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Chapter 2: Building Games

Source GM Core pg. 63
Game Mastering can be an extremely creative endeavor, and this chapter gives you a suite of tools to make your own campaign or adventure. You can even create your own creatures, hazards, and items to populate your game, or even make your own game world!

Where Chapter 1 gave you the information to run a game, whether it was your own creation or someone else's, this chapter digs deep into making the game fully your own. This chapter is organized into the following sections.
  • Campaign Structure (page 64) discusses how you might connect multiple different events, encounters, and adventures together to create a longer story.
  • Adventure Design (page 68) suggests common themes and tropes used in role playing adventures and gives advice on how to make sure your game is fun and exciting for your players.
  • Encounter Design (page 75) explains how to create compelling and dynamic conflict in your game, be it violent combat or clever social debate.
  • Variant Rules (page 82) contains changes to the base Pathfinder rules that offer a different play experience from the baseline.
  • Afflictions (page 86) provides a plethora of curses and diseases for use in your games.
  • Environment (page 90) gives rules for overcoming obstacles and natural hazards that might be found in the surrounding area.
  • Hazards (page 98) are harrowing traps that might protect a fortress or dungeon. This section is filled with hazards to challenge your players in their explorations.
  • Building Hazards (page 109) offers advice on how to create your own brand-new hazards.
  • Building Creatures (page 112) demonstrates a topdown approach for quickly and easily constructing the creatures and NPCs you want or need for any possible situation in your game.
  • Building Items (page 130) teaches you how to create new pieces of treasure to delight your PCs.
  • Building Worlds (page 134) explains how to go about building your own entire world or setting from scratch.

To Create or Adapt

Source GM Core pg. 63
The material in this section can be used as an example for when you actually need to make your own rules elements or adventure and for when you can adapt. Many times, a small adjustment to an existing creature, item, adventure, or other part of the game can serve you just as well as building something brand new. Before you delve into creating your own new content, ask yourself a few questions.
  • Does something similar already exist? Look beyond the surface level. Maybe you want a low-level electrical construct that zaps people. It might not look like an electric eel on the surface, but copying the statistics for the eel are going to get you mostly there.
  • What do you need to change between your idea and the existing material? This will help you decide between using the original rule with minimal modification, using the original with adjustments, starting with the original as a framework to build your own, or just starting from scratch. Typically, creating something from scratch is a lot more work than modifying existing content.
  • How much time do you have to prepare the content? If time is tight, you might want to spend your time on something with a bigger impact. The less important an element is to your game, or the less time you'll be using it at the table, the more likely you should modify something that already exists. Unless you're building your entire game world from scratch, you can usually wait to implement any new rules and creations until you think you'll need it for your next session.

Scope of Changes

Source GM Core pg. 63
It's up to you to determine how much of your game you want to customize. Many GMs use the default rules and creatures and set their adventures on Golarion or another published game world. Other GMs devise and incorporate all-new creatures and places with strange themes that don't fit in the standard Pathfinder game or world. Neither of these approaches is inherently better than the others. The most important thing remains creating a story collaboratively with the rest of your group while having fun.

Determining what your group wants out of the game and setting makes a big difference here. If you're playing Pathfinder with a major goal of exploring the Age of Lost Omens setting, it's more likely you'll use “stock” elements rather than creating new ones. On the other hand, it could be more interesting for your players to see brand-new things if they play with you to experience your own creative voice, or if they're experienced Pathfinder players looking for variety.

Campaign Structure

Source GM Core pg. 64
Each adventure presents one contained story, but your campaign tells a more expansive one. Think of each adventure like an episode or arc and the campaign as a whole series. Though each adventure might tell a vastly different story, they should all tie into the themes and characters that stretch across the whole campaign.

A campaign interweaves multiple stories: the events of each adventure, the personal triumphs and failures of each PC, and the stories of NPCs who appear throughout. That means a campaign can become more than the sum of its parts. 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. When you start out, you'll likely have a core structure in mind for your campaign, but through play, it can—and should—grow and evolve.

Campaign Length

Source GM Core pg. 64
The length of a campaign can range from just 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.

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 monthly, you might consider holding longer sessions and using fast advancement (800 XP to level up).

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 it's 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 might be proven incorrect. It pays to be conservative when estimating your campaign's 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.

When you think you're heading toward a satisfying conclusion, 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 allows you to make any necessary adjustments.

Basic Structures

Source GM Core pg. 65
When building your campaign, you can use these structures as a starting point. The Adventure Design section explains various styles of adventures on pages 69–71 that can be used to inspire the creation of the adventures in your campaign. For a campaign consisting of multiple adventures, 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.

One-Shot

Source GM Core pg. 65
An adventure lasting one session, a one-shot works well for a highly themed adventure using characters or concepts that are novel but that players might not want to stick with long-term.
Adventures 1, typically a dungeon crawl, horror, intrigue, or mystery
Top Level 1, but often starts at a higher level
Time Frame 1 session

Brief Campaign

Source GM Core pg. 65
This structure is meant for a brief, self-contained campaign. It can be ideal for introducing new players to Pathfinder and can be extended to a longer campaign if the group wishes.
Adventures 2, typically one dungeon crawl followed by one high adventure; this format also works well for horror adventures
Top Level 4–5
Time Frame 3 months weekly, 6 months biweekly

Extended Campaign

Source GM Core pg. 65
An extended campaign works well for a dedicated group that might want to switch to a new campaign or a different game after a year or so. It allows for significant character and plot development but doesn't reach the higher levels of the game.
Adventures 5, typically with multiple adventures fitting the main theme of the campaign (such as high adventure or gritty adventure), with other adventure styles for variety
Top Level 11–13
Time Frame 1 year weekly, 1-1/2 years biweekly

Epic Campaign

Source GM Core pg. 65
An ambitious and complex game, the epic campaign takes PCs all the way to level 20, pitting them against the greatest threats in the world and beyond. This can be challenging in terms of time commitment and complexity, but it lets PCs develop into true legends, and the players will likely remember it for years.
Adventures 6 long adventures, typically starting with high adventure or a dungeon crawl and including military adventure, planar adventure, and romantic adventure
Top Level 20
Time Frame 1-1/2 years weekly, 3 years biweekly

Themes

Source GM Core pg. 65
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, such as horror or paranormal. 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. You might choose a theme of love, leading to nonplayer characters involved in doomed romances, seeking to regain lovers they've lost, or courting the player characters.

Linking Adventures

Source GM Core pg. 65
In a campaign that includes multiple adventures, a smooth transition from one adventure to the next ties the story together. You might use NPCs who could appear in both adventures, a treasure or clue found in one adventure that becomes important in a later one, or even fallout from one adventure that causes the next adventure to take place. Related locations can help, too. Adventures that take place in neighboring regions, or both in the same region, have an inherent link. If they take place in two different places, you'll need a reason the PCs should travel between the two, and you can use this journey as a short, interstitial adventure.

Using similar locations and related creatures helps you form connections between disparate adventures. 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 might 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. Over time, the players feel like their characters are becoming experts at negotiating with giants, navigating seaways, battling devils, exploring the planes, or dealing with whatever the recurring elements are.

Consider how each adventure's theme plays into the campaign as a whole. You might want to keep similar or recurring themes, especially if each adventure is part of one overarching storyline. On the other hand, this can feel repetitive, and some groups prefer variety and seeing their characters play off of different situations. To convey shifting themes, you can show established parts of the world changing to reflect the new theme. For instance, if you're switching from an adventure about subjugation to one of mayhem, the PCs could take down a villain who wants to cruelly rule over the populace but then face opportunistic brigands who loot and pillage once order breaks down.

Player Goals

Source GM Core pg. 66
Ask what you and the other players enjoy and would like to see in the game. You can use these ideas as touchstones to build off of. When you get into the campaign itself, the PCs' goals come to the forefront. Find out what each character wants to achieve and look for opportunities you can place in the game world and adventures. Consider which part of the game most closely ties to each goal. A PC who wants to build an institution will need money and interpersonal connections, so you can use treasure and NPC interactions to give them the resources they need. For a character whose purpose is to help people in danger, build some encounters that include people who need to be rescued.

Look for good times to recap the state of a character's goals and remind the player how their character has progressed, particularly when something changes in relation to their goals. The Long-Term Goals section on page 45 gives you more details on how you can use goals in downtime.

Changing the World

Source GM Core pg. 66
As the group moves through the campaign, the events of their adventures and downtime should change the world around them. Show this through the responses the characters get from other people, the scenery they see around them, and their environment. You might be able to anticipate some changes, but most will come up in play and require you to make adjustments later on.

Power Level

Source GM Core pg. 66
As the game progresses, the power level of the PCs and their foes increases. Going up in level brings new, stronger abilities into the game, and likewise, adventures bring in new monsters with commensurate capabilities. Higher-level adventures should present new challenges appropriate to the PCs’ abilities, such as areas that can be accessed with flight at 7th level or higher. Beyond just the rules, PCs should elicit different reactions from the people they meet as their reputation spreads and they exhibit abilities beyond what most people have ever seen.

Recurring Villains

Source GM Core pg. 66
Consider including villains who can appear multiple times over the course of several adventures. They don't necessarily need to be masterminds. Imagine an unscrupulous mercenary who works for major villain after major villain. When you create a recurring villain, it's best not to make them too integral to the story since the PCs might take them down earlier than you expect! Have some contingency plans in place.

The advice about Roleplaying NPCs on page 13 applies especially to these recurring villains. As they reappear throughout the campaign, they should change in some of the same ways PCs do. Think about how previous run-ins with the PCs have shaped the recurring villain's emotions and plans. Which PC do they have the biggest grudge against, and why? Do they bear scars from previous battles? Have they developed a countermeasure against a PC's spells or tactics?

Villain Goals

Source GM Core pg. 66
Just as PCs have goals, so do your villains. A recurring villain might have a vision for what the world should be and a step-by-step plan to get there. A plan gives you a clear way to progress the plot, and an underlying goal guides you in deciding what the NPC does if their plan goes awry. It can be especially helpful to contrast the villain’s goals with those of the PCs. If a PC wants to establish a trade network, maybe a villain plans to get rich robbing caravans or merchant ships. Just like with the PCs’ goals, show how the villain’s goal has impacted the world, even in small ways. Try to find ways the villain can make a difference, even if the PCs are successful against them. A villain will look ineffective if the PCs foil every single plot or plan. For instance, the villain might turn a memorable NPC to their cause, set an institution ablaze, or invade a village.

Starting the Campaign

Source GM Core pg. 66
Before your first session begins, communicate back and forth with the players about the following details to make sure you've planned your campaign to fit their preferences, then recap and communicate your final decisions.
  • Establish the expected schedule and, generally, how long you expect the campaign to last. It's okay if you don't know the total length for sure, but you should still give an estimate.
  • Inform the players when and where the first session will take place, what they should prepare in advance, and what materials to bring. If you're running a session zero to create characters first (page 9), let them know. You might also need to tell them whether to bring food, drinks, and other supplies beyond what they'll use for the game itself.
  • Let the players of know any restrictions or extra options for character building. Even if you plan to run a session zero, give them a heads-up before the session starts.
  • Tell the players where in the game world the first session will take place.
  • Give the players a basic idea of the genre or theme.

At the First Session

Source GM Core pg. 67
If you're running a session zero, read the Session Zero section on page 9 for advice on your first session. For the first time you play through an adventure, follow these bits of advice.
  • Recap the basics of the campaign you established earlier, particularly where it starts and any themes you feel will be important for the players to understand as they roleplay.
  • Have the players introduce their characters. If they have detailed backstories, it's usually best that they start out just describing what the other PCs could learn from first impressions. If they want to go deeper into their backstory during play, they can do so later.
  • Ask questions about the characters. Note down anything you think will be significant, so you can adjust your plans for later sessions. You'll want to keep doing this throughout play.
  • Begin the adventure using the Starting a Session steps on page 11. For your first adventure, find a good place for the PCs to meet and a reason for them to be together.

Starting at a Higher Level

Source GM Core pg. 67
A typical campaign starts at 1st level, but you can start at a higher level if you choose. This can be especially satisfying for a one-shot or short campaign, or if your group wants to play a specific adventure made for higher-level groups. The PCs should all start at the same level. They simply make a 1st-level character, then level it up the number of times needed to reach the starting level.

The Character Wealth table on page 61 indicates how much currency and what common items of various levels the character should start with. Let the players choose their own items as well as spend their currency on common items if they choose. This table gives them fewer items than they might have had if they'd gained items through adventuring, but it balances the fact that they can choose what items they want.

Ending the Campaign

Source GM Core pg. 67
A campaign might have a well-planned, emotionally resonant ending that executes perfectly, or the group might die in a ridiculous fashion at the worst time possible. It's important that the ending follows the story, wherever it has gone, even if it doesn't match the idea you had in your head at the start. Check in with your group, especially when you're getting close to the end of each adventure, to see how long they want the campaign to go on. Check in with yourself, too, and express your opinion to the other players. Ideally, you know at least a session in advance that the end is coming, allowing you to prepare for a thrilling conclusion. You might plan for the final session's gameplay to be a bit shorter—possibly just one big showdown—to allow time for an epilogue and for the group to reminisce and decompress at the end.

An epilogue can make the end of a campaign more fulfilling. First, let the group finish out their roleplaying in the final moments of the adventure until they're content. Then tell the group the results of what they accomplished in broad terms, with concrete details of what happens to certain places or allied NPCs. Ask the players what their characters do after the adventure. You might want to narrate a few short scenes. When your epilogue is done, thank everyone for playing. If the campaign ended in success for the PCs, give yourselves a round of applause. A victorious ending warrants celebration!

Dealing with Failure

Source GM Core pg. 67
If a campaign ends prematurely, get a sense from the players about whether they want to continue. The advice on Total Party Kills on page 33 should be helpful. If the campaign ended in a stranger way than a total party kill—say, a PC handing over the powerful relic the villain needed to complete a master plan—you can still look for ways the campaign might continue. Maybe the PCs struggle to survive in the world after the calamity, or maybe they have just enough time to still be able to stop the plan.

The Next Campaign

Source GM Core pg. 67
If the group plays another campaign in the same world that takes place after your previous campaign, think through the repercussions of the last campaign and change the world as needed. You might introduce new elements into the world that call back to the previous campaign: newly powerful factions, new settlements, or new options for player characters, such as backgrounds, all based on the impact the previous PCs made on the world.

Adventure Design

Source GM Core pg. 68
Creating an adventure for your players can be one of the most fulfilling parts of being a GM. This is much more challenging than using a published one but lets you express yourself, be even more creative, and tailor the game directly to the players and their characters.

Adventure plotting can start at many different points. You might begin with a particular antagonist, then construct an adventure that fits that villain's theme and leads the group to them. Alternatively, you could start with an interesting location for exploration, then populate it with adversaries and challenges appropriate to the setting.

Player Motivations

Source GM Core pg. 68
One of your most important and rewarding tasks is getting to know your players and what makes them tick, then implementing plot hooks that speak to their motivations. If your players all like similar things (maybe they all like epic storylines or all prefer tactical combat), your job will be a bit easier. For most groups, there's a mix, and you'll want to put in a detailed NPC who appeals to one player's love of social scenes, a powerful villain to engage a player who loves stories of winning against overwhelming odds, and exotic animals that attract a player who's into having animal friends. If you're not sure what your players enjoy, ask them in advance what they'd like to see in the game!

Considering player motivations doesn't mean assuming you know what the players or their characters will do! It can be risky to expect PCs to react in certain ways or take certain paths. Knowing their motivations gives you a way to put in elements you expect will appeal to your players, but their decisions will still take the adventure in unexpected directions. The important thing is getting the players engaged, not predicting the future.

Theme and Feeling

Source GM Core pg. 68
Think about the emotional and thematic touchstones you want to hit during play. Good games elicit strong emotions, and planning for them can give an emotional arc to an adventure in addition to the narrative arc. Consider what you want players to feel as they play. Is it triumph? Dread? Sadness? Optimism? None of these will be the only emotions to come out, but they’ll inform how you build the settings and NPCs. Adventure Recipes gives steps to effectively implement theme and feeling.

Keeping it Varied

Source GM Core pg. 68
You can give players variety through the types of challenges the group faces (combat, social, problemsolving, and so on), the locations they explore, the NPCs they meet, the monsters they face, and the treasure they acquire. Even if you're building an enclosed dungeon, you don't want to place a combat in every room, or exploration will quickly become stale.

Think in terms of sessions. If your group gets through five scenes per session, how do you make one game session feel different from another? Maybe two of the scenes in each are fairly basic combat encounters, but if you make the other scenes significantly different, or even if you set the encounters in different environments, the sessions won't feel repetitive. Also think about the tools used to solve each situation. Maybe one requires complex negotiations, another brute force, and a third sneaking about. Aim to give everybody something compelling, and ideally targeted at their motivations.

Adventure Recipes

Source GM Core pg. 68
These procedures help you build an adventure skeleton or outline. You'll then go through and flesh out the details of the adventure, including adversaries and locations. As you play, you'll keep adjusting to fit the events of the game. Anything you haven't already introduced can be changed as needed. Just like with any recipe, you're meant to adjust the details to fit your group's preferences. You might stray far from your starting point, and that's OK!

These recipes use eight steps. You might want to look ahead to your future steps and make choices out of order based on what's most important for you to convey. The catch-all term “opposition” refers to the various adversaries and obstacles the PCs will face. The opposition should be thematically consistent but not necessarily monolithic. It might contain multiple individuals or groups who might not get along with one another.
  • Styles (page 69): The overall vibe of your game, such as a gritty game, dungeon crawl, or high adventure. These frameworks offer guidelines for the number of sessions and types of encounters that work best.
  • Threats (page 71): Thematic dangers to incorporate into your game, and ways to evoke them as you play. The style and threat are the core parts of your recipe.
  • Motivations (page 72): Determine more specifically what the opposition's goals and motivations are.
  • Story Arcs (page 73): This section gives you guidance on how to construct story arcs that will play out over your adventure and maybe beyond.
  • NPCs and Organizations (page 74): The characters and factions you include should fit the theme.
  • Locations (page 74): The adventuring sites and settlements featured in your adventure.
  • Encounters (page 74): The individual rooms and locales within your adventuring sites, including the creatures and hazards found at these places.
  • Treasure (page 74): The rewards you give out to characters after dealing with encounters.

Styles

Source GM Core pg. 69
These frameworks for building your adventure include some basic elements to get you started outlining an adventure. Slot ideas from the threats section (page 71) into this structure, then customize as you see fit.

Dungeon Crawl

Source GM Core pg. 69
Number of Sessions 3–4
Exploration Scenes 1 long voyage to reach the dungeon; 3 voyages through long, trapped hallways or mazes; 1 secure cave or other staging area; 2 secret passages or rooms
Combat Encounters 2 trivial, 4 low, 6 moderate, 6 severe. Many encounters can be bypassed through secret routes.
Roleplaying Encounters 4 conversations with dungeon creatures; 1 negotiation to establish a truce
Encounter Tropes Cramped quarters, short lines of sight, and poor lighting conditions, with occasional vaulted chambers and flooded crypts. Traps and puzzles.

Gritty Adventure

Source GM Core pg. 69
Number of Sessions 5–7
Exploration Scenes 1 long voyage, plagued by attacks; 2–3 voyages through urban environments; 1 prison break, heist, or other test of skill
Combat Encounters 2 trivial, 4 low, 7 moderate, 8 severe; possibly 1 extreme. Foes are often other humanoids.
Roleplaying Encounters 2 battles of wits, 2 chances to bypass opponents with deception or threats, 2 opportunities to gather information and rumors
Encounter Tropes Stakes are often more personal, such as the PCs clearing their names from a false accusation or being paid to eliminate a problem. Betrayal, ambushes, and other duplicity. Town fires, weather conditions, unfriendly crowds. The Pathfinder Critical Hit Deck is particularly appropriate.

High Adventure

Source GM Core pg. 69
Number of Sessions 6–8
Exploration Scenes 2 long voyages, often by sea or air, punctuated with combat; 1 trapped dungeon, tournament, or other test of skill
Combat Encounters 16 moderate, 8 severe. Avoid low- and trivial-threat battles.
Roleplaying Encounters 2 battles of wits; 4 conversations with bizarre creatures
Encounter Tropes Unique environments and terrain for dynamic battles. Swinging from balconies on curtains, fighting atop high wires, racing chariots, and so on. Use difficult terrain sparingly, coupled with creative ways to get around it. Large groups of low-level enemies the PCs can defeat with ease.

Horror

Source GM Core pg. 69
Number of Sessions 1–2
Exploration Scenes 1 short voyage on foot; 2–4 creepy areas to investigate, like haunted mansions or dark forests
Combat Encounters 2 moderate, 1 severe, possibly 1 extreme. Avoid trivial- and low-threat encounters, except as moments of relief in a longer adventure. Extreme-threat encounters against overwhelming foes are excellent in horror one-shots.
Roleplaying Encounters 2 conversations with doubtful authority figures, 1 opportunity to gather information and rumors, 1 revelation of a horrible truth
Encounter Tropes Surprising and jarring encounters, making it hard for the PCs to feel safe. Encounters that feel overwhelming, even when they're not. Retreat is often the right option (include a reasonable way for the PCs to escape).

Intrigue

Source GM Core pg. 70
Number of Sessions 2–3
Exploration Scenes 1 long voyage, often by land or sea; 3–4 competitions, performances, or other test of skill; 1–2 infiltrations or escapes
Combat Encounters 2 trivial, 2 low, 4 moderate, 1 severe. Severe-threat encounters should be reserved for major reveals of the ongoing intrigue—an ally is revealed to be a foe, a schemer is exposed and must call on his guard, and so on.
Roleplaying Encounters 2–3 battles of wits; 2 political or courtroom scenes; 1 conversation with a cryptic source; 2 opportunities to gather information and rumors
Encounter Tropes Urban environments, including fights atop runaway carriages, around (and atop) banquet tables, and running over rooftops. Ambushes in apparently safe social settings. Assassination attempts.

Military Adventure

Source GM Core pg. 70
Number of Sessions 2–3
Exploration Scenes 1 long march and 2–3 short marches, or a tour of the defenses for a siege; 2–3 trapped enemy campsites and secret spy redoubts
Combat Encounters 4 low, 4 moderate, 1 severe. Most combat encounters should be made up of 2–4 foes, typically humanoid soldiers with a range of capabilities.
Roleplaying Encounters 1–2 skill challenges to convince neutral parties to become allies or raise troops' morale
Encounter Tropes Fortified battlegrounds with moats, high walls, defensive towers, and siege weapons. Victory conditions that are goal or deadline oriented—holding a gate for 10 minutes while reserves rush to defend it, setting fire to an enemy catapult, rescuing prisoners, and so on.

Mystery

Source GM Core pg. 70
Number of Sessions 2–3
Exploration Scenes 2–3 trapped rooms, concealed hideouts, or other tests of skill; 2 puzzles or investigations
Combat Encounters 2 trivial, 4 low, 6 moderate, 6 severe. Solving the mystery uncovers an advantage over the most powerful foe.
Roleplaying Encounters 1 battles of wits, 1 conversation with a bizarre creature, 1 opportunity to gather information and rumors, 1 gathering to reveal the answer to the mystery
Encounter Tropes Encounters come naturally during investigations or upon discovering some element of the mystery. Multiple clues can send PCs to the same locations; if the mystery stalls, some creature that doesn't want the PCs to solve the mystery can attack to move the plot forward.

