2019 IRON DM Tournament

Radiating Gnome

Final Round Judgement: Rune vs. Iron Sky - Radiating Gnome's Take

Well, this is a doozy. A couple of old gunslingers facing off for the final ... hey, wait a minute, that sounds familiar.

This is my take on the match between Rune's "Valley of Redemption" and Iron Sky's "9th Pace". We'll call them "Valley" and "Pace".

I'm fascinated that the ingredients drove both DM's to a western-feel for the adventure -- one to use a western system, the other two use western tropes in a classic D&D system.

And I think they're both good, of course. Lets look at ingredients.

Underwater Waterfall
This ingredient I find pretty frustrating just on the surface -- an underwater waterfall seems mysterious and weird -- like, how does that work? How does water fall under water? Pace takes that on, and has dome underwater in which there is a waterfall that cools the demon. Groovy. In Valley, the waterfall is there, and important, but it's a bigger stretch to see it as an underwater waterfall (and not just a waterfall), so I'm going to give Pace the edge on this one.

Wandslinger's Disgrace
In Pace, Fearson is a clearly disgraced gunslinger. So is Jebediah in Valley. The trick is that the ingredient is their disgrace, not themselves. Both uses are not particularly good. Fearson's disgrace (cheating in a duel) isn't important to the story. And Jebediah's disgrace (addiction) is not much better -- and also not particularly important. So, call this one a wash.

Doctor's Orders
In both cases, there's a doctor that is important to the story. In Valley, Doc Barton is keeping Jebedia's addiction going, and is feeding the Minotaur beef to the people. In Pace, Lil'Doc has used poisoned beef to create the illusion of a curse that only she can cure -- and that has given her control of the gang. These are moderately interesting "doc" characters, but neither really feels like it works. Barton's "orders" are what keeps Jebediah stoned and out of action. Lil'Doc gives orders by virtue of having essential control over the gang. Meh. This one isn't really singing in either entry.

Wicked Valley
Valley is set in a valley of depravity. Pace is set in a place called Wicked Valley. They both have the name, they both have the attributes. Both good.

Herald of Storms
While I like the idea that the prophecy in Jebediah's good book gives the party clues, I worry that a single set of clues for the party to possibly discover is too thin to be really playable, but for the sake of Iron DM, it's still got an edge over the Herald of Storms in Pace, which is the demon Hatepuna. I dig the demon snail, which I will get to next, but as the Herald of Storms as well, he's not as good as the presentation in Valley, so I am giving this one to Valley.

Amphibious Lurker
I love the idea of "snail related disappearances," and all the other weirdness that goes with Hatepuna. One Who is Many is good, but the wagon sized demon snail steals the show on this one. Advantage to Pace.

Glowing Basement
This one didn't really work super well in both, but I think the idea that in Valley it's an actual basement gives this one a slight edge.

There's no question about it. If we're asking, where's the beef, it's prominent in both entries. No edge there.

So, in the end, it's super tight. Pace was stronger on underwater water fall and amphibious lurker, and Valley was stronger on Herald of Storms and Glowing Basement. That's no help at all.

Playability, Writing, Presentation

When I sit down to go over an entry is to have to work with an entry that relies a lot on backstory. The balance of backstory to action is difficult, but when I read though half of an entry before seeing how the players get involved, it's hard to see the players as an important part of the adventure, which is the point of the game, after all. In a lot of cases, there's no way for the players to learn that backstory, and when that happens it appears like a collect ion of tough ingredients are being handled in the backstory and are not really part of the adventure.

So, I thin Pace suffers from this a bit more than Valley, but they both have the same sort of problem. A lot is based on the advantages of Valley's presentation -- the format used provides personalities, what they know and don't know, guidelines on how they'll interact with the players -- and its all almost immediately about the players and how they will interact.

I did like the presentation of the faction leaders and their agendas in Pace -- that was a bit thinner (because so much of the word count was spent on backstory, perhaps) but it was a good, useful set of guidelines for those characters.

