[Review] Iron Kingdoms, Core Rules by Privateer Press

Posted: October 9, 2012 by Jay Steven Anyong in Articles, Roleplaying Games
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Today’s review is by Dulio Giovanni, one of my gaming group’s experts on Warmachine.

The release of the Iron Kingdoms Core Rulebook marks the return of Privateer Press to its RPG roots, revisiting the ten year old d20 setting that ultimately spun off the successful Warmachine and Hordes tabletop war game.

For the uninitiated the Iron Kingdoms is a setting that is a fusion of classical high fantasy and steampunk defined by brutal combat on an industrial scale between its many nations; pistols fire magic charged bullets, armored knights wield lightning spewing swords, mythical monsters march in lockstep with regiments of pikemen and spell slinging wizards compete with batteries of massed artillery in contests of destruction. The setting is epitomized by its most iconic weapon of war, the Warjacks, ten foot tall golems powered by a combination of science and magic wielding weapons of gunpowder and steel. Each is commanded by a Warcaster, a battle wizard in steam powered armor capable of greatly empowering their soldiers one moment and unleashing devastating spells the next.

The Core Rulebook is the first in what Privateer Press hopes to be an expansive RPG line called Full Metal Fantasy, a counterpart to its tabletop wargame franchises which would allow players to explore the rich world of the Iron Kingdoms outside of its wreck strewn spell scarred battlefields. As such the Core Rulebook can be best described as breadth at the expense of depth, tackling the majority of the complex features of the setting to give players a working knowledge but not dwelling overly much on each one, laying the groundwork of playability in preparation for future supplements.

Chapters One and Two center on the fluff side of the equation, giving a general overview of the myriad races, nations and factions that populate the Iron Kingdoms as well as its history, geography and concepts such as mechanika, warjacks and warcasters. Much of the information presented here will be familiar to fans of the war game, being culled and condensed from faction books already published, but notable is the detailed history of the world’s hitherto unexplained cosmology and the divinities that populate it. Particularly refreshing is that while the divinities are a driving force for several of the games’ factions they themselves never appear to hijack the storyline, leaving center stage for the characters.

Chapter Three and Four are the meat and potatoes of the game; character creation and combat rules.  Characters in Iron Kingdoms are represented using three primary statistics; Physique, Agility and Intelligence which are then split down to two sub-abilities each. From these come derived statistics such as Defense, Initiative, Melee and Ranged Attacks, Armor, Command Range, Willpower and the life spiral which used principally in combat resolution. To these you add Abilities, which represent unique capabilities of a given character, Connections, the character’s social ties, and Skills which represent a character’s aptitude in given fields.

To its credit the game’s skill list is sufficiently well rounded enough to support investigative and social games to a point though it bears mentioning that this is still the Iron Kingdoms. A brief glance at the Abilities section, with 90% of them being combat oriented, will tell you that any investigation and socializing was expected by the game’s authors to be merely perfunctory to a serious beat down.

Players also have one expendable statistic called Feat points which allow them limited control over the game. By spending one point they can avail of one of a list of benefits such as a reroll, a boost die and many others as well as spending them to power some abilities. Players are given three feat points each of the start of the session and these feat points can only be restored through certain actions over the course of play.

Character generation is simple but comprehensive; players pick a race, an archetype and two careers (the equivalent of classes) which run the gamut from grunt infantry to apprentice warcasters. All of which, save for a few instances, set the starting values and ultimate limitations of the character’s statistics, abilities, skills and connections. The player then finishes off with three attribute points distributed among his sub-abilities, spends his gold on gear and he is done.

While this may at first sound restrictive there are 30 careers to choose from allowing for well on 500 career combinations even before you consider there are also 7 playable races and 4 heroic archetypes, ensuring that any reasonable player will be able to concoct a character tailored to his needs. More to the point it makes the game very accessible that even relatively inexperienced RPG players can generate a functional character in ten minutes but simultaneously allows leeway for veteran players to come up with truly powerful combinations.

