Ironclaw Second Edition Omnibus (Unique System) (Priority Review)
Okay, so this massive RPG/campaign setting comes with a couple of pdfs – a one-page cover of the player’s handbook and host’s handbook, which seem to have been combined into this book, a separate cover, a char-sheet and a pdf that contains 10 pregens as well as a sheet; if you take away the cover, editorial, etc., we arrive at 343 pages, not counting the two-page index; said index is devoted primarily to campaign setting concepts; the couple of times I wanted to use it to look up some game term, I couldn’t find it.
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue at the request of my patreon supporters. I also received a hardcover copy, and my review is primarily based on the PoD-hardcover, though I also consulted the pdf-version.
Now, to state the obvious – Ironclaw is a game and RPG-setting focusing on a world inhabited by anthropomorphic species; it could be designated as a furry-RPG, but unlike many of the less serious attempts on the genre, this is not about sexuality or the like. Instead, this focuses on being a game for everybody to enjoy; you can have potentially have fun with this, even if you’re no furry. That being said, I’m no furry and only tangentially aware of the discrimination fielded against these individuals; having been maligned and discriminated against myself, I will attempt my best to give this a fair shake. If I do miss (or think that I might have missed) something that is generally taken as a given in the subculture, please feel free to enlighten me. I will try to include as much relevant information as possible without bloating the review.
If you don’t like the artwork on the cover, you’ll be happy to hear that there are two other styles present herein as well, both of which are imho superior to the one depicted on the cover – there are somewhat realistic, old-school-y b/w-artworks herein, but my favorites? Each species herein gets their own full-color piece, often reminiscent of the illustrations seen in old-timey fairy tale books. These illustrations are genuinely charming and high quality, and to me, encapsulate better than one would think the atmosphere of the campaign setting. It should be noted that mammals (and two avian species, Sparrow and Raven) constitute the different types of species available; there are no playable amphibious or reptilian species.
Okay, so the book begins by explaining what an RPG is, with different frames of references taken into account: There is an explanation if you don’t know anything, one for veterans, etc. For our purposes, we need to state a few things: The GM is called Host in this game…and that, if this is your first RPG book ever, then whatever deity you may believe in have mercy on your soul. Why? Because this book is one of the most needlessly obtuse games I’ve ever tried to review, and primarily because its organization is really bad. If you want to play the game, don’t just start reading the book – the character creation takes up over 100 pages of real estate, and the rules that explain how to actually play the game? They start on page 109. Start reading this book THERE. After you’ve understood how it works, return and make your character. This is particularly important, since the game’s system is pretty different from d20, BRP, WFRP, TinyD6, etc. – it is a rather unique system, and once you can get beyond this huge hurdle, one that does have its merits.
The first thing you need to know, is that there is a difference between declaring and claiming; if you declare something, your character tries to do something, and you have to state it BEFORE rolling the dice. If you claim something, you can do so after the fact; for example, take cover when shot at; essentially, if you’d consider it to be something you do as a reaction or as an immediate action in other games, you’d claim. The game uses d4s, d6s, d8s, d10s, and d12s. Dice are not added together; If you roll 2d6, and have a 3 and a 4, you don’t get a 7, but instead compare your results of 3 and 4, depending on the roll in question, to determine outcomes. The highest die value you achieve is called “The Score.” The standard difficulty is 3, and in order to get a success, you have to roll HIGHER. Hitting 3 is a failure! In the above example, we’d have one success. If the character had rolled 5 and 4, we’d have two successes. Interesting here: As a consequence, there simply are quite a few tasks that not everybody can succeed at – if you have to roll against e.g. 8, you can disregard any dice below d8. It’s simply not possible for most people (with only d6s) to succeed at such a task.