Planar Adventure

Source GM Core pg. 71
Number of Sessions 6–8
Exploration Scenes 3–4 long voyages through different planes, often by gate, spells, or planar vessel, punctuated by combat; 1–2 scouting a demiplane, planar city or fortress, or other planar stronghold
Combat Encounters 12 moderate, 12 severe. Avoid trivial- and low-threat encounters, except as set dressing to introduce a new plane.
Roleplaying Encounters 6 conversations with bizarre creatures, including some with alien ways of thinking; 2 opportunities to gather information and rumors
Encounter Tropes Fights showcasing otherworldly environs—on the sides of glaciers, in limitless oceans, on chunks of rock floating along rivers of lava, atop bottomless pits, or on the chains of 100-foot-tall gates.

Romantic Adventure

Source GM Core pg. 71
Number of Sessions 4–6
Exploration Scenes 1 tour of a kingdom or other central locale; 1 adventure into the wilds on a hunting trip or bandit hunt; 1 tournament to prove a PC's love or worth
Combat Encounters 3 low, 6 moderate, 3 severe. Emphasize emotional stakes and battles that end with the loss of honor or pride, not life.
Roleplaying Encounters 2 battles of wits, 1 grand ball, 1 entreaty before a ruler, 2 scenes of relaxation or carousing with unexpected import
Encounter Tropes Duels—social or combat—against romantic rivals. PCs and their foes fight only for a purpose or cause. Savvy enemies have strong connections to the PCs.

Threats

Source GM Core pg. 71
Think of each type of threat as the deep, visceral danger the enemies represent. NPCs should be avatars of the threat, whether they’re enemies who represent different aspects of the threat or allies and bystanders damaged by it. Each threat entry gives a brief description, followed by some bullet points you can use to guide you in expressing the consequences of the threat. This is followed by monsters that typify this theme. As always, you can come up with your own thematic threats too!

Corruption

Source GM Core pg. 71
The opposition wants to weaken or even change the motivation of a place, person, institution, ideal, or group.
  • Show the effects of corruption on people and places, especially those closely connected to the PCs. Once-safe areas become less friendly and present threats, allies become unable to help or even turn against the PCs.
  • Make enemies subtle; patient; and willing to allow rumors, lies, diseases, and poisons time to take effect. In battle, they might be satisfied to curse PCs and their allies or otherwise inflict long-term afflictions, then retreat.
  • Contrast the corruption with education, healing, and working towards betterment.
  • When the PCs make progress, allow them to expose agents of corruption and to inoculate allies and neutral parties against the growing threat or educate them about it.

Foes alghollthu, fiends, rakshasas, undead

Devastation

Source GM Core pg. 71
The opposition wants to destroy or lay waste to a place, person, institution, ideal, or group.
  • Show the effects of destruction on people and places, especially those the PCs hold dear. Show them desperate, devoid of resources, and psychologically changed.
  • Make enemies hard to reason with and overwhelming in number. In battle, they want not just to win, but to kill, maim, or devour.
  • Contrast devastation with forces of preservation and order.
  • When the PCs make progress, show the slow recovery from devastation.

Foes dragons, demons

Extremism

Source GM Core pg. 71
The opposition seeks a massive change—one they think is for the better. Their violent means of achieving it put them in conflict with the PCs.
  • Demonstrate the ruthlessness of the enemy, especially the discrepancy between their care for their cause and their ambivalence or hatred toward everything else.
  • Have enemies focus purely on their goal. Have them fall back on their rhetoric or dogma to justify themselves.
  • If something about the extremists' cause is just—such as preserving the natural world or protecting their people—reveal the foes' sympathetic side. Demonstrate the horror of what they're fighting against in addition to the horror of the way they fight it.
  • When the PCs make progress, show uncertainty or demoralization in their foes, possibly even desertion in their enemies' ranks.

Foes cultists, revolutionaries

Mayhem

Source GM Core pg. 72
The opposition is a force for mayhem, without any greater plan or long-term goal. It might be a mindless force of violence such as a wounded beast, or a thinking foe that simply revels in causing chaos and damage.
  • Mayhem is easy to track and find, often leaving a trail of destruction in its path. Show how the senseless violence causes uncertainty and fear, disrupting both settlements and the natural order of things.
  • A single powerful foe is a common source of mayhem, but a pack, herd, cult, or secret society could also be to blame. The source of the mayhem might have resulted from the natural order being out of balance or might be a distraction set off by a different foe looking to use it to further its own goals.
  • Emphasize the cascading effects of unchecked mayhem. Normal trade, farming, migration, and similar systems are disrupted, causing problems far from the immediate location of violence and disruption.
  • When the PCs make progress, show how resilient systems can recover from massive disruptions but might need additional help or protection.

Foes beasts, dinosaurs, drakes, giants

Subjugation

Source GM Core pg. 72
The opposition wants to rule over a group, location, or even the world. Their ultimate objective is to control and rule.
  • Show how groups submit to subjugation rather than suffer the consequences of resistance. The PCs see elements of culture destroyed to ensure subjugation—are religions and churches destroyed, subverted, or replaced? Are lackeys put in place to keep oppressed populations in line?
  • Make enemies self-righteous, focused, and in control of groups they have previously subjugated. Fights aren't just for the sake of violence, but steps towards greater control.
  • Show opposition: open conflict, rebellion, secret groups, sabotage, and countercultural art. Give PCs the opportunity to support or participate in each.
  • When the PCs make progress, have previously cowed or neutral parties be moved to rebel.

Foes devils, dragons, hags, hobgoblins

Motivations

Source GM Core pg. 72
Think about your opposition, and what their goals and motivations are. The motivation of the opposition needs to match your threat. If you have multiple adversaries, their motivations should all work toward your theme, but they might have different goals and act more as rivals or enemies. Motivations should be more than one dimensional. There should be a reason for every action the opposition takes—not necessarily a good one or a smart one, but a believable one. Be true to each character!

Consider these questions so you can use the answers when deciding what the opposition will do.
  • What does the opposition want?
  • Who or what does the opposition fear? (And no, “the PCs” isn't an answer.)
  • Why is the opposition sure to succeed? If the PCs don't do anything, what makes the opposition unstoppable?
  • What are the opposition's weaknesses? How can they be bribed or tricked? What's something they ignore that might be used against them?

Story Arcs

Source GM Core pg. 73
Keep several story arcs in mind. Most of these arcs will be driven by the opposition in the early going, but PCs might initiate their own story arcs. Think of what the beginning, middle, and end of each arc might look like. Imagine a logical end point the arc would reach if nothing else changes. Then, adjust it based on events in the game. As changes occur, revisit the end point you've imagined. If the adversary's plan has been derailed, what might they do instead? Story arcs should reflect the theme of the adventure and be well-positioned to show off motivations.

Many arcs will last only for the duration of one adventure, but others build up and recur across the whole campaign. Include some of each so you have variety. This also provides closure, as the players can see some storylines wrapped up in the short term and others over a long period. Too many dangling plot threads can result in some being forgotten or make players feel overloaded.

Touchstones like the ones below make a story arc adaptable, not too restricted to specific scenes or characters.
  • Use motifs. Use repeated thematic elements, visuals, phrases, and items to reinforce the connection between one adventure or segment of the story and another. The motif can also build in complexity as you move further along in the overarching story.
  • Follow character growth. Respond to how the PCs changed in previous adventures. Their next undertaking should reflect who they are now.
  • Escalate! Build on the previous story and show that the next threat is scarier. The first adventure might endanger a village, the next a city, the next a whole nation, and so on.
  • Bring in recurring characters. A recurring character is especially strong if they appear in similar circumstances each time. For instance, a merchant who travels the world might appear in the campaign only when she wants the PCs to undermine her rivals.
  • Make each adventure count. While developing an arc, don't diminish individual adventures by making what happened in them inconsequential compared to the larger story. Illustrate the consequences of such adventures so the players feel a sense of accomplishment for completing one before they move onto the next. Each adventure needs some sort of denouement to show immediate and lingering effects of the PCs' victory or defeat.

NPCs and Organizations

Source GM Core pg. 74
Allied, neutral, and adversarial NPCs and organizations can all contribute to the theme. You’ll want most to follow the theme directly, like the examples in Threats on page 71. However, you can add a few counterpoints to the theme. For example, a horror game might include one or two NPCs who are more hopeful, either to grant respite from the dread or to kill off to show just how bad things are. Including NPCs who aren’t adversaries makes the world feel more real. It also increases the stakes, as PCs have people to care about, protect, and socialize with. You’ll often find that NPCs you create will become more or less important than you expected. You can “demote” an NPC if the players don’t find them interesting or “promote” them if the PCs like them more than expected.

Locations

Source GM Core pg. 74
Memorable settings that include mysterious and fantastical locations for players to visit can elicit the players' curiosity. Exploring each location should be a treat in itself, not just a chore the players must complete to get from one fight to the next. As you create a locale, picture it in your mind's eye and write down minor details you can include as you narrate the game. Describing decorations, natural landmarks, wildlife, peculiar smells, and even temperature changes make a place feel more real. See Quick Environmental Details on page 39 for some ideas.

Beyond monsters and loot, your locations can include environment-based challenges, from environmental conditions like blizzards to puzzles, traps, or other hazards. These challenges should suit your adventure's location: walls of brambles in a castle ruin overrun with vegetation, pools of acid in a cursed swamp, or magical traps in the tomb of a paranoid wizard.

Additional Guidance: building your own hazards (page 109), environments (page 90), hazards (page 98)

Encounters

Source GM Core pg. 74
A robust set of encounters forms the backbone of your adventure. Encounters often feature combat with other creatures, but they can also include hazards, or you might create social encounters in which characters duel only with words. The rules for building encounters appropriate to your group's level begin below.

Some adventures have a clear and direct progression, with encounters occurring at specific times or in a specific order. Others, such as a dungeon filled with interconnected rooms the group can investigate in any order, are nonlinear, and the group can face encounters in any order—or even avoid them entirely. Most adventures are somewhere in between, with some keystone encounters you know the characters will need to contend with, but others that are optional.

Additional Guidance: building your own creatures (page 112), building your own hazards (page 109), encounter design (page 75)

Treasure

Source GM Core pg. 74
Your adventure should give out an amount of treasure that's appropriate to the characters' level. You can dole out treasure in all kinds of ways. Treasure could be items carried by an adversary, rewards from a patron for completing a mission, or a classic pile of coins and items inside a wooden chest guarded by a monster. It's best to spread treasure throughout an adventure rather than stockpiled in a single hoard. This gives the players incremental rewards, letting their characters advance in frequent small steps rather than giant leaps separated by many hours of play.

Additional Guidance: assigning treasure (page 58)

Encounter Design

Source GM Core pg. 75
Encounters play a fundamental part in roleplaying games, but it can be tricky to know where to start when building them. It's important to follow the rules and guidelines, but creating a compelling encounter goes beyond that. Good encounters have a place in the story, compelling adversaries, interesting locations, and twists and turns to make them dynamic.

Encounter design goes hand in hand with location, map, and adventure design. You might set an adventure in a swamp and populate it with swamp creatures and environmental features. Or you might have a dungeon denizen in mind, and structure a section of your dungeon to fit that creature.

When you're starting out, straightforward encounters of low or moderate threat can let you get your bearings. Then, you can increase complexity as you get more confident and as the PCs collect more tools to use against their foes. The more encounters you build, the more comfortable you'll get with your own personal style. You can always come back here to get more ideas or advice on executing a certain type of encounter.

Combat Threats

Source GM Core pg. 75
The most common type of encounter is a combat encounter, where the PCs face other creatures. Combat encounters are strictly governed by rules; the guidelines that follow will help you build combat encounters that pose appropriate challenges for your group. Building hazard encounters works the same way.

To build a combat encounter, first decide how the encounter fits in the adventure as a whole. Then, estimate how much of a threat you want the encounter to pose, using one of five categories below.

Trivial-threat encounters are so easy that the characters have essentially no chance of losing. They're unlikely to spend significant resources unless they're particularly wasteful. These encounters work best as warm-ups, palate cleansers, or reminders of how awesome the characters are. A trivial-threat encounter can still be fun to play, so don't ignore them just because of the lack of challenge. Low-threat encounters present a veneer of difficulty and typically use some of the party's resources. However, it would be rare or the result of very poor tactics for the entire party to be seriously endangered.

Moderate-threat encounters are a serious challenge to the characters, though unlikely to overpower them completely. Characters usually need to use sound tactics and manage their resources wisely to come out of a moderate-threat encounter ready to continue on and face a harder challenge without resting.

Severe-threat encounters are the hardest encounters most groups of characters have a good chance to defeat. These encounters are appropriate for important moments in your story, such as confronting a final boss. Use severe encounters carefully—there's a good chance a character could die, and a small chance the whole group could. Bad luck, poor tactics, or a lack of resources can easily turn a severe-threat encounter against the characters, and a wise group keeps the option to disengage open.

Extreme-threat encounters are so dangerous that they are likely to be an even match for the characters, particularly if the characters are low on resources. This makes them too challenging for most uses! Use an extreme encounter only if you're willing to take the chance the entire party will die. An extreme-threat encounter might be appropriate for a fully rested group of characters that can go all-out, for the climactic encounter at the end of an entire campaign, or for a group of veteran players using advanced tactics and teamwork.

XP Budget

Source GM Core pg. 75
Once you’ve selected a threat level, it’s time to build the encounter. You have an XP budget based on the threat, and each creature costs some of that budget. Start with the monsters or NPCs that are most important to the encounter, then decide how you want to use the rest of your XP budget. Many encounters won’t match the XP budget exactly, but they should come close. The XP budget is based on a group of four characters. If your group is larger or smaller, see Different Party Sizes on page 76.

Table 10-1: Encounter Budget

ThreatXP BudgetCharacter Adjustment
Trivial40 or less10 or less
Low6015
Moderate8020
Severe12030
Extreme16040

Choosing Creatures

Source GM Core pg. 76
In all but the most unusual circumstances, you'll select creatures for your encounter that range from 4 levels lower than the PCs' level to 4 levels higher (see the Creature XP and Role table). Each creature has a part to play in your encounter, from a lowly lackey to a boss so mighty it could defeat the entire party single-handedly.

Each creature costs some of the XP from your XP budget for the encounter, based on its level compared to the levels of the characters in your party. For instance, if the PCs are 5th level, a 2nd-level creature is a “party level – 3” creature, a lackey appropriate for a low- to-moderatethreat encounter, and it costs 15 XP in an encounter's XP budget. Party level is typically equal to the level of all the characters in the party (find more detail on page 57).

Table 10-2: Creature XP and Role

Creature LevelXPSuggested Role
Party Level -410Low-threat lackey
Party Level -315Low- or moderate-threat lackey
Party Level -220Any lackey or standard creature
Party Level -130Any standard creature
Party Level40Any standard creature or low-threat boss
Party Level +160Low- or moderate-threat boss
Party Level +280Moderate- or severe-threat boss
Party Level +3120Severe- or extreme-threat boss
Party Level +4160Extreme-threat solo boss

Different Party Sizes

Source GM Core pg. 76
For each additional character in the party beyond the fourth, increase your XP budget by the amount shown in the Character Adjustment value for your encounter on the Encounter Budget table. If you have fewer than four characters, use the same process in reverse: for each missing character, remove that amount of XP from your XP budget. Note that if you adjust your XP budget to account for party size, the XP awards for the encounter don't change—you'll always award the amount of XP listed for a group of four characters.

It's best to use the XP increase from more characters to add more enemies or hazards, and the XP decrease from fewer characters to subtract enemies and hazards, rather than making one enemy tougher or weaker. Encounters are typically more satisfying if the number of enemy creatures is fairly close to the number of player characters.

Variety

Source GM Core pg. 76
Variety in encounters is essential to let players try new tactics and give different PCs chances to shine as they face foes with weak points they're uniquely suited to exploiting. Consider the following forms of encounter variety.
  • Theme: Look for ways to include varied creatures and locations. Even if the PCs delve into a dungeon inhabited by undead, they should encounter other creatures, too! All creatures should have a justification for fitting in, but no place needs to be uniform.
  • Difficulty: A string of moderate-threat encounters can feel flat. Use low- and even trivial-threat encounters to give PCs chances to really shine, and severe-threat encounters for especially powerful enemies. Extreme-threat encounters should be used sparingly, for enemies who match the threat posed by the PCs and have a solid chance of beating them! The adventure recipes on page 68 include a mix of combat difficulties that can be useful to look at.
  • Complexity: Use high complexity judiciously, saving it for important or memorable fights.
  • Encounter Composition: The number of creatures per encounter and their levels should vary. Higherlevel single enemies, squads of enemies, and large numbers of lackeys all feel different.
  • Setup: Not all encounters should start and end the same way. PCs might sneak up on unprepared enemies, get ambushed by foes hunting them, enter into a formal duel, or find a diplomatic overture fails and turns into a fight. On the other side, enemies might all be taken out, retreat, beg for mercy, or even shift the encounter to a chase or other phase.
  • Information: Uncertainty can increase the tension and sense of danger the players feel. Ambushes, fights against unknown foes or foes behind battlements, and other scenarios can create this basic uncertainty.

Encounter Locations

Source GM Core pg. 76
Choose compelling settings for your encounters. When encounters take place in a building or lair, the most significant environmental features originate from the occupants, both past and present. Think about their tastes, biology, or wealth. These features could be natural, such as the sickening reek of decay in the lair of a great predator. They could also be alchemical, such as a cloud of poisonous gas, or magical, such as a strange electric current that arcs through the walls and occasionally leaps out at passersby.

In some cases, you'll have a location in which an enemy always appears, and you can design your location to suit that specific creature. Other times, an encounter might appear in a variety of places, such as a guard patrol or wandering monster. In these cases, you'll need several terrain and structure options so there's something interesting about the environment no matter where the battle takes place.

Maps and Terrain

Source GM Core pg. 76
Features on the map have a substantial impact on the flow of combat. Three considerations to keep in mind when designing a map are maneuverability, line of sight, and attack ranges. Even empty rooms and corridors can provide variety based on their size and shape. Narrow passageways make natural choke points. In particularly small rooms, space is at a premium, favoring melee combatants and making area effects hard to aim without friendly fire. By contrast, huge areas lend themselves to spread-out combat, which gives plenty of room to use all manner of abilities but poses challenges for ones with limited range. To make large rooms more interesting, add furniture, stalagmites, or other features the PCs and their foes can duck behind for cover.

Inhabitant or Intruder?

Source GM Core pg. 77
In most cases, the PCs enter territory that's far more familiar to their foes than it is to them. NPCs and monsters who live in an area are likely to be adapted to its dangers, either because they know where they are and how to avoid them, or because they are unaffected by them. A kobold in their lair might bait a PC into walking into a trap the kobold avoided. Marshland may be troublesome terrain for most PCs, but it poses little inconvenience to amphibious creatures. When using creatures with the ability to burrow, climb, or swim, consider incorporating features such as mazelike corridors, high walls with platforms, or rivers. If the foes are smaller or larger than the PCs, consider including paths, cubbyholes, staircases, or narrow passages that one side of the fight can use more effectively.

Sometimes, though, the PCs must defend their own base from intruders. In these situations, you're flipping the script, so give the PCs time to trap and ward the area. Watching the invaders fall prey to hazards and ambushes can be a delightful change of pace for your players.

Wild Weather

Source GM Core pg. 77
On a bright, sunny day, the PCs see clearly and fight without obstruction, but adding wind, precipitation, or fog creates additional challenges. Rain creates sloshy, muddy ground that slows movement, and cold weather introduces the threat of slippery patches of ice. Only the most extreme temperatures have a direct impact on the PCs during an encounter, but a slog through blistering heat or freezing cold can leave the PCs worn out and more vulnerable to foes. Light levels play a key role in both outdoor and indoor encounters. Although torches are plentiful, their reach is limited, and lights are sure to draw attention in dark areas.

Budgeting for Terrain

Source GM Core pg. 77
If you include terrain that’s tricky to navigate or takes extra work to deal with, consider whether it should count toward the encounter’s XP budget. A fight that requires Climbing, Swimming, or pushing through difficult terrain can be much tougher—especially if the enemies have strong ranged attacks. Think about the impact of the terrain in advance, especially if the battle would already be a severe threat, or you might kill the party. You can pick an equivalent monster level for your terrain and factor that into your budget, or just assign extra XP at the end if the threat without terrain is on the low or moderate end.

Enemy Motivations

Source GM Core pg. 78
Every encounter should happen for a reason. Consider a creature’s motivation to fight. Is it defending its lair? Robbing to enrich itself? Following sadistic impulses? Simply being paid to fight? You may realize a creature doesn’t have a compelling motivation, or that the PCs have done something that eliminates the impetus to fight. In that case, the encounter doesn’t need to happen! Your game might be more satisfying if the PCs’ clever actions avoid the fight—provided you award them XP accordingly.

Morale

Source GM Core pg. 78
Think how an enemy reacts when a fight is going poorly for them—or well! Enemies who do something other than fight to the death make an encounter more dynamic and believable. While PCs occasionally encounter truly fanatical zealots or single-minded creatures that would never back down from a fight, most creatures—even nonsapient creatures like animals—back down from a battle they’re obviously losing. This normally means foes fleeing at a certain point, potentially ending the encounter, but if the PCs need to capture those opponents, it could add a secondary objective and split their focus. Look at how differences in morale between participants impact the fight. For instance, after the necromancer’s living allies surrender to the PCs, she might activate a latent magic she implanted within them, killing them and merging their bodies into an enormous undead abomination. An enemy’s morale could even change the encounter from combat to social, as the PCs enter negotiations over a surrender or try to convince foes of the errors of their ways.

Dynamic Encounters

Source GM Core pg. 78
While you can certainly create enjoyable encounters by placing a group of opponents in a square room with little else, you have numerous tools to create encounters that are more interactive and dynamic. These tools can challenge your players to invent new strategies, inspire interesting character decisions, and make your setting richer.

No encounter needs to use all of the elements presented here, and not all encounters need more than one or two. The more complex a dynamic encounter is, the longer it takes to run and the more demanding it is. In general, these tools are perfectly suited for boss encounters, for memorable foes, and as a spice to add throughout your campaign however often works best for you and your players.

Hazards in Combat

Source GM Core pg. 78
In isolated encounters where the PCs have plenty of time to recover from hazards' effects, simple hazards can feel more like speed bumps than true challenges. But when combined with other threats, even simple hazards can prove perilous. A noisy explosion can draw attention, allowing foes to burst through the door for a dramatic start to the encounter. Simple hazards can also be an active part of an encounter, particularly if the foes know how to avoid triggering them.

As their name suggests, complex hazards are a more powerful tool for encounters. Because they continue to act, they are an ongoing presence in the fight. When combined with hostile creatures, complex hazards offer the PCs plenty of choices for what they want to do next. This is particularly true if foes benefit from the hazard. Should the PCs first disable the array of pipes spewing magical fire into the room, or should they prioritize the fire elemental growing stronger with exposure to the inferno? There's no right answer, and the PCs' choices have a clear impact on the obstacles they face. Hazards in combat shine when they give the PCs ways to contribute meaningfully other than dealing damage to a creature. Interesting actions to disable a hazard are a fun way to give several PCs something fresh and different to do rather than piling on damage.

