I fiddled a bit with Shawn Tomkin‘s Ironsworn when it came out a few years ago. Skeptical about the solitaire play concept, I discovered that, yeah, it works! He’s made a ton of innovations to the PbtA framework to support it, and it’s not for everyone, but yeah. Mechanically and creatively, you can absolutely do the thing and it feels like the thing.
The main thing I discovered in my dozen-or-so sessions (which ran anywhere from 20 minutes to maybe a couple hours; you can play on your own schedule and slide a little bit in here and there) is that, for me, the solitaire format only works if I have an audience in mind. So when I played Ironsworn, I invented an audience. I pretended I was writing engaging fiction for friends, wrote it, and enjoyed it that way. But my friends never actually read any of it.
Well, now Starforged is here, and I’m in love with it for a lot of reasons. It’s 90% Ironsworn, but personally I find space adventure a more appealing genre. Tomkin has added a handful of innovations to his game. Some of them don’t really click with me: specifically, he’s allowed clocks to infect his otherwise-streamlined state-tracking system. For the life of me I don’t know why! Maybe to differentiate their application from his track-of-boxes system that ticks faster or slower depending on the stated difficulty of the track (i.e easy tracks fill faster and epic tracks take forever). Dunno. But other than that, everything in Starforged is more tuned to what I like in space adventure.
I’ll do a deep mechanical dive into Starforged at some point but the point of this post is to announce a small experiment. I’m going to post my actual play of the game because I need an audience, and I think it’s good. The fiction, that is. I’ve got three sessions played so far but I’ll just post them one at a time each week. I’m going to embed the mechanics into the fiction so you can see how one informs the other as well.
Is this representative Starforged play? Depends on your taste and whether you think my writing is any good, I suppose. I’ve hewed to the game’s core aesthetics and setting canon, such as it is, as presented in the book itself. I haven’t hacked it into Star Wars or whatever. I’ve even kept the iron vow bit of the game, in which characters make these very serious vows to each other and themselves (it’s how the game keeps players focused on character-driven play and not, say, a string of combat scenes like you might find in an old Tunnels & Trolls solitaire adventure). It’s probably the most distinctive bit of the meta-setting, but it’s so essential to driving play that I’m not sure what the game looks like without it.
Anyway, hope you enjoy the series. Let me know in comments!
I’m going to fully randomize my 14 Truths. This is the setup sequence you go through to start a Starforged campaign.
Cataclysm: The Sun Plague extinguished the stars in our home galaxy. We suspect the Sun Plague was caused by temporal distortions from a supermassive black hole.
Exodus: When the Exodus fleet set off on a ponderous journey to a new home outside our galaxy, they marked the Forge as their destination. Countless generations lived out their lives aboard those titanic ships during the millennia-long passage.
Communities: We have made our mark in this galaxy, but the energy storms we call balefires threaten to undo that progress, leaving our communities isolated and vulnerable. These intense energy anomalies threaten to cut off trade routes or consume entire planets.
Iron: Swords are useful aboard ships, so Ironsworn swear their vows on bladed weapons of all kinds. “Iron” is old fashioned and not really present, but they refer to all weaponized metals and metal-like materials as “iron.”
Laws: Much of there settled domains are a lawless frontier. Criminal factions and corrupt leaders often hold sway. There are a few bastions of successful autonomy, but many are corrupted or preyed upon.
Religion: Our gods failed us and we left them behind. The Exodus was a tipping point for humanity, and spirituality has little meaning for us.
Magic: Supernatural powers are wielded by rare people called paragons. This power is born of ancient knowledge held by secretive orders. (This is the only Truth I didn’t randomize: after I saw the Looper path I had to have it! My entire campaign frame spun out from this one card.)
Communication and Data: In settled domains, a network of data hubs called the Weave allows near-instantaneous communication between ships and outposts. Weave hubs are frequent targets for sabotage, and communications blackouts are not uncommon.
Medicine: Orders of sworn healers preserve our medical knowledge and train new generations of caregivers. Larger communities offer advanced care, and remote communities often have a novice healer or can ask for help from the guild if necessary.
AI: Artificial consciousness emerged in the time before the Exodus, and sentient machines live with us here in the Forge. Ships, digital assistants, bots and other systems often house advanced AI. Machine intelligence is often a lone traveler’s only companion.
War: Here in the Forge, resources are too precious to support organized fighting forces or advanced weaponry. Weapons are simple and cheap (slugthrowers, swords). Ships are cobbled together from salvage. Most communities rely on ragtag bands of volunteers to defend their holdings, and raiders prowl the Forge in search of easy prey.
