Wednesday, December 26, 2012

ACKS Player's Companion Review

It occurred to me while writing my Agent review that, since the ACKSPC was just officially released, a proper review of that might be more timely.  So I guess this is like...  Reviewsweek or something.  Full disclosure: I kickstarted the Player's Companion, which is why I currently have a copy, and reported many a typo during development.  Other than those, though, I don't think I influenced things overmuch.

So, contents.  We've got 2 pages of introduction, 46 pages covering 19 new classes, 20 pages of templates, 24 pages on creating new classes, 50 pages of expanded magic research rules and new spells, and then 5 pages of miscellanea at the end, with a little bit of new equipment, rules for building traps, and a few new proficiencies, a lot of which are specific to the Dwarven Machinist.  The introduction is pretty good, and makes very clear that while the PC can be employed in the standard 3.x 'splatbook' fashion of "Hey players, here's a book full of new toys for you", it can also be used as a source of strict replacements for classes in keeping with a campaign's theme, or to build an entirely custom set of classes and spells for a really exotic world.  This note, I think, is worthwhile, so the introduction scores points with me.

The classes are something of a mixed bag.  There aren't any that I would classify immediately as "bad", but there are some that I'm not exactly sure about.  The Gnomish Trickster looks like a dangerous combination of stealth skills and darkvision, which could lead to frustrating party-split scouting like we encountered when we played OSRIC.  I'm still a fan of ACKS' "no darkvision" policy from the Core, so I dislike that the gnome and the Thrassian both have it.  On the plus side, the class building rules make it fairly straightforward to remove darkvision and either reduce their XP values or provide some replacement ability.  Without darkvision, I actually quite like the idea behind the Trickster, of a thief replacement based on spell-like abilities usable once per hour, though most of those they actually have are illusions rather than useful things like invisibility and knock.  It probably doesn't help that after one too many illusionist dungeon masters, I really, really dislike illusions...

