IRON DM 2023 Tournament Thread

Radiating Gnome

Adventurer

Round 3: Snarf Zagyg vs. Whizbang Dustyboots​

All right, so here we go. Round 3. Perhaps the ugliest set of ingredients I’ve seen. Should be a blast to judge, right?

Damn. Judging this may be harder than having to write something for those ingredients. These entries are both excellent.

But, the only way to begin is by beginning, so here we go. Notes from a Tavern (Notes) vs. The Dungeon at the End of the Universe (Dungeon).

Ingredients​

To start off with, let’s get this out of the way — the ingredient use in this round I found to be mostly superb. I’ve been grouchy in past judgments, and it makes me feel like maybe my heart isn’t really two sizes too small, as I read this and enjoy the presentation of the difficult ingredients. But let's do the rundown.
  • Guardian Goose — both had the ingredient. in Notes, the Goose is one of the forces that keep the player characters trapped in the tavern. In Dungeon, the goose is Ansero, the Star Goose/swan, the terror of the Bullywugs. I think I prefer Ansero because he has more development and is a more significant part of the story, but it’s a slight edge for Dungeon.
  • Flooded Cavern — in Dungeon, the second stage of the adventure takes place in the Demiplane Alyanabie Almajida, full of flooded caverns and tunnels. In Notes, the flooded cavern is under the tavern and is full of mystery and despair. They’re both solid uses and excellent execution. No advantage either way.
  • Hollow Peg-Leg — In Notes, the Peg Leg is Steppenwolf’s, it contains a pointless treasure map. In Dungeon, it’s the leg of Ansero, and it leads inside the Goose and into the next plane of the adventure. At first glance, I had a preference for Ansero, and I think that’s very strong, but the meta-hopelessness of Steppenwolf’s treasure is also very, very good, and I like what it does for the theme of the piece. I think they’re both strong enough to call this one a wash as well.
  • Elemental Orchestra — I laughed out loud, in Notes, at Earth, Wind, and Fire. Meanwhile, the presence of the Elemental Orchestra in Dungeon was a rare element that felt a little tacked on and forced. The advantage here goes to Notes.
  • Legendary Door — I think Notes has this one too, but by a hair. The door in the Stronghold plane is very good, and very important, and I like how it works, but in Notes the magic of the door that admits adventurers and traps the NPC-player characters is a cornerstone of the whole meta mess. Loved it. So, Notes here, too.
  • Cured Orc — Dungeon’s enlightened Orc should have taken this against all opposition, but who could have seen the charcuterie orc coming? Advantage to Notes.
  • Time and Space Bomb — both had this one, but I think that Dungeon’s implementation was stronger. I’m really intrigued by that last setting. By the layers of past beings trying to reset all of existence again — wild. Advantage to Dungeon.
  • Captivating Toy - in Notes, I think the captivating toy is the meta-scape of the game itself. In Dungeon, it’s the brass sphere the First Orc offers as a distraction. They’re both good, both here. I’ll call this one a wash, too.
So, in the end, Notes has a slim advantage over Dungeon, but that’s not what’s going to make the final decision for me.

Creativity, Playability, and Which One Made Me Google Stuff the Most​

Neither of these entries is lacking in serious creativity. There’s a temptation to see the metascape of Notes as “easy” because it’s got its tongue planted so far into its cheek there may not be any cheek left to speak of. And yet, the game is about the game within the world of the people who work on and play the game and try to live lives outside the game… you can hold it up to the light and it doesn’t entirely fall apart.

Dungeon, by going with a more traditional dungeon structure and format —especially as a 20th-level adventure — presents a sort of cosmic space where all things can exist, and all sorts of things are possible, and yet it is tight and focused in it’s own way — and as I said I am really intrigued by the way the previous existences are collapsed on each other in the last scene.

So, they’re both out there, both risky, flying just close enough but not too close to two very different suns.

One needs to be better. And, in the end, the thing that makes me prefer one to the other is an aspect of the two stories that doesn’t really involve those two distant suns, or the struggle to juggle so many ingredients.

Final Judgement​

So, here’s the thing. Notes is a game that is a meta contest that explores and explodes the inanity of the gaming world. The players are each trying to achieve a goal, competing by making rules for a special version of cynical D&D-related Calvinball. And when the saloon doors close behind the first batch of adventurers and the player character faceless NPCs start to play — from that point on the game is driven by those characters, those players, and not much else. All kinds of endings are possible.

Meanwhile, in Dungeon, the party of high-level adventurers is pursuing Malgojo, and most of what we get in the adventure is following along, discovering story at least as much as making it.

In notes, a game about ennui and helplessness, what matters is the way the players take control of the game. In Dungeon a game of the highest-powered characters, what matters is … very little. Either the players fail (unlikely) and nothing changes, or they succeed and the cycle begins all over again. At least in Notes, the players know they’re trapped.

It’s super hard to make a comparison between these two because Notes is so Meta, but at the end of the day, I’m more interested in seeing what happens at the end of Notes than I am to see what happens at the end of Dungeon — because I know what will happen at the end of Dungeon in a way that I don’t for Notes.

