We have talked some about fantasy roleplaying games here on Angel’s Citadel in the past. Some of them are whole games such as Worlds Without Number or Low Fantasy Gaming, and others are supplements to other games such as Godforsaken or Ptolus. But one thing is for sure, fantasy is in our blood. At least for me, it is the genre I have been playing and running the longest in. Home games or conventions, it doesn’t matter. There is something about getting a group of friends to take on a fighter, a caster, a cleric, and a rogue (or some approximate mix of these) and heading into a deep, dark dungeon to throw down with its inhabitants in a bout for their treasure that will always feel like ‘coming home’.
As a child, I always really enjoyed the old Endless Quest books. The first three, Dungeon of Dread, Mountain of Mirrors, and the Pillars of Pentegarn will always hold a special place in my heart. After picking up and looking at a couple of what are commonly labeled “oracle” games, I began to get fascinated by the idea that there might be good ways to play roleplaying games in less than “optimal” situations. Doing what we normally do, I took to the internet to see what solutions there were for such situations. One name kept coming up in those searches far more than any others: Ironsworn.
Manufacturing and Production
Ironsworn, written by Shawn Tomkin, is available either as a free PDF, or in print as a Print on Demand option from DriveThruRPG in either softcover or hardcover. At 260 pages, it is a meaty book, and even in so-called “standard print”, the art is crisp though black and white, the binding is well done (we own the hardcover), and the pages are heavy paper with good printing. Formatted in a 6 x 9 in. layout, the single column per page is easy to read and well-organized. In addition to the main book, Tomkin has numerous play aids available for download on his site and on DriveThruRPG. Even though you can cut out your own, if you are going to play this game using physical means, I would recommend getting the Print on Demand Asset cards for the game as well.
s companion, Ironsworn: Delve is similar in quality. At 235 pages, and one we have in hardcover also, it is an excellent quality offering. Unlike the core Ironsworn rules, Delve is not a free offering, though the first two chapters are given by way of preview. The PDF and the Print on Demand options for Ironsworn: Delve can be found on DriveThruRPG as well. Once again, here, if you are planning on playing this title using physical means, I would recommend getting the Print on Demand Site cards, though if you purchase the PDF, you can print and cut out your own as well.
Additionally, Virtual Tabletop support for the game is excellent, with character sheets and aids for Oracle rolls found on both Roll20 and Foundry VTT that I am aware of. I have actually played the game with Joann using Foundry and once we figured out what we were doing, found the interface to be both clean and helpful. It is immediately obvious that the individual or individuals who worked on these interfaces spent a lot of time working to make them useful for players who choose to use VTT means to play the game over physical ones. This too, opens up the possibility of playing this game over the internet. As an aside, the author is extremely generous with the licensing of this product and allows most use cases of his ruleset with no hassle at all.
Ironsworn is what I would describe as a variable fantasy tabletop roleplaying game. I use the word variable because at the outset, you are asked to describe your own truths for the world of Ironsworn and these truths place your game somewhere along a spectrum from “grim dark” to not quite “high fantasy”. It is a game that, somewhat uniquely as far as I have been able to find, is able to be played in one of three modes. First, there is the traditional “guided” mode. This is where a GM guides a group of players through a story. Here, the tools (and in particular, the oracles) are used as idea-starters for the GM as needed, but on the whole, it looks very much like a traditional roleplaying setting. Second, there is solo play. Several other games do this as well, but Ironsworn is by far the cleanest that I’ve found. Using a plethora of game aids and “oracle” tables, along with abundant guidance on how to surround your mechanics with the fiction, the solo game can take the form of a journaling game or shift more toward looking like a traditional roleplaying experience (notes, maps, etc…), simply without a GM. This is one of the places where the VTT aides shine in my opinion, making solo play much, much easier to manage.
