dark sun meets ACKS

in case you were wondering

Kalak, the mad tyrant of Tyr and the most notorious sorcerer-king of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, probably weighs in as a Level 10 Magic-User in Adventurer, Conqueror, King (ACKS).

I may not be doing the math right, though.  I’ll show my work in a minute, but I want to blither about Dark Sun for two sections.

(Disclaimer: several of my friends–Tavis, Paul, Chris H., Chris N., and Tim–have worked on ACKS in one way or another.  I apparently was an unwitting playtester.)


what’s dark sun about?

With some of our indie games wrapping up or on hiatus, I’m thinking about running some D&D that fits my work schedule and is distinct from the other New York Red Box offerings.  “Hey, maybe I’ll do a domain-level end game using 2e in Dark Sun!”

Digging around on Dragonsfoot revealed dissent about what the setting was “all about.”  Granted that the only material I ever cared about was the original Dark Sun Campaign Setting by Troy Denning, I’d say the setting involved three core elements:

  1. Brom’s pictures of a fantasy world gone horribly wrong.
  2. Kirby-ish social commentary about environmentalism and politics, a sort of Sword & Sorcery meets Green Anarchism thing.
  3. Weird mods to the D&D 2e rules, like 4d4 +4 for ability scores, new races, new classes, a huge dollop of psionics, and monsters with embarrassingly dumb names.

This may not hold true for the later supplements, but it’s my take on the original boxed set.

i want my masochism without so much fun, please

In 1992 the changes to the rules seemed exciting and x-treem.  But twenty years later, as I sink into middle age, the changes mostly seem like a headache for little net benefit.

You’ll likely have a higher Strength score, to hit more often for greater damage – but your weapons are mostly made of bone or obsidian, so they’re less accurate and weaker, which probably zeroes out.

Most items are sold at a 99% discount – but copper pieces have replaced the gold piece as the standard medium of exchange, so that zeroes out too.

But mostly my gripe about Dark Sun is that the psionics muddy up a perfectly fine metaphor.  The key setting detail in Dark Sun is that the irresponsible use of magic as a route to political power has led to an ecological catastrophe.  That clearly sets up a conflict between the corrupt Defilers and the benign but somewhat inhuman Druids.  Introducing a third source of supernatural power, one which has no bearing on the central conflict of the setting, seems unnecessary at best.  (Plus, 2e psionics make monsters a bit harder to run, because of unfamiliarity and bookkeeping.)

So my idea shifted from, “Let’s run Dark Sun out of the box” to “Let’s simplify Dark Sun a bit.”

  • Ditch psionics, because it doesn’t add much other than gonzo
  • Ditch the elemental Clerics, at least as PC’s, because they aren’t very interesting
  • Replace the Athasian Bard with the 1e Assassin, which may have been the original intent
  • Merge the Templars with the Defilers; thematically Sorcerer-Kings are just “big” Defilers
  • Replace the Templar/Defiler types with Necromancers
  • Give the monsters a good once-over and maybe a redesign
  • Ah hell, get rid of most of the non-human races (because marathon Elves and workaholic Dwarves are dumb)

And then I realized, “This removes everything that is gonzo and crazy about Dark Sun.  Plus the whole idea was to avoid extra work.  I’m an idiot.”

But the idea would have been to run some 9th level guys struggling to keep Tyr together in the aftermath of Kalak’s death, scheming against ambitious aristocrats, suppressing slave revolts, exterminating Thri-Kreen raiding tribes, and bringing war to neighboring city-states.

what’s this about ACKS again?

What follows is some demographic analysis under the ACKS system, to figure out what the Tyr region looks like under that rules-variant.  The upshot is that the Sorcerer-Kings, far from being world-conquering bad-asses, are more like speed bumps to the mightiest adventurers from more heavily populated worlds.

