IRON DM 2020 Tournament Thread


Once A Fool
It’s finally here, folk! The IRON DM 2020 Tournament begins. Herein, seven challengers will attempt to dethrone the current champion by testing their adventure-writing skills through three grueling rounds (if they can last that long!) of intense head-to-head matches.

This year’s judges will be:

, one of last year’s judges and the IRON DM of 2017.

Wicht, a competitor from the earliest days, a seasoned judge, and the IRON DM of FALL 2002 and 2013.

Rune, a once-frequent competitor, the IRON DM of SPRING 2002, and a not-infrequent judge of tournaments past.

Our Contestants:

1: Iron Sky (IRON DM 2009, 2019)
2: el-remmen (IRON DM SUMMER 2003)
3: FitzTheRuke
4: CleverNickName
5: practicalm
6: humble minion
7: Neurotic
8: Kobold Stew

The Basics:

The tournament is set up in a single-elimination bracket style, with each match determined based on scheduling availability among the eligible contestants within the match’s tier.

Each match consists of two contestants given a single set of ingredients with which to construct a brief adventure or adventure synopsis in any game system or genre. You should waste neither time, nor words, on overly detailed stats, but you should also not assume familiarity with any given system or genre. Explain what you need to explain, and stop there!

These entries will be evaluated on their own merits and those evaluations will then be compared to determine the winner of a match, who will then proceed to the next round.

All matches will be given a time-frame to submit the entries within. An entry that is late will still be accepted, but with a penalty applied to its word-limit. Late entries that are less than 1 hour late will have their word-limits reduced by 10% (meaning, for example, a first-round entry would have its word-limit reduced from 750 to 675, which is harsher than it looks). Entries that are at least 1 hour late, but less than 1 day late will have their word-limits reduced by 30%. Entries that are at least 1 day late will have their word-limits reduced by 50%. Entries that are at least 2 days late may be disqualified at the discretion of the other competitor and judges. Entries that exceed their word-limits will be considered to end once they reach that limit; we will ignore everything after.

Obviously, you really want to avoid being late, especially in the first round, but life happens, and sometimes you just can't make it. In such cases, you should take the extra time (before your next threshold) to polish your entry with your new word-limit in mind. It won't be easy, but you might still win. Even if you don't win, you may at least find the judgement enlightening for future IRON DM tournaments!

Entries are expected to make good use of all of the ingredients submitted. The ingredients should be creatively applied, well-integrated, and fundamentally necessary to the adventure that they are used in. This is the crux of the tournament, so don't think that maybe (for example) doing a good job with three ingredients will be enough, as long as you can craft a better adventure! I wouldn't count on it, if I were you.

Finally, matches have traditionally (but not always!) had exactly six ingredients. This will not be the case in this tournament. The list of required ingredients will get longer as the rounds progress!


All entries are to be submitted with the list of ingredients at the top and are not to be edited, once submitted. Let me repeat that last part: DO NOT EDIT YOUR POST, ONCE YOU HAVE SUBMITTED IT! Check your work before you send it in. Then check it again. We will not look favorably upon any entry that has been edited and may penalize the entry as we see fit, including, possibly, outright disqualification. Part of the challenge of IRON DM is in the development and use of discipline in editing and time-management.

Please do not expect us to follow links within your entry. You may include links for others to follow if you choose to do so, but understand that any information that is necessary to the entry must be in the actual entry. We will be reading each entry multiple times and, thus, unlikely to also be willing to go outside the entry to find context for it. More importantly, expecting outside sources to carry the load of exposition very much defeats the purpose of the word-limit.

Along those lines – I reiterate: we will be reading each entry multiple times. Please don't make that difficult for us. Don't bore us and don't make our eyes bleed. Please.


Each of the first-round matches will have a single judge. The second- and third-round matches will have the full panel of three. As I said before, each entry will be judged on its own merits and then the two competing entries' critiques will be compared for the final judgement. In the latter rounds, the majority opinion will determine the victor. Different judges have traditionally had different processes to arrive at such outcomes – for instance, some may use a point-based grading chart, while others may prefer a more abstract analysis.

We will endeavor to be Nemmerelesque in our judgements – critical, but also fair and constructive in that criticism. It's tradition. Even so, please understand that not everybody will agree with every decision that we make – that's the nature of the game. Traditionally, trying to figure out what the judge will want to see is all part of the game (though not necessarily a recommended strategy) – and that can lead to some undesired outcomes. It can sting sometimes (believe me, I know!), but it is a game. Let's have some fun with it!

That said, those wishing to gain a little insight into the judges’ thinking will need to do a little research to do so, but the information is out there. Be warned, though! We may have changed our thinking on some of these things within the last couple of decades!

