Way back in 2005, a product came out that caught my eye. That product was the Monsternomicon, a collection of monsters from the Iron Kingdoms setting, converted to the D&D 3.5 SRD. I knew absolutely nothing about the Warmachine tabletop game. I was fascinated by the world being described in the entries. Not unlike some of my favorite RPG materials of days gone by, many of the monster entries were narrated by an in-world expert, in this case, Professor Viktor Pendrake.
Years later, a friend of mine got me a few Hordes models as a Christmas gift, and from there I invested a whole lot in an Everblight army. Eventually I would play two different characters in campaigns using the Iron Kingdoms RPG released in 2012.
Nine years later (wow) and Privateer Press has released a new Iron Kingdoms RPG setting, this one relying on the 5e OGL – Iron Kingdoms Requiem. This era of the setting is marked by a catastrophic event, marking it as a jumping-on point for engaging with the setting. I know there is a lot of discussion about what games should and shouldn’t use the 5e OGL as a base, but I was especially interested in this one, because my first engagement with the setting was through a d20 product in the 3.5 era.
Content Warning: Colonial Themes
The section of the Iron Kingdoms detailed in the Iron Kingdoms Requiem Core Rulebook is Western Immoren. Because this is an RPG based on a wargame, a lot of the narrative has been about nations fighting one another for territory, but another narrative that emerges is a repeated history of colonialism.
The Orgoth are one of the greatest threats detailed in Iron Kingdoms’ history, and they arrived in Immoren from elsewhere on the planet to conquer others. However, nearly every major nation detailed in the setting is described as having multiple people that make up that nation. An unfortunate theme is that the people that end up being the culture that was subsumed by a modern nation are almost all people that present as people of color. This happens particularly in Cygnar, The Protectorate of Menoth, and Khador. Those people of color are not described as being discriminated against, but it is enough of a theme to be noticeable.
Additionally, some of the stories of the non-human species native to the setting have colonial themes associated with them. The Trollkin are often portrayed as being “savage” except where they have assimilated into one of the established nations, and the Trollkin clans in Cygnar have clashed with the government over Cygnar’s expansion into their territory, although the conflict is largely overshadowed now by the Claiming.
This review is based on the PDF version of the rulebook. This is a 270-page document, in full color. The page count includes a credits page, a table of contents, four pages of character sheets, an eight-page index, and an OGL statement. The chapters are bordered by full-page illustrations.
There are lots of illustrations from the setting. If you have ever seen any Iron Kingdoms/Warmachine/Hordes products, you know the artwork is impressive and imaginative, with lots of glowing runes, steam belching armor and automatons, and swords, pistols, and rifles adorned with clockwork apparatus.
Chapter 1: The Iron Kingdoms
This section covers a lot of ground in under fifty pages. It touches on the cosmology of the setting, ancient history, the ascension of gods, invasions, warfare, and most recently, The Claiming, the event from which the setting is currently recovering.
If you aren’t familiar with the Iron Kingdoms, the present day of the setting is a magical industrial setting. Magic items are powered with capacitors that mimic science, alchemists make firearms and grenades possible, and steam-powered automatons called steamjacks do heavy labor and lots of fighting.
The Orgoth have always been an ancient threat from the past alluded to in many Iron Kingdoms resources, but what has recently been revealed is that a deal was made with the Orgoth’s masters, the Infernals, to get the Orgoth to withdraw in ancient time, and the Infernals recently returned to claim the souls they were promised in the distant past. The Infernals are (mostly) gone, but due to the upheaval, lots of the ongoing open warfare in the setting has ended, with a lot of localized issues exacerbated by the magical invasion. Honestly, it’s a pretty good transition from a tabletop wargame version of a setting to an RPG version of that same setting.
