Procedural Storytelling (or: the promise of Ironsworn: Starforged)

An endless, procedurally generated universe, filled with countless wonders and strange discoveries. No two wanderers will ever experience quiet the same sights, walk the same planets, befriend or fight the same alien creatures. Every planet, every tree or blade of grass or creature, unique–generated just for you in vast, unending universe.

An iron token on which an Ironsworn makes their unshakable oath.

When No Man’s Sky eventually released, after years of hype and excitement, it didn’t live up that promise. Hello Games has since continued to support the game with content updates, graphical improvements, quality of life improvements, and countless interesting implementations such multiplayer, base and freighter construction, farming, crafting, and many many more things-to-do. But one thing the game’s still missing, in my opinion, is the exploration; that original promise of an endless universe for you to explore. After just a short while, even with all the updates the game received, every planet, system, plant, or creature feel the same. You travel around to collect rare ingredients for crafting or making money, not because there are wonders to be found out in the farthest reaches of the galaxy.

This is not to shit on No Man’s Sky, of course. After all, the developers did commit to bringing this game into a great state and they listened to what the majority of the community wanted during that process. But what they all wanted (multiplayer, bases, freighters to own and customize) is not what I wanted. I wanted to be a lone wanderer lost in the endless void of space, finding procedurally generated things no one else in the game has ever seen. Or ever would see.

Then came Ironsworn: Starforged.

Ironsworn

Cover of the core rule book of Ironsworn

To tell you about Starforged, I must first talk about its older sibling Ironsworn.

Ironsworn is a TTRPG (Tabletop Role Playing Game), where you create a character and roll dice as you interact with the world and its many inhabitants, creatures, and hazards. The core rules have been developed by a single person, Shawn Tomkin (@ShawnTomkin on twitter). Many such games have been around for many decades at this point–from the most famous dragon game, to the more niche indie scene that covers just about any strange interest one would want to explore in a narrative-based dice game.

The game itself centers around a Viking-age style of fantasy world, filled with peril and danger, swords and axes, and the occasional magical chaos or corruption.

But what makes Ironsworn stand out are its mode of play, besides the fact that the core rulebook is completely free.

Ironsworn can be played in a traditional style with one person (the GM) guiding one or more players through their adventure. What interested me in the game, however, is the fact that the core rules are designed to be used without a GM (as in playing cooperatively with other players) or even for playing completely solo. One player creates the world and plays in it. To achieve that, the book is filled with what it calls Oracle Tables. There are tables to generate settlements, characters, and even entire situations.

While the tables by themselves are random generators, once you learn to read and interpret any given result within the context of the narrative and the world you create, the results start become more procedural than purely random. Every next roll prompts ideas based on what came before, all contributing the larger narrative. And since every person would potentially interpret prompts of random tables differently, no two adventures would ever play out the same. The story you create, the paths you wander and things you discover, are wholly unique to your game.

To help guide the narrative, the game uses moves that are triggered whenever you attempt to do certain things, such as facing danger or sojourning in a community. It uses a simple but genius dice mechanic to give you one of three potential outcomes for such moves: Strong Hit, Weak Hit, Miss, with the occasional critical variations of Opportunity or Complication. (If you’re interested in the exact mechanics of the game, again, go check it out the free pdf of the core rules. Tt’s well worth your time.)

A strong hit means your character got what they wanted and the situation favors them. A weak hit, on the other hand, means that they got what they wanted but at a cost, such as harm or diminished control over a situation. A miss means they failed and need to deal with the consequences of that failure. Opportunities and complications further enhance the narrative weight of a strong hit or a miss.

In other words, whenever you trigger a move and roll the dice, something is going to happen for or to your character, forcing the narrative forward. Most of the time, you can decide what the consequences or opportunities are, or you can pick a relevant oracle and roll on it to generate interesting ideas.

While playing solo, it’s up to you how you want to chronicle your journey through the Ironlands. Maybe you just scribble a few handwritten notes in a journal. Or maybe you write invocative prose as you interpret your moves and actions. However you see fit, the story will unfold for you in unexpected, exciting, and sometimes terrifying ways.

