In the distant future, humanity is forced to abandon the Milky Way. Aboard their experimental Exodus ships, the last vestiges of the human race limp to a cluster of stars known as the Forge. The Forge is a strange and wild new home full of mysterious energies and new challenges. But why did humans have to flee? And what did they find when they reached the Forge? Did they create a new star-spanning civilization, or is the Forge a lawless frontier of scattered settlements? Just by asking those questions, you’re already playing Ironsworn: Starforged, the sci-fi follow-up to Ironsworn’s (low) fantasy setting.
Starforged builds on Ironsworn’s mechanics, but you don’t need to know Ironsworn to play. Like other Powered by the Apocalypse and PbtA-inspired games, the core gameplay aspect of Starforged is an invitation to imagine together, and the mechanics are only there to aid the narrative. It’s the collaborative-est of collaborative storytelling. Hell, Starforged doesn’t even need a GM — it’s optimized for solo or small group play. If you do play with a GM, they’re there to guide your story; you’re not there to experience theirs.
Your job as player and storyteller is to make connections between concepts, adapt to new complications, and envision the story your character is participating in. Envisioning is an important word in Starforged — it shows up in bold throughout the book as a gameplay prompt. It’s a way to ask you, the player, to imagine an answer instead of relying on someone else to provide it. You envision how a new piece of information changes your current objective. You envision what gaining the upper hand in a fight looks like. You envision the point of interest you find when your ship unexpectedly drops out of warp.
It’s when your imagination fails — when you come up against a question that you don’t have an answer for — that Starforged shines. A full 100 pages of the rulebook are dedicated to random generation tables. These Oracle Tables exist to answer just about any question you can come up with. Everything from yes-and-no questions to aspects of the setting to details about the atmosphere of a planet can be answered with a roll on an Oracle Table.
Those random tables and envisioning come together right from the moment you start a session zero of Starforged. With a couple dozen dice rolls and lots of flipping back and forth between tables, I create a robustly fleshed-out setting complete with history, current events, a star chart of the starting sector, named planets and settlements, and notes about local industry. More rolling provides me with a character, backstory, skills, assets, and a clear goal.
The random rolls and prolific tables give me suggestions and prompts, and from there I get to draw the connections between them — to envision how they fit into the larger story. I see that the ice planet I just rolled up has “new salvage” on it and that the nearby orbital settlement specializes in “festivals” and “migration.” After some free association and a hop across my Jump to Conclusions Mat, I decide that the settlement is really into commemorating the Exodus, and that the new salvage on the planet below is probably a derelict Exodus ship. And that immediately makes me want to find out more.
The Oracle Tables alone are enough to recommend Starforged to any GM. They’re a master class in random generation and, more importantly, idea generation.
But what about Starforged as a game?
Like other PbtA games, Starforged relies on moves. These are actions that get triggered either by the narrative or the player(s). Moves are inflection points and might cover anything from throwing a punch to conducting a full planetary survey.
Moves are resolved by a dice roll. Two 10-sided dice set the difficulty of the challenge, and one six-sided die determines how well you perform against it. You get to add on ability modifiers and help from assets and allies, and that new number gets compared to the two challenge dice. If you beat both, it’s a strong hit. If you only beat one, it’s a weak hit. If you fail to beat either of them, it’s a miss.
But success and failure in Starforged are also narrative-driven instead of being a simple pass-fail binary. If you try to gather information, a weak hit means you get your answer, but a complication gets introduced to the story. If you miss on a move to make a new friend, they reveal a motivation that’s at odds with yours instead of just not becoming an ally.
Moves are how you add the next twist to the story. The problem with Starforged is that there are, frankly, too many moves — over 50, in fact, and that muddies the gameplay experience. When my character finds a still-functioning computer from the days of the Exodus, does that mean I’m “Exploring a Waypoint” on my journey or do I “Gather Information” from it? When I ask a local to help me out, am I “Making a Connection” or am I “Compelling” them to help me? There’s no right or wrong answer here. Either option works, and the story decides (or should decide) what should come next. But digging through the list to find the move that fits best kind of makes the story grind to a halt.
More importantly, only certain moves give progress toward your goal, whatever that goal may be. Everything you do gets a progress tracker. There’s one for your background vow (your overarching life’s purpose), and one for each additional vow (quest) you take on. You start new ones for each contact you make and faction you interact with. Each expedition, quest, journey, and even each fight all get their own, too. The progress moves that fill those trackers are how you complete a task like finishing an investigation or winning a fight.
And that’s the problem I keep running into while I play Starforged. It might not be particularly crunchy when it comes to doing math and having elaborate systems, but it does require a lot of bookkeeping. By the time I roll my first dice to set off into space, I’ve got four pages of character sheets and trackers. My stats and health meter are on one page, a map of the current sector and the settlements there are on the next page, my connections to friends and enemies are on a third, and I’m tracking the progress of my current expedition on a fourth. All the paperwork and bookkeeping feel like they’re working against Starforged’s great system for creating an interesting setting and introducing compelling storylines — the part I like the most.
How you feel about Ironsworn: Starforged is really about how good you think it is at getting out of the way so you can focus on imagining — envisioning — your story. When you’re unfamiliar with the system, you’re going to be in the weeds a lot, checking lists of moves and trying to decide if you need to start yet another progress tracker. But once everything clicks, Ironsworn: Starforged will reward you with a rich world (well, a rich globular cluster) and a means to tell some incredible stories.
Ironsworn: Starforged was reviewed with a digital copy provided by DriveThruRPG. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.