Dungeons & Dragons has its roots in miniature wargaming. Miniature war games pitted one set of military models against another set across a battlefield landscape. It was all about moving battalions, squads, and units. D&D introduced the dungeon master concept, and everything changed. It became less about big armies and more about individuals.
Wargaming gave way to exploration and dungeon delving. Instead of revolving around player against player interactions, the focus shifted to players against fantastical creatures and evil overlords. The game became more social. Character advancement through experience and upgrades took center stage. The direct combat element was neutralized but never eliminated.
Can D&D Be Competitive?
In recent years, there have been growing attempts at evolving D&D and other roleplaying games into online and competitive tournament versions. The typical table-top game session is slow and steeped in rules that beginners usually aren’t familiar with.
This passive approach is not appealing to casual viewers looking to be informed and entertained. As a result, competitive D&D is emerging as a mechanism to improve pacing and add excitement. Time will tell if this strategy pays off.
In the Beginning
Gary Gygax, D&D’s creator, worked on a war game called Chainmail in the early ’70s. He created the rules system for the game based on medieval military types and weapons. He added a fantasy element with rules for wizards, elves, heroes, and dragons. Gygax preferred strategic competition from a single character’s point of view. In Gygax’s view, the crucial element was overcoming the obstacle. The character was the player’s tool to do so.
Dave Arneson, D&D co-developer, had a different view. Arneson believed that roleplaying, characters, and the adventure were more important than competition. He created the concept of a narrator or overseer, which later became the dungeon master. For him, a character was not a tool alone. The player had to recognize the nature and abilities of a character and play its role within the game. Roleplay gaming became its own system, distinct from the wargaming system.
Adventure or Combat
Player versus player (PvP) fights are rare in a D&D adventure, but not impossible. When parties are unbalanced, fights can happen. If you have a law-abiding, stoic paladin adventuring with a chaos-inclined, mouthy rogue and a neutral but sarcastic warlock, there’s bound to be conflict. It’s up to the dungeon master to calm the tension through mediation or combat.
Miniature wargaming told the story through military skirmishes and strategic positioning of units. Dungeon masters in the 5th edition of D&D have more control over the game via storytelling and encourage collaborative improvisation. D&D tells the story through adventuring. Combat is a necessary task on the way to the next goal.
Players see D&D as a cooperative social game. Winning the quest, advancing a character, and collecting the rewards is a group effort. Competition and PvP as methods of winning the game are not emphasized. Modern D&D table-top players prefer it that way.
The Competitive Side of D&D
The social side of roleplaying games is ideal for a small group playing at home or at a games club. At conventions, people do not have an unlimited amount of time to play. Convention gamers organized games to accommodate large numbers of players and limited time. Competition was the name of the game.
Gaming conventions are held annually. The first official D&D Open Championship was held in 1977, sponsored by D&D distributors TSR and Wizards of the Coast. Players set up teams that competed against other teams using the same adventure. Each round had a time limit of four hours. Participants gained points for completing tasks, finding treasure, and defeating monsters. Teams with the most points moved on to the next round. There were four rounds.
Facing increasingly powerful monsters with an ever-present ticking clock, teams could not dally with exploring and building the story. Players had to think more about combat to get through the villainous obstacles round after round. Having the best weapons became a goal instead of acquiring experience points.
The competitive aspect gave an advantage to veteran players. More knowledgeable players knew the nuances of the rules, as well as their characters’ traits. They could rack more points in less time than more casual players.
In the ’90s, rules were changed. Instead of the entire time advancing to the next round, the team would pick their best player who would then advance to the next round. This had the benefit of newer players learning from veteran players. People having to work together in a new team increased the social aspect and the level of excitement.
In 2016, changes were made to the format to encourage new players and emphasize roleplaying over pure competition. All teams played to the last encounter with eight hours on the clock. The team with the most points won.
Analog to Digital
If miniature wargaming was a “theater of the hands”, then a roleplaying table game was a “theater of the imagination.” Game consoles and computers introduced these games to even more people. It’s become a “theater of controllers, mice, and goggles.” There are more options to play D&D than ever before.
Wizards of the Coast created the D&D Adventurers League that allows players to create a character they can use in any Adventurers campaign. The campaign can be played at home, at a games store, online, or at conventions. The company is supportive of Dungeons & Dragons Online. It has 24/7 cooperative play, an active community, and viewable live gaming.
Created and run by players, D&D playing leagues have found a new home online. Games are streamed on Twitch live, and full sessions are available on YouTube. It’s a form of passive entertainment.
In 2019, Encounter Roleplay attempted to merge D&D gaming with competitive multiplayer online battle arena games (MOBA). In the game, two teams with four players each are dropped into a dungeon. They must battle other teams (and lots of monsters) to emerge victorious and win the $5000 prize money. The attempt was a good proof of concept but not a commercial success. It did show that a D&D style game had esports potential.
For the last decade, Hasbro, D&D’s owner, has been building and experimenting with an online gaming hub and building apps for its titles. For example, Magic: The Gathering Arena had over one million mobile players. Top players can qualify for the world tournament.
Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner has said that D&D was “ripe for esports competition.” He added, “People are more into Dungeons & Dragons today than ever before. People are re-engaged with that brand because it’s a face-to-face game, it’s immersive, and it’s a game that people really enjoy playing with one another.”
The game mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons have been battle-tested for more than 30 years. Its universe is expanding every day with new games and accessories. Casual players are pushing the game more and more into mainstream consciousness.
The full potential of competitive Dungeons & Dragons has not been reached. Will the vision of Gary Gygax for a strategic, combat-oriented game be realized? The seed was planted at the game’s inception. It grew sturdy and strong but overshadowed. Online audiences want active games to play and to watch, so a reinvigorated combat system may be just what the digital world is waiting for.