Ironsworn: Delve is a supplement to the role-playing game (RPG) Ironsworn. As in the case of the base game, the author is Shawn Tomkin, this time supported by Matt Click. In the rest of the text, I will simply call it Delve, but it should not be confused with another game with this name.
The manual has 246 pages and is black and white (except the cover). It can be purchased in electronic version (PDF) for $12.50 on itch.io, and also in paper version on DriveThruRPG ($23.50 paperback or $28.50 hardcover). However, the crucial elements of the game (Moves reference, Site cards and Site worksheet) can be downloaded for free at the author’s website, as well as free preview, which includes the first two chapters of the Delve rulebook.
In 2020, Delve won a silver ENnie Award in the Best Supplement category.
Delve is a set of tools to enhance your gameplay in Ironsworn. They are independent of each other, so each team can choose the ones that suit them.
Themes and domains
The key element of the supplement, which takes up about half of the volume of the manual, are the rules for exploring dangerous sites.
Since the very beginning of RPGs, dungeon crawling has been one of the basic types of adventures – Dungeons & Dragons, Mazes & Minotaurs or Tunnels & Trolls are called so for a reason. It consists in the fact that the players' characters travel through a smaller or larger location (the so-called megadungeons fully deserve their name) in search of treasures. This is made difficult by the monsters, traps, dead ends, and dwindling resources, from food to medicine to torches.
In the classic dungeon crawling, the Game Master's map of the location (on which rooms, hidden passages, traps and treasures are visible) plays a fundamental role. What does a dungeon crawl look like in Ironsworn, a system that allows you to play without a GM?
The authors, inspired by the fan-made Labyrinth Move for Dungeon World, created something groundbreaking, which I personally call a narrative dungeon crawl.
Each site consists of a theme and a domain. The theme indicates the types of inhabitants and the dangers that can be found there – e.g. Corrupted means a place tainted with dark magic. A domain represents the physical characteristics of a place – the terrain or architecture you need to walk through. Cave is a dark place of winding tunnels and claustrophobic chambers. Shadowfen is a nasty swamp. Right! Unlike the classic dungeon crawl, 4 of the 12 domains contained in Delve are "under the sky" – the already mentioned Shadowfen, as well as the Tanglewood, mountain Pass and Icereach. The others are more typical: Barrow, Mine or Stronghold. There are 8 themes – the location can be, for example, ancient, fortified or haunted. Thus, we have 96 potential combinations, and this number increases significantly if we reach for fan creations, e.g. from the Ironsmith add-on (10 themes and as many domains). Each theme card has 5 features and 12 dangers, and each domain card has 12 features and 5 dangers. I'll explain what their role is in a moment.
We Delve the Depths
Delve assumes that we enter the site for a specific purpose: to obtain some item or information, to free a trapped kin, or simply to get to the other side of the mountains or swamps. Once when I played with a friend, our goal was to escape from the dungeon of the fortified fortress of a certain Extreme Eric (yes, his rank also became his nickname :)
Each site has one of five characteristic Ironsworn ranks, from Troublesome (e.g. a small burial mound) to Epic (a gargantuan castle of a vampire prince). Rank determines how many milestones separate us from the beginning of exploration until we have a decent chance of finding our goal (Locate Your Objective Move). Delve introduces 12 new Moves to the game, of which 7 refer to the exploration of sites.
The key one (as the name suggests) is Delve the Depths. We start by envisioning the place where our character is currently located. Rolling d100 will show us the characteristic feature of the location – we read the results 1-20 on the theme card, and 21-100 – on the domain card. For example, in an Ancient Ruin, a score of 15 would be a preserved corpse or fossil, and a score of 83 would be a temple of forgotten deities.
Then we choose whether we explore the location in a hurry, sneaking or based on observation and experience. Depending on this decision, we add the value of the appropriate attribute to the six-sided die roll and compare the action score with the numbers on the two ten-sided challenge dice. If the action score is higher than the score on both challenge dice, we have a strong hit – we mark progress on the 10-square track of this exploration: from 3 full squares for Troublesome to a quarter square for Epic. Additionally, we perform the Find an Opportunity Move.
Probably more often the action score will be higher than the result of only one of the challenge dice, which means a weak hit. We roll d100 and read the result from the appropriate column of the table. This is where the difference between the approaches to exploration becomes fully apparent. The hasty approach gives you the best chance of progress (sometimes even double!), but it also entails an increased likelihood of having to make a Reveal a Danger Move. As you might guess, this means rolling a d100 and applying the appropriate result from the theme or domain card. Sneaking is the safest option. Relying on observation and experience is moderately risky compared to other options, but gives the best chance of Finding an Opportunity.
