Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Autarch Kickstarter: The Sinister Stone of Sakkara

UPDATE: The Kickstarter is done; and reached all stretch goals.






Autarch has launched their Kickstarter for The Sinister Stone of Sakkara, an adventure and small sandbox for the Adventurer Conqueror King System. This adventure is the first step in bringing the Auran Empire setting to print.

It has already reached it's funding threshold, and continues a steady climb towards modest bonus goals. The module itself is already written, and merely undergoes light revisions and editing as this Kickstarter continues.

Via successful hijink, I've managed to read a draft of the adventure.

In Alex Macris' own words, he indicates he's bringing to you here a small slice of a campaign world that was played - this dungeon takes the place of, and pays some homage to, the B2 Keep On The Borderlands module that started that campaign, as it did so many others, over the years.



The Adventure

I hate trying to express a review of an adventure in vague terms so as not to spoil it, so you'll have to excuse my opaqueness.

Matthew Skail, the author of the dungeon, has brought a strong mix of classic D&D and swords & sorcery to play. The first level is a callback to the Caves of Chaos - the same opportunities for faction play are there. In the second level, things get ... tentacular, and encounters begin to take a turn for the Howardian/Leiberian.

The pathing of the dungeon is excellent - it has been Jacquay'd, as the terminology goes - in fact, acute players will notice there's a very advantageous shortcut built into the structure. A quick or lucky party can get through or around several different areas safely, and a party mapper with a decent sense of space will realize there's plenty of places where the ensconced beastman camps can be (or should be able to, if secret doors exist, ahem) approached with surprise.

The room descriptions well balanced for functional play. Autarch takes a few sentences here and there to hand out details of the Auran world via description of features in the dungeon. This is an adventure for new Judges as well as players; as was the original B2 -  there's just enough prompting in the text to allow the Judge to focus on important or interesting bits in the rooms.

As befits an ACKS product, the treasure is well rounded - foodstuffs, rolls of cloth, and other bulky sorts of treasure will test the party's ability with logistics.



The Keep & Village

The keep is lovingly detailed, and refrains from presenting yet another generic medieval re-enactment. The Auran Empire is, culturally, based on the Roman Empire of the Late Antiquity, and Turos Tem is built from a historical reference, with the appropriate additions required for a D&D adventure (someplace for the domain's mage to sleep and research).

It is presented as a fully realized ACKS domain - the resources available to the legate of this fort are detailed via a domain 'stat sheet'.

The important personages of the Keep are given stat blocks and some personality - from the Legate, his wife, down through the quartermaster to the subalterns who command the garrison units. There's enough given that a social (or socially devious, or just plain devious) party can get up to a lot, with or without the NPC's knowledge. The NPC personalties include some motivations of their own, which if the Judge wishes can help or hinder the PCs.

Social players will find that by interacting with the NPCs, there's plenty of clues to be found at Turos Tem for what's coming.

I'll freely admit the wife and I have been pushing through HBO's Rome on Amazon Prime, and the entirety of this section, and the possibilities available with the NPC descriptions are easily visualized.

Important buildings in the village, such as the inn or bath house, are also detailed, as well as NPCs there.

The regular comings and goings of the populace - when the guards gather for orders, when the bath houses are used, things like that - are defined with the areas, allowing the Judge to paint a vibrant and living background.


The Sandbox

You'll see in this adventure module the results of applying the advice in Chapter 10 of the ACKS Core book. A small sandbox area, about 25x15 6 miles hexes, is included. It uses the very same "Small Region" map available on Autarch's website.

That's an area close to 12,000 sq miles, or the same square footage as the state of Maryland, if it were rectangular. That's a lot of space. Plenty of forest, some swamps, scattered hills, and a mountain range appear on the map, enough varied terrain for a host of different adventures to fill out the sandbox.

From Alex's historical campaign, a few hex locations are lightly described, and free resources to populate those hexes actually used in that campaign are given mention. 8 forts (including Turos Tem) and a larger settlement are placed - so there's plenty of opportunity for more urban or political adventures.

As a Whole

Sakkara succeeds in it's goals as an introductory module, and serves as a great example of what today's authors are doing with the concepts introduced some 40 years ago by the original team.

For new players, what most folks think of as cornerstones of "old school" play - faction dynamics, multi-path dungeons, resource management & logistics, are all introduced within the two levels of the titular dungeon.

Interacting with monstrous or human NPCs in a non-combat function is well rewarded, exploration delivers results, and the "solving" of the dungeon; with secret doors, traps, and treasure extraction all in play, is baked in.

New judges - a class of person sometimes overlooked in low-level modules - are well served. Digesting and running this module should leave the novice Judge with the capability and confidence to fill out the sandbox and let their players play. They'll find plenty of examples to enable themselves to produce content that enable the same sort of play listed earlier.

They should also come out with a better understanding of how the ACKS rules intersect to create fiction in a campaign world. The situation the local legate finds themselves in is something they may find themselves in, one day, in their own small domains. Will they be able to step away from the responsibilities of overall leadership, or would they contract out lower tier adventurers?

