By This Axe (2022)
Alexander Macris (with additional work by D.Hicks, M. Jarmack, D. McGrane & D. Wheeler)
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Alexander Macris reached out to me and asked me if I was interested in doing a sort of sneak-(p)review of his upcoming Kickstarter Dwarfbook By This Axe for the Adventurer Conqueror King system. Offering my usual guarantees of fairness without mercy, I accepted.
ACKS lives on the other side of the looking glass from most of the OSR. It is not rules-lite, it has a proficiency system that is perilously close to feats, it has a tonne of systems, it focuses heavily on economy and domain management, it is not allowed to sit at the cool kids table because it uses too many words and it is THICC. Fortunately this is abated somewhat by the fact I am not coming at the system as a complete novice. I have actually played, and even enjoyed!, ACKS, having reached about 6-7th level with two characters.
By this Axe boasts of being an ‘encyclopedia of Dwarvenkind’ and is reminiscent of a 2e era sourcebook, combining thick tracts of lore with ample plates full of crunch, including new classes, proficiencies, magic items and impossibly elaborate overlapping economical subsystems that will likely delight or horrify depending on whether or not you are the work’s chosen audience. While certain sections of the rules have been replicated for convenience’s sake and the core assumptions of the game are explained in the introduction, aiding those wanting to convert to other systems, getting full use and understanding of this middle-weight behemoth will require a copy of ACKS, as well as access to many of its supplements.
Chapter 2 opens in full, with an encyclopedic treatment of the Dwarf from the perspective of an imperial scholar, and details in somewhat exhaustive length their economy, customs, laws, warfare, beliefs, construction methods, marriage customs and history, clocking in at a girthy 37 pages. There is not a hint of crystal dragon dwarves, or wacky twists on the archetypal formula. The Ur-Dwarf has been carefully extracted from the firmament of contemporary fantasy pop culture and written down with absolute fidelity. The supra-tolkienian dwarf, discovered by Warhammer Fantasy, is replicated in essence. That means dwarven berserks, councils of elders, geomancy, automatons and mushroom farming. The use you will get out of this depends on what you are looking for.
In the appendix Macris describes that this approach is meant to explain the various attributes of the Dwarf and its culture and integrate them all into a coherent system which to his credit he attains marvellously. What the dwarves eat, the ratio of males to females, the rationale for everything to their weaponry to their arch-conservatism, this is all provided for with a degree of thoroughness that is unprecendented by OSR standards. Those seeking the means to provide a fully realized backdrop against which the Dwarves may exist in their or any campaign world are not going to find a more thorough compendium in all the Nine Worlds. To those merely reading it for inspiration, it runs into the problem of conceptual density.
Conceptual density, first coined by loveable artpunk-adjacent raggamuffin Udan Adan to describe his girlfriend, is a concept meant to describe a trend in fantasy gaming where vast tracts of texts are dedicated to describing things that are, in essence, already known. The TLDR version of the argument is that you don’t actually need voluminous descriptions of the customs of, say, archetypal elves because you can already infer them just from pop culture osmosis. I can ask you about them and you can come up with answers off the top of your head; They live in trees, their favored weapon is the bow, they love singing and fine arts, they are in harmony with nature and they have as their king an elfking and his beautiful elfqueen. And while there are certainly still fascinating bits in the cyclopedia, particularly in areas that do not normally get covered like mushroom farming, successive dwarven marriage customs and dwarven legal battles (where both advocates and the jury are prohibited food, water, rest and relief breaks until both advocates have finished their plea, with the elimination via TKO of the entire jury resulting in the case being undecided in perpetuity) if you are looking for NEW CONCEPTS this section might leave you cold: They use axes, they have a king often advised by a council of elders, they live underground in vaults of stone, besieged by hordes of Beastmen and they prefer working stone and metal to more perishable substances. So it is not a description of something new, it is an explanation and exploration of something extant.
My initial skepticism r.e. the lore bits were swept away the second we crossed even a single page into Chapter 3: Dwarven Characters which provides a host of additional classes based on Dwarven archetypes, more or less allowing the demented GM, if he so desires, to run entirely all-dwarf based campaigns, and while the bulk of such notions end their lifetime as slightly demented flights of fancy, having a fully fleshed out Dwarf race is exactly what the doctor ordered. The earlier Dwarven Vaultguard and Craftpriest, who must have had their antecedents in the Dwarf Race as class and GAZ 6: Dwarves of Rockhome before making their way into ACKS Core, have been augmented with the Dwarven Delver (a sort of tunnel exploration rogue without lockpicking, pickpocketing and removing trap ability), the Dwarven Slayer (Gotrek), the Earthforger (a priestly spellcaster using an entirely new system of ritual gnostic magic) and the Machinist (an artificer class with siege weapon proficiency, open locks/find traps ability and access to a MONSTROUSLY DETAILED automaton crafting-system ). Of the new additions, the Machinist is the most ACKS in that its presence makes sense in the context of a wider world but in any single adventuring party its largest contribution is likely to be OUTSIDE of the adventure, considering its d4 HD and suboptimal attack bonus and protection. As a means of eliminating the vast swathes of accumulated wealth, it is almost superior to the magic user.
