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How to Win a D&D Tournament

Have you ever played a D&D tournament?

  • Yes, I have played and won!

    Votes: 8 14.3%
  • Yes, I have played, but never won.

    Votes: 3 5.4%
  • No, I have never played a D&D tourney

    Votes: 45 80.4%

  • Total voters
    56

Spinachcat

Registered User
Validated User
WHO AM I?
I have written over 20 D&D Tournaments in the past 25 years and I have DM'd at least 50 tourney sessions, including playtests for the judges. This past year, I have run 9 Classic D&D tournaments and this September, I will be running 3 more. I write my own tourney events. Sometimes I update / modify / butcher an old adventure such as the GenCon 1976 tournament or Judges Guild adventure so it fits into the time slot and fits my style.

I absolutely love tournaments. I got introduced to D&D tourneys at PacifiCon back in the early 80s and got involved in writing / running tourneys while at college and continued for years with Strategicon in SoCal. Back before Living City, RPGA would host tournaments at every LA convention plus the convention itself would host a tourney as well.

I love RPG tourneys because they offer a completely different gameplay experience than a regular convention RPG event or a home game. The tourney pits the players against the adventure in a win/lose endeavor with actual cash prizes on the line as incentives for victory.

Plus there's the bragging rights for the winners. Yeah, that's geeky but so is a bunch of guys around a watercooler talking about their fantasy football league. They never say anything as cool as "My quarterback attacks the darkness!"

HOW TO WIN
I have not only written and run tourneys, but I have won and lost many, many tourney events over the years so I am going to give you my perspective from both sides of the table. Is this information good for winning any kind of RPG tourney? Probably, but 90% of the tourneys I have written and played have been for some version of Dungeons & Dragons.

Let's dance!

(ONE) THE ENDING DEPENDS ON THE BEGINNING
Usually, the DM passes out the characters as the first event of the tournament. Sometimes, he presents the Intro first and the characters second. Let's talk about what to do when the tourney starts. What you do before the adventure will ultimately determine your success or failure.

Most likely, your tournament table will be mostly strangers who have never played together before. There may be a few people who came together and maybe even a few who have tourney experience. There may be total gaming newbies as well. Here's what you need to do.

(a) Understand that you are now a team
Teams win tournaments. Six individuals sitting around a table go home sad. They make fugee face! Teams work together toward a single goal and that goal is to win! Every tourney has a set victory condition. That condition must be reached to win. All egos must be sidelined to win that prize.

(b) Agree on a Team Leader
The best leader choice is someone who has won tourneys before. The second best leader choice is an experienced DM because DM's are inherently evil and can often bring metagame insights to the table. Either way, you need a leader who can bring the group to consensus and focus them on tasks. This is NOT a regular RPG event where everyone is special and unique snowflake with scenes dedicated to their character. Choose a leader. Choose wisely. Pick someone who listens and respects his team.

(c) Agree on a Note-Taker
Tournaments almost always have puzzles, often multiple puzzles. With people worrying about dice rolls and their characters, you need someone who is really on the ball taking notes for the team. In intricate puzzle tourneys, the Note Taker is the MOST important role at the table.

(d) Agree on a Battle Leader
The Team Leader does not have to be the Battle Leader. The Battle Leader should be someone who loves combat and tactics and knows the rules of the game. He should coordinate combat, but NOT dominate the actions of his fellow players. The Battle Leader is the strategist NOT the micromanager. A Battle Leader makes sure the players move swiftly through combat and keeps an eye out for PCs which may be near death so they can be saved. Most tourneys penalize points for dead PCs. Regardless, dead PCs make the rest of the tourney that much harder.

(e) Assign PCs by Expertise
If you do not play a wizard at home, the tourney is not your chance to try one out. The Team Leader should open the table to a quick discussion. Only people who know the spells should play spellcasters. Newbies get the meat shields and get assigned a buddy who helps them with rule stuff. Do NOT under-estimate the power of newbie in bringing good ideas to the tourney, but do not sink your team by expecting a noob to know the intricacies of the game.