Behold the Tablelands, the “campaign level” map of the Dark Sun setting, by Diesel.  It’s 120,000 square miles, weighing in at “kingdom” size per ACKS.  Assuming a relatively sparse 30 people per square mile, that would be 360,000 people in the Tablelands as a whole, at the very lower bound of the “kingdom” band.  This population figure is probably rather high: much of this map is uninhabitable.

A kingdom has enough space, and enough people, to support up to six “principalities,” and there are seven city-states in the Tablelands.  Close enough!  Maybe a city-state is a principality?  If so, Kalak, the tyrant of Tyr, is probably around 12th level in ACKS.

Except, a principality in ACKS means a certain amount of territory and people under your control, and the city-states likely come in much smaller.  Here’s a hexographer map of the Tyr region at 6-mile hexes, based on Diesel’s map (I made a few approximations).  Tyr, the city in the center, probably asserts a claim to all of this territory, but (per the text) its actual sphere of control is much more limited.

This map contains approximately 300 hexes, of which about half are either sand dunes or the ungovernable jungles beyond the Ringing Mountains, leaving about 150 available.  If you figure Tyr controls about half of those, it would hold sway over about 75 hexes.  Or, just eye-balling the map, Tyr obviously controls everyting within a 2-hex radius; let’s be generous and say it’s a 4-hex radius instead.  (It likely wouldn’t be a perfect circle: Kalak might cede some of the mountainous territory to control the scrubland to the southwest.)  That works out to just under 1600 square miles, about 70 hexes at 22.5 square miles per hex.  So we’re in the neighborhood of 70-75 hexes.

Let’s say the area around Tyr has about 250 families per 6-mile hex, or 8 families per square mile.  At 70 hexes, that’s 17,500 familes, or 87,500 people.  This territory and population is just at the lower bounds of a “duchy” in the ACKS rules, which is smaller than the principality-sized domain I’d discussed a few paragraphs ago.

What about the city of Tyr?  With 17.5K families, the largest settlement would normally be a large village.  However, ACKS has some rules for adjusting this based on population density.  Societies in Dark Sun tend to be urbanized due to the dangers lurking in the wilderness, and the city-states are highly centralized, so that probably shifts Tyr into a “small city” of about 1250-2500 families.  This matches up pretty well with Kalak’s personal domain of 1500 families, if he’s running a duchy.

What level is Kalak?  Well, he rules a “duchy” of just under 90,000 people.  ACKS suggests that puts him somewhere in the Level 9-10 range.  And if Tyr were a starting city, situated within a populated realm, the minimum level of its ruler would be Level 10.

Level 10 seems a little weak for a world-shaking bad guy like Kalak, but

  • Relative to maximum level, Level 10 in ACKS (capped at level 14) is probably like Level 15 in Second or Third Edition (capped at 20)
  • Dark Sun is a fallen world, where the great achievements of the Green Age are forever lost.  This could mean that there simply aren’t any truly high-level adventurers around any more.
  • Kalak enjoys a lot of infamy, but really, he owns a dying city in the middle of the waste land, in a tiny section of the planet.  He might boast about his power and everyone lives in fear of him, but in objective terms he’s simply a local warlord with a (literal) cult of personality.

If you really want to power him up, you could say that Kalak is a leftover from the time when Tyr really was a principality and had the population (and high-level adventurers) that comes with it.  This would put him around Level 12, a few levels higher than almost anyone in the present era could hope to match because the economy has tanked so hard, largely due to the ecological ruin brought on by Kalak and those like him.  In that sense, the Sorcerer-Kings’ history makes a lot of sense: rise to power, and then completely destroy the economy so that no one can ever rival your might.

is there anything useful I can take from this?

Yeah, maybe.

The assumptions of Dark Sun–D&D 2 tha xtreem!!!–aren’t necessarily a great fit for ACKS, which strives for internal consistency.

ACKS achieves that self-consistent goal impressively well.  Since consistency isn’t Tavis’s strong suit as a GM (indeed, a delightful inconsistency is his watchword), I assume Alex Macris and Greg Tito did the hard work, with help from many editors like Blizack.  The system is fairly easy to use, and everything looks plausible and workable.

