Friday, November 13, 2020

Play Report: Ironsworn

Third of my solo game experiences is Ironsworn. (See also Barbarian Prince and 1k Old Vampire.)

For my first run-through, I am playing things rather by the book (ie, not doing anything crazy with the setting). These printouts were an absolute lifesaver and I absolutely recommend you use them if you don't have a hard copy of the book, and maybe even if you do.

Prenthetical roll notations should be read as ([Move type] d6 + modifier vs d10 & d10). The goal is to have the d6+ modifier be higher than one or both of the d10 challenge dice.


I will be playing Garum, a fisherman from the barrier islands and a descendant of the Red Heron family that was part of the great exodus from the old country four generations before.

I only settled on two Truths for this demo run

  • There was a mass exodus from the Old World during a period of societal collapse. No ships have crossed the sea for the last three generations.
  • Civilization is mostly small village circles

I have 5 Health, 5 Spirit, 5 Supply, and 2 Momentum. My assets are:

  • Skirmisher (Good with spears)
  • Waterborn (Good with boats and aquatic things)
  • Storyweaver (Good with storytelling and oral history)

Beginning the Quest

Garum has heard from some of the other fishermen of a shipwreck further down the barrier islands - a vessel of a kind no one has ever seen before, flying under the image of a red heron.

We open when Garum lays eyes on the ship, half-shattered and torn by the sharp rocks, but high enough up that the waves and tides can't yet dislodge it.

The ship sits broken on the rocks, out of reach of the waves and tides for now. The red heron of Garum's ancestral family He calls out in case there might be some survivors, but finds what he expects: nothing. The ship had been wrecked for over a week at this point and it's unlikely any of the sailors had survived.

He attempts to bring his little fishing boat safely to the ship's side 

(Face Danger 9 vs 5 & 6. Strong Hit, +1 Momentum, current 3) 

and succeeds. He won't be able to for long, but long enough to search the ship.

There is, unfortunately, not much left. The typical detritus of a ship, all tumbled around and broken. But, in the back cabin, he is able to find a family banner, a book wrapped in oilskin, a few trinkets, and a jasper idol of the red heron. He tucks these items away in his pack. He is intrigued by the book, but cannot read more than basic words in the local script - this calls for wiser eyes.

Garum swears an iron vow to see these goods back to his family's home circle in the Havens.

(Swear an Iron Vow 6 vs 4 & 1. Strong hit, +2 Momentum, current 5)

But that is a very long way away.

The first step will be to reach to coast. Whitebridge is the nearest fjord-circle and has a well-maintained road. Garum sets off immediately - it will be several days still. (This journey, crossing the sea from the barrier islands to the fjordlands, will take 5 steps to complete)

(Undertake Journey 6 vs 6 & 1. Weak Hit, -1 Supply, current 4)

Garum is able to reach a waypoint island, and attempts to push on and knock out another leg while the sun is still up.

(Undertake Journey 3 vs 4 & 7. Miss. Pay the Price. -1 Spirit, current 4)

A sudden squall forces him to remain on the islet and take shelter under an overhang for the night.

(Make Camp 7 vs 5 & 3. Strong Hit. +1 Spirit, current 5, +1 to next Secure an Advantage)

With the dawn, Garum makes careful preparation in reading the wind and weather.

(Secure an Advantage 8 vs 9 & 7. Weak hit, +1 Momentum, current 6)

And sets off

(Undertake Journey 4 vs 1 & 8. Weak hit. -1 Supply, current 3)

(Undertake Journey 7 vs 6 & 1. Strong Hit.)

(Undertake Journey 4 vs 10 & 10. Critical Miss. Pay the Price. -2 Supply, current 1)

On the last stretch, catastrophe strikes. A sudden squall drives Garum off course, and rough waves wash much of his supplies out into the sea. The goods from the ship remain intact, but 

(Undertake Journey 3 vs 8 & 7. Miss. Pay the Price. -1 Supply, current 0. -1 Spirit, current 4)

The storm does not let up, and Garum's nautical skills fail him. He crashes upon the rocky shore, with nothing but the oilskin bundle, his fishing spear, and his sodden clothing.

Garum is now Unprepared.
He attempts to forage for food in the storm's aftermath, but finds nothing

(Resupply 3 vs 4 & 3. Miss. Pay the Price. -1 Health, current 4)

After a few fitful hours of sleep, he heads south down the coast, towards where he believes Whitebridge to be.

(Undertake Journey 6 vs 7 & 9. Miss. Pay the Price. -1 health, current 3.)