The more successes you have, the better – and some specialized tasks may require more successes. You usually roll at least two sets of dice; for example Speed and Mind, to resolve a given task. This mechanic is also used for contests; you compare your results versus that of your adversary, and the highest showing number wins. Ties are resolved sometimes by the check type, and sometimes by call of the Host. Rolling all 1s is a botch – a spectacular failure. Long-term tasks can have quotas, successes you amass over a longer period of time, like building a house, etc. A bonus is an extra die to roll. A penalty is an extra die rolled against you. Help is interesting – a task has one primary person who tries it; others attempt to assist by beating the standard difficulty of 3. On a success, they add a d8 to the primary character attempting the roll; on a botch, though, something goes horribly wrong for everybody! Sure you want that assist? These mechanics are only relevant for non-combat aid. Combat uses somewhat different mechanics. If a roll is not under stress, or if you’re super familiar with it, you can do it by rote, which means that you maximize all your dice. Rotes speed up the game when you have two dice and only need one to succeed. On the other hand, sometimes, you suffer a limit – e.g. if you don’t have your proper tools, the Host may impose a limit that you can only roll d6 instead of your usual d10s.
The consequence here is obvious – the game has a pretty robust manner of depicting jobs and long-term tasks without having the often ridiculed 5% failure chance under duress that a d20 brings in many games; a crucial difference from many roleplaying games is something you may have noticed – this game attempts very hard to eliminate the need for adding up bonuses or penalties after rolling the dice.
Okay, these basics out of the way, let us take a look at character creation. This does a few things right, in that it specifies a couple of game terms (not that those’d help without a context of how the game actually works…), but they are still appreciated. A character has a career – a kind of job; there are 6 Traits – these are essentially your ability score, and they are Body, Speed, Mind, Will, Species, and Career. You begin play with one d4, three d6s, and two d8s. You assign one of these dice to each of your Traits. These do have in-game ramifications – a high die in Species, for example, denotes that your character is more animal-like, with a low die denoting a more human-like physique. You then choose a starting species. These determine your preferred habitat, diet, activity cycle, senses, natural weapons, and the like. More importantly, each species has 3 species gifts, and 3 instances of certain checks with which the species dice are used: Squirrels get the species dice for climbing, digging and jumping, for example. As noted, each species also gets three species gifts, but more on these in a bit. It should be noted that not all species are that different. The difference between the gray fox aristocracy and red foxes, for example, is that gray foxes include the species dice with climbing, red foxes with digging. Other than that, the difference is purely based in the setting.
Ironclaw’s setting and system are closely entwined, but for once, this is actually a strength of the game; in contrast to what you’d expect, Ironclaw can be considered to be a somewhat Elizabethan tale of class/race-struggles, which focuses on a comparably realistic vision in its details, with magic generally less earth-shattering than in comparable fantasy games; this somewhat grounded nature, interestingly enough, does render many components of the setting more plausible. As noted, gray foxes, per definition, are aristocracy by birth, and as such, there is a decent reason for the lack of distinction between them and their red brethren from a mechanical point of view; while I still maintain that a more pronounced difference between them would have made sense, the setting here provides a sufficiently viable excuse.
Next up, you choose your career from a list of 24 – these behave in much the same way as the species – you get three types of rolls where you include your Career dice, and three gifts bestowed by the Career. If there is overlap, you instead get Increased Trait – this increases the Trait’s die-size by one step, up to a maximum of d12. And no, the text doesn’t specify that – you have to look up the Increased Trait text much later in the book, in the gift list. No, no cross reference is provided, no page number noted. (For reference: Pg. 65 of the book.) You write your Career dice down for the skills granted by career, the species die for the skills granted by the species.
Then, you decide on a personality gift; which is chosen from a list. You also decide on a motto, and a starting region, which you are assumed to be familiar with. Regarding personality: These are defined by a combination of a more simplistic take on the teachings of humors, and the eight virtues and vices – these are essentially the 7 deadly sins and cardinal virtues, plus selfishness/selflessness, respectively. This Christianity-adjacent theme struck me as a somewhat odd choice, considering the anthro-angle, but I might be missing something here.
