ACKS of Dissection
So, I’m new to the ACKS game, in that I’ve now got a bunch of the books (Core Book, Player’s Companion, Domains at War, and one other). I’ve also developed a hellishly amusing friendship with Alex Macris, the author of ACKS and proprietor of Autarch, the company that publishes it.
Why hellishly amusing? Has to do with how we got to know each other. It was all very friendly, but one of those things where he was aware of my work through the ballistics part of gaming ballistic, and I was aware of his through Google+ and his publishing of an open gaming licence alternate rules set to his published domain rules. We discovered a mutual and growing admiration for each others’ design work.
Well, now I’m reading the ACKS Player’s Companion, and my admiration for his work is not a whit smaller for it.
One of the neat bits of the basic ACKS system is that it takes the table-based and fairly rigid Basic/AD&D schema and deconstructs it. Not literary deconstruction, where one looks for the inherent contradiction that weakens or undermines a general theme, but in actual “let’s take this apart” methodology. So perhaps “dissection” is a better phrase. Not just because he did cut it apart, but because hey, this is DnD, so taking things and rules apart with bladed objects is in genre.
I will doubtless be returning to this theme, because the work he did in ACKS is going to need to be repeated for the inevitable sequel to Dragon Heresy. I need something for my envisioned “next project” that has the kind of flexibility and kit-bash capability that Alex built into the ACKS system via the Player’s Companion.
I will also be returning to this theme because the number of puns I can make since ACKS sounds like “acts” and “axe” and “asks” depending on enunciation and accent is just vast, and I cannot resist drinking from that trough. You’ve been warned.
Robot Warriors and ACKS
A long time ago, my high school gaming group played an entertaining-as-hell game of Robot Warriors, which was based on the same system that powered Champions and eventually would grow into the HERO system. The geneology isn’t the important part; what was important was a fundamental basis for how you built robots.
You had Construction Points. These were used to buy systems, speed, and several other basic characteristics of your robot. But one of those “systems” was mass. And then you’d go spend the mass points in a completely separate allocation and buy system than that used with construction points.
It was a neat system. A giant, huge, hulking robot with weapons on its weapons could easily be built on the same number of construction points as a small, fast, nimble stealth-monkey-robot. And yet . . . that big robot would have made trade-offs with important things like Dexterity, speed, and various systems like missile deflection and camouflage. I don’t have a copy anymore, alas, but I suspect targeting might have also been a system.
The point is, you broke the design down into several chunks, and designed each chunk in a way that was internally balanced.
Alex did that same thing with ACKS, and it’s genius.
I’m a native GURPS player, by way of rather many other systems I’ve played with. I like making trade-offs, and I really like systems that eschew class and level.
Oh, there’s something satisfying to leveling up, and I appreciate both the simplicity and the focus that “here’s the next level of Character Class X” can bring to a game. But it’s not my favorite design direction, and when I can, I avoid it.
For the record: Dragon Heresy makes no attempt to avoid it, embracing rather than fleeing from the class-level system of SRD5.1, explicitly to keep it familiar.
ACKS Me about Character Creation
The system in the ACKS Player’s Companion takes the basic premise of the game – that really, there are four main character classes – and says “OK, go right ahead and assign relative levels of competence in those, and then work out the details within each subsystem.”
The classes? Fighter, Thief, Magic-User, Cleric, of course (Fighting, Thieving, Arcane, and Divine).
He also gives a fifth category, which is just great, which is the Hit Dice category. You get four total points to allocate into the five categories.
A bog-standard fighter? Two points in Hit Dice, giving d8 hit die type, and two points in fighting ability, which gives aggressive attack bonus progression, any weapon you like, all possible fighting styles, a sweet damage bonus, and feisty feisty cleaving ability.
But, for example, you might not want all of that. So you can take trade-offs, and move things around. Losing flexibility gains you powers – proficiencies, abilities, whatever. One might call them Feats, but in reality they’re class abilities more than anything else. The two have something in common, though.
So if you wanted a bit more thieving and a bit less “fighter of all trades” and a bit more “loincloth and rage,” you might decide to put a point in each of thieving and fighting. The thief weapon selection is “narrow” in armor, “broad” in weapons, and that works. We select weapon and shield and two-handed weapons (but not two weapons) as fighting styles, enabling shields. We allow one-handed and two-handed melee weapons, which covers that stuff, but not ranged capability. We drop the armor from Narrow to Restricted, which allows shields and hide or worse armor, but not leather or better. We also pick up a power in the bargain, which obviously must be Fighting Fury. We get three thief skills too, say, Move Silently, Hide in Shadows, and Climb Walls . . . but we can drop one of those at first level in order to pick up two later. Can even do that three times, and have six of the many thief skills, or trade one skill for one power, and two more skills for four more later. Let’s do that – we pick up Savage Resilience and stagger four thief skills of our choice through the progression.
Poof. Instant Barbarian.
Several Small rather than One Big
The clever bit here is that instead of trying to balance all magical abilities not only against each other, but against fighting, thievery, hit dice, and divine capability, the game pushes you to first allocate broadly among several axes of capability, and then find a balance within those cataegories.
This allows the right level of trade-off in a self-consistent way, while still forcing the broad choices. As Alex notes, all point-based or allocation systems are prone to munckinism and subject to the overly-clever, and so GM adjudication is needed. But in terms of a how to do this, it’s a case study in a great way to approach the issue, and one that I will be returning to in time.