Iron heroes review

Iron Heroes is by no means a new book, it was written by Mike Mearls, published by Fiery Dragon and was in written in a similar vein to Monte Cooks Arcana Unearthed and later Arcana Evolved alternate players handbook; recently (as detailed in my last blog post) i’ve been considering creating a nordic, survivalist setting that, as it slowly evolves in my mind, has become a low magic, humanocentric fantasy setting with a bit of a swords & sorcery flavour to it. I’ve had a copy of Iron Heroes sat around on my bookshelf for some time and, whilst I remember enjoying reading the book when I first got it, i’ve never really used it to run a game or had a setting that it suited; part of the point of this review is that i’ll be looking at the suitability of it for my proposed campaign idea in addition to all the normal review-style stuff in this entry.

What is Iron Heroes?
Iron Heroes describes itself as “action fantasy” and claims that the rules inside are designed to promote that style of play rather than the standard D&D rules; the introduction explains that the one of the main design ideas of Iron Heroes are that “options and choices make a fun game”, this is something that I very much agree with and i’m very in favour of giving the players a degree of narrative control and power within the game, making an RPG a more collaborative experience all round IMO.
Chapter One : Abilities
This is pretty much the standard chapter on ability scores that most D&D and Pathfinder players will be familiar with, the opening peragraph is interesting that it discusses the normal range of abilities for your everyday average person and quite clearly places the heroes of an Iron Heroes game in the ‘above average’ bracket. The rest of the chapter is pretty much standard fare with a list of the standard abilities (STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS and CHA), how scores translate into modifiers and what sort of things the abilities can be used for; the end of the chapter covers numerous methods of generating these scores for players (and everyday people), it is noticable that Iron Heroes default assumption is that players will use a points-buy method of determining their scores, all abilities start at 10 and it costs 1 point to buy a point of an ability up to 15, 2 points to buy up an ability between 16-17 and 4 points beyond that, players can also designate a score as a weakness, the score drops to 8 (and may not be bought up further at character gen) and the player gains 2 bonus points to spend on other abilities. Player characters start with 24 points by default and may not buy higher than 18 in any ability at character gen (although the GM can alter the amount of points if he prefers a grittier or lower powered campaign), important NPCs also receive 24 attribute pointsd whereas average people start with 8 in each of their ability scores and have 16 points to improve them.
Whilst I didn’t find this chapter particularly interesting to read this isn’t really a criticism of it, generally I don’t find such chapters particularly rivetting in any D20 book, but they’re a necessity; this chapter does what it sets out to do with a couple of interesting tweaks and largely solid writing.
Chapter Two : Traits
This is a chapter that I found extremely interesting; the core Iron Heroes book largely assumes a humanocentric setting where most of your PCs will be human (ala Conan, etc), in the absence of any different races or racial abilities Iron Heroes has introduced the concept of Traits, small elements that either relate to your background, your mental and emotional makeup or your physical prowess. At character generation each PC selects two of the Traits from the large list provided in the book (including such gems as Arctic Born, Child of Faith, City Rat, Bewitching, Bloodthirsty and numeroud other); players are only allowed to select a maximum of one background Trait but may select any combination of the others (up to their limit of 2).
The Traits grant bonuses in certain situations or additional abilities for the player characters, within each Trait there are a couple of different options that can be taken.
For example: The Arctic Born Trait gives a +4 against cold effects, a +2 survival check and can trait heavy snow as normal, rather than difficult, terrain; also the player can select Bears Toughness (allowing them to heal/recover from nonlethal damage more quickly), Ice Water Veins (bonus to resist mind effects) or Wanderer at the Edge of Creation (bonus to balance, climb and survival).
I really love this idea of distinguishing characters via Traits, I know that Iron Heroes probably wasn’t the first to do it and lots of books have done it since under a variety of guises; but I like the idea of tying the various background traits into different parts of a campaign world or different cultures, the variety of different Traits available in this chapter is great.
Chapter Three : Character Classes
Arguably the main difference between Iron Heroes and the core D20 books (D&D3.5/Pathfinder) is that the classes listed in the game focus less around professions or life-paths taken on by the players and more around their preferred methods of combat; this definitely slants the game more towards a hack and slash or swords and sorcery style of gaming (which is no bad thing if that’s the campaign flavour you’re going for and is one of the stated aims of the book). Instead of using Armour Class (or AC) to make players harder to hit, Iron Heroes provides players with a defense bonus and has armour provide damage reduction, absorbing the harm of a blow rather than making the blow less likely to land in the first place; this is a largely a matter of personal preference and I don’t see it making a massive difference to the game, although I do think the idea of battered armour constantly ringing with the blows of enemy weapons fits the swords and sorcery feel quite well.
This chapter also covers gaining skill points, feats and ability adjustments as characters go up in level, with a brief mention of multi-classing and how that work, again all pretty standard for a D20 game; although Iron Heroes does introduce the concept of Feat Mastery where you can gain progression in different categories to gain access to more powerful Feats.
Most of the classes within the game also allow you to build up tokens for undertaking certain actions, these tokens are then spent on triggering class abilities; I found this a very compelling idea and certainly a lot more interesting than the standard “you may use this ability x times a day” ruling from a lot of D20 games, effectively the lure of token gain should encourage players to act in ways appropriate to their class and by doing so they gain the power to activate their abilities more often, I think this is a great idea. Players are limited to a number of tokens equal to 10 + their class level.
The book contains the following classes:

