This year for the first time I decided to jump in and try Pathfinder Society Organized Play. I had never tried joining an organized play group before, and had several preconceptions about what the experience would be like. Normally Pathfinder is not a go-to system for me (I am not in love with any D20 incarnations because I find them cumbersome, clunky, and filled with far too many things you CAN’T do than things you can). But Pathfinder Society is HUGE at Pacificon. We ran perhaps 35 games in Roleplaying this year at Pacificon (not counting the D&D 5.0 special events). Pathfinder Society ran 110 table events during the convention – three times the regular roleplaying. And I admit that my hesitations with the system notwithstanding, I had been wanting to try Pathfinder for awhile – too many people I knew played it and liked it for me to simply dismiss it out of hand as just another D20 game.
So I decided to take the plunge. Initially, Sophie was not planning to attend Pacificon, so I thought I would sign up with PFS games all weekend to really immerse myself. In the end Sophie decided to go, so I wound up playing in three PFS games.
Before I get into my experience with the Pathfinder Society, a few statements are in order. First, this would not only be my first experience with PFS, but my first experience with Pathfinder and my first encounter with D20 since D&D 3.5 (and one game of 4.0). So – newb. I did not have access to the vast majority of Pathfinder books when creating my character. And in a departure from what I usually play (fighter types) I decided to play a gnome sorcerer specializing in illusions. In addition events at the convention, many of which had little to do with PFS had put me in a pretty grumpy and intolerant mood by Monday morning, and I may be judging games from that day with a certain bias because of that. I will try to keep the bias out of my discussion below.
INTO THE PATHFINDER SOCIETY
My very first encounter with Pathfinder Society was with a very nice woman who helped me to drop the PFS games that I needed to drop because of scheduling conflicts with games I wanted to get into with Sophie. She was quite helpful and pleasant, and I felt an immediate rapport with her. Looking around the Pathfinder room, I saw several groups chatting amicably and really the whole place looked like any open gaming area I have ever seen at a convention. The nice lady expressed some mild disappointment that I was dropping some of my games, but was pleased that I was still in some and we chatted for a few minutes about the Society. Then I went on my way and felt pretty good about PFS. I was looking forward to my first game.
PATHFINDER SOCIETY SCENARIO #6-00: “Legacy of the Stone Lords”
There I was in my very first PFS game. Not only that, but the game was a special – a game that contributed to the ongoing Pathfinder Society storyline. There were 15 tables, with parties ranging from 1st level all the way up to 11th, all playing the same event at the same time. I found my table and sat down. The GM looked over my character, and seemed really impressed by my 18 DC Color Spray spell (my big gun for the character). We got our briefing from a PFS person using a bullhorn, and off we went.
For me, personally, the scenario was a disaster.
I don’t want to give away spoilers but there are a few scenario-specific things I need to mention because I think the scenario was flawed. Don’t read them if you don’t want mild spoilers.
It turned out that the upcoming year for Pathfinder is going to be the Year of the Clockwork or some such thing. As you might guess, because of this there were many clockwork constructs featured in the scenario. As you might also guess, clockwork constructs are completely and totally immune to illusion. This made me completely and totally useless in the vast majority of the encounters of the scenario. Of the four encounters I was potentially useful in two involved things dropping from the ceiling onto my head, in once case screwing up my magic by being in my threat zone, and in one case simply bludgeoning me into near-death before my first action on turn one. Of the two remaining encounters which involved things that I COULD affect, I was very effective in one, taking down 2/3 of the opposition with a single spell, and in the other one the fighter types all got in my way and by the time I maneuvered around them the GM called the combat due to time constraints after one round so I never got a spell off. So my contribution to the whole of the 4-hour adventure was a single spell. I was effective for exactly one round of the entire scenario. And I wasn’t the only one affected. We had two bards in the party, and they also suffered because their chosen first level spell did not affect the vast majority of the opponents.
There were two players at the table who gave me constant shit about my character. At first I thought this was just a little good-natured ribbing, which was fine. But it continued well on past the second hour of the game, and I eventually got sick of it. I eventually had to threaten to walk out on the game before the shit subsided, and I was very annoyed and angry by this time. This could easily have spoiled my mood for the game, and probably would have if it wasn’t for the fact that the GM was unprepared, inexperienced, and just plain did not run a good game, so by two hours in my mood was already spoiled. By the time the game was running for half an hour I could tell that he had not familiarized himself sufficiently with the scenario and had to keep looking at the game notes, flipping through electronic versions of the books, and even going to some of the PFS officials on a couple of occasions for clarifications. He also did nothing whatsoever to stop other players from giving me shit for two plus hours.
