RPGA, Pathfinder Society and Adventurer's League - why are they all so terrible?
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  1. #1
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    RPGA, Pathfinder Society and Adventurer's League - why are they all so terrible?

    This will probably be long, and ranty, so you've been warned.

    Couple of weekends ago, I went to Phoenix FanFusion (previously ComicCon). My daughters go, and I like to be near them, in case they need me, and turns out, they have a gaming area, so I spend my weekend in that section playing games. Way back when, RPGA was a thing, and I played a few RPGA games, and I found that the games were terrible, and the people were generally worse, so I vowed to stop playing them, and focused mostly on just individual games ran by individual GMs, or I just ran my own. That worked out well, and was generally my Gen Con policy for years. Fast forward a bit, and Pathfinder Society becomes a thing. I played in a couple of PS games in a FLGS circa 2009, and ended up with 2nd level paladin. Pretty sure I still have that character sheet somewhere. I didn't have a horrible experience with it, but I found that the games I played in still followed some pretty annoying tropes - mainly, that the end fight had to be strange and unusual in some way, and if the writer could toss in an encounter with a swarm in it, that the PCs would be wholly unprepared for, that would be awesome.

    Fast forward again to a couple of weekends ago, and the gaming section at the con is dominated by Adventurer's League. And despite the new name, and the fact that it's tied to 5th edition, it is every bit as annoying, and awful as it's ever been. This year, the convention hosted the first ever "Open" (which I'm told was a big deal), and the following night was an "Epic" (or was it Epoch?), also which was supposedly a big deal. I played in both, and found both to be pretty terrible.

    These games tend to suffer from many of the same problems, though the Epic and Open were terrible on their own level. Generally speaking - the GMs are terrible. I'm sure they could be good, but they all seem to be woefully unprepared. During the open we got frustrated that our GM was constantly flopping through loose leaf notes trying to find an answer to a question. Unlike a regular game, these GMs can't just make something up - they have this whole umbrella of rules hanging above them, and it has to be "by the book" so to speak. Even though some GMs actually did majorly screw up in some ways (I was told stories after the fact), and while my GM wasn't good, apparently some of them at the other tables were far, far worse.

    But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit, let me backtrack. The modules here tend to be awful. I know that writing a module for a 2 or 4 hour D&D session isn't easy. But it's almost like the authors of these things pride themselves on going out of their way towards making it so weird. Like, implausibly weird. The game I played on Sunday, the last day of the con, was actually pretty good, and had a good GM, but the gnome NPC in it believed he was a leprechaun. This bit made no sense whatsoever, and added absolutely nothing to the story other than to just be weird. And I'm left puzzled as to why this hyper-intelligent gnome (who was a super-high level wizard) could also be so delusional as to believe he was a leprechaun. It was just implausible and silly to me. But that's a pretty benign example.

    The open was terrible. This was a game that was ran simultaneously by 16 different tables, and each group had the same mission, and each was awarded points for solving various puzzles. It had no combat at all, unless you initiated it. It was also very, very hard, and to call it D&D would be generous. Really, it was a puzzle game for the players (not the characters) to solve. We, as players had to figure out how to solve all these various puzzles. Our characters were just vehicles by which we had some tools available to be able to do that. Role-playing was completely out of the question. Actually role-playing an encounter at the bar penalized you, since it just ate up valuable time. And the games were presented with so many options, you were left bewildered by where to even start. It also made the GMs job super hard, since they constantly had to flip back and forth to figure out what various NPCs knew, or whether a certain door was locked, etc. In the end, the experience was extremely frustrating. And because the game was ran in "real time" when the time was up, you literally stopped that scene, and moved to the next, regardless of what was happening. The same was true in the epic. It was a similar concept, except that every group was doing more or less different stuff, and we all hard to work together to achieve some goal. I liked it better in concept, but our tier I group ended up deciding to fight a tier II side quest. Something I was unaware of until later. Our group consisted of mostly level 1 characters, and the "side quest" featured a minor version of a kraken in an underwater scenario (with all the difficulties that implies) and it had 129 hit points. Luckily, we were stopped short of a TPK by the timer, only to be shoved into another nasty battle, which basically did result in a TPK. Although people took away a marginal victory by claiming that because they'd made their death saves, they survived, although I don't know what respectable lizardman is going to let them live if we're all technically unconscious (or dead) on the ground. In my book, that's a TPK. We should have never been allowed into the tier II side quest, and the whole thing was a huge debacle. Again, too many options for us to even know where to start - no time for actual role-playing (that just wastes valuable time), and the whole time you're playing it, you've got this great sense of time pressure to achieve some result, and you just sit there as a player trying to metagame the encounter in order to figure out what the writer must have been smoking when he wrote it.

    These games are also a travesty for new players. I get it. Playing D&D at a convention isn't normal. You probably don't know the GM, and you'll never play that character again. I always got kind of weirded out by convention games when the GM would actually try to award XP or magic items at the end of a game. I never really got the point of that. So, I respect these organized play for at least trying to mitigate some of that by allowing you to retain your character from game to game, but that alone also creates a terribly awkward situation. While your character might be consistent to you, you often end up playing it with different players almost every time, and maybe different GMs. You could also play with idiots, and technically die, so then you get to what - reroll a brand new one and start from scratch again? And the games themselves could be anywhere. Your character could go from a forest cave to a seaside harbor, to a mountain village in the span of a day. So while I like the concept in general, the execution of this idea tends to be terrible.

