As I’m backing @BiggerBoat’s ongoing kickstarter for the sci-fi version of his Ironsworn RPG and I’ve so far just been watching other people play Ironsworn itself, I figured why not take a crack at it in public and see how it goes. I’ll mostly be doing a solo run powered by my own creativity but may solicit advice or ideas.
First things first. Got some Truths to pick. These are broad setting choices in 14 categories. There are three suggestions (with story prompts and sometimes oracle tables for details) provided in each category but you can customize as much as you like.
Cataclysm. The assumption of Ironsworn: Starforged is that your adventures take place in a distant galaxy known as the Forge, where the people fled 200 years ago after some terrible cataclysm overswept their original territory. This Truth is about what that cataclysm was. The suggestions include that a Sun Plague extinguished the stars (what do we think caused it?), we were united in facing an implacable foe but on the edge of defeat (what?), or our home galaxy fell into an age of chaos (sparked by what?). One of the suggestions for the second option is “artificial intelligence”. I was kind of noodling around a riff on Battlestar Galactica’s cylon menace, less for the human-bodied infiltrators and more for the way it forced the survivors to rely on outdated technology. So I think the cataclysm was as follows:
An empire arose whose most powerful enforcers were artificially intelligent android warriors. The resistance was unable to compete militarily, but managed to hack into the control systems and unleashed a digital virus to turn their warriors against them. Unfortunately, something went wrong and the virus mutated, spreading more rapidly and more pervasively than ever intended and turning every artificial intelligence it corrupted implacably against all human life.
Exodus. How did our ancestors flee the home galaxy? Suggested options include generation ships, experimental FTL drives that achieved tremendous speeds but may have fractured reality in the process, and mysterious alien gates (one-way). None of these are quite the direction I’m looking for here, but the last is a bit like it. Again, the desperate ragtag fleet of mostly civilian refugees imagery from BSG appeals to me. I think:
Our ancestors were one of a handful of surviving fleets dispersing to every arm of the galaxy, a ragtag assembly of refugees in outdated ships too old to have AI vulnerable to the virus. By purest providence, they happened across a wormhole opening as the enemy was nipping close at their heels. Not everyone survived the crossing or even made it in before it closed, but those that did found themselves in a entirely new galaxy. We don’t know what happened to those left behind, nor do we know when the wormhole might open again.
Communities. What are our communities like? Suggested options: not many survived and we’re scattered and isolated, many ships and settlements are united under the banner of a handful of Founder Clans, or we’ve succeeded in establishing strong civilization but energy storms called balefires are threatening to cut us off. Given what I’ve established so far, I’m feeling kind of a split between the first two. I think the fleet coalesced from several worlds along the path of their flight, with different cultures and family groups, but it was necessarily not the full populations of any of those worlds and more were lost along the way and in the climactic wormhole journey so 200 years.
The remnant governments that organized the evacuation efforts formed a loose council during the Exodus itself and maintained those ties in our new home, but any given settlement tends to be a small and often scrappy endeavour centered around a few families with similar cultural ideals and expectations, homesteading like the days of the American Old West. There’s enough worlds to go around and not enough people. The exception is Arrival, where the Council has established a front line of defense in case the Rift opens again and our old enemy pours through.
Iron. Swearing iron vows is a key mechanic in Ironsworn. Why is iron special? Suggestions include vows being sworn on the iron remnants of the ships that carried us to the Forge, black iron being a special, super-dense material forged by a long dead civilization, and Ironsworn pledging their vows on iron blades, which carry honor and are useful in shipboard combat. I don’t really feel any specific inspiration on this and I definitely enjoy the precursor civilization trope, so I’m going to go with:
The Ironsworn carry weapons, armor, or tokens crafted from black iron, and swear vows upon it. Black iron is special because of its incredible density and resistance, craftable only using technology we’ve found in ancient ruins.
Laws. What laws govern this civilization. Suggestions include mostly being a lawless frontier with corruption and criminals running rampant, laws and governance varying widely but bounty hunters having widely recognized authority to fulfill their contracts, and communities being bound under a covenant established at the time of the Exodus. I think based on the fiction I’ve already established, we’re again kind of in-between some of this. There definitely isn’t a strong central government keeping order galaxy-wide, and it’s mostly pretty frontier spirit. But there is a Council and kind of the shells of old planetary governments that constitute the basis of factions in it. And they have to keep an eye out for the threat we left behind. So…
The Council has established rules that they would like followed…for our mutual protection and co-existence, of course. But travel more than a month or so from Arrival and Council forces are rarely seen and the frontiersfolk mostly have to fend for themselves and what they call justice may not be so familiar to offworlders. Only the desperate fuck with an iron-sworn, iron-armored Council Marshal on a mission, though.
