Archive for August 6th, 2011


Kickstarter Ends Today for Adventurer Conqueror King

Ryan drew this assassin at work based on the request of one of our Visionary backers on Kickstarter.

There’s a fair chance you’re interested in domain-level campaigns and the progression that gets characters there through sandbox play; from where I sit, this seems to be one of the hot topics in the old school renaissance right now. It’s maybe less likely that you’re reading The Mule Abides and don’t know about our Kickstarter for Adventurer Conqueror King, since it’s a horse I’ve been flogging for a while now.

What you might not know – especially since I buried the lede in my last post – is that this horse is about to cross the finish line when our Kickstarter ends later today.

You don’t have to support it now to eventually get the finished product. Thanks to our 227 backers we have 275% of the funding we’ll need to make Adventurer Conqueror King System available in game stores, through our website, etc. And after hitting our first bonus goal our first supplement,  the Domains of War mass-combat system, will also be released soon through the usual routes. What you will miss out on if you don’t get in before the Kickstarter period ends is:

  • the ability to watch successive drafts of the core system and the Domains of War grow from their current playable-and-fun state towards the loftiest aims we can set for them
  • access to the developer’s forums where you can help shape the development of the game over the next few months and make sure its aims are the ones that matter to you
  • downloads of the materials we’ve developed for the Gen Con demo, like the form-fillable character sheets, the Borderlands player’s maps, and the counters for mass combat, which you can use to start running your own playtests (doing so for four days non-stop is optional)
  • (at the King of Kings donor reward level) one of the signed pre-release copies of the beta rules which, I humbly submit, already look better than a third of the finished books I see on the Gen Con exhibit floor & will only get better with illustration
  • (at the Visionary reward level) the opportunity to tell project artist Ryan Browning what you want to see him illustrate; the piece above is an example, based on the player’s experience playing an assassin in Greg’s campaign

Everyone who backs us now also gets to be part of the excitement of helping us push for our final bonus goal: if we raise three times our original target, we’ll set up a game of Adventurer Conqueror King for each of our backers via Google+ hangout. We are currently $997 away from this bonus, with five hours remaining; as it so happens, there is one $1,000 Patron Deity reward left to be claimed…

Doing this Kickstarter has been a fantastic experience for me and the rest of the Autarch crew, and it’s all due to the fact that y’all have shared the experience. If you’ve been thinking about becoming part of it, now is the time.


When Players Frustrate Themselves in Sandbox Play

The promise of sandbox play is that players can choose to do whatever they’re going to enjoy doing in a wide-open environment. In practice, though, it often doesn’t work this way.

Some of the problems come at the beginning of the campaign, when a lack of information prevents players from translating “what is there for our characters to do” into “which things will be fun for me as a player.” This is a pretty well-discussed problem, with excellent suggestions from the classic sources including the West Marches and Rob Conley’s Bat in the Attic.

A problem I haven’t seen discussed as much develops in a sandbox campaign that’s well underway. The players have made a choice about what their characters want to pursue, and they’ve really gotten invested in it. The problem comes when that investment turns the sandbox into a tunnel of the player’s own making.

In the White Sandbox campaign, we saw that happen between the second and third level of Caverns of Thracia. The players had identified “killing the Beast Lord” as the thing that was going to be fun for them. But the intense opposition they faced as they drew near his domain was pushing them towards a style of play they really didn’t enjoy. Hiring a big force of mercenaries and pushing these disposable troops in front of them seemed like the only solution available to them. They wanted to kill the Beast Lord with the same madcap brio they’d dealt with previous encounters, but the way the dungeon was set up made this difficult to impossible. (Ray Weiss told me that this is an emergent property of dungeons stocked using the OD&D procedures; perhaps, as Oban was saying, “saturday night specials” are assumed to become important in this zone, so that the generated treasures no longer have to carry the load of character advancement.)

As the referee, it was really clear to me that the sandbox was full of other dungeons that would support that style of play – many of them also designed by Paul Jaquays.  As I watched the players becoming frustrated with Caverns of Thracia, I suggested in increasingly overt terms that they might want to try going on some side treks which I knew they would both enjoy more for themselves, and would also yield the gold and magic items that would allow them to become powerful enough to deal with the Beast Lord’s forces in their accustomed style. But there was a remarkably strong commitment to continuing to bang their heads against the same wall.

This seems to me to potentially give the lie to the sandbox promise: all the opportunities to choose what you’ll enjoy are for naught if you can’t unchoose a previous decision that is proving not to be enjoyable.

In the Adventurer Conqueror King demo we ran earlier, I refereed for characters who were about the same level as the Grey Company of old. The key difference was that the players had also previously played the characters who were the mentors and lieges of these “adventurer”-level characters. In this role, they chose which mission their low-level characters would be assigned to.

The intentional design feature was to highlight the ways that the different spheres of activity in ACKS come together. Over a long-term campaign this can become clear, but in a demo where each player might only participate for a few hours, we needed to highlight right away all the experiences that ACKS supports. Having players switch their viewpoint between three characters at different levels proved to be very successful in this regard. (I initially resisted the idea because I don’t love the troupe style of play in Ars Magica nearly as much as I love its noun-verb spellcasting. I think the difference is that in Ars Magica, a grog will never become a companion will never become a magus, so switching viewpoints feels like playing different games. In ACKS, the organic progression from adventurer to conqueror to king makes switching as natural as reading Conan stories outside the character’s internal chronology).

The unexpected design benefit of this is that it offers a way for players to switch out of the mindset that leads to frustration. In the Abandoned Monastery, the low-level party ran into bugbears tough enough that the characters had to retreat and rest after a single fight. Normally this is where the dogged “never surrender even if it becomes a bitter grind” approach sets in.

But because  I thought it might be a good switching point, I said “OK everybody, your lieges don’t want to see you get killed and they do want you to come back with information. Do you want to try to return through the wilderness and report – in which case we’ll play out what the kings do with this new data at the domain level, and you’ll get a pat on the back? Or do you want to go back in the dungeon and get something for yourselves, whether that’s treasure or revenge?”

Framing it this way turned around their initial beat-head-against-wall tendency. I think it’s because it offered a choice where both results would be fun. A choice between admitting defeat and going back for another beating is never fun. So introducing the option of switching to play the characters who had a different range of things to do, related to but possibly independent of the situation with the bughears, restored the wide-open possibility of doing lots of enjoyable things that is, to me, the essence of sandbox play.

One of the design posts of Adventures Great and Glorious mentions that players will play factions instead of characters, which I suspect is going to afford the same kind of anti-frustration switching of perspective as we’ve evolved through the ACKS demo and the playtesting thereof.


Past Adventures of the Mule

August 2011

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