If there’s one campaign setup as classic as wandering fantasy heroes looting dungeons, it's space scoundrels flying from planet to planet getting into trouble. From Traveller to Star Wars to Firefly and beyond, there’s just something alluring about standing on the deck of a beat up spaceship trying to keep the lights on for one more big score. Designer Shawn Tomkin scored an indie hit with Ironsworn a couple years ago and now he’s back with Ironsworn: Starforged. He’s adapted the rules he built for dark fantasy into a game to take to the stars. He sent along a review copy of the recently released digital version for me to check out as I quite enjoyed the original experience and its expansion Ironsworn: Delve. Does the game make the jump to hyperspace or does it need to be overhauled? Let’s play to find out.
The Ironsworn system takes inspiration from many modern systems. There’s a little bit of PbtA, a little bit of Blades In The Dark, a little bit of OSR and more. It all comes together in service of an interesting goal; while these games can be played in the traditional GM/group of players dynamic, they can also be players without a GM or even completely solo. The player takes action and makes a move by rolling the appropriate stat plus a d6 against 2d10. If the d6 +stat roll beats both d10, it is a strong hit. If it beats one of the d10, it’s a weak hit. If it rules underneath, it’s a failure. This version of the system adds in crits. If the d10s roll doubles, that amplifies the success or failure to a critical one depending on if the d6 + stat beats it or not.The 2d10 adds an uncertainty to actions that’s very exhilarating and feels like a GM making judgment calls on a roll.
Players often have to make a Suffer move move when they fail which allows them a little control over their failure. They can take physical or mental damage. They can lose momentum, which is an overall representation of their luck and how well their mission is going. They can shift the damage onto a companion or an ally. Or they might even be asked to Pay The Price, which is one way oracle charts come into play. These charts are full of story beats and plot twists that drive the action forward even after a bad roll. If you fail to bribe the port authority, and you roll “you reveal a new enemy” that could mean a few different things. Maybe a new planetary governor is cracking down on smugglers. Maybe a new crime boss has moved in and wants a bigger piece of the action. Maybe the cargo inspector is related to that smuggler you shot down last session. It’s all up to the player (or the Guide in versions with a GM) to interpret the roll.
Interacting with the oracles begins fairly early on in campaign prep as they are used in developing the galaxy in which you’ll play. The setting is broadly space opera: you are a human operating a ship in a far off sector of space that’s littered with alien ruins but no live aliens. The hows and whys of these elements are determined by either rolling or choosing from oracle tables. This allows the player to set the dials on how powerful the lost aliens were and what, if any sort of space magic might be out there. Then the player sets up their starting sector and generates planets based on the type of game they want. You want a game like Firefly bouncing from frontier world to frontier world getting sucked into adventures? You want something more like No Man’s Sky where you roll onto a newfound planet and figure out its secrets? Starforged has you covered.
Creating characters follows a similar manner in that you can roll or select concepts. Characters are built from a spread of stats and three assets which include specific moves. These assets can be background, skill sets, companions, fancy gear or even cool bits for your ship. Players then Swear An Iron Vow that represents their first big mission. It’s up to the player how big this vow is. The bigger the vow, the bigger the payoff but the longer it will take and the more likely the player will suffer setbacks along the way. It’s okay to set a modest vow like “get this vital medicine to Optima IV '' or something big like “Free Tartarus Sector from the tyranny of Grand Galactrix Synarr”. The gameplay thrives on the tension between achieving milestones on things like these vows or the relationships you have with NPCs and the troubles you have to overcome to get there.
The book also gives plenty of advice on how to customize moves and assets. I think it would be very easy to use Starforged to play in a preexisting space setting or to run a campaign for yourself with the oracles. Coming up with assets to represent alien species or iconic equipment like laser swords or element zero manipulators should be relatively simple for fans of specific series. The oracles can also be useful for GMs of any sci-fi game as a way to create villains, locations and other essential bits of adventure.
Ironsworn: Starforged is an excellent follow up to the original and is highly recommended for sci-fi fans who want to explore the final frontier without the need for a GM.
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