||An RPG Resource Review:
Intended as a companion book to Iron Heroes, the aim of this product is to explain the way in which the whole variant system works, and to empower the DM and players to fine-tune it to provide precisely the sort of game that they want to play. By its very nature the book is aimed mainly at DMs, but there is plenty of useful information for players interested in how the world their characters inhabit works, as well as more practical stuff that they can make use of as they develop their characters within this context.
The first chapter looks at the beginnings of character creation: when you settle down to generate your character's basic abilities. The majority of ability generation systems are intended to combine an element of player choice - "I want to play a strong fellow" - with an element of control, most characters will not be good at everything. Some allow for a random element as well - however much I would like to sing well, people generally stick their fingers in their ears when I do! And thus with characters, however much you may wish for a certain talent, in 'real life' it might be beyond you. The point-buy system is generally regarded as ideal, the character can be limited by how many points you have to spend, but you get to choose where you put them.
The original Iron Heroes system is designed to create characters who are at least competent in every area, but does tend to high (if not over) powered characters. Fine for some people, but others enjoy overcoming a weak constitution, a lack of wisdom or a tendency to be clumsy as part of their role-playing experience - or the DM may prefer the greater realism of a group who are not quite that well-balanced. If you prefer that sort of a game, you can reduce the points available, change the base score from which points are calculated or even amend the minimum ability score than may be used thus allowing players to have a more 'skewed' character if they so wish. There are ideas for tailoring both point-buy and random methods to your needs.
The concept of 'metageneration' is also introduced. Here, you can tweak whichever standard system you prefer so that the development of characters that will fit your particular campaign world is rewarded by making it easier to generate them that way. Alternatively, you can reward players who create characters that fit well with the background they have chosen - so someone who wants to play a barbarian from an area where the inhabitants are noted for great endurance but also for being rather dense will find it easier to put points into Constitution than into Intelligence; or they may need to come up with detailed personal backgrounds that explain their abilities to be rewarded. These systems tend to work better if based on point-buy than on a random method, though. Detail-oriented DMs can also apply them to NPCs if they wish.
Next is a chapter relating characters to the specific campaign world in which they are to be played. It is not as much of a 'rules' chapter as the previous one, it's looking at the concepts that apply. For example, when using the Traits from Iron Heroes, don't just settle for someone being a City Rat, make sure you know which city he comes from, and that the benefits of being a City Rat suit that city - perhaps it is one based around a network of canals, and the ability to swim or handle a small boat would be appropriate for him... but not for another City Rat hailing from a more conventional city with lots of streets.
However, too much detail can stultify the game or make it harder for an individual player to develop his character in a way that is consistent with the setting and yet according to how that player sees him. While stereotypes don't work well in real life, they can do here to give each player a handle on what a character from a given region might be like - or to have fun by portraying him as atypical (perhaps giving him a reason to have left and gone adventuring in the first place). If you want to drop the human-centric approach of Iron Heroes and add in other races, one option is to use their standard racial attributes in place of Traits, or devise your own mix, taking care that any significant advantages are there because you want them to be there, not through error. Again, the same approach can be taken to classes - restricting access to characters with a specific background or origin, or even eliminating a class that doesn't suit your worldview - although there is a danger of taking this too far! Naturally, denying a class to the players does not mean necessarily preventing NPCs from using it, depending on the rationale behind your ban.
There are also some interesting ideas about sharing out the design work, if players and DM are willing Ã¢?? either giving each player specific tasks such as developing the history of a region within boundaries set by the DM, or even giving each player complete control of an area even down to the responsibility for running adventures there if people are happy to share DMing duties within the group. It's even possible for players, as well as the DM, to insert new ideas 'on the fly' as the game progresses, although this does need to be handled with care and maturity.
The third chapter explores the non-player character classes presented in Iron Heroes, and looks at ways in which they too can be modified and tailored to fit into a specific background. There are some clever ideas to speed development of good substantial opponents without the need to generate the entire character in the same way as you would a player-character. The Villain Class makes it easy to create and run - remember you often have several characters on the go at once while each player only has to concentrate on one! - your Bad Guys without reducing their individuality and personalities. Bad Guys created using the Villain Class don't have levels like characters, they have a Challenge Rating like a monster, and so are assessed for balance against the party as a whole rather than against each individual (as levelled characters created using standard character generation would be). Three examples of Villain Class are provided and explained: a demonic brute, a dreaded sorcerer and a warleader. There's enough information to enable you to develop your own as well.
