After-Action Report: Iron GM as Player

For those of you who weren't following along, I didn't get to compete in the Iron GM competition on Saturday. Since I decided to go after pre-reg was closed, I registered for the con Saturday morning as a walk-in. By then, 10 GMs had already signed up, and I was one of 2 walk-ins on the wait list hoping for more players to show up. My bad on that one - next year I'll pre-reg for sure.

So I loitered around the Iron GM stage hoping for a registered GM to suddenly develop an acute allergic reaction to room service and not show. No such luck. I got pressed into service as a minion and got rewarded with some free picks off the prize table, which was primarily White Wolf's World of Darkness and Exalted books. I fetched T-Shirts (and scored one for myself), I handled paperwork and release forms, I lined the GMs up and handed the intro cards over to Lou for the introductions. I slipped into stage manager mode and did whatever needed to be done - mostly GM wrangling.

That gave me some insight into the GM pool. Our 12 potential GMs were from upstate NY, NH, CT, MA, and RI. Most boasted over 20 years of gaming experience (Old Sk00lers Unite!). All were male. T-shirt sizes were predominantly XL, though they ranged from L to XXXXL (too bad they only printed XXXL shirts). Math jokes abounded around years of experience, and there were 2 references to the age of dirt.

The question "Why will you win Iron GM?" separated the men from the boys, which for the most part played out during the competition. About half were complete jokes ("I already paid the players" or "So that guy won't beat me again"), but the other half were introspective and downright philosophical. "Because someone has to win" struck me as very Zen and very accurate, even though it was a joke. "Because stories must be told" hit the nail on the head (thank you @brickk).

That's the point. We tell stories. More than that, we set the stage and let the players tell the story of their PCs. And that takes trust and faith, especially in a convention setting.

First gut-level impressions: Bleedin' Hell, those speakers blew my eardrums out. Table 2 sat directly in front of one of the speakers. I can understand calling attention to the event, but when there's a line of gamers saying they can't hear themselves think, I think that gets more negative publicity than the positive curiosity. They recorded a Total Confusion-specific song, which probably had some pretty cool lyrics if I could comprehend them over the bassline and mental shutdown from overall volume.

Second impressions: Ceremony works, but keep it moving and have enough helpers available to direct your GMs. Eye candy works for Vegas, but the whole fantasy chick awarding Mardi Gras beads made of dice on a natural 20 didn't really make sense to our table. That didn't stop one of the other players (older than me, BTW) from faking a 20 just to get a closer look at their costumes. And it certainly didn't stop me from grabbing some necklaces for my daughter.

With the GMs announced and tables chosen at random, the GMs offered their tables different systems if they wanted - mostly Pathfinder, but one D&D 4 and one FUDGE variant were offered, both shot down. We ended up with 9 D&D 3.5 and 1 Pathfinder table. From that point until the start of play, for the entire hour of prep time the GMs could only say 3 words to the players. Written notes worked, pantomime was funny, but only 3 words spoken. I think that rule would have hurt since I'm a very collaborative GM and I was looking forward to character creation with the players.

The secret ingredients came next. Weretiger, Winter Storm, and Wounded Pride all needed to appear in the adventure. Interesting mix, but fairly easy to pull together in a myriad of ways. We had minimal guidance on character creation, but we pulled together a party of 9th level characters. We had a halfling druid riding his snow leopard companion, an elven rogue without a tongue, a half-orc cleric, a dwarven transmuter with a mighty 4 charisma, and a human bard who tended to show her 17-Charisma-based-*ahem*-"assets" to get her way.

Now here's the part that sticks in my craw: I introduced the party to the GM because he never asked about races, classes, or levels. He gave us "above 5th, balanced party please" in a note, but he never checked with us to make sure we didn't make a thieves' guild like we talked about. In retrospect, this baffled me the most about our GM, but it made a certain amount of sense that he didn't care given the game he ran for us.

The character intros were handwaved with "You're all orphans and you're doing a job for your adoptive father, the Lord of Spring." Works for me. The scenario seemed straightforward as well: "I got drunk with the Lady of Winter and she swiped the seeds of spring from me so spring will never come - can you get them back and not let anyone know?" In 15 minutes we were off to the adventure.

Or so we thought. We got in touch with the jealous sister for help in exchange for the Lady of Winter's throne. We journeyed overland to the town outside the ice castle, encountering a single winter wolf one night. A baleful polymorph into a bunny and a healthy throttling by the half-orc ended that encounter in half a round.

Once in town, our activities centered around the smoke shop and the troop of pre-pubescent female weretigers known as the Grrl Scouts. Yes, they sold cookies, which the Lady of Winter loved. We got the weretigers hooked on catnip and their guardians playing with the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota, bought a pile of cookies, and headed back to the smoke shop to deal with the forgetful, perpetually stoned shopkeeper. Stoners can be frustrating in real life. To play that frustration out in a game that's supposed to be fun just didn't work. Decent joke, but overplayed.

