Thursday, 12 January 2012

Shadows of the Iron Sorcery

Being a bit of a contrarian, I'm starting to think about what's become the red-headed stepchild of D&D in recent years (at least, as far as I'm concerned): 3rd edition. It's been left behind by the OSR, by Wizards of the Coast, and by most of the remaining fanbase (who all now seem to play Pathfinder), and it now feels like a somewhat forlorn and desperate figure at the fringes of the D&D pantheon. We won't talk about 2nd edition, which is even worse off, but at least that has the saving grace of partially coming under the OSR umbrella - if only due to compatibility issues.

I didn't like 3rd edition when I came across it, which was years after it came out (there was probably a 10 year period in my life where I didn't play RPGs at all), and d20 always struck me as a bland and quite irksome way of running a game. D&D never had a really sensible or coherent set of rules, let alone an elegant one, and shorn of D&D there was just no point in using the system whatsoever when so many others were available. I played in a d20 Modern campaign fairly recently and loathed that particualr iteration in particular.("You get hit by a 7.62mm round. Lose 12 hit points!")

But I have a vague hankering to run a more Sword & Sorcery, Shadows of the Colossus-tinged affair, in which the PCs go around taking on mighty mythical beings, horrible ancient demons, and gargantuan Things That Should Not Be (something I've written on in the past) in a Fantastical Post-Apocalyptic World Populated With All Sorts of MenacesTM, and I've got something of an idea that Iron Heroes is the way to go with that.

The more I read about Iron Heroes, indeed, the more I start to like the thought. Listen, I love tactical combat in a wargame setting, so why not in an RPG? I like the notion of taking magic out of the hands of the players. Something about starting off the PCs as relative "bad-asses" also appeals to me, since almost all my games start off with the opposite approach. And above all, there's something almost perverse about playing Iron Heroes in this day and age, given that it's sort-of proto-4e-while-retaining-elements-of-the-worst-edition-ever, which is what I really like about the idea.


  1. For me 3rd Edition had some nice IDEAS that didn't work out so well in game play. An additive form of multiclassing rather than averaging two classes out, changing the saving throws to concepts of how you are avoiding your fate rather than what you are avoiding etc.
    I agree with you that 3rd Ed changed things with releasing the OGL, because then other companies could take risks in tweaking and changing the D&D rules in ways that WotC would not dare to (or at least didn't want to). As for the worst edition? I don't need to get into edition bashing. Not this week anyway. My blog will explain why.

  2. A game influenced by Shadows of the Colossus sounds fantastic. I would be very curious to see an elegant way of representing this in a game like D&D, where making monsters big generally means giving them a pile of hit points, making combats against them often feel like battles of attrition (they they don't squash you right away).

    Now for some nitpicks.

    I haven't played much D20, but aren't 3.0, 3.5, and Pathfinder pretty much the same game? Inasmuch as Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, and Rules Cyclopedia are all the same game?

    You get hit by a 7.62mm round. Lose 12 hit points!

    How is that any different than: you get hit by an arrow, lose 7 hit points.

  3. That last post should have read: if they don't squash you right away.

  4. d20 is actually one of my favorite systems. It is incredibly flexible, extensible, and yet internally consistent.

    And, yet, I find D&D to actually be one of the worst implementations of d20 available. d20 Modern is only slightly better. The classes are wonky, the feats are underpowered and uneven, and the magic system actively works against the rest of the system.

    If you want to use d20, Iron Heroes is a good way to go. You could also look at FantasyCraft (d20 taken to an extreme of completeness), True20 (a fairly light and very generic form of d20), Mutants & Masterminds (a heavily bastardized version of d20 that has some great ideas), or one of the various ultralite versions (e.g., Microlite, Perfect20).

  5. I was out of the hobby for the entire life of D&D3, so my only experience of it is its fun but also quite loud and obnoxious grandchild Pathfinder.

    One of my group played right on through and he can't speak highly enough of Iron Heroes, although he's never run it for us.

    Shadow of the Colossus is one of the best video games ever, and I've long wanted to emulate something like it in a tabletop rpg.

  6. Prior to this post, I had never heard of Iron Heroes. Checking out the Wikipedia summary, the list of core classes looks quite intriguing:

    Archer * Armiger * Berserker * Executioner * Harrier * Hunter * Man-at-Arms * Thief * Weaponmaster * Arcanist

  7. I think of Pathfinder as basically the same as 3e, but with bells on. I'm sort of surprised that you'd categorize it as more different from 3e than Iron Heroes is from the original system. There's about as much conversion work needed between the two. (Iron Heroes PCs are a notch or two tougher than their 3e counterparts, to make up for their lack of magic items.)

