You are here

The Tragedy of Kaivan

I had no idea what kind of character I wanted to make for a solo Ironsworn game, so I left as much of it as I could up to the oracles. The result was Myrick of Lostwater, a guy who was both relaxed and hostile somehow.

Lostwater itself is in the Tempest Hills, and the oracle gave it three keywords: Road, Blighted, and Wild. So I figure it’s a decent-sized settlement near a well-traveled road that runs through a landscape of stunted trees and scrub brush. Lostwater’s residents have built many of their homes into the hills, hobbit-style, so it has something of an untamed look. It’s a bit of a rough place, but that seems to be par for the course in Ironsworn.

Looking through the assets, Pretender stuck out to me. I liked the idea of a character who’s been forced to assume a false identity—a relaxed but hostile criminal? He’s probably actually relaxed, but he puts on the hostile part to discourage anyone from getting too close to him, lest they discover who he really is. But given the grittiness of Ironsworn, only murder seems like a big enough crime to spur a fugitive lifestyle.

So he’s a murderer. Okay. But I still gotta like him, so there must be more to it than that. Looking through my truths, the prompts for both beasts (you saw a monster kill someone, but everyone thinks you did it) and horrors (there’s been a string of possibly supernatural killings) caught my eye. What if instead of witnessing a monster attack, I was attacked by and killed a monster that turned out to be something like a werewolf? When they reverted back to their human form, it was a resident of Lostwater. Nobody believed my story, and I managed to flee the settlement.

That felt like a fertile start. But the settlements aren’t very connected to one another, so wouldn’t settling down in one a few miles away be enough to evade vengeance-seekers in Lostwater? Ah, but there are also wardens, and free wardens—that’s who’s pursuing me, a warden, Javert-style. That’s a plausible motivation to chase me, but not a compelling one, so the warden is the sister of Valeri, the man I killed. It’s her duty to capture me, but it’s also personal. The oracles say her name is Kori. Sounds good.

That leaves a lot still undetermined about Myrick (which, I realized, is probably an assumed name, so I rolled for his real name and got Kaivan). Despite the murder, he didn’t strike me as a killer. He’s quick-witted and capable, but no warrior, and not very good with people. I give him wits 3, edge 2, iron 2, heart 1, and shadow 1. He has bonds with Kori, on account of he knows she’s after him, and Nia, his donkey. I figure that might come in handy sometime. Only two bonds! I just don’t feel like I can justify a third. I don’t want to be too connected to anyone.

As for assets, I take Pretender, because that’s what started me down this road. I like the idea of him being an itinerant trader, always on the go from village to village, plying his wares. But there’s no asset that feels right for that, so I made one called Trader. The system feels so dang hackable, it feels like the way to go. Then I made another one called Fugitive, because I had an idea for an infamy track and how that can be used. So those are his three assets.

The vows seem pretty obvious to me. One is “Prove Valeri was a monster,” and another is “Discover what happened to Valeri to make him a monster.” I know they’re kind of on parallel tracks, but one doesn’t require the other, and I have a vision of Kori catching up to me like Tommy Lee Jones confronting Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, and then we end up working together to find the real culprit behind this.

Good to go! The game begins.

Springbrook

Myrick sets out from some settlement or other bound for Springbrook, a peaceful circle situated beside a lake in the foothills of the Veiled Mountains. It’s an oasis of greenery in an otherwise pretty bleak landscape. It’s also uncomfortably close to Lostwater, and in fact is having a dispute with them over the price of water. 

Lostwater’s overseer Kenrick has blockaded the main road—the one Myrick avoids—between it and Springbrook, preventing caravans from reaching the smaller village. The overseer there, a proud and driven woman named Nekun, doesn’t have the resources to fight them, and they’re looking for a solution. Myrick isn’t interested in providing one, because he doesn’t want to get mixed up with all that, but given the current circumstances it seems like a little visit there could be quite lucrative. 