The following kingdoms are then detailed:
- Cygnar (Probably the “safest” of the Iron Kingdoms)
- Khador (A kingdom with strong Russian influences, in the cold north)
- Llael (A kingdom that until recently was occupied by two other nations)
- Ord (A neutral state that’s a haven for mercenaries and criminals)
- Protectorate of Menoth (A strict theocracy that likes fire)
- Cryx (Pirates corrupted by a dragon, with lots of necromancy and undead)
- Rhul (A primarily dwarven kingdom of mercenaries)
- Ios (An elven realm where the people are disappearing, losing their souls, and their gods)
Each of these nations is given a bit more detail, including how the Claiming specifically affected them, and what recent events are still influencing them. One thing that I especially like is that after each region is detailed, there is an adventure hook provided. Not only does it break things up so that different locations don’t run together, but it also reminds you that this setting exists for you to use, and gives you examples of how to do that.
The history and fine details of a lot of settings can get bogged down with details of the past, without relating them to the present. Having read the similar section in the 2012 Iron Kingdoms RPG, I feel like this one does just the right amount of world-building, with a nice helping of table-ready sidebars. While many settings have major upheavals, especially when getting ready to introduce a new product line, this one feels like it has been seeded into the setting for a long time, and instead of cutting off past adventure hooks, this feels like it transitions from problems solved with armies to problems solved with adventurers.
Chapter 2: Character Options
This chapter is where we get to see how this book will implement the concepts of the setting with the 5e OGL. There are several subsections, including:
- Essences (An optional element of character creation)
- Races (Yes, I wish they had used more modern terminology)
- Classes and Subclasses
- Backgrounds (For the most part, what you are thinking of, but with a slight twist)
- Adventuring Companies (An overall theme for an adventuring group with some mechanical benefits and the ability to progress over time)
Essences may be familiar to anyone that played the previous Iron Kingdoms RPG, although this game expands them, in part to accommodate the wider range of character classes and statistics in 5e. Essence is an optional rule, and it is a broad explanation of how your character does what they do. If you use Essence, you don’t get your ability score boost for your race (hooray for less determinism), and you get access to feats connected to that essence. The essences detailed are Intellectual, Mighty, Agile, Gifted, and Pious. In the terminology of the Iron Kingdoms, the Gift is the term used for people that can use magic. I don’t remember the exact wording in previous volumes, but I like that the Gift is framed as something all people have, but only some have awakened.
Races include the following:
- Gobber (Goblin like tinkerers)
- Human (With subraces based on national origin, instead of just being “flexible”)
- Iosan (Withdrawn forest elves increasingly being born without souls)
- Nyss (Cold dwelling elves who have lost their homeland)
- Ogrun (Big and loyal beings with a structured society)
- Rhulic Dwarf (Not a big departure, but with some twists)
- Trollkin (Big, sometimes supernaturally loud, nature attuned beings)
If you are familiar with the setting, and are saying “wait, what about X,” yes, there are other sapient species, but if this product line follows a similar pattern to the 2012 release, some of the playable species are considered more “Hordes” than “Warmachine,” meaning that those species will be detailed with a supplement more concerned with the less settled spaces of the setting.
There are several brand new classes introduced in this section, most of which have a strong connection to the story elements of the world. These include:
- Gun Mage (You do magic tricks with your gun and ammo)
- Gunfighter (You do non-magic tricks with your gun and ammo)
- Mechanik (You can make and fix items, and there is a spellcasting subclass)
- Warcaster (You can cast spells, as well as imbuing your spellcasting resource to boost arms, armor, and warjacks to which you are attuned)
Alchemists get a list of quick items they can make in combat, and formulas for more involved items. Those items can be created by combining various simplified components, or by using the (more expensive) field alchemy kit. The subclasses include the combat alchemist (throw grenades well and dodge explosions), synthesist (make potions do more than their base versions), and rogue alchemist (you don’t belong to an order and learn things on the fly).
Gun Mages use special magelock pistols or rifles that can handle the power of the rune imbued ammunition that they use. These are spellcasters with a progression kind of like a warlock, in that they have a set number of spell slots and a maximum spell level, and you get these back on a short rest. Gun Mages get a fighting style and have about 15 different types of magical ammunition to choose from over time. The subclasses include The Order of the Arcane Tempest (compatible with boosting warjacks), The Order of the Thorn (former revolutionary freedom fighters with stealth and ambush abilities), and The Order of the Lone Gun (mercenaries with more extra attacks and improvised effects).
