Disclaimer 1: I play the Hordes/Warmachine miniature game which shares the setting of this game.
Disclaimer 2: I never played the old d20 Iron Kingdoms setting.
Disclaimer 3: I played the game demo at GenCon, so I've had a (short) experience of play.
Being one of the lucky few who managed to grab a copy of this wonderful book at GenCon, I was able to delve into the Iron Kingdoms early on. For those who don't know,this is a setting which previously existed as a d20 campaign setting, but was later developed into 2 successful compatible miniature games called Hordes and Warmachine. The gist of the setting is a mix of steam technology with magic which has advanced an otherwise mostly medieval society to levels previously unseen, the clearest symbol of it being Steamjacks, semi-conscious robots twice as tall as a man and used for labor as well as war.
The book in itself has very solid production values. Hardcover, full-color glossy paper, and very solid. A lot of excellent art pieces through the book, although a lot of it is taken from the old RPG or the existent line of books for the minis game, and parts of some pieces are repeated elsewhere in the book. The margins are particularly cool, looking like mechanism and including a neon-like tube which color changes depending on the chapter you're currently browsing. It's a little thing, but helps you get the feel of the setting. Only a few typos and editing error mar this otherwise great work.
After a classic introduction which also includes a glimpse of the line's future (three more books which can be summarized as "The Kingdoms in detail", "The Wilds" and "Outside the Kingdoms")the book opens on the map of the Iron Kingdoms per se and their immediate neighbors, occupying the Western part of a continent named Inmoren. The Iron Kingdoms themselves are Khador (a pseudo-Russian expansionist empire), Llael (a decadent French-like kingdom currently occupied by Khador), Ord (A vaguely southern Europe styled country full of pirates and mercenaries), Cygnar (the richest, most technologically advanced country beset on all sides by enemies) and the Protectorate of Menoth (a religious faction which branched out of Cygnar and mixes catholic and middle eastern influences). The neighbors include the valliant Dwarf Kingdom of Rhul, the mysterious elven land of Ios, and the Nightmare Empire of Cryx, where the dead walk side by side with the living under the rule of one of the immensely powerful and corruptive dragons of this setting.
The first proper chapter is a History of Western Immoren. The game has the strength of having been developed a lot already in the past few years, and even in 40 pages this book only summarizes some. It is still, however, quite enough for any GM, and covers an extant cosmology, early tribal and warlord eras and religious struggles, the advent of dark age under a foreign occupation and finally the treaties which gave rise to the Iron Kingdom proper. The world as described is at a lull in an otherwise global war (onset of Mk II for those who play the minis), offering plenty of chances for action.
The following chapter, Life in the Iron Kingdoms, gives a better outlook on the nations mentioned above, and follows with all kinds of details regarding the society of Western Immoren, including ethnicities, languages, but most importantly the impact of mechanika - the strange mix of magic, alchemy and steam power the Iron Kingdoms use. Trains and steamboats travel through countries while the Warjacks, large steam-powered robots which magical artificial brains are the ultimate weapon of war. The impact of these technologies on the setting is clearly detailed, up to and including the effects of pollution on the land or industrial work on the population. Law, education, commerce, travel, the military, magic, are also all touched upon. The topic which impressed me the most is religion though, which far from being "Searkor is God of the Sea, and he is wrathful! Mortis is God of Death, and he is mysterious!" as you could see in a lot of medieval games, presents a real theology. The major faith, now only prevalent in one Kingdom, used to be the Menite Temp;e, which worships Menoth, the masked creator of mankind as a stern lawgiver and patron in the afterlife. It has mostly been supplanted, however, by the Church of Morrow, one of the first two mortals who ascended to godhood, and did so by doing his best to help those around him. Others have ascended since then, Ascendants which serve as saints to his church; however his twin sister Thamar, and her associated scions, chose a darkest path to power which while not necessarily evil or selfish relied on self-accomplishment at all costs. The fact that Thamar gave the Kingdoms the magic it needed to free itself from occupations, or that the Morrowans still give thanks to Menoths while Menites reluctantly accept Morrow's existence points at some of the intricacies of this theology, which was fascinating to read and offers many plot hooks. Minor cults and other races' faiths are also detailed.