The way to Springbrook isn’t a difficult one. Myrick keeps to himself and avoids anyone on the road for fear of being recognized so close to the place that used to be his home. He reaches his destination without much trouble and stays for a couple days, haggling and bartering. When he leaves, he heads for Dragonshadow under cover of darkness, and makes a cold camp a half-mile away.

Notes. I was more interested in Springbrook than trouble on the road, so I asked the oracle and it agreed that the journey would only be a Troublesome one. I made two Undertake a Journey moves separated by a Make Camp, all of which turned out pretty well. An uneventful but auspicious start! When I left Springbrook, I attempted to reduce my infamy by lying low (Face Danger +shadow) and got a strong hit, so yeah, things were looking good.

I could not have guessed how quickly it would start looking very bad.

Dragonshadow

Myrick’s next destination was Dragonshadow, a mining town in the frigid Veiled Mountains. He actually has a friendly acquaintance there: Nan, a one-armed, grizzled old warrior who still clings to the codes of honor he swore as a young man. Myrick acquired something in Springbrook that he knew Nan would trade dearly for. 

The way to Dragonshadow is rough, but Myrick knows a trail that most don’t that will take him to Whiterock River, which he can then follow all the way to his destination. The journey lasts a few days longer than expected, and he ends up using more of his supplies than he’d anticipated. By the time Dragonshadow and its big water-wheel come into view, the air is nearly as cold as the river. 

Myrick can tell right away that something is amiss. People are running around in a panic. A mineshaft has collapsed, trapping several miners underground. He finds Nan and tells him he has an idea for clearing the mineshaft using the water-wheel and some of his own equipment. The old warrior nods and brings him to the town’s ruling council. Time is running out, and they agree to his plan.

The tangle of ropes, pulleys, and braces is looking good, and the water-wheel provides enough power to pull a boulder free—it’s working! But no sooner is the boulder removed than the rest of the mineshaft collapses. There’s a deafening crash, then the fading cries of the miners who weren’t killed immediately, then… nothing. The mineshaft has become their tomb.

Myrick is shocked and disheartened by this turn of events. That evening, he joins the townsfolk as they gather to mourn their dead, but to his chagrin they blame him for the disaster, declaring him an ill omen unwelcome in Dragonshadow. He arrived a friendly face; he leaves a hated outcast.

Notes.This was a truly unfortunate series of failed rolls! Failing the Face Danger roll to save the miners was one thing, but then scoring a miss to Forge a Bond with the town was a real heartbreaker. Between those two moves, he lost 2 spirit and 2 momentum, so things are not looking good.

Further Calamity

Dispirited and directionless, Myrick ponders his next destination. Few settlements make it through the brutal winters of the Veiled Mountains. There’s no circle as lush and green as Springbrook—but there is Windhaven, a village in the lee of a cliffside that shields it from the biting wind. It’s been overseen for decades by the same man, old and wise, and the people are kind. It’s remote, too, so Myrick’s trade goods will be welcomed. Yes, Windhaven sounds good.

The journey is difficult, and the road takes him along mountain faces and past sheer drop-offs that would mean certain death. Some of Myrick’s goods actually rattle loose and fall over the side, forever lost. It’s a harrowing experience, and progress is slow.

When he reaches a plateau, Myrick stops to re-secure everything on his cart and see to Nia’s needs. That’s when something big charges out of the woods and slashes the donkey with its claws. Myrick throws himself to the ground. Towering above him is a silver bear, one of the Veiled Mountains’ most feared predators. And, apparently, one of its hungriest as well.

Myrick scrambles to his feet and positions himself behind the bear while it busies itself with the struggling pack animal. He draws his blade and stabs at the bear, but barely manages to penetrate its thick hide. However, it’s enough to draw the bear’s attention. It swipes at him and he hits the ground hard. Wracked with pain, he plays dead and hopes the bear will just leave with its meal, which it does. As his consciousness ebbs, Myrick sees Nia’s bloody corpse being dragged away through a debris field of his wares, then everything goes black.

An hour or so later, Myrick surprises himself by waking up instead of bleeding out. He sees to his injuries and thanks the old gods—he’s not nearly as wounded as he’d felt. Even still, his cart is in pieces, it’s cold, and he’s wiped out. Myrick limps around the area and recovers what goods he can, then makes a halfway decent camp and sleeps until dawn.