So, that’s my decision, then. Maybe I’m the outlier again, but I’m casting my vote for Notes from a Tavern, by Snarf Zagyg.

Thank you, everyone, for the chance to be a Judge once again.

-rg
 

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Wicht

Hero
Iron DM 2023 Round 3, Final Match

@Snarf Zagyg vs. @Whizbang Dustyboots


As we enter the last match of this year’s Iron DM, we have Snarf Zagyg giving us yet again another self-contained game disguised as an adventure, this time a storytelling meta-game with three antagonistic goals meant to provide tension between the storytellers as they try to create a set of rules that allows one of the three goals to become reality. On the other hand we have an epic end-of the multiverse as we know it (but we feel fine) adventure as the PCs race to stop a villain from blowing everything up, or maybe choosing to replace all things with a multiverse remade in their own image (though this latter choice is not actually overly contemplated in the text).

Scanning through the entries, I have two immediate thoughts, both of which I have commented on in previous judgments this year. The second, which I will mention first, is that this is meant to be a contest in providing the outline of an adventure, and while it might be helpful to a writer to frame his adventure within a game system such as 5e, it is not necessary, nor is it necessary to provide mechanics relative to the adventure. The judges are not supposed to be considering the mechanics of an offering, they are judging how well the given ingredients have been used to craft a captivating adventure/story for use in a role-playing session. This round, both entrants spend valuable word-count giving us mechanics. This isn’t really necessary.

The other thing I will note upfront is that while on the one hand, I admire Snarf’s single-minded dedication to crafting one-page games as Iron DM entries, they often fall short of what I personally want as an Iron DM judge. I think that in the second round it worked, but that was an exception to my general receptivity to the practice. Its not just that I’m a fairly traditional sort of gamer, and story-telling improv exercises, while I understand them, are not necessarily my cup of tea, what I want in an Iron DM offering is an adventure being presented to explore, not a demand that the the participants craft their own adventures as they go. Relatedly, all the time spent trying to make rules, goes back to my other thought: In Iron DM, I am less interested in the mechanics of the adventure than the story of the adventure. I can critique mechanics, but its not what I am here to judge, and the most beautifully crafted mechanic, if it does not actually integrate seamlessly with the story, is somewhat meaningless in swaying the judgment. If your whole entry is a mechanical offering, and I am forced to judge the mechanics, we are starting off, I feel, on the wrong foot.

All that being said, lets get down to actual cases, and look at how these two entries do this round. I shall designate Snarf Zagyg’s “Notes from a Tavern” as “Tavern,” and Whizbang Dustyboots’ “The Dungeon at the End of the Multiverse” as “End.”

Both entries were on time and under word-count, so we will jump right into our ingredients, of which there were eight.

The first ingredient was a guardian goose, one of the ingredients I suggested after listening to a discussion of the historical use of geese as guard animals on the BBC. It tickled me, and I wanted to see what our contestants could do with it. Tavern uses the goose as a mechanic by which the PCs are kept in their tavern, from which there is no escape. There is nothing here that tells me why they can’t simply beat up the goose, but I guess that is on the participants to come up with a reason. This gets to a complaint I have about the Tavern “adventure” as a whole, two complaints actually. The first is that the ingredients all seem rather arbitrary, used only because they were on the list, but there is no real reason for any of them to be what they are, except that is what they are. But secondly, what and how these things work (not mechanically, but just in the context of the fiction) is left completely up to the creativity of the participants. Which is, in my opinion, a lazy way of writing an adventure. The PCs are just given a description of something that is, and then they have to do all the work in figuring out the what, where, why, how, and so forth. I will not be repeating this complaint throughout, but the reader can assume I am likely making it multiple times going forward. On the other-hand, we have a massive star goose in End which serves as both guardian and doorway thanks to the hollow peg-leg of the goose. This is, in my opinion, a great way of tying two ingredients together, and is I think a great use of both ingredients. And since I mentioned the hollow peg-leg, I will jump ahead and say that in Tavern, I am not sure exactly what the peg-leg is adding to the adventure, except that it is there. There is nothing I can see where the peg-leg makes any difference in the adventure at all. And this is my second thing I will say about the various ingredients in Tavern: They are there, but so what? Do the players/PCs, as they craft their own story even have to interact with any of these ingredients? What if the ingredient is never mentioned by any of the participants as they brainstorm new rules and situations? So, with both ingredients, advantage End.

Moving on to Flooded Cavern, both adventures have one, though I have to again wonder what the purpose of the flooded cavern in Tavern is, other than being there? See all the above ingredient critiques above. On the other hand, in End, the flooded cavern is a bit more integral as an obstacle that has to be overcome, and it is in a wettish sort of world, so it thematically makes sense. So again advantage End.

