Organized Play – Pathfinder Society for Pathfinder and the RPGA for Dungeons & Dragons – is very popular nowadays, and they’ve all gone to what was originally called the “Living” format, where you have characters that progress as you move from table to table, group to group, GM to GM, made possible by strong standardization.
The benefits of Organized Play include spreading the game through play opportunities at conventions, increased regular play options for those without regular gaming groups, and provides adventure content quickly consumable by GMs. It also provides a sense of community among the participants that make them stickier to Pathfinder and other Paizo products.
There are downsides to Organized Play too however. Let me preface this by saying “yay, Organized Play is good, its adherents should not be drowned in drainage ditches or anything.” This isn’t an argument against it. I’m sure people will trip out, but just because you like something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be advised of its side effects, just like any other medication
However, I’ve been involved in organized play for a long time (RPGA, including Living Greyhawk Triad duty), and here’s some issues I see coming from it. It’s mostly an extention of “Walmart/McDonald’s syndrome” (Or now “Netflix syndrome”) – the kind of specific decisions you have to make to create something that works impersonally at scale become predominant and affect even smaller venues because they set specific expectations.
1. Strongly sets a playstyle that disallows GM flexibility/fiat in favor of rules adherence; this is pretty much unavoidable due to the format. This allows a strong focus on character optimization to flourish and become a default way of looking at the game. This isn’t all PFS, but I believe a lot of the rise of RAW/CharOp playstyle from fringe to majority in the last decade has been as a result of the strong 3e/3.5e/PF Organized Play movement. When 3e came out, no one dreamed of using the CR system, or wealth by level, or any of those things as a straitjacket, but now that’s common. Optimization was mentioned only in terms like “min-maxing” or “munchkin” beforehand, now it’s a major part of almost all rules discussion. Of course, if you love RAW rules theory and CharOp this isn’t a downside. But it’s clearly a side effect.
2. Normalization of rules. Authors are loath to put non-legalese rules into products because it’ll be unsuitable for OP use; this means fewer cool experimental rules, fewer rules that depend on GM adjudication, and more fuel on the fire of the expectation that RPG rules should be a legally complete document. Whatever books are allowed by PFS, players feel entitled to use and feel ripped off if a home game doesn’t allow them. Third party publishers, since not allowed in PFS, are marginalized in home games too. Long term, this normalizing pressure ends up leaving us with more Quarter Pounders than home-cooked meals. I’m happy that things like Mythic are still being put out but just not allowed for PFS; it would be easy to be pressured into decisions that don’t let that happen. The more that PFS is tapped for playtests, etc. the more that can happen.
3. Promotes cookie-cutter adventures. To be fair, PFS innovates within the strict time/XP/treasure format a lot more than RPGA Living adventures did, but even so, there is a strong driver towards a very common “4 scenes 2 combats 1 RP 1 puzzle” or similar formula. When I lament the death of Dungeon Mag, James Jacobs says “well use some PFS adventures!” With respect, the PFS modules don’t compare favorably with Dungeon adventures in terms of raw diversity. And they’re not supposed to; like everything else for Organized Play they have to be crafted for large scale, transactional use, with little prep required and change allowed from page to play. And that’s good for PFS but tends to drown out deviations.
Now, I’m not saying OP has killed all third parties or interesting adventures or people that make RP decisions over rules ones. But it has clearly influenced the hobby in specific directions. There’s restaurants other than McDonald’s still, and stores other than Walmart, and movies you can’t see on Netflix. But the existence of a somewhat homogeneous monolith does create downward pressure on other types of gameplay. In our FLGS there’s seriously maybe 40 people a weekend playing PFS that “can’t find a home game.” There’s 40 of you there, sure you can – it’s just not as repeatable as that Quarter Pounder, so we go for the QP.
What’s interesting, besides the arguing over “IT DOES NOT!!!”, is figuring out how to run OP in a way that mitigates these three effects. I think there have been some steps in this regard already; being able to sanction home play of APs and still putting out rules that aren’t PFS-safe are great. And I am sure this isn’t the intent of many of the venture-captains and all, who work hard to provide interesting and customized experiences especially at big cons with interactive events and such. What else can be done to have an OP that doesn’t go “full McDonald’s?”