So, I think Valley has an advantage over Pace in that way.

As I look over the two adventures, I keep coming back to the jarring moment in the narrative when the "journey to the distant continent" story suddenly became a western. I had to read and reread that passage to try to understand what was going on -- and I had to pull Fearson's name out of the later material in the adventure to make sure he was the wandslinger who was disgraced and who ran off to drink his life away. That confusion -- in a passage that was not really necessary to the story of the adventure (but may have been trying to work to make an ingredient fit) did set me off on the wrong foot.

RG's Judgement
So, I find that I prefer Rune's entry to Iron Sky's. It's a near thing -- these are entries written by excellent Iron DMs and both are very strong. My vote is for Rune, and the Valley of Redemption.

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Final Form (she/they)
Unfortunately we got hit with another power outage which undoubtedly cost me my judgment that I was almost done writing, so the last judgment (and possibly the results) will be delayed until I get power back.

I will say that after writing the whole thing and reaching the conclusion I still didn't know which way I was going to go, just to let the (possible) tension simmer a little longer. I'm going to sleep on it.


Final Form (she/they)
Gradine's Judgment, Championship Match

Alright, so here's my second go at writing this; hopefully the power holds. As such, this might be a bit more direct than usual. Also, as these are two long-time veterans, former champions, and former judges, I will not be pulling any punches in my judgment. These are both great adventures, overall, but that does not mean each does not have significant flaws.

Rules and Readability

Both entries are well-formatted and edited, and easy to read. "The 9th Pace" (hereafter "Pace") and "Valley of Redemption" (hereafter "Redemption") are both well under the word count as well. There are a few very minor errors in "Pace": the entry does not list the ingredients at the top, as requested, and the conclusion points to Luagal's Victory despite there being no such condition listed in Luagal's entry (it should instead point to Elves eliminated); but these are both fairly minor quibbles.

Adventure Flow & Potential

This is my subjective "what did I generally like/dislike about the adventures" section of the judgment. I'll start with "Pace", which is such a classic Iron Sky entry I feel I could have pegged it as yours even were this a blind judgment. It has all the hallmarks of some of your best entries, for good or ill: an interesting and complex backstory that takes up over half the word count, which is then countered by a complex yet very tight and well-organized scenario that could end up going any number of ways. Seperated from the ingredients, this is a very, very good adventure, if not for two major issues that I have with it. First, as a final puzzle, "how do I stop this thing" is, in my opinion, a much stronger and more effective motivation to "how do I find this thing", which in this instance actually ends up being pretty obvious (maybe the weird glowing ruins the violent angry elves are guarding?) Yet the former is solved from the get-go: telling players "take this thing and stab the big bad with it" takes all of the tension out of the climax. Gratefully, there is still plenty of other problems for the PCs to figure out how to solve... unless they can talk the sad NPC out of his stupor and into blasting all their problems away for them. This adventure has all the potential to be an epic and tense two-part struggle for the soul of a town and then the world; if only the tools weren't present to also entirely trivialize the affair.

"Redemption", on the other hand, has a much a more obvious and direct critical path with little wiggle room, which in some ways suits the black-and-white, good vs evil nature of the proceedings. But as a result it lacks a good deal of the moral ambiguity that makes "Pace" so compelling. In addition, a savvy group of players could easily find a path of least resistance to make the whole endeavor quite a bit shorter and easier. All in all, this feels like a much safer, less ambitious entry than "Pace", meaning that it ultimately lacks both its high points and its shortcomings.

There's not much more to say about Hooks; I've already discussed why "Pace's" hook weakens the adventure considerably for me, and "Redemption" features nameless adventures strolling into a town with problems, which while very simple is boilerplate as far as these types of western stories goes, so it isn't too bad. Meanwhile, the Stakes are much stronger and present throughout in "Pace", while the Steaks in "Redemption" feels somewhat confused and ambiguous and the whole adventure feels smaller as a result.

