A couple of weeks ago, someone linked Ironsworn. I had never heard of it before and had no idea it was an Apocalypse World hack. Let’s be honest, I grabbed it because the cover looked cool and it was free on DriveThruRPG. Reading over the description from the publisher, the idea of a game designed for both a GM lead adventure and a choose your own adventure style game also piqued my interest.
After reading through it, it almost seems wrong to call it an AW hack. The game keeps some of the basic mechanics, but also makes some big changes. The quality put into this work is definitely higher than what I’d expect in something that I didn’t have to pay for. In fact, it is better than some I have paid for.
The Art of Ironsworn
The artwork was something I have seen attempted before. I have even experimented with it myself on some projects. This is the first time I have seen someone pull it off and have it look good, though. Ironsworn art is a series of photographs taken of men and women in period garb. The costumes are of high quality and so are the photographs. Maybe the problem is that every other example I have seen is that people try to embellish with a variety of effects. The other part behind it is whoever took the photographs was a skilled / talented photographer. I am no photographer, but I know enough to know there is a science behind it: from positioning and composition to lighting and beyond, I think whoever did this understood those concepts and put their understanding to good use. As I mentioned, the photographs showcase real people in period appropriate dress, so there are no chainmail bikinis here. There are plenty of shots of both men and women. Also, most of the images show a single individuals. And, maybe I am reading too much into it, but using photographs of single subjects may lend itself well to the psychology of getting players to see themselves in the roles of their characters, which can bring about more buy-in and suspension if disbelief.
Apocalypse World Rules, But Different
I’ve played a number of AW games and variants. I’m not saying I’m an expert or scholar on Apocalypse World hacks, but I like to think I have a pretty good understanding of the rules and different ways they have been modified. The rules used here, however, are something I have not seen before. Ironsworn is by no means the first fantasy AW hack. In fact, Dungeon World is widely known and player–some say better known than the original. If I were to choose between the two, however, I’m definitely leaning toward Ironsworn. One of the key reasons behind that is the customization of the characters.
Character Customization in Ironsworn
In Apocalypse, you are able to choose from a variety of playbooks. These characters all have some relatively set abilities and you can select from that specific set of powers as they gain experience in the world. In Dungeon World, characters are based on traditional fantasy RPG classes, like the ranger, thief, cleric, etc. You get equipment and abilities that fit the theme of these classes and gain more from that specific set as you carry on in your adventures. In Ironsworn, however, when creating your character, you get to choose three Assets when you start out. The different types of Assets you can choose from are companions, paths, martial focus, and rituals. As you gain experience, you can gain more abilities from an Asset you already possess, or you may elect to purchase new Assets. It does not appear there is any limit to the number of Assets you have. So, you can have a magic wielding sword master with a pet wolf, if you wish.
Assets aren’t all that make up your Ironsworn character, however. One of the key things you will need decide upon is the Oath(s) you character will undertake. That’s where the game’s name comes from. Characters in this game swear oaths and they place their hand upon precious iron when doing so. You’ll start with one or two and gain others throughout game play. There is a whole mechanic based around fulfilling these. the same is true for journeys and bonds. There is a track for these things and you must roll to be able to successfully complete any of them.
Some Differences You’ll Pick Up On Quickly
In Ironsworn, your character has three important tracks–Health, Spirit, and Supply. Health is like HP, Health, or Vigor in other games. Meanwhile, Spirit is like Willpower or other forms of mental resilience. Supply, I am trying to remember if I have seen done quite like this before. This covers all sorts of gear your character might rely upon for survival–arrows, rations, rope. Run out of this and you might find yourself up a particular creek without a paddle.
The GM doesn’t roll and that’s common, but the players are basically expected to roll against themselves. There is also a section for the Oracle, particularly used when running a GM-less game, which asks Fate to step in and make some important decisions for your game. Another option that is new here, but something I really enjoy in the Conan RPG, is Momentum. It’s a bit more fickle here where it goes up and down and can positively or negatively impact your character’s chances of success along the way.
The Action Roll
This is where I say it’s hard for me to look at Ironsworn and refer to it simply as a derivative of Apocalypse World. In AW, you roll two six-sided dice to determine relative success or failure. The higher, the better. In Ironsworn, though, you roll three dice instead of one–two ten-sided dice and one six-sided. The two ten-sided dice are your Challenge Dice and set the difficulty. The six-sider you roll is added to things such as character’s Stat and Adds like those from an Asset. You’re not added the two ten-sided dice together. You are comparing your other roll against each of them individually. Don’t beat other, you miss and things go bad. Beat one, but not the other: succeed, but at a cost. Beat both and you’ve done as well as you could hope for.
Is Ironsworn the RPG You’ve Been Waiting For?
I honestly don’t know how much the game has been talked about or promoted in various gaming circles. I do know, however, that it looks like a lot of fun and something a bit different at the same time. I am apprehensive about the mechanic, because it seems–with my poor grasp of statistics–that the chances to fail or at least fail to achieve excellence are stacked against you. Someone here want to do the math for me? Failure can be great, if that is the case. Also, if that’s the case, it makes those stellar successes that much more rewarding.
I enjoy the customization. It looks neat. These new tracks are also something I think I would enjoy and even possibly port into other games. It seems like a game more designed for ongoing campaign play that other AW hacks I have seen. So, for people just looking for that single session game, this may not be the right one for you. However, if you’re looking for a simpler campaign style fantasy game–simpler than those two 800 pound gorillas in the room–this is definitely something worth checking out. I also like the idea of rules pre-made to run myself through a game without having to worry if I’ll fudge the rules either to be harder or easier on myself.