I like oldschool role-playing games, retro-clones, the OSR… all that good stuff. I’ve played a few games off that beaten path over the years, like Shadowrun and Changeling (nWoD, or whatever they’re calling it now), but mostly I just enjoy the heck out of D&D-esque games. Not that other things don’t catch my interest (such as the Gumshoe and FATE systems)…
Dungeon World is a name you’ll see in the OSR community (or really any RPG community), even if only passing. It isn’t technically a retro-clone at all: it’s a very narrative-focused game, but it aims for that oldschool spirit, I think. It’s Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), which is to say, it’s based on the 2010 Ennie Award-winning Apocalypse World. But yeah, it’s a very popular game that’s been on my radar for a very long time (even ol’Hank at Runehammer / Drunkens & Dragons recommends reading it and produced several videos on the subject). So, my interest was at least piqued in Dungeon World, and perhaps PbtA in general as there are many solitaires players who swear by it.
Then, along came another PbtA game that really made waves (big waves… that are still rippling) in the solo gaming community: Ironsworn. I started following its progress early on, saying “yeah, I’ll check it out… eventually”, maybe even thinking I wouldn’t or perhaps that it was someone else’s pet project that would eventually lose momentum and die out — who the heck is Shawn Tomkin, anyway?! Obviously, that wasn’t the case: Ironsworn has kept the ball rolling and then some. After more than a year of public availability, play-testing, and refinement, the game is now officially “released” into the wild, and available in print-on-demand from DriveThruRPG.
I knew the time had come. I ordered the hardcover edition straightaway and have been chipping away at the text in minuscule sections, whenever I could find the time, ever since. After about two weeks (did I mention my free time is extremely limited?), I was finally ready to put pen to paper and Swear an Iron Vow…
Ironsworn, like all (? forgive my ignorance, this is my fist rodeo) PbtA games, is very narrative-focused. There’s no hard rules for movement or weapon damage, no equipment to buy and no encumbrance rules to fiddle with — there’s not really even any rounds or other game time to keep track of: it’s all very abstract in those regards. It’s got its resolution mechanic, a set of 19 Oracles (20, if you count the Ask the Oracle move), and generally lets the story define what you can or can’t, or even must, do via the PbtA Moves system. Your character’s stats, Bonds with other NPCs, and Assets can aid (or injure) them via those Moves, which generally are resolved with an Action Die (d6) plus bonuses, versus a pair of d10 Challenge Dice. You will either succeed in grand fashion with a “strong hit” (action die beats both challenge dice), achieve a mediocre result with less-than desirable results on a “weak hit” (only one challenge die is beat), or suffer the often cruel hand of fate on a failure if you “miss”.
If you can’t forgive the lack of crunch, you may yet still enjoy the book for the well-written content, excellent coverage of soloing tactics, and its evocative design, layout, and imagery. The Ironlands setting is open-ended, insomuch that it provides general boundaries (both in the historical background and via the downloadable blank map) while you’re free to fill in the details — whether via Your Truths, which are provided as suggestions, or bring your own imagination to the table. What meat is there is very low-fantasy, Viking-era, shamanistic, Game of Thrones-ish feeling in nature, but you can easily bend it in whatever direction you choose — even if that’s a complete genre flip (there’s even instructions for doing so included in the back of the book). The default is human-centric (the Ironlanders), but depending upon Your Truths, magic can exist and there are Elves, Trolls, Beasts, and Horrors to deal with as well.
Best of all, however, this game caters to the solo player. I’d even say it was designed as a solo game, but the book does cover GM-less and small group (up to four plus GM) play, so don’t fret if solitaire is not your suit. Whatever the case, Ironsworn is now required reading for solo role-players, right there alongside Mythic, Scarlet Heroes, and UNE. I’m serious. Go ahead and click this link and download it for free or better yet, order the hardcover from DTRPG (one set of Assets is included, another is available as a separate volume).
Session Zero – The Iron Vow of Ulthor
Ironsworn character creation is dead simple on paper. You write down a name, distribute the values 3, 2, 2, 1, 1 amongst the 5 stats (Edge, Heart, Iron, Shadow, Wits), and then set the starting values for Momentum (+2, max: 10), Spirit, Health, and Supply (all +5) — which you can handily track with paper clips using the gauges provided on the edges of the character sheet (how clever is that? I’m not sure if that’s Shawn’s idea or borrowed, but it’s nifty). That’s it, basically. You also choose 3 starting Assets from the card printouts (soon to be available as PoD cards via DTRPG), which will further define your character via Paths, Combat Talents, Companions, and Rituals — feel free to mix and match in any way you like.
