Tag Archives: rpga

The Side Effects Of Organized Play

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?”


My RPG DNA, Part 3: The Late Memphis Years

As the year comes to an end, I’m realizing that several post series I did kinda petered out without me completing them, so I’m going to try to bring them some closure!

This summer, people were posting in depth on their “RPG DNA” – their gaming history and how it shaped their gaming. My first two installments were:

My RPG DNA, Part 1: The Texas Years – Self-starting with Star Frontiers in junior high and moving on to D&D/AD&D.

My RPG DNA, Part 2: The Early Memphis Years – Returning to gaming via Magic: The Gathering and then escaping the D&D Ghetto!

Now I’ll talk about the Late Memphis Years.  My roommates and I were obsessively playing any game we could get our hands on, and for the first time I was attending cons. We had a pretty big group of gamers, some regular and some irregular, playing all sorts of stuff.  Many were in IT or were med students (as I was in IT and my first roommate Robert was a med student, those were our main contacts) but as friends of friends added in we had a dozen people from various walks of life. I played some, but GMed mainly, and the more I experienced the more I wanted to take roleplaying “to the next level.”  I really enjoyed the experience of a “realistic” game world and the point of roleplaying, to me, was immersing into your character’s mindset and experiencing that world through that character.  And this was hard to do “right.”  So I set out to craft a campaign that would be all about that from the ground up.

Night Below

For my big immersive campaign, I used D&D Second Edition.  Why, when I had played lots of other games and had escaped the D&D-only ghetto that too many gamers languished in?  Because everyone knew it, and because it was actually the right tool for the job.  The rules were light enough to not get bogged down in them, and were oriented towards simulating a coherent world. And, to a degree, because I wanted to show that you could indeed do something meaningful in D&D, in my opinion that though to a degree “system does matter” you don’t have to use a different game to catalyze real roleplaying.

I set it in Greyhawk, my favorite D&D world, which had just enough realistic detail and was at the time being used by fans in opposition to the super high magic and railroad shenanigans of the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance – the online community for Greyhawk was awesome (people like Erik Mona were participants). I picked a boxed set campaign called Night Below, by Carl Sargent, which had enough content to sustain a long term adventure but was loose and sandboxey enough I could do whatever I wanted with it. I mixed in a more than healthy dose of Cthulhu mythos.

Then I formed a group.  I sat down with the existing large set of players and explained what I wanted.  Full immersion.  Total sim.  “I’ll run a casual game Wednesday nights.  But Sunday will be this game.”  I set expectations.  The world will unfold with realistic characters and consequences. People will be in character and on task 50 minutes, then we’ll have a 10 minute break, per hour.  There will be strict information compartmentalization – players won’t know anything their characters don’t – no sharing character sheets, no rules talk, lots of note passing and taking people aside.  Required attendance. This was to be a “pro level” game for people who were serious about taking their gaming farther than they had before.

I had a pretty large set of players who opted in.  After the first session, a couple of those realized I was serious about the sim and opted out, leaving us with a good small core group. Robert (med student), Suzanne (med student), Jason (med student), Travis (started at MIT but burned out, working at bookstores), and “Big” Mike (programmer). The group had turnover as life intervened – in fact, Travis was the only player who was there throughout the entire run; the group became Travis (now a Memphis police officer), “Little” Mike (med student), Laura (manager at a transportation company), Hal (musician then transportation then programmer), and David (med student).  The resulting adventures of Mikhail (mercenary and leader), Dane (excitable archer), Damia (fey gypsy girl), Orado (crazy old wizard), and Tristan (priest who had once been a fighter) were indeed the stuff of legends.

The campaign ran for five years and was insanely engrossing. People moved, changed jobs, etc. but kept coming every week with few exceptions. (Advancement was slow, I was doing by the book 2e XP and the characters were only level 9 max at the end.) We completed the campaign right before the real life group disintegrated with people moving away etc.  People still call me now, ten years later, to reminisce about the game.  With serious immersion and buy-in, we developed more “advanced” roleplaying skills at a high rate, and most of my more “deep” skills on things like creating horror in an RPG, balancing plot against character free will, improvisation, etc. all were crafted in this campaign’s crucible. Characters loved each other, betrayed each other, hated each other, protected each other, went crazy, discovered horrible secrets about their origins… In fact, it all worked almost too well – I have been somewhat disappointed in pretty much all of my role-playing opportunities since and some of the players openly say “I haven’t played RPGs again since, most campaigns are just silly compared to what we all had together.”

I could write a hundred posts on that campaign, so I’ll end it there, except to say that if you and your group can let go of all the baggage and decide to really  honest-to-God roleplay, you’ll get so much more out of it than powergaming, metagaming, escapism, gamism, narrativism, etc. provide.

