Encounter Roleplay is starting a D&D Sports league where various teams of characters will be facing off, deathmatch style, to see who wins a bout. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and I will be interested to see a match or two to see how it is presented, but I can’t help but think about other ways that I think D&D can be made into a competition without utilizing a direct deathmatch style.
Illusions of Balance
It’s not that it doesn’t make sense on some level–gladiatorial fights aren’t alien to the genre by any means. It’s just that, on a regular, long term basis, I think there are elements of D&D that don’t get highlighted as well in a deathmatch style presentation.
- Classes really aren’t balanced the way people think they are balanced–a balanced class is one that contributes to adventuring as much as another class, not one that can take the same target down to 0 hit points in the same amount of time
- Many classes have abilities that are best showcased over a wide range of challenges–worrying about environmental hazards and traps is greatly lessened when characters run at one another in an arena
Now, having not yet seen the show, I suspect Encounter Roleplay is going to do some interesting things with the matches. Probably some risk versus reward elements as players decide if they want to unlock a chest to get a magic item or just dive into the fight, or having some random environmental factor that everyone in the arena has to deal with.
Kind of like an unironic version of the One Shot Network’s super entertaining Dungeon Dome show, which casts teams of D&D characters as tag teams in a cross between gladiatorial fights and professional wrestling.
Ghosts of Competitive D&D Past
I know there has been a long running tradition of tournament modules, adventures that a party will complete in an allotted time, with scores associated with performing certain tasks–for example, if they retrieve treasure from a specific room or solve a specific puzzle. I can understand why this approach isn’t going to be used, because even watching the most entertaining group play through four hours of an adventure, and then watching another group do the same thing, and then watching it get scored, may not make the for the best broad appeal.
Given that fights in 5th edition D&D can be resolved much more quickly than, for example, 3.5 or 4th edition D&D combat, it’s entirely possible that you can keep the show’s run time down to a reasonable run time and fit multiple combats into that time.
How Would I Do It?
All of that said, you know what I’d like to see in a competitive D&D show?
Something like American Ninja Warrior or Ultimate Beastmaster. Instead of playing through a whole scenario, frame the situation as two adventuring parties in a relatively linear gauntlet that requires multiple skill sets.
“This week, our two groups of adventurers will face the Guild Master’s Gauntlet, an infamous series of traps and murder rooms set up by the Guildmaster of Thieves to test all of his prospective employees!”
“This week, our adventuring parties will be traveling through the Ephemeral Passageway, the extradimensional space created by a mad wizard to see who is worthy to inherit their abandoned tower!”
Quick framing device, then a very focused, say, five room dungeon. Not much story, mainly thematic description that flows from the initial sparse setup.
You could have traps, environmental hazards, and monsters in those five rooms, and part of the challenge would be deciding if you want to use your spellslots or consumable items to get past the obstacles, or if you should lean on skills and save your resources–and at the end, have a suitably nasty boss fight with something that has legendary actions and lair actions.
Not a full tournament adventure, but still something that would allow for scoring. Not something that has zero story elements, but something that has most of them front loaded.
Now, this set up only plays to two of the three pillars of D&D. Even in this truncated example, how could we get that last pillar in play? What if we have a timed (maybe three minutes or so) segment at the beginning where the party face negotiations with the gatekeeper of the gauntlet to get more stuff. If possible, set up audience participation with a vote to see if they make a check at advantage or disadvantage, and if they make the check, and by how much, the team gets extra consumables from a set list.
To mechanize any puzzle rooms you might have, you could provide a clue to the puzzle, provide an extra clue for a successful check and and an additional clue for each 5 above, and if they don’t solve the puzzle in an allotted amount of time, they just don’t get the points for the puzzle room and they move on.
I will admit, I’m someone that approaches D&D from the standpoint of story first. If there isn’t a story beat in a dungeon room, I don’t want to deal with that room as some kind of time sink or red herring. One of the things that started to cause some burnout for me with 3.5 D&D was that players that were tactically savvy could fight way above their weight-class, EL wise, unless the DM was similarly tactically inclined, and I felt that all of that started to shift the game into “story mode” and “tactical mode,” and it felt less like an integrated whole to me.
I don’t know how entertaining this endeavor will be, but I have definitely enjoyed shows on the Encounter Roleplay network in the past. I know the appeal of Dungeon Dome, for me, was that the players were coming up with over the top, entertaining personalities, so it was much less about the competition, and more about seeing the fantasy trope/professional wrestling trope fusions unfolding.
All of that having been said, I now have a firm image of variously brightly clad people employed by the creator of a challenging gauntlet of obstacles, standing on platforms ready to shove PCs off onto the ground, or shooting at them from behind clearly marked targets, and I have successfully merged two stables of my youth in my own imagination.
By no means am I saying my way of how I would do it would be better than anything that came before. This was just a bit of a thought exercise to see how I would do it. I’m looking forward to seeing how this unfolds, with lots of curiosity.