Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ironclaw Review

This is an old review I did and had up on the old site. I have since had a chance to play it a couple of times and confirmed that I like the ideas but hits a level of crunch that I doesn't fit my style. I also picked up most of the setting supplements which add culture-specific rules, giving each their own special magic and abilities. This is good as it adds rules-reinforced flavor but it is also bad in adding yet more fiddly bits. Later games in the same family, Jadeclaw and their version of Usagi Yojimbo, follow much the same format.

I also created an analysis of the system, figuring out what the various odds of success are depending on the skill level and either the opposed skill level or the difficulty.

Sanguine Productions, Ltd., $28.95, 320 pages, First Printing Revised.

I admit that I have a certain fondness for anthropomorphic (or "furry") art. Usagi Yojimbo is my favorite comic book. Sabrina Online is my favorite online comic. I do not go to furry conventions, nor do I have furry-porn on my hard drive, so don't ask. Some people have a violent reaction against anthropomorphic settings, but I do not find them any worse than dwarves, elves, and other classic fantasy trappings.

Ironclaw bills itself as an anthropomorphic fantasy rpg. What makes it anthropomorphic, as opposed to a typical fantasy rpg, is the selection of races, traits, and art. The book is mostly rules and character creation with little setting information (but far more than the D&D3 Players Handbook). On the other hand, the rules are very complete and include many examples.

This review is based upon reading the book and crunching some numbers. My overall opinion of Ironclaw is a solid "B" which could go up (or down) once I have had a chance to play it.

The production values are very good and the book as a good hefty feel to it. Unfortunately, the soft cover suffered some slight curling of the lamination at the long edge.

The art, which features a variety of styles from many artists, is good to very good—if you like anthropomorphic art, that is. There is neither excessive white space nor cluttering border illustrations.

With a book this size, I wish they could have squeezed in more information about the setting. If they had included more background material, it would have made the book too large and costly, I imagine.

The sample adventure is quite simplistic, with only two pre-defined encounters, but contains plenty of advice for beginning GMs.

I did not find many gross editing errors, but I admit to having poor editing skills.

Most amusing sentence:
  • "Being on fire is very distracting."
Most abrupt sentence (tie):
  • "The Game Host can either make a simple ruling (say, an hour or two)."
  • "For example, if you are invoking the White Magic Journeyman's Privilege, then roll a contest of your Cleric Trait vs. the ."
The setting is post-gunpowder pseudo-Renaissance fantasy. The guns are powerful but clunky (they take 10 minutes to reload, are prone to reliability problems, and require their own spark roll before you can make the to-hit roll). The printing press (without movable type) is a recent invention.

They do a good job conveying the tone of the time, where nobles can mete out low justice to commoners, trial by combat is still an option, convicts can be sold to slavers, and justice has more to do with one's purse than one's guilt. Whether you want a campaign of diplomacy and courtly affairs, high adventure, or highway robbery and skullduggery, it is all there. One thing that is conspicuously missing are classic dungeon crawls and monster hunts. There are no evil hordes or monsters; instead, there are political foes and bandits.

The island-continent of Calabria is split politically between three noble houses: Avoirdupois, Bisclavret, and Doloreaux. The pseudo-French, quasi-European tone is obvious. Supplements exist for the various houses. There are other lands as well, and though not mentioned by name, they probably include the setting to be detailed in Sanguine's soon-to-be-released Jadeclaw rpg.

Ironclaw drops hints that the world may be our Earth after an apocalypse. Some aspects are very Earth-like, such as the 365 218/900 day year with 7-day weeks and 30-31 day months. They make reference to a lost civilization of powerful wizard-kings, the Autarchs, who built great cities and continental empires before they were befallen by some great cataclysm.

Lizards and bugs fill the ecological nice for vermin. Mounts and cattle are replaced by lizard-like (or perhaps more dinosaur-like) animals. It would not due to have a horse PC riding a horse, after all. Otherwise, the ecology of the world is left very sketchy.

