Here’s a summary of a continuing story, The Tales of Mukoda, a series of actual play in an ongoing persistent solo roleplaying campaign, with my character Mukoda ha’Varou, using Ironsworn and Ironsworn: Delve, and other parts of the system. You can see all of my actual play sessions in the Ironsworn playlist over on my YouTube channel, and consider following me over on Twitter or Instagram as well, or check out all the other things.
This campaign journal entry covers worldbuilding and truths, which is essentially the second part of session 0.
Worldbuilding and Truths
Welcome to the world of Ironsworn! But, what is this world where I am?
As a reminder, I consider this part of session 0 to be, essentially, a cross-table conversation that includes others in my own thinking about worldbuilding, and that I’ve been informed by the solo actual play series by Adam Koebel and Mark Hulmes, and the co-operative actual play by All Systems Go. Think of these as cross-tabletop inspiration and dialogue for the worldbuilding and truths for my solo play!
The Old World
The sickness moved like a horrible wave across the Old World, killing all in its path. Thousands fled aboard ships. However, the plague could not be outrun. On many ships, the disease was contained through ruthless measures—tossing overboard any who exhibited the slightest symptom. Other ships were forever lost. In the end, those who survived found the Ironlands and made it their new home. Some say we will forever be cursed by those we left behind.
Quest Starter: A settlement is stricken by disease. Though this sickness bears some similarities to the Old World plague, it doesn’t kill its victims. Instead, it changes them. How does this disease manifest? Why do you swear to seek out a cure?
This is particularly interesting right now, so I’ll be informed by the overall COVID-19 pandemic; very timely and current. Lot’s there to explore. But, I’m also reminded of discussion from Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, where I learned about the way in which the Black Plague caused not only lots of death, but what came after that: a great deal of movable and immovable wealth that was available and unclaimed, ripe for concentration to those who survived. There was a kind of feeding frenzy on what was left behind and apparent increase in personal wealth for those who lived and were able to claim it.
The Old World illness means that not all who sailed to the Ironlands survived the journey, or lived long after arriving. There may be entire boats that crashed on the coasts filled only with dead and unclaimed belongings. Other landings may have lasted long enough to start settlements, but then failed and have left ghost towns behind. Those communities that made the journey and managed to survive are now filled with fear and paranoia about sickness.
Perhaps part of what happened in Stonetower is that it finally fell to illness, or the fear of illness.
Some circles may be holed-up, being very rapacious and holding on to wealth, and keeping other people out; and there may be others that are empty and abandoned; and so on.
Not to make light of pandemics, in general, or COVID-19, specifically, but this seems timely to play around with these ideas.
Inscrutable metal pillars are found throughout the land. They are iron gray, and smooth as river stone. No one knows their purpose. Some say they are as old as the world. Some, such as the Iron Priests, worship them and swear vows upon them. Most make the warding sign and hurry along their way when they happen across one. The pillars do not tarnish, and even the sharpest blade cannot mark them.
Quest Starter: Your dreams are haunted by visions of a pillar which stands in an unfamiliar landscape. What do you see? Why are you sworn to seek it out?
I think definitely building off of all the conversations from the cross-table inspiration I’ve mentioned, I feel like these pillars are “Bones of the Earth”. There’s these mysterious iron pillars all over the Ironlands, and maybe they are on ley-lines, but it’s kind of apophenic, meaning you can’t quite tell if there’s a pattern. You can’t really tell if there’s a pattern, Every time you think you’ve discovered a pattern, further observation falsifies that idea; but they still seem to be in some as yet unrealized pattern.
Building on the “Bones of the Earth” idea, these pillars are phenomenally hard on the outside, but there is actually a kind of molten metal in the middle. The Old World was Bronze Age, but we’ve now got these iron pillars that can be tapped, like maple syrup, and you can get molten metal, iron, out of them, to use. Maybe we can’t ever or only rarely scratch the outside of these pillars, but every once in a while there’s cracks, or maybe rarely with enough force a crack appears and you can tap into a pillar and get this substance out.
I think there’s also some mystic effect to these pillars, similar to the discussion about them by All Systems Go. I don’t mention in the video, but I can definitely imagine some Land of the Lost kind of Pylon thing going on with some pillars, or maybe those appear some other way. But, there’s some way that the pillars cause Ironlanders to go a bit crazy, maybe the pillars have caused previous waves of now vanished Old World settlements to collapse. The pillars, perhaps being on, or forming themselves, some kind of ley-line network, are how the Ironlands are imbued with not only iron, but also mystic energy, effects, and anomalies.
There’s a lot to build on with these implications and possibilities that come from the metaphor of “Bones of the Earth”.
Other humans sailed here from the Old World untold years ago, but all that is left of them is a savage, feral people we call the broken. Is their fate to become our own?
Quest Starter: You find a child—one of the broken. It is wounded, and hunted by others of its kind. Do you protect it, even at the risk of inviting the wrath of the broken tribes?