Evolving Battlefields

Source GM Core pg. 78
While some battlefields are relatively static, allowing the PCs and foes to clobber each other until one side wins, complex or evolving battlefields can lead to far more memorable encounters. One of the most straightforward ways to create an evolving battlefield is with dynamic environmental features. Maybe the floating platforms that make up the room's floor shuffle around on their own turn each round, or various points teleport creatures to different locations—possibly between two rooms where separate battles take place simultaneously. These dynamic features have some overlap with complex hazards, though they don't tend to be an opposition or obstacle specifically threatening the PCs.

Similarly, a third party in the encounter, perhaps a rampaging monster or a restless spirit, could pose a danger to both sides but potentially benefit either. For instance, perhaps the PCs or their foes could harness this third party as a dangerous but powerful ally with a successful skill check of some kind or by making a risky bargain.

Sometimes the evolving battlefield is more of a state change, or series of state changes, and less of a constant presence. For instance, defeating a ritualist and ending his ritual could cause the foes to lose a powerful beneficial effect but unleash a demon that crawled through the remains of the botched ritual, or cause part of the room to collapse from the magical backlash. Major physical changes to the environment, like such a collapse, portions of the room rising or falling, or water beginning to rush in and fill the room, can force the PCs to rethink their plans to handle the new situation. Sometimes the evolving battlefield is more of an unexpected plot twist that occurs in the middle of the encounter. Perhaps the evil tyrant reveals that they were a dragon all along, or reinforcements arrive for whichever side was outmatched. Whatever you choose, make sure it changes things up and makes the encounter feel more dynamic and different. For instance, raising up a portion of the battlefield that isn't particularly relevant when neither the PCs nor their foes are likely to care is less interesting than raising up the pedestal holding the jewel the PCs and their enemies are trying to recover.

Combining and Separating Encounters

Source GM Core pg. 79
Picture this: the PCs storm a castle. They choose to eschew stealth in favor of a direct approach. On the ramparts, a guard spots them and raises an alarm. The sound of horns and whistles blares throughout the keep as each defender ensures that everyone is ready for a fight. And then, they politely wait in whatever room they were already standing in for the PCs to come and attack them. It sounds pretty unrealistic, and it feels unrealistic at the table. Many players find it far more satisfying when their foes take reasonable actions and countermeasures against them, such as moving to defensible positions or banding together with allies. Taken to an extreme, combining encounters can quickly lead to fights that are unwinnable, so be careful. In the castle example, some guards may come out to attack the PCs, while others cluster around the central keep. Perhaps each individual patrol of guards around the castle is a trivial-threat encounter, but as they gather together, they form groups of gradually escalating threat. Such groups give the PCs a sense of how challenging their opposition is, so that if a fight against six guards is a challenge, they won't try to pick a fight with 30. When the PCs' foes amass into an overwhelming force, give the PCs fair warning and a chance to retreat and try again another day. Of course, if the PCs come back after the alarm has been raised, the guards are likely to change their rotations to better secure the keep.

The most common reason to separate an encounter into multiple pieces is to set up a combined encounter, like when an injured foe retreats to gather reinforcements. This provides the PCs with a choice: do they ignore the fleeing enemy and focus on the battle in front of them, or do they split their own forces, weighing the risk of being led into a dangerous encounter against the chance of stopping later foes from preparing for their approach? An encounter might also separate into pieces because of dramatic changes to the battlefield, such as a collapsing ceiling or a magical wall that prevents those on each side of the barrier from accessing the other without spending actions to bypass the obstruction.

Time Pressure

Source GM Core pg. 79
Time pressure adds an extra sense of urgency to any encounter and can be a great way to make an otherwise trivial- or low-threat encounter tactically engaging, satisfying, and memorable. After all, while low- and trivial-threat encounters have an incredibly low chance of defeating the PCs, the opposition can usually hold on long enough to make the PCs spend a few rounds to defeat them unless the PCs expend more resources than they normally would on such foes. Time pressure is often related to a secondary objective in the encounter, though it could be a countdown directly related to the encounter itself. For instance, if the ritual will grant a lich its apotheosis in 4 rounds, the heroes need to defeat the lich before then!

Secondary Objectives

Source GM Core pg. 79
One of the simplest and most exciting ways to create a dynamic encounter, even if the combat itself is not so difficult, is to add a secondary objective beyond simply defeating foes. Perhaps the villains are about to burn captives in a fire, and some of the PCs need to divert their efforts to avoid a pyrrhic victory. Encounters with a parallel objective that require PCs to take actions other than destroying foes can keep those foes around long enough to do interesting things without inflating their power level. It also gives PCs skilled in areas related to the side mission a chance to shine.

Sometimes a secondary objective might present a time limit, like if the PCs need to prevent evidence from being burned, either by fighting quickly or by actively protecting the documents. Another type of secondary objective relates to how the PCs engage in combat with the primary opposition. The PCs might need to use nonlethal attacks against guards who mistakenly believe the PCs are criminals, or they might need to prevent slippery scouts from retreating to alert others. Options like these highlight mobile characters like the monk. You could even create truly off-the-wall secondary objectives that require the PCs to lose the encounter in order to succeed. The PCs might need to put up a believable fight but retreat and let foes steal their caravan in order to follow the foes back to their lair. Secondary objectives are a great way to highlight different abilities in combat and make for a memorable encounter, but—like all of these tactics—they can become annoying if overused.

Opponent Synergy

Source GM Core pg. 80
Most encounters assume that the PCs' opponents work together to oppose the PCs, but when groups of foes have been collaborating and fighting together for a long time, they can develop additional strategies. Consider giving each member of these tightly knit teams a reaction triggered by their allies' abilities, or another benefit they gain based on their allies' actions. Just as a team of PCs learns how to best position the rogue to flank enemies and minimize the harm they take from the wizard's fireball spell, NPCs can learn to complement each other's strategies and avoid interfering with each other. On the opposite end of the spectrum, opponents with poor coordination make the fight much easier for the PCs. Poor coordination between mindless creatures is common, and PCs can use clever tactics to run circles around these foes. When intelligent creatures accidentally (or deliberately) harm each other or pursue conflicting strategies, particularly if they engage in banter with each other as they fight, it can make for an amusing break in the typical rhythm of combat.

When taken to its extreme, synergy can represent the actions of a hive mind or a single massive creature. These synergistic components can be creatures, hazards, or both. For example, instead of representing a kraken the size of a warship as a single foe, you could represent each of its tentacles as an individual opponent. Perhaps the kraken can sacrifice actions it would otherwise use to crush PCs in its maw to use its tentacles more freely. In this case, you could model a field of tentacles as a complex hazard that mainly reacts to the PCs moving within it, but allow the kraken's head to act with a few tentacles directly.

Misdirection

Source GM Core pg. 80
Sometimes, a bit of misdirection can add a lot of interest to an encounter, especially against offense-heavy groups. Rather than amping up the opposition to match the PCs' firepower and creating opponents whose own offenses are too powerful for the PCs' defenses, consider a little sleight of hand. For instance, a villain might have an illusory or disguised decoy target with just enough durability to take a few hits while the true villain is hiding nearby, ready to emerge and attack. Illusion spells can allow a foe to attack from a safer position, and possession grants the foe a disposable body unless the PCs brought along spirit blast or similar magic. Sometimes you can even hide the villain in plain sight: for instance, in an encounter with three goblins with similar-looking gear and an ogre, one of the goblins might be the biggest threat, but the PCs are likely to target the ogre first.

Care when setting up the battle map can also go a long way to misdirect your players—or at least avoid accidentally telegraphing what an encounter will be. For instance, if you always put out statue minis whenever there are statues in the room, the PCs might at first be overly suspicious of ordinary statues, but they will be more surprised later on when a statue turns out to be a construct than if you place minis only when the statue is actually a construct.

Recurring Villains

Source GM Core pg. 81
Not every villain dies the first time the PCs defeat them in combat. Some may escape, perhaps through teleportation, misdirection, or with other ploys. When a villain escapes and lives to fight the PCs again another day, it’s good to have that foe learn from their past failures. In their next encounter with the PCs, give them additional minions, spells, or other defenses designed to counteract the strategies the PCs used against them previously. Even if the villain doesn’t escape, they might have other tricks up their sleeves, such as rising again to oppose the PCs. They could well return later in the adventure—or they might come back immediately for a second battle, so long as there is a proper justification for doing so. For example, defeating an otherworldly villain’s outer shell might reveal its terrible true form, or a previously living necromancer might rise again as an undead monstrosity bent upon destroying the PCs.

Social Encounters

Source GM Core pg. 81
Details on how to run a social encounter, and the differences between a social and combat encounter, appear on page 31. The setup for a social encounter tends to be less detailed. For the NPCs involved, you'll just need statistics for their social skills, Perception, and Will. These use the non-combat level of the creature (page 31), based on the creature's social skills, not its combat level. You determine the challenge of a social encounter based on this non-combat level.

You also need to decide the objective or consequences of the social encounter—what the PCs can achieve and what happens if they fail—and the form of the challenge. It might be a public debate, a private audience with a powerful person, or some kind of contest. Just like with combat encounters, think about the environment, with a particular eye toward the other people around. Is there a crowd the PCs can sway? Are they in an imposing, luxurious throne room or at a city gate? Is the atmosphere oppressive? Hopeful?

You might find the PCs' goals end up being quite different from what you initially thought they would be. Fortunately, social encounters are adaptable. Thinking of their likely objective helps you construct the scene in your mind more easily but shouldn't limit you.

Treasure by Encounter

Source GM Core pg. 81
The standard rules count treasure over the course of a level, rather than dividing it up by encounter. If you need to select treasure for a single encounter, such as in a sandbox game, you can use the table below. It takes the treasure budget for each level and breaks that down per encounter based on the encounter threat, similar to how XP varies by threat. The final column shows extra treasure you should award if you build an entire level this way. Unlike the standard table, this doesn’t include items by item level, as the value doesn’t cleanly break down for most single encounters. It’s recommended you still give out those permanent items, but you’ll need to borrow from other encounters’ treasure to account for their value. Include encounters against creatures without treasure to account for this.

Table 5-3: Treasure by Encounter

LevelTotal Treasure per LevelLowModerateSevereExtremeExtra Treasure
1175 gp13 gp18 gp26 gp35 gp35 gp
2300 gp23 gp30 gp45 gp60 gp60 gp
3500 gp38 gp50 gp75 gp100 gp100 gp
4850 gp65 gp85 gp130 gp170 gp170 gp
51,350 gp100 gp135 gp200 gp270 gp270 gp
62,000 gp150 gp200 gp300 gp400 gp400 gp
72,900 gp220 gp290 gp440 gp580 gp580 gp
84,000 gp300 gp400 gp600 gp800 gp800 gp
95,700 gp430 gp570 gp860 gp1,140 gp1,140 gp
108,000 gp600 gp800 gp1,200 gp1,600 gp1,600 gp
1111,500 gp865 gp1,150 gp1,725 gp2,300 gp2,300 gp
1216,500 gp1,250 gp1,650 gp2,475 gp3,300 gp3,300 gp
1325,000 gp1,875 gp2,500 gp3,750 gp5,000 gp5,000 gp
1436,500 gp2,750 gp3,650 gp5,500 gp7,300 gp7,300 gp
1554,500 gp4,100 gp5,450 gp8,200 gp10,900 gp10,900 gp
1682,500 gp6,200 gp8,250 gp12,400 gp16,500 gp16,500 gp
17128,000 gp9,600 gp12,800 gp19,200 gp25,600 gp25,600 gp
18208,000 gp15,600 gp20,800 gp31,200 gp41,600 gp41,600 gp
19355,000 gp26,600 gp35,500 gp53,250 gp71,000 gp71,000 gp
20490,000 gp36,800 gp49,000 gp73,500 gp98,000 gp98,000 gp

Variant Rules

Source GM Core pg. 82
While the rules presented in Player Core and the rest of this book are designed to give you and your group a baseline experience that's easy to learn and fun to play, sometimes you're looking for more customizable options. That's where variant rules come in: options to alter the game's rules to fit your needs. This section adds a collection of variant rules to your toolbox, often with additional options for how to use them.

The variants included in this chapter are divided into the following sections.
  • Automatic Bonus Progression (page 83) presents a variant for playing the game without relying on fundamental runes to enhance damage and accuracy.
  • Free Archetype (page 84) presents a method of character generation that adds an archetype to a character's advancement without requiring them to spend their standard class feats.
  • Level 0 Characters (page 84) can play through the characters' adventures before they take on character classes.
  • Proficiency without Level (page 85) changes the math of the proficiency system to tell stories where being outnumbered by weaker foes remains a challenge and high-level characters are less superhuman.

Choosing Variant Rules

Source GM Core pg. 82
When you and your group are deciding which variant rules to use, think about the types of stories you want to tell together, including the genre, themes, and characters, to choose which variant rules might be the best fit.

If you're not sure about a variant rule, take a chance! Make sure everyone in your group understands that this is a trial run and that you might need to adjust or remove the variant rules later on if they're causing unexpected side effects or not working as you intended. When you're playing with variant rules, be sure to let any new players who join the group know about the variant rules your group has chosen. This helps them set their expectations, which is important for making sure there is a feeling of fairness among your players.

If your group is playing a game with themes that call for it, you might wind up combining multiple variant rules together, possibly applying several options at the same time. For instance, in a gritty, low-magic, survival-horror game, you might start the PCs as 0-level characters and alter the proficiency bonus progression to remove level at the same time. In general, the variant options in this chapter are sufficiently self-contained, with explanations of how they change the game, that you should be able to combine them without trouble. When you design your own variant rules, be on the lookout for places where new rules might have unexpected overlapping effects on each other and the game.

Automatic Bonus Progression

Source GM Core pg. 83
This variant removes the item bonus to rolls and DCs usually provided by magic items (with the exception of armor’s item bonus) and replaces it with a new kind of bonus—potency—to reflect a character’s innate ability. In this variant, magic items, if they exist at all, can provide unique special abilities rather than numerical increases.

Special Class Features

Source GM Core pg. 83
Every character automatically gains the class features on the Automatic Bonus Progression table.

Table 4-11: Automatic Bonus Progression

LevelBenefits
1
2Attack potency +1
3Skill potency (one at +1)
4Devastating attacks (two dice)
5Defense potency +1
6Skill potency (two at +1 each)
7Perception potency +1
8Saving throw potency +1
9Skill potency (one at +2, one at +1)
10Attack potency +2
11Defense potency +2
12Devastating attacks (three dice)
13Perception potency +2; skill potency (two at +2 each, one at +1)
14Saving throw potency +2
15Skill potency (three at +2 each, one at +1)
16Attack potency +3
17Ability apex; skill potency (one at +3, two at +2 each, two at +1 each)
18Defense potency +3
19Devastating attacks (four dice), Perception potency +3
20Saving throw potency +3; skill potency (two at +3 each, two at +2 each, two at +1 each)

Attack Potency

Source GM Core pg. 83
Starting at 2nd level, you gain a +1 potency bonus to attack rolls with all weapons and unarmed attacks. This increases to +2 at 10th level, and +3 at 16th level.

Skill Potency

Source GM Core pg. 83
At 3rd level, choose a single skill. You gain a +1 potency bonus with that skill. At 6th level, choose a second skill to gain a +1 potency bonus. At 9th level, choose one of those skills and increase its potency bonus to +2. At 13th level, increase the potency bonus of your second skill to +2 and choose a third skill to gain a +1 potency bonus. At 15th level, increase the third skill’s potency bonus to +2 and choose a fourth skill to gain a +1 potency bonus. At 17th level, choose one of your three skills with a +2 potency bonus to increase to +3, and choose a fifth skill to gain a +1 potency bonus. Finally, at 20th level, choose one of the two skills with a +2 potency bonus to increase to +3, choose one of the three skills at a +1 potency bonus to increase to +2, and choose one new skill to gain a +1 potency bonus. You can spend 1 week to retrain one of these assignments at any time.

Devastating Attacks

Source GM Core pg. 83
At 4th level, your weapon and unarmed Strikes deal two damage dice instead of one. This increases to three at 12th level and to four at 19th level.

Defense Potency

Source GM Core pg. 83
At 5th level, you gain a +1 potency bonus to AC. At 11th level, this bonus increases to +2, and at 18th level, to +3.

Perception Potency

Source GM Core pg. 83
At 7th level, you gain a +1 potency bonus to Perception, increasing to +2 at level 13 and +3 at level 19.

Saving Throw Potency

Source GM Core pg. 83
At 8th level, you gain a +1 potency bonus to saves, increasing to +2 at level 14 and +3 at level 20.

Ability Apex

Source GM Core pg. 83
At 17th level, choose one attribute score to either increase by 2 or increase to 18 (whichever grants the higher score).

Adjusting Items and Treasure

Source GM Core pg. 83
With this variant, you can ignore as much of the Party Treasure by Level table on page 59 as you want, though you'll usually want to provide consistent currency. The main area your choice will impact is in spellcasting items, such as scrolls and wands.

Remove all potency runes, striking runes, and resilient runes. Items that normally grant an item bonus to statistics or damage dice no longer do, other than the base item bonus to AC from armor. Apex items do not increase attribute modifiers. If your world still includes magic items, a safe bet is to continue to give out consumable items at roughly the rate on page 59.

If you choose to eliminate runes entirely, this can reduce the PCs' damage since they won't have runes like flaming or holy. If you've removed nearly all treasure, challenges might become more difficult, even with automatic bonuses.

Free Archetype

Source GM Core pg. 84
Sometimes the story of your game calls for a group where everyone is a pirate or an apprentice at a magic school. The free archetype variant introduces a shared aspect to every character without taking away any of that character’s existing choices.

Building a Character

Source GM Core pg. 84
The only difference between a normal character and a free archetype character is that the character receives an extra class feat at 2nd level and every even level thereafter that they can use only for archetype feats. You might restrict the free feats to those of a single archetype each character in the group has (for a shared backstory), those of archetypes fitting a certain theme (such as only ones from magical archetypes in a game set in a magic school), or entirely unrestricted if you just want a higher-powered game.

If the group all has the same archetype or draws from a limited list, you might want to ignore the free archetype's normal restriction of selecting a certain number of feats before taking a new archetype. That way a character can still pursue another archetype that also fits their character.

Playing with Free Archetypes

Source GM Core pg. 84
Free-archetype characters are a bit more versatile and powerful than normal, but usually not so much that they unbalance your game. However, due to the characters’ increased access to archetype feats, you should place a limit on the number of feats that scale based on a character’s number of archetype feats (mainly multiclass Resiliency feats). Allowing a character to benefit from a number of these feats equal to half their level is appropriate.

Level 0 Characters

Source GM Core pg. 84
Before they were heroes, every PC came from somewhere, whether they worked on a farm like Valeros or picked pockets on the streets like Seelah. Sometimes, it can be a lot of fun to play a prequel game set years before the PCs’ first adventure as heroes, or you may have an idea for a low-powered adventure that calls for commoners and apprentices. The rules below provide ways to build and use level 0 PCs.

Building Characters

Source GM Core pg. 84
Building a level 0 character is similar to building a 1st-level character, but you stop after choosing your ancestry and background. A level 0 character still gets the four free attribute boosts from Step 6 of the normal character creation process, but not the class attribute boost.

Initial Proficiencies

Source GM Core pg. 84
A level 0 character is trained in Perception, all saving throws, unarmed attacks, unarmored defense, and one simple weapon of their choice. Additionally, they are trained in a number of skills equal to 2 + their Intelligence modifier. The proficiency bonus for a level 0 character works the same way as normal, but since the level is 0, the total proficiency bonus for being trained is +2.

Hit Points

Source GM Core pg. 84
A level 0 character adds their Constitution modifier to their ancestry Hit Points to determine their starting Hit Points.

Starting Money

Source GM Core pg. 84
A level 0 character starts with 5 gp (50 sp) for equipment.

Apprentice Option

Source GM Core pg. 84
If the story you want to tell is about characters who have started training to become a particular class, you can grant them a small number of additional abilities. An apprentice character is trained in the skill or skills specified for their chosen class (such as Occultism and Performance for a bard) in addition to the skills they gain through their initial proficiencies. They also gain benefits based on the class.

Alchemist: An apprentice alchemist gains the advanced alchemy portion of the alchemy class feature. Their advanced alchemy level is 1, and they have one batch of infused reagents each day. They can make only infused alchemical items.
Monk: An apprentice monk gains the powerful fist class feature.
Other Martial Class: An apprentice of another martial class (fighter, ranger, or rogue, for example) is trained in light armor, all simple weapons, and one martial weapon listed in the class's initial proficiencies. If a martial class not listed here lacks light armor or martial weapon training (as the monk does), give it a different ability as well.
Spellcaster: An apprentice spellcaster is trained in the appropriate magic tradition and gains two cantrips from their class. A prepared caster can't change these cantrips each day.

Gameplay

Source GM Core pg. 84
Combat can be especially dangerous for level 0 characters. For safety’s sake, you might treat the characters as level –1 when determining what combat encounters are appropriate. For skill checks, they can still accomplish tasks with a simple trained DC using their trained skills, but success is less certain. Since they have fewer skills, the party might not have anyone trained for a given task. If you’re playing these characters for more than a few sessions, consider advancing them to 1st level using the fast advancement speed (800 XP). If your group wants a longer experience at level 0, start the group without the apprentice benefits, then level up to apprentice (gaining those benefits and the apprentice adjustments for their class), and then level up to 1st level.

Treasure

Source GM Core pg. 85
As the characters start with 5 gp, their adventures up to 1st level should account for the rest of a 1st-level character’s starting money. That means you’ll distribute treasure worth 10 gp × the number of PCs, a large percentage of which should be in currency.

Proficiency without Level

Source GM Core pg. 85
This variant removes a character's level from their proficiency bonus, scaling it differently for a style of game that's outside the norm. This is a significant change to the system. The proficiency rank progression in Player Core is designed for heroic fantasy games where heroes rise from humble origins to world-shattering strength. For some games, this narrative arc doesn't fit. Such games are about hedging bets in an uncertain and gritty world, in which even the world's best fighter can't guarantee a win against a large group of moderately skilled brigands.

The initial implementation is fairly straightforward: the proficiency bonus just becomes +2 for trained, +4 for expert, +6 for master, and +8 for legendary. It's best to give an untrained character a –2 proficiency modifier instead of a +0 proficiency bonus.

Additionally, for creatures, hazards, magic items, and so on, reduce each statistic that would include a proficiency bonus by the level of the creature or other rules element. These statistics are typically modifiers and DCs for attacks, ACs, saving throws, Perception, skills, and spells.

Finally, decrease the skill DCs of most tasks. You can just subtract the level from the DC tables on page 53, or you can reference the Simple Skill DCs (No Level) table for a set of DCs that's easier to remember. The new DCs make it a little harder for high-level characters to succeed than it would be when using the default numbers, in keeping with the theme mentioned earlier. Combat outcomes will tend to flatten out, with critical successes and critical failures being less likely across the game. This is particularly notable in spells, where you're less likely to see the extreme effects of critical failures on saves.

Table 4-17: Simple Skill DCs (No Level)

Proficiency RankDC
Untrained10
Trained15
Expert20
Master25
Legendary30

Adjusting Encounters

Source GM Core pg. 85
Telling stories where a large group of low-level monsters can still be a significant threat to a high-level PC (and conversely, where a single higher-level monster is not much of a threat to a group of PCs) requires some significant shifts in encounter building, including shifts in the PCs' rewards.

