Guidance – Alex’s Top 10: Misconceptions about Organized Play

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about preconceptions players and GMs have about PFS.

As most of you know, not only am I a freelancer, a publisher, a blogger, and a podcast host, I’m also a Venture-Agent for the Pathfinder Society. This is a relatively new responsibility for me; I’ve only been doing it since January, but as Ryan Costello sometimes likes to remind me, it’s sort of iconic that I’m a VO now. When I first started with Know Direction back in 2014, I was pretty anti-PFS. I always told Ryan that PFS didn’t interest me in the slightest. (I’m almost certain you can find some old Private Sanctuary episodes where I say as much.)

It was only when Ryan went out of his way to MAIL me a pair of vulpine-blooded boons that let me make my first character in a kitsune that I told him that I was willing to give PFS a shot. Up until that point, I hadn’t played ANY Pathfinder in a few months. (Fun factoid: I started my blog as a way to “keep my skills sharp” while my players were having real-life problems.) Now, I play at least 4 hours of Pathfinder a week; sometimes as much as 12 hours.

Now, I’m not here to say that everyone should try organized play. It’s not for everyone, and that’s okay. However, many things that people think about PFS play (including things that I myself thought about it) are wrong. So today, I wanted to take some time to go over some common misconceptions that people have about PFS organized play in hopes that you might be willing to give it a try.

#1 – Nobody roleplays in PFS.

Many people seem to think that PFS is all “roll-play,” or “power gaming” and the like. Generally speaking, most PFS games that I’ve played have been a bit on the light-side roleplay-wise, and that’s mostly because of the time limit. PFS scenarios aren’t often designed with designated “roleplay time” in them because budgeting that time into a scenario can REALLY cause a scenario to run too fast for a group that isn’t really into roleplaying. (Believe it or not, those exist!)

That said, in my experience, you’ll meet people in PFS who enjoy roleplaying and who are willing to roleplay with you. If you like roleplaying, play with those people and respect the people who don’t like roleplaying or who are intimidated by it. Just like you would in any other game of Pathfinder. But also, I’ve found that the more YOU initiate roleplay, the more others will be willing to come out of their shells and meet you, and getting to roleplay with someone who doesn’t normally roleplay much can be a REALLY fun experience.

Also, when I said, “most” scenarios don’t budget time for roleplaying, I really did mean “most.” There are plenty of scenarios that do, however, include a LOT of roleplaying, so you’re not always going to find “gung-ho kill all the things” scenarios. There are scenarios to suit every gamer (and GM’s) style and taste.

#2 – The GM has no freedom/power in PFS.

This is probably the #2 thing I see on the Paizo forums in regards to PFS; that the GM has no power or freedom. As a PFS GM, I’ve honestly NEVER felt that way at all. Mechanically and encounter-wise, you’re expected to run encounters exactly as they appear in the book. Yes, that means that you don’t switch the lightning elementals to mud elementals just because you know a PC has electricity resistance. It also means that you don’t switch around the NPC’s spells just because you think they could have picked something more optimal, and most NPCs have general tactics listed in their stat block that you’re expected to follow.

Sometimes these stats are SUPER general, however. For example, I once ran a high-level wizard in a scenario whose tactics was, “The wizard harries the PCs, flying out of their reach within the area and using illusion spells to defend himself.” The word “harries” is super general, so I got to have a LOT of fun throwing chain lightnings, sleet storms, and a myriad of other nasty spells at my PCs that the wizard had prepared. Other times, the tactics will be so specific that they tell you exactly what spell to cast or player to attack. In one example, an NPC I ran had tactics that insisted on attacking, “Anyone wearing a visible holy symbol,” while another said, “the magus spellstrikes the nearest PC while benefiting from invisibility on the first round of combat.” You get some VERY diverse instructions, and all of them are aimed at accurately portraying the characters in the story.

Aside from general tactics, specific passages that you’re supposed to read, being limited to what toys you’re given in the product, however, you can say or show whatever you want to the PCs within reason. You can choose your own accents, you can choose what NPCs say, and you can breathe life into the characters in a combat in a way that makes them truly your own. The things you “have” to do are often the things that you’re most thankful to have done to you, especially flavor-text wise. Those passages are so wonderfully articulate that its like having several guys with English degrees whispering into your ears, telling you exactly what to say to set the mood of the adventure. It’s pretty great.