Bereft of both cart and donkey, Myrick is forced to proceed on foot, carrying the sum total of his material goods in a sack slung over one shoulder.

Yikes, this is where things really went off the rails. I rolled a miss to Undertake a Journey and suffered -2 supply, then rolled to Pay the Price and got “Something of value is lost or destroyed.” Pretty quickly I came to the conclusion that an animal had attacked me, knocking my stuff all over the place—and taking Nia the donkey, definitely something of value. I still thought I could take that bear for some reason, but, uh, no. After scoring only a few points of harm on the bear, I tried to End the Fight and succeeded, in a fashion, in that I rolled a miss and the bear reduced me to 0 health and took me out of the fight. I still wanted to make sure that the bear wasn’t going to kill Myrick right then and there, so I rolled a Face the Danger to play dead, and it worked. The only silver lining here was that I got a strong hit to Heal myself. Other than that, I was very much behind the 8-ball, and it was only going to get worse.

Windhaven

Myrick stumbles down the wooded road to Windhaven, too tired and hurt to be as vigilant as he should. That was no doubt a contributing factor when a band of highwaymen steps out from behind several trees and holds him at spear point. Myrick groans in despair. What else could go wrong?

Fortunately, for highwaymen, they’re awfully polite. Their apparent leader asks him where he’s bound and who he is. Beaten down by his recent experiences, Myrick is off his game when he introduces himself off as a humble trader bound for Windhaven—probably the easiest lie for him to tell at this point, given how long he’s been living that life.

It’s no good, though. In an almost implausible turn of events, one of the highwaymen is Hennion, formerly of Lostwater, and he recognizes Myrick as Kaivan! He tells their leader that “Myrick” is a fugitive wanted by the wardens for murder. She mulls this over as her followers bind his hands behind his back and lead him to their encampment. They bind him to a tree, and it’s the first time since he stopped to feed Nia that hasn’t been a struggle. He passes out.

Myrick’s not sure how long he’s been asleep when the leader wakes him and introduces herself as Caldus. She gives him a quick rundown of what’s going on.

Windhaven’s long-time chief finally gave up the ghost, and he’d been in charge so long—40 years!—the town wasn’t sure how to select a new leader. In the ensuing confusion, a middle-aged man named Bevan gained enough support that he just declared himself the new chief. There was grumbling, but no real opposition. But after a few months as chief, it was clear that Bevan’s top priority was Bevan. He enriched himself and his cronies, levied crippling taxes on everyone else, and hired mercenaries to be his enforcers.

Many Windhaveners (Windhavenites? Windhavians?) refused to accept Bevan’s leadership, but there was little they could do about it. Caldus, a healer and normally a pacifist, emerged as their spokesperson. When talking proved futile, she led them into the woods to harry Bevan’s mercenaries and plot his downfall.

So she has a deal for Myrick. Hennion’s told her she’s a murderer whose crimes have gone unpunished. Fortunately, she has need of a murderer right now, and offers him a choice. She can keep all his worldly goods and loose him to wander the mountains, or he can assassinate Bevan. Myrick takes the deal, and swears a vow upon iron to do it, but his voice shakes and his words lack conviction. Still, a vow is a vow. He gets a good night’s sleep, and heads for town in the morning.

Bevan’s mercenaries stop him just outside town and demand to know his business in Windhaven. He tells them he’s a wandering trader, and it’s an easy enough story for them to buy, but Myrick does a poor job selling it. They level their spears and advance on him. This is probably why they don’t notice the werewolf behind them. Myrick points at it, but his words catch in his throat and his mouth goes dry with fear. Then the monster is upon them.

At this point, Myrick turns tail and runs—back to his captors, having nowhere safer to go. She’s surprised to see him back so soon, and he breathlessly tries to explain the situation with her. In an effort to build trust, he tells her the truth about the murder of Valeri, and begs her to believe that another one of those creatures is here, now, in the woods. She believes that Myrick saw, or at least thought he saw, a monster when he killed Valeri, but he sounds too unhinged for her to believe he’s seen another one now. She orders him to be bound again, and leaves him to make other plans.

