If you play D&D you should be well aware that there are two different ways to sit at a table with friends and play the game. Homebrew and official play. I’ve briefly touched on some key differences between the two in another article but I feel the need to speak more extensively on official, organised D&D play.
The official play of Dungeons & Dragons is referred to as Adventurers League (or AL as I will now refer to it as). It is a way for people to take characters from table-to-table, state-to-state, country-to-country, and “legally” play wherever Adventurers League is being played. AL can be played in stores, at home, online, and is the most common D&D play at conventions. Being able to grow a character at different tables really helps to add depth to that character itself, expand your D&D play (the more tables you play at, the more DMs who run for you, the richer your experience will be, in my opinion), and gives people the option of travelling and still playing with some consistency.
So what’s to dislike about Adventurers League? Why is official play so disliked by many tabletop RPG hobbyists? From the conversations I’ve had, it seems to all boil down to lack of understanding of what official play is and entails or chalked up to some bad, local experiences.
Let’s touch on the easier topic first. Say you go to your local game store (LGS) and sit down at a game to play Adventurers League. It’s one of the worst sessions you’ve ever played. The DM never let you make interesting choices, the other players were only ever concerned with min-maxing their characters and getting the most XP out of the session they could…the whole session was just bland, boring, and not very roleplay heavy. So all official play must be like this, right? All official play must revolve around gaining XP, creating the most mechanically “optimal” character, and who cares about the storyline and roleplay?
This couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s just that one table at that one LGS. Just like that one homebrew table at the person’s house were roleplay takes a back seat and mechanics/rules and min-maxing are the focus. These tables happen everywhere in and out of official play and I would argue that it happens equally.
So if it’s not how the table plays, why else would Adventurers League be disliked?
I won’t lie. There are some restraints. You can only create a “legal” character, for starters. Legal characters are races/classes from the PHB or other official books (Volo’s Guide to Monsters, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Sword Coast, etc.). Another restraint is that when creating a character you can only use the PHB and one other source book to do so. So if you want to be a Gloom Stalker Ranger like my wonderful AL character Aether is, you can only use Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and the PHB for the rest of the creation of your character. I can admit this can be a bit restraining, but I understand the purpose of it. The races/classes need to be monitored and balanced when you are apart of official play. If you don’t care about balance or accountability, Adventurers League may not be for you.
There are also minor other steps you need to follow in character creation (Point Buy or standard array creation only, for example), but I find none of it is restraining in any way and all of the boundaries are set simply for the sake of fairness and balance. Which makes sense to me. What fun is it to sit at a table where one character and one player outranks another in all other aspects?
Let’s move on from character creation in official play and towards how official play works. This can be a doozy – apparently. It seems many of whom I have spoken with having these preconceived notions about the official play that are simply not true. Most importantly roleplay. For some reason, many believe roleplay takes a major backseat. This is, once again, up to the DM and the players over what is the focus. They also believe your choices are limited as a character. Not really, only if you see modules and hardcovers are linear. They aren’t. You don’t want to do that “quest”? That’s fine, your character can leave the module and you may, if you wish, literally roleplay what you do instead. For example, I once played online and my character did not want to partake in a particular adventure because of her personality. Instead, I RP’d what she did in her “downtime” days while the characters played throughout the module. And if you really want open world games, play hardcovers in Adventurers League, especially the really sandboxy ones like Curse of Strahd or Tomb of Annihilation. (And good luck with both).
There are also always ways to incorporate the players into the creation of the world in Adventurers League and a good DM will always strive to figure out how to do this. For example, the fact I’ve left my “random encounters” entirely up to my PCs pulling cards from the Tarroka Deck in Curse of Strahd. Those encounters are completely their choice as players/characters to make. Not mine.
To give a further example of the openness Adventurers League can offer…those some players recently took over an entire town (Vallaki), implemented a democratic government, found homes for ill-treated children, and continuously ignored larger adventure paths for what they wanted to do. They have consequences to face further in the game, but I think the RP value of letting them loose on the demiplane of Barovia is fantastic fun.
So why not just play that in homebrew?
Because when (if) those characters escape Barovia, they can go to a convention and play in another game as the same character without having the DM question their level, their magic items, etc. They can go to any other LGS that offers Adventurers League or play on Roll20 but now they have this character they’re deeply invested in, that has grown with them, that they get to continue to play elsewhere with other, new characters and new DMs.
My favourite Adventurers League character, Aether, was a prejudiced elf. She hated everyone who wasn’t apart of her family. But then after spending many weeks with the same individuals, she grew to enjoy them, she grew to trust and want to protect them. Eventually, their adventure came to an end and she joined a new party, but she trusted them much faster than the last due to her character growth. But low and behold, after they had begun their journey an old face – not quite yet a friend – joined her. She scoffed when she saw his Dragonborn face and rolled her eyes a bit thinking to herself, “You again,” but in reality, I loved being able to hop from table-to-table and have this backstory, this depth, these relationships. Homebrew doesn’t offer this unless you play with the same group all of the time or very lenient DMs.
Then there’s my new Adventurers League character, Nimble String, Tabaxi Monk. I say new because I’ve only had the opportunity to play her twice despite creating her in September of 2017. The reason I haven’t played her is simply that of roleplay. I love this neurotic character I’ve created, however, she became quite attached to a fellow player character, TumTum, an orcish barbarian. With their connection made, I doubt she would have, as a character, left him without a fight. She played one session without him and the entire time she was trying to search for him, constantly distracted by anything large that came into her eyesight. The other characters at the table were very confused by this, but I had to roleplay her the way she would have acted. The DM understood (he was the same DM for both games) and he fully accepted me doing that. Now she sits, idly waiting for a chance to play with her TumTum friend again.
Another part of Adventurers League I like over homebrew is something I’ve mentioned a few times. Balance. In homebrew I find several characters tend to become unbalanced even when the DM tries not to make it so. It’s part of their character motivations and perhaps some of the personality traits of the players at the table. In Adventurers League, that simply cannot happen unless you are actually a different level in the same tier. Why not? Because magic item distribution is taken with a systematic approach. If everyone at your table has a magic item besides you and then the party uncovers a Cloak of Protection, you automatically get dibs on that Cloak of Protection. If you don’t want to, it goes to the next person with the lowest amount of magic items. If several individuals with the same amount of magic items want it, you all roll for it and the highest roll wins. This is to ensure continued balance throughout gameplay.
Now, for some quick summations of some restraints around Adventurers League play I’m going to close off this post with a list of necessary “rules” that must be followed for a “legal” session:
- Adventurers League tables must consist of at least three players and one DM minimum. They can have a maximum of seven players and one DM.
- Certain adventurers can “trap” your characters there unless they “pay” a certain “price” to escape. For example, Barovia. If a character enters here they must pay a certain amount of downtime days to leave. If they want to return, that price is doubled. This means those characters can’t go off and play in different adventures or modules until they pay this price or find an escape.
- When there is a dispute regarding a rule, it still comes down to the DM or the whole table’s call. Though the rules are typically followed, they aren’t incredibly strict, you can bend them to fit the enjoyment of the table.
Overall, I prefer Adventurers League play in 5e to homebrew because of the accountability and the flexibility of it. If I truly felt like playing AL online with Aether, I could in a heartbeat find any virtual table to sit at and play with her. It makes finding a group of players and a game much, much simpler than homebrew as well.
I haven’t touched on all points whatsoever, but if you’re ever unsure about Adventurers League play, how it may work, or have concerns about pieces of it, I’m always more than happy to discuss it further with those who want to and are interested in it.