I don’t know if you have noticed this, but there are a lot of fantasy RPGs out there. So many that you may wonder what it takes to catch someone’s attention, with all of the options that exist.
This is a game that is about gritty fantasy, where it is more important to survive than to have courtly virtues, and where barter is more important than money. Not only is it attempting to make its mark as a gritty fantasy RPG, but it is also taking some inspiration from some of the biggest trends in indie game design, and aims to do something a little different with them. In addition to that, it is also attempting to provide both a solo and cooperative playing experience.
How well does Ironsworn complete this vow? Let’s see if they pay the price below.
A Codex of the Oracle
This review is based on the PDF of the product. The core rules are 270 pages, with a color cover and black and white interior art and photos. There is a four-page index, and the chapter breaks have full-page images.
Most of the interior images are black and white photographs of various people in armor, carrying weapons, against a snowy background. The photographs work well with the bold, clear, black and white formatting of the book itself.
In addition to the formatting and images, there are various diagrams of the character sheet, asset cards, and images illustrating what is happening in various die rolls. There are also flow charts to indicate the resolution of moves and the overall course of a session of play.
Chapter 1: The Basics
There is a quick introduction that mentions that the game is intended to emulate dark fantasy stories that involve forging bonds with others and fighting battles in a harsh world. The text then quickly establishes what it wants to accomplish. It details three modes of play:
- Guided (the “traditional” RPG arrangement of players with a GM)
- Cooperative (everyone is a player, and the Oracle tools are used to guide the story)
- Solo (create a character and use the Oracle tools to play through your narrative)
The mechanics involve rolling a single d6 and adding either an attribute or another number, as directed, and comparing the roll against two d10s. This generates the following results:
- Miss (a failure or a success with major concessions)
- Weak Hit (a success with lesser effect or with cost)
- Strong Hit (an unqualified success)
In addition, if you roll doubles, it indicates an even stronger tendency towards whatever is indicated. For example, a strong hit is an exceptional success, and a miss is a catastrophic failure.
In addition to the die rolls, the game uses various progress tracks to mark the progression of travel or the steps of completing a vow. Moves will determine if you fill in a whole box, or a partial box. Characters also track momentum, which can be spent to exchange the current momentum level for the d6 roll. Stress and harm are tracked separately, meaning that a character can be taxed mentally and physically.
Assets are what characters have that distinguish them from one another. These are represented by cards, and generally, they act as a bonus to certain rolls under certain circumstances. For example, some assets might help when making a journey and gathering resources.
Chapter 2: Your Character
This section has more details on how to create a character, and how to use the character sheet to track various aspects of the character’s progress during play. A major element of the setting is that society is composed of small communities in a harsh land, and the Ironsworn are adventurers that take on oaths to complete tasks. Your character is an Ironsworn, and making and completing vows isn’t just a setting detail, it’s a mechanic that is tracked as the means of gaining experience for advancement.
Characters have a Momentum track, a Health track, a Spirit track, and a Supply track. For some long term progress moves in the game, the score on the track is used instead of the character’s stats. The character also has Edge, Heart, Iron, Shadow, and Wits as their stats, and the character sheet has room to track progress on multiple vows, as well as spaces to mark Debilities, special tags that affect the character when Stress or Health comes into play.
Filling up your experience track allows you to gain or upgrade an asset. Assets range from companions, to combat abilities, to special rituals. While some of these assets are natural talents, and others are external items or allies, they are all expressed similarly to one another.
This chapter has some nice, clear examples of the layout of the character sheet and what it is tracking, in addition to sample asset cards. I am very fond of the idea that the core conceit of the setting, fulfilling vows, is reinforced as your means of advancement. I like the idea that assets can be a wide range of things in the setting, but use the same general mechanics for expression.
Chapter 3: Moves
In general, moves should be familiar to anyone that has encountered a game derived from the Apocalypse World family of games, but there are a few new twists here. While the miss, weak hit, and strong hit correspond generally to a 6-, 7-9, and 10+ in many games, there are also considerations for doubles.
For anyone that isn’t familiar with moves as a game concept, the game is “fiction first.” If your described actions align with what a move would normally resolve, you engage the mechanics to resolve the move. In many cases, the moves in Ironsworn will refer to the results of a miss as “Paying the Price,” which usually offers the player several difficult options to move forward.
All moves are player-facing, meaning that the GM doesn’t make any rolls. Paying the Price, as well as the cost of several of the weak hit moves, informs the actions and reactions of the NPCs and the environment.
An interesting twist for Ironsworn moves is that combat moves are triggered differently if the character has the initiative. Initiative, in this case, isn’t a ranking of who goes first, but is more of a measure of who has the more aggressive stance. A character that makes a weak hit on a combat move loses the initiative, and their options in combat become more reserved until they can gain the initiative again.
Progress moves don’t use stats, but the roll is made with the number of boxes that are filled in. If you get to your destination, or seem to complete the adventure that would fulfill your vow, you roll with the number of filled in boxes as the bonus. Weak hits or failures may indicate that some aspect of the mission was hidden from you, or you have a final complication on your journey.
There is a table that gives oracle results for “Pay the Price,” which not only facilitates coop and solo play, but also serves as a list of ideas for when the GM doesn’t have a good idea of what to present to the players in the face of a miss.
I am a big fan of progress trackers, but I have also seen some instances where, narratively, it feels like you have completed whatever it is you are tracking before the progress tracker is filled in. A mechanic that allows you to still utilize the progress tracker, even in situations where the narrative has shifted, is a great evolution of the concept. There is a risk/reward element to this as well, as some moves allow you to attempt to end an event early with a definitive move, short-cutting to the resolution move and rolling with whatever you have marked.