That night, Myrick is awakened by the blood-curdling cry of a sentry. The creature he saw earlier has found them and is making short work of the camp! He calls for help, with no expectation of getting any, and gnaws at his bonds to free himself. It’s a lot harder than he would’ve thought, and he already thought it’d be pretty hard.

The werewolf spies him struggling and helpless, and lopes toward him eagerly. Just as rakes him with its claws, Hennion charges in, impaling the monster on his spear. It’s a momentary distraction, but it’s enough for Myrick to finally slip out of his bonds and run. Behind him, Hennion breathes his last.

Bleeding from his new injury, Myrick drops into the darkness behind a fallen log, and tries to control his breathing. Unfortunately for him, the werewolf has an excellent sense of smell, and soon finds him. And eats him.

Notes. Man, what a disaster. I like that the oracles gave me people and situations and problems that, with a squint, weave together into something that made sense. Being recognized that far from home seemed pretty unlikely, but hey, the oracle said otherwise.

I know the appearance of the werewolf here is a pretty similar beat to the appearance of the bear in the last chapter, but it felt like it was time for one to show up to tie things back to how this all started. Plus, this was a good location for it—plenty of witnesses, but no one who could exonerate him.

The string of misses here was truly awe-inspiring. I got hits on plenty of Secure an Advantage rolls, but failed on just about everything else! In the end, I just couldn’t justify Myrick’s continued survival. He was at 0 health and 0 spirit, and failed his Face Danger to hide from a werewolf. What else was going to happen?

Anyway, I was really impressed with where all those dice rolls and rules guidance took me. It was cut short, but obviously now I have to play Kori and tell the story of her pursuit of Myrick. Eventually she’ll catch up with him and have to deal with the lycanthropes herself.

Department: 
Actual Play
Games: 
Ironsworn

Comments

Sean_RDP's picture

I had Ironsworn on the mind lately because of a nother solo play here at the site. I did my own 1-session play of Ironsworn back in 2020. You can read Mabon's Vows right here. I think it was a good experience but you will see Ron and I discussing some larger issues of the game. I did a review of Thousand Year Old Vampire a while ago and this is also on my radar for solo play.

On a personal note, what was appealing about Ironsworn for you? It resonated some heroic poetry vibes, like Beowulf, for myself and that was appealing. I liked solo adventures in my younger days but had been a bit of a skpetic about a whole that could be played solo. 

How did the mechanics work for you? Did you feel the game moved fast or slow? I thought it was moving fast for me (I never finished, full disclosure) but after some thought I realized I had a long way to go to fulfill my vows. 

Mike Olson's picture

I do like the Iron Age/Beowulf vibe, and also how humanocentric it feels. There are fantasy peoples out there, like elves and stuff, but the default seems to be that they're in the background. They're a flavor to the danger or tension you might encounter in the world, not, like, your drinking buddy. I liked what I saw as an implied constraint that things should be kept grounded and not fly off into Magical Land. E.g., there's a werewolf, but it's "Holy shit, a monster!" and not "Quick, hand me the silvered dagger." 

I really like the dice mechanic, which was a big reason why I wanted to try it solo. Alan Barclay and I played a co-op game as a one-shot for Ron's Phenomena class, and I got curious about how it'd play out in solo mode. Looking back, I see that I wasn't playing to what the game wants from me, which is to make and fulfill vows. Everything went to Hell so consistently that I never thought to, say, Gather Information in a town to see if anyone else had seen a werewolf, or look for tracks while I was traveling, or whatever. I didn't make any progresss toward my vows at all, in fact.

I played solo T&T quite a bit as a kid, mostly in elementary and middle school, but I've come back to it now and then throughout my life. Those solo modules are fun, but they're also obviously very constrained: you can do this, or you can do that. Two of them, City of Terrors and Sewers of Oblivion, imply a lot of worldbuilding, but don't dig into it enough for me. City of Terrors even includes a world map! I've taken what's there and used it to run some T&T one-shots, back when 7e came out several years ago, the one in the tin box with the tiny tiny dice, but I'd like more of that.

