This week in the History of the Fighter, I’m tackling the book that is the first time I personally heard the name “Mike Mearls.” The year was 2005 and the book was Iron Heroes. 3.5e had launched just two years earlier, and it would be another two years before the announcement of 4e at GenCon. If you know anything about Iron Heroes, then you may understand that there is only one way I can begin this account.
In those days, the Black Company was in service to the Lord of Malhavoc…
The central concept of IH is to explore very-low or nonmagical campaigns, emphasizing the cut-and-thrust of weapon combat. There’s an optional caster class, but it’s really not why you’re here. (There are rules for wizards in King Arthur Pendragon, for that matter.) The core book has nine weapon-wielding classes and a huge number of feats. IH has many of the normal warrior-oriented feats of 3.x, as well as a wide variety of mastery feats. The idea of a mastery feat is that replaces inevitable feat chains, but because of how class-based qualifications work, they almost act more like your subclass. For example, an armiger’s choice of which feats in the Armor category they’ll pursue is one of their main distinctions from other armigers.
As there are so many weapon-wielding classes and I want to keep this to just one article, I won’t be covering each class in feature-by-feature detail. If anything really jumps out, of course, I’ll mention it – but what’s interesting here is how D&D’s customary warrior and rogue classes get split into highly specialized roles.
Well, this is a class that does what it says on the tin. It does the pew-pew. Its game loop is about spending pieces of each round (move/standard/full) not shooting, but drawing an ever-better bead on a target. The archer spends these tokens to activate one of the Deadeye Shot (the lower-level ones), Sniper Shot (the higher-level ones), Killing Shot (the really quite high-level ones), or Legendary Shot (the highest-level one) features. It would be nice if fewer of these were different ways to improve your odds to land a hit.
As the book calls out, the class is a study in contrasts: inaction leading to action. I’m not really convinced that sniper gameplay is the most suited to fast-paced action, or that their extra-high base attack bonus progression serves its purpose of giving them extra attacks per round. Anyway, it doesn’t take too much work to see this as the less-convenient and more specialized archer Battle Master. For our Hunter ranger parallel, see below.
They’re obviously kings of the Projectile feat category, as well as being pretty strong on Defense and Finesse categories. This seems as good a place as any to mention that the Projectile category offers them Far Shot, Improved Critical, Manyshot, Mounted Archery, Point-Blank Shot, Precise Shot, Rapid Reload, Rapid Shot, Shot on the Run, and Weapon Focus.
If you’re playing an archer (fighter, ranger, rogue, whatever), it’s worth digging through this class’s Shots for interesting tricks – the Arrow Ladder Shot is especially fun.
This is your pure armor-wearing tank. Now, IH’s armor/defense system grants a scaling Armor Class as a class feature, and shields boost AC. Armor, on the other hand, grants variable damage reduction (for example, full plate grants DR 1d8/magic). The armiger wants to get hit, because they only get to build their armor pool (that fuels their Cool Stuff) from the result of their Damage Reduction die. It won’t stop all of the incoming damage, most of the time, because even 1d6+3 is going to add up damage against 1d8 most of the time. What I see here is a very swingy gameplay, where the thing you normally want (opponents missing) means you never really get rolling with you Cool Stuff. You get tokens for every 10 points of damage your armor (cumulatively) absorbs, but if your DR rolls aren’t great, you’re probably mostly dead by the time you have your second or third armor token.
It’s weird that the class bothers to grant a lot of benefits while you’re wearing light or medium armor, because those benefits aren’t remotely good enough to induce you to wear anything but the heaviest armor money can buy. The result is that some 1st-level features don’t do anything you would actually want until 11th level. With hit points roughly on par with other classes, this survivability-focused class seems like it’s going to have a hard time meeting that goal. The Armor Ability features that you can choose from say that they’re defense-focused, but in the balance that doesn’t prove true.
The Armor feat category helps a bit, though many of the feats are redundant with your class features. The ones that grant flat adds to your armor’s DR rolls look like the best thing you could possibly buy for getting your class to do its thing.
I haven’t playtested the armiger, but I really can’t see how it could come together to satisfying gameplay. On the other hand, it has some similarities to the XGTE Cavalier, and I wouldn’t mind seeing new “while wearing heavy armor…” maneuvers for the Battle Master, or a more directly heavy-armor-focused fighter archetype.
I don’t think I need to explain where this fits into core D&D class parallels. This is an example of trying to do the exact opposite of the armiger – of course you don’t wear armor! – but winding up doing the same job better than the armiger does. Sure, you don’t get as much damage reduction as they do, but you do get some – and you get a token every time you take a hit, rather than needing to rack up improbable totals of damage absorbed. You still want to get hit a lot for small amounts of damage; you still get up to Improved Uncanny Dodge.
Anyway, there aren’t any surprises, as such, in what this class does or how it does it, except that (like the archer) it wants you to spend some amount of time stoking your fury. The real effect there is that an archer or berserker who can see an opponent coming from a distance can start a fight 150% effective, while an armiger has to hope the distant enemy is shooting, and specifically shooting at the armiger.
