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Ironsworn

14 August, 2019

The roleplaying game Ironsworn, written by Shawn Tomkin, was celebrating its first birthday in July this year. The game is a one-man self-published project, and it looks like it’s at least somewhat a succes among the roleplaying community, thanks to a couple of features in particular. Which I will get back to. But first, Ironsworn’s succes, despite being a self-published (and free, if you only need the pdf!) fantasy roleplaying game in a crowd of thousands of other games, is not something I made up. The game was nominated for two Ennies awards this year, Best Free Game and Best Electronic Book, and it won Best Free Game.

What is Ironsworn?

Ironsworn is roleplaying game set in a very loosely described ironage setting. A big part of playing the game is making stuff up about the world its set in, and it’s a design feature that every group’s play of Ironsworn wil result in a different world with different flavour. All the fictional dials, like what magic is and how powerful it is, monsters, etc. are there to be tweaked by the players.
So far, none so revolutionary.
The game mechanics are “Powered by the Apocalypse”, ie. based on Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World framework, but it’s far from—very far—simply a re-skinning of AW. We have moves, yes, and progress clocks, which in Ironsworn are progress bars and hardwired into the mechanics. We also still “play to find out” and “fiction first”. The dice mechanics from AW have been tweaked slightly, so instead of the standard roll 2d6 and add your stat, we are now rolling both a single d6 “action die” and adding a stat and two d10 “challenge dice”. If your action die+stat is higher that both the challenge dice, it’s a strong hit, if you only beat one challenge die, it’s a weak hit, and if both challenge dice are higher than your roll, it’s a miss. PCs have a stat called Momentum, that builds up during the game and can be used to manipulate a roll in a tight situation.
Characters in Ironsworn are also different, as in there are no “playbooks” as we know it from most PbtA games. Instead you build a character from a few stats and each character gets their own special flavour via three “assets” the player chooses. Assets are special moves, abilities, allies or stuff, all to be integrated into the fictional world you are creating. During the game, it’s possible to earn more Assets.

What makes Ironsworn special?

Ironsworn is geared towards solo play – yes, roleplaying all on your own. It’s a thing and a lot of people enjoy it, but there are very few dedicated soly systems out there. The game does it by incorporating “oracles”. Where in a normal game with someone handling some or all GM duties you would ask the GM, here you ask the oracle – this is not special to Ironsworn, a lot of solo RPGs rely on oracles in some form or other – and the oracle gives you an answer that you can interpret in your game’s narrative. Let’s say my PC is roaming the forest and meets someone – I ask the oracle who it is and what they are like. The oracle tells me it’s a scout and they are violent towards me. How do I react?

If you are “HUH?” in regard to this, there’s an active solo RPG Reddit group as well a Discord group called Lone Wolf Roleplaying. Check it out, people are playing anything solo, from Pendragon to D&D to Star Wars.

Another thing that sets Ironsworn apart from most other games also lies in its title, specifically in terms of “sworn”. The game’s fiction is fuelled by vows that your PC swear and the quests you go on to fulfil these vows. It’s an oath that guides and drives the character’s actions from the outset. Perhaps you decide that your settlement was raided by people in long boats and you decide to swear an oath, an “Iron Vow”, to track these people down and get revenge.

Other than solo

If playing solo is not your thing, then Ironsworn can also be played as a completely normal RPG with a GM and players. But it is also possible to play without a GM in co-op mode, because the game’s oracles (or other oracles you may find out there on the internet) can handle most GM stuff.

Like I said at the beginning, Ironsworn won the Ennie this year for best free game. Because it’s free. You can download it and start using it right now. No catch, no “in-game purchases” or shite like that. If you absolutely want a hardcopy version like me, then you will have to pay for the print, but there’s nothing keeping you from taking the PDF to your print shop or printing it out at home. Or you can buy a printed book from Drivethrurpg.

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2 comments

  1. I enjoy my solo campaign immensely*. Finding the right balance between fiction and mechanics, when to switch between the two and how much to record, is a matter of practise and taste, I think. I envy the players that make handwritten journals, illustrations and maps chronicling their journey and really make a creative effort of it, but I don’t have the patience.

    Also: The game is just extremely well communicated, thoroughly tested and proof-read. Crazy that a product of this quality is offered for free.

    *) Journal of my Shadowbringer campaign (Danish):
    https://pjaltekongen.blog/rollespilsspil/skyggebringer/


  2. Thanks for the review!



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