review and actual play
review and actual play
Ironsworn is a fantasy roleplaying game. It is probably the best and most complete free game available.
It has complete rules, great layout, and great art. There is a complete setting with a map and history (but no settlements/towns), and a bestiary.
Its Powered by the Apocalypse roots are evident enough that it should feel familiar and quick to learn if you’ve played that kind of game before. But it has enough uniqueness to make it stand out on its own and be really fun.
Here’s what you need to know at a quick glance.
Supports solo, coop (dmless), and guided (with a dm) play. The text does a really good job of not elevating any one playstyle above the others.
All actions take the form of Moves a la Powered by the Apocalypse. There are no “playbooks” like some other PbtA games: all moves are available to all characters. Customization is accomplished through acquiring assets that grant you additional skills. Assets can be paths (classes, kind of), companions, and combat skills. You gain them during character creation, and through gameplay.
All rolls are character facing. Which means everything in the game happens from the view of the character. Monsters don’t roll to hit, you roll to evade. And they don’t roll damage, you roll to endure harm. Etc. This is fun because the spotlight never leaves the players.
There is only one grand unified roll: d6 + stats/bonuses vs d10 d10. You want your d6 roll to be higher than both d10s. If they are, strong hit: things go great. If it’s higher than one and less than (or equal to one), weak hit: mixed success. If it’s less than both, that’s a miss: things go poorly. There’s also a momentum mechanic that you can use to turn the odds in your favor, but that’s the gist of it.
This is inspired by its Powered by the Apocalypse roots, but is more fun and interesting than rolling 2d6 vs target number because of the random moving-target of the d10 d10 challenge dice.
In D&D, the point of playing is slaying monsters (or maybe achieving milestones) so you can gain xp and level up so you can slay bigger monsters.
In Ironsworn, the point of playing is to swear vows and then make progress toward fulfilling them so you can level up and make more progress toward bigger, more epic vows.
The difference is that Ironsworn feels very narrative focused and very personal to your character.
These vows are a cultural cornerstone of the Ironlands by the way. Nothing is more important than your word. And they are always made while touching iron. Hence the name of the game.
There is a novel progress mechanic that might be inspired by Blades in the Dark so you can track your progress toward fulfilling your vow. The same mechanic is used for traveling and journeys, and for combat. To complete one of these things, you roll your challenge dice again (d10 d10) and compare them to how full your progress track is (x out of 10). This is super interesting because it gives you the opportunity to be risky or play it safe when deciding when to try to wrap something up. It makes combat, for example, much more fun and dynamic than just trying to whittle down a big sack of health points until it dies.
Ending your game also uses this progress mechanic. But it measures your progress as bonds, connections to people and locations you’ve made while playing. So when you use the Write Your Epilogue move, you imagine an ideal outcome for your character, and your worst fears. Then you test your progress as measured in the friends you made along the way to see which comes true.
Below is a quick play session that I did after already spending a little bit of time creating the world and creating a character.
Note: my solo play style is very narrative heavy. If you just want to see some dice rolling, skip down a couple paragraphs into Burial.
Three generations ago, Constance Copperpot was universally recognized, hands down, to be the finest baker in Dolmenwatch. Possibly in all of south Havens. Until, that is, that fateful day the traveling fair came town and hosted Dolmenwatch’s bi-annual baking competition, and the entire panel of judges dropped dead after trying Constance’s tartberry pie. Accused of poisoning her pastries and attempted murder, she and her family were run out of town and forced to live on their own in the nearby Flooded Lands.
Today, Constance died. And her great-granddaughter, Calliope Copperpot, has just sworn an iron vow to clear her grandmother’s name and restore her family legacy. No matter the cost, no matter how long it takes.
Today is the day we throw Connie in the bog.
It’s what we’ve done with our dead since fleeing to the steading sixty years ago. There’s no way you can bury them in the ground here. Not if you expect them to stay where you put em. They’ll eventually just float back up to the surface.
Critter says that’s how you get bonewalkers. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never seen one. Not sure they’re even real.
So anyway, whenever somebody from the steading dies, we toss them into the bog. That’s what the swamp folk do. And I guess we’re swamp folk now too, so.