After this, you assign 13 marks among your skills; these are not skill points, but instead describe the die you get. No marks = no dice; 1 mark = d4, etc. At the start of the game, you can’t have more than 3 marks (d8), and more is only possible, if you have Gifts that add marks. Once you’ve reached d12, a further increase will net you an extra d4, which will then increase to further d6, d8, and so on. You get the idea. The book does feature a skill-chapter, which contains 26 skills. This brings me to a structural weakness of the system as a whole, namely that quite a few things are not really covered by skills, or that they are rather uneven. Academics, for example, includes geography, history, law, medicine, mathematics, physical sciences. Two other skills? Gossip and Deceit. Yep, those are two skills. Dodge is also a skill (and you really want that one); Inquiry and Negotiation? Two skills. Presence and Leadership? Two different skills. And Tactics is yet another skill. The examples don’t help that much either. From Tactics “When led by a particular leader”; from Leadership: “When outnumbered.” So, you need Tactics to follow orders? WTF? Granted, I am being slightly facetious – things become a tad bit clearer in combat, but honestly, not by much. While I love the little cartoons of fox-thespians playing the skills and providing examples, it’s pretty hard to draw strict lines between them. Plus, skills encompass e.g. Throwing, Ranged Combat, Brawling and Mêlée Combat. All of these are resolved in the same manner, as all are skills, but this makes plenty of skills simply mandatory for certain occupations. Odd as well: Endurance is a skill, applied to foraging and hiking. Okay, what about hunting? Is that ranged combat? What about using harpoons to whale? Throwing or Endurance? This is in so far weird, as the math kinda falls apart due to the insistence of trying to avoid the subtraction or adding of static values, which can result in weird situations.
Let’s say you have someone with a skill in something, right? Let’s say, this fellow is really good in their chosen field, e.g. Digging, and thus gets a d12 – the equivalent of a whopping 5 marks invested in that skill! They are competing against someone who only has a species and/or career die and a paltry 1 mark. Here’s the thing – if your species grants you a d8 in Digging, and you put 1 mark in the skill, which grants you a d4. These two dice don’t combine into a d8 or a d10 – instead you roll a d4 and a d8. This makes catastrophic failures, botches, MUCH less likely (because you have to roll two 1s, instead of 1 – basic probability calculation), but prevents the character without the Skill from beating the super high tasks. Okay, that does not make any sense. So, the untrained guy, by courtesy of the species, is pretty much better on average in Academics than the specialized scholar? So this is one issue of the system that bothers me to no end; perhaps it’s me being OCD, but it really stresses me out. Your mileage may vary; you may not care. But this, to me, undermines the mechanical foundation of the system’s base check-system to a degree.
Secondly, the Skill-system is missing a bunch of areas. Jobs not related to crafting? No idea. Hunting? No idea. Forging documents? Heck if I know. Do you use Weather Sense or Vehicle for steering ships? Both? This section is missing a LOT of stuff I expected to see, and doesn’t do a good job differentiating some of the skills that are more similar to each other. Also, if you want to be a martially-inclined dude, you’ll be having a lot less skills; heck, if you want to fight and survive, plenty of skills are basically mandatory. Thirdly, the organization is once more pretty asinine – you can’t make an informed decision about many of the combat-related skills, unless you’ve read the combat chapter (Starts page 114, for reference). And finally? No sample difficulties for suggested tasks are provided.
Okay, combat. You roll initiative by rolling Speed and Mind Dice. (Though a gift called Danger Sense nets you a d12 as a bonus); the difficulty that you can detect the adversaries ranges from “Near Rage[sic!]” to Further than 10 paces away. So, is it the Observation skill or initiative? Do senses influence that? I have no frickin’ clue. Is Stealth rolled against Initiative? No idea. The RPG attempts a coop-out by stating that combatants act n the logical order, which is a non-resolution if I ever saw one. You can see that I have plenty of issues with the game in how it presents its rules; but don’t get me wrong – particularly regarding combat, the game does quite a few things right – it does not feel like yet another D&D-adjacent combat-resolution. Instead, the game does several clever things: It uses, for example, conditions (called “statuses” in the game’s parlance): Your initiative roll will determine, for example, if you start the combat with Focus, reeling, etc. – and these have SERIOUS mechanical repercussions. From a mechanical point of view, the game feels closer to playing Shadowrun crossed with a JRPG, and I mean that as a compliment, for the most part.
