In Ironsworn, you play as an Ironsworn, a heroic adventurer who undertake perilous quests in the darkly fantastical Ironlands. Having fled the Old World, the Ironlanders inhabit isolated communities and endure the treacherous frontier of the Ironlands, defending against creatures, monsters, and horrors, along grappling with the Ironlands' original inhabitants, the firstborn. As an Ironsworn, your duty is to forge bonds with communities, explore the wilds, fight desperate battles, swear iron vows, and see through to it that those iron vows are fulfilled—or broken.
Ironsworn is a Tabletop RPG written and self-published Shawn Tomkin. Released in 2018, the game has garnered acclaim for not only for its high quality, but also for being free.
Most notably, it won an ENNIE in 2019 for Best Free Game. It also has a generous license and a system reference document (SRD) that allows others to borrow heavily from Ironsworn and commercially port it into different settings.
This tabletop game is Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), building from the design philosophy's fiction-first, moved-based, and principle-driven approach. Beyond that, Ironsworn makes some different decisions that sets it apart from its other PbtA kin.
Instead of rolling 2d6 (two six-sided dice) like in most PbtA games, the player resolves conflict by making two rolls: the challenge roll of two ten-sided dice (2d10), and the action roll of one six-sided die (1d6). The player adds any stat modifier to the action roll's result and compare the action score to each challenge dice. If the action score is greater than both challenge dice, that's a "strong hit" (a success). If it only exceeds one challenge die, that's a "weak hit" (success with a cost or weaker effect). If it is lower than both challenge dice, that's a "miss" (a failure).
The resolution mechanic is further affected by Momentum, inspired by the tabletop RPG City Of Judas by Davide Pignedoli. Momentum is an ever-changing value that a player can "burn" to cancel challenge dice, upgrading the result to a weak or even a strong hit. And if both challenge dice result in the same number? That's a Match, which means that a strong hit or miss will have a stronger effect.
A major appeal of Ironsworn is its Oracle system. Inspired by the Mythic Game Master Emulator, players can roll dice and consult setting-specific tables for inspiration on what happens next in the game. The Oracle offers guidance for GM-driven Guided play, but it also enables two-player Co-Op play and even one-player Solo play.
Other notable mechanics include the progress roll, assets, and iron vows that drive quest creation and experience gains.
Beyond the core rulebook, Ironsworn have several expansions and supplements:
- Ironsworn Lodestar (2018): A quick reference guide with a couple of minor additions: a bonus Oracle and an alternative stat array recommended for solo play.
- Ironsworn: Delve (2020): The first major expansion adds additional mechanics and content to the game, most notably "Expeditions" for dungeon-crawling quests, along with rules for running artifacts and campaign-level threats.
- Ironsworn: Starforged (planned 2021): An in-progress standalone sequel that will bring the Ironsworn system into a dark sci-fi space setting.
This game provides example of:
- All Trolls Are Different: Trolls are among the "firstborn" races that may or may not exist in your version of the Ironlands. They're described as nearly giant-sized, long-limbed, semi-quadrupedal humanoids. Trolls are fairly elusive and shy, but enjoy collecting trinkets pilfered from the Ironlanders (most of which would be considered useless junk by anyone else). The chief feature setting them apart from trolls in similar fantasy RPGs is their ability to change the colour of their skin to match their environment.
- Basilisk and Cockatrice: The Flooded Lands are home to the beastly basilisks. Mercifully, they don't have the petrification powers that basilisk in other settings have, but they do have a "mesmerizing gaze." And they eat people.
- Blood Oath: In the Ironlands, an iron vow is the equivalent of a blood oath. On top of that, Ironsworn can choose to vow with literal blood.
- In the play example for "Swear an Iron Vow," the player character grips her sword so tightly that it cuts her palm. She envisions that "the blood fuels [her] promise."
- With the Swordmaster asset, your character can let their sword's edge draw blood while you Swear an Iron Vow, which gives a mechanical bonus in exchange for Harm.
- Dark Fantasy: The setting is often described as "perilous," as the Ironlanders contend with perpetual winter and defend against the horrific monsters of the Ironland. Magic is rare but dangerous.
- Duel to the Death: As per the Draw the Circle move description, Ironlanders can decide whether a duel can be to the death. The opponent must either comply or forfeit to this demand, and backing down after complying brings great dishonor.
- Gender Is No Object: Even though Ironsworn is a medieval-inspired setting, the rulebook present the Ironlands as a place that respects gender diversity. Gender is not considered in character creation, Ironlander names are gender-neutral, and misogyny is non-existent in the lore.