#3 – Race and Class Options are Limited.

About half of this is true. Race options are super limited in PFS, with a specific slant to the most common “civilized” races in the Inner Sea Region. That said, the list of additional resources that Paizo keeps is more of a list of what you can’t play then what you can play; the vast majority of character building options are legal in PFS. So yes, while you might not be able to make your antipaladin of Cthulhu in PFS play, you have an obscene amount of freedom to customize your character, allowing you to pick every little bonus and benefit that your character possesses.

It would be nice of the PFS crew did something to help players add some of the more diverse races in the game to the campaign, but I’m sure part of the issue is that many of the non-Core races don’t really have enough info about them to provide a unified baseline for in PFS play. (Or home games either, really, but that’s a different issue entirely.)

#4 – You need to know all the rules to play PFS.

I’ve encountered a surprising number of people who think that they need to know how every rule in the game works to be successful in Pathfinder Society play, especially as a GM. That’s not true; in fact, that’s likely less true then it is in actual home games. In PFS play, you really only need to know how your monsters work to be successful. For the most part, the majority of players are honest enough that you can rely on them to know their mechanics. And if you aren’t sure about something, you have other people nearby that you can ask. Most of my stores have at least two tables running at the same time, so there’s usually at least one other GM to ask for their opinion and the like.

#5 – You can’t play at high-levels in PFS.

While its true that Pathfinder Society’s content stops at 12th level, modules and Adventure Path volumes get legalized for PFS play some regularity, and as modules and APs those adventures are worth a full Level of XP each. You can generally get a handful of characters to Level 15+ in sanctioned PFS play, and maybe one or two all the way to Level 20. You just won’t have society-specific content to run.

#6 – There is no regularity in PFS organized play.

Let me define what I mean about regularity before I talk about this; when I mention regularity, I mean “regular players playing the same characters over multiple character arcs.” The best way to define PFS by default is that your character’s more like Spiderman than the Avengers. Players tend to focus “the story” on their characters and note the other players as supporting characters. Sort of like how in one issue of Spiderman, the webslinger might partner with the X-Men for one story arc, then team up with Iron Man for another, before settling things with the Fantastic Four once and for all. So yes, in this regard PFS play doesn’t keep the same cast of characters throughout every adventure.

That is, unless you want it to. If you and your friend show up to PFS every week together and enjoy playing with one another, there’s no reason that the both of you can’t pick two characters and always play those two together. That happens a LOT in PFS play in the Philadelphia region, in fact. My friend and I are actually putting credit down on making Rick and Morty into PFS characters; he’s playing Rick, I’m playing Morty. We’ll only play those characters together, and build a big shared story around the two of them as we go. That’s our choice for these characters, and while it means we won’t be able to play this pairing every single week, when we do play them we’re getting exactly what we wanted.

#7 – Characters have no investment in one another in PFS.

In my experience, characters have MORE experience in one another in PFS play then a group of characters played by the same people do at the start of a home game. The reasoning is simple: the campaign assumes that all players are part in the same organization and they are given a specific objective that needs completion. As a result, every character has a stake in what’s going on, so there’s real incentive to cooperate. Add in the fact that cooperation is literally a rule both for players and PCs, and you have a generally cooperative environment even when you have characters who would otherwise clash with one another.

For example, my cleric of Sarenrae has played games where he’s had to cooperate with worshipers of Urgathoa, the Pallid Princess of undeath. Roleplaying how my character works with and around an opposed ideological philosophy actually makes for some of the most interesting roleplaying because it forces an otherwise gray situation (undead = bad) into a scenario that’s very shades of gray. Everything this person stands for opposes everything I stand for. But for all purposes we’re mutual allies; how do I handle this. That’s some pretty deep stuff when you get right down to it.

#8 – Errata happens solely because of PFS play.

I used to see a lot of whining that, “Oh man, this got nerfed because of PFS play,” especially back in the days of the Crane Wing nerf. I think that the designers certainly look at PFS play as a source of empirical data when they decide if something needs to be changed, but they’re smart folks. When something slips through the cracks, they know. And besides, if something OP is unleashed upon the world, it doesn’t matter who abuses it; only that it was abused and as a result the screws need to be tightened.

#9 – PFS constantly makes me rebuild my character(s).