Round 1: The Crucible

All matches in the first round will have a 24 hour time-limit! All matches in the first round will have six ingredients, all of which are to be used in each entry. Entries in these matches will have a 750 word limit, not including the title and ingredients list. Any descriptions or definitions of ingredients included with the list will count against the limit! That may not seem like a lot, but I assure you, it's even less than you think! Contestants who win their Round 1 matches will proceed to Round 2.

Round 2: The Refinement

All matches in the second round will have a 48 hour time-limit. These matches will each have seven ingredients, all of which are to be used in each entry. Entries in these matches will have a 1500 word limit, not including the title and ingredients list. Any descriptions or definitions of ingredients included with the list will count against the limit! Contestants who win their Round 2 matches will proceed to Round 3.

Round 3: The Tempering

The third round match will also have a 48 hour time-limit. This match will use eight ingredients, all of which are to be used in each entry. Entries in this match will have a 2000 word limit, not including the title and ingredients list. Any descriptions or definitions of ingredients included with the list will count against the limit! The contestant who wins this match will become the IRON DM 2020!

Scheduling, Discussing, and Spectating:

To keep down the clutter, scheduling for all matches will take place elsewhere, in the scheduling thread.

This tournament thread will be used to list the ingredients and the judgements for each match, as well as the entries, themselves. Commentary and good-natured trash-talking will also be welcome in this thread, but, please, if you are commenting on an entry that has not yet been judged, hide that commentary with spoiler tags,
like this,
so that the judges can view the entries with fresh eyes!

If spectators would like to play the home game, please feel free to do that in another thread.

One final note:

Once these tournaments have been completed, we try to archive them on these boards for posterity, and so that the adventures can be run or plundered by future Internet generations. We make no claim of ownership over the entries, but we do request that you do not remove or alter your entries once the tournament has concluded.

The challenge begins! Let’s get into it!

Round 1: The Crucible

Match 1:
el-remmen vs. practicalm. Rune’s judgement.
Match 2: humble minion vs. Kobold Stew. Gradine’s judgement.
Match 3: FitzTheRuke vs. Neurotic. Wicht’s judgement.
Match 4: CleverNickName vs. Iron Sky. Rune’s judgement.

Round 3: The Tempering

Championship Match:
FitzTheRuke vs. humble minion. Gradine’s judgement. Wicht’s judgement. Rune’s judgement.

el-remmen has provided a bracket visual to track the progress of the tournament. It is up-to-date with the completed standings and, thus, reveals the victors of every match. It can be found in this post.

el-remmen and Iron Sky have agreed to participate in an exhibition match to determine a 3rd-place winner in this tournament. This match will be quick, using the oldest of skool-rules:

1 hour. 6 ingredients. No word-limits.

3rd-Place Match: el-remmen vs. Iron Sky. Gradine’s judgement. Wicht’s judgement. Rune’s judgement.

Congratulations to el-remmen for becoming the 3rd-place contender for the 2020 IRON DM Tournament!
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I plan on living forever. Or die trying.
Well, use all our nicks as ingredients. Humble minion cooks neurotic kobold stew of el-remmen with practicalm attitude :p


Once A Fool
Round 1, Match 1: el-remmen vs practicalm

@el-remmen and @practicalm, you have 24 hours to post your entries to this thread. Please limit your entry to a title, a list of the ingredients used and 750 additional words. Be aware: if you include descriptions of your ingredients with the ingredients list, those descriptions will count against your word-limit! Entries that exceed their word-limits will be considered to end once they reach that limit; everything after will be ignored.

The judges will be using to ensure that our counts are consistent.

Please include your list of ingredients at the beginning of the entry and please do not edit your post once it is submitted. Please refrain from reading your opponent's entry until after you have posted your own. You are on your honor to do so.

Entries that are between 1 and 59 minutes late will have their word-limits reduced to 675. Later entries that are at less than 1 day late will have their word-limits reduced to 525. Entries that are at least 1 day late will have their word-limits reduced to 375. Entries that are at least 2 days late may be disqualified at the discretion of the judge with consent from the match's opposing competitor.

Your ingredients are:

Measured Step
Foreign Coin
Dream Surf
Silver Star
Heavy Metal
Disguise Kit



You Can Lead a Horse to Water​

Measured Step
Foreign Coin
Dream Surf
Silver Star
Heavy Metal
Disguise Kit

Adventure for low level heroes in a fantasy setting.

Local merchant, Wulfwin Jordan, approaches the heroes to escort his prized racehorse, Silver Star, from Redhorn, their current location, to Thalberg, a city 2 days away, and return with the payment.

