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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

[AFHOTWTTGS] Playtest Review: Iron Kingdoms Role Playing Game

In theory, I should hate the IKRPG.

No, really. It's a three-hundred-page rulebook with great slabs of abilities, skills, spells and complicated item construction systems; it starts with a Fantasy Humanities Textbook and doesn't hit the gameables until a third of the way in; and, while it insists that it can be played without miniatures, it reads like such a straight upgrade of Warmachine/Hordes into a single-figure action-RPG that you'd probably be a bit mad to try it.

Then again, in theory, I should love the IKRPG.

I play Warmachine and Hordes - have done for eight years - and can generally be counted on to give Privateer Press the benefit of the doubt (not always: see also character upgrade kits, Colossals, and the increasingly transparent attempts to make No Quarter a must-buy). I owned (though never quite found time to play) the D&D 3.0 sourcebooks for the Iron Kingdoms and generally liked them (although I've never forgiven them for The Longest Night, 'that adventure where you follow a DM PC around for a three-day murder-tour of Corvis).

Since I enjoyed it from the player side of the screen (an unusual seat for myself) and since I know the rules and setting fairly well and it's been suggested that my ongoing attempts to teach new players might be enabled by working with something that's known rather than something I'm making up as I go along, on balance, I thought it might be worth a pop with my usual Dark Ages Vampire / Star Wars d20 rabble.

To start with, I decided to pre-build a batch of characters. Character generation is fairly fluid once you've gotten into it, but could really benefit from a Call of Cthulhu style walk-round-the-character-sheet summary/quick version. There's some information - the formulae for determining derived stats like Defence, Initiative and Willpower - that's only available on the character sheet, and some - the exact means by which the life spirals that chart one's damage taken are populated - that I managed to miss the first time round, although that one's more on me because I didn't think to look for something important in a sidebar.

A certain amount of flip-flopping's also involved, with every playable species and a couple of dozen careers receiving a full-page spread each (archetypes don't get a full-page spread, oddly), while gear and abilities and spells are all tucked away in their own section. It makes for a more fluid reference during play but, again, a double-page spread walking you through and showing page references for each section of the sheet wouldn't have gone amiss. That said, I had two starting non-spellcaster Heroes ready to go within forty-five minutes, and subsequent efforts have taken about fifteen minutes a shot.

Our first playtest involved a combat encounter, with Squirrel (Trollkin Mighty Duellist/Investigator) and Hark (Human Skilled Aristocrat/Pistoleer) as P.I. and client, looking for the Aristocrat's kidnapped sister in the back streets of Clocker's Cove, and encountering a Cephalyx and its handful of Drudges.

In their first fight with five Drudges and their totally-not-a-steampunk-Mind-Flayer Cephalyx master, the players gave a credible account of themselves, but were ultimately bogged down and overcome as they ran out of what we've variously been calling 'fate points', 'feat points', 'hero points' or 'magic beans'. My fault, as it happens; I'd built the Drudges like little PCs, with crap offensive stats but with full quota of wounds and decent ARM, as tough as a player. Turns out you're meant to give little baddies a 'vitality' track - the conventional five to eight boxes recognisable to Warmachine players - and save the spirals for important people.

We opted to play on; our heroes awoke strapped to crude operating tables in a burned-out building, with one box in each spiral and one magic bean left. This time, with only two Drudges (one badly wounded) and the Cephalyx to worry about, and some quick thinking by the players (environment play from Squirrel and the deployment of Social skills by Hark) the fight went much more in their favour. With its dying hiss, the Cephalyx informed its interrogators that it feared its allies more than death... and that its allies were death itself.