Under the default math, two monsters of a certain level are roughly as challenging as a single monster 2 levels higher. However, with level removed from proficiency, this assumption is no longer true. The XP budget for creatures uses a different scale, as shown in the Creature XP (No Level) table. You'll still use the same XP budget for a given threat level as shown on the Encounter Budget table on page 75 (80 XP for a moderate-threat encounter, 120 for a severe-threat encounter, and so on).

Table 4-18: Creature XP (No Level)

Creature’s LevelXP
Party level – 79
Party level – 612
Party level – 514
Party level – 418
Party level – 321
Party level – 226
Party level – 132
Party level40
Party level + 148
Party level + 260
Party level + 372
Party level + 490
Party level + 5108
Party level + 6135
Party level + 7160

While the XP values in the Creature XP (No Level) table work well in most cases, sometimes they might not account for the effects of creatures' special abilities when facing a party of a drastically different level. For instance, a ghost mage could prove too much for 5th-level PCs with its incorporeality, flight, and high-rank spells, even though it's outnumbered.

Adjusting Treasure

Source GM Core pg. 85
Items on standard creatures are chosen to avoid giving out too much treasure for the level at which PCs will typically fight them. However, using this variant, PCs might defeat a creature 5 levels higher than they are, or even more! Too many encounters with higher-level foes can wind up giving the PCs more treasure than you expected, or vice versa if they’re fighting weaker foes that put up more of a fight but still have poor treasure. You can make periodic adjustments if the PCs’ treasure drifts too far from expectations. Making it so they can’t easily sell or buy magic items will mean it’s harder for them to exploit treasure they gain. To sidestep the issue entirely, you can use automatic bonus progression (page 83).

Afflictions

Source GM Core pg. 86
Wherever there is life, there are insidious perils that threaten the health and well-being of living creatures. Some of these afflictions, including many diseases, are inherent to the natural world. Others—curses being the most notorious—exist solely to cause harm to others.

Afflictions strike creatures with potent and often escalating results. This section presents a variety of curses, and diseases for use in your game. A broad sampling of poisons can be found beginning on page 248, and the rules for afflictions start on page 430 in Player Core.

Depending on the tone of the campaign, the GM might want to roll secret saving throws for PCs affected by an affliction. This is particularly effective when the affliction is an element within a survival or horror game, or when it's part of a mystery.

Curses

Source GM Core pg. 86
A curse is a manifestation of potent ill will. Curses typically have a single effect that takes place upon a failed saving throw and lasts a specified amount of time, or can be removed only by certain actions a character must perform or conditions they must meet. Rarely, curses will have stages; these follow the rules for afflictions.

Curses may come from a malicious action, such as a lich's Paralyzing Touch or a spell from an evil spellcaster. Guardians of a tomb or treasure might ward their charge with a curse as protection against thieves. Gods may inflict curses on servants who have raised their ire. In some rare cases, a curse might manifest as a response to a terrible act, such as a massacre. When using a curse in your game, assign the curse to an item, location, situation, or similar element. Then, decide on a trigger for the curse—such as a creature attempting to steal a warded book, destroy a work of art, or slay a specific creature. A curse can even be tied to a specific location, in which case it functions as a simple hazard. Once that trigger occurs, the curse affects the triggering creature or creatures. Each affected creature must attempt a saving throw against the curse; if they fail, they are subject to the effects specified in the curse's Effect entry.

Diseases

Source GM Core pg. 88
Exposure to disease can be a hazard, such as when PCs come into contact with a plague-ridden corpse; such hazards grant XP as a simple hazard of the disease’s level. When a disease gives a sickened condition that can’t be reduced until it runs its course, that typically means the disease has symptoms such as a difficulty swallowing, loss of appetite, or nausea that make eating and drinking difficult but not impossible. Despite the condition’s prohibition on eating or drinking, a creature can slowly and carefully eat and drink as long as they aren’t in an encounter.

Environment

Source GM Core pg. 90
Primarily used during exploration, environment rules bring the locales your party travels through to life. You'll often be able to use common sense to adjudicate how environments work, but you'll need special rules for environments that really stand out.

Each of the environments presented in this section uses the terrain rules (Player Core 423) in different ways, so be sure to familiarize yourself with those rules before reading this section. Some environments refer to the rules for climate (page 95) and natural disasters (beginning on page 96). Many places have the traits of multiple environments; a snow-covered mountain might use both the arctic and mountain environments, for example. For environmental features with effects based on how tall or deep they are, those effects vary further based on a creature's size. For instance, a shallow bog for a Medium creature might be a deep bog for smaller creatures, and a deep bog for a Medium creature could be only a shallow bog for a larger creature (and so insignificant for a truly massive creature that it isn't even difficult terrain).

The Environmental Features table (below) lists the features of various environments alphabetically for quick reference. The Proficiency DC Band entry indicates a range of appropriate simple DCs for that environmental feature, while also providing a rough estimate of the danger or complexity of the feature.

Environmental Damage

Source GM Core pg. 90
Some environmental features or natural disasters deal damage. Because the amount of damage can vary based on the specific circumstances, the rules for specific environments and natural disasters use damage categories to describe the damage, rather than exact numbers. Use the Environmental Damage table to determine damage from an environment or natural disaster. When deciding the exact damage amount, use your best judgment based on how extreme you deem the danger to be.

Table 10-11: Environmental Damage

CategoryDamage
Minor1d6-2d6
Moderate4d6-6d6
Major8d6-12d6
Massive16d6-24d6

Table 10-12: Environmental Features

FeatureProficiency DC Band
AvalancheExpert–legendary
Blizzard
BogUntrained-trained
CanopyTrained-master
Chasm
CliffTrained-master
Collapse
CrowdTrained-master
CurrentTrained-master
DoorSee entry
EarthquakeTrained-legendary
FloodExpert-legendary
FloorUntrained-expert
Fog
Gate
Guard
HedgeUntrained-trained
IceTrained-master
LavaExpert-legendary
LedgeUntrained-master
PortcullisSee entry
Precipitation
RooftopTrained-master
RubbleUntrained-expert
SandUntrained-expert
SandstormTrained-master
Sewer
SlopeUntrained-trained
SnowUntrained-expert
StairsUntrained-trained
StalagmiteTrained-expert
StreetUntrained-trained
Temperature
TornadoMaster-legendary
TreeUntrained-master
TsunamiMaster-legendary
UndergrowthUntrained-expert
Underwater Visibility
Volcanic EruptionTrained-legendary
WallSee entry
WildfireExpert-legendary
WindUntrained-legendary

Aquatic

Source GM Core pg. 90
Aquatic environments are among the most challenging for PCs short of other worlds and unusual planes. PCs in an aquatic environment need a way to breathe (typically a water breathing spell) and must usually Swim to move, though a PC who sinks to the bottom can walk awkwardly, using the rules for greater difficult terrain. Characters in aquatic environments make frequent use of the rules for aquatic combat (page 30, Player Core 437) and the drowning and suffocation rules (Player Core 437).

Currents and Flowing Water

Source GM Core pg. 91
Ocean currents, flowing rivers, and similar moving water are difficult terrain or greater difficult terrain (depending on the speed of the water) for a creature Swimming against the current. At the end of a creature’s turn, it moves a certain distance depending on the current’s speed. For instance, a 10-foot current moves a creature 10 feet in the current’s direction at the end of that creature’s turn.

Underwater Visibility

Source GM Core pg. 91
It’s much harder to see things at a distance underwater than it is on land, and it’s particularly difficult if the water is murky or full of particles. In pure water, the maximum visual range is roughly 240 feet to see a small object, and in murky water, visibility can be reduced to only 10 feet or even less.

Arctic

Source GM Core pg. 91
The main challenge in an arctic environment is the extreme low temperature, but arctic environments also contain ice and snow. The disasters that most often strike in arctic environments are avalanches, blizzards, and floods.

Ice

Source GM Core pg. 91
Icy ground is both uneven ground and difficult terrain, as characters slip and slide due to poor traction.

Snow

Source GM Core pg. 91
Depending on the depth of snow and its composition, most snowy ground is either difficult terrain or greater difficult terrain. In denser snow, characters can attempt to walk along the surface without breaking through, but some patches might be loose or soft enough that they’re uneven ground.

Desert

Source GM Core pg. 91
Desert encompasses sandy and rocky deserts as well as badlands. Though tundra is technically a desert, it’s classified as arctic, as the climate is the primary challenge in such areas. Sandy deserts often have quicksand hazards (page 107) and sandstorms.

Rubble

Source GM Core pg. 91
Rocky deserts are strewn with rubble, which is difficult terrain. Rubble dense enough to be walked over rather than navigated through is uneven ground.

Sand

Source GM Core pg. 91
Packed sand doesn’t usually significantly impede a character’s movement, but loose sand is either difficult terrain (if it’s shallow) or uneven ground (if it’s deep). The wind in a desert often shifts sand into dunes, hills of loose sand with uneven ground facing the wind and steeper inclines away from the wind.

Forest

Source GM Core pg. 91
These diverse environments include jungles and other wooded areas. They are sometimes struck by wildfires.

Canopies

Source GM Core pg. 91
Particularly dense forests, such as rain forests, have a canopy level above the ground. A creature trying to reach the canopy or travel along it must Climb. Swinging on vines and branches usually requires an Acrobatics or Athletics check. A canopy provides cover, and a thicker one can prevent creatures in the canopy from seeing those on the ground, and vice versa.

Trees

Source GM Core pg. 91
While trees are omnipresent in a forest, they typically don’t provide cover unless a character uses the Take Cover action. Only larger trees that take up an entire 5-foot square on the map (or more) are big enough to provide cover automatically.

Undergrowth

Source GM Core pg. 91
Light undergrowth is difficult terrain that allows a character to Take Cover. Heavy undergrowth is greater difficult terrain that automatically provides cover. Some sorts of undergrowth, such as thorns, might also be hazardous terrain, and areas with plenty of twisting roots might be uneven ground.

Mountain

Source GM Core pg. 91
Mountain environments also include hills, which share many aspects of mountains, though not their more extreme features. The most common disasters here are avalanches.

Chasms

Source GM Core pg. 91
Chasms are natural pits, typically at least 20 feet long and clearly visible (barring mundane or magical efforts to conceal them). The main danger posed by a chasm is that characters must Long Jump to get across. Alternatively, characters can take the safer but slower route of Climbing down the near side of the chasm and then ascending the far side to get across.

Cliffs

Source GM Core pg. 91
Cliffs and rock walls require creatures to Climb to ascend or descend. Without extensive safety precautions, a critical failure on Climb checks can result in significant falling damage.

Rubble

Source GM Core pg. 91
Mountains often have extremely rocky areas or shifting, gravelly scree that makes for difficult terrain. Especially deep or pervasive rubble is uneven ground.

Slopes

Source GM Core pg. 91
Slopes vary from the gentle rises of normal terrain to difficult terrain and inclines, depending on the angle of elevation. Moving down a slope is typically normal terrain, but characters might need to Climb up particularly steep slopes.

Undergrowth

Source GM Core pg. 92
Light undergrowth is common in mountains. It is difficult terrain and allows a character to Take Cover.

Plains

Source GM Core pg. 92
The plains environment encompasses grasslands such as savannas and farmland. The most common disasters in plains are tornadoes and wildfires.

Hedges

Source GM Core pg. 92
Hedges are planted rows of bushes, shrubs, and trees. Their iconic appearance in adventures consists of tall hedges grown into mazes. A typical hedge is 2 to 5 feet tall, takes up a row of squares, and provides cover. A character trying to push through a hedge faces greater difficult terrain; it’s sometimes faster to Climb over.

Undergrowth

Source GM Core pg. 92
Light undergrowth is difficult terrain that allows a character to Take Cover. Heavy undergrowth is greater difficult terrain that provides cover automatically. Undergrowth in plains is usually light with a few scattered areas of heavy undergrowth, but fields of certain crops, like corn, are entirely heavy undergrowth.

Swamp

Source GM Core pg. 92
Wetlands are the most common kind of swamp, but this category also includes drier marshes such as moors. Swamps often contain quicksand hazards (page 107). Despite their soggy nature, swamps aren’t very likely to experience heavy flooding, since they act as natural sponges and absorb a great deal of water before they flood.

Bogs

Source GM Core pg. 92
Also called mires, bogs are watery areas that accumulate peat, are covered by shrubs and moss, and sometimes feature floating islands of vegetation covering deeper pools. Shallow bogs are difficult terrain for a Medium creature, and deep bogs are greater difficult terrain. If a bog is deep enough that a creature can’t reach the bottom, the creature has to Swim. Bogs are also acidic, so particularly extreme or magical bogs can be hazardous terrain.

Undergrowth

Source GM Core pg. 92
Light undergrowth is difficult terrain that allows a character to Take Cover, while heavy undergrowth is greater difficult terrain that provides cover automatically. Some sorts of undergrowth, such as thorns, are also hazardous terrain, and areas with plenty of twisting roots are uneven ground.

Urban

Source GM Core pg. 92
Urban environments include open city spaces as well as buildings. The building information in this section also applies to ruins and constructed dungeons. Depending on their construction and location, cities might be vulnerable to many sorts of disasters, especially fires and floods.

Crowds

Source GM Core pg. 92
Crowded thoroughfares and similar areas are difficult terrain, or greater difficult terrain if an area is truly packed with people. You might allow a character to get a crowd to part using Diplomacy, Intimidation, or Performance.

A crowd exposed to an obvious danger, like a fire or a rampaging monster, attempts to move away from the danger as quickly as possible, but it is slowed by its own mass. A fleeing crowd typically moves at the Speed of an average member each round (usually 25 feet), potentially trampling or leaving behind slower-moving members of the crowd.

Doors

Source GM Core pg. 92
Opening an unlocked door requires an Interact action (or more than one for a particularly complicated or large door). Stuck doors must be Forced Open, and locked ones require a character to Pick the Lock or Force them Open.

Floors

Source GM Core pg. 93
Wooden floors are easy to walk on, as are flagstone floors made of fitted stones. However, floors of worn flagstone often contain areas of uneven ground.

Gates

Source GM Core pg. 93
Walled settlements often have gates that the city can close for defense or open to allow travel. A typical gate consists of one portcullis at each end of a gatehouse, with murder holes in between or other protected spots from which guards can attack foes.

Guards

Source GM Core pg. 93
Most settlements of significant size have guards working in shifts to protect the settlement at all hours, patrolling the streets and guarding various posts. The size of this force varies from one guard for every 1,000 residents to a force 10 times this number.

Portcullises

Source GM Core pg. 93
A portcullis is a wooden or iron grate that descends to seal off a gate or corridor. Most are raised on ropes or chains operated by a winch, and they have locking mechanisms that keep them from being lifted easily. The rules on lifting a portcullis or bending its bars appear in the sidebar on this page. If a portcullis falls on a creature, use a slamming door trap (page 104).

Rooftops

Source GM Core pg. 93
Rooftops make for memorable ambushes, chase scenes, infiltrations, and running fights. Flat roofs are easy to move across, but they're rare in any settlement that receives significant snowfall, since heavy buildups of snow can collapse a roof. Angled roofs are uneven ground, or inclines if they're especially steep. The peak of an angled roof is a narrow surface.

Hurdling from roof to roof often requires a Long Jump, though some buildings are close enough to Leap between. A High Jump might be necessary to reach a higher roof, or a Leap followed by Grabbing an Edge and Climbing up.

Sewers

Source GM Core pg. 93
Sewers are generally 10 feet or more below street level and are equipped with ladders or other means to ascend and descend. Raised paths along the walls allow sewer workers access, while channels in the center carry the waste itself. Less sophisticated sewers, or sections those workers don’t usually access, might require wading through diseaseridden waste. Sewers can be accessed through sewer grates, which usually require 2 or more Interact actions to open.

Sewer Gas

Source GM Core pg. 93
Sewer gas often contains pockets of highly flammable gas. A pocket of sewer gas exposed to a source of flame explodes, dealing moderate environmental fire damage to creatures in the area.

Stairs

Source GM Core pg. 94
Stairs are difficult terrain for characters moving up them, and shoddy stairs might also be uneven ground. Some temples and giant-built structures have enormous stairs that are greater difficult terrain both up and down, or might require Climbing every step.

Streets

Source GM Core pg. 94
Most settlements have narrow and twisting streets that were largely established organically as the settlement grew in size. These roads are rarely more than 20 feet wide, with alleys as narrow as 5 feet. Streets are generally paved with cobblestones. If the cobblestones are in poor repair, they could be difficult terrain or uneven ground.

Particularly lawful or well-planned cities have major thoroughfares that allow wagons and merchants to reach marketplaces and other important areas in town. These need to be at least 25 feet wide to accommodate wagons moving in both directions, and they often have narrow sidewalks that allow pedestrians to avoid wagon traffic.

Walls

Source GM Core pg. 94
Well-built structures have exterior walls of brick or stonemasonry. Smaller, lower-quality, or temporary structures might have wooden walls. Interior walls tend to be less sturdy; they could be made of wooden planks, or even simply of thick, opaque paper held in a wooden frame. An underground structure might have thick walls carved out of solid rock to prevent the weight of the ground above from collapsing the structure. Rules for climbing and breaking walls are in the sidebar on page 93.

Underground

Source GM Core pg. 94
Underground environments consist of caves and natural underground areas. Artificial dungeons and ruins combine underground features with urban features like stairs and walls. Deep underground vaults have some of the same terrain features as mountains, such as chasms and cliffs. The most common disasters underground are collapses.

Floors

Source GM Core pg. 94
Natural underground environments rarely have flat floors, instead featuring abrupt changes in elevation that result in difficult terrain, uneven ground, and inclines.

Ledges

Source GM Core pg. 94
Ledges are narrow surfaces that overlook a lower area or provide the only means to move along the edge of a chasm. Moving across a narrow ledge requires using Acrobatics to Balance.

Rubble

Source GM Core pg. 94
Caverns can be covered in rubble, which is difficult terrain. Deep or pervasive rubble is also uneven ground.

Stalagmites and Stalactites

Source GM Core pg. 94
Stalagmites are tapering columns that rise from the floor of a cave. Areas filled with stalagmites are greater difficult terrain, and especially large stalagmites have to be sidestepped or Climbed. Stalagmites can be sharp enough they can be used as hazardous terrain in some circumstances, as can stalactites (icicle-shaped formations that hang from the roof of a cave) if they’re knocked loose from a ceiling or overhang.

Walls

Source GM Core pg. 94
Natural cave walls are rough and uneven, with nooks, crannies, and ledges. Since most caves are formed by water, cave walls are often damp, making them even more difficult to Climb.

Climate

Source GM Core pg. 95
Weather is more than just set dressing to establish mood—it has mechanical effects you can combine with environmental components to create a more memorable encounter. Weather can impose circumstance penalties on certain checks, from –1 to –4 based on severity.

Fog

Source GM Core pg. 95
Fog imposes a circumstance penalty to visual Perception checks, depending on the thickness; it causes creatures viewed through significant amounts of fog to be concealed; and it cuts off all visibility at half a mile or less—possibly much less. Conditions limiting visibility to about a mile are called mist, and those that do so to about 3 miles are called haze.

Precipitation

Source GM Core pg. 95
Precipitation includes rain as well as colder snow, sleet, and hail. Wet precipitation douses flames, and frozen precipitation can create areas of snow or ice on the ground. Drizzle or light snowfall has little mechanical effect beyond limited visibility.

Visibility

Source GM Core pg. 95
Most forms of precipitation impose circumstance penalties on visual Perception checks. Hail often is sparser but loud, instead penalizing auditory Perception checks. Especially heavy precipitation, such as a downpour of rain or heavy snow, might make creatures concealed if they’re far away.

Fatigue

Source GM Core pg. 95
Precipitation causes discomfort and fatigue. Anything heavier than drizzle or light snowfall reduces the time it takes for characters to become fatigued from overland travel to only 4 hours. Heavy precipitation can be dangerous in cold environments when characters go without protection. Soaked characters treat the temperature as one step colder (mild to severe, severe to extreme; see Temperature below).

Thunderstorms

Source GM Core pg. 95
High winds and heavy precipitation accompany many thunderstorms. There’s also a very small chance that a character might be struck by lightning during a storm. A lightning strike usually deals moderate electricity damage, or major electricity damage in a severe thunderstorm.

Temperature

Source GM Core pg. 95
Often, temperature doesn't impose enough of a mechanical effect to worry about beyond describing the clothing the characters need to wear to be comfortable. Particularly hot and cold weather can make creatures fatigued more quickly during overland travel and can cause damage if harsh enough, as shown in the Temperature Effects table below.

Appropriate cold-weather gear can negate the damage from severe cold or reduce the damage from extreme cold to that of particularly severe cold.

Table 10-13: Temperature Effects

CategoryTemperatureFatigueDamage
Incredible cold-80º F or colder (-62º C or colder)2 hoursModerate cold every minute
Extreme cold-79º F to -21º F (-61º C to -29º C)4 hoursMinor cold every 10 minutes
Severe cold-20º F to 12º F (-28º C to -11º C)4 hoursMinor cold every hour
Mild cold13º F to 32º F (-10º C to 0º C)4 hoursNone
Normal33º F to 94º F (1º C to 34º C)8 hoursNone
Mild heat95º F* to 104º F* (35º C to 40º C)4 hoursNone
Severe heat105º F* to 114º F (41º C to 45º C)4 hoursMinor fire every hour
Extreme heat115º F to 139º F (46º C to 59º C)4 hoursMinor fire every 10 minutes
Incredible heat140º F or warmer (60º C or warmer)2 hoursModerate fire every minute
* Adjust temperatures down by 15º F (9º C) in areas of high humidity

Wind

Source GM Core pg. 95
Wind imposes a circumstance penalty on auditory Perception checks depending on its strength. It also interferes with physical ranged attacks such as arrows, imposing a circumstance penalty to attack rolls involving such weapons, and potentially making attacks with them impossible in powerful windstorms. Wind snuffs out handheld flames; lanterns protect their flame from the wind, but particularly powerful winds can extinguish these as well.

Moving in Wind

Source GM Core pg. 95
Wind is difficult or greater difficult terrain when Flying. Moving in wind of sufficient strength requires a Maneuver in Flight action, and fliers are blown away on a critical failure or if they don't succeed at a minimum of one such check each round.

Even on the ground, particularly strong winds might require a creature to succeed at an Athletics check to move, knocking the creature back and prone on a critical failure. On such checks, Small creatures typically take a –1 circumstance penalty, and Tiny creatures typically take a –2 penalty.

Natural Disasters

Source GM Core pg. 95
Climate and environmental features can be a hindrance or long-term threat, but natural disasters represent acute danger, especially to those directly exposed to their fury. The damage in the following sections uses the categories in the Environmental Damage table on page 90.

Avalanches

Source GM Core pg. 96
Though the term avalanche specifically refers to a cascading flow of ice and snow down a mountain's slope, the same rules work for landslides, mudslides, and other similar disasters. Avalanches of wet snow usually travel up to 200 feet per round, though powdery snow can travel up to 10 times faster. Rockslides and mudslides are slower, sometimes even slow enough that a character might be able to outrun them.

An avalanche deals major or even massive bludgeoning damage to creatures and objects in its path. These victims are also buried under a significant mass. Creatures caught in an avalanche's path can attempt a Reflex save; if they succeed, they take only half the bludgeoning damage, and if they critically succeed, they also avoid being buried.

Burial

Source GM Core pg. 96
Buried creatures take minor bludgeoning damage each minute, and they potentially take minor cold damage if buried under an avalanche of snow. At the GM's discretion, creatures without a sufficient air pocket could also risk suffocation (Player Core 437). A buried creature is restrained and usually can't free itself.

