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The Journey to Ironsworn

How did Ironsworn come about? It was a meandering journey of decades.

I've been making games nearly as long as I've been playing them. When I was around 10, I created a "Battle of the Five Armies" wargame. It was the 70s, and I was enamored with The Hobbit. I remember me and my dad hunkered down on the living room floor, moving little paper chits. It was most definitely not a good game, but it's one of the few things I can vividly recall from that stage of my life.

As proof of my devotion to The Hobbit in all its forms, I offer this 45+ year-old laminated drawing — made when I was 12. Clearly an emerging artist.

Around that time, I spent a lot of time playing (solo) an early dungeon-crawler board game called DeathMaze. It felt a little aimless, so I hacked in rules for mission-based quests.

Deathmaze by Greg Costikyan

I didn't encounter opportunities to play tabletop roleplaying games with others in the '70s and '80s, despite the sudden and enticing presence of Dungeons & Dragons in my local KB toys.

I eventually bought the Basic set and AD&D books, and tried to decipher their cryptic nature. What did it look like to play this thing, I wondered? In those days, you didn't have actual-play videos to get a sense of what it might look like at the table. They were inscrutable mysteries.

So, in an effort to figure it out, I played D&D solo, generating dungeons and sending my unfortunate characters to their untimely doom. I changed the rules. I scribbled endless notes and ad-hoc random tables across a stack of notebooks.

But it was always a bit of a kludge. It never quite sparked my imagination. I was a regular reader of Dragon magazine in the 1980s and 90s, and my gaming didn't fulfill the promise of adventure held in those covers. They were treasures just out of reach.

1987 Dragon Magazine Cover by Daniel R. Horne

As an aside, this Dragon cover by Daniel R. Horne is one of my favorite things ever. Such storytelling! The cold landscape, the fading light of day, the empty quiver, and one arrow left—amazing! This particular illustration was very much in my head when creating Ironsworn.

Eventually, I found my way to some roleplaying groups. My preferences in RPGs followed the same path that I see for many gamers — a transition from more traditional games into lighter, narrative experiences. I moved from Dungeons & Dragons 3e to Savage Worlds. Then, to the fantastic Fate Core System by Evil Hat Productions which I found to be eminently hackable, a wonderful game design chassis. Then, more obscure storygames of all sorts.

Fate RPG by Evil Hat Productions
Fate RPG by Evil Hat Productions

But there was one constant in my RPG experiences. I preferred solo gaming, or one-on-one sessions with an ever-patient family member. My experiences in groups usually fizzled.

Around this time, I also happened across Tana Pigeon's Mythic Game Master Emulator. This was a revelation. It showed me the power of oracle tables, and how our creative minds could use even the most abstract prompts to forge connections with our imagined narrative. GM-less games are often more about switching the GM/player hats than true "GM Emulation," but Tana's work creates a feeling of uncertainty, surprise, and storytelling cohesiveness that is truly magic.

Mythic is genius, and my own games would not exist without it. The 2nd edition of the Mythic GME, released last year, polishes the system to a fine sheen. Highly recommended!

Mythic Game Master Emulator by Tana Pigeon
Mythic Game Master Emulator by Tana Pigeon

And then came Apocalypse World...

I was a bit late to the "Powered by the Apocalypse" game design movement. These are RPGs built upon the framework of Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker. As a group, these games are perhaps best known for a few common features: moves, character playbooks, and a 2d6 action resolution mechanic that generates non-binary results — success, partial success, or a miss.

Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker
Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker

But it was moves in particular that fired up my designer brain...

Firstly, I have a hard time internalizing game rules. Always have. In fact, one of the appeals of solo gaming is that it gives me permission to bumble about while figuring out rules on my own time. But even that can be a bit frustrating. Moves, on the other hand, are snippets of self-contained mechanical and narrative resolution. You do the thing in the fiction; you follow the procedure in the rules. That is true in all roleplaying games, of course, but the nature of moves makes those procedures something you have permission to reference. Instead of being expected to remember some obscure rule on page 348, you are in constant engagement with these individual subsystems.

Secondly, I realized their potential for GM-less gaming. Each move has inputs and defined ouputs. You do this thing, and this other thing happens. Moves become part of the table conversation, a pseudo-GM that guides the resolution of player actions and helps merge the outcome back into the fiction. Whatever happens, something happens. That rhythm of play is propulsive! Even without a GM.

There are lots of innovations in Apocalypse World beyond moves, of course. But moves unlocked something critical for me.

Apocalypse World led to other experiences. Blades in the Dark by John Harper and Agon by John Harper and Sean Nittner are aspirational benchmarks for me, not just in terms of mechanical elegance but also in overall design and physical quality.

Agon by John Harper and Sean Nittner

Which brings me to Ironsworn. This game is what I want out of an RPG. Not overly complex, but with engaging mechanical procedures. Low or no-prep. Ideal for solo, GM-less, and small groups. A world that is sketchily defined and ready to make your own. Hackable. My number one ethos as a game designer is simple: make the game you want to play.

I started developing Ironsworn in 2016. I've got boxes and hard drives filled with attempts to make a game, but this is the one that I stuck with. It was hard, and it took hundreds of hours and a couple of years, but I made a thing and put it out there.

And, surprisingly, people seemed to like it. My Google+ group (RIP) grew from a handful of folks to thousands. Their feedback and play reports helped guide final development in immeasurably helpful ways.

I released Ironsworn in 2018, followed by the Delve supplement in 2020, Starforged in 2022, and Sundered Isles (soon!) in 2024. Today, the Ironsworn community is filled with unbelievably kind, patient, creative, helpful, and amazing people. For someone who gamed and created in isolation for so many years, it's a blessing — a revelation.

Every one of my creations continues a journey that started in the dark ages of the 1970s. Many thanks to the talented game designers and creators who had such a massive influence on my work! (note: this post includes affiliate links to DriveThruRPG)


Sundered Isles is On Kickstarter!


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