An Open Letter to Wizards of the Coast on the D&D Championship

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on August 19, 2009

Dear Wizards,

At this year’s GenCon I participated in my very first D&D Championship. My team did remarkably well and we advanced to the final round. Unfortunately we did finish in the top three and did not win any prizes. Looking back on my experience with the 2009 D&D Championship I have some feedback for you, and for anyone thinking of participating in this kind of event at future cons.

Having no idea what to expect with this kind of event I decided to do a little bit of homework before hand. Chris Tulach’s article GenCon Indy Approaches! posted on July 13 gave me most of the answers I was looking for.

Although the article provided guidelines for character creation and instructed participants to bring level 2, 3, and 4 versions of their character in case I advanced, it wasn’t clear to me if I should re-equip my character with treasure suitable to his new level or not. This point was clarified for me when I began play in the first round of the Championship. It turned out I could indeed re-equip my PC with new magical items based on his new level between adventures.

Tulach’s article said that “your team is graded on its performance” and “scores will be tabulated” but there was no indication on how the scoring was measured. If my party completed an encounter in five rounds but the party at the next table took nine rounds would we get more points for finishing more quickly? What if my table expended twice the number of healing surges as the next table, would that affect our score in any way? Was completing the entire adventure at the expense of some PCs worth more or less points than only completing three of four encounters and having all the PCs live? Having a better understanding of how the scoring worked would have directly impacted the in-game decision-making.

The biggest complaint I have about the entire D&D Championship was the utter lack of role-playing and the absences of any acknowledgement for trying to make the adventure feel more Eberron.

As much as wanted to win, I’m realistic. I wasn’t naive enough to believe that I’d win the D&D Championship my first year in the tournament. But I was still interested in walking away with some kind of prize. So when I read that “The team with characters judged the most “Eberron” will take home a special prize” I decided to build a character that would stand out as incredibly Eberron. I’d even argue that my character was among the most Eberron in the Championship.

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to tell you a little bit about my character. I created a Warforged Artificer with the Mark of Making. He awoke on the day of Mourning in Cyre and truly believes that he is Starrin d’Cannith, the house patriarch who supposedly perished during the Mourning. He possesses all of Starrin’s memories, desires, goals and ambitions. Since Warforged cannot have Dragonmarks (or so he believes) he sees this as more proof that he is indeed The Gorgon. He’s been gathering information and house resources from Cyre since the war’s end and has only recently emerged from the mists to find out how his family is managing while he’s been away.

With my focus on making this character extremely Eberron, I gave my PC the feats, skills, powers and items that best supported the background I’d come up with. This made the character less optimized for combat, but incredibly suited for the politics and role-playing generally associated with Eberron.

The absence of opportunities in which to role-play or draw on this background was shameful. The D&D Championship was just a delve dressed up for competitive play. If it was advertised as a delve I wouldn’t have wasted my time with a creative background or character concept. I’d have min/maxed my build in much the same way I did when preparing for the Ultimate Dungeon Delve. I looked forward to role-playing this character and felt very underpowered and inadequate when all we did was combat, combat and more combat. This character was not built for excessive combat and the party suffered because of my shortcomings.

I would like to make the following recommendations for next year’s D&D Championship.

  1. Provide some guidelines regarding scoring. If players know what actions or objective will yield the most points then they can make more informed in-game decisions.
  2. Include more skill challenges. On average a party should have one skill challenge for every two combat encounters. This means that an adventure with four encounters should have at minimum one skill challenge.
  3. If the campaign is going to be set in Eberron then the DMs should have some cursory knowledge of the campaign setting. Especially if there are awards or points available for having the character judged most Eberron.

Overall I did have fun participating in the 2009 D&D Championship at GenCon. Had more information been available before the tournament began I think I would have had a better time and had a much stronger chance of actually winning prizes. Next year, if I participate in the Championship again, I’m going to build two characters: one optimized for role-playing and one optimized for combat. That way I’ll be better prepared when I arrive at GenCon and get the answers that Wizards didn’t feel obligated to publicize before hand.

Sincerely, Derek Myers (Ameron).

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1 The Chatty DM August 19, 2009 at 11:13 am

Having been a Judge for the Goodman Games 4e tournament and having read all the classical tournament modules of AD&D, I can attest that your request for roleplaying in such events is unrealistic.

First of all, roleplaying would need to be tightly defined and explained to the players (very hard to do), secondly it would need to be adjudicated the same way across DMs (Impossible). Finally, scoring roleplaying would, at best, be an entirely subjective matter opening up the way for debate.

Tournament are best for demonstrating skills with the mechanic aspects of a given game. And in that 4e is the easiest to score and judge for.

So next year, create a Min-max monster and show the RPGA and WotC how you found ways to abuse the loopholes of the game.

Best regards.
.-= The Chatty DM´s last blog ..Gen Con 2009: Highlights, Part 1 =-.

