Worldbuilding Part III - External Forces

Gameplay   Ida

In Part I, we discussed what the land is like, and a bit of history. Then we learned some important things about our people in Part II. Definitely check those out if you missed them, because they will inform many decisions we make moving forward.

In this, our final piece of worldbuilding, we will learn about other peoples and dangers with which our freshly conceived dwarven society will have to contend. As we will learn, the people of this broken land are definitely not alone, and certainly aren’t safe.

The Firstborn

The world of Kalemin, as we discussed before, was originally envisioned to be a fairly standard fantasy setting, demographically speaking. It is the kind of world in which you can find not only humans, but also dwarves, elves, gnomes, and the rest (even some catfolk if you know where to look). This is not really a deviation from the Ironlands setting, as some of the options below will show. Those other non-Ironlander (humans) peoples are referred to as Firstborn in that setting.

As with any world in which there are many different cultures, there are eternal arguments among the races of Kalemin as to who came first, though everyone agrees that it definitely was not the humans. The elves, at least during this time period, insist that they are the oldest race of note. The dwarves counter that they’ve been around nearly as long as the mountains themselves. The gnomes pretty much keep out of it because they don’t really care one way or another. In reality, it was the halflings, but that’s a tale for another game.

The point is that the term Firstborn is inaccurate for this game. That’s still the category of this Truth, but you won’t hear anyone calling another group of people “firstborn” in this world.

Enough nattering on. Let’s have a look at the options.


  • The firstborn have passed into legend. Some say the remnants of the old tribes still dwell in deep forests or high mountains. Most believe they were never anything more than myth.
  • The firstborn live in isolation and are fiercely protective of their own lands.
  • The firstborn hold sway in the Ironlands. The elves of the deep forests and the giants of the hills tolerate us and even trade with us—for now. Ironlanders fear the day they decide we are no longer welcome here.

Well, we can strike the first option straight away. The racial diversity of Kalemin featured prominently in the histories before the great war, and will continue to be a thing well into the future, relative to our story. In fact, two entirely new races were created by the gods either directly before or during the conflict: The Scourge (who will later be called humans) and dragonkin. Also, our protagonist is a dwarf, so doubly wrong for this game.

The other two, however, are worth consideration. In my mind, the great dwarven empire was not especially xenophobic, so I have always imagined that there were probably many pockets of non-dwarven folk scattered about, particularly considering that its control spanned a geographical area roughly the size of Mexico. Ultimate sovereignty over all territory within the empire lay with the dwarves of course, but they weren’t too greedy to let others live there.

There’s undoubtedly an argument for these people of other races to be fiercely protective of their territory, now that the empire has fallen and it’s properly theirs to control. Who could fault them? I suppose the most important question, then, is how tightly did the dwarves exercise their authority over these other folks?

Another consideration is that perhaps, rather than becoming radically territorial, they simply expanded out of their assigned areas. Maybe they either weren’t too salty about the past, or the empire wasn’t too hard on them in the first place. They would certainly exert more control over their domains than before, but might not be outright aggressive toward the dwarves.

In a move that will surprise no one who read the first two parts of this series, I have decided to make some edits and smash 2/3 of the options together. We end up with this:

The old empire held dominion over these lands long ago. But since it fell, the elves of the deep forests, giants of the hills, and several other racial groups have expanded their influence. Although some live in isolation and are fiercely protective of their territory, most trade with us and aren’t especially hostile… for now at least.

In my mental picture of the Great Dwarven Empire (as yet unnamed), the dwarves are honorable rulers. It is this honor which will later, after the fall, lead some toward lives as Ironsworn. Taking that under consideration, it only makes sense, at least to me, that these other races would be generally neutral at worst toward them. Of course, some would have grabbed as much land as possible and will have become increasingly fervent about holding onto it with white-knuckled fists (or hairy-knuckled, green-knuckled, etc). Most, though, would simply be happy in their fresh independence and hold no ill will toward the dwarves who did much to provide infrastructure and resources to all their subjects.

