Domain Rulership, Part Nine
You know, there have been a lot more domain-management systems published for D&D, D&D derivatives, and D&D clones than I would have guessed. Today I’m tackling the Adventurer Conqueror King System (hereafter ACKS), which will take up enough column-inches to stand alone. I’ve been reading about ACKS for years now without actually reading it, though I came very close to buying a copy a few years ago at the Escapist Expo in Durham a few years back. My deep gratitude goes to the generous reader who gave me a copy of the PDF as a gift, just so I could write this article.
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight | Part Nine
Adventurer Conqueror King System
The central pitch of ACKS is that it presents a path for standard, low-level adventurers to eventually conquer lands of their own, which they come to rule, with a rigorously realistic economic underpinning. I’m mostly going to avoid commenting on the fundamental mechanics; suffice it to say that they are heavily inspired by the Rules Cyclopedia and 1e. Also, it isn’t exactly race-as-class – instead, dwarves and elves each have two class options that are theirs alone, but are their only options. Since followers and strongholds are connected to class progression, this affects the role and presence of dwarves and elves in the setting.
ACKS is, then, an example of what happens in a system when the designers know from the start that everything else in the system needs to support options and actions in very-long-term campaign play. For example, I’ve never seen an equipment chapter written like this one. It has the standard run of goods and services, but they’re throttled by the class of the local market – a six-step scale, in which I is the best and VI is the worst. Limiting access to gear seems to be the least important part of this, though it’s certainly the part that PCs will care about for the early portions of the campaign. The important stuff is the access to henchmen and hirelings, which will make a world of difference once you have enough money to care. If you plan to do any conquering, you should probably hire some help.
Beyond that, the core lesson is that in ACKS, your ledger is your life. A bit later on, there are rules for spell research and other projects that are just for spellcasters. The positioning of these rules in the book, the flow of the chapter, and the relevant rules hooks make it clear that spell research, magic item creation, ritual spells (I really like what they did here), constructing servitors, crossbreeding monsters, and so on are not afterthoughts. These are, instead, downtime actions peculiar to spellcasters, likely to see a lot more use as the campaign shifts into Conqueror and King states. I care a lot about this general category of rules, and while I have some quibbles (I hate that you lose 100% of materials invested on a single failed die roll, and that identifying uncommon or rare magic items costs two weeks and 1k gp), I see my issues as levers I could adjust for my own campaign use, rather than foundational problems.
There’s also a thing called divine power, which is a substitute “currency” for divine casters making magic items. A divine caster only accumulates divine power while actively working toward a particular goal, and earns, essentially, 2sp per faithful congregant per week. (Really, it’s 10 gp per full 50 congregants.) There are some other things you can do to boost this. What it amounts to is a more granular, nuts-and-bolts approach to Birthright’s concept of temples granting power for divine realm spells. It is all the hook that a mid-to-high-level divine caster should need to pursue good works, temple-building, and proselytizing (there are mechanical payoffs for all three). In some ways it’s a gloss on how the divine caster spends money, as compared to how the arcane caster does. Thank God for rules that clothe themselves in story and thematic character actions.
The downside to this is that it’s a medium-high amount of bookkeeping for a roughly equivalent throughput. Overall these rules get a solid thumbs-up from me, as they set a very plausible stage for whole campaigns of crusades, while also working fine as just one PC’s field of domain play. The same is marginally true for arcane casters, but it’s harder to see how other characters could work to support one archmage than it is for one theocrat.
The next section kicks off twenty-two and a half pages of stronghold and domain rules. I’m particularly interested in the breadth of actions offered and the depth of useful detail (as opposed to the nigh-pointless detail we’ve seen in other rulesets).
Random note: the largest domain a PC can ever rule is called out as 500 square miles. If, like me, you’re scratching your head about how big that is in real terms… that’s juuuust under half the size of Rhode Island. The rules explaining vassalage, constructing a realm out of multiple domains, are separated from this rule by a lot of text.
I don’t know for sure what inspired the ACKS designers in creating these rules, but there are enough other BECMI/RC influences that I’m inclined to see a heavy dose of Companion/RC rules here. Anyway, a given parcel of land is civilized, borderlands, or wilderness; if it’s within 50 miles of the nearest city or large town, it’s civilized. A 50-mile radius is enormous in Europe (“In America, 100 years is a long time. In Europe, 100 miles is a long way.”), and thus in a European-inspired game. It’s much larger than the total area of Rhode Island. There are rules for purchasing acreage (50 gp per acre), but you’ll note that the second word of the title isn’t Realtor.
