Ironsworn Cover

Ironsworn Co-Op

My experience with Ironsworn began when I went looking for a tabletop RPG I could play with my oldest son. Our family of four has a regular 5e DnD game we play biweekly, and I GM that campaign, but it takes a fair amount of prep and requires a chunk of time to play. I wanted something that could be played with only two people, didn’t require a lot of prep, but was still a full RPG experience and not a board game. If it could be played in smaller chunks at a time, that was a bonus. I should mention I have extensive experience DMing both 4th and 5th edition DnD, but no experience running other TTRPGs. In fact I have very little experience playing any other TTRPGs. 

Naturally I turned to Google, Reddit, my network on Mastodon, and various other places. I received plenty of suggestions, one of which was Ironsworn. It fast became apparent the game had almost everything I was looking for, and I’m incredibly happy to have found it. 

Ironsworn, by Shawn Tomkin, is a Powered by the Apocalypse game set in a low-fantasy Viking-inspired world. PbtA games tend to be focused on role-play and the collaborative narrative through which players describe what happens. They’re generally rules-lite, though that can vary from game to game. What makes Ironsworn somewhat unique among PbtA games is that it is designed to be played in one of three ways. First, it can be played with a traditional game master—the book refers to this as “guided.” Second, it can be played “co-op” or DM-less. Finally, it can be played solo, by making extensive use of a series of “Ask the Oracle” tables located in the back of the book. 

In any case, that middle option, playing co-op, was exactly what I was looking for, so I downloaded the rulebook and started reading. The first thing I noticed about Ironsworn is it truly is designed to be played in any of those three ways. Certain rolls can result in the player “asking the oracle” which means you either A) look at the GM (in guided play) or B) roll on one of the oracle tables (in co-op or solo play). The fact that different ways of playing are baked in from the outset makes the game extremely flexible. I devoured the rulebook and then my son and I made our characters and started playing. We’ve had a blast. 

PbtA games, as I mentioned, are very much fiction-first. That is, the players describe what their characters do and based on what they describe certain moves are triggered. Rather than a player saying “I hit the giant rat,” and then the GM saying “make your attack roll,” the player describes what their character is doing, “I rush forward at the giant rat, drawing my sword as I move. I stab at the rat’s heart, hoping to impale it.” This triggers a move, in this case Strike, which requires the player to make a roll. Rolls result in either a strong hit, a weak hit, or a miss. With the Strike move, for instance, a strong hit means you inflict harm +1 and you retain initiative—meaning the player(s) get to keep describing the action. On a weak hit, the character inflicts harm (but without the extra +1) and then loses initiative. At this point the game asks, “You mark your harm, and your foe has initiative. What do they do next?” This would be narrated by the GM in a guided game and by the player(s) in solo or co-op play. On a miss, the attack fails and the character must Pay the Price. Part of this is losing initiative. 

A strong hit might be narrated with, “Ok, your strike works flawlessly, you impale the rat on your sword, puncturing its heart. What do you do next?” 

A weak hit might be narrated with, “So your strike doesn’t quite go off perfectly. As you thrust forward you slip on a bit of gravel. Your strike still slices the rat, but a second rat jumps at you, it’s yellowed teeth scraping down your arm. That’s two harm. The rat doesn’t let up, it’s still coming at you.” 

A miss might be expressed with, “Your strike goes wide and the rat hisses before lunging at your foot. You feel his teeth sink into your ankle. Mark two harm. Time to pay the price.” At which point the GM/player would A) make the most obvious negative outcome happen (perhaps the character trips over the rat), B) envision a couple negative outcomes and roll for which one happens, or C) roll on the “Pay the Price” table. 

As mentioned above in Ironsworn one can retain or lose initiative. Initiative in this case has nothing to do with turn order. In fact, there is no strict turn order inside or outside combat in Ironsworn. Rather, initiative indicates who is moving the narrative forward. When a player has initiative, they are describing the action and making things happen. When a player loses initiative they are on their back foot, things are happening to them and they must react. It’s a really interesting system and it works well to both stretch your story-telling muscles in co-op play and allows the GM to throw creative challenges at the players in guided play.

It’s worth noting, foes do not have health. Rather, depending on their rank, each point of harm fills a certain number of marks on their progress tracker. When a player describes their character taking decisive action to end the fight, they make the End the Fight move, which uses the number of filled boxes checked against a challenge dice (see below) roll to determine the outcome. This way of resolving combat can feel a little clunky, especially the first few times you get into a fight, and I don’t know if it’s superior to just giving monsters hit points. But it does provide a narrative focused way to move towards the end of a fight, particularly in DMless play. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, the system works, though I think this may be my least favorite element of Ironsworn. 