  • Archer: Master of long ranged combat who gains tokens for aiming at opponents and then unleashing them in a deadly storm of projectiles.
  • Armiger: Heavily armoured warriors who wear down their foes, they gain a token for every 10hp of damage their armour soaks.
  • Berserker: Violent, furious warriors who gain tokens when either they of their friends are injured, allowing them to unleash their rage.
  • Executioner: Silent assassins who call on their abilities to strike at an opponents weak points.
  • Harrier: Scouts and rangers who rely on speed and striking from surprise to take down their foes.
  • Hunter: Tough, independent tacticians who use their knowledge of terrain to help them overcome their enemies.
  • Man-at-Arms: Master of many weapons who can tailor their abilities each day to confront the challenges that they face.
  • Thief: Golden tongued tricksters who strike from the shadows and then fade away to be lost in the crowd.
  • Weapon Master: Individuals who hone their abilities with a single weapon to almost supernatural levels, they gain tokens from attacking the same opponent with their signature weapon.
  • Arcanist: Users of strange and arcane powers who channel mana through themselves to create otherworldly effects.

Most of the classes are quite interesting, some have token pools and others don’t and, since they are based on a particular style of combat, I can see how those classes not suitable for a particular campaign could be tweaked or removed without it having such a noticable effect on party makeup as say, removing clerics from a D&D3.5 campaign; that said the inclusion of the Arcanist class seems a little strange and more a concession to the fact that players of D&D3.5 and the like expect to be able to have a magic wielding class, however, the class itself is relatively well written and provides an interesting alternate spell point system that could be used instead of the standard D20 Vancian magic system (not sure if i’ll allow it for PCs in my own game but it’s nice to have the option). One thing I particularly like about this chapter is that each class write-up has a few suggestions at the end for how that class might fit in to various campaign models.
Chapter Four : Skills and Ability Checks
Iron heroes does away with the idea of cross-class skills by allowing anyone to buy ranks in different skills, however, your class gives you access to a group of skills, and each point spent on a skill group buys you a level in all the skills covered by that group, making it far more cost effective to purchase skills related to your class; this is a slightly different way to the manner in which Pathfinder would later handle this (in Pathfinder you buy levels in any skill but receive an additional bonus on your check when using class skills) but seems no less valid.
I do like the way this chapter provides details on what specific difficulty rolls can accomplish, it also provides details on how players can impose penalties on their own rolls or voluntarily increase the DC of a challenge in order to gain specific additional benefits should they pass/succeed at the roll; there follows a fairly exhaustive list of modifiers, synergy bonuses and sample task difficulties which is fairly comprehensive although I feel it may lead to a little more page turning than I generally like in game, and I think that i’d probably create some sort of quick reference sheet when and if I was to use Iron Heroes. The section on skill challenges is well written and provides clear guidelines as to what benefits you can gain by voluntarily accepting a penalty or increasing the DC of a skill roll; these include a +2 bonus to attacks in the round, a +2 bonus to damage in the round, a bonus to a future skill check equal to the penalty and others.
Chapter Five : Feats
Again this is fairly well-trod ground for anyone familiar with D20 games, although Iron Heroes splits Feats into two types, General (those that have few pre-requisites or that can be mastered by anyone) and Mastery Feats (ones that require advanced training); basically Mastery Feats allow you to select a Feat multiple times as you progress in levels to unlock higher abilities that are all loosely thematically related, some mastery Feats also characters to accumulate token pools (in the same way as certain classes) in order to power their abilities.
Chapter Six : Roleplaying Iron Heroes
Given how much detail the system gives to combat I was a little worried that the actual RPing elements of the game were going to be overlooked, however this chapter contains some very useful advice and suggestions for ensuring that the RP isn’t lost amongst all of the combat options provided by the system; I particularly like how the segments stresses players should think about how the characteristics of their characters would be shown or acted on in-game, this is something i’ve often seen, where characters have great and detailed backgrounds but not much of it actually gets shown in play (and i’m sure i’ve been guilty of this too), so it’s nice to see this addressed in the book.