2 Ameron August 19, 2009 at 12:31 pm

@The Chatty DM
Thanks for your feedback. I agree that it’s unlikely I’m going to see any sort of role-playing in future tournaments for the exact reasons you’ve specified. I’ll keep your advice on character creation in mind when I build my PC for next year’s GenCon. I’m all about exploiting the loop-holes.

3 pedr August 19, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Well it’s basically before my time, but D&D tournaments used not to be entirely combat-orientated, I believe.

I don’t know how team tournaments worked, but players (and GMs) were scored by the other participants on a grid which included things like “which player aided my enjoyment of the scenario the most”.

For a less ‘it used to be different’ post, if you’re looking for a D&D tournament which isn’t just combat, play NASCRAG. The fact that you’re mustered by Doug Douglasson Tom Lommell (resplendent in NASCRAG high priestly hat) is an added incentive. It’s the craziest gaming I’ve ever done, and was much fun. (And gave great loot).

4 Dave T. Game August 19, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Chris Tulach from WotC had something interesting to say about roleplaying and tournament D&D play:
.-= Dave T. Game´s last blog ..YouTube Tuesday: Elite Gamemaster Edition =-.

5 Syrsuro August 20, 2009 at 12:10 am

The Championship (and the Open before it) is wholly and entirely about killing stuff as fast as you can. It is NOT roleplaying and it is barely D&D.

If you were expecting to roleplay your character, you were signed up for the wrong event.

The RPGA Living campaigns are only marginally better, of course. But at least there you aren’t being scored upon how fast you can kill stuff and have time to actually roleplay a bit in between encounters.

Personally, I miss the old days of the RPGA before it was taken over by the Living campaigns. When you sat down and they handed you your character and you were judged (yes, judged) on your ability to roleplay the character you were handed. Those were some of the most memorable sessions I’ve ever played at a convention, especially the benefits, which often featured the most off-the-wall characters I’ve ever seen.

But now the RPGA is all about cookie cutter, char-op builds with only a cursory attempt at roleplaying.

But apparently that is what the players wanted.

Aside: Next year, play Nascrag.


6 Jon Stern August 20, 2009 at 2:28 am

I played in NASCRAG and the D&D Open at GenCon and I have to say that neither were anything like the d&d I’m used to. I suppose the Open was actually closer. NASCRAG was interesting but was purely a role-playing and acting fiesta. Dice and stats were completely irrelevant. But you know, it is what it is. D&D, in general, does not translate well to tournament play. Almost by definition, it is a cooperative, non-competitive game. I think most people who played in the Open had fun, which I suppose means something is being done right.

Personally, I’m ok with the lack of role-playing. I think fairness and objectivity are very important in a competitive forum, and, as pedr said, there’s no good way to measure this. I did play in an Open several years ago where role-playing was a factor, and the games were a ton of fun. Advancing did seem more or less arbitrary however.

What I’d like to see from Wizards next year would be:

1. Explicit Character Creation rules
They did not do a very good job of explaining things beforehand, and I wasn’t even able to get clear answers from judges at the event. Specifically:
– could you rechoose items between adventures?
– how many consumables could each character purchase?
– could characters swap gold and/or items before or during the adventure?
– how much could you retrain each character between adventures?
– could you simply show up with a different character for round 2 and 3?

2. Explicit Scoring System
I feel bad for players who took the role-playing angle, but this wouldn’t have happened if Wizards was up front with how rounds would be scored. If it’s a min/max contest, why not let people min/max? If healing surges matter, let them take the Durable feat? Why rewards some teams randomly and penalize others? If rounds are the only thing that matters, let them prepare for that. Why not?

3. Limit each module to three combat encounters
A delve is a race against the clock that requires DMs and Players to be at a peak of efficiency throughout the adventure. A slow DM who was to read over passages and stat blocks is immensely frustrating when you feel like you need to blitz the encounter in order to finish.

4. Audit character sheets
I do not feel that cheating was a problem, but I have to say that the complete lack of verification of any kind made me feel a little uneasy. Perhaps one character sheet from each team should be audited before or after the adventure, and maybe the DMs should collect the character sheets after the session, to make sure that items were kept (if desired) and any retraining rules were adhered to. The answer I kept getting is that showing up with a new character was “discouraged” but that it wouldn’t be checked. That’s a frown in my book. It feels more like a pre-release than a Championship event. At least take the character sheets in and give the impression that they’re going to be audited in some way.

7 Ameron August 20, 2009 at 10:25 am

I’m not familiar with NASCRAG. I’ll certainly look into it. Thanks.

@Dave T. Game
Great feedback. Thanks for posting this link.

I’m a big fan of 4e D&D and I don’t have that big a problem with the cookie-cutter style of play. I guess I was just expecting the Championship to be something different than what it ended up being. If it had been advertised as a delve-like adventure I would have come into it with a very different mindset. Now that I know what to expect I can make adequate preparations for next year (if I choose to participate).

@Jon Stern
As mentioned above, if I’d know that role-playing wasn’t factored into the scoring I would have approached it differently.

