Irrational Uniformity

            I just started playing a weekly West Marches-style game using the Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS—pronounced ‘axe’). Very cool thus far. The system reminds me of Castles and Crusades, but based off of B/X instead of AD&D. It also brings to mind Adventures Dark & Deep in its expanded class options. Our party of first-level adventurers went into the wilds looking for a tower rumored to be full of enchanted soldiers or monsters or something, and accidently happened upon a full score of orcs and their human slaves. Feeling heroic, we killed the lot of ‘em (except the slaves, whom we freed) thanks to luck, tactics and judicious use of the ‘sleep’ spell.
            After our astounding victory (seriously—one hit could have killed any of us!), I took a rulebook home with me to study. I won’t go into too much detail here, but if you’re wondering, the system has a number of unique classes and expanded rules for adventuring—from magical research to PC kingdom economics—without feeling too overwhelming. At less than 300 pages without art, I feel this is a great system to use if you would like a bit more upper-echelon crunch than Labyrinth Lord without sacrificing flexibility. The extra classes are pretty cool, too; a blade-wielding cleric variant and specialized dwarf and elf adventurers, among more traditional bards and assassins. 
            The more unique feature of the game is its system for class abilities and proficiencies. Many of these function mechanically like saving throws on a d20, which is neat. Proficiencies are not something I thought I would care for, however. For a long time, I considered them part of the ‘clutter’ of later AD&D—something which needed to be streamlined and unified (like a skills system) or abandoned. As it is, they occupy a strange place (to my d20 mind) between feats, class abilities and skills, but I found them pretty friendly to use rather than simply superfluous. Nevertheless, immediately afterward my mind began to invent ways that classes and proficiency lists could be collapsed into one another. I felt it would be better to have only a few classes with expanded proficiency lists than the seeming glut of classes who often shared many proficiencies between them.
            Then I stopped. I was comparing the ACKS method of resolution to the SIEGE Engine when it hit me, something which I think should have struck me earlier in my obsession with old-school games. The thought was: the desire for system uniformity (and also simplicity) is an irrational one.
            That’s not to say that it is without reason that we appreciate systems that have uniform mechanics. It also doesn’t mean that complexity is inherently desirable. It just means that the desire for uniformity is a preference, not a rule of game design. I like my systems to be uniform and simple, but that doesn’t mean that a system ought to be, or that somehow a game has failed when it isn’t as straightforward as *I* would like it to be. I should have learned that lesson a while ago, when I first played Moldvay and found the different systems—percentile, charts, d6, d20—to be fun rather than just crazy and cumbersome. 
            I still prefer the SIEGE Engine, though. And I’m still not sure about proficiencies, feats, and percentile skills (especially percentile skills). But who knows? Maybe this time next year, I’ll be more on the side of ‘wacky subsystems’ than ever. 

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