Gunfighters learn a fighting style, and several trick shots, which have secondary effects when they hit a target. They eventually get multiple attacks regardless of subclass. The subclasses include gunslinger (use pistols in melee, quickdraw), sharpshooter (get extra damage from studying a target, learn more debilitating trick shots), and commando (use guns and melee together in combat).
Mechaniks get a tinkering die as one of their main mechanics, which can be applied to gear to give it a bonus, applied to crafting to lessen the time for building things, or used to repair items. The subclasses are combat mechanik (extra hit points and a bonus to armor class when making repairs or modifications), ironhead (add special modifications to existing items), and arcane mechanik (the spellcasting variant of the class, not unlike Eldritch Knight or Arcane Trickster).
Warcasters are kind of the signature heroes of the setting, especially when it comes to the Warmachine side of things. They are spellcasters that specifically use spell points instead of slots. These points of focus can be assigned to do different things to weapons, armor, and warjacks. While they use a point system, like the gun mage, warcasters have a casting mechanic like warlocks, where they get a maximum spell level known, and they regain all their focus points on a short or long rest. The subclasses are controller (you start with a basic steamjack), arcanist (spend focus points to enhance spell effects), and soldier (extra attacks, and more options to boost weapon damage by spending focus).
There are also several subclasses for existing classes from the core D&D 5e rules, including the following:
- Fell Caller (Trollkin only subclass that has a voice-based thunder attack)
- Benefaction (Morrowan focused)
- Guile (Thammarite focused)
- Obedience (Menoth focused)
- Battle Chaplain (The cleric version of the eldritch knight)
- Man-at-Arms (A bodyguard)
- Storm Knight (Skilled with Cygnar’s lightning weapons)
- Way of Deception (Thamar based order)
- Way of the Fist (Menoth based order)
- Oath of Radiance (Morrow focused oath)
- Oath of the Wall (Menoth focused oath)
- Bounty Hunter
- Mage Hunter
Backgrounds are interesting in that if you are using the optional essence rules, each one provides a +1 bonus to an ability score. While all the backgrounds presented in this book have a listed ability score bonus, it is noted that you can assign a reasonable +1 for a background used from other sources. One thing I did notice about these backgrounds is there are fewer “situational story benefits,” like the core rule backgrounds, and more “you get this mechanical benefit under these circumstances” active abilities, which I appreciate. In addition to skills, tools, and languages, some of these backgrounds also provide armor and weapon proficiencies, which can impact a starting character.
Recent D&D products have introduced patrons as a means of quantifying how a group was drawn together and to help direct what they do in the campaign. This book introduces adventuring companies, which do something similar. Unlike the simple mechanics of patrons, however, adventuring companies have advancement mechanics, providing more mechanical effects over time. The ones introduced in this book include:
- Arcane Order
- Cult Assembly
- Intrepid Investigators
- Law Dogs
- Mercenary Charter
- Pirate Crew
- Spy Ring
Adventuring companies earn prestige for different actions, including gaining levels. There are four tiers of prestige, and there is a minimum level to gain a prestige level (you can only get so famous before you must prove you can do what people think you can do). Adventuring companies give you access to new downtime activities, like boast (increasing prestige), prison break, and recruitment drive.
Each entry includes the benefits for different tiers of prestige, as well as a unique list of activities that gain the company prestige. An arcane order may get prestige for finding an ancient magical tome, but a cult assembly is only getting that prestige if the tome is related to their religion.
In addition to the above, each style of adventuring company has a random chart of quirks that the adventuring company might have, relating to how or when your company formed, its age, and its traditions.