Religion. Pretty self evident. Suggestions include: having left our gods behind in the Exodus - so many died that most people considered the things we believed before useless and false, but there’s still some who crave something to fill the hole it left behind; faith as diverse as our people; and a religious triumvirate of faiths battling for influence and power. I think the closest for this setting would be the middle.
Many faiths were practised in our homes before. The nightmare of the cataclysm scarred, twisted or ended some, but ultimately you can expect to find at least a subtly different variant of a known faith and perhaps something totally unique on almost any world you visit. The most pervasive are the Custos, a sort of resurgent knightly order formed around the descendants of the brave few soldiers who survived the desperate rear guard action that let the rest of us make it into the Rift.
Magic. Not a traditional part of most science fiction settings, as such, but Starforged is an adaptation of a fantasy game, after all, and there’s your Jedi, psychics, and so on… Suggestions here: magic doesn’t exist; supernatural powers are wielded by rare people known as paragons (with some different possible sources) although it’s not truly magic; or unnatural energies flow through the Forge and magic and science are two sides of the same coin. I’m going to go with a variation on the second option.
The Custos are rumored to display incredible abilities (perhaps even superhuman!) among their most sacred and elevated castes. Occasionally one hears stories of other kinds of strange events and doings among the further frontiers, perhaps from caches of ancient lore. It seems difficult to credit, but the Forge is full of wonders.
Communication and Data. How do we communicate, and how much knowledge do we have? Suggestions: Much was lost when we came to the Forge, and it is a dark age; Information is life - we rely on a guild of space couriers to transport messages and data across the vast distances; in settled domains a near instantaneous network connects us (but the hubs are a target for sabotage or just failures). Well, there is no freaking way this society would use a near instantaneous network even if they had the technology, so that one’s out. Again, I think a mix of the first couple.
Some things were lost in the Exodus. Others were destroyed intentionally to preserve us from our foes. All in all, life in the Forge is much harder than it was in the golden days before the Exodus. There are rumors that the Council maintains a heavily guarded archive of much forbidden knowledge from those times, but surely they of all people would know better than to risk this? Messages between stars are carried the old way by hand, by itinerant traders, adventurers of fortune, Custos on pilgrimage, or Marshals pursuing some obscure mandate. It is expected of any traveller by right and custom.
Medicine. Suggestions: Our advanced medical technologies and expertise were lost during the Exodus; technicians called riggers offset a scarcity of supplies and technology with basic organ and limb replacements; a sworn order of healers preserve medical knowledge and train new generations. I think a lot of medical tech pre-cataclysm involved nanotech-based genetic modification and cybernetics that had powerful onboard processing. Brain-based interfaces. When you’ve got murderous AIs reprogramming anything they can hack into, all of this becomes a liability. So, mostly the first one, but with a few tweaks.
Medicine in the Forge is scarcely better than it was in the early days of the 21st century in most respects, even in the most central civilized worlds. We can’t risk the advanced computing that would once have made so many diseases and injuries easily surmounted. Only crude mechanical limb replacements can be made, for example. On the frontier it’s usually worse - pharmaceuticals husbanded from trader visits from worlds with more manufacturing capacity, plant-based remedies, first aid, and other basic techniques. Lucky worlds might have a doctor or two with serious training living there.
Artificial Intelligence. Nope nope nope. Neeext… well, okay. Suggestions are: We no longer have access to advanced computer systems, instead relying on Mentats (yes the book calls them Adepts, but we all know what the influence is); the vestiges of artificial intelligence are coveted by those in power; sentient machines live with us in the Forge. Yeah, definitely not the last one. The middle one could be done - the idea that the Council (with that rumored forbidden knowledge archive) has ginned up a few very secret AIs since, after all, to the best of our knowledge we didn’t bring the corrupting virus with us and our enemies didn’t make it here is…fun. But I think we’ll hold that in reserve.
The sort of computers we had of old are too dangerous to allow anymore. We all saw the consequences of that sort of reckless technology. Most worlds have to make do with old-fashioned learning and memorization. But in recent years, the worlds closest to Arrival have pioneered a process that can shape…certain classes of person…with specific drugs and surgeries, into a sort of human data processor we call a Cogitator. They are uncomfortable to be around but one cannot deny their utility. (And to be very clear, this is absolutely meant to be a fucked up move made by bad people.)
