Bargain Bin Gaming: Ironsworn (ENnie Gold Winner!)

Well, it was quite an eventful ENnie season this year! Our site had the honor to be nominated, even if we didn’t win (there is still a continual “what?” on loop that we even got considered). The hard work and dedication of the judges is wonderful, serving not only to excite us when we rediscover something that had been previously reviewed, but also offering us the opportunity of new things to explore. It was partially through ENnie nominations that Bargain Bin Gaming began, and this year I had planned to do another set of quick summaries of each of the items in the category of Best Free Product.

And then I started by taking a look at Ironsworn and I found myself unable to do it justice with a simple summary.

Most games which I have reviewed for the Bargain Bin Gaming category have been hacks of previous games in which a preexisting system has been established (such as D&D, Fate, or some Powered by the Apocalypse variant), or a relatively rules light setup that is meant to prioritize story. While this isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, it makes the work that was put into Ironsworn readily apparent. Had the authors chosen to charge for the PDF of the game, it would still be worth reviewing as a standalone indie gaming item because it offers a setting of its own, a brand new set of dice mechanics for resolving actions, has special mechanics for pursuing long term goals, and has an innovative way to make players want to tie themselves into the story.

The basic idea of the setting is that the Ironsworn are a people who were driven from their homeland generations ago, and they have found themselves settling in a cold, rocky peninsula with a distinctly Scandanavian vibe: long, cold and deadly winters and uncertain harvests, which has meant that the Ironsworn have managed to eke out a living, but are hardly thriving. These are hearty people, and even in spite of that, they are barely hanging on, and those who are willing to stand and swear by their iron are beacons in the darkness.  There are whispers that there are still the remnants of those who came before, creatures like the elves and dwarves, and whoever else might still be lurking. In point of fact, the book encourages the GM and players to come up with whatever else might be lurking.

Perhaps you want to ride the Nordic theme and have beings of the Nine Realms, or perhaps Lovecraftian horrors! Furthermore, there is a detailed breakdown of the regions of the peninsula, ranging from small islands and the ragged coastline, to long fjords, to ancient forests, to imposing mountains. There are plenty of descriptors, flavor and prompts for each of the regions in order to offer an abundance of hooks.

In fact, the book offers plenty of opportunities to flesh out the feel of the story by offering a series of prompts that you can choose from to add details.  Examples include what prompted the move from the Old World, what “iron” means to the group (it could be physical iron such as that from a meteorite, or the more metaphorical iron to stay strong in bleak situations), the role of magic and/or religion, what else might be lurking in the parts of the land that lesser men dare not tread, and many more. These sets of questions are invaluable tools for a GM to begin plotting out the kind of story that the group wants, whether it is a rugged tale of survival where even making a long journey is in doubt (like Torchbearer), or one where the players are hard nosed adventurers taking on gods, demons, and everything else in between. 

The basic mechanics certainly owe a bit to the Powered by the Apocalypse format (Apocalypse and Dungeon World are mentioned in the acknowledgements). Characters have a set of five attributes that players can choose from (Edge, Heart, Iron, Shadow, Wits), where players pick one to be the best at, two to be average at, and two to be worst at. These attributes are used as positive modifiers to a player’s roll, and depending on the outcome, players can have failure, partial success, or full success. Now, up until this point, it sounds like a carbon copy of PbtA, but here lies a massive change: there is no set target number that players roll against.

Instead, along with rolling a six sided die to act as the players score, they roll a pair of ten sided Challenge dice. The values that come up on the challenge dice are the targets that the player is rolling against. Exceeding one of those values means a partial success, but the player needs to beat both scores to have a complete success. Because the player’s action is always a 6 sided die, they are already working at a disadvantage on random chance, and as a result are reliant upon actions they have strong attribute scores for, or have character features that provide bonuses (called Assets, which effectively act as the player’s gear and/or class).

In addition, players are able to tip the scales using a new mechanic called Momentum.  Players begin at +2 on this track, and Momentum is meant to reflect the flow of actions. Players can increase their momentum as they fully succeed on checks and generally reflect the advantages they are accumulating. Players can lose momentum in cases when they only gain partial success on their actions, reflecting the cost of getting what they need. As players amass a higher Momentum score, they have the opportunity to burn it, allowing them to use that score as a replacement for their action rolls, turning a miss into a partial success, or even a partial success to a complete one.

Once done, the Momentum score is reset, meaning that players must start over from the beginning to build up their score. Conversely, if your momentum tracks into the negatives, whenever that value appears on the players die (-4 Momentum, and rolling a 4 on the d6 for example) that die is excluded from the check, making your odds increasingly dire.

While this is an interesting twist on the basic action rules, I find myself curiously drawn to how the game organizes the progression of long term goals. The game designers made a conscious choice to allow for GM-less play. While this could be used for a solo game, it also could be useful for GM agnostic playstyles. Because moves are player facing, and complications occur due to player rolls (again, a lot like PbtA games), there isn’t necessarily a need for a GM other than collective roleplaying. The book provides “Oracle” tables, which lets players select a theme and roll a percentile die to decide what the next twist would be. But this leads to a simple question: if you do so, how do you decide on a resolution for events, and whether players have progressed?

To accomplish this, the developers have created rules that chart overall progress. When players want to make progress on a long term goal, such as making a Vow, or undertaking a quest or journey, or even trying to finish off a fight, they first settle on a difficulty, ranging from Troublesome to Epic. While a GM might want to chime in, this is something that players can do collectively, allowing the entire table to get some measure of involvement in the story. Once set, players can have the chance to make Moves to add progress to the track, filling in a set of ten boxes. The difficulty of what they are trying to do determines how much is filled per success: a full success can fill multiple boxes at once on Troublesome , but nets only one of the three tick marks needed to fill a single box on Epic.

The meta has some merit to it, as it acts as a hard stop to prevent a single particularly lucky or unlucky roll from bringing a quest to a sudden end or make it impossible to complete. Then, when players decide that they formally want to attempt to complete a task, they roll a pair of challenge dice, and use the number of filled in boxes as their effective target score. If players score a complete success, they gain experience and clear the tracks. Partial success might mean that they don’t get exactly everything they want (both in terms of experience, and the in-story resolution), or they find out a secret about their goal which complicated matters. If they fail…well, progress becomes completely reset, meaning that players will need to balance their desire to complete the goal as quickly as possible with the cost of failure.

The rules keep it vague as to how often players should be able to make moves, asking that they be made when the player or party has achieved “significant progress”. To me, this is the one potential weakness to playing without a GM, as it places a lot of faith in the group to keep themselves honest, which suggests that this collaborative playstyle ought to be used by a group of roleplayers who trust each other and who have experience with keeping the story paced and balanced. In addition, the inherent rules of the challenge dice mean that even if players painstakingly slog through an epic quest and stack the deck in their favor as much as possible by completely filling in every box, they still have a one in ten chance of getting a complication. Still, it’s an innovative system, and even with the potential issues I can appreciate the approach and the thought that went into it.

All in all, I have to say that I have spent money on RPGs that have impressed me a hell of a lot less than Ironsworn. While the mechanics are a bit different, and would probably take a bit of practice to get down without issue, I can appreciate that once the groundwork is laid there is a lot that players can do with the system. It has a surprising balance of preexisting lore and world building, while still leaving the exact nature up to the decisions of those playing, and there is enough balance in mechanics to keep things interesting while being neither a cakewalk nor a death spiral. I would seriously advise people taking a look, and I sincerely think that Ironsworn earned the ENnie Gold that it just won. Kudos guys.

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