Thursday, July 28, 2011

Adventurer Conqueror King: Interview With Tavis Allison

Today, we’re interviewed Tavis Allison, part of the group behind Autarch and the upcoming Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS). ACKS has blown away its first Kickstarter goal and is hard to work on the second.

ACKS is to be designed for “playing the kind of campaign that took Conan from being a freebooter to brooding on a throne”. If that intrigues you, we’ve caught up with one of the designers, Tavis Allison, to discuss ACKS in greater detail:

So, Adventurer Conqueror King—snazzy title! Where did it come from?

TA: Greg and I threw out some names sporadically, and then Alex stepped in with a “a general survey of general categories of RPG names” that included Acronyms, Single Words, Compound Words, Two Word Phrases, Two Words with Alliteration and Ampersand, Two Words with Ampersand, Word Plus Colon, Word with Number, Short Phrases, Long Phrases, and Weird Places. He listed existing RPG names in each category, then generated new ones, of which Adventurer Conqueror System was the clear winner.

I believe it’s this conceptual rigor that explains why Alex is the one that runs the multi-million dollar media empire, whereas it’s Greg and I that get paid to write for The Escapist. (No one gets paid to write for Adventurer Conqueror King, we’re just glad that using Kickstarter means we don’t lose money up front like my previous publishing venture Behemoth3 did.)

I have a clever thing I say about the name:

I wanted commas, but was told it made it sound like a firm of lawyers. Stabbem, Lootem, and Flee. Let's not even get into the effort necessary to prevent people from abbreviating it "ACK" like Bill the Cat expelling a hairball. Names are really hard - if every kid in the world had to have a totally unique name there'd be a lot of really tough scrappers out there a la "A Boy Named Sue".

Unfortunately when I did some research for this interview this turned out to be too clever to be true, see the Autarch blog for more info (

What’s the premise behind your game?

TA: Because I’m the laziest member of our development team, I looked up the email from Alex in which he told me how the concept had crystallized from our previous inchoate discussions:

Greg and I just had an interesting discussion. We started with the sense that DCC was onto something. In DCC, Goodman looked at what the original purpose of D&D was, and strove to create a new version of D&D that better accomplished its original purpose. From his point of view, the point of D&D was to simulate pulp adventure stories like Fafhrd, Conan, Clark Ashton Smith, and so on. And DCC does admirably in doing that. A session of DCC seems like it would feel like a pulp story.

We decided to apply the same thought process, but keep in mind that D&D had evolved from Chainmail, and that D&D player characters represent essentially fetal Chainmail characters. i.e. Chainmail offers “Hero” and “Superhero”. In D&D you start off as a character who can become a “Hero” or “Superhero” over time.

So what if one conceived the point of D&D as not to simulate the short pulp adventure stories, but rather to represent a microcosm of a character living in a wargame, or to simulate the career of a hero who rises from humble adventurer to king, the classic barbarian-turned-king tale, with the idea being that 1) our game will play well at every level (dungeon-crawling to wilderness-wandering to dominion-ruling), 2) there will be integrated rules for mass combat and dominion ruling, 3) the level curve will not be so long that you have no expectation of ever getting to the end game, 4) the game doesn’t *end* when you reach name level, but instead transforms into a new game. This is in a sense the nearly mythical suggestion of what D&D could have become if it hadn’t gotten caught up in Epic levels and Immortal sets and so on. Greg called it “integrating The Sims and SimCity”.

Note that “adventurer to king” is right there at the beginning; we went to a lot of naming effort just to stick “conqueror” in there.

Your design group seems to have an affinity for the ancient world. Do you think that’s something that’s somewhat of a forgotten influence in classical D&D?

TA: Yes, I think that if you look at the sources of inspiration for the original game, there are as many classical monsters like minotaurs and cockatrices as there are European ones like trolls and kobolds or Tolkien ones like balrogs and hobbits. And when I see the unfettered imagination of guys like Bruce Bickford who totally remind me of an alternate-universe Gygax or Arneson, it’s really clear that one thing they all had in common was Ray Harryhausen’s vision of an ancient world full of animated skeletons and golems.