In case you were wondering, the puns are always intentional.

The Ingredients

So let's take a look at the ingredients.

Underwater Waterfall
Both adventures have waterfalls, and they're both technically underwater, but in both cases is a bit of a stretch, and even the waterfall is a bit of a stretch in "Pace". That said, the ingredient ties well in both main stories; while the underground cave feels like an arbitrary location in "Redemption" for the climax, the fact that the waterfall itself is part of the solution to stopping the big bad helps redeem it, so it's not bad at all.

Wandslinger's Disgrace
While it's important to recognize that every word in an ingredient is important to include, there are times when the order of those ingredients is also pretty important. Were this ingredient Disgraced Wandslinger, both entries would have this covered quite well. The object here, however, is the "disgrace". Yes, both wandslingers are disgraced, but both due to events that happened in the backstory, and are never particularly relevant to the proceedings. This is done a little a bit better but also a lot worse in "Pace"; the disgrace is relevant in-so-much that the PCs will probably need to understand it well in order to redeem Pearson. The greater problem is... Pearson himself is fairly irrelevant to the adventure overall. He's not necessary to resolve either the A Plot (demon awakening) or the B Plot (gang war), and I would make the argument that "Pace" would be considerably improved if Pearson were removed altogether (although it would be better to make him actually relevant, if not necessary, as anything other than muscle).

Doctor's Orders

Again, if "Doctor" were the key word here, these would be fairly well-balanced between both entries. But "Doctor's" is just an adjective; the "Orders" are what's key, and in "Redemption" they relate mostly to a minor storyline involving the preacher's forced addiction. Meanwhile, in "Pace", they relate to both the A Plot and the B Plot and in fact serve as probably the strongest thread tying the two together. Quite possibly the best ingredient usage in either entry as a result.

Wicked Valley
This one, however, is a wash.*
*(see above†)

Herald of Storms
The Preacher reading from the Good Book in "Redemption" starts the literal storm and ensuing flood that kicks off the push to the climax. This is a little stronger than the Elven leader, "Duququm" who for some reason spends all of his time in the town ranting about the end of the days. Again, this gives us a little better tie-in from the B-Plot to the A-Plot, but it's quite a bit heavier-handed.

Amphibious Lurker
This was a bit disappointing in both cases. The cone snail being at least related to the Big Bad in "Pace" is okay, but it muddies the waters* regarding who the actual big bad is and accounting for all of the things that actually need to be stopped, as technically there are two kidnappers at this point. The frog-behemoth in "Redemption" is okay, with the flood forcing the Big Bad to find a suitable body to possess, but it ultimately seems a bit of a let down as far as a final climactic battle goes.

Glowing Basement
Both have basements that glows due to forces that the PCs need to investigate to solve each town's respective issues. "Pace's" basement is a little more central to main plot, and the mechanics of it a bit more clever and well-thought out than the doctor's lab in "Redemption".

This was a fun ingredient to include because I didn't know how either of you was going to interpret it. I should have realized between the Wandslinger, the Doctor, and probably the Valley too, this was going to lend both adventures a bit of a western feel. In any case, both adventures have beef being a sign of the corruption of their respective local demonic influences as well as resulting in the corruption of individuals, quite possibly the PCs as well. I think one use is a little bit more clever than the other, however.

In Conclusion

I've been harsh, because while these are two great adventures and solid, if not excellent, Iron DM entries, there were definite flaws in both. I went back and forth on the winning entry as wrote this all up the first time, then again as I pondered it overnight, and again as I write this again this morning. I had hoped writing two separate judgments would give me some clarity, but this has been the toughest decision I've had to make a judge in this year's contest. We would, of course, hope for nothing less in a championship match.