Before the Ironlanders, before even the firstborn, another people lived here. Their ancient ruins are found throughout the Ironlands.
Quest starter: Miners uncovered an underground ruin. Thereafter, the people of the settlement are haunted by strange dreams. The ruins call to them, they say. Several have disappeared in that dark, ancient place— including someone important to you.
I definitely want both of these legacies to be true. I feel that the other humans succumbed to the effect of the iron pillars, and the mystic energy of the Ironlands; I’m thinking here of the broken being like Morlocks, and the newest wave of humans as Eloi; something to discover and a theme to explore. I also definitely want there to be ancient ruins all through the Ironlands, with a complex mysterious pre-history.
We are few in number in this accursed land. Most rarely have contact with anyone outside our own small steading or village, and strangers are viewed with deep suspicion.
Quest Starter: In the dead of winter, a desperate man arrives at a snowbound steading. He is wounded, hungry, and nearly frozen to death. His family has been taken. By whom? Will you brave the merciless winter to save them?
We live in communities called circles. These are settlements ranging in size from a steading with a few families to a village of several hundred. Some circles belong to nomadic folk. Some powerful circles might include a cluster of settlements. We trade (and sometimes feud) with other circles.
Quest Starter: A decades-long feud between two circles has flared into open conflict. What is the cause of this dispute? Do you join in the fight, or swear to put a stop to it?
I don’t think there are any big cities yet, and we’re at the point where there may be a couple of larger communities, or clusters of circles, starting to form; but for the most part there are only small circles that have formed, lots of little outposts, loosely connected by infrequent trade and pony express style communication systems. There would likely be more circles along the coasts, staying nearer to where they landed. Of all places, the Havens are where the most expansion into the interior has occurred.
Also, circles are not really tied to specific location, although they can stay in one place, but they are tied together by their community. Some circles are nomadic. And, they can pack up and move, sometimes.
Each circle has their different quirks, and are mostly isolated from other circles.
Leadership is as varied as the people. Some communities are governed by the head of a powerful family. Or, they have a council of elders who make decisions and settle disputes. In others, the priests hold sway. For some, it is duels in the circle that decide.
Quest Starter: You have vivid reoccurring dreams of an Ironlands city. It has strong stone walls, bustling markets, and a keep on a high hill. And so many people! Nowhere in the Ironlands does such a city exist. In your dreams, you are the ruler of this city. Somehow, no matter how long it takes, you must make this vision a reality.
I feel like leadership is varied from circle to circle, and depends on how the circle formed, and the people in the circle.
The wardens are our soldiers, guards, and militia. They serve their communities by standing sentry, patrolling surrounding lands, and organizing defenses in times of crisis. Most have strong ties to their community. Others, called free wardens, are wandering mercenaries who hire on to serve a community or protect caravans.
Quest Starter: You come upon a dying warden. She tells you of an important mission, and charges you with its completion. “Swear to me,” she says, reaching out with a bloodied hand to give you an object crucial to the quest. What is it?
I really like this. There are a number of inspirations for me for this. I want a Yojimbo, wandering ronin kind of deal; wandering into a community, and getting hired by one faction or another; moving from community to community. I also feel like Wardens are kind of militarized traders, who travel with trade caravans but are also really well funded. Their kind of Knights Templar-ish. They go around and do the Witcher kind of thing, with Monster of the Week, discover the big bad and defeat it, but they also do occasionally team up and do The Three (or Four) Musketeer things.
But Wardens are also a kind of fraternal organization, like a Knight Templar or Freemason, Wardens have fraternal bonds where they can go to any new community without previous relationships, but have that bond with the Wardens to rely on; inspired a bit by Revolutionary Brotherhood, which discusses in part how one of the changing roles of Freemasonry was to create a social support network of strangers as immigrant Europeans expanded toward westward travelling to new communities alone.
Freewardens are the travelling version, where Wardens are tied to a circle in some way.
Some still find comfort in the old ways. They call on mystics to divine the fortune of their newborn, or ask them to perform rituals to invoke a bountiful harvest. Others act out of fear against those who they suspect of having power. However, most folk believe true magic—if it ever existed— is lost to us now.
Quest Starter: Someone close to you is accused of cursing a settlement, causing fields to go fallow and cattle to become sick. What is the evidence of this? Will you defend this person and uncover the true cause of the settlement’s troubles?
Magic is rare and dangerous, but those few who wield the power are truly gifted.
Quest Starter: You have heard stories of someone who wields true power. They live in an isolated settlement far away. Who told you of this mystic? Are they feared or respected? Why do you swear to seek them out?
Magic courses through this land as the rivers flow through the hills. The power is there for those who choose to harness it, and even the common folk often know a helpful ritual or two.
Quest Starter: Someone you love walked the paths of power, and succumbed to it. Who are they? Why did they fall into darkness? Where are they now? Do you seek to save them or defeat them?