The third mode is one that I haven’t really seen done anywhere else, and that is Co-op mode. This is where multiple players get together and play without a GM. It looks a lot like Solo play, but with a lot more verbal coordination and collaboration to it as the players give and take to get to where they both can envision the fiction. This, to me, is an incredibly unique experience, and one that Joann and I found fascinating when we tried it.
Combining elements similar to other “oracle”-type games such as the Mythic GM Emulator or the Motif Story Engine, with the concept of Moves from the Powered by the Apocalypse line of games (of Dungeon World fame) of which Apocalypse World was the first, and throwing in some unique twists of his own, Tomkin has put together a rather unique offering. Actions are determined by rolling two ten-sided dice and a single six-sided dice. The six-sided dice is your action die. Added to it, you have a relevant attribute and any relevant assets that you might have (called adds). The total of these numbers is your Action score for the action you are taking. This is then compared to the two ten-sided dice rolled. If the action score beats both of the numbers showing on the ten-sided dice, you have achieved a great success. If it only beats one, you have achieved a weak success. If it does not beat any, you have failed in your action. Much of the time, these results have mechanical consequences, but there are also narrative ones that you will spend time figuring out as you tell the story of your character. The play aids (cards and cheat sheets) for the moves and the assets and rules are invaluable in helping to keep track of how to manage the mechanics of Ironsworn in a given narrative situation.
While Ironsworn’s original rules deal primarily with overland and city journeys, Ironsworn: Delve adds additional variety to such games in the form of sites. A site can be a lot of things: a barrow, a dungeon, a ruin, a swamp that overtook an old town, or something else. Delve adds additional moves and oracles to deal with the additional situations, but the core mechanics remain the same. There are other mechanics to help drive the action in Ironsworn as well. The narrative is driven by what are called Iron Vows. Each of these has a separate progress track that proceeds based on the perceived difficulty of the vow. It feels very similar to the progress clocks in games from the Forged in the Dark line. There are Moves related to progressing with these vows and you gain experience by fulfilling your vows that you can use to gain new assets or upgrade your existing ones to further improve your character.
Ironsworn (including its expansion, Ironsworn: Delve) is a fascinating take on fantasy and solo roleplaying, especially with adding in a Co-op mode. While the rulebook is quite good and there are examples of individual rule pieces all throughout it, I would have to say that if I had a critique about the game, it would be in the area of examples of more expansive scope.
This game in particular is one that would benefit from recorded videos of the creator (and perhaps some of his friends or group) doing example plays from character creation through play in each of the modes (but particularly in Solo and Co-op). There are, in fact, some live plays out there, but personally (and this is a personal preference), I’ve noticed that the rules explanations tend to be better if the game creator does them than if someone else does. With the uniqueness particularly of Co-op mode, I believe it would be useful to illustrate how this should look for those for whom simply reading a text isn’t quite enough to fully grasp how things ought to go. The other thing that video would help with would be illustrating how the play aids and worksheets are to be used properly.
Ironsworn (and it’s companion, Ironsworn: Delve) is a fantasy roleplaying game that stands somewhat unique in that it is able to be played both as a traditional tabletop roleplaying game with a GM and players as well as having full rules support for both Solo play and multiplayer cooperative play. Blending traditional Solo “oracle” play with elements from games that are Powered by the Apocalypse and some other original ideas, Ironsworn continues to be the most recommended game of its type for those both who struggle to find or play in a full gaming group, or those who simply want a different experience.
After his success with Ironsworn, Shawn Tomkin released a successful Kickstarter for a science fiction roleplaying game using a modified Ironsworn ruleset called Ironsworn: Starforged. It was, in fact, backing this Kickstarter that pushed me over the edge of buying the physical copies of Ironsworn and Ironsworn: Delve (and the cards). I would personally recommend getting this game for several reasons. If you are curious about Solo play or Co-op games, this is as solid of an offering as any other out there. If you are a game designer, I recommend looking at this as an example to consider how to blend multiple systems into a workable hybrid around a theme. Happy gaming!
- Josh Walles