Yall, I am embarrassed to say that I have been sleeping on Ironsworn.
I’ve heard it mentioned as a go-to for solo play, and have always meant to check it out, but for some reason always put it off and never got around to it.
And now I’m here to tell you all about it because I think it is quite possibly the best and highest quality free game out there.
Here are some highlights.
The Book: The PDF, rather. Great layout, well organized, easy to navigate. Helpful graphics, quality art.
Multiple playstyles: You can play it solo, coop (GM-less), or guided (GM). The game was designed for solo/coop play and I think that it shows through its design choices, but it never explicitly elevates one style of play over another.
Classless: Character actions are achieved through “moves”, as from Apocalypse World and other Powered by the Apocalypse games. Customization is achieved through obtaining “assets” which grant you additional skills. Assets can be paths, companions, or combat skills. You get assets at character creation and through gameplay.
Novel dice: There is one single grand unified dice roll. Roll d6 plus stats/bonuses (the “action” roll) vs. d10 d10 (the “challenge” roll). If the action roll is greater than both d10s, that’s a strong hit and good stuff happens. If it’s greater than one and less than (or equal to) one, that’s a weak hit, and you get a mixed or partial success. If the action roll is less than or equal to both d10s, that’s a miss and stuff goes poorly. If both d10s are the same, that’s a “match” and something unexpected happens. In practice, this is more fun than the traditional “2d6 + bonuses vs target number” roll because it introduces a little more risk and variety.
Character spotlight: All rolls are character facing. The bad guy doesn’t roll to hit, you roll to evade. The bad guy doesn’t roll damage, you roll to endure harm. Subtle difference, but it keeps the spotlight on your character, which means it never lets up on player engagement.
Novel progress and advancement: In the Ironlands, your word is the most valuable thing you have. Gameplay is focused on swearing “iron vows” and then fulfilling them. When you swear a vow, you create a 10-step progress tracker or clock, and then play to reach milestones and make progress toward completing your quest. When you think you’re close enough, you can choose to do a special “progress roll” in which you don’t roll your d6. Instead you just roll your d10 challenge dice, and compare them to your progress tracker. You also use this same progress tracker mechanic for traveling, combat, and tracking relationships. This is brilliant because it allows for extra agency and risk when deciding when to complete a task. Combat, for example, becomes much more interesting than merely trying to hack away at a sack full of hit points until it is dead. Finally, when it is time to retire your character from play, you envision an ideal outcome and also your character’s greatest fear. And you make a progress roll against the number of relationships you’ve made while playing to determine where you fall on that continuum, proving definitively that the real treasure is the friends we made along the way.
There’s more to the game. For example, there’s an additional “momentum” mechanic that ties heavily into play strategy in which you can collect and then “burn” momentum to boost your action roll. But that’s basically the gist of it.
I read through the PDF, immediately made a character and played through a short scenario, and thought it was an absolute blast. I think this ruleset occupies a happy middleground between the freeform narrative combat of, say, 2400 and the crunchy numbers-based combat of more popular rpgs.
The author has also released Delve, a supplement for dungeon crawling; Starforged a complementary setting and ruleset for adventures in space; and is allegedly working on another book for sailing and adventures on the high seas!