I did three solo-play sessions of Ironsworn. The audio is here, but be warned that no editing has been done; thinking silences are preserved as well as physical and mental coughing and hitching.
I didn’t use Ironsworn’s sketchy Norse frontier setting, but rather used the Iron Kingdoms, a magitech-meets-WWI kinda thing. I played a seventeen-year-old war refugee separated from her family and dumped on the streets of a nominally neutral city-state ruled by organized crime and spread out over islands at the mouth of the largest river in the land. In Ironsworn play is propelled by vows the character swears and tries to complete. As my character, Ynda, had both magical talent as well as a way with arms, her starting vow was to learn how to become a gunmage (a thing in the setting, and a combination of nouns that I believe requires no explanation).
Basically, I wanted to play the bildungsroman of a powerful character in the setting: how does one become such a thing, in such a place?
I never finished, though.
The first session was a fight scene, the blow-by-blow of which was entertaining to simultaneously create and watch. For the next two sessions I was attempting a journey across the islands–journeying being an important mechanic in Ironsworn’s harsh frontier setting, one that fit well for a gang-packed island as navigated by a seventeen-year-old naïf. Ynda often failed in her attempts to progress in that journey (she had the worst stats for it), suffering betrayal from her only friend, having her ferry get splintered by a barge, and somehow ending up responsible for some orphans, which is how the last session ended.
Scattershot reflections, not necessarily following on one to another, but numbered for ease of reference:
- Before play I read the Iron Kingdoms setting book Five Fingers: Port of Deceit cover to cover, with the idea of using it as a ready-made oracle for solo play. It worked for broad setting details, but ultimately using it to pick details from became too much work/was too slow to keep play moving. The whole thing that excited me was really diving deep into the setting, and it became onerous to ensure I got the details “right”. I could have just stopped caring about that, but since exploring the setting was the main impetus for playing the game, not caring about that is also not caring about the game, so that was a dead end for play. The feeling was one of initial excitement drained slightly by each session of play and not sufficiently fed by play, so that eventually the “excitement quotient” needed to start the engine of a session was lower than what was required, and the game stalled.
- Solo play in Ironsworn felt sort of like the halfway point between the typical GM duty of prepping a situation for play and then the group duty of actually playing out the situation to resolution. I didn’t feel like I was just writing out loud, but neither did I quite feel like I was playing a role-playing game. I can probably get better at using oracles and various tools and techniques to make sole roleplaying more bouncy with fewer instances of creating the next thing in the situation from whole cloth, only to see it resolved and then have to create another situation out of whole cloth.
- Ironsworn played solo is actually kind of a lot; there are a lot of moves to reference and a lot of rules to think about while playing. I mean really it’s nothing unusual, in terms of a roleplaying game, but something about playing by yourself, for me, makes the cognitive load increase by an order of magnitude, so a perfectly ordinary RPG in terms of mass of procedure and rules begins to feel untenable. There were too many touchpoints in the IK setting to have to refer to and too many touchpoints in the IS rules to have to refer to, which all combined to be taxing enough that the desire to continue playing dwindled.
- I am congenitally attracted to large settings with lots of published material (i.e., I have been marketed to successfully, as a part of the role-playing demographic), and I keep having this impulse to *express* them in play, to see them breathe, but then at a certain point the abundance of material becomes a weakness and not a strength. I need to jettison this idea of “really” seeing a setting in play and, when a setting excites me, distill it to the few touchpoints that get me going and start play from there and not worry about the rest (but what’s the purpose of all those setting books you have, then? a voice whispers. They won’t be used! What’s the purpose, indeed—something I’m still wrestling with). This point is related to a number of discussions on the site. See my comments on the Why Glorantha seminar as well as Situation: primary and primal. I seem to be circling the concepts.
4 responses to “I’m just a teenage gunmage, baby”
My experience with Ironsworn, is similar. There were a lot of toggles that had to be toggled in order for play to continue on and be coherent.
RE: using Ironsworn with a larger setting, one that the player is invested in, would take on the trappings of a guided tour as opposed to a tour de force. You would have to know ahead of time where you were going and what content in that area might be of interest. The only unknown would be when you were diverted by rolls or needed to create a new vow 0r sub0vow to continue on. I remember several points where creating a new sub-quest was necessary to continue the main quest. I believe that was the intent of the game.
But it is a lot and in my experiences surprises were few.
When the divine bovine has to go
… when it's actually a rotting carcass in the water supply, that's when.
I'm referring to this phrase: exploring setting. It's a travesty. It has to go.
I love setting, I love what it does in play both as inspiration and as result. I play plenty of games which begin with textual setting material, and some of my published games rely on it heavily, not least two of the most aggressively historical publications in the hobby.
However, its expression in historical RPG publication is entirely at odds with achieving these things – and the phrase "exploring the setting" is now irretrievably associated with that kind of publication and the associated transitive form of entertainment that I flatly deny is play.
Since this is such a big topic and necessarily subject to any given person's own history with play (and purchasing), there's no bumper sticker I can provide here to say more about what I mean. But it's definitely time to develop a full course for it.
However, its expression in
Big setting books or setting product lines tend towards talking out of both sides of their mouth: 1) dive into our rich setting, experience it, express it, explore it as I so nicely parroted above, and 2) take what you want from it and screw the rest (a la "Your Glorantha May/Will Vary"). This seems sensible but in practice, as a player and not merely a reader of setting books, the impetus toward ever-more-detailed textual material is at odds with the advice to just do what you want. If I'm supposed to do what I want, then why the preponderance of setting material?
All that to say, while I can recognize that on some level I've been sold a bill of goods, that doesn't mean I can easily extricate how I've internalized it.
I look forward to the course. When life settles down even slightly I really, really need to begin some of the coursework.
Greg’s post Power and
Greg's post Power and Settings seems relevant here, especially the opening. The whole post is great, and I really like the comments too, but its first paragraph is a knockdown punch all by itself.