For well over a year, I’ve had a PDF copy of Ironsworn tucked away in my RPG collection. Many times have I passed over it in favor of something else. Even with the cries of praise from other gamers, it went untouched. I tried many times to get into the game, but something always seemed to block my passage. When the pandemic of 2020 sequestered the world into self-isolation I began to see gamers reaching for games that they could play on their own. That day I made a vow, an iron vow, to learn to play Ironsworn.
Ironsworn is a roleplaying game by Shawn Tomkin first published in 2018. The game is a continual storytelling adventure narrated by the player(s) with the use of their imagination. Various game mechanics help facilitate the flow of the story and conflict resolutions. There are three ways to play Ironsworn. A gamemaster may guide players through an adventure, a group can work together to build a story with no one player taking complete control, and solo play. My journey through Ironsworn is through a solitary adventure and thus the focus of my impressions. I have little experience with solo games. My closest equivalent was reading choose-your-own-adventure novels as a child. Ironsworn approach to solo play without the use of pre-generated paragraph narratives was its greatest draw for me.
To begin playing Ironsworn, a player needs a few common roleplaying accessories; dice, pencil, paperclips, printouts, comprehension of the ruleset, and their imagination. I had five out of the six ready to go. What I lacked was how to play the game. My first task was to read the rulebook from cover to cover. Some people like to skip around but I’ve always found it better for me to read through the entire rulebook without skipping sections when I’m learning a new system. Ironsworn’s rulebook begins with the basic principles of the game, how the game plays, and its basic mechanics. This section is a rather dry read, or at least that’s how I found it. The mechanics were unfamiliar to me which increased my suffering. Luckily, the game mechanics were simple to comprehend. To aid new and returning players a quick reference sheet of the mechanics is part of the PDF bundle.
Inspired by other storytelling roleplaying system mechanics, Ironsworn blends the best of them to become its own entity. The mechanics are simple in execution and aid a player’s imagination. Through the use of dice resolutions and story prompts players adventure through a stream of consciousness of their own design. The only thing to impede its progress is one’s imagination. But don’t fret there are game mechanics to help prevent that.
Ironsworn uses several storytelling devices but the one most encountered is known as Moves. Moves are actions to resolve narrative elements: combat, interaction with NPCs, adventuring tasks, working toward set goals, or random outcomes. Each move has several options suited to aid your character to resolve their situation. A player chooses a move that is the best course of action for their character and rolls resolution dice for the results. Dice resolution results fall into three categories: Strong hit, Weak hit, or miss. Listed below each level of success are several outcomes to suit the player’s narrative.
When faced with hard decisions or questions the players can’t decide on they can turn to “Ask the Oracle”. The Oracle is a random generator; charts to aid players in moving their stories forward. Each chart is specially designed to answer certain types of situations. Players use a corresponding chart relevant to their situation and allow the dice to decide their fate. The Oracle’s rulings are vague, a single description, or a question. It’s a prompt to encourage creativity which a player can weave into their story and give randomness when desired.
To support characters in their adventures, there are Assets. Assets are allies, background talents, special combat training, or magical abilities in the form of rituals. Starting characters start with three and may acquire more throughout their adventure by creating bonds with NPCs or companions. Each asset is its own card, cut out from a printed sheet (PDF), or separately purchased printed deck. Each asset adds to the player character’s ability or assists in their adventure. Assets can upgrade over time to provide more abilities to the character through the spending of gained experience points.
The driving force behind a character’s motivation in an Ironsworn’s narrative is the vows they swear. They give characters a motive to adventure. Vows like other challenges in Ironsworn are given levels of difficulty to complete set by the player. Players strive to fulfill their vows and pick up new ones along the way. Vows could be as simple as seeing a group of merchants safely to the next town to discover the truth about your origins. There are several vows prompts throughout the rulebook to aid if the player needs it.
Along your journey, characters can gain or loose Momentum through their actions. If a character has built up enough Momentum they may spend it to cancel dice results that doesn’t benefit them. In turn, Momentum can also hurt a character if the amount falls in the negative range. When a character’s Momentum is in the negative, it lessens the character’s ability to accomplish a task and could cause more dire consequences.
