Preparing to Run a Game
Great Game Masters make running a game look easy, weaving memorable characters, breathless action, and vivid descriptions into unforgettable tapestries of fantasy. Players in a well-run game have a sense of danger (and a sense of accomplishment in overcoming it), plus a general feeling of spontaneity as events unfold and the characters rise to meet new challenges.
Such magical experiences require plenty of preparation, even a sense of spontaneity—it’s tough to seem spontaneous when you’re shuff ling though notes.
thinGs to hAve At the tAble
Supplies and materials on the list that follows keep the game from derailing as you fumble for what you need.
Rulebooks and Other Game Materials: You need copies of whatever rules are in use, plus a copy of any supplement or expansion that deals with player character abilities. If it’s a book that’s referenced frequently by players, it’s often appropriate to ask players to provide their own copies.
Dice: An inadequate supply of dice can slow a game to a crawl. At minimum, make sure each player has a full set of the dice most commonly used in the game: d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20.
Writing Materials: Everyone needs a pencil and some notepaper. In addition, it’s a good idea to keep a supply of blank character sheets handy.
Miniatures: Many GMs use miniatures to keep track of the action. These work best on a scale map of the adventure scene, typically a gridded battlemat suitable for use with erasable markers (such as GameMastery Flip-Mats), though the right computer equipment can project or print maps to scale.
Props and Associated Supplies: Props and player handouts, such as sketches of important items, maps for player reference, and written notes, can speed play and help hold the players’ interest.
seven essentiAls for Good PrePArAtion
Exactly what kind of preparation is needed varies from game to game. If you follow this checklist, however, you’ll be ready for just about anything.
Know the Characters and Players
Sit down with all the character sheets and look them over carefully. Consider what each character can do in the game—major powers, secondary powers, special abilities, and inherent traits. This helps you anticipate what your players might do in any given situation.
Pay special attention to powers that work automatically or passively—for example, an ability to detect impending danger or notice concealed doors. It falls to you to make
sure such abilities work when and how they should.
Knowing your players can prove as important as knowing their characters. Many players develop favorite tricks and stunts with their characters’ powers, or well-ingrained misconceptions about what their characters can or cannot do. Knowing these quirks can help you keep the players engaged and challenged and can def lect problems before the dice hit the table.
Know the Scene
Get familiar with the scene where the action will occur. If you’re running a published adventure, read through it carefully. Not only should you know the answers to basic questions (“How high is the ceiling here?”), but you should also be able to convey sensory details.
Next, take a moment to get familiar with each adventure site’s layout. Note the major features and where they lie in relation to each other. Pay special attention to entrances, exits, stairwells, and other features that the characters will use to move around.
Know the Story
Some games don’t have much story—the characters simply endure whatever you decide to throw at them. But even such straightforward adventures will run a little better if
you take time to consider how the adversaries came to be in the party’s way, what they’re doing when the party appears, and how they might react to intrusion.
Other games place the characters within an unfolding story. Before running such a game, stop to consider the story’s beginning, middle, and end. Note the key events and turning points in the tale, and pay special attention to events and developments that turn on character decisions or actions. Consider how you will present those turning points so that you can create a seamless narrative that flows naturally from the party’s actions.
Know the Adversaries
Think about the foes your characters must face and any other obstacles they must overcome. Consider how those adversaries will act toward the characters.
Creatures and NPCs can often react to characters when they’re still some distance away, thanks to their hearing, sight, or other senses. How these foes respond depends on their nature, temperament, and intelligence, as well as why they’re on the scene and what they’re doing when the party arrives.
Animals and creatures with a similar level of intelligence are usually present simply because they live in the area or because someone else has brought them there; they often don’t pay much heed to the characters unless they perceive them to be some kind of threat. Many animals would rather f lee than fight, but even a timid animal can become ferocious when cornered, and some are highly territorial and aggressive.
Any creature smarter than a common animal generally tries to assess the situation before acting. Very few simply sit in rooms or lairs waiting for the party to come and attack. What they do depends on the weaponry and powers they have available, and what they have at stake.
Creatures that have something to defend (property, livelihood, family, reputation, and so on) likely won’t hesitate to confront the party in some fashion. That doesn’t always mean an immediate attack. Consider how the creature thinks of intruders or visitors. Is it curious or prone to negotiation? Does it think of the group as a threat or an opportunity? Has it made plans for dealing with intruders? Also think about how well the creature knows its ground, what risks it’s willing to take, and how quickly and accurately it can assess its situation.
Not all responses need to be tactical. The creature might just want to chat with the newcomers or might send someone else to do so. Alternatively, it might try to scare away intruders or perhaps misdirect them. A creature with nothing to gain probably won’t fight at all if it can avoid doing so.
You should also think about what might make the creature surrender or f lee. Few creatures fight to the death if there’s an alternative available.