The job pays 25 silver each.
Heroes can try to increase the fee 50 silver each with a DC 17 persuasion or intimidation check
The merchant expect them at dawn tomorrow

The heroes learn Wulfwin controls the local mines no roll required
A DC15 investigation check provides a rumor the mines are no longer profitable.
A DC20 Investigation check reveals Wulfwin seems to be selling a lot of his possessions
A DC18 nature check provides a rumor that crops are not doing well

At the estate, the heroes are shown Silver Star.
If the heroes can talk to animals, Silver Star says he is looking forward to the trip.
The groom gives the heroes a disguise kit if they think they need to disguise Silver Star to avoid trouble

On the first day of travel the heroes find a damaged bridge. The repair crew points out the ford just upriver.
Silver Star hesitates to cross the river. The hero leading Silver Star must make an animal handling roll of DC14 for Silver Star to cross
On failure, Silver Star bolts and the hero must make a DC 13 DEX check or fall in the water
If Silver Star bolts, heroes need to make a group animal handling check or be able to talk to Silver Star.
A failure means spending 4 hours chasing the horse.
On a DC 13 Perception, Nature or Tracking check while crossing the ford, the heroes see troll tracks that are a few days old.
If they follow the tracks, they notice the distance between the steps seems unusually far. If the heroes measure the steps they find the Troll would have to be 20 feet tall.
Any character with tracking, nature, or investigation skill to see the troll tracks turn into small humanoid tracks.
If the heroes follow the humanoid tracks, they come to a door in the hillside.
Two gnome children appear at the door and pretend to know nothing about any trolls or troll tracks. The children say their parents are repairing the bridge.
If the heroes visit the parents, they thank the heroes for letting them know about their children’s prank and give the heroes a horse brush with an enchantment speeds up brushing animals (10 minutes instead of an hour)

If the heroes use the brush, the disguise on Silver Star comes off and it becomes clear that this horse isn’t Silver Star. The heroes can put the disguise back or return to Redhorn

After the bridge, the heroes find an inn to spend the night.
On the second day, the road runs alongside a large river. Heroes will notice that the river seems to be unusually high. Eventually, a nymph named Dream Surf, calls to the heroes and asks to trade for the horse
Dream Surf offers them a chest filled with foreign coins of usual type (mostly silver with some copper and gold).
Investigating the chest DC18 reveals a hidden map to a pirate crew’s treasure (The Black Teeth)
If the heroes don’t trade for the horse, the nymph will use its siren song to draw Silver Star to the water. Once in the water the nymph and the horse will swim away

When the heroes get to Thalberg and have the horse, a careful inspection by the buyer shows that this horse is not Silver Star. The buyer sends the heroes back to Redhorn
The heroes try to find Dream Surf but she has forgotten that she wanted the horse.

When the heroes return to Redhorn, they find the merchant’s estate empty.
The day after the heroes left, a local priest found that heavy metal from the mine tailings were leaching into the water supply and affecting the crops and children.
The merchant escaped just ahead of the mob.

Heroes have the horse, the local magistrate takes it.
Heroes don’t have the horse, they local magistrate demands the payment
When the townspeople learn about the disguised horse, the heroes are said to be affected by the heavy metal
Heroes give up the treasure from the nymph, they get their original payment

If the heroes hide the chest of coins, when they start using the coins The Black Teeth will show up looking for the chest


Moderator Emeritus

“Twinkle Twinkle Poison Star” - For D&D (but adaptable to other genres)

Measured Step
Foreign Coin
Dream Surf
Silver Star
Heavy Metal
Disguise Kit

  • Following trail of sick people exposed to strange foreign coins to their source
  • Passing through town when the suicide happens
  • Helping a blackmailed friend


Ashtown: PCs witness a businessman’s suicide. He leaps from a roof w/a note explaining an extortion attempt threatening to reveal his shameful secrets. He couldn’t face his family/colleagues but did not want that info used against them after his death, thus his confession. The note also hints there is a connection between the blackmailing and the occasional disappearances of people for the last 20 years.

The blackmailer is Fortinbras Huxley, a man of some influence. While he has a reputation for being a joyful, if intense person, who loves to dance and hum (think Laura Palmer’s dad), he gained his position through blackmail/theft, gathering material by dream surfing using The Orb of Dreams, an enchanted polished chunk of the Silver Star that he retrieved in his adventuring days—an oneiric search engine that examines sleepers’ dreams in a three-mile radius, revealing secrets. He can also use the orb to communicate with victims and implant suggestions/geas.

Huxley uses info to:
  • Extort money (or learn what to rob)
  • Get victim to do something related to town economy/politics
  • Force them to go to Bucanero Vecchio and dig
Investigation reveals others have had to deal w/blackmail, forced to do things ranging from spreading around some of poison foreign coins to selling property that‘d been in the family for generations, to murders/other crimes (but getting victims to admit this is difficult).

The investigation leads to Huxley, though he has a gang of rogues that he has manipulated w/the orb. He uses them to stage events that make him look like a victim/throw off suspicion and/or interfere w/the PCs.

