the overall power level of the game has been scaled down, but I’m not convinced (without having seen the MM and PHB,) that this is actually the case. What it does mean is that the balance of the game between PCs and their enemies is far, far tighter than it has been in previous editions, while at the same time being more forgiving to both players and GM. Bounded accuracy is one of the things about D&D5 that most impresses me.

One thing related to bounded accuracy that I noticed in my first pass at the rules is that progression in the early levels is really fast. It only takes 300 XP to reach level 2 and 900 to reach level 3 before the experience curve starts to become more recognizable. I disliked this at first, but have warmed to it for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s not quite as extreme as the numbers suggest. Level 2 is probably the end of the first session, for example, and level 3 is probably another session or two. The idea being that you don’t have to make as many choices when creating the character, and can make your decision as to which martial template your fighter wants, for example, after seeing her in play for a little while. Through level 4 the characters are essentially apprentices. At level 5 they become “mature” adventurers, with access to things like multiple attacks, level 3 spells and so on. In this context I think I can live with this progression speed, although I am still kind of tempted to triple all the numbers. I am a proponent of slow leveling, but I think I would want to see how it works as written in a campaign format first.

There is a downside to the new math that underlies D&D5, though, and that’s the matter of backward compatibility with the enormous library of D&D materials that have been published over the years. Both hit points and armor class scale very differently in 5E than they did in any previous edition, and this has to be taken into account when doing conversions. You can’t just drop a BECMI stat block into AD&D1E like you used to be able to. On the other hand, conversion shouldn’t be anything like a huge burden; it’ll just require a bit more finesse and system experience. And it’s certainly nothing like the conversion issues faced in shifting material to or from 4E; the structure of encounters in that version of the game is fundamentally different from that of any other edition.

The combat section comes in at eight and a half pages, which is a welcome relief from the 40+ pages that we had to endure in 3.5. Once again, this is tightened considerably, in large part due to not requiring a grid and miniatures by default, although there’s a sidebar explaining how to do this if that’s your preference. Attacks of opportunity are still present but the circumstances that spawn them have been radically scaled back. Overall the combat looks very clean and playable, with plenty of tactical options but little of the bloat that characterized 3.x (let alone 4E.)

Damage resistance is totally overhauled. Instead of the unintuitive stat lines found in 3.x and 4E, if a critter has resistance to a type of damage, it takes half damage against that type. If it has vulnerability, it takes double damage. This is a completely adequate way to model this type of thing with a fraction of the overhead. There is no longer any need to remember a specific number, or try to remember whether the listed damage type bypasses DR or resists it, something I personally had to look up at the start of every single campaign.

Damage is dealt as in previous editions, with a critical hit (a natural 20 — there’s no roll to confirm anymore, although fighters increase critical range as they level) doing double dice. At zero hit points you fall unconscious… but you never actually go into negative hit points. Instead, any excess damage in excess of your total full hit points kills you instantly, including excess damage from the wound which took you to zero. You don’t lose any more HP once you’re down, but you must make a death save every turn. If you pass three of them before you fail three such saves you are stabilized; if you fail three first you are dead. Rolling a 1 counts as two failures, while rolling a 20 gives you one HP back, which means you’re active again.

There are a couple of interesting ramifications to this, one I like and the other I don’t. The more obvious one is that because you never go below zero, healers don’t need to heal your negative HP anymore. This eliminates the weird problem that came up in 3.x and was made worse in 4E, whereby tougher characters, as represented by their CON scores (in 3.x and Pathfinder) or their total hit points (in 4E) are harder to heal. It just works better, especially given the bounded accuracy design paradigm as discussed above.

It does have a clumsy side, however, in that there is no coup de grâce rule. Some Orc hacking at your unconscious body still needs to equal or exceed your total hit points in a single attack. Damage at zero HP does force you to make a death save immediately, but it’ll be really awkward if you pass that death save and stand up after being gnawed upon by owlbears.

