Iron Heroes & Adventure Motivation

Recently, I have been sampling the d20 book Iron Heroes. This is a “variant player’s handbook” that presents new classes and rules for 3E D&D. I am indebted to noisms for originally bringing Iron Heroes to my attention. My understanding is that the original motivation behind IH was to create classes that would be competitive (in terms of power levels) with the core classes without relying on assumptions about magic items and healing magic.

The game is thus mostly built around martial classes (with the exception of the arcanist) that have interesting tactical and combat abilities. Classes include archer, armiger, berserker, executioner, harrier, hunter, man-at-arms, thief, weapon master, and arcanist. Some of these are obviously derived from standard 3E classes (e.g., man-at-arms = fighter, berserker = barbarian, thief = thief) with tweaks to make them fit the desired style.

Though this may seem, from the above description, to be similar to many recent high power, heroic games, the actual atmosphere is swords & sorcery, enforced by a lack of magical items and a highly dangerous magic system for the one class that uses magic. This is a system for Conan stories, not for teleporting elves. The art is also perfectly in tune with this vibe.

There are many great ideas here for specific mechanics, and the magic system is wonderfully evocative. It uses mana points, and each school has methods with guidelines about how to create effects, based on a character’s level of mastery. A d20 “casting roll” is required (with difficulty based on the amount of mana spent and the power of the ability) and failures can cause minor or major disasters (for example, a major disaster when animating the dead causes the newly created creature to immediately attack the creator arcanist). It is a complicated system that requires calculation for every effect, but it looks like it would be very enjoyable once learned.

Iron Heroes was written by Mike Mearls in 2005, and thus predates Fourth Edition by three years. Many of the concerns that would inform the design of 4E can be seen here in proto form, though the style of the implied game world is very different. Check the following quote (page 248):


When creating adventures, be sure to come up with interesting situations that allow the player characters to use their abilities. Try to avoid fights in plain, empty rooms.

Battles in Iron Heroes tend to last longer than in other games, since the characters have more hit points and more complex abilities. Thus, you must ensure that there is more to the fights than merely two lines of opponents standing still and smacking each other. Throw in lots of interesting terrain to encourage creative, active play.

When designing adventures, remember that you cannot offer magic items to the party as a reward. Gold and jewels also lose some of their value in terms of character power, because the PCs cannot use them to purchase magic items. The onus is on you, as DM, to come up with interesting stories, villains, and enemies. The characters need motivation other than the simple accumulation of treasure to push them ahead to adventures.

Entire books have been written about adventure design, leaving far too little space for the topic here. However, you’ll do fine if you remember one important thing: The characters should always have a good, compelling reason to do something. Whether it’s a noble desire to defeat an evil overlord, a selfish need to escape the law, or some other reason, you need to create a clear and interesting rationale to drive the action forward.

The first two paragraphs outline exactly the kind of play expected by 4E. Creative play is reacting to and using terrain elements tactically. Encounters should be designed to allow characters to show off their abilities. Fights in plain rooms are discouraged, and movement is considered the essence of dynamic combat. This is quite different than traditional D&D, but I don’t mean to highlight it pejoratively. I’ve learned some interesting things from Fourth Edition combat, and though I have come to the conclusion that as a complete system it is too cumbersome and slow, there are aspects of it that I think deserve a place in more freeform and fast-paced combat systems, particularly forced movement and support actions (e.g., things that allow fighter-types to protect other characters if they so desire).

However, there is one aspect of the above advice that I think in retrospect is downright harmful, based on the kind of game that it encourages. Specifically, the bit about characters needing motivation to push them ahead to adventures. Why should players demand “compelling” reasons to do something? Is not the point of the game to have adventures? A referee already has to spend a nontrivial amount of time and energy either familiarizing themselves with a module, writing their own material, or improvising it at the table. Why put this additional burden on the referee? Is the existence of interesting locations and scenarios really not enough?

There is nothing wrong, of course, with using character motivations (revenge, fear of the law, a common enemy, whatever), but it is this sense that the referee is required to convince the players to go after the adventure that bothers me somewhat. Why should the ref need to push the players ahead to adventure? Haven’t they indicated that they are interested in adventure by sitting down around the gaming table?

