Adventurer Conqueror King System is a Domain of Madness

So, first, a few disclaimers:

  1. I love ACKS. I’ve played every edition of D&D, AD&D, and D&D again along with Pathfinder, Castles and Crusades, and Dungeon Crawl Classics and nothing comes close to how much I enjoy ACKS. I’ve written about this before when I started my first ACKS campaign and I have to say that the Autarch team has built one heck of a game on the old school base.
  2. I’m not a math-oriented person. I mean, I’m not one of those people who can’t make change in my head or needs a calculator to do division… but I don’t “think in numbers” the way some people can.

Those two disclaimers were important because I want to follow them up by saying that for me, I find the domain creation system in ACKS (touted by many as its greatest strength/innovation) to be a nearly unworkable mess as written. It is clearly working for some players, so I’m happy to admit it might just be me, but as I embark on my second ACKS campaign, I am once again confronted by the fact that I can’t make heads or tails of how the domain system is supposed to work. The fundamental math is very confusing to me and the book provides scant and contradictory examples of the different parts leading to even more confusion.

I’m going to try and outline my issues and then we’ll see if anyone out there can help me tumble my way through them…

First, the basic premise of “half the map is settled land and half is unexplored and waiting for the PCs” is not really tenable under the rules-as-written.

Let’s start with the basic premise. You are going to make two maps – a “Big Map” (BM) and a “Little Map” (LM) at 24 miles/hex (BM) and 6 miles/hex (LM). The idea is to do this on two sheets of hex paper with about 1200 hexes on each.

We start with the big map. Now, the example in the book reads as follows:

EXAMPLE: On the Judge’s campaign map, he has drawn a vast nation covering 1,130 24-mile hexes. This qualifies it as an “empire”. At the suggested 5,000 families per 24-mile hex, the empire has a population of 5.6 million families. Following the Political Divisions of Realms table, the Judge decides the empire is divided into 5 “exarchates” (kingdoms), each controlling 1.1 million families and spanning 226 24-mile hexes (113,000,000 square miles). He divides each exarchate into 6 “prefectures” (principalities), each controlling 183,000 families and spanning 37 24-mile hexes (18,500 square miles). He decides that he will further develop one of these prefectures as the starting region for the adventurers. His regional map should therefore assign the prefecture about 600 6-mile hexes of settled land (approximately 18,500 miles).

Note that this is the only example of the process provided, so needless to say it seems a little thin for so complicated a process. And here’s where it breaks down for me. For this example, the BM uses 1130 of the available 1200 hexes on the sheet of paper. This leaves 70 unaccounted for (remember this, it’ll be important in a minute). Note also that the population is calculated as if all 1,130 hexes have 5,000 families in them. Not half of the accounted for hexes – all of them. This leaves no room for that unexplored territory that is supposed to account for half of the map space.

But that should be fine because it gets refined down. The next step breaks it down into five Kingdoms (Exarchates) and then further down into 6 Principalities (Prefectures). At this point, one of those Principalities is set to be converted to the LM and become the regional map for the game.

Looking at the math for the regional map area, the Principality is set to cover 37 hexes at the 24 mile scale. The next sentence seems to make things better – assigning that region approximately 600 settled hexes at the 6 mile scale – leaving half of the regional map (the other 600 hexes) as that unexplored territory for the PCs to go have fun in. Now, that other 600 hexes of wilderness has to go… somewhere… and if that equates to 37 hexes on the Big Map, then we run out of room very quickly as the Big Map only has 70 hexes of unsettled territory left (see above). Ultimately, the problem here is that it becomes very difficult to translate this information between the Big Map and Little Map because they fundamentally don’t line up in terms of actual space. (1,130/5/6 works out to 37.666 which means that all the territory accounted for by those original 1,130 squares is already “in use” in the equation. This means that there is no actual room to account for the “unexplored” territory.)