The themes in Dark Sun are actually accentuated by this treatment: under D&D’s instrumentalist ethics, genocide and ecological ruin are bad because they make it harder for you to level up!

Being level 10 (or, I guess level 12) is awesome enough to start a cult that worships you (your henchmen, their henchmen, and your apprentices), conquer a city, and force its inhabitants to live in fear.  And maybe make plausible claims to have destroyed the world.  If you’re approaching level 10, Kalak is one of your peers.

15 Responses to “dark sun meets ACKS”

  1. July 28, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    I don’t know nothing about ACK, but I think in that normal starting adventurers in Dark Sun have Level 3, this would probably make the assumtions of that game a little less useful if played as written. Maybe just add the two extra levels to everything would work or maybe the ACK internals would have to be rescaled to a steeper power curve, so that you have your 20 level+ sorcerer king governing what would be a small duchy in a normal ACK campaign, but is a center of civilization in Dark Sun… *shrug* Whatever works for you.

  2. 2 Adam
    July 28, 2012 at 6:25 pm

    Really neat stuff! I would love to play in a game like this.

    Four thoughts: First, you’re absolutely right in your musings that maybe we should stat the sorcerer-kings up as the remnants of a bygone age, with more power than you see in the world today. That’s explicit to the setting, and ties in to the notion of a ruined world–Kalak and “friends” are the enormously powerful god-kings from ages past who broke the world. They’re also pursuing an apotheosis road, so it makes sense that they have branched away from the normal expectations. So I would deliberately overclock the sorcerer-kings. Yes, that makes it very hard for home-grown adventurers to overthrow them–but again, that’s what the setting claims. The sorcerer-kings have ruled for generations (millennia? don’t remember). They should be extremely hard to overthrow. Kalak was only killed because he was vulnerable while performing a crazy ritual. They should be several levels above all of the local adventurers. So I would put Kalak at level 12 without blinking, and I would seriously consider putting him at level 14 (i.e. at the cap).

    Second, one of the themes of Dark Sun is “a hard world has made people tougher and stronger than in normal worlds.” In 2e, where games start at level 1 with a semi-cap at level 20, Dark Sun starts at level 3 and has a cap at 30ish, with the sorcerer-kings in the mid to high 20s. So that raises the question of whether you would want to carry that across in ACKS. If you did, you would presumably start PCs at around 3, have the normal human range top at 14, and then have the sorcerer-kings levels (and related weirdness, if you want to draw from Dragon Kings), be from roughly level 15 to 20 or 25. Under that scale, Kalak might be level 18 or something–above the normal cap, despite ruling a sadsack duchy.

    Third, my understanding is that ACKS assumes that the Kings and things are mostly fighter types. Wizards in ACKS typically rule towers with monstrous dungeons and magical research. So it seems to me that you should think of a sorcerer-king as a boss level wizard with tons of research, magic, and wacky dungeon, who happens to rule a crappy little domain on the side and as a source of sacrificial victims. So then Kalak is like a 14th level wizard, with a big-ass dungeon under Tyr, and part of the difficulty of the setting is that a normal city-state, ruled by a fighter “king,” would actually be a duchy, ruled by maybe a 9th level fighter, and a 9th level fighter with a duke’s army is going to have a real tough time in a war with a 14th level wizard with a duke’s army, assorted templar apprentices, and crazy magic and monsters to boot. That’s again consistent with the setting design.

    Finally, I like the dynamic of templars being semi-divine casters, semi-defiler casters. It creates the ancient Near East, city-states with god-kings, vibe–Kalak is a semi-divine figure who can grant divine magic to his templars. But he’s not a real god with real clerics, so his templars have a mix of divine-ish magic with some defiling magic as well. I think that’s really cool and worth preserving, presumably by kitbashing a new setting specific templar class–which is both the Dark Sun/2e way and imo the ACKS way, with its various bladedancer setting specific classes as well.