Added proficiencies are about on par for ACKS, unspectacular but highly robust abilities allowing the odd Backstab, bonus against vermin, turning at 1/2 character level, Prospecting (!), or interlocking with the new Gnostic and Artifice subsystems in various ways. It is nowhere fleshy but you get the idea this has been tested and slots into the existing game with all the smoothness of a well-oiled blade slipping into a carefully fitted sheath. It is followed by a well-stocked equipment section which introduces a few useful tidbits to the adventurers armory like the ear trumpet, delvers harness, petard bomb, manacles and hoist. All things that you would expect to find in a dwarven handbook. I did find it interesting that in the last section of the chapter Macris gives a full explanation of the construction of the classes, using an earlier point-buying method described in the Book of Heroic Fantasy; a practice that both illustrates his methodical, deliberate approach and facilitates easy modification or tinkering by prospective GMs.
These sorts of concessions to useability are prevalent throughout the text. The intricate subsystems are accompanied by step by step examples allowing them to be absorbed with relative ease. There is an entire chapter (chapter 4) with randomly generated, pre-made starter kits of equipment, proficiencies and classes, allowing for rapid generation. The degenerate practices of mid-era 2nd Edition, with its sourcebooks meant more for popular consumption then actual play, remain mercifully extinct.
The first NEW as in, properly innovative and interesting chapter hits at around Chapter 5, and describes the craft of Dwarven Earthforging, a practice of ritualistic divine magic similar to one described earlier in the Heroic Fantasy Handbook. The idea is that you have access to a limited array (sometimes as little as a single invocation) of spell-like abilities, but that these may be used with more versatility, and as often as one likes. There are several drawbacks: The rituals are time-consuming, ritual components are expensive, there is a chance of failure, (though they can be rushed, or slowed to increase the chance of success), failure brings with it potentially devastating consequences. There are whiffs of variable casting building blocks allowing for more free-form modification of powers but these are not expounded upon, suggesting that they might be more fully described in some other text (the Players Companion in this case). Dwarven Earthforgers can choose between an invocation that allows them to raise walls and shape stone, forge objects from raw materials (sometimes invested with temporary preternatural ability) and the ability to create explosions of flame from an active torch (and later a mere spark). The requirement to use pre-existing materials calls to mind something like the system of Alchemy from Full Metal Alchemist. The system is further restrained by various complications, like Stigma and Corruption, preventing mis-use and keeping everything interesting.
Chapter 6 is an absolute beast of a subsystem and details the new process of Automaton creation from the ground fucking up. Instead of outlining it we are just going to go through the process of doing it live on air and you can infer from that whether or not you are into it (sort of like making love to a woman or a catman).
So before we get into the construction phase, we should describe our character. Dwerg is a 5th level Machinist with 16 int (+2) and three ranks in Craft (Weaponsmithing). His normal roll of 10+ gets a +2 bonus from his ability score, reducing it to 8+. He can craft 50 gp worth of automaton/day with an additional 50 gp for the three ranks in Craft if it is applicable. Before we begin crafting, we must meet a number of requirements. We require a Workshop worth at least as much as the requirement of the Automaton we are going to be constructing. We have a dwarf uncle that died, bequeating upon us a Workshop worth 25.000 gp, which will hopefully suffice.
If we want to design an automaton, we must first have a blueprint. If none is available, we have the option of reverse engineering one from a downed automaton (cheap), or creating one from scratch (monstrously expensive). We will create one from scratch. We decide to go for an automaton, though it is possible to create vehicles as well as objects if we wanted to. In order to determine cost, we are going to be looking at the number of minor (#) and major abilities (*) we will be adding. Every 8 minor abilities count as one major ability.