You see, the gifts granted by career and species, +3 of your choice, act in a way like feats, spells, special abilities – some have prerequisites, some don’t; some may be taken multiple times, and there are plenty of means to differentiate between builds: This game HAS tactical depth! But oh boy, the presentation. To explain the combat, we need to talk about values you need to fill in on your character sheet – the so-called battle array. As noted, Initiative is Speed + Mind Dice; Stride is 1 and can be improved. What does Stride do? It’s a movement. So is Sprint– Sprint uses your Speed Dice. If something is in your way when using Sprint, you risk crashing; you roll 1d6 for every point denied, and on a 5 or 6, you take one damage. This means that you can seriously injure yourself using Sprint. Your Run is the maximized Body dice, plus maximized Speed dice, + Dash. Oh, forgot about that one, right? Dash is half the maximum you could roll on the Speed dice, with a +1 if Body is greater than Speed. Run is btw. a stunt, i.e. you gain the reeling status after using it. You do NOT take damage when crashing into something. Why? I don’t know. I have no idea. I don’t get it. This hurts my brain.
Are you beginning to see what I mean by issues in organization and rules-presentation and structure? Did I mention that there is an entire chapter devoted to rules like chases, hiding and sneaking, mounted combat, etc. Why are they all lumped in a chapter of their own, without rhyme or reason? No clue. Mounted combat should, you know, be in the section on frickin’ combat. And how does vehicle combat work? No clue. This chapter seriously made me angry; it feels like an “oopsie, forgot to put that information where it belonged, oh well, stick it in an appendix chapter”/bolted-on errata. On the plus side, this does have a table that provides conversions from the abstract “pace” measurements to both meters and feet. Know what’s ironic for a game set in a quasi-Renaissance default setting? Disarming is explained at the very end of this rules-addendum. Not even kidding you. Oh, and obviously grappling also should be here, where nobody’ll ever find it quickly; not in the section with the Brawling skill or with appropriate weapons. That’d have made sense.
Okay, so you at least have the Dodge defense, which is your Speed dice and dodge dice, if any. If someone attacks. You can also attempt to parry or counter, depending on situation and weapon involved; Attacker Succeeds, Tie and Defender Succeeds are options . Defenders may have to retreat, and hits can send you reeling – the engine per se manages to do the whole cloak and dagger/Swashbuckling feeling come off rather well. You compare dice values. Then, you check your Soak, which is the Body dice. Armor adds to the Soak roll, and may be layered – at the cost of being slower (automatically) and less dodging capabilities.
So, you roll an attack. The defender rolls dodge, fails. Then you cause damage 1 per success, plus, oddly here, fixed values for some values. Some weapons also ignore armor, help parry, etc. Equipment matters; once more, there is depth here. And then, you have the results – provided there are no reactions that are taken, or that the resolution of the attack didn’t necessitate further things. That’s a LOT of rolling, and, as the math-foundation of the game is not exactly even, can also result in odd scenes. Also: Throwing weapons get three dice: Boy., Speed and Throwing, versus just one Trait and the respective skill dice for all others. Doesn’t take a genius to see an issue here. Clearly, the Franziska-wielding equivalent of ancient Franconians would have conquered all of the land according to these rules. So yeah, there is some serious cognitive load imposed on the Host here, and frankly, the “don’t do math, just roll angle” might have made things more difficult here.
…this is starting to sound really bad, right? And yeah, it kinda is – but don’t get me wrong: The system presented? It actually works, and it actually works in a rather interesting manner. Combat feels very tactical and interesting, considering how many gifts have different refreshment intervals, and how the status-based angles can really add some tactical depth to fights. Being hit will send you reeling, and, much like Shadowrun, there is a death spiral going on – 5 points of damage = dead: 2 points of damage, and you’re hurt and afraid (can’t attack) – so you better hope an ally Rallies you. In a way, the basic premise of the combat system, when divorced from the flawed skill-chassis, is super interesting; I could e.g. see a Darkest Dungeon-style hardcore survival-game to work pretty well with a hack of these rules! There is some gold here, I mean it! It’s just buried under layers of unnecessary obscurity and some questionable design decisions.