- Ghost Ship: One Quest Starter revolves around a ship that newly arrives in the Ironlands and is grounded in the Barrier Islands—decades after it was supposed to arrive. The Ironsworn can then swear to uncover the passengers' fate.
- Great Offscreen War: In one of the Old World Truths, the Ironlanders are survivors of the Skulde invasion, who enslaved or killed most of their ancestors. If chosen for the campaign background, this war would've taken place two generations and an ocean away, explaining why the inhabitants are stuck in the Ironlands while placing the invasion outside the game's scope.
- Grim Up North: Most of the Ironlands is cold and grim, but the northernmost region, the Shattered Waste, are the grimmest and coldest of all. No Ironlander inhabit the Wastes, and the few that travel there and survive to return talk about the cold and things (horrors) underneath the ice.
- Heroic Vow: Depending on the magic level of a campaign, there may not be magic driving a Ironsworn's iron vow, per se. Regardless of magic level, all versions of the Ironlands take vows seriously, and oathbreakers risk facing desolation and social isolation.
- Hit Points: As with traditional TTRPGs, Health represents the physical condition of player characters and some assets, and player characters Face Death when they hit 0 health.
- Left-Justified Fantasy Map: Averted. The Ironlands is a peninsula within the world's northern ocean, with the peninsula jutting out from the mysterious north. Meanwhile, it's left open-ended where the Ironlands is positioned relative to the Old World. The Ironlands is more of a counterpart to the Americas, while the Old World is likely analogous to Europe, Africa, and maybe Asia, which open some possibilities that elude straightforward counterparting.
- Low Fantasy: The Ironlands is not a high-fantasy setting. Rituals are rare and low-key, and could even be of a mundane nature if deemed so during world creation. Supernatural creatures and monsters are also rare and could be easily excluded from a campaign. In any case, the Ironlands is a perilous land described in hues of grey where the inhabitants survive not through epic magic but through their own grit.
- Mammoths Mean Ice Age: the Ironlands' mammoths are of the Grim Up North kind, migrating south from the northern Tempest Hills during the winter. They contrast the elephants of the southern Old World. Asides from being a potential enemy, the mammoth is also available as an asset. That is, your player character can keep and ride one.
- Multiple Life Bars: Ironsworn character sheets have three tracks that act as Life Meters: Health for physical state, Spirit for mental state, and Supply for journey preparedness. 0 Spirit can lead to desolation—which is functionally death—while 0 supply imposes an "unprepared" debility that can gradually drain the other meters. In games with multiple player characters, Supply is a Shared Life Meter.
- Non-Combat EXP:
- In the core rules, players mainly earn experience from fulfilling iron vows. While iron vows may involve defeating opponents, combat only indirectly contributes to experience by advancing a vow's progress track, and only if that combat results in defeating a major threat relating to the vow. In many cases, players are better off exploring alternatives to combat, as tangling with a random ash bear does little else but exhaust resources.
- Beyond iron vows, there are a handful of Assets that grant experience, but mostly in addition to forging bonds with other characters. The closest combat-related one, a Spirit-Bound ability, involves almost dying.
- Ironsworn Delve adds a "failure track" inspired by other Powered by the Apocalypse games, where players mark progress after missing a roll, including combat rolls, and then rolling on that track when a player character takes a moment to Learn from Their Mistakes. This optional rule allows players to earn experience for failing to kill monsters.
- Our Elves Are Different: In the Ironlands, elves are amongst the "firstborn," as they have inhabited the continent eons before the arrival of the humans. The elves's main difference from other work's elves is that they are known to always wear ornate wooden masks of great significance.
- Our Giants Are Bigger: The giants, or "Jokul," inhabit the highlands and live in nomadic family units. While Ironlanders mistake the giants for Dumb Muscle, the Jokul are intelligent, observant, clever, and reverent of life. On top of these virtues, giants are ranked at "extreme," the second-highest rank a NPC can have, so players should exercise caution before battling with giants.
- Our Ghosts Are Different: Some horrors are incorporeal, and their spectral nature are influenced by their death:
- Haunts are the Ironlands' closest entity to traditional ghosts, as they're often tied to a location, object, or person related to their death. They can also take physical form and can only be defeated through resolution or ritual.
- Sodden are the spirits of those who either died by drowning or were put to rest in water. They attempt to drown the living, and like water, they are not bound to one place.
- Our Wyverns Are Different: Wyverns are the Ironlands' stand-in for dragons, being fearsome monsters of various breeds. As the rulebooks say, "they are death."
- Our Zombies Are Different: Various "horrors" resemble zombies, while having their own quirks based on their death and circumstances:
- Bonewalkers are skeletal human undead animated by dark forces and haunting their final resting place.