We want to create a Witch-Engine, an abulatory automaton somewhere between a venus flytrap and an ambulatory sturgeon that strikes fear into our enemies and will make them pay for laughing at us behind their microbreweries and ironic denim shirtwear. First we must select its hit dice, which we will set at 8 HD, with twice our level being the maximum. It’s stated AC is half its HD = 4 (which in this game is equivalent to AC 6), but we can elect to increase it by 3 at the cost of a minor ability (#) each up until the Automaton’s HD x 1.5, after which it costs #### per point. So ### gets us AC 7, superior to plate. It automatically has construct immunities (charm, hold, suffocation, poison etc.), which costs a major ability (*). We could give our automaton the characteristics of a wooden or stone construction to protect it from weaponry but this would consume considerable amounts of abilities and we are looking for something cheap. In fact we are getting a bit nervous so we decide to give the Witch Engine a vulnerability to Lightning, meaning it takes double damage but this reduces our minor abilities by ##.
Automatically, our Automaton weighs (8)^2 * 10 = 640 stone. We could reduce or double its weight for various reasons at the cost of more abilities, or less if it was purely an object and thus its weight was negative. Its weight also determines its size and AC, landing it Huge Status, and thereby reducing its AC by 2, to 5. Its carrying capacity is half its weight (320 stone). If we wanted to, we could make it a vehicle and allow it carry people but this is meant to be an automaton.
Maximum damage is considerable based on three times its HD (3d8). We have the option of increasing its maximum damage by another x3 (6d8) as a major ability, and then divide the damage across a number of attacks. In this case, two sweeping claw attacks (at 3d8 each) should suffice to turn people into mince-meat. There is an entire ranged attack meta, along with ammunition and even siege-like abilities, which we will just ignore for now. There is another method of giving it special abilities which is a derivation from the method of constructing new creatures described in Lairs and Encounters.
Speed is base at 60′. There are many methods of locomation available, all of which are costly. We simply decide to increase its speed to 120′, at the cost of ####. Now it should be able to outrun any retreating infantry. We can give the creature Hold Person (equivalent to ** major abilities) 1/day (at a factor of .4 meaning 16 * .4 = 6.4 so ####### seven abilities) so it may freeze strong fighters in their tracks. Ideally we’d add some sort of Cleaving ability but that will have to wait until I figure out how.
So far we have this.
8 HD (32 hp)
Special: Construct Traits, Vulnerability to lightning
Weight: 640 stone
Carrying capacity: 320 stone
Attacks: 2 Claws 3d8
Speed: 120 ft.
Major abilities: ***
Minor abilities: ####
Now that we have crafted our creature, it is time to calculate its material cost. Base cost is 2.000 gp per HD (so a humble 16.000 gp) 500 gp per minor ability (4 * 625 = 2500 gp), 5000 gp * 3 = 15000 for a total base of 33500 gp per Witch Engine. No trivial amount! In addition, the Witch Engine will cost an additional 33500 gp worth of labor. Assuming he works by himself, Dweg would have to toil for 335 days to complete his creation! Unfortunately, our paltry Workshop and Library are in no way adequate to fulfill this requirement.
Fortunately for us, there are ways in which we can reduce this additional cost. We can reduce the material cost by implementing a Maintenance Cost. The minimum modified maintenance cost must equal half of the total material cost (16.750 gp). The idea is that you select the period of maintenance, which applies a modifier to the base cost of maintenance. Maintenance 1x year has a multiplier of x2, 1/day has a multiplier of x1000. We settle on maintenance 1/week (x140 multiplier) so 120 gp/week for the minimum. Any further maintenance cost we impose will reduce the base materiel cost to a maximum of 90%. We add another 80 gp (80 * 140 = 11.200), increasing the cost to 200 gp/week, but reduce the initial material cost to a mere 22.300 gp, just enough for our library and workshop! If we miss maintenance, the damn thing is a wreck! When the kingdom is not at war, we have the option of mothballing the damn things so we do not have to pay the exorbitant maintenance fee, at the cost of paying half the initial cost to start them up again. Automaton war ain’t cheap.
We can also reduce the labor cost through a similar process, with the difference that not fuelling our automata will cause them to be immobilized, but not destroyed. Fuel goes from compost (1 sp per stone) to the monstrously expensive Alchemical fuel (5000 gp per stone). We settle on good old american Crude Oil (20 gp per stone). Max fuel weight can be 25% of the Automaton’s weight (80 stone). We decide the Witch Engine should be able to function about 2.5 days per fuel intake (long enough for a pitched battle) for a modifier of x265. We calculate the minimum total fuel cost and divide it by the modifier for the total fuel cost (63 gp, or about 3 stone of Oil). We figure we better skimp on labor with these bad boys by doubling the fuel cost (126 gp or 6 stone) which reduces the labor cost to 16750 gp.
