(business road trip was cut short by unseasonably bad weather. Here's your report!)
I have to say, stepping out and judging my first Iron DM round is daunting -- and the caliber of the two contestants on my scales makes that doubly daunting. I have towering respect for both of you.
But enough kissing butt -- on to the judgment.
I think this early match provides a great example of some of the challenges inherent in the Iron DM system, and can make an instructive example of some choices stack the deck against contestants. What we have here are two entries, both of which are using the ingredients with varied success; but one of the two manages to tell a story that includes the ingredients on a much smaller scale. That concise scale provides a distinct advantage in some of the other elements of the challenge.
In the case of Breath of Chaos (BoC)
, we have a small campaign -- a series of 5 episodes that read like they are intended to each take about a session of play, and they will require some fleshing out for any DM to use. This broader scale makes it easier to bring the disparate ingredients together as just subsequent episodes -- but in the end the entry sacrifices some of it's ability to be detailed, evocative, and exciting. Summaries lose their punch -- concrete details grab us by the short hairs.
The King Must Die (KMD)
is not a short adventure, by any means, but it could probably be squeezed into a single session, maybe two, depending upon the scale of some of the combat encounters. By using a smaller scale canvas on which to create the adventure, this adventure writeup can spend more time on the details and the writeup is more evocative.
That element alone isn't decisive, but since this is the very beginning I'll offer this up as a piece of advice to new Iron DM contestants -- tighten your entries, make your scale a small as possible and spend some time making it sing so the entry can come alive in the reader's mind.
Neither entry knocks all of the ingredients out of the park, but that's not unusual -- especially given some of the ingredients that this round included.
-- both entries used the slaad as important bad guys and instigators. This ingredient is a wash.
-- This is one challenging ingredient, if only because it's not something that exists in a monster or setting book somewhere -- I had to go study up on Wikipedia and other online sources, and I'm sure others did, too. But the very nature of this ingredient means that, naturally, it has the ability to carry extra weight in the challenge. Unfortunately, there isn't that much distinction between the two implementations -- they both provide a setting for a part of the adventure, etc. I will admit, though, that I'm tickled by the use of "wind" to mean "windup" in KMD. Minor advantage to KMD.
Meh. Neither use of this element really sings to me. The Warden/Constable in BoC makes for an interesting side trek/interlude in the main adventure, which makes him something that the players will actually encounter; I'm not sure that the PCs will actually interact much with the constable in KMD. He's part of the background and setup, and might be around in some of the scenes at the very beginning and end, but he's quite the same sort of direct participant. Minor advantage to BoC.
-- This is another ingredient I was really looking to see what it might inspire for both entries. It is interesting to me that both adventures involve a question of succession in a constitutional monarchy, thwarted in both cases by an unusual circumstance involving the slaad. Neither entry really made this a significant part of the adventure, so we'll call this one a wash, too.
-- In BoC, there are two skulls -- the goddess slaad's skull that is the setting of the final episode, and the skull of Morley required to defeat the slaad and to return the nation's patron spirit. In KMD, the skull is really a head, not just a skull that has to be restored in order to speak to the dead guard. Even though this is a head, not a skull, I'm inclined to ignore that evasion because the head/skull feeds the Hamlet homage that this entry is toying with. I like the skull dungeon, and I like the hamlet-y head, so we're going to call this one a wash, too.