Going through the other classes in order:
  • Anti-paladin: mostly as fighter, plus some unholy protections, control undead, detect good, and faster levelling, but loses ranged weapons and d6 rather than d8 HD and must be chaotic.  Nothing objectionable here.
  • Barbarian: Lightly-armored fighters with some other defensive abilities (ability to roll twice and choose for mortal wounds), and with a proficiency and weapon proficiencies determined by their place of origin (Norse, Mongol, or African equivalents).  I like this design, and for our game we added a "Swamp Barbarian" option to the backgrounds for Tim's crocodile-wrestler barbarian henchman.  Levels significantly slower than fighter, though, which is annoying.  Overall we've had fun with this class in play.
  • Dwarven Delver: Dwarf pioneer-flavored thief which trades ability to disarm traps and open locks for d6 HD, caving, and a +2 dwarf bonus to proficiency rolls on all of its remaining thief skills.  They get vaults instead of hideouts, which is probably OK because they would be quite good at hijinks.
  • Dwarven Fury: Dwarf berserkers who can't wear armor, but who get damage reduction, an inherent bonus to AC, and roll-twice-and-pick on mortal wounds.  Andrew played one of these over the summer, and it was fairly entertaining until he was killed by a great heaping pile of zombies.  Their rage ability is distinctly better than berserkergang, since it has no penalty to AC.  Levels pretty slowly, though.
  • Dwarven Machinist: The other half of the dwarf thief, covering lock opening, trapfinding, and trap disarming.  Again, they're much better at these than a standard thief because of the dwarf skill bonus.  Their main ability, though, is designing and building construct servitors from a low level.  Haven't seen this in play yet, but I feel like some of my more creative players would have a field day with it as long as they had gold to burn.
  • Elven Courtier: Elf bard variant with spellcasting as a wizard of half their level.  Very elfy.
  • Elven Enchanter: Elf wizard with some specialist enchantment proficiencies.  In one of the earlier drafts, these guys were double-wizards, getting twice the spell slots of a wizard of their level.  I'm glad to see that this is no longer the case.  As it stands, they're wizards with just a little bit of extra stuff who level a hair more slowly and cap at 12th level.
  • Elven Ranger:  The Legolas.  Explorer + Elf.  No arcane casting, which is a first for an elf class, but looks quite good at ranged combat and wilderness ops.  They lose some of the Explorer wilderness stuff, but replace it with Tracking and Animal Friendship, with the justification that they mostly defend elven forests rather than exploring new areas.  Doesn't really fit the flavor of elf present in my setting.
  • Gnomish Trickster: See above.
  • Mystic:  The 3.x monk, basically.  Unarmed combat specialist with a bunch of weird abilities and four (that's right, four) prime requisites.  I really don't like the huge pile of special abilities; part of what I like about most of ACKS' classes, and old-school classes in general, is that they're simple.  These guys do have a neat rage variant, though.  I think if I were to run an oriental game, I'd probably build a custom arcane class with fancy maneuvers-as-spells for my monks rather than using these.
  • Nobiran Wonderworker: A theurge class, casting both as a full wizard and a full cleric.  Fights as a wizard, no armor, d4 HD, slow levelling, and requires 11+ in all stats, though.  I think is someone rolled ability scores that high across the board, I'd have no problem letting them use this if they could justify it in-setting.
  • Paladin: Basically the lawful reflection of the anti-paladin.  We had one of these a while back, and he was pretty OK.  Nice helmet in the art, too.
  • Priestess:  A d4 HD cleric that fights as a wizard but gets more spells and has more religious restrictions on their actions.  I quite like this class; it's more along the lines of "medieval european monk" than the standard templar cleric.  If you want to play a mendicant friar in brown robes with a walking stick, this may be the class for you after you file the gender specificity off of it.
  • Shaman: Druid, basically.  Has lots of special abilities (totem animal, shapechange, astral projection, and so forth), but not as many as Mystic.  I could see using this for a more primitive setting, but it's not particularly useful in the setting we're currently running.
  • Thrassian Gladiator: Lizardman fighter with natural attacks and natural armor.  We have one of these; he's a scary guy, but he levels quite slowly, even after reduced XP cost to level as a result of removing his darkvision.
  • Venturer: Bard-thief-merchanty types with a little spellcasting as high levels and a very neat ability to improve effective market class.  Matt is playing one of these presently, and seems to be enjoying setting up a trade empire.
  • Warlock:  Mages with slower casting progression, but with dark spell-like abilities added.  Not sure they quite make up for what you lose in casting; haven't seen in play yet.  They do level faster than wizards, at least.
  • Witch: Another d4 HD, low-fighting divine caster like the Priestess, but with four traditions much like the barbarian origins which provide access to slightly different spells and proficiencies.  Whether the witches my players are up against are of this class, or are mages, warlocks, or chaotic priestesses remains to be seen.
  • Zaharan Ruinguard:  An interesting take on the "spells and sword in complete accord" idiom, with d6 HD, fighter to-hit, half casting in heavy armor, and several abilities which let them expend spell slots when they hit with a melee weapon to achieve effects.  Overall I quite like this class as a darker alternative to the elven spellsword.
So yeah; overall the classes look pretty good.  I've been holding out on releasing them to PC hands contingent on actions within the setting; last session, for example, they missed an opportunity to hire a Machinist.   Andrew got access to the Fury for committing burning violent suicide as a vaultguard ("for meritorious service to Armok"), Tim was permitted a paladin because he asked for it by name during character generation in the first session, Matt's venturer was OK'd as a challenge class ("Is playing a merchant actually viable?"), and Tom's Thrassian followed from his chaotic wizard's subjugation of a crocodileman village, which opened it as a source of PCs.  So far we've had fun with all the ACKSPC classes we've tried, I think.

After classes we have a chapter of templates, which are useful for rapidly generating and equipping first-level characters.  Basically you take the 3d6 that you normally multiply by 10 for starting gold pieces, and instead index your roll into a table for your class which gives you your proficiencies and equipment based on your economic situation.  A low roll will get you a background like Hermit, Hedge Wizard, Exile, Outlaw, or Deserter, while a high roll might generate a Patrician, Court Magist, Royal Enforcer, or Knight.  These are handy for equipping henchmen, but unfortunately the fact that they're on a gaussian distribution means that you get a lot of henches from the middle few entries, who start to look alike.  They're also not useful for characters of higher than 1st level; Autarch has been working on this, and released a spreadsheet I believe of expanded templates which extend to higher levels.  Haven't looked at that yet, but it sounds useful.

