By Rone Barton
At the 2017 Iron GM World Championships at Gen Con, 22 GMs had one hour to whip up an adventure using Three Secret Story Elements. As usual, two-time champion, Iron GM Necessary Evil (aka Erik Frankhouse) left the room before learning these Elements, only to return right before the beginning of competition.
Later that day, Erik pulled off an unheard of feat. Despite facing stiff talent at our events since the mid-2000s, he became the first ever Iron GM competitor to score a third victory. I asked Erik ten questions about his win and his GMing philosophy:
1. Erik, you made history at the 2017 Iron GM World Championship by becoming the first competitor ever to win the title Iron GM three times. What did that feel like?
A. Rone, I gotta say i was really unsure if it was me. I remember Lou saying, after announcing third and the second place, “The winner is gonna have a hard time flying all these prizes home with them!”
I was like, “(F-bomb)! I didn’t fly here, so clearly I didn’t win and I didn’t place.” Then he announced “Our three-time winner! Iron GM Necessary EVIL!”
I was like HELL yes I just won with a system I’ve barely ever played!
2. The event’s three Secret Story Elements were Azer, Astral Plane, and Apocalypse. How did you weave that potent trio through your winning adventure?
A. With this being nearly a year later let me see what I can remember.
This was gonna be a hard one since first off I left and didn’t know it. Second I was using a system I’ve only ran twice, but most of all I had my buddy Skylar sit down with my players to answer their questions and told him to do whatever he wanted. I mean I basically started in the deepest hole possible but felt I had to outdo my previous years.
When I walked in and the group told me the Secret Elements and then told me Skylar gave them X-Men-like powers I quickly took the temperature of the group and singled out who I needed to engage right away and what Element would work best for them, Apocalypse. I decided that all of the crazy leviathan hunting out in the Astral was now washing back ashore in the city and the old world tales of the apocalypse where coming true. I wish I remember the names of the players at this point, but I remember passing that info on a note to the PC to give out the info to the party.
The mechanics for the system are all about heists and being part of a crew so I had the idea of them stealing an airship and the key to stopping the apocalypse. Figured they would sell it to the city to keep them safe, but you know PCs… they decided to just escape and be safe.
Azers ended up being the first assault on the Twilight City. They used these demon like creatures that dropped hellfire after flying inside the city’s astral retaining walls. The PCs encountered a few that had crashed down. I remember describing them in charred leathers with skulls for heads and pyres of fire burning over their pates, ranging from neon greens to forge reds.
The adventure itself was all about stealing these two objects. I took them from the chaotic city streets to the now flaming sewers below to steal the airship. They stole the key. Then I turned around and asked the players, “This key can stop the apocalypse and it has something to do with ghosts and spirts. What does it do?” They decided it opened a huge gate to the realm of spirits which the let these phantoms loose on the city to fight the demons and azer as they flew through the fire-filled skies shooting down the first azer leviathan to pass the retaining walls. At least that’s what my brain remembers a year later. We need to do this right after next time I win.
3. Most Iron GMs require all or most of the hour-long prep time allowed before kicking off their adventure for a table of players they’ve never gamed with, but you’re well known for walking out of the room before having heard the Three Secret Story Elements. You go off for a drink at the bar then saunter back into our arena and somehow you very often place in our top three. Were you always a fly by the seat of your pants GM – never working from study – or did you develop your improvised storytelling over time?
A. Did I ever tell you how that started? The first year I joined to be a player and you were short a GM. My group convinced me to do it. I wasn’t really sure what was going on and I left to go to the bathroom missing the Story Elements. I walked in, sat down, and my players said, “Umm, you missed the Elements. You want them?” Of course I played it off as if I did it on purpose, but really I was like, GREAT?! Well time to hip-shoot for 5 hours.
As for being on the fly, I think I have just developed a different process. I always have set pieces, secrets, and environments that I want to run. I use these things that have been cooking up for days or months and reformate them for whatever I’m getting ready to run. When I take notes it’s pretty PC responsive. The players talk and I react by drawing out a form of a plot web that is stylized image based shorthand for me. Now the last part has been something I’ve been practicing in the last three or so years.