I absolutely agree with all of your requests/recommendations for next year. I especially like your suggestion to audit character sheets. I don’t think anyone was cheating, but knowing that the sheets could come under scrutiny might keep the temptation to fudge numbers to a minimum.

Thanks for the great post.

8 Craig Willcutt August 21, 2009 at 3:33 pm

Noting your statement about gifts being given for “the most Eberron” PC we, at the Delve, had a similar issue. Apparently, there was a promise of a free gift for characters being built using the Character Builder. Thing is, EVERYONE was REQUIRED to use the Character Builder.

Needless to say there were some angry players who, after spending $6 for 45 minutes of Ultimate Delve action, asked for their prize and recieved a blank stare. When I was first asked I replied that I had no idea what they were speaking of. When I did get a “blue shirt” they too had no idea of such a promise.

9 Michael August 24, 2009 at 9:21 am

I have been participating in the Championship for six years now and I must say it hasn’t been getting any better. 4e “should” make things easier to score and run smoothly but the RPGA’s insistance in not revealing the scoring just keeps the competition down. Each year the criteria changes. One year we rocked the entire adventure but the DM said, “You guys did great except for that last encounter. You totally snuck around it to get to the treasure instead of fighting the dinosaur. So that doesn’t count as a win. Better luck next year.” Had we known that we had to actuaklly fight every encounter to be scored in it we would have but the ambuguity of such criteria caused us to lose.

The RPGA heads simply say, “If we gave the scoring rules out then people would play to win instead just play the everything to the best.” BAH! What kind of reasoning is that?! One person’s best is another person’s bad idea. WAY to subjective. Baseball has a rule saying Homeruns are an automatic score. What if they didn’t tell you that rule and each year it was different? Is hitting it over the fences good for two points or does it get you two outs?!?! That just doesn’t make sense. The next time you play monopoly try not using the rules but have one person determine the criteria to win but not tell anyone. It’s just not that fun.

10 Ameron August 24, 2009 at 12:51 pm

@Craig Willcutt
Thanks for raising the prizes for delvers issue. My feeling is that Wizards shouldn’t be making promises it can’t keep. If the only mention of prizes was in regard to the top finishers of the Championship I wouldn’t have been so ticked off. Likewise for delve prizes.

You’re preaching to the choir over here. I don’t understand what the big deal is about telling us how the event is scored. As much as I want to just avoid this event next year, another part of me wants to enter and win, just to prove that I can despite the handicapping by Wizards.

11 Paul Beck August 29, 2009 at 12:59 am

I participated in the event this year. I also made it to the top 10 teams and we placed 3rd overall.

Honestly, we barely completed the second and third section due to time. We have heard that the time for the last encounters factored for tie breakers. This may have played into our favor as we never had much time for the final fights so we rushed them.

For the final dungeon we literally rolled a damage die, the boss died, and then time was called. We weren’t even told if we finished or not because we thought we had to do another step before it was over. There was a lot of secrecy between the judges.

As for the most Eberron. I know the team that won the honors, and they all had Eberron characters with background stories and they roleplayed. Granted they tore through the tourney due to their team set up.

I enjoyed the tourney, but we didn’t go there to win. Our team consisted of 3 guys, one of which I was dating their sister so I was the 4th, and a random kid we found before the game started. I will play again next year, but I might stick to RPGA because the tourney is nothing unless you actually win.

12 Ameron August 31, 2009 at 3:28 pm

@Paul Beck
I think your approach to the D&D Championship was indeed the way to go. Sit down, have fun, and if you’re lucky enough to win prizes then that should be seen as a bonus. Participating to win certainly hurts the gaming experience.

13 Mechafishy September 2, 2009 at 4:50 pm

I agree with you guys completely on that one. d&d is supposed to be about having fun, playing it any other way would be a disservice to your fellow players and your dm.
i played in the 09 championship aswell and definitely agree that the rules and scoring could have been made much clearer, tho there is some need for secrecy on the scoring front.
but as for chatty dm’s advice about going for the min max. i have to strongly advise against that. im not saying not to build a strong character, but i always made an attempt to chat up the dm after every round. and although i couldn’t get any hard facts out of any of them i did frequently get a sour impression when the subject of the outrageous amounts of jankery some other teams were pulling was brought up.

though my impression on how scoring was done goes like this
1: finishing the quest
2: keep everybody alive
3: successfully completely the quest (i did piece together that there were good and bad endings to each)
4: rounds taken
5: PCs dropped (but not killed)
6 and onwards: healing surges, items used, rp, ect…

14 Ameron September 3, 2009 at 2:33 pm

I too talked to my DMs after the games were finished and the scoring you’ve described is pretty much what they told me too. I will add that one DM flat out said that if the DM doesn’t want you to advance, you won’t advance. One of their criteria for advancement is “was this group fun to judge?” and if the DM didn’t think the group was good, then they simply answered no and you do NOT advance.

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