I think there’s some of all three of these going on. I don’t think there are Merlins. Or, maybe one or two, but still very rare and mythical? There aren’t any organized Hogwarts-style structures. What we’re tending more towards a more pervasive folkloric mysticism. Kind of like the Celtic Catholicism in Secret of Roan Inish. Superstitious, ritualistic kinds of mysticism. I think everyone knows there are these effects, but it’s very folkloric and not very clear to most people how it works.
There’s a kind of Andromedia Klein style magical realism, where things one does have effect, but the causal link is always not completely clear. The folkloric mysticism of the Ironlands is rooted in the world, and “does not often include overtly fantastic or magical content, but rather looks at the mundane through a hyper-realistic and often mysterious lens.”
But, at some point, I also imagine things will get more complicated, with complex rituals being possible. Some people maybe have a kind of Myth Adventures style core ability in a concrete non-obfuscated way to grab the energy of pillars, ley-lines, and soever for wild effects.
I think, like the iron of the pillars, and probably very connected to them, the Old World didn’t have iron or magic either. No one in the Old World knew that magic existed until arriving in the Ironlands.
I’m going to go a bit off on my own tangent with this one. I have zero interest in there being any complex organized religion, definitely nothing like Roman Catholicism.
In the same way that there is in Cosmicism, there’s the Elder Gods, Old Gods, and people; and in the Theogony of the Ancient Greeks, with Primordial, Titan, Gods, then Household Gods; and soever.
For this, I’m thinking that what is thought of as Gods are structured linguistically. I’m not entirely sure how this will work, and I’m not thinking this all is very present. I may not explore it much? But, I think the oldest, most alien Gods are Nouns, so like the Elder Gods. Then there are Old Gods, Verbs. And then there are New Gods, which are Adjectives; Demi-gods, adverbs; and personal Gods, maybe, are, like, Pronouns (See what I did there?!), and maybe household Gods are Prepositions and so on.
I don’t think religion is super present. There aren’t Gods thundering over everyone. And, I don’t think there’s an organized priesthood. Maybe there was in the Old World, but it got so fractured on the way or in the Ironlands that there isn’t much left.
I think there’s also maybe some American Gods style Old Gods from the Old World and New Gods from this place, being found in Ironlands. Some, perhaps the Verbs, were brought with us, but the Old Gods we didn’t know about, the Nouns, were already hidden and behind things, and there’s New Gods from this place, Adjective and Adverbs, being discovered or being revealed.
I feel like the praxis of all these entities is more like Shinto than Roman Catholicism. I have no interest in having an organized Christianity in my imaginary world. But people feel these powers, and perhaps feel empowered by them in this place, by their relationships with these entities, these concepts. Like the Prometheans are like Forethought; and Huginn and Muninn are Thought and Memory; these abstract concepts are personified in an entity, a collectively created, generated entities. As they have power in these Ironlands, they have start to have real effects in the real world, that have started to coalesce and have real stuff happen. I even think, perhaps, that in the Old World this wasn’t at all true, and these are new experiences of having these real effects and real relationships have only started occurring in the Ironlands.
The firstborn live in isolation and are fiercely protective of their own lands.
Quest Starter: The elf, outcast from his kind, lives with Ironlanders. Over time, he became a part of the community. Now, he is dying. He yearns to return to his people before he passes. Does he seek absolution or justice? Why do you swear to help him? What force opposes his return?
There are definitely the various Firstborn (Primordials, Giants, Elves, Varou, and all those creatures, communities, and cultures) that exist. But I don’t think they necessarily are constantly present, or everyone is aware of them. Just ike our circles trade but aren’t in constant communication, and they Freewardens are more aware of the Firstborn than the general population, because they travel and have more contact; like the Night’s Watch is more aware of the threat in the North. The Firstborn are not abandoned or gone; they are definitely here. They are not specifically in isolation, but it just happens that everyone in the Ironlands is in isolation.
Monstrous beasts stalk the wild areas of the Ironlands.
Quest Starter: A prominent Ironlander is consumed with the need to bring vengeance upon a specific beast. What makes this creature distinctive? How did it earn the wrath of this Ironlander? Do you aid this person in their quest, or act to prevent their blind hate from destroying more than just the beast?
I think Beasts are like the Forest Spirit and Boar Spirit in Princess Mononoke. These are the ideal, exemplar, heroic versions of the animals. They exist. I think most people know they exist, but they are rare. Every once in a while there’s a clash or something happens that rouses the exemplar to show up and make itself known.
We are wary of dark forests and deep waterways, for monsters lurk in those places. In the depths of the long-night, when all is wreathed in darkness, only fools venture beyond their homes.
Quest Starter: You bear the scars of an attack by a horror. What was it? Are those scars physical, emotional, or both? How do you seek to make yourself whole again?
I think I got this confused a little with Monstrosities in Delve. But, these awful things exist. The horrors, the mutants, the cosmic horrors are out there, maybe in the ruins, maybe near pillars. These will be more rare, like boss fights, as I play.
To Be Continued
But, why does it have to be me?
Read the more at The Tales of Mukoda, Session 1