At least that’s what the dwarves tell themselves. We’ll see how that pans out.


What dangers lurk in the places between places? Let’s talk about that.


  • The beasts of old are nothing but legend. A few who travel into the deep forests and high mountains return with wild tales of monstrous creatures, but they are obviously delusional. No such things exist.
  • Monstrous beasts stalk the wild areas of the Ironlands.
  • Beasts of all sorts roam the Ironlands. They dwell primarily in the reaches, but range into the settled lands to hunt. There, they often prey on cattle, but attacks on travelers, caravans, or even settlements are not uncommon.

We talked before about how these options represent dials and levers we can manipulate to tune our setting the way we want it. You may have noticed that most of the lists are set up like this:


  • A little bit of it.
  • A medium amount of it.
  • A lot of it. A whole lot of it. Crank it up to 11.

Don’t feel bad if that didn’t jump out at you. I only noticed it while I was writing this very article.

It’s probably fairly obvious which of these options we’re going with, given what we know about the history of the region and considering that I let slip in the very first introductory article that our protagonist is a “Slayer of Beasts.” Let’s discuss it anyway, because there are reasons why it’s obvious.

Just as the great fortresses and awe-inspiring mountainous statues have crumbled, so too has the peace and safety imposed by the empire fallen to dust. There are small pockets of civilization which have grown up over the last century or two, but between and around these areas lie the wild places. In the absence of an orderly government and all its trappings, the wilderness has expanded and absorbed the pristine stone roads and tame forest valleys from the golden age.

That definitely knocks “nothing but legend” out of the running, but what about the other two? We know that the new dwarven people are back on the path toward taming their surroundings once more and rebuilding something akin to a proper society. How far have we come on that road, though?

I think there’s a beautiful asymmetry between the relatively advanced state of civic organization that we saw in the second article, and an untamed wilderness with beastly apex predators running loose on the fringes. This paints a picture of a society with some infrastructure in place to fight against the wild, but it’s a battle which has only just begun.

I must confess at this point that I’ve been omitting something throughout this series, mostly for the sake of brevity. Each option for every truth includes a Quest Starter - a possible prompt for the start of the game. This might inform your background vow, or it may fuel your inciting incident. It’s really up to you. The third entry in this section has this as its quest starter:

Quest Starter: Professional slayers earn their keep by killing beasts. This particular slayer, famed throughout the Ironlands for her numerous kills, has gone missing on a hunt. Did she finally meet her match, or is something more nefarious at play. What is your connection to her?

When I read that, it sang to me. Consider yourself foreshadowed.

In the event that you haven’t guessed yet, the third option is the one for us, because of course we’re going to 11.


Depending on your frame of reference, there may or may not be much difference between beasts and monsters in your mind. I want to make sure that we start with the same understanding about the differences between these terms as I will be using them.

A beast is something natural. Regardless of whether or not it poses a threat to the safety or property of our people, it is of the world. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be beasts in our story that are fantastical and strange compared to the sorts of things we have in our world, just that all such things which are considered beasts come from nature and have a place in it.

Horrors (or monsters - I will be using these interchangeably), are different things entirely. A monster is something other. Maybe its origins are demonic in nature, or perhaps it is something that was created by the gods to fight in their war. It might have once been a beast, but has been fundamentally changed in some way, perhaps through exposure to raw and potent magic. Not a part of the natural order of things.

Are we on the same wavelength now? Excellent!


  • Nothing but stories to frighten children.
  • 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.
  • The dead do not rest in the Ironlands. At night we light torches, scatter salt, and post sentries at the gate. It is not enough. They are coming.

In the aftermath of a war between gods, we can safely rule out the first option. They created dragons, so who’s to say that other monstrous creatures were out of the question?

Shuluk, was one of the two deities who presided over the dead. Unlike her counterpart, Hennus, she was less straight-laced about it. Known by some as She Who Calls The Sleepers, Shuluk was also seen as the goddess of undeath. Her armies were made up of corpses of fallen combatants at least as often as by the living.