The first two chapters cover a 100 pages together, and give a nice comprehensive view of the setting. Then follows Character creation, the meat and bones of any system. the IKRPG uses a simple system similar to the one it uses for its wargames, based on rolling 2d6, adding a stat and comparing to a target number. It's quite simple but the many abilities, bells and whistles available still make it fun and interesting to play. Creating a character is simple. First, you choose one of seven available races. The ubiquitous human, the sturdy (yet not always bearded here!) dwarf, the nimble goblins called gobbers here, the educated elves of Ios or the more savages ones from Nyss, the honorable ogres called ogrun or the trollkin, tough blue skinned humanoids who share a bond of blood with other troll species. Then one picks an archetype: Gifted (magic user), Intellectual (not necessarily the bookish kind, can also be a tactical genius), Mighty (the physical prodigy) or Skilled (witty, nimble kind) which gives some nice bonus abilities. Some archetypes aren't allowed to some races (no Gifted or Intellectual Ogrun. Her der). Then follows a career system, with an interesting spin - a character begins with TWO careers. This allows for plenty of combination, as your Aristocrat/Soldier will play very differently than an Alchemist/Soldier. 30 careers cover some classic like rangers and soldiers, race-specific like the Iosian Mage Hunter or the trollkin Fell Caller (who can use his voice to attack!) or faction specific like the Khadoran Iron Fang, master of the explosive lance (!!) or the Cygnaran Stormblade, who wields a lightning-shooting sword (!!!). I expect to see more specific careers in the future, but combining two of the more generic ones already allows to play lots of types of characters. Of note is the presence of the Warcaster, a mage-warrior who can bond himself to warjack, steam-powered armor or magical weapons for greater efficiency, and is considered the hero of modern battlefields. While powerful, it starts at a low enough level that other characters can still shine, and is heavily dependant on equipment. Most of the careers have a combat-driven feel and abilities, but a few offer a bit of social and intellectual prowess, like the Spy or the Investigator. This is an action game, but doesn't have to be 100% action. After the career choice, which gives your character skills, abilities and equipment, only a few stats adjustments are left to do and your character is done. An interesting option is to create a specific group of characters (like a pirate gang or spy ring) which restricts career choices in exchange of extra benefits. Useful if players and GM alike already have a specific kind of campaign in mind.
The rest of the chapter covers XP and advancement (nice and simple), the full list of available abilities, and skill uses. The following chapters detail, in order, the basic system, the combat system (similar to the minis game and easier to use with a map and minis), magic (quick and simple, once again with a lot of combat potential but with a few utility spells here and there), equipment (including mechanika to commission or build your own magic items, and alchemy which is as fun to prepare as it is to use)and finally steamjacks (the iconic robots, with rules for a couple of labor jacks and two simple mercenary jacks, which can all be easily customized). Then the book ends with a short GM chapter, which includes a simple encounter points system to balance fights, and a short bestiary, which has however been expanded online (for free!) and in the No Quarter magazine. Character sheets of all kinds and template close the book before the traditional yet always useful index.
My overall feeling of the system is that it is simple, fun and sticks closely to the setting. Feat points, which the character can spend and regain easily on a variety of small effects add a lot of dynamism to the thing, and make combats nicely strategic without slowing them down.
I strongly recommend the online resources (http://privateerpress.com/iron-kingdoms/downloads) for anybody interested in this game, particularly the expanded bestiary and introduction adventure.
My verdict? This is one of the best games I have discovered in a while. The setting is intricate, interesting and original, while still easy to grasp; and the same can be said about the rules. The closeness to the miniature game makes the transition easy, but a purely RP gamer will not be left wanting either, even more so when the future books hit the shelves. I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in fantasy, steampunk and epic settings alike.