Ultimately, however, reflecting back I think one adventure does stand out above the other, and re-reading my responses to the ingredients only solidified that for me:

Ultimately, in spite of its pretty severe flaws, on balance "The 9th Pace" is a better adventure and has a slight edge on the clever use of ingredients as well. The thing is, both serious flaws are so easily fixable that it simply holds higher potential, overall, than "Valley of Redemption".

And, it appears that in this case I was the deciding vote! Thus, by a vote of 2-1, Iron Sky wins the championship and is 2019's Iron DM! Congratulations!

Rune, I obviously have zero business giving you advice here; you're the closest thing I have to an Iron DM mentor, after all. More than anyone else in this competition, you've delivered on tone and voice in a way that lends greater strength to your adventures. That said, I hope you get more opportunities to compete in the future!

Congratulations to our new champion!


Once A Fool
Congratulations to Iron Sky (AKA IRON DM 2019) for a hard fought and well-earned victory!

Also, thank you to the judges who have put in a whole lot of effort into this tournament.

I’ll post more on the match later (hopefully, Iron Sky will, too). For now, I’ve got to prep some sweet potatoes.

Iron Sky

Procedurally Generated
Finally, a patch of post-Thanksgiving free time! Man, it's been a long time since I won one of these. According to my notes, this is the 7th tournament I've competed in in the last 11-odd years, between missing a few and judging a couple.

For Rune's final entry, I started off a bit confused with the immediate leap to the NPCs, but ended up impressed at all the different personalities, motivations, knowledge, and secrets. Like what I tried to do with my faction leaders, but successful. The descent to the minotaur's maze not to be hunted, but to hunt for steak was awesome as was the demon-possessed froghemoth battle. Cool stuff. :)

As I hit "Reply" on my final entry, I initially felt certain it was one of my best. Re-reading it a day later, however, I found a ton of criticisms that I would have picked out (and did in similar entries when I was a judge): initiating with a long backstory instead of my more functional and interesting discover-as-it's-relevant mode, spreading faction information in two or three places instead of putting it all together for comprehension, and my stubborn refusal to look over the ingredients again once I'd set my mind to what the adventure "was about" to tighten them up lest they distort my plan. I did like each of the faction personalities (whether I conveyed them successfully is another matter) and plan to reuse the intertwined agenda "fronts" - as Rune pointed out.

I think my success at this tournament - as razor-thin the margins on my last two matches were - came down to my priorities this time around: weave the ingredients together as tightly as possible and focus on making the coolest adventure I could. If ingredients were individually weak, I hoped they would grow stronger in the weave and if I didn't win I was at least going to put out an adventure I'd want to run or play in.

I skimmed through old entries and can tell just from the reading what a different person I was then and how my GMing/writing style has changed. That and my reactions, especially to losing. Funny how certain I was each entry was awesome and the judges were wrong when they just didn't get it, yet now I wince to read parts of them.

