Thursday, May 2, 2013

Autarch's Domains At War for Adventurer, Conqueror, King

Domains At War is the next piece in the Adventurer Conqueror King System, that being the one that aids your mid-high level characters to take these domains they've recently won and break them in battle against their neighbors.

The Kickstarter for it is on until May 18th, and you'd better get in now while the getting is good. I was in just for the PDF, but just upped my support level to Centurion to get the physical books and the unit tokens - my wife and I have a tradition of kicking the kids off to Grandma's on New Year's Eve so we may drink and play boardgames, and I think this'll work into the rotation, once I tell her we can reimagine her Druid as an ACKS character and she can lay down some natural law on the battlefield.

So; as a backer I have access to the documents-in-progress, and I've gone and played around a bit, and here's my initial impressions.

(7/27/14) - Note this review was written before the final publication of Domains At War. The rules and themes I touch on did not significantly change from the reviewed version to the last. 

While I presume the benefits for players of Adventurer, Conqueror, King are obvious, I'll take a moment to share what's useful for people who aren't, as the entirety of the product is a great reference for any system.

The second half, a very small example battle, is here.

Domains At War: Campaigns

Domains at War: Campaigns is the first book. If you go and download the Free Starter Edition, you can get a pretty decent idea of what you're in for.

Chapter 1: Introduction 

Context clues in posts and writings of Alexander Macris show he's a student of antiquity. If you doubt that, read this. Know that these rules are coming from a study of history, as much as the rest of ACKS' economics have, though focused through the lens of Dungeons and Dragons. It's an important distinction - when you're calling back to the prehistory of the game, when wargaming was a serious hobby for serious people, being able to ground your rules in historical precedence is of great import.

Chapter 2: Armies

You know the excellent domain population and economic system in ACKS? It comes back in force, here, literally, as you see all that painstaking planning you did to create your domain, populate it, manage it's markets, and garrison it against the encroaching Chaos pay off.

Taking your domain garrison, your peasants, and all the specialists (quartermasters, etc.) and mercenaries you can lay your hands on or throw your gold at, and then forming them into a mobile army is done here. You'll find how to organize an army, the recommended PC/NPC levels for being commanders of armies, divisions, or individual units, and how much everything's going to cost.

ACKSless: Availability of mercenaries by size of local towns/markets, and the cost of, are extremely useful for anyone. There's a table that can roll follower types for common classes (that many systems give at 9th level, or, via feat for newer systems) into the mercenary types described in the book. If your PCs start threatening rulers, there's rules for figuring out how large of an army they can threaten back with. There's plenty here to add a bit of verisimilitude to the sometimes uncertain cloud that is followers in OSR games or 3.5E's Leadership feat.

Chapter 3: Equipment

The odds and ends an army needs - everything from archery targets (The Manual of Arms proficiency finds it's teaching supplies here) to siege engines. 

Expanded rules for building strongholds and ships exist in this chapter, with a bit more detail on construction times and how to raise large structures in parallel. There's a great section here on how transmute rock to mud, wall of stone, and move earth can rush construction jobs.

ACKSless: Castle-building rules are good for everyone - plenty of games tell you to go build a stronghold at 9th level, fewer show you how. The equipment section is full of good things - I, for one, will make every attempt to hire a couple of crew from Chapter 2 and start towing around a light ballista (only 75 pounds!) as soon as I can afford to.

Chapter 4: Campaigns

Remember how you or your DM made a hex map for the region or regions you've traveled through? Here's where we begin to use that as a strategic map to move your armies to the front.

Supply lines are tracked back to a stationary market that will support your army. Reconnaissance is done, and there's a section on how magic (scrying, crystal balls, or camouflaging magic like hallucinatory terrain) aid or hinder that action. Prisoners can be captured as a result of recon, and interrogated for detailed information about the army, including numbers of opponents, and levels/classes of their leadership.

Hijinks, one of the most cunning uses of thief skills I've ever seen from the ACKS core book, get a boost here. You can infiltrate someone into an opposing army and perform all the usual hijinks there: spying to infiltrate the army and provide bonuses to recon rolls, assassination, carousing for information (the same a prisoner would provide) sabotage, stealing (to impose a morale penalty), and spread disinformation to hinder the enemy's recon.

The chapter winds down with how to pillage domains while you're on the move - again, here's where all that economic work pays off - and you can reduce a domain down to hard scrabble and the poorest peasantry while carting off quite a haul of gold and goods for your army if need be.