We glance at the requirements, figure we have just about enough with our giant fucking workshop and assorted library, we glance at the level requirment (total major abilities or half hit dice whichever is greater), for a total of 4, just below our Dwerg the Machinist), and we determine the difficulty, which is equal to -1 for every 5000 gp of workshop/library requirement, for an admittedly brutal -4 (at 22.300 gp). We could spend more on materials to increase the proficiency bonus by 1, or we could expand our workshop/library to gain a maximum of +3 on the roll for every 5.000 gp surplus. After that we make one roll and pay the cost in order so we can design the blueprint. Only once we have generated the blueprint (which costs as much as the finished thing), we can start constructing Witch Engines properly.
This does not even cover the ability to experiment (along with associated mishaps) so you can push your luck, or the dozens of sample automatons to sort of illustrate the breadth and vastness of the system, absolutely nuts. Will it languish on the shelves of most campaigns? Probably. Does it work seamlessly with the rest of the math if you pull it out? It sure fucking looks like it.
Chapter 7 begins, and we are now in Full ACKS mode. Prospecting rules. Rules for dwarf domains. Land values. Revenue collection. Domain morale. Growth/shrinkage. Complications. Rebellion. Vault costs. Shrinking tribute inefficiency with increase of domain size. Vassals. Seperate sources of income. Starting an Eldmoot. Determining the priorities of the Eldmoot. Assassinating, seducing and Blackmailing members of the Eldmoot because they will not vote in alignment with your wishes. It has all the elegance and complexity of a game of Civ and I feel a bit cockteased because I know that a great deal of sustained long term investment is required to even get to this level. Those familiar with this sort of batshit intricate domain management from the original game will feel right at home (and I suspect at least some of the material has been helpfully duplicated from the core rulebook if only to make it intelligable). You sort of get lost in the intricacy of it all until Macris throws the occasional random table of Vassal favors owed to the Lord your way, reminding you that while all this domain stuff is there, you still got here as an adventurer, and that that is the assumed continued mode of play. The rest of the stuff is sort of marvelled at and provokes fascination, but as a neophyte to domain play, I cannot give it much more.
There is no benchmark against which to compare this level of depth at domain management. AD&D and BECMI are left mewling in the dust, bawling infants playing at sandcastles while Father Macris is hammering together a bungalow with krupp stahl and forced labor (reduce domain morale by 2 if over 50% of population). SWN perhaps comes close with its factions and star-spanning battle-cruiser owning corporations. If this is what you are going for, this is the absolute zenith. Is it solid, it at least looks like an insane level of THOUGHT has been put into counterbalancing and adjusting all of its myriad factors, though I am sure extensive play might (hopefully) reveal some assymetries.
Indeed, the topic of MINING is so important it warrants a chapter (8) all by itself. Though the unique nature of the dwarves means that they can make unique use of this process and gain particularly interesting results, mining can be done by any aspiring ruler. All you need is a prospector, your fucking startup cost, either dwarf miners or brutal forced labor (there is a method of using paid nondwarf labor but it is economically inefficient although better for domain morale), a nearby forest for lumber (that will be gradually deforested) and you can then begin mining.
Normally once your mine is depleted you, the smelly pinkskin human, moves on, but the Dwarf miner has the ability to DELVE DEEPER, which allows you to gain additional revenue from the depleted mine at the cost of rolling on an astonishingly awesome table with random events. Find veins of mithril, cave complexes that must be cleared of monsters before mining can continue, floods that kill % of the total workers in the mine, gigantic volcanic eruptions, unearth the hideous 20 HD monstrosity and have mining continue, or the rather unfortunate combination of the last two entitled only Flame & Shadow. This domain level stuff is where Macris really shines and it shines all the brighter because there are really few contenders in this benighted realm, with the exception of the (admittedly godlike) Kevin Crawford.
The mining section pretty much covers every conceivable element and section of mining that you can imagine and I am told on good authority that Alexander Macris actually excavated a moderately sized vault with an adjoining porphyry mine in the sides of his native mount Rushmore and raised successive generations of offspring just so he could get this section correct, which seems perfectly plausible from a cursory reading.
By now you already know whether or not this book is for you. I can cover the next chapter if you want to know for sure (if this book is for you, you will want to know for sure). Chapter 9 Dwarven Myoculture introduces an entirely alternate system of farming which is more robust because it can be done largely independent of the land value of a hex and is very sustainable but not very profitable. You grow mushrooms in a cave. It can be introduced seperately from peasants and City dwellers (which are also covered), there are a plethora of steps for setting everything up and running it (this is all fully functional), and to add a bit of spice Macris offers a push your luck mechanic which means you allow the mad Mytoculturalists to experiment with crossbreeding strains of fungus, with interesting, sometimes beneficial but really potentially devastating results. Unleashing colonies of Yellow Mould or Giant insects is but the least of your worries, what about introducing an inadvertent eugenics program, or a problem where all your women start giving birth to monsters, triggering pretty much instant rebellion, and huge problems down the line. What about the 9 varieties of dwarven brew and their potent effects, each variant kept secret by the guild of brewers?
