IRON DM 2023 Tournament Thread

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
@Snarf Zagyg - I hate to think of being the cause of anything eating at anyone for days, so for any consternation I may have caused with my wording I apologize. I wrote hastily and may have come across more caustic than I intended to. Having reread your entry, I will stand by my critique but I can elaborate on my thinking and analysis if you want, including game theory and my choice of words. Or not. Either way my judgement, I hope was not taken personally. We put forward our thoughts and stories and they are our children and creations, and it is a hard thing to let others critique them according to their own tastes and inclinations.

I appreciate the clarification. You obviously bounced hard off my adventure - that was clear from the judgment. That happens. That you believe game theory might explain things indicates to me that you probably aren't grokking the full purpose of the one-shot, although I value your offer to explain it.

That said, it was not my intention to relitigate the past round, or explain my entry further. Not only do I think it is unwarranted, I also think it does a disservice to the excellent winning entry. Instead, it was just to call attention to what I saw as an issue. The farther outside the box you go in Iron DM, the bigger the hole you've created for yourself to begin with. Which is fine; that's something I'm comfortable with.

Where I think it starts to get more uncomfortable is when the judgment begins to seem more of a referendum on playing styles; no longer a question of, "Was the adventure a good adventure for its type," but, "Is this the type of adventure I think should be an adventure?" It seems less of a judgment, and more of a ... well, a judgment. If you follow me.

In order to make this clear, I'll give you two examples.
a. In the first round, I made use of Ten Candles as the system. I did it for very specific reasons that were integral to the one-shot- it's not a topic I would have touched with almost any other system. Now, I am sure that there are people out there who would balk at playing an RPG where the end is pre-ordained. If you aren't familiar with it, the end of the game is the death of all the players as the last tea candle goes out. It's a game of tragic horror, and it is about loss. I am sure that there are people who, because the destination is already known, may have qualms about playing this game. But the beauty is in the journey, in the game itself. It's not any less of a game (or an adventure) because of that endpoint; rather, that is an absolutely necessary component of that game. Most importantly, it is the match of system to subject matter that I needed to tackle that particular issue- it's not about the end, but what you do before that.

b. Or, imagine a pacifist judging a D&D round. The pacifist might bounce hard off of a D&D adventure that requires violence to resolve it. And yet, it would be somewhat strange to analyze that adventure as being a lesser adventure simply because it engages with the very tropes that are most common to D&D.

I'm going to leave it at that. Again, appreciate the work you put into this judging. It's not easy. But maybe in the future, if you do bounce off of something (which happens ... I just don't like food with a strong rose water flavor), try and make your opinion about other playing styles a little less clear throughout the piece.
 

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Gradine

The Elephant in the Room (she/they)
Thanks for sharing this, Snarf. I often wish that we were able to talk a lot more specifically about what we went through when writing entries (and/or receiving judgement on them).
Here's the thing... you are! In fact such analyses were... I hesitate to say common in the past, but they were put out there, and while I can't speak for everyone, I always enjoyed reading them when they were put out there (and I enjoyed writing them as well!)
Heck, I'd like to hear more about what it was like writing the judgements, too! The whole thing is a fun exercise, but it is also quite a big challenge. In a lot of different ways.
I wouldn't mind putting out some more detailed comments on the previous match, but for the moment I can make some general comments on my process, which is always evolving.

In general, I wait until both entries are posted before reading either, and I try to read both in a single sitting. This first read is very much a "does look like fun to run/play"; I try to keep the ingredients themselves out of my mind until the second read-through, where I write down a list of the ingredients and how each one is used in each entry. This is often one to three words at most, a name or a specific location of each adventure. Third pass I get down to the nitty gritty. In general, I use a scale of 0-2, in increments of .5, for no real reason. .5 is "did they even try to use the ingredient", and it goes up from there based on how well the ingredient is incorporated. Is it central, is it relevant. Can it be removed without changing the adventure? Can one of the elements of the ingredient be changed without changing the adventure? What if the ingredient were Captivating Cube? Would that change things significantly? There's a system to it but I won't pretend it's in any way objective, which is one of the reasons why I don't share out those numbers. The other reason it that, as I've mentioned in my past few judgments, the individual ingredient vs ingredient lineup doesn't tell the whole story. How well do the ingredients mesh together? Does the adventure feel cohesive, like a classic Iron Chef lineup, or does it feel like a stew with whatever ingredients we had lying around tossed into it? This, by the way, is at least for me the most important reason why word counts were instituted; over a long enough adventure, you can put a lot of space between ingredients. Shorter adventures, at least in theory, force you to cram those ingredients tighter and make them play together.

