The ChaosGrenade

Quick & Dirty Tabletop Role-Playing

Review: IRONSWORN

2018-11-07 Rambling R.E. Davis

“In the Ironsworn tabletop roleplaying game, you are a hero sworn to undertake perilous quests in the dark fantasy setting of the Ironlands. You will explore untracked wilds, fight desperate battles, forge bonds with isolated communities, and reveal the secrets of this harsh land. Most importantly, you will swear iron vows and see them fulfilled—no matter the cost.

To play Ironsworn, you create your character, make some decisions about the world you inhabit, and set the story in motion. When you encounter something dangerous or uncertain, your choices and the dice determine the outcome.”

— Chapter 1 Intro

**Ironsworn **by Shawn Tomkin is an intriguing RPG title that is available completely for free from its website at **http://ironswornrpg.com **(as well as at DTRPG). It is a game that mixes elements of Apocalypse World, Fate, Mythic and a lot of its own ideas to bring to life a harrowing setting that is **The Ironlands. **This is a continent of harsh environments, brutal winters, savage beasts, and mysterious **Firstborn **— elves, giants and were-creatures that inhabited the lands from before. Players belong to community of Ironlanders, often taking up the mantle of heroes who swear powerful **Iron Vows, **sworn to questing and upholding the bonds of their people.

These separated and desperate communities came to these shores two generations ago to escape the atrocities that befell **The Old World. **What those atrocities are, and the nature of Ironlander society itself, are left up to the gaming group to envision.

The Basics

Ironsworn can be played three ways:

  • Traditionally, with a GM and players
  • Co-operatively, without a GM
  • Solo

Playing without a GM takes advantage of the use of Oracles, a bevy of random tables designed to answer or inspire results — from simple Yes or No answers (with varying odds), to location and character descriptors, plot twists, names and more. Anything that you would normally ask a Game Master, or any time the outcomes aren’t quite clear, you can consult an oracle. And much like real oracles, the answers are often vague for you to interpret.

The core mechanics of Ironsworn are player facing and unified. Any time an action roll is necessary, the players roll 1d6 and add a relevant stat and any bonus factors.

This is rolled versus challenge dice — two d10’s, counted separately. If the player’s total action roll is greater than at least one of the dice, it is a “Weak Hit”. Higher than both dice, it’s a “Strong Hit” with a better outcome. Failing to roll higher than either die is a Miss.

There’s also a critical mechanic of sorts — whenever the challenge dice roll pairs, the result is either really good or really awful based on whether you succeed.

Additionally, there’s a cool “momentum” mechanic to help face down the odds. As you succeed certain tasks, you’ll gain momentum (which normally starts at a +2). If you find yourself in need of a success against a challenge die, as long as it’s under your momentum rating, you can burn your momentum to succeed against it (and thus reset your momentum rating.) On the other hand, there are consequences and circumstances where your momentum may plummet into negative numbers, which may result in cancelling your action rolls!

Character Creation

Character creation is straight forward — you have 5 stats, and an array of points ranging as high as 3 and as low as 1 to assign to them.

You then choose  three Assets (the term for background skills and special abilities). Assets are categorized as: Paths, Companions, Combat Talents, and Rituals. Ironsworn is a very low-magic setting, where most supernatural effects are subtle and low-key. Each Asset grants a cool modifier or talent, and as you progress in a campaign you can upgrade to unlock more features related to the Asset (as well as acquiring more.)

**One Quick Note: **The Assets for Ironsworn aren’t listed in the core rulebook. Instead, you need to head over to the Ironsworn website (or check your bundle if you acquired from DTRPG) and download a _separate _pdf of Asset cards. I was kind of annoyed by this initially, and originally intended to just write all my assets down on the back of my sheet. Eventually I caved, though, and printed the pages out on cheap carstock and cut out my own cards.

Stats and Assets are literally the only mechanical bits needed to make a new character. They begin with full tracks of Health, Spirit, Supplies and their starting Momentum. I highly recommend using the official character sheet, as these resource tracks were laid out in a convenient way where you could use paper clips to mark them. I originally was just using a pencil to circle values… but throughout game play these numbers fluctuate so much, using clips is the way to go.

Character creation finally completes by choosing a Background Vow, that will be the long-term goal motivating  your character undertakes throughout the campaign.  You also get to establish background bonds within the setting. These aren’t just for fluff — these will actually play a part in the game mechanics and offer bonuses with certain rolls.

**Setting Up **

It sounds like Ironsworn requires some fiddly bits, and in a way it does, but they were all designed for ease of tracking and providing a positive experience on the player’s end. It’s actually worth it to download all the extra workbooks and rule sheets provided for free off the website.

Most of these I had no problem printing off in booklet format, and I actually keep my entire “kit” for Ironsworn in a box that looks like an antique book. These aids actually helped the play experience (yes, even the Asset cards) instead of hindering it. For my first time playing a “solo” RPG, it was nice to have some tangible artifacts while I played.

The initial thing to set up, and I actually recommend this before character creation, is to flesh out the world by answering Your Truths. These are prompts on subjects such as religion, mysticism, communities and even the history of the Old World and the nature of the Iron Lands themselves. Each prompt has three really cool, and very different, answers. One of the play aids is a workbook that provides all of these, plus space to create your own answers.  I LOVED THIS. I prefer building blocks and broad strokes for settings over having every nuanced detailed. I’m going to steal this idea for future projects. They even has little “Your Truths” prompts in the “Foes & Encounters” chapter, asking questions related to the fiction and relations of the fantastic foes.