War. What are soldiers and fighting like in the Forge? Suggestions: resources are too precious to support organized fighting forces or advanced weaponry; those who can pay hire a professional mercenary guild known as the Legion, everyone else is on their own; war is constant, deadly and high tech. I think in our setting we can 100% rule out that last one, on the tech grounds alone. I also think things are mostly too scattered and underpopulated to see really big fights.
The main organized fighting force is based on Arrival. The Council’s Sentinels guard the Rift in case it ever opens. Nothing could be a more important use of our military resources. The Council has a few other Sentinel outposts in nearer space to play rear guard, defend core worlds against any new threats that may arise, and keep the peace. But they simply don’t have the resources to guard every frontier world and traveler. Marshals may be sent in response to requests, but rarely in sufficient numbers to contend with a truly military scale problem. No, frontier worlds are mostly on their own unless they host a Custos temple or they can demonstrate the need for a Crusade.
Lifeforms: Suggestions: diverse and varied lifeforms are all over most planets, and we brought our own with us; aberrant “forgespawn” threaten to overrun other life in the galaxy; life in the Forge was engineered and seeded by the Essentia, ancient entities enacting their own inscrutable will on the galaxy. Previous Truths don’t really spark any specific ideas here, so I think I’m just gonna go with the first one.
Life in the Forge is abundant, both a blessing and a curse. We’ve found species useful, obnoxious, prone to eating human…a whole spectrum. And with some work, many planets will support the familiar creatures we brought with us.
Precursors: there were other civilizations before us - what were they like? Suggestions: many civilizations over the eons, with scavenger “grub” crews exploring and looting them; an advanced spacefaring empire that ruled the whole galaxy then vanished, leaving behind mysterious vaults untethered from our reality; biomechanical Remnants engineered to fight some ancient war that persist, guarding ancient secrets and fighting each other. All of these are cool, frankly. But straightforwardly going for choice one. Just perfect for the sort of frontier saga I’ve set up.
We’re not the first ones here. Seems like every planet comes with alien ruins of one stripe or another, often in layers going down millenia. You can find some amazing things down there. You can also get real dead. Or crippled for life. Not like there’s a hospital anywhere near most of these places…
Horrors - okay, sure, there’s just your regular alien beasties out there…but are there other things? Suggestions: reality is mutable and spacers might encounter unsettling phenomena but nobody else much believes them; get deep enough into space, especially near dying stars, and supernatural occurrences and entities are common; the energies of the Forge give rise to the living dead and there is a special order dedicated to putting them back in the grave. I’m content to leave this as basically an unsettling and open possibility of weird horrors on the fringes - time fuckery, spirits, doppelgangers, things waking up that shouldn’t, etc. Not real interested in widespread zombieism though.
You hear some real weird stories about what happens in deep space between the stars, or in the ruins (what did kill those former civilizations, anyway?), or even just in those isolated little towns on a planet some enterprising homesteader decided needed a guiding human hand. On the other hand, you gotta imagine not just that those guys are killing a lot of time with alcohol, but that it’s mostly alcohol they brewed themselves and from some truly random shit. So, who knows. Couldn’t have been that bad if they’re telling the story, right?
And that’s the Truths! Next up is the character I’ll actually be playing. I feel like some basic possibilities I’ve set up include:
A Custos on one of the pilgrimages their faith mandates, either fresh out of the academy or a mystic ritual initiating him into the deeper mysteries. (maybe an Aescapulian-trained Custos, who knows)
A Council Marshal going on troubleshooting missions for the Council. Presumably a hardened gunslinger. Maybe with a deputy backing him up. Possibly there’s some sinister agenda at work!
A member of an archaeological crew moving from planet to planet in search of fabulous treasures, a terrible ancient secret they’ve found hints of, or simply figuring out some deep mystery.
A homesteader on the frontier, dealing with the varied threats and opportunities of a fresh new alien planet, perhaps under threat by a rival colony, an emerging still living alien presence, horrors lurking in the ruins that are surely local, or even the Custos (a crusade in the area) or Council (some sinister thing or other).
I can see others - a trader; a crusader against the Cogitator industry; a Sentinel confronting the returned foe or other survivors entering the scene after all these years, either through a resurgent Rift at Arrival, or at some more remote post that’s unexpectedly on the front lines, etc. But I think the above four are the most exciting ideas to me. Thoughts?