Welcome to the Arena: How to Run PvP D&D

If you’re a fan of RealmSmith, you might be following Champions of the Realm, a charity tournament of PvP (player versus player) combat. It’s good fun. They even got Bruce Buffer to do the announcements.

If you want to run a PvP tournament in D&D, how do you make it work?

Players and scheduling

Realistically, you probably want at least four players to make an exciting D&D tournament, and if you don’t have enough players to make this work, you could always allow two or more entries from each player. A tournament of more than 16 players could start to get a bit unwieldy, but hey, it would be epic! Tournament Manager is great for putting together a chart to see who fights whom. Make sure you do the draw in a fair and transparent way, or you risk creating bad blood from the outset.

Unless you are fortunate enough to live locally (or you all attend the same club), you are probably going to run these fights online. I would suggest Roll20 for this because it is the simplest free platform and the one most D&D players are familiar with, but Fantasy Grounds, Foundry etc would also work well.

One of the advantages of a tournament game is the flexibility of scheduling. While it’s great to have spectators, you only really need three people to agree on a time: the DM and the two players. The fights won’t be as long as a normal D&D session, so you can slot them in more easily around your busy lives. Even with trash talk and deliberation over rules, I can’t see these fights lasting much longer than an hour.

Credit: RealmSmith

Rules

You want to give this some thought if you’re hosting a tournament. D&D 5e is not designed for PvP combat, and there are rules that can be exploited to gain an unfair advantage. Create a one-pager so that everyone knows what the rules are before they create characters.

Personally, I’m a big fan of RealmSmith’s approach, which I will quote verbatim here:

  • Each fight is five rounds of D&D combat.
  • Up to 8 Hit Dice can be spent between rounds to replenish Hit Points. Once they’re spent, they’re gone for the rest of the match.
  • Conditions reset after each round.
  • Effects remain for the duration of the effect or until removed.
  • If a combatant is reduced to 0 hp, the round ends. If this occurs to the same combatant in 3 different rounds, the match ends in a TKO (Technical Knock Out).
  • If a combatant starts a round with 0 HP and has no Hit Dice left to spend, the match ends in a KO (Knock Out).
  • If the match goes the distance (all 5 rounds without a KO or TKO), the DM decides the winner based on Roleplay, Battlefield Strategy, and Damage Dealt.

Even here there are rules loopholes that can be exploited (eg, a wildshaping druid will essentially have two health bars), but it’s impossible to iron out such things completely.

I added one more rule. You can start the fight with Inspiration if you engage in pre-fight trash talk and provide entrance music for the DM to play when you walk on. For me, this stops the tournament becoming too serious.

If you have any other house rules, be up front about them from the outset. It’s worth brushing up your rules knowledge before you start: I have a series of posts on this. I would particularly recommend reading up on counterspell and agreeing how it works at your table. Many groups don’t play the spell as intended or written. Ultimately, though, all players need to agree that the DM’s decision is final – even if it’s wrong in the moment. If you know you have a tendency to play the rules lawyer, be sensitive to that, and remember that it’s ultimately meant to be a bit of fun. 

Character creation

Champion of the Realms is a tournament for 8th-level characters, and Tier 2 is often considered the ‘sweet spot’ for 5e D&D. Characters are less fragile than Tier 1 but can still be challenged. From Tier 3 onwards, they become more and more godlike, and a PvP tournament at this level could be rather unwieldy and complicated.

You need to agree a few ground rules for character creation. Personally, I would suggest point buy for ability scores. I’m a big fan of rolling stats, but point buy ensures a degree of equity. I would also suggest that players take average hit dice after 1st level; rolling can get a bit ‘swingy’.

Magic items complicate things, but they are also a big part of the game. My advice: keep it simple. Ask players to use standard starting equipment and a limited number of magic items manageable: one uncommon item for 5th level, a rare at 10th, a very rare at 15th, and a legendary at 20th. These should be permanent magic items, not consumables, and the DM should have final say if a player is trying to ‘break the game’.   

Be clear from the outset whether there are any character creation options that are not allowed. I would encourage players to stick to the Player’s Handbook and one or two other sourcebooks (eg, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything). Feats and multiclassing are technically optional rules, and both can be open to abuse in a PvP tournament. 

Once the tournament is underway, I personally don’t think players should be allowed to change character options, but you might feel more leniantly, particularly if you are playing with less experienced players. Feats, items, skill proficiencies, ability scores: all that needs to stay the same. Whether spellcasters can prepare new spells is up to you.

Battlegrounds

While there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with a featureless battle map, it’s a missed opportunity. Terrain can add strategic depth and make a fight feel special. One of my very first articles was on battlefield terrain, and I recommend using height, cover, hazards, and other features of interest to make your arena unique. Embrace the fantasy. Your fight could take place on the battlefields of Avernus, the streets of Waterdeep, in the jungles of Chult, or a Barovian graveyard. You may even want to add some low-level enemies like zombies or manes to keep things unpredictable.

RealmSmith seems to be using arenas that are 16 squares on a side, and this feels about right to me. Large arenas give an unfair advantage to marksmen and spellslingers; small arenas do the same for tough front-liners. With an arena that’s 80 ft square, characters starting in opposite corners will be about 100 ft apart. It’s up to you how much information you give the players about the battlefield before the combat, but I like the idea of preparing a few battle maps and randomly rolling which one you’re using each time.

Are you ready to rumble?

D&D maybe isn’t designed for PvP, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a lot of fun. Try it out, and let us know how you get on in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “Welcome to the Arena: How to Run PvP D&D

  1. The most important thing about PvP is establishing the rules around all the problematic spells and making sure players know them in advance. Things like casting suggestion with the suggestion “Concede, this tournament is not worth dying for” for instance and whether that means a single failed save generates an automatic win.

    Personally I think having all your hot dice available in a short 5 round combat means many fights will go to DM decision. This feels far less satisfying than reducing the healing available and actually having natural winners. DM decisions, especially when you take role play and strategy into account are necessarily subjective and some players will feel they lose unfairly.

    People also get tied up in circles about what pre-combat setup is allowed and what isn’t. So if you’re going to have a set of rules for PvP it’s important to answer this question.

    1. These are goos points. It’s a bit of a cop out perhaps, but I think a PvP tournament, like any tournament, assumes a certain degree of sportsmanship, and the suggestion trick maybe feels a bit unsporting to me. You’re right, though: it’s something to discuss. (I also encouraged all the players to give me a bit of heads up if they were planning something complicated or something that depended heavily on a DM’s ruling.)

      As for the five rounds: indeed, it often went to DM decision. But two things. First, the winner was often (not always, but often) an easy call, and it was fun to discuss with the other spectators. Second: there were other people watching this tournament, and their fun was also a factor. A ten-round slog could easily run into 90 minutes or even longer, and I don’t think that’s something we wanted.

      These are all suggestions, of course, and you’re free to run your own arenas in whatever way works best for you!

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