Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How Does Anyone Survive in ACKSWorld, Anyways?

This is a post that has been in the works for a long time, and one I really should've gotten around to writing sooner.

One of the repeated complaints of my players about ACKS is the perceived unreasonableness of having a peasant population, nevermind towns and caravans, in the midst of a wilderness as monster-infested and generally deadly as that which ACKS postulates.  I think my veteran players have come to terms with it by this point, but our new players brought it up again, so I figure I had best address it after all.

The important mindset to have here is one of the post-apocalyptic.  The Hill Cantons had a wonderful post back in August, when we first confronting this problem, about how the default assumptions of AD&D strongly suggested a world where civilization had just about collapsed, and mankind was on the brink of extinction (this post that he wrote leading into it was good, too).  ACKS' default assumptions are not quite to AD&D's level of sparseness - the Auran Empire setting seems to assume a falling empire, rather than one fallen some time past.  But they're close enough to be adapted, and that is what I have done in the Shieldlands.  Zahar collapsed some sixty to a hundred years ago; well outside of human living memory given medieval life expectancy, but within elven living memory (if one trusts the elves).  The Shieldlands were a Zaharan territory, though largely human-inhabited, and later they became a battleground between the Myrmidians and the Zaharans leading up the to disaster which shattered their empire.  With these historical assumptions in mind, let's address more specific concerns.

First off, why are there peasant populations in the wilderness such that when we clear a hex, there are people there to swear loyalty to us?  The simple answer is that those peasants are existing at a near-animal level of subsistence as a prey species for monsters, and surviving at something of an equilibrium state where births per unit time equal deaths from predation and disease in that same timeframe.  They don't form large holdfasts because those are like presenting the wyverns with a lunchbox, instead living in bands practicing crude farming or herding.  They also don't have sufficient numbers, leadership, or skill in metalworking to arm up to a level where they can fight wyverns, nor the food stores for long-distance travel to a well-defended town.  It is a nasty, brutish, and short existence, but it's what they've got.  There's a reason they swear fealty if you can clear a hex and have the fortress and garrison to defend it - it's a huge step up in life expectancy, and the rules reflect this by allowing domained peasant populations to grow, while peasant populations in monster-infested hexes remain static.

Second - why is there this ring of 'civilized' hexes, then borderlands, and then wilderness beyond?  This I posit resulted from an exodus from the cities into the wilderness by peasants when the empire fell, the rule of law ended, and petty tyrants, cults, bandits, and worse took control of towns.  With the empire's monsters no longer under control and now ravaging the countryside, staying in the cities became a very dangerous proposition - with the peasants dying in the fields and trade at an end, famine struck the cities, followed by open violence in the streets, plague, and anarchy.  In this situation, some felt it wiser to flee the population centers, becoming some of the herders and subsistence farmers who are our solution to the first question.  That their population density falls the further from the cities you go supports this explanation - not many of them made it that far.  This also has interesting implications about the former maximum size of various population centers in the Shieldlands; perhaps modern Opportunity is built atop the ruins of Zaharan Opportunity, with further ruins extending some distance into the countryside.

Third - If everyone fled, why are there still towns, and how do those towns survive?  The towns survived because eventually, their populace fell to the point where they could sustain themselves from the food generated by peasants within their hex.  They also had the advantages of walls,  safe water-sources, a few surviving skilled craftsmen, and government (eventually).  These permitted a well-prepared town to button itself up and repel orcs and bandits who would lay siege, and to organize and arm large groups of men to repel other (winged) threats.  Their populations are largely stable based on the area around them which can provide them food, and to which they can provide sufficient protection that herders and farmers can bring their wares in to market without needing a personal army.  There are, of course, still monsters in the vicinities of cities, but they are fewer than out beyond their areas of influence.

Fourth - why are there no roads?  It's been sixty-plus years, and nobody's been maintaining them.  They're all either overgrown, lost beneath the sands, or so full of boulders and holes that they're barely recognizable, nevermind passable by wheeled transport.  It took years for the various towns to return to order after the upheaval, and with their reduced populations and the looming threat of being devoured by monsters, none have had the resources to restore the old Zaharan road system.

Fifth - if there are no roads, and so damn many monsters, how does overland trade work?  Mules!  Lots of mules!  And as many guards; I submit for your consideration that a merchant caravan (from the Men, Merchants entry in the monsters section) may have a guard of up to 80 1st-level fighters, 8 3rd-level fighters, and a 5th-level fighter captain, each with a chance of magic items suitable to his level.  While such a force will take many casualties from an encounter with a wyvern, the damage it could inflict via crossbows would likewise pose problems realistically (infection, if nothing else).  Many a caravan has been lost in the Shieldlands, though, and muleskinning is a dangerous business undertaken by the reckless and the desperate because it can be very profitable.  The rivers are somewhat safer, at least from bandits and orcs, and this is why most trade in the Shieldlands is conducted via water, and the only proper city in the area is on the coast and largely supported by fishing and piracy.

Sixth - where did all these monsters come from anyways?  The Zaharan Empire was a dark and terrible one, whose legions included countless goblins, orcs, trolls, undead, wyvern cavalry, and worse.  When the Shieldlands were a territory, the monstrous armies stationed there served in fear of their wizard-lords and limited collateral damage to an acceptable level.  When the empire fell, the monsters slipped the leash, broke company along racial and clan lines, and have been running amok ever since.  Worse still is when things escape from forgotten Zaharan labs and sealed crypts...

And so, enter the PCs into a world where most people live and die within six miles of where they were born, where safety and permanence are foreign concepts, where 35 is a ripe old age, where no institution has persisted more than two or three generations, and most people with weapons and manpower are basically bandits, settling down permanently only if they find some particularly productive area of land inhabited by many peasants who fear them, and dealing with the monsters only if personally threatened.  But the PCs, they're different.  They're actually seeking to impose order - they have grand visions of sprawling empires, marble cities, just rulers served by knightly warriors, peace, prosperity, and plenty.  Whatever their alignments may be, by the force of their ambition they are serving as a force of Law and civilization in a land dominated by the Neutral and the barbaric.  And they seem to be succeeding; Opportunity is flourishing under their rule, and has even withstood a change in leadership without descent into anarchy, something unheard of in the Shieldlands in many years.  For the first time since the fall, roads are being built and properly defended, and new trade routes are opening.  They may not have convinced the Shieldlanders to abandon some of their dearest-held traditions, like knifing strangers for their boots, but Rome wasn't built in a day...

Of course, for every force of law, there is an equal and opposite force of chaos - in this case, the witches of Bleak and their expansive beastman domain...  But such is the nature of things.

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