This chapter also does a fairly good job of painting in the default assumptions for an Iron Heroes campaign and it was memories of reading this chapter that have prompted me to re-examine it for possible use in my (as yet unnamed) nordic post-Ragnarok style campaign; the default assumption is that there are no spell-casting clerics and that the gods never directly intercede in human affairs (with most religious leaders maintaining their position via political power), civilisation is small and scattered with a lot of the world being unknown or given over to wilderness and barbarism, humankind is the only player race available in the default setting (non-humans are distrusted and alien) and magic is rare. A capsule sample setting called ‘The Swordlands’ is also provided that could, with some effort, be worked up into a full setting.
Chapter Seven : Equipment
A pretty standard list of equipment with stats for the game, the only real deviation from the norm that jumped out was that Iron Heroes adds additional descriptors to certain equipment that links in with certain feats and powers possessed by characters in the game.
Chapter Eight : Combat
This follows the standard D20 game mould with a few exceptions, characters do not die automatically at -10 hit points but make a roll each round to see if they stabilise or die, characters also possess a number of reserve points that can be used at appropriate moments to speed the healing of damage; without any clerical healing in the game this is no doubt a necessity to prevent player parties having to stop and rest after every other combat. Unfortunately the chapter also seems to get caught up in examining grid-style combat in almost excrutiating detail, this may be useful for people who use miniatures or find the tactical minis element of comabt interesting, however, I generally prefer to rely on description and dramatic pacing in combat rather than minis and so a large part of this section wouldn’t be of particular use to me.
Chapter Nine : Adventuring
This chapter includes the rules for the game which aren’t covered by Feats, Skills or Combat, such as breaking objects, movement and encumberance; the material is well written and clearly laid out.
Chapter Ten : Magic
Covers the magic system of the game, it proposes that casters draw on a form of energy called mana that they attempt to bend to cause certain effects; in order to cast a spell an arcanist gathers mana shapes it into an effect based on what schools of magic they have mastery over (abjuration, divination, necromancy, etc) and then channels the spell (making the roll to cast it); each school of magic contains numerous methods (spells) that will look familiar to anyone who has played a D20 game before, however certain aspects of the method are based on how much mana a spellcaster puts into it, a spellcaster can spend over their maximum mana pool but they must make saving throws or suffer unpleasant side-effects.
I think this idea is very interesting (although i’m not sure if it fits in with the low-magic feel of the rest of the rules) but I can see how with an indecisive player or a GM it may cause the game to bog down due a debate about how much mana to spend optimising a spell; given this i’m not entirely sure whether it is any great improvement over the standard Vancian magic, I think that anyone desiring a spell point style system may be better off just adapting the various psionic rules available for D&D3.5/Pathfinder.
Appendix
The appendix contains some useful information about importing material from other D20 games into Iron Heroes campaigns and vice-versa.
Conclusion
Overall Iron Heroes is a bit of a mixed bag, there are a number of things that I like and dislike about the game; i’m a big fan of token based systems that allow players to marshal their resources and decide how important passing a certain test is to them, I know they aren’t to everyone’s tastes but I personally quite like such systems and think that the classes in Iron Kingdoms do them well, i’m not sure about the idea of keeping seperate pools for each type of ability and think I would probably just have PCs put their gained tokens in a single pool.
The book is extremely well laid out with a nice uncluttered background (meaning that PDF versions are quick to load, unlike some more recent RP PDFs that seem to take an absolute age to load and are riddled with unnecessary graphics), the art in the book is nice and all feels appropriate to the style of setting and in general the writing style in concise and to the point. I do feel that in some sections of the book it goes into fair too much detail, devoting countless pages to skill examples and such like, but this is not a major downside for me. As discussed above i’m not sure about the magic system, I believe that it could slow down a game.
I think for my campaign that i’d probably take the classes (although NOT the arcanist), traits, skills, feats and such like from Iron Kingdoms but (assuming I decide to allow player character magic classes) would probably take the psionic classes from Psionics Unleashed by Dreamscarred Press and come up with a background of Vancian magic having existing when the gods were alive but that their downfall bought the end of both traditionally arcane and divine magic, leading to psionic style magic being discovered by the survivors of the god-pocalypse.

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