In many ways, these two are the perfect playtesters for a new system; they both have issues with crunch and sums, and they both have a distinct preference in terms of play (Squirrel likes violence and challenging-but-fair encounters, Hark likes silly voices and using everything on the character sheet). Here's what Hark had to say about the IKRPG:
I quite liked it. I think the fact that it was one character, that you're controlling one thing rather than half a dozen things, and that it's a bit more directed (because you're roleplaying, you have your GM refereeing and saying "well THIS happens"), made it better for me than Warmachine. It does have all those cool monsters, too, thanks to being a wargame as well... 
It's quite simple - just a handful of d6s. I like the boxes system of taking damage - it's quite a fun little mechanic, rolling to see where the damage goes and what it does to you when you get rid of all your Intellect or Physique or whatever. 
As one of those RPGs where you wander around looking for a fight it was definitely good - you could have an abstract wander mechanic and then focus in on the fighting. I'm not sure what it would be like if you were doing a more... Vampire-esque game. I'd quite like to try it with that, because there's some really cool stuff in the Iron Kingdoms and it'd be interesting to see and play through stuff like the religions and species, being slightly more developed than is usual in that sort of fantasy world. 
I'm not sure I could rank it compared to other systems - I haven't played with too many other GMs, and there definitely tends to be a 'Von game'. The short fight that we did... it was what it was. You gave your Cephalyx a funny voice, which was appreciated, but I wonder how much more depth you could give it. You could play in a bad one of those but you'd have to really try to mess up a one-shot fight... and I'm not sure how you'd differentiate a good one from an excellent one. I think the Iron Kingdoms has that Pratchettian flavour that you put into Vampire, so I suspect it'd fit very well with your style of GMing.
Thus emboldened, I decided to go for something a little more grandiose in our next session. Putting two and two together, our heroes twigged that the missing aristo-sprog had probably been swapped with Cryx, and that it was high time they set sail for Blackwater Port. Our second session would be a bit more of a challenge. I'd have a variable number of players - between three and six depending on who turned up - and, obviously, a larger group, requiring both more stuff to interact with and more dynamic environments so that the game didn't just become one smackfest after another.

I spent a couple of early mornings hunched over the core book, this time actually bothering to look up things like my Encounter Points budget. I quite like this mechanic: the GM can cross-reference the number of players with the amount of XP in the group and find the appropriate number of Encounter Points for a challenging punch-up; then, over the page, find the costs for Battle, Single-Career or Comprehensive NPCs with varying levels of experience under their belts.

There are also, as I discovered later, stats for many of the core models in the Privateer Press range, if not in the book then available for free download, with allotted EP costs for quick and easy setup. As a benchmark it's pretty neat, and the sliding scale means that a chap in my position can design tiers to an encounter by adding extra NPCs or minions who'll get involved if there are X number of players.

In our case, the Big Fight was with a Cryx warcaster (the signature spellcaster class of the Iron Kingdoms) - a top-end-of-Hero-level Comprehensive NPC with some military kit and a warjack (steam robot) of his own. He'd be sitting at 18 Encounter Points - challenging for a group of two, about right for three, relatively easy for four and a pushover for five or six.

I also statted up the Deathripper itself - if I had a six-player group to deal with the warjack would enter the fray alongside its owner - and the captive sister, who may or may not have gone willingly and may or may not step in on one side or the other, depending on how the final encounter went down. In the end, I made up a little spot system for tracking how she was likely to behave (blatantly stolen from the Fighting Fantasy book Night Dragon) and had that ticking over while the group - Ben's Dwarf Intellectual Explorer/Rifleman, Simon's Human Gifted Priest/Man-At-Arms and Squirrel piloting the Trollkin from before - explored Blackwater.