Know the Rules
You don’t need encyclopedic knowledge of the Pathfinder RPG rules set to run a quality game. You do, however, need to be comfortable with those parts of the rules that come up frequently in play. This means the rules for determining initiative, how creatures attack and defend, and how to resolve noncombat challenges like skill checks (such as picking a lock or noticing bad guys sneaking up on the party’s camp). It doesn’t hurt to mark your rulebooks to help you find your way around—a few self-adhesive tabs
can prove indispensable.
Also be on the lookout for any character ability that uses a complex, difficult, or unfamiliar game mechanic and take a moment to study it. Do likewise for any creatures, traps, or hazards the party might encounter.
If you can’t quite figure out some aspect of the rules, and time permits, consult another Game Master, or the messageboards at paizo.com, which contain a wealth of helpful information and rules discussions. If all else fails, decide how you want the rule in question to work and use it that way—such decisions have a way of working out if you think them through ahead of time.
Don’t Overdo It
Remember that you’re preparing so that things proceed smoothly at the game table. Over-preparation can ruin that. Instead, prepare just enough so that you can quickly
deal with situations that you expect to arise, and so that you can handle the unexpected. Don’t script your game so tightly that the players lose their sense of freedom or that your game’s whole structure falls apart if your players fail (or refuse) to accomplish what you expect them to.
Likewise, don’t create so many notes that you can’t keep them organized. One page for each major encounter, event, or personality is generally plenty, and often less will do.
Lay a Few Alternate Plans
There’s an adage in military circles: no plan survives contact with the enemy. Sometimes players head off in directions you didn’t anticipate, defeat your primary villain with a few rolls, miss an obvious clue, or lose a key battle. You can take such developments in stride by considering a few contingencies that can set your plot back on track. Start by thinking about how things might go astray. Does some key individual drive your plot? Do the characters need to learn something before they can succeed? Is there a danger that, if overlooked, can defeat your party? Once you’ve identified the key stumbling blocks, think of plausible ways to repair the damage if the worst happens.
Of course, sometimes you still won’t be able to prepare for player actions. When things go astray, it’s generally the most fun for everyone to play along, exploring the
new story and using it to gently nudge the game back onto the original track. Sticking without exception to a prepared plot makes players feel powerless, and part of the fun of being a GM is being surprised by your players. Go with it.
Published or Homegrown?
Published adventures can be a great investment. Reading through such a scenario can give you an idea of how an adventure is put together, what challenges are suitable for your group’s power level, and what sorts of rewards are appropriate. The Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook deals with these subjects, but there’s nothing like seeing all the elements put together. More importantly, a close look at adventures someone else has thought through can give you new ideas for constructing your own. It’s easy to fall into a rut, especially when you’re running games regularly, and adventures like Paizo’s Pathfinder Adventure Paths and Pathfinder Modules can help dig you out.
Similarly, there’s a wealth of prepackaged campaign settings available, including Paizo’s own Pathfinder
Campaign Setting. Consider mining concepts from them for your own world, or adopting locations from them that inspire adventure concepts.
No matter how many published adventures or settings you own, it’s up to you to decide whether you’ll use them. If you merely lift an idea from them now and then, you’re still getting your money’s worth, but using them to a greater extent allows GMs to run sweeping, intricate campaigns with minimal preparation.
Sharing the Load
Even though you’re the GM, you don’t have to do everything yourself. You can pass along any number of tasks to your players.
Bookkeeping: This covers all the little tasks necessary to keep your group organized. You might ask one player to be the recorder, keeping notes on what the group accomplishes in each game. The recorder can keep tallies of party loot and foes defeated, saving you effort when it’s time to divide the spoils. You can also ask this player to note key pieces of information the PCs discover, names of important people they meet, and places they go. These notes can help your group get back up to speed when they return after a break.
Rules Knowledge: If you have a fair-minded player with a talent for explaining the rules, use her as a resource. When you expect to tackle an unfamiliar rule, discuss how it works with this player. When disputes about the rules arise during a game, get her opinion. It’s also frequently helpful to team her up with rookie players as an advisor, keeping the game moving.
Round-Robin Campaigns: No one says you have to GM every session. Sometimes a team of GMs can rotate the responsibility of running the game, each GM taking up
the game where the previous one left off each week, while the other GMs play. This requires significant coordination, and expert roleplaying (as some players already know the plotlines), but the chance to play in your own campaign and regularly experience different GM styles can be extremely entertaining and rewarding.
A one-shot game is a scenario intended to last for a single play session. These scenarios might be “standalone,” with little or no connection to other campaigns you run, or merely a diversion for your regular characters to give you extra time to put together the next major challenge. Paizo’s Pathfinder Society Scenarios are designed for just such situations, and can be downloaded from paizo.com. Keep in mind that the characters in these sessions can be the usual PCs, affiliates such as hirelings, or totally new characters intended only for a single game—one-shots are often perfect for unusual character ideas that might fail or grow stale in a longer game.