The other factor here is that Alex is a history buff and Ryan was an art history major. Lots of the Arabian Nights and Alexander the Great feel comes from their expertise. When I say things like “realistic armor” or “non-European cultures” they go to town trading reference images and historical analogues. The result things that blow me away because they’re grounded in what people did in the real world and are much more visually surprising than the kind of mashed-up generic fantasy I got when I’d write art orders for Wizards of the Coast.

What are your design influences from the various editions of D&D?

TA: We’re building on two long-term campaigns: my White Sandbox, which started with OD&D, and Alex’s Auran Empire, which started with Basic/Expert D&D. We both added a bunch of house rules, of course, and drew from a lot of the same sources: Judges’ Guild, Jaquay’s Caverns of Thracia, Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign, and all the things that people in the old-school renaissance were into.

So the backbone of ACKS is Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy. Before he left to go work for Alex and play in his game, Greg and I had been part of two long-running 3E campaigns and a couple of 4E playtest groups, so those were part of the mix as well. From 3E we got some ideas about how to allow for character specialization, and a lot of our experience about what it was like to play a character from zero to hero. From 4E we got the idea of tiers of play, and the work I did on mundane items for Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium got me thinking about how to make buying worldly things something you’d want to do at all levels, not just when equipping a new PC.

I also think that seeing new editions helps you know what you do and don’t want to do when you go back to the drawing board. I think that many of the goals 4E set for itself, like being the Hoyle’s rules for tournament play, were the same things Gygax wanted to do with AD&D and that I appreciated in 3E; it wasn’t until 4E really achieved those goals that I recognized that I didn’t like where that trend was headed.

Domain management seems like it’s going to be big in your game. Do you see that as part of a character’s evolution or tiered game play?

TA: It’s something that we definitely thought should be there, as part of fulfilling the promise of the original fantasy roleplaying game. It’s not necessarily part of every character’s evolution; the rules are there if you want them, but you could choose to remain a band of wanderers if that suits your group. It’s tiered only in that a character usually needs to be wealthy and powerful to control a domain, but that’s not mandated and you could do some really interesting stuff with characters taking over a deserted stronghold at low levels and having to find other ways to deal with threats than handling it themselves.

Can you tell us a bit about ACKS' default setting?

TA: The Auran Empire is Alex’s campaign world, and is the implied setting for the game. It’s loosely defined enough that neither he nor I had any problem saying that my White Sandbox campaign region was one of the wildernesses to the north, and that the area he’d developed in play was those civilized kingdoms to the south we never dealt with.

Here are some of the assumptions of the Auran Empire, lazily reposted from here: (

Built for Gaming: A fantasy RPG setting needs a reason for wandering heroes to travel into the wilderness, fight monsters, and take their treasure. Thus towns and castles must exert control only over a local area, with outlying regions infested by robbers and monsters. Empires must have collapsed and lands grown depopulated in order to provide a source of ancient ruins and treasure, and an ancient war or wild magic must have created terrible monsters that, in the declining age, can no longer easily be held in check. The Auran Empire setting was defined with these needs in mind.

Genre: The setting is adventure fantasy, not high fantasy. Adventurers seek fame, power, and loot. Nobles live in luxury while slaves toil in misery. Human cities teem with vice and villainy. Virgins are sacrificed to chthonic cults. The characters may be adventurers like Conan, or willing heroes like Aragorn, but they are not reluctant heroes like Frodo.

Era: The era is historically akin to the age of Late Antiquity circa 350AD as the Roman Empire slipped into the Dark Ages. Opulent long-standing empires are shattering in a tidal wave of violence. It is not the Middle Ages and the tropes of the Middle Ages (knights in shining armor, chivalric orders, and so on) are not strongly present.

Here’s the big question, though: what certainly have a lot of iterations and cousins of classical D&D out there. Why would someone want to scope out ACKS? What are you going to in your game that’s going to make it great for play?

