Let's consider three different contexts for playing D&D:
- Home campaigns. Here you'll be playing with the same players & characters over an extended period of time. Characters will almost certainly be generated individually to player taste; they will advance and explore the world over time. Old-school “sandbox” style play basically requires this context.
- Convention games. This is a one-shot adventure, possibly limited to a 4-hour time slot or something similar. Characters may be pre-generated or custom-made (consider RPGA point-buy rules or the old DMG Appendix P, which I still use). The characters won't advance in any mechanical way.
- Tournament play. This is also a one-shot adventure, but in a competitive context. There will be multiple (possibly very many) playgroups run through the same scenario, with an eye towards scoring the best and picking a “champion”. Characters are almost certainly pre-generated (so as to give a level playing field to the competition).
Tournament games, meanwhile, have an excellent reason to be tough meat-grinders where the majority of the players “lose” (by acting as a strict filter, they make it easier to identify the one “champion” in the event that made the most progress; whereas if many people uniformly “win” it will be difficult to make that distinction). Compare to an interesting quote from recent cyberware games at West Point: the attacks designed by the NSA were made "a little too hard for the strongest undergraduate team to deal with, so that we could distinguish the strongest teams from the weaker ones." And this also explains why the earliest D&D published adventures all had a "killer DM" feel to them: they were all originally developed for competitive tournament situations.
Okay, so getting closer to my point -- Having considered the different kinds of play contexts I've seen for D&D, two of them have seemed the most compelling, and one is rather more frail for me. We might ask the question, "Why are we playing; what do we gain at the end?" Two of these situations have a meta-reward, outside the game itself, that makes the experience deeper and more compelling. In case (1) Home campaigns, the meta-reward is largely character advancement; levelling up, accessing new powers and magic items. There's also exploration of a larger campaign world over time, but let's face it -- The #1 revolutionary, addictive development that D&D brought us was the idea of persistent, advancing characters over many game sessions, and this is almost solely accessible in terms of a home campaign. In case (3) Tournament play, the meta-reward is the competition with other teams playing in parallel to yours, and seeing one team at the end awarded with honor and a trophy (or somesuch). Personally, I love playing in a tournament, and love the heads-down, high-proficiency play that I see in that context.
So that leaves case (2) Convention games, and frankly, I can't figure out what the meta-game "point" is to them anymore. When I run one, I'm left a little bit bewildered at the end about what the payoff is. It seems very awkward if there's a TPK at the end, and it seems almost equally awkward if time simply runs out after a certain number of rooms are successfully looted.
One suggestion is that there needs to be a specific "quest" in a convention game -- The players are given an explicit (or obvious) assignment at the start, and if they can succeed in the time alloted, they are declared to have "won". A few problems here: (1) It's difficult to estimate in advance a perfect set of encounters that lead to a "win" at exactly the 4-hour mark. (2) The setup manages to frustrate the classic D&D architecture of open-ended exploration, multiple paths, resource management, wandering monsters, treasure and XP rewards, etc. (3) There's still no meta-game reward from this in-game "victory".
Now, I have a good friend Paul who recently ran an exceptional convention game a few weeks back. Philosophically, we tend to disagree about many of the high-level "whys and wherefores" of D&D, but I think we almost always agree about whether a given game we just experienced was good or not (sort of an "I know it when I see it" experience). In the past we simultaneously co-DM'd a campaign, and at least once our differing styles stomped ugly all over each other (Ettin-style?). He may run a better convention game than I do; the one he ran the other weekend was one of the most fun D&D sessions I've had in a long time -- hilarious characters, great encounters, well-paced, filthy humor (which I like), great ending. I was mulling over my troubles with convention games on the ride over, and lo, my friend snaps off one of the best such games in my memory.
Anyway, Paul wrote up his notes on that adventure on his blog over here. The thing I was surprised and a bit unsettled by was that the quest, locations, and NPCs were all being invented and moved around backstage on the fly, which is how our investigations managed to lead us to saving the girl at almost exactly the 4-hour mark. Made for a great, nigh-perfect gaming session -- and it's not something I think I'd ever be able to bring myself to do, as it goes against every grain I've been trained in as a game designer, thinking more in terms of published tournament-style adventures that we'd prefer to keep fixed, replicable, and fair if multiple groups are run through the same adventure over time.
So, what to do? Should I just give up on running one-off convention games (granted that they frustrate all the meta-game rewards that are the hallmark of D&D), and leave them to better narrative DMs? Is there any way to interface the classic rewards of D&D in an isolated, one-shot experience? Troubling questions, since at this point in my life the only opportunities I have for play are the infrequent one-off convention games: the "gray zone" in the middle, if you will.