Thursday, 28 July 2016

Hyborian Heroes: the armour conundrum

Right now I'm in the process of converting a mini-campaign for low level characters written originally for the Conan RPG by Mongoose to be playable with Iron Heroes, by Mike Mearls (a project I'm now labeling with the working title of Hyborian Heroes). In actual fact, there is very little work involved, it seems. Iron Heroes, for those unfamiliar with it, was written as an alternative player's handbook for third edition Dungeons and Dragons. It was published in 2005. Its character classes generally do not have access to magic, there are few if any magic items, and if someone is casting spells, it should really be an evil NPC.

Indeed, in IH Mearls goes as far as to say that GMs can import whatever magic system they choose to the IH universe, it has been designed to be that compatible. I have run games of Conan before, and while it is a good system, IH seems to better capture the feel of Howard's heroes (and I'm not just specifically referring to the Cimmerian here, but some of his other characters, like Solomon Kane and Bran MacMorn the Pict). To quote Mearls:

"The player characters are a cut above other warriors. The gap between the nonplayer character and player character classes in Iron Heroes is steep. Anyone with PC class levels is noteworthy and important. By the same token, there are few such folk in the world. A 10th level weapons master is one of the dozen most skilled warriors in even a large city."

The interesting thing about using the lengthy catalogue of Mongoose publications for an Iron Heroes campaign is that there is so little actual homework to do here. NPCs can be powered using the Conan PC classes, while the characters, as the stars of the show, can draw on their Iron Heroes capabilities and rules breaks (e.g. stunts). The Conan magic system can be ported relatively effortlessly straight into Iron Heroes.

Conan the RPG uses a very similar mechanic to Iron Heroes to simulate armour. As with RuneQuest, armour acts as a damage reducer if someone is struck. In Iron Heroes, armour provides a random amount of damage reduction, depending on its quality.  However, there is a significant differential between the two systems - in Conan, armour provides a static DR, in IH it is rolled for.

Not only that, but IH armour is not as good. Chain mail in IH costs 150 gp (gold pieces are the currency standard in IH) and deducts 1d4 damage. It has a maximum Dex bonus of +5 and -5 armour check penalty.

Conan has a wider range of armour types, and DR varies depending on the combination of armour a character might be wearing. But, a mail hauberk costs 800 silver pieces (silver being the standard currency in Conan), delivers a static DR of 6, with a tougher +3 maximum Dex bonus and a -4 armour check penalty. Some of the superior armour in Conan, admittedly very expensive, can deliver a DR of 8 or 9.

So here's the conundrum. Mearls advises that combat can be speeded up by providing NPCs with static DRs - e.g. perhaps 2 or 3 if they are wearing chain mail. Monsters generally come with static DRs regardless. However, I suspect that IH characters are slightly more buff, so to speak, than Conan characters of equivalent level. I could be wrong here.

Obviously, NPCs in published Conan adventures come with stat blocks for that game, but it would be a simple matter to reduce their DRs to bring them more into line with Iron Heroes. There is also the very obvious fact that IH characters will quickly upgrade their armour by stripping the bodies of the fallen. The GM is faced with a dilemma:

  1. Player characters use Iron Heroes weapons and armour, all NPCs use Conan weapons and armour;
  2. ALL characters use Conan weapons and armour, and the random armour roll is dropped altogether - starting characters might need a little more currency to begin with;
  3. NPCs are converted to Iron Heroes weapons and armour.
Of the three, I'm currently leaning towards option #2, mainly because it would still capture the flavour of the Hyborian world, and provides characters with a wider range of armour and weapons than IH does. This would include the rules for primitive weapons and Akbitanan steel on pages 141-142 of the original Conan core rules. It should also be noted that Akbitanan steel weapons bring with them considerable armour piercing capabilities, that will ignore most of the DR that NPCs would present. Although expensive, I'm sure it is something the PCs would be very keen to pick up at the earliest opportunity (in the Conan stories Akbitanan steel is quite rare, and to be honest, is a stand in for magic weapons).

A two handed Akbitanan war sword in Conan does 1d12 damage and ignores anything with a DR of 5 or less. That means IH chain mail would be useless against it. Indeed, even a stiletto would have a good chance of getting through IH chain mail, but would have no chance against a Conan mail hauberk. An Iron Heroes greatsword, which is the nearest equivalent, does 2d6 damage but has no armour piercing capability.

It seems to me that the solution here is to go with the Conan equipment tables and dispense with the Iron Heroes versions, and just adjust starting silver for new Iron Heroes characters. My worry is that some IH characters may rely on higher Dex bonuses for many of their unique abilities, and heavier armour will just slow them down, but then again, that would explain why not everyone in the Conan stories is striding around in plate armour.

However, caveat emptor, I will finish with another quote from Mearls:

"Character classes in Iron Heroes have...much better saving throws than classes from other games, and their base attack bonuses and skill ranks are higher than normal, too. Iron Heroes characters have far more hit points, plus they have about twice as many feats as the average character from other games."


  1. What is the advantage of the random armour roll?

    1. As far as I can see, there isn't. It is one extra die roll to slow down battles, IMHO. Conan allows metal weapons to have armour piercing characteristics, so the off-sets some of the high DRs you can get. But some of the IH character classes will be heavily penalised by the Dex penalties of heavy armour, methinks.

    2. Yes, I couldn't think of an advantage but I wondered if they had some clever justification for it. Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2 also does it, and it's baffling there too.

  2. Looking at the Conan rules it seems as if you can either have only Akbitanan weapons - i.e. steel - or primitive weapons. I'm thinking of house ruling something between steel and Akbitanan steel - e.g. maybe ordinary steel has a lower AP quality, and a reduced price. Mulling it over.