Game Systems

My Experience playing Ironsworn in Solo Mode (Why you should try it!)

Thumbnail image from the Ironsworn core rulebook

When we were put in quarantine in my country due to the COVID-19, I decided to consider this a great opportunity to try out other TTRPGs that aren’t D&D. I checked the RPGs I had bought from DrivethruRPG and made a list of them. In that list there was Ironsworn, a game I had listened few things about but that caught my attention. It is a free RPG after all, and one that has quite a few fans. Once I had the list ready, I made a Google Forms file and had my friends vote what they wanted to play for these (hopefully few) months. Of course, as D&D was also an option because I wanted to try out the Eberron setting, it ended up winning.

Even though I ended up playing D&D with my friends, Ironsworn kept in my head. There was something that made me want to try it out. Was it the Norse theme around it? Or just the fact that it was one of the only TTRPGs that I knew could be played solo, no prep required? That’s why I started reading the rules last month. The pictures, the oracle, the freedom it gave its players… Everything made me want to try it out, but my friends weren’t interested in learning a new system. That’s why two weeks ago I decided to try it out myself. As you can guess from the title, I loved it, and I’m going to tell you why you should try it out!

Where can I get the game?

Ironsworn is available for free on its website and on DrivethruRPG

A brief idea on what Ironsworn actually is

Even though I’ll mostly be speaking from the Solo perspective of the game, this TTRPG can be played with more people in a GM-less way (Co-op), or by having a GM (Guided play). There are three modes of play, but I’ll just talk about what I experienced by playing this game in the gamemode I tried out. I’m beginning to convince my players what a great game it is, and the fact that I can now explain the rules to them instead of them having to read the PDF (Ugh…) might make them want to try it. If that’s the case, and if you want to, I may write another article talking about that kind of experience.

So… What is Ironsworn? This is a story-driven, fast-paced, flexible game with quest-driven mechanics. If TTRPGs could be “open source”, I believe this would be something particularly similar to what that term implies. As I also previously established, it is themed in a Norse-like way, in which you need to discover new land. You play an Ironsworn, a character that swears oaths while touching Iron (that in this game it has some kind of mystic importance around it) while traveling the land, meeting people, and fighting great horrors. “So, like paladins?” you would think. Well, yes but actually no. You are not defined by a class and can have whichever abilities or combat style you choose. As you gain experience you can learn new abilities or even receive animal (or people) companions like a mammoth, a horse, a crow, or a baby wyvern.

The game was created by Shawn Tomkin, who keeps supporting the game, appearing and helping in his Discord server, and creating new supplements for it. Ironsworn Delve is his latest creation, which incorporates Dungeon Crawling to Ironsworn. Right now, he is working on a supplement called Starforge, in order to have space-themed adventures while using the Ironsworn mechanics, which you can know more about by joining his Discord server or by following him on Twitter. There’s even a playtest file for the latter you can access. If you played Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, or Fate, there is a high chance you will love Ironsworn!

Images from the Ironsworn core rulebook

An incredibly flexible system

To start with, you are the one creating the setting. The Ironsworn core rulebook gives you a guide on the recommended steps to creating your Ironlands. This gives you both examples and ideas on what the religion, the history of the land, the “Firstborn” (those who were in the lands before humans arrived, such as elves), and more can be to easily create your own world, that will be entirely different from the others. Imagine homebrewing your own world, but removing all the hard work from it, leaving just the fun stuff.

What does that have to do with flexibility? The game can be easily adapted to the style of world or gameplay you want. It is a skeleton that you can mold to suit your taste. Want to discard the map offered by the game, create your own one, and make it a European-medieval like game like D&D and Pathfinder? Even though that would be boring from my perspective, taking into account the huge amount of games that already do that, there’s nothing in the game that discards that playstyle. You can play in a heavy-magic world or one in which magic is considered evil and cause corruption to your mind. Heck, you can even erase magic all-together from the game and not much would be affected. Take into account, however, that the game primarily supports low magic settings, meaning that if you want to play an all-powerful sorcerer you might have to look for homebrew stuff the community created (there’s a lot of support from the fans).

Images from the Ironsworn core rulebook

Game mechanics

The game revolves around making Moves. These are an abstract way to represent how the story continues, if you succeed or fail at a task, or how you manage in combat or bonding with people. These are all indicated in the rules and you can find quick references for them even in the website. Want to travel from village A to B? Want to prepare an attack against a bear? Looking to bond with the people in a settlement? What if you want to begin a ritual to track where your life-long rival is at? These and many more things are managed through this Moves. Once you try to accomplish something in the game you look for a Move that fits what you are trying to do and follow its short instructions on how to proceed. These are made to fit in 3×5 cards mostly, so it only takes an instant to read them when you need to. Most of the times you will have to roll some dice to decide your fate. You can even have them printed if you want to (the official website already has them in a print-friendly file).