Huxley’s interrogation includes ranting/singing about his dreams influencing him to send people to BV and dig up the Star Beast. He also mentions the “Silver Star” dance. Among his things is a disguise kits that holds some of the foreign coins on leather thongs, and clothes and whitening powder. Successful interrogation of few traumatized victims who returned from BV explains they were given this gear to slip by BV undead.

Local authorities/family members will ask the PCs to go investigate.

Alternatively, PCs could find themselves blackmailed/geased after a night in the town and be requested to go to BV to dig, meaning the intrigue might happen after part 2.

Bucanero Vecchio​

BV is an old dwarven stripmine that left the area polluted with heavy metal poisoning, particularly lead. Drinking water or spending hours here will lead to saves or be poisoned. Worst of all is the radiation from the Silver Star, a weird metal meteor that crashed into the former mountain millennia ago. Digging up the meteor led to the downfall of the dwarves.

BV features black sand, stone ridges, tar pits, chasms, pools, and a quarry half-full of nasty water, w/countless caves along the sides leading to what remains of the dwarven tunnels. The area is overrun by emaciated undead, people who’ve succumbed to the radiation of the Silver Star, however, using the disguise kit and carrying the toxic foreign coin (which hold enough radiation to fool the dead who sense it), allows PCs to pass undetected assuming a performance check to emulate their rhythmic shuffle. The undead include skeletons, zombies, and ghouls, but the oldest have shriveled into shades, so wraiths/spectres.

The tunnels are full of desiccating dwarven undead. There are also dwarven treasures (“poisoned” foreign coins made from the meteor + magical items cursed by the stone’s influence).

The PCs eventually make their way to the partially unearthed Silver Star. The radiation of the pulsating stone is more powerful the deeper the PCs go. The pulse is very musical. It hums different harmonies punctuated by blasts of its damaging poisonous aura (describe as radiant, but it’s poisonous and/or necrotic). Approaching the stone, requires measured steps, dancing in time w/the pulsations, using fractured lead-lined mine walls as defense. For a sense of the rhythm hum “Shining Star.”

Collapsing the stone chamber to bury the Silver Star for another 10000 years leads to the undead dissipating/collapsing within a few weeks (turned w/advantage). The townsfolk collect all the “foreign coin” and melt them down and throw the slag back in BV.

Alternately, the PCs may decide to finish unearthing the Silver Star, in which case it will crack open releasing the cosmic starbeast within that will threaten the town and eventually the world.


Once A Fool
Oh, goody. I can start reading a little early!

Just need to finish typing up a comical recap for tomorrow morning’s game and I’ll get right into it.


Moderator Emeritus
Below [in the spoiler tag] is my reflection on writing my first IRON DM entry in something like 16 years. . . I wrote it before judgement.

This was difficult and at times 750 words felt impossible. It still does in retrospect.

I copied down the ingredients by hand soon after they dropped and spent about a half hour before bed making notes, just playing with ideas and then slept on it. Overnight a foot of snow fell, so I spent the morning clearing walks and the driveway after a coffee and a quick look at my notes - thinking some.

When I finally started writing that afternoon, I got to about 1400 words when I realized that my usual approach to writing was not going to work in this medium. Usually I write a lot. A LOT. I write thousands of words a day sometimes. But no matter how much I write, my favorite part is the paring down. But in this case, I hated the paring down. My usual strategy for writing almost anything is to hawk up a bunch of raw junk, let it gestate a few days and then getting back at it for another draft or two. This was not gonna fly for IRON DM with a word count limit. In the old days I settled for turning in what came out at stage one (hardly edited), here I not only have no time to let the writing itself sit, but I have to hack at it right away for length over clarity. [Hoping the judges can connect the dots. 750 words is hardly enough for an outline!] So I had to change my approach and write the bare minimum. No references to levels or rules, just generic monsters - even the "Star Beast" (which I'd usually give a comparable stat block for) is the vaguest of suggestions. I could not write even one sentence explaining it. I could barely even get in the pale shadow of one of my favorite things about writing adventures, NPCs and their personalities and how they interact with the PCs.

I think if I had written this at the pace I started it at, it would have easily been three of four thousand words. I may still write that version. I did keep the 1400 word version. In that version there is more about the coins, about the fallen dwarves, about applying some kind of radiation template on the undead. I describe the geography of the area. But I only got about halfway through!

As for developing the adventure itself, my immediate thought at "measured steps" was a trap like one of the ones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where stepping carefully to spell "Jehovah" or whatever is the key. Once I realized, I wanted it to be rhythmic steps in time with avoiding the meteor's pulses, dancing became a way to bring that in and connect it to the businessman NPC.

I did a google search for heavy metal, as to avoid just plain old weight or the musical genre, and discovered "heavy metal poisoning." That led to the strip mine and the uncovered meteor and their radiating poison.