As we’ve seen in a few other games, tax revenues are a function of the number of family units in a domain. Interestingly, the monthly wealth a domain is fated to offer per family is determined when you stake out the territory (a roll of 3d3), which is… really strange, but comes from a place of wanting to generate details at the moment they’re needed, rather than requiring a full setting map broken into hexes at multiple scales just to start play. Obviously, if you’re capturing the land from someone else, you could just use their existing income roll. The rules encourage players and GMs to develop their own explanations for why the land is rich or poor.
Piecemeal land grabs are going to get really weird, unless you treat each addition (or loss) as a separate parcel of land and track data for it individually. Otherwise, land becomes wealthy or destitute as you expand your grasp. What I’m saying is that 3d3 represent a waveform of wealth and terrain type, and if the waveform is collapsed in advance it seems weird to me. But you can go look for a different piece of land if this one wasn’t to your liking.
Strongholds are next. The rules for designing your stronghold would again look right at home in Companion, but in ACKS each class (including racial classes) has its own flavor of stronghold, many of which have special rules or requirements. For example, an explorer (it’s a ranger, y’all) can only build a stronghold in borderlands or wilderness. I’m going to come back to this, but the mage stronghold – the sanctum – is kind of mind-boggling in its setting implications.
Also, here is where I note that using “fighter” for every flavor of brute-force non-magical combatant, but using “thief” more narrowly and assuming larcenous intent, drives me nuts.
The price tags on all of this stuff are adding up in a right hurry, so charging mages a few grand for spell research just looks like pocket change. It’s sort of shocking, and would look vaguely better if translated into Birthright-style Gold Bars. (100GB? A lot of money, but not as terrifying on the page as 200,000 gp.) There are rules for starting population density and growth/decline rates in the population, here on a per-month scale. There’s a percentage growth boost for being an active adventurer – it’s basically a kicker for being seen keeping the realm safe.
The first significant domain action (after building a stronghold, I guess) is Agricultural Investment, which is presumably paying for land to be cleared, irrigated, terraced, maybe a gazebo installed… Anyway, fork over cash to Big Ag to attract more filthy peasants from somewhere else. There are population limits that can push wilderness into being borderlands and borderlands into being civilized, but the important part is another action: Establish an Urban Settlement.
The text shows the hallmarks of detailed demographic consideration. I lack a formal basis for judging the historicity of their population density, but the only other book in my series so far that felt as researched as this was Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe. I can at least look at “roughly 120 people per square mile” and think, “Okay, that’s a shade over five acres per person,” and start imagining the arable and non-arable acreage.
Okay, but there’s more sources of revenue. This is sort of odd presentation, but it amounts to each family being worth 9-15 gp per month. If you’re lucky enough to have vassals, you also rake in 20% of their revenue. There’s also a whole mess of upkeep, and in this section I feel completely sure they’re cribbing from Companion, with the rules for the tithes and frequency of costly festivals. It amounts to a fair amount of bookkeeping – more than some systems, less than others, and firmly within my own vague sense of “reasonable.”
Here’s some procedural game content generation: each month, a liege lord can grant a boon to or demand a favor from a vassal. If you’re a PC vassal, this might be a Most Unwelcome Surprise – so kill whatever you gotta kill to keep a lot of extra money on hand.
The morale rules look like a much cleaner version of what Companion set out to accomplish. Sometimes a bad die roll ruins the domain’s morale in spite of the ruler doing everything right, but then things also sometimes get better without a specific reason. I assume it all averages out, but the effects of bad luck are generally more ruinous than the rewards of good luck here.
Settlements come next, from that Establish an Urban Settlement action I mentioned. This is where the six classes of market (I-VI) that I mentioned earlier start to pay off – they’re another carrot for building up your urban settlements, to say nothing of the greater taxes you can levy upon families in larger urban centers. The per-family value is lower for city-dwellers than rural populations, which I assume amounts to sharecropping; on the other hand, the text points forward to Mercantile Ventures as a way to make more money off of markets. Cities replace Agricultural Investment with Infrastructure Development, to the same effect. I appreciate that there’s a table of average outcomes so that you can add up revenues for multiple settlements quickly.
Thief-like classes build hideouts, and hideouts offer their own flavors of domain actions: assassinating, carousing, smuggling, spying, stealing, and treasure-hunting, under the catchall term of “hijinks.” It bothers me to the core of my being that the text refers to a single incident of one of these actions as “a hijink.” MS Word doesn’t like it either. By default, all of these actions pay various amounts of gold, but could do something plot-relevant with the Judge’s (GM’s) consent. There’s even a subsystem for crime and punishment when you fail in your hijinks, and for how the syndicate reacts when you stab the kingpin and want to take his place. This is a lot more depth than the Rules Cyclopedia offered for thieves’ guilds, while staying within the same general bounds.
