Magic in Ironsworn

April 10, 2024 ◇ 4 min read

Before jumping into another adventure, I thought it would be a good idea to write about magic in Ironsworn and how to have fun with it when playing in a high-magic setting. I sometimes see people describing Ironsworn as a low-magic system, but in truth, is as low or as high-magic as you want it to be.

Right at the beginning of the rulebook, we are encouraged to adapt everything to our needs.

Magic is subtle and mysterious. Mystics seek to ward away the darkness through the practice of magic, but often succumb to it. Rituals are performed as blessings and to gain insight.
...
You are encouraged to make Ironsworn your own, and to bend the setting to your liking.
Playing Ironsworn, The setting, page 3

There's also one of the premade truth about magic we can pick.

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.
Mysticism truth, page 127

And one important paragraph from the Hacking Ironsworn chapter.

For magic-wielding characters, ritual assets can be envisioned with overt magical effects in high-magic settings. For example, instead of simply wearing an animal pelt using the Bind ritual, you can actually shape-change into the creature. The mechanical outcomes can stay the same, but the fictional framing changes dramatically. Rituals might also be envisioned to require less time to prepare or perform, functioning more like the quick-fire spells of heroic fantasy roleplaying games.
Hacking Ironsworn, page 237

What's left now, is how to handle mechanics outside of rituals. I prefer the simplest possible solution, but there's plenty of great options to pick from.

Base moves

Spells in games, movies or other TTRPGs can usually be easily categorized into melee range, long range, buffs and debuffs.

In Ironsworn, that would translate into Strike or Clash using Iron or Edge and Face Danger or Secure an Advantage using whatever stat fits the best.

Nallandra, a driven, cunning and timid elven mage, spotted an unaware enemy. She Secured an Advantage by successfully casting an Invisibility spell on herself (+shadow or +wits) and Entered the Fray with +shadow +1 for being Invisible.

Next, once she was right behind the enemy, she used Strike move by casting Shocking Grasp (+iron), Faced Danger and blocked incoming hit with Shield spell (+wits), Secured an Advantage blowing her enemy away with Gust of Wind (+wits), and immediately Struck the knocked-down enemy with Firebolt (+edge).

Simply imagine a spell or borrow one from your favorite setting, pick the most appropriate stat, and you're set. No hacks or additional rules are necessary. Mechanically, it doesn't really matter if the enemy was hit with a sword, arrow or firebolt if the end effect is the same.

Challenging rituals

In one of my recent actual plays, Beast of Cindermeet I decided it would be fun to lift a curse with a combat progress track instead of a single Face Danger roll. As I was opposing it, I thought that combat track would be more fitting than a scene challenge from page 234, which is also a great way to tackle situations like this.

In both cases, the general idea is the same: if you have to perform a long and complicated ritual, consider giving it a rank and a progress track. Maybe your most powerful spell requires a short invocation with a rank of troublesome. Or maybe, together with your companions, you're trying to banish a powerful enemy, and your role is to open a portal—a dangerous or even formidable challenge.

Assets

One of the most useful combat talent for spellcasters that I really like to use is Slinger, when upgraded, it gives you the option to keep initiative on a weak hit. The last upgrade, enhanced ammunition, work really well with fiction. If you push it even further, you could envision this asset as Spell slinger, instead of stones, you're using elemental magic, throwing bolts of fire, frost or lightning.

There are some nice paths to take, like Lorekeeper, Ritualist or Sighted, but there's one more that I feel is ideal for a magic user.

Improviser

  • When you Check your Gear, you may roll +wits (instead of +supply). If you do, envision how you make do with a clever solution, and take +1 momentum on a hit.
  • When you Secure an Advantage or Face Danger by cobbling together an ad hoc tool or apparatus, add +1 and take +1 momentum on a hit. After rolling, you may also suffer -1 supply and add +1 more.
  • When you throw caution to the wind and make an impulsive move in a risky situation, you may add +2. If you do, take +1 momentum on a strong hit, but count a weak hit as a miss.

It enables an option to use +wits instead of +supply when using Check Your Gear. Now you can ask yourself, "do I have a spell ready for this situation?" when using this asset, the second upgrade for moves Secure an Advantage and Face Danger is nothing less than casting magic; even suffering supply could be interpreted as using additional spell components. And the final upgrade could be a lovely burst of barely controlled magic.

Other than that, there are plenty of rituals to pick from; you can't really go wrong with any of them.

Bind, Keen, Talisman and Visage work great as long term buff spells. Sway is a classic Charm spell. Lightbearer extremely powerful if you want to make it so. It is also my favorite go-to asset when playing a paladin.

Custom assets

If base assets are not enough, there's always an option to add your own or check what others have made.

Creating custom assets is fairly easy to do, the most straightforward way to create your own is to check and compare tiers of regular assets and pick similar bonuses. Usually it's adding +1 to a certain move, dealing additional harm, reroll any dice, using an alternative stat to roll, etc., then comes the hardest part of decision-making and picking only 3 options per asset.