Solo Tabletop RPG Review – Ironsworn: Starforged Part One

Ironsworn: Starforged (Mophidius)
Written & Designed by Sean Tomkin
Art by Joshua Meehan, Jeff Zugale, and Sarah Dahlinger

You can purchase the game here

It’s no surprise that Starforged is a science fiction “version” of Sean Tomkin’s fantastic solo rpg system Ironsworn. But it’s much more than that. Mechanically, this is Tomkin taking his system further, tweaking things from Ironsworn but also improving it. As with Ironsworn, this can be played solo, co-op, or as a traditional GM-guided tabletop experience. If you thought Ironsworn was impressive with its many themed oracles, Starforged will blow you out of the water. Everything about this game evokes the tone of the science fiction genre and helps to immerse the player in a world of space exploration and encounters with alien entities. So far, this has been my favorite solo tabletop experience doing this series.

Just like with Ironsworn, the mechanics are centered around player-triggered moves. These are resolved via rolling your action die (d6) and adding relevant stats and bonuses. That number is compared to the two challenge dice (d10). If the action dies beats both challenges dice, it’s a strong hit; only one makes it a weak hit, and losing to both is a miss. In narrative terms, this is yes, yes but, and no. Rolling doubles on a hit results in a “Yes and” while rolling doubles on a miss gives you a “No and.” 

One of the most significant changes here is the Legacy tracks. On your character sheet, there are three rows of ten blocks each, very similar to the progress tracks. Each line is labeled respectively as Quests, Bonds, and Discoveries. As with progress tracks, you mark these with ticks based on prompts from the Moves. These are abstract representations of your victories in the game, and under each box are two smaller ones that become XP currency when a single box is completely filled. Two XP lets you upgrade an asset you already have. Three XP lets you bring a new asset into the game.

These Legacy tracks can have an impact beyond the character you are playing. For example, with the move Continue a Legacy, when a player retires the character or the character dies, they may create a new character. You roll your progress on each Legacy track (only counting fully filled boxes) against challenge dice. On a strong hit, the player can take an asset or bond from the now-retired character and give it to their new one. A weak hit gives the player the option to have the new character take up an unfinished quest, meet someone who had a bond with the old character or center a previously explored world as important to this new character. 

A miss does something similar, except it will be an interesting dramatic problem for this new character. A villain from the old character’s life surfaces in the new one’s, the new character acts in opposition in some way to the old one’s goals, or something the old character did has had horrendous consequences in this world. This mechanic is one that most players may never get to, but I love the idea of an endless series of solo campaigns in the same world but with new characters and perspectives highlighted over the years.

This time, there are more clearly defined start and end of session Moves that create interesting dramatic opportunities and help with bookkeeping on the legacy tracks. Exploration is given even more emphasis than Ironsworn, with moves centered around making jumps in your ship and coming across unfamiliar & alien environments. The Delve dungeon exploration mechanics have been ported to Derelicts, seemingly abandoned ships or space stations. Factions play a big part in Starforged, with a not surprisingly robust series of oracles you can use to randomly flesh out the groups with power in your game.

The flavor of the game clearly evokes the expected source material from Dune to Alien to Star Wars to Star Trek without ever feeling derivative. The game’s roughly established setting is one of a fairly unexplored space. Two centuries prior, humanity fled a cataclysm and rebuilt society in a new galaxy named The Forge. Humans are assumed to be the only known form of intelligent life. Lightspeed travel is commonplace, and settlements are spread out across habitable planets. Unfortunately, many of the same problems that plagued humanity back home have followed them here: corporate greed, corrupt government officials, and the sort of lawlessness found in the Old West. However, there are wonders to be found, and hope still exists in people like your character.

The Truths from Ironsworn are expanded on quite a bit with even more ways to custom-tailor your specific Forge to your tastes as a player. There are options to roll randomly for Truths if you choose, or you can make each choice on your own. The categories of worldbuilding the game helps you lightly detail at the start are what the Cataclysm was, what the human Exodus was like, how Communities operate in the Forge, what Iron is in this strange new world, the general shape of Laws, Religion, Magic, Communication, and Medicine, whether or not Artificial Intelligence is prevalent, the nature of ongoing War, and then whether Alien life & supernatural Horrors are known of in your setting. Once you get through those exercises, you have a solid idea of where your game will take place, yet there are plenty of gaps to fill through play.

Character creation is very streamlined and straightforward. The Assets, essentially additional character-themed Moves you pick, have some changes from the more fantasy-centric Ironsworn. In Starforged, you will choose two Paths for your character. By default, you get a Starship and even get to roll for a little history flavor. Then you will select one additional Asset, which could be a Module for your ship, a Support Vehicle you carry onboard, a Companion, or another Path.

The Assets can evoke the feel of previously mentioned science fiction media while still being open to the player’s interpretation. While the Asset titled Armored bears a simple icon of a Mandalorian-like helmet, the card’s text doesn’t stop the player from going in a completely different direction if they choose. Some of the Companion Asset cards are intentionally vague, like the Glowcat. Neither the book nor the card explicitly defines what a Glowcat is, which is part of the fun of playing. It can be different for each player’s game; the only throughline is that it has the name because of its illumination abilities. 