Once I had that, making the "foreign coins" be made of that metal made sense - originally I had a bit about how the dwarven community reached a height using the huge meteor's metal - and thus their money had spread somewhat long ago. I wanted this to be a stronger hook and I wanted to include concise rules for keeping the coins on your person and getting poisoned. Neither were possible (Speaking of stronger hooks, once I came upon the blackmail idea I really wanted one or more of the PCs to be the ones blackmailed - but since that kind of info really depends on playstyle and the particular characters, I just kept in the suggestion, which I nearly cut for space, but I loved the idea too much).

Silver Star is probably my weakest ingredient. . . since it is not really silver (I wanted to describe it as silvery/quicksilver under the surface, but didn't have room) or a star - though I guess is it a "fallen star." I tried to tie it in a bit with the music by using Earth, Wind & Fire's "Shining Star" (why did I pick a band with three words in their name? I ended up cutting the band name! I imagine this part as like a musical interlude scene from a Guardian of the Galaxy or maybe the criminally underratedly weird Hudson Hawk). Originally I wrote out the beats with notation for where the different pulses happen.

Disguise kit was actually the hardest to integrate, and in the original version of my mind I was going to go more into their use and the patterns of movement and behavior of the undead in and around BV (by the way, I referred to it as BV throughout to save word count :ROFLMAO: )

Immediately upon seeing Dream Surf I decided I wanted to skip the obvious incarnation (a dream ocean or ocean in dreams, or even traveling through dreams on a surfboard) and go for a weirder idea where Wendon Futz (did I include the businessman's name or did I cut it for space?) could search dreams like he was using dream Google.

I am not sure how well I did but the closest I can remember to having this feeling as I prepared to post my entry (since the last IRON DM I participated in, I guess) was when I did my comprehensive exams for my PhD program!

Anyway, regardless of the outcome, thanks to @practicalm and to @Rune and even though at times working on this felt brutal and torturous (a feeling that immediately lifted when I clicked "Post Reply"), more than anything it really deepened the respect I already have for everyone who has been participating in this tradition and helping it to evolve.
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Final Form (she/they)
Round 1, Match 2: Kobold Stew vs humble minion

@Kobold Stew and @humble minion, you have 24 hours to post your entries to this thread. Please limit your entry to a title, a list of the ingredients used and 750 additional words. Be aware: if you include descriptions of your ingredients with the ingredients list, those descriptions will count against your word-limit! Entries that exceed their word-limits will be considered to end once they reach that limit; everything after will be ignored.

The judges will be using to ensure that our counts are consistent.

Please include your list of ingredients at the beginning of the entry and please do not edit your post once it is submitted. Please refrain from reading your opponent's entry until after you have posted your own. You are on your honor to do so.

Entries that are between 1 and 59 minutes late will have their word-limits reduced to 675. Later entries that are at less than 1 day late will have their word-limits reduced to 525. Entries that are at least 1 day late will have their word-limits reduced to 375. Entries that are at least 2 days late may be disqualified at the discretion of the judge with consent from the match's opposing competitor.

Your ingredients are:

Divine Pestilence
Fool's Errand
Triple Cross
Civilized Magic
Rampaging Gnomes
Flowering Tower


Once A Fool
Judgement for Round 1, Match 1: el-remmen vs. practicalm

The first one is always tough. The first time competing. The first match. It’s difficult to know what an entry should look like (generally) straight out of the gate and it’s pretty much impossible to know just how difficult the combined word- and time-limit challenges are going to be. The first judgement of a tournament is always tough, too.

I think I had better say something up front. The type of analysis that I offer each submission is going to manifest differently. I want to be clear that, where I am critical, I am not, in so doing, insinuating that the piece is bad. And I’m certainly not suggesting that the author is.

Let me explain. The nature of IRON DM is such that no entry is submitted in a “finished” state. The best among them are pretty close, but even the most inspired could benefit from an extra editing-pass. This means that every entry falls somewhere on the “needs more work” scale. Some need quite a bit, but that doesn’t make them bad.

I keep this in mind with every entry I analyze for judgement and I hope it doesn’t get lost in the communication of that judgement. Because it is a philosophical principal that I hold to be fundamentally true.

With that in mind, it is pretty clear from the outset that one of these two entries is further along the development-track than the other. I’ll start with the ingredients.


In “Twinkle Twinkle Poison Star” (“Twinkle”, for short), all of the ingredients are presented as pieces of the adventure that the PCs will (probably) interact with directly. Three of them intersect in a clever way. I’m not so sure that the PCs will absolutely not bypass that intersection, but all-in-all, this is a fairly strong set.

The measured step, foreign coin, and disguise kit all come together as a means of fooling the undead, Sean of the Dead-style. Even better, all three pieces are necessary for the ruse to work.