And, again, the whole thing serves as an example of what can be accomplished with Chapter 10 of ACKS. New and experienced Judges will find this example invaluable.

This is the core of the OSR - the framework of the original style informed by 40 years of play, well presented here.


Reskinability?

As noted, this module serves as an introduction to the Auran Empire campaign setting as well, and is themed to give some light introduction to that world. That being said, it's all presented in such a way that it should be a pleasurable experience for the customizing Judge to insert their own mythologies.

The Roman details can be glossed over as well, but, think about this: it's been said plenty of times every D&D campaign needs Vikings. The Romans were a pretty big deal as well - and there's something to be said for the banal violence of empire - a lumbering, bureaucratic murder machine - being just as gameable as the quick strikes of Viking raids. Consider presenting them as-is.

If you're already further along into your game than the recommended levels, don't worry. There's enough room in the dungeon for more opponents, or the same number of slighly more dangerous types. The ... "specials" are easily upleveled. The structure of the plot allows for a good deal of leeway - there's good fundamental reasons why Turos Tem hasn't been overrun yet, even if the threat is of a larger sum in HD.

I plan to run this in the next couple months with a 5th level group, and I'll let you know how it goes.


Autarch Forumers should look forward to some lively discussions as the little details Autarch puts into all of it's products spark ideas - I'm seeing answers in here to several questions that have been posted - things like NPC savings, for example.


The Value

The PDF of the adventure through the Kickstarter is $5 - and given what's included here, that's a price that many smaller modules just can't beat.

For $20 they'll throw in the ACKS Core PDF and the Player's Companion, if you don't have them. You're getting a full game and starting adventure/sandbox for free.

That's damn near magnanimous for what you get out of it.

Consider: the Basic Set, the original, was at one time bundled with B2.

Here, in this Kickstarter, $20 gets you  in PDF this new Basic Set, plus Expert, good bits of Companion and Master, plus a larger sandbox than B2 presented.

The modern reinvention of the much-loved Basic Set, then, right here today - a 'retroclone' built for players young and old, and the 'starting sandbox', a well-proven methodology for starting campaigns for new and experienced players alike.

That $20 for the books and adventure would have cost you $7.75 in 1981 - my crack team of research kender can't find the original price right now but I bet it was more than that for B + X.

The physical "Conqueror With Vassals" level at $75 is about $30 in 1981 dollars; and in those $30 you would have needed to buy Basic, Expert, and cuts of C & M. Autarch seems set on providing you the best value they can.

That's what I put in for - I've been needing to get a copy of the physical books (I own ACKS in PDF from like 3 different sources at this point, what's one more) and here I get an adventure for free, essentially.

Go get it!




Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Baleful Sky: The Mezan


Travel to the southern shores of the Midsea, and dock at Hendja. Travel downriver, and take the grand lifts of Maidenfall up the escarpment. Continue south on the river to the confluence of the Hendja and Kalates rivers.

There you  find the city of Kalat, gateway to the Eternal Mezan Empire.

The Mezan

There are three pillars to Mezan society - time, blood, and war.

They obsessively track their history with enormous circular calendars embedded in the central squares of all their settlements - from the great metropoli of Ozka and Almez to the tiniest unnamed hamlets. Their calendars mark and trace the movement of the baleful sky - the stars, planets, comets - all manner and types of celestial objects, visible to the naked or arcane eye. The patterns and times of these movements govern their lives - births, marriages, wars. 

These calendars also trace bloodlines - all Mezan can trace their lines back to the time of the First Men, from which they say they are the true descendants, and inheritors of the world. They measure themselves by their ancestries - yesterday's kings raise the lords of today who bear the heroes of tomorrow. Marriages are arranged at auspicious times for two houses, in the hopes the fruit of the union will be legendary. Sacrifices are made at the proper times. The sacrificial men and women have their fortunes told; in exacting detail; everything that will happen to them in their lives if they were not to be slain. The raw power released by this willful, violent rejection of fate power the rituals of the Mezan's sorcerers.

Wars are planned by the movements of the sky - only when the time is ripe do armies march. This effort has caused the Mezan to war amongst themselves for thousands of years, great houses vying to control the entirety of the Empire, hoping to hold power long enough for the next time the sky aligns for outward expansion - only happening once so far in recorded history, and that expansion caused the end of the Fifth Empire. In between events, they train. From childhood till invalidity, they train, each Mezan to his or her own peak.

Sol however, rules all, and they greet each dawn gladly, ready for what may come. The rising and  setting of the sun thus mirrors their culture; when the seers proclaim a Dawn, the world shudders, for very soon the Mezan will look outward towards their neighbors. Noon brings lands awash with the blood of others as a new empire waxes fully. Then, inevitable Dusk, as the haruspex proclaim enemies within, and the Mezan fall upon each other, and fall back to their ancestral lands.

It is a madness, waxing and waning over centuries.