(f) Discuss your PCs openly
Do not start the adventure until everyone has discussed their character openly. Discussing magic items or important background knowledge is extremely important. If your character has a detailed background story, most likely that background holds keys to puzzles you will encounter. Unless the DM says otherwise, you can usually be very open about your background with the other players. Sometimes, the PC will have secret that can not be revealed. Respect that and roleplay it out as appropriate. BTW, pay special attention to unusual gear on a character sheet. Often odd bits will play a major part to overcome an event or encounter during the tournament.

(TWO) THERE IS GOLD IN THEM THAR FLUFF
The DM will either read aloud or pass out a page or more of background information about the tournament adventure. Good tourney writers minimize this background to one page, two at most, but it not uncommon to have 3-5 pages handed out. This is not the time to tune out and dream about Jessica Alba giving herself a pepperoni pizza rubdown. Yes, she's naked with extra cheese.

The "boxed text" will tell you many things, most importantly it will tell you the victory conditions necessary to win. I cannot begin to describe the number of times clueless players found themselves 2 hours into the game asking each other what was their original goal. Quite often, the introductory exposition will give you the key clues to puzzles you will encounter during the adventure and give you the necessary paths to follow in dealing with NPCs, tricks and traps. The Pepperoni Jessica fantasy must be put away while the DM reads the boxed text or you will be stuck and confused at a crucial moment.

After the DM is done reading, your team should review what they heard and make sure the Note Taker has the maximum info. If your DM is kind, he may even read sections a second time for clarity. Some DMs demand INT rolls before giving info a second time. Your attention to fluff must be absolute regarding ANY boxed text or descriptions from the DM - doubly so if you get information based on a dice roll.

(THREE) TIME IS YOUR ENEMY
Every tournament has a real time element, simply based on the fact that your tourney takes place during a convention time slot. When the time slot ends, the tourney is done. Some tourneys have exact hours / minutes allowed and some tourneys run their events in real time. For instance, I run spell durations in real time so if your spell lasts 30 rounds and it's 9:30, then your spell ends at 10:00 regardless how many in-game rounds passed. Yeah, that's cruel but it sharpens focus. Review The Rock for my thoughts on winners, losers and prom queens. There are two extremely important issues about time. Let's look at them.

(a) Identify Time Wasters
Most tourney writers build one or more "time wasters" into their scenario. These could be false paths, red herrings or just chatty useless NPCs whose only job is to sew indecision and undermine team confidence in their decisions. It is important to look at every encounter and decide what's crucial and what's not. If you suspect something is a time waster, you are probably right. Time wasters are often something that is pretty, shiny and fun BUT not part of the victory conditions set up by the introductory text. Often NPCs are good for some initial information bits, but then settle into a time waster role as players probe them for more and more information so either the NPC just babbles in circles or you force the DM to start putting nice sounding nonsense into their mouth to keep the roleplay going.

(b) Combat is Always a Time Waster
Your goal in a tournament is to AVOID combat, not win combats. Spellcasters should choose spells (if they get a choice) that can be used to skip combat or make sure the combat moves as quickly as possible. Never get into a fight unless you absolutely must. Combat takes a long time because all of the dice rolling, decision making and bookkeeping. That drains from your clock even if the combat is important. How much worse is that when the combat was simply a diversion from your goal!!!

The worst combat time wasters are Wandering Monsters that show up as a penalty for putzing around too long in an area doing nothing with your thumb in bum. Remember, this ain't your home game so you don't get XP by killing everything and most tourney monsters don't have any loot.

(FOUR) THE DM IS YOUR ALLY, BUT NOT YOUR FRIEND
Most tourney DMs would rather you win than lose. Most DMs are very fair and want you to have a good time. Most DMs know the game rules very well.