Oh, and of course I go drink. I used it to take the edge off like a writer would. Many of our GMs are the opposite and don’t’ even drink the night before.
4. GMs have their own individual styles for creating an entertaining gaming session, but are there any axioms for GMing that you believe likely apply to every GM?
A. That’s a tough ass question. I think all GMs have to have balance but these are the most important two core things for me. I see it like cooking, which I love. If you have too much of a spice or too little the dish is ruined.
First, you have to have a loose outline of what you want to achieve but nothing so detailed that when your players go off the rails you can’t redirect traffic or make it feel like it was planned.
Second, a great GM must also be able to paint a picture to set the tone. You can’t do it too much or it just becomes you telling a story at your players. Your players need to feel involved and they need to be weaving the story with you. This is a common flaw I see in GMs that run a lot pre-written adventures to the word. They read flavor text constantly. It’s a habit I feel the industry has beaten into GMs with published adventures all following the archaic format. You know the one I’m talking about. We have all been there.
“The walls are covered in moss. The air is filled with the smell of mold.” Blah blah blah flavor text box. Followed by combat. Followed by flavor text. Followed by NPC interaction and so on and so on.
5. Have you ever sat down to play at another GM’s table who gave you the game of your life, and if so, who was it? I’m guessing you’re about to say, “Well I once ran a solo adventure for myself that was the very finest GMing experience I’d ever witnessed.”
A. Every GM has ran themselves though small scenarios, but with the new Plotted Adventures I’ve been making I’ve had to listen to myself tell a story over and over.
For real though, I would say one of my favorite games had to be Brandon Hodge running his Civil War Cthulhu. We played that at Gen Con in the little library room at the Canterbury. The group was fantastic and Brandon was all in on the creep factor. He even had a little copper speaker that stuck to the table. I’ll never forget it.
6. Has the Iron GM title led to you securing any paid GMing gigs?
A. Yeah actually I’ve been doing it more and more as of late. Some people really hate the idea, but I’ve been making my hobbies into work I love for years. I always say this to the naysayers. “Let me get this straight. You will pay $15.00 or more for a movie that last two hours but you won’t play to play a highly curated game customized for you and your friends? I mean you don’t even get to decide what happens in a movie! Try it, and if you don’t enjoy it I’ll stop doing it.”
7. As much as you’ve earned the right to boast, how insufferable would you become if you ever become a four-time Iron GM?
A. No different than now. I love the game and others who take part in it. My podcast, EFP, is all about helping GMs and players getting better at their craft. The ego is just me being a heel for Iron GM. If I won a fourth time I would leverage it to do more in the industry for sure.
8. Bravado aside, is there a kinship between those who regularly compete in the Iron GM tournament?
A. Hell yes there is. We are super close and any of the s**t talking between one another is simply for the show. Before we all walk in we talk about what we are going to do. Some of us even plan crazy things during the competition that we help one another with. We are a family for sure.
9. What have you been doing with your well-earned three-time winner fame, if anything at all?
A. This year has been a maelstrom of work. I went full time freelancer doing cartography, graphic design, and consulting for games.
10. And lastly, speaking of bravado, is there anything you’d like to say to the competitors you’ll face at Gen Con this year at the World Championship?
A. Thanks again for the interview Rone and let me say it’s awesome that you and Lou have been running with this torch for so long. It’s something the storytelling and tabletop industry needed. As for the competitors… Yeah but you will have listen to my latest podcast episode on EFP where I have the three-time winner, Iron GM Necessary Evil on for a talk.
EFP PODCAST LINK: https://anchor.fm/efp/episodes/Ep-29-Interview-with-Iron-GM-Necessary-Evil-e1okvh
EFP PORTFOLIO: https://erikfrankhousepresents.myportfolio.com/
EFP DrivethruRPG: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse/pub/12456/Erik-Frankhouse-Presents?term=Erik+Frankhouse+PRese&test_epoch=0