Allies or bystanders can attempt to dig out a buried creature. Each creature digging clears roughly a 5-footby-5-foot square every 4 minutes with a successful Athletics check (or every 2 minutes on a critical success). Using shovels or other proper tools halves the time.

Blizzards

Source GM Core pg. 96
Blizzards combine cold weather, heavy snow, and strong winds. They don’t pose a single direct threat as other disasters do; instead, the combination of these factors all at once poses a substantial impediment to characters.

Collapses

Source GM Core pg. 96
Collapses and cave-ins occur when caverns or buildings fall, dumping tons of rock or other material on those caught below or inside them. Creatures under the collapse take major or massive bludgeoning damage and become buried, just as with an avalanche. Fortunately, collapses don’t spread unless they weaken the overall integrity of the area and lead to further collapses.

Earthquakes

Source GM Core pg. 96
Earthquakes often cause other natural disasters in the form of avalanches, collapses, floods, and tsunamis, but they also present unique threats such as fissures, soil liquefaction, and tremors.

Fissures

Source GM Core pg. 96
Fissures and other ground ruptures can destabilize structures, but more directly they lead to creatures taking bludgeoning damage from falling into a fissure.

Soil Liquefaction

Source GM Core pg. 96
Liquefaction occurs when granular particles shake to the point where they temporarily lose their solid form and act as liquids. When this happens to soil, it can cause creatures and even whole buildings to sink into the ground. You can use the earthquake spell for more specific rules, though that spell represents only one particular kind of localized quake.

Tremors

Source GM Core pg. 96
Tremors knock creatures prone, causing them to fall or careen into other objects, which can deal bludgeoning damage appropriate to the severity of the quake.

Floods

Source GM Core pg. 96
Though more gradual floods can damage structures and drown creatures, flash floods are similar to avalanches, except with a liquid mass instead of a solid one. Instead of burying creatures, a flash flood carries creatures and even massive objects away, buffeting the creatures and potentially drowning them. The drowning rules appear on page 437 of Player Core.

Sandstorms

Source GM Core pg. 96
Mild sandstorms and dust storms don’t present much more danger than a windy rainstorm, but they can cause damage to a creature’s lungs and spread diseases across long distances. Heavy sandstorms deal minor slashing damage each round to those exposed to the sand, force creatures to hold their breath to avoid suffocation, or both.

Tornadoes

Source GM Core pg. 96
In a tornado's path, wind conditions impose severe circumstance penalties, but creatures that would normally be blown away are instead picked up in the tornado's funnel, where they take massive bludgeoning damage from flying debris as they rise through the cone until they are eventually expelled (taking bludgeoning damage from falling).

Tornadoes usually travel around 300 feet per round (roughly 30 miles per hour). They normally travel a few miles before dissipating. Some tornadoes are stationary or travel much faster.

Tsunamis

Source GM Core pg. 96
Tsunamis present many of the same dangers as flash floods but are much larger and more destructive. Tsunami waves can reach 100 feet or more in height, wrecking buildings and creatures alike with massive bludgeoning damage from both the wave itself and debris pulled up along its path of destruction.

Volcanic Eruptions

Source GM Core pg. 97
Volcanic eruptions can contain any combination of ash, lava bombs, lava flows, pyroclastic flows, and vents.

Ash

Source GM Core pg. 97
Ash from volcanic eruptions is hot enough to cause minor fire damage each minute. It limits visibility like a thick fog and can make air unbreathable, requiring characters to hold their breath or suffocate (Player Core 437). Ash clouds generate ash lightning strikes, which typically deal moderate electricity damage but are very unlikely to hit an individual creature. Ash buildup on the ground creates areas of uneven ground, difficult terrain, or greater difficult terrain, and ash in the atmosphere can block the sun for weeks or even months, leading to colder temperatures and longer winters.

Lava Bombs

Source GM Core pg. 97
Pressure can launch lava into the air that falls as lava bombs: masses of lava that solidify as they fly and shatter on impact, dealing at least moderate bludgeoning damage and moderate fire damage.

Lava Flows

Source GM Core pg. 97
Lava flows are an iconic volcanic threat; they usually move between 5 and 60 feet per round over normal ground, so characters can often outrun them. However, flows can move up to 300 feet per round in a steep volcanic tube or channel. Lava emanates heat that deals minor fire damage even before it comes into contact with creatures, and immersion in lava deals massive fire damage each round.

Pyroclastic Flows

Source GM Core pg. 97
Mixes of hot gases and rock debris, pyroclastic flows spread much faster than lava, sometimes more than 4,000 feet per round. While cooler than the hottest lava, pyroclastic flows are capable of overwhelming entire settlements. They work like avalanches but deal half of their damage as fire damage.

Vents

Source GM Core pg. 97
Steam vents shoot from the ground, dealing moderate fire damage or more in a wide column. Acidic and poisonous gases released from beneath the surface can create wide areas of hazardous terrain that deals at least minor acid or poison damage.

Wildfires

Source GM Core pg. 97
Wildfires travel mainly along a front moving in a single direction. In a forest, the front can advance up to 70 feet per round (7 miles per hour). They can move up to twice as fast across plains due to a lack of shade and the relatively low humidity. Embers from the fire, carried by winds and rising hot air, can scatter, forming spot fires as far as 10 miles away from the main wildfire. Wildfires present three main threats: flames, heat, and smoke.

Flames

Source GM Core pg. 97
Flames are hazardous terrain, usually dealing moderate damage and potentially setting a character on fire, dealing moderate persistent fire damage. The flames from a small fire are often less dangerous than the advancing heat from the front of a large fire.

Heat

Source GM Core pg. 97
Wildfires increase the temperature in advance of the front, reaching nearly 1,500ºF at the fire’s arrival, as hot as some lava. This begins as minor fire damage every round at a reasonable distance from the front and increases to massive fire damage for someone within the wildfire.

Smoke

Source GM Core pg. 97
Wind can carry smoke far in front of the wildfire itself. Smoke imposes a circumstance penalty to visual Perception checks, depending on the thickness. It causes creatures viewed through significant amounts of smoke to be concealed, and it cuts off all visibility at half a mile or less. Near or within the wildfire, the combination of smoke and heated air require characters to hold their breath or suffocate (Player Core 437).

Hazards

Source GM Core pg. 98
Dungeons are rife with devious traps meant to protect the treasures within. These range from mechanical devices that shoot darts or drop heavy blocks to magic runes that explode into bursts of flame. In addition to traps, adventurers may stumble into other types of hazards, including naturally occurring environmental hazards, mysterious hauntings, and more.

Detecting a Hazard

Source GM Core pg. 98
Every hazard has a trigger of some kind that sets its dangers in motion. For traps, this could be a mechanism like a trip wire or a pressure plate, while for an environmental hazard or haunt, the trigger may simply be proximity. When characters approach a hazard, they have a chance of finding the trigger area or mechanism before triggering the hazard. They automatically receive a check to detect hazards unless the hazards require a minimum proficiency rank to do so.

During exploration, determine whether the party detects a hazard when the PCs first enter the general area in which it appears. If the hazard doesn't list a minimum proficiency rank, roll a secret Perception check against the hazard's Stealth DC for each PC. For hazards with a minimum proficiency rank, roll only if someone is actively searching (using the Search activity while exploring or the Seek action in an encounter), and only if they have the listed proficiency rank or higher. Anyone who succeeds becomes aware of the hazard, and you can describe what they notice.

Magical hazards that don't have a minimum proficiency rank can be found using detect magic, but this spell doesn't provide enough information to understand or disable the hazard—it only reveals the hazard's presence. Determining a magical hazard's properties thoroughly enough to disable it requires either the use of more powerful magic or a successful skill check, likely using Identify Magic or Recall Knowledge. Magical hazards with a minimum proficiency rank cannot be found with detect magic at all.

Triggering a Hazard

Source GM Core pg. 98
If the group fails to detect a hazard and the hazard’s trigger is a standard part of traveling (such as stepping on a floor plate or moving through a magical sensor while walking), the hazard’s reaction occurs. Hazards that would be triggered only when someone directly manipulates the environment—by opening a door, for example—use their reactions only if a PC explicitly takes that action.

Reaction or Free Action

Source GM Core pg. 98
Most hazards have reactions that occur when they’re triggered. For simple hazards, the reaction is the entirety of the hazard’s effect. For complex hazards, the reaction may also cause the hazard to roll initiative, either starting a combat encounter or joining one already in progress, and the hazard continues to pose a threat over multiple rounds. Some hazards have a triggered free action instead of a reaction; for instance, quicksand can suck down multiple creatures per round.

Routine

Source GM Core pg. 98
A complex hazard usually follows a set of preprogrammed actions called a routine. Once triggered, the hazard first performs its initial reaction; then, if the PCs are not yet in encounter mode, they should roll initiative. If they are already in encounter mode, their initiative remains the same. The hazard might tell you to roll initiative for it—in this case, the hazard rolls initiative using its Stealth modifier.

After this happens, the hazard follows its routine each round on its initiative. The number of actions a hazard can take each round, as well as what they can be used for, depend on the hazard.

Resetting a Hazard

Source GM Core pg. 98
Some hazards can be reset, allowing them to be triggered again. This can occur automatically, as for quicksand, whose surface settles after 24 hours, or manually, like a hidden pit, whose trapdoor must be closed for the pit to become hidden again.

Disabling a Hazard

Source GM Core pg. 98
The most versatile method for deactivating traps is the Disable a Device action of the Thievery skill, though most mechanical traps can also simply be smashed, and magical traps can usually be counteracted. Environmental hazards often can be overcome with Nature or Survival, and haunts can often be overcome with Occultism or Religion. The specific skill and DC required to disable a hazard are listed in the hazard's stat block. Like using Disable a Device, using these skills to disable a trap is a 2-action activity with the same degrees of success, though the activity might have different traits determined by the GM. As with detecting a hazard, disabling a hazard might require a character to have a certain proficiency rank in the listed skill.

A character must first detect a hazard (or have it pointed out to them) to try to deactivate it. They can attempt to deactivate a hazard whether or not it has already been triggered, though some hazards no longer pose a danger once their reactions have occurred, especially if there is no way for them to be reset.

For most hazards, a successful check for the listed skill against the DC in the stat block disables the hazard without triggering it. Any other means of deactivating the hazard are included in the hazard's stat block, as are any additional steps required to properly deactivate it. A critical failure on any roll to disable a hazard triggers it, including a critical failure on a roll to counteract a magical hazard.

Some hazards require multiple successful checks to deactivate, typically because they have a particularly complicated component or have several discrete portions. For hazards with a complex component, a critical success on a check to disable the hazard counts as two successes on a single component.

Damaging a Hazard

Source GM Core pg. 99
Rather than trying to carefully disable a hazard, a character might just smash it. Damaging a mechanical trap or another physical hazard works like damaging objects: the hazard reduces the damage it takes by its Hardness. In most cases, hitting the hazard also triggers it, as explained in Attacking a Hazard below. If a hazard's Hit Points are reduced to its Broken Threshold (BT) or lower, the hazard becomes broken and can't be activated, though it can still be repaired. If it's reduced to 0 HP, it's destroyed and can't be repaired. (See Player Core 269 for more information on damaging objects.)

Hazards' AC, applicable saving throw modifiers, Hardness, HP, and BT are listed in their stat blocks. A hazard that doesn't list one of these statistics can't be affected by anything targeting that statistic. For example, a hazard that has HP but no BT can't be broken, but it can still be destroyed. Hazards are immune to anything an object is immune to unless specifically noted otherwise, and they can't be targeted by anything that can't target objects. Some hazards may have additional immunities, as well as resistances or weaknesses.

Attacking a Hazard

Source GM Core pg. 99
If someone hits a hazard—especially if it’s a mechanical trap—they usually trigger it, though you might determine otherwise in some cases. An attack that breaks the hazard might prevent it from triggering, depending on the circumstances. If the hazard has multiple parts, breaking one part might still trigger the trap. For example, if a trap has a trip wire in one location and launches an attack from another location, severing the trip wire could still trigger the attack. Destroying a trap in one blow almost never triggers it. These rules also apply to most damaging spells or other effects in addition to attacks.

Repairing a Hazard

Source GM Core pg. 99
You might allow a character to repair a damaged hazard to restore its functionality. You determine the specifics of this, since it can vary by trap. The Repair action might be insufficient if fixing the trap requires gathering scattered components or the like. If the item has a Reset entry, the character needs to do whatever is listed there, in addition to repairing the damage.

Counteracting a Magical Hazard

Source GM Core pg. 99
Some magical hazards can be counteracted using dispel magic and the counteracting rules (Player Core 303). These hazards’ spell ranks and counteract DCs are listed in their stat block. Counteracting a hazard otherwise works like using a skill check to disable the hazard.

Hazard Experience

Source GM Core pg. 99
Characters gain Experience Points for overcoming a hazard, whether they disable it, avoid it, or simply endure its attacks. If they trigger the same hazard later on, they don’t gain XP for the hazard again. The XP values for hazards of different levels also appear on page 57 but are repeated here for convenience. The XP for a complex hazard is equal to the XP for a monster of the same level, and the XP for a simple hazard is one-fifth of that. Hazards of a lower level than the party’s level – 4 are trivial and award no XP.

Table 10-14: Hazard XP

XP Award
LevelSimple HazardComplex Hazard
Party level -42 XP10 XP
Party level -33 XP15 XP
Party level -24 XP20 XP
Party level -16 XP30 XP
Party level8 XP40 XP
Party level +112 XP60 XP
Party level +216 XP80 XP
Party level +324 XP120 XP
Party level +430 XP150 XP

Hazard Format

Source GM Core pg. 100
Hazards are presented in a stat block format similar to those used for monsters. A few notes regarding the format follow the sample stat block.

Hazard Name [Level]

Trait
Stealth This entry lists the Stealth modifier for a complex hazard's initiative or the Stealth DC to detect a simple hazard, followed by the minimum proficiency rank to detect the hazard (if any) in parentheses. If detect magic can be used to detect the hazard, this information is located here as well.
Description This explains what the hazard looks like and might include special rules.
Disable The DC of any skill checks required to disable the hazard are here; if the hazard can be counteracted, its spell rank and counteract DC are listed in parentheses.
AC the hazard's AC; Saving Throws the hazard's saves. Usually only haunts are subject to Will saves.
Hardness the hazard's Hardness; HP the hazard's Hit Points, with its Broken Threshold in parentheses; Immunities the hazard's immunities; Weaknesses the hazard's weaknesses, if any; Resistances the hazard's resistances, if any
Action Type [reaction] or [free-action] This is the reaction or free action the hazard uses; Trigger The trigger that sets off the hazard appears here; Effect For a simple hazard, this effect is often all the hazard does. For a complex hazard, this might also cause the hazard to roll initiative.
Routine This entry describes what a complex hazard does on each of its turns during an encounter; the number in parentheses after the word “Routine” indicates how many actions the hazard can use each turn. Simple hazards don't have this entry.
Action Any action the hazard can use appears here. Typically, this is a melee or ranged Strike.
Reset If the hazard can be reset, that information is here.

Level

Source GM Core pg. 100
The hazard’s level indicates what level of party it’s a good challenge for. If the hazard involves a toxin, curse, or other non-spell feature, that feature’s level is the hazard’s level.

Traits

Source GM Core pg. 100
The most notable hazard traits are trap (constructed to harm intruders), environmental (natural hazards), and haunt (spectral phenomena). Traps have a trait to indicate whether they’re magical or mechanical. Hazards that have initiative and a routine have the complex trait.

Stealth or Stealth DC

Source GM Core pg. 100
Complex hazards list their Stealth modifier, which they use for initiative, instead of their Stealth DC. If you need the DC, it’s equal to this modifier + 10.

Simple Hazards

Source GM Core pg. 100
A simple hazard uses its reaction only once, after which its threat is over unless the hazard is reset.

Complex Hazards

Source GM Core pg. 105
Complex hazards function similarly to monsters during encounters, as they roll initiative and have actions of their own, though these are usually automated in a routine. Complex hazards can be used in encounters to take the place of a creature of the same level, and are worth commensurate XP (see page 57).

Building Hazards

Source GM Core pg. 109
Building hazards designed for your game allows you to customize them to match your story, location, and needs, as well as to surprise the other players at every turn. There’s no wrong way to create a hazard, but this guide presents the information in the order you might see it in a hazard stat block.

Concept

Source GM Core pg. 109
The first thing you’ll need is a concept for your hazard. What level is your hazard? Will it be simple or complex? Is it a trap, a haunt, an environmental hazard, or something else? If it’s a trap, is it mechanical, magical, or both? This is a good time to brainstorm the hazard’s name and description, as this will help you decide how the hazard can be disabled.

Hazard Types

Source GM Core pg. 109
The three main types of hazards are traps, environmental hazards, and haunts.

Traps are usually built or placed. They can also form accidentally, such as if a magic portal, through millennia of disuse, malfunctions as its magic warps. Mechanical traps always have some physical component, whereas purely magical traps typically don't. Magical traps can usually be counteracted by dispel magic, and those without a listed proficiency rank for Stealth can be found using detect magic. Thievery is the most common skill used to disable traps. Environmental hazards are either living things, like dangerous spores and molds, or simply features of the terrain or environment, like avalanches or rockslides. While they are always physical, some environmental hazards can't reasonably be attacked or damaged, such as a cloud of poisonous gas or a patch of quicksand. Survival is the most common skill used to disable environmental hazards.

Haunts are spiritual hazards, usually formed when the spiritual essence of a location is imprinted with the instincts and emotions from a living being's demise. Because haunts lack matter, they rarely involve a physical component, and when they do, that component is generally incorporeal or might even be damaged only by vitality energy. The skills and options used to disable haunts vary, though using Religion for an exorcism is common. However, even with a successful check to disable a haunt, it can reoccur until its unfinished business is resolved. Typically, successfully disabling or enduring a haunt provides clues to determine what it would take to lay it to rest permanently.

Understanding and Choosing Statistics

Source GM Core pg. 109
Statistics determine how your hazard interacts with the game world, representing how dangerous it is and how hard it is to render harmless or circumvent. The statistics for your hazard can have extreme, high, or low values. You will want to choose the value that is most appropriate for the concept of your hazard, while ensuring that it is well balanced to ensure a fun encounter.

Extreme: The hazard is world class in this statistic and can challenge almost any character. Almost all hazards have one extreme statistic because hazards normally activate only if they have gone unnoticed or if someone critically failed to disable them. Does it have an extreme Stealth DC that makes it incredibly hard to find, an extreme Disable DC that makes it perilous to disable, or an extreme save DC that makes it deadly in the event it triggers? These are the most common choices, as each affects a different phase of encountering the hazard.

High: Extremely capable but not world class, the hazard presents a challenge for most characters. This is a capable level, and can generally serve as a baseline value.

Low: If a hazard has a weakness, like a poor Reflex save for a bulky mechanical trap or an easy DC to disable for a hard-to-find trap, it usually has a low value. If you need something even lower, use a terrible value from Building Creatures (pages 112–125), or just an incredibly low value like the armageddon orb's Stealth (page 100).

Stealth and Disable

Source GM Core pg. 110
When determining a hazard's combat statistics, first decide how the hazard can be located and how hard it is to disable. A hazard where the main challenge is how difficult it is to find, like the hidden pit, might have a very different effect for its level than a hazard out in plain sight, daring a PC to try to disable it, like the armageddon orb.

Table 2–13: Stealth and Disable DCs

LevelExtremeHighLow
–1181512 to 11
0191613 to 12
1201714 to 13
2211815 to 14
3232017 to 15
4252218 to 17
5262320 to 18
6282521 to 19
7302723 to 21
8312824 to 22
9333026 to 23
10353227 to 25
11363329 to 26
12383530 to 27
13403732 to 29
14413833 to 30
15434035 to 31
16454236 to 33
17464338 to 34
18484539 to 35
19504741 to 37
20514842 to 38
21535044 to 39
22555245 to 41
23565346 to 42
24585548 to 43

When deciding how your hazard is disabled, come up with a narrative description of how it would happen, which will inform which methods and skills disable the hazard. You'll need to decide the proficiency rank necessary to find the hazard as well as disable it with each method. Remember, a hazard without a listed rank next to its Stealth DC is obvious enough that creatures can find it without Searching, and magical hazards without a listed rank are not normally protected against detect magic. Most hazards built by intelligent creatures are concealed and have at least a trained rank. The Minimum Proficiency table indicates the high and moderate proficiency requirements by level; you can use lower proficiency ranks than the ones listed, and if you use the high rank, consider a secondary, perhaps lessefficient method to disable the hazard using a lower rank. For instance, the bloodthirsty urge haunt (page 100) can be disabled with master Religion, or by a higher DC with expert Diplomacy.

If you need a Stealth modifier for a complex hazard, just subtract 10 from the listed DC.

Table 2–14: Minimum Proficiency

LevelsHighModerate
0 or lowerUntrainedUntrained
1–4Trained (expert for Perception)Trained
5–8ExpertTrained
9–18MasterExpert
19 or higherLegendaryMaster

Defenses

Source GM Core pg. 110
If there's a physical component that a character could break, you'll need to determine the hazard's AC, Fortitude save, and Reflex save, using the extreme, high, and low values (preceded by E, H, or L on the table) as well as its Hardness, HP, and Broken Threshold (BT). When building a purely magical or formless hazard, you can skip this section.

Some hazards, even high-level ones, don't make sense with a high Hardness value. In those cases, you can skip the Hardness and use the HP values from table 2–7: Hit Points on page 63. Especially for complex hazards, you might want to divide the durability over multiple sections, located in different positions, to encourage teamwork and mobility.

Table 2–15: Defenses

LevelEACHACLACE SaveH SaveL SaveHardnessHP*
–1181512+9+8+22–411–13
0191613+10+9+33–515–17
1191613+11+10+45–723–25
2211815+12+11+57–930–34
3221916+14+12+610–1242–46
4242118+15+14+811–1346–50
5252219+17+15+912–1450–54
6272421+18+17+1113–1554–58
7282522+20+18+1214–1658–62
8302724+21+19+1315–1762–66
9312825+23+21+1516–1866–70
10333027+24+22+1617–1970–74
11343128+26+24+1819–2178–82
12363330+27+25+1920–2282–86
13373431+29+26+2021–2386–90
14393633+30+28+2222–2490–94
15403734+32+29+2323–2594–98
16423936+33+30+2525–27101–107
17434037+35+32+2627–29109–115
18454239+36+33+2729–31117–123
19464340+38+35+2931–33125–131
20484542+39+36+3033–35133–139
21494643+41+38+3236–38144–152
22514845+43+39+3339–41156–164
23524946+44+40+3444–46168–176
24545148+46+42+3646–50180–188
* The Broken Threshold is usually half the hazard’s HP.

Offense

Source GM Core pg. 111
Almost all hazards need an attack bonus or a save DC, and hazards that deal damage need to list a damage value. Simple hazards deal about twice as much damage as complex hazards and have a very high attack bonus (abbreviated as S. Atk in the table). Complex hazards usually have more moderate attack bonuses (abbreviated as C. Atk in the table). You can adjust them further using the Attack Bonus table on page 120 if your hazard needs it. Simple hazard DCs aren't as high for their level as their attack bonuses are, since effects with DCs usually have some effect even on a successful saving throw; use the EDC and HDC columns for extreme and hard DCs in the table.

