It has been a long time since I played a traditional pen and paper role playing game. Most of my experience in the last few years has been up at the story-telling end of the pool, where nearly everything is a negotiation in a shifting narrative. Ultimate free-form. My itch to actually play a game of any sort drove me to join the Pathfinder Society however, and go along to an organised play session.
The first thing I found, though suspected all along, is that there is a very high entrance barrier in bureaucracy in order to start play. This bureaucracy starts with creating a character for play. 1st edition was bad enough for my tastes, but this version (D&D 3.75) has really got to the stage as far as I can see that you need a computer aided design program to get through the multiple layers of additions, subtractions, special overlapping rules and so on. As one of the fellow players at the table said, he was not a min/maxer: he had ‘optimised’ his character. And so he could roll a dice and cause more than 20 points of damage. Bully for him. I treated this burden as simply the price of entry to the game: the hoops I had to jump through in order to get to the story.
The story was part two of the Frostfur Captives scenario, and I could see it was well written, and I applaud the GM for breathing life into it. There were several occasions when I was truly intrigued and my inner eye was fascinated with the scene. There were also some quite dry parts where the scenario ran itself and I was merely the mouthpiece required to speak the words.
As Stephen, the GM, said, since this is organised play and partially competitive, you have to stick pretty closely to the script so that a table is not advantaged or disadvantaged over another. I understand this and recognise it has to be so if you hope to run hundreds of people across the world through the same general experience. And so I took it on face value and jumped in.
Goblins. Pathfinder goblins are just like the creatures in Galaxy Quest, the little bastards with the big teeth. I asked for more information on Pathfinder goblins just to see if there is anything specific about them that I should know. From the description of their behaviour I could tell that the designers had read GURPS Goblins and that gave me a warm feeling of recognition. References like that were lost on the young fellers at the table – but it’s not as though points were being awarded for being an old fart. Anyway, we had to escort these little charmers to a certain spot. I managed to acquire the weird reputation of being a goblin lover because I had the bizarre plan of feeding them and treating them decently. Age again, I guess. Youngsters want to punish an unfair world, old blokes recognise the goblin in everyone and show pity. Or something. In any case I learnt a valuable rookie lesson: never let the prisoners in custody out of your sight until you hand them to your own duty sergeant and the charge book has been filled in.
This was a new experience for me, to be part of an organised play session with a group of complete strangers, strangers that were right on top of what their characters could do and knew how the rules worked. Apart from the uncomfortable beginning I have to say I had a good time. I can understand what these guys have been talking about playing at conventions over these many decades of play. To be honest I would have preferred a little less interfering noise, some more atmosphere, and some more leeway to step off the programmed path. But it was OK. I can imagine going back to that well again.
Then came the next layer of bureaucracy at the session’s end. Forms to be filled out and signed. Points to be awarded. This paperwork along with its behind the scenes organisation is typical of the machinations of any corporation. Of course it is: this is a company that has to build a loyal customer base. It’s pretty clever. I could see how it fits together: the requirements to buy certain publications, the bonuses and recognitions for conforming to the structure of the overall setting. The bit that cracked me up was the bonus reroll you could make if you were wearing a company tee-shirt. A meta-game insertion disconnected to the story but closely connected to generating sales in peripheral products. The organisation of the global campaign, with a hierarchy of operatives, and the structure of rewards geographically distributed was impressive too.
It was hard not to be impressed, and I dutifully was. And that is the real strength of this Society, obviously designed. Such entrance barriers are there and the bureaucracy is there and the structure is there to create a sense of belonging to a big, vibrant community. A community that is not open to everyone: you have to work to get in, but once in there is an entire reward path laid out.
Yes, it was an enjoyable and informative day. I learned a lot, and I played a character that got an interesting scar.