Anyhow, you probably won’t be playing a dungeon crawler with this game; in fact, you probably won’t be playing a too combat-centric game, considering how lethal it is, in spite of its impressive depth. Instead, as briefly touched upon, Calabria, the default setting, is more of an Age of Sail/pseudo-Elizabethan setting, closer akin to the Three Musketeers than the medieval period, with e.g. the horses as the erstwhile knights still clinging to their old status and ideals; it’s a time of change, an age of mercantilism – though the world, it should be noted, is distinct and doesn’t simply mirror our own. As a whole, this is once more where you can feel that the authors genuinely cared. The setting is thematically consistent, makes a surprising amount of sense, and can be deemed to be an enjoyable reading experience. The campaign setting is easily the most refined part herein; it sports a gazetteer-section, a general overview, and we also get a small bestiary.
I do have one serious question, though: It might be my own ignorance regarding the tropes of the Furry-subculture, but in a setting where anthropomorphized animals like Mice and Wolves coexist, in a game with that much emphasis on the theme, that you put your dietary habits on your character-sheet…what do all the carnivores eat? Do they eat the other species? If not, why not? If so, how does the law handle that? If not, what do they eat? This is particularly weird, considering that the flavortext sometimes uses “animals” as a shorthand for the species “…not content to live their lives as noisy, smelly animals, volunteer for the active life of a mercenary.”, and at other times for the animals the intelligent species consume. I *assume* that reptilians are eaten, as those are primarily the beasts of burden of the setting, but that would lead me to question how e.g. bears and wolves and (sub-) arctic animals survive. I know. This may not matter to you, but if you run a game in the setting, this WILL come up. It’s the one thing, lore-wise, that really left me wondering.
Anyhow, after all that, we’re done, right? NOPE! Because, you know, the wonders of atrocious information design have elected to put all the NPC-careers in the back! And these include nobles, diplomats, beggars, etc. – sure, they have a stronger focus on a role, but plenty of players will consider them to be interesting. There also are 42 of them. Oh, and magic? That’s also cut apart! The apprentice-level magic is in the front, the rest is in the back of the book! There’s also a bit of cognitive dissonance going here…and throughout the book. I tried to focus on the big picture, but as an example for the “glitches” in the details, i.e. the logic flaws, there is a magic school of sorts called Atavism, which is essentially about embracing the animal aspect. These represent special gifts to choose, and are per se a super-cool idea. The flaw here lies in the execution. How being particularly sparrow-like (minimum d8 Species die) can grant you a battering charge? No idea. If anything, this section should have focused on species-exclusive tricks. As written, it can result in some seriously weird benefits that don’t fit the species.
The book also features three unremarkable, brief adventure-outlines without read-aloud text, and closes with a handy summary of statuses. If you want to play this game, tape these to your screen. You’ll thank me later. The final sections of the book are devoted to the calendar/time-aspect of the setting (why should it be in the setting-section, let’s put it in the back!) as well as yet another selection of variant rules, because, 3-4 different places where they could be are not enough. (Seriously, steer clear of those until you’ve mastered Ironclaw.)
Editing and formatting are not good on a formal and rules-language level; while the rules-language isn’t bad per se, its utterly arcane and Byzantine presentation is very aggravating. On a formal level, there are a lot of typos and stuff that should have been caught in editing. Layout adheres to a 2-column full-color standard; it is not impressive, but functional. Artworks range from the Disney-ish style seen on the cover to the fantastic pictures for the species. The PoD is a solid hardcover, and the pdf, as a final formal insult…has NO BOOKMARKS! I am not even kidding you. A core game this labyrinthine in its presentation, and it has NO F**** BOOKMARKS.
Jason Holmgren, Chris Goodwin and Van Pigtain wrote the most infuriating RPG-system I have ever reviewed. No hyperbole. Not because of the subject matter, but because it feels PAINFULLY rushed, and certainly not like a second edition. Not even close. And because the game is so close to being genuinely interesting. The weapons that matter, the setting, the depth of the combat options – there is a lot here to genuinely like and enjoy. Once you understand the game and play it, you can have fun with it. Provided you can look past its myriad, accumulating, small glitches, hiccups and logic errors.
But you’ll have to fight tooth and claw (haha!) to get there, pun intended. This book gave me migraines trying to understand it. I am not kidding. Its information-design is worse than that of the PF Playtest was.