Healing is different, and it’s another one of the parts of the system that I do not much like; it’s one of the only areas in which 5E is visibly more convoluted than 3.x. Essentially you have Short Rests and Long Rests, the exact durations of which are determined narratively by the GM. So far so good.

After a short rest, you roll a number of your hit dice and regain that many HP, adjusted by your CON modifier. After a long rest, you regain all of your lost HP and also regain up to half of your spent hit dice. So you actually have to keep track of your hit points as well as any hit dice you’ve used during your short rests. This strikes me as unnecessarily convoluted, gamey and just plain weird and I have yet to see a good justification for it working this way.

The default encumbrance system is as simple as it’s possible for such a system to be — you can carry up to your weight allowance and no more. There are no encumbrance levels and no penalties, just a flat limit. Unfortunately that limit is fifteen times your STR score. This means that a character with STR 10 (slightly below average) can lug 150 pounds around all day with no issues. While it’s very simple, this math makes no sense to me.

Thankfully, there is a variant presented which I find much more workable. Under this rule, if you are carrying more than 5 times your STR you get the encumbered condition, which gives you -10′ to movement. If you’re over 10 times your STR you are heavily encumbered, which not only inflicts a bigger movement penalty but also puts you at disadvantage on ability checks, attack rolls and saves based on STR, DEX or CON. I personally would use this rule, even though it’s slightly more complicated, with the caveat that I wouldn’t necessarily levy the save disadvantage on CON saves.

Magic is also significantly changed from the standard Vancian model. You now prepare spalls separately from casting them, and you can use any level-appropriate slot to cast a spell. So essentially the wizard now works exactly like the cleric. The spells themselves, while they retain the look and feel of their older versions, are also substantially changed. Most of them no longer scale with level, but some of those that used to can now be cast using a higher-level slot, with increased effects. There are also ritual spells, similar to those in 4E, which don’t use up a slot but which require time and/or expensive components to cast.

As before, spells have verbal, somatic and material components. A caster can use an arcane focus or holy symbol in lieu of any non-costed component, but it seemed to me that many of the spells’ components do have a listed cost and are thus ineligible to be cast this way.

The spell list itself — 59 cleric spells and 68 for the wizard — is not exhaustive but it covers all of the basics one would expect, and then some. I plan to treat it as the “common” spell list of stuff that’s easy to obtain access to, with anything else something you would have to go out of your way to find or buy. Built-in story hook.

The visual presentation of the book is clean and tidy, but there are no illustrations, something I would hope will be remedied at some point. It’s not as though WotC hasn’t already paid for the art, after all. But I found a professionally laid-out and fairly complete games system that gave me just the rules without any distractions to be somewhat refreshing. There is no word as yet on a printed version of these rules, but I kind of expect to see one appear once they are more complete and mature.

As I mentioned in the last post, the book currently lacks a bestiary, XP guidelines and rules for building encounters, but these are slated for inclusion as more product comes out. And even now there’s some help in this regard online, HERE and HERE.

So that, girls and boys, is the whole thing in a (large and windy) nutshell. As I said before, my overall impression of the D&D 5th Edition based on both my reading of the rules and my limited play experience is very positive. Although there are a few areas I would houserule or possibly replace with options from the PHB, I think it eminently suitable for my purposes, and plan to develop (and post) material for it.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Reviewed

Almost as old as roleplaying games are boardgames that try to simulate them. Back in the day we had TSR’s Dungeon, and later came games like Talisman, HeroQuest and Descent. In principle, such games try to provide some elements of the RPG experience without the prep, bookeeping or scheduling concerns, becuase they can be played in a single session.

