Actual Play – GM Throwdown – (4/30/2011)

Contestants: Mike Bogan and Matt Steele
Players: Tim Carroll, Matt Klein, Michael Ripely, Kevin Fitzpatrick, Karen Twelves, Sean Nittner, Ben Hartzell, and Merewyn Boak
Judges: Brian Isikoff, Wayne Coburn, and Bruce Harlick

Here it was again! The Iron GM Throwdown at EndGame. Karen Twelves organized another throwdown between GMs, this time the two picked from the last competition (here and here). This time the contenders were Mike Bogan (don’t even get me started on his “new” name) and Matt Steele.

Choosing Players

We randomly drew dice (of different colors) to determine who would be in each game. And then something really creepy happened. Karen, Tim, Ben and I all ended up in Matt’s game, which was super eerie as last time Matt, Karen, Tim and I were in Brian’s game. We were suspicious enough that we took all our original seating positions.

Secret Ingredients

The judges announced this contest’s secret ingredients (three instead of four this time, I think and improvement)

Genre: Super Heroes
Antagonist: Ninjas
Location: Underground City

Nice list. After the fact I started thinking of Exalted, Feng Shui, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and anime like Slayers or Ninja Scroll. Unfortunately that I didn’t think of those earlier (see below).

The Game – “Fat Cat, you’ve gone too far!”

Matt threw out a couple options, that we could go for straight up super heroes (4 color style) or masked vigilantes. The latter seemed more fitting with the pulpy nature we’ve become accustomed to in FATE, so that was a pretty easy choice.

We started throwing out character ideas. Ironically, although I felt very active in the character creation process (I’m a total back seat GM), I was the last to thing of a concept.

Karen had an idea immediately. “I was to be a newsie!” Now the fact that I just watched Newsies with Karen and Lovesong a week before I’m SURE had nothing to do with this. She started in immediately with a New York accent and from there is was pretty easy to determine that we were playing in New York Empire City in the 20s prohibition era.

After that ideas came rolling out. Ben was a farm boy, who came to Empire City to save the farm. From who? The fat cat developer that was buying up all the land in Ohio (or whatever nowhere state he was from, didn’t really matter). Boom, we had a our bad guy, Matt pulled the name right out of Ben’s Lips: The Fat Cat.

Pretty quickly on we could tell that Karen and Ben’s characters were going to be fighting over who was the “kid” of our crew. More on this in a bit.

Tim wanted the man from the orient with strange mystical powers. A staple in any genre. He grabbed a hold of the Fat Cat as one who did him wrong, and decided to make it personal, the Fat Cat had killed his brother!

By the time these concepts were out there I knew we needed a character to pull them all together, and thus was born Mike Steele. A veteran of the Great War who fought along side the Fat Cat and while in Germany together they discovered “Things known that cannot be unknown”. Mike returned from the war and put his fortune into the steel industry, where as the Fat Cat publicly pursued political power but in private became a practitioner of the occult.

Mike had tried to stop the Fat Cat through economic, legal and social means but he had grown to powerful. The game started on the cusp of the elections and the Fat Cat was a shoe in for mayor of Empire City. Mike, along with his small crew of vigilantes knew that if he became mayor, the Fat Cat would be unstoppable. After endless frustration (and some cases a pummeling from his goons) trying to fight the Fat Cat through legal methods, these brave four decided they must don mask to protect their identity while they delivered the Fat Cat a swift serving of JUSTICE!

The Game is the Thing

Most of the game was really the characters playing off each other. Karen and Ben were competing for Mike’s approval as the new kid. Tim’s character was embroiled in his brothers affairs as worrying all of us and Mike was painfully honest and blunt. This created many antics as we pursued the Fat Cat’s crimes.

Matt had some trouble getting us into the “underground city” because being players we went all over the place. Eventually ninjas got us there though, because when a ninja jumps you in the middle of Empire City, you’re got to find out where they are coming from… which of course was the UNDERGROUND Empire City, a pocket dimension Bizzaro world ruled by the Fat Cat.

The finale placed us on top of a roof of a skyscraper, which, being the upside down world we were in was just “below” the ground above. Don’t think to hard on that one, it’s a pulp adventure.

It turns out the brother was not dead, but would be soon. The Fat Cat would use his life blood to fuel a ritual that would permanently lock the underground city in place, his own evil empire to rule.

We did what heroes do. We saved the innocent, defeated the bad guy, and looked sharp doing it! Hooray for JUSTICE!

What rocked

Well, as the last GM Throwdown, this whole even was a ton of fun to participate in. Thanks Karen for making it happen. There is so much energy and camaraderie in the room, everyone is sitting around trying to make their game the best game possible, because even though the GMs are the ones competing, everyone wants “their” GM to win. It’s like rooting for a team and being told you can play with them! MADE OF AWESOME.

Matt’s name game me inspiration for Mike Steele, the Man of Steel. Rather than being Superman though, he had built a suit of power armor, but this thing was no Iron Man suit. It was powered by coal, weighed a ton, made a ton of noise and took forever to get going. When ninja’s first attacked as we saw them on rooftops, Mike engaged the “jump jet” to leap on top of the building. This involved ratcheting the strings down in a suit like you would a crank powered arbaest. Later, the farm boy opened the hatch to his coal burning stove and created an impromptu flame thrower, it was literally throwing flaming coals. Awesome!

The group dynamic was great. We all had a little something to prove to each other (especially Karen and Ben’s characters) and the journey was not just one of stopping the Fat Cat, but of coming together as friend and family. I really saw this as a great “you meet at a tavern” adventure because by the end I could totally see this band of heroes sticking together to fight villainy.

Three secret ingredients is definitely the right number!

What could have improved

When the judges came back to the table, The GM formerly known as Mike Bogan, aka The Ultimate Superfly TNT Dolemite GM Ninja of All Time, was declared the winner. I’m sure Mike’s game was awesome, I mean he won, but I had this bad feeling afterwards that we could have made Matt’s game better. The criteria the judges used had them tied almost across the board but Mike won for better implementation of the antagonists. Like the prior competition, the antagonists (in this case ninjas) felt tacked on and a little out of place in Matt’s game. The note I made above about really crafting the genre to match the antagonist had me disappointed; I wish I had said “Let’s do Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” as ninjas would have blended in perfectly. Ah well, there is always next time.

We were cut short on time and I kind of wish the GMs had just a few for minutes for wrap up. I get that the time crunch is part of the competition, but as a player I was sad that we didn’t get the end until after the competition in a post mortem. Note to self: If I’m ever in one of these watch the clock and jump to the end when I’ve got 30 minutes left. Allow exactly two rounds of action (everyone does two things), narrate the rest of the fight and skip to the epilogue.

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.