Note: The intended audience for this post is those who are already interested in foresight games or are using them in their practice. However, I may write a more introductory explanation if there is interest.
Over the past year, I have become deeply interested in foresight games, which stem from strategic games and wargames. They are often participatory tools for transforming mental models in relation to thinking about the future(s). This professional development has taken me to some really interesting places, and I am excited to share more. However, today I want to write about something in particular that has captured my interest recently. That is the Ironsworn system, and how it might be useful for making foresight games. I think there is an opportunity to introduce Ironsworn and Powered by the Apocalypse-type systems as essential tools in this space, and this is a first pass at describing this connection.
A foresight game is a tool of strategic foresight that involves using play to engage with uncertainties around possible futures. They are typically participatory designs that create an opportunity to immerse people in images of futures, generating ideas for actions and reactions that help to aid decisions, planning, identification of blindspots, and policy implementation. I’ll give some examples of foresight games that I’ve worked on. I first made what I now call a foresight game in 2012 when I held the Never Events: The Futures of the Past exhibit in Calgary during my time at Alberta University of the Arts. It involved experiencing logos from futures that “never were” and interpreting how humanity might have gotten to that point, and what might lay ahead.
More recently, a group project in 2020 at OCAD University in the Strategic Foresight and Innovation program began to spark my interest in this area. We expressed a” futures of nature as technology” project as a participatory futures experience – a sort of roleplay model United Nations “choose-your-own-adventure” where participants voted using online tools to create resolutions and determine the future of the “DNA internet data centre forests” of the world in 2040.
The highly interactive large group session led to one of eight possible outcomes for the participants to reflect on:
Since then, I have used foresight games in my work at the Ontario Ministry of Energy and also at the Archipelago of Design – and am pursuing new projects. In these roles, I have focused on using Free Engle Matrix Games for energy transitions and have contributed to the development of a mystery investigation roleplaying game to teach design thinking to military officers (respectively). Most interestingly, I have been involved in a global community of practice called Foresight Games which I encourage all interested to join. I think this is a wonderful community. I have learned a lot from it and made some great friends.
To get to the point of Ironsworn… Two weekends ago, I was looking for some new games to play in the vein of the tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) Microscope, which I adore. Microscope is a game of epic histories, recommended for 2 or more players over probably a two-hour (or more) playtime. However, I was looking for something that could be played over a shorter time frame, and potentially solo – ie not Microscope. Now, that is a broad search net, but it is broad because I am quite new to the TTRPG space.
What I discovered are the games Ironsworn and Ironsworn: Starforged as well as the system that drives them, which is derived from the Powered by the Apocalypse system (PbtA) and other inspirations. This exciting system, Ironsworn, has completely captured my imagination due to its elegance, simplicity and sheer sense of exploration and discovery – not to mention, the base game is free! The Ironsworn games are games that I can play by myself or with my wife, which is often ideal as I have so rarely had the chance to play games with a guide or dungeon master (DM). They also don’t focus necessarily on combat or violence – which is a problem I had with Dungeons & Dragons. Overall, I find playing these games to be extremely enjoyable – and even meditative when played solo.
The game systems support, by default, the Ironlands setting which is low fantasy, set in a rugged medieval frontier. The newer version also supports the vast science fiction setting of Starforged clearly inspired by shows like The Mandalorian and Firefly. However, the setting can easily be adapted and homebrew “hacks” added to the game through a generous Creative Commons license set up by its creator, Shawn Tomkin. Many of the hacks you can see here range from cyberpunk to community and farming simulators.
The solo-play optimized game is really an emergent narrative generator driven forward by the clever mechanic of vows. To keep the description of the mechanics brief: vows are the main mechanic by which a player can track progress and accomplish goals. The system gives guidance to player actions through the ability to take a number of possible moves that can add mechanical weight to any situation. The player can resolve situations by making moves and rolling dice against stats, and interpreting the results by checking up potential inspirations on oracle tables that generate random inputs to advance their narrative. It’s definitely on the roleplaying side of things (as described), but it also is quite satisfying as a game. Most importantly, these narratives spur continuous ACTION and REACTION – even when you are playing on your own.
