Now that D&DNext has been announced, it’s clear that 4E’s time with us is limited. Still, we have piles of perfectly good 4E books sitting here. How can we make use of them? 4E is ideal for player-versus-player combat scenarios, so let’s do that.
People have certainly tried D&D PVP before. It works, and it’s fun. The problem is that so many aspects of the game can be very subjective. Inconsistent rulings by the DM, or even perceived DM favoritism can make it difficult to feel truly fair. But 4E can take what many critics consider its biggest drawbacks (a rigid, highly codified rule system and heavy emphasis on combat) and turn them into advantages. When you’re playing PVP, rigid combat rules are exactly what you want.
We’re not talking about 1-on-1 gladiator fights here. The different roles in 4E mean some matchups are just terrible. A leader is going to be ganked by a striker every time. We’re definitely looking at a team approach — at least 3-on-3, although teams of five would be nice. It depends on how large your group is. Even though we’re not going to be worrying about story or role-playing too much, we’ll still need a DM to act as ref and handle various environmental hazards and NPC monsters. In fact, the ideal set-up has two DMs, so both teams can be run simultaneously until they actually run into each other. There’s a “hidden information” aspect, as well — with two DMs, each team can be run in a separate room or table so they’re not totally sure where the enemy is in the dungeon.
You could do a basic deathmatch, last team standing kind of thing. That seems a little boring, though, especially when the two defenders are left grinding away at each other’s hit points. The better option is to construct a scenario. Capture the flag would be perfect — the team would have to formulate strategy, decide who to leave behind to guard the flag, who runs ahead to try for a capture, etc. Another possibility is a single neutral flag in the center of the arena. Territory control scenarios, while requiring a bit more work and bookkeeping, could be a lot of fun as well.
The Robot Viking crew actually ran a PVP scenario at a gaming con here in Buffalo last year (we’re going to try it again this year, and then possibly take it to bigger and better places). We constructed a dungeon with a large central area and two connecting areas on opposite sides. Each team entered opposite sides and had to make their way toward the center, dealing with various traps, obstacles and monsters on the way. Once in the middle, they had to race the opposing team to grab the magic Macguffin on a high spire in the middle of a deadly room, then race to get it out the way they came in. It turned out to be a ridiculously fun, intense, down-to-the-wire race, won or lost on a single final die roll. There was a lot of loud cheering and general ebullience, so I’d have to chalk it up as a success.
There are some pitfalls to watch out for. You don’t want imbalanced teams, so you need to use preconstructed characters and do some testing to make sure everything is even. You don’t have to have identical characters on either side, though that would certainly make balancing things easier. In our run-through, we found a disparity in darkvision to be very problematic. Make your pregens around 5th level, widely considered the sweet spot for 4E. Lower could work, especially if you want a faster scenario, but go too much higher and you’ll be dealing with complicated turns that will slow the game down a lot. In fact, I think a turn timer might be a good idea to enforce speedy play and keep the action humming.
I doubt Wizards is going to put out any revolutionary new 4E material aimed at PVP, although Lair Assault is certainly a nod to the competitive combat aspect of 4E. Still, there’s a soft spot in the market for any third party publishers looking to capitalize on an underserved aspect of the outgoing edition. It would be a great way for 4E to live on, a specialized branch of the game that lets you go head to head with your pals. Who knows, maybe we’ll see combat tournaments at big game cons some day?