The Casual Group

But it would be wrong to not mention the casual group as well!  Since I was getting my “serious gaming” jones in with the Night Below campaign, here we all just had fun.  Besides lots of great gaming stories, playing many different systems, experimenting with loads of house rules (like my 2e Classless Skills and Powers variant, bringing GURPS style character builds to a D&D near you, or my Feng Shui inspired 2e monk class, which is still cooler than all monks and was only really matched by the Book of Nine Swords), and other game related fun, this was a solid group of guys.  Scott, Brock, Tim, Kevin, “Big” Mike, and Paul were the founding members and many more have participated over the years.

Though I had more in depth relationships with the Night Below crew, it’s the casual crew who was there for each other in real life when people needed help.  In fact, this group still meets weekly today, ten years later.

My two favorite memories were the “Vampire Holocaust“, a simple 2e Forgotten Realms adventure gone awry and turned into a multi-month gripping PC-vs-PC deathmatch, and our Freeport campaign, our very first 3e game, where I kicked it off with Green Ronin’s Death in Freeport but then everyone in the group had to take a turn running with the same group in the loosely defined “World of Freeport.”  I handed out all the early 3e adventures (due to the OGL, there were a bunch out of the gate) and everyone ran – that was great, even those who weren’t “good” GMs per se did at least one thing that I learned from. I strongly encourage everyone to try  out round robin DMing sometime. The group started an email list at this time and is still known as “Wulf’s Animals” (their pirate crew name) as a result.

The casual group wasn’t as “artistic” an experience, but it had more belly laughs, that’s for sure.


Meanwhile, Hal and I were so full-to-bursting with gaming goodness we wanted to do more and start helping the larger gaming community. In May of 1999 we met up with the RPGA regional director who also lived in Memphis and put together a Memphis-based group, the FORGE (Fellowship of Role Gaming Enthusiasts), which exists to this day. We started with game days at a library and eventually moved to the local gaming store (we had trouble initially because they basically let card/minis gamers have dibs on the space; eventually we worked out an agreement with them).  We managed to get a great core set of four officers, the “Red Hammer Council” – Hal, myself, Collin Davenport, and Mike Seagrave. In short order we were running 2-3 tables of games at each monthly game day, running a lot of the gaming for the local con, MidSouthCon, and a FORGE team even got third place in the Gen Con D&D Team event at Gen Con 2000.  Though we were RPGA-affiliated we made it a point to run a variety of games, and our earliest meetings had everything from Call of Cthulhu to Feng Shui to Aberrant to Fading Suns…

It took a lot of work – making a Web site and negotiating places and discounts with game stores and doing elections and a constitution and handling the “outlier personalities” that any group like this has some of.  But though it we met hundreds of great gamers from all over the Mid-South!

My Scooby Doo Cthulhu and Children of the Seed Blue Seed/Feng Shui mashups were created to be run at FORGE events.

The Rise of 3e and Living Greyhawk

Since I loved Greyhawk and was involved in an RPGA club, it was the natural next step for me to get involved with the huge event of 2000 – the launch of Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition and the Living Greyhawk campaign!  I was selected as one of the three “regional Triads” for the huge Mid-South region, which mapped to the country of the Yeomanry within Greyhawk (in LG, each real world region got a specific Greyhawk region to set their adventures in).  Myself, Kevin Freeman, and August Hahn (who has gone on to write a bunch of stuff for Mongoose) got galley proofs of the 3e rules to read and when Gen Con 2000 came along, we launched it with a bunch of great adventures. The region had loads of great volunteers and we had some stellar events and adventures.  There was some amount of frustration in that we were limited in what we could do – by the required adventure format being somewhat limiting, by Wizards IP restrictions in terms of developing our Greyhawk regions, and by the “Circle” in terms of them being overwhelmed and thus very slow to get anything done. But despite that we did a lot of stuff; even when I had to leave Memphis and couldn’t be a Triad for that region any more I still helped them out until Wizards brought LG to an end in 2008.

Sadly, most of the information, adventures, etc. from that era are lost now in the Great WotC Hate On for D&D 3 and Previous Intellectual Property Like Greyhawk.  The Yeomanry Web site is down and all the scenarios aren’t available (except on BitTorrent.  Yay!), and Wizards has purged most of the 3e/3.5e content on their site, and is trying hard to pretend that Greyhawk never existed.  My experience throughout LG with the RPGA and WotC definitely contributes to my current hate of them and their business practices with respect to 4e. As time went on, they treated even people doing huge amounts of volunteer work for them, like the Triads, as serfs and gave us all the mushroom treatment.

End of an Era

Whew.  That’s a lot and I feel like I didn’t do any of it justice; so much happened during a short span of years, especially 1998-2001. I have to say that I am proud to have helped found two things that have lasted (Wulf’s Animals and the FORGE), and two things that ended but kicked ass while they were in effect (the Night Below group and Living Greyhawk). And for anyone from that era who’s reading along – thanks so much for all the great memories, you all still mean a lot to me.

Next up – the Exile Period and the Austin Years!