Ironsworn: Mabon’s Vows

I saw a Twitch stream about Ironsworn early this year or late last year and I was intrigued enought to want to try it out. The PDFs are free to download, which is amazing considering how much work the author put into the game. So far I like it enough that I would buy a hard copy and I may do that in the future.

Ironsworn styles itself as a game of perilous quests. I immediately think of Beowulf when reading through the material. The backdrop of the game is a cold and bitter forested land a long way from the Old World. There are a few details and a map, but the player(s) or GM adds in more flavor through a series of world building choices. In fact there is a separate world building PDF you can download, print, and mark choices.  One great point is that the rules emphasize that the people of the Ironlands have all mixed and matched from the Old World. So you can play any kind of human you can imagine, regardless of skin or sex or what have you.

What intrigued me about Ironsworn was the ability to play Solo, Co-Op, or small group. The rules emphasize no more than four players and I think this is to keep things simple and intimate. You progress along your story by making moves and rolling dice to see if you get a Strong Hit, Weak Hit, or Miss. The game emphasizes fiction first and explicitly says it is not a game about situations. I will show that off once I get into the play.


Very simple. You roll 2 d10s and a d6. All are separate, none are added. The d10s are your challenge dice and the d6 is your action die. You add a relevent ability and then add in any other bonuses. I will go over that more in part 2 I think, I do not want to bore folks with mechanics.

  • If your Action die result is higher than both dice, its a Strong Hit
  • If your Action die result is higher than one die, but not the other, its a Weak Hit
  • If your Action die result is lower than both, that’s a miss. Misses can be a little bad or a lot bad. Depends on the move and the condition you are in.

You can use momentum to move a miss to a weak hit, but I do not think you can turn a weak hit into a strong hit. I need to read on that further.

Play – Mabon’s Tale or Alone Against Chaos

I named my character Mabon and made her female. Mabon was a raider and a king who realized her embracing of chaos as a cosmic force was bad. She rescues a boy, adopts him, and goes to the Ironlands. There she takes up residence in a village named Heldar Landing. Ironsworn emphasizes getting into the fiction before anything and to lean into that.

During character creation you take 3 bonds (and can take more later, a theme in the rules). Bonds are things important to the character. For Mabon, I took Heldar Landing (the village); The Guild of Hunters who feed and protect Heldar, and Symon her adopted son who is nearing manhood.

You take 2 vows at the begniing: one a background vow, which frames your character’s entire journey and play and an inciting incident. For Mabon, her background vow is to drive chaos from the Ironlands, which I marked as Epic. You can decide how tough fulfilling your vow is, from Troublesome to Epic.

The inciting incident is that a dire wolf kills Lorn, Symon’s best friend and a member of the Guild of Hunters. Symon will soon be a man and be joining the Guild of Hunters. So Mabon girds on her ax one more time to kill the dire wolf. I also added this as a step towards fulfilling my background vow. As a note, you can foresake or abandon a vow. Obviosuly this is a detriment to you, but the choice is there. You can also take on side quests and the game encourages you to do this. Taking the results and framing them to create new conflicts and goals for yourself.

Mabon kneels over the body of Lorn, iron dagger in hand. Nearby Symon and the Guild of Hunters watch her. Mabon knows the Hunters are three old men, two old women, and seven children who can barely be called adults. Fighting raiders is one thing; fighting chaos is quite another.

“I swear by the old gods and the new, by the blood of my ancestors that I shall slay this wolf and use its skin as armor to protect myself against the evils of chaos.”

And that is where play begins. My first session I did the world building and character creation. I also began Mabon’s journey. I decided a rival village might hold the key to finding the wolf. I Asked the Oracle, a move you can do at any time, and I asked a basic question: Will the villagers of Windburn help find the Dire World? I judged this unlikely, which means I need a 76% or higher and rolled d100 on the Ask the Oracle move. I rolled an 88, so yes they will help me.

The way the game works is that you make vows and gain experience by fulfilling them. You fulfill them by reaching milestones. In solo play this is largely up to you to decide if you reach a milestone or not. I decided for the Dire Wolf Quest, I would Undertake a Journey (a move). I chose it to be troublesome, gave myself three waypoints to meet, and began to roll. Mabon crossed into the deep wild; Found the sacred hunting grounds of the Windburn folk, and Found the village. Each of those was a roll. On the first two I got strong hits and maked progress on my sheet for the journey. I could have chosen to gain momentum at the cost of supply, but did not. On the third roll I got a weak hit, still made progress but also lost supply. So Mabon has 4 supply now (down from 5). Finally I Reached My Destination. In this case I roll the challenge dice and measure my progress against them instead of an action die. I had 9 progress from my three hits and I rolled a 3 and a 6, so I got a strong hit. This mean not only did I find the village but I also got a +1 to my next roll.

