IRON KINGDOMS IS NOT JUST A DUNGEON CRAWL.
There, much better. Shall we continue.
One of the things that seems to turn up, a lot, in talk about Iron Kingdoms and how either the rules are crap, or that it is very limited in what you can play, or that character combinations possible in the game make no sense.
Well, a lot of this has to do with trying to treat Iron Kingdoms as just a casual game, that you can just turn up to any old session, roll up a character, and wham, bam, thank you ma'am, your fighting and stealing the loot from those dead Gatormen.
There is nothing of course stopping you from running the game like that, but I feel that there is a lot of assumptions about what the game is. And a lot of this is due to the assumptions and expectations brought over from the wargames.
The Iron Kingdoms is of course set in the same universe as Warmachine and Hordes, and so as an RPG you are playing characters from those warring factions. You could be anything, and as more books come out that list of options expands. So of course people think that the game should be about playing your favourite faction character type - Stormblades, Greylord Arcanist, Elven Mage Hunters etc etc. - and that the game will instantly support your choice, no matter how at odds it is with other player characters, and that you will be just killing and taking their stuff. The expectation that every session should be filled with combat.
Well, step the fuck back and get your head screwed on. Just because IKRPG has a well developed and option laden combat system, which because of the wargame, emulates the feel and mood of that game, does not mean the defacto basis of the RPG is playing your power fantasy, or that is the only way it can be run.
If you want to run, and be involved in, a story centric game that makes sense, both in terms of the characters involved and why they would work together, you really need to sit down together to figure things out together as a group. The choice of characters is not only to make the game seem plausible and engaging, but also so that it makes the GMs life easier. The GM has may have a type of story they want to tell, and having a group that works together helps make it easier. Of course players should have some choice, but too much choice can be a distraction and more harm than good. This is all about making a group template. Agreeing on character choices so players will have the chance to shine, and have characters that are not going to kill each other on sight. Of course Iron Kingdoms has this built in. They are called adventuring companies. They guide you on what sort of groups of characters will fit together, and what sort of adventures they will be involved in. You see, sometimes there is more fun in playing a group, and the group as a whole is the special snowflake, and not a character in the group.
So in short, talk, talk, talk, talk. Make sure what you want to play, your friends, and your GM wants to run, is the same.
Now the next issue, story vs dungeon crawl.
it can be very easy to assume that if you are playing in a fantasy setting, the default play style is a dungeon crawl where you kill and loot. It is even easier to assume this play style if you think that the rules, since they come from a wargame, are so combat focused, that this play style is the default.
How about no!
I know, I know, wah wah wah, IKRPG has very few rules for social interactions. It's too fluffy on what stat you use for some. The only people that complain about that are the types that fear GM fiat. They fear that on a whim the GM will fuck them over, and through a social roll rob them of all their stuff. Remember, if it has stats, you can kill it. If it talks to you and doesn't roll dice, it is gonna turn your gear into mushrooms.
There is a reason that players want hard and set rules for social interactions - the players they play with are not their friends, just people they game with, and so people that more than likely will either fuck them over, or they will fuck over. And the GM is the least trusted of them all!
A lot of this attitude comes from the very 'GM vs them' divide that is assumed in games. That the GM is always planning for a TPK. but I don't subscribe to that. What is the point of planning a story if you are only going to kill them a third of the way through. Remember, you are trying to collaboratively tell an engaging story, with chance and risk put in there to make it less of a Magical Tea Party. So threats should make the story engaging in the present, not just a means to lord over the players as they get crushed.
So how do you get away from the DnD approach. There are a few simple ways, and in fact the published IKRPG material shows it in this manner anyway.
First of all how about having a story that is not focused on war. Set the game before the invasion of Llael, set it far from the front lines with Khador. Just put it far away from the big wars. Doing so can mean that you can narrow the focus off the world. Many threats and terrors pale into insignificance when you are faced with an army on your doorstep. But if you move the big events and players out of sight, the game can be more about the players and the rather local, small, yet still dangerous threats, that exist in that part of the world.