ACKSless: I'll mention it again later, but, Red Hand of Doom features armies and army movements. Any published module or house adventure containing armies the party may interact with can benefit from the rules presented here - movement rates, supply lines, reconnaissance, even time it takes for an army to sit and pillage an area can be put to use.

Chapter 5: Battles

Now, there's a second part of the product: Domains At War: Battles, that allows you to zoom in on army actions and move units on a hex board, as many other wargames allow.

The battles here are more abstract - each unit in an army has a Battle Rating (they give you a formula to convert any creature to a unit). The battle itself is abstracted into a series of d20 rolls for each army, rolling a d20 per Battle Rating point, where damage is done on a unit scale. That's important, and in my battle report post I'll detail why.

The upshot of this is that this can be used where the battle is not large enough or important enough to the PCs personally to simulate fully with the D@W:Battles rules - it's something that runs in the background while the PCs operate, or something the good DM lets the dice decide off-screen.

Now, that's not to say the PCs do not interact with the battle - the PCs can go on heroic forays where they encounter some piece of the army, and that fight is done just as it is in the ACKS Core rules - man to man (or monster).

Recall, if you will, the Battle of Hornburg as filmed in Jackson's Two Towers movie. You viewed two levels of that battle. The first was the mass of the orcish army versus the unnamed defenders of the keep - that's the part in these battle rules where a set of d20 rolls decide the fate of the units in each army.

The second part was Aragorn and Gimli's foray versus the orcs at the gate, or Legolas and Gimli versus the intrusion after Saruman's petard blew up the drain-hole (that...reads badly), or Aragorn and Theoden charging out of the gates. Those are heroic forays. They get spiced up again in Chapter 7.

Battles end usually when morale breaks for one side - in both the test battles I've won, morale broke well before a complete wipe of either side, and the game is the better for it. There are rules for the pursuit of a broken army, which allow you to wipe out the tattered remains "off-screen", if you so desire.

Lastly, spoils of war, and putting your army back together - from how many units were eliminated or routed you can calculate what you've got left to work with.

ACKSless: I hope this part sells itself - it's the PC-related portion of the previous chapter. I'll say a lot more about this at the end of the review.

Chapter 6: Sieges

That stronghold you so lovingly mapped, and went through 9 levels of horror to pay for? Here's how we tear it down. Covered here is how to blockade a stronghold, how to apply f=ma to reduce it to rubble, hijinks like arson to make trouble from inside, and, if all else fails, how to assault the fortress with man and machine.

Heroic forays apply here too, as does magic - what transmute mud to rock can bringith, transmute rock to mud can taketh away.

Full sieges run a lot like the battles. The simplified siege rules take what you have versus what you're sieging, and tell you how long it probably took - sieges are boring by nature, and if the tactical situation is such that there's nothing interesting to be done during a siege but wait it out, this makes for a quick boulder-throwing montage.

ACKSless: This is a mirror of Chapter 5, focused on strongholds, and the taking of - if you can't read these rules and come away with a baker's dozen of adventure ideas, you're not trying.

Chapter 7: Vagaries

War is an uncertain business. Each month during your recruitment, oddities may happen, for good or ill - a hero joins your cause, a unit defects. During a campaign, events may befall your army - a disease breaks out,  a peace declaration elsewhere allows more mercenaries available for hire.

Heroic forays are spiced up here with vagaries of battle, which allow the DM to complicate the battlefield - smoke and fire, piles of the dead, a swing in the lines that cause extra opponents to be inserted into the foray.  War's a dirty thing, and you're gonna get 1d4 of these things to deal with each foray.

ACKSless: Wars are never fought on clean hex grids, and these are great sources for inspiration to dress up combat encounters of any size. A lot of the battle vagaries would be great as random dungeon dressing, or, if you're the type, things that happen in small hamlets when the PCs arrive. "You crest the last hill, and the hamlet below (rolls) has a pile of bodies in it's market square". The vagaries of war table can be easily adapted to be random city/town happenings - a roll result of 'supply problems' could be inferred to cause general unrest and perhaps a rash of crimes in the city, as some staples of life become scarce.


If you're sold into the economic and domain management subsystem in ACKS, there's no reason to not have this book in your hands. You're already counting peasants and hoarding gold, and eventually, someone's going to want what you have, or you're gonna get to coveting your neighbor's hex. This'll take you there.

If you are not running ACKS, or you're not in an ACKS game that's putting any emphasis on domain management, this still has a lot of use for you - if you ever want your game to feature war as a backdrop, or have the PCs interact within that war, or your players have ever wanted to take a mass of henchmen and mercenaries to a robber knight's keep - and you want that war and those battles to be as simulated as the PCs actions are - if you want it to be gamed and real,  you still want this book.