We eventually got polymorphed into Grrl Scouts to gain entrance to the Ice Castle. We treated the cookies with a potion of gaseous form and a healthy supply of special herbs, making the Lady of Winter compliant and gaseous. We got the idea to put her gaseousness into any container we could find, thus separating her into tiny bits, and when the effect wore off, her sister could ascend to the throne and clean the mess in the throne room.

We did a little dungeon crawl to recover the seeds of spring, then needed to escape through the ice. Summon Nature's Ally to the rescue - fire worm tunneled through the ice and gave us our escape hatch. We rode the ice flume out into the chasm/moat around the castle and almost died slamming into the opposite wall. The druid managed to get an Entangle off to keep the party from falling to certain death.

I was surprised by the two very brief combats presenting near zero risk to the characters. I think the ice chute of death was cool and completely character-driven to boot. And the idea of weretiger Grrl Scouts was simply inspired.

The rules stretched like taffy to support the story, the table talk was raunchy ("I ain't eatin' that rabbit after the druid injected it with his special sauce."), at points we cracked jokes more than we gamed, and I had a great time.

The scoring dragged a little, and many players lost interest while their score cards were tabulated on stage. Of the 4 GMs that I eyeballed as possible winners before the competition, I picked 2 of the top 3. I didn't ask, but I hope the GMs got some feedback based on the score cards. It's never a good thing to waste an opportunity to learn about yourself.

In short, I'm really looking forward to being on the other side of the GM screen next year.

And I've had some thoughts about smaller, game store based competitions to be used as fundraisers for contenders. Not sure if that idea has any legs, but I'm planning on picking brains via email, and we'll see what falls out.

I'm not sure I would do anything differently. It was my first experience at Iron GM. Heck, it was the first con I've been to since I did ops at Intercon C, I think. I would have liked to see some WotC books and/or a few indie games on the prize table, but that can change in future years.

Now onward to PAX!


  1. Herro Wombat,

    Thanks for that insightful report.

    We actually have a fully designed retailer program designed to extend Iron GM's reach to retail stores. It will be unveiled soon. I like the way you think.

    Sorry about your proximity to those blaring speaker cabinets. This was the loudest show we ever had (the space we worked with was one of the factors). If that ever happens again, just walk over and tell us to lower it.

    Dice-chucking models and necklaces aren't going anywhere. ;) They are part of the interruption that constitutes the GM's trial by fire. If not models, we shoot the GMs with BB guns. Those are clearly the only two choices available.


  2. Rone:

    I guessed you guys had something up your sleeves for game stores, but one-on-one GM dueling was the first thing that hit me after experiencing Iron GM. I thought about having one player per table switch mid-game so you'd see some direct comparisons between games. I'd love to hear about your retailer program when you get ready to release it.

    No worries about the speakers. You adjusted quickly once you got the message. Filling a huge open space is tricky when it's designed for performance; having a stage in the middle of an overglorified covered courtyard would challenge the best sound designer. I would have liked a more contained space since sometimes it was tough to hear at the tables, but you play with what you're dealt.

    I'd vote Nerf blitzkreig for GM distraction. Or get gamer types who can quote Monty Python and talk back to the players and GMs in context. Or pull an eleventh hour twist like Top Chef. "Did we say 3 elements? I know it's halfway through the game, but here's a 4th element to add..." I can see that as crossing the evil line, or bill it as an EXTREME CHALLENGE for extra points.

    So many possibilities can fit in the Iron GM format...

  3. Thanks for the write up, hope you had a good time at the event. It would have been nice to get some solid feedback on our scores but that seems to be disallowed. As for the light/no risk combats I have to congratulate the party on avoiding most of the combat in the event, I have never been one to force a combat when the players come up with an interesting way to avoid them (The adult were tigers, ice queen, toad, and guards, but that may have been one of my downfalls some people like to roll to hit a lot.

    thanks again

  4. Noel:

    I had a great time at the table. Thank you for pulling a great game together. The experience reminded me very much of some games I've run in the past. We had some off-the-wall (literally) ideas that were really silly and very entertaining to execute.

    That said, a couple of things stuck out. I think the forgetful stoner gag was a little overdone, especially the second time. That felt a little frustrating to me. Also I think the player engagement was a little uneven at times given the player personalities at the table. That's why I leaned toward more combat. At least in a fight every PC owns the spotlight and controls the game on their turn. Personally, I love running games where dice never even come out of their bag, but that can backfire given the randomness of a con game.

    I'm happy to talk with you about my experience more if you want.

  5. I would love to hear more, need to know where I went wrong etc. You can get me on Facebook Noel Proulx (noel at malleyadvergames dot com) or at my normal email (noel dot proulx at ititans dot com). Thanks for any feedback.