Dice take as big of a role as the moves in this game. You use two d10 and a d6. When a move indicates a roll needs to be made, you roll the three of them and try to get a number that is at the very least higher than one of the results from the d10s with the d6+a stat that varies on what you are trying to do. If the result is lower than both d10, you miss and have to suffer the consequences. If the result is between the two d10s, you get a weak hit. Finally, if you surpass both d10s, you make a strong hit. These hits or misses, accompanied by the Moves are what will keep the pace fast and the game moving. The Moves say what each type of hit or miss means. This varies depending on the Move.

Lastly, but definitely not least, there are the Iron vows. Vows are sacred in the Ironlands. These are made by touching iron and must be followed til the end. Once you plan on making an iron vow, you make the specific Move for it and continue playing. As you keep completing milestones towards your objective to fulfill the vow, you mark progress. Progress is a way in which the game tracks how close you are to completing your quest.  Once you believe you accomplished it, you make the specific move for it and might find out that the quest is actually not over, or that maybe accomplishing this triggered a new problem or quest.

The oracle

Just like the game mechanics I talked about above, the Oracle takes as big of a role in the game. However, the oracle has quite some depth to it, making me want to talk in a separate section about it. As this is a story-driven roleplaying game, that can be played without any Game Master, the Game Designer created this to serve as a guide to the players creating a story. But… What is the oracle exactly? The oracle is a series of tables, that when playing Solo or Co-Op (no GM) you roll in and check how the story continues or reacts to your actions. It states what happens when you take damage, suffer spirit, when you are about to die, respond to Yes or No questions 8-ball style, and much more.

When you arrive at a new settlement you are in charge of creating it. This is when the Oracle comes in handy. If you don’t have a predefined cool idea on how the settlement looks like, its name, or the people that live in there, you can roll on a d100 table to define it. You can roll on the Settlement name Oracle, the Location Descriptor Oracle, and if I want to on the Settlement Trouble Oracle and I can easily get something exciting and unique. Here’s an example roll:

  • Settlement Name Oracle: Low Wick. This can have a metaphorical or abstract meaning. Maybe the settlement is in a shadowy place where sunlight hardly reaches.
  • Location Oracle: Swamp. Now it is getting more interesting. It is in a shadowy place in a swamp. This sounds like the kind of place that would often receive attacks from dangerous horrors or creatures.
  • Location Description Oracle: I rolled two times to get a better idea of the place. The results were Blocked and Hidden. The more details we get, the more sure I am about the kind of shadowy place this settlement is like. However, we now got another interesting description: it is blocked in some way. Maybe the people living here are stuck in this terrible place and are looking for a way out? What’s more, the Low Wick name could be the one that outsiders give to the location, due to how little life it may have left before it is totally swallowed by the swamp. Maybe a rival settlement is blocking their way out of there preventing resources and trade to enter?
  • Settlement Trouble Oracle: On the first roll in this table I got I had to roll twice and combine them. Once I did, I got Mysterious Phenomenon and Disastrous Event. It’s all coming together! It isn’t a rival settlement that is blocking their exit from Low Wick. It may actually be a curse. Some kind of Lady of the Lake is preventing people from leaving the settlement. What’s more, at the very same time, this hag figure that people are calling the Lady of the Lake is constantly sending humanoid sea monsters to come out from the swamp and kill those leaving in it.

Sounds like an extremely interesting place, and it took me about 5 minutes to come up with this thanks to the Oracle. Now it’s time for us as Ironsworns to swear this community we are going to end the curse once and for all. Amazing stuff! You can even roll for how the mayor behaves and looks like if you wanted as well. I’m not going to do that as it isn’t what this article is actually about, but I challenge you to roll some times and come up with an interesting one. Write it down in the comments when you have it.

Images from the Ironsworn core rulebook

My Solo Experience

In order for you to see the awesome kind of stories you can build and play with this system, I’m going to give you a brief tale of Torgan, Hunter of Dorn, the character I played for three sessions:


Torgan had a son he loved very much (even though the love wasn’t reciprocated) named Kingrek. Torgan, being devoted to the god Dorn, was only interested in the hunt, specifically monster hunt, meaning he didn’t spend much time with his son. He craved to defeat the biggest of monsters.