Mezan 0: At Mezan 0, the character is a full-blooded Mezan, however, he or she has met their peak relatively early in life.

  • The character knows the secrets of the unarmed fighting style ingrained into Mezan culture, and may deal lethal damage when brawling, as well as strike armored characters without taking damage. At 5th level, the Mezan's increased ferocity in these attacks allow him or her to strike magical creatures.
  • The fear of death has been drilled out of the Mezan, as they realize they are but links in an ancestral chain, forever reaching further. They are fearless of eternity, and immune to all natural and magical fear effects.
  • Each Mezan may trace their bloodline back through aeons, and each and every one is of the First Men. The Mezan may hire one more henchmen than her Charisma would otherwise permit, and the base morale score of any henchmen is increased by 1.
  • Mezan are confident of their past, and of their future. They are assured of greatness, and the maximum class level for any Mezan class is increased by one.
Mezan 1: At Mezan 1, the character has been chosen for further training into the honored order of warriors that is the backbone of Mezan culture.
  • The character undergoes a sacred rite, inscribing into their skins intricate glyphs describing victories and achievements of their ancestors. Thereafter, they have a past set in stone and flesh, and the power of these glyphs protect their future.  At 1st level, the character gains a +2 bonus to AC and decrease the damage from any non-magical attacks by 1 point per die. At 7th level, this protection increases to +4 AC and 2 points per die. At 13th level, the protection increases to +6 AC and 3 points per die. The damage reduction is applied per die. Damage can be reduced to 0, but not less than 0, on each die. The AC bonus from flesh-runes stacks with potions of invulnerability, rings of protection, and similar effects, but does not stack with armor. Attacks from monsters of 5 HD or more are considered magical attacks due to the monster’s ferocity.
  • The training is excruciating, advanced, and sometimes punitive. Mezan who survive have a hardened constitution. When the character is required to consult the Mortal Wounds table, the player may roll twice and choose the preferred result to apply. The character also subtracts his class level from the number of days of bed rest required to recover.
Mezan 2: At Mezan 2, the character has the natural aptitude of a born warrior, and continues to more advanced training.
  • Their fighting capability is enhanced through incessant training, and they fight at a superior ability. The class's Fighting Value is effectively increased by 1 for all purposes.
Mezan 3: At Mezan 3, the character has shown the ability to be an absolute horror in combat. He or she is induced into a secret order within the order, an elite population of warriors in tune with the progress of Time itself.
  • Years of training has brought their senses to a fine point, and have perfected their combat awareness. The gain a +1 to surprise and initiative rolls.
  • Their minds have not been neglected in all of this ceaseless physical training. They may enter a battle trance, and go into focus once per day per level of experience. While in focus, the character gains a +1 bonus to all attack throws, proficiency throws, saving throws, and initiative rolls. A meditative focus lasts for 1 turn (10 minutes).
  • Finally, a second glyph rite is performed. The Mezan is inscribed with the date, time, and place of his or her birth and natural death. This is a runic shield so powerful that the Mezan gains a +3 bonus on saving throws versus Blast and Breath and a +4 bonus on all other saving throws.
Mezan 4: At Mezan 4, the character has achieved personal perfection. In fact, no matter their status, Mezan addressing the character will prefix "Perfect" to any of the character's names or titles. A Mezan who as achieved this level of competence can write their own fate within the Mezan culture, or, eschew it all to adventure beyond, and come back with an even greater legend.
  • They have reached the pinnacle of combat prowess, and their Fighting Value is increased by 2 for all purposes.
  • Their status and confidence spill onto others, and any henchmen or mercenaries hired by the character gain a +1 bonus to their morale score whenever he personally leads them.

ValueMezanXP
0Mezan 0125
1Mezan 1275
2Mezan 2775
3Mezan 3950
4Mezan 4 (Perfect)1500


Experience Point Progression After 8th Level: Mezan increase the amount of experience needed after 8th level for fighter or cleric classes by 10,000XP per level. Mage or thief classes are increased by 30,000XP per level. (Thievery does not come naturally to the Mezan)


Build Notes:

Mezan 0:

  • Unarmed Fighting: 1 Power
  • Fearless of Eternity: (Fearless) 1 Power
  • Of the First Men: (Blood of Kings): 1 Power
  • Assured of Greatness: (Heroic Spirit): 1 Power
Mezan 1:
  • A Past Set in Stone and Flesh: (Flesh-Runes): 3 Powers
  • Hardened Constitution: (Savage Resilience): 1 Power
Mezan 2:
  • Superior Ability: (Fighting Value +1): Flat 500 XP
Mezan 3:
  • Combat Awareness: (Animal Reflexes): 1 Power
  • Battle Trance: (Meditative Focus): 1 Power
  • Runic Shield: (Hardy People): 2.5 Powers
Mezan 4:
  • Pinnacle of Combat Prowess (Fighting Value +2 Total): Flat 1,000XP
  • Status And Confidence (Battle Prowess): 1 Power