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

der_kluge

Villager
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.
 
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CapnZapp

Adventurer
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.
 

Riley37

Villager
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.

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.
 
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pogre

Adventurer
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.
 

der_kluge

Villager
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
 

billd91

Earl of Cornbread
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.
 

AriochQ

Explorer
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!).
 

jasper

Explorer
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.
***
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.
 

billd91

Earl of Cornbread
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.
 

SMHWorlds

Registered User
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.
 
I don't Con much anymore but I've always preferred tourney style con gaming with Pre-gens to living games. Gives me a chance to play a strange PC, often one I don't normally play. The two tourney games at GaryCon were like that and a lot of fun,though we didn't advance in either. :(
 
Two reasons:

(1) It takes a lot of iteration to get good at writing adventures for a given system. You need experience with the system, and experience with writing, (and experience with writing adventures which is a subset). While the organization as a whole may ascend the learning curve over time, each individual author is only one micro-component of the organization, so they ascend the curve very... slowly....

This means that from the time the game system launches, to the time you get good adventures for it, may be years.

On the plus side the good adventures tend to be very good indeed, as they drawn on everyone's learnings over the years. The LFR years 4, 5, and 6 Epic-tier adventures are fantastic, for example. (That's roughly "years since launch of 4e as a system" for a sense of how long it takes.)

(2) Many people are horrible in general (lazy, stupid, etc.) but as a convention organization you cannot turn down volunteer DMs. Thus, like Sturgeon's Law for D&D, 90% of all DMs are crap.

= = =

Now that said, I had 6 mostly great years of 4e Living Forgotten Realms (the RPGA / organized play campaign). Basically, my non-lazy-and-stupid-people friends and I took over the FLGS and locked out the horrible DMs, establishing ourselves as a benevolent dictatorship. Like everything else in life, you get out of it what you put into it.
 

Tony Vargas

Villager
Edit: I can't believe I passed on such low-hanging snark-fruit:

RPGA, Pathfinder Society and Adventurer's League - why are they all so terrible?
Because they're all running some form of D&D!


This will probably be long, and ranty, so you've been warned...
Thanks, I'm just going to pick out one of the more cogent, bits...

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.
Yes. 5e does run much better with a confident DM who's hands aren't tied by 'official' rulings. It's just not so RAW- or player- centric as 3e or 4e were.

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?
In early-AL encounters seasons, you were all Raised between sessions by your 'Faction' - so death meant missing the rest of the current session.


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.
There are pre-gens in the basic pdf, and IMX, con games - of any sort, not just organized play like AL - very often offer pre-gens. It's just a good idea. As the DM, you get characters tailored to the adventure, and no wierd surprises.
 
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vendolis

Villager
I have not played RPGA or AL. I played a bunch of Shadowrun Missions as well as StarFinder from the Pathfinder Society, and what was said here that it's very good for new ppl I can only repeat. It was the best way for me to return to Shadowrun after not playing three editions. And as an intro to Starfinder, I found the games also very good.
In the Shadowrun missions, there was much more roleplaying happening. SF was very basic in what I played. But I must have also had good luck with all of my GMs.
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad day
I think the common point of your expereiences is the venue - a convention. I've played plenty of AL as regular events at FLGS and while it is never as good as a home game, the DMs are regulars who are running because they truly like to DM (there's little enough other incentive), and the player base is more stable - some turnover with new players and people not able to make it but at least enough for continuity.

Now, I might be an outlier that has a statistically-improbable FLGS. And this was before the ridiculous-to-me-as-a-player treasure points model. But I think there's a world of difference between regular DMs with a sort-of-stable regular crew playing at a FLGS vs. whatever DMs they could get at the convention who have never met the players who likely haven't met each other in a tightly controlled and timed environment.
 
I think the common point of your expereiences is the venue - a convention. [..] But I think there's a world of difference between regular DMs with a sort-of-stable regular crew playing at a FLGS vs. whatever DMs they could get at the convention who have never met the players who likely haven't met each other in a tightly controlled and timed environment.
I think you're right.

All of my "horrible DM, F----, would like him to die in a fire" experiences have been at conventions.
On the other hand I've had some amazing experiences in organized play at conventions.

I've had some "meh" DMs at the FLGS, but none that were really terrible.

Moral of the story: if you're going to do Organized Play, do it at an FLGS... unless you're willing to risk convention lows and highs.
 

der_kluge

Villager
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.
This dude gets it! Yes, that's exactly it. When I sit down to play a game - especially at a convention, I just want to chill, roleplay my character to the best of my ability, and kill some trolls (or whatever). Don't come at me with all this convoluted crap that I'm going to get a headache literally trying to understand.

Designers for convention games: K.I.S.S.
 

5ekyu

Explorer
[MENTION=945]der_kluge[/MENTION]
"Really, it was a puzzle game for the players (not the characters) to solve. "

Back in ye olde rpga days (and on and on in other venues of von gsmes) events were built this way intentionally. Its because these were *competitive* events and so you needed to score the results. Tests of *character* are a bit rockier to score but "tests of player* get yo the toot think of grading one group vs another.

I have seen it in other con games, anytime its "for something" the push is opposite the usual motivators for playing.

But honestly, for short, open table games, you gotta figure the most "roleplaying focus" will be like choosing between two different paths yo your goal. Maybe one is rescue the weaponsmith's family and the other is wreck his forge or killing him.

So, having played in some over those, seen the older modules tskrn from them, running noth campaigns snd oprn tables- some degree of what you describe goes with the different objectives.
 

Retreater

Explorer
I've had some pretty dreadful PFS and AL experiences at conventions. Mostly these were based on the players who show up - rules crunching, min/maxing jerks with binders of characters they are trying to level to MAXIMUM POWER!!! Or they're playing a one-shot and don't care how ridiculous their actions are, because there are no consequences.

I hated running and coordinating PFS. So many restrictions on being a GM, so much paperwork. The adventures were also of varying quality.
 

cmad1977

Explorer
I have not played AL myself by a couple friends of mine have and they have, each time they’ve played, mentioned the ‘inflexibility’ of the DMs.
 

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