Lost and starving, Garum stumbles through the hills

(Undertake Journey 7 vs 6 & 6. Strong Hit. +1 Momentum, current 7.)

But fate smiles at last, and he reaches Whitebridge. He is finally able to rest in safety and, pawning off a few of the minor trinkets that may not have any actual connection to his family, put himself back on his feet.

(Sojourn 6 vs 3 & 5. Strong Hit. +1 Supply, current 1. +2 Health, current 5)

The next day, Garum devotes himself to making more preparations for the journey. He tells of his quest to folks in the marketplace, to find sympathetic ears and to get guidance on the path ahead. His storytelling gets him many listeners.

(Secure an Advantage 9 vs 3 & 8. Strong Hit. +1 Momentum current 8)
But they are not all friendly. Local gossips spread word of the mad fisherman babbling on about the heritage of the Old World before Garum is able to even explore town that day, and he has to put all of his ability and focus into fighting away the rumors.

(Sojourn 3 vs 4 & 6. MOMENTUM BURN. Strong Hit. +2 Supply. +2 supply. Current 5)

With supplies replenished, it is time for Garum to set off on the overland part of his journey.

But that's a different time, as this is the end of my demo play.

Final Thoughts

  • Sweet baby Jesus and on his cute little tricycle why do I keep starving in these games.
  • I don't like how Momentum was presented - either I forgot that I could use it, or I was confused at what exactly happened when I did use it.
    • While writing this review I found someone on reddit saying that you can ignore the verbage of "cancelling challenge dice" when you burn momentum and treating your action die as = your momentum when you burn. This, I feel, is much more sensible as a descriptor.
  • I don't think I like the background vow element. This is likely just part of how it is framed, because it's both very large and not tied to any specific moves.
  • The lowest difficulty combat or quest doesn't divide evenly among the 10 progress boxes (as you mark 3 boxes per stage) and that annoys the hell out of me.
    • Edit: it was later revealed to me that it is not necessary to fill out all 10 boxes, a fact I likely would have caught had I been reading the normal pdf instead of the summary.
  • "Sojourn", should be renamed to "Business Around Town" or something like that.
  • There's no way (in the rules as written) to translate "boxes of progress" into time or distance on journeys. I defaulted to somewhere around half a day to a full day of travel. This would be alleviated if I was using a hex map and handwaving it to parasangs.
    • Honestly, having a set map feels like it would be a marked improvement in the proceedings.
    • I should have written up a map with waypoints.
  • Pettiest of complaints: I don't like the default setting. This will cease to be an issue in a short amount of time but I feel it should be said that part of my reluctance to actually play this game (other than the pdf size) was the faux-norse setting
    • However, I do very much like how the game gives a chapter for the player to determine the truths of their particular version of the setting, whether premade choices or their own devising, cleanly separated into important topics. This is good, more games ought to do this.

All this complaining hides the fact that I actually very much like this ruleset and concept. It's very much in the strict, video-game like mechanics of Barbarian Prince, just approaching from a different angle. In some places I like Barbarian Prince a bit more (the set map), even with its clunkiness, but in others the dial slwings back to Ironsworn. It's good stuff, I would like to do more of it, with a few tweaks here and there. There's a lot of potential out there for setting hacks and playing around with lists of Truths. 

Or playing around with the beta material for Starforged, the upcoming sci-fi version.


  1. I think the great divide in solo games is the amount of specificity vs freeform they have. I like more specificity over less, because at a certain point I feel that it stops being a game and starts being a barely-guided daydream, and I already spend all day doing that automatically anyway. Ironsworn isn't that loosy-goosy, but I'm telling you having a more detailed map would make it go from really good to great.

  2. I thought the way the dice mechanic is so tightly bound into so many aspects of the game to be vary interesting. I looked at the game and said "weird dice mechanic can it be converted into something sensible?" But when I started crunching numbers I kept finding blocks of stuff that would need to be re-written to fit with another dice mechanic. I also realised that unless you understood the maths behind the mechanic you are doomed to a miserable existence of failure.

  3. I'm really enjoying this series of solo-game reviews. I'm kind of intrigued by Ironsworn, but I appreciate you pointing out some of its flaws. I don't know if the red heron motif was from the book or your own invention, but I thought that was a nice touch.

    1. The Red Heron was my own. Herons are cool.

      I was informed via discord that one of my issues with it actually came from information that was in the core book and not in the summary I was using (in that you don't have to fill up progress bars all the way, you can go as long as you feel appropriate and then make a special move that uses your boxes of progress as your action roll instead of a d6.