Mechanising all that took a while, so I ended up raiding the list of provided monsters for Thrall and Thrall Warrior stats, and bodging together a few Blighted Trollkin from their Warmachine profiles, plus a single-career Fell Caller NPC to lead them. What we'd be testing here was the system's ability to track and manage increasingly complex fights with a large group of players, without leaving anyone behind in a long, tedious turn sequence. Ben thought:
The system's simple. Once I understood what it could do, the interaction between DEF and ARM and how they differ, everything came down to one or two rolls. I like that everything uses a 2d6 roll - it makes for a very simple system where you're not going to need massive amounts of dice. The system doesn't hold things back, and it's generally very fluid, very streamlined. I can't really anticipate it grinding down into something like the AD&D "have you got the right feats, have you got this, have you got that, do we need the grapple rules, where are all the miscellaneous dice we need..." situations. 
Another thing I like: banter earns beans. Magic beans make the combat system tick, and as I belatedly realised shortly before Conry's death, a canny player spends them rapidly. Giving multiple ways to earn them back is a good idea and encourages their use - players don't get frugal or scared to spend them - but of the ways to earn them back I particularly like the 'make the GM laugh' option. It encourages people to have a fun time. 
As for the setting... when I start thinking of it as cartoony, things start fitting together a lot better. After long exposure to 40K, you show me any fantasy setting that isn't Tolkien and I reflexively go GRIMDARK - but that's just me as a player, not a criticism of the IKRPG. If I try to take Cryx seriously they're silly - they're trying too hard to be evil - but if you consider them as Saturday morning cartoon villains, they're still evil, they still have horrible plots and do nightmarish things, but the appearance of them doesn't make me shake my head sadly. 
I suspect that the final boss fight you gave us was possibly tougher than you anticipated - once Angus was down and I was badly injured, I was expecting a TPK any second. I also think the game's quite vulnerable to style clash - Simon and I are 'avoid combat' players, and Squirrel shuts down between his opportunities to hit something. That said, if I were about to restart my Star Wars game, I might look at the IKRPG and see if I can cannibalise bits of it for that - the warcaster rules would transfer quite nicely to Jedi, for instance, and it's really fluid. The mechanics of the game don't get in the way of the game, and I like that.
This session took a lot longer to get going, mostly because I insisted on roleplaying out the exploration of Blackwater, setting up possible fights that didn't turn into actual fights, and causing a few false starts. Once the violence actually got into the swing... well, we had fun, but it became clear that if I'm going to run the IKRPG I'm going to need some tighter encounter design than usual, and a very clear awareness of what rules are in play on both sides.

We ended up forgetting that Squirrel's character had Riposte, thus skipping a couple of crucial attacks on a bonejack that was able to zap Ben when it shouldn't have, and having to pull a couple of fiats (a very small cheat in my favour and a rather more significant OH LOOK A MIRACULOUS RESURRECTION in Simon's, which I felt much less bad about when I realised we'd also forgotten there was an incapacitation table) in order to see the fight through. I should also have designed the environments much more carefully, establishing how big they were and exactly where folks would be starting; I might even go so far as to flout the game's principles and use grid paper (yeah, so everyone gets to pre-measure, but life's more interesting when you don't have to guess).

Another major difference, in the cold light of dawn, was the approach I took to running the games. First time out, it was a railroad - "go here, fight this, wake up there, get out of this one somehow" - second time, I let the players investigate and poke their noses in and it all felt a little bit... directionless. The approach I might take to avoid this is something akin to Final Fantasy, or Diablo - something derived from computer gaming in much the same way as I've sometimes felt the parent wargame to be.

The Final Fantasies I've seen played have had that zoomed-out, slightly-abstract navigate-through-the-world interface for travel/exploration/lorehunting/social RP and then a zoom in and shift to much closer, arena-style turn-based combat, zooming out again when the fight is done. The Diablo I'm envisioning is III - continuous combat in a dynamic environment, with the occasional pause when a social NPC or a lore artifact is found, and the occasional longer break for plot and things.

Maybe the game needs a sandbox that's developed in advance, with the usual plot hooks and so on, or some sort of framework where people can be sent on missions and have information provided to them, or some very definite cause to operate under. I've been scoping out the rules for adventuring companies, and they definitely seem to have some promise in terms of getting the party together and on task. I'll test those out next time.

Bottom line: the IKRPG is what it is, and what it is is a combat engine which needs you to give it some purpose, and is probably more interesting for people who are already into the Kingdoms as a setting. It is, however, a damn good combat engine for a group that ain't too hot on maths and likes their fantasy to run on steam. I'll be running it again at some point.

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