The damage columns on the table give a damage expression you can use, followed by the average damage in parentheses. If you want to make your own damage expression, remember that average damage is 2.5 for a d4, 3.5 for a d6, 4.5 for a d8, 5.5 for a d10, and 6.5 for a d12.

Table 2–16: Offense

LevelS. AtkC. AtkSimple DmgComplex DmgEDCHDC
–1+10+82d4+1 (6)1d4+1 (3)1916
0+11+82d6+3 (10)1d6+2 (5)1916
1+13+92d6+5 (12)1d6+3 (6)2017
2+14+112d10+7 (18)1d10+4 (9)2218
3+16+122d10+13 (24)1d10+6 (12)2320
4+17+144d8+10 (28)2d8+5 (14)2521
5+19+154d8+14 (32)2d8+7 (16)2622
6+20+174d8+18 (36)2d8+9 (18)2724
7+22+184d10+18 (40)2d10+9 (20)2925
8+23+204d10+22 (44)2d10+11 (22)3026
9+25+214d10+26 (48)2d10+13 (24)3228
10+26+234d12+26 (52)2d12+13 (26)3329
11+28+244d12+30 (56)2d12+15 (28)3430
12+29+266d10+27 (60)3d10+14 (30)3632
13+31+276d10+31 (64)3d10+16 (32)3733
14+32+296d10+35 (68)3d10+18 (34)3934
15+34+306d12+33 (72)3d12+17 (36)4036
16+35+326d12+35 (74)3d12+18 (37)4137
17+37+336d12+37 (76)3d12+19 (38)4338
18+38+356d12+41 (80)3d12+20 (40)4440
19+40+368d10+40 (84)4d10+20 (42)4641
20+41+388d10+44 (88)4d10+22 (44)4742
21+43+398d10+48 (92)4d10+24 (46)4844
22+44+418d10+52 (96)4d10+26 (48)5045
23+46+428d12+48 (100)4d12+24 (50)5146
24+47+448d12+52 (104)4d12+26 (52)5248

Designing Simple Hazards

Source GM Core pg. 111
When designing a simple hazard, make sure to select an appropriate trigger and effect. Often, a simple hazard that merely damages its target is little more than a speed bump that slows down the game without much added value, so think about the purpose of your hazard carefully, both in the story and in the game world, especially when it’s a hazard that a creature intentionally built or placed in that location. A great simple hazard does something interesting, has a longer-lasting consequence, or integrates with the nearby inhabitants or even the encounters in some way (you can find more information on integrating hazards with encounters on page 78).

Designing Complex Hazards

Source GM Core pg. 111
Unlike a simple hazard, a complex hazard can play the part of a creature in a battle, or can be an encounter all its own. Many of the concerns with damaging effects when designing a simple hazard don't apply when designing a complex hazard. A complex hazard can apply its damage over and over again, eventually killing its hapless victim, and isn't intended to be a quick-to-overcome obstacle.

A good complex hazard often requires disabling multiple components or otherwise interacting with the encounter in some way. For instance, while the poisoned dart gallery (page 107) requires only one Thievery check to disable, the control panel is on the far end of the gallery, so a PC would need to make their way across first.

Building Routines

Source GM Core pg. 111
A complex hazard has a routine each round, whether it stems from preprogrammed instructions built into a trap, instincts and residual emotions swirling around a complex haunt, or a force of nature like sinking in quicksand. Make sure to build a routine that makes sense for the hazard; an environmental lava chute that ejects lava into the area each round shouldn't be able to seek out and precisely target only the PCs, but it might spatter random areas within range or everything within range, depending on how you describe the hazard. However, a complex haunt might be able to recognize life force and target living creatures.

If you create a hazard that can't consistently attack the PCs (like the blade pillar, which moves in a random direction), you can make it deadlier than normal in other ways.

The hazard should have as many actions as you feel it needs to perform its routine. If you split the routine out into several actions, you can also remove some of the hazard's actions once partial progress is made in disabling or destroying it; this can give the PCs a feeling of progress, and it can encourage them to handle the hazard if it appears in an encounter alongside creatures.

Building Creatures

Source GM Core pg. 112
Making your own creatures fleshes out your game world and lets you introduce concepts not yet available in published products like Monster Core and similar volumes. These guidelines help you customize creatures to your specifications and explore your imagination. From strange beasts to canny political rivals, you have the power to design creatures that fit the narrative needs of your story.

Creatures aren't built the same way PCs are. The rules for building them are more flexible, and their statistics are based on benchmark final numbers rather than combining each individual modifier together. This is called top-down design, in which you consider the design process as a whole and select the details that reflect your intended result, rather than building statistics from the bottom up and hoping the finished creature matches your vision. This guide provides a step-by-step process to build creatures, but as you get more comfortable with creature creation, you may prefer to use different methods. You could start with one ability you think is cool, or you might look to create a spellcaster of a certain type. There's no wrong starting place or wrong way to compile and present your creation; some GMs prefer to generate a stat block that is as similar to an official Monster Core entry as possible, while others prefer just a brief set of notes.

Develop the Concept

Source GM Core pg. 112
To begin, come up with the creature's concept. You likely already have the basic idea. As you add details to the general idea, taking notes can help keep your creature on track. Consider the parts of your creature you find most compelling and want to emphasize when the creature hits the table. For example, in Monster Core, demons are creatures of sin and are designed to have weaknesses against specific virtues that oppose them. Satyrs enchant creatures by playing their pipes, represented by their centerpiece ability, Play the Pipes. Note your creature's core aspects, and if you feel uncertain later, you can look back and ask yourself, “Does this emphasize a core aspect or not?”

Next, look at the creature's role in your game. Is it meant to be a combatant? A social creature? A trusted ally? Figuring this out will help you determine whether to give it strong combat abilities or to focus on skills, spells, and special abilities. Think about how the creature might behave if it's in a fight, if someone tries to talk to it, or if it's in a social situation. Does it work better alone or with allies? What sort of character should be best at facing it or be particularly weak against it?

Also consider the complexity of the creature. This matters most when you plan to use a large number of creatures of that type. If you'll use five at the same time, you'll want their turns to move swiftly and avoid complex special actions. A creature that is likely to face a group of PCs alone can have more abilities, and it might need a more versatile set of defenses against PC tactics. Cut complexity as much as you can while retaining your desired theme.

Now, how do you want an encounter with this creature to feel? Should it be scary? Mobile? Confusing? A mystical duel or a knock-down, drag-out fight? What can you give your creature to convey those characteristics? Much of this feel will come from your choice of the creature's special abilities or spells, rather than its raw numbers.

With all this in mind, think about what specific abilities your creature should have. Take a few notes now, and get to the details later. You can use abilities from Monster Core or feats in Player Core, adjusting as needed, to save yourself time. It helps to think of a creature that's similar to yours and see what makes it tick—and what you can steal from it. Maybe you can just reskin that creature (page 114), instead of making a new one from scratch.

Now that you understand your creature's concept, it's time to get to the statistics. Remember that you can always change your concept later on. Your creation might evolve and transform as you go, so be open to change.

Understanding Statistics

Source GM Core pg. 113
Most of the statistics in this section use a scale of extreme, high, moderate, and low—some use terrible values as well.

Extreme: The creature is world-class in this statistic and can challenge almost any character. Most creatures have no extreme statistics or only one extreme statistic, although some creatures might have additional extreme statistics and weaker related statistics elsewhere (a common example being a creature trading accuracy for extreme damage). Examples from Monster Core include the succubus's Diplomacy modifier and the lich's spell DC.

High: Extremely capable but not world-class, the creature presents a challenge for most characters. Just about all creatures have at least one high value. Most combat-focused creatures have high AC and either a high attack bonus and high damage, or a merely moderate attack bonus but extreme damage. An ogre warrior's attack bonus and a kobold scout's Stealth are high values.

Moderate: A middle-of-the road statistic covers anything unremarkable about the creature. Use this one often.

Low: The creature is actively bad at this. Choose these intentionally to represent the creature's weak points. Most creatures should have at least one low statistic; an example is the goblin pyro's Will save.

Terrible: Some statistics can dip even lower than low, to terrible. This indicates a truly awful statistic that still isn't game-breakingly bad. A spider's Intelligence is terrible, as is an ogre's Will save.

Push and Pull

Source GM Core pg. 113
Statistics should be balanced overall. That means if you’re giving a creature an extreme statistic, it should have some low or terrible statistics to compensate. For example, if you were making a creature extremely hard to hit by giving it an extreme AC, you’d likely give it lower saving throws or low HP. If a creature is great at spellcasting, it might need several low statistics to be a balanced challenge. There’s no perfect system for making these decisions. If you’ve made a creature that has four high stats and nothing low, or vice-versa, take another look. A creature’s strengths and weaknesses change the PCs’ strategies for dealing with it, and that’s what makes playing the game fun!

Extreme Increases

Source GM Core pg. 113
At the higher levels of the game, PCs have more tools at their disposal, so the creatures they face need to hit back harder! At higher levels, give each creature more extreme statistics. Having one extreme statistic becomes typical around 11th level. A creature of 15th level or higher typically has two extreme statistics, and one of 20th level or higher should have three or four. Keep in mind that these should be relevant to the encounters you expect them to have—extreme social skills aren’t much use to a combat-focused creature. Be careful about giving multiple extreme statistics that are closely linked: a creature with extreme damage and Fortitude saves is one thing, but having an extreme attack bonus and extreme damage allows the creature to apply both extreme statistics to each attack.

Level

Source GM Core pg. 114
For most creatures you build, their level depends on the level of the party that will encounter it. Look at other creatures you think are similar in power to yours to determine its level. Note that level represents a creature's combat ability, so a creature that's more social might have 3rd-level combat statistics and 6th-level skills, but it would remain a 3rd-level creature. Most such creatures are NPCs; for more information on this distinction and how to use it, see Non-Combat Level on page 128.

Some abilities are hard for PCs to deal with at low levels. For instance, creatures that can fly and have ranged attacks should typically appear around 7th level, when PCs gain access to flight. Natural invisibility or at-will invisibility as an innate spell should come at around 6th level, when PCs are more likely to prepare see the unseen in lower-rank spell slots, or 8th level, when some PCs get the Blind-Fight feat.

The tables in this chapter go up to 24th level—the highest-level extreme encounter a party might face.

Size and Traits

Source GM Core pg. 114
Fill out the trait line of your creature's stat block. Creatures can be whatever size you need them to be, though you seldom find Large creatures below 1st level, Huge creatures below 5th level, or Gargantuan creatures below 10th level. Generally, you don't automatically adjust statistics for size, except to Strength modifiers for Large and bigger creatures, which you'll find in the following Attribute Modifiers section.

Your creature will almost certainly have one of the following traits to define its type: aberration, animal, astral, beast, celestial, construct, dragon, elemental, ethereal, fey, fiend, fungus, giant, humanoid, monitor, ooze, plant, or undead. If you're making a creature from an existing category of a type, such as demon, it also has that category as a trait. Creatures with a close affinity to elements—air, earth, fire, metal, water and wood—or types of energy—like acid, cold, and electricity—have those traits.

Some abilities that are typical of creatures with the traits listed here can be found in Trait Abilities on page 126. As with the other steps, looking at similar creatures will give you an idea of what traits to use.

Add any traits that have detailed rules attached to them, like amphibious, aquatic, incorporeal, mindless, and swarm. You can add traits related to the creature category, such as dinosaur or werecreature, but most of these traits are pretty self-evident in play. If at any point you realize during play that you didn't add a trait the creature really should have, you can usually apply it retroactively.

Attribute Modifiers

Source GM Core pg. 114
Next, figure out your creature's attribute modifiers, since these will suggest what their other statistics should be. You don't have to determine the exact numbers, but it's good to avoid creating creatures whose attribute modifiers are at odds with their abilities, like creatures with a terrible Wisdom modifier and a very high Perception. Most of the time, you'll just be using attribute modifiers for untrained skills, so they're useful as a guide but not crucial.

The Attribute Modifier Scales table shows some benchmarks for your creatures. Use high for the creature's best attribute modifiers, moderate for ones they're okay at, and low for the rest. If a creature has a truly bad ability, you can go as low as –5. That's the terrible range for attribute modifiers, and doesn't really change by level. This is most common with animals, which have an Intelligence modifier of –4 (for dogs, dolphins, and such) or –5 (for more instinctual animals like spiders), and for mindless creatures, which have a –5 Intelligence modifier.

Few creatures use the extreme column. A powerful, dedicated spellcaster might use an extreme spellcasting statistic, or a preternaturally charming creature like a succubus or nymph might have an extreme Charisma modifier. However, the most common way extreme numbers are used is for really big, really strong creatures. This happens with only Large or bigger creatures from 1st to 5th level, Huge or larger creatures from 6th to 9th level, and Gargantuan creatures from 10th to 15th level. Beyond that level, a creature doesn't gain an extreme Strength modifier from size alone.

Table 2–1: Ability Modifier Scales

LevelExtremeHighModerateLow
–1+3+2+0
0+3+2+0
1+5+4+3+1
2+5+4+3+1
3+5+4+3+1
4+6+5+3+2
5+6+5+4+2
6+7+5+4+2
7+7+6+4+2
8+7+6+4+3
9+7+6+4+3
10+8+7+5+3
11+8+7+5+3
12+8+7+5+4
13+9+8+5+4
14+9+8+5+4
15+9+8+6+4
16+10+9+6+5
17+10+9+6+5
18+10+9+6+5
19+11+10+6+5
20+11+10+7+6
21+11+10+7+6
22+11+10+8+6
23+11+10+8+6
24+13+12+9+7

Perception

Source GM Core pg. 115
Perception is a fairly straightforward statistic. Use Wisdom as a guide for setting it, and adjust to the high side if your creature has acute senses or extra training. If your creature has low Wisdom, for example, it would probably have a low Perception modifier, or moderate if it’s supposed to be a great hunter. Don’t make your creature’s Perception higher just because it’s often used for initiative; creatures with poor Perception could use a skill check for initiative instead, such as Stealth.

Table 2–2: Perception

LevelExtremeHighModerateLowTerrible
–1+9+8+5+2+0
0+10+9+6+3+1
1+11+10+7+4+2
2+12+11+8+5+3
3+14+12+9+6+4
4+15+14+11+8+6
5+17+15+12+9+7
6+18+17+14+11+8
7+20+18+15+12+10
8+21+19+16+13+11
9+23+21+18+15+12
10+24+22+19+16+14
11+26+24+21+18+15
12+27+25+22+19+16
13+29+26+23+20+18
14+30+28+25+22+19
15+32+29+26+23+20
16+33+30+28+25+22
17+35+32+29+26+23
18+36+33+30+27+24
19+38+35+32+29+26
20+39+36+33+30+27
21+41+38+35+32+28
22+43+39+36+33+30
23+44+40+37+34+31
24+46+42+38+36+32

Senses

Source GM Core pg. 115
Choose or design any special senses for your creature, such as low-light vision, darkvision, or scent. If you’re making a sense from scratch, simply decide what it senses, whether it has a range limit, and whether it’s precise or imprecise. For example, a sinspawn has “sin scent (imprecise) 30 feet.” This means it can smell creatures bearing its associated sin if they’re within 30 feet, and the sense is imprecise—about as acute as human hearing.

Languages

Source GM Core pg. 116
Think about what languages the creature would need to communicate with other creatures in its home. For instance, many intelligent undead speak Necril, and many creatures from the Darklands speak Sakvroth. If you want your creature to be able to speak to the PCs, be sure it has Common; for a creature with no reason to speak the common tongue of your setting (such as most extraplanar creatures in a typical campaign), be sure it doesn’t. Some creatures can understand language but can’t vocalize; in this case, you can state that they can’t speak any language. For creatures that need to be able to infiltrate and communicate wherever they go, you might give them truespeech or a similar ability as a constant innate spell.

Skills

Source GM Core pg. 116
You have lots of flexibility in setting your creature's skills. Pick some skills you think are appropriate, and consider how good the creature is at them. High skills are roughly on par with a specialized PC of the creature's level, though they could be a little lower or higher. Most creatures have at least one high skill, but no more than three. The best skills should go with the best attribute modifiers, and you might even want to estimate the creature's proficiency rank for these skills. Some skills can get a high bonus for free to fit the creature's theme, particularly Lore skills.

Most creatures don't have an extreme skill unless they are world-class for their level, like a succubus's Diplomacy. Having an extreme skill is less impactful than having an extreme AC or attack bonus, but it still might warrant a sacrifice elsewhere, especially if the creature also has more high skills than usual. There's no need for terrible skill modifiers, since an untrained skill usually represents that.

Table 2–3: Skills

LevelExtremeHighModerateLow
–1+8+5+4+2 to +1
0+9+6+5+3 to +2
1+10+7+6+4 to +3
2+11+8+7+5 to +4
3+13+10+9+7 to +5
4+15+12+10+8 to +7
5+16+13+12+10 to +8
6+18+15+13+11 to +9
7+20+17+15+13 to +11
8+21+18+16+14 to +12
9+23+20+18+16 to +13
10+25+22+19+17 to +15
11+26+23+21+19 to +16
12+28+25+22+20 to +17
13+30+27+24+22 to +19
14+31+28+25+23 to +20
15+33+30+27+25 to +21
16+35+32+28+26 to +23
17+36+33+30+28 to +24
18+38+35+31+29 to +25
19+40+37+33+31 to +27
20+41+38+34+32 to +28
21+43+40+36+34 to +29
22+45+42+37+35 to +31
23+46+43+38+36 to +32
24+48+45+40+38 to +33

Special Modifiers

Source GM Core pg. 116
You can also add special, thematic modifiers for certain skill uses. For instance, you might give a creature that secretes adhesive “Athletics +7 (+9 to Climb or Grab).” This special bonus should still remain at or below the extreme number, especially if it has a combat purpose like the Grab bonus above.

Items

Source GM Core pg. 116
If you gave a creature gear equivalent to a PC, your PCs would gain a huge amount of treasure by defeating a large group of them. Using the Safe Items table can help you avoid that. A creature can have a single permanent item of the listed level without issue. For example, if a 6th-level creature has a +1 weapon, that item's not worth enough that the PCs would be massively rich if they encountered many creatures of that type and sold everything they found. You can give a creature several lower-level items too. Just pay attention to your overall treasure as measured against the Safe Item table below. At the lowest levels, a creature can certainly have multiple level 0 items, even though normally a creature should have only one item of the level listed in the Safe Item Level column.

Specific creatures or NPCs have more leeway to break these guidelines because you can plan the rest of your adventure's loot around them. Also, giving a boss a powerful magic item makes the fight and its aftermath more interesting.

Table 2–4: Safe Items

Creature LevelSafe Item Level
3 or lower0
4–51
62 (+1 weapon)
73
84 (+1 striking weapon)
95 (+1 armor)
106
117
128 (+1 resilient armor)
139
1410 (+2 striking weapon)
1511 (+2 resilient armor)
1612 (+2 greater striking weapon)
1713
1814 (+2 greater resilient armor)
1915
2016 (+3 greater striking weapon)
2117
2218 (+3 greater resilient armor)
2319 (+3 major striking weapon)
2420 (+3 major resilient armor)

Defenses

Source GM Core pg. 117
Consider adjusting your creature’s HP, AC, and saves in tandem based on its theme. Almost no creature has great defenses in all areas, and such creatures often result in frustrating fights. A creature with extreme AC might mean reducing its HP to the next lowest category, or reducing its HP by a smaller amount and making another reduction elsewhere. On the other hand, a creature that’s easy to hit could have more HP and a strong Fortitude save to compensate.

Armor Class

Source GM Core pg. 117
Because AC is one of the most important combat stats, you need to be more careful when setting this number for any creature you expect to end up in a fight. Low AC typically fits spellcasters, who compensate with their selection of powerful spells. Most creatures use high or moderate AC—high is comparable to what a PC fighter would have. Reserve extreme AC for a creature that is even better defended; these values are for creatures that have defenses similar in power to those of a champion or monk.

Table 2–5: Armor Class

LevelExtremeHighModerateLow
–118151412
019161513
119161513
221181715
322191816
424212018
525222119
627242321
728252422
830272624
931282725
1033302927
1134313028
1236333230
1337343331
1439363533
1540373634
1642393836
1743403937
1845424139
1946434240
2048454442
2149464543
2251484745
2352494846
2454515048

Saving Throws

Source GM Core pg. 118
You can often set saves quickly by assigning one high, one moderate, and one low modifier. Some creatures might vary from this, either because they have poor AC but better saves or because they should thematically have multiple good saves and compensate elsewhere. You have more flexibility with saves, and having one save be 1 more or 1 less than the listed number is rarely a big deal. Pay attention to the creature's Con, Dex, and Wis modifiers—these don't have to correspond to the creature's saves exactly, but should inform your choices.

Extreme saves often pair with extreme or high attribute modifiers. Almost no creature should have more than one extreme save, even at high levels. Assign terrible saves to creatures that have a clear weak point—for example, a nearly immobile creature would have a terrible Reflex save.

Table 2–6: Saving Throws

LevelExtremeHighModerateLowTerrible
–1+9+8+5+2+0
0+10+9+6+3+1
1+11+10+7+4+2
2+12+11+8+5+3
3+14+12+9+6+4
4+15+14+11+8+6
5+17+15+12+9+7
6+18+17+14+11+8
7+20+18+15+12+10
8+21+19+16+13+11
9+23+21+18+15+12
10+24+22+19+16+14
11+26+24+21+18+15
12+27+25+22+19+16
13+29+26+23+20+18
14+30+28+25+22+19
15+32+29+26+23+20
16+33+30+28+25+22
17+35+32+29+26+23
18+36+33+30+27+24
19+38+35+32+29+26
20+39+36+33+30+27
21+41+38+35+32+28
22+43+39+36+33+30
23+44+40+37+34+31
24+46+42+38+36+32

Hit Points

Source GM Core pg. 118
Give a creature HP in the moderate range unless its theme strongly suggests it should use another range. Spellcasters, for example, often have low HP. Brutish creatures usually have high HP, compensating with lower AC, weaker saves, fewer tactical options, or other limitations. As mentioned in the Defenses section above, you don't want a creature with extreme AC to have high HP too.

Hit Points are closely tied in with immunities, weaknesses, and resistances, so if your creature has any of those, look at that section before finalizing HP (page 119).

Table 2–7: Hit Points

LevelHighModerateLow
–198–76–5
020–1716–1413–11
126–2421–1916–14
240–3632–2825–21
359–5348–4237–31
478–7263–5748–42
597–9178–7259–53
6123–11599–9175–67
7148–140119–11190–82
8173–165139–131105–97
9198–190159–151120–112
10223–215179–171135–127
11248–240199–191150–142
12273–265219–211165–157
13298–290239–231180–172
14323–315259–251195–187
15348–340279–271210–202
16373–365299–291225–217
17398–390319–311240–232
18423–415339–331255–247
19448–440359–351270–262
20473–465379–371285–277
21505–495405–395305–295
22544–532436–424329–317
23581–569466–454351–339
24633–617508–492383–367

Regeneration and Healing Abilities

Source GM Core pg. 118
Your creature might have regeneration, fast healing, or some other ability to heal itself. These healing abilities can greatly affect the flow of a fight. Regeneration or fast healing heals a number of hits each round—usually one to one and a half hits. To determine the number of Hit Points it should restore, look at the high damage value on the Strike Damage table (page 120) and multiply that value by the number of hits healed. For instance, if the high damage is 20, regeneration between 20 to 30 makes sense. The value should be higher if the regeneration is easy to overcome—and remember that most regeneration gets easier to overcome at higher levels. Also, you might want to decrease the creature's total HP by double its regeneration value. Fast healing follows the same rules, but because it can't prevent a creature's death and there isn't always a way to deactivate it, you might want to give the creature more HP instead of fast healing to keep things simple.