The next chapter covers custom class creation.  I've used it several times, for the Valkyrie, my Harmakhan cleric variant, and tweaking the Thrassian, and it seems to work pretty well.  It's a bit complex, especially when you start getting into custom tradeoffs, but not too bad.  The cautionary note that "In general, any system of build points is susceptible to abuse and the Judge must carefully review all custom classes for balance.  Just because something can be built doesn’t mean it should be built or must be allowed in play" is a vital preface to these rules.  There's also has a nice section at the end on creating custom proficiencies and spell-like abilities as proficiencies.  There are notes on how to build new classes using the elf, dwarf, gnome, Thrassian, Zaharan, and Nobiran races, but not for building new races.  I did a little reverse-engineering while working on an elephantman class, but do not recall my conclusions.

Chapter the fourth is on magic.  It begins with rules for experimentation and breakthroughs in magic research; experimentation provides a bonus to magic research throws, but with an added possibility of dangerous mishaps on a failure, while breakthroughs occur when you make a research throw by a wide margin, and provide extra benefits to the end product.  There are many 'fun' mishap tables in this section.  This is followed by a section on designing new spells, which is focused mainly on figuring out what spell level a given effect should be.  They're useful; I've played with them mostly with the aim of making more summoning spells (another notable addition), and they seem to generate reasonable results.  Then we get into expanded spell lists; mage spells are expanded from 12 per spell level to 24, while clerics and bladedancers still get 10 per spell level though there is some replacement of old spells with new ones (mostly on the bladedancer list).  There are also custom lists for the various new casting classes, and the number of rituals at each ritual level is increased from 1 to 4 for both arcane and divine casters.  I've been gradually working some of the new spells in, mostly low-level arcane stuff like Choking Grasp (colloquially known as Force Choke here), Dismember, and Burning Hands.  It hasn't seen much use, with old standbys like Sleep and Magic Missile tending to win coveted spell repertoire slots instead.  I will say, though, that the Priestess has a bunch of extra healing spells which fill in the healing-less levels in the cleric list.  There are also a fair number of spells which note that they're used in the creation of a particular magic item; this supports item creation nicely.

Finally after magic, we get to some closing "Supplemental Rules".  Here we find base ages for the new classes, some new equipment (I like the Heavy Helmet, personally), a table of follower-types that appear when some of the new classes hit 9th level, some new proficiencies, which seem predominantly for Machinists to enhance their automata, and prices for traps for use in PC-constructed strongholds and dungeons.  Then we have the OGL, an index, a spells index, and a custom powers index.  The Player's Companion pdf also has bookmarks!  Unfortunately, they slow its load time down a lot compared to the earlier drafts which did not have bookmarks.  I have observed this slowdown also in the updated version of the ACKS Core pdf, which has bookmarks (while the original did not).

Art quality is mostly pretty good.  The interior art is black and white, with a number of full-page illustrations of either a single character or of multiple characters performing an adventurer-some action (plotting in a tavern, fighting skeletal bat-things in a cave, walking away from a burning castle, and so forth).  The art density isn't particularly high, but I'm OK with it.  Some of the art for the new classes seemed a bit silly, but the Paladin and Ruinguard both have excellent helmets.  Nice use of shading throughout.

Conclusions: good quality, but for a few hangups with infravision, possibly weak spells, and issues with rolling the same templates too often.  No editing errors that I noticed on this readthrough.  I'm not sure what they're going to be selling the pdf for, but overall I would say that for an ACKS Judge who wants to roll their own classes and spells, it's quite a good book.  Autarch has yet to disappoint (I guess one could argue that the book is 5-6 months late from its original expected ship date, but they did a good job with keeping us updated with drafts throughout that period, and frankly I tend to take kickstarter ETAs with a large grain of salt.  The more successful a project, the more stretch goals it'll hit, which translates into more work to do, which the money doesn't really make faster.  But that's moot at this point).  For $10 and six months of wait time, I've already gotten quite a bit more mileage out of the ACKSPC than out of any of the comparably-priced Mongoose supplements that I seem to have made an infrequent habit of reviewing.

Now if they'd just launch the Domains at War kickstarter...


  1. Thanks for the review. I'm not an ACKS fan, but something like this sounds like it could be pillaged for other OSR games with some tweaking of the classes.