But from there, yeah, it's kind of a gut thing. The individual ingredients, how well they blend together, and how much I like the adventure in the first place, all factor in to the final judgment.

That said, the personal peccadillos of judges I think will always come into play. I've gotten docked in judgments before for assuming my adventures' players would have an altruistic motivation to get involved. I try to recognize my own where I can, but unconscious bias is a hell of a thing to combat. And those biases can definitely color what we determine on our own to be subjective quality. I'll say, as a player on my own, I'd much rather play "Tavern" than "Dungeon"; all I can do is try to put myself in the shoes of the kind of player I would imagine would love this genre of adventure.

I'll touch on the D&D supremacy thing in a longer post, but I'll say that I can't disagree, despite being personally responsible for two of those three non-D&D wins (in fact, I'm 2-1 in championship matches; but 0-1 when I explicitly used D&D).
 

FitzTheRuke

Legend
Here's the thing... you are! In fact such analyses were... I hesitate to say common in the past, but they were put out there, and while I can't speak for everyone, I always enjoyed reading them when they were put out there (and I enjoyed writing them as well!)
Oh, I know! And I do, it's just that, well, it's "weird" to always have to hide things under spoiler-tags. In waiting for the Judgements before commenting, I tend to forget all the things that I wanted to say about my own entries, and about others' too.

Or in other words, I know we can talk about the entries, but we don't do it much. Because to talk too much about it is to worry about influencing the judging - and to talk about it afterward feels like getting in the way of the next round. And to wait until the whole thing's done to talk about it, well... now I don't remember what I wanted to say.

Maybe we need a behind-the-scenes discussion thread in the future, that the judges stay out of until after they've posted their judgements. That way we're not cluttering up the scheduling thread OR the tournament thread AND we don't have to worry about spoiler tags. Just a thought.

Third pass I get down to the nitty gritty. In general, I use a scale of 0-2, in increments of .5, for no real reason. .5 is "did they even try to use the ingredient", and it goes up from there based on how well the ingredient is incorporated. Is it central, is it relevant. Can it be removed without changing the adventure? Can one of the elements of the ingredient be changed without changing the adventure? What if the ingredient were Captivating Cube? Would that change things significantly? There's a system to it but I won't pretend it's in any way objective, which is one of the reasons why I don't share out those numbers.
I've always felt that those numbers are more useful for you judges than they are for us judged. I guess it's an interesting "sausage recipe" but I'm fine with them not being shared.
 

Gradine

The Elephant in the Room (she/they)
Okay, so. D&D Supremacy.

My understanding is that this competition was originally born out of a group called the "Rat Bastard's DM Club" or something of that nature. The early competitors and judges all almost exclusively came out of that group. From the name I can kind of gleam that there's an old school, D&D-focused mentality from the start. The competition has grown pretty far out from those humble beginnings, but, well, D&D still sheds a hell of a shadow over the industry. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a judge or competitor, at least on this site, if not the broader community, that doesn't at least have a solid grasp of what a D&D adventure in general looks like. D&D is still deeply embedded in the shared language of our hobby. It's still, unfortunately, the default. I can say, with timid optimism, that there has never been a time in the 50-someodd-years of our hobby, where we have come closer as a community from moving beyond that, but it's still, I think, somewhere far in the distance, if at all.

