Iron Kingdoms: Player-Side Review 4

A few weeks ago, one of the guys in my gaming group ran two separate one-shot sessions of Iron Kingdoms, in preparation for a longer-term campaign that he’ll soon be starting up. My schedule, particularly preparations for Kainenchen promising to put up with me for the rest of her life, is keeping me from committing to joining the campaign, so I was glad I could play in these. The two adventures were published materials, which did affect the experience of the game considerably, but I’ll get to that.

For the first adventure, I played a pre-generated character, a Gifted human investigator/arcanist. In the second, I played a Skilled elven duelist/knight, who I named Merrick the Swordsworn (this won’t come up again – I just liked the name). When I briefly planned to play in the ongoing campaign, I built a Mighty human Stormblade/military officer. So, the game is class-based, up to a certain point. Each character has two professions, each of which offers baseline ability with a varying balance of combat and non-combat. At character creation, a profession is a package deal unless the choice of race or archetype granted an additional benefit (this is not common). The other significant choices are race and archetype. Race carries one or two modest benefits. Archetype carries one automatic benefit and one benefit chosen from a list. I really like the small number of high-impact decisions model that this game and D&D Next use (among other games); these two games in particular get the number of choices just right for my tastes. I feel like they give characters multiple dimensions without just making them incoherent jumbles.

I do want to critique one point. I’m sure the designers had their reasons for doing it this way, but I don’t like the fact that the Gifted archetype is an absolute prereq for all spellcasting professions, while the other three archetypes are more like choices to specialize a character’s approach to professions. In overall balance, I feel like magic is on equal footing with other forms of combat, except that the character had to spend his archetype choice on gaining access to it. In short, I don’t like how magic-using characters are locked out of the abilities of the other archetypes. It just sits wrong with me.

The first character, who I’ll call “the arcanist” since that aspect of the character guided his combat interactions and there wasn’t nearly enough time for the game to focus on his non-combat capabilities, had a pretty extensive character briefing as part of the one-shot. The briefing was sorely lacking in usefulness to me, as it was lengthy enough to be difficult to absorb, and its setting notes still did not carry enough context to mean anything to me. The GM did his best to explain, but we were in a hurry to get the session rolling. Though not the best for short-term play, this actually speaks well of the setting for long-term play; everything I’ve seen indicates that the setting has depth and variety. (I have never played Warmachine, which would certainly help with setting familiarity, but the setting is pretty awesome even without.)

So let me talk about the setting for a moment. First of all, leave your sense for hard-line realism at the door, because even basic gear kicks believability to the curb in favor of testosterone-fueled awesomeness. In a lot of cases, I would probably treat that as a slam on a setting, but not this time – here it just means that many characters wear absurd thicknesses of armor (I was surprised to see that this includes arcanists), carry shields that stop gunfire (and often have gunports built into the directly – damn the structural integrity, full speed ahead!), channel electricity in their weaponry, and so on. It still avoids some of the more outright cartoonishness of many other settings, though it’s only a few short steps away.

Warhammer Fantasy is one of the best-known comparable settings, in the sense that it began as a miniatures wargame and was expanded into a fantasy roleplaying game. These two settings have a number of commonalities, including a gritty approach to injury, healing, and death, and some specific things have a Magic Is Bad For You vibe. On the other hand:

  • In Warhammer, I always got the impression that every faction was pretty much bad guys (the high elves might get a pass), and all hated each other. In Iron Kingdoms, some factions are good, in that their societies don’t revel in oppression and squalor, and others are pretty horrendous. The good factions don’t necessarily get along, and that’s fine.
  • Warhammer is a fantasy version of the Thirty Years’ War; I think Games Workshop’s great victory is conjuring the awfulness of that time in the imaginations of nearly thirty years of gamers, including Americans who often don’t have that as part of their cultural consciousness. Iron Kingdoms is a fantasy version of the Industrial Revolution – for a specific conflict, I would probably point to the Crimean War or the Franco-Prussian War. (Please note: I am not well-versed in either setting. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am.)
  • There are giant robots (warjacks) in Iron Kingdoms, whereas Warhammer’s “big” units are usually fantastic monsters. IK gets labeled as “steampunk,” as many varieties of warjack are coal-powered, but I really didn’t catch any of the driving aesthetic that I would call steampunk – cogs, gaslights, monocles, what-have-you. Again, I might just not know enough about the setting.

