How Did I End Up Here? How did roleplaying end up here?

(Long gaming story with lots of ranting - you have been warned! Also, yes I know that everyone can have their own fun in their own way and all that jazz. Like I side, I’m ranting, don’t try to fix it.)

I played Pathfinder this weekend, but not by choice. I was helping run a charity game day. I planned to run Fiasco in the morning and In A Wicked Age in the afternoon. I didn't have any takers for Fiasco in the morning and there weren't any leftover players or GMs, so I went home for a few hours (game store is 4 blocks away!).

For the afternoon session, there was one Pathfinder Society (PFS) table with two players (you need three, but really four, to play) and two GMs with no players (I was again one of these). The other GM had made his own D&D 3.5 module. We all got together and I pitched them on Fiasco because I had both D&D and Paranoia playsets I wanted to try out. Clearly, I wasn't getting any traction, so I quickly dropped it. I also made it clear I wasn't interested in playing either of the other games but it was okay since I had event organizer stuff I could work on instead.

The D&D 3.5 guys explained how he'd spent days creating and printing all the characters and the module. I felt his pain as I used to do the same thing and it sucked when no one showed to play the game you worked so hard on. So I tried to lobby for him. But in defense of the other three (two PFS players and their GM) he was a rather creepy looking dude and that can be hard to get past.

This left the PFS GM. The players seemed willing to play either game, but the PFS GM said he really prefers the Pathfinder rules system...over D&D 3.5. That’s like preferring salt over kosher salt; there is absolutely no significant difference between these rules system to any reasonable human being. He went back and forth with the D&D 3.5 guy - all positive and both selling their respective game - for far, far too long.

It was clear the four of them would not reach a compromise and that would leave all four without a game to play. I felt a responsibility to the charity event not to have everyone just walk away and not play anything, so I said, "I'll play PFS." You can run PFS with three but the GM ghosts a fourth character. This left the D&D 3.5 guy with nothing to play/run, so he then agreed to play PFS. I felt that if I then said, "Good, then you won't need me!" they'd go back to a stalemate. I had to stay and play it out.

So what was I to do? The plot was completely on rails so no hope of player agency there. I decided to get in character like I used to do. Turns out this is only fun if someone else is willing to talk to you in character. The GM sorta did, but he obviously felt pressure to spew out exposition and move the game forward. When I was playing in “living” style games a decade ago, we all talked to each other in character. What the hell happened?

Inspired by The Hobbit, I tried to get the party to sign a contract or at least talk to me about it. I figured this just made sense as our characters had never met before (three pre-gens and one “real” character).  But they didn’t engage with me at all.

I gave the GM a note begging him to possess, charm, or doppleganger me. He did, but not until the final encounter. After the first encountered, I tried to get the party to demand more money from our employer due to mission creep. I was ignored. Basically, I became THAT guy real fast.

Turns out THAT guy just wants some player agency. In fact, all “problem players” in traditional RPGs are a result of the inflexible structure of players-own-characters-and-GM-owns-everything-else. I knew that, but becoming a problem player myself really put it in stark relief. Maybe I should’ve just played with my phone the whole game and not tried to have fun but since I was the glue that kept this particular table together I did feel entitled to a little fun (not that I had any, but I tried).

During the final encounter, the GM admits that the module is broken and the final combat is way too hard. Everyone online talks about how it’s broken. Players from other tables came over and said, “Yeah, that one sucked.” And this is the game that the GM was so excited to play that he wouldn’t consent to play in the homemade D&D 3.5 game? WHAT THE FUCK! He knew going in that it was going to SUCK at the end. When I was GMing Living Greyhawk and Living Force we would fix bad modules and make them fun. Near as I can tell, that just isn’t done anymore.

There was no significant NPC interaction in this event (just boxed text), no puzzles, one blow-up-in-your-face trap, and a string of combat encounters. And it ended in a Total Party Kill (TPK). Weirdest part to me is that no one else seemed disappointed in this experience. In fact, they all seemed to enjoy it (good for them, I guess).

I don’t think the GM was a bad GM (bizarrely unreasonable, but that’s a separate issue). The only way to be a good GM in the “living” games is to be an illusionist GM. I know, I used to teach a class (no, literally, an all-day class) on how to do it – but of course I didn’t call it that (we called it GM Boot Camp). Now I think that illusionist GMing is the far greater sin.

I’m sure not all PFS games go like this, but it didn’t seem to be far outside the current norm either. So how did roleplaying end up here? Why is this stuff still called roleplaying rather than Diablo without the computer? Did everyone worth playing with ditch traditional RPGs for greener pastures? If that’s the case, why is it so hard for me to find anyone willing to even try something not traditional?
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