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Learning From Mentors

Image Credit: Lucasfilm

I was watching showcases for upcoming video games this week, and one of the games featured mentors as the foundation of its skill system. There wasn't much detail offered, but I would imagine this is represented in-game by finding a mentor, spending time training and doing tasks for them, and leveling up your character's skills to reflect that mentor's area of expertise.

"Huh," I thought to myself. "That'd be a cool little game loop for a tabletop roleplaying game."

And then I remembered — I've already made that game. Mentoring is implicitly and explicitly built into Ironsworn and Starforged.

Mentor relationships are a cornerstone of genre fiction. Mentors give the protagonist the knowledge, support, and skills they need to overcome the challenges that lie ahead. They also tend to introduce the protagonist to the larger world and greater threats, taking our eventual hero out of the status quo and motivating them into action. Some examples of mentors and mentees include Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), Morpheus and Neo (The Matrix), and Gandalf and Frodo Baggins (The Lord of the Rings).

Image Credit: New Line Cinema

Mentor relationships can also be multifaceted. In Treasure Island (and Disney's Treasure Planet adaptation), the pirate Long John Silver serves as both mentor and primary antagonist for Jim Hawkins. As I note in Starforged, the threads that bind are sometimes frayed.

A minor aside and caveat: The mentor figure is a prominent feature of the hero's journey monomyth, popularized by Joseph Campbell. In my younger days as a failed fiction writer, I spent lots of time looking at story models, including the hero's journey, and outlining within their sometimes rigid structure. But, I've grown to cast a bit of side-eye at such templates. I think the theories behind them suffer from selection bias. Plus, for our purposes, they are particularly inappropriate and inflexible in the context of a roleplaying game. Play to see what happens, however chaotic and unexpected it may be. That's the freedom of roleplaying games, and why folks who respond to the idea of solo and GMless roleplaying with the ever-popular "Why don't you just write a book?" are missing the point.

Image Credit: Disney

Mentors in Your Campaign

With that (overly long) intro out of the way, how can you represent mentors in your Ironsworn and Starforged campaigns, and how can the mechanics of those games support a mentor's role? Here are some ideas!

Mentors as Teachers

As noted in the Ironsworn and Starforged rulebooks, the assets you claim should follow the fiction of your character's goals and the situations you encounter. What did you do to acquire this new talent or resource? Mentorships are a perfect way to help frame and justify new assets and asset upgrades. For example:

  • You train under a monster hunter and become a SLAYER

  • You apprentice under a renowned ARTIST

  • You learn the ways of healing from an experienced HERBALIST

Some Ironsworn assets include a mentor relationship as a requirement. To become a WEAPONMASTER, you must serve a seasoned warrior. To become a RITUALIST, you must train under an elder mystic. These are signposted plot threads to follow if they align with your character's goals and interests.

Mentors as Quest-Givers

Mentors can motivate your character into action through sworn quests. In fact, to gain the WEAPONMASTER and RITUALIST assets discussed above, you must fulfill a vow to your mentor. If you gain a mentor as a connection in Starforged, the Develop Your Relationship move includes triggers for taking or completing quests.

But you should resist the inclination to treat the mentor as a random quest hub. Instead, let them mirror your character's own goals and the themes of the campaign. A mentor is there to guide you to your true path, not force you to undergo a series of disconnected fetch quests. That said, a mentor can also introduce complications and contradictions to your world through the quests they task you with. The most interesting mentors challenge your assumptions!

Mentors as Bonds and Connections

No person is an island. In Ironsworn, you Forge a Bond with characters and communities as you wander the Ironlands. Those bonds provide minor mechanical boons and help decide your fate when you Write Your Epilogue. When you Forge a Bond with a mentor or potential mentor, you are solidifying the importance of that relationship in your character's story.

When playing Starforged, relationships are more nuanced. Connections offer narrative and mechanical support within the scope of their role, but you do not have a bond with them until you progress that relationship and make the Forge a Bond move. Once you successfully gain a bond, you earn ticks on your bonds legacy track, which then rewards you with experience points. Do you see how this system results in a tidy loop of narrative feeding into mechanics for a mentor/mentee relationship? You form a relationship with a mentor, gain experience as you build that relationship, and spend the earned experience in ways that reflect their guidance and tutelage.

Mentors as Companions

If you are traveling alongside a mentor, consider representing them through an asset such as KINDRED in Ironsworn or SIDEKICK in Starforged. Mentors might have a supernatural nature, such as the CHATTERING SKULL in Sundered Isles, or you might be HAUNTED by them (in Starforged) or SPIRIT-BOUND (In Ironsworn).

With the Sundered Isles expansion, a mentor can serve as a trusted member of your crew when you claim the COHORT deed asset.

Mentors as Narrative Turning Points

Mentors usually serve a transitional role in fiction, and the loss of a mentor is often associated with a dramatic turn of events. Obi-wan sacrifices himself. Gandalf the Grey falls. Morpheus is captured. Jim Hawkins learns of Silver's true nature. The protagonist must now strike out on their own, taking what they've learned to forge their own path. "Who then do I trust?" Frodo asks, not long before Gandalf is lost in the confrontation against the Balrog in the film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring. "You must trust yourself," Gandalf replies. "Trust your own strengths.”

Mentors might also withhold important information. For example, Ben Kenobi is a veritable vault of untold secrets related to Luke's familial relationships. Whether this represents a (perhaps misguided) attempt to protect the protagonist, or a dramatic betrayal, these moments can send your story along unexpected paths.

Don't shy away from letting your campaign's twists and turns undo or transform a mentor relationship. This is rich territory for compelling stories, even if it means giving up a character asset you used to represent the mentor. Check out a previous article for some thoughts on the ebb and flow of assets.

Introducing a Mentor

How do you introduce a mentor to your campaign? There are three potential approaches — all equally valid.

  1. Get Inspired: An oracle prompt might reveal a potential mentor, or an interesting incidental character can come on stage and grab your interest.

  2. Evolve a relationship: An established character might naturally start to take on a mentor role through the course of your adventures. Not every mentor/mentee relationship begins as such.

  3. Make it happen: Want a mentor to serve a particular role in your story? If you are playing in guided or co-op mode, talk to others at your table about bringing a mentor into the campaign. If you are playing solo, just do it. In Starforged, you can use the Make a Connection move to establish a relationship with a mentor. If you are kicking off a new campaign, you might even consider introducing a mentor as your starting connection.

Becoming a Mentor

Stories are often cyclical. Seeing your character become a mentor for someone else, taking what you learned from your own mentors and passing it along, offers rich possibilities for character growth and storytelling. Both narratively and mechanically in Ironsworn and Starforged, the connections you make and the bonds you forge contribute greatly to the legacy you leave behind.

To quote T.S. Eliot: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."


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