Finally, I got to see firsthand the results of six years of power creep on level 1 characters. The player next to me was Paizo’s dream child – someone who had purchased virtually every Pathfinder supplement ever made in one form or another*. His character wound up being our frontline fighter, not because he was a frontline figther (he wasn’t – he was a clerical type) but because he had minmaxed the character so much that it was better than either our monk or our ranger (he was probably better than both of them put together).
All in all I found this session to be horrible, and it was one of the low points of my entire weekend. My character was useless, I took shit for half the game, and I discovered that my character was gimped compared to many PFS characters because I hadn’t dropped $1,000 or so on books. I also learned that going to a PFS event, even a special scenario event like this one, doesn’t mean you will get a decent GM or a decent game. Finally, I learned that Pathfinder, like almost any cash cow game that has been going for years, has accumulated a massive amount of supplemental material that sticks to the games like barnacles on a ship, slowing things down, causing confusion, and generally being inconvenient and ultimately destructive.
I was livid when I walked away from that game. I was 99% ready to just throw in the towel and cancel my other two Pathfinder Society games. But the two games were “We Be Goblins” and “We Be Goblins II”, which roleplaying lore and comments from people who had played in them were considered to be incredibly fun. They were also two games I had talked Sophie into playing with me, and I really wanted to game with Sophie.
The following events took place on Monday morning and Monday afternoon of the convention respectively. People tend to be tired and low energy on Monday. In addition, between playing in the above game and Monday morning I had played in one game so bad that it came close to “Legacy of the Stone Lords” as the single worst event of the convention for me. In short, since “Legacy of the Stone Lords” I had not particularly enjoyed my roleplaying experience at the convention and I was crabby.
“WE BE GOBLINS” and “WE BE GOBLINS II”
Both of these games suffered from exactly the same problems, so I am going to cover them as a set. The first problem that they both suffered from was that as before the GMs were not sufficiently familiar with the material and otherwise underprepared. One GM forgot to bring the pregen characters for the game. One GM brought a bunch of pregens that weren’t canon and unsuitable for PFS play. Both of them spent far too much time flipping through the scenario booklet, organizing their notes, reorganizing their notes, losing pages, finding pages, and looking up references. One of the two was rather sullen and grumpy about it, while the other was earnest and really tried to make the best of things (and I give props for that!) but in the end both games faltered due to lack of preparation, which slowed the tempo of the games almost to a standstill.
The second problem was that neither GM knew how to say “Yes!” to players. Both games are all about goblin shenanigans. Both games contain contests that goblin PCs have to win in order to get stuff. Goblins are dirty little creepy bastards. And yet neither GM seemed particularly interested in PC ideas for cheating at the contests, instead treating them as straight up challenge rolls that you either succeeded at or failed at. The goal seemed to be “get through the encounters in sequence by the numbers.”
This left both scenarios feeling linear, lackluster, and often tedious – in short the exact opposite of what was promised by the premise.
I had a miserable time in the first game (where I wound up playing a non-canon sorcerer, and discovered I was once again useless… and eventually dead) and an unenjoyable time in the second game (where I wound up playing a fighter and was actually useful, though frustrated in my attempts to take the scenario even a little bit off the giant rails it was riding on).
Overall, in terms of the actual games I played in, I rate the experience as quite poor. The major special event was perfect to make my character useless, I got shit on by other players my first time playing, the GMs that I played with were all unprepared to run the games they were supposed to be running, and none of them seemed capable of thinking outside the text of the written scenarios.
THE SOCIETY ITSELF
I found many of the people I met involved with the Pathfinder Society to be quite personable and helpful. I met some really nice people there – folks who love the RPG hobby just like I do, who want to encourage others to try a system they love, and are enthusiastic and friendly. With the one rather obvious exception I felt welcomed and accepted in the PFS.
It’s clear that Paizo loves the PFS too. There were various giveaways and prizes for every event, which was quite fun. One kid at my table won a free copy of the rules, which I thought was very nice.
So in general, while I didn’t much care for any of the games I got into, I thought the organization itself was welcoming, friendly, and fun.
As for Pathfinder, the game system – well, I honestly don’t know. I knew from the beginning that the system was crunchier than I prefer, but I also recognize that the difficulties which the DMs had in their games, and other factors, did not allow the system to be properly showcased in a good light. There were several things to dislike (for example the system seems to be very picky about what you can do depending on what square you happen to be standing in) but I never got a feel for what makes the system exciting and fun.
It is likely that I will try another Pathfinder event sometime, if only because I had such a bad experience in terms of the games I played in but such a good experience with most of the people that I feel I owe the nice people a second chance. But this time I will try to look up the DMs ahead of time and avoid those who do not have a solid, extensive rating with PFS.
*One of the pieces of advice that he gave me to fix my 1st level character was to buy a certain book because it had a certain magical item listed in it. The book, he admitted, would be entirely useless to me – save for the fact that it had in it that particular magical item.