Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tournament Play

I have never understood why someone introduced to roleplaying would ever think "Hey this would be fun to play competitively." Where did that all come from? Was it the early wargaming roots?

I wonder what kind of different beast D&D might have become if there wasn't so much emphasis on standardization and tournament play. I don't mean that people at home were playing against each other for points, but that most of the classic AD&D modules were designed for tournament play. I don't have enough experience to know for sure but I can't imagine that tournament modules would be designed in the same way a module for a DM's home group might be.

The reason for this post was I was just looking in module A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity (looking for rumors) and saw this:

If we sat down together to make a set of rules to de-funify D&D, this seems to be a pretty good start.
  1. First no one gets to make a character and no fun of rolling the dice for the whole gambling aspect of random stats.
  2. No wandering monsters, so, it will be pretty scripted. We can give it the benefit of the doubt and hope some encounters are in hallways so that we might not notice there are actually no random encounters.
  3. No negotiating! No morale breaking for monsters. So if you see it you slay it. Why not just turn it into an arena fighting game or something? We could give the benefit of the doubt here but I peeked at the scoring sheet and you get points for exploring everywhere. So it looks like you are not meant to avoid monsters but slay them all.
  4. You don't get to level up. The Un-Progress Quest
  5. And you get scored! Hurrah! "Not only did I keep rolling ones in combat but our team is the worst in Wisconsin."
I understand that all these things were intentionally sacrificed for standardization in tournament play. But what that means is at some point some people decided that proving they were a better player than you is more important than all these aspects pivotal to the fun of the game.

But if I understand it correctly the way tournaments worked is the team would be scored overall-- how many in the group survived, how much you all managed to explore- not individually. And you would be playing with strangers. Can you imagine a national basketball tourney that placed you in random teams and then had you play basketball with lots of strange rule changes (no passing, no 3 point shots, no freethrows)?

It just seems so odd. Do they still do these at conventions? I imagine it would be much easier with something like 4e.


  1. When I was a young'n I never understood the concept of 'tournament play'. Even to my young mind barely grasping the concepts of role-playing a fantasy game, this just seemed opposite of what I felt the game to be.

    Though I have to say, being tossed in with a bunch of strangers in a race against the clock is an interesting concept in and of itself.

  2. I think they still run competitive D&D events at GenCon. Even with all the rulesboundness it still must be a strange experience, neither fish nor fowl, with so many judgment areas that wouldn't be tolerated in any other competitive game. You simply can't be the kind of rules brat that a CCG tolerates.

    Perhaps this is a good thing. I know that the Legend of Five Rings CCG in early stages of its existence had such loose rules that even competitive play had to be buttressed by a certain amount of unspoken player trust and agreement.

    I'm not sure if it was tournament play per se that motivated the developments in AD&D, or just a desire to increase mobility among campaigns, but I do think Gary went about it the wrong way. Instead of taking a core of rules and developing them in depth, all sorts of things that really should have stood as options or house rules suddenly became canon.

  3. Competing at D&D seems pretty weird to me, too. It's like surfing contests. Let's take something very individualized and try to standardize it, attach some rules and profit from it. How the shit do you win at D&D?

    I like the "you see it you slay it." :)

  4. It looks to me like "Tournament Play" is what console RPGs are actually based upon.

  5. I've been playing D&D for some 30 years, and those old modules were always a puzzle. While I can't speak to the first GENCON or ORIGINS organizer's thoughts, it seems to me that the whole idea of the tourney wasn't so much to see who could play D&D "the best", but more of a "how do YOU play D&D where YOU'RE from?"

    I think the idea was to give a standard scenario (in the form of the modules you mention) and then run players from all over the country/world through it, using standard rules. I don't think those modules were ever intended as a new or different way to play D&D, but simply a way to gauge how D&D around the country was played.

    In each of the modules, every listed character has a selection of magic items (and sometimes) optional items they can choose. A careful examination of the modules will show that the characters will almost always have the correct resources to defeat a given problem (even if the thought process to get to that solution was a little esoteric). Any team that could get through the module using the available resources in the correct manner was going to be a winning team.

    If the DMs running the modules in a tourney were good at reporting their player's activities, then it would provide an excellent resource for judging how successful a module might be outside the tourney environment (most of these modules were released AFTER a tournament). Essentially, it was mass play-testing.

    Granted, I can't help but think that the wargaming roots of D&D did play a part in such events. It's difficult to have a contest of any kind without scoring and similar conceits. You can't do massive play-testing of pre-published goods like that without some kind of pay-off for the participants.

    Sorry about the rambling. Just my thoughts on the subject. Great thought-provoking post!

  6. Thanks for the great comments.

    @R.M: I really like that idea of mass playtesting. I'm leery of the idea that there are certain solutions that the designers expect players to use though (i.e. you get points for casting invisibility on your halfling!).

    Since I posted, I was thinking it might be interesting to have DMing contests, which would be difficult, but maybe would make more sense. Sort of like a cooking contest. Judges could give DMs points for improv, roleplaying npcs, responding to player input etc. DMing seems to be the hardest/most important skill to provide for fun play, not playing.

  7. The last time I played D&D with tournament rules was in the late 90's at Gen Con. They were multi-round affairs where the players, not the teams, were ranked against each other and only three of the six players in each group would advance to the next round. They result was that you were playing against your own party. Experienced player would sign up in groups of three and form a faction. The DMs tended to be less than partial too. It was not a fun dynamic.

  8. In Houston, the RPG tounaments handled both teams and individuals, being specific for each event so the players would know who they were competing against.

    The team stuff tended to be groups of players who played together at home with one or two individuals to round out the six-person tables. These events were judged on how far the party got and what milestones they hit along the way. This encouraged the group to work together efficiently to resolve challenges, even with total strangers.

    The individuals events were more flamboyant as the players tried to out do each other and still make it through the adventure. This encouraged a lot of verbal participation as the players were trying to shine individually. There was no reward for cutting down the other players, only for doing good yourself. Rules lawyering was usually browbeat down by the other PLAYERS as that cut into actual play time and reduced our ability to shine.

    I tended to avoid events that did not provide pre-gens as character creation bit into play time and characters built away from the table were usually suspect.

  9. Hey thanks for sharing, got busy with work but it nice to hear from folks with actual experience.