  3. July 28, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    One of the cornerstones of the ACKS economy is XP for GP. If a character starts at 3rd level with 5,000 XP, then we can assume that their adventures have brought 4,000 gp worth of treasure from the wilderness into civiliation (based on the ratio of XP from treasure vs. combat that Moldvay makes explicit). This equation can be reversed to say how many characters of a given level you’d find in an economy of a certain size.

    ACKS is as good at describing any pre-2E D&D setting as those settings are in holding true to the game’s assumptions. However, 2E offers no sound basis for an XP-based economy; GP for XP is relegated to an optional rule for group experience, but sneaks back into the individual award rules. Rogues get 2 XP per GP, and wizards get XP for spell research – except the gold required for such research ranges between 1,000 and 10,000 gp per spell level, either rolled randomly or, we are told, “it is best to base the cost on whatever the character can just barely afford (or slightly more)”. To the extent that Dark Sun takes these rules seriously, then, its economy is too based on this kind of quicksand and will never be internally consistent – although it’s awesome to watch you try, James!

  4. July 28, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    That’s an important observation, Tavis, thanks!

    As you note, 2e is compatible with ACKS if you fold in the optional 1 GP = 1 XP rule. But mainly you’re supposed to earn XP by defeating (impliedly killing) monsters. If you look at the Encounter Charts in the 2e Monstrous Compendia, factor in the XP per monster encounter, and then work out the frequency of random encounters, you could probably determine the number of XP per square mile, since rulers presumably must first defeat all monsters in their terrain. This would be an interesting (read: extremely dull) exercise to compare it with ACKS numbers. There may be an implication that rulers in the borderlands and wilderness are higher-level than guys ruling the civilized hexes, which fits in a sort of Beyond the Black River sense.

    The individual class awards for Priests and Wizards reward them for casting spells, IIRC. So thay might be able to level up more in a place with lots of supplicants.

  5. 5 Jack Colby
    July 29, 2012 at 2:07 am

    I always wanted to run Dark Sun, but instead of dropping psionics, I’d retain that and drop all D&D magic instead. Yeah, that means dropping the environmental thing, too.

  6. July 29, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Jack, that’s an interesting approach. I would agree that psionics is probably a better match for the aesthetics of Dark Sun. And I would probably say that the Sorcerer-Kings ruined the world through rituals, rather than the spell-by-spell approach advocated in the Dark Sun rulebook. But I see that connection between the Sorcerer-Kings’ oppression and the health of the territory as fairly fundamental.

  7. July 29, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    Personally, my understandings of the Sorcerer Kings would definitely have them at level 12+. Since they are all on the road to evolving into dragons, I’d even wager that they are all 14th level with various levels of Transformation magic turning them into 14+ HD monsters (because none of them were ‘just’ wizards). But if you wanted to make them ‘just’ wizards, they all need to be powerful enough to perform rituals (11+).

    This does mean throwing ACKS economy assumptions out the window. And frankly, I don’t think the GP=XP model is a good fit for any post apocalypse setting (which is what Dark Sun really is).

    While I can get where you are coming from with the psionics thing clouding the issue, I think that it should remain in, because it helps with the post-apoc feel of the setting (all characters are ‘mutants’ with unique powers) and most of the wild-talents, when rolled honestly, added very little power to a character (‘wow…I have a detect X ability…woo!).

    I would love to see DS done using the ACKS system, but I do feel that certain assumptions have to be tossed. XP from GP needs to go I think. Monster XP might be multiplied by 2 or 3 to compensate (as 1st ed AD&D effectively did and 2E practically did) and adding in story awards, or exploration awards to fill the rest of the gap to taste would go a long way.

    Anyway, I hope to hear more about the experiment!

  8. July 30, 2012 at 2:56 am

    Yay James! Shine on you crazy astral diamond.