When we get to Elemental Orchestra, I am going to have to once more give the advantage to End, though I think this is perhaps the weakest of the ingredients in the adventure. It provides some background color, but if none of the adventurers have musical inclinations, it probably is nothing more than that. But with Tavern, while I appreciate the play on words being utilized, we have the ingredient being made into a weak sort of Macguffin, easily replaced by any other band, or even event, and then we have an actual album (which the players may not even own – I confess I do not), being used not as an ingredient but as a mechanic. Cute, but not really what in my mind the contest is about.

The next ingredient is Legendary Door, and I think that this is Tavern’s strongest ingredient use within the meta-game structure of the narrative. But an ultimate locked door which is the ideal of all locked doors is both epic and entirely fitting to the narrative of End, and I am going to have to again give the advantage to End.

Which brings us to cured orc, and the word-play of Tavern is, as one might expect from the author, clever. But cleverness is not the same as being integral. Why does it have to be cured orc? Why not pickled fairy-feet, or the apple of a dream? Again, it is cute, but cute only goes so far. On the other hand, the cured orc of End is a definitive antagonist, and though I am not sure he has to be an orc, orcs are a staple across fantasy worlds, and there is something poetic about an ancient, immortal orc who has left violence behind and seeks to lift his whole race through remaking the cosmos, so once more I lean towards End as having the better use.

Time and Space bomb, in Tavern, is a potential player goal, one of three. It is weakened as an ingredient in that it is creation of semantics, and also may never see use if the players don’t go that way with their storytelling. The “bomb” of End is nothing less than the end of existence as we (the PCs) know it. Clear advantage here to End.

And thus the final ingredient, a captivating toy. In End, this is a device which can potentially sidetrack the PCs. A decent enough use. I had to read, and reread, Tavern to figure this one out, and I am left to conclude that the captivating toy is the game itself which the PCs are trying to escape from? I would mark this one higher, but the ambiguity, and the fact that I am just guessing that this is the ingredient means I am not going to.

Throughout the ingredients, in my estimation, End has a clear, lopsided advantage. But what of useability and appeal?

With End, we have an epic, over-the-top, campaign ending adventure which, though niche is still a great outline of an adventure. It doesn’t hit all the right notes with me, but there’s enough there that I could see myself using the scenario given the right circumstances. Good job with a tough set of ingredients. I especially like the massive star fowl with a peg-leg, and could see lifting that idea for inclusion elsewhere.

With Tavern, I have some issues. Firstly, while it is a game, and technically it is a role-playing game, I am not convinced it properly qualifies as an adventure. It is a story-telling exercise where, at the end, the participants are encouraged to stop making up their own game and just go play Dungeons and Dragons. I like games, and there are even some story-telling games I have enjoyed over the years (Aye, Dark Overlord comes to mind; But Wait, There’s More is a good one I would gladly play). Such exercises work best, in my opinion with either a judge or a voting system of some sort. In the improv exercise that is offered here, I suspect that there will either be confusion as to how to win, or else the stronger story-teller will always win (which is a weakness of the genre; same as with a skilled artist playing Pictionary). The thing is only going to be useable if you have a set of equally skilled players, and all are on the same page as to how to discern a winner. The ingredients are mere window-dressing, meant to be creative writing seeds, and its very likely the players will create all of their own ingredients as they go along anyway. It’s a valiant effort crafted according to its authors own internal rules as to how to play Iron DM, but in my opinion, it is less effective an entry than I would like to see.

At this point, it should be no surprise that I think The Dungeon at the End of the Multiverse is the better entry and the clear winner, and I vote for Whizbang Dustboots to be this year’s Iron DM.

I see that once more, Radiating Gnome and I are split in our decisions, so we again must await the third judgement.

Notes From a Tavern (Tavern)
Follows Rules 6
Ingredient Use

Guardian Goose 1​
Flooded Cavern 1​
Hollow Peg-leg 1​
Elemental Orchestra .5​
Legendary Door 1.5​
Cured Orc 1​
Time and Space Bomb .5​
Captivating Toy 1 (total 7.516)
Useability 2
Appeal 2
TOTAL SCORE 17.5/34

The Dungeon at the End of the Multiverse (End)
Follows Rules 6
Ingredients

Guardian Goose 2​
Flooded Cavern 1.5​
Hollow Peg-leg 2​
Elemental Orchestra 1​
Legendary Door 2​
Cured Orc 1.5​
Time and Space Bomb 2​
Captivating Toy 2 (total 14/16)
Useability 6
Appeal 4
TOTAL SCORE 29.5/34
 
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Gradine

The Elephant in the Room (she/they)
I am in the process of preparing my judgment. I don't know if I'll be able to finish tonight but I will try. This has been an exceptional finals match as befitting the talents of our two finalists. I have no doubt this will be yet another split decision, but I feel I must point out to my fellow judges that it's my turn to be the odd woman out, so with any luck you've both agreed and my judgment will just be a formality, you all already know who the winner is, and there isn't any tension anymore.

With any luck.
 

Gradine

The Elephant in the Room (she/they)
I must once again apologize for the delay. It's been a hell of a weekend (not even counting the ****** trial!). But then, we've also got a hell of a Championship Match. So let's wrap it up.