Another unique thing about Ironsworn is the way rolls work. For any roll you make, you roll three dice. Two d10 and one d6. The 2d10 are your challenge dice, they determine the numbers to beat. The d6 is your action die. Typically, a stat is added to your action die result, and sometimes an additional bonus.

Here’s an example. The dice are rolled and the challenge dice come up 4 and 9. Your action die, the d6, is a 3. This would be a failure, but you almost always add a stat value to your roll (in this case, Iron), which is 2, we’ll say, making it a 5. Since the action die is greater than one of the challenge dice, but is not greater than the other challenge die, this is a weak hit. A strong hit means the modified result of the action die is greater than both challenge dice. A miss means the modified result of the action die is lesser then or equal to both the challenge dice. This system is a little difficult to wrap one’s mind around, but it does a tremendous job of ensuring there is a great deal of variety in rolls, which helps keep the narrative moving in interesting directions. This is also a little different from most PbtA games, where rolls tend to be a simpler 2d6 beat-a-number system—though other PbtA games still retain what is essentially ranges for strong hit, weak hit, and miss. 

Narratively, Ironsworn revolves around characters swearing iron vows. Once sworn, the characters work toward completing their vows, which drives the story forward. Completing vows is also the primary way characters gain experience, which can then be used to purchase new assets. These assets come in various forms, from animal companions to magical rituals to combat moves. As you may be able to tell, there are no character levels. A character doesn’t gain hit points or increase stats. Ironsworn has a very shallow mechanical character progression curve. Its emphasis is more on what happens in the narrative and how the character grows in that way, rather than on new mechanics the character gains access to. 

The rulebook is organized well and helps to ease readers into the system from the first pages. As usual, I did find I needed to get my hands on a character sheet before I completely understood character creation, but the player’s kit available from the Ironsworn website is very helpful and contains not only the character sheet but also summaries for how rolls work, for various moves, and a sheet to record progress against foes in combat or progress on any journeys the character undertakes. There isn’t much artwork in the rulebook, and what does exist is primarily photographs of people in Viking-inspired garb or of thematic landscapes. The PDF is helpfully linked and easy to navigate both on my laptop and on my iPad. 

What I love about Ironsworn is how well it works playing without a GM. My son and I sit down probably three or four evenings a week to play. Somehow, we never get to a lull where one of us doesn’t have an idea of what to do next (and on the occasions where we’ve gotten close, we just roll on one of the oracle tables). Combat has lots of variety, not because there are a ton of mechanical moves, but because he and I keep trying to outdo one another with our descriptions of what happens. There have been battles where my character has mostly kept enemies at bay with a spear while his character closes to finish them off. Other battles have been a chaotic melee of trading blows and tripping over one another. There have been plenty of sessions where combat doesn’t even enter in. We’ve journeyed across various dangerous lands, fallen into rivers, helped fleeing farmers, discovered powerful magic, been confused by odd sheep, and even spent time foraging for food. My son’s first experience with RPGs was the excellent Hero Kids. He then moved on to DnD and that has been and continues to be a lot of fun. But with Ironsworn, I think he’s learning much more about how to actually play a role, rather than simply play a game. An RPG the two of us can just pick up and play (now that we understand the rules), and where the story keeps evolving and going off in unexpected directions, is exactly what I was hoping to find. I’ll admit to being surprised that we have both managed to keep the creative juices flowing while we play. Those weak hits and even misses keep throwing new story elements in our way. I don’t know how well this game would work in a traditional guided style with a GM, and it’s definitely true to say that this is a fiction-first game where mechanics take a bit of a back seat. It’s really first and foremost about telling the story of your character. Even so, it wouldn’t be right to call it a story game. There are real mechanics and rules here that help you to craft the story and provide adjudication. In the end, Ironsworn answers the particular questions I was asking and it has provided hours of fun. I expect it will continue to do so.

2 responses to “Ironsworn Co-Op”

  1. Great post. Ironsworn has been coming up a lot lately. Sounds like a great time with your son. That’s good stuff. Do they sell individual adventures or is it one adventure baked into the core rules (like the old Fighting Fantasy books)?


    • Ironsworn adventures and campaigns are very much “play to find out.” In other words, they don’t have pre-generated adventures as much as they have some adventure prompts. The iron vows that the characters take are meant to allow the players a large creative role in the way any adventure or campaign begins and unfolds, even if using a more traditional guided style of play.

      Having said that, I have heard several folks speak highly of the Quest Fronts ‘zine, which includes Dungeon World style fronts for use in Ironsworn. Think of a front sort of like an adventure starter, not a fully described adventure, but a couple pages of ideas that get the creative juices flowing, so to speak. It’s available on DriveThruRPG:–Issue-1

      Liked by 1 person

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