Ironclad solo adventure awaits
While Ironsworn can be played like a regular role-playing game complete with other players and a GM, its real defining feature is its solo mode. And boy what a solo mode that is. Initially the 200+ page rulebook can be intimidating, especially if you’re just looking for something to while away the quarantine with but once you wrap your head around the novel mechanisms in play, Ironsworn reveals a simple and rather elegant core.
The concept is that you are an “ironsworn”, an adventurer who has made an unbreakable vow and must travel throughout the Ironlands to see it done. Along the way you’ll make Moves which is just a short hand way of saying, make a specific roll and see what happens. Want to have your character travel somewhere? You 'Undertake A Journey' and roll to see what happens. You either succeed well, succeed with some complications, or fail. If you’ve played Powered by the Apocalypse or Forged in the Dark, you’re already familiar with this. This simple Moves system, where each action is encompassed under a wide umbrella, gives you just the right amount of freedom to tell the story you want while challenging you every step of the way. From introducing unexpected locales along the way when travelling to separating you from companions, getting you hopelessly lost, or luring you into a cairn which didn’t have graverobbers like you initially thought but bonewalkers armed with magical weapons! All thanks to the Oracle, a selection of tables with things like names, locations, and complications as well as a handy decision making tool that lets you decide without feeling like you’re just making it up.
As you progress through your vow, you’ll pick up sidequests, make bonds with NPCs, and make new vows. All of which help you to gain experience which can be used to buy new assets like weapon powers, rituals, and companions. And while progression feels a little stingy, it does allow for long term investment. Though that is a bit Marmite-ish.
Experienced role-players may find that Ironsworn has a few design decisions that require some deprogramming. Combat, for example, has initiative but not in the way we all know it. At the start of a fight, you perform the ‘Enter The Fray’ Move which determines who has initiative. After that you either Strike (if you won) or Clash (if they won), with each Move having different results for if you win or lose. So, if you have initiative, you attack. If you win, you keep the initiative and can attack again. Or try something else entirely. Like searching for a weapon after the enemy breaks yours in half with their magical axe.
For the forever GM, Ironsworn is an amazing opportunity to experience life on the other side of the screen. Even if you’ve never ran an RPG in your life, Ironsworn has your back. Each ability, enemy, and locale has quest prompts with it to help guide you onwards and most of that intimidating page count is taken up with world building prompts, examples of play, and a campaign guide to help you structure your own.
But most importantly, it’s refreshing to see a pseudo-Norse setting that explicitly states: “You can envision your character and those you interact with however you like, unbound by considerations of geography, lineage, sexual orientation, and gender.” If you’re looking for something to scratch the itch while we’re in lockdown, then Ironsworn is a fantastic way to spend an afternoon or a week or every Friday from now on. Oh, and as its definitely worth mentioning, the digital version of Ironsworn is completely free through their website.
Play It? Yes
Ironsworn is a great introduction not only to solo RPGs, but becoming a DM of a world of your own.
Try This If You Liked: Mythic...
Both provide non-intrusive settings that can be used with groups or alone. Mythic’s GM Emulator is considered one of the best Solo RPG tools.
Words by Anna Blackwell
Designer: Shawn Tomkins
Publisher: Shawn Tomkins
This review originally appeared in Issue 43 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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