From these events grand campaigns are born. People yearn for a higher DnD, with great deals of players, patrons, domain management. That’s this. Entire legends being spun out of play reports and game sessions. Herculean to master, to set up, but if you are that guy, if you are half wargamer and half different wargamer, then this is exactly your grind.
Chapter 10 sort of cools us off with a section on dwarven magic items and while it is certainly acceptable (there are old favorites like the Belt of Dwarvenkind given an ACKs writeup) and plentiful magic items of dwarfish nature, allowing one to remain immobile, fuck up Beastmen, grab returning axes, command the very rock and soil on which you stand, and other things dwarven, the more jaded coinnaiseur will find them serviceable, but not brilliant. The ring of seven grudges, the Staff of Reclamation, the Armor of the Unyielding Mountain, it is all very dwarfish, and that is what we ordered. But this is kind of the way of ACKS, it strives to serve expectation, not defy it.
I think a major section that could have been added to make the prospect of playing a dwarf only or dwarf heavy campaign more tempting to the aspiring GM is a set of unique dwarven adversaries, although one supposes there are plentiful abominations like Aboleffs, Troww and copyright-friendly Mindsuckers already in one of the legions of Dwarf tomes. Still, a unique subsystem for crafting domain-level villain Dragons, or a set of deep adversaries, or hints of other, nefarious civilizations probably would have sufficed. Along with this, though there are certainly plentiful nuggets and possibilities of adventure in its 200 pages, a d100 table of hooks never drinks alone. Hell, you might even dust off your copy of Veins of the Earth, crack its sticky pages, cough as you inhale the dust of long decades of neglect, and get some use out of the wacky monsters by combining them with a system that is made for use.
Or hell, a GM section on advice on running Dwarven campaigns, along with an appendix N, some ideas to get you started, some possible campaign formats? These are all very left-brained suggestions and I don’t want to scare people away from their tables and calculators and chits and hexmaps but I think this is the key to roping in people that are not already firmly embedded in the ACKS mindset. Maybe some sort of sub-system where you discover new alloys?
So is this thing for you? This is going to be highly conditional. If you already own all of ACKS, love ACKS, do 100 pushups, 100 situps, 100 squats and your domain play every day, you will absolutely be on board for the ride. If you are doing it purely for the dwarf lore it is about 50/50, for a very thorough, occasionally captivating but somewhat dry 30ish pages of lore, with the subsystems being by and large somewhat labor-intense to convert to other systems (although all the core assumptions are ALWAYS explained so you could easily do it, the question is whether there is enough math on the other side to sort of capture this beast), with the Delving Deep and Mushroom farming tables allowing for some repurposing to generate random events. The greatest value is of course as an all encompassing system. However, if you are not into the scholarly/wargaming approach or you are not a great fan of dwarves, this book is probably not going to win you over. This is a speciality product, tailored to a specific audience.
As mentioned before, ACKS exists in some sort of looking glass version of the OSR where its occasionally dry technical writing approach might scare off those looking for quick dopamine hits but once you get into it the systems are beautiful and intricate and highly useable and you are unlikely to find a more expansive treatment of dwarves and their society anywhere in the fucking seven hells of the OSR.
Does the world really need another fucking dwarf book? No, but at least it is getting one that is going for the Ashvameda, the very summum of dwarf books; 70% crunch, 10% fluff, 10% gruff and 10% mithril alloy, as Moradin intended.
I give it about a ***, good but niche and probably not easy to use. If you are into it though, then this is the stuff. Check out ACKs.
The kickstarter is currently hovering at a staggering near 29.000 something dollars american, equivalent to 10 kg of mithril, 3 months of college education, a second’s worth of the military budget of the United States of America or the rent of a rat-infested construction pit in New York. If this sounds like something you would be interested in, the Kickstarter still has 16 days to go as of (04/07).
In a world of breezy half-baked ideas, bullet points, dice-drops, goofy monsters, dönt be räcist and 5 session campaigns, it is heartening to see some people are still fighting the good fight for deep, long, obsessive and dedicated gaming, even if they occasionally take it to places where few of us can follow. Here’s to you ACKS boys. A review as long as the entire tome. Just keep your fucking chits away from me when I am trying to roleplay a beautiful elf maiden.