I really like the adventuring company rules. Not only do they present a theme for the campaign, but they also reinforce activities that are connected to that theme. It’s also one of the most portable subsystems from this book. I like the idea of the ability score bonuses shifting to essence and background, and I like more “active” background abilities. I’m not as sure about moving weapon and armor proficiencies into the background arena.
Some of the mechanics in this section feel, well, bodged together. For example, the duelist subclass gets an ability that triggers three separate actions in a sequence, which feels clunky and introduces rules questions about what happens if one of those actions is interrupted. That feature feels like it could have been better explained without chaining actions together.
The Challenge of Challenge Ratings
Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition is not written assuming that characters will have any specific gear that boosts their abilities. That’s not usually how things play out, but it is the assumed standard. Despite intentions, challenge rating has also felt a little tricky, especially at the higher end of the level scale.
This is going to be even trickier with this material. Mechanika effectively replaces magic items but is an assumed part of the economy. That means that characters are regularly going to be able to turn gold into combat effectiveness. Additionally, the fact that some characters can command warjacks, and may even be assumed to acquire one as part of level advancement, is going to throw off a lot of standard challenge rating determinations.
At best, you may want to consider warjacks as additional party members, but that doesn’t fully address that multiple classes have abilities that are keyed towards boosting this extra party member.
Chapter 3: Magic
This section starts with a bit of a primer on how magic manifests in the Iron Kingdoms. Since spells naturally manifest with a halo of glowing runes, there is a chance to identify the spell based on the runes. There are also some notes on how stealth and subterfuge might interact with that manifestation.
Many of the spells introduced revolve around the concepts of the setting. Some damaging spells have additional effects that might shut down machinery or warjacks. Due to emulating the magic evident in the wargame, many effects deal with pushing or repositioning another character in addition to other effects. There are lots of fire, shadow, and radiance spells due to the primary divinities of the setting.
Magic items that appear are ancient, usually associated with the gods or Infernals. Most “arcane” magic items fall under the mechanika category, which brings us to our next section.
Chapter 4: Equipment & Mechanika
There is a lot in this section that you would assume, such as armor and weapons native to the setting. But several of those items interact with the rules for mechanika, the alchemical/magical/semi-scientific method used in the setting for creating reliable machinery.
Capacitors and runeplate take up a lot of room in this section. Runeplates are sheets of metal affixed to an item that determines what magical effects the item has. Capacitors are the magical “batteries” that run magic items. Some items just draw charges based on how long they function, but some specific effects pull additional charges per activation. Some capacitors can’t be recharged, and many of them degrade over time, so that their maximum charge diminishes.
I know there needs to be some kind of capacitor-based rule to match the feel of the setting, but I wish it were a cleaner, X number of charges, replace after X amount of time, rather than having some items that degrade slowly. There are also some requirements for steam-powered items that I’ll look at when we get to steamjacks in the next section.
All of that said, I like that the trinkets section from the core rules is repurposed in this section as mementos, reinforcing that there is a sense of loss from recent events.
Chapter 5: Steamjacks
Steamjacks are one of the most recognizable aspects of the setting – bipedal constructs powered by coal and steam, with a cortex that allows them to function to different degrees of autonomy. These are used for heavy labor or combat and are divided into heavy and light jacks.
Depending on what cortex is installed, the steamjack has a different proficiency bonus. More sophisticated cortex can be issued drives (bonuses to performing specific actions until they receive new orders) and can develop imprints (aspects of a warcaster’s personality that may provide benefits or penalties based on if the warjack is following the imprint that has developed).
Steam-powered armor and steamjacks both have vulnerabilities if their internal systems are damaged, which happen when a critical hit is scored, or under other circumstances as determined by the GM. This section has lots of extra gear for steamjacks, including weapons, shields, and arc nodes (devices that let the steamjack serve as the point of origin for a warcaster’s spells).
There are different fuel requirements for in combat use and out of combat operation, although the GM is encouraged to work with the players so as not to limit their access to a resource if they have a steamjack. Honestly, for as short as D&D combats are, I’m not sure the combat consumption rates for fuel are really warranted in a non-wartime game.
