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From the Game Room: Ironsworn

An occasional post from Robert

Roleplaying games (RPGs) are having a renaissance – led by the massive surge in popularity of Dungeons and Dragons over the last several years, which has created the space for independent game designers to flourish.

Ironsworn stands out from the crowd of recent roleplaying games in that it can be played in three modes: guided, co-op, or solo. The guided mode is the traditional way of playing an RPG, with one person acting as a facilitator, setting the world and challenges for the other players to overcome with their characters. In co-op mode, no one person fills that role, with every participant playing a character, and sharing the world-building and facilitation duties. In solo mode, a single person plays a character, overcoming challenges of their own creation within a world they have developed to their tastes. Regardless of the mode you play, Ironsworn provides tools to assist in world building and challenge creation, in addition to its wide variety of character options. Last, but not least, the game designer, Shawn Tomkin, offers the PDF of the full core rulebook and related files for free at

What is the game about?
It’s about completing journeys and quests in a gritty, low-fantasy frontier world. Characters swear vows on iron to take a journey or to complete a task, driving the action and the story, hence the name, Ironsworn. The default setting is iron age fantasy that is Viking-inspired, with worldbuilding tools to adjust to your taste. For example, you (or you and your group) can decide whether or not to include magic, firstborn (elves, giants, etc.), or supernatural horrors, and how prevalent these elements are if you are including them. The system is quite flexible in terms of the setting. There is an active online community of Ironsworn players. Some of them have adapted the Ironsworn system to settings inspired by the cultures of Japan, Africa, and South America and to different genres, such as the wild west and cyberpunk. 

How do you play the game?
The core mechanics of the game include rows of checkboxes to track your character’s progress toward completing their journeys and vows, moves (actions your character can take with mechanical benefits and consequences for successes and failures), many tables to help flesh out details of the world and its inhabitants, and dice rolling (naturally) to determine degrees of success and to use on the tables. 

The main dice rolling mechanic is to roll one standard six-sided die as an “action die,” to which you add your character’s relevant stat and any situational modifiers to determine an “action score.” You also roll two ten-sided “challenge dice” and compare the action score to the value of each challenge die. An action score that is higher than both challenge dice earns a full success, called a “strong hit.” An action score that is higher than only one challenge die is a “weak hit,” denoting a partial success or success with a cost. An action score that does not exceed either challenge die results in a “miss,” or failure, although this can be interpreted as a success with a significant cost. 

Regardless of the outcome of a die roll, something always happens to move the story forward. The description of the particular move attempted provides direction for where to take your story. For example, when your character makes the move to “Gather Information,” a strong hit means that “you discover something helpful and specific’” whereas a weak hit means “the information complicates your quest or introduces a new danger,” and a miss means “your investigation unearths a dire threat or reveals an unwelcome truth that undermines your quest.”

Want to see or hear an example of how Ironsworn is played?
Want to see or hear an example of how Ironsworn is played? I highly recommend watching the second season of voice actor Trevor Duvall’s Me, Myself, and Die YouTube channel, in which he used Ironsworn as the game system. The game’s designer, Shawn Tomkin, and his son, Matt Click ran a short podcast series showcasing Ironsworn and Delve, an Ironsworn supplement (not free, although there is a free preview available). The podcast is called Ask the Oracle, which can be found on PodBean and on other major podcatchers such as Apple Podcasts. 

Finally, if, like me, you are more interested in science fiction than in fantasy, you are in luck! Shawn Tomkin recently Kickstarted Ironsworn: Starforged, evolving the Ironsworn system and placing it in a gritty, sci-fi setting (think the outer rim of Star Wars, or Firefly, perhaps even Alien). Learn more here on the Ironsworn website where you can sign up to be notified by email when the pledge manager is available for late backers. Otherwise, it should be available for retail sale in spring 2022. While the game is in the late stages of development, a preview version of the game is available to Kickstarter backers. For an excellent example of how the preview version of Starforged plays, check out The Bad Spot on YouTube.

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