Monday, October 3, 2011

Organized Play

With my jump back into RPG event organizing, the topic of organized play has understandably been on my mind as of late. While I do find it somewhat amazing, I know that there are a lot of people out there who aren't familiar with the concept, so I'm going to take a bit to talk about that. In my next post, I'm going to go more in-depth with the actual process of setting up and running events.

Let's take a trip in the Way-Back Machine. In the days of 1st Edition D&D, a new beast formed itself out of the chaos of that era. It was called the Role-Playing Game Association, or RPGA for short. What the RPGA specialized in was convention-play events like the D&D Open and other tournament-style play. An RPGA adventure would contain a number of pre-generated characters, an adventure, generally very tough and meat-grindery and meant to test players' mastery of the game. If you want a taste of these days, you can go and check out the old C series of modules, and even some of the S series.

Players and teams were scored on a number of different factors, and some events were set up so that only certain teams or even individual players would be able to progress on to the following rounds. They were often gruesome adventures, but were generally only one-shot stories. Eventually, someone had a thought similar to, "This is really great, but what if I could make my own character and play that character over and over in an ongoing storyline, and still do it in a similar format?"

Skip ahead to the early days of 2nd Edition and the founding of the Living City campaign. The RPGA took the idea of making up your own character and playing in an ongoing storyline and married to one of the most popular settings of the times - the Forgotten Realms.

The Forgotten Realms is undeniably the most developed (some would say over-developed) campaign settings in the history of the game. The Living City campaign took one of the lesser-developed areas of the setting - the city of Raven's Bluff and its surroundings - and set it aside as a sandbox for the RPGA and players of the campaign.

Sadly, I never got to play in the Living City campaign, but it lasted a long time - right up until the advent of 3rd Edition - undergoing some leadership and rules changes over the years. The "Living" portion of the campaign came from the fact that the actions of your characters could affect the direction of the storyline. In the days before the internet, the distribution of the campaign was such that most of it was run at conventions all over the nation. With so many players, data had to be collected and an aggregate of the results would determine what actually happened. It wasn't as perfect as a home campaign, but it was as close as you could get.

Many other Living Campaigns developed through the RPGA over the years: Living Jungle, Living Death, and more. With the coming of 3rd Edition and the d20 system, even more living campaigns popped up: Living Force, Living Spycraft, Living Arcanis, and, of course, Living Greyhawk.

Ah, Greyhawk. The place where it all started (aside from Blackmoor, but that its own Organized Play campaign as well). With 3rd Edition again placing Greyhawk in the seat of the "assumed" D&D setting, a new opportunity opened up. What if you were take the model of the very successful Living City campaign, but instead apply it to a whole world - a world that was rich in history and established canon, but was at the same time much less developed than the Forgotten Realms. A world like Greyhawk.

This, of course, has its own downsides. How do you deal with something on that scale? The solution was, in my opinion, one of the best things the RPGA ever cooked up - the Regional system. It went something like this.

Every real-world area was tied to a region of the World of Greyhawk. The state of Wisconsin, for instance, was tied to the region of Highfolk. If you were to play an actual game in that region, you would have to play adventures from that region. If you wanted to play an adventure from, say, the Shield Lands, you would have to travel to Minnesota or the Dakotas and play there. Each region was run by a group of three administrators, known as a Triad, who oversaw the adventure writing and storyline for that particular region.

Some areas of the setting were considered "Core" regions and were not tied to an actual real-world region. Places like the City of Greyhawk and the Duchy of Ten were areas in which these Core adventures were set, and anyone, regardless of their region could play in these adventures. These areas were overseen by the Circle of Eight, the main administrators of the campaign.

As time went on, there were additions and addendums to the regional system - Adaptable adventures, Meta-regions, Adapted adventures, and more. By the time the campaign ended (at the height of its greatness in my opinion), the possibilities for play were astounding.

But, there were downsides to this system. First and foremost was that not all regions were created equally, or at least their leadership or the quality of their writing wasn't. I was very lucky to be part of the Highfolk region - we had a very creative and active Triad who created some great and sweeping storylines and, for the most part, kept the proverbial trains running on time. Other regions didn't have that. There were a number of regions who had a general lack of interest, and had a hard time even producing a handful of adventures each year, much less coherent and compelling stories.

The other main issue was travel. The implementation of the regional system had a number of immediately obvious side-effects like if we in Highfolk ever wanted our characters to cross the Yatil Mountains to the west and venture into Perrenland, it would require a real-life trip to Australia. Eventually, this was handled by having "Fiesta" events at the larger conventions where you could freely play adventures from any region.

While it was nice, it did have the effect of widening a substantial gap that existed between those players who were willing and able to travel to conventions and those who were not. For players like me who were able to travel to the big regional conventions in Milwaukee each year, things were cool. I had the chance to play adventures months before they were available for play at public game days, and I got to take part in the Interactives - huge special events that were usually pivotal in the storyline of the region and were not available to be played anywhere else.

The true fact of any Organized Play campaign, as I am always wont to tell people, is that you get out of it what you put into it.

Since the coming of 4th Edition and Pathfinder and the great gaming schism of the 21st century, there are two main Organized Play campaigns - Living Forgotten Realms and Pathfinder Society. (Yes, I know that there are others, but LFR and PFS are the two biggest campaigns out there.)

Living Forgotten Realms was WotC's attempted successor to the popularity of the Living Greyhawn campaign, but with a lot of changes to address all of the issues with the previous campaign. First, while it is (or was, at its beginning) a regional campaign, characters were free to play any regional adventure regardless of where they were actually playing the game. It also opened up the possibility of replay by allowing any player to play or DM any given adventure any number of times, so long as it was with a character that had not gone through that adventure. In previous iterations of a Living campaign, this was patently verboten.

There have been a lot of changes to the LFR Campaign over the few years that it's been around, the biggest being that they have recently moved away from actual physical Regions for the adventures, and towards "Storyline" adventures. While there hasn't been a lot of action on the official campaign website in the last month, the campaign still seems to be dragging itself along. It's hard to say with confidence that it won't just fall to wayside some day soon, though.

Pathfinder Society, on the other hand, seems to be picking us steam with no sign of slowing down. PFS takes has taken a slightly different approach. First off, it is not a "Living" campaign, and doesn't really try to pass itself off as one. While it shares a lot of commonalities, it has not had a strong ongoing narrative until very recently. It is also not a regional campaign. Adventures can take you all over the Inner Sea region of Golarion and beyond. A unique aspect to the campaign are the factions, shadowy sub-organizations within the Pathfinder Society that are vying for political control of the city of Absalom. The biggest downside to the PFS campaign is the fact that Paizo charges a nominal amount (about $3 each) for the campaign adventures.

I think everyone should give Organized Play campaigns a shot at least once. It's not going to be for everyone, as there are some things that have to be sacrificed for the ability to take your character anywhere in the entire world and play in a sanctioned event. One of these is a rather unrealistic treasure distribution system. Another is that most public game days and convention events do have a rather limited amount of time to run an event in, and even though the adventures are designed to run in a standard 4 to 5 hour time slot, there are a lot of times when this can lead to some skipping over and hand-waving of a lot of actual role-playing.

In my estimation, however, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

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