Once your world and characters are made, you start play with an Inciting Incident (either using prompts from the starting regions in the book or, ya know, whatever). These incidents spur your character to action, and act as their first vow or quest to undertake.

Playing the Game

The actual game play of Ironsworn is inspired by Apocalypse World, particularly in the use of codified Moves — There are moves for Facing Danger, to Compel NPCs, for Undertaking a Journey, setting up camp, and more. All of these moves are described in the core book, but (again) I highly recommend printing up the Moves booklet for fast reference.

Full disclosure: I’ve never played anything Powered by The Apocalypse, and Moves are a big reason why. I know a lot of gamers swear by the efficiency of moves and playbooks, but to me it always felt counter-intuitive to role-playing.  I’m of the belief a solid core mechanic and GM Arbitration should resolve anything that comes up.THAT SAID — For a no GM, solo role-playing experience, it helped me resolve and answer results during game play.  I was in need for some structure, some boundaries, to make this a **game, **and not just a creative writing prompt.

Ironsworn is all about the progress tracking. Almost every task — questing, journeying, even combat — can be assigned a 10-box progress tracker. The difficulty of the task affects how the boxes can be ticked off. Easier difficulties will let you mark out a few boxes at a time; harder ones are either just a single box, to even just ticks of a box at a time.

Tick of a box? Yes, each box is technically worth four “ticks” to mark — imagine two lines to make a plus, two more to make an X, so a filled box looks like an Asterisk of sorts.  The hardest difficulty level, Epic, means every successful action towards the task is a single tick of a box. So, like, 40 hits to succeed.

Thankfully, you’re not always required to complete a progress bar to finish a task. There are special progress moves where you end a scenario or a task by rolling challenge dice, and comparing it to your progress value. So it’s not really about, say, taking out every box of the giant monster’s meter — it’s about scoring so high that you’re confident enough to make the roll to finish the encounter victoriously.  Of course, there’s always odds of failure, and there’s a good chance a steady stream of successes in a battle or task may still wind up costing you in ways you hadn’t planned.

Additionally, Ironsworn was designed for you to “pull back” the scope and put as much, or as little, into the details as you need for the story. For example: You can optionally abstract an entire battle as a single roll, listing your objective and rolling to see if you succeed in that task or suffer consequences in failure. Taking upon a Journey is abstracted as a progress meter, and you could easily just treat it as a Peter Jackson-esque traveling montage, or you can make each stop interesting and even fork off into its own side stories.

Though this game is more driven by fiction and narration than a traditional game like Dungeons & Dragons, it has all the hallmarks I love in a grisly fantasy game: it has **risk and reward, **for starters. Combat is swift, and depending on the dice pretty punishing. Even though my character in my initial play-through wasn’t built for fighting, I was shocked to see how brutalized he wound up after his first combat encounter. **Resource Tracking **is very much a part of the game, although nowhere near the bean counting that more traditional games can entail. Aside from your health, spirit, and momentum you’ll find your Supplies track diminishing swiftly in your travels if you’re not cautious. Lastly, there’s a great sense of **Exploration, **although it’s different than standard fantasy games. You’re not pushing back to “fog-of-war” for every hex or square on a map, but instead pulling back the curtains of your mind’s eye to see what direction the story takes you. As your characters explore the world, you too are discovering it.

OVERALL: A+

The Rubric I’m using is inspired by the hallmarks I listed on the first episode of The ChaosGrenade Podcast:

  • Accessibility & Affordability:
    High Marks! The game is free on DTRPG, and also on their website. Having played using the free accessories and the PDF, I was very pleased with the presentation. The PDF is single column, has a great font choice, every page looked well thought out. The artwork was evocative of the low-magic, sorta  “Game of Thrones”-ish vibe. It makes good use of bookmarks and page linking, and I was able to hop between using my Kindle Fire and my Mobile device easily.
  • Prepwork & Table Economy (Lower is Better):
    The prep is in printing off the supplemental aids and Asset cards. That said, all the handouts printed to booklet/digest format fine, and using paper clips with the character sheets really helps keep everything together. Take the hour or so to print/cut/staple/assemble the extras, and it’s ready to rock. Table Economy will have to compete with handouts and notecards, but shouldn’t take up near as much space as traditional gaming books, miniatures and the like. Should play fine with snacks, drinks and devices. (Definitely pick up **Lodestar, **the Ironsworn Quick Reference!)
  • ** Quick & Dirty / Rules Necessary Design:
    ** Folks who are hardwired for more traditional/old-school gaming may have to shift their perspectives and become comfortable with the Moves, the Progress tracking, and the emphasis of fiction holding the weight. But honestly, it’s a very light game mechanically, and once you grok it you can pick it up and go with minimal need to reference the rulebook.
  • Hackability: The game encourages exploring other settings and genres. A lot of the Oracle tables can be used outside of the Ironlands setting. The game is released under Creative Commons, so no reason not to expand or hack to your wildest dreams. If the Storygame aspects don’t sound appealing, I think the Oracle tables combined with player-facing RPGs would be fantastic. Pair this with The Black Hack 2e, _Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells, Cypher System _or others, and have an amazing impromptu adventure.