I mentioned earlier that mages build sanctums, where they teach apprentices and initiate new mages. In itself, the sanctum is fine. It’s just that the rules go on to explain that many mages add on a dungeon, with the explicit purpose of attracting monsters that the mage can harvest for raw materials of spell research, magic item creation, ritual casting, and so on. This hurts my brain, as it undermines any concept of heroism on the part of either the mage or the dungeon-clearing adventurers. It treats monsters like fish in a stock pond, to be cultivated and harvested, not actual threats to life and limb. Either the mage dupes the adventurers into harvesting parts from monsters the mage secretly stocked, or the adventurers are in on it and know that they are hired butchers, not adventurers seeking danger and fortune.
It’s an in-character, kind of post-modern genre awareness that breaks my own suspension of disbelief in reading the rules. I get that evil wizards do this kind of thing as a matter of course – I’ve read Ruins of Undermountain in more detail than most – but as something that the PCs do? No, that is apparently my threshold. (Were I to adapt these rules, it would not be catastrophic to skip the mage-built dungeons.) Part of my reaction, I guess, is that I have played Dungeon Keeper 2 and Dungeons (link goes to a Harbinger of Doom post about the game), and these rules are perfectly set up as a foundation for those games – a few more flourishes with using room enhancements to affect the wandering monster encounter rolls, and you’re basically there.
The next section is Mercantile Ventures, and it’s tough to summarize rules as involved as these are. The market ratings are everything here; each individual marketplace also has demand modifiers for various goods, so that you can play merchants shipping goods from Point A to Point B and making money on arbitrage – minus labor fees and customs duties. The rules here are strongly table-driven. There’s no concept whatsoever that you could go through a month of mercantile play without a book open in front of you, though really that’s not the worst thing. These rules support a style of play that I have seen players request before, in both tabletop and live-action games, but that I haven’t wanted to do the work to support. There’s a lot of data to track here, but potentially a lot of story getting generated as well.
The final section of the domain rules is how to turn rulership into experience points, which is fine, good, and notably absent from most domain management systems. It’s OD&D-like, so gold is XP, but not 1:1 here because of the inordinately huge numbers we’re talking about. I like that rulership doesn’t feel like a time-wasting sideline for people who care about character advancement. Presumably, people more interested in the story than in character advancement at least won’t object to character advancement occurring as they experience the story.
These are solid, compelling rules overall. They build on the foundation of Expert, Companion, and the Rules Cyclopedia, with stronger support for classes other than fighters. They are justly touted for their rigorous attention to the economy. The downside is that, in a sense, they only do the thing they do – a campaign in which characters receive lands from a liege lord or seize them from monster-haunted frontier land. Diplomacy, politics, and espionage against other Lawful peoples is just not the experience this game presents on a mechanical level. As an OD&D-alike, I’m sure there’s an expectation that the DM will improvise any needed subsystems into existence, or that it’s all social interaction that shouldn’t be systematized.
I’m much more a 5e kind of player and DM at this stage than I have ever been an OD&D-and-clones fan. I think I played one RC session; it admittedly might have lured me away from 2e if that campaign had continued. As a result, it’s hard for me to engage with ACKS on its own terms – but hacking 5e to accept the ACKS domain rules would be shockingly easy. My point is that if you’re looking for a domain management system that:
- doesn’t go overboard on information tracking (the domain management sheet looks more like a character sheet than a form 1040)
- offers a lot of verisimilitude in a quasi-black-box backend
- doesn’t demand a lot of DM management overall
- has robust subsystems for a wide variety of downtime actions
…then ACKS is one of the best offerings I’ve seen, and highly adaptable to most editions of D&D. Even 4e, I think, though spell research and magic item creation would be a bit more intensive. My strongest criticism of it overall is the thing about mage sanctums and dungeons really bugging me, but I expect that that is a feature rather than a bug for a lot of groups. Also, money factors into so many parts of the game that there’s some danger of it becoming the world’s greatest RPG for CPAs. (And that’s a pretty high bar, in comparison to the gold that changes hands in many of the other systems I’ve covered!)
I’ve still got several more domain-management systems to discuss, so I dearly hope that y’all are enjoying this series! There will be a few more weeks of one-off posts in the next couple of months, as I’m coming up on a seriously intensive span of LARP-preparation work. I am flattered and deeply grateful for the generous support I’ve received for this and all of my Tribality writing.