The character stats, Momentum system, and various Condition meters (Health, Spirit, Supply) remain unchanged from Ironsworn. If you have read & played Ironsworn, you should be able to jump in fairly quickly with Starforged. Additionally, as the book says, you can drop the pre-established setting and use this system to play whatever you like. That may mean some Assets or Moves won’t be used because they don’t fit your setting, but many of these things can simply be reskinned or reworded and still serve the same purpose. The biggest hurdle for these types of games is the player’s ability to comprehend the mechanics. 

If you come in having only played crunchier, skill check-based systems, then these Move/Fiction First-style games might take a minute to understand. Starforged and its many siblings in the Powered by the Apocalypse rule system are more about creating engaging narratives than min/max-ing or playing through the granular steps of combat. In the same way, we get in the mood for different cuisines; tabletop RPGs are the same thing. Sometimes you are in the mood for a heaping plate of OSR, but on other evenings, you want to order some PBTA.

Today we will be kicking off a month-long playthrough of Starforged. I’ll take you through the character I created and my story. But first, I wanted to spend this entry on my worldbuilding. As I always come to the table ready to toss everything pre-established off and do my own thing, I couldn’t help but do the same with this. But, instead of the vast unexplored space of the core setting, I went in a different direction. Why not put everything in here and see how it works? So, I borrowed heavily from everything you might imagine when you hear the term “science fiction” to create what I think is an interesting sandbox to see how oppositional elements bounce off of each other.

Once there was a powerful, advanced human civilization that spanned many worlds. After tens of thousands of years, they had developed advanced A.I., faster-than-light travel, and everything you could dream of. However, fissures began to appear in their society. Some groups started to see these advancements as curses and burdens. An ideological rift formed surrounding artificial life. One faction saw these as a necessary way to offload human labor to intelligent tools, while others viewed it as an abdication of the very nature of humanity to labor to some degree. Another rift: the nature of the divine in this universe came under question. One religious faction believed that the force behind creation was an intangible Power that could be wielded by those who devoted their lives to its study. They saw the connection to the creative Power available only to a few. The other side of this argument believed that the Power manifests itself in physical forms, mainly as elements in our world. One of these is called The Essence, a liquid that, when regularly consumed, transforms anyone into an advanced human. 

A massive galactic war happened, and in the end, this civilization was torn in two. 

One-half became what is now known as The Trade Enclave, and they subsist on their control of The Essence, which is found mainly on the wasteland planet of Audun. Corporate Houses oversee the harvesting, processing, and distribution of The Essence. These Houses are Maester, Linnaeus, Vefault, and Enganosa. 

There are massive conflicts between these Houses, with various “neutral” institutions acting as referees when called upon. These institutions include The Flight Syndicate (in charge of all travel & transportation), The Sisterhood (a religious sect of people born with female reproductive systems which manage the bloodlines of the Houses), the Thought-Shaman (human computers that are responsible for the analytics of the Enclave), and Blood Druids (a bizarre religious clan of mercenaries often hired to brutally destroy any labor uprisings). 

Also in Trade Enclave space, but far from the core worlds, is the mysterious planet of Rath. There are many stories about Rath, how it is populated by strange bird-men and elfin creatures. The Enclave does not engage this distant world, and travel there is hard to come by. 

The other half of this civilization became The Old Imperium. While the Trade Enclave rejected A.I. in favor of human labor, the Imperium heartily embraced the proliferation of ‘bots, sometimes humanoid or not mechanical beings. The problem is that many of the top minds that developed the A.I. were killed due to the massive civilization rending war. Resources were also eaten up in the conflict. The Imperium sent ships deeper into space than any had traveled before and discovered worlds overflowing with intelligent alien life. To the humans in the Imperium, these beings resembled many animal species from the old world. These newly met beings were assimilated as the Imperium established its capital in the resource-rich Haven Worlds. 

Institutions were also established in this new place; chief among them was The Order, an offshoot of religions that believed in the unconfined nature of the Power that created the universe. They trained themselves to hone their minds and bodies. They thought that the Essence did nothing and that the opening of people’s minds to the Power made them something more. However, they were also riddled with supremacist ideology, and the stories of horrific mutations due to consumption of The Essence enforced this. As a result, only some beings could safely wield the Power, and determining that has remained a long-standing secret known only to those at the top of the Order. Those who mastered control of the Power were given the name of Calugars.

As in all things, there is a shadow to the Order. They are The Skygge, a group sharing the same beliefs but carrying it further. Not only do they believe only a select few can master the Power, but the Skygge are also convinced that this elite should dominate the universe. They can ascend to godhood, which gives them total control of the elements and the ability to create life from nothing. Their acolytes are known as Dreng, and they have ascended to have near-total control of The Old Imperium. They are backed by Empress Maharanee, a Skygge and wielder of their corrupted version of the Power.

