Lotta hot takes incoming.
First, can we please stop it with the PbtA games? They’re not even really games so much as improv with guardrails, a way to keep the audience from saying something just idiotic every time you say “yes, and?”.
That is a valid play style, of course. There is no wrong way to play anything. My complaint is that we aren’t breaking new ground anymore. It’s all progress tracks/clocks and the same mechanic for everything.
Anyway, to Ironsworn. I’ve read it a few times and I’m just befuddled.
Setting, good. Setting just absolutely fucking great. I mean, low magic, no goddamn orcs, explicit acknowledgement that not every goddamn yahoo has a sword and armor and horse and 10’ pole. Fuckin… right on. Give it to me. Into my fucking veins. I’ve been toying with settings like this for years and years.
Similarly the simple “break the world up into thematic groups, not richly detailed cartographer-grade maps” is nice. You can build your own thing on top of it; it’s the 5-room-dungeon thing.
But from there it all seems to spiral out of control. For one, it’s PbtA on speed: moves lead to moves which lead to more moves. Roll “Herp a Derp”, then on a strong hit roll “U raff u ruse”, then roll some other thing after that. They’ve managed to turn the simple, improv-with-guardrails into something actually complicated.
The whole vow thing, upon which the game is built, is tedious. Every 5 minutes someone needs to take a fucking vow. And the charts to resolve a vow. Are you kidding me. How the fuck I am supposed to resolve my vow, when dickhead over there is working on his?
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve played in groups where the party not only shouldn’t have been adventuring, they shouldn’t have not just immediately started to murder each other. I’ve played in groups where the Session 0 was like, “I’m a bounty hunter, I’m chaotic evil, I want to murder everyone and sell their corpse for cash.” “OK cool I’m a lawful good paladin of the God of Kindness.” (in unison) “Let’s adventure!”
And the DM is like, sure, why not, nothing dysfunctional there. The story arc is, like, kill the evil neuromancer. One player wants to join him, one player doesn’t give a shit, one player just wants XP, one player …. etc.
The point being the “vows” bit seems like a great idea in theory but with 5 or 6 people, whose conflicting storylines cannot be resolved easily, I dunno. You’ve taken a neat mechanic for party unity and thematic story stuff and it just seems like it’ll end up in complete antagonism unless everyone is aligned.
A similar scenario occurs in Mage: The Ascension. Everyone “knows” it’s “unplayable”: the mechanics are too weird, too subjective, too unbalanced. I’ve played in a group where it worked amazingly and a lot of the time I have to stop back and say, you know, it was more that that group was in sync than the game. We could have had a baller 1st Ed D&D game. It was the group, not the setting or the rules.
Subsequent groups have not filled me with the same feeling, most of the time. So narrative, “fiction first” games that layer on complicated fiction-first stuff especially bug me.
The dice mechanic is … they sort of try to sell it as something other than “plain ol PbtA but with more randomness”. Instead of every move having the same probability you get, basically, random targets. I want to do the math on it to see how the curve looks. I assume they’ve done the math, but maybe not: since “fiction first” is the ultimate goal – not fair anything – and a certain number of complications and setbacks make for better fiction, maybe the curve being slightly adversarial is their goal. I don’t know.
Adapting it is hard. One of the reasons I haven’t ever run my version of it is: the simplicity plays into the story. Everyone is kind of assumed to be competent. There’s no “start off whacking goblins, then orcs, then ogres, then … etc” necessary. It’s like starting a D&D game at 5th level. Which is a good idea; I do tend to get annoyed at “you are a special person, also you faint if a rock hits you once” then a few months later “a goblin hit you 19x with a sword and you’re fine”. Those mechanics are hard to model without just saying, fuck it, fiction over numbers.
I also remain utterly bewildered at how people seem to think you need this rules-free improv storytelling fiction-first to have good combat. Like, are people out there just … doing math? Like is every combat just a game of Diablo, but with dice? My friends 7 year old grasped the idea of narrating combat, playing basic D&D. Yeah sure not every moment between dice rolls was a Tolkien novel, but if he can do it, grown-ass people with years of gaming – and ostensibly, reading books and shit – can do it too. You don’t need special mechanics to do that.
So I dunno. We’re getting a new group together to have some c9s social time, which means lotta group chats and vid conf, which has naturally led to “welp, time to play D&D”. Ironsworn came up first on the “ooh, let’s see”. Now I’m just irritated again. Maybe I’m stuck with hacked 5e.