There's a piece of play report from Alex here that shows how a regular play session can be done around a battle played by these rules. 

And this stuff isn't system-specific either - anything from the LBB/S&Ws, through BX/LL, 1E/OSRIC, 2E, through 3.X/Pathfinder and 4E can easily use this system.

This is how you run something that calls back to the Black Company, or the Malazan Book of the Fallen. A group of men and women part of and surrounded by war - sometimes leading, sometimes following, sometimes getting the hell out of the way.

What if that module was rewritten with Domains At War in mind? Complete rosters for both sides, known supply lines, movement rates, a quick overview of objectives for each side? Lay it out, and let it go - a war sandbox (warbox?) - where the PCs do what they do as events deterministically unfold around them, and not as the enforced set-piece battles baked into the module text.

That might not be enough for you though.. Your PCs might want to grab that company of heavy infantry and take it to the Sun Gate where a troop of hobgoblins just broke through the door - exhorting to them that the tales they tell of how we stood this day - we few that know the law - will last a thousand years!

Yea, Motorhead. Deal with it. 

What you want then is the second half of the Domains at War product:

Domains At War: Battles

Chapter 1: Introduction

Let's do it like they did it on the Lake of Geneva. You should have read Playing At The World by now, and if  you haven't, go join the Domains at War Kickstarter, buy or try Domains at War. Then come back. Back? Good. Now you understand the history of the game, why a reimagined Chainmail is important, and it's doubly good that it's backed up by the domain management subsystem in ACKS.

D@W: Battles is for the detailed combat - where you're able to dive down into the tactical situation of the battles only played obliquely in the Campaigns book. In addition, you're able to treat your PCs as leaders of units, as a unit themselves, or as they are, in heroic forays during the battle itself.

Chapter 2: The Basic Rules

We start off with the tools of the trade - there are some miniature sizing recommendations, as well as hex sizes, but these are only recommendations. There's nothing stopping you from doing this with the battle mat you have now (Hexes are the only requirement - squares won't do at all) and your current miniature set, or using just a plain table and rulers, facing off the red bottle caps vs. the small green d6 dice. Just remember facing is a thing you'll want to keep track of!

There's three important distinctions of "named participants" - the General, who is an important morale-granting presence on the battlefield, and who also is a commander of a division, and an officer of a unit.

Commanders command divisions - you'll separate your units into (probably) like-minded divisions that will, in general, operate in concert - commanders have Zones of Control based on their leadership ability that mean you may need to keep them close. Commanders also serve as unit officers.

Lieutenants/officers are attached to individual units, and provide morale and activation bonuses. They can also be promoted to division commanders if the previous commander is eliminated.

These slots are important - it can be where the PCs lead from.

The sequence of combat is just as you'd expect from something derived from DND.

Each commander (not army, commander) rolls initiative, and gains a number of activation points equal to their leadership ability (derived from PC stats and proficiencies). As initiative winds down, they spend these points to move and attack with the units in their division.

Going per-division and not per-army is incredibly important, tactically - during my test battle, I found myself having my general (who had the best initiative bonus and rolls) constantly delaying to allow light cavalry to act first - as infantry's not as mobile, I found it better to act later in the round as to allow a bit more clarity in the tactical situation.

Units are organized differently - a Loose Mounted unit of light cavalry has special movement options like "Withdrawal", a reaction to an attack that can reduce damage from an attack to nothing by moving away from the attacker. Formed Foot units can organize into a phalanx, doubling their HP and attacks, and increasing morale. Phalanx are especially useful against monstrous units with a lot of attacks, as we'll see in my battle report.

Movement is per hex, you can march, hustle, or charge, and combat is what you'd expect - roll an attack throw. Any hit is 1 damage, there's no damage dice at this unit level - units that hit hard, like Ogre Infantry, roll more dice per attack rather than higher damage. Units can become subject to shock rolls when taking a goodly amount of damage - morale comes into play at that point, and then once an army loses enough units, the entire army begins to be subject to morale rolls.

At the end, there's an option for the winner to pursue the routed units of the loser, and then the counting of casualties.

ACKSless: I'll have more in a battle report, but I'd hope the option of having a quick & easy mass combat resolution system compatible with any edition, clone, or homage ruleset gets you thinking about enlarging the scope of your game - if you're looking at 15th level Pathfinder characters, for example, and wondering where the next novel thing to challenge them with is, it's here. This and Chapter 4, where you can throw them into a deadly combat against hundreds of enemies without breaking your brain or your battlemat.

