I sat down to think about how long it’s been since I wrote my review of Ironsworn. Turns out it was December of 2019, which explains why it feels like it was almost a decade ago. Time dilation aside, now that it’s 2022, there is a new game utilizing the same general structure and means of resolution as Ironsworn. Ironsworn: Starforged is an RPG about traveling a lived-in galaxy and doing jobs that need to be done.
Ironsworn: Starforged is inspired by science fiction stories about private investigators, bounty hunters, scattered settlements, and a galaxy that doesn’t like to play nicely. While it doesn’t completely replicate any of these stories directly, it draws influence from The Mandalorian, Cowboy Bebop, Firefly, maybe with a little bit of Dune thrown in. It’s about gritty spacer stories.
I backed the Kickstarter for this when it was crowdfunding. I did not receive a review copy. I did write a review of the original Ironsworn rules. I own a copy of Ironsworn: Delve, and I have used Ironsworn and Ironsworn: Delve to play solo games. I have also played a few solo sessions of Ironsworn: Starforged in the process of writing this review.
This review is based on the PDF copy of Ironsworn: Starforged, and the PDF purchase includes the core rulebook (406 pages), a playkit (16 pages), asset cards (88 pages), and a reference guide (128 pages). The core rules and the reference guide contain full-color artwork. The Core Rulebook has a single-column layout with occasional sidebars for reference, while the reference guide summarizes many of the rules in two-column layout, while many of the larger tables are in single-column format.
We’ll get into this a bit more as I look at the individual components, but I have often mentioned that the RPG industry continually faces challenges in producing books that have to serve as both training documents and reference manuals. In this instance, the PDF bundle for Ironsworn: Starforged includes both.
It is also worth noting that if 406 pages seem like a long haul for a rulebook, much of that space is taken up with oracles and other random generators that you don’t need to reference to understand the rules, but can be engaged only when you intend to perform activities like making your sector of space, or fleshing out a derelict starship.
The playkit includes the specific moves you engage with when adjudicating the game, a character sheet, a blank sector map, a sheet for tracking oath progression, a blank sheet divided into d100 tables for making your own oracles, and blank sheets for clocks.
The Asset Cards
While the rules for assets are included in the core rules, and several are shown as examples on the pages of that book, most of the assets only exist in this PDF. There is one asset per page, and they can be printed out as cards. The assets include command vehicle modules, support vehicles, paths, companions, and deeds.
The Reference Guide
The Reference Guide contains all of the bones of the system, divorced from wider explanations or examples. This includes three sections:
The opening page has a graphic that shows a flow chart, expressing the core resolution system of the game. Different moves have color-coded edges, to denote the aspect of play for which the moves are used.
The section on oracles contains visual examples of some of the oracle results, such as the different types of stars that might be the heart of a star system, or illustrations of different kinds of planets.
The codex section contains explanations of the rules that explain the individual rules quickly, then summarize them in a text box at the end of the book. While you might understand how to play from this section, you’ll miss some of the connective tissue and maybe the general assumed narrative flow.
When I say this is a skeletal presentation of the rules, I don’t mean that the book doesn’t have bright, clear visuals for reference. It’s still an extremely pleasant book to page through. The illustrations, color coding, and highlighting help to keep the pages and pages of references from fading into walls of text.
The Core Rulebook
This is where everything is explained, connected, and expanded. While you don’t need to read everything, at least understanding character creation, the core rules, and the pages that introduce each of the oracles is going to give you the basis you need to run the game.
Modes of Play
One of the core concepts of the game is that it can be played in different modes, which is determined by how many players you have participating, or if you have a guide (a game facilitator). For games that do not have a guide, the various Oracle tables in the game present situations to prompt players to fill in story elements based on those prompts. The modes are:
- Guided–the most traditional version of the game, recommended for a guide and one to three players
- Cooperative–two to three players using the oracles to prompt the direction the game progresses, helping one another fill in details
- Solo–a single player using the various oracles and tables to envision different challenges and interactions
If you haven’t looked at Ironsworn, the premise is very similar. You are playing spacers that ritually swear vows to complete different jobs. Everything that you resolve that isn’t resolved with a single move is expressed as a progress track. To see how successful you are, you roll two 10-sided challenge dice, and a d6 action die. Most often, you will be adding your traits to an action die, depending on the move.
