My gaming group took the rare opportunity to bust out a different game than our usual 4E D&D last Friday. We were short three players, so we brought in a substitute to get the group up to four and then the alt-GM of the group ran Iron Kingdoms, the WarMachine-genre RPG from Privateer Press.
I will admit up front, I neither own nor have read the rules. The GM presented us with pre-generated PC's from a Privateer Press publication (try saying that five times fast) which included annotations on abilities, PC background, and some fundamental tactics. While the character sheet was two pages (or one page front-and-back), the background info was another two pages. I will say that the character sheet had a lot of white-space in it, not to mention lots of room for additional equipment, etc. that wouldn't be used in a one-shot. That's my long way of saying that IK characters are not burdened with the six pages of information we are used to dealing with for 4E D&D, but still have more bells and whistles than some games.
Given that none of us were that familiar with the game, it still proved fairly easy to pick up. Unlike 4E, which has loads of powers to chose from, what IK tends to have are just a couple of attack options which can then be tweaked, much like Pathfinder: a little bonus to hit, a little bonus to damage, etc. IK is basically a modification of a miniatures game, so miniature-based combat shouldn't come as a surprise. It also uses movement and combat ranges as "squares" like 4E, which while not my favorite gaming convention make it an easy adjustment for the group.
For those who aren't familiar with WarMachine or the whole Privateer Press gaming universe, Iron Kingdoms is basically steampunk fantasy: goblins and elves and spells side-by-side with guns, locomotives, and coal-powered giant robots with magic brains. Gear, especially weapons, play a pretty heavy role in the game, but you are less likely to see "plus whatever" swords as much as big guns with short ranges or hand-thrown bombs.
There are several countries that make up the factions of the wargame, but it feels to me that the focus is on the rather generic human-based kingdom of Cygnar rather than the other two human kingdoms or the non-human lands. The pre-generated PC group was a small up-and-coming mercenary unit, which seems a likely and rather practical group concept for the game; it explains a fairly diverse group of people being together and GM's can at least at the beginning be fairly controlling in terms of plot, i.e. the mercenary contracts.
Combat was again fairly similar to 4E and other games: initiative roll followed by an attack roll (2d6) modified by a fairly static number is compared to a target defense number. Combat was fairly quick, rather than a long, drawn out affair. I don't know if it is either the genre or the system or just that adventure, but there is more non-combat activity to the game than 4E, with a greater focus on investigation and roleplaying.
Okay, what did I like best? While possessing a lot of both diversity and utility in terms of group dynamics, there isn't one role that is essentially more enjoyable than the others. I contrasting this with 4E, where being Striker is the role that it seems to me most people want to play. If you're in a combat-centric game, being the guy who actually kills things is a lot more fun than, say, the person who just stands there and gets hit a lot. in IK most of the pre-gen characters seemed roughly comparable in combat, with the differences in abilities more subtle, but everyone still had unique abilities that could come into play both inside and outside combat. I think my son, who is stuck being the Defender in 4E most of the time, didn't mind being the Troll Fellcaller rather than the Alchemist in IK.
What didn't I like? Well, for someone who might be really ready for something radically different than 4E, this wasn't it. It's a shift in terms of gameplay, but it isn't a big shift. That made it easy to sell to a group of people who only know Fourth Edition, but if you're looking for a palate-cleanser, IK won't do it. I'm also a little troubled by the Vorpal-sword like abilities of knockout-generating powers, which my PC had but I never managed to roll high enough to use. Not having a copy of the rules in front of me, I could see some people cranking their PC builds to insure that they get the KO as often as possible.
Then there's the price tag. It's a big, beautiful book, which nowadays means $60 for that kind of RPG. It's is overflowing with full-color illustration, and the rules are completely self-contained. Ironically, it reminds me a bit of Fantasy Flight's Games Workshop-licensed RPG's in terms of layout and cost. It makes me wonder if this is an effective pricing model. For a gaming group of six, that would mean a total layout of $360 for everyone to have a book. For our group, it'd probably be closer to $240, since my son and I could share, as could the husband/wife couple. I doubt strongly everyone in the group would shell out for a $60 book, however. I think it more likely there would be one copy (the GM's) and we'd all just muddle through. Compare that with the notion of a $30 core rulebook for players and a second $30 rulebook with detailed background information, equipment, and NPC's for the GM. You'd get everyone to buy that book, and have one copy of the second. That's $60 in scenario A, $210 (6*$30+1*30) in scenario B. Even if only four copies of the player's book sold, you're still on top. I'd love some time to here the argument for this, and I'm assuming there is one, and that it is a solid one, since it seems to be happening often.
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