The list of Berserker Abilities you choose from have a few standouts, but otherwise they’re heavily redundant and thematically indistinguishable – just a lot of different ways to say “ignore the danger and hit super hard.” It results in a deeply burdensome amount of math manipulation to fine-tune the odds of hitting, the damage you deal, and your odds of getting hit. There’s not a lot of new concepts to offer other barbarian or berserker versions.
Berserkers can’t reach the very pinnacle of any mastery feat, but you probably don’t care about that one capstone feat that Power weapon masters can take and you can’t. Their other major feat category is Armor, which helps their unarmored DR just as it would an armiger.
This is your straight-up assassin class. Other than dealing enormous amounts of sneak attack damage (and one hopes you’re only facing things that can be sneak attacked), you start each fight with a supply of execution tokens, and can build up more with Sense Motive checks. You spend these to deal extra damage or apply various debuffs. Where all of the classes up to this point have had a list of features to choose from, usually every other level, the executioner receives fixed features at each level.
They gain access to Finesse, Lore, and Power feat categories, which is to say improving light weapons, reading an opponent or using poisons, and improving heavy weapons – except that they can also apply the benefits of Power feats to light weapons, as a unique feature. Oh, right, this is still 3.x-based, so you have to pay a feat just to use your Dex modifier instead of Strength, even though that’s repeatedly stated as the class’s assumed playstyle. The parts I find interesting in their feat options are the lores; an executioner with Healing Lore is sort of an Angel of Death concept, and I like that kind of thing. I would jump at the chance to play a rogue who could work as a team’s primary or secondary healer.
Other than that, this has disappointingly little to offer rogue- or assassin-themed development. 5e dumped fiddly debuffs like the ones executioners use, and hasn’t looked back. That said, if it took the less-refined design of IH for Mearls to grow into one of the designers of 5e, it’s a cost well paid.
For what it’s worth, an option to use Wisdom in place of Dexterity for your AC bonus to armor – so you could play a Str/Wis executioner – turns this into a reasonably convincing avenger.
This is an intersection of ranger and rogue, built around playing like a speedster. This is the first class so far that doesn’t rely on a unique token pool. Instead, they get rewarded for moving before attacking, and if you think back to 3.x, you’ll realize that this is the core tension of the class design. Moving means you’re limited to a standard attack, until you gain Rapid Assault. Rapid Assault lets you make one extra attack as part of a standard action if you move first, with a -4 to all of your attacks for the round. On the other hand, you’ve picked up attack bonuses for moving from other features. What I’m saying is that each of your rounds requires re-reading multiple features and applying bonuses or penalties from each one, and you spend most of your career not making all of your iterative attacks.
As with the executioner, you don’t choose new features from a list, but earn them in a fixed progression. All of that movement, plus a huge number of skill points, means you have better access to a lot of the IH stunt and challenge systems than other characters, and you can play hit-and-run all day.
The monk (especially 5e’s weapon-friendly monk), Hunter ranger, and Swashbuckler rogue are the strongest parallels to the harrier. I don’t know that they have anything to learn from the harrier, as they cover the same themes with greater simplicity. Well, I take that back, the Hunter could probably use a more stunt-friendly outlook and the Mobile feat. A two-weapon-fighting Battle Master fighter isn’t as speedy as this, but other than that, this is a fair parallel to one of my wife’s favorite characters.
This is the “true” ranger of Iron Heroes, but it accomplishes ranger-like gameplay through a means we don’t often see. This posits that the hunter is a superior tactician and party leader, with a Tactical token pool. The hunter gets a free pool of tactical tokens at the start of battle, and can use move or standard actions to generate more. The huge thing here is the Tactical Insight feature, which lets them convert their tokens into tokens for any ally, at 2:1 (improving to 1:1 at 15th level). This is such a big deal for solving the armiger’s currency problems. With all the other things hunters need tactical tokens, though, it means that hunters become the ones with the serious currency problems.
The tactical options that don’t involve token transfer get into selling the ranger theme. Terrain Advantage and its upgrades are, approximately speaking, “what if Natural Explorer (from the 5e ranger) were about in-combat use of terrain, and for the whole party?” You spend tokens to improve your team’s use of terrain, to reduce any benefit your enemies gain from it, and to ignore difficult terrain. You spend tokens to study your foes and gain attack and defense bonuses against them. (No Favored Enemy here.) You become harder to get the drop on.
Thematically, this is a ranger leader, which is a ranger archetype I am still waiting to see in 5e. As a strictly nonmagical type, it’s also something of a precursor to the warlord, though I’ll grant that the Miniatures Handbook’s marshal is the more direct, WotC-owned predecessor. Mechanically, I’d say the preponderance of evidence favors the hunter, and I’ll probably find that the Book of Nine Swords is the one true origin anyway.
The feat categories – Lore, Tactics, and Weapon – are pretty great; Lore and Tactics each contain three very different playstyles. Between these and the core hunter features, there are still a few ideas left to adapt to 5e. As with anything in IH, 5e’s rejection of fiddly math means you’ve got to find a new approach to the idea (assuming “advantage when” is too much).