    My quick, unmeasured thoughts:

    I have it on good authority that Tavis spent much time crunching numbers for consistency in the ACKS core rules. We have him to thank for the nitty gritty balance of the monsters and their encounters jiving with the treasure tables. (That is really one of my old-school pet peeves. Screw you gygax-arneson-holmes-moldvey-mentzer for being arbitrary.)

    I would play ACKS as Dark Sun STRAIGHT UP with the addition of a couple new classes from the new ACKS Players Companion, reskinned to be whatever. Add in a couple more classes for half-giants, Thri-kreen, whatever. Making an ACKS class is not hard.

    Add perhaps a small Psionic list of a couple powers. (Psionics are not magic and don’t add to the good-bad struggle as you say, but do represent a sort of environmental genetic backlash that is somewhat uncontrollable and unlearnable.)

    No wacky stat mods or different character rolling methods. I kinda think that it was added in the original DS campaign just so the pubescent boys could say “Look how awesome my character is!”. It had no functional difference since all the beasties were assumed to be meaner anyway. The original campaign setting doesn’t seem any more terrible than other Old School characters roaming the countryside and rolling on those tables. (remember a dragon happens 1 in 12.) Use Dark Sun monsters straight. At most, have beginning PCs start at 3rd level.

    Instead of have GP = XP, why not do the obvious and switch it to resource = XP. You should get XP in Dark Sun simply for finding food and water. You can’t eat GP. Resources could also include shelter and contacts as well.

  9. July 30, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    I see GP = XP as specifically ost-apocalyptic. The implied narrative in all the Gamma World inspirational reading (which has a lot of overlap with Appendix N) is the rebuilding of civilization. The XP award for GP is explicitly when it is brought back to civilization; your PCs are rewarded for reclaiming the wealth of ages past from Chaos and returning it to fund the growth of Law. Giving XPs for story awards or social climbing or growth of renown all make more sense in a functional society; it’s only in the peculiar post-apocalyptic case where the wilderness is full of ancient treasure that XP for bringing gold into civilization makes sense. In a mature society, that’d be equivalent to saying you get XP for paying gate taxes and treasure-hunter tariffs.

  10. 10 Charlatan
    July 31, 2012 at 2:24 am

    Perhaps, then, Dark Sun just means you dial the xp-to-coin ratio up. SP = XP? CP = XP?

  11. 11 Charlatan
    July 31, 2012 at 2:41 am

    As far as XP-able resources including shelter, ACKS actually does do that in the form of strongholds. Maybe the way you justify a level 3 starting character is to make them the head of a lodge in their home village or something. I’m looking at a resource that suggests that a Dark Sun character starts with 250 ceramic pieces. Given the juicing of numbers in other categories, I’d start by estimating that that’s about 2 ceramic pieces to a (ahem) Greyhawk gold piece.

    What does your game look like if you award an XP per 2 ceramic pieces, and value accumulated goods appropriately?

  12. 12 Plamen Kovatchev
    August 5, 2012 at 7:05 am

    The Elves are pretty critical to the setting. The thing is, they’re not really “Elves” in any sense of the term. What they are is Bedouins, Fremen, Berbers, Moors, and any other “People of the Desert” that the story might require. Basically, they’re Arabs, as popularly portrayed in stuff like Indiana Jones. If most of your game world is going to take place in a desert, you’re naturally going to need some natives who are at home in the inhospitable waste. If you take the Elves out, make sure you don’t replace them with something similar.

  13. 13 ArnofB
    September 10, 2012 at 11:41 am

    Hey let’s play Dark Sun!

    Except without elves, psionics, halflings, muls, half-giants, powerful sorcerer kings, the dragon, no brittle weapons, and without any threat from trying to survive the desert.

    So… NOT Dark Sun.

    Just don’t play Dark Sun. There, conversion done.

  14. September 12, 2012 at 2:39 am

    This is the conclusion I reached, too!

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Past Adventures of the Mule

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