So don't piss them off by being a rules bitch. Even when you know you're right. Go along with the DMs ruling. It's faster and it's good sportsmanship. If the DM allows the players to access their rulebooks during the game (I don't), then be fast and read the rule aloud and let the DM decide. Rules bitching is a time waster and it makes the DM unhappy.

Some unhappy DMs can be vindictive. I charge big monsters at bitchy players. Some unhappy DMs won't want to run a tourney again so your convention suffers. Be nice to your tourney DM. Tourneys can be VERY stressful because there is a win/lose situation on the line. Tourneys can get very tense, especially in the last 30 minutes and especially if the players are losing and confused and flailing about. Conversations about rules often get very heated and alienate members of your team. I have seen many teams collapse because Mr. I'm Right pissed off his fellow players until they tuned out the game entirely.

Avoid all that nonsense.

(FIVE) ROLEPLAY YOUR HEART OUT
On the surface, a tournament appears to be simply an exercise in metagaming and puzzle solving. Don't let that happen. You are playing Dungeons & Dragons - a fabulously awesome game you probably love and adore if you are sitting at the tourney table and D&D is a roleplaying game filled with cool characters in cool situations. Never forget that. Take the time to weave some roleplaying aspect into your interactions with fellow PCs and the NPCs in every encounter. It adds tremendously to the energy around the table and makes your DM feel good and probably will charge up his own roleplaying, making the tourney even more fun. Also, some tourneys give bonus points based on roleplaying particular aspects of your character or their background.

Ham it up to the bone! If you aren't having fun, why play?

(SIX) THE END
The tournament will end with victory or failure. Sometimes you will win out of sheer dumb luck, sometimes dice rolls will damn the finest team. If the DM is allowed to discuss what you did wrong or what you missed, ask him to describe the "correct path" of the scenario. Most people learn more from their failures. However, often the DM can not reveal anything since the tournament adventure will be played by other groups at the convention.

It's easy to thank the DM for running the tournament when you win, but real players thank the DM when they lose. So many losing teams just skulk out of the room, grumbling with no appreciation. Always thank the DM for his effort. It will mean a lot.
 

Malavhe

Gentleman
Validated User
How do you win? Highest number of kills? Most treasure looted? Survival?
How do you rate fun into points? How can separate GMs assign the same points for the same amount of roleplaying?
 

Ivy

it's not easy being easy
Validated User
I've heard of it before, but I kinda thought it had died along with TSR. Still don't understand it in the least.
 

pspahn

Registered User
Validated User
I remember these. Basically, you got a certain number of points for overcoming main encounters, bonus points for overcoming them in the "correct" manner, and bonus points for finding little easter egg-type items/encounters hidden throughout the module. Plus you would get a number of points for using class abilities and such. Several different groups of players would be run through the same scenario and the group that scored the highest won the tournament. Individual awards were also handed out for characters that scored exceptionally high. It was actually very competitive and a lot of fun, at least the "unofficial" tournaments I entered. IIRC, The Slavelords series was written specifically for this type of tournament play, with point awards and everything.

Pete
 

travisjhall

Retired User
Is this real? People actually play DnD to win?
Sort of. At least on my home continent, I've observed that a lot of people play tournaments to have fun, and one team gets a trophy (which tends to go to the team that had the most fun).

And it's not just D&D, either. Here, such tournaments are convention staples - in fact, we generally don't see tabletop games being run only the once at conventions, like I understand is often the case in the USA - and every tabletop RPG gets run that way.

However, the criteria for the trophies varies widely. Sometimes, there's a points-based criteria like pspahn describes, where you get a particular number of points for doing a particular thing. Other times, winners aren't picked based on who did specified things, but on character portrayal, or on contributions toward the drama of the game, or on demonstrations of problem-solving ability, or any of a number of other possible criteria.

How do you rate fun into points? How can separate GMs assign the same points for the same amount of roleplaying?
Sometimes, with difficulty.