Resistance has formed in response, and they fight diligently, though often for naught. The Order’s numbers have been reduced as The Imperium unleashes its forces against them. Here too, are neutral institutions, but they are far more lawless. The Hunter’s Lodge oversees the management of the many bounty hunters & mercenaries out to make their fortune fighting wars for rich people. The Klinn Cartel is the most powerful criminal syndicate and can bribe its way into becoming invisible to the Imperium. 

These humans are not the only ones in the universe. Sometime long ago, forgotten due to war & time, another group of humans established a home in what they named the Terran System. Despite so much time, they have yet to progress as far as the other civilizations in this universe. Their region of space is named CorpSec, and almost any shred of democracy or freedom evaporated a long time ago. Labor in CorpSec is becoming increasingly dominated by manufactured humans or Manus. They are engineered for specific tasks, which often leaves them unable to function outside of that capacity. They are humans, though, cultivated through an immense catalog of human DNA, possessing all the signs of free will and a desire to find their way in life. Unfortunately, the Terrans refuse to acknowledge them as such, and so they suffer.

CorpSec has failed to develop a working FTL drive for ships, so instead, they employ three massive warp gates which are strategically positioned and slingshot ships across the region. The Neumarkt Gate is located in the Terran System. It, in turn, links to the Minnesang Gate and the Tannhauser Gate. These transport gates are constantly bloated with vessels traveling to and from the Terran System, transporting raw materials and manufactured goods. This is the only purpose for most institutions, commerce. 

Humanity has taken a back seat. As a result, fascism is a dominant ideology. This can be seen in the system of Enforcers, hyper-violent police that are allowed to judge criminals guilty on the spot and execute them. As a result of massive pollution, some humans are being born with extrasensory powers, and of course, corporations see them as something to be exploited. Technology is centered entirely around commerce and distraction. EverLife is popular; people have false memories implanted to escape the mundanity of their toil.

Using the warp gate, two clusters of colonies have been formed. From the Minnesang, the Outer Colonies were established. Here humans discovered planets that contained intelligent insect life sitting on top of mineral deposits precious to the expansion of CorpSec. The governments founded in the Outer Colonies are militaristic, and citizenship can only be attained through a ten-year service in the corps. Another conflict is brewing as the Terran System has begun manufacturing and sending super soldiers there. The human soldiers see this as a way to marginalize them, and they are right. The Bug Wars of the Outer Colonies rage on. 

The Tannhauser Gate brings travelers to The Ridge Colonies, far less established than their sister worlds in the Outer. Here you can find large freight ships involved in complex mining operations. Less developed colonies are found here, but there are some prominent ones where administrators have brought their families to live. There are horrors here, though. The ruins of some forerunner race have been sighted but have yet to be fully explored. Even worse are the stories of chitinous devils that emerge deep from the surface of barren planetoids. They use humans as incubators for their young. 

Eventually, larger movements formed of humans who found the conditions of the Terran System cruel & evil. It became clear that a direct war with the corporations would be fruitless, so massive arks were built, and these separatists were put into cryogenic sleep as the arks scanned for habitable worlds elsewhere. The sleepers awakened after a thousand years to find their arks had been met by the Sulvu. These stoic beings were from a humanoid race with beliefs not too different from the religions of the Trade Enclave and The Order. They were far more scientific, though, and believed there was no divinity in the universe but grand cosmic forces of nature. By honing one’s mind and controlling your reactions, you could find harmony with the otherwise perceived chaos of the universe. The Sulvu had also developed an FTL drive that they happily shared with their newly arrived human brethren. 

Together the humans and the Sulvu formed the United Planetary Alliance (UPA), a diverse multi-world government predicated on the ideas absent in CorpSec. Humanity would devote itself to the pursuit of science and self-discovery. Starforce was the military wing that tended to veer away from violence and instead diplomacy. They were met with cheers by some worlds, hesitation by others, and outright conflict with a few. The Renkat Empire was born out of a warlike honor code, and they saw the UPA’s ideology as too weak to handle the inevitable battles of life. The Vrekan Empire was insular and suspicious of both outsiders & each other. An offshoot of the Sulvu, the Vrekans chose to keep themselves and strictly enforce their borders with the UPA. 

Then there is the Kreder Union, a dark reminder of the fascism the humans left behind. When humans arrived in this region of space, the Kreder Union was in the middle of their centuries-long occupation & enslavement of the Bamiri. The Bamiri people were a profoundly spiritual and relatively peaceful civilization who happened to live on worlds full of the ores needed to power FTL drives. The Kreder conquered these worlds and subjugated the Bamiri into mining the ores. When more pockets were discovered in distant sectors, some Bamiri were forcibly transported there, resulting in a cultural diaspora. The UPA oversaw the end of the Kreder occupation, but there are now, at minimum, two distinct cultures of Bamiri separated by what remains of the Kreder Union.

And this is the world where my game will take place, a diverse & exciting place with many elements to explore. So, next time, I’ll introduce my character and start our adventure.

Read Part Two here.


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