The story began with an attack from dwarves in the settlement they were located in. Up to this moment, Torgan only had hunting a legendary beast as an iron vow he had set himself. During the escape from the dwarven raid, Torgan killed one of the dwarf generals in an epic battle, not without receiving a harsh wound by an ax in the back. By the time he and Kingrek escaped from the near-death situation that was the raid to the settlement, having lost her wife on the process (or maybe she managed to escape?), Torgan swore another iron vow: he will kill every last dwarf on the Ironlands.

Torgan and Kingrek traveled for some days without much of a destination. Torgan was in a bad state and every try to heal himself resulted in failure or worsened his state. He was never good at it, and was in need of a healer. Supplies were running out in the wintery region they were in, meaning they needed to hunt for food before night fell. Torgan made Kingrek act as bait for them to kill a bear. Despite some quarreling, they proceeded with the plan and managed to kill the beast, but Kingrek received a deep wound in the process. As night came, the two travelers managed to recover a bit and continued their voyage to nowhere.

It was by the end of the day near the woods that a Firstborn (an elf) tried to attack Torgan. Both of them managed to convince the elf that they were more valuable alive than dead, and that they were in need of immediate healing. Thus, the elf lead them to their tribe. On their arrival, they noticed that a great pack of wolves was assaulting it. In order to gain the tribe’s trust, and because it was a Dorn’s devotee’s job to hunt these creatures and protect those in danger, Torgan fled into battle, telling Kingrek to take distance. Kingrek didn’t believe in Dorn and thought his father a fool to put himself in this dangerous situation. And he was right. Torgan fought til his last breath and fell unconscious two times before he managed to repel the pack.

The firstborn’s leader considered their visitors a bad omen, that have brought wolves to the tribe on their arrival. If they didn’t want to end up dead, Torgan would have to swear an iron vow to hunt the alpha wolf of the pack, Terbadak. And so the journey continued! Despite the pleads for healing, the leader denied it and threatened them a second time. The situation was complicated. Not only were they low on health, but Torgan’s spirit was plummeting. His god hadn’t been helping him, his son hated him, and he was to go on a deadly mission. Kingrek stopped, and offered his father the choice of forsaking the vow and escaping. On doubt, Kingrek gave Torgan an ultimatum: was he going to follow his son, or was he to die fighting a wolf for following Dorn’s way? Torgan’s mind almost collapsed at that point, but he couldn’t leave a vow unresolved. That’s when he last saw his beloved son.

Torgan continued his quest for two more hours. There it was after following the tracks: the cave of the alpha wolf. While trying to create a trap over the cave entrance using his hunting skills, an error was made, making Torgan fall in front of the entrance, leaving himself at the mercy of Terbadak. The wolf came out of the cave and thus the battle began. An epic, merciless battle, in which Torgan managed to pull through, ending up shaken, wounded, and with his mind at the very limit. He shouted in victory, cut the wolf’s head and crying, finally understanding the mistake he had made went back to find his son. He was facing desolation and was devastated. Following Kingrek’s tracks, he encountered the way his son had traveled: Kingrek had climbed down from a cliff.  In order to gain ground, Torgan decided to climb it down as well, but failed on the process, falling 40ft and crashing his whole body against a rock.

At that moment, Torgan was facing his death. His mind was heavily thinking about all the poor decisions he had made. From his position, he pleaded Dorn for help, swearing to protect Kingrek until he could defend himself in adulthood. A moment passed. No answer. No response. Torgan finally understood what this meant and his mind and spirit fell in a vortex of despair as life left his body.


Ok… That was harsh and melancholic. Usually Ironsworn is a game in which you play as an awesome fearless character, but my luck was horrible during that last bit, and both Torgan and I took all the wrong decisions. However, it ended up being an extremely memorable story that I loved playing through. As this was not enough, I now get to play as Kingrek! I hope he has some better luck with his rolls.

Images from the Ironsworn core rulebook

Conclusion

Playing Solo was a wondrous experience that I can recommend to anybody. This time during COVID-19 might be the very best time to try it out whenever you can’t find anyone to play with. You can even play for twenty minutes while your food finishes cooking. There are no excuses! The game is absolutely FREE. Consider leaving a tip to its creator, though. It’s incredible he is gifting us this game.

As this was not enough, Shawn Tomkin (its creator) just released a 34 pages Reference Guide with all the important rules and oracles to have in hand while playing. It is called Ironsworn Lodestar and you can find it in both places I previously mentioned. Was I doing a review, I would also highly praise the beautiful images in those rulebooks. They are awesome!

Have you ever played Ironsworn? What’s stopping you from trying it out? If you have tried it, why not share some great story you played in it? Or even better: give me a full description of some place or person you created using the oracles!

If you liked this

As you travel along the Ironlands you find a village doing some sort of festivity. Do you want to learn more on how to successfully do a festivity for your TTRPG game? You can learn how to by going to this article I created