Ironsworn gives me as much of that as I want, with the proviso that I'm going to have to fill in a lot of blanks. But I found that the guidance of the oracles or Pay the Price is usually all I need to think of something that fits honestly into the fiction. There are times, admittedly, when a string of failures can be frustrating instead of inspiring -- why didn't these percentile dice roll this well when I was playing Rolemaster? -- but I've found that walking away from it and coming back later is enough for me to approach the situation from a new angle. (That's happening now in the sequel game to the one I wrote about here.)

One anecdote of a frustrating situation: I'd managed to get my momentum up to +9, and was therefore super-confident about making some move or other, I can't remember which. Regardless, at the very least I'd get a weak hit, and that's all I really needed. I believe I rolled a 6 on my action die, but definitely rolled a 9 and 10 on my challenge dice. The most aggravating miss.

Ron Edwards's picture

Long ago, a prevailing viewpoint among role-players I met was that dice outcomes "ruined the story." A great deal of the hobby culture concerned how to sabotage the dice in the name of better play, up to and including eliminating them. In many cases, I think this also meant sabotaging other people in play, and eliminating them too. Even play favoring the dice-approach emphasized being a "good sport" and "taking it like a man" in acknowledgment that the experience wasn't particularly fun.

I bring this up because I'm looking across three really powerful examples via solo play: the game you're describing here, the game described by Adriano in Fallen Angels, a Swords of the Skull-Takers actual play, and Adriano's account during our class of his instant-kill no-fun Tunnels & Trolls game using the notorious Naked Doom adventure.

In each case, there's a lone adventurer who (i) behaves rather sensibly and tactically, (ii) receives a particularly negative outcome from highly-constrained randomized procedure, and (iii) dies horribly. But they are definitely not the same!

In the case of Naked Doom, I feel no restraint in saying it's a crap design (the scenario, not the core game) that amounts to little more than a fuck-you to the player in the name of low comedy. In the case of Swords of the Skull-Takers, I am similarly certain in saying this is incredibly engaging, dare I say highly-immersive danger, tragedy, and hope. So that's two points on the very far opposite ends of a spectrum. Talking about why would be extremely useful, but maybe better placed in the Skull-Takers post's comments.

Here, it's the curious place of your account of Ironsworn that matters, on that spectrum or in terms of any of the relevant variables. As I read along, I reacted very much as to Naked Doom - what the fuck is this, is there no effect of what Mike said and thought upon play, it looks like a turn-the-crank auto-play roulette wheel, why would I play something that merely kicks me in the groin over and over ...

... and yet somehow by the end, I found the death-scene and the decision you made to matter a lot to me. I liked Kaivan, but not just as himself and his wretched string of fate's backhands, instead, as the prologue or opening for what may came next, and for whom. It's a perfect prequel, whose painful unfairness and doomed struggle are almost poetic. I'm just as inspired as you to keep playing, and I'm not even the player!

This is a good chance to reflect upon why this actually is.

Mike Olson's picture

On the Ironsworn Discord server, one or two people told me that my Pay the Price interpretations were too harsh and didn't make for a plausible story. It ended too soon and had no upbeats. But... I dunno, it's easy to be overly lenient with misses in this game -- "the Price" ends up being little more than flavor on the miss. That doesn't feel right to me. I want every roll of the dice to change the course of the story in small or big ways. It's like a weak compel in Fate: if it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter. 

That said, I'm playing through Kori's story now, and while she's had her share of misses too, it's going in a very different direction. Kaivan's story was one of desperation; he was just trying to stay ahead of the consequences of his actions. He isn't going anywhere in particular so much as he's always on the move. I thought the wandering trader would give me a good excuse to Undertake Journeys and make trouble for myself, and I was right, but it also meant he had no solid connection to anywhere he went. That feels lonely, but I imagine that's how he feels too, so I lean toward that not being a problem.