Marshwallow the troll lives out that way. We always bring him something shiny whenever we go out that way. If we wait too long between visits, sometimes he wanders into the steading and steals something. But he’s mostly harmless. I pick out one of Connie’s old bracelets for him.
We load up Connie onto a litter and hitch up the mule. It’s Auntie Cass and me and a few cousins. She’s wrapped in a shroud and doesn’t it doesn’t seem like her, not really.
I keep an eye out for Marshwallow when we make it into his part of the swamp. He can be really hard to spot because he looks like leaves and vines, and likes to hide and sneak up on us.
We get to the edge of the bog without Marshwallow making an appearance. Which is unusual but not unheard of. Sometimes he disappears for a few a weeks.
A few of the swamp folk are already there at the bog. I see Critter with them. Auntie Cass says a few words. Connie outlived her own daughter and one of her granddaughters. Cass was Connie’s oldest living descendent. And now she’s the oldest one in the family. Which makes her the Big Mama now.
We unhitch the litter from Astronomer. The cousins tie a few stones to Connie’s shroud and wade out into the bog with her and lower her down.
50/50 Does it happen now? 88 = yes with a MATCH oh boy
We hang around for a little bit telling stories about Connie. Astronomer starts acting up and getting really antsy.
A man—it looks like a man completely covered in drying mud—comes staggering out from the treeline. The swamp folk start yelling and scrambling. But everybody from the steading, Aunt Cass, me, and the cousins, are all kind of confused. Astronomer freaks out and bolts, and I run after him.
I catch Astronomer’s reigns, and turn around in time to see the mud man suddenly rush forward with unexpected speed and grab one of the cousins. The mud man shoves his fingers into the boy’s chest and the boy doesn’t even scream. I can hear him gasp from here though. Somebody shouts “Bonewalker!” and that seems to snap everybody into action.
A couple folks from the steading rush forward to try to pull the thing off the boy, but it tosses them aside. Aunt Cass is frozen in place staring at the bonewalker and cries, “Papa?”
I grab a branch and climb up on Astronomer and try to circle around the horror.
Move: Enter The Fray2/2): [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] Bonewalker (Dangerous 5 +shadow = 6 vs 2 10 = weak = +2 momentum it has initiative?
Astronomer and I come up on the bonewalker from behind, but at the last minute is whirls around and lunges at us. I yank hard on the reins trying to pull Astronomer up short of the thing’s claws.
Move: Face Danger2 +edge = 4 vs 5 7 = miss = Pay The Price
Astronomer rears up. The thing positions itself underneath us, and as Astronomer comes down, it sinks its claws and its teeth into his chest. Astronomer screams and I get kicked off.
I watch as the thing tears into my mule. Frantically I look around to try to find any kind of advantage.
Move: Secure an Advantage4 +wits +1 (Lorekeeper) = 7 vs 3 6 = strong hit 1 moveMake another +
I remember from my studies that the bog has extraordinary abilities to preserve bodies. That must be why this bonewalker is still so fleshy. Usually they’re, you know, bones. Like the name implies.
I grab a stone and fit it in my sling and throw it at the thing.
Move: Strike4 +edge +1 (Advantage) = 7 vs 3 4 = strong hit 1 harm, retain initiative +2/2): [x][x][x][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]Bonewalker (Dangerous
The stone cracks against its head and it wails.
Is the boy still alive?17 = no Unlikely: Is the mule still alive?50/50: 32 = no
I look at the boy and at the mule, at the carnage this thing has wrought in just an instant. In a blind fury, I pick up the branch and rush at the thing.
Move: Strike5 +iron = 6 vs 2 7 = weak hit 2/2): [x][x][x][x][x][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]Bonewalker (Dangerous
I swing with all my might and feel the thing’s ribs crunch. It howls and turns toward me, its dark, empty eyes glowing.
Oracle Combat Move98 = Attack with Power
It leaps at me in fury, unleashing an onslaught of blows. I raise my arms trying to protect my face and chest.
Move: Endure Harm2 health = 3 -6 +health 9 vs 6 3 = strong hit Shake it off: +health -momentum, regain intiative
It claws at my forearms and I try to quickly scramble away and try to regroup.