Judgment for Championship Match: @Snarf Zagyg vs @Whizbang Dustyboots

Rules and Readability


Both entries come in well under the 2000 word limit, and came in on time. All rules have been observed.

Adventure Flow & Potential
This is my subjective "what did I generally like/dislike about the adventures" section of the judgment. "Notes From a Tavern" (hereafter "Tavern") is yet another TTRPG spun entirely out of wholecloth by Snarf, and promises to be something of a chaotic experience of universe re-writing. Personally, I've rarely been a fan of PvP in TTRPGs, but this appears to be the fun kind of PvP (ie, sabotage and chaos) rather than direct action, much like Paranoia. I wonder if the character motivations are meant to secret; it doesn't appear to be the case, but I could imagine holding those back for an added dose of confusion. All in all, it's a well-considered and thematically tight game.

The Dungeon at the End of the Multiverse ("Dungeon") on the other hand, is a multi-layered epic-level adventure, culminating in one hell of a climactic final battle. It's definitely the far more "traditional" of the two submissions, as traditional as a Kirby-esque cosmic romp gets, anyway. It's not quite as thematically coherent as its competition, but then, it's a lot easier to hit that consistent theme when you're building the game from scratch.

All in all, these are two extraordinarily great championship adventures. I'll hold off on my personal judgment until the end, though.

The Ingredients
You can give us this much; we certainly didn't make it easy on you! Let's see how these two entries tackled these ingredients.

Guardian Goose
I will have to say I was somewhat disappointed on this one from both entries. In "Tavern" it seems mostly there to satisfy the ingredient requirement; the guardian could have been pretty much anything here without making much difference at all. I like the use just a little better in "Dungeon", in that a giant cosmic goose guarding the end of the universe feels just that slightly more on brand with the cosmic superhero vibe, mixed with a little bit of Animorphs as well. It's also tied together with another ingredient, which is usually a plus.

Flooded Cavern
Both adventures have caverns, and both are certainly flooded. Beyond a perfunctory fulfilling of the brief, I don't see much to separate the two. Both are thematically appropriate to their respective settings. "Tavern" says the subtext of the cavern's metaphor out loud, but let's be honest, an adventure is a technical manual more than it is a work of fiction. So points for that, at least.

Hollow Peg-Leg
In contrast, both adventures gives us great Hollow Peg-Legs, though I have to give the slight edge here again to "Tavern", to giving us a traditional piratey pirate with an actual peg leg, which puts it just a touch above the very strange (though again, thematically appropriate!) wooden goose leg. The deal-breaker? Multiple references to the wooden "foot". Maybe I'm wrong here, but it seems to be a peg leg should just be a lone peg.

Elemental Orchestra
This element is used to pretty great effect in "Dungeon"; it's an obstacle for sure, and one that is going to be relevant to any party, and extremely relevant to many of them. I can see Snarf shaking his head, yet another feather in his "no bards ever" cap. This how how you love to see an ingredient used. Snarf's use of "Earth, Wind, and Fire" is incredibly clever, and I want to give it more credit, but it doesn't help that (a) "Orchestra" doesn't quite fit here and (b) the band serves as a reward for one (or a third) of the players, but is otherwise never actively relevant to the party.

Legendary Door
This is not terribly used in "Tavern", but the "Legendary-ness" of the door is more semantic than actual in this case. "Dungeon" gives us, again, exactly what we're looking for. It's a door, and it's legendary. It's straightforward, sure, but an ingredient doesn't need to be mind-bendingly clever to be good.

Cured Orc
I like how "Tavern" uses this one, and definitely appreciate at least one contestant getting the pun involved in this ingredient. Still, I don't really get the sense of why the meat needs to be Orc (other than to match the pun, I guess). "Dungeon's" Orc is a bit more Orc-like (in spite of its enlightened-ness), but significantly less Cured. I guess he's been reincarnated quite a few times, but that's not quite the same thing.

Time and Space Bomb
When I came up with this one I was hoping for more of a play on a "Time Bomb" but I guess "Time and Space Bomb" reads universal apocalypse all around. Does both adventures have one? Yes. Do they both make their respective bombs central and constantly relevant throughout for the players? Yes they do. So still, well done to both challengers.

Captivating Toy
"Dungeon" gives us something that is definitely Captivating, but I don't really get much of a sense of Toy from it. It seems incredibly powerful for a toy! "Tavern", though, gives us the very game of D&D itself, which now holds the players hostage. We've seen very good ingredient usage in this match so far, but this one goes over the top to great.