I am very excited about this system. It’s cleared roadblocks for a number of my creative projects, some of which have been stalled for some time. One week after discovering the system, I even submitted a hack for Ironsworn to a game jam for the system. It adapts the Middle Earth: Shadow of War game’s nemesis system. I am working on some other projects with the Ironsworn system which I am excited to develop further.
But that’s just an intro to Ironsworn. Roleplaying games have advantages for future(s) thinking noted in this document from the IMF that inspired me a lot last year. Because of Ironsworn’s generous licensing and appropriateness as either a solo, co-op or guided roleplaying game – I see a big opportunity for foresight practitioners to use this system to enliven and activate their scenarios. Ironsworn is a Creative Commons-licensed scaffolding prebuilt to work from. There is no need to reinvent the wheel every time for a foresight game system that allows participants to explore a world in any sort of way when using the Ironsworn system.
There are three main things that make me think that Ironsworn is a useful foresight game system and scenario activation tool (most of these resources mentioned below are available for free here):
Ironsworn makes worldbuilding accessible to a general audience by providing tools to generate the world their characters will inhabit through a World Workbook Truths exercise. When adapted as a foresight game, this type of exercise allows the players to experience aspects of scenario development through an interactive exercise of what aspects of a futures exploration can be recombined to be interesting to them. The foresight practitioner provides the boundaries of this exercise through prompts to choose from, and dice can be used to select those prompts. The result of this exercise in an Ironsworn game is the development of a comprehensive, living world as you move through a variety of world-building categories. In a foresight exercise, this could be a more diverse and participatory tool to build images of the future. It also allows participants to set the emphasis of a scenario exploration, using their own agency to determine the focus foresight inquiry.
Oracles are special tools and tables that procedurally generate content and answer questions in tabletop roleplaying games. Players use these oracles to assist in the creation of the adventure and world as they play by asking questions and using oracles to provide answers that generate feedback for their actions in the game. Ironsworn uses some really vibrant oracles. The beauty of oracles is that they introduce randomness to add flavour and character to the exploration of the world, but do so within the bounds of what is on the oracle tables as designed by the game’s designer. Therefore there is a good balance of the unexpected within a potential focus of what a strategic foresight project is about. They can lead to more unexpected results in a foresight game that really push the bounds of possibility for a project.
Most of all, Ironsworn is a deep, narrative-driven character-creation engine with open-ended roleplaying mechanics. The player can immerse themselves in the world and develop empathy for the people and creatures in it from the perspective of an imagined individual. Most of all, they can inhabit a scenario or future world and “try it on to see how it feels” – with potential serious emotional “stickiness”. Many roleplaying games emphasize combat and violence, but this RPG system can be tailored to whatever sort of actions and default moves are appropriate for the nature of the inquiry – including exploration, relationship building, and other interactions with the world like economic ones. As noted above, there is even a Stardew Valley-type farming and community-building hack (or fan modification) for the game – showing anything is possible! Perhaps “after-action reports” (AARs) or journals of many different people playing your foresight game could be textually analyzed in order to improve your scenarios and strategic foresight project through the power of collective intelligence…
I suppose the key questions are how to most easily rewrite the rules of Ironsworn to adapt them for the type of general audiences that might be using it as a tailored foresight game. There is also always the question of how to assign the time for this kind of activity. Luckily, with an initial training session, because this can be solo play it can also act as a takeaway journal exercise where people can reflect on their narratives collaboratively after some time playing on their own. As mentioned, this produces valuable data – and also means it doesn’t necessarily require a lot of expensive convening time. Also, for a less granular and more vast experience of narrative building, it would be interesting to mash up Microscope with this idea (as mentioned above).
If you want your audience to immerse themselves in your scenarios, whether they have the time or resources to do it solo, co-op or with a guide, I highly recommend using Ironsworn as a system. I know I will be using it because of its flexibility, simplicity, and innovation. Get it here.
All Ironsworn images reproduced here are from Ironsworn: Starforged created by Shawn Tomkin CC – BY 4.0.