5 thoughts on “Iron Heroes & Adventure Motivation

  1. The Iron Goat

    As you touch on in the last paragraph, I don’t think it’s bad advice necessarily, as long as it’s just one of the many elements a DM is considering.

    When Lieber’s heroes were going after loot, it was usually some SPECIFIC loot…The Spider-God’s Jewels, or whatever. It wasn’t just “there’s a dungeon, there might be some gold in it…you should go,” even if the basic motivation was the same. I don’t think it needs to be much, but a little bit of flavor can go a long way.

    One thing… I see the player as being responsible for providing most of the compelling motivations. It’s YOUR character, tell me what he’s motivated by. Doesn’t mean he’s going to get it, or even live out the day, but it will probably make the game more interesting while he’s there.

    1. Brendan

      Yeah, exactly!

      Mearls wrote:

      you need to create a clear and interesting rationale to drive the action forward

      Implying that this is all on the shoulders of the ref. PCs can provide their own interesting rationale too, rather than waiting for the ref’s story.

      To be constructive about this, rather than just criticize the IH advice, I would say that the responsibility of the ref is to make sure that there are interesting things to encounter, but not necessarily to drive the action forward. The best thing is if the ref can throw out some possibilities, and then let the players latch on to whatever they think is most interesting.

  2. waywardwayfarer

    Amen to that. That should be one of the ultimate givens of an adventure RPG: the characters are adventurers and want to go on adventures. It’s up to the players to decide what motivates them to do so. It can be fun to create a character who defies all the stereotypes and find a reason why he takes up that calling, but if the player is actively resisting the call to adventure “because that’s what my character would do,” why is he even there?

  3. John Bell

    It really depends too much on the game for a categorical answer. One of the classic adventuring character types is the reluctant adventurer, the person who is forced out of their comfortable life to engage with the dangers of the wider world. This common type of character definitely requires some sort of compelling reason to leave their life behind and go on adventures.

    In a well-detailed world that both players and DM know well, or have had a role in creating, it’s quite common for PCs to be situated in such a way that they are only part-time adventurers. Actually, the best campaign I’ve ever been part of was an Iron Heroes campaign that used this idea. The three PCs (of which I was one) were the three sons of a noble lord. While they did go on classic dungeon-delve adventures from time to time, much of the action was politics and intrigue, clashes between strong personalities, and eventually a brutal civil war. This situation arises as part of normal play in D&D and clones when the PCs become powerful lords and ladies, but it can be front-loaded as it was in the above campaign.

    Finally, clear goals and framing that demands or compels PC reactions are particularly useful at the start of games or adventures for providing new characters with clear guidelines for evaluating decisions. They enable PC agency rather than removing it.

    These are some of the possible reasons one might wish to compel PCs to actions.

    1. Brendan

      The question is, I think, whether players should expect this kind of setup and feel shortchanged if it is not provided. In answer to that, I think the answer is no. Many (most?) of my past games have had various levels of narrative hook, but I’m coming to think that they are less necessary.

      I’ve never actually seen a reluctant adventurer played in a tabletop RPG! I agree about the commonness of the trope in literature, but I’m not sure it fits naturally in a game about teamwork that is intended to be an extended campaign. At some point, it begins to seem illogical that the reluctant adventurer does not retire. Like the dark loner, another popular and common literary archetype, it might just not fit tabletop RPGs all that well (at least without extra effort on the part of all involved, which might be worth it depending on the group).

      I used to think that clear goals and framing were important at the beginning of a campaign, but now I am not so sure. The last game I ran started out like that, and the intention was that it would open out into a more free-form and player driven campaign after the first adventure or two, but in reality the players just kept looking for the next bit of scripted content. I did talk to the players about it, and they did understand, I think, but for whatever reason the focus of the campaign never really shifted. So, I now think there may be value in starting out in the primary intended mode. If it doesn’t work out for whatever reason, it is probably good to figure that out early.


Leave a Reply