Progression is handled by a rank based system; every two or three points of experience the character gains rank which awards the character a specific increase to skills, abilities, statistics or a combination thereof. The current level cap is 75 which broken down into three tiers of 25; heroic which is about the level of the wargame’s solos, veteran the equivalent of most signature warcasters and epic which are pretty much the one man abattoirs of the tabletop game.

The core mechanic of conflict resolution, like much of its character generation, borrows straight from the tabletop game with players rolling 2d6 + Attribute + Skill versus an arbitrary number set by the GM or generated by the target itself. Damage is rolled similarly save with different variables. The roll can be modified by abilities and magic which generally add or subtract anywhere from +2 to a boost (which translates to one die added to the roll).  Aside from abovementioned core mechanics there aren’t any timing issues or interrupts to affect the dice roll itself which is just as well because the actual mechanics of combat are far more complex.

Combat is ripped straight out of the tabletop war game, with distances being quoted in both feet and inches, the common assumption being that the players would actually be using Privateer Press miniatures during combat. Though the scale has been reduced to reflect conflict between parties of adventurers instead of small armies the scale of complexity is still present with a clear emphasis on providing players with a visceral combat experience.  Even unarmed characters will have a dearth of options to inflict harm on their fellow man and avoid the same in turn.

The game’s myriad abilities also have a clear bent toward team dynamics, simulating everything crack marksmen, savvy military officers and stalwart bodyguards along with the mechanical interactions between them at a squad level.  For example a military officer generates buffs for everyone around him which makes him a big target for a sniper, a bodyguard standing beside him can use an ability to take a hit fired by the enemy while an allied rifleman retaliates at the now exposed sniper with a shot of his own. All this can happen in the middle of an enemy’s action and by the war game’s standards is a very short string of reactions. Gamemasters should be fastidious in their note taking as characters and NPCs that are built to synergize with one another can rack up a fair amount of simultaneous and overlapping effects before one can even factor in spellcasting and warjacks.

The emphasis on team play is a blessing because characters will need to rely heavily on one another to survive combat in the Iron Kingdoms which is made viciously lethal by the plethora of high powered weapons available to the general public and its simple damage system. Damage rolls are a straight 2d6 + Weapon Power which gives an average of 2 to 26 if one takes into account the lowest and highest weapon damage ratings before factoring ability bonuses, 3 to 32 if the damage roll is boosted. In contrast armor, which subtracts from damage, runs from a low of five to a max of 25 for the heaviest warjack with any excess being applied directly to the health of the victim. Most humanoid characters will have 8 to 20 and the heaviest warjacks will have 36 at most. Given these numbers it’s very easy for a reckless character to end up dead in matter of rounds and did I also mention there are no resurrection spells in this game and only ONE healing spell that even if cast by one member of a very scarce genocidal group will have a 70% of mutilating you in some other way.

Moving on, Chapter Five deals in the game’s magic system which is divided into two types of practitioners; Focusers and Weavers. Weavers encompass the classical wizardly archetypes, they cast spells and light comes out. Focusers on the other hand employ their magic in conjunction with technology their key feature being the ability to allocate their magic to their equipment and their Warjacks to improve their efficacy and, most potently, to gain additional attacks. Despite this distinction through the magic system is identical with characters having an Arcane stat which governs the number of spells they can cast in a turn and at what potency.

More noticeable though is the game’s spell list which boasts nearly 50 individual entries all of which are battle magic. Any wizard hoping to make a peaceful living in the Iron Kingdoms will be sorely disappointed as there are no utility spells of any sort in list. The game goes on to explain that the spellcasting tradition of the Iron Kingdoms views magic as a weapon of war not a tool and that non-combat tasks are more efficiently accomplished through the use of technology or simple hard work.

Chapter Six is particularly voluminous, dealing with equipment lists and the unique technology of the Iron Kingdoms which is known as Mechanika. The former provides a wealth of arms and armor to satisfy any NRA nut as well as any non-combat related equipment of note including alchemy which comes closest to a non-combat application of magic and even then there is no such thing as instant healing. Even at this point it bears noting that advancement in Iron Kingdoms is a function of money as much as experience given the power of even baseline weapons as epitomized by the Ogrun Battle Cannon (an 80 gold piece gun that is essentially a hand howitzer) and the Slug Gun (a 40 gold piece pistol that can punch through most warjack armor). Give too little money and players will end up under gunned, given too much and players end up as walking M1 Abrams tanks.

