The challenge of running and scoring the D&D Championship is that D&D players are not used to losing. The typical D&D format involved characters being challenged, sure. But at the end of the day the deck is stacked against the DM, and he or she knows it and accepts it.
I talked to a good number of players who did not make it past the entry round of the D&D Championship and was one of the people who had to explain why a group didn’t advance in past year’s D&D Championships. I’ve found that if something doesn’t go a player’s way, they will look for mistakes in the system or some perceived flaw in procedures or assumptions of the game. “The DM didn’t do the skill challenge right.” “My dice went cold.” “There was no transparency.”
When I scored the D&D Championship one of the biggest complaints was the lack of transparency involving the scoring system. The funny thing about it was that it wasn’t entirely true. If you finished the adventure, beat all the encounters (and the definition of “beat” the encounters was either the standard “exterminate the entire place” or was clearly stated in encounter preamble) and kept everyone alive, you would get a perfect score. We, of course, designed adventures to reduce possibilities of getting that perfect scores, or at least attempted to do so, and D&D Championship DMs would come up with supplemental tactics to augment the design. We did have tie breaker questions, usually based on resource management (final hit points, magic item usage) but sometimes based on good tactics (usually based on the challenge and monster mix of the encounter) or some aspect adventure’s story and goals. The scoring system was so robust that in the years that I did the scoring I don’t think I ever had a single competing team have the same score during the same qualifier round. Maybe I had two teams get the same score. But I will admit that the tie-breaker questions lacked a certain level of transparency.
This year’s open was far more transparent, and I liked that…and I think other players did too. But still, it doesn’t stop players from complaining about particulars of the Bizarro World assumptions of the tournament. Even back in the 3.5 days I would get a pretty standard battery of complaints. Here were my typical responses. (Okay, sometimes I wasn’t nearly this blunt while wearing by WotC black shirt.) I think they are just as true today as they were back then.
My DM was slow: D&D runs as fast as the players and the DM, and the players have an effect on the speed of the DM. This is just part of the game. I find that groups who complain about the DM speed also spend a lot of time arguing with the DM. The players become frustrated and that lead to the DM becoming frustrated. When everyone is frustrated, things slow down. Also remember that a D&D Championship DM is trying very hard to make sure everything is precise and fair as possible. This means that she or he is running slightly slower to ensure that your group and other groups have a fair shake. At the same time, the D&D Open Championship runs far faster than any home game I’ve ever witnessed. I think it is the stress of the competition that makes players antsy on the DM’s turn. Our group definitely slowed down play with some arguments and rules questions.
My DM ran it different from group X: Yes, welcome to D&D. While the D&D Championship DMs practice and prep to run it by the book, different DMs run it slightly differently. In my experience, people who make this argument are either running on imperfect knowledge of how another table was run, or are focusing on something too small to make any real difference.
Our dice went cold: Again, welcome to D&D. Most D&D Championship adventure designs give players resources to overcome this. A Hole in the World featured many of these resources, and a number of groups used them optimally. While playing Summit (warforged runepriest), during the early rounds I used my Initiative boosts on the first and the last encounter. I thought about saving them for the last two encounters, but I thought it would be good for group morale to get a jump on that first encounter. We beat it in 13 minutes, and it gave us a critical boost of confidence that we needed to go on. When faced with a particularly challenging skill challenge to end the adventure, Chad (playing Donn the half-elf paladin) used his Ioun’s revelation boon, to increase our chief character’s chances from roughly 40% to 65% with each roll, and giving some of our other members a chance to reasonably contribute in the challenge. In our case, it was a game changer. We were having a hard time on that particular encounter but that got us through it.
The D&D Championship is grueling. It takes one of the chief assumptions of standard D&D and turns it on its head—success in not in the player’s favor. In the D&D Championship the DM is there to be fair, but to do everything in his or her power and within the rules to stop you from advancing. Every single one of our DMs tried their damndest. They told us they would, they played hard, and I would expect no less. They often slowed down to make correct decisions to this end rather than hasty decisions. And while some of my teammates pointed out that the number of monsters on the grid slowed down encounters, I thought it was good design for the D&D Championship. It challenged you to make correct decisions quickly.
The D&D Championship challenges both the character and the player. It tests the game and the metagame. Only a team that can handle the challenges of both will advance. We are used to winning D&D all the time. Every weekend we are the champion of our home campaign. Often a battered champion, but almost always a winner. In this way, the D&D Championship can be a kick in the proverbial nuts.
Now I know what some of you are thinking. You advanced. You won. You would feel differently if you did neither. But that’s not true. I would have posted this column even if I lost. This is just a product of years of observation. I would have just had more examples of how we screwed the pooch.