NPC Classes are designed to highlight the difference between adventurers and common folks. They are the ordinary people who shoe your horse and serve you your dinner... but even these have the potential for more (after all, what did your average adventuring hero do before he became the stuff of which legends are made?). Aristocrats, Commoners, Experts and Warriors are painted broadly enough to provide a lot of the 'ordinary' people that you might need to populate your world.
Chapter Four examines that all-important element of a game, combat. It is, of course, particularly important in the Iron Heroes style of game, with many of the combat rules in the original work being designed to make combat more exciting and challenging to all involved. Of course, this makes combat more complex, particularly for the DM, and so this chapter is designed to help the DM understand the options available and how to use them to greatest effect. The whole concept of 'Zones' is about opening up the possibilities - no more do you need to tell someone that his character cannot swing off the chandelier, pick up the cat in passing and lob it into the bad guy's face... because now you have the tools to see if he can do it or not. Thinking in cinematic terms can be helpful here, consider how, for example, Jackie Chan tends to use his environment to good effect in fight scenes. Some DMs are happy to wing events in combat, get more descriptive than prescriptive and go with the flow... but these tools empower even those who prefer to have a rule to follow to create the rules they need for each situation as it arises. Even if you are comfortable with a free flowing approach, there are some good ideas here which you can utilise as you see fit.
Then comes a look at the rewards you may reap: be they the in-character ones of treasure or the mechanical ones of experience points. OK, so Iron Heroes removed a lot of the incentive of amassing wealth so that you can purchase magic items, or just picking them up on your travels directly... so what is the point of gathering loot? Plenty, as you will discover when you read this chapter!
Cold hard cash is not going to contribute much towards a character's abilities or skills, once he has treated himself to masterwork 'everything-I-can-use' equipment. However, it does have other uses within the game, and can be used to good effect to develop more rounded characters who genuinely exist in the alternate reality that you have created for them. Amassing wealth may become an end in itself, or it may be a goal because of the power or other benefits it brings. Don't forget that becoming wealthy brings problems - thieves, taxes, etc. - as well as benefits. Or you may decide it is completely immaterial in your game, and motivate your characters in other ways than making them account for their room and board.
For those who do choose to give characters the chance to get rich, the new concept of the wealth feat is introduced. You acquire them by having over a threshold amount of cash, and gain benefits such as followers or social influence or a fine residence - thus being able to reap the benefits of being wealthy without having to mess around with too much bookkeeping! Of course, there are also rewards other than money and loot - noble titles or positions at court, a grant of land or even a fancy medal.
Chapter Six looks at magic in the form of both spell and item. Magic is dangerous here in Iron Heroes. Magic items are probably worse... they have an alien intelligence that frequently wants something completely different from the person wielding them! The suggestion is that magic items be treated like complex bits of equipment helpfully supplied without the instruction manual, with the characters needing to figure out what they do and how and what the dangers are with their wits (and the Use Magic Item skill...). Overall, the idea is that magic items need to be treated carefully and given significance as plot devices, rather than just found lying around for the taking. There's plenty of detail on how to ensure that the items you include are designed in such a way that this will happen, and notes on importing magic devices from other sources should you so wish. The options available are well-presented and give excellent food for thought to anyone who enjoys designing magic items, whatever setting and style they are using.
Then Chapter Seven is entitled 'Campaign Options' and talks about how to tweak the rules to create precisely the attitude and ambience that you desire for your campaign. It's all about setting the way things work to reward characters who act and behave in a suitable manner. This can jar a bit - it could detract from the alternate reality that you and your players inhabit. There are likely to be problems if you do not have clarity and full agreement on how the system ought to work... and whatever happened to awarding extra XP for good role-playing? You cannot legislate in advance for what 'good role-playing' will be, you need to see it in action. I found this chapter the most disappointing one in the whole book, far too mechanical for my taste. However, if you like to have a rule for everything and pin it all down, the material here is worth exploring.
Finally, an appendix explores how best to import and modify material from other game systems into your campaign. Note that it means rules from other sources within the D20 system. It's all about balance, looking critically at whatever you wish to introduce - new character classes or skills for example - to see how they compare with the existing ones, and modifying them as necessary so that they are neither under- nor overpowered.
This work presents you with the tools to take control of the underlying game mechanics and make them work precisely the way that you want. It can get overly-mechanical, and you may find yourself getting rule-bound to the detriment of the actual flow and passion of your alternate reality. However, even if you are not running a game using Iron Heroes, this book is thought-provoking and ought to be read by anyone interested in creating campaigns.
[5 of 5 Stars!]