Now that I’ve completed a playthrough of Ironsworn over 12 sessions (including a part 0), I thought I’d sit for a minute with how the system worked out for me. I’ve played it once before, albeit without Delve and without reaching a narrative conclusion. I also experimented with Starforged here, and I might do that again in the future.
So this post will go over things that stood out to me during play. Some things felt good, some not so much, but most are just things I noticed. Importantly, this is not a review. I’m not talking about things like the (excellent) index, or art, or editing, or any of those other bits that would matter in a review. I’m just musing on things I noticed during play.
This is the big one. There are a LOT of moves in the game, broken down like this (according to the Roll20 sheet anyway):
That’s just in Core. If we add in Delve:
Some get used far more frequently than others, of course. A few of them represent procedures more than a move in the fiction, or at least they felt that way in the moment. In fact, Delve takes some of the Core moves as inspiration and smooths them out, although the new versions don’t work with character Assets (roughly, abilities). For example, Delve the Depths closely replicates Undertake a Journey, but Wayfinder as written gives no help on it.
For me, this has both useful and awkward aspects. The moves have some amount of prescription to them, although a distressingly high number just ask you to Pay the Price on a miss. For a solo or co-op game, the details on what to do in case of a hit provide lots of support so you’re not tempted simply to give yourself whatever you want. But the lack of detail on what to do in case of a miss can easily lead to a player being way harder on themselves than the situation might call for.
I generally gravitate to simpler games in my group play so that we can focus more on the world and our interactions (both in and out of character). But I’ve found that I can tolerate a lot more crunch in my solo play, since nobody else is affected if I take the time to go re-read a section of the book. Even more importantly, we don’t have to settle between different interpretations. I read it, I do what seems right in the moment, and I move on. If, later on, I realize I didn’t do it as intended, nobody is asking me to go back and retcon chunks of the story.
Ironsworn and its descendant games have a concept called a “progress move”. Basically, you “mark progress” by adding a tally mark every time you successfully do something that gets you closer to success on a complex task. At various points, you can choose to conclude that task and compare the amount of progress to two d10 “challenge dice.” This works much like a regular action move but without rolling the “action die” - your progress is used in lieu of that.
If you get to 10/10 progress, you still have a 1% chance of failing on whatever the task is (by rolling 10 on both of those challenge dice). And of course, if you’re at lesser progress, your chance of a miss increases accordingly. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing!
It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.
Jean-Luc Picard, “Star Trek: The Next Generation - Peak Performance”, written by David Kemper
The actual problem arrives when you get to a high degree of progress and, in the fiction, you’ve done everything that seems to make sense: you’ve found the BBEG’s weakness, exploited it, and destroyed them. But you’ve only reached 8/10 progress, so you go ahead and roll the dice. This effectively puts the mechanic ahead of the fiction, because the advice is to add complications and twists until you get to full progress.
Honestly, I could almost replace the whole game with these. They’re very similar to racing clocks in Blades in the Dark. However, when the “countdown track fills”, instead of some bad thing automatically happening, you have to make the progress move on however far you’ve gotten.
I have some minor quibbles with which move advances the tracks, but that’s extremely minor (and I honestly do understand why things are the way they are). This is where the progress move riskiness makes total sense: when the complications get high enough, you can’t do more and have to see how it went. I will probably include this mentality even in Blades in the Dark, so that when one clock in a racing pair fills, the resolution will take into account how far the other one has gotten. This requires further thought.
In this game, NPCs really only have one stat: their rank, which determines how they deal and handle harm. Of course, the ones listed in the text have a wide variety of Features, Drives, and Tactics, and the fiction will vary even more widely. For example, Drives for intelligent NPCs represent typical ones for that class of person or creature, but individuals will vary just like real people.
This means that you don’t really need a separate bestiary. If you envision some other creature based on another game, piece of fiction, real life, or your own imagination, you only need to decide on Troublesome - Dangerous - Formidable - Extreme - Epic in terms of the mechanics.
I don’t know why, but it took me a bit to grasp the implications of that. I could imagine any denizen I wanted, give it a rank, and that was enough to get started as far as the rules are concerned. That opened up everything from bestiaries for other games to whatever popped in my head at the moment from all the many things I’ve absorbed via cultural osmosis.
I feel like recurring threats are a bit of a weakness in Ironsworn. Using the Delve rules, you can add a Threat to a given Vow, and from time to time you mark Menace as sort of a competing progress track. This is good, as far as it goes. But I’d like to see something a bit more recurring, like a rival or some other countdown that’s bigger than one vow (or, perhaps, smaller).
Maybe Starforged does something like this, or maybe not, but I think I’d like to keep a list of ongoing threats in future playthroughs to use when I roll a miss or otherwise need to figure out a complication.
I’m likely to come back to this system with Starforged again. Others have told me that it smooths out a lot of the rough patches. I expect to focus much more on exploration and see how it shines doing the thing I suspect (based on the amount and direction of the oracles) it does best.