Going back to the rules and design of Iron Kingdoms, they’ve made some really interesting decisions, and some that are more of an uphill struggle to grok. I loved the fact that skills operate on a very narrow band of competence – that is, the best and the worst you can be at something aren’t far apart, which is pretty important when your normal resolution mechanic is 2d6. (A number of abilities give you a third die for some rolls. Obviously this is a big deal.) The reason I like bounded accuracy in this game, as in D&D Next, so much is that it feels like I have permission to try even untrained skills. I don’t feel like I’m just wasting my time to even roll them.

The game’s balance revolves around characters having either high avoidance or high mitigation, or very rarely both (and for God’s sake, make sure you have at least one of those). Once you start taking damage, you are on a really nasty and surprisingly literal death spiral, on which more in a moment. This means that a relatively large number of a character’s attacks are going to either fail to connect or fail to do anything significant. So that characters don’t have a lot of wasted rounds, there are many different ways to make extra attacks in a single action. My arcanist could toss off three arcane bolts in a round, though he couldn’t sustain that rate of fire for all that long. This got a little crazy in actual usage – if I recall correctly, I flattened the “boss” in a single round, thanks to lucky rolls and profligate spending of feat points. My duelist… I am pretty sure I made four attacks in a round at one point, but never achieved my theoretical maximum. Anyway, that character was particularly egregious. The Stormblade wasn’t designed around a large number of attacks, but when he did attack he was very likely to hit, and whatever he hit was probably thunderstruck toast.

The death spiral, the game’s means of tracking injury, is unusual. Based on your ability scores (which are a bit convoluted in themselves), you have a certain number of spaces in each of three different groupings. The game includes a hit location roll to determine which stat gets targeted, and damage comes out of the targeted hit location first. Once a given hit location is full, the character takes a drawback, and further damage is applied to the next stat. Character sheets include a spiral image with health bubbles that are filled in as the character takes damage; overall it’s pretty acceptable data management, though repeated erasure would certainly take its toll on the sheet itself. Warjacks have a separate hit location and damage system, which involves disabling some of their mechanisms.

The game also makes heavy use of feat points, which are similar to hero points, fate points, and so on. The thing that really makes these different is that they come and go very quickly, and a single character can never have more than three. The benefit they offer is correspondingly modest, but given that characters refresh feat points by dropping an enemy, rolling a critical result, and… something else, I don’t remember right off, it’s possible to create a positive feedback loop in which an action grants as many feat points as it spends. (This is something that is explicitly forbidden in Arcana Evolved, for example, and in that game it creates a situation where an action is either awesome enough to grant a hero point because it was performed without spending a hero point, or an action is awesome because the character spent a hero point.)

Just about every other system currently in print uses either a grid for in-combat movement, or simplifies to range categories. Not so for Iron Kingdoms; it’s loud and proud in its heritage as a miniatures wargame, and players use rulers to measure out movement in inches. The base size of a miniature is very important, as is its facing for determining its firing arc. There are rules about what a player can measure out and when. If a character spends all of his movement and still comes up short, well, too damn bad, because you’re about to get shot in the face on that enemy’s turn. This kind of rule encourages some kinds of bad behavior in combat – there are some things players are always permitted to measure, so a little cleverness in trigonometry can solve some problems… but this stands to slow down play considerably. It isn’t what I’d write into a game in this day and age, but it didn’t cause any problems in the two sessions we played.

On to the adventures. The arcanist’s adventure was a classic betrayal, which would have been great except that as soon as things get interesting, the module decrees that the PCs are arrested by “overwhelming force” (hot tip: six guardsmen against five PCs and an NPC do not constitute overwhelming force in this setting and system) and thrown in prison. There are no alternate options – even characters who have learned from NPCs that their patron has deceived them and is about to arrest them are not permitted to take any action that would avoid the written outcome. It’s a one-shot adventure, I get it, but if I wanted to be railroaded I would play a video game. As far as I’m concerned, the point of tabletop roleplaying games as opposed to board games, video games, and so on is that the GM is a human and can extemporize if necessary.

We ran into a similar circumstance in the duelist’s adventure. We had to rescue some hostages from guys working for a necromancer, pretty classic stuff. The hostages were kept in a very rickety barn; in the least surprising move of all time, the troll fell caller’s player heard “rickety” and went straight to “I want to shout down a building!” (Technically, his shout was not Fus Ro Dah, but you get the idea.) For whatever reason, the adventure was written in such a way that knocking down the building would break the rest of the adventure. I’m still not too clear on that.