    1. I have limited experience with other OSR games, but I would be inclined to say "probably". Demihuman classes might not work depending on whether or not your system of choice uses race-as-class, but the spells and human classes should translate well. The templates might be useful, but the class-building and equipment probably wouldn't be.

      Also, thanks for suggesting a new category for me to consider when doing OSR product reviews :P

  2. Heyo, I joined in on the kickstarter as well; the Wonderworker and Venturer are the contributions I was able to make as one of the goodies. I'm glad your own campaign is getting use out of the Venturer, after the fact I thought nobody else would care for it.

    1. Nice! One of my first impressions of ACKS was "Traveller-esque", and I think the venturer does a good job of illustrating the validity of that impression to players. I've liked the class since my first read of it, and was pleasantly surprised when one of my players decided to take it up. So yeah, thanks for that one!

  3. Thanks very much for your detailed review.

    Many of the character classes were contributed by backers and members of the community, including the Anti-Paladin, Dwarven Fury, Gnomish Trickster, Thrassian Gladiator, Venturer, Witch, Zaharan Runeguard, and Nobiran Wonderworker. This gives the book a bit more content and variety, but obviously the outside creative juice means that some of the classes 'feel' a bit different than the others. The Gnomish Trickster is an example of a class I'd never have created on my own.

    My personal favorite classes in the book are the Barbarian, Mystic (actually based on Bene Gesserit from Dune and Kelhus from Prince of Nothing), Priestess, Shaman, Venturer, Warlock, and Zaharan Ruinguard.

    I think one could do a very Conan-esque D&D if you removed traditional Clerics and Mages and replaced them with Shaman, Warlock, and Witch instead.

    Because of the long production cycle of the book, we were able to playtest all of the classes in actual campaign play and I'm very confident that they're all fun and viable. My biggest worry was the Thrassian Gladiator, because it is *nasty*, but the slow leveling and a late-edition fix to its armor seems to have kept it balanced.

    As far as the spells, we had a couple goals in mind when selecting which new spells to add. First, we wanted to make sure that every magic item in ACKS had a spell associated with it, for mages engaging magic research.

    Second, we wanted to address the "sleep/stinking cloud/fireball" problem, by which I mean the overwhelming utility of a small number of spells. Thus at 1st level you see burning hands, choking grip, and summon berserker, all of which compete with sleep as really effective 1st level choices. At 2nd level there's deathless minion, summon hero, and uncanny gyration. At 3rd level there's dismember, earth's teeth, and skinchange. At 4th level, summon fantastic creature is amazing. In playtest, this really "opened up " the spell repertoires. I'm surprised that you found the new spells to be weak... our playtesters have been using them constantly!

    Third, we wanted to add depth in a few areas of magic that we thought merited it, especially necromancy, summoning, and transformations.

    Finally, we wanted to add some never-before-seen spells, such as angelic choir, choking grip, deathless minion, invulnerability to evil, oblivion, scouring wind, summon berserker, summon fantastic creature, skinchange, swift sword, undead legion, and winged flight.

    Thanks again for your detailed and positive review!

    1. Ahh... Mystic as Bene Gesserit makes a lot more sense.

      I ran a 3.5 game like that once, where there were no clerics or wizards, just druids and sorcerers; it did provide a nice flavor, and was a lot of fun.

      The Thrassian armor fix worked very nicely; it took our Thrassian from "unstoppable killing machine" down to "scary but still mortal killing machine" :P

      Filling in the item creation gap was great, but I'm not so sure about some of the spells beating out sleep and fireball. Our experience with Dismember and Choking Grasp was they were perceived as less useful primarily because they were single-target and relied on the target failing saves; too 'swingy' for my players' tastes. Burning Hands required a hole in the front line to fire through, which my players were loathe to create, and they didn't really want to keep a "for emergencies only" spell in repertoire. Would likely be more popular at lower levels where the meatshields go down more often. Deathless Minion was used, but mostly as a utility spell for body disposal rather than for combat; much of its potential was ignored. Earth's Teeth, Gyration, and the Summons do all look very good, though, and Stinking Cloud is definitely competitive with Web; haven't looked at Skinchange yet. I personally like Swift Sword and Invuln Evil as well on the divine side, and the new rituals are great.