As Game Master, you run each session of Pathfinder, providing the link between the players and the world of the game. It’s up to you to set the scene as the player characters battle monsters, interact with other people, and explore the world.
When you take on the role of Game Master, you’ll have the rewarding job of crafting fun experiences for a group of your friends. Your responsibilities include...
- Telling the story of the group’s adventures in a compelling and consistent way.
- Fleshing out the world in which the game takes place, emphasizing the fantastical while grounding it enough in the real world to feel believable.
- Entertaining the players and yourself with novel concepts, and rewarding creative ideas with interesting outcomes.
- Preparing for game sessions by building or studying adventures and creating characters and plots.
- Improvising the reactions of nonplayer characters and other forces in the world as the players do unexpected things.
- Making rules decisions to ensure fairness and keep the game moving forward.
This chapter provides the tools you need to shoulder those responsibilities. The following sections break down the various components of a campaign, discuss the different modes of play and how to set DCs for the tasks the PCs attempt, provide different ways of rewarding player characters, and describe aspects of the environment that might affect an adventuring party.
Planning a Campaign
A Pathfinder game is typically structured as a campaign—a serialized story that focuses on a single party of characters. A campaign is subdivided into multiple adventures, smaller stories that involve exploration and interaction with nonplayer characters. A single adventure represents a complete story that might be connected to the larger arc of a campaign. Playing an adventure spans one or more game sessions—gatherings where the group plays a part of the adventure over the course of several hours.
A campaign provides the overall structure for your Pathfinder game. As you prepare for your campaign, you’ll establish its scope and themes, which you’ll then reinforce in the adventures and scenes that take place within it.
The length of a campaign can range from a few sessions to many years. Two main factors determine campaign length: how much time you need to complete the story, and how much time players want to devote to the game.
A single session, or a “one-shot,” is great if your group is trying out Pathfinder or wants to play a specific short adventure. This requires a smaller time commitment but requires the GM to present the events of the game in a way that is immediately engaging, since there’s less opportunity for the players to become invested in the story or setting.
If you want to play through a longer campaign, you’ll need to add some story elements that speak directly to the characters in your game rather than just to the events of the adventure. In other words, the characters should have individual goals in addition to the group’s overall goals.
You can estimate how long a campaign will take by looking at the amount of time you actually have to play, or the number of character levels you intend the characters to advance. It typically takes three to four sessions for a group to level up. Since you’ll probably cancel sessions on occasion, playing once a week for a year results in roughly a 14-level campaign, playing every 2 weeks for a year gives you an 8-level campaign, and playing monthly allows for a 5-level campaign. If you play only once a month, you might consider holding longer sessions and using fast advancement (page 509).
It’s entirely okay to have a campaign with an indefinite length. Many groups play through one adventure and then decide to take on another. If you run an indefinite campaign, however, avoid ongoing plots that you can’t satisfactorily end if the campaign comes to a close after the next adventure. If you introduce an overwhelmingly powerful villain who’s crucial to the story but can’t be stopped until the player characters are 15th level, ending the campaign at 8th level will feel anticlimactic.
It pays to be conservative when estimating your campaign length and scope. It’s always tempting to run a 20-level epic campaign with complex, interwoven plots, but such games can fall apart long before the end if your group can play only once a month and the players have other responsibilities.
Not every campaign ends at the same point. Some campaigns go all the way to 20th level, ending after the player characters attain the height of power and confront the greatest threats any mortal could face. Others end at a lower level, after the group takes down a major villain or solves a crucial problem. And still other campaigns end when players become unable to attend or decide its a good time to stop playing.
You should have an end point in mind when you start a campaign. Still, you have to be flexible, since you’re telling the story alongside other players, and your initial expectations for the campaign may be proven incorrect. When you think you’re heading toward a satisfying conclusion, it’s useful to check in with the other players. You might say, “I think we have about two sessions left. Does that work for everyone? Is there any unfinished business you want to take care of?” This lets you gauge whether your assumptions match up with the rest of the group—and make any necessary adjustments.
The themes you choose for your campaign are what distinguish it from other campaigns. They include the major dramatic questions of your story and the repeated use of certain environments or creatures, and they can also include embracing a genre beyond traditional high fantasy. The themes you choose for your campaign also suggest storyline elements you might use.
A storyline’s themes usually relate to the backstories, motivations, and flaws of the player characters and villains. For example, if you’ve chosen revenge as one of the themes of your game, you might introduce a villain whose quest for revenge tears his life apart and causes tragic harm to those around him. If one of the player characters is a chaotic good believer in liberty and freedom, you might engage that character by pitting the group against slavers. Or, you might choose a theme of love, leading to nonplayer characters involved in doomed romances, seeking to regain lovers they have lost, or courting the player characters.
Using similar locations and related creatures helps you form connections between disparate adventures. The players feel like their characters are becoming experts negotiating with giants, navigating seaways, battling devils, exploring the planes, or dealing with whatever the recurring elements are. For example, you might have the players explore a frozen tundra early on, then later travel to an icy plane filled with more difficult challenges that can be overcome using knowledge they’ve previously developed. Likewise, hobgoblin soldiers may be tough enemies for your group at low levels, but as the PCs attain higher levels and the hobgoblins become mere minions of another creature, the players feel a sense of progression.
