The problem with the tournament scene

Being a poor sport about sport

gaming meta

I don't like sports. I tend to think of geek culture in general as being against sport, but that's a sentiment influenced strongly by my own social experience. If you think about it, sport and tabletop gaming share a lot in common. They're competitive, they're games, people play them for fun, there are usually points involved, and goals, and so on. And probably for this very reason, sport and tabletop gaming actually do cross over sometimes. In tabletop gaming, this is usually represented by the tournament (also known as "competitive play" or "competitive circuit" or "the championships" and so on). These days, tournaments are usually sanctioned and organized by the publisher of the game, and personally I think there's a right and wrong way for it to happen.

Tournaments bad

Personally, I know the golden age of a game is over once a tournament scene shows up. That's how I feel about tournaments. There are exceptions (which I'll get to, later) but generally I find tournaments restrictive, imposing, and esoteric. I think they codify the fun out of games. They prompt game designers to make bad decisions, game publishers to print mistakes, generate a lot of noise about the game's "meta", and altogether frighten away new players.

Codifying the fun out of a game

Tournaments are meant to be tests of player skill. The illusion is, essentially, that every board game is exactly like chess. It's perfectly balanced, and each player has exactly the same resources as the other.

Anybody who plays tabletop games knows that this isn't accurate. Modern tabletop games offer players arbitrary choices over how they build a deck or assemble an army, they implement all kinds of strange rules and systems meant to break those rules. Tabletop games are unbalanced, and that's by design because modern gamers understand that not everyone feels the need to earn a trophy for every game. Like many tabletop gamers, I play my favourite games to find out what's going to happen this time. Does the Fellowship get slaughtered by a bunch of orcs? Does a goblin end up with The Ring, with Frodo's head on a spike? Or do Aragorn and Legolas manage to kill the entire horde on turn 1? Nobody knows, and that's what makes the game fun.

You can try to make that "balanced" so that both players have a totally equal chance of winning, but then you have to add a bunch of exceptions and details to ensure that Gandalf is powerful but not too powerful, and that Frodo's ring does a cool thing, but not something too cool, and so on.

Admittedly, a lack of balance affects "casual" players (that's the term we all have to use now, to differentiate between normal people playing a game and the "serious" tournament players), but it's not widely regarded as important because in a home game you can change rules on a moment's notice to ensure everyone is having fun. You can't do that in a tournament setting, because that's just not fair.

Bad decisions

Game designers always have to balance what requires a rule and what doesn't. Technically, in a game, everything requires a rule because anything without a rule can be exploited in literally any way any given player sees fit. But in practice, rules have a hidden cost. The more rules you write, the more a player must remember, or else must remember to not remember but to look up. Sometimes it's better for everyone to just assume that most players will play the game fairly in the first place, and work together to resolve edge cases when they arise.

Here's a simple example. When there's a board included in a board game, most players understand that a player token cannot move off the board. In a board game, the board is all that exists. This works exactly as expected when you're playing with your friends.

But put the same game into a tournament setting, and suddenly there's a player arguing the point that the rules don't say anything about not moving off the board, so it's technically a valid move. And you know what? That's true. I would be the guy making that argument in a tournament, because in a tournament the stated goal is to win the trophy by any legal means necessary. What's "legal"? Whatever's written in the rulebook. In the context of a true competition, the debate over the spirit of the law and the letter of the law is part of the game.

Tournament judges require just cause to make their rulings. A judge cannot confidently say something's not legal without rules support. So games designed for tournaments tend to end up with rules that are arguably not actually useful, adding mostly noise to the equation except when suddenly required to make a ruling for an edge case.

Mistakes were made

With hundreds and hundreds of lines of rules, and constant oversight of game balance, it's frightfully easy for a game publisher to either print something in error or to print something that suddenly urgently needs changing. Everybody thinks a specific card is fine until somebody discovers a stupidly powerful combo that wins on turn 1. This stat block is fine until players take it to its logical conclusion and suddenly have infinite movement or unstoppable damage. But the game's been printed, and tournaments are starting up. Now what?

Printed material for games these days is often egregiously out of date compared to online errata. We're almost at a point, in some games, where the printed version is really just for collectors. It's the thing you put on your shelf so your house guests know what you do in your spare time, but the thing you actually use is the digital app on your mobile, or the latest PDF download, or both.