Roleplaying games today are a bit different than they were back in the days of yore, however. And there’s been a lot of analysis over the past decade or so that tried to isloate what the components of RPG play are and how to enhance them. This has spawned many novel RPG designs, but few boardgame emulations of the subject have tried to break the genre loose from the dungeon. The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (hereafter PFACG) does that. It’s a card game that plays like a board game that plays like an RPG. Specifically like a Pathfinder Adventure Path. It’s also a cooperative game; the players try to beat the game itself rather than each other.

pathfinderPathfinder, for those who don’t know, is an iteration of the D&D Edition 3.x rules, produced and adopted by Paizo Publishing after D&D 4th Edition caused an exodus of players who preferred the previous version of the rules. It’s been wildly successful and routinely outsells D&D proper, depite the latter’s far wider name recognition amongst the general public. The Adventure Card Game is a spinoff that incorporates elements of the deck-building games that are currently popular. Note that while there are expansions for the PFACG, it is NOT a “collectable card game” in the style of Magic: The Gathering. Aside from a couple of promo cards, what comes in the kits is what’s in the game, and there’s no random packs or anything like that.

The Base Set comes with a lot of pretty cards, a basic set of dice, the rulebook and a nice card organizer tray that seats inside the box. This tray, or something very like it, is almost neccessary for play of the game, becuase on many occasions you’ll need to pick random cards of one type or another from the box, and you’ll want those oprganized into cvatgeories and ready to go. Some kinds of discards also go back in the box, while others go into your dicard pile or to the bottom of your draw deck.

One starts playing the PFACG by picking a character (one of the Pathfinder iconic characters, of which seven come in the Base Set,) who gets a starting deck that you can design yourself from the cards in the box. This deck represents both your abilites and your life points, and is subject to a number of restriction on what can go into it and what can’t. You can also just use some preconstructed decks that are provided in the rulebook, although in my opinion these are not that great but easily improved upon.

You also pick a scenario card. This can be a standalone scenario or part of a larger “adventure” consisting of several scenarios intended to be played in order. Two such adventures are provided with the Base Set: Perils of the Lost Coast, which consists of three different scenarios, and Burnt Offerings, which contains five scenarios and is the first part of the Rise of the Runelords Adventure path, a series of six linked adventures. The other five parts are found in expansion decks for the game.

Each play session is a single scenario and can be played in roughly 30-60 minutes, or maybe a bit longer the first couple of times. When the scenarios are linked into a campaign the characters can grow over time and between adventures, gradually improving and exanding their decks and gaining new abilities. While the PFACG is fun played just as a one-shot, it’s in the campaign mode that it really shines.

Aside from the character decks, each scenario will have a number of locations, as given on the scenario card. How many locations you use depends on the number of characters playing. Each location gets a deck of its own, constructed randomly using the rules in the book from the card categories listed on the location card.

Characters, alone or together, explore these locations by drawing cards from their decks, encountering challenges like monsters, traps and parleys and possibly accruing treasures like better gear and abilities. You win the game by defeating the scenario’s end boss,— but the boss can escape to another location that hasn’t been cleared out unless you cut off his escape route, which means you’ll need to find where’s he’s gone to challenge him again.

The game works on a timer; you start with a deck of thirty Blessing cards and each player turns one face up at the start of the turn, so you have thirty player turns in which to complete the adventure. If the Blessings deck runs out or all the characters die, the players lose. Various card effects can add to the Blessings deck or take away from it.

The Base Set contains enough stuff for four people to play; not just the character cards but gear, spell cards and such that are needed to flesh out the decks. The optional Character Add-On Deck contains enough cards to add two more players and provides four additional characters to play (the Barbarian, Druid, Monk and Paladin.)

The game is probably at its best with four players, but can be played solo with one character or several. And it can be fairly challenging; my first game saw my Fighter Valeros face-planting in his first location. Not all of the characters are well-suited to playing solo with a single character; the Rogue is the preferred class for this, but it looks to me like the Ranger would be pretty good as well.

My own imperfect understanding of the rules at the time didn’t help, either. The rulebook is not lengthy but a lot of details are on the cards themselves, as is common in card games these days. On the whole it’s fairly intricate, but not impenetrably so, even for kids. It’s probably about as complex as the rules in the Pathfinder Beginner’s Box. But there’s no simplified version of the game to start out with, or a gradual learning curve. You’re all in until you figure everything out, and there are a number of layers of rules that you could potentially forget, like the sepacial rules for the scenario or location, from the those cards, or the special rules for your character.

