February 19, 2009

RPG As A Competitive Sport

I meant to post these thoughts during the December blog carnival on Transistion and Transformation but the idea struck me a little too late at the end of the month and it took a much longer time to organize my thoughts. However, I have decided to post this as a series of exploration into what RPGs can transcend into in the future if we take them and headed towards a certain direction.

Have you ever heard of a RPG Championship? The first time I heard it was when Joe Dever, author of the Lone Wolf series started to write the gamebooks after he won as the first British in the AD&D Championship of America in 1982.

However, as I searched and asked around the forums about how such a championship works, the replies have told me that the notion has been unheard of. After a while, I still think that RPGs can be a competitive sport.

Firstly, let's take a look at some of the characteristics of competitive sports. A competitive sport usually involves;
  • a game that test ones skills
  • a group of players
  • a referee
  • a goal
  • a scoring system
RPGs seem to fit these criteria perfectly except for the last one (and arguably the second last one too). This how I think RPGs seem to fit.

Test of Skill
Playing RPGs does involve skills but the degree of dependency on a player's skill over his character's skill does vary according to the system. However, I think it would be more interesting to watch a player overcome obstacles rather than their characters by just a throw of the dice. So for this reason I think it should be agreed upon that competitive RPG games should focus more on providing challenges on the metagame level as well as the in-game level.

Metagame skills in a RPG that test a player's capability could be puzzle-solving, obstacles that required logical solutions, player knowledge (more on that later), tactics and the ability to think on their feet. 4E D&D's skill challenges can also seem to fit the bill here.

Team Play
Although not all competitive sports always require a group of players but RPGs are put in a natural spot where it is played as a team. A simple game can always become more dynamic when it involves more than one person working together towards the same goal. So a competitive RPG game becomes a team game and we all know that teamwork is vitally important to the success and survival of a RPG group whether competitively or casually.

Teams would also have to find the right balance of character builds that also suits their play style. Min/maxing is probably the way to go since character development is probably not going to be carried over in a competitive environment.

When it comes to team sports, referees are almost as vital as the players themselves. In RPGs, the GM is the referee but the problem comes down to being fair and neutral as a referee than someone who runs the game. What's important is that the GM places priority on running a fair game over creating a fun experience for the players.

Professional or qualified rules lawyers could also act as support to the GMs like how there are sideline referees in basketball and soccer/football. Their role is to provide solid answers to any rules arguments that players might have during the game. This could probably take a load off the GM's worries as he concentrates on setting up the encounters or react according to the player's actions.

RPGs don't usually have a well defined or material goal but a competitive sport has to have one in order to determine the victor and the loser. We can, however, try to determine certain wanted outcomes of a RPG as the goal.

For example, D&D 4E has a quest system which lays out a few objectives that the PCs should achieve in a certain adventure. The party which is able to complete these quests could earn some points that will decide who is the victor. Major quests must be completed in order to finish the game and they earn the most points while minor quests will grant the team extra points which could be an important deciding factor.

The goals should be clearly laid out during the pre-game or early in the game so that players can start planning their strategies on how to achieve them.

Scoring System
Lastly is the scoring system. Scores could be awarded based on what was mentioned above or scores could be measure by how many treasure and XP that the team is able to collect when they complete an adventure.

I'm open to alternatives and I think it will highly depend on the game system. I'm curious to see how the upcoming Dungeon Delve will introduce their scoring system but it should work along the lines of the players/PC achieving a certain coveted outcome in a RPG.

The Vision
With all these in mind, this is how I envision a competitive RPG sport to be like.

Team of players are formed numbering from 4-6 players depending on the optimum size of players for the game system. This number does not include a GM.

The game is probably played in a silent environment, very much like what you see in chess tournaments, billiards and tennis but more likely indoor.

Fixed or accessible modules are used such as convention-styled modules for shorter games or classical location-based modules (Tomb of Horrors, Castle Greyhawk, Undermountain, Temple of Elemental Evil etc.) for longer games. This allows the teams to train in these modules to understand and memorize the dungeon layout, finding the best tactics to overcome certain encounters and where the quest spots are located.

For the sake of variety and not allowing the game to be too predictable, some areas from the original module may be replaced by an encounter to test the players' skill designed by a panel or association of qualified GMs. As mentioned above, these changes could be as complex as a trap puzzle or simply answering a RPG-related question that only players can answer out-of-character rather than depending on a knowledge check.

GMs or rules lawyers must be qualified and will be tested on their understanding of the rules. Their job is to act more as referees and not someone who wants to have fun.

Tournament modules should be written with limitations as such so that adjudicating is cut down to its minimum but any necessity to adjudicate is the GM's call.

Depending on the scoring system, it will also determine if the game is run with a time limit or not which can also be a factor is determining who's the winner. I took the basis of this format mostly from convention gaming because it seems to fit pretty perfectly with what I had in mind except for a few minor changes.

The game has to be pretty fast paced because I know that spectators of a RPG session can be pretty bored by a slow moving game. So there's probably also a need to impose a time limit on decision making for players in combat. Call it a Action Clock or something.

These games are broadcast through televised/online RPG channels (hey, I'm thinking big) and there's a regular season of short convention-styled games before the classic module playoffs from teams all over the world. Another way of doing this could be that teams are qualified if they played and gathered a certain number of points in sanctioned conventions/tournaments or beat enough modules during certain qualifiers (like how Magic: The Gathering does it) to be enroll in the RPG League/ Grand Prix.

Spectators can be as tense as the players when they are watching one of their favorite player/character having to make a crucial dice roll to save or a critical hit. Commentators would certainly be needed to keep the tension moving.

Sponsors of the RPG League will be the game publishers themselves and brand endorsement will be rampant on the gaming table, the module publishers, the battlemats, the dices, the miniatures and other gaming accessories.

Another alternative of a RPG League could be a competitively structured campaign with teams of players playing in one same setting and they get whittled out as the season progresses (perhaps through PvP?). All aim on achieving a certain final goal like defeating a certain BBEG first or other overarching goal. This brings in character development and other long term character benefits into play but it would most definitely require a specialized system of moderation of its own.

So, do you think RPGs can become a competitive sport?

(As a side note, there is a fictional RPG tournament in the series, Gold)


Mad Brew said...

GenCon hosts the RPGA's D&D Open Championship every year (not sure if other major cons do it), which my group has participated in twice... though we never have enough people so we always have to supplement our ranks with people we don't know.

Last year we made it into the semi-finals but our supplemental people were no-shows so we had forfeit.

Anyways, they have a timed tournament dungeon and groups are scored on how far they get, how many players survived, how many encounters they beat, and how much loot they recovered.

Some groups have been doing this for years and actually show up with team "uniforms" or at least team shirts with signs on easles naming their group and its members.

So yes, it could be/is competitive.

Questing GM said...

Thanks Mad Brew!

I knew it! I thought that it was pretty weird where the forums I asked and no one has ever heard of, much less been in a D&D tournament before.

I would really like to watch how it is run for once and how players perform in them.

Any plans for this year?

Mad Brew said...

Not too sure about this year. I tried 4e for a while, and had fun, but I prefer 3.5/Pathfinder.

I am waiting to see how many members of my gaming group I can assemble for GenCon, which will determine which events I sign up for.