Occasionally, when something is too strong or is abused, PFS issues free character rebuilds that allows you to make changes. For example, when the spell-like ability as spellcasting ruling was overturned, PFS basically made most characters rebuild out of any options they took that used that ruling. (I’m simplifying the occurrence; it was much more complicated then that.) This doesn’t happen very often; rebuilds are scarce, and generally speaking PFS takes the stance of, “Keep it as it is, but turn the valve off so others can’t do it.” As a result, characters don’t change much after you build them unless you expend hefty amounts of resources in order to change them.

#10 – PFS scenarios have no story.

This isn’t completely true. PFS scenarios are like episodes of the hit TV series, Supernatural. A majority of the scenarios give you bits and pieces of the overarching story in small doses that slowly build up to something super cool and exciting. Between those games, there are more general stories that offer smaller bits to the plot, or don’t involve the metaplot at all. Both are important for a successful campaign like PFS, because you don’t want people to feel like they have to experience every scenario in order to get the entire story of what’s going on. Now, a better complaint is that your character might not experience the story in order, and that’s fair. You’re not going to have a single character that can experience the entire story all the time, and if that’s not your thing then its not your thing. I like to picture it more like, “This character did something cool, and now my other characters are talking about the cool thing that the one character did.”

PFS organized play isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. Still, I think it’s a medium that everyone should try at least three times, because it is very different way of playing the game. I personally enjoy it a lot (although it took me about three or four games because I needed to warm up to the people at my lodge and start making friends among them). But then again, I genuinely enjoy meeting new people in our hobby and expanding my horizons.

What about you? If you’ve never played PFS, what’s your take on organized play? What’s keeping you from trying it out? If you’ve played organized play, why did you stop or what keeps you immersed into it? What’s the most memorable (or weirdest) remark you’ve ever heard about organized play? Leave your comments below, and I look forward to seeing you back here on Friday when I conclude one of my ongoing iconic design series with style! (And fire. Lots and lots of fire.)

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC. If you like Alex's writing and are interested in supporting him while getting professional-quality material for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game while doing so, check out the Everyman Gaming, LLC catalog, which is listed under Rogue Genius Games at the following locations: http://drivethrurpg.com/browse/pub/6101/Rogue-Genius-Games/subcategory/19574_25289/Everyman-Gaming-Catalog

2 Comments

  1. I’m one of the thousands of people whose first exposure to the game was through organized play, and it continues to be the only version of the game I play. I tried a Wrath of the Righteous campaign for a while, but found I didn’t really like it, because I missed the variety of experiences and settings the PFS experience provides. With PFS you can be in the sewers of Absalom one week, fighting demons in the World Wound the next, and hobnobbing with the aristocracy while solving a murder the week after that.

    I think the people who enjoy PFS the most are people who actively role-play their characters. Usually these people have given their characters a shtick that other players can quickly understand and latch onto. PFS is not the place to have a character with an involved secret backstory that will be slowly revealed over time, because there just isn’t time for other characters to pull it out of you, and because of the constantly changing teams, no one is going to be paying close enough attention to piece it together anyway.

    Even if you do have a rotating group, other players will become emotionally invested in your character’s goals. My first character was a bard who was determined to become the world’s greatest Halfling opera star. Over the course of his early levels he was trying to gain enough prestige to open his own opera house, and in-game was often using the pretense of looking for inventors to start conversations with NPCs. Eventually other players would just start asking me for updates on the status of Mimo’s opera house and how large it had expanded. This kind of interaction is a benefit of playing with a regular dynamic group at a game store or similar venue. I don’t really understand the people that would prefer to play most of the scenarios at Cons with random groups of people, but there are people that like to play PFS that way as well.

  2. A misconception I hear from people, especially those playing scenarios above level 5 for the first time, is that you have to have a min-maxed character to survive in PFS. This is simply not true, but many scenarios do require you to play smart. It is perfectly fine to have a character with an average build. You can still be successful if you have put a little thought into being prepared. Quite often having a bag of useful scrolls, potions and oils, and a couple alternate weapons, will make as much or more difference than having a clever build that pulls from dozens of resources (no offense to those who love to make clever builds). One advantage PFS characters have over many home-game characters is ready access to 98% of the magic items you can afford, so that is an advantage the authors expect you to use.

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