And the game has to stand that comparison, because it pays for its “we don’t add stuff to dice rolls”-aesthetic with outsourcing all complexity to the act before dice rolls, the sequence of dice rolls, or what you do after dice rolls. Things that are usually abstracted instead turn into MORE rolling, which needs to be compared, which needs to be interpreted. This works pretty well for non-combat scenarios, but considering how much detail and love is put into the whole combat, in making it feel genuinely different, it still becomes readily apparent that this is NOT a game for novices. This rivals and surpasses in complexity PF2. No, I am not kidding you. There is more rolling going on here than in Shadowrun. And I’ve played for years in a Shadowrun-campaign where everybody had amassed more than 300 Karma.
I maintain that, with a strict design-lead streamlining the base skill system, and some even decent information design (or mediocre one – heck, 5e-levels of rules-presentation would have sufficed), this could have been a genuinely enjoyable game, a breath of fresh air. All the makings of an interesting, rewarding game are here. But their presentation is the didactically-worst thing I’ve read in my entire reviewer’s career. Its an intricately interwoven system of rules-concepts influencing each other that never properly explains its basics. That tries the “let’s start with character creation”-angle, without realizing that you literally can’t make an efficient character, that you can’t make any semblance of informed choice, without, you know, actually knowing what you’re doing. The brief tables explaining rules-themes are appreciated, but I’ve never screamed at a book before. I now have. When, for the oomphteenth time, the game threw a term at me sans explanation, I seriously started hating my time with this game.
…not because of the themes, but because it is one of the most frustrating books ever. It seems to labor under the delusion that “no math = easy to learn”; it’s not. I’ve never had as hard a time trying to grasp how a game is played as with this book. And I have read A LOT of RPGs. Whether it’s 5e, PF2, Genesys, BRP, B/X, GUMSHOE, Storyteller, PbtA, any other OSR-game – I’ve never struggled so much with even getting the slightest idea of how a game plays. Did I mention how e.g. reactions and triggers are not the same? Can you remember which of the movement options did what? Which was the one where you halved your Speed dice? Which is the one that can damage you? Did that one send you reeling? Now imagine a book FULL of options like that, with information spread far and wide. And the nine hells have mercy on your soul if you only have the pdf and no bookmarks.
Is there a demographic to which I can recommend this book? Sure: If you’re a furry AND don’t mind wrestling with a system, if you don’t mind learning a highly complex game that has a thoroughly confusing presentation and a wealth of terminology rivaling Pathfinder, then you genuinely should take a look. Particularly if you gravitate to a more low-key aesthetics for magic, and still want some serious tactical depth in your game. In spite of all of its flaws, this is not a cynical cash-grab. It does show in many instances that the team did care. And if you invest serious time, you can streamline this and make it work for you and your group. I can see this work for a very select group of people, for those willing to invest a lot of time into trying to grasp this game. I genuinely hope that my review will help you in this task, that it’ll at least make getting into the game a tad bit easier. If you feel you belong to this group, round up from my final verdict.
Personally, I’ve come to LOATHE this book; not the setting, not the system per se, the BOOK. I like the world and many ideas herein, but I will never open this horribly obtuse game ever again. Analyzing this book has been painful for all the wrong reasons. I am just thankful that I didn’t get to tackle the first edition – if this is the refined version, I can’t imagine what the first one may have looked like. That being said, I do wish Ironclaw the best – perhaps, a third edition can get it right, can properly capitalize on the significant potential this game has…but my 2nd edition omnibus will not be used again. It has managed what few books ever did – it frustrated me and made me genuinely angry.
I’ve thought long and hard about how to rate this book; and in the end, my final verdict will be 2.5 stars, rounded down. Ironclaw’s second edition is too obtuse: A game of this complexity (particularly a complexity that is as layered as the one of this game) needs a precise, easy to grasp presentation, or at least one that makes sense – and this is the antithesis of that; add the missing bookmarks (insult to injury for pdf-customers) and the utterly messed up organization that makes philosophical treaties of applied objective hermeneutics seem easy to grasp at times, and we have a book that, no matter how much love and passion might be oozing from its pages, frankly is too flawed to even consider mediocre.
You can get this game here on OBS.
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