- Strong Hit–Your action total is higher than both of the challenge dice
- Weak Hit–Your action total is higher than one of the challenge dice
- Miss–Your action total does not beat either of the challenge dice
The move-based resolution borrows from Powered by the Apocalypse technology, but the vectors of outcomes have a different dynamic. This also allows for some of the additional rules of the game to come into play. For example, moves often let you build up momentum, which you can burn to replace your action total. Progress moves use the absolute value of the number of boxes you have filled against two challenge dice whenever you attempt to finish a task. This means that you can attempt to end an extended battle or a journey by gambling that your roll on the challenge dice will be low enough that your number of progress boxes will be higher.
Your character’s statistics are composed of the following:
- Edge, Heart, Iron, Shadow, Wits (your abilities)
- Momentum (an asset you can build up and spend to increase your chances to succeed)
- Health (your physical well-being)
- Spirit (your psychological well-being)
- Supply (used mainly in travel moves and repairs)
- Impacts (long term consequences that hinder your momentum)
- Assets (customized elements that represent a range of gear, allies, and training)
Your character starts with their command ship, allowing them to travel from planet to planet. They can pick up planetary-scale ships like hoverbikes, as well. Other assets might grant you allies that give you a bonus to some moves, and have their own health track. Other assets might give you a bonus when you use a move in a specific way (like specializing with certain weapons), or they might indicate that you have some kind of exceptional, but subtle, superpowers.
Any extended task in the game is represented with a progress track. This track is always ten boxes long, but the number of boxes you can fill in when you successfully take actions varies depending on if the overall task is Troublesome, Dangerous, Formidable, Extreme, or Epic. These tasks can nest into one another. For example, it might be a Formidable task to bring a certain criminal to justice. You may need to fight a lieutenant of that criminal, which is a troublesome challenge, and you may need to make a Dangerous journey into criminal controlled space, but when you complete each of those progress tracks, you mark off boxes on the Formidable track that represents the job of bringing the criminal to justice.
Not everything needs to be resolved with a progress track. For example, for a quick trip from here to there, you might use the move Set a Course. For a quick fight, you might use the Battle move, which uses a single roll of the action and challenge dice to resolve.
When you fail, you will often Pay the Price. When you get a weak hit, you might mark progress, but still need to Pay the Price. Paying the Price is flexible. Contextually, depending on how dangerous the situation is, it might be a -1, -2, or -3 penalty which can be applied to your health, spirit, or supply, as the story dictates. When you drop to zero in these, you may mark an impact to keep going, but then start making moves that require you to make moves like Face Death, Face Desolation, or Overcome Destruction.
The Resupply move might let you replenish your supply, while Heal, Repair, and Hearten allow you to fix your body, soul, and gear. Heal and Repair may also interact with your gear to allow you to push towards fixing things up just a little bit more effectively.
While a lot of the underlying rules come straight to Starforged from Ironsworn, there are a few additions and changes to how aspects of the game work. Many of these involve safety and encourage taking breaks and thinking about the long game.
- Begin a Session–This move reminds you to identify more flags that might come up, recap previous sessions, and frame the starting situation
- Set a Flag–This is a move for formally marking content you don’t want in the game, and reminding you to veer away from this content and reframe scenes that get too close to that flag
- Change Your Fate–This is a move that is expressly for reframing a scene that has gotten too close to a flag
- Take a Break–This sets an in session reward for taking a break, as players take a +1 bonus after the break
- End a Session–This is a move to remind you to reflect on what happened, update relationships and milestones, and think of what you want to see in the next session
While I don’t think any of these moves replace having active safety tools like the X-Card or Script Change ready to use at the table, I love that these are integrated mechanics that speak to safety, consent, and calibration, which come up as part of the moves that trigger in the game.
Tracking XP is different now as well. Each character has three epic tracks that represent their legacies. These tracks are Quests, Bonds, and Discoveries. Events in play cause these to fill in (for example, completing a vow or forging a bond with a new NPC), and for each box that is filled in, the character gains XP to spend on advancement. When the entire track is filled in, characters might choose to retire, or they may pick up a new asset related to filling in those tracks.
