20 April 2024

Why war-games make great settings: Iron Kingdoms (RPG Blog Carnival)

Another month and the RPG blog carnival continues at Codex Anathema for the topic of Favourite Settings. You can see the rest of the topics for 2024 on Of Dice And Dragons 2024 Blog Carnival hosting list.

I have a bunch of the old 3.5e era settings sitting on my shelf that I never quite got around to playing - Midnight, Scarred Lands - and some earlier ones similar - Al Qadim, Greyhawk - but one thing I have always had a softspot for is a really distinct aesthetic - and worlds used for miniature games are great examples of this. WHFRP is perhaps the most obvious but Iron Kingdoms is one of my favourites.

I liked the original setting - the combinations of heavy metal mayhem with magical mechs and swashbuckling ethos. What I really like about it is that for these types of games first you cook up a bunch of bright, high-contrast factions to smush against each other. Once you start taking a step back to the world-building of how these factions all coexist then you get really interesting stuff crop up - and even if you have things that look like goblins or things that look like trolls they get a really interesting twist that makes them more that what you usually get in standard fantasy table-top.

This logic partially holds for the many interesting Magic the Gathering settings though all of them are pre-framed by the five colours of magic so while still pretty cool, slightly less surprising.

For the Iron Kingdoms setting you had your original steam-punky magitech mechs plus some interesting monsters appearing as mercenaries. Then another game got bolted on the side - Hordes - which similar but focussed around big beasts and brought another slew of bizarre and fascinating factions into play. Through in the monsters, mercenaries and minor ally factions and you've got this really great palette of fascinating things to play around with. I have seen some folk call it grimdark online but I don't get that - it is a grimier setting than say Narnia or Forgotten Realms but that is mostly driven by the soot and grease of industrialisation not the absence of hope or opportunity.

You have your classic quartet of Cygnar, Khador, Menoth and Cryx - the 'good guys', the big russian hammer, the religious fanatics and the cacklingly evil guys. I love Cryx committment to the bit of just no holds barred cultists, necromancers, pirates and life-sucking bio-mechanoid horrors. Go hard or go home. Cygnar and Khador are the two 'normal-ish' factions - Cygnar are the techie see-themselves-as-heroes guys, Khador are the 'brute force solves the problem' guys. Menoth are the Knights Templar with mechs. Those are your core, and not bad, then they chucked in the elves a few years later sort of being the classic elf/eldar 'we do one thing amazingly' route. Do not love them as much but no matter because you also get the factions from Hordes - the trollbloods, fearsome druids, corrupted dragon-things and brutal empire of fanatic warriors and warbeasts. Tons of adventure waiting to happen interacting with any of those.

But it gets better because you have the Mercenaries (for Warmachine) and Minions (for Hordes) a goldmine of small factions that expand out great chunks of the setting - the dwarves and ogres, non-necromancer pirates, wierd underground dwelling psychic-things, gatormen, pigmen and some cultists, infernals, alchemists and a kind of unseelie zombie bunch.

A friend ran an Iron Kingdoms game that I Red-Teamed for and it was a hoot just to have that arms-length participation in it. There is enough meat in the setting for a lot of play but because it is relatively shallow, faction oriented and not the centuries of history of, say, Forgotten Realms it is still relatively easy to get your arms around it or to find some non-detailed corner of the map to go do whatever you like in.

I have the 3.5e books on my shelves and the 5e pdfs in a folder - but browsing through the miniature catelog on the Privateer Press site is by far and away the most inspiring thing to do. Word on the street is that there are a bunch of setting quirks - around use of steamjacks, magical firearms, general setting flavour, etc - that require buy in from your table to really get the most out of it. Players willing to get creative with standard 5e magic can pretty quickly trash the settings logic. There was a 2012 version that ran off a 2d6 system that was an evolution from the original wargame that people say is a better fit - not sure why - I guess 2d6 is going to give you a bellcurve vs your big flat d20?

Crunch aside, I just like many of the factions, something of the distillation down to a half-dozen evocative skirmish models really sparks my inspiration. Something about the amped up, garish over-the-topness of it appeals. All this together makes it the setting that is lurking out there as the *specific* one I would love to bring direct to table as opposed to strip for parts for a homebrew campaign. Definitely worth checking out, even if only to browse the mini catalogs.

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