- Chimera are not the living fusion of animals like in other stories. In the Ironlands, the chimera is the shambling mass of dead creatures.
- Frostbound are the corpses of those who died in the cold, and their undead remains now seek the warmth of the living. The book even suggests that other creatures aside from humans could become frostbound and could be more powerful than their living counterparts.
- Hollows are undead elves composed of natural debris and the elf's mask. They're thought to be animated by revenge and cannot be stopped until they achieve vengeance.
- Mask of Power:
- Elves conceal their faces behind ornate wooden masks rumored to contain magical powers. The extent of this magic is up to the player.
- If a player characters forge a bond with the elves and receive a mask of elderwood, the player can take the Masked path asset. When a Masked Ironsworn wears this mask, they receive stat boosts to a chosen stat determined by the type of wood, which can even help the Ironsworn when facing death or desolation.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Appropriate to a Low Fantasy settings, Ironsworn intentionally leaves it up to the player to determine which elements are magical and which elements are merely rumored to be magical. These elements can be determined during the "Your Truths" portion of world creation.
- The Migration: By default, the Ironlanders are refugees from the Old World, and the players determine the reason for this migration. One of the quest starters suggest the scenario where decades after the exodus ends, a single ship finally arrives.
- The Oath-Breaker: When you Forsake Your Vow, you can take the Oathbreaker asset. While it acts as a debility, you can send your player character on a redemption quest to atone for his oath breaking.
- Points of Light Setting: The humans of the Ironlands live in isolated settlements, and most Ironlanders stay away from the dangerous, mysterious wilderness. There are no united kingdoms, contrasting with an Old World which is either inaccessible or destroyed. The Ironlanders live apart from the Ironland's original inhabitants, the firstborn—if the firstborn even exist. These setting assumptions work together to uphold one of the principles of Ironsworn, that the player's responsibility is to "portray a heroic character in a harsh land."
- The Plague: One worldbuilding choice during campaign creation is that the Ironlanders fled a plague that ravaged the Old World. In this scenario, the disease decimated the refugees even as they sailed at sea, and the survivors feel cursed by those that they left behind. The Quest Starter? A new strain strikes the Ironlands.
- Relationship Values:
- Player characters possess binary-type Bonds with people and communities, which add narrative textures and boost some Moves, especially when interacting with the entities with which the Ironsworn have bonds. Starting bonds are determined during character creation and can be forged and broken based on the game's events.
- Most of all, the number of Bonds determine the progress score that players roll against when their character retires from the Ironsworn life and trigger the Write Your Epilogue move. In the end, an Ironlander's final days are ruled not by the riches and glory that they accrue during their adventurers, but rather the number of relationships that they've forged along the way.
- Settling the Frontier: Ironlanders are humans who have fled "The Old World" and are now settling the frontiers of the Ironlands, in hopes of making the peninsula their new home. As the rest of the setting suggests, this settling is perilous.
- Shared Life Meter: All Player Characters share the same Supply value, so when one player makes a move that increases or decreases supply, every ally makes that same change. While being Out of Supply doesn't automatically led to death, additional supply loss can sap the other Multiple Life Bars.
- Skill Scores and Perks: The Ironsworn system opts for perk-style skills called "assets," which grant options, bonuses, and special moves to player characters. These are formatted into a card format and comprise the bulk of mechanical Character Customization.
- Solo Tabletop Game: Solo play is a main play mode of Ironsworn, where one person plays a lone hero in a perilous land. The game eschews the need for a gamemaster with oracle tables to roll on and solo principles, aspects that also are useful for guided play.
- Treachery Is a Special Kind of Evil:
- Iron vows are the most sacred of promises in the Ironlands. If one forsakes a vow, such as betraying the person they vowed to, it's considered the "worst sort of failure."
- Even an unfinished vow holds magical power. An Ironsworn's unfinished vow can give unlife to a metal construct called an Iron Revenant, which cannot be stopped until it fulfill its vow.
- Trial by Combat: Ironlanders often resolve disputes through ritualized, formal duels, where the duelists determine what is at stake, each draw one-half of a circle with a sword, and then fight within that circle. No matter the outcome, the duelists are expected to abide by the term as passionately as any iron oath. The mechanics of these duels are adjudicated through the Draw the Circle move.
- War Refugees: One worldbuilding choice is that Ironlanders escaped a war against clans called the Skulde. The associated Quest Starter suggests that the Ironsworn could be a Skulde descendant and that a band of Skulde arrive in the Ironlands, possibly harbringing an invasion.
- Wolf Man: The varou are a firstborn race of wolf-like humanoids. They are territorial, going to war with both humans and elves to protect their claims.