If you want stats for steamjacks outside of the one provided with the controller warcaster, you’ll need to jump ahead to the Creature Statistics section.
Chapter 6: Game Master’s Guide
A lot is going on in this chapter, including rules on what magic from core D&D 5e does and doesn’t work in the setting, variant spellcasting and injury rules, and ways to incorporate D&D content not evident in this book. There is a discussion of thematic campaigns, which gives about five or six plot points to use over the course of the game. It then wraps up with creature statistics.
If you are looking for magic that allows you to travel distances instantaneously, or that returns the dead to life, you’re out of luck. Even the entry-level get-out-of-death-free card, revivify, isn’t available in the default setting. This section also mentions that healing is more painful and exacting, without game rules, as well as mentioning that summoning has a danger of attracting Infernals, but again, without game rules. I would have liked some mechanical guidance on reinforcing these concepts.
The variant spellcasting rules may be familiar to you if you are used to the spell point rules from the DMG, but with two differences. In the setting “story,” spellcasters generally cast until they have exhausted themselves, so the spell points are exhaustion points that count “up” instead of down. In addition to this, there is an optional rule on pushing out one more spell even when you are too exhausted to add to your total.
The example creatures feature gangs, cultists, mercenaries, some signature units from different nations, and several models of steamjacks. Most of the fantastical creatures are saved for the 5e version of the Monsternomicon.
This rulebook is a great jumping-on point to engage with the setting. While this product doesn’t touch on the “Hordes” side of the Iron Kingdoms setting, it does introduce a lot of what makes the setting special, and it introduces the setting and its history in a succinct but evocative manner.
The rules for different adventuring companies do a good job of communicating different possible campaigns. In fact, between the plot hooks in the history section, the adventuring companies, and the thematic campaigns outlined in the back, this is one of the most text to campaign ready settings I’ve seen in a while. The rules for essences and adding more concrete abilities and ability bonuses to backgrounds makes more aspects of the character feel important, beyond “races” and classes.
It really feels like characters that can interact with warjacks are going to dominate a game with any amount of combat unless the GM comes up with reasons they can’t access warjacks that they own. That just feels like GM fiat taking away what the characters want to interact with, and is explicitly discouraged by the book’s own advice.
Many of the rules do a good job of capturing the lore of the setting, but the additional bookkeeping feels more numbers intensive than most D&D 5e settings. Given some of the optional rules, as well as some of the implied, but not mechanically enforced, story elements for magic, it almost feels like having native spellcasting rules instead of imported D&D 5e assumptions would have been truer to the setting’s feel. While it’s assumed you can use standard D&D classes, with the focus on settled regions and nations, druids and barbarians might feel like they have slim setting elements to interact with.
Tenuous Recommendation–The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.
Between the plot hooks in the history section, the adventuring companies, and the thematic campaigns outlined in the back, this is one of the most text to campaign ready settings I’ve seen in a while. [social_warfare]
The Iron Kingdoms are a unique setting with a ton of imagination. These rules will help you to explore them. That said, these rules have many quirks native to the setting, and they come with a lot of bookkeeping. Some concepts may not “drift” as well to general D&D 5e use, if that’s what you want from your 5e OGL content.
I know that for maximum appeal, it helps to market your 5e product as having material useful outside of the campaign setting you promote, but I almost wonder if this wouldn’t have been better throwing out all assumptions of outside sources, like Adventures in Middle-earth or Beowulf Age of Heroes. Using the core rules, but with entirely native classes and a native magic system may have smoothed over some gaps.
This timeframe in the Iron Kingdoms is a great one to explore for tabletop adventurers, but for fans of the setting that aren’t familiar with D&D 5e or aren’t fans of the D&D 5e rules, this may not be their favorite way to explore the setting. This may be especially true of fans that enjoyed the RPG rules that were more directly derived from the tabletop game’s mechanics.
Do you have a favorite property that started as a different type of game? What did the game rules add that helped the game feel like the source material? We want to hear from you in the comments below.