Chapter 4: Your World
This section details what the Iron Lands, the default setting of the game, contain. There is a general map of the region, and instead of just tracking literal distances, there are examples of the magnitude of the progress tracker used to travel between different regions.
Each region is given a few paragraphs of description, and a handful of bullet points summarizing the features of the area. Once the regions are explained, there are big setting topics, also laid out in bullet points, that detail ancient history, common knowledge about religion and magic, and the supernatural creatures that exist in the setting.
The Firstborn are ancient, powerful beings that may be hostile, but are generally older than humankind, and include creatures like giants and elves. Horrors are creatures like the undead or abominations that are inimical to life. For each topic covered, not only are there a few facts, but there are also Quest Starters, adventure hooks that use that setting element as a framing device for a potential adventure.
If you haven’t seen me say it before, I enjoy it when setting information addresses the setting’s use as a game setting. I love bullet points to sum up the major items you should know about something in the setting, and I love adventure hooks that guide you in how to use what has been provided. The setting information is strong enough to provide flavor, but not deep enough to make it difficult to navigate.
Chapter 5: Foes and Encounters
This section has many examples of opponents for characters to encounter. The standard layout gives a rank (which determines the amount of harm they inflict, as well as the length of the progress bar that they use in combat), features, drives, tactics, and a description that includes a quest starter, explaining how the NPC could be used in an adventure.
There are sections detailing regular people, the Firstborn, animals, beasts (creatures that aren’t quite animals, but aren’t outright abominations, like wyverns), and Horrors (undead and outright abominations).
Much like the setting information, I am a big fan of the bullet-pointed summaries of what the stat block represents, and the quest starter adventure hooks, helping them define how the NPC would be used in an ongoing narrative.
Chapter 6: Oracles
The Oracles provide various random charts — over twenty pages of them. This would be a lot of prompts to draw inspiration from, but in addition to the charts, there is also a detailed procedure on using the prompts. It has instructions on how to weight rolls when it feels that some outcomes would be more likely than others, but when it still feels right to add an element of chance. It gives guidance on looking for alternative results, without just rerolling when you don’t like the outcome of an Oracle roll.
The Oracles include tables for actions, themes, locations, specific settlement names, local troubles, NPC descriptions and dispositions, names of fantastic creatures, magical backlash, plot twists, and levels of opposition. In addition to all of this, this section provides some guidance on setting up other, customized oracle tables.
Even when I don’t use them, I enjoy thematically appropriate random tables, especially when they go one step beyond the old encounter tables that would tell you what you met, but not why or the context of what is going on. Not only does this potentially provide context, but I feel that the procedure for reading the Oracle, and addressing elements like having more likely, weighted events, and the ability to shift, but not discard, Oracle results, are very important for solo or cooperative play, to provide both surprises but also logical context to the fiction established by the players.
Chapter 7: Gameplay in Depth
This section takes all of the elements of the previous chapters and explains how to string them together when creating an ongoing game. Several flow charts diagram the structure of a campaign, the steps to triggering and resolving a move, and the flow of an individual adventure.
Some sections detail the process of solo and cooperative play, versus guided play, and the role of the GM. In addition to the previously established rules for progress tracks, scene challenges are introduced, which creates a separate track that limits how long the players have to attempt to complete a course of action before the scene closes and keeps them from resolving their goal. There are also principals that this section lays out, helping to guide players with attaining the proper mindset of the genre as presented.
This section also has some advice on hacking the game for different settings, and modifying some of the elements of the game, like swapping out assets for roles that a character might assume (which makes the character’s role feel a bit more like character classes from other fantasy games).
The extended example of play is one of the most clearly laid out examples of play sections I have seen in a book, with special graphics for all of the sections where dice resolution is explained and examples of how the assets are used and tracked in the game. It is interesting to see how many of the principals of the game are phrased, when the default isn’t that you will have one GM and multiple players.
The hacking section isn’t overly robust, but gives clear and logical advice.
This book is very clear on the story it wants to help you tell, and it is very stylish and direct in the way that it communicates that to the reader. The way the game uses familiar game conventions, like moves and multi-tiered resolution, and adds in new twists, is both familiar and fresh. The Oracles are extensive, and make for useful inspiration outside of the game itself. The use of assets helps to customize characters with very simple, effective, and evocative mechanics.
Shadows on the Path Ironsworn presents its rules and it’s . . . setting in a manner that is so clear and concise that it’s a very refreshing iteration of a game from this genre
I wish the system of tracking progress didn’t get quite so granular as to start marking ticks in the progress boxes. When I was first reading the book, that concept was a bit confusing and I had to revisit it. It is very clearly laid out by the time you see the extended example of play, but early on, the difference between marking a box and marking a tick threw me. Because the advice moves between solo, cooperative, and guided play, I think a more robust discussion of safety in the game would have been welcome.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
There are a lot of games that let you get your roleplaying groove on in a fantasy setting, swinging your sword to cleave your enemies with your mighty thews, and even if you limit your fantasy gaming to the grittier end of the spectrum, you aren’t going to be lacking for options.
However, if you want a powerful toolbox for coming up with adventure ideas, or you like seeing familiar rules being implemented in new ways, you will find a lot to like in Ironsworn. Even taking into account other gritty fantasy options, Ironsworn presents its rules and it’s (minimalist) setting in a manner that is so clear and concise that it’s a very refreshing iteration of a game from this genre.
What other games take familiar mechanics, and use them in new and exciting ways? What other games do you enjoy that clearly and concisely convey the tone of its game setting? We want to hear from you in the comments below!