Notably absent though are weapons for the Light Artillery skill which exist on career tracks but does not have a single weapon which it can be used with. Hopefully developers will remedy this as quickly as possible else some careers may end up with a dead skill on their character sheets.

Unlike most games crafting magical weapons is not a restricted art, anyone with the right skills and the money can manufacture a mechanika weapon. Mechanika gear essentially takes a mundane piece of armor and weaponry and slaps on a power source and a rune plate onto them. On the latter players can inscribe various effects for a fee, allowing them to greatly customize their weapon and armor. Focusers get even more benefits as they can bond with mechanika armor and weapons to directly improve them with their magic without needing to cast spells.

Then of course there are the warjacks. For the most part warjacks conform to humanoid scale rules with the exception of having a much larger health track and that you can swap out their limbs for various attachments. The key difference is that they are tied to specific characters who must command them in battle and provide them with myriad bonuses, remove the character and the warjack goes inert.  Also notable is that the game takes pains to simulate the logistics of running a warjack. While a warjack is indeed a powerful asset on the battlefield owners must balance this out with the need to keep their boilers topped up and the fact that any sort of damage incurred is going to cost them a small fortune to repair especially considering the commonality of anti-jack weapons.

While the game’s rules for warjacks are well thought out the same cannot be said for its current selection. The game provides you with only four jack chassis which you can outfit only with weapons and these four are some of the weakest jacks in the game world. You cannot fiddle with anything else at all. It seems that the authors intended the game to be confined to the regions of Llael and Ord as they elected not to include any of the signature machines of the other factions nor did they provide any rules for custom building a warjack from ground up. It’s quite jarring to be playing in Khador and not see a single Berserker or Juggernaut at all.

This is likely intended so as to require purchase of any upcoming faction books which feels pretty underhanded to be honest since the promise made by the developers was to be able to play in the Iron Kingdoms, not just two second rate backwater countries. Granted it is theoretically possible to back engineer some designs from the tabletop war game but there will be balance issues given the changes made to the underlying mechanics and honestly it can be quite a bother.

Chapter Seven deals with game mastering and for the most part is mercifully bereft of ubiquitous advice of how to run a game and mostly concerns itself with GM tool kitting such as building NPC antagonists and encounter setting.  Unfortunately though again the game’s breadth over depth approach takes its toll here with a very truncated adversaries list, barely 5 enemies and none of them really common to the setting, though this was partially remedied by a web add on with an expanded monsters list. Still it would have been nice to have at least a re-release of the old Iron Kingdoms monsters manual from the d20 days to complement this initial offering.

As an overall production the layout of the book is well thought out, with chapters progressing in terms of necessity, the colors are vibrant, sidebars are helpful and the text is easy to read. One glaring flaw though is the art work. To those new to the game they make look nice but for long time fans it can be a tad irritating as virtually all of them are recycled from past publications. The cover in particular is a cover from a book published at least eight years ago [Correction: Simon J. Berman took the time to inform us that the cover is brand new. Thanks Simon!] and most of the character classes are represented using art taken from faction books from as far back as Warmachine 1st Edition. For a purchase price of sixty dollars before taxes, buyers deserve more than decade old art.

Still despite its small but apparent flaws the Iron Kingdoms represents a strong first offering from Privateer Press’ revived RPG division. Hopefully they can keep up the momentum and follow up with equally impressive supplements. With a solid system, expansive setting and a large variety of options for players, it would make a strong addition any gaming group’s repertoire.

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  1. Dulio Giovanni says:

    Yeah mea culpa on the cover age. I confused the new cover with an old one from Iron Kingdoms Players Guide which also depicted Rutger Shaw, Taryn di la Rovossi and their Ironclad in a similar arrangement walking down an alleyway.

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