Monday, April 4, 2011

C is for Competition

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

C is for Competition. Every decent D&D campaign should have a healthy dose of competition in it.

Note: I am not saying “challenge.” D&D is already fraught with challenges…hopefully, many that challenge the players’ ingenuity, not just their inventory list. Competition is something else entirely…a chance to engage players by forcing them to prove their worth while distinguishing themselves from others. This helps:

A) Engage them in the act of playing their character (i.e. “role-playing”),
B) Discover something about their character beyond the scribbles on the paper,
C) Adds to their legacy by giving them “bragging rights.”

Every time a character sets foot in a dungeon, it’s like a fencer stepping on the strip, or a boxer stepping in the ring: a chance to prove his (or her) worth through individual ability. But with whom is the adventurer competing?

The Dungeon Master? Bah! The DM is “all powerful;” she can bring the whole dungeon around the party’s ears with an arbitrary earthquake if desired.

The monsters in the dungeon? They’re imaginary! Besides the fact that they can appear or disappear on the whim of the DM, there’s no rule mechanic that equates “tough ass character” with “impressing monsters.”

No, there is only one thing with whom player characters compete: each other.

And the competition can take a variety of forms; “who’s the biggest badass?” is just one of the more obvious. However, competitions between players can be designed (by the DM through challenges in the adventure) to prove:

- Who is the smartest/sharpest tool in the drawer?
- Who is the quickest witted?
- Who can take the most punishment?
- Who can sacrifice the most?
- Who’s the best talker/storyteller?
- Who’s the bravest?
- Who’s the kindest/most compassionate?

Riddles, puzzles, and challenges that pit the characters AGAINST each other are the thing we’re looking for…with the “winner” of the challenge to be rewarded (even if the reward is “not to be punished”). The reward need not be huge or game changing…a piece of treasure, a temporary bonus, some healing, or a small magic item…it’s the competition and bragging rights that are important.

We have been told often enough that D&D is a “cooperative” adventure game, and of course this is true. Without the fighters, the wizards would be cut down; without the clerics the fighters and wizards would get level drained or hit pointed to death by gradual attrition; without thieves all would be at the mercy of mechanical traps and locked doors. Clearly, the PCs need to work together to delve dungeons in the most efficient manner possible.

But this series of posts is about “taking your game up a notch”...and adding a layer of competition to the game does that. The game will still require cooperative effort on the part of the players, but giving them small competitions to help them step up and establish bragging rights (even for a minor trinket or boon) will make for a richer experience, giving players something more to talk about then just “what happened,” AND providing players with an increased understanding of “who they’re characters are.” For example:

- He’s the guy that’s good with riddles.
- She’s the Halfling that’s not afraid to go down the hole.
- He’s the dude who’s willing to offer his rations to the starving refugees.

Or whatever.

Helping players understand their characters helps them to engage with the character at a deeper level, making for a richer role-playing experience. A little competition never hurt anyone.
: )


  1. Competition between players is great until the competition becomes "who can kill off the most of the other players' characters."

  2. You realize you're going against the principle of niche protection, right?

    If so: GOOD JOB!

  3. I think you're dead on. Right now, I'm running two different characters. One is competing with the rest of the party by in the "I'm the best at keeping you alive" sense.

    The other is competing in terms of seeing how many times he can defy death.

    It's fun.

  4. @ John: I like that, too, actually.

    @ Taly: What's niche protection?
    ; )

    @ Id: Right on.