To resolve conflicts or fulfill iron vows, Ironsworn uses a “Progress” mechanic. When a character has sworn a vow or engaged in combat a “Progress Track” monitors the rate of advancement. The Progress track is a line of empty boxes for a player to fill in with tics with each successful accomplishment toward the goal. When the player feels they have accomplished their task they use a Progress Move to bring the event to a close.
At the beginning of the game, players have a choice to build their characters, their world, or both at the same time. Building the character involves setting their stats: Edge, Heart, Iron, Shadow, and Wits based on a set amount. They choose three assets, bonds, and two vows. One vow must tie into the character’s background, a very difficult task to fulfill if at all. The second vow ties into the character’s first adventuring prompt to get the game moving. Players place markers on their character sheet, or in my case paper clips on Momentum, Health, Spirit, and Supply scales. As one gains or loses these commodities the markers keep track of their status.
The default world for Ironsworn is the peninsula of the Ironlands. Starting with the Barrier Islands in the south and ending with the Shattered Wastes of the north. In-between lies seven ecosystems: coastal, swamp, woods, flatlands, dense hilly forest, rocky hills, and tall mountains. Each region’s boundaries displayed on the provided Ironlands map.
When it comes time to create your campaign players use a set of questions to help them flesh out their version of the Ironlands known as “Your Truths”. There are eleven truths that aid in shaping the Ironlands: The Old World, Iron, Legacies, Communities, Leaders, Defense, Mysticism, Religion, Firstborn, Beast, and Horrors. Each has three choices which define that truth. Players are welcome to create their own. After the players finish answering the eleven truths they then conceptualize their starting settlement. They may choose anywhere on the map to start and describe their homes. With their characters created and their world, players are ready to move to their beginning scenes and start adventuring.
As characters explore the Ironlands they will come in contact with NPCs and monstrous foes. Ironsworn has ready-to-use NPCs and adversaries at the players’ disposal. They range from simple Ironlanders to unspeakable horrors. There are twenty-nine in all to choose from. Ironsworn provides a guide for players to create their own.
After I read through the rules and printed out the pages needed to play I began my adventure through the Ironlands. I chose to start on the chain islands to the south with the idea my journey would bring me to the mainland. At first, I found the gameplay slow as I was constantly flipping back to the quick reference sheet and the rulebook as one would do when first learning a new system. But after a while, things picked up. Since I was playing alone I created a Google Doc to journal my adventure as suggested in the rulebook. As my story progressed, it felt more like I was composing a writing composition than playing a game, which technical I was. My story evolved with the aid of the rules and dice. What kept me feeling like I was playing a game was the moving of the paper clips along with updating the character sheet as I gained or lost commodities. It brought a tactile element and made the character sheet come alive.
I have to say I’m really impressed with Ironsworn. The game mechanics are simple and quick to learn. The PDF is easily read on a computer or tablet screen without the need to enlarge or move the page. Hyperlinks are throughout the book as well as page numbers next to keywords in the copy for super quick references. The author went to great pains to make navigation in the physical book and pdf as easy as possible. The book’s layout is clean and functional. The flow and organization of each section work well. The art is impressive and inspiring. Ironsworn breaks from traditional RPG art and uses photography; models dressed in Viking-like attire in a related region. Surprisingly the images are stock photography. As a graphic designer, I’m impressed. I’ve always found it difficult to get what I wanted out of stock imagery. The images work seamlessly into the theme of Ironsworn.
Overall I’m really ashamed I let Ironsworn sit idle on my computer for so long. It’s a fabulous game and worth more than its free price tag. As the world’s inhabitants slowly emerge from their isolation I’m glad to have had the time to get to know Ironsworn. I’ll be visiting the Ironlands from time to time as my schedule allows it. It’s an easy game to get sucked into and hold your attention. Ironsworn is not a choose-your-own-adventure, its a create-your-own-adventure.
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