Overall, the hunter is the most interesting class I’ve seen so far in IH, though here again its action economy is overtaxed. It’s hard to find time to do any fighting of your own, and the mastery feats only make that a lot worse. Really, once you’re managing tactical tokens and strategy tokens, probably you need to dial it back and rethink your life.
If you don’t want to get pinned down with one way of solving problems, and if you’re fine with having almost no active abilities but a vast and changing array of passive benefits, the man-at-arms is for you. The 3.x fighter is the most generic class because its sole feature is a pile of feats. The man-at-arms does that one better by introducing the wild card feat, feat slots that you choose out of the book at the time you need them, and keep until the end of the day. Of course, that means having a working knowledge of every remotely useful feat in the book, a burden-of-knowledge issue that would be considered a design error these days.
They never get to the capstone of mastery feats, but they can get close in any mastery feat at all. As a result, this class can at least passably cover any party role – never as well as a specialist, but also without some of the tension in action economy that makes other classes’ feat choices simply wasteful. I guess this class is fine, for virtue of never making a definite statement. Their survivability is at least pretty good, thanks to a hefty pool of hit points. There’s not really anything innovative to take from this, except that it’s cool to let fighters cover non-combat bases. The Champion fighter is the obvious 5e match-up here.
Other than the arcanist, this is the least fighter-like class in the book. Instead, it’s the party face or grifter – still able to participate and enjoy combat, but largely doing a bad job of pretending to be an executioner. Knife in the Back, at 15th level, evens that out a bit. If you’re looking for a class designed to let you play MCU Loki, this is a strong candidate. They also get 12 skill points per level.
Honor of Thieves deserves special mention as a fight-starting sneak attack that can potentially surprise your opponents, even while you’re in plain sight. It’s the classic trickster move of a shiv in the ribs that leaves their opponent bleeding out all through the fight. They also do a lot of talking in combat to get one up on their enemies. I’ve recently been thinking about more mechanics around banter during combat, and this covers a good range of cinematic uses.
The Social feat category, in which thieves naturally excel, offers Devious Manipulator, Overwhelming Presence, and Political Mastermind. Those use and expand upon Bluff, Intimidate, and Diplomacy, respectively. The first two are more combat-friendly, while Political Mastermind is out-of-combat and spins out a whole politics minigame, complete with two token pools. It’s not too great a leap from this to the progress clocks of PBTA and Blades in the Dark.
Overall, the thief is interesting, and there’s plenty left to borrow from this for a rogue subclass that is more of a pure grifter than the Thief supports. Relative to the rest of the game, the 5e rogue is more combat-friendly than the IH thief, so it’s not a gameplay modle you’d necessarily want to copy outright.
Honestly, I could probably leave this class completely undescribed, and you would correctly guess 90% of the class’s features based on the trends of the rest of IH. You focus all of your study on a single weapon and beating people to death with it. You learn cool tricks, chosen from a list. There’s a pool of weapon tokens. That’s about the size of it. The key thing is that they earn weapon tokens when they hit with attacks, but they lose all accrued weapon tokens when they change targets, so saving up for the big 10-token attacks is a big risk.
There are an awful lot of different ways to improve your accuracy. Fortunately, there are enough other fighting abilities that you’re not stuck buying most of them. I can’t say that any of them are super memorable, and more than a few have become the standard functionality in 5e. For example, Mobile Attack requires you to be 17th level or higher to choose it, and all it does is let you circle around an opponent without provoking opportunity attacks.
My favorite feature is Weapon of Legend: at 11th level, you can name your weapon and gain a bonus to Diplomacy, Intimidate, and Gather Information from its fame. This would be a cool thing to grant in some form to all 11th-level characters. The Battle Master fighter and Kensei monk are everything you could want in 5e parallels here – Battle Master somewhat better on mechanics, Kensei better on theme.
Yep, these class themes have a lot to offer a Black Company campaign, though personally I’d look for a lighter system. The Black Company may not have clear matchups for every Iron Heroes class, but there are piles of man-at-arms characters, Uncle Doj is a clear weapon master, Narayan Singh is unquestionably an executioner, and I’d call most of the Company’s captains and Lady (after the loss of the definite article, uh, spoilers I guess) as hunters. More grudgingly, I’d call Croaker a hunter too, since it’s so Int-friendly. There are plenty of scheming politicos for the thief class, though most of them aren’t Company members.
This high-level overview of the warrior and rogue classes, with some mentions of feats, probably gives you a passable idea of how Iron Heroes works. There’s quite a lot of ink spilled on challenges and stunts, all of which build a more cinematic mode of play. I would hope that most GMs would be open to ad-hoc challenges (variant attacks) and stunts (more involved tasks). Why have a human adjudicate the game if they’re not going to exercise their creativity? That’s not to say the guidance shouldn’t be here – more that this is text you really want to internalize.
Other than that, I see it as an interesting design experiment in cut-and-thrust gameplay, in a time when ultra-dense systems were king and would be for quite some time yet. To say that something made in 2005 is now a footnote in rules development isn’t even a slam – it’s what you’d expect. If you’ve played Iron Heroes, and especially if you’ve played it recently, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!