Next think about stories that do not have to be focused on killing everything you see. Iron Kingdoms has a lot of room for investigative games. Be it groups of archaeologists delving into Orgoth ruins, Witch Hunters of the Order of Illumination chasing down Thamarite cults, or Zoologists groups on the border to the deserts looking for the beast that has been attacking caravans. All of these things can lead to conflict and battles with monsters, warlocks, ghouls and cults, but the lead up is far more ponderous, more about learning about the why, the who, the where and what cost will your actions have. By not having combat dominate the story you can better use the time to get into character, and immerse yourself in the world, and discover what is unique to it, and what is considered normal. Knowing what is normal is critical if you want to have a sense of shock. Knowing more about the world means also knowing what the characters care about and so what they are willing to risk, and what lengths they will go to save the things they care about.
Linked to this then is character selection. Not all characters in the game need to be focused on combat. Not at all. In fact many characters, even the fights, have their place in numerous social encounters. The big Trollkin is actually the one to turn to when talking to the Trollkin raiders. The Gobber you turn to when you need to talk to the Gobber gang that works the rigs above Five Fingers. So thin about diversity in your gaming group. You could even play without an obvious 'fighter' in the group, and still have a group that is quite skilled in certain combat encounters.
The other thing to do is to stop thinking about the game as a dungeon, and start thinking about it in terms of scenes. Scenes can be anywhere, such as an inn, a mansion, a laboratory, a library, a dungeon, the plains of Khador. Anywhere. And these scenes could be anything from a one on one encounter between an assassin and a player character, a defence of a cathedral against an army of undead, or the investigation of a murder scene. Scenes are parts of a story, and not always a chance to kill things and loot. Think about the structure of the story, not just a set of connected corridors. Even old D20 adventures like Witchfire had well defined scenes, with parts that were purely about social interaction and investigation.
Next, add some morality into the game. While IKRPG may not have a morality tracker like World of Darkness, or Unhallowed Metropolis, that doesn't mean you should not be thinking about it. Actions have consequences, both in terms of enemies, the law, and with respect to your soul. Make your players consider their actions - perhaps murdering all the goblins is not the best thing, maybe talk to them.
Forget all the DnDisms. Oh god do this. True magic weapons are rare. Where characters come from matters as much as what race they are. Stop having every little thing trapped with magic or a booby trap. In the Witchfire trilogy there are numerous things you can open and discover, and they are very much hinged on DnDisms. That trunk in the corner, it has loot, but it is trapped. That door. Trapped. That other door? Trapped and magically sealed. So many DnDisms are just excuses to slow the players while not really adding anything of really value to the story other than another bland way to harm the characters. So just forget that shit. Have stuff trapped etc where appropriate. Perhaps that item is magical. But make these all rare instances, since it will make them more notable and dramatic when they are triggered. Other DnDisms consist of lots of really lame, very un-Iron Kingdoms, items and magic. Like magic rings, potions and more.
So finally, you want to run IKRPG, and you have read the above. What do you do then?
- Have a plot outline for the story in place, or series of stories. Thing big and small plot arcs. Reoccurring villains. Make it like a TV show.
- Make the group fit together, and get them to work with what you want to run, as well as running what they want to play. Special snowflakes can really mess up a game like IKRPG, but a group itself can be a special snowflake.
- Only have about 1/3 to 1/4 of the story be combat based. Tell the story about why these fights happen, be that due to diplomacy gone wrong, a Lock Stock style gang warfare story, smuggling, pirates etc etc.
- It's not about the loot and killing. Get them focused on something more important, like winning contracts for mercenary gigs, or stealing research, or hunting the undead (which means the church pays them and gives them ammo and lodgings).
- A lot of stuff happens outside of dungeons! So set the games there.
- Think about genre. IKRPG is a big genre mashup, and you can get ideas from anywhere. Want gothic horror for your Witch Hunters? Well watch some horror films and see how you can work those ideas in. Like Sleepy Hollow, or Brotherhood of the Wolf. You want something more war story like, but not just constant sessions of fights. Well how about running a game that looks at the psychological impact of war to the player characters when they are away from the front lines, and how society treats them. How about looking to movies like Kingdom of Heaven, or tv like the Borgias for social and religious politics. You want a game about conspiracies and research, perhaps Fringe could inspire you for a game centred around the work of alchemists at the University of Corvis. Want pirates and to look at how they deal with other pirates, trading, privateers, and discovering lost treasure and strange monsters, then Pirates of the Caribbean is great. Hell you want the players to be law men, then watch some cowboy films.
I hope this all helps. Want to ask questions, then hit me up below and I will see what I can do.
Just remember, a story is more than loot, tunnels, and being the biggest badass.