Be that as it may, I think many (most?) D&D parties would probably just take the problem head-on. That’s not an adventure-design flaw, but it is a bit of a blow to the relevance of all three ingredients. (A quick note, though: a subsequent reading clarified for me that the measured steps are presented as more than just a zombie-shuffle; they are actually the only way to safely approach the silver star!)

I did really like the subtle meta-clue imbedded in the foreign coins’ otherworldly origins, though. That’s fun, especially as it points to the horror that awaits within the silver star.

The unearthly chunk of heavy metal that (it turns out) is radioactive really ratchets up the stakes of this adventure in a very satisfying way. But I was never really sure why the meteorite/pod/seed(?) had to be silver. Before the radiation reveal, I thought maybe it was going to turn out to be quicksilver, but the left turn really was more fun. Even so, it would have worked just as well in the adventure if it was glowing green, jet black, blood red, or rainbow-colored. Or anything else.

What’s left? Oh, right. Dream surf. I must confess, I had hoped that one of you would come up with a noun for this ingredient, but that was really just curiosity on my part about what that would look like. The use as a kind of Inception-tool was pretty interesting (and definitely unexpected from the way the adventure was set up prior). I do have to wonder what happens when the PCs inevitably get their hands on the device, but I’ll get back to that.

Now, we flip the coin:

The entry we have from pacificalm, “You Can Lead a Horse to Water” (“Horse”), struggles a bit with these ingredients.

In the case of Silver Star and Dream Surf, they manifest only as names. Which is to say, they could be replaced with other names and nothing in the adventure would be changed. That’s bad. Worse, these kinds of usages invariably call attention to themselves!

They’re like — I dunno — an internet argument; they don’t accomplish anything but they demand attention anyway.

(I had a “proud nail in the scaffolding of an adventure” analogy ready to go, but that didn’t work because proud nails at least still do their jobs.)

Moving on. The measured step is, presumably, the attempt to lead “Silver Star” across the river on day 1. This is a very small part of the adventure, but it is relevant to the PCs in an interactive way and does lead them toward an important clue. So, we’re moving in the right direction.

The other three ingredients are all important to the plot of the adventure to varying degrees (or at least a sub-plot, in the case of the foreign coins).

In all three cases, I am given to wonder why the adventure didn’t focus more on the plots they were most relevant to, but I’ll get back to that when I talk about the structure. For now, it is sufficient to know that the disguise kit and the heavy metal are both directly responsible for the movement of the adventure’s events (although the PC-interactive part of the former is more the disguise than the kit).

The foreign coin’s significance is a little harder to determine, but, presumably, the pirates are able to track down the PCs who took their booty because the coins the PCs will be spreading around are uncommon enough to make that possible. That’s not exactly spelled out, but it’s pretty clever.

Questions and Adventures:

“Horse” leaves me with a lot of unanswered fundamental questions as I read through it. From the very start, I wonder things like, Why does this Wulfwin guy need to transport his prize horse so badly? (Addendum as I reread: This one is actually a good question to raise; the PCs should be wondering the same thing.) Why does he need to send escorts to do it? Why doesn’t he go with him? Why should he trust them at all? And why is he so stingy with the recompense? Surely he knows offering to 25-50 sp per person is not a good way to get an adventurer’s attention. Assuming D&D, anyway, which the DCs suggest.

After that, we move linearly along the path to a new location, but, even so, there a lot of ways the PCs could miss the big reveal. They could miss the troll-tracks (either through poor rolling, or neglect). They very well may miss the gnome kids and thus never return to the bridge to (re-)meet the parents. Or they might meet the gnome kids, realize it’s all a trick and leave, still without meeting the parents. Even if they meet the parents and are gifted the brush, I’m not sure how likely it is that they’ll use it on “Silver Star.”

Does this ruin the adventure? It might actually be kind of fun if the PCs are the last ones to know the horse is a fraud. But it also could backfire horribly if the players feel like the rug is getting pulled out from under them in a more-or-less unavoidable way. Handle with care.

I don’t understand Dream Surf’s purpose in this adventure at all. Clearly, she’s an obstacle, but she doesn’t have any discernible motivation. Even when confronted by the PCs about it!

And when the PCs finally get back to town to find that Wulfwin has fled and they are (for some reason) suddenly accountable for his misdeeds I have to wonder if the whole poison-leaching subplot would be a more interesting focus for the adventure? It, at least, has clear and compelling stakes.

There were some things that simply needed clarification in order to pull the threads of this adventure together. It is entirely unclear to me why the identity of the horse was of any interest to the townsfolk, at all. Or why they felt they had a claim in the business deal that they don’t seem to have a good reason for even knowing about.

Other than that, I’m not sure what to make of the accusation that the PCs are affected by the poisoned water (apparently as some form of dismissal?) when the townspeople’s own anger is a direct (and justified) result of their own poisoning by same.