The system is very clever. I mean this both in a good way and a bad way. Players get to roll lots of different polyhedral dice. All traits and skills have a number of dice based on their level. For example, you may have a sword skill of d12+d8 with a Speed trait of d8 and a Career trait (like a soldier) of d6. Roll d12+2d8+d6. Rather than add these dice, only the highest result is used. This makes the roll very quick and gives low-level characters a chance to beat high-level characters-perhaps too much of a chance.

When making a skill roll, or Test, you have to beat either an opposing roll or the difficulty, which is rated by a number of opposing dice: 2d4, 2d6, etc. Results are nicely split between Botches (rolling 1s on all your dice), Failure, Success, Overwhelming Failure or Success (missing or beating the opposing roll by 5 or more), and Ties.

In a fit of geekness, I worked out the probabilities in exhaustive detail. A character with a trait of 10 has a 27% chance to beat and an additional 13% chance to tie a character with a trait of 20. In the d20 system, these percentages would are 11.25% and 2.5%, respectively. These figures do not account for any extra traits, penalties, or bonuses that may apply. I put all the numbers into a spreadsheet so you can see them for yourself. The rules do acknowledge that the system is "random" and so the GM (Host) should curtail the use of dice.

When you get a bonus, the size of your dice increases: d4 to d6, d8 to d10, d12 to d12+d4, for instance. This is straight forward until you have to add 2 bonuses to d12+2d10+3d8+d6. When you get a penalty, you roll twice (or more) and take the lower result of the two (or more) rolls. For instance, if you have 2d12+d6+d4 and one penalty, roll all three dice, take the highest die, then roll all three dice again, take the highest die again, and finally use the lower of the two highest die results.

Damage rolls are Strength (Body) plus Weapon Dice against Soak (Body) and Armor dice. When determining damage, you compare individual dice, highest to lowest, as you do in Risk. Each die that beats its corresponding die is one hit. If you take a hit, you have to make a save or be "sent Reeling" (knocked down or off-balance). Not counting Gifts and Flaws, every character has the same number of hit points (12). After taking 3 hits, a character must make saves to avoid unconsciousness; after 6 hits, the saves are to avoid death.

Other noteworthy rule bits:
  • Encumbrance places a limit on the size of trait die a character can roll. For example, if you have a trait of 2d12, you might have to roll 2d10 instead. Wizards are not restricted in their use of armor, except in how it applies to encumbrance, which will reduce their spell casting rolls.
  • Rules for fatigue are also included. Fatigue effectively reduces the number of wounds a character can take before falling unconscious.
  • There is a tactics skill that works as a teamwork skill, improving the combat initiative of everyone in the group. However, to use this, you also must have someone with the leadership skill. Bandits have Tactics as a career skill.
  • You can abstractly determine an individual character's survival and glory in a large battle using a warfare test. Your personal Speed and Dodge to not count, but your Leadership and Tactics do. You can even increase your chance for survival at a risk of less glory (and visa-versa). This rule fits well with a Pendragon-style campaign.
  • There is a cloak skill for defending against attacks using a cloak as an alternative to a shield.
Given the fiddly bits of the rules, I imagine beginning players and GMs will be flipping pages and doing lots of cross-referencing. For this, the book is laid out as well as it could be. The examples do help clarify things well, like when I thought an example was incorrect until I figured out what I was doing wrong (though there is still an example or two I cannot figure out).
Character Creation

Character creation is also very clever. Players are given a number of dice to spread among their traits. The clever bit is that Race and Career are just traits like Body, Speed, Mind, and Will. Traits are really just skill groups and players can actually add more traits, like extra Careers, Dexterity, Charisma, and Passions.