The real onus of character creation falls to your imagination (or the Oracle tables): your character’s starting Bonds (choose 3 for free) and a background Vow (no need to make a Move for the first one). Then, all you need is an Inciting Incident to kick things off, wherein you’ll likely make the Swear an Iron Vow move, for better or for worse. There are quest starters throughout the book in the Ironlands setting sections as well as in the sparse bestiary, if you’re having any trouble coming up with a starting problem.
I’ve had an idea for an inciting incident I’ve wanted to play out for a while, inspired by a folk/bluegrass song called “The Crime I Didn’t Do” by the Lonesome River Band (here’s a youtube video with the lyrics). In short, it’s the tale of a young man who leaves his hometown to find his path through life, but in this new place he’s implicated in a murder he bears witness to, but ultimately did not commit, and has no choice but to become a fugitive on the run.
Ulthor is that young man…
A native of the small mining town of Highcairn (Settlement Name Oracle), a life in the ore mines would not be for Ulthor. Once of age, he set out to find his own way in the world, eventually making his way to the fjord-town of Ravencliff (same), a major port-of-call on the Ragged Coast — the furthest North, as it happens. There, while bartering for supplies, Ulthor became enthralled by a beautiful young maiden, Maura (Ironsworn Name Oracle) — the Portmaster’s daughter. The two fell in love, but it was a secret affair, forbidden by her father, whose wealth and power extended, purportedly, even unto the Overseer himself. Maura was a powerful bargaining chip in his eyes, and he would not have her sullied by some nameless and penniless outsider.
Alas, young love can’t be caged, and the two continued to meet in secret, plotting the day they would escape her father’s domain, flee Ravencliff, and forge their new life together, wherever they may end up. But before their time came, tragedy struck…
Maura’s body cold and rigid in his arms, tears began to stream down Ulthor’s face. Who could have done this? Why?! Ulthor reached for the black iron long-knife sheathed behind his waist — the ancestral blade of his forefathers. He loosed a gutteral screamed that resounded off the walls as he pulled the dark metal across his open palm, drawing his own blood, mixing with the congealed blood of his love, staining the leather-wrapped grip of the weapon, and swore upon the sacred black iron of his ancestors that he would find Maura’s killer and avenge her death (Extreme).
- Edge: 2
- Heart: 3
- Iron: 1
- Shadow: 1
- Wits: 2
- Assets: Blade-bound, Wayfinder, Long-Arm
- Bonds: Maura, Highcairn, and the small Black Iron blade passed down to him through his lineage
He’d found her alone. They were to meet in secret. He realized it then, that they weren’t simply removing him from the scene, taking him away from Maura, from the agony and grief and pain. They were dragging away her killer. The knife… the blood… their forbidden love. It was all too obvious, then. The Portmaster, the Overseer, and Tribunal… it would be an open and shut case for an outsider.
[Face Danger +edge: 6 v. (1, 6)] = weak hit (dispirited/afraid), [Endure Stress (-1) +spirit: 5 v. (6,3)] = weak hit (press on).
Come to his senses, Ulthor outmaneuvers the men holding his arms and bolts into the bustle of the harbor. Alone, afraid, and suddenly in morning for the love of his life, he wastes no time in to prove his innocence and clear his name, if only for Maura.
[Swearing an Iron Vow +heart +bond: 8 v. (8,7)] = weak hit (more questions than answers, +1 momentum).
The question now is: should he hide in Ravencliff, attempt to go under cover and investigate her death? Or seek first to escape capture, leave town and regroup?
[Ask the Oracle - latter choice likely: 72 v. (26)] = leave the city.
Ulthor decides it’s best to head out, maybe make camp in edge of the nearby forest and consider his options. But it won’t be easy, getting out of the city…
[Face Danger +shadow: 6 v. (8,7)] = miss. [Pay the Price: 90] = wastes resources (I'm thinking time is his most valuable resource at the moment)
With the sun near to setting, his options are limited on how far he can make outside of the city’s walls before nightfall. Ulthor ponders on it too long, losing precious time he could have used to put more ground between him and the Portmaster’s goons. Hopefully they’re not so sure of foot as he in the undergrowth of the Deep Wilds…
And I’m going to leave it at that for now and hopefully get some feedback on if I’m doing this Moves thing correctly. I may have started a bit askew and with a very similar background vow and follow-up, but I think they’re distinct: Ulthor will have to prove his innocence (presumably from finding the true killer) independent of avenging her death? Or maybe it’s just all muddled up. What do you think?