Actual Play – Iron GM (9/25/2010)

GM: Brian Isikoff
Players: Tim, Karen, Matt and Sean
Judges (I know, judges!): Carl and Bruce
System: Fate – Spirit of the Century

This was it! The Iron GM competition between Ryan Macklin and Brian Isikoff. What started as a joke, then a challenge, then a joke again, became a real show down thanks to Karen Twelves.

Competition Format

Each GM would have four hours to run a Fate game that incorporated four secret ingredients for four players! The time included developing the game, creating characters and playing.

Secret ingredients

Adversary: Pirates
Genre: Horror
Location: Secret Temple
Item: Secret Weapon


Needless to say while pirates, secret temples and secret weapons all dovetail easily into a fate game, horror was a bit of a stickler. We bounced around a number of ideas and soon found ourselves in a modern era setting, akin to the 50’s Cold City. We wanted tension between countries, zeppelins, occult powers as well as budding science, and that time/setting offered it all.

Character Creation

I started off wanting to be a disappointment to my father. That was really my whole shtick to start with. We fleshed that out somewhat, he was a renowned scientist, one how had discovered the shadow world but “died” before he could go public with the information. Enter James Orion.

Matt hopped on that pretty quick. If I was the budding scientist trying to continue my father’s work, he was my father’s partner, a British gentleman, Sir Reginald. This created some instant tension between us, which was great, but ended up being hard to maintain (see below).

Tim wanted a pilot, someone who had seen horrible things and just couldn’t return to normal life because of it. As we were all part of the Society, they eventually scooped him up and told him that the knowledge he had was real and could be used. As it turns out, he had visited the Plateau of Leng, and was really the only one who knew the way back. Jack’s primary skills was Resolve, reflecting how it wasn’t his skill at piloting but his “grit your teeth and carry on” attitude that kept him going.

Karen added another dynamic to the group. Paranoia. It was clear that James and Reginald disagreed, but Katya, the “former” Russian spy really made us all wonder. Throughout the game it was never clear if she was sincere, a double or possibly even triple agent. I like messed up romances so I asked Karen if Katya and James could have had a relationship at one point. She jumped on it but added a twist that he was a mark during a job for when she used to work for the Russians. She was just trying to get information out of it. From that stemmed to great aspects “One night with Katya” and “It was just a job”.

The game

I think Tim wrapped up the game pretty well here in his LJ post here:


Throughout the game Carl and Bruce kept taking notes asking Brian how he was incorporating an element, or if we had been compelled yet, or how many fate chips we had. Though an interruption, this was great fun; they kept the excitement of a “competition” pulsing through our game the entire time. They weren’t just eye candy either, Bruce and Carl took their duties very seriously and although I never saw their notes, the furious scribbles they were making on their clipboards indicated they were recording and exhaustive analysis.

Carl in particular was very excited to use his Iron Chef line “That would be good fried” when talking about some pirates transformed into hounds of hell.


It sounded like Ryan’s game was a rocking good time but the judges crowned Brian the Iron GM.

Next contestants

Mike Bogan and Matt Steele were chosen to face off against each other in the next competition. I’m looking forward to another round!

What rocked

The themes Brian and the group for that matter brought to the game were awesome. Nazi occultists, unrequited love, a son’s pride in his Father, an outcast soldier, the believing and the skeptic, a divided spy… The list just keeps going. This stuff really fueled the game. We had so many great moments in the game driven by these themes, how wasn’t it going to be awesome?

I’m a real character masochist at heart. I love to see my characters suffer and persevere. This game I got to do that… a lot. I started with my character’s trouble “A disappointment to my Father” and that gave me something to start with, then as Karen described Katya, she seemed like perfect romantic foil for James. She was cold, uncaring and focused on the getting the job done, pretty much his opposite. Further, she tended to believe Reginald’s explanations over him… which made him go even crazier.