Anyway: Kori's story has involved more adventure and more fantastical elements. I'm still trying to keep it grounded, and also trying to stretch myself when I interpret Pay the Price's results. More soft moves than hard moves, you could say, but never inconsequential.

Mike Olson's picture

BTW, I think part of what makes Kaivan an empathetic character in the end -- for me, at least -- is laying out his whole story for Caldus, probably the only time he's ever done that since he fled Lostwater, and it not especially making a difference. The poor guy's just trying his best!

Mike Olson's picture

Forgive me, but Ron and I talked about this a little on Discord and he wanted me to add a comment to the discussion here:

I'm glad it won you over in the end. In fact, I think I like that better than you being on board the whole time.

This is a thing I've heard from some stand-ups, too -- there's something about getting the crowd to turn against you and then getting them back on your side by the end.

Ron Edwards's picture

We spend a lot of time here talking about failed rolls or the equivalent. If you get a chance, check Monday Lab: Whoops and the recent Late night post on new players. You've provided a fantastic case study for that discourse.

Specifically, I'm interested in what it's like to stick with it (the game) when certain indicators suggest not doing so, at least not in some other game one's experienced. Here's where Adriano's discussion in our Phenomena class about Naked Doom matters, because he just bagged it - "this is not good." And I don't think that's because he wimped out where a "good" or "tough" player would roll up a new guy and keep going; I think he's absolutely right that the actual text-instructed experience is a mug's game, if you play it, you're just a notch on Ken St. Andre's belt so he can point and laugh.

So let's look at Ironsworn. What made failure work so well, especially since it was not evident during at least some of play that it would?

Mike Olson's picture

Y'know, in the moment, the only disappointing thing about rolling a miss was throwing away my vision of what was going to happen next. Everything still moved the story forward, just not in the direction I thought it was going to go. "Play to find out" and all that. Dealing with misses was a challenge sometimes, but creatively, not emotionally.

That may be why I'm actually a little surprised that some people are reacting to The Brief Adventures of Kaivan with "Ugh, too depressing!" To me, playing through it, I had fun! And when it was over I immediately wanted to pick up the story from the perspective of an NPC I hadn't even met yet. The most surprising thing to me is that I'm playing one of these new-fangled journaling games the kids talk about noawadays.

Ron Edwards's picture

Assuming you agree at least a little with my assessment of Naked Doom, why doesn't that same logic (what you describe) apply when playing it?

I ask because you and I agree that Tunnels & Trolls 5th edition is brilliant, so we can focus on that exact module without distractions or explanations. So it's a good case study for the converse experience: I roll, my guy dies, that was stupid.

This isn't a gotcha question where you're supposed to guess the answer I'm holding in my head. I would really like to know your thoughts on the difference.

[quick edit: also, I posted about playing the old T&T solo Circle of Ice a couple of years ago, in Ardor in the icy pits. Some points there are relevant here, I think.]

Mike Olson's picture

Hmm. Well... I think part of it is the nature of most T&T solo modules. Sometimes you make what seems to be a good, logical choice (for a certain value of "logical") and then when you turn to 24D it just says something like "You're dead. Close the book, turkey." I know that's partially a function of T&T's old-schoolness, especially with those early solo mods, but it also feels like it tricked you somehow. In that sense, it feels cheap and unfair.

(The specific example that comes to mind is making nice with Barth Bladehands in City of Terrors.)

I think another part is the fact that in Ironsworn, when I roll a miss and deliver a haymaker to myself, I get to decide what form that takes. If I make a well-intentioned choice as my character and miss, I'm not going to pull a "Rocks fall, everyone dies" on myself. Whatever comes next will be something that either emerges organically from what came before, or drives the story forward (preferably both). It won't be an arbitrary punishment for making what I didn't know was the wrong choice. 

With Naked Doom, you're starting behind the 8-ball already. You might expect the module to make up for that by cutting you a break. For me, when it instead leans the other way for apparently no other reason than it being difficult, it leaves me wondering what the point of the whole thing is. 

Add new comment