TA: In the first-ever roleplaying game system, Gygax and Arneson end by asking “why let us do any more of your imagining for you?” I think that we might have hit on one of the few good answers: making the economic framework of play internally consistent. That sounds boring as hell – which is why you’d have us do it for you – but no previous system has really done it well, and I think it’s a necessary grounding for flights of fantasy. In the afterschool D&D class I teach for kids age 8-11, I see firsthand what happens when you have lots of treasures worth a king’s ransom without any sense of what that means to ordinary people in the imagined world. Using ACKS’ framework doesn’t mean I can’t place a gem worth a million gold pieces in my dungeon, it just means that I know something about how many assassins the person who used to own that gem can afford to hire.

People nowadays talk about ‘fixing the math’, and Greg and I have done enough new-school design to appreciate where they’re coming from. But that discussion mostly focuses on combat, and our experience has been that the classical framework for combat can be really robust and interesting. Fixing the math of the economy is more exciting to me because it doesn’t make any presumptions, other than that you will seek to grow in wealth and power. When all the different ways you can do that are interwoven, decisions about what you and your group want to pursue arise organically from the concrete things you do to get gold pieces and spend them on the things that matter to you.

How’s your Kickstarter project going? Any future plans to use that sort of format further?

TA: Oh hell yes. Kickstarter is so many times better than being a publisher in 2004 that I don’t know where to start. Being able to take pre-orders for things before printing any of them? Offering lots of different things people might want, from goods to experiences to just being part of something exciting, and see which ones strike a chord? Working with the people who’ll be using your system to make sure it meets their needs, fits into their experience of play, and isn’t full of crap? And then you can go and sell direct and into stores just like you did back when, except it’s now all proven and paid for.

Those are good reasons to use Kickstarter as a publisher, but I’m genuinely amazed by the response we’ve gotten from fans. We just set a second bonus goal – if we raise twice the money we originally asked for, we’ll give everyone another set of free stuff that we developed for our continuous four-day demo of the game at Gen Con – and it seems quite likely that we’ll hit that target. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that people are excited by what we’re doing, since these things are coded into the genome of the original RPG and create an itch that’s rarely scratched.

Any plans for the game to have any sort of permissive license or OGL-type permissions?

TA: Yes, we gratefully use the Open Game License to work with the material others have developed and contribute our own work to the community in turn. We added a compatibility license that lets you declare that your new thing is part of the same conversation as ACKS, and also cite the sections of your new work that are inspired by ours. Giving credit in this way is made difficult by provisions of the OGL, so we designed our add-on license to let you play with our toys and say you’re doing so without our permission.

We’ve been gratified that, because he felt “the unified economic system inside ACKS is a really inspired piece of work”, one of our backers has already decided to use this license and make the system he’d been developing in parallel, Hill Cantons: Borderlands, compatible with ours. I’m really excited by this: as a gamer, it’s awesome to have two different takes on a subject that are designed to work well with one another instead of repeating the same ground or offering contradictory solutions to the same problem.

What’s next for you guys?

TA: First up is fulfilling the Kickstarter promise: taking the core system, and the Domains of War mass-combat supplement that was the first bonus goal, polishing them in response to backer input, and doing illustration, layout, and printing.

After that, we’ve got a bunch of other stuff ready to go or in the pipeline. A character compendium with stuff like making new classes. Campaign gazetteers for the Auran Empire and the White Sandbox. Sample lairs and treasures, and online tools for generating more. Adventures that work on all levels: you could use our Keep as a base to explore dungeons, or a place to restock your caravans, or a stronghold to defend against an army.

So, if folks want to learn more about Adventurer Conqueror King, where can they go (hint: this is where you do your publicity blurb and all that fun stuff!)?

TA: You have cleverly worn me out before I got to the hucksterism! Our web site is You’ll always find a link to our latest Kickstarter in the right margin, but I’ll save you the trouble: And if you’re at Gen Con, you can visit us in the exhibit hall where we’ll be at the Old School Renaissance booth, #1541.

1 comment:

Chris McNeil a.k.a Gwarh said...

Excellent article and interview. I'm really glad I came across it on your site as this project is so in step with my view of what a Fantasy RPG should be.

Adventure Fantasy ftw!

Signing up for a hardcover on Kickstarter as soon as I get home from work.