This is complicated by the fact that the Urban Demographics also seem out of line, but my wife (who is much smarter than me) suggested that perhaps the population disconnect was in the assignment of population to Urban living. So I tried figuring that out, but it doesn’t seem to hold up because the system only assumes 10% of the population live in Urban Centers. This only removes 10% from the “lands at large” when factoring population-to-hexes so it doesn’t really account for where all those extra people are going if they are only living in half the available land per the formulas used in the example.

At this point, I am so far down the rabbit hole that I probably shouldn’t go on but while we’re here… let’s just get it all out there and see what happens.

Let’s zero in on the part where the Big Map starts to translate down to the Little (Regional) Map. First, here is an example of why a better set of examples would have been helpful – because the examples are inconsistent.

The Exarchates (Kingdoms) mentioned in the first example are supposed to each encompass 226 hexes at the 24 mile scale with a population of 1.1 million families each. But in the next example, on the same page, we are confused by being told that the Exarch Lazar only controls 600,000 families. This is not in-line with the Exarchate (Kingdom) level or the Prefecture (Principality) level from the previous example which leads me to assume that despite the shared terminology, the two examples cannot be linked. It would have been much more helpful if the book examples remained linked together for some consistency throughout.

So assuming that we are starting off with a new set of numbers, let’s work through the Urban Demographics. First, we are told that the Exarchate of Exarch Lazar is broken down into 5 vassal realms (which again, does not match up with the previous example of Exarchates being broken down into 6 Prefectures even though we are using all the same terminology). One of these realms, the Prefecture level is set to become our Little Map (Region). This area contains 1 Small City, 4 Small Towns, and 24 Small Villages according to the urban demographic breakdown in the example.

Now, skip down a few pages in the text (over the spreadsheet-inducing Trade section). We get to “Constructing the Region.” The first advice we are given is, “Within that map, the Judge should place around 45 static points of interest. One-third of these should represent the settlements, towns and castles of the humans and demi-humans,” which means that we are placing about 15 settlements on the Regional Map. In our last step though, we generated 29 reasonably sized settlements. So we are ignoring approximately half of the settlements we previously created if we presume that the region we are outlining roughly corresponds to the size of a Prefecture as described above. Note that this problem is exacerbated further if we assume that the original example is more in keeping with the size of land/population we should expect for the regional map as the secondary examples used numbers roughly half the size of the original for how many families live in an Exarchate (600,000 vs. 1.1 million). The Prefecture size (the size originally suggested for the Regional Map) was to encompass 183,000 families and the Urban breakdown only accounted for 117,500. At no point in planning out the demographics of Peasant Families is there any discussion of “settlements, towns, and castles of… demi-humans” which further clouds the issue. This is confusing.

In my humble opinion (because I am obviously not the person who designed the game or the person who even – at this point – is capable of understanding the game) I would have appreciated that the extensive section on Trade modifiers was cut (did it need to be that complex?) and replaced with an extended example of Domain creation walking the reader through the transfer between the Big Map and the Small Map with illustrations and connected examples using all the same numbers.

One last quibble. Because “Domain” is such a subjective term in how it gets used in ACKS, it is almost useless as a measurement. A domain can be less than one 6-mile hex in size up to multiple 6-mile hexes in size. This complicates many of the interstitial steps (like in the trade rules) and renders it difficult to talk about Domains in a meaningful way. Setting the minimum domain size to a 6-mile hex would have cleared a lot of this up and made the basic math a great deal simpler – while also not opening the door to shenanigans involving Land Revenue I have read about on the forums… The fact that a player can just wander from one 1 square mile area to the next in the same 6 mile hex constantly searching for better land revenue doesn’t really encourage building a large domain, it encourages building as many small but profitable domains as possible and making them a realm. Even more problematic is the fact that no guidance is given as to why the “land revenue” should be the same for every square mile in a 6-mile hex (from a “gamey” standpoint) which is the stated size of the average domain vs. generating Land Revenue per 1-square mile area at a time. Again, the term Domain is almost useless because it represent one thing in terms of Game Terminology and another in terms of what it then translates to through that game terminology. The Land Revenue issue is very difficult to parse and creates a lot of weirdness for me as I contemplate the idea of players setting up domains.