There was one last no-you-may-not situation that bugged me. While I eventually made Merrick an elf, I had really wanted to make him a dwarf, because something really appealed to me about a dwarf who fought as a champion in duels with hammers or axes. The dwarf duelist part I could have done, but knight was right out for some reason. A lot of starting professions are tightly restricted, by race, archetype, or paired profession (that is, a Stormblade’s second profession can only be chosen from a very short list). Without knowing much about the setting’s take on dwarves, I didn’t get why humans and elves have knights, but dwarves do not. Additional splatbooks are certain to hold additional professions so that there is something that only dwarves can be that conceptually parallels the warrior-champion role of the knight. In the core rulebook, though, only humans have breadth of options, and even then many options are limited to one culture or another. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Third Edition certainly followed a very similar model of race-locked classes, but there were dwarf-only and elf-only classes released quite early in the game’s lifespan. Ever since D&D 3e, I’ve gotten very accustomed to the freedom to combine any race with any class.

Obviously, I can’t guess what mechanics Privateer might release in the future, but their approach to picking up new professions as presented in the core rulebook baffles me. The flashiest, most uniquely Iron Kingdoms professions are only available at character creation. You don’t earn your way into the most prestigious professions through in-game accomplishment. This runs counter to every prestige-class-like model I can recall, whether we’re talking about D&D 3e’s prestige classes, 4e’s paragon paths and epic destinies, WHFRP 3e’s advanced classes, d20 Modern’s advanced classes and prestige classes, Mage: the Awakening‘s Legacies… the list goes on. It almost seems as if Iron Kingdoms heroes begin as something special and gradually develop into a more generic state – this strikes me as so nonsensical that I assume there’s something I don’t understand.

It’s just as well that none of the characters in the sessions we played were ever knocked unconscious. The rules for healing someone up from unconsciousness, whether using magic or medicine, are incredibly punitive, and most outcomes negatively affect the character either briefly or permanently. I don’t hate this rule, though; it makes me happy that magical healing is only marginally better, but has a different list of bad outcomes. This line of thinking is for me a reaction against D&D’s long tradition of “magic is just better,” which it sounds like the designers are finally beginning to address in D&D Next.

Another thing I didn’t see during the two sessions was the game’s crafting system, which looked like it was a pretty big deal. I haven’t read up on it, but there was a whole chapter and a couple of professions dedicated to it. What I do know is that the signature weapon of the Stormblade, a greatsword that courses with electricity, is hidden in the crafting chapter away from the other weapons. This caused me no end of confusion when first building that character, and a page number reference in the Stormblade profession writeup would have gone a long way here. I’m intrigued, and I hope that my friends who are playing in the ongoing campaign will check it out and tell me how it goes.

In conclusion, I like far more about the system and setting than I dislike. I would give it a solid two smiley faces on the five-frowny to five-smiley scale. I particularly recommend it to people who want a mud-spattered, fantasy version of mid-to-late 19th century Europe, a setting that has otherwise been whitewashed in the hands of steampunk enthusiasts. The system’s design aesthetic shows some of the best of what’s out there for mainstream (as opposed to indie) sensibilities, with a number of holdovers from the miniatures wargaming environment.

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4 thoughts on “Iron Kingdoms: Player-Side Review

  • Benjamin Haygood

    How does the game treat regular enemies? In the full miniature game, most people have DEFense and ARMor values but die instantly if they take damage, with only Warjacks and bigger hero-type characters getting multiple HP. So do they have "minion-style" 1hp guys for normal dudes?

  • Brandes Stoddard

    Assuming I understood it correctly, most enemies are minion-like. They have a small health pool (larger than 1 hp, but not as large as a hero or warjack), and die when that runs out rather than having a death spiral.

  • Brandes Stoddard

    Yeah, if the PCs aren't taking cover from gunfire, they might be suffering from weapon-induced facial murder in the opening round. All of that strangely light plate armor helps, but no one gets a whole lot of resilience. Mighty heroes have a big advantage there with the power that turns feat points into healing, and I think a lot of characters (everyone but Gifted) are well-advised to look seriously at their archetypes for any options that increase survivability even ahead of options that increase damage output. (Go back and buy the damage increasers with experience points. Alternately, play characters that really do treat violence as a tool of last resort.