In Conclusion
As I tally up the points I've assigned, I see that "Dungeon" has the barest of leads in ingredient usage. And the more I dug into the adventure, the more I realized that the thematic inconsistency was, in essence, the genre trapping as a whole. This kind of epic and trippy cosmic adventure should be a little incoherent. And overall, I think it's the stronger adventure as well. There is, however, one glaring issue that needs to be addressed. "Dungeon" borrows its structure from something like "Inception", with each step through each demi-plane taking the players deeper and towards their destination. The problem I have, though, is this: the deeper we go, the less weird things get. We start with a massive cosmic goose made of space stuff and, somehow, wood, with a portal to a demi-plane in its peg-leg... but we ultimately end with a straight up fight against a two-phase final boss in front of a big tree. The scale and wonder and strangeness only shrinks with each level. Is this a glaring enough problem to tip the scales for me?

I'm going to be very honest: I have changed my mind on this match so many times. With every past match I've judged, even as close as I knew they were and would end up becoming, I still more or less knew who I was going to go with after the ingredient pass. Not this one. I've bounced back and forth many times, and even as I'm writing this sentence, on the cusp of declaring my vote, I'm still not entirely sure I've made the right decision. But make it I must, and thus, I will.

The issues I mention above are troubling, but not enough of a deal-breaker to ruin the adventure for me. It snuck up on me more and more how much I really did like "The Dungeon at the End of the Universe", and even that big "issue" I'm stuck I'll admit is a personal thing. In this case, I am going to vote for "The Dungeon at the End of the Universe", and thus @Whizbang Dustyboots, as the champion of Iron DM 2023.

Dang it guys, I thought I told you it was my turn to the odd woman out. But it seems yet again I am the tie-breaker. @Snarf Zagyg, you've walked a tight rope in bringing us not just adventures but whole games round in and round out, and one can hardly argue with your success. Yours was a championship caliber entry, it just was up again one that was just ever-so slightly better, in the balance. I would advise you to focus less on the fun, clever, twists, but again, it's hard to argue that they haven't served you well so far. Also, you beat me that one time, and with Paul Hollywood of all the gods damned people, so who am I try to give you advice? You'll win one of these soon, I have no doubt.

But ultimately, with a final vote of 2-1, @Whizbang Dustyboots is THE 2023 IRON DM! Congratulations are due!
 


Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
This was tremendous fun and very challenging. And the judges' feedback was excellent, throughout. Anyone prepping to publish something should consider running it past this crew, as the feedback would make all of my adventures better, I know, if not for that pesky "no editing" rule.

Well fought, @Snarf Zagyg. The formidable opponent I dreaded/anticipated getting and you lived up to that dread and anticipation.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I want to thank my opponent, @Whizbang Dustyboots ... I thoroughly enjoyed the Tier 4 adventure you wrote, and the competition. You are a worthy Iron DM!

I also want to thank the judges, @Radiating Gnome, @Wicht, and @Gradine. I know that I, along with all the competitors, appreciate the time and effort that you put into judging the competition. Every round you put in a lot of effort (and you show your work), and you do that simply for the love of the contest. Thank you for your time and dedication.

That said, I have been avoiding the forum for a few days. Some times, you see something and choose not to address it in the hope that with time, your desire to address it will diminish. On the other hand, there are times that something sticks in your craw, and the time away only embiggens the stick. It has been several days now, and I think that this particular thought does need to be dislodged.

Judging any artistic endeavor is necessarily heavily subjective. Is it really the case that the absolute best actor or best film wins the Academy Award every year? Does the Booker award go to the absolute best novel? No. How would you even define "best?" Of course, we can be reasonably certain it doesn't go to the worst, but choosing between different "good" or "great" things is hard, especially when the things aren't like each other.

That said, there are reasons why we enjoy these competitions. They are fun! But understanding that subjectivity in judgment, both as a competitor and as a judge, is part of the equation. In my first competition, two years ago, I wrote an adventure in the first round that put the players in a situation involving thwarting Michael Bay's plot to change history by using the Coen Brothers to make an action adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar starring Nic Cage and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unfortunately, my judge wasn't a movie buff ... so a lot of the components of the adventure was lost. I appreciated the judgment that acknowledged the issue, but still did its best to analyze the adventure on its own terms despite that.

It happens! I was okay with it. Big swings sometimes results in big misses. If you're trying for a home run, you're going to strike out. When I see a list of ingredients, I sit with them for a long time until the majority of the ingredients coalesce- until they speak to me with a single vision. Usually it's an interplay of some common (albeit tenuous) link between the ingredients and whatever is rattling inside my head at the time. But it will be, on average, different than just trying to plug the ingredients into a standard adventure.

I'm going to do a quick run through of the finals from the past and put them in spoilers (this is already getting to be a long post). As I type this, I don't know what I'll find, but I do have a strong suspicion-
2004 Spring- D&D v. D&D. D&D wins.
2004 Winter- D&D v. D&D. D&D wins.
2005. Three-way finals, six entries! So ... D&D v. D&D v. D&D v. D&D v. D&D v. D&D. Guess what? D&D won.
2009- D&D v. D&D. D&D wins.
2010- Star Wars v. D&D. D&D wins.
2011- D&D v. D&D. D&D wins.
2012- D&D v. D&D. D&D wins.
2013- D&D v. (multiple systems allowed, although 3.5e D&D is one of them). D&D wins.
2014- D&D v. D&D. D&D wins.
2015- D&D v. D&D. D&D wins. Side note- that was very gracious of @Iron Sky ...
2016- Traveller v. D&D. Traveller WINS!
2017- D&D v. "Supernatural" system. Supernatural wins.
2018- D&D (Ravenloft) v. D&D. D&D wins. D&D wins.
2019- D&D v. Own Hoot Trail (!!!). D&D wins.
2020- Modern v. D&D. D&D wins.
2021- Modern supernatural v. Modern Supernatural. Modern Supernatural wins.
2022- D&D v. Traveller. D&D wins.
2023- D&D v. Custom. D&D wins.