Move: Face Danger (to get out of reach)6 +edge = 8 vs 7 5 = strong hit 1 momentum+
I roll out of the thing’s reach and load another stone into my sling and take careful aim.
Move: Secure an Advantage2 +wits = 5 vs 3 1 = strong hit 1 moveMake another +
I let the stone fly.
Move: Strike4 +edge +1 (Advantage) = 7 vs 4 4 = strong hit with MATCH 1 harm +2/2): [x][x][x][x][x][x][x][x][ ][ ] Bonewalker (Dangerous = Advance Truth Oracle Action Theme Gonna bank the Match for a moment because I have an idea for it later
It connects with its head again and seems to crack its skull. It stumbles and falters and falls to one knee. I drop the sling and run at it, screaming in pain and fury. I scoop up the branch on the way and raise it above my head in both hands.
Move: End the Fight8 Progress vs 6 1
I bring the club down on the horror. It feebly reaches up and tries to claw at me but I swing and bat its hands away. I bring it down again and again until it stops moving. I drop the club and fall to the ground, heaving and crying. My forearms are torn. The boy is dead. The mule is dead.
Cass steps forward and kneels beside me. At some point she unstuck herself from where she was rooted. She rolls the horror over so she can look at its face. It is beaten in, but well preserved by the bog. Again she asks, “Papa?”
One of the swamp folk comes over and pulls her hands away from it. “That’s not him, cherie,” he says. “Not anymore.”
Just because the Copperpots have lived in exile for over three generations doesn’t mean they’re not still the best bakers and chefs in the whole southeast. Truth be told, with access to new ingredients found in the Flooded Lands, their recipes have only gotten better over time. It is said that the finest Copperpot ales and sodas even have restorative and healing qualities.
Calliope is a young woman armed with several kitchen knives including an oversized meat cleaver that could sever an arm with one swing, and a large spiked hammer used for tenderizing meat. Handily, most creatures and villains are made out of meat. She has a cast iron skillet, a large stock pot, and other tools of the trade. With extensive knowledge of herbs and spices (Herbalist, Alchemist) and armed with her Great-Grandmother Constance’s cookbook (Lorekeeper), Calliope is ready to find out what really happened that fateful summer day. Somebody set Gramma Connie up. And she’s going to find out who. And why. She clutches her skillet in both hands and vows, “I will clear our name, Grandma. I will avenge you, and restore your legacy. On iron, I swear it.”
Twelve years ago, Constance Copperpot, the killer pastry chef of Dolmenwatch, died; Marshwallow the swamp troll and his worthless hoard of shiny baubles all vanished without a trace, never to return; and the dead started rising from the funeral bog as bonewalkers and started terrorizing the steading and the scattered swamp folk who live in the area.
A bunch of soulless monsters driven only to destroy the living would be bad enough. To add insult to injury, these ones just happen–thanks to the bog—to be perfectly preserved family members and loved ones.
Subsequently a lot has changed over the last dozen years. Now there are piked walls and night watch patrols and curfews. Funeral rites and rituals had to be changed overnight. Whereas before the dead found earthy watery rest at the bottom of the bog, they are now burned on funeral pyres, their brittle bones systematically crushed with a ceremonial iron hammer used only for that purpose, lest they too get up and start walking around trying to extinguish any and all life they come across.
Twelve years ago, Calliope Copperpot wasn’t even a teenager when she used a simple sling and a tree branch to destroy the first of the bonewalkers of Copperpot Steading. A bonewalker that wore the face of her grandfather, Batup.
Today the scars from that battle are still visible on her foreamrs as she holds her great-grandmother’s castiron skillet in both hands out in front of her at chest height. “Today I am as old as my mother was when she died. And today I leave the steading and I will not come back until I have found a way to purify and cleanse the bog. When I return, our dead will be able to rest easy once more. On iron I swear it.”
Move: Swear an Iron Vow3 +heart +1 (bond) = 6 vs 5 6 = weak hit begin your quest with more questions than answers. you are determined but 1 momentum, and envision what you do to find a path forward.Take +
“All I know is that all of this started in Dolmenwatch. So that’s where I’ll begin.”