If a creature can use an ability that heals it, that ability typically restores more HP since it costs actions. An at-will healing ability should be based on a heal spell 2 ranks lower than the highest-rank spell a creature of that level could ordinarily cast (for example, an 11th-level creature can typically cast up to 6th-rank spells, so you would base its healing ability on a 4th-rank heal spell). If the ability both deals damage and heals, use that same baseline scale from above but with vampiric feast instead of heal.

Immunities, Weaknesses, and Resistances

Source GM Core pg. 119
If it's highly thematic for a creature to have an immunity, weakness, or resistance, consider adding it. The Resistances and Weaknesses table lists the ranges for weaknesses and resistances by level.

Immunities are generally reserved for creatures made of an unusual substance (like a fire elemental being immune to fire). You can also give an immunity if a creature's biology or construction would logically cause it to be unaffected (like a mindless creature's immunity to mental effects).

If the creature should be hard to affect with something but the conditions above aren't true, give it a resistance instead. For instance, a giant octopus isn't actually made of cold water, so it wouldn't be immune to cold, but its life in the ocean depths makes it resistant to cold. You'll typically use the lower end of the value on the Resistances and Weaknesses table for a broad resistance that applies to a wide range of effects, like “physical 5 (except silver)” and the higher end for something narrower, like a single damage type. A creature with a resistance, especially a broad resistance or a physical resistance, usually has fewer HP.

Giving your creature a weakness adds flavor to it and greatly rewards effective player tactics once your players identify the weakness. The weakness should apply to one damage type or phenomenon and use the high end of the scale. Creatures typically have at most one weakness. If a creature has a weakness, especially to something common, give it additional HP. The amount of additional HP might depend on how tough the creature should feel if the PCs don't exploit its weakness; a tough creature might have additional HP equal to quadruple the weakness value. A creature with a hard-to-exploit weakness might have additional HP equal to the weakness value or less.

Table 2–8: Resistances and Weaknesses

LevelMaximumMinimum
–111
031
132
252
363
474
584
695
7105
8116
9126
10137
11147
12158
13168
14179
15189
16199
171910
182010
192111
202211
212312
222412
232513
242613

The combination of more HP and a weakness has a different feel from standard HP with resistances. If the creature being an impervious tank really fits its theme, use a resistance with an exception, such as “physical 5 (except silver).” If, however, it makes more sense for normal hits to get through and the creature to simply have great staying power, use more HP and a weakness. Skeletons and zombies are a good example of the difference between these styles. Skeletons have resistances because they're bony and hard to hurt. Zombies, on the other hand, have more HP and a weakness to slashing damage—they're tougher, but their bodies aren't built to deflect weapon attacks, and slashing attacks can rip them up quickly

Speed

Source GM Core pg. 119
Your creature's Speed should be 25 feet if it moves like a human. Beyond that, you can set the Speed to whatever makes sense. Remember that the creature can move up to triple this number if it spends its whole turn moving, so if you want the PCs to be able to chase the creature, its Speed can be only so high. Creatures at higher levels need ways to deal with flying PCs, speedy PCs, and PCs with more efficient actions that let them engage and retreat more easily. This might mean adding a fly Speed, giving the creature ranged attacks, and so forth.

Creatures can have climb and swim Speeds even at low levels. While you can give your creature a fly Speed at those low levels, it's better to wait until around 7th level (when PCs gain access to fly) to give your creature a fly Speed if it also has ranged attacks or another way to harry the PCs from a distance indefinitely.

Strikes

Source GM Core pg. 119
When building your creature's selection of Strikes, use the following sections to set the Strike's attack bonus and damage. Give the attack all the normal traits if it's a weapon; for unarmed attacks or weapons you invent, give whatever traits you feel are appropriate. Note that these traits might influence the damage you give the Strike.

You might want to make sure a creature has an unarmed attack if you think it's likely to get disarmed. At 7th level and higher, PCs might have the ability to fly, which makes it more important for creatures to have decent ranged Strikes to ensure they aren't totally hopeless against flying PCs (though they could instead have fast fly Speeds or something similar).

Strike Attack Bonus

Source GM Core pg. 120
Use a high attack bonus for physically combative creatures—fighter types—that also usually have high damage. A creature could have a higher attack bonus and lower damage, or vice versa (for instance, a moderate attack bonus and extreme damage might fit a creature that's more like a barbarian), instead of having a poor statistic in another category. Spellcasters typically have poor attack bonuses, potentially in exchange for extreme spell DCs.

Table 2–9: Strike Attack Bonus

LevelExtremeHighModerateLow
–1+10+8+6+4
0+10+8+6+4
1+11+9+7+5
2+13+11+9+7
3+14+12+10+8
4+16+14+12+9
5+17+15+13+11
6+19+17+15+12
7+20+18+16+13
8+22+20+18+15
9+23+21+19+16
10+25+23+21+17
11+27+24+22+19
12+28+26+24+20
13+29+27+25+21
14+31+29+27+23
15+32+30+28+24
16+34+32+30+25
17+35+33+31+27
18+37+35+33+28
19+38+36+34+29
20+40+38+36+31
21+41+39+37+32
22+43+41+39+33
23+44+42+40+35
24+46+44+42+36

Strike Damage

Source GM Core pg. 120
The Strike Damage table gives the damage a creature should deal with a single Strike. You might use a lower category if the creature has better accuracy, or a higher category if its accuracy is lower.

A creature that's meant to be primarily a melee threat uses high damage for its melee Strikes, or moderate for melee Strikes that have the agile trait. Ranged attacks more typically use the moderate value, or even low. A creature that's meant to be highly damaging uses the extreme damage values, but might then have a moderate attack bonus. As with most statistics, extreme damage is more likely at higher levels. You can also use the extreme value for special attacks that the creature can use only a limited number of times or under circumstances that aren't likely to happen every round.

More versatile creatures, such as ones that can cast some spells and aren't meant to primarily get their damage through Strikes, go one category lower: moderate for their main melee Strikes, low for agile and ranged Strikes. Spellcasters and other creatures that aren't meant to be competent in a direct fight might use the low damage value, or even less if they completely don't care about their Strikes.

The Strike Damage table entries include a damage expression (a die roll or rolls plus a flat modifier) you can use as is, or you can take the damage in parentheses and build your own damage expression to hit that number. If you do the latter, remember that a d4 counts as 2.5 damage, a d6 as 3.5, a d8 as 4.5, a d10 as 5.5, and a d12 as 6.5. Usually, a damage expression works best when roughly half the damage is from dice and half is from the flat modifier. If your creature deals special damage, like 1d6 fire from flaming attacks, that counts toward its total damage per Strike. Keep in mind that a creature using a weapon should have a damage value that feels right for that weapon. Extreme damage works well for two-handed weapons that use d10s or d12s for damage. On the other hand, a dagger uses only d4s, so a dagger wielder would need something like sneak attack to deal extreme damage, or you might compensate for the dagger's lower damage per Strike by giving the creature the ability to attack more efficiently or use other tricks.

Table 2–10: Strike Damage

LevelExtremeHighModerateLow
–11d6+1 (4)1d4+1 (3)1d4 (3)1d4 (2)
01d6+3 (6)1d6+2 (5)1d4+2 (4)1d4+1 (3)
11d8+4 (8)1d6+3 (6)1d6+2 (5)1d4+2 (4)
21d12+4 (11)1d10+4 (9)1d8+4 (8)1d6+3 (6)
31d12+8 (15)1d10+6 (12)1d8+6 (10)1d6+5 (8)
42d10+7 (18)2d8+5 (14)2d6+5 (12)2d4+4 (9)
52d12+7 (20)2d8+7 (16)2d6+6 (13)2d4+6 (11)
62d12+10 (23)2d8+9 (18)2d6+8 (15)2d4+7 (12)
72d12+12 (25)2d10+9 (20)2d8+8 (17)2d6+6 (13)
82d12+15 (28)2d10+11 (22)2d8+9 (18)2d6+8 (15)
92d12+17 (30)2d10+13 (24)2d8+11 (20)2d6+9 (16)
102d12+20 (33)2d12+13 (26)2d10+11 (22)2d6+10 (17)
112d12+22 (35)2d12+15 (28)2d10+12 (23)2d8+10 (19)
123d12+19 (38)3d10+14 (30)3d8+12 (25)3d6+10 (20)
133d12+21 (40)3d10+16 (32)3d8+14 (27)3d6+11 (21)
143d12+24 (43)3d10+18 (34)3d8+15 (28)3d6+13 (23)
153d12+26 (45)3d12+17 (36)3d10+14 (30)3d6+14 (24)
163d12+29 (48)3d12+18 (37)3d10+15 (31)3d6+15 (25)
173d12+31 (50)3d12+19 (38)3d10+16 (32)3d6+16 (26)
183d12+34 (53)3d12+20 (40)3d10+17 (33)3d6+17 (27)
194d12+29 (55)4d10+20 (42)4d8+17 (35)4d6+14 (28)
204d12+32 (58)4d10+22 (44)4d8+19 (37)4d6+15 (29)
214d12+34 (60)4d10+24 (46)4d8+20 (38)4d6+17 (31)
224d12+37 (63)4d10+26 (48)4d8+22 (40)4d6+18 (32)
234d12+39 (65)4d12+24 (50)4d10+20 (42)4d6+19 (33)
244d12+42 (68)4d12+26 (52)4d10+22 (44)4d6+21 (35)

Spells

Source GM Core pg. 121
Your creature might have magical abilities that are best represented by spells. If you're making a highly spellcasting-themed creature, give it prepared or spontaneous spells. For a creature that has spells due to its magical nature, especially if that magic isn't its core focus, consider giving it some innate spells instead. How many spells you should give a creature depends on how you expect it to spend its actions in combat. If it's primarily going to be making Strikes, it might not have any spells, or it might just have a few to help it move around better or protect against certain types of magic.

When choosing spells, lean hard into the creature's theme. While many PCs choose spells to cover a wide variety of situations, creatures are more evocative the more focused they are. Consider selecting about three-quarters of the spells based on relevance to the theme and the remainder for other things. However, make sure the spells aren't all the same—selecting fireball for most of a creature's spell slots doesn't make for a compelling fire creature in the way a diverse selection of fire spells would.

When choosing spells, some won't be very useful if cast at an extremely low rank compared to the creature's level. Most notably, damaging spells drop off in usefulness for a creature that's expected to last only a single fight. A damaging spell 2 ranks below the highest rank a creature of that level can cast is still potentially useful, but beyond that, don't bother. Spells that have the incapacitation trait should be in the highest spell slot if you want the creature to potentially get their full effect against PCs.

Spell DC and Spell Attack Modifier

Source GM Core pg. 122
Set the creature's spell DC and spell attack modifier using the Spell DC and Spell Attack Modifier table on page 121. Most creatures use the same DC for all their spells, even if they have multiple types, such as a creature with both prepared spells and innate spells.

Use the high numbers for primary casters, and the moderate numbers for creatures that have some supplemental spells but are focused more on combat. At 15th level and higher, the extreme numbers become standard for spellcasters. A few creatures might use the extreme numbers at lower levels, but they tend to be highly specialized, with very weak defenses and Strikes. Secondary spellcasters can go up to high numbers if they're above 15th level and have offensive spells. There is no low value—the creature shouldn't have any spells in the first place if it would be that bad at using them!

Table 2–11: Spell DC and Spell Attack Bonus

LevelExtreme DCExtreme Spell Attack BonusHigh DCHigh Spell Attack BonusModerate DCModerate Spell Attack Bonus
–119+1116+813+5
019+1116+813+5
120+1217+914+6
222+1418+1015+7
323+1520+1217+9
425+1721+1318+10
526+1822+1419+11
627+1924+1621+13
729+2125+1722+14
830+2226+1823+15
932+2428+2025+17
1033+2529+2126+18
1134+2630+2227+19
1236+2832+2429+21
1337+2933+2530+22
1439+3134+2631+23
1540+3236+2833+25
1641+3337+2934+26
1743+3538+3035+27
1844+3640+3237+29
1946+3841+3338+30
2047+3942+3439+31
2148+4044+3641+33
2250+4245+3742+34
2351+4346+3843+35
2452+4448+4045+37

Prepared and Spontaneous Spells

Source GM Core pg. 122
Spell slots work best for creatures that are meant to play like PC spellcasters. Choose the magical tradition best suited to the creature. You aren't strictly limited to that tradition's spell list, though sticking close to it will make your creature's connection to that tradition more clear. The decision to use prepared or spontaneous spellcasting should align with the creature's theme: a spontaneous spellcaster fits well as a one-off creature, since spontaneous spellcasting grants greater flexibility in the middle of battle, while a prepared spellcaster makes for a great recurring character who can change their spells between appearances.

For a creature that can cast as many spells as a PC spellcaster, the highest spell rank the creature can cast is half its level rounded up. It gets five cantrips. If the creature's level is odd, it gets two spell slots of the highest spell rank (plus three spell slots of each lower rank), or three spell slots of that rank (plus four spell slots of each lower level). If its level is even, it gets three spell slots of the highest spell rank (plus three spell slots of each lower rank), or four spell slots of that rank (plus four spell slots of each lower rank). You can base the number of spells on the class you are trying to emulate or choose more spells if the creature doesn't have many other abilities.

Because creatures tend to be “on stage” for only a short time, you usually don't need to fill every spell slot. You can often fill just the top three ranks of spells, pick cantrips, and slot in a few thematic backup spells in the fourth rank down. For a recurring foe, you might give it a full complement of spells.

Innate Spells

Source GM Core pg. 122
Unlike prepared and spontaneous spells, innate spells can be of higher rank than half the creature's level rounded up, and you can choose how often they're used—they can even be used at will or be constant effects. The most notable innate spells tend to be top-rank ones that make a big impact but can be used only once, at-will spells that strongly reinforce the creature's theme, and constant spells that give it an ongoing benefit. A spell that's usable a limited number of times and has a lower rank than the creature's highest rank is typically less likely to come up in combat; however, that's a great spot for utility and recovery spells, such as dispel magic or sound body.

Sometimes a strongly thematic innate spell is of a higher rank than the creature would normally be able to cast, but it's so fitting that it belongs there. Be careful when doing this, as PCs might not have access to the appropriate countermeasures for the spell. This option works best for support, action denial, or battlefield control spells that change the odds of a fight without outright killing anyone, such as the succubus's dominate spell. These should make the fight more interesting, not end it. Keep the number of such spells very low, typically just one.

Though you can achieve all sorts of things with innate spells, always start with the theme and an idea of how you want the creature to spend its actions. And though you could give the creature a tool to counter every kind of PC attack or trick, remember that the players chose those options to enjoy using them, rather than to be constantly foiled by an effectively invincible creature.

Rituals

Source GM Core pg. 123
Since rituals happen during downtime, giving them to a creature is usually a purely thematic choice. You can skip even looking at rituals in most cases. If you decide a creature needs to have a ritual for your story, add in the ritual whenever you need it.

Design Abilities

Source GM Core pg. 123
In this step, you'll take the ideas for abilities you noted when you developed your concept and design these abilities for your creature. You can look at existing creature abilities from Monster Core and feats from Player Core and use them as is or modify them to fit your needs.

When choosing abilities, think about both the number of abilities and the diversity of abilities. Having a large number of similar abilities can make the creature tougher to run, and it probably can't use them all anyway. A diversity of abilities gives the creature different ways to act in different situations, and helps guide you as the GM. For instance, a combat creature might have one ability it uses to get into position, another to use when it wants to focus damage on a single enemy, and a third that's more defensive.

Basics of Ability Design

Source GM Core pg. 123
There are a few principles of ability construction that you'll want to keep in mind. Some guidance for specific types of abilities will come later, but these apply to everything.
  • Respect the action economy.
  • Make sure abilities are level appropriate.
  • Avoid “invisible” abilities.

Action Economy

Source GM Core pg. 123
Understanding a creature's action economy is key to making it work in play. Remember how short the lifespan of a typical combat creature is. Including a bunch of combat abilities might mean you spend time building actions the creature will never have time to use. Narrow your selections down to the smallest and most compelling set that makes sense. Also keep in mind that special actions will compete for time with any combat spells you give the creature.

Reactions can help, giving the creature a way to act when it's not its turn. See Reactive Abilities on page 125 for advice on designing these tricky abilities.

Because of PC capabilities at higher levels, creatures at those levels should get more abilities that improve their action economy. For instance, creatures that grapple should have Improved Grab instead of Grab, Speeds should be higher, and many abilities that would have cost an action at a lower level should be free actions.

Level Appropriateness

Source GM Core pg. 123
The effects of an ability should be appropriate to the creature’s level. For damaging abilities, that means they follow the damage guidelines on page 124. For others, take a look at spells and feats with a similar effect to see if they’re level appropriate. For instance, say you’re considering giving a 6th-level creature the ability to teleport a short distance. Translocate is comparable—that’s a 4th-rank spell, normally cast by a 7th-level or higher creature. That means 6th level probably isn’t too low, but the creature shouldn’t be able to use the ability more than once. You can also compare your creature to those in a Monster Core volume to see if the special abilities seem similar in power to those of other creatures of the same level.

Invisible Abilities

Source GM Core pg. 123
Avoid abilities that do nothing but change the creature’s math, also known as “invisible abilities.” These alter a creature’s statistics in a way that’s invisible to the players, which makes the creature less engaging because the players don’t see it using its abilities in a tangible or evocative way. For example, an ability that allows a creature to use an action to increase its accuracy for the round with no outward sign (or worse, just grants a passive bonus to its accuracy) isn’t that compelling, whereas one that increases its damage by lighting its arrows on fire is noticeable. These both work toward the same goal—dealing more damage this round—but one is far more memorable.

Active Abilities

Source GM Core pg. 123
Abilities a creature uses on its turn have the most flexibility and scope. You can use the Spell DC and Spell Attack Modifier table on page 121 to determine active ability DCs as well as spell DCs. You can have an ability use 1 to 3 actions as needed (or be a free action in rare cases) and use just about any type of tactic. Feats, spells, and existing creature abilities provide a wide variety of examples, so look for something similar to your idea to use as a basis.

Consider how you want your creature to spend its turns. Two-action activities pretty much define the creature's turn, and single actions work best for supplemental benefits or normal Strikes. As you build out your idea of a creature's turn, don't forget about movement! A creature often needs to spend actions getting into position, especially early in a fight. This is especially challenging with melee-only creatures. You can give such creatures abilities similar to Sudden Charge or the deadly mantis's Leaping Grab.

Use 3-action abilities sparingly, as a creature can't use them if it is slowed or stunned—making a creature's coolest or most defining ability use up 3 actions might mean the creature never gets to use it. These activities should be reserved for abilities that include some movement (like Trample) or that the creature is likely to use before engaging in combat. Don't make an ability use 3 actions as a way to balance it—saying “This can be more powerful than other abilities because it is less likely to work,” is a recipe for frustration if you've made a cool ability that's too hard or even impossible for the creature to use.

Be especially careful with activities when designing boss creatures. They're likely to get targeted with the PCs' most powerful detrimental effects, get grabbed, become slowed, or otherwise have their actions restricted. Bosses need to have solid options they can use with 1 or 2 actions. This lets them use their remaining actions to get away, use a simple ability, or otherwise keep the fight dynamic.

Free Actions

Source GM Core pg. 124
Use free actions that don’t have triggers sparingly, and when you do, they should almost always be used for support or utility actions, not Strikes or movement. If you come up with a free action, consider whether it should be its own action or part of a combo, such as drawing a weapon and attacking. In cases like the latter, you might be better off making a single action that allows the creature to draw a weapon and then Strike.

Damage-Dealing Abilities

Source GM Core pg. 124
If a special action is a single action with only one target, you can often set damage using the Strike Damage table on page 120. If it uses more than 1 action or requires setup in some way, it might deal higher damage than is typical; often, you can just use the extreme column in these cases.

For abilities that deal damage in an area, use the Area Damage table. These numbers are based on a 2-action activity (e.g., most damaging spells). Single actions should deal much less damage. An ability that has another significant effect, like applying a condition, should deal less damage; for this, look at the damage for 2 or more levels lower, and judge which value would best match based on the severity of the additional effect. These abilities typically allow a basic saving throw. The table includes values for unlimited-use abilities (ones that can be used at will) and limited-use ones (which can be used once or, like dragon breath abilities, once or twice but not on consecutive turns).

You can use the dice given or generate your own expression based on the damage in parentheses, as detailed in the Strike Damage section on page 120. If a high-level effect has a small area compared to similar abilities, you could have it deal more damage.

Table 2–12: Area Damage

LevelUnlimited UseLimited Use
–11d4 (2)1d6 (4)
01d6 (4)1d10 (6)
12d4 (5)2d6 (7)
22d6 (7)3d6 (11)
32d8 (9)4d6 (14)
43d6 (11)5d6 (18)
52d10 (12)6d6 (21)
64d6 (14)7d6 (25)
74d6 (15)8d6 (28)
85d6 (17)9d6 (32)
95d6 (18)10d6 (35)
106d6 (20)11d6 (39)
116d6 (21)12d6 (42)
125d8 (23)13d6 (46)
137d6 (24)14d6 (49)
144d12 (26)15d6 (53)
156d8 (27)16d6 (56)
168d6 (28)17d6 (60)
178d6 (29)18d6 (63)
189d6 (30)19d6 (67)
197d8 (32)20d6 (70)
206d10 (33)21d6 (74)
2110d6 (35)22d6 (77)
228d8 (36)23d6 (81)
2311d6 (38)24d6 (84)
2411d6 (39)25d6 (88)

Defensive Abilities

Source GM Core pg. 124
Active offensive abilities usually fit creatures better than defensive abilities do. Save defense increases for creatures that are strongly defense-themed. For martial creatures, something as simple as a shield and Shield Block is usually plenty. Defensive abilities often run the risk of being invisible abilities. For examples of good defensive abilities, look at spells like sanctuary for ideas, or other spells that create interesting protective effects instead of just granting a bonus. If you do want to make a creature defensive, pick one defensive ability rather than several, since stacking up multiple defenses can make for a frustrating fight. One solid style of defensive ability is a mode switch, which causes the creature to get stronger defenses, but limits its attacks, spells, or other offensive options.

Reactive Abilities

Source GM Core pg. 125
Reactions and free actions with triggers can give a creature an impact outside of its turn. This can make the fight more interesting, but it may also be risky. It's tempting to give every creature a reaction, but that's not necessarily a good idea.

To decide whether your creature should have a reaction, first consider if the creature has the reflexes or insight to react well in the first place—for instance, an ogre doesn't have Reactive Strike because it's a big oaf. Oozes, constructs, and unintelligent creatures are less likely to have reactions than others for this reason.

Second, look at the complexity of the encounter your creature is likely to appear in. If you have a large number of creatures, skipping reactions can make the fight flow faster. A creature that's more likely to fight solo, on the other hand, might have a reaction to give it a way to continue to be dangerous amid an onslaught of attacks by the party.

