Iron GM at Gencon 2013– A Review and a Bit of a Rant

I lost Iron GM.  Let me get the suspense out of the way immediately.  There is no surprise ending here, just my thoughts on the event, how it runs and how it might be improved (see the rant iron_gm_logo section at the bottom of the post.)  This is a fairly detailed description of the event because I had difficulty finding any decent, first-hand accounts of how it works.

Iron GM is a judged competition where game masters (GMs) are given one hour to create an adventure for six players(which runs about four hours) based on several key words provided by the organizers.   Players then judge their GM’s performance and the highest score wins the event.  That is the short version, here is the detailed description.

Players muster to 21 tables in a large ballroom while the GMs wait outside. Then the organizer in a positively awful safety orange tuxedo announces each GM and lets them charge into the room to applause and general cheering.  Each GM provides a short tag line that answers the question “Why should I win Iron GM?” Mine answer was “because of years of experience taking bribes from my players…and I take American Express.” The best one was a red-headed GM proudly claiming “Because gingers have no souls!”

The GMs line up in front of a stage and draw their table assignments from a hat. After verifying that no players know the GM, the GM has the opportunity to offer a game system. 3.5 OGL is the default, but if the table unanimously agrees to another system, any system then that is what is played. Most tables took 3.5, a few used Pathfinder and one table agreed to play a home brew system called “Dr. Nik’s Fun System.” Brave souls.

GMs take their seats and the secret ingredients for the adventure are revealed. At my event, the secret ingredients were:

Deep Wreckage

Drunken Wager

Dread Wraith

Remember, none of the GMs know these ingredients before the one hour preparation time begins.  The one hour of preparation starts and the players create characters while the GM creates the adventure. During this time the DM may not speak to the players. Notes, videos, pre-prepared handouts, charades and any other form of communication is allowed, just no talking.  I got by with some notes and charades, but other GMs had prepared videos on iPads or handouts.

The hour passes, the zone of silence ends and the adventure begins.  One of the key elements of the competition is the elegance with which you integrate the secret ingredients into your story.  It does not matter how they get into your adventure, just so long as they appear somewhere. I put together a city/dungeon crawl adventure that involved two guardsmen betting on when a drunk would fall down from drinking to much ( a drunk in a wager, yes it was an awful pun, but it worked), said drunk leading the characters to a deep cavern with a ship in it and a wraith attacking the party. Since I went with a third level party, a dread wraith is just too deadly, so I had the wraith die under the name plate of the ship the “Dread Mary”  to get the “dread wraith” requirement.

Sure, naming the local pub the “Dread Wraith” works as well, but it is not very original and likely to earn you few points. At least one other GM did this is the reason I mention it. This solution is just too easy and honestly a bit flat rhetorically.

At adventure’s end the GMs leave the room and players score them based on some criteria. Sadly, I have no idea what I was being judged on other than the secret ingredients so I have no further information on this portion of the event.

The GMs enter the room and the winners announced. The first place GM took home a substantial stack of books/games  and free ride (including flight!) to Gen Con 2014.  Second and third received diminishing, but  tall stacks of swag.  I as a lowly participant got this stack of goodies.



I was duly impressed. It is a good “thank you for playing prize” and I have no complaints at all.

Now on to the review portion of this post.  Iron GM at Gencon 2013 was well organized and completed precisely on time.  If you are good at cranking adventures on the fly and want a great challenge this is it.  Overall it is well worth the effort to give this a try at least once so you can brag to your friends you competed in “Iron GM.”

That said….here comes the rant.


There are aspects of Iron GM that I did not like at all and hope that future events address these concerns.  Be aware that even with these issues, I would still recommend playing in the event as a GM and definitely as a player. Some of these GMs are damn good and really work it during the event. Even focused on my own game I could hear happy gamers at the adjoining  tables slaying with glee.

My first issue is with the “no talking to players during the hour of prep time.”    Many GMs circumvented this rule with videos, handouts and using a third party to relay messages.   These work arounds should be eliminated.  It favors experienced GMs with the energy to prepare these solutions in advance and screws new GMs  without this knowledge. Level the playing field and simply keep communication to handwritten notes and charades/gestures.

Iron GM specifically bans using published modules as the competition adventure, but some of the GMs packed in so much stuff I suspect that some adventures were created well in advance and possibly play tested to resolve any issues.  Then, on the day of the event, simply spend your hour creating clever ways to shoehorn into a not-published-but-carefully-tested-adventure the secret ingredients. Though not banned by the rules I felt it violated the spirit of the competition. (For the record, I did not have an adventure prepared, but I did run an Iron GM test session using random words for my home group) Iron GM should be you, a map, some miniatures, scratch paper and a rule book. Ban everything else. Yes, you could memorize the module but under stress a memory is far less reliable than volumes of prepared notes. Make the event a test of grace under pressure, not preparation.

Also, I was not happy that the various regional winners and last year’s champion were identified to the players as they entered the room.  Given this is a subjectively scored event, providing a psychological “push” to the tables seemed unfair to new GMs. “Oh, he was last year’s champion so his game will be great!”

Finally, I give this  warning for those considering the event.  Remember this event is subjectively scored by a random group of players. While I had an amazing group of players it is quite possible you could pull players who are ill-suited to your gaming style for whatever reason.  Table management is key for this event and never lose sight of the fact that you are  running a game for people judging your every action. Have fun and realize that no matter how good you are, or think you are the only opinion that matters are six strangers sitting at your table.

Trask, The Last Tyromancer




Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

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