    People play these games because they are often the only choices available. I know they dominated the convention I was at. The RPGA tended to do the same at conventions I was at in the past as well. I'm not really sure why that is.

    I also played some AL games with brand new players. And I felt sorry for them. They were confused when the GM told them they couldn't loot the sentinel shield at the end of the game. "Oh, but you can buy it with treasure points". Oh my god. Adventurer's league needs a module just for brand new players. Trying to bring the magic of D&D with the shell of Adventurer's League to brand new players is a huge injustice. At least at this convention, the organizers had made a lot of pre-gen characters. So that made character creation much easier.

    I can't help but wonder if a slightly different model would be better. Instead of letting players take a character from game to game, each game comes with a set of pre-gens that players could choose from. And instead of being forced into specific tiers, I could play any freaking game I wanted to. And if we die, we die. Stuff happens. But if we win, then we as players get rewards, or maybe points which I can use to buy rewards. I could get things like magic items, which I could then add to my pre-gen characters. Or, I could get inspiration points. Or I could get other bonuses like a +1 level boost, or a stat boost, or a really nice mount, or a really cool familiar - I don't necessarily have to use all the things I have, but I could if it made sense. Maybe I could have a "get a tip from the GM" as a special power that I could call up - that would likely be a one use a done, kind of power. But you get the idea. This would give people a lot more flexibility in what games they could play, and what games GMs could run. And new players wouldn't have to be bombarded by so many ridiculous rules.

    Anyway. This was long. I needed to get it off my chest. Thanks for reading.
    Last edited by der_kluge; Monday, 3rd June, 2019 at 08:06 AM.
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  2. #2
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    I've been to 'cons, and even had a few fun times. But in all those cases the scenario runs overtime.

    I'd say anything less than 8 hours and you're kidding yourself.

  3. #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by der_kluge View Post
    I can't help but wonder if a slightly different model would be better.
    Yes, it would be. I've played lots of good games at conventions. It's possible to design a four-hour session with some fights, some puzzles, and time for the PCs to do a bit of roleplaying with each other. Pre-generated characters make that a LOT easier and simpler, since the range of unknowns is narrower.

    Quote Originally Posted by der_kluge View Post
    Instead of letting players take a character from game to game, each game comes with a set of pre-gens that players could choose from. And instead of being forced into specific tiers, I could play any freaking game I wanted to. And if we die, we die. Stuff happens. But if we win, then we as players get rewards, or maybe points which I can use to buy rewards.
    The points could go to you as a player, rather than towards your character. There are plenty of people who would enjoy racking up those points, just for their own sake, without any in-game rewards. If there's no reward, then there's less incentive to cheat, and thus less need to prioritize anti-cheating measures in session design.

    Not that it's a tight system. I played for a while at Friendly Local Gaming Store. The DM loved to hand out magic items, so he handed them out lavishly. I ended up with various certificates, which I could take to other AL games, if I took any pride in playing a PC whose arsenal of participation-trophy magic items tota11y r0cked.
    Last edited by Riley37; Tuesday, 4th June, 2019 at 08:56 AM.

  4. #4
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    The current AL system is flawed. I don't know anyone who loves it. The modules vary greatly in quality - there are some decent ones. I have not run opens or epics - they do not appeal to me.

    Nonetheless, I have run and enjoyed the AL games I have run at conventions. My players have been decent and have had a good time. I am a prep heavy DM - so I am very well prepared for my sessions. For me, this is key to having a decent experience. I know there are many other DMs like me.

    Sorry you had a poor experience. DDAL is never as good as a home game, but it is a great way to get out and meet new people who play the game.

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by pogre View Post
    Sorry you had a poor experience. DDAL is never as good as a home game, but it is a great way to get out and meet new people who play the game.
    Through the lens of hindsight, I ended up having a pretty good time. Even though most of the DMs weren't that good, and the games tended to be bad, I had fun. As my Dad used to say - a bad day of fishing is better than a good day at work. So, the alternatives could be far worse. lol
    Laugh Tony Vargas laughed with this post

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by der_kluge View Post
    I can't help but wonder if a slightly different model would be better. Instead of letting players take a character from game to game, each game comes with a set of pre-gens that players could choose from. And instead of being forced into specific tiers, I could play any freaking game I wanted to. And if we die, we die. Stuff happens. But if we win, then we as players get rewards, or maybe points which I can use to buy rewards. I could get things like magic items, which I could then add to my pre-gen characters. Or, I could get inspiration points. Or I could get other bonuses like a +1 level boost, or a stat boost, or a really nice mount, or a really cool familiar - I don't necessarily have to use all the things I have, but I could if it made sense. Maybe I could have a "get a tip from the GM" as a special power that I could call up - that would likely be a one use a done, kind of power. But you get the idea. This would give people a lot more flexibility in what games they could play, and what games GMs could run. And new players wouldn't have to be bombarded by so many ridiculous rules.
    Using just pregens is pretty much old school AD&D Open and RPGA tournament territory. But once they started running "Living" campaigns, they found them to be really popular - Living City, Living Greyhawk, Pathfinder Society, and now Adventurer's League. For a lot of people, developing the character as they level up is part of the fun. But, yes, it can lead to challenges in fitting the table or fitting the adventure. Fortunately, larger cons often have various sessions with different scenarios running so you can pick the scenario your character seems to fit.