    Brendan: Iron Heroes is rad, and very much worth checking out. Pretty focused on tactical combat, but it does some really cool things in that space.

  8. Brendan: I'm not sure, but I think Iron Heroes uses combat "stunts" and targeted moves to remove the attrition problem. I don't know, because I don't have it - I've just heard a lot about it.

    Regarding the arrow/7.62mm round thing... I agree, there isn't a lot of difference. But D&D has a lot of charm to make up for the fact that it doesn't make a great deal of sense sometimes.

    Marshall Smith: My problem with d20 is that I don't like how generic it is, once taken away from D&D. It works okay. But it doesn't really shine for anything.

  9. That's a very fair complaint. Though, as a note, a good designer can add a lot of flavor through feat names, a setting-appropriate "special effects" system (i.e., magic, psionics, super-powers, etc.), and classes that are tied to the setting. There aren't many good examples of this on the market, admittedly.

  10. But Iron Heroes is *insanely* complicated! If I were you I'd look first at Mongoose's OGL Conan game for a good no-wizards d20 variant. The Iron Heroes bestiaries work fine with OGL Conan or other d20 games though; it's the IH PC classes that are way too fiddly.

    Personally I think Pathfinder is as close to 3e as 2e was to 1e. But I dislike the complexity of Pathfinder Core, so I am planning to use the much more elegant Pathfinder Beginner Box for a full Yggsburgh Gygaxian Sandbox campaign. You might like to take a look at it - even if you throw away the rules, the battlemat, stand-ups and dice makes a nice package to use with (eg) 1e AD&D.

  11. Another thing you can do for Swords vs Monsters is to use only the non-magical 3e classes (Fighter, Rogue, Barbarian & any others you like, eg the PHB2 Knight); and either give them '+' gear or - better IMO - use an Inherent Bonus system (an option in 4e) where the PCS themselves are treated as 'magic' for the purpose of '+'s to attack, damage, AC and saving throws. For 3e a +1 every 3 levels (3rd, 6th, 9th, 12th, 15th, maybe 18th) should do it. This bonus does not stack with any from magic gear they acquire, and it will let you use high-CR monsters vs high-CR PCs.

    Of course if you buy Iron Heroes and love it as-is, great - the point-counting system looked way too fiddly for me.

  12. A word of caution. Yes, the sheer Conanry of IH is appealing, but a lot of the game mechanical grunt work was done by Mike Mearls.

    Yeah, him.

    So, yeah, there are some fun ideas in there, but expect a lot of fiddlyness. You'll have token counting, maths that contradicts the stated intent of abilities, incoherent ability descriptions, lunacy like 20th level commoners, etc.

    "Mastering Iron Heroes", the GMing book, is probably worth a look though. The chapters on Rewards (where you can buy things like 'immunity from prosecution' as a function of character advancement) and Magic (executive summary: *all* magic is evil and wants to give you cancer. Use it, then dump it in an oceanic trench or something) are worth the price.

  13. I'm not necessarily against fiddliness. Listen, I play ASL. ;)

  14. Been reading a lot of your posts, and liking them a lot.

    Surprised that no one has mentioned Earthdawn, as it was built as Post-Apocalyptic Lovecraftian High Fantasy.

  15. Telarus: Glad you like the blog. I played a bit of Earthdawn back in the day, but can barely remember... can you elaborate on the post-apocalyptic and Lovecraftian elements?

  16. Iron Heroes is a lot of fun, but as Chris suggested, some of the math is not so good. Their armor as DR breaks down at high levels, and some of the classes aren't quite up to snuff. The armor stuff kind of got fixed in the Player's Companion (via more armor feats), and Hong's Iron Heroes Hack did a decent job of cleaning up the rest.

    However, IH does deliver a good chunk of Shadow-type gameplay. Some of the monsters in the Beastiary explicitly have notes in their entries on being climbed up, for example.

    Also, I second Chris' mention of Mastering IH. There was a lot of good stuff in there. Simplified villain classes are a pretty convenient idea, and glory points were a lot of fun.

    Finally, with regards to complexity, it's debatable whether core 3.5 vs IH is more complex, if only because you don't have to manage spell buffs and magic items. You have the things that you can do, and you know all of them, they're part of you, and you chose them all voluntarily. About the only time you'll get bonuses from others is if you have a Hunter in the party, or somebody with Beast Lore, and most of those bonuses are single-round benefits, typically with only one running at a time.