There was some good meat on this bone, but it seems like the final act was tacked on to the end of the adventure to quickly tie a bow on the whole thing. The entire adventure could have been strengthened if this material had been given a bit more focus. At the very least, it would have been less confusing.

And I think it would have addressed another issue. I never was quite able to understand why the PCs should go on this seemingly pointless escort mission for very little promised reward. Add to that the very little actual reward that the adventure presents and I am left with the impression that the point of this adventure is to punish the PCs for playing along. (The pirate’s treasure’s value is unspecified, but it’s really more of a down-payment on future adventure than an actual reward.)

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely do not have a problem with rewards that come with strings attached, but they can’t all be like that, or your players will quickly lose interest in the game. And, frankly, it doesn’t look like the players should bother returning to town. If they do (because how would they know?), they probably shouldn’t (and probably won’t) stick around to repay a debt they almost certainly won’t feel responsible for.

Adventure and Questions:

In contrast, “Twinkle” gives us two very entertaining halves of a doubly-entertaining whole. The investigative half has an interesting twist to discover and is set up to keep leading the PCs forward. Its hooks are also good. They draw heavily on curiosity, a little less on altruism, and leave room for greed to reel the selfish PCs in. Those are the big three for hooks, with curiosity being chief among them.

(I do have to wonder if the buildings of Ashtown are taller than most in D&D. But, let’s see...1d6 per 10 ft means a two- or three-story building would probably kill a commoner.)

So, what about that Orb of Dreams falling into PC hands? First, cool. That has lots of fun-potential. Second, hot. As in, it probably won’t take too long for the PCs to discover that it’s radioactive. So, it’s kind of a self-limiting problem. As is Huxley, when you get down to it. But, as with many self-defeating problems, he could still do a lot of damage on his way out. Thus, the need for PCs to act.

The stakes are present and, while not fully understood in the first half of the adventure, still clear enough.

The second half is more adventurous fun. A horde of radioactive zombies (and company) is going to be a fun challenge no matter your approach. I’m still not absolutely sure I understand Huxley’s underlying motivation in all of this, though. Does he know about the zombies? Is he using them for labor? Is he an opportunist? An aspiring necromancer? A cultist? A slave to the star-beast’s will? Does he know that the Orb is killing him? Does he care?

These are all big questions, but they are the kind that might best be left to the DM to figure out. The answers might suggest future adventures, or an empty hole in the world where knowledge should go. Which, of course, could lead to future adventures.

All in all, a very good entry from the old-timer.

Winding Down:

@practicalm , I know my analysis can’t make it clear enough, but I actually found a lot of good in your submission. The fundamental conceit of it all was inspired and, frankly, refreshingly different from the typical adventure-fodder I think most games fall into. Also, your grasp of fundamental concepts of rat-bastardry is impressive (I’m thinking particularly of the pirates, here). You might find them more effective if used a little more sparsely, but you’re on the right track, there.

I believe if you had more time to play around with the structure, you’d have found one that shuffled around the elements you created in a way that fit together a bit more smoothly. You could get away from the linearity by trusting the players to figure their own way through the scenarios you create and you can empower the DM to trust the players by providing a strong structural framework that can support the flexibility.

As far as incorporating ingredients goes, treat them like the most integral of NPCs in a scenario (even when they aren’t people); they need to have a role and a reason within the adventure, and they may as well not exist if the PCs never interact with them in any way. Also, the specific words that they are made up from matter, so factor that in!

All of these things take time and practice to hone, though. You’ve got the fundamental creativity and that is absolutely the most important foundation for this type of exercise. I hope you choose to give this another try in a future tournament, because I genuinely believe you’ve got the goods to be competitive with your submissions.

And, don’t think I’m saying that just to soften the sting, here; I’m not really one to waste my time with hollow niceties. It’s on you whether or not you want to try again, but, if you do, I expect we’ll see an impressive improvement. No pressure, though!

This time, @el-remmen advances to Round 2.


Moderator Emeritus
Thanks to the judge and to my opponent. I loved many elements of your entry, @practicalm. I especially liked how the horse was disguised and was expecting some kind of insurance fraud or something! I also really liked the general sense of an adventure not necessarily about fighting, but overcoming obstacles to achieve a goal, some of which may involve fighting . The gnome kids with the illusory trolls reminded me of an old adventure from Dungeon #36 called "Troll Bridge."

There was so much I wanted to include in this adventure, a lot of which would have answered Rune's questions. Yes, the orb is cursed (I meant to suggest this by his unhinged aspect and raving about influence from dreams). He was sending the people to BV at the behest of the star beast to slowly uncover it and to retrieve treasure.

Oh and Ashtown is a city, but its description - a formerly great city at the mouth of the polluted Venomar river - got cut for space. I think I described him leaping from a tower.


Once A Fool
These first-round matches are an exercise in subtlety. Sometimes suggestion can carry the load more than details ever will. And some questions just don’t need answers.

