There are games where magic is common place, where elves and dwarves walk amongst men and at worst hear an inordinate amount of giggling when they order a short, where death is so cheap that PCs have rooms in heavenly motels on permanent reserve, where being a wizard is just another job...
Iron Heroes is not such a game.
Iron Heroes is a rule set using the 'open source' d20 rules from 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons: it alters the assumptions of its parent game to produce 'low fantasy' that sets out to capture the feel of stories like Robin Hood or Conan the Barbarian... where heroes are capable of almost anything but magic is either non-existent or a dangerous and unpredictable force that can prove as dangerous to its users as to its targets. Iron Heroes provides rules for such game-play without going into world-building: there are a few pointers on producing a 'low magic' campaign world, but the material the system provides is meant to slot into any setting you make up for it. The most fundamental changes it makes to the d20 system are:
- Armour reduces the damage inflicted by a successful hit, rather than making you harder to hit (shields still make you harder to hit).
- All classes have a Defense Bonus that does decrease the odds of being hit, which increases with level.
- All classes have better than what Dungeons & Dragons would deem "good save progression" for all saves, to make up for there being no magical items to improve it.
- Two classes have access to an attack bonus that increases at a rate of 1.25 per HD when using certain weapons.
- Many classes have abilities that rely on tokens accumulated in various ways (for instance, berserker tokens are gained by suffering damage; archer tokens are gained by spending time in aiming.) Some feats also open different kinds of 'token pools' that are available to any class.
- The 'feat trees' of traditional d20 are coupled with a mastery system for feats that makes certain feats easier to get for certain classes.
- Everyone has two pools of Hit Points, "normal" and "reserve". Mundane healing restores reserve hit points that slowly transfer into your regular hit points outside of combat as cuts stop bleeding, concussion clears and so on.
Each class is more or less a heroic archetype of the ass-kicking variety, with the only outwardly magical class being totally optional. The classes in the core book are:
- Arcanist (Optional): A wizard who prefers to avoid using actual spells for fear of life or sanity-threatening backfires.
- Archer: A master of ranged combat. Rains death from afar.
- Armiger: A specialist in maximising his armour's protection. When he is attacked everyone benefits.
- Berserker: Exactly what it says on the blood splattered tin. Gets tokens for his class abilities when angry or when hit.
- Executioner: A master of stealth kills and crippling hits.
- Harrier: While a common feature of d20 system games is that melee combat only really works if you are stationary, the Harrier averts this as one of the few working hit and run classes out there.
- Hunter: The smart guy who uses the terrain and his allies as his most deadly weapons, giving the latter bonuses by using the former.
- Man at Arms: The ultimate generalist, able to adapt to all combat situations by both having more feats than anyone else and wildcard feats that he can change each day.
- Thief: Silver-tongued and sticky-fingered, the thief can fight in a similar but less effective way than the Executioner, but is more at home out of combat than in it.
- Weapon Master: The single most powerful class with the one weapon he chooses but sub-optimal with all others.
Several of the qualities introduced in Iron Heroes went on to inspire elements of the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons - powers for martial classes, healing surges (based on the same notion as 'reserve pool' hit points) and so forth. However, the most fundamental notion of Iron Heroes - that is, a setting almost barren of magic - was decidedly not.
There is normal magic in Iron Heroes, the core principle is just that the players can't have any. The arcanist is the only player-accessible class with actual access to the supernatural, and their way is unreliable to outright suicidal, but the game allows and even encourages dropping antagonists with abilities from other systems in, and specifically mentions the fireball-casting wizard from the SRD. So the central theme of the setting is not so much "low magic" as "the players are always outmatched by the villains when it comes to funky powers". This is the reason every class has good saves despite the relative lack of player-accessible things that cause saves to be made.