To wrap up this long and complex pile of confusion… I love ACKS. The classes, basic structures, and clarity of the character-level systems are spectacular. It delivers for me on the promise of everything I wanted when I played D&D. Once you cross over into the domain/region mechanics though, the game seems (to my poor, addled brain) to be riddled with confusing inconsistencies. This is further complicated for me by the fact that the only two maps I can find that reference the Auran Empire are both fancy, pretty, hand-crafted affairs which don’t use hexes (or even have a scale on them) and don’t “show the math” of how the creator of the game applied his own work to produce a playable version that someone else could understand. A hex map of the Auran Empire with all the “math” clearly labeled would have been a HUGE boon to an aspiring ACKS Judge.

I intend to keep my campaign running and to enjoy the heck out of ACKS, but more than likely (perhaps in true, Old School spirit) when it comes time for things like domains and army-level conflict to spring up I’ll be ditching the ACKS rules and relying on the systems established in 2e’s Birthright (for domains) and the Dragon Age RPG (for mass battles).

If there is someone out there who can show me the error of my ways and talk me through setting up a game world the “ACKS” way, then I’m all in to be schooled. As it stands now though, this thing just doesn’t make sense.

Sorry this got so long and, as always, thanks for reading.

(Seriously, if I have a reader out there who can talk me through this.. consider this post a cry for help!)

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9 responses

  1. Arashi No Moui | Reply

    No ability to help, just my sympathy. I’ve looked at Pathfinder as well as Houses of the Blooded (in addition to Birthright) for something similar to a domain system. I really wish I could find something that worked in the sweet spot between excel based hell and handwavium because I keep having domain focused players.

  2. I considered the Houses of the Blooded system but ultimately didn’t go that way because it feels a little too tied to the very strong themes of the game. For the most part, I’m pretty happy with the Birthright version of domains, except for having to do away with the whole issue of blooded regents.

    The Pathfinder Kingmaker Adventure Path had an interesting domain system but it is riddled with problematic spots and is very focused on settlement building.

    I appreciate the sympathy though… because I too am looking for a way to find that sweet spot.

  3. Hello! I regret to see that my examples in Secrets have left you confused.

    Except when they specifically refer to each other (by place or character) the examples are NOT linked. Nor do they necessarily refer to other sections of the rules. Each was intended to illustrate a specific mechanic. Do not waste time trying to figure outgow they fit together,

    The two examples on p230 are not of the same hypothetical world. The populations and areas are different for each. As per the table on p230, domains of the same general name (exarchate, county, whatever) can vary widely in size, area controlled, and number of vassals. For instance a kingdom (exarchate) can have 334,000 to 2,000,000 families.

    As far as where the unexplored space would go: In the case of a huge empire of 1,130 hexes, there would not be a lot of unexplored space. You would have a narrow strip or small region, of about 70 hexes, as you said.

    An example of how such a map might look would be like GRR Martin’s Westeros, with the areas north of the Wall as the unexplored part. The regional map for such a campaign would be an area bisected by the Wall. Note that this still plenty for the regional map, which needs only around half to two-thirds that to meet the target of 600 unexplored 6 mile hexes.

    If you wanted more wilderness overall, you would just make the empire or kingdoms on the campaign map smaller. You could have two small empires of 286 hexes each, surrounded by 600 or more hexes of wilderness, for instance.

    As far as the discrepancy between the number of urban settlements calculated in the example (1 city, 4 towns, 24 small villages) versus the number I suggest you include among points of interest (15), please note this guideline: “When placing urban settlements on the map, the Judge can safely ignore Class IV and smaller settlements on the 24- mile campaign map, and Class VI settlements on the 6-mile hex regional map.” The small villages are all Class VI and by default wouldn’t even be placed on the map. The Judge would thus place the city, the four towns, and then the location of ten other places he thinks are interestimg. Maybe a starter village, or some important strongholds, etc.

    I agree that this is an area of the rules that could have stood to receive more detailed and integrated examples. I think in later rule books I did a better job with providing more examples. I hope that this has helped clear things up. Let me know if you have further questions!