Go Hard or Go Gnome

For the Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG

Divine Pestilence
Fool's Errand
Triple Cross
Civilized Magic
Rampaging Gnomes
Flowering Tower

A PC (Recipient) experiences a life event warranting a major party, eg 21st birthday, moving in with a partner. With the party looming, Recipient receives as a present a novelty garden gnome (with one green thumb) in a pose/outfit that's personally meaningful to them. It's a thoughtful, funny gift.

The gnome brings luck. Nearby plants blossom. Vampires trip over it. Recipient's crush finds it adorable. After Recipient has noticed this, they discover it holding up a sign reading 'help'. The gnome (Lobdibble) asks Recipient to retrieve its friends, other garden gnomes (1 per PC) that must be bought, stolen from obsessive collectors, recovered from demon-infested junkyards. Lobdibble can locate them magically.

The gnomes:
  • are 1800s-era Watchers cursed to gnomehood by the Roman flower goddess Flora
  • lie that this happened when they stumbled into a lost shrine
  • actually were cursed for trying to steal Flora's power via a ritual. They believe upper-class civilised magicians like themselves could wield power more productively than any decadent minor goddess.
  • except Lobdibble, are superficially nice but priggish, self-righteous, arrogant, prejudiced underneath. They're the BAD old type of Watchers.
  • each has one green thumb

The gnomes ask the PCs to help them perform an atonement ritual to Flora, to lift the curse. Their real plan:

  • pretend to perform an atonement ritual
  • distract magically-knowledgeable PC/PCs (Researcher) in case they recognise what's happening
  • while Researcher is away, 'realise' the ritual must be performed immediately (for magic gobbledegook reasons)
  • attempt the power theft ritual again, and with additional participants (PCs) helping, succeed

The gnomes ask Researcher to recover an magically-warded cache of tomes the gnomes hid pre-gnome-ing. By passing an Intelligence+Occultism check en route, Researcher realises that the gnomes' ward-disabling spell is nonsensical. A subsequent Intelligence+Notice check deduces that this is a fool's errand and the gnomes lied. Succeeding on these checks allows Researcher to warn other PCs against participating in the ritual.

PC who participate contract the Green Thumb Curse.

Flora punishes transgressors with the Green Thumb Curse, a divine pestilence. Its stages are:
  • one thumb turns green
  • small white beard sprouts, cheeks go rosy, sufferer starts shrinking, silly hat appears on head and can't be removed
  • transformed into garden gnome

The ritual is performed (if Researcher interrupts, the gnomes perform it with a hired sorcerer later). The first half succeeds. An enormous flowering tower of leaves and blossom sprouts over the party venue - Flora's power nexus, her heart manifest naked in the world. Regular people think it's an amazing floral decoration job. Gnomes make themselves scarce, and prepare.

Lobdibble approaches Recipient. He explains that, thanks to associating with Recipient, he's had second thoughts, and explains the gnomes' true plans. He tearfully begs the PCs to stop (ie, kill) the other gnomes before they complete the ritual. He says they plan to finish it at the party, as Flora is closer to the world when young revelers are near.

He's lying. Years ago in despair, he bargained with Chrolimothus the Seeder, a long-time plant-demon enemy of Flora. He's performing a triple-cross.

PCs researching Flora discover she's a goddess of blossoming youth and joy, and her rites involve scanty clothing, alcohol and wild abandon. Bloodshed and violence displease her.

Final 3-way confrontation at the party. Flora's destiny is shaped by what takes place in her power nexus, not by who wins the fight. Goals are:
  • PCs: Joy. Ensure the party is awesome and attendees celebrate hedonistically to honour Flora. This is a good opportunity for PCs to play cupid and any simmering sexual tension to come to a head (acts of fertility please Flora...). Minimise violence.
  • Rampaging gnomes: Control, oppression. Ruin the party, impose 'civilisation' on the bacchanalia to suppress Flora and bind her power to their notion of order. They're clammy-hearted Watcher-level sorcerers and use all their ingenuity to ruin everyone's night, calling police, playing gooseberry, nasty punitive magic, brutal beatings of the 'immoral', humiliation and shaming.
  • Lobdibble: Kill, maim, my plant-demon minions! Wet the soil with innocent blood! Subvert the ritual and feed Flora to Chrolimothus! Start fights, get PCs killing gnomes and vice versa, demonstrate that revelry is just chaotic darkness dressed up nice.

The flowering tower's plants reflect which side is 'winning'. PCs; gorgeous and verdant. Gnomes; dying. Lobdibble; sprouting vicious thorn-fanged maws.

Epilogue: Flora blesses successful PCs with eternally-luxuriant houseplants. Any Curse-sufferers are cured. Surviving partygoers remember only an amazing night in a spectacularly flower-themed venue, which regrettably got crashed by oddly short gang members.

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