Action/Theme

I don’t want to spend a lot of time going over every rule or table in the game, but there’s one part I must speak to: Action and Theme. Because it’s fantastic. It’s not wholly new or unique. The Mythic Role Playing game has similar tables called “Action/Subject” as part of its GM-Emulater rules. Other games may have had similar ideas before Ironsworn came about. But, in my opinion, the Action/Theme tables in Ironsworn (and even more so in Starforged) seem a little better designed.

Action and Theme are two tables that together allow for near-endless prompts for ideas. While there is a simple yes/no table called “Ask the Oracle” you can roll on to get a yes or no answer to a simple question (“Is the water poisoned?” “Are there any tracks?” “Is the merchant lying?”), the Action/Theme tables let you answer complex questions you might have about the world or a given situation.

“Why are the villagers fleeing?”
“What are the effects of the curse the oracle spoke of?”
“Who or what could have been responsible for the carnage by the lake?”

After you ask yourself questions like that, you roll once on the Action table to get a verb, and once on the Theme table to get a noun. Then you interpret the result within the context of the current situation and what you already know of the world. If you need more inspiration, roll a second or even a third time. Combine that with asking the oracle for simple yes/no answers to further increase your understanding of any idea forming, and you’re beginning to procedurally generate the content of your game as you go.

This concept is a bit hard to explain in a vacuum, as all prompts are contextual to the current situation, so let me make up an example:

You’ve been travelling along a river for the past few days, when you come across the ruins of a once massive structure, covered in a strange carvings (an earlier prompt may have told you that you come across signs of corruption or unnatural devastation). You decide to carefully investigate the ruins to better prepare yourself in case this is a portent of some other danger (the carvings especially caught your attention). That would trigger the Gather Information move and you scored a Weak Hit: You gain a new insight but the information comes with some sort of problem that complicates your journey.

First, you roll on the Action/Theme tables to get an idea of the insight you gain and get: “Explore/OpinionYou take that to mean that the carvings are signifiers of someone studying these ruins before you, leaving esoteric markings behind for further study. Perhaps you came across such eccentric markings before and realize a connection here. But that’s not all, the insights come with complications, so you roll again: “Begin/Religion” Perhaps whoever is studying and marking these ruins is descending into madness; the markings are clearly of religious import and the more you decipher them, the more you see the signs of a dark cult and a blasphemous faith. This might even tie further into any backstory you have for your character or other characters or situations you have encountered in the past.

There is no right or wrong answers to those oracles and you don’t have to stay true to their wording, either. As long as they prompt ideas for you to further explore the narrative, they did their job.

(Even for the example above, I simply began with idea of a ruin and carvings and pretended to get a weak hit on gathering information. The rest is me spitballing the ideas in real time using actual prompts rolled using the Action/Theme tables.)

Using a combination of those tables, the moves, and your imagination, you explore the Ironlands–a dangerous island that is home to your people. You are Ironsworn, an adventurer that swears unshakable oaths upon iron to the people of the land or the very land itself.

Starforged

Ancient obelisk glowing with runes of precursor design

Ironsworn is a game set in a perilous low-fantasy island inspired by folklore. Starforged, on the other hand, is a game set in a perilous galaxy filled with countless planets, strange creatures, many factions and individuals, and strange phenomena defying the laws of reality. While there is much to be explore in the Ironlands, Starforged offers you an entire galaxy worth of adventure and peril.

Ironsworn: Starforged is an evolution on the systems Shawn introduced in Ironsworn. It does everything Ironsworn did, but more of it. The scope is many times larger, the moves and rules are both more developed and streamlined in some cases, and the sheer amount of tables and oracles for you to pick from or roll on to create your own perilous journey across an endless galaxy is simply mind-blowing.

The setting of Starforged is that of a perilous space-faring civilization, which escaped the devastation of their home world(s) many generations ago. It’s more space-western than Star Trek–technology is often patched up and scrappy, than neat and sleek. Travel across large distances is dangerous and filled with both peril and wondrous sights. And as the player character, you will explore many planets, stations, and stranger secrets hidden in the depths of the void, all the while you remain Ironsworn–a concept Shawn insisted (and worked hard) on preserving from Ironsworn. While most people remain in the relative safety of their homes or ships, you set out to explore the unknown, charting new passages through perilous space, and helping those in need.

Shawn ran a very successful Kickstarter campaign for Starforged, and worked with some very talented people on this next iteration of his game. The art is stunning (thanks to Joshua Meehan, @joshmeehanart), the scope of the rules is clear and easy to understand, and, most excitingly of all, the number of oracles is immense.

