Like a lot of people I was more than a little disappointed when Privateer Press released their Iron Kingdoms RPG for d20. Creating their own system and re-releasing the RPG has been long-awaited development with a lot of expectation zeroed in on it.
The main selling point of Iron Kingdoms has always been its background, a background solid and interesting enough to sell it under any system. The appeal of the setting has been obvious for a long time as multiple conversions have turned up online for everything from Savage Worlds to Silhouette.
Now we have a background and a system out of the same stable which should only improve the synergy. Expectations are high, especially since Privateer have managed to kick Games Workshop’s butt in the miniatures field.
The Iron Kingdoms is a ‘steampunk’ (actually more of a magi-punk) setting. This is a semi-typical fantasy world that has been transformed by the advent of steam power, gunpowder and the fusion of both with magic. The game has a much more industrial feel than typical fantasy settings but it does have wild places and plenty of room for wilderness adventure as well as delving into the espionage, proxy wars and so on going on between the various Iron Kingdoms.
The background is deep and detailed. Far too much to into in a review but that, itself, is a selling point as far as I’m concerned. The human-led kingdoms consist of Cygnar (liberal, advanced, lightning oriented), Khador (pseudo-Russian, despotic, militaristic), Ord (fishermen and pirates) and the Protectorate of Menoth (religious fanatics). These groups are locked in a perpetual cold war with each other and often operate through mercenary companies, which can become rich and powerful.
Beyond their borders lie Cryx (corrupted necrotechnicians), Ios (mysterious land of the elves) and Rhul (land of the dwarves). Other races, ogrun and trollkin, eke out a living in and around the human kingdoms.
Iron Kingdoms has a system that is the bastard offspring of 4e D&D, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and first edition Warhammer 40,000. It’s very much a miniatures oriented game – not surprising since Privateer Press make minis – though it’s probably more amenable to playing without minis than 4e D&D was. If I was going to compare it to anything it would probably be Cadwallon.
Characters are full-on RPG characters but the degree of customisation and individuality when it comes to actual statistics is pretty limited. Characters advance in tiers (Starting/Hero/Veteran/Epic) which are reminiscent of 40k’s old troop/champion/minor hero/major hero. Your starting stats are determined by race and, given the attention in the d20 version to different human nationalities and races its a little disappointing that they become more generically ‘human’ in this.
Customisation and characterisation comes through the application of various templates and choices that channel the character into various directions. This is most similar to WHFRP’s careers and skill picks but has more layers to it.
You pick an archetype (Gifted, intellectual, mighty, skilled).
You pick two careers from a list including things like alchemist, bounty hunter, cut-throat, duellist or pirate, to come up with a combo that best describes your character concept.
Careers give access to abilities, connections and skills which is where the character individualism finally, really comes in.
The system itself is a rather simple 2d6+modifiers Vs target number one. That gives you a more gritty bell curve of probability with more typical outcomes which – with the compensation of Feat points for when you want to do something more heroic.
Combat is a big focus and where the skirmish-game shows through the most. While the game can be played without minis and a board everything is expressed in these terms and there’s some combat options that are missing due to lacking a degree of combat granularity. It’s fixable enough with improvisation, but it would have been nice to have more options.
Characters are tough bastards with three sets of health in a spiral, representing different effects of different wounds. When defeated, unless explicitly finished off, they instead develop permanent wounds but with magi-tech prosthetics and healing magic that need not be as awful as you might think.
Magic is more free-flowing and less constricted than in the d20 version, much closer to the wargame. Magicians either have fatigue or focus, which is used up to run effects, boost powers and control warjacks – if those abilities are open to you. Spells end to be a bit more combat focussed, but there are plenty of utility spells as well and a creative player with a good Games Master can get around the constrictions.
Somehow this edition doesn’t have the same atmosphere as the previous edition despite having higher production values. It just seems a little too ‘clean’ for the world that it describes. The previous edition also had two books of this size to delve into the background and history of the world and as a single book there’s less space for that in this one. It does the job, but when compared to the previous edition falls short. Of course, the previous edition was outstanding so this one had a lot to live up to.
This edition is full colour and while it re-uses a lot of old artwork it is lavishly illustrated and well laid out. The cover is a little busy perhaps, but the production values are incredibly high throughout. Perhaps controversially I think it might have been better done if it were… in… black and white? The old books almost felt like an artefact of the game world, even if the pages were a bit grey. This version doesn’t have the same feel to it.
An interesting version of the game with wedded background and mechanics. It’s a shame – but not surprising – that it is focussed on skirmish style play but it takes less work to remove that aspect and play in the theatre of the mind than some other games. The relative lack of difference between characters statistically may irritate some players but all things considered it should work fine.
The game needs an example adventure/campaign and an expanded bestiary ASAP but those familiar with the wargame or the d20 version should be able to muddle through.
It would be well worth getting the d20 books on PDF or on ebay, just for the more in depth treatment of the background.
UPDATE: Extended bestiary and character sheets etc can be downloaded HERE