You Should Be Playing…
Iron Kingdoms RPG
Western Immoren is a continent torn apart by war. Isolationist kingdoms of elves and dwarves look upon the balkanized humans as armies of all races mass. A religious revolution in the south has upset the delicate balance of power there, and, in the north, an ancient and terrible evil has begun to conquer the elven tribes. In the east, a vast empire of savage humanoids turns its eyes towards the west. On the islands west of the main continent, the forces of a living god bent on corrupting the world to its image continue to manipulate events as it has for the past millennia and a half, moving the world towards its inevitable victory. In the Iron Kingdoms of the humans, magic itself is harnessed as a vehicle of industry and a weapon of war.
The Iron Kingdoms RPG bills itself as “full-metal fantasy,” and it embraces an aesthetic between steampunk and high fantasy. Written by Jason Soles, Douglas Seacat and Simon Berman, and produced by Privateer Press, Iron Kingdoms is an update to the setting originally released for Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition in the early 2000’s.
Released in September of 2012, the new Iron Kingdoms RPG features its own proprietary system, based on the mechanics used for its highly successful miniatures games, Warmachine and Hordes. The Iron Kingdoms RPG is a natural evolution of those two products, combining the high action fantasy role-playing of Dungeons and Dragons, and the fast-paced and tactical combat of Warmachine and Hordes. It can be procured from the Privateer Press website store for $60, or from various merchants on Amazon for slightly less.
Western Immoren is an exciting setting filled with danger and adventure. In the years since its original release, the Iron Kingdoms setting has moved steadily towards an independent identity not possible under the strictures of the original d20 license created by Wizards of the Coast. It no longer needed to incorporate certain concessions made to suit its previous format, allowing both restrictions to suit the original vision of the setting as well as expansions in other hamstrung areas. The races of Western Immoren feel distinct from the standard fantasy fare, with the staples of humans, elves, and dwarves being complemented by the gremlin-esque gobbers, the proud and powerful ogrun, and the regenerating and blue trollkin. The strange and savage races and beasts of the world move it further from its origins as a Dungeons & Dragons setting, and its legacy of Tolkien’s fantasy elements.
The movement away from D&D has allowed it to overhaul its entire magic system to bring it in line with the miniature game lines it shares a setting with. Magic in Western Immoren is a weapon of warfare, and not the ubiquitous toolset of D&D realms. Players familiar to the miniatures line will find many of their favorite spells intact in the role-playing game. Magic in the Iron Kingdoms is not quite the world-shaping power of some game settings, but it is definitely more volatile and destructive than many others. Characters gifted with magic are among the most powerful things that can exist on a battlefield, rivaling even the greatest advances of their setting’s technology in sheer devastation.
Character creation in Iron Kingdoms is a quick and exciting process. It succeeds at its most important task: it makes you want to play the game. While the player guide proposes building characters first, then working on the adventuring company, reversing this process is often much more practical. Iron Kingdoms features Adventuring Companies, granting the characters certain benefits as long as they qualify as part of the company. The requirements range from being extremely open, such as the Arcane Order’s requirement of at least one magic user in the company, or the Mercenary Contract that allows everything, to being extremely stringent, such as the Spy Ring’s extremely limited Career choices. Once the group has decided what sort of company they wish to play, the characters themselves can be constructed.
Characters are built through a series of choices, with the level of customization at the discretion of the Game Master. First, a player chooses their character’s Race, selecting among those mentioned earlier. Each race has its own starting Attributes covering the usual gamut of physical and mental characteristics in most games. The player then chooses their character’s Archetype from the four provided, with Mighty heroes being the big and strong, Skilled heroes being fast and precise, Intellectual heroes being smart and compelling, and Gifted heroes having magic.
Next, the player then selects two Careers from a list of over 20, with more being published in future supplements. While the careers come with preset starting Skills, Connections, Spells, and Abilities, optional rules are provided for customizing them. Their starting careers also provide them with starting equipment, ranging from simple money to even the signature, steam-powered automatons iconic to the game. Finally, characters are given points to increase their Attributes, and can spend their money on equipment. The final picture this process creates is a distinctive character with definite strengths and weaknesses, and allows for some very interesting combinations of Careers.
The only weaknesses to the process of character creation can be found in its limits and restrictions. Not every race can take every Archetype. Not every adventuring company can take every combination of Careers. Not every Career can be combined with every other Career, and one must be Gifted to qualify for the spell-casting Careers. Still, the list of careers is growing regularly with supplemental books, articles published in Privateer Press’s magazine, and online in a regular column. As for the restrictions placed on Archetypes, Races, and Careers, the leeway for allowing a GM to say yes is actively encouraged throughout the core rules book.
A Different Kind of Magic Missile
Combat in the Iron Kingdoms RPG is fast-paced and strongly favors tactical thinking. The rules are surprisingly simplistic for their breadth of coverage. While the advantages of proper cover and movement may seem small numerically, a change of a single point to a target number is generally huge. Line of sight, cover, movement and party positioning all factor into nearly every single action taken in combat, with no real actions ever being taken in a vacuum. Sized to fit small to mid-sized skirmishes, characters can gravitate towards melee, ranged, or magic, with each option having its strengths and weaknesses. Similar to the miniatures games in the setting, Iron Kingdoms heavily favors offensive thinking, with monsters and characters often capable of inflicting far more damage than they can feasibly take. Combat in Iron Kingdoms is fast, bloody, and typically final.
The combat of Iron Kingdoms rewards players by favoring active tactics. The same exact set of enemies, in the same exact positions, can be a complete non-threat or an unstoppable force, depending on the tactics used by the player characters.
For example, understanding how the terrain can inform a combat is an essential skill for success in Iron Kingdoms. Forcing an opposing force into a weakened position can leave them exposed to any number of means of dispatch. Players who can adjust to an enemy’s tactics, while being able to bring their own advantages to bear, will find themselves capable of heroics unavailable otherwise. Threat rarely comes from the most powerful enemy on the board, but, instead, from the enemies best positioned to exploit any openings or weaknesses that can become apparent. It is important to note, however, that mistakes in combat can lead to a swift defeat, and players who cannot adapt to thinking tactically may find themselves quickly outstripped by those who do.
The Iron Kingdoms RPG brings to life a world filled with massive war machines, savage beasts, and terrible ancient forces slamming into each other with colossal repercussions. It is a setting and a game that can support high action war stories, gritty tales of urban investigation, or a band of adventuring explorers plumbing the hidden depths of the world. Stylish and quick, the rules encourage characters who are willing to take calculated risks, and are willing to live boldly. The threat to them is not diminished by their actions, however, and this keeps the story thrilling and dangerous. There are few games on the market that can handle high fantasy action adventure as well as Dungeons and Dragons, and fewer still that can stand out boldly in comparison. Iron Kingdoms can, and does.
And that is why you should be playing the Iron Kingdoms Role-playing Game.
David Gordon is a regular contributor to the site. A storyteller by trade and avowed tabletop veteran, he is always on the lookout for creative tabletop games. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Photo Credits: IKRPG Book and Gunmage by Privateer Press; Alleyway by Iron Kingdom Wallpaper.