While I have made it to GenCon on several occasions, I never managed to get to Winter Fantasy (now called D&D Experience, a.k.a. DDXP). This year, with my new duties as an LFR Admin, I decided I should make it up there to meet with my compatriots. This time of year always stretches finances, so I looked for a way to go on the cheap. This meant driving up with others, living on PBJs, and working at the con.
I offered my services to both RPGs and DDM, but my qualifications as a DDM judge quickly got me snatched into those duties. Admittedly, I have judged several local DDM pre-release tournaments, participated in two Constructed Championships, and have been playing since Harbinger, but I had never judged anything at a professional level before. On top of that, it was going to be the brand new, revised skirmish rules for most of the convention. Of course, it was brand new to all the other judges, too, so I probably shouldn't have worried.
The first step to being a good judge is being prepared. I downloaded the latest versions of both rulebooks, the FAQ, and the revised Desert of Desolation stat cards. Everything got printed and put in a binder. My intent was to have a universal resource I could study on the drive and reference at the con. This worked well with the exception that I neglected to download and print the DCI Floor Rules -- that would become a small problem. There were definite times when I could have benefited from reviewing them before the convention. Still, the preparation proved invaluable, and the universal binder came in handy for not just me but the other judges as well.
Gaining some play experience with the new rules would have been very useful, as well. My local group stopped playing during the holidays, and they weren't going to pick it up again until the release of Dungeons of Dread. The Orlando players were trying out the new rules, but with all my other preparation leading up to the con, I didn't have time to join them. Studying the rules would have to be enough.
This was going to be a working vacation, so I was glad we arrived early enough for me to participate in some Living Greyhawk Geoff mods. My first scheduled event was supposed to be the Desert of Desolation draft using the revised rules. My shift actually started four hours before that, so I helped set up and register people for the League.
For those of you not familiar with it, the League is an informal gaming setup used by the RPGA at most large conventions. For a low entry price, you get two boosters to build a warband with. Each time you play a game, you get to visit the table up front and roll 1d20. Each number has a mini associated with it. You get the mini you roll, which can then be swapped into your warband if you wish. If you won the match, you get two rolls and take the best of the two. The more matches you play, the more minis you get. The League goes on the entire convention. Anytime you have nothing better to do, you can always play in the League.
This being my first major tournament, I was a little nervous when it came to official procedure. One of the other judges helped me set up the Dungeons of Dread draft. Once the ball was rolling, things got a lot easier. Questions about the new rules kept me hopping the whole time. At no point did I feel that I didn't have anything to do, and sore feet soon became a problem. Unlike judging D&D games, DDM judges are always on their feet and constantly moving from table to table.
I thought I was ready for any question, but players always have a way of surprising you. For example, I never expected to have to answer, "Can I leave to go out to the lobby to pay for the pizza I ordered?" in the middle of a pre-release tournament, or, "I am going to vomit. What should I do with my minis?" during the warband building portion of the Limited Championships. For those interested in the answers they were, respectively, "No!" and "Just go! I'll watch your minis."
The next day I actually got to play a couple of rounds of D&D, my sole downtime during the show. After dinner, I judged one of the Dungeons of Dread pre-release tournaments. This was my first look at the new creatures, so it proved both interesting and challenging. By the end of the evening, I felt confident with the new rules -- confident enough, in fact, that I started discussing and arguing the new rules with our head judge, Dwane Stupack. Besides being head judge, Dwayne has worked closely with Peter Lee and Stephen Schubert on clarifying the new rules and stat cards. He spent a good deal of time during DDXP typing up the questions and clarifications that arose during play.
One word of advice for players and judges -- never get into a rules argument with someone who has the power to 're-interpret' the official rules in the middle of the argument. You will always lose.
Now that I was comfortable with the new rules, I had to switch gears to run the last major DDM tournament under the original rules -- the 2008 Limited Championship. This was not an easy thing, either. Players and judges alike frequently had to pause in mid-thought to recall which rules they were actually thinking of. The huge number of players made for a completely different challenge. Spotting a raised arm calling for a judge and then weaving your way through the sea of people to get there had me feeling like a new member of a Thieves' Guild trying to run a gauntlet for his initiation. Here's where my DDM experience really proved useful. The revised rules may have been new to everyone, but the original game was old hat to me. Still, 10 hours of DDM is grueling on both judges and players. I was quite thankful when it was finally over for the day.
The judging went smoothly … for the most part. We had to deal with one major issue. A chronic problem with timed events is slow play, and the DDM Limited Championships were no exception. The biggest difficulty with adjudicating slow play is identifying it in time. With only a handful of judges, watching each game is impossible. We have to rely on the players to point out slow players. Even when you're in the middle of it, it is difficult to identify slow players until half-way or more through the match. By the time a judge is called over to watch for slow play, much of the time allotted for the round has already been lost. On top of that, slow players become more conscientious about slow play when a judge is watching, so they speed up their play. Note that 'slow players' includes both those who unconsciously play too slowly to get a fair result in a one-hour game session and players who deliberately stall to win the game. The first is unfortunate, but the second is outright cheating. Distinguishing between the two can be difficult. In the end, our solution was to appoint as 'headhunter' a judge with proven ability to spot slow players, then turn him loose to watch specifically for slow play and to keep an eye on those players who had previously been identified as potential slow-players. Once that was established, things went quite well.
A highlight of the evening was the Community Draft. This is an open, unofficial draft tournament that includes judges, players, and Wizards employees alike. Each participant brings a prize for the prize table. After as many rounds as time allows, everyone stands in line in the order of their successes and picks from the prize tables. Prizes range from mystery boxes, collectable items, and custom painted minis to gaming products, artwork, a six-pack of Australian beer, and even a Gelatinous Dreidel (complete with revised DDM stat card).
Sunday was the last day of the show and the finals of the Championship. With only eight people to judge, we could afford to pay more attention to individual games. I ended up watching games with a young man named Thomas Johnson, whose whole family came along to cheer. This may have done more harm than good, between Mom making sure he ate properly and Brother almost being ejected for trying to get Thomas's attention by shining a pen laser into the tournament area. You've got to love family.
Thomas had a strong pull in the draft and is a solid player. Some nervous habits arising from inexperience eventually forced me to give him a procedural error and nearly cost him the tournament, but …
In the end, Thomas Johnson emerged the winner of the 2008 Limited Championships. Congratulations, Thomas!
Finally, it was time to leave DDXP. It was a lot of work, but it had also been a lot of fun. I met dozens of nice people and made the acquaintance of many talented players and judges. I even managed to avoid the dreaded DDXP plague that brought down Ian Richards along with many judges and Wizards employees. Now I just need to make sure I reserve enough vacation time to do this again next year.
About the Author
Bill W. Baldwin lives on the Space Coast of Florida with his gaming family of a wife, two daughters, and assorted pets. He started playing D&D in 1974 and was a wargamer and miniatures gamer even before that. Bill has been published in Dragon magazine and does freelance work for Wizards of the Coast.