Chapter 2: Terrain

As it says on the tin - there's a handy table for generating random terrain based on the terrain type of the 6-mile hex the battle is occurring in (again, rewarding you for your effort in mapping your region), or you can place as desired. 

Forest, hills, mountains and swamps all make an appearance, plus some extra bonus fun in how to utilize spells to change the terrain (fireball to take out an inconveniently located forest, for example).

Chapter 3: Strategic Situations

Depending on how the armies meet, whether determined by action from the Campaigns army movement section, or by fiat, will lead you in placing units on the hex field.

The field is broken up into several zones, in which each side is able to place its units with certain restrictions, and then in some cases there are special start considerations (an ambushed army is 'surprised' and cannot act the first round, and only half the activation points the second round, simulating the chaos of that event) A situation where an army becomes enveloped by an enemy sees that army only able to place it's units in a tight space in the center against it's starting edge, where the enemy has the ability to place it's flanking units well into the far end of the battlemat.

That's important, because as you play and units fall to morale checks, the closer they are to the edge of the battlefield the better chance you've got for that flee to turn into a rout, eliminating the unit.

It's well ordered, and gives you all the reason in the world to have used the Campaigns book to perform reconnaissance and army movement.

Chapter 4: Heroes

Here's where the PCs come into play. There's a few rules around being able to be counted as a standalone hero - there's a few qualifiers: is the PC 7th level? Or can he or she cast fireball? Does the character have special magic items? (a ring of invisibility and a handful of arrows of slaying can make a lower level character effective). 

Independent heroes can be either completely standalone, or function as commanders. They act on their own initiative, and attack as themselves. Officers can be counted as heroes under these rules, and if a PC encounters a unit led by an enemy hero or officer, they can attack those targets directly.

An attached hero (heroes can attach/detach from units) will act in concert with the unit. Attaching allows a hero to share their morale modifier with the unit, which is very desirous in many situations. 

You have two sets of characteristics as a hero - the first is your personal characteristics, your character sheet, which is used when you're attacking man-to-man. The second is your unit characteristics, a boiled-down set of numbers that is used when you're attacking a unit - abstracting the damage you can put to a 120-man formation.

The chapter rounds out with how to apply spells on the battlefield - from bless through fireball to wall of stone. Magic items (like drums of panic or the horn of blasting) are also covered. Special abilities are last, which is a fun section, bringing images of massed grey ooze slurping across the battlefield. That includes turning undead, and how companies or squads of clerics can be brought into play to turn undead units.

ACKSless: If you're running an OSR-type game and your players are collecting mercenaries and henchmen for an upcoming foray against some giants, perhaps, don't fret. Chapter 1 and 4 have you covered. Happily drain them of their gold, and introduce them to their troops.

Your players aren't the type to crave the burdens of leadership and the power that brings? I've bet they've made enemies who do, if they're powerful enough. The son of an orc chieftain defeated years ago has gained power in their absence, and now marches on their last known location with a horde of a size only seen before in tall tales - here's how you throw 400 orcs versus your 4 person party.

Chapter 5: Assaults

This chapter is taking the sieges described in the Campaigns book down to the unit level. It's shown how to lay out a stronghold on the hex grid, how to handle multi-story structures, and how many units you can garrison in the stronghold's various areas.

It's strongly suggested to virtualize the breach of the stronghold, then start the battle at the point where individual units will be pushing through, using the Campaign book's Siege Reduction section. Actually playing out the weeks of trebuchet assault may prove disinteresting :)

There's detail in here as well about how to use spells and magic items to damage structures, plus a bit on how giant monstrous units will deal damage to strongholds.

The chapter continues with special movement and combat options due to the unique geography of a stronghold - movement rates between stories, line-of-sight enhancements for archers in a high tower, things like that.

Siege equipment is next - rams and hooks and ladders and siege towers, ballista, catapults, and trebuchet, plus all the units needed to run those machines. There's mantlets and galleries to shield units from missile fire, cauldrons of oil, and ram catchers. It's a wondrous cavalcade of toys, and I'm tempted to go stock up on balsa wood so I can model them on the board.

I have this problem where I break down fantasy movies into DND tropes - I'm going to have a new problem the next time I watch Lord of the Rings or the like, in that I'm going to be organizing the siege at Minas Tirith into D@W:Battle units. Battering rams, for example, do 50 or 10 structural HP versus wood or stone, respectively, per attack. I'd double that for Grond.

Chapter 6: Epic Battles

Epic scale battles - take your company of 120 men and multiply it by four - that's your battalion of 480. Quadruple it again, and you've got a brigade of 1,920 fighting men.