I stopped after going back to 2004, as I noticed a certain trend. I don't think I need to keep going back.

(D&D includes unattributed or generic D&D fantasy as well as Pathfinder)

Not to put too fine a point on this, but if you looked in the spoilers, you're going to notice something. There's a reason it's called Iron DM, and not Iron GM. If you take out the time that both contestants put in a non-D&D entry, there are only two times that a non-D&D entry has ever won the contest. This is even called out by people when they put their entries in; I saw that Rune expressed trepidation and some regret by using a non-standard system for their entry in 2019. It doesn't mean that it's impossible; but it's hard. And Iron DM is specifically designed to be hard for anything that isn't D&D to win.

These are the rules-
Do not expect judges 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. Judges will be reading each entry multiple times and, are 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.

If you think about those rules for a second, something become clear very quickly. D&D is the common tongue of TTRPGs. By default, we know that we write an adventure for D&D (whether it's D&D, PF, or "generic D&D fantasy") and we have incorporated by reference all that this includes! There is, quite literally, zero possibility that any judges won't know any of the millions of rules, tropes, and references that form the backbone to those adventures. As soon as we move away from that we start to lose that massive and inherent advantage. Traveller ... sure, that's a fairly common reference point for sci-fi. But trying to design any adventure for a system that is outside of the wheelhouse of the "standard" gamer is already a big risk; in the first round, I knew the perfect system for the adventure- it was Ten Candles. Because the game was a tragedy; it was quite literally (as well as metaphorically) about fading light. And yet, I also knew that there was a decent chance that it would be a swing and a miss. It happens.

Which gets to the issue of rules incorporation. When you're writing with a strict word limit, you are far too aware that every ... single ... word matters. And that if you are going to spend precious words devising a bespoke rules system for the adventure, it better be worth it. There needs to be a compelling reason for those rules and you had better to take care to have them integrate with the vision for the adventure and the ingredients.

The very structure of Iron DM forces these types of choices. If there is a bona fide reason to have something in the rules that isn't bog standard (and most likely D&D), you are faced with a very uncomfortable choice; you can either "pick" a system that the judges most likely won't be familiar with, or you create your own and be told that you are wasting time on creating the rules ... even when they are absolutely necessary to the adventure.

And adding to those issues, the list of ingredients often includes specific "D&Disms" (or, at a minimum, fantasy-isms). It's not impossible to find a use of Orc and Owlbear that don't involve D&D, but it's not exactly easy.

Okay, so why are you writing all of this?

I totally get that a lot of people might bounce right off of the adventures that I write. It's not for everyone! And I can respect that. One person's clever use of an ingredient in serve of a larger purpose might be another person's wasted opportunity. Is the adventure witty, or is it merely wise-cracking; as Dorothy Parker has told us, there's a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.

1701706513760.png


But ... as I wrote before, this is the rare time that I felt uncomfortable reading a judgment. I assumed that the game would be relatively clear in meaning; after all, I named the specific parts after well-known books, so the idea of an adventure about how we create purpose and meaning in our lives through games (a captivating toy that captured its designers ... some of whom want to return to the, um, captivating toy company) seemed self-evident, and the actual meaning of the three agendas and how they tied into the ingredients would be clear. But maybe not! Not everyone is on my wavelength, which, you know, is probably a good thing. I get that people might miss how the exact ideas are manifested in the specific bespoke rules and why the actual play of the adventure is the act of creating the rules and finding meaning.

If you do a Coen Brothers / Michael Bay homage, you run the risk that people aren't film buffs. If you're doing an existentialist meta-adventure, you run the risk that people aren't grooving to L'Étranger and Godel Escher Bach.

With that said, it's still an adventure. It's not a storytelling game (Ten Candles is a storytelling RPG, albeit a very different type). In fact, Tavern is far from a storytelling game, given that it has a very tight focus on the creation of rules and how you can use the rules to win the game ... and what that means- it's closer to a TTRPG version of Cosmic Encounter crossed with Paranoia (hence, the distribution in authority on each turn) than it is to any storytelling game. It's not Pictionary. It's certainly not the case that the players are encouraged to just go play D&D, and if that's what someone pulled from that adventure, then maybe I did fail terribly. But I'm not going to over-explain what I did, because it speaks for itself.