The highlight of trials for James, however happened in game. I took a hit from some undead abomination and rather than suffering for stress took a consequence “Weakened by Necrotic Energy”. A consequence that Brian (and the other players for that matter) tagged over, and over… and over again. So much that the injury ended up becoming a link back to the Nazi occultist… who turned out to be Karl… who turned out to be my Uncle… who turned out to have been my fathers previous partner before Reginald. By the end I was speaking in both Otto (my father) and Karl’s voice as my consequences kept getting pulled and made worse. This was just too much fun for me, so I rode it all the way till the end, where James became the inheritor of their foul plans and the next instrument of evil.

Throughout the game players tended to invoke their aspects and in doing so create complications. Jack was protective of children, which several times save the kids but put others (including himself) in more danger. As I was about to fall out of a cargo bay door (trying to trick a hound into leaping out of a plane) I invoked my “one night with Katya” which forced her to make an athletics roll to pull me back in.  Her roll failed and ended with both of us hanging on for dear life by a fire hose out the back of the plane. Through some crafty maneuvering on Jake’s part and with “centrifugal force on our side” we made it onto the wing and back in… the entire time though James was trying to patch things back together with the very annoyed Katya. Having a romantic tiff while hanging onto a fire hose from the back of a plane… gaming gold!

Brian’s employment of horror was particularly laudable, especially given the system. He started things creeping and ramped up throughout the game. Beyond the Nazi occultists there were also some personal revelations on the part of Jake, James and Katya that they weren’t quite the person the player might have thought they were in the beginning. This created some great mold breaking moments when the characters had unexpected reactions to their circumstances.

For being all something Brian pulled out of his ass, this game was admirably constructed. Intrigue, pulp horror, and Nazis. A winning combination.

I stole this one from Fattig, but it was worth it. “We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it” is just a wonderful aspect!

What could have improved

We knocked Brian someone for not incorporating the “pirate as adversaries” theme more fully, but frankly as far as the enjoyment of the game goes, I think he made the right call. They were present, but only nominally so, whereas the other three elements really shined through. I think if he tried to make pirates more prominent the other elements would have suffered.

The essential point of disagreement between the scientist and the student of the supernatural didn’t work out so hot. For one, I wasn’t really equipped with the scientific jargon to argue against his claims and two, they became irrefutable within the first scene. We faced creatures of reanimated flesh and bones. They seemed to shimmer in and out of existence and left me with a necrotic wound. I tried to hold up the good fight for a while, but even doubt became impossible when Karl transformed six pirates into undead hounds of hell. Had I been a little more on the spot, I probably could have come up with a scientific rationale that incorporated wondering “how” this happened, rather than to try and prove that it didn’t happen at all.



2 thoughts on “Actual Play – Iron GM (9/25/2010)”

  1. In the first SOTC campaign I played in, I played a skeptical scientist, and ran into the same basic problem — once an obvious piece of magic shows up (Zombie Pirates Created Using Nazi Occult Superscience), it becomes very hard to play up that aspect. You end up sounding genuinely crazy. “That makeup job might fool the locals, but not me!” It has been a couple of years, but I think in my case, it went from skepticism to strong desire to explain it. It seems like a great aspect to tweak between adventures, but obviously that doesn’t work for a one-shot.

    I’ve been definitely grooving on the Smallville ideas around beliefs/relationships, and being able to question them during play. I’ve noodled around whether I could kit-bash that into FATE. If you haven’t seen it, your beliefs and relationships have a phrase and a die; the die reflects how strong the belief is. If you question a belief, you get a 3 3x the number of dice on that roll, but then that belief can’t be used again during that adventure. After the adventure is over, you must either weaken the belief or change the the phrase to incorporate what happened during the adventure.

    The reason I like it comes from figuring out what’s important “during the session” instead of after the adventure is over (which is how Dresden Files handles changing the wording of an aspect). It feels to me like a very elegant way to grow episodic characters organically.

    1. I’ve heard many, many good things about Smallville, I’ll have to check it out.

      And yep, I think the scientist seeking a better understanding of the occult is the way to go in the future… though that would have made James and Reginald have a very different relationship. Ah well, you can’t have it all!

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