It's at this point where I point out how I've approached this particular dilemma. First, as a player: I've participated as a contestant in seven tournaments: 2014-2018 and 2021-2022. My overall record is 10-5, with two championships under my belt. Not to toot my own horn, but I'd like to think I've done pretty well for myself. I'm curious, however what that breaks down to under the following four circumstances:
D&D vs D&D - 3-2
Non vs Non - 2-1
My Non vs D&D - 4-0
My D&D vs Non - 1-2
Interestingly, when I'm doing D&D I'm .500 (4-4), when I'm not doing D&D I'm 6-1. I should probably learn a lesson from that. In fact, my last D&D adventure to go head-to-head against a non-D&D adventure was a loss... against Snarf! <shakes fist at Paul Hollywood>

I've now judged three different years, and in those years I was able to weigh in on 8 rounds that pitted a D&D adventure against a non-D&D adventure, and my judgment was split evenly 4-4 (including a 2-2 record this year). I've also tried to utilize the ingredients I've provided to steer away from D&D (or at least not directly toward it), with a decent amount of success, including likely contributing to that Owl Hill Trail sighting in 2019. That said, "Laser Sword" still got us a 50/50 split, and "Faster Car" still led to two D&D (or at least, non-specific but D&D-esque) adventures, so, you know. It's an uphill battle.

Honestly, I'd be interested in seeing someone go back through every match in those old tournaments and seeing what the breakdown is of D&D vs non-D&D games is. As skewed (and consequential!) as those championship statistics are, it's also true that championship matches make up, at most, 1/7th of every Iron DM contest ever (weird triple-round-robin finals nonwithstanding). Of course, you'd also have to make a determination for every entry as to whether it's "D&D" or not in the first place. Is generic fantasy "D&D" if it isn't called out in the subtitle or referenced mechanics at all? Is a non-entry fantasy definitively not "D&D"? If we're counting Pathfinder as D&D, what about Starfinder? Or Star Wars D20? Many adventures are systemless, and if Dimension 20 has taught us anything (and hopefully it has!), it's that you can do D&D in pretty much any setting or genre.

I love both reading (and writing!) interesting and out-there Iron DM entries, specially when it comes to non-fantasy genres. Being fully honest, I think that it's great for the competition to see a greater diversity of adventures. And I do think that you can be successful here when breaking out of the D&D bubble. I think building an entire game from scratch can put you a bit behind the eight ball; we're really looking for adventures here, so any time you spend explaining mechanics is less time you can spend really fleshing out that adventure. Not that @Snarf Zagyg didn't absolutely make it work for them, they did, and I'd also add that the mechanics I developed for my 2021 winner were what put me over the top. I've seen (and had!) it backfire too, though. As much as I think it's more than possible to do well in this competition while steering clear of D&D (and make no mistake, getting to the championship match at all is doing well), it's harder to recommend developing systems/mechanics/whole games on your own.

That's my takeaway, anyway.
 

Wicht

Hero
I'm going to leave it at that. Again, appreciate the work you put into this judging. It's not easy. But maybe in the future, if you do bounce off of something (which happens ... I just don't like food with a strong rose water flavor), try and make your opinion about other playing styles a little less clear throughout the piece.

The problem with writing in haste is that it is easier to leave the wrong impression, so I will say a few words more on my thoughts regarding the entry so as to clarify this point: my judgment was not made because of a difference is playstyles. While I was upfront that certain styles of games are "not my cup of tea," this is not the same as saying I cannot understand, appreciate or empathize with them. I am fairly upfront in my judgment is using "appeal" as one criteria, and this is perfectly valid for it has always been a part of the competition. You can write to please yourself, but it has to appeal to the judge as well if it is to win (I like horror, traditional fantasy, folk-tales, whimsy, and heroics; I cut my teeth on Lord of the Rings when I was 9 and am certainly heavily influenced by it; I also like simple elegance, and a stream-lined presentation that cuts to the heart of the matter while still evoking the proper mood for the adventure). But that's only like about 20% of what I am grading on. And in this case, the lack of appeal to me had a lot less to do with the playstyle and more with problems I saw in the game being presented. For those interested in further ruminations, read on. If you don't care, fair enough.

Firstly, mechanics and Iron DM. For the most part (there are exceptions), too many mechanics are a waste of the author's time, because they are not what is intended to be judged. For instance, it was not necessary for Whizbang to say that the cured orc was a reskinned solar, or that the goose was a reskinned tarrasque. I did not need to know the DC of a particular lock, or anything of the sort. None of that was going to affect how I received the entry, and it just took up words that could have been otherwise used. Whizbang might have scoured a dozen monster books (I hope not) before arriving at those two choices, but doing so would have also used up precious time that could have been used more constructively. Thus my advice, don't insert mechanics into your entry.