Regardless of the approach, if the results of both d10s are higher than the action score – it means a miss, i.e. the need to discover the danger.
Geography and history
The method described above means that we do not need a map of the location before starting exploration – even if we play Delve with the Game Master, their role is limited to introducing and describing features and dangers depending on the players' performance in the Delve the Depths Move. Nevertheless, the author encourages players to draw up a schematic map summarizing the course of the expedition, especially in the case of high-ranking sites that can be explored for many sessions.
In addition to tools for creating your own sites, Delve offers us 20 ready-made ones, scattered throughout the Ironlands. Each of them, apart from the indicated theme and domain, has half a page of historical background. They can be a valuable source of inspiration!
Passive and active threats
In addition to the exploration rules, Delve expands the base game bestiary with 23 creatures, from the mere Troublesome Shroud Crab to the Epic Kraken. It also introduces anomalies – manifestations of natural forces or ancient spirits. In addition to the rules for creating them (and dealing with them), we also have 6 examples described. My attention was caught by a Circle of Stones, hungry for knowledge and memories and often hidden in snow, brush or fog. A person who inadvertently steps in between may lose their memory. Some Ironlanders do it on purpose, wanting to get rid of painful memories. Daredevils with an iron will can make a "knowledge for knowledge" trade with stones and gain information that is otherwise unavailable.
Another Delve tool is the mechanics of threats, which we can associate with quests to add drama and dynamics to them. The manual describes 9 types of threats, such as escalating conflict, natural disaster or fanatical cult.
Failures in rolls or passivity of our hero can result in an increase in the power of the threat, which should be marked with a symbol in the corner of the square on the progress track of the relevant Iron Vow. When the last square is marked in this way, fulfilling the Vow becomes impossible – the hero must abandon the quest (which for the Ironsworn is one of the worst things that can happen to them in life).
However, apart from the stick, there is also a carrot – if we manage to fulfill the Vow while the number of squares marked by a threat is equal to or greater than your vow progress, we get an additional experience point.
Delve also features another carrot – an optional failure track where you fill a quarter square whenever you fail a Move, and a half square if it's a Progress Move (e.g. attempting to fulfill an Iron Vow). When we fill at least 6 squares, the hero can try to learn from past failures, which in the best case can give us 3 experience points (just enough to buy a new Asset!).
I think the threat mechanic is a great idea – the world no longer waits passively for the hero to complete the task, engaging in various sidequests along the way. In addition, the threat approaching the end of the track can tear us out of the comfort zone (if such a thing exists in the Iron Lands) and force us to make a desperate attempt to fulfill the Vow, even when the number of filled squares does not give much chance of success. And dealing with the threat that has previously made us trouble can give great satisfaction!
Magic items and Oracles
One of the motivations for delving into dangerous sites may be the desire to get a magical treasure. Delve lists 65 of them – one for each Asset, excluding animal companions.
All these rarities, although they differ in description and the number of experience points that must be spent to be able to use them, mechanically they work the same. When performing a Move supported by an Asset to which the rarity is associated, some d6 results modify how the Move is resolved: 6 is an automatic strong hit (even if the challenge dice roll 10s!), 5 gives +1 Momentum, and 1 (when the result is a miss) makes things worse as the item's magic turns against us.
Delve also includes a number of new random tables called Oracles. Below we see the most important of them, very helpful when, for example, we roll for a location feature, we have "something unusual or unexpected", and we have no idea what it could be. Then we roll in the tables below and it turns out that it is, for example, a "mystical trap". In this particular case, we can refer to the next Oracles, specifying exactly how this trap works.
A treasure or a trap for our gold?
If you like Ironsworn, Delve is definitely worth picking up. The tools included in the supplement greatly enrich the play.
In my opinion, Delve-style exploration is a distillate of what is most exciting about dungeon crawling, and skips the repetitive corridors that turn left and right.
Dangerous sites, anomalies and threats are additional challenges facing our Ironsworn, but at the same time gaining experience for failures or magical rarities increase our chances.
Some of the elements introduced may seem too high fantasy for people who prefer the most down-to-earth and realistic version of Ironlands – but in that case, you can just ignore them and enjoy the rest.
There's really only one thing I don't like: the Opportunities that we can find by doing the Find an Opportunity Move are the same for all themes and domains, which can make them repetitive (especially since there are only 10 of them). Shawn Tomkin corrected this in the sequel to Ironsworn – Starforged.