The scale of the battle increases as well - the scale size of each hex (defaulting to 60') doubles with each scaling, as does the scale of the turn length - from 10 to 20 to 40 seconds. This has the benefit of not changing movement rates for the units on the board.

It's easy to mix scales - double the values of the hit points and damage of a battalion when it's fighting companies, for example.

Independent heroes at epic scale change slightly - time doesn't change for them, so they get more attacks because of the longer turn length. The spell list from Chapter 4 is updated for scale considerations, as are the rules for assaults.

There's enough guidance in this section that the DM could also scale down - to squad and even patrol level battles, such as you'd expect with mid-level PCs with numerous henchmen against an encamped or fortified target. I've got some of that worked out for myself, and will probably present it after the real thing's available.

Chapter 7: Rosters

Soldier boys, made of clay.

Dwarf and elf units, a page full of fighting men, beastmen units, and a selection of monstrous units round out the roster list - all the classics are represented. But wait, there's more:

Chapter 8: Conversion

Here's a fun bit - the guidelines for taking any creature from ACKS and making a unit of it.

There's few limitations - can't mix undead and live units, can't mix infantry and cavalry, and larger units have fewer individuals per unit - 120 men is 60 ogres is 20 giants is 5 purple worms is 1 ancient dragon.

Aside from infantry, you have mounted units, with one type riding another, mixed units, where two types of similar-sized units mix, and behemoth units, which are humanoids riding enormous creatures; i.e. the Southron's oliphants with the howdas on top from Lord of the Rings.

ACKSless: Again, this works for everything, from Swords and Wizardry to DND Next. The only fiddly part of the math would be converting from ACKS' Cleave mechanic to, say, 3E/PF's BAB progression, or map to number of encounter powers for 4E, perhaps. You can, also, simply leave that multiplier out, and be just fine.

Chapter 9: Scenarios

Two example scenarios are presented.

The first utilizes just the basic rules from Chapter 1, and features human forces versus an orcish horde on a plain battlefield.

The second utilizes the advanced rules, terrain from Chapter 2, Heroes from Chapter 4, including some mages and clerics on either side of 11th level or higher, to show you the mechanics of operating heroes straight on the battlefield.


What you're getting here is an agile miniature wargame heavily based on Dungeons & Dragons (rather than the opposite with Chainmail). Here's a battle report - I've ran this battle a couple times, and if I didn't have to take the time to record maneuvers or create screenshots of the action, a 4-on-2 (human units vs. 2 ogre units) battle takes me less than ten minutes to run through, including the time spent pondering my next move (which, when you're trying to play both sides, stretches a but). The system's breathtakingly quick, and there's a minimal set of trackable conditions. I'd expect things to slow down a tad once you introduce heroes, but that's the nature of the parent game.

Alexander Macris takes this stuff seriously. Several posts from him about the product start with "The other day we reenacted this ancient Grecian battle...". There's been a lot of wargames out there, and I bet Alex was perfectly capable of coming out with a product that only historians could appreciate. That's not what happens here.

If the history of wargaming is the Sun, Domains At War: Battles is that point of light you get after focusing what's good about wargaming through the lens of DND. It's quick, flexible, and dead simple to pick up for anyone that's rolled dice with purpose.

And again, nothing about this is system specific. The rules for creating units will hold for any game that's derived from DND. It ought to hold for most games that roll to-hit against a defense number. And that's a hell of a lot of games.

As a Whole:

Over the past 4 decades, Dungeons and Dragons, that product by a company, lost something - characters ceased striving to be conquerors and kings, and instead focused on achieving an individual immortality - a godhood that was more superhero than lord, more comic book than legend.

Domains At War, both sides of the product, close that circle that's slowly been coming back around upon itself since the Open Game License was established. The flood of player creativity unleashed with the power of the Internet - a real-time gathering of gamers that the players of the 1970s could only dream of - took back the game, made everyone's home an open table, everyone's house rules an open book.

And, now, we reach that terminal point where we've come back to the origin, when Gygax was mocked for letting elves and dragons into a wargame. There's a handful of other products out there that do this, but none with the firm economic background built upon the core ACKS domain system, nor with the ability to insert PCs at both a cut-scene level with Campaigns, or directly into the tactical situation with Battles, at the preference of the players or DM.

Join the Kickstarter.  Try it out! Grab your friends, and start up a group of characters joined by circumstance in a war in progress - forge your own Black Company or Bridgeburners, and establish your legend.

Ask me anything about the books or the play of them and I'll reply.

1 comment:

  1. Great write up. I'm in the Kickstarter for it and cannot wait for the finished product.


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