Burst of Insight-Inside the Crucible of Iron GM

We attended GenCon pretty much as usual this year but we decided to do a few things a little differently. We volunteered less which freed us to walk the dealer’s hall more frequently and do things we’d have had to otherwise skip. Which opened up my Saturday, and after spending a year with last week’s blog it was time I competed in Iron GM.

Now, I’ve debated for years whether I should compete. And frankly, as an introvert I’ve shied away from the spectacle that is Iron GM, but sometimes you have to step outside your comfort zone. I already GM games at GenCon and GM in public on Twitch every Friday night (9pm EDT www.twitch.tv/MarloweHouse) but this would be very different. So I put on the mein of a fearless extrovert and headed toward the event. Okay, I’m never going to be the showman that some of these guys are but that’s alright I just needed to walk in without passing out. 

So I arrive at Wabash 1–the room where Iron GM was held and was immediately welcomed by everyone and handed a release and questionnaire. Gillian Frasersees me eyeing the form looks at me and says, “Read it all. Carefully.” her tone is somewhat ominous. 

“Am I at risk for injury?” I asked light heartedly.

“No they’re going to take your picture, stupid.” She may or may not have said the last word but I’m pretty sure I heard it in her tone. 

After signing the release I realized there were still several questions. One I’d been prepared for: Your Iron GM name. Every Iron GM contestant takes a name. It’s supposed to be evocative of your style or who you are as a GM. So names like Ancient Sensei, Emotional Trauma, Necessary Evil, That Guy, or Dramatic Pause are common. I chose Bedlam for my moniker, anyone who’s watched our table game knows why.

Next on the questionnaire came, “where are you from (city and state)” then the question no one had prepared me for. “Why are you going to win?” It was like filling out a self review at work but worse because it had to be short and punchy. Just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean it’s easy to come up with clever complimentary things to say about yourself! Fortunately, in exchange for a little physical labor (helping to move the virtual mountain of prize content into the event room) Gillian filled out that portion of my form with something cool like, “Forged in the fires of chaos and drama, I will bring my table the best game ever!”

At the appointed moment, Lou Agresta and Rone Barton began warming up the crowd in the room. Meanwhile out in the hall despite all the trash-talking between the long-time competitors its clear this is a tight group of friends. RPG Superstar Steve Helt has won the competition twice and talks a fierce game but in the moments before we all went out he gathered the whole group of us together for a pep-talk. He spoke from the heart encouraging everyone from those of us who were competing for the first time all the way up to the three-time winner Necessary Evil. Then suddenly we were being called into the roo- room really isn’t the right word it was more like a tiny arena. With Lou announcing each of us by our Iron GM names and describing why each of us would top the competition amid cheers from the twenty or so tables of players. Some of the contestants burst into the space with entrances that had been planned for months while others simply walked in. I’d have been in that group except for all of my Iron GM friends and their friends back at the door who started cheering and chanting: “Bedlam! Bedlam! Bedlam!” the moment I stepped through the door. I still had too much to carry in to do much more than walk in, but I did walk taller.

Once in the room, we drew lots for our tables. Pitched the games we’d like to run (with the default incase of a disagreement being 3.5). Then we received our three secret ingredients: This year it was dryad, dinosaur breeding ground, and deicide (killing a god). And with that final revelation Lou released us to our tables where for the first hour while the players made characters and we planned the adventure. Unfortunately the rules prevent a GM from speaking more than 3 words to their players. Which leaves plenty of loopholes for communication. 

My table had agreed to Pathfinder but upon my arrival immediately asked if I could run 5th edition D&D.  Unfortunately I had no books with me and have only played it once so I scrawled that I would be willing to but “no books–played once,” they immediately returned to Pathfinder. And that’s how most of the first hour passed. My players asking questions and me trying to scrawl answers. Soon however, we were deep in the action of the game itself. Our action began in the ruined temple of a dead god and soon led to a dryad and her dinosaur breeding ground. As the action rose all around the room erupted cries and cheers of, “Bonsai!” with every roll of 20!

When the hosts called time on the halfway point I’d worked in all three of the secret elements and the three additional elements Steve Helt, Alan Venable, and Gillian Fraserhad added during my stream interview with them (a bath of blood, a jar of angel feathers, and sponge-cake). When we came back from the break everything was much more intense. I really wanted to tell a complete story so the pressure was on. 

In the final moments of the session we were locked in the boss combat and the timer was ticking down. We began resolving two characters actions simultaneously and it may be something I do more often in the future even at home games. It increased the speed of combat and created a sense of frenetic action. With fewer than three minutes I wrapped the scenario, thanked my players and walked away from the table.

Congratulations to Gillian Fraser who took home the belt and title of Iron GM and put on what I’ve heard was an incredible game including a climactic battle that had the PCs piloting the corpse of a dead god like a mech into battle against a kaiju-dinosaur! While I may not have made it to the podium I still loved every moment of the event and my table seemed to have a good time. I suspect I’ll be back to Iron GM next year and maybe I’ll see you there.

Burst of Insight

Andrew Marlowe

placed in the Top 16 of RPG Superstar in 2012 and 2014, one of the few contestants to get that far in the competition twice. Since then, he has contributed to many Paizo and third party Pathfinder products, including one of the network’s favourite releases in the Pathfinder Player Companion line, the Dirty Tactics Toolbox. Every other Tuesday, he will be sharing his Burst of Insight, with design tips for would-be game designers from a decorated freelancer.