Unless you’ve got a very short scenario to run or a very long game session planned, create new characters ahead of time. In a time crunch, you might create them yourself
and allow your players to pick from the bunch. In this case, you should make a few more than you’ll need so that nobody feels stuck with the leftovers. If you decide to have players create their own characters, be clear about the power level, gear, and other game details you’ll allow and reserve the right to review and edit characters to better fit the group. You might even want to meet up with players one-on-one or have them submit characters early for review.
Introduce the scenario in a way that engages the players. Don’t give away any secrets, but let the players know why each of their characters is getting involved—having several “adventure hooks” allows you to pick which one would be most compelling for a given character. You can also always start the action with the party already committed to the adventure or facing a situation that leads in to the rest of the scenario, so as not to waste any playing time.
The concept of the macguffin often proves useful here. A macguffin is some element that drives your plot forward, but that you can ignore once it’s served its purpose. Your macguffin might be a rumor, a mission or request from a friend, a cryptic message, a treasure map, or anything else that piques the group’s interest without giving away too much.
Consider how the party’s activities, successful or not, might end, and be ready to sum up when the last die stops rolling. Because your players might never play these characters again, you can plan unusual rewards or endings that would be awkward in a regular campaign. Of course, more than one adventure that began as a one-shot has stretched into a campaign when both players and GMs found the plots and characters too much fun to retire...
A campaign offers something more than a series of adventures. A campaign gives context and depth to a group’s activities, making them part of a larger world. A properly constructed campaign also provides you with story elements, locations, personalities, and conflicts that serve as springboards for your creativity as you create adventures. Campaigns can be completely plotted out ahead of time, such as the 6-part Pathfinder Adventure Path series, which give GMs all the adventures and supplemental material they need to run a complete campaign, or they can be crafted on the fly, with GMs stringing adventures together just a session or two in advance. A Campaign Sheet is included in the back of this book, which you can use to plan and record all of the relevant details of your campaigns.
essentiAls of Good cAmPAiGns
Most advice in the section on preparing for a one-shot game applies to campaigns as well—only the scale is different. Below are a few elements to consider.
Setting and Scope
Your campaign world provides the backdrop for all your adventures. Take some time to consider the lay of the land and what it might be like to visit the place—Chapter 6 provides some specific ideas on creating a setting.
The sheer scope of your campaign world can also affect play. You can confine all your adventures to a single country or similar geographic area, or even to a single town or city. The kinds of adventures you can run in such a confined setting, however, will be different than what you can do with a whole continent.
An epic, world-spanning campaign offers an endless variety of adventure sites, while a localized campaign offers a more intimate feel and a strong sense that the characters are part of the world.
Your campaign need not have an overarching storyline, but having one (or more) continuing plots can help tie your adventures together into a continuous narrative, and inspire new ones.
Don’t overdo this element. Your goal isn’t to script your campaign, but rather to explain how and why things happen. Keep the story general, with an eye toward details your characters can notice and perhaps change through their actions. Choose something that can unfold slowly so that the story can move along even when your player characters aren’t actively involved in it. Consider how the player characters might shape or redirect the story, but also establish what happens if they don’t get involved.
Movers and Shakers
Decide who’s who in your world. This includes not only the beings that hold the reins of power, but also everyone who’s involved in driving the campaign forward. If you’ve laid out a story for your campaign, identify the entities behind the major threads. Ask yourself who’s pulling the strings and who stands to gain and lose with each twist and turn.
Not every important character in your world need be terribly inf luential. Every locale with people has a few memorable characters, so sprinkle the neighborhood where your PCs live with a few of those. Some of these might become valuable assets to the characters, providing them with information, introductions to more inf luential people, or protection in times of need. Others might simply offer the occasional bit of comic relief.
Many campaigns run on indefinitely until the group breaks up due to changing lives and priorities. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as running the campaign—and playing in it—don’t become chores. Still, it’s pleasant when a campaign comes to a natural end that allows you and your players to leave with a sense of completion.
You might plan a campaign with an ending in mind—a fairly easy task if you’ve laid out a story. Or you might decide to end the campaign when player interest (or your own) starts to f lag. In either case, consider what elements in the campaign have struck a chord with the group. Perhaps they’ve grown fond of a particular town or character. Perhaps they really despise some villain or have a burning desire to obtain a certain item. Craft your ending so things end on a high note, with main conf licts resolved and the loose ends tied up. It’s often fun to create an epilogue that lays out each character’s later career and retirement and looks ahead to the general state of your game world during the surviving characters’ sunset years.
Preparation is great, but sometimes you just want to play. Published adventures are perfect for this, but even those require a bit of reading ahead of time. If you want to truly wing it, with nothing more than a few notes and some dice, try f lipping through some completed adventures for stat blocks you can use—at the very least, you’re going to need to know things like hit points, AC, and saves—or tag some creatures in a monster book. Sketch out as much of the plot as you feel you need; it could be a whole adventure, or just the first scene. Consider throwing in a big decision requiring party deliberation whenever you need a minute to figure out the next encounter, andremember that a fun roleplaying encounter with an oddball NPC can provide extensive entertainment without any math involved. For more tips on emergency game prep, see pages 48–49. And when in doubt—roll initiative!