Even after sitting with all of this for a while, I did feel the need to get this off of my chest. I know that what I write isn't going to appeal to everyone, and I'm okay with that. I write what the ingredients (and my sick and twisted brain) compel me to write, not what I think is most likely to win ... which would be another D&D adventure. And I loved Whizbang Dustyboots' adventure, which is a worthy winner. But while I think that there is a lot that can be learned from the judgments that I read ....

Having someone tell you that the adventure you put substantial thought and effort into may "technically" be an RPG (technically? as opposed to a "real RPG?") .... and isn't even an adventure (????!!!) has been eating at me for a few days. And not in a good way. I know, going in, that the adventures I write are not going to be for everyone, but they are certainly adventures. And while I run a lot of 5e and 1e games, I also run a lot of custom one-shots that I design myself, and it's unsettling reading that people don't view what I do (and what people enjoy) as being real RPGs, or actual adventures.
 
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Wicht

Hero
@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.
 

FitzTheRuke

Legend
I want to thank my opponent, @Whizbang Dustyboots ... I thoroughly enjoyed the Tier 4 adventure you wrote, and the competition. You are a worthy Iron DM!

I also want to thank the judges, @Radiating Gnome, @Wicht, and @Gradine. I know that I, along with all the competitors, appreciate the time and effort that you put into judging the competition. Every round you put in a lot of effort (and you show your work), and you do that simply for the love of the contest. Thank you for your time and dedication.

That said, I have been avoiding the forum for a few days. Some times, you see something and choose not to address it in the hope that with time, your desire to address it will diminish. On the other hand, there are times that something sticks in your craw, and the time away only embiggens the stick. It has been several days now, and I think that this particular thought does need to be dislodged.

Judging any artistic endeavor is necessarily heavily subjective. Is it really the case that the absolute best actor or best film wins the Academy Award every year? Does the Booker award go to the absolute best novel? No. How would you even define "best?" Of course, we can be reasonably certain it doesn't go to the worst, but choosing between different "good" or "great" things is hard, especially when the things aren't like each other.

That said, there are reasons why we enjoy these competitions. They are fun! But understanding that subjectivity in judgment, both as a competitor and as a judge, is part of the equation. In my first competition, two years ago, I wrote an adventure in the first round that put the players in a situation involving thwarting Michael Bay's plot to change history by using the Coen Brothers to make an action adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar starring Nic Cage and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unfortunately, my judge wasn't a movie buff ... so a lot of the components of the adventure was lost. I appreciated the judgment that acknowledged the issue, but still did its best to analyze the adventure on its own terms despite that.

It happens! I was okay with it. Big swings sometimes results in big misses. If you're trying for a home run, you're going to strike out. When I see a list of ingredients, I sit with them for a long time until the majority of the ingredients coalesce- until they speak to me with a single vision. Usually it's an interplay of some common (albeit tenuous) link between the ingredients and whatever is rattling inside my head at the time. But it will be, on average, different than just trying to plug the ingredients into a standard adventure.

I'm going to do a quick run through of the finals from the past and put them in spoilers (this is already getting to be a long post). As I type this, I don't know what I'll find, but I do have a strong suspicion-
2004 Spring- D&D v. D&D. D&D wins.
2004 Winter- D&D v. D&D. D&D wins.
2005. Three-way finals, six entries! So ... D&D v. D&D v. D&D v. D&D v. D&D v. D&D. Guess what? D&D won.
2009- D&D v. D&D. D&D wins.
2010- Star Wars v. D&D. D&D wins.
2011- D&D v. D&D. D&D wins.
2012- D&D v. D&D. D&D wins.
2013- D&D v. (multiple systems allowed, although 3.5e D&D is one of them). D&D wins.
2014- D&D v. D&D. D&D wins.
2015- D&D v. D&D. D&D wins. Side note- that was very gracious of @Iron Sky ...
2016- Traveller v. D&D. Traveller WINS!
2017- D&D v. "Supernatural" system. Supernatural wins.
2018- D&D (Ravenloft) v. D&D. D&D wins. D&D wins.
2019- D&D v. Own Hoot Trail (!!!). D&D wins.
2020- Modern v. D&D. D&D wins.
2021- Modern supernatural v. Modern Supernatural. Modern Supernatural wins.
2022- D&D v. Traveller. D&D wins.
2023- D&D v. Custom. D&D wins.

I stopped after going back to 2004, as I noticed a certain trend. I don't think I need to keep going back.

(D&D includes unattributed or generic D&D fantasy as well as Pathfinder)

Not to put too fine a point on this, but if you looked in the spoilers, you're going to notice something. There's a reason it's called Iron DM, and not Iron GM. If you take out the time that both contestants put in a non-D&D entry, there are only two times that a non-D&D entry has ever won the contest. This is even called out by people when they put their entries in; I saw that Rune expressed trepidation and some regret by using a non-standard system for their entry in 2019. It doesn't mean that it's impossible; but it's hard. And Iron DM is specifically designed to be hard for anything that isn't D&D to win.

These are the rules-
Do not expect judges 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. Judges will be reading each entry multiple times and, are 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.