Here's a one-sentence summary of all of my entries to date to illustrate the diversity of material this contest spawns:
  • A comet brings a plague of undeath to the world, culminating in building a giant lightning-powered robot to fight Death on the comet (also 15 pages long...)
  • A trip to the dreaming lands at the border of the Feywild with the PCs trapped in a Groundhog's-Day-esque dream sequence, the "correct" replaying of which breaks the curse.
  • A modern-fantasy pursuit of an ancient mythological shapeshifter to find a magic cello and break into the tombs beneath the Vatican.
  • A delve into Centaur election ceremonies, undergoing a series of trials to help elect the rightful Chief Hunter against the wishes of a prejudiced Matriarchy.
  • A wacky gladiator contest full of terrible puns and barely concealed sexual innuendo featuring crazy games and battles against "Jason and the Aaargonauts", an infinitely self-replicating sheep named Dolly, and the kobold pun-pun.
  • A tragic Star Wars adventure enlisting the PCs to recover artifacts of "the Prophet" to enact a miracle for a father's dying daughter.
  • An off-beat military-esque mission into the Underdark featuring electric, undead-packed fungal forests culminating in breaching a lightning fort inside a flying whale to fight a Wight with delusions of grandeur.
  • A bizarre (and ill-fated) D&D hunt for the psychotic White Rabbit, a (poorly executed) through-the-looking-glass mashup of the Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and the Little Mermaid.
  • A grim, campaign-arc worth of material focused on combating a steampunk Far Realm "Aberrancy" in the midst of committing centaur genocide.
  • An epic-level trip to the Far City at the border of the Far Realms to fight a plane-spanning mafia, featuring flying god-fed piranhas, a cross-city upside-down parkour scene at "night" when gravity reverses, and fighting a Wyld Dragon whose breath weapon bends reality.
  • A Warhammer Fantasy jaunt to a forbidden, forgotten city to fight the Skaven and Horned Rat breeding and brooding within.
  • An X-Files/Twin Peaks investigation to a small town full of strange, quirky characters that culminate in a fun-house battle against little gray aliens (or PCs going to federal prison for mass-murder).
  • A journey amid a multi-planar war to save reality by infiltrating two warring gods domains, babysitting a petulant demigod, and a final riddle involving the intentional distortion of space-time.
  • A shipwrecked discovery of a small town plagued by hags disguised as the town's guardian dragon while a shadow rift raises the town's dead.
  • A post-Ragnarok, multi-continent investigation, hired by a cursed sphinx to find the missing God of Love.
  • A multi-faction fantasy Western placing the PCs between desperados, a witch doctor, xenophobic elves, a giant carnivorous snail, and a demon-guarded, imprisoned ancient storm elemental.

If anyone somehow managed to read all the way down here, this is why I take at least partial credit for the imposition of word limits a few tournaments back. :p

Also, I've left my IRL gaming group. I was delegated to "backup GM" when the main GM was out of town, but as much as I enjoy playing, GMing's my jam. After the holiday season (early January most likely) I'm hoping to start running a bi-weekly game on Roll20 after starting a local meatsuit game seems to be a bust. I'm not exactly sure what I'll run but I usually default to Blades in the Dark or Dungeon World if I haven't found a shiny new system to try out.

If anyone thinks they might want to play one of my games - see my bulleted list above for a vague idea of what you might expect - shoot me a message! My games are player-focused, faction-driven, gritty, cinematic affairs and I generally view my campaigns as seasons of a mini-series with the players as the lead actors. We'd probably play every week or two, either Sundays or perhaps the occasional weekday morning.

Lastly, thank you to the judges for putting this on. Having sat in those hard-backed, uncomfortable chairs of yours, I know now how difficult judging can be and how much time you set aside to read, re-read, analyze, and finally write the judgments.

Props to all my fellow competitors and GMs who stepped up to throw your creations at the mercy of the internet. It's not easy, but I, at least, have learned with every win and loss and I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I have. It might sound melodramatic or corny, but I'm a better writer, GM, and person thanks to this contest and look forward to coming back next year to do it again!

Edit: Spoilers to allow ramble bypass.
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Once A Fool
It has been a crazy year. This has been a long time coming, but here we go:

Probably the first question that comes to mind when speaking of this entry is, why write this for such an obscure system? I didn’t really intend to at first. In fact, I was searching very hard for a way to sidestep doing a western at all. But the ingredients sometimes tell you how they want to fit together and, in particular, the “wandslinger’s disgrace” and “beef” (and, to a lesser extent, “doctor’s orders” and “wicked valley”) kept driving me back toward the genre. Then I stumbled across my copy of Owl Hoot Trail and I just kinda had to. Flipping through the bestiary, I came across the hell hound entry and read that they roved in packs and served the Adversary. I was sold.

The truth is, I didn’t even really use the system at all. It was pretty much a system-neutral entry disguised as an Owl Hoot Trail adventure. But that doesn’t mean that the decision to package the entry with the trappings of an obscure system wasn’t still a barrier to entry. So...risky start.

To counter that, I did a couple of things that were intended to help ease the reader into the piece. One was successful, I think. The other...probably backfired.