Characters are also defined by Gifts and Flaws, which the player balances like Virtues and Flaws from Ars Magica. The Gifts include things like Keen Eyesight, increased traits, etc. Flaws are similar to those in Hero-a five-point scale based on frequency and severity (for example, Uncommon-Strong). Some positive character traits like Honor do count as Flaws. When a character picks a race, it may come with inherent Gifts and Flaws; some careers have prerequisite Gifts.

A character's race comes pre-packaged with a number of racial Gifts and skills. The player has to pay a cost equivalent to those Gifts, but they do not count against the limit of Gifts a character can have. So, the most expensive race ends up being bat, with its costly flight Gift.

In an otherwise pseudo-European setting, the selection of races includes many non-European species: ape, armadillo, porcupine, raccoon, rhinoceros, skunk. Among the selection, shrew feels out of place. Since all the selections are mammals, the distinction between many of the races becomes thin. No distinction is made between various species of cat, so whether you are a tiger, cougar, or lion, you have the same gifts and skills. On the other hand, it is no worse than the subtle difference between high, gray, and wood elves or the various sub-races of halflings and dwarves found in other fantasy games. Some races appear unbalanced in the number of racial skills they receive. For example, the traits for boar are the same as badger/wolverine except that the latter has two additional racial skills.

Careers are defined as simple group of four related skills. Every time you use one of those four skills, you can add your career trait die to the attempt-very elegant. As I mentioned above, characters can actually have two or more careers, each adding their trait die to a skill if they all apply to that skill. The careers cover a lot of ground from spell casters to bandits to diplomats and dozens of others. Some may quibble with the skills chosen for a particular career (merchants do not get haggle, for example), but it is a trivial matter to add or modify careers.

As characters gain experience, they can add or improve skills and traits (including basic traits and careers), gain Gifts, or remove Flaws. The book suggests that if players are not roleplaying their Flaws properly, the GM can force them to spend experience to begin buying off the Flaw. Experience can also be used to regain Gifts lost or Flaws caused severe injury.

All in all, character creation and progression falls together very well with the system as a whole and feels well thought out. My only complaint (besides the quibbles on specific races and careers) is that the rules assume you will be making a starting character-there is no described method to create experienced characters, aside from subjectively assigning traits and skills.

Magic is broken down into several schools, each with its own career: Elementalist (air, earth, fire, water), White Magic (protection and healing), Green and Purple College (mental effects), Thaumaturgy (grab bag of everything else), and Black Magic (relegated to the end of the book). I was disappointed that some Thaumaturgy spells (ball of light, protection from rain) seemed better suited as Elementalist spells; the whole school does not fit together as tightly as the others.

Individual spells have a cost in magic points to cast. The system requires spell casters to make a casting roll in addition to any effect or targeting rolls. If you are adept at a spell, you do not need to roll to cast the spell. You become adept by increasing your spell casting skill to a level equal to the magic point cost of the spell (typically 1 to 5). Elementalists have to learn each element's spell list separately. Thus, while there are no restrictions on wizards being accomplished swordsmen, it is unlikely given the number of skills the character has to learn.

Spell lists are broken up into Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master spells. To gain access to a higher list, a character has to be adept at 5 spells from the lower list. Since each spell has its own spell casting skill, this could take a while. Also, the experience rules do not let characters gain a casting skill for a new spell until they have been taught, either by another wizard or from a book. Wizards can still use their default traits to cast new spells, but they cannot become adept until they have a specific casting skill, which they cannot get without training.

Higher-ranking wizards to cancel the effects of lower spells though privilege spells. For example, a Journeyman's Privilege spell can cancel any apprentice spell. This is done defensively as a test between the two wizard's ability levels. I thought this was a nice touch.

There is another form of magic, if you want to call it that, called Avatism. Avatism is a Gift that gives characters access to a number of special powers relating to a characters drawing from their primal (animal) selves. The trick here is that characters must roll their avatism power level against their own Mind trait to have effect.

In general, the magic system has a similar feel to other fantasy rpgs, though the list of spells is not as exhaustive. There may be an opportunity for a magic supplement.