One of the greatest addition to Starforged is the updated progression system. In Ironsworn, you character would only progress (earn Experience points) when they’d fulfill a vow. In Starforged, they earn experience for vows, sure, but also for forging bonds across the galaxy or finishing expedition into the unknown depths of the void or into derelicts and ancient vaults. This creates not only a mechanical framework for advancement, but a motivation for the player and the character to go out and do those things; go and explore the unknown, forge bonds of trust and friendship in a harsh and unfriendly sector.

There are oracles to create characters you meet and their goals and quirks, wondrous and terrible creatures from small swarms to planet-size leviathans, and even entire planets and their features. Factions, ships, derelicts in space and on planets, and even strange precursor vaults holding untold secrets of a time long before humans made to this part of the galaxy.

Here’s a complete list of all the oracle types in the game, which span over 80 pages:

  • Core Oracles
  • Space Encounters
  • Planets
  • Settlements
  • Starships
  • Characters
  • Creatures
  • Factions
  • Derelicts
  • Precursor Vaults
  • Location Themes
  • Miscellaneous Oracles

On top of that, some moves also have lists to roll on, such as the move Pay The Price, which you often have to make as a consequence for rolling a miss previously. All in all, it’s an engine filled to the brim with ideas and prompts to ensure you always have something to add to the narrative.

An Ironsworn trying to convince a council with the aid of its glowcat companion.

While my focus with the game is about how it connects to my writing, there are many other good reasons to check out Ironsworn: Starforged. Like the safety tools Shawn implemented to ensure everyone at the table has a good time, or the diverse representation of people across the Ironlands and Starforged through the art. Or just the clear and easy to read layout and design of the books.

I’ve been playing Ironsworn: Starforged since its first preview release during the Kickstarter campaign, either with others in coop or with me as a guide. Most often, however, I played it solo. I have created many characters and had them explore entire sectors of space, encounter strange creatures, hostile factions, friendly travelers, and surreal perils in lost derelicts.

And even though I always use the same set of tables, trigger the same list of moves as the narrative progresses and my characters interacts with the world, no two games have ever felt the same. No two planets ended up feeling like a copy of each other. The characters I encounter (and therefor rolled up using the tables) are unique people within the story. The factions developed along with the narrative, their goals coming into focus as the story itself unfolded. I’ve made up and met creatures whose random features further developed the nature of a planet or site as I pondered what in their environment could have cause them to evolve in such unique ways. I have jotted down illegible notes during slow hours at work as I explored an ancient vault of a dead civilization, and I wrote entire novella’s worth of fiction when I felt like exploring a given part of a game in more detail.

There is a beautiful marriage of playing and writing fiction that can come out of a game like Starforged. Every rule, or move, or oracle, is a prompt for the narrative to evolve in interesting and unexpecting ways. You can’t outline your way through a game, or hold on to your preconceived notions for too long. Instead, you just let the game guide you to interesting ideas and images of which you would otherwise never think. It pulls on your creativity while also allowing you to insert your own ideas. Sometimes, you don’t need to ask the oracle or consult a table–the situation and narrative has brought you to a place where it all slots into place.

Playing Starforged, to me, is a sort of meditation, wherein the game allows me to breathe and ponder through the events as they unfold. Lately, it has become more of an exercise I come back to whenever I would be otherwise idle, instead of it feeling like actually playing a game. Just twenty minutes here while I interpret the consequences of a weak hit on a move, or a few hours there which I would have otherwise lost on watching nothing of interest on youtube. It’s something I enjoy returning to whenever I can steal away a few moments to watch this endless, procedural universe evolve before my mind’s eye.

When No Man’s Sky first released, I was hoping to discover a universe filled with wonder and excitement, with strange creatures and stranger chaos. I did not find it then.

But I found it in Ironsworn: Starforged. That, and so much more, as this TTRPG inspires me to create and write and actively explore a living story.

Which was, apparently, the promise of the game.


(all images shown are taken either from the Ironsworn or from the Ironsworn: Starfoged rule books.)

Links:

Ironsworn: https://www.ironswornrpg.com/

Ironsworn: Starforged: https://www.ironswornrpg.com/product-ironsworn-starforged

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