An Introduction to Ashes of Isar

Ashes of Isar is a World War 2 espionage and spy-craft table-top role-playing game for a game master and 1-6 players. It is inspired by the exploits of S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive) agents operating behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The name’s origin comes from how the bodies of captured and executed Nazis were disposed of after the war. Once convicted and executed, typically by hanging, their bodies were cremated and dumped into the Isar River in Germany. This was to prevent anyone from having a fixed location to set up memorials or to commemorate the dead war criminals.

NOTE: We pronounce it “EYE-sar”, although we’re not entirely sure that is how the its namesake river is pronounced in Germany.

If you have ever played other table-top role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons(™), Ashes of Isar will be a breeze. There are some differences, however.

To start, you don’t level up your characters by gaining experience points. Instead, you increase individual skills by successfully completing tasks that use those skills.

Every task you attempt has a Difficulty Score (DS) assigned by the GM. The higher the DS, the more difficult the task. You roll 2d6 and add that to whichever skill is required to complete the task. If that total is higher than the minimum DS, you’ve succeeded. If your total is the same as the DS, nothing happens as if the attempt was never made. If your total is lower than the DS, then it is a failure. A really low score can result in “bad things happening” as a result of your failure, handled by the GM.

For example, let’s say you are role-playing Agent Monarch, and you are attempting to sneak past a German guard post. The GM has determined that the minimum DS for this task is 20 and it relies on your Stealth skill. Your character’s Stealth skill score is 15. You roll 2d6 and get 6. Adding that to your Stealth skill score of 15 gives you 21, which means you succeeded in your sneak attempt.

Let’s say your 2d6 roll was 3. Your attempt would be 18; too low. The GM says, “As you attempt to sneak by, the guard notices you, shouts, Achtung! and points his rifle in your direction. What do you do?”

When you succeed at skill tasks, you gain points in that skill based on how difficult the task was. If the DS was very high and your skill score is low, successes yield a lot of points. Succeeding at tasks with DS scores very low compared to your skill don’t earn you many skill points, or none at all (you don’t gain experience by doing something that’s easy). Once your skill points get above a certain point, your base skill score goes up by one.

In this way, your character gets better on a skill by skill basis, rather than all at once.

Luck also plays a big part in Ashes of Isar. Your character earns Luck Points whenever they raise a skill, and can spend Luck Points to re-roll bad rolls.


The GM creates missions that may simulate real missions engaged by S.O.E. or other behind-the-lines agents during World War 2. They will design a series of tasks that you must complete as the mission progresses. Although the mission itself will have a designated objective, it is often up to the player to decide how best to complete it.

The GM will assign DS scores to specific tasks as they come up, often based on relative difficult compared to the agent character’s skill scores. The goal is to make individual tasks and objectives difficult and challenging but not necessarily impossible (unless that is appropriate based on the situation).

Improvisation is an important element of Ashes of Isar, as was the case for real agents operating behind enemy lines. They had to think on their feet and act quickly, and danger was around every corner. Agents often had to talk their way out of situations when challenged by the enemy, and Persuasion skill checks are common for players in Ashes of Isar.

On the occasions when agents can return to home base in England, they can undergo up to three weeks of training, increasing skills as they go. Otherwise, skills are increased through successful task completion when operating in the field.

Over time, agents seek to gain Master Spy status — maxed scores across all skills — and win the war, of course!

The smart GM ties individual missions together in a timeline, forming an overall campaign and shifts based on the success (or failure) of agent missions. The Nazis would respond accordingly when facilities are sabotaged or top figures are assassinated, so the good Game Master will adapt subsequent field conditions and mission difficulties accordingly as play sessions continue.

The premise of Ashes of Isar is plausible realism. This means that, although a fictional game, it is often based on real-life events with real-life characters such as Nazi generals and other sympathetic agents in the field. The players can shape the game based on their own actions, of course, so there is a great deal of flexibility built in.

The rules of Ashes of Isar are straightforward and uncomplicated, letting the imagination and ingenuity of GM and players alike, coupled with the dangerous setting, to take center stage.

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