Last weekend at GenCon a new champion was crowned at the D&D Open Championship. Regretfully it was not us. We didn’t even make it to the finals, which was sorely disappointing. However, we still had a lot of fun playing and a lot of fun preparing for the competition. We like to think of this as a learning experience and want to share our findings with you.
This year’s Championship was an adventure called A Hole in the World. Five level 25 pre-generated PCs, were provided. Each team had to complete five encounters, each encounter with a 45-minute time limit. If you didn’t complete an encounter in 45 minutes you were eliminated. If the party decided to take an extended rest you were eliminated. It was designed to challenge the best and most experienced D&D players and it certainly did just that.
In previous years, all teams participating in the D&D Championship were scored based on a number of different criteria. You gained points for the number of encounters you completed and the number of PCs who survive. As I discovered when I participated in the D&D Championship last year, it wasn’t necessary to even complete all the encounters to earn a high enough score to advance to the finals. This year, there was none of that nonsense. Although a maximum of 10 teams COULD advance to the final, only seven did. The marshals made it very clear that in order to advance you had to complete all five encounters.
Another twist in the way the adventure was presented this year was that the five encounters could be attempted in any order. Before the first encounter began, and before the clock started ticking, the powers that drew these characters together preformed a divination to learn more about how to complete the overall objective. The result was a five-line poem. Each line provided a clue to the goal of each encounter. Some participants just did the encounter in order; others – like my group – did not.
Before I get into the specifics of our experience, I want to give you an idea of just how seriously we were taking the championship this year. We wanted to win and were willing to take any extra steps that might help us earn victory. As soon as the pre-generated characters were released (about 10 days before GenCon) we printed copies and started studying them. Since we didn’t have a full team we didn’t know which character we’d end up playing at GenCon. So we did the only sensible thing, we studied all the characters. We created cheat sheets for each PC at level 25 and level 30. We even ran two practice adventures using the pre-gens. We ran the level 25 dungeon delve right out of the book and for the level 30 adventure, we tried to defeat Orcus (since it was pretty obvious that was going to be the final goal).
Playing the level 25 encounter wasn’t too bad, although we quickly learned that time was likely to be our most difficult obstacle in the real event. When we played the level 30 test-run against Orcus we met with amazing success. We were able to keep him stunned and dazed for five or six rounds in a row and got him down from 1,500 hit points to 500 no problem. Bringing him down to 0 proved to be really tough.
Afterwards we talked over what worked and what didn’t and we felt sure we could defeat him in the tournament. Our best realization when fighting Orcus was not to kill any of his followers. We used non-lethal damage to knock them out, otherwise Orcus would just bring them back to life on his turn and we’d be stuck fighting everyone a second time. We even went so far as to put together a round-by-round attack plan of which powers to use in which order. Now all we had to do was get to the finals.
We were signed up to play in the D&D Open Championship on the first day of GenCon in the second slot. We heard that in the morning slot only one of the 15 teams qualified. In our slot no one advanced (although we played the longest before crapping out). Only one team advanced in the evening slot. Day two saw four more teams advance and on day three only one team qualified. So of the 135 competing this year, only seven made it through to the end. We were informed that just because teams advanced didn’t mean there would even be a champion. In order for a team to be crowned champion they had to defeat the final encounter on the final day. If no one did that, there would be no champion in 2010. Personally I can’t believe they would have taken this stance should no one have won, but that’s what they were telling participants.
We were lucky enough to find three experienced players who were also competing in the D&D Open Championship in the same slot as us, so we met the night before to choose characters and talk strategy. As it turns out, two of the guys were part of “The C Team,” the 2009 D&D Open Champions. Going in we were feeling pretty confident.
Before the first encounter began we took a few minutes to analyze the poem and then dove right into the adventure. After about 20 minutes we realized that killing all the monsters was clearly not the best way to achieve victory. We decided to split the party, two trying to complete the objective while the other three kept the monsters busy. With mere seconds to go before we timed out we made a last ditch effort to grab victory. And we were successful for encounter one. Or were we? The DM ruled that one of our actions during the last minute wasn’t allowed. We protested and he agreed to look up the ruling. If he was right we were done. If we were right, then we advanced with literally seconds to spare. It turned out we were right. So off to encounter two we went.
Our second encounter had a very obvious and clear non-combat objective. This time we just bullied our way into the encounter, ignored the monsters as much as possible, and completed the objective. It took about 22 minutes and only expended a few resources. We were feeling pretty good now. By this point all the other tables were empty. It looked like no one else made it past two encounters during our slot but us.
The third encounter was our downfall. We just couldn’t figure out the objective. Eventually we decided to try and kill all the monsters and then worry about the final objective, but there just wasn’t enough time. Afterwards the DM told us that in order to complete the objective we had to first kill the two biggest monsters on the board. We, of course, focused on clearing out the fodder first.
The DM also told us that he felt the fourth line of the poem (which we handled in out third encounter) was the most difficult. He also told us that the adventure was originally supposed to be completed in a set order (with no choices offered) and that this was originally the first encounter.
I think it’s safe to say that most people playing in the Championship this year did not have a lot of experience playing at epic level. I know that I had very limited exposure to epic play. My home group tried a few epic level dungeon delves but that was about it. Never had we played epic with a timer. These factors combined with characters that were created for us made the even that more challenging. But the D&D Open Championship is supposed to be challenging. This is a tournament intended to separate the good players from the truly great players. And after our attempt to complete the adventure I will attest that only truly great players had a chance at victory.
I learned after GenCon that the winning team included Stephen Radney-MacFarland from NeoGrognard.com. In his article Winning D&D he provides a great recap of the championship round. He also has a great follow-up article called Judging D&D about the DMs that run the Championship.
The Dungeon’s Master team extends our congratulations to this year’s D&D Open Championship team and look forward to competing in next year’s event. We have it on very good authority that next year’s D&D Open Championship will again be epic level and run in much the same way as this year’s tournament. We’re counting the days to GenCon 2011 and are already looking for player to join us in next year’s D&D Open Championship.