However, the principles behind this aren't exactly arcane. You know, during your games at home, when you've played a session so awesome that you'll speak reverently of it years later, or when things went so badly that you decide to make an entry in the Stupid Players thread. The GMs at conventions can spot that just as well as you can.

Sometimes it can be hard to choose between two talented groups, and in such cases you just make a choice and stick by it. And yes, if two GMs are running a game, comparing notes can be tricky, but if you communicate well you can usually swap information well enough to come to an agreement. Also, this is one reason why here, some games are run many times by just the one GM, up to 13 times at a convention.

Edit: Though, with differing criteria for winning, some of Spinachcat's advice may not apply to a specific tournament. This is especially true of "discuss your PCs openly". If the objective is character interaction, this will often kill your chances and your fun completely and utterly.
 
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Spinachcat

Registered User
Validated User
And shouldn't this be in the D20 forum?
No. All RPGs should be in Open.

How do you win? Highest number of kills? Most treasure looted? Survival? How do you rate fun into points? How can separate GMs assign the same points for the same amount of roleplaying?
Winning depends on meeting the victory conditions. The victory conditions can be as simple as "Kill the Dragon" or as complicated as "Complete these 6 Tasks in 100 rounds."

Turning fun into points is usually focused on the DM during the final scoring system. I would often do 100 point scales for tournaments and 5 points was the question to the GM "Did you have fun playing with this team?" and they would rate their fun from 0-5.

Rating Roleplaying Points is always difficult and good scoring systems focus on specific character interactions. Let's say that Mongo the Mighty Fighter has a background where he hates trolls, but he's scared of them. There would be a roleplay score bonus strictly based on Mongo and his encounter with the Troll. The more specific the writer can be in regards to the roleplay bonus the better. Some scoring systems ask "Did the player speak in character?" and they would get +2 points per player who did.

The less subjective the scoring system, the more accurate you can be. However, there is ALWAYS some level of subjectiveness in any RPG tourney.

Is this real? People actually play DnD to win?
You bet! And it's awesome fun!!!

It is a very different gameplay experience. Just like D&D can be played as a LARP or even a boardgame, it also can be played in a competitive setting.

I've heard of it before, but I kinda thought it had died along with TSR. Still don't understand it in the least.
GenCon and many regional conventions still hosts tourneys. They are difficult to set up and require lots of organization. Back when RPGA did more than Living City, they were first and foremost on the tournament scene.

The Slavelords series was written specifically for this type of tournament play, with point awards and everything.
Absolutely! The A-series and the S-series modules - so the Slave Lords, Tomb of Horrors, White Plume Mountain and Expedition to Barrier Peaks all began their lives as GenCon Tournaments.

Though, with differing criteria for winning, some of Spinachcat's advice may not apply to a specific tournament. This is especially true of "discuss your PCs openly". If the objective is character interaction, this will often kill your chances and your fun completely and utterly.
This is exactly right. Some tourneys are character interaction focused where you have secrets that must be maintained for some or all of the event. Sometimes characters are given secret motivations or hidden goals. These will be listed on the character sheet and usually the secretive nature of the tourney will be explained first by the DM.
 

YorkusRex

Social Contractor
People play RPGs to have fun. People play tournaments to win.

I've played and authored many HM tournaments. The things written by the OP are all true. It boils down to knowing your role, playing up your strengths, finding the quickest solution to a problem, avoiding wasting time arguing rules or quoting [INSERT YOUR FAVORITE OT CHATTER HERE] and above all PAYING ATTENTION.

These simple things can be the difference between cheers and tears.
 

Craig Oxbrow

Ah, y'know. This guy.
Validated User
Never D&D, but I've played a whole lot of other things at the Student National Roleplaying And Wargaming Championships. So this is good advice without the specifics - although we never needed a note-taker, as the games only last five to six hours in one day.
 
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