    That style of organized play may not be your style, but it's hard to argue that it isn't generally successful.

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    I am heavily involved in AL and also run 2 home games, they are radically different.

    I had to chuckle about your adventures being 'weird' comment. I couldn't agree more. Nothing annoys me more than some of the convoluted story arcs some designers put into a module. We have 4 hours to play an entire adventure. Not a single character is going to figure out that the cousin of the Baron's brother has been manipulating the stable hand to convince his girlfriend to sneak the pendant into the Baroness' jewelry box to frame the visiting ambassador (or some equally overly complex plot). Oh, and they usually include several fail points with incredibly high DC's, grinding the adventure to a halt.

    DM quality is not only an organized play problem, but is more apparent in AL since they usually need a lot of DM's. The bar can sometimes be set pretty low. The only real solution to that is to be sure to give organizers feedback and/or to volunteer to DM.

    That being said, there are some good AL mods and AL does some things very well...

    1. New players, without a group, have somewhere to go, play some D&D, and make contacts. As a fan of D&D, I enjoy the opportunity to bring others into the hobby.

    2. Character portability. I can travel from convention to convention and advance my character as I go. I find this more fulfilling than playing a pre-gen. Nowhere near as fun as playing a home game character, but AL and home game are different beasts and it is unreasonable to have the same expectations IMHO.

    3. Socialization. D&D can be somewhat isolationist. The vast majority of my play time has been with small groups of specific individuals. AL allows me to meet the larger D&D community face to face on a fairly regular basis.

    In short, if the only D&D I ever played was AL, I wouldn't be too happy. But, I appreciate AL for what it is, and for what it offers to the community. I think it is a worthwhile investment of my time and will continue to support it (regardless of the absurd rules the organizers insist on rolling out every season!).
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  8. #8
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    I play a few games at con. YES DM quality range from oh my gawd, to can I take you home. I have DM at cons, organized D&D at Cons and run some epics. I had some great DMs, and others I have hinted they not welcomed to DM if I in charge. Mainly due not knowing the rules, or not having a loud enough voice to be heard at the table.
    Epics are kind of silly with their time stop BS but that is buy in.

    Organizers. Leave DM feedback sheets on the table. Ask the customers to fill out and drop the feedback sheets into a big box. A few days after the con, read total and summarize the feed back. Give each individual dm feedback by email or in person. Bob your third slot had a problem child but the 5 other players gave 5 stars. The rest of you games came back with great feedback.
    Bob. You said you ran the modules before. People complained they could not hear you. And it took 4 hours for your 2 hour slot. You will not be needed next year.
    Bob. None of you tables made it but you did pick up 3 tables for random people. You got average to great feedback. Good job.
    Now it is up to you to decide to give the actual sheets to the person. I suggest you only do for ones which had positive reviews.
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    DMs prerun the module if possible. This has helped me as I made mistakes during the practice and had other players look over the module and say This is badly worded do this, EtC. I do understand occasionally you are just handed the module 20 minutes before show time.

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    Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
    DM quality is not only an organized play problem, but is more apparent in AL since they usually need a lot of DM's. The bar can sometimes be set pretty low. The only real solution to that is to be sure to give organizers feedback and/or to volunteer to DM.

    That being said, there are some good AL mods and AL does some things very well..
    I've judged some AL at GameholeCon and the standard for DMs is, more or less, willing to show up. So, yes, it's a pretty low bar.
    That said, the module I ran (and had to run pretty fast since the time slots last year were only 2 hours), was actually pretty good. Most groups were able to achieve a reasonable 2 of 3 objectives and it seemed like everyone was having a reasonable amount of fun and people were able to bring out distinct role playing despite the short timeframe.

    One thing I've liked about PFS is the standard time slot is more like 5 hours while the scenario is designed to be finished in 4 - it offers a nice buffer to improve the odds of completion without rushing. Plus, you can play online via messageboards. While not as fun as playing on the tabletop in realtime, it does scratch that gaming itch some and offers a lot more purple prose, role playing potential.

  10. #10
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    I won't say every DM or adventure of any organized play is perfect and beyond reproach. I will say that they are all volunteers, that they are rarely compensated in any meaningful way (A free badge is great but you have to put in 20+ hours in most cases to get one), and that creating content that will be played by thousands of people with wide variations in skill, attention span, and what they want out of a game. Even more today than in days gone by.

    So, while not seeking to invalidate the OP's or anyone's experiences with Org Play, I will say that your experience may not be indicative of Org Play as a whole. And as always, I encourage people to volunteer to create content and to DM/GM if they feel things could be done better. AL and PFS are always looking for more GMs.
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