Game Review: Ironsworn

Gamewright: Shawn Tomkin / @ShawnTomkin
Year: 2018
Genre: Table Top RPG
Players: 1-5
Length: 270 pages
Playtime: Multiple Sessions
Get it here: DriveThru
Score: ★★★★☆

Who might enjoy this game?

  • Folks who enjoy the setting of Skyrim
  • Folks who enjoy telling stories and improvising
  • Folks who enjoy watching their plans overtaken by chaos
  • Folks looking for a low prep, collaborative story game that doesn’t need a Game Master

After playing it last night, Shawn Tomkin’s Ironsworn has probably become my new favorite RPG for multiple session play! It is elegant, flexible, and evocative. I will try not to burden this review with too much detail on the mechanical design. I’ll just say, as a gamewright, I am thoroughly impressed.

Ironsworn comes with a compelling, viking-inspired game world, called the Ironlands. The rules offer suggestions on how to make it your own when you begin playing. The FREE rule book is 270 pages, but unlike other RPG rule books of that size, much of it isn’t required to run the game properly. The page count comes from copious examples of play, optional material, and random tables to help you fill in your story on the fly and keep things spontaneous. The essential rules you need to run the game actually fit in a 34-page reference guide, called Ironsworn Lodestar, which is also FREE, and basically required, in my opinion.

You play by FIRST narrating or acting out what your character does, THEN you decide what rules best fit that action. The jargon for this style of design is called “Fiction First”. This style might be a bit slow to get into for someone who is more familiar with traditional RPGs, but it seems natural enough for new players. By leading with a dynamic narration, you avoid the trap of just rolling the same thing over and over until you get the result you want or die trying. Often times, when you roll poorly, or you don’t know what should happen next, you will be prompted to roll on a random table, called an “Oracle” in the rules. The Oracle is one of the strongest features of the game, and it is what allows Ironsworn to be run without a GM.

The particular random table my friend and I became most acquainted with was the “Pay the Price” table, which is used in combat. If you want a game were you feel powerful and in-control with strategic opportunities, then I don’t know if Ironsworn is for you. If you want a surprising and perilous fantasy romp, played over multiple sessions, that you don’t need much preparation to play, Ironsworn is THE game to try!

Everything you need to read to play the game is “pay what you want”, so I suggest downloading the PDFs for free, then if you like it, go back and buy the expansion Ironsworn Delve. That’s what I did.

Critiques: Documents and Difficulty

Now, you may notice, despite the high praise, I’ve given the game 4 out of 5 stars. This is because, while the core rules are simple and flexible, the layout of rule book makes things more confusing and complicated than they need to be. Moreover, to actually play the game, you’ll need lots of reference in front of you. My friend and I were playing over voice chat, and I had to keep our character sheets, the rule book, the Lodestar reference guide, the map, and a progress chart open and accessible. I have two monitors, and it was still pretty awkward. Now a lot of this can be solved with organizing what you’ll need ahead of time, maybe printing out a few things, but you won’t know that on your first time. Also, if you have the PDF versions, you’ll need to have the Assets PDF open in order make your character. It’s not complicated book-keeping, you just need access to several pages at once.

The difficulty settings in this game are also a bit opaque for the first-timer. There are two main things to know about difficult in Ironsworn: 1) You might want to try making your character at the Challenging Level, which gives you higher ability bonuses the default Perilous Level. 2) Everything else in the game is on a scale of Troublesome, Dangerous, Formidable, Extreme, and Epic. Formidable is absolutely as high as I would go for anything in you first game. Until you have a feel for how the game is played, you really don’t know what it means to take on an Epic Level vow or fight a Formidable Level enemy. So just give yourself a nice casual experience on your first time, and then ramp up the difficulty as you become more comfortable.

Praise: Flexibility and Elegance

The module nature of each move having its own rules, and the design mechanically supporting the tension in the narrative, makes Ironsworn a brilliant game, if somewhat awkward to learn. All you need to know about your enemies in combat is really explained in the “Enter the Fray” move, and the rest is up to your imagination. Sure, you can look up the official monsters, but they don’t have extra stats or mechanics. The player’s job is to make the monster work in the story they are telling. The mechanics of each move the player makes are what give the consequences to enemies. This mean that players can be as creative as they like as long as they stick to the “Fiction First” method of play.

The game asks you to roll 1 six-sided die, add your ability bonus to it, then compare that to the results of 2 ten-sided dice to determine the effectiveness of your action. If you rolled above both ten-sided dice, its a full success. If you only rolled above one of them, it’s a partial success. If you rolled under both, then its a miss, which comes with stern draw-backs. Sometimes, instead of rolling your six-sided die, you compare the 2 ten-sided dice against the progress bar of a monster or vow to determine if you have succeeded or not. This means the further along you are with a fight or quest, the more likely you are to get a positive conclusion to it. It answers a lot of concerns about adjustable difficulty that critics of games inspired by Apocalypse World have.

I’ll be playing the heck out of this game, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. In my gaming groups, I’m often the one who has to be the Game Master, which means I am left out of the fun the players are having while they discover the next surprise or take on the next challenge. With Ironsworn, you can just talk about how to interpret your dice rolls and add to the story collaboratively without the need for a Game Master behind the screen pulling all the strings. It has de-throned Dungeon World as my go-to game for campaign play. It’s marvelously innovative and deliriously fun! I hope you give it a try soon!

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