The next roll was a Gather Information. I rolled two 2’s on the challeneg dice which are a match, and my action dice total was 6. So a strong hit, but with a twist. Matches signify something happened. If you beat the challenge dice, its good or interesting. If you don’t beat them, then its bad. In Mabon’s case, I decided that the hunters of Windburn knew the dire wolf loved barbed moles (what is a barbed mole? I dunno I just made it up). So my next part of the journey will be to find barbed moles and I will make it harder. I marked myself as having reached a milestone with learning that information and marked progress on Kill the Dire Wolf. When I kill the dire wolf, I will mark progress on the Background Vow.

A few thoughts

  • The tougher the vow or challenge, the less progress a hit makes. A Troublesome quest gets you lots of progress on a hit, where as a Epic quest gets ya just a few ticks.
  • I probably should have framed the journey to Windburn as a vow; that would have let me gain experience. It did not feel vow worthy, so that is why I didn’t. I might make finding the barbed moles a vow. That is a move you can make, and fail at.
  • I can stay and make friends with these rivals at Windburn or I can immediately go after the moles. I am planning on the latter and perhaps one day coming back to make allies at Windburn. Or kill them all.
  • I do have three assets that I have not used. You receive them at character creation. I have a Raven companion (Lord Deth); I am following the path of the Slayer, which is good for killing beasts; I am a Sunderer which means I am bad ass with an ax.
  • Solo play is interesting and a lot of work to make it interesting for yourself. I can see lots of places to add side vows and quests though. Its fun and I am still learning the mechanics. Co-op play interests me as well and I want to try that next.
  • I did do the world building work book. I can reveal those choices if folks find that interesting.

4 responses to “Ironsworn: Mabon’s Vows”

  1. Tough talk

    The game emphasizes fiction first and explicitly says it is not a game about situations. I will show that off once I get into the play.

    You haven't shown any such thing. That sentence is at best word salad, and your account is about nothing but situations.

    I don't want to deconstruct and reconstruct "what you meant" or "what it means." It is blither.

    Clearly the word "situation" is being used for some technique or effect which the author is trying not to use, or succeeding in not using, via design. Since you have engaged with the text and game, what is that thing?

    • I realize I left that thread

      I realize I left that thread hanging, which is one reason it is extra blithery. But it is also possible I am either interpreting the intent of the rules incorrectly or reading too much into them. Obviously I bring my own bias and especially in the solo version, that is how I will tend to interpret. 

      That said, I think you are asking a relevant question. I will try and answer it from my experience so far.

      My short answer is: the author is usuing situation to mean making a Move. Making a move is a situation because the fiction has come up with something interesting. and not esily solved. And situational mechanics are a blow-blow accounting, back and forth kind of play that is not what Ironsworn is trying to do or does. Its not counting hit points or numbers of iron rations; all of that is abstracted.

      First, this is the text that I was referring to in the game. I may have been misreading or making general assumptions. 

      Ironsworn does not emphasize situational mechanics. Instead, the details are often abstracted within your moves and are reliant on fictional framing.

      And to provide some context, this is how the game envisions play.

      Fiction -> Move or No Move – > Fiction

      Now, how I interpreted that is that designer is saying that Ironsworn is not focused on the blow-by-blow of a given situation. That it abstracts those mechanics into a signle roll, and that the move you make is informed by the current state of the fiction.

      So far so good. Further into the rules it talks about Moves in more detail; moves you cannot make, must make, or should avoid.  One of the examples that is given is that the damage you inflict with a Strike Move in combat is the same regardless of the opponent or what weapon you are using. You will get a Strong Hit, Weak Hit, or Miss.  EXCEPT I cannot punch the leviathan beast, which is an Epic creature, or merely stab it with my dagger. Without a proper weapon, as provided in the fiction I create, I cannot hurt the creature.

      This is how you chain together a perilous quest.

      • I vow to kill the leviathan
      • I look for a weapon to kill the leviathan
      • I look for a shield to protect me from the leviathan
      • I look for a bigger boat
      • I fight and kill (or not) the leviathan

      I think Ironsworn is defining situation not as "I roll to hit" or a specific second by second accounting, but in a general way: the fight or the journey is the situation. And you only make a move, that is you only engage with the dice, when a situation would be interesting.

      • I go home and get my ax. No real conflict there. State it and move on.
      • I take my ax and hit Bob with it. Okay, that is interesting, make a move and roll some dice.

      But here is where I think I have some critique of how the designer is framing all of this. I think he is looking at scope, macro vs. micro, and thinking that if something is abstract, there are no situational mechanics. But Mabon's journey to Windburn IS the situation the character found themselves in. And each move within that journey is a situational mechanic. Scope really doesn't matter, the fiction book ends rely heavily on situational mechanics regardless of how big or small the move is. And of course those moves rely on the fiction. What the rules do, especially in solo play, is offer some advice on how I can use fiction and moves together to make it interesting.

      I think that combat will showcase the system more, because a single combat does require several moves to end it in a character's favor. An epic opponent would require many moves where the character is inflicting harm and making progress before feeling confident in making a Finish The Fight move.

      My intention for the next session is to actually film it and throw it up on YT or somewhere. That way I can show the character sheets and such and how progress is made.

    • I appreciate your efforts,

      I appreciate your efforts, both on your end for your own understanding and on my behalf.