This is not to say, however, that I am not competent to judge mechanics. I just don't want to do it when judging an Iron DM contest. Because, if I did, I would have said that I think using tarrasque mechanics with the goose was a mistake, and I would prefer it to be built from the ground up. The tarrasque has claw and horn attacks, and this doesn't translate well to a giant goose. I would have prefered a stomp attack, maybe a rapid peck attack, and some sort of gust attack. But because I was not considering mechanics, I did not have to get into the weeds on what I thought was a misstep, but could just ignore it. However, the more the author integrates the mechanics into the adventure, the more I have to consider them, and if I have to consider them, then the first thing I have to ask is, does the mechanic work to do what is desired. I go from being a judge of adventure-design to being a judge of game design. This is part of what I meant by, "we are starting off on the wrong foot." I can judge game design. There are probably those that can do it better, but if I have to, I do possess the credentials, the experience and a modicum of skill in the craft. But its not really what I was hoping to do.

Let me interject here an observation about game design. And it is true of adventure design as well. The real test of a published rule, or set of rules, as well as an adventure outline, is not whether you, the author, could run it competently with your group of friends, but if you give it blind to a stranger, can they use it exactly as you intended it to be used. If they cannot, then it doesn't matter what your style is, the rules as written have failed to produce the desired outcome. I'll get back to this.

But for now, a sidestep towards the question of role-playing games vs. storytelling games, and what constitutes either according to my working definitions. Some of this is completely arbitrary, a matter of perception and circumstances, but a lot of it, to me, is that, in a role-playing game, the players control characters who act within the parameters of a world so as to interact with one another and with features of that world. But the manner in which this is done and the actual goals of the game matter too. Merely having a character role, and a setting is not enough. And the backstory to a game does not determine what kind of game it is.

For instance, consider this introduction to a game: "October 2, 1900 - 28 years to the day that the noted London eccentric, Phileas Fogg accepted and then won a £20,000 bet that he could travel around the world in 80 days. Now at the dawn of the century it is time for a new impossible journey. Some old friends have gathered to celebrate Foggs impetuous and lucrative gamble - and to propose a new wager of their own. The stakes is $1 million in a winner take all competition. The objective: to see which of them can travel by rail to the most cities in North America - in just 7 days." Now, this sounds like a thrilling sort of adventure. You have characters, a setting, a wager... Only thing is, the game is Ticket to Ride, and it is most certainly not a role playing game. You might pretend, while playing to be adventerous sorts on a daring wager (though I have never seen this, anywhere or by anyone, even in tournaments), but it is still a rummy style-set collection game with area control. Not a bad game, one of my favorites in fact, but certainly not role-playing, introduction notwithstanding.

Or consider this set-up: "The passages beneath Dragon Keep are the most dangerous territory in the Realm. Only the greatest burglars can sneak in, steal from the dragon, and escape to tell the tale. So naturally, you and your fellow thieves have challenged each otherto do just that." Again, that sounds like it could be a set-up for an RPG adventure, but its not. It's Clank, a deck-building racing game.

So, three game-designers are whisked into a tavern, where they are trapped as NPCs, and they must find a way to acheive their personal goal and escape,... that's a nice set-up. I could work with that in an RPG. But then the game is introduced, and I seriously have to question the genre. Because what the players are tasked with is not so much an interaction with the world and each other within given parameters. It is a challenge to design rules which will help them escape. In point of fact, the required interaction with the world is fairly minimal, and their interaction with one another doesn't have to happen at all. They get to develop the rules and then the challenge they want to try. Thus my complaint about the use of the ingredients like the flooded basement. It really doesn't matter because the game mostly challenges the players to create their own fiction. And the fiction is created in harmony with rules so as to achieve a goal. I have serious doubts if this game was ever playtested that the flooded basement would ever come up. I will interject at this point that if you were wanting to convey a Paranoia Style game, with elements of Cosmic Encounter, both games I truly like, I did not get that at all; the game that most readily came to mind as a comparison was Flux.

