As a kid playing sports, I had no role other than the goat—the guy who screwed up and caused everyone to lose. When people talk about the magic of youth sports, about how they build teamwork and character and leaders, I want to wretch. All those people touting the magic of sports have one thing in common: They were good at sports. They never realize how much their talent contributed to their glowing feelings. For klutzes like me, being part of a team competition meant humiliation and scorn. “Thanks for making us lose. You suck.”
By the time I discovered Dungeons & Dragons, I had experienced all the losing I could stomach. Some of what drew me to D&D was that I could play without losing. In D&D, you can join some friends, roll some dice, and have fun. Everyone won and I liked it.
A typical D&D game stacks the odds to assure the players victory. Dungeon masters select and adjust the monsters to give the players fights they can win. DMs shy away from player-killing tactics like focusing fire. Some DMs secretly guarantee victory by making hidden rolls that they can fudge. In the interest of story, some DMs never let characters die without their players’ agreement.
I like story and I like seeing characters succeed, so I enjoy this style of play. Through a year of D&D, all the games I play will stack the odds for the player.
Except for one glorious event.
Now I will tell you how wonderful team competition can be.
Between 1977 through 2013, Gen Con featured an event originally called the D&D Open and renamed the D&D Championship. The Championship runs as a tournament, with teams of players racing to complete objectives while surviving a difficult adventure. Successful teams advance to later rounds until one team wins. Classic adventures such as the Vault of the Drow and the Against the Slave Lords series came from this competition. Every year I played, the Championship ranked as the most fun I had playing D&D all year.
What makes the Championship such a blast? It starts with the fun of D&D, then adds elements that most D&D games lack: challenge, high stakes, and urgency.
In the Championship, challenge is high because the odds favor the monsters. A Championship DM can do things that would cause hard feelings in a regular game. Focus fire. Single out healers and spellcasters. Coup de grâce. Championship DMs are expected to finish fallen characters. No hard feelings. In the Championship, I don’t care how tough a DM plays the monsters. Bring it on! All I care is that the DM plays efficiently.
This challenge makes the threat of failure real, and it offers a reward: When you triumph against long odds rather than against a stacked deck, the victory tastes so much sweeter.
Yes, PCs fail sometimes. Luckily in D&D, failure can be fun too. My teammates still tell stories of some characters’ deaths.
The competition creates high stakes in the real world. At the start, everyone wants to perform well to earn a spot in the next round. By the final round, everyone plays for the glory of a win. These stakes create more suspense than anyone feels in a typical game.
Because a fast pace enables teams to complete more objectives, the Championship rewards efficient play. Players in the Championship show an urgency that casual games lack. No one disappears into their phone. No one rouses on their turn, and then makes everyone wait while they examine the map and ruminate. The event’s pace makes the game hurtle ahead. Everyone spends more time playing.
I’m no D&D-playing star, but unlike those sports teams where I found humiliation, I can join a D&D party and contribute. At last, I get a sense of what the jocks always blathered about. Sitting on a team and contributing to success to can be glorious.
You can succeed in the Championship without bringing a team. I know multiple players who have joined a bunch of strangers, and then reached the finals. On two occasions, that was my story.
Championship DMs rank as the best of the best. They must master the rules and play quickly and fairly. Only the elite can handle the intense demands of the event. We players benefit.
Last year, for the first time since 1977, the D&D Championship was not held. The Championship’s elite DMs became a reason for its demise. When Wizards of the Coast launched fifth edition, they wanted these proven dungeon masters to help run the D&D All Access program.
The organizers wanted to push the Adventurers League over the older, tournament-style play. Ironically, when Wizards launched a version of D&D that aimed to embrace all the play styles of D&D, they killed the game’s oldest style of public-play.
Will the Championship return? Perhaps. It doesn’t appear among the official D&D events sponsored by Wizards of the Coast. They seem content to keep the Championship dungeon masters for the All Access event. Rumors say that some of the Championship’s long-time organizers are working to bring back the event. In light of Wizards’ tepid support and their eagerness to commit DMs to All Access, D&D’s oldest event faces a difficult chapter.
Do you love the D&D Championship? Have you played or run it? Do you want to try this thrilling event for the first time?