First, I wanted to make sure that I made the town of Decadence as much an NPC as any of the other characters, while also efficiently layering in as much necessary GM information as possible. While also doing it with as few NPCs as possible.

I ended up with the two NPCs important to the adventure and two meant to stand in for all of the rest of the townsfolk. Ruby and Ugly Bonnie were meant to deliver rumors, clues, and context for the PCs. In fact, Ruby pretty much tells the PCs what’s going on in town right at the start, although she doesn’t know what it means (and they probably won’t, either!). I think I did pretty well with that.

The other thing I tried didn’t work so well. Or, if it did, it didn’t do so universally. I tried to deliver the piece in a colliqual tone. While, at the same time, not overdoing it.

Deuce called out a misspelling early on that, I think, illustrates the kinds of risks I was taking thoughout. “Besideswhich” may well have been a mistake on my part, but it was a deliberate decision. I actually agonized over dividing the made-up word into its two real-word components, hyphenating it, or combining them into one word. The Sam Elliot-esque voice narrating in my head insisted that the two should be one. Still does.

But, that’s the thing. In the absence of any communication on my part that the reader should be Sam Elliot, I had to rely on subtlety to carry the intent. Clearly, it didn’t work for at least the one judge. Worse, making up a word combination that looks like a typo or misspelling calls attention to itself and further removes the reader from immersion into the piece! The fact that I intentionally made a decision that had that outcome speaks more to me about which skills I need to hone than any actually significant flaws that the entry has.

And there certainly is one of those. Not the plot hole that Deuce called out. I don’t view that as a plot hole, at all. If the PCs wonder why the townsfolk aren’t too bothered by the routine disappearance of drifters, that’s a good thing: it points the PCs toward the fact that the townsfolk are complicit and that their ignorance is largely willful! Which is a necessary ingredient for the Demon’s possession to work, incidentally, as I do point out in the piece.

So. Not a plot hole. But it does point to a fairly significant structural weakness in the adventure: the fundamentally unnecessary excursion into the labyrinth to hunt a minotaur. The players can skip this entirely without changing the future events of the adventure a single bit.

It’s purpose is to help clue the PCs in to what’s going on. However, if the PCs skip it, they might get shuttled toward the climax without actually understanding what the stakes of the adventure are. And, on top of that, they won’t really have done much adventuring before they get there!

In hindsight, I might, at the very least, seed an extra hook in by having one of the townsfolk’s children adventure into the labyrinth and need rescuing or somesuch. Oh well.

Now, frankly, Iron Sky’s entry started out looking kind of rough. A huge preface filled with exposition and background is generally a daunting way to begin these things. But then something magical happened.

With the stage set, the PCs enter and, all of a sudden, the reader is presented with hyper-efficient, easily consumable sets of information that present multiple factions, clear stakes, and tons for the PCs to do. In fact, if it were to be played through repeatedly, it would probably play out very differently each time. It is a solid adventure, and an excellent one.

I liked the adventure presented in my entry. It had some pretty good elements in it and I think it would be pretty fun to run or play in. But Iron Sky’s adventure is masterfully presented and is worthy of the title that it claimed. Congratulations, sir.

With all of that said, I want to belatedly thank Deuce Traveler, Radiating Gnome, and Gradine for putting in the effort to judge this tourney. It’s hard to understand from the outside how much of a commitment of time and energy it takes to be a judge for one of these tournaments, so I want to make sure to be vocal with my praise.

On that note, I want to take a step further and point out that (from my outside point of view), Gradine did a fantastic job of organizing this tournament and keeping it rolling along. Having done that a fair few times myself, I know that it is an extra layer of challenge beyond the judging of entries. I wouldn’t bring something like this up, normally, but, since this was also Gradine’s debut as an IRON DM judge, I feel it is important to make sure that goes noticed, too.

So, again, thanks, y’all. Let’s see what this year’s tourney brings!

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