Which brings me to my definition of a storytelling game. Granted, all RPGs are in some fashion about telling a story, but when I use the term, that's not what I mean. In my view, a story-telling game is a game in which the ability of the player to think on their feet and weave a convincing yarn is what determines who wins. It might be as simple as who tells the most scary ghost story. In the first I mentioned in my judgment, Aye, Dark Overlord, its about being able to craft the best excuse for failure so as to pin the blame on someone else. In the other, But Wait, There's More, its about being able to convincingly sell a product to a customer. Either way, generally someone who is quicker witted and more glib is going to win these sorts of games. The game is less about what story is being told and more about being able to do it better than the next guy. You might disagree with this moniker being applied to your entry, but as far as I can discern, the actual game is to create rules and then a scenario in which the use of the rules allows an achievement of goals. Its not quite the traditional sort of story-telling endeavor, but it gets close enough I think the shoe fits. I don't really get the feeling of a journey from it. I get the feeling of trying to create a system which allows for victory. Which is why I said that it doesn't really seem like an adventure to me. It feels more like a brainstorming exercise.

All of which then brings me back around to the rules, and my assessment of the overall entry. If I am going to judge rules, I am going to discern whether I think the mechanics work as intended. In the your first two entries, I think they did, especially in the second. In this case, I don't think they do. I note that the first two entries used pretested game systems. This one, near as I can tell, does not.

Now, I don't know quite how you envision the game progressing, but if I was a player, and you gave me those rules and set-up, I envision it going something like this.

Round 1. I am given the adventuring goal, and get to go first.
Me: Okay, I have to create a rule and then a challenge. My rule is this: In this world, all humanoids have a 9 to 1 advantage in combat over all animals and things which appear to be animals. So then, lets see... My character, definitely a humanoid, looks out the door and sees the goose blocking his path to the world beyond. Thinking to myself that no silly goose is going to keep me locked up, I pick up my stool and charge the goose to beat it senseless and travel into the world beyond.
Player 2, to my left: Okay, I have to come up with a simple way to arbitrate that. Let's say you roll a d10 and on a 1 you lose.
Me: I rolled a 3. I win. Let's see... what next... hmmm. it says, stop designing your own game and go play Dungeons and Dragons. That seems odd, but ok.

Let me say that I am fairly sure that's not how its meant to go (also, if the quip about playing Dungeons and Dragons instead bothers you, please note, it was your exact words in your entry). But that's how the mechanics are designed and form follows function. Assuming this is not the intent, and I do so assume, I therefore conclude that they are therefore not very useful in conveying what was meant, and mechanically, I think the game falls apart. Part of this, I suspect was haste, and part of it is that writing clear mechanics is not always easy, and it becomes harder when those mechanics are conveyed in what is meant to be a sardonic, whimsical way.

Consider the very first mechanical note in the entry: "GM NOTE- There is no GM. Or everyone is a GM. You’ll figure it out." As far as rules go, this is pretty muddled, and, "you'll figure it out," is a rather big presumption. Again, rules have to be written with the idea that you are not at the table explaining what you meant. If I was not judging mechanics, I would gloss over this, and I initially did on my first reading. But then I am forced to judge the mechanics, and discern how the game is going to work, and I return to this first rule of the game, "You'll figure it out," and its not really a big help. Rules need to be presented straight-forward, and only when you are sure that they are %100 clear should you be willing to interject the humor. Better perhaps would have been: "GM Note: In this game each player takes a turn refereeing the game for the player to their right." Or something like that.

If I was going to go further with suggestions, I would say this... there also needs to be a clearer definition of the sorts of rules meant to be crafted. Can the player who wants to blow up time and space and go back to his job make a rule which states that all characters can cast a greater teleport spell which allows them to hop dimensions? Or can the player who wants everyone to stay in the tavern make a rule that all future interactions with other characters must be mimed? Likewise what are the parameters and intents of the challenges? Some examples might help. Can I make a challenge which says that a mighty wizard with the means to take me back to WotC says that he will do so if I can drink two flagons of ale in a row? Then, as the GM for the turn arbitrates, what are the limits on how much they can change or alter the challenge? In my above example of fighting the goose, can the player to my left add an additional challenge? If not, I am pretty sure I can beat the game everytime in one or two turns. Because, again, as presented, the challenge does not seem to be role-playing, it seems to be scenario creation, and I can do that in my sleep.

