"In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable."
I can't stress the overall importance of simply planning for your tournament. Think about what you want your tournament atmosphere to be - competitive and geared towards the power game, laid-back and focused on the enjoyment of attendees, or a middle ground somewhere between the two? A tournament focused on power gamers will have to be very structured, offering a level playing field to all attendees; whereas a "fun" tournament can be much more casual and off-the-cuff.
Will your tournament have an overall theme/storyline or willing it simply be a collection of competitive games? Both types of tournament are equally valid but, to be successful, you also need to take into consideration your game system's target audience. A tournament that encourages competitive play and with no storyline may not attract players if the system itself encourages casual play and/or has a rich backstory, and vice versa. Ask yourself - if I was a player, would I be interested in entering this tournament?
Pick a group of scenarios or battles and play them yourself (if possible using several different forces) - what works and what doesn't? If you're looking to have a tournament based on player enjoyment, did you have a good time playing? If you're looking to have a competitive tournament, were the scenarios well-balanced and challenging enough? What did your opponent think? Don't be afraid to test and re-test your scenario list.
Think about whether or not you may have to make (minor) changes to the rules to accommodate tournament play. I run a Necromunda tournie at Adepticon every year and it's not a system easy to translate into tournie play. This has required several rules changes on my part to make it viable and they seem to go over well with players because they make sense, don't bog down actual game play, and are applied equally between all the players. If you make rule changes, be sure that they are fair and balanced.
Where will you host your tournament? A good FLGS should be more than willing to allow the use of its gaming space for a good tournament - especially if the store sells the game system being played - and a good store owner will realize it as a chance to build goodwill, increase publicity, and (hopefully) sell more product. However, in an FLGS setting, the onus falls on you, the tournament organizer (TO), to be prepared, spread the word, and be a fair and friendly judge. Cultivate a positive working relationship with an FLGS owner who allows you use of his store. Be professional, keep him/her updated regularly, and make it clear you appreciate the use of their business.
If your FLGS is unable or unwilling to host your tournament, try not to hold it against the owner. This is after all their job and their business and they are making a business decision in accordance with what they see as their own best interests.
If an FLGS space is not an option, speak with representatives of your local school, library, or other non-profit organization which has large meeting areas (Moose Lodge, VFW, church, etc.). Be ready to explain what you'd like to do and when you'd like to do it. Give them a general overview of the system, if they're interested. Be professional and courteous in your approach. If you procure the space, the onus will be on you to provide pretty much everything (though they may assist with preparation and table setup/takedown) but you will have some independence from the regular updating that a FLGS or convention would require.
A convention setting is also an option and may be easier for first-time TOs, since the convention organizers will have a very structured schedule to work under and can also provide help if you're unsure of how to proceed. Convention organizers may also help keep down your personal expenses in running a tournament by arranging paperwork and scenario lists, helping with setup and takedown, and possibly liaising with retailers to provide prize support. Note that you will generally be under strict deadlines to get any rules changes, scenario lists, tournament primers, and other material to the convention organizers - especially if they are helping with producing and distributing tournament paperwork. As with your FLGS - Be professional, keep them regularly updated, and make it clear you appreciate their assistance.
How much space do you have? Personally, a good tournament should offer at least 5-6 full tables to accommodate a minimum of 10 players. It's okay if you can't get 10 players to sign up, but you should at least have the option to host that many. If there's more room to expand to allow the entry of more players, that's good too though be cognizant of how many players you can personally assist without the help of someone else (which I'll discuss further below).
Don't forget table size in relation to your system's required playing area! In most popular games right now, a 4'x6' area is very common and a "fold-up" table will normally have to be set side-to-side to accommodate that area. Be sure to take measurements and calculate the specific amount of table space you can provide for players.
Do you have enough terrain to cover your tables adequately? Depending on the game system, you may require a large amount of terrain per table or a very small amount of terrain. If you don't personally own enough terrain to cover your tables, try borrowing from friends or other members of your regular gaming group. If you are using an FLGS space, be sure to ask the owner if you can use the store's terrain for your tournament. Never assume.
If you're in a convention space, speak with the convention organizers well ahead of time regarding your fore-casted terrain needs. They may be able to provide convention terrain or help in asking other TOs for the use of their terrain in your tournament.
Don't forget gaming mats, which can be easily overlooked. If you don't have enough and you can't borrow enough, you can buy 72" wide craft felt in nearly any basic color by the yard at a local craft store.