While there is an assumed setting, the Forge, this assumed setting has a lot of blank spaces. The core assumptions include the following:
- Humanity fled their original home galaxy after an interstellar catastrophe
- FTL travel exists
The Forge is not a friendly galaxy
- The Forge is divided into the Terminus, the Outlands, and The Expanse, all surrounded by the Void
- The Ironsworn travel from settlement to settlement, swearing to undertake different jobs for those they encounter
Although the Precursors, an ancient alien civilization, have left behind ruins and technology, there are currently no other sapient species in the galaxy for humans to interact with. You define the more granular truths of your setting by rolling on tables or choosing a result on tables for:
- Cataclysm–what sent humans on the run
- Exodus–how humans arrived at the Forge
- Communities–how common and advanced they are
- Iron–what it is that the Ironsworn use to swear their vows
- Laws–how constrained your characters are when doing jobs
- Magic–is the supernatural misunderstood science or actual sorcery?
- Communication and Data–how well do regions communicate with each other?
- Medicine–how common is an advanced healing technology?
- Artificial Intelligence–good, bad, or not that advanced
- War–what do militaries and militias look like in the Forge?
- Lifeforms–how widespread, dangerous, and engineered are the species of the Forge
- Precursors–what do humans know about them, and how do they relate to their remnants?
- Horrors–are there just dangerous creatures out there, or are there cursed or supernatural things?
While the core setting reinforces the idea that the galaxy is gritty and dangerous, and that singular people and small groups are often employed to do the hard jobs that span worlds, those truths do a lot of heavy lifting to change the kinds of tropes you can engage within a campaign.
Oracles are the tables you can roll on to get answers that you don’t already have based on your preferences. For each of these oracles, there are usually smaller subcategories with more granular information. The broad categories are:
- Space Encounters
- Precursor Vaults
- Location Themes
As an example of how these drill down further, you might roll for a broad type of world, for example, a Furnace World, but then roll for atmosphere, settlements, the appearance from space, planetside features, and lifeforms present. There are also sidebars with example names for each different type of planet.
For anyone familiar with the dungeon diving rules expansion of Ironsworn, Ironsworn: Delve, the Derelicts and Precursor Vaults provide a very similar set of rules for Starforged.
One of the important aspects of these Oracles that is addressed is that you shouldn’t roll for every single thing that you can. The Oracles are important for spurring a direction and filling in gaps when the players or the guide don’t have a preference, but once a few truths are established, players are encouraged to string together other details from their imagination.
This is the Way The game itself is fun, not just in concept, but in execution, but the value of the game as a resource for science-fiction storytelling is also immense.
There is a whole lot that I like about this game, and the PDFs that comprise the bundle. While I know it’s not feasible for every publisher, I love having both a reference book and a “learning” document as part of the same game. I also love the flow charts and illustrations of the process of how to roll the dice and adjudicating moves.
Beyond the format of the books and the existence of extra resources, I also think it’s worth noting that this is a brilliant evolution of some of the concepts that were expressed in Powered by the Apocalypse games. In all of the ways that Forged in the Dark games are heralded (rightly) as a revolutionary permutation of PBTA, I think the Ironsworn core rules should be viewed similarly. It is satisfying, original, yet comfortably familiar all at the same time. To me, the progress tracks just work so well and are so flexible for portraying multiple tasks in a variety of ways.
The game itself is fun, not just in concept, but in execution, but the value of the game as a resource for science-fiction storytelling is also immense. I could easily use these oracles to supplement my imagination when prepping a Star Wars or Star Trek game.
Never Tell Me the Odds
I love how the books are organized, and I love the flexibility of the oracles, but I can see how the sheer number of pages and the granularity of the Oracles could be overwhelming. I don’t know if I would have been overwhelmed by this, since I was already familiar with Ironsworn going in. I don’t think that confusion will last too long, but it certainly is a possibility.
Strongly Recommended–This product is exceptional, and may contain content that would interest you even if the game or genre covered is outside of your normal interests.
I think the ability to layer in additional nested quests and consult multiple Oracles may rope in people that may otherwise have bounced off PbtA or Forged in the Dark games. I think that anyone with even an inkling of interest in science fiction is going to find something to like in this book. While I can’t make a universal pronouncement, I would guess that a very wide range of gamers are going to find this product fun and satisfying.