Iron GM


By Rone Barton on August 16th,

As an Iron GM show producer, I just wasn’t feeling it in 2016. Early-year planning of our World Championship at Gen Con Indy this summer found me in mourning over the loss of my dearest idol and former pen pal David Bowie. Maybe you can’t relate, but for many artists, musical and otherwise, we felt the world suddenly lose a palpable magic we’d counted on since youth. We were disoriented dead compasses without a true north. What would Bowie do was a reflexive, unmindful reflection that steered so many of my actions in art. And with Prince’s passing it was clear that oceans of the most inspirational talent were swirling up into space. Role models that proved one person could do it all wouldn’t come around again, and we were lucky to be alive when they walked among us. Whatever would we do without them?

Lou Agresta, my partner in Iron GM show production and our orange tuxedoed host, worked with me to raise over $26k in prize support for everyone attending our event. As my spirits were low, the lion’s share of credit goes to my best friend Lou for bringing in so many big sponsors when I was finding it hard to bring in the newspaper.

Everyone there would be happy with our traditionally effective show and the small continent of prizes provided them, but for me, the same ol’ same ol’ wasn’t good enough because it wouldn’t have been good enough for the Starman or The Purple One. I thought that a coded homage to these cultural-gods- lost-along- the-way might elicit a divine spark at the World Championship once unleashed. Lou agreed. “Every competing game master must incorporate each of our Three Secret Story Elements into the adventure they run for the players at their table. The players then score their game master’s performance. Rone and I always devise these Elements together before each show, but when he offered up a complete set of his own and explained to me the passion he was hoping to evoke I immediately sensed the fitting beauty of Planetouched, Palace Riot, and Pop Stardom. This was going to be big.”

For those of you who don’t play role-playing games, planetouched are mortal beings whose ancestors, at least one of them, were creatures from beyond our physical universe and of the angelic, devilish, or elemental variety. It isn’t hard to imagine Bowie or Prince having a touch of exalted angel blood coursing through their veins. It almost explains how they were able to use their music and images to make so many of us feel spiritually ascended.

But would these Story Elements work as planned to bring an electric, poignant energy to the show? Do trees fall on zen masters who compose kōans about them in the woods? Never had the room been louder with more gamers laughing and hooting, and at two time Iron GM champion Nathan Collins’ table, even some crying. “There were actual tears because they had to figure out do they kill the brother they brought back to save the world or do they let him go to heaven and just put the world back the way it was? They chose to sacrifice the brother to save the world.”

Competitor Tim Rodriquez noted, “This was the best Game Mastering ever felt at Iron GM… You could literally feel it… all of the games sounded so exciting I wanted to be playing in all of them.”

2015’s Iron GM Dan Clark added, “The vibe is so good. I told my people today that the best thing about this is sometimes you can stop and look around and just see this massive room full of people having a really great time.”

But if that loud as thunder excitement among 150 gamers felt like a wave of enchantment rolling through, what came next was a tsunami on stilts.

After all the scorecards were computed – and before Lou could announce our winners – I called two of our competitors together to the front area before the main stage: Alan Venable AKA GM Dramatic Pause and Gillian Fraser AKA GM Emotional Trauma, a romantic couple who regularly compete against each other at Iron GM tournaments. I handed off the mic to Alan as he’d requested earlier. What came next stunned everyone.

Alan explained, “So really quick, this Iron GM means a lot to us.” He then thanked me, Lou and our staff before continuing. “People kept on asking me how I can do better than my (bold competition) entrance. So this is what I’m going to do.”

Alan reached nervously into his leather hip bag and produced a white ring box, then sank to his knee.

“Emotional Trauma…” he said, as if looking into your lover’s eyes and saying that could ever be considered a nice thing. But Alan didn’t have to keep talking. Gillian wept and nodded and their embrace caused the crowd to roar.

(From left to right, Gillian Fraser and Alan Venable)

I looked over to Lou whose shocked, misted eyes mirrored my own. The games run at Iron GM that day ushered a feeling I’ll not soon if ever forget. And the once taken for granted sorcery torn from my life came rushing back the moment I bore witness to this unexpected proposal. But the spell had only just begun to take effect.

The third place winner was announced. Gillian Fraser. Amassed competitors and players erupted into loving applause.

Second place went to returning champion Dan Clark.

And taking first place with a perfect score – something that’s only ever happened two other times in Iron GM history – Alan Venable.

The soon to be official couple both placed in the top three in a competition filled with the finest game master talent on Earth.

Veteran gamer Todd Gdula played at Alan’s table, “It was awesome. I had maybe the best game I’ve ever had. The GM was among the very best I’ve ever played with.”

So while a gamer’s concept of a worthy fairytale might include battle-hardened pixies slathered in goblin gore, no one minded the gentle simplicity of a calm moment in the storm of adventure, when one man bore his earnest heart to his maiden most fair. Alan Venable won everything that day. And in so doing, I won back my long absent belief in things greater than myself.

(From left to right, Louis Agresta and Rone Barton)

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