If you think about those rules for a second, something become clear very quickly. D&D is the common tongue of TTRPGs. By default, we know that we write an adventure for D&D (whether it's D&D, PF, or "generic D&D fantasy") and we have incorporated by reference all that this includes! There is, quite literally, zero possibility that any judges won't know any of the millions of rules, tropes, and references that form the backbone to those adventures. As soon as we move away from that we start to lose that massive and inherent advantage. Traveller ... sure, that's a fairly common reference point for sci-fi. But trying to design any adventure for a system that is outside of the wheelhouse of the "standard" gamer is already a big risk; in the first round, I knew the perfect system for the adventure- it was Ten Candles. Because the game was a tragedy; it was quite literally (as well as metaphorically) about fading light. And yet, I also knew that there was a decent chance that it would be a swing and a miss. It happens.

Which gets to the issue of rules incorporation. When you're writing with a strict word limit, you are far too aware that every ... single ... word matters. And that if you are going to spend precious words devising a bespoke rules system for the adventure, it better be worth it. There needs to be a compelling reason for those rules and you had better to take care to have them integrate with the vision for the adventure and the ingredients.

The very structure of Iron DM forces these types of choices. If there is a bona fide reason to have something in the rules that isn't bog standard (and most likely D&D), you are faced with a very uncomfortable choice; you can either "pick" a system that the judges most likely won't be familiar with, or you create your own and be told that you are wasting time on creating the rules ... even when they are absolutely necessary to the adventure.

And adding to those issues, the list of ingredients often includes specific "D&Disms" (or, at a minimum, fantasy-isms). It's not impossible to find a use of Orc and Owlbear that don't involve D&D, but it's not exactly easy.

Okay, so why are you writing all of this?

I totally get that a lot of people might bounce right off of the adventures that I write. It's not for everyone! And I can respect that. One person's clever use of an ingredient in serve of a larger purpose might be another person's wasted opportunity. Is the adventure witty, or is it merely wise-cracking; as Dorothy Parker has told us, there's a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.

View attachment 336775

But ... as I wrote before, this is the rare time that I felt uncomfortable reading a judgment. I assumed that the game would be relatively clear in meaning; after all, I named the specific parts after well-known books, so the idea of an adventure about how we create purpose and meaning in our lives through games (a captivating toy that captured its designers ... some of whom want to return to the, um, captivating toy company) seemed self-evident, and the actual meaning of the three agendas and how they tied into the ingredients would be clear. But maybe not! Not everyone is on my wavelength, which, you know, is probably a good thing. I get that people might miss how the exact ideas are manifested in the specific bespoke rules and why the actual play of the adventure is the act of creating the rules and finding meaning.

If you do a Coen Brothers / Michael Bay homage, you run the risk that people aren't film buffs. If you're doing an existentialist meta-adventure, you run the risk that people aren't grooving to L'Étranger and Godel Escher Bach.

With that said, it's still an adventure. It's not a storytelling game (Ten Candles is a storytelling RPG, albeit a very different type). In fact, Tavern is far from a storytelling game, given that it has a very tight focus on the creation of rules and how you can use the rules to win the game ... and what that means- it's closer to a TTRPG version of Cosmic Encounter crossed with Paranoia (hence, the distribution in authority on each turn) than it is to any storytelling game. It's not Pictionary. It's certainly not the case that the players are encouraged to just go play D&D, and if that's what someone pulled from that adventure, then maybe I did fail terribly. But I'm not going to over-explain what I did, because it speaks for itself.

Even after sitting with all of this for a while, I did feel the need to get this off of my chest. I know that what I write isn't going to appeal to everyone, and I'm okay with that. I write what the ingredients (and my sick and twisted brain) compel me to write, not what I think is most likely to win ... which would be another D&D adventure. And I loved Whizbang Dustyboots' adventure, which is a worthy winner. But while I think that there is a lot that can be learned from the judgments that I read ....

Having someone tell you that the adventure you put substantial thought and effort into may "technically" be an RPG (technically? as opposed to a "real RPG?") .... and isn't even an adventure (????!!!) has been eating at me for a few days. And not in a good way. I know, going in, that the adventures I write are not going to be for everyone, but they are certainly adventures. And while I run a lot of 5e and 1e games, I also run a lot of custom one-shots that I design myself, and it's unsettling reading that people don't view what I do (and what people enjoy) as being real RPGs, or actual adventures.
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). 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.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
In my regular life, I enter a number of competitions each year and the inability to control what the other entries are, who the judges are and where their head is at on that particular day is something I've had to learn to accept, and it's sometimes been challenging to do so -- there are a number of "I should have won it all" entries that I will likely carry to my grave, as much as I am trying to let stuff like that go.

This was my first time competing, so deferring to D&D was just a comfort zone thing, rather than anything cynical on my part. I have been known to make big swings with my home games and for them to not always work out (boy, my players bounced hard off of Treasure Island as a Traveller adventure, for instance). We'll see what happens next year.
 

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