Pathfinder is a fantasy adventure game, but you can shift your campaign to include elements of other fictional genres. You might want to infuse your game a with a sense of horror, reduce the amount of magic and use slow advancement (page 509) to make it a tale of sword and sorcery, or turn magic into technology for a steampunk setting.
A Welcoming Environment
The role of Game Master comes with the responsibility of ensuring you and the rest of the players have a rewarding, fun time during the game. Games can deal with difficult subjects and have stressful moments, but fundamentally Pathfinder is a leisure activity. It can remain so only if the players follow the social contract and respect one another.
Players with physical or mental disabilities might find themselves more challenged than abled players. Work with your players to ensure they have the resources and support they need. Additionally, be on the lookout for behavior that’s inappropriate, whether intentional or inadvertent, and pay careful attention to players’ body language during the game. If you notice a player becoming uncomfortable, you are empowered to pause the game, take it in a new direction, privately check in with your players during or after the session, or take any other action you think is appropriate.
If a player tells you they’re uncomfortable with something in the game, whether it’s content you’ve presented as the GM or another player’s or PC’s actions, listen carefully to that player and take steps to ensure they can once again have fun during your game. If you’re preparing prewritten material and you find a character or a situation inappropriate, you are fully empowered to change any details as you see fit. You also have the authority (and responsibility) to ask players to change their behavior—or even leave the table—if what they’re doing is unacceptable or makes others feel uncomfortable. It’s never appropriate to make the person who is uncomfortable responsible for resolving a problem. It’s okay if mistakes happen. What’s important is how you respond and move forward.
Gaming is for everyone. Never let those acting in bad faith undermine your game or exclude other players. Your efforts are part of the long-term process of making games and game culture welcoming to all. Working together, we can build a community where players of all identities and experiences feel safe.
Before a campaign begins, check in with your players—as a group or individually—to find out what types of content they want to allow in the game, and which topics they would prefer to avoid. Because the story unfolds in real time, it’s essential that you discuss these topics before the game starts. These discussions are intended to keep players safe, and so it’s not okay to ask why someone wants a type of content banned. If someone wants it banned, ban it—no questions asked.
It can help to start with a rating, like those used for movies or video games. Pathfinder games often include violence and cruelty. What’s the limit on how graphically these concepts should be described? Can players swear at the table? Does anyone have phobias they don’t want to appear in the game, such as spiders or body horror?
After you figure out the limits on objectionable content, you have four important tasks:
- Clearly convey these limits to the other players.
- Ensure you and the players abide by the boundaries.
- Act immediately if someone becomes uncomfortable about content during a session, even if it wasn’t already banned in a prior discussion. Once the issue is resolved, move on.
- Resolve the issue if any player deliberately pushes these boundaries, tries to find loopholes, tries to renegotiate the limits, or belittles people for having a different tolerance to objectionable content.
The Pathfinder Baseline
You might find that your players don’t have much to say on the topic of objectionable content, and just assume that general societal mores will keep the most uncomfortable topics out of the game. That’s not always enough, as that approach relies on shared assumptions that aren’t always accurate. The following is a set of basic assumptions that works for many groups, which you can modify to fit your preferences and those of the other players.
- Bloodshed, injuries, and even dismemberment might be described. However, excessive descriptions of gore and cruelty should be avoided.
- Romantic and sexual relationships can happen in the game, but players should avoid being overly suggestive. Sex always happens “off-screen.” Because attempts at initiating a relationship between player characters can be uncomfortably similar to one player hitting on another, this should generally be avoided (and is entirely inappropriate when playing with strangers).
- Avoid excessively gross or scatological descriptions.
The following acts should never be performed by player characters:
- Rape, nonconsensual sexual contact, or sexual threats
- Harm to children, including sexual abuse
- Owning slaves or profiting from the slave trade
- Reprehensible uses of mind-control magic
Villains might engage in such acts, but they won’t happen “on-screen” or won’t be described in detail. Many groups choose to not have villains engage in these activities at all, keeping these reprehensible acts out of mind entirely.
Social Splash Damage
As important as it is to take care of yourself and the other players in your game, be mindful of your group’s impact on the other people around you. If you’re playing in a space that’s not your own, respect your hosts. If you’re playing in public, consider the comfort of the people around you, not just what your group is comfortable with. It’s easy to get caught up in a game, as we get sucked into the microcosm of an imagined world, but don’t ignore the real world around you. Be aware when you’re making too much noise, leaving a mess, alarming passersby with graphic descriptions of violence, or even just giving the cold shoulder to curious spectators witnessing RPG play for the first time.
At the outset of a new campaign, the players will create new player characters. Part of that process involves you introducing what the campaign will be about and what types of characters are most appropriate. Work with the players to determine which rule options are available. The safest options are the common choices from the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. If players want to use common options from other books or uncommon or rare options, through play, review those options to see if any of them conflict with the style of campaign you have in mind or might present strange surprises down the road. It’s usually best to allow new options, but there’s no obligation to do so. Be as open as you’re comfortable with.