Life forms: This is a perilous and often inhospitable galaxy, but life finds a way. Life is diverse, and planets are often home to a vast array of creatures. Our ships cruise with space-born life forms riding in their wake! Animals from before the Exodus followed us and have adapted to live with us in the Forge.
Precursors: The Ascendancy, an advanced spacefaring empire, once ruled the Forge. Vaults of inscrutable purpose are all that remain of the Ascendancy’s legacy, but those places are untethered from our own reality. Vaults sometimes appear spontaneously, washed up on the tides of time. Their gravity and atmosphere do not obey conventional natural law. Some are corrupted and ruined, others are intact. They are chaos.
Horrors: Put enough alcohol in a spacer and they’ll tell you stories of ghost ships crewed by vengeful undead. It’s nonsense. But! Space and time are mutable (remember, I’m a Looper!), and when reality can’t be trusted, we’re bound to encounter unsettling phenomenon.
Character Backstory: Echo Sedano
Paragons are expected to help their community’s leadership, bring their special talent to the township and tip the scale. Paragon Echo Sedano just couldn’t see the upside of leaving all that space unexplored. He looked up every night and wondered. After befriending the AI of an explorer’s ship and listening to its tales of all it had seen, Echo stole the ship (maybe; it was strangely easy and unguarded and its owner had been romancing a township woman) and pointed it at the brightest spot in the sky.
What really drew his attention wasn’t the thrill of exploration, though. It was the deep-seated dread of the tales told by his family of the Exodus. Of time itself swallowing stars one after another, they guessed, either backward in time or perhaps, maybe, drawn far, far forward beyond the heat-death of the universe. Had the mighty Ascendancy really just vanished? Or were they hiding somewhere they thought nobody would ever find them? Were the ancient masters warming themselves with the heat of his people’s suns? Was this a fate only a Looper such as Echo could imagine, literally unimaginable by everyone else?
Echo vows to learn what became of his people’s suns and return them.
All The Time In The World And Nobody To Wind The Clock
The ship’s AI named itself after Echo took possession of it, a phrase said more than once to Echo by the explorer-trader from whom he stole/received it. Before Echo flew off, the old explorer had referred to the ship as You Can’t Force Good Advice On Anyone but the ship will not answer to that name any more.
Winder is like most vessels, cobbled together from bits and bobs of Exodus craft. A small e-drive that gets uncomfortably warm when it’s spun up and eager to fly. A hull that groans in atmospheric flight. Controls and rooms labeled in a form of Galactic, v4.5, that hasn’t been written in centuries (Echo’s township is on 8.2 and has neither received an update nor generated a change log in decades; every community’s local argot is broadly compatible in the 8.x branch).
Winder is equipped with an Overseer module, as the AI performs many of the ship’s technical duties.
Sector: Outer Kalidas
Outer Kalidas is a lightly populated sector in the outlands. The entire sector is beset by magnetic disturbances that disrupt communications, including the primitive Weave in and around the few settlements. Folks are concerned this is a precursor to sector-wide balefire, and are preparing to leave if they can.
Helia is a very, very small science settlement on the freezing desert face of Desolation, orbiting a dim red star. There are fewer than a dozen folks that comprise “Helia,” and that number drops regularly. While Desolation’s atmosphere is marginally breathable and the entire planet is scoured by perpetual sandstorms blasting over endless salt flats, it’s also home to bountiful life. Bountiful, spectacularly dangerous life.
In orbit around Desolation is a small Vault, some sort of monument the Helia folks have little interest in exploring. They’re far more preoccupied with the colossal version of the same thing that towers over the planet’s surface. Helia is in fact perched on the edge of the identifiable monument (there may be more underground), their rustic cabins barely withstanding the freezing salt and sand.
Legacy is an orbital installation around Magnus, an enormous young Jovian planet recently formed around an equally young star still in the throes of its own formation.
Hearth is an orbital settlement that provides the staging ground for teams actively exploring the surface of Hope. Hope is a vital, healthy world but nobody has yet settled it; why not? Hope is not on a charted route and has been out of contact for some time. The last round of balefire broke the connection with Hope a few years ago, nearly eliminating the reason for anyone to even visit Outer Kalidas.
Kimbra is an aging mercenary employed by Helia (Desolation) to help defend the settlement against local lifeforms. Poised and well-equipped, Kimbra originally came to Helia to visit the monument. Well, she’s here now and can’t ever catch a break long enough to journey into the site on her own — and the locals don’t really want her to, either. A total outsider to their weird insular community, Kimora is lonely and eager for visitors.
Kimbra is an old friend of the explorer who set Echo up with the Winder. He sent Echo to Kimbra knowing she’d be a friendly face in an unfriendly world.
Next week: Session one!
Turns out I had a YA story in me. Who knew?