(insert random picture!)
This was a huge e-mail response I just made to a listener who asked me for advice on how to run good tournaments.
There's a lot of very subtle and underlying choices that go into running tournaments which are designed to increase player enjoyment of their tournaments which go above and beyond just playing a few games with some fair rules judging.
Each one of these elements is designed to increase player enjoyment of your event, not to increase some sort of misguided competitiveness or other such thought. Overall, just like with any event your run, you will be successful if you are focusing on ALL players having the most FUN possible, not focusing on if your top table guys got competitive games or not (although these things generally go hand in hand). Overall, remember that the same guys will always win the events, they will always play each other in the end, and so on. However, this will be just a small portion of the people at your event. Your job is to cater to everyone, the majority, who won't be winning all their games or playing at top tables.
In a nutshell, if you make it fun for "most" people, your top guys will be having fun because your events will be large, and top guys like large events because it makes them feel like they are doing better. Hope that makes sense.
So, here's some elements that make a great tournament in my opinion.
1) One prize for top players, multiple prizes for people who won't make top tables. - Top players don't care about prizes. They win them all the time. What they care about is proving themselves, prize or no prize. A top player gets satisfied by a trophy, not so much a box set. Give them a token prize and a trophy, they go home happy. Distribute the majority of your prize support to non-winners. Do this for painting competitions, runner-up brackets, best sports, best army, or really anything, and make sure that at least a few things can be earned just randomly. A great concept here is to randomly distribute a prize weighed towards people who have lost games. (I.e. the more you lose the greater your chance at a random prize).
This all depends on prize support of course. However, do not fall into the trap where you give the farm away to the guy who won the event. He doesn't really appreciate the prize, and everyone else will get discouraged and stop coming, which eventually leads to the top players stopping as well because they no longer have an event to prove themselves at.
Pro Tip: You can buy sweet dog tags for like $3 on the internet that say things like "Tournament Champion". custom made. Great trophies for a little bit of nothing.
2) Pick a mission/tournament format that is fair and simple. The more fair a mission, the better everyone feels about playing it. The simpler it is, the better everyone can understand it. Top players are going to win missions no matter what they are, no matter how wonky. To break a myth, non-top players do not enjoy wonky missions. They are complicated, not fun, and take a lot away from the game. If you want to run "wonky", story missions, do those in a non-tournament event, like a narrative event, games day, or something that isn't competitive.
Pro Tip: No matter how smart you think you are, you won't come up with perfect missions. Nobody likes wonky missions. If I have to read a entire page of text and discuss with my opponent just to understand what we are supposed to be doing or how some deployment works, I'm not having fun and neither is he.
Pro Tip: Use national level GT missions for events that are close to you. Generally, their mission packets are vetted, very well thought out, fair, simple, and even better, attract people to your event because they can use your event for training for that event. (For example, you are in Sacremento, I would highly suggest then the Bay Area Open format which is not only very good, simple, and vetted, it's used in many GT level events in your region by the Team Zero Comp crew that run them).
3) Complete fairness and impartiality. Whoever is judging should not be playing, PERIOD. This just creates a sense of hostility and unfairness. Keep in mind that people are paying a fee to play in your event (even if it is a tiny one). They don't want to feel like they are being robbed. I've been there before where I had to run an event and could not play in it because of it. Yes, it is a thankless job. You do it for the love of the hobby. :) If you want to play in an event that your organize, you need to strive to find a good judge who is impartial to you. (I.e. do not pick your best friend). Alternately, a good idea for smaller events is to randomly nominate a few entrants and have a council judge system for larger rules disputes.
Pro Tip: Use a nationally vetted FAQ. The INAT in my opinion is the best one, like their rulings or not. Alternately, several large GTs produce their own FAQs.
4) Terrain Set-up and Policy. Adopt a fair and balanced terrain set-up policy, not some random assignment. Pay very careful attention to your terrain and that policy. For example, I highly recommend the NoVA Open terrain format. WargamesCon also has a very good terrain format. Their policies produce very fair boards with very fair terrain layouts.
Contrary to common wisdom, players do not enjoy playing on wonky or crazy terrain. Also, consistency provides for fair and fun games for all involved, not "boring" games as some people will claim.
5) Use a Scheduling Algorithm that Attempts to Match Top Players to Top Players where possible in the end. The point of this is that top players love playing top players. That's why they show up! Non-top players do not, however, enjoy playing top players. It's discouraging. Use a scheduling algorithm which will favor top players jumping out of the pack so that they play each other in later games so that your non-top players end the day playing each other and having FUN.
For example, during Round 1, try and set your initial match-ups so that Top Players are not playing each other at all. This way, for Round 2+, they will jump out of the pack and play each other the rest of the day. This frees up non-Top players.
I am not suggesting you FIX the tournament. If someone legitimately loses, they must play at a lower level. What I'm suggesting is basically seeding the tournament based on expectations. This produces a FUNNER tournament, not a less fair one. By the laws of random, it could have ended up the way you seeded it anyways.
6) Adopt a scheduling algorithm that attempts to not have friends play each other and attempts to schedule players to tables they have not played on before. Most of the tournament software I have available for free use will do these things. It's on our forums. My Bay Area Open format scorer is out of date, but I plan on updating it soon.
7) Save the wonky missions and story terrain for events that are not tournaments. Bottom line is, a tournament is a competition.
If you or your player base really enjoys narratives, wonky terrain, crazy-fun mission formats, comp'ed lists and so on, there's nothing wrong with that at all! However, that does not make for a very fun/good tournament. My recommendation then is that is your calling is to run narrative events, games day style events, and just in general, events which do not intend to reward winning. You will enjoy yourselves so much better that way! Do not run a tournament expecting everyone who shows up will want to play in a wonky game. You will find yourself getting upset as people will show up who are competitive nature and want to win, play hard, and so on. Your event will not turn out like you want it to.
8) Lastly, always remember if you are a TO, your job is to ensure the most people are having the most fun! This does not mean creating an event that only caters to the 2 guys who always win. BORING! Not to mention, discouraging for everyone else.
Distribute prizes in non-competitive ways. Call up people who win best painted (take best painted SERIOUSLY!, also best sports if you want to) and laud them just like you would best general. Applaud participation and reward guys for just showing up. Remember, if no one shows up, you don't have an event.
Other than that, here's my top picks for terrain/mission formats:
NoVA Open Terrain Format
WargamesCon Terrain Format
Bay Area Open Mission Format
NoVA Open Mission Format
WargamesCon Mission Format
Adepticon Mission Format
Feast of Blades Mission Format