Organized Play Vs. Home Campaign – Rules Interpretation

Both fighters retreat to your corners. When the bell rings, come out fighting.


Over the weekend, I had a brief conversation with my friend and gaming compatriot Ziz about one of the big problems with Pathfinder Society Organized Play, specifically that characters that are not built to maximize effect are somewhat hamstrung in the games.

In other words, for organized play, you really need a character that excels, mechanically speaking. Since the “role playing” at a table is different from session to session – as much as your table dynamic is different, with likely a different group of players and GM each time out – the best way to have an effective character is to have one that is mechanically sound.

The problem with this is, not everyone likes to min-max each character. Sure, it’s fun to play the dumb, ugly orc barbarian with an axe… but what about classes that need more than one or two high attributes to excel? What about developing a storyline for your character, to carry through from adventure to adventure?

I love Pathfinder Society Organized Play. Love it. It lets me come and go as I please, GM every now and then when I want to, and gives me a standard, organized and easily-understood method for advancement in character levels and wealth. I know what to expect going in. I know what I’m after and how to get it.

The downside is that PSOP, or any organized play, is bound to be dominated by mechanics than by good role playing. Take for instance my 2nd level Elf Illusionist – I character I thought would own. The first session I played him (he already had 3 adventures under his belt, since I applied 3 scenarios I GMed to him), he was by far the least effective character in the group.

Some of that was the scenario, and some of it was the GM (I’d say it was 50/50). But the GM stuff was brutal. I found out why it’s unwise to play an illusionist in the pick-up style game – the rules are at the mercy of the GM and his interpretation of them.

Take, for instance, the spell Disguise Self, which was used by an NPC bad guy against the party. I was the first to speak with the bad guy in question… and apparently fell for the ruse. Except… I got no saving throw, no chance to disbelieve the illusion. Now, as an Elven Illusionist, my save bonus vs. Illusions, even at 2nd level, is sick. Having access to the game material later, I was able to figure out the DC of the saving throw to disbelieve. The GM had asked us for will saving throws before the session began, and I know that my rolls were all in the mid 20s. There was NO CHANCE that I wouldn’t have spotted the illusion.

The problem? His interpretation of the spell. In order to disbelieve Disguise Self, you must interact with it. I take that to mean seeing, speaking with, listening to, etc. If ANY of my senses come into contact with it, then I have interacted with it. His interpretation was MUCH more stringent – that in order to disbelieve the illusion, you had to touch it.

Woah. That’s a pretty radical – and completely in the GM’s favor – way to read a rule. I mean, if I had known that, I would’ve cast Disguise Self on myself, and told everyone I was the Queen of Cheliax. So what if my voice doesn’t sound the same? Bow down or die. In this case, my wizard, who spoke to the “child” at great depth, and spent a great deal of time looking at her, was deemed to have not interacted with the character. Thus, when I stepped through the doorway and got sneak attacked by two thugs (complete with rogue sneak attack damage), I nearly died, and spent the rest of the session pissed off as a player (I did my best to continue, but this wasn’t the only issue at the table with this GM either – he seemed bound and determined to kill us all, methinks), constantly at odds with a GM who cared little for the fairness of his decision, and as a character completely doubting his self and the craft he though he had so painstakingly perfected.

Further, later discussion has done little to temper my issues, but pointed out one critical flaw in my character design – the character is built more for role play, rather than “roll play.” Leaning heavily on mechanics that are unclear, or up to GM interpretation, means that I can’t rely on one effective way to play the character. Trying to sneak, connive and trick my way through a scenario is going to depend almost entirely on the way the GM reads, interprets and implements the rules for illusions. Since I’m not one to throw a fit at a table (I’ll try and seek restitution and further explanation after the session is complete), it also means that there’s really no way to argue or ensure my interpretation is plausible.

Thus, my illusionist is effectively useless unless I’ve played with a GM before, and can be comfortably certain on how he’s going to rule regarding illusions. Unfortunately, the bad experience detailed above left me with a sour taste in my mouth regarding my character, and now, it feels like a wasted dud of a PC.

This is further complicated in that I now cannot apply the same sessions I GMed to another character, nor can I play the sessions I’ve played with him again for credit. Effectively, I’ve got a useless, disliked character I’m unlikely to ever play again. My attempt to do something unique and fun was squashed by the adage that, in organized play, min-maxing and power gaming are the only ways to be effective.

1 comment:

  1. I've heard horror stories like this before with other organized play. My favorite so far is the GM who went on at length about how lucky players were to draw him because he rewarded role playing. When he got a group, the party discovered that his idea of role playing was dicing skill challenges between combats. He was a long time Warhammer 40K player, and that's all he really knew.

    Don't let one bad experience sour you on a good character. Play him at least once more. Use the old "frustrate me once, shame on you. Frustrate me twice, shame on me" philosophy. :)