Again, this is not really a matter of playstyles. Its an interpretation of the rules as presented, and a best-guess as to how they would play out in the real world when given to me, or another gamer. My judgment reflects this interpretation, not my "bouncing off" the adventure because of style.
 


Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
I actually did start statting up the goose, because I have Forge of Foes and enjoy such things, but I realized I should probably also get some sleep. I'm also extremely comfortable reskinning monsters, so for me, both "tarrasque" and "solar" are benchmarks that would have all of their flavor redone to match the NPCs in question. (And if I'd gone with Forge of Foes, both would be more powerful than the 2014 versions of each critter.)

I do think that having benchmarks in is helpful for DMs, even if detailed stats are not. But maybe there's a better way to convey such information. Asking the DMs to fill in all the blanks on what's going on in adventure can lead to confusion.

My Lolth figure in my second adventure was clearly set in the Demonweb Pits -- in my mind -- but zero people seem to have gotten that, so it clearly wasn't all that obvious. A benchmark like "use a mid-range demon lord's stats" might have helped, although not as much as "I'm trying to make Lolth creepier and weirder and not so much a sexy fantasy."

And yes, if I had to do it over, I would have made it clear that the First Orc explained how to restart the multiverse when asking the player characters to do it for him and exactly what the parameters of the reboot would be, to tempt players to do so.
 
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Wicht

Hero
Okay, so. D&D Supremacy.

My understanding is that this competition was originally born out of a group called the "Rat Bastard's DM Club" or something of that nature. The early competitors and judges all almost exclusively came out of that group. From the name I can kind of gleam that there's an old school, D&D-focused mentality from the start.... (snip)

I love both reading (and writing!) interesting and out-there Iron DM entries, specially when it comes to non-fantasy genres. Being fully honest, I think that it's great for the competition to see a greater diversity of adventures.

It helps to remember that ENWorld was created as a Dungeons and Dragons Forum, and is still largely focused on that aspect of the hobby. The RBDMC was not the real reason that the initial contests defaulted to Fantasy, it was just the nature of the board. Still is, and D&D is the default mode of thinking in the hobby.

But I agree that non-fantasy entries are greatly appreciated. I would like to see some more Call of Cthulhu offerings, Wild West, Space, etc... To this end, I endeavored to primarily offer ingredients that can be used in a variety of genres. So I disagree that an entry is more likely to win if it is fantasy. On my part I just want it to be cohesive, interesting and fun.
 

Wicht

Hero
I actually did start statting up the goose, because I have Forge of Foes and enjoy such things, but I realized I should probably also get some sleep. I'm also extremely comfortable reskinning monsters, so for me, both "tarrasque" and "solar" are benchmarks that would have all of their flavor redone to match the NPCs in question. (And if I'd gone with Forge of Foes, both would be more powerful than the 2014 versions of each critter.)

I do think that having benchmarks in is helpful for DMs, even if detailed stats are not. But maybe there's a better way to convey such information. Asking the DMs to fill in all the blanks on what's going on in adventure can lead to confusion.
Personally, I would have gone for flavor over mechanics. For instance: The Goose is a primal guardian, one of a handful of legendary primals, of which the tarrasque is the best known in all the multiverse. Like its distant kin, it spends much time in slumber, but when it awakens, its power is world-shattering.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Personally, I would have gone for flavor over mechanics. For instance: The Goose is a primal guardian, one of a handful of legendary primals, of which the tarrasque is the best known in all the multiverse. Like its distant kin, it spends much time in slumber, but when it awakens, its power is world-shattering.
I had a bunch of late night fever dream flavor I wanted to include, like how bullywugs view the sky as the surface of another ocean and they specifically foretell the goose's head penetrating it when the apocalypse begins, but struggled to get it down into words in a coherent fashion. If I had been writing on a weekend, it might have been an all-nighter, but I had work Tuesday morning.
 

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