In normal actual tabletop gaming (as opposed to tournament gaming), the printed material is probably fine. It was apparently good enough to get through playtesting before printing. Or maybe it's not fine. Maybe there was no playtesting and something got printed that's really bad, but people still like it enough to play it. Either way, bad rules get caught by the community, and they get adjusted by players. House rules spring up, as they have for as long as I've been alive (show me a gamer who plays Monopoly rules-as-written), and probably a lot longer. This dynamic adjustment of rules doesn't make poorly printed material any better, but it acknowledges the malleability of tabletop games. Rules for tabletop games are best when they can be changed. It's what makes the medium great.

Don't download the errata, just play the game the way that's most enjoyable to you and the person you're playing with.

Frightening away new players.

Believe it or not, it's pretty intimidating to approach a game with constant updates to rules that are so long you can't be bothered to read them in the first place. I think there's also a degree of hesitancy for many players to get into a game that's hyper-competitive. Board games are meant to be a fun distraction (OK, or obsession), and not everybody wants them to happen in a football stadium with bright lights and camera crews and sweaty shouting crowds of players and spectators.

Undue influence

Tournaments aren't bad, and people aren't bad for wanting to play in or watch tournaments. But when a tournament's influence starts to change how a game is delivered, I think there's a disconnect.

This is not an insurmountable problem. Just because Magic: The Gathering and Warhammer 40,000 has it wrong doesn't mean everybody has to get it wrong. In fact, there are lots of great examples of reasonable models for a tournament scene.

Tournaments good

The Pathfinder and Starfinder roleplaying games offer organized play to people who want to play the game in big groups. With Pathfinder Society and Starfinder Society (both of which are also in-world organizations, which I love), you can join a game at your local gaming store or online that uses the organized play rules. These are a set of restrictions placed over top of the existing "casual" rules, and it allows you to take a character from one game to another with all your experience points and approved loot in tact. Items that aren't approved get sold back to the in-world Society, meaning you can find and maybe even use a stupidly powerful magic item during one session, sell it to your in-world sponsor at the end, and then travel to the next adventure with all your XP and gold but no over-powered magic item. Paizo has a programme for "Venture Captains" to mentor people on how to be a Game Master for organized play events, and official adventures and character sheets are annotated, in-world rewards given, and so on.

It's a brilliant system that works really well and doesn't affect the game that everyone buys off the shelf. You can buy a Pathfinder 2 rulebook today and play it for years without ever knowing about organized play. It'll never come up. Nobody's going to show up to your game and insist that your character has too much gold for your level in accordance to article 399-4f of FAQ & Errata 2021.08 (I made that up, but you get the idea). The rulebook is the rulebook.

To be fair, there's [way too much] errata issued for Pathfinder and Starfinder, and some of it's really hard to keep track of. However, most of the errata that Paizo bothers releasing are for systems that just don't work as printed (I do wonder why it was printed in the first place, but I guess that's why it's called errata). Stuff that could be better, but does work as designed, is usually left to house rules. And that's the way it ought to be, I think.

Another good example is any given casual gaming convention or meetup, the ones where a bunch of people get together to just play games all day. It's not exactly a tournament, but conceptually it's pretty similar. You gather people into groups, you play games, you keep score. It's a tournament, and it has no effect on the published game. Event organizers can place whatever restriction on gameplay they want. As long as it's posted somewhere so players know the rules, it works perfectly. It balances the game, or keeps the games within a reasonable time limit, or whatever the goal is, and the tournament proceeds, and people win trophies. Game publishers don't have to re-issue rulebooks or release errata or maintain a list of banned cards or nerf stat blocks. You can do that yourself.

Some people like tournaments

Even as I list all the reasons I believe tournaments have spoiled all my fun over the course of my life, I also acknowledge two truths:

  1. My life hasn't actually been affected by tournaments
  2. Some people love tournaments and deserve to have fun

Thanks to tabletop gaming, we can all have what we want. People who actually do enjoy the sports side of gaming can make tabletop gaming into a sport, and I actually think it's great that they can do that. If you gave me a magic wand that abolished tournaments, I wouldn't use it (and I'd have to sell it back to the Pathfinder Society at the end of the game anyway).

Tournaments are a great driving force within gaming. They get people invested in the state of the game, it keeps people engaged, it keeps gaming companies busy. There's room for everyone, and as I've demonstrated there's even room in the tournament scene for different play styles. However, it's also true that it's possible to wholly ignore the existence of tournaments. Don't worry about the errata. Don't worry about the mythical player who's never actually going to show up at your gaming table and insist that you play "correctly". Unlike tournament judges, tabletop gaming needs no justification. You can play games how you want to play them.


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