      Let's take the Lamentations sessions you just played with me. The system (and indeed any strain of D&D prior to 2000) absolutely follows what you're describing in terms of abstracting actions into their goals and success/fail, with the nuances of success handled through different mechanics.

      In other words, the mechanics for actions and effects in that game are not representational of specific movements. A "roll to hit" is the outcome of many movements and immediate considerations that are only accounted for as narration when and if we feel like it. I'll talk later about some considerations that weren't apparent to the viewer or player, especially my specific ordering of the wolves so that I was not picking arbitrarily which one was being targeted or was attacking in a particular way. For now, consider the way that different wolves attacked Elias, and how the choreography of combat followed upon each description.

      Nothing, or very little, about the mechanics of "roll to hit" required such narration. But doing so, and by having an informal rubric to know which wolf was which, permitted narrating outcomes to be more causal and more visually compelling, and to feed into what players said they did next.

      This is the way (the only way) to make that design/technique trend in this era of D&D fun. Otherwise its abstraction is in the worst possible space, both too abstracted to allow for "first person shooter" view for stating actions, e.g., RuneQuest, and too specific, or pseudo-specific, to require vivid narration in order to make sense at all, e.g., Tunnels & Trolls.

      My point? That it matches perfectly to your description of Moves. I am going into this detail in order to state that "Moves" are absolutely not specific to PbtA and, frankly, are not a particularly insightful concept, especially given that a character is not limited to the formal Moves list. They are synonymous with "play my character" and "do GM stuff," period. I've been through this many times and am very weary of it.

      Now let's go to this horrible fiction-first nonsense. Consider the following pairs of statements, in order:

      • "I roll to hit!" + "I slash with my sword!"
      • "I slash with my sword!" + "I roll to hit!"

      For extra points, consider that the statements may be made by different people, adjusting the grammar as needed, in order to see that it doesn't matter who's saying them, one person or two.

      My position:

      • These combinations of statements have been part of the hobby since the beginning.
      • The order before and after the plus does not matter to the cognitive/communicative act of resolution in any way at all, much in the way that referring to one's character in first vs. third person means nothing in terms of player-identification. The two bullet points are only one bullet point, as they are fully synonymous.
      • The individual components (the things linked by a plus) are often treated as synonymous with no loss of information, as often confirmed by either picking up the dice without saying so, or clarifying the action taken during post-resolution narration.

      If we encounter any failure-state of the resolution and the imagination, such that saying one or the other component ("I roll" and "I slash") is decoupled from its partner, i.e., one of them is fully gone rather than just tacit, then this is a function of Murk, a failure-state of the entire endeavor, and not a technique or a preference or a style.

      I think we are all familiar with this particular zone of Murk. People as groups either:

      • Spin off into "talk only" which blithers and competes over narrating outcomes with no reference point, and moves forward only when one person outright nannies the fiction along or when any particular bully manages to outshout or, more subtly, outcontrol their input over the others' attempts.
      •  Spin off into "roll only" which limps around like a Eurogame until we're bored of randomly determining which bundles of wheat go where this time, and which treats narration as if it were a piggy-bank for positive modifiers.

      Important: by "talk," in this case, I am not referring merely to speaking but to unconstrained, say-what-I-want imposition into the processes of play. Therefore many games which do not use dice or similar things, but which do include organized and contingent ways of speaking in order to resolve things, count as "roll" in my discussion here.

      Therefore the language of Moves is not a method, it is merely a remedial vocabulary to recover from role-playing which habitually falls into these forms of Murk because people do not know how to resolve at the rawest possible functional level, which is to say, they do not know how to make their characters "go" and "do."

      I'll be super blunt. Vincent encountered exactly this failure-state while playing many games with some specific people who shall remain unnamed, and he could not find any way to repair it merely by shifting among diverse games or by clarifying the rules of any of the games. The basics of his mechanics for Apocalypse World arose, not from specifying "way X" to play instead of "way Y," but from his need to walk such players through playing at all.

      However, through the usual social crap which created the "Stakes" abomination, and indeed via some of the very same people who did that, the "Moves" vocabulary and whatever the fuck people thought they were talking about with "fiction first," have become a very fake and useless pseudo-vocabulary for design. It has led to a whole decade of younger or first-time designers picking it up in order to fit in, and trying to guess what it means, sort of like young Hegelians or Foucaltians.

      I mourn for these authors of Ironsworn. As far as I can tell based on first reading, they have created a really nice and fun game, worthy of use and discussion, and most likely based on sensible design decisions – but marred by words that mean very little, or nothing, about what those decisions are.

    • I agree. There is a lot of

      I agree. There is a lot of jargon in the game that doesn't seem to mean anything. And it gets in the way of what is so far a fun game. And, while solo play is fun I think co-op is going to be the sweet spot here. I am not even that interested in running Ironsworn as a traditional GM – 4 players kind of thing. It does not seem that compelling.

      I think this weekend I will be doing the next session or maybe the end of this week. We shall see how combat goes and then how experience works. 

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