Next week I will be running some of the A-series modules at TotalCon, originally run as the AD&D open tournament at GenCon XIII in 1980. Coincidently, I’ve been reading old Dragon Magazine articles and last night I reached issue #49, which happens to include some articles about that very tournament. Philip Meyers wrote an article called “The Slave Pits revisited: Suggestions for ‘saving’ the AD&D Open”. It’s a critique on the format for that tournament, which when reading between the lines sounds a bit like sour grapes from someone that didn’t do as well as he had hoped. Interposed directly between the pages of this article is a reply by Frank Mentzer, titled “Mentzer’s reply: It isn’t that easy”. Together, they present a really interesting view on the tournament scene of that time period.
Meyers asserts that the goal of allowing as many people as possible into the tournament (in this case it sounds like around 800 played) has superseded those of assuring every player has a good time, and that the best players advance to the final rounds. I think he has a legitimate complaint about the chances of getting stuck with a “bad player” that ruins it for the rest of the group, though I think that’s part and parcel of playing any convention game. That said, Meyers focuses much more on the impact this has on allowing a truly good player to advance. In his words:
Some alterations need to be made in the AD&D Open to minimize the role of group dynamics and luck and maximize the role of individual skill and enjoyment, within the physical limitations present. Only then will the AD&D Open truly be a tournament.
I find this particular argument fascinating. The very terminology “open” and “tournament” suggests an inspiration from sporting events like golf, which is “open” to any participant and the ultimate goal being to determine which individual is the most skilled. Golf is an interesting comparison point, as like D&D there’s no direct competition, it’s just the individual players vs. the game itself, embodied in D&D by the DM. That said, golf is an individual’s sport, and I would argue that D&D is clearly a team sport.
It gets difficult to follow this analogy through then, as I have to dig really hard for team based sports that are not direct competitions against other teams. Winter Olympic sports come to mind, like tobogganing, where each team is judged solely on time to get down the course. Though I suppose it would be possible to have a “tobogganing open”, one would still expect teams to come having already trained together and ready to perform as a team. I doubt anyone would want to get into a toboggan with some random guys he just met.
In Mentzer’s reply, he grapples with this too, and comes up with an unusual conclusion: to introduce opposing teams. He mentions developing a scenario called “Battle Royale” in which a single DM overseas two teams of 8 players who are directly competing against each other in a single game. While he rightly chides Meyers for his idea of having very short 1-hour rounds as untenable, I would think that likewise a single DM dealing with 16 players organized into two opposing groups would be just as taxing on the poor DM.
Part of the problem they were tackling back in 1980 I’m sure stems from the explosive growth of the hobby. Tournament reports always seem to marvel at the numbers of players that show up, and I’ve yet to read one where it isn’t mentioned that the tournament filled up and some players had to be turned away. Meanwhile, around convention time every Dragon Magazine seems to include ads practically begging for DMs to run tournament rounds, and even Mentzer’s article here ends in such a plea. Even the numbers for the 1980 Open: 800 players and only 40 DMs, suggests that they were struggling to keep up with demand.
This also points out an interesting fact: the reason there are multiple different first rounds in these modules stems from having to time-shift when the first rounds were run. Each DM likely had to run multiple first rounds, and as Frank says in his article, players who run later first rounds must be prevented from “illegally gaining information on the scenario used”. While I have romanticized the idea that many different mutiple rounds gives the feeling of some kind of meta-setting whereby many teams were sent out to invade the slavers at different locations, ultimately it looks to be merely a symptom of not enough DMs or physical space to run all the first rounds at the same time.
One of my greatest disappointments in researching gaming history is knowing that I will never be able to know what it was like to be part of the D&D tournament scene in those early days. Clearly they were a product of their time. Even were we to attempt to recreate the experience, as I am somewhat doing myself next week at TotalCon, it will never really be the same. I’m certain we’ll never see those kinds of numbers again, and what’s more I think the ratios have changed. I bet at a modern convention if you got all the folks interested in old school D&D together, there would likely be a much higher ratio of DMs to players than there was back then.
Still, I find it fascinating to read any account I can find on what the tournaments were like back then, and see what impact they had on the materials being produced. I know anecdotally that the A-series were pulled together from material used in various TSR employees’ home campaigns. When I purchased them last year at the GenCon auction, the guy working the till who took my cash was none other than Harold Johnson, co-author of A2, and he told me a little about it as he signed my copy. I wish I knew then what I know now, I would have grilled him for more info on what that original tournament was like. That said, I’m certain that the demands of the tournament format ultimately had a significant impact on how these modules were edited and put together. It would be really interesting to see the actual materials used at the tournaments to compare with the final printed modules.
And I cannot help but ponder what I’d do differently where I to be part of some effort to organize a modern tournament. How would it differ from the tournaments of the late 70’s and early 80’s? What lessons can we learn from those past experiences? And of course the most pressing question: would anyone actually show up?