On a related note - make sure the terrain you have looks nice. It doesn't have to be studio quality terrain by any means, but it shouldn't be as basic as throwing down a shoebox building and stacking textbooks under your gaming mats to represent "hills".
Charge! (...For Registration)
Unfortunately, tournaments cost money. You may not be picking up the tab but someone is. Printing tournie paperwork/flyers, getting necessary materials, and procuring prizes will be your main expenditures. This doesn't even take into account the cost of your own personal time and work.
The best way to defer these costs is to charge a reasonable entry fee to your players; a good rule of thumb being to divide the total cost of everything equally between each potential player. For example, you buy a total of 3 items to award as prizes costing $50. If you have enough room to accommodate at least 10 players, you'll want each player contributing at least $5 as an entry fee ($50 / 10 = $5). If you can accommodate more players, you can either lower the entry fee (hoping to get enough entrants to recoup your costs), spend anything extra on further prize support, or even donate the remainder to charity.
Remember to keep costs down so you don't have to charge an arm and a leg to your players for entry. There is a point by which, regardless of how great the prize support is or how well-organized a tournament may be, players will not spend the money for entry.
What you want every potential player to think
Be sure to have a system that keeps track of player registration and collected fees. You should have a deadline by which refunds won't be issued for players who pull out.
The Terror That Is...Rules Knowledge
What's most daunting for first-time TOs is their own rules knowledge and the inevitable judging that any tournament will require. The good news is that it's usually nothing to worry about, as long as you do the following:
- Know the core rules. You don't have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every esoteric rule in the book but, you should be able to grasp the basic game sequence, mechanics, and play structure. In other words, be able to play a game without having to open the rulebook for basic rules questions.
- Familiarize yourself with most major force lists. Again, encyclopedic knowledge isn't necessary but you should know the basics of your game system - the difference between a Tactical Space Marine and a Devastator in 40K, how a US Rifle Company is organized in FOW, etc.
- As mentioned above, play your scenario list to look for common rules questions.
- Be proactive. If possible, release a brief rules overview prior to the tournie outlining any changes, exclusions, or FAQs.
- Encourage your players to settle minor rules questions between themselves. Make them aware that any Judge's decision is final.
When confronted with rules questions during the tournament:
- Listen to your players' question. Give them your full attention.
- If it isn't a simple question or you need clarification of the problem, ask your players to explain.
- Always have a copy of the rulebook and FAQ around. Do not be afraid to cite chapter-and-verse if already fully explained by the rules.
- If the rule is open to interpretation, use your best judgement and remain impartial. Be concise. If possible, make a note for future reference.
- If a player disagrees, don't be afraid to let them briefly argue their point and let you consider it. Conversely, don't allow yourself to be swayed if you believe their argument is flawed or to defuse a poor sportsman.
- Remember - a Judge's decision is final.
Before the tournament, consider how many rules questions an average game involves and the time it takes to settle that. Now, consider that roughly 25% of your total players may ask the same questions; with the percentage drastically rising if there have been any recent rules changes. Can you alone accommodate rules questions, whilst managing tournament scoring and ranking? If you don't think you can, ask a friend or two who are also familiar with the rules to help out.
The Big Day
Be sure to get to the venue early. You want to have enough time to speak with the venue organizer(s) if necessary, setup the tables and terrain, get your tournament paperwork arranged, and check-in any early birds (there will inevitably be at least one).
Give each player who checks in their tournament packet, review their force list (if necessary you may want to set a deadline for lists to be emailed to you, so you don't have to spend time the day of checking them), and assign them a table. You will probably have at least one or two no-shows. It happens, even when players spend a good amount of money paying an entry fee. You may want to have a "ringer" force ready to play, in case there are an odd number of players.
If the majority of your players arrive on time, do not hold up play for latecomers. Before starting, thank everyone for coming, give them a brief overview, and tell them the schedule (if not included in the tournament pack).
Keep an accurate track of time with a stopwatch for timed games. Give out verbal warnings when specific amounts of time have elapsed/are left to play (i.e. "Players! You have 30 minutes left to play!"). At a set time, before the end of each game, let the players know there are X minutes left to play and not to start another turn if both players cannot finish their turns.
Give time for meal and bathroom breaks. Do any paint judging at these times. When assigning players to new games, try to give each player a chance to play every table.
At the end of the tournament, thank everyone for playing again. Reward prizes as follows - by rank (1st, 2nd, 3rd), sportsmanship, painting/modeling, any other soft scores. Solicit player opinion on what they'd change/improve.