That may make it seem like I’m steering us toward the “dead do not rest” option, but I’m actually doing the opposite. Because Shuluk was on the losing side, and like the rest of the gods who were defeated, she was banished from Kalemin. There may still be undead in some places. Perhaps there are sorcerers about who can create or command them, or who even strive to become undead themselves. However, these things are not the norm.

There certainly are monsters lurking in the world, though. If you add these horrors to the beasts we already know about, the interstices between settled lands can be quite frightening and dangerous indeed.

The middle road will steer us best I think.

Conclusion and Summary

That’s it! We’ve made it through worldbuilding, and hopefully you can see now how this relatively short list of multiple choice questions can help inspire a vast and varied array of different worlds. To reiterate a point that I made in an earlier article, this only seems like a huge task due to the format and my penchant for longwindedness (or if you want to be charitable, my dedication to giving a thorough representation of my thought process). I will let you in on a secret: I actually did this whole exercise well before I ever conceived of the idea for this blog. The entirety of the ground that we’ve spent three entries covering took ten minutes in my head.

If even that is longer than you can wait before diving into creating your character, that’s fine too. You could make the character first, then build the world as necessary in your own story. Or, you could create both the world and your character at the same time. Ironsworn is extremely flexible that way. In fact, the entire worldbuilding exercise is optional. It’s all narrative and doesn’t directly impact the game’s mechanics (I don’t recommend skipping it entirely though).

Speaking of character creation, I’m more than a little excited for our next article in which we will finally meet our protagonist, Ida Eisenbaum. We’ll be going through the process from start to finish and find out who she is, what she can do, and maybe even why she does it. I can’t wait!

Postscript - Our Truths

Below, you’ll find a collected list of our truths that we’ve been building over the last three articles. They are compiled so that we can easily reference them later if we need to double check something, or just need some inspiration.

The legends say there was once a glorious empire. But that was before the gods warred among themselves, and brought the fight to these lands. The savage Scourge and their lords flooded over it. The grand armies fell, along with the ancient fortresses and deep cities. Those who survived found themselves in a land bereft of the order and majesty of the old days.

The imposing hills and mountains of these lands are rich in iron ore. Most prized of all is the star-forged black iron.

The ancient empire’s bones are scattered all around. The husks of great fortresses provide shelter to the things which hide from the sun, and the giant statues adorning the sides of the mountains remind us that our ancestors were once great and powerful. But that was long, long ago.

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.

Most of our communities are governed by their own leader, called an overseer. As our traditions from before the war dictate, every seventh spring, the people affirm their current overseer or choose a new one. Some overseers wear the iron circlet reluctantly, while others thirst for power and gain it through schemes or threats.

Not everyone chooses to follow the old ways, though. There are places ruled by warlords. There are wandering clans whose leadership is decided by combat. There are even rumors of a group that lives high in the peaks whose leader is chosen by a sacred bird.

Here among the ruins, supplies are too precious, and the lands are too sparsely populated, to support organized fighting forces. When a community is threatened, the people stand together to protect their own. Instead, we have wardens. The wardens are our hunters and our protectors.

They serve their communities by standing sentry, patrolling surrounding lands, and organizing defenses in times of crisis. They often range far from their communities in search of threats (and game), and occasionally cross paths with wardens from other settlements. In the absense of traders, this is how we get our news and knowledge of the world beyond our little pieces of it.

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.

The people honor old gods and new. In this harsh land, a prayer is a simple but powerful comfort.

The old empire held dominion over these lands long ago. But since it fell, the elves of the deep forests, giants of the hills, and several other racial groups have expanded their influence. Although some live in isolation and are fiercely protective of their territory, most trade with us and aren’t especially hostile… for now at least.

Beasts of all sorts roam the ruined lands. They dwell primarily in the reaches, but range into the settled lands to hunt. There, they often prey on cattle, but attacks on travelers, caravans, or even settlements are not uncommon.

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.

Written on February 20, 2019