- This one should have been just about as easy to work in as the Slaad -- obvious handles to bring this into the story. In BoC, the holy avenger is something that the PCs must quest for and use to defeat the final enemy; that's pretty much the sort of use we would expect. But in KMD, the appearance of the holy avenger seems to be an out-of-place afterthought. The setup for the whole adventure -- that this is meant to serve as an object lesson in the "lawful" part of "lawful good" creates some serious expectations for me. I'm expecting that there will be some clear standoff between the two -- with the inevitables creating the situation where the law must be honored before the good. In that setting, the Holy Avenger almost seems like it would be the tool of the opposition. Instead, it's part of a matched set -- the holy and righteous avengers -- and we're told that the paladin PC is given "one of them" but not even which one. It's also possible to read the adventure with the Paladin serving the role of "holy avenger" -- he is called upon directly to avenge the dead guardsmen -- but I found that also very problematic in an adventure that is meant to be putting law and justice ahead of all other concerns. Revenge is not lawful, it is not judicious; it's personal and emotional and chaotic, and my sense is that the command to bring ur-Valos to justice was replaced with a commandment to avenge the slain people to create this second reading of holy avenger . . . . but I find that out of place. It's possible that with some broader explanation the role of Horatio as the voice of the people and the "good" could serve as a counterpoint to the voice of the inevitables, the law -- but I don't see that developed in this particular writeup. I think that in KMD there is ambition to reach beyond the obvious use for Holy avenger that don't pan out, while the usage in BoC is predictable but it works. Advantage BoC.
At this point, based solely on the ingredients, I'm giving a slight advantage to BoC. But I think that's where things start to turn.
-- Both adventures has hooks -- BoC's are more generic -- your PCs are called to serve or happened to be on hand, etc. The KMD one is much more specific -- but I find that I like that specificity -- the promise of an adventure that could be used in this very specific way (to provide a paladin-centered lesson in the tension between Law and Good) is a lot more interesting to me, even if the ways to use it are a bit more rare. I feel a lot less need to develop the ideas in KMD beyond the synopsis here before running it, too -- and this is where it's relative brevity does it some good service. BoC is expansive, and to use it in my campaign I would need to take each episode and develop it beyond what we're given. Advantage KMD.
Again, KMD has a slight advantage here because it does not need to cover so much ground. Dramatic moments and key dialog presented in the entry help flesh out scenes and bring them alive for me reading it.
Both entries have cool, original ideas. As I've said, I like the idea of the final episode taking place in the regenerating skull of the slaad goddess in BoC. Most of the rest of BoC seems pretty much what I would expect, though -- not a lot of surprises there.
KMD has a setting that is almost as cool (the windup skerrie), but over the rest of the adventure matches up pretty well with BoC for originality. And that brings me to the interesting Hamlet element of the adventure.
As a judge, I'm sure I'm drawn in unconscious ways to the Hamlet homage in KMD because of my own educational history (waaaay too much literature and creative writing). But, while I'm drawn to that element, I find it's use flawed and incomplete, and almost enough to make it a negative in this entry rather than a positive. Almost.
[So, for those of you who fell asleep in English Lit, here's the wikipedia article about Hamlet. (Hamlet - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
) Note the names of key characters (Gertrude, Claudius, Horatio), the importance of ghosts (i.e. speak with the dead), and so on.]
I love that the Hamlet stuff is there. I even appreciate that it's totally beneath the surface, and that there's no reason that a group playing the adventure would need to know that the element is there. But I'm disappointed that there wasn't much reward for noticing the parallels. This is problematic because the Hamlet story and this adventure are about very different things, from the outset. KMD declares that it's about the primacy of law over good; Hamlet is about the agony of being a thinking man in a world of action, among other things. Hamlet's "to be or not to be" is about trying to decide if he should avenge his father's murder -- and again, revenge is by it's nature not a lawful act. There are some thin thematic similarities, but they fall apart pretty quickly.
(I was frankly relieved not to detect hints of another literary ghost story in the appearance of three inevitables -- did I miss something there? I was looking.)
I'm not sure what the reward should be. It might not be tangible, in-game reward. But there ought to be something, even just an inside joke, for the player who manages to spot the homage to Hamlet going on. Instead, the story just starts there and moves quickly away from Hamlet to serve it's own purpose, leaving me to wonder if it would have been stronger WITHOUT the Hamlet elements stirring things up.
This one is a tough call, at least for me. I find things to like about both entries, and problems in both. BoC is spread more thinly, and has fewer problems. KMD is more interesting and evocative for me, but deeper flaws. In the end, I'm going to give the nod to Wulf and The King Must Die -- I find his entry captures my interest more, and has me more engaged and eager to run it for players than Breath of Chaos does. It's a very near thing, but that's where my judgement falls.
So, Wulf advances.