On the whole, though, the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is a great deal of fun, and not a bad substitute if you have the RPG itch but can’t get players together for a campaign or if nobody wants to GM. In the same amount of time it takes for one typical 4-hour session of D&D or Pathfinder you could get through an entire Adventure, store the built decks in the box, and pick up where you left off at a later time with the next adventure in the Path. Because the Adventure is randomized and there are different ways to build the character descks, replayability is high even using the same two adventures that come in the box.

Some vague guidelines are given in the rulebook for developing your own characters and Adventures, but no rigorous rules; it’ll take some expereince to get the balance and feel right, and there is support from online communities for doing this kind of modding.

At $60 for the Base Set and $20 each for the Character Add-On and additional Adventure decks, plus additional accessories if you want them, the buy-in price is fairly high… but as I mentioned above, you can get a pretty good amount of play even just out of the Base Set, you can play it even solitaire, and it’s entertainment dollars well-spent, in my opinion.

The final installment for the first PFACG campaign is due out in June. The next product will be a whole new Base Set and campaign based on the pirate-themed Skull & Shackles Adventure Path. If you’re going all-in on the game I do recommend adding some extra dice to your set. It’s likely that a lot of potential players will have those laying around anyway. And if you’re also into Pathfinder or another fantasy tabletop RPG that likes playing with minitaures, you might think about picking up the Pathfinder Pawns NPC Codex Box, which contains 300+ heavy cardstock standups that include the eleven iconic characters from Pathfinder, the same ones used in the card game. Using the standup Pawns is more fun and tactile than using the token cards that come with the Base Set and Add-On Deck.

Adventurer Conqueror King: The Capsule Review

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.

Revisiting Star Trek Online

As we all know, Star Trek Online went freemium last week, and since then I’ve managed to drop a couple of hours into the game. I’d last tried STO a couple of months after launch, I think, and kind of liked it, rough and half-done as it was. But there’s that little guy in my head that asks, when trialing a subscription game, “do you like this enough to pay $15 a month for it?” And the answer was no. It’s the same process I went through with Rift and later, SWTOR, that led me to not buy those games as well, even though neither was bad in any substantive sense.

Although I am indeed able to spot some changes, I don’t know that I can see a remarkably changed game today versus when I was last logged in. But then, a big part of the issue at that time was lack of content, and that seems, by all accounts, to have been remedied — at least as long as you’re Federation, and aren’t at the level cap. There has been an almost year-long content drought for reasons Cryptic discussed with Massively today.

Star Trek Online is a conventional MMO in most respects… very conventional if you look only at the ground game, which functions mostly as a veteran of WoW or any of its clones would expect. But not entirely — you have an Away Team to back you up with their own progression and abilities, and some of the missions do seem to require some care and attention to get through. So that’s novel.

There’s also crafting, which appears unsophisticated to my eye. It’s similar to but narrower than the system in Champions Online. The in-game economy… well, I haven’t seen any sign that one exists, really, so this really isn’t out of line with the source material.

And there is, of course, the space game, and I give Cryptic a great deal of credit for including both ground and space operations in the finished product. The space game is both more interesting and better-developed than the ground game (which I’m told is much improved from where it was.) It’s no EVE Online, but it captures the basic feel of starship combat in Star Trek fairly well; I’m definitely getting a Star Fleet Battles vibe, although it’s not nearly as complicated at least at the start. Just as you can improve your character as you advance, you improve your ship as well, and eventually you unlock new ship slots and ships.

STO is also pathy and linear, but not quite in the usual way. In most such games there’s a linear quest/mission progression that you go through one piece at a time. The main story sequence in STO is like this, and there are side missions as well, but there’s also a great deal of content that scales to you, and a regular cycle of in-game events. I think the variety of content I have seen so far is pretty good, although I am guessing (and I hear) that this gets stale after a while.

It’s early yet (I just hit Lieutenant 7 today) but I’m enjoying myself reasonably well so far. STO is not a flawless game by any means, but you know, at least it took some chances, and I’ll take an ambitious but flawed game over a polished but pedestrian one any day.