    1. So… First things first. I appreciate you taking the time to drop by here and address the questions. That was unexpected and very nice of you.

      I had a feeling that the examples were not meant to be linked. The confusion stems from their proximity and the fact that they all use the same terminology (not just from the tables but the “in world” terminology of Exarchate, etc.). The confirmation is good to know.

      It’s comforting to know that by the examples I was not crazy (you’d probably laugh at how much that had me tearing my hair out) that the example Empire is not meant to contain much in the way of “wild spaces.” If it helps, my confusion there stems from the transition to the regional level and the feeling that all of the Prefectures should embrace the same design symmetry of being 1/2 settled, 1/2 wilderness. Your intention though is that we’d only latch on to the one actually being turned into the regional level map as needing that “wild spaces” component. That simple knowledge helps a lot.

      I had remembered something about the “placing settlements” but apparently read right over it the second time around. I suppose I’m also somewhat conditioned by the fact that so many D&D (and Pathfinder, etc.) adventures take place in towns/villages where the population doesn’t even reach 250 that I assumed a place with 450 people was actually more important than it is. I tend to forget that your population numbers are often much higher than the adventure writers of the past.

      Your explanation helps a lot. And again, thank you for taking the time. That said… any commentary on Domains/Land Revenue would be appreciated (or even a good forum post already devoted to them) as this is the remaining point that seems very abstract and since it forms the basis of everything layered on top of it, seems really important.

      1. Glad that the feedback was helpful!

        As far as Land Revenue, I have always handled it at the level of the 6-mile hex; or for NPC domains, at the level of the entire domain. Having adventurers (players) attempt to exploit it on a square mile by square mile basis is not something I would permit as Judge. If I had forseen that this would be emergent behavior from the RAW, I would have slightly re-written the rules, and it is something I would clear up in a hypothetical second edition.

        There are some good threads on the Autarch forums about alternative ways to handle assigning land revenue, which I highly recommend.

  4. […] (The Rhetorical Gamer) Adventurer Conqueror King System is a Domain of Madness — “I intend to keep my campaign running and to enjoy the heck out of ACKS, but more […]

  5. Thanks again Alex. I’ve already told my players that if we – hypothetically – make it to domain building, my intent was to handle it at the level of the 6-mile hex as well (that just seems to clean things up) and it’s good to know it is in line with your thinking.

    This has been very helpful.

  6. Hi Mike,
    I am one of those persons who does have problems with making change in his head. I need a pen and paper to do division, can’t count backwards and even forget my tablespoon count when making my daughter’s formula…. I would only be annoying as an online World of Warcraft raiding partner because the combination of keyboard memorization (I forget what I toggle to what key) and reaction slowness would irk other players like problems with their, they’re, and there irk anyone with a sense of the English language. My recent experience playing only attracted the nerdiest of math nerds and system junkies – to the extent that new to hobby people were turned off while the system junkies turn into gurus for these “casual” leisure types, which magnified the dissatisfaction everyone felt with everyone else around the table; and me trying to make friends through role-playing…..

    I cannot really comment on your system question, except to say step away from it, in the finest manner of GM=System advice – if your players will allow you. (Mine did not as they were squarely within the quadrant of my diagram where neither I nor the new players were situated.) Create your world casually on the back of an envelope; worry about the ecology of everything in the unknown zone; and answer the question why no one before has boldly gone there. Maybe half of your world is underneath its other known half? Maybe, like the Isle of Colossus, no one goes there because there is a monster of unimaginable “(AD&D1e) Deities & Demigods-like” power – making the key to open the other half of the world player-skill puzzle-solving rather than a system-based roll play..

    I do not see the actual problem here, probably because of what I have disclosed in my first paragraph.

  7. Andrew Branstad | Reply

    I, too, love ACKS but find the domain rules confusing. Have you checked out Kevin Crawford’s excellent “An Echo, Resounding” as an alternative? It’s a bit more abstract than the ACKS stuff and kind of designed in reverse (bottom up rather than top down, if that makes sense).

    http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/99063/An-Echo-Resounding-A-Sourcebook-for-Lordship-and-War

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