When creating reactions, be careful with “gotcha” abilities—ones that punish players for making perfectly reasonable choices, for rolling poorly, and so on. If you include abilities like this, they need to reinforce the creature's core theme and the play style you want it to use in combat. For example, a creature that Strikes as a reaction when someone fails an attack roll will encourage PCs to use their actions on other tactics, rather than attacking multiple times each turn. Is that what you want? Is this dynamic essential for making the creature feel like it's supposed to? This isn't the type of ability you'd give to any old creature—only an incredible duelist or something similar.

Reactions should require something out of the ordinary to happen, or should be relatively weak if triggered by something ordinary. A reaction that triggers anytime someone tries to Strike a creature is likely to be perceived by the players as uninteresting because it's so predictable.

The best reactions should be telegraphed so when they happen, it makes sense to the players. Think of one of the core reactions of the game: Shield Block. The creature raises its shield—an obvious action the PCs can see—so when it blocks damage from an attack, that makes perfect sense. Similarly, if you made a crystalline creature, you might have it build up sonic energy in a low thrum, so when it uses a reaction to release a burst of sonic energy when hit, the players can say, “Oh, I should have seen that coming.”

Reaction Damage

Source GM Core pg. 125
Reactions should use lower damage, usually that of a moderate Strike. A reaction that deals area damage might deal low damage, though use such reactions with caution.

Constant and Automatic Abilities

Source GM Core pg. 125
Certain abilities shouldn't use any actions. Auras are a common constant ability, with frightful presence, the cinder rat's fetid fumes, and the xulgath's stench as notable examples. An aura needs a range, and if it needs a DC, you'll usually set it to the moderate spell DC unless the aura is one of the creature's defining concepts. For example, the xulgath's stench DC is significantly higher because the aura is such an iconic part of the creature.

Abilities the creature has no control over should be automatic. For example, the living wildfire fire elemental explodes into flames when it dies. It has no option not to, so this wouldn't make sense as a reaction or free action. Conversely, the Ferocity ability is a reaction because it requires the creature to give itself a last push to stay at 1 HP.

Constant and Automatic Damage

Source GM Core pg. 125
Much like for reactions, damage for a constant ability should be pretty low. Usually, this value is just below low Strike damage. Automatic abilities, like the living wildfire’s explosion ability, tend to deal moderate Strike damage or unlimited-use area damage. These abilities can deal even more if they happen only after the creature is dead or otherwise no longer presents a threat.

Skill Abilities

Source GM Core pg. 125
A skilled creature might have abilities related to its skills. The skill feats in Player Core make for a good baseline. Avoid giving your creature skill abilities that won’t matter in its interactions with PCs.

Review

Source GM Core pg. 125
Now it's time to look over your completed creature as a whole and make sure it's living up to your concept. Can it do everything you wanted? Does it fit its intended role? Is there anything you could add or anything superfluous you could cut to get the creature where it needs to be?

If this creature is built for combat, run through a few turns in your head. Does it still work decently if it gets slowed? Can it move into combat against the PCs effectively considering their mobility options compared to its own? Does it have any abilities it'll never use because of its other actions?

When you're satisfied with your creation, it's ready to hit the table. But that's not necessarily the end! If you notice issues during the game, you can fix them on the spot. It's your game, and you can freely change what you wrote if you think differently later on.

Trait Abilities

Source GM Core pg. 126
Creatures with certain traits tend to have similar abilities to one another. Many of these abilities are listed below to help you match the theme of the trait when you build your own creatures. Look at existing creatures with the trait to see these in practice.

Aberration

Senses usually darkvision
Languages usually Aklo

Aeon

Traits monitor
Languages Utopian and other planar languages; envisioning for true aeons (Monster Core)

Air

Languages usually Sussuran
Speed usually has a fly Speed

Angel

Traits celestial, holy
Aura Angels each have a unique aura based on how they serve as messengers and how they deliver those messages.
Speed usually has a fly Speed
Rituals usually angelic messenger (Monster Core)

Animal

Languages none
Int –4 or –5

Archon

Traits celestial, holy
Virtue Ability Archons each represent a specific virtue, like courage or hope, and have a special ability based on the virtue they represent.

Astral

Senses darkvision

Azata

Traits celestial, holy
Weaknesses cold iron
Freedom Ability Azatas each represent a specific freedom, like free expression or free love, and have a special ability based on the freedom they represent.

Beast

Int –3 or higher

Celestial

Traits holy
Senses darkvision
Languages Empyrean
Saves often a +1 status bonus to all saves vs. magic
Weaknesses unholy
Strikes typically have the holy trait

Cold

Immunities or Resistances cold

Construct

Traits Many constructs lack minds and have the mindless trait.
Immunities bleed, death effects, diseased, doomed, drained, fatigued, healing, nonlethal attacks, paralyzed, poison, sickened, spirit, unconscious, vitality, void; if mindless, add mental

Daemon

Traits fiend, unholy
Languages Daemonic, telepathy 100 feet
Immunities death effects
Death Ability Daemons each represent a specific kind of death, like death by disease or starvation, and have a special ability based on the method of death they represent.

Demon

Traits fiend, unholy
Languages Chthonian, telepathy (usually 100 feet)
HP typically high to account for their multiple weaknesses
Weaknesses cold iron
Sin Vulnerability Demons each represent a specific sin, like envy or wrath, and have a special vulnerability based on the sin they represent. This should be something the PCs can exploit through their actions, which should then deal mental damage to the demon. The amount of damage should be based on how easy the vulnerability is to exploit.
Divine Innate Spells usually 5th-rank translocate and at-will 4th-rank translocate
Rituals usually demonic pact (Monster Core)
Sin Ability Demons also have a special ability based on the sin they represent, which either makes them better embody the sin or instills that sin in others.

Devil

Traits fiend, unholy
Languages Diabolic, telepathy (usually 100 feet)
Immunities fire; Weaknesses holy; Resistances physical (except silver), poison
Divine Innate Spells usually one 5th-rank translocate and at-will 4th-rank translocate
Rituals usually diabolic pact (Monster Core)
Infernal Hierarchy Ability Devils each have an ability corresponding to the role they play in the infernal hierarchy, typically focused around control or being controlled.

Dragon

Senses darkvision
Languages usually Draconic
Speed usually has a fly Speed
Dragon Breath Many dragons have an activity to exhale magical, damaging energy, with specifics determined by their theme.

Earth

Perception often tremorsense
Languages usually Petran
Speed usually a burrow Speed

Elemental

Senses darkvision
Immunities bleed, paralyzed, poison, sleep

Ethereal

Senses darkvision

Fey

Senses low-light vision
Languages usually Aklo, Fey, or both
Weaknesses cold iron

Fiend

Traits unholy
Senses darkvision
Saves often a +1 status bonus to all saves vs. magic
Weaknesses holy
Strikes typically have the unholy trait

Fire

Languages usually Pyric
Immunities fire; Resistances cold
Strikes typically deal fire damage

Fungus

Traits fungi without minds have the mindless trait
Immunities if mindless, mental; Weaknesses sometimes slashing or fire

Giant

Traits Large or bigger, humanoid
Senses low-light vision
Languages usually Jotun

Humanoid

Int –3 or higher

Incorporeal

Str –5
HP terrible at lower levels, then low at higher levels
AC typically low or moderate
Immunities disease, paralyzed, poison, precision; Resistances all damage (except force, ghost touch, or spirit; double resistance vs. non-magical)
Strikes magical trait, typically low or moderate damage

Metal

Languages usually Talican

Monitor

Senses darkvision

Ooze

Traits Almost all oozes lack minds and have the mindless trait.
Senses typically motion sense and no vision
AC usually terrible
HP usually around double
Immunities critical hits, precision, unconscious, often acid; if it has no vision, add visual effects; if mindless, add mental

Plant

Traits plants without minds have the mindless trait
Senses usually low-light vision
Immunities if mindless, mental; Weaknesses sometimes fire

Protean

Traits monitor
Languages Protean
Resistances precision, protean anatomy (Monster Core)
Divine Innate Spells constant unfettered movement
Change Shape (Monster Core)

Psychopomp

Traits monitor
Senses lifesense (typically 60 feet)
Languages Requian
Immunities death effects, disease
Resistances poison, void
Damage spirit touch (Monster Core)

Spirit

Traits often incorporeal, often undead

Swarm

Traits size based on the entire mass, usually Large or bigger
HP typically low
Immunities precision, swarm mind (Monster Core); Weaknesses area damage, splash damage; Resistances physical, usually with one physical type having lower or no resistance

Undead

Traits Almost all undead are unholy. Ghostly undead have the incorporeal trait. Undead without minds, such as most zombies, have the mindless trait.
Senses darkvision
HP void healing (Monster Core)
Immunities death effects, disease, paralyze, poison, sleep (or unconscious if it never rests at all); if mindless, add mental

Water

Languages usually Thalassic
Speed usually has a swim Speed

Wood

Languages usually Muan
Weaknesses fire and axes or slashing

Building NPCs

Source GM Core pg. 128
Creatures that are meant to cleave closely to character classes or intended to represent people rather than monsters are NPCs. They might face more scrutiny around their mechanics than creatures because a player can more directly compare their rogue to an NPC who acts like a rogue. That doesn't mean you have to build an NPC exactly like a PC, though.

You can build NPCs just like you would any other creature. If an NPC should work like they have a class, use the class features and feats of a suitable class to pick abilities, and look at both the class's proficiencies and attribute modifiers to determine how strong the NPC's statistics should be. Class Road Maps on page 129 has prebuilt road maps for Player Core and Player Core 2 classes to get you started.

If the NPC isn't meant to work like they have a class (a baker, for example), instead build the character separately. You can create new abilities as needed to get the NPC's interactions with the PCs to express their theme and role in the story. These NPCs can be level –1 or level 0. Their capabilities are below those of PCs, and they should typically not use any class features or feats from PC classes. Creatures of these levels tend to be extremely simple.

It's highly recommended that you select NPC skills using proficiency ranks as you would a PC, though you don't need to be precise about the number of skill increases you give the NPC. You can give them earlier access to expert, master, or legendary proficiency if they're a skill-based NPC and better proficiency in narrow areas of expertise, like Engineering Lore for a tinker NPC.

Non-Combat Level

Source GM Core pg. 128
An NPC's level should represent their combat prowess. A common person might not be a combat threat, even if they're important or highly skilled, and they consequently have a low level. However, that doesn't mean they can't present a challenge in other types of encounters. This is represented by a non-combat level (page 31) and tends to be specific to their area of expertise. For example, a barrister might be level –1 in combat but a 4th-level creature in an encounter related to legal matters.

This can go the other way as well, such as with a powerful combat creature that's not suited to social settings. This is usually the case with creatures untrained in mental skills. You can improvise this as you run the game, or you can plan ahead if you have something particular in mind.

Building an NPC's non-combat level is relatively simple. Choose the level you want the NPC to be for the type of non-combat challenge you have in mind and use the skill numbers for that level—typically high or even extreme. Some challenges, such as social challenges, require the creature to have a high Perception and Will, so in those cases, you should increase those values as well. These should be set at the moderate or high values for the non-combat level, usually, depending on how adept you want the NPC to be.

Non-Combat XP

Source GM Core pg. 128
The Experience Points gained for besting an NPC depend on how the party overcame them, because XP comes from overcoming a specific challenge. If the PCs defeat the NPC in a non-combat setting of the NPC’s specialty, the party gets XP based on the NPC’s non-combat level. If they just beat the NPC up, the XP would be based on the NPC’s creature level. Quite often, that means 0 XP and failure at the PCs’ objective; for instance, during a baking contest, if the PCs murder the other baker, not only would they be disqualified, but they would likely be charged with a crime.

PC-style Build

Source GM Core pg. 128
If you do choose to build an NPC fully using the PC rules, your NPC should generally end up being an appropriate challenge as a creature of their level. They will likely have lower statistics in some areas than if you had built them using the creature rules but more options due to their full complement of feats and class features. This is best saved for important, recurring NPCs, especially if they're meant to engage in social or exploration endeavors rather than just battles.

There are still some considerations and shortcuts that can expedite the process while ensuring the NPC works as intended.
  • The creature's treasure should follow the Treasure for New Characters rules on page 61. You'll need to account for this in your campaign's overall treasure. You might even want to give the NPC a higher-level item appropriate as a treasure allotment for the level.
  • You can expedite attribute modifier generation by making the starting attribute modifiers add up to +9, with no more than one modifier at +4 (and typically no more than one negative modifier). You can skip adding a background if you do this, but you might want to give the creature two skills, which includes one Lore skill, to represent the skills granted by a background.
  • It's not necessary to assign every skill feat, particularly for a higher-level NPC. You can just pick the most emblematic ones and gloss over the rest.
  • For general feats, Incredible Initiative and Toughness make good choices.
  • Most of the guidelines about choosing spells still apply, though you might want a few more utility spells that deal with non-combat challenges, particularly in low-rank slots.

Building Items

Source GM Core pg. 130
Creating your own magic and alchemical items is an amazing way to customize the adventure and gameplay for your group and add unique elements without requiring quite the same mechanical depth as a whole new class, archetype, or ancestry.

New items make great mementos of previous adventures and tend to be one of the easiest elements for a character to begin using mid-campaign after receiving them as a reward. This section explains the philosophy and numbers behind creating items so you can design your own in no time!

Concept and Role

Source GM Core pg. 130
First, come up with a concept for the item based on the role the item serves in your game and in the game's world. You might include a new item in an ancient ruin to hint at its history and characterize the people who used to live there. For instance, a Thassilonian ruin might have an item based on rune magic, while a Jistkan ruin might have an item related to the empire's ancient constructs.

A new magic item might be important later in the story, or its role might be as simple as a fun wolf-themed item for the monk that uses Wolf Stance. Keep your concept in mind to guide you through the process. Start thinking about what kind of magic item it will be. Each item type has its own niche, and some are less likely to be as useful to the PCs. For instance, new weapons and armor require the PC to give up the weapon or armor they already have, which might make them more reluctant to use the new items unless they're noticeably better, while consumable items don't have as big an impact on the story as permanent items.

Item Level

Source GM Core pg. 130
A new item is typically going to be within a few levels of the PCs. If it’s too low, it might not be interesting, and if it’s too high, it might be too powerful or too lucrative to sell.

Comparison

Source GM Core pg. 130
First, look at similar items. For example, if you want a permanent item that lets someone fly, look at the flying broomstick, which moves of its own volition to a location and thus can't be used to gain a huge advantage in combat, and winged sandals, which can. This will give you an idea of the right level range and the specifics and limitations of existing items. You might even be able to just adjust one of those to get what you want with minimal work.

Item Effects

Source GM Core pg. 130
Next, use the item’s concept and role to decide its effects. This is where your creativity will bring the item to life. Make sure to have it do something exciting and roleplay-inspiring. A magic item that does nothing more than deliver a bonus is far less interesting, even if the item does have a load-bearing item bonus, like a magic weapon. To determine the item’s power, take into account the special abilities you give the item as well as the item bonus (if any) that it grants. For specific advice for the type of magic item you are creating, check out Designing by Type on page 131.

Special Abilities

Source GM Core pg. 130
When deciding what special abilities are appropriate for what level, it's best to look for similar spells to gauge the effect. For most consumables, the effect should be less powerful than the highest rank spell a spellcaster of the item's level could cast. Scrolls are about the most efficient you can get—they're the same level the spellcaster would be—but they require a spellcaster that has the spell on their list, and take the same actions as casting the spell normally.

The most straightforward choice is a once-per-day ability. For this, the item's level should be at least 2 levels higher than the minimum level a spellcaster could first cast that spell. For example, if your ability is about as powerful as a 3rd-rank spell cast once per day (perhaps haste), then it should be at least a 7th-level item. A basic wand is a good example. However, a wand is flexible and can contain the most effective possible choice for its spell rank (such as long-lasting spells where once a day is effectively permanent), so a specific item that doesn't grant such a spell could have additional powers or bonuses at the same price as a wand.

If the item can be activated multiple times per day, it should be at least 4 levels higher instead—9th level in our example. Frequency could range from twice per day to once per hour and anything in between. Choose whatever makes sense to allow the characters to use the item more frequently without being effectively constant or unlimited. The appropriate frequency, or whether it's ever okay to have unlimited activations, varies wildly based on the spell. Unlimited castings of a cantrip is fine, but an effect akin to a non-cantrip spell is rarely a good idea. Only attempt to build such an item when you're certain of the consequences.

Items that can be activated less often than once per day don't appear too often, and they usually fit best with abilities that make sense outside of encounters. It's still best to stick to the guidelines for once-per-day abilities, but these items tend to have more properties—and often strange ones.

Constant Abilities

Source GM Core pg. 130
If you want an effect to be constant, set the level and Price accordingly. For instance, let’s say your group is 16th level and you want to give them an item themed around flying. A 7th-rank fly spell lasts an hour already, so one casting covers a significant portion of the adventuring day. To keep it simpler, you decide to create a 16th-level cloak that lets the wearer constantly fly. Remember, some effects were never meant to be constant and could warp your game.

Activation Actions

Source GM Core pg. 131
Watch out when picking the number of actions an activation takes! A 1-action activation that casts a spell with a 2-action casting time is drastically more powerful in an encounter than an item with a 2-action activation would be. An item like that is typically much higher level, and it works best with “helper” spells or ones with limited utility rather than offensive spells. The safest bet is to use the same number of actions the spell normally takes to cast.

Scaling out of Usefulness

Source GM Core pg. 131
Some spells aren’t appealing if their rank is too low. For instance, an item that casts 1st-rank breathe fire three times per day might be 5th or 6th level. The problem is that spell scaling has the biggest impact at low levels, so the spell isn’t effective compared to other actions a character could take. Err on the side of fewer, more impressive activations.

Bonuses

Source GM Core pg. 131
If your item includes item bonuses, check the table below for the minimum item levels the game's math expects permanent bonuses to be applied to. A lower-level item might give such a bonus temporarily, but keep track to make sure the item isn't effectively permanent. If a character typically picks three or fewer locks a day, there's no difference between a +2 item bonus to pick all locks and an activation that gives a +2 item bonus to Pick a Lock three times per day.

For attack bonuses, AC, and saves, the minimums match runic weapon and magic armor. You can have other items with these bonuses (like handwraps of mighty blows), but keep in mind they compete with fundamental runes.

Skill bonuses come on a wider range of items. Some are more broadly useful, so an Athletics item might be more expensive than an equivalent Society item. Gaining a bonus to Perception is especially valuable compared to gaining a bonus to a skill. Just because an item is the minimum level for its bonus doesn't mean the bonus should be the item's only power. The item can and should have an additional interesting power beyond the bonus. Likewise, an item can come at a higher level than the minimum, but if it's much higher, its abilities start to compete with the next bonus.

Table 2–17: Levels for Permanent Item Bonuses

Statistic+1+2+3
Attack bonus21016
AC51118
Save (resilient rune)81420
Skill/Perception3917*
* This is also the minimum level for apex items.

Designing by Type

Source GM Core pg. 131
The following guidance applies to items of various types.

Alchemical Items

Source GM Core pg. 131
Alchemical items are consumables. Because alchemists can make a large number for free, alchemical items tend to be on the weaker end for their level, with lower Prices. Avoid alchemical effects that feel too much like magic. Alchemy is capable of fantastical things, but should have its own distinct feel; where you draw the line depends on your game.

Alchemical bombs are like weapons for alchemists and should primarily deal damage, with small extra effects. Existing bombs are great models. Elixirs are varied; make sure not to duplicate potions, especially highly magical ones. Poisons are one of the trickier alchemical items to make, and it's usually best to just tweak one found on pages 248–250 to avoid making something that's overpowered; compare to poisons of the same type that have similar onset and stage duration, as longer onset and duration poisons tend to deal drastically more damage. Alchemical tools are best used for adding a little weirdness. They can be creative and interesting, but tend not to be powerful.

Ammunition

Source GM Core pg. 131
Magic ammunition is consumable; launching it destroys it. Pay attention to whether you give the ammunition an activation: any big flashy effect for its level should almost always have one, since otherwise the effect is essentially a free action on top of a Strike. This is particularly important for extremely low-level ammunition, since a high-level character could use that ammunition for every Strike without noticing the gold cost. If the ammunition doesn’t deal normal Strike damage on a hit, remember to say that! Dealing damage is the default.

Armor and Weapons

Source GM Core pg. 131
Specific armor and weapons replace the opportunity to add property runes, so you have a lot of space to design. Choose abilities that feel attached to the fact that they are weapons or armor; for instance, a fiery sword that you point at an enemy to shoot fire bolts is more on theme than a fiery sword that casts wall of fire in an unconnected way.

The specific item should cost more than the base armor or weapon would with just the fundamental runes, but you can often discount the cost of the additional components significantly as part of the specific item's special niche. Be careful about specific armor or weapons that include property runes in addition to unique specific abilities. If you discount the item, you might end up with an item significantly superior to one built using the normal property runes system. That's not always bad, since it's still giving up customization for power, and this can be appropriate if the item has an important place in your story. Just make sure the difference isn't too drastic. If you just want to create armor or a weapon with runes and no extra special abilities, you can do so. The Price of such an item is the sum of all the runes' Prices, and its level is that of the highest-level rune on the item.

When picking abilities, you can also consider taking from the relic gifts found on pages 309–319. Even if your game doesn't use relics, that section has plenty of choices sorted by theme. If you do, keep in mind that relic abilities are typically more powerful than usual for their level and that those abilities wouldn't scale on a normal magic item.

Held Items

Source GM Core pg. 132
Usually, held items should require manipulation to use, with Interact activations. They are most often tools, implements, items that can be thrown, and the like. Imagine a PC physically using the item and what that looks like.

Remember that held items are more challenging for martial characters to use, compared to spellcasters or hands-free characters, like monks. A barbarian might have to give up a two-handed weapon to use a held item, and so is less likely to use one. This means you might want to design held items specifically for non-martial characters, or have them be items a martial character uses outside of combat.

Oils

Source GM Core pg. 132
Oils are consumables you slather onto items or, rarely, creatures. They provide an interesting opportunity to apply effects to other items. Just remember not to accidentally make something that should be applied topically into a potion; for instance, a petrified character can’t drink an anti-petrifying potion! The actions an oil takes to use depend on how thoroughly it needs to be applied. For one used outside of combat, it could take a minute or more.

Potions

Source GM Core pg. 132
Potions are consumables in the truest sense; you literally consume them. Since the action of drinking isn’t easy to split up, they take only a single action to activate. This advantage makes potions that replicate spell effects incredibly powerful, and it’s the reason potions are nearly always higher level than scrolls with similar effects.

Runes

Source GM Core pg. 132
Property runes are a fun and versatile way to customize weapons and armor without throwing away the previous items. Each should be fairly simple, especially at lower levels, because combining runes can make things overcomplicated. Compare to other properties to determine the right level.

Scrolls

Source GM Core pg. 132
You’ll never need to design a new scroll, but use them as a comparison when designing other types of consumables. If you’re designing a consumable that seems like it’s much better than a scroll of its level—or faster to activate—you should probably raise the item’s level or adjust the effect.

Shields

Source GM Core pg. 132
Use the sturdy shields as benchmarks for the best possible shield Hardness, HP, and BT for a shield of that level. Your new shield should have less than those benchmarks since it also does something else, and you can use the magnitude of the reduction to build room for creative defensive abilities.

Staves

Source GM Core pg. 132
You’ll need to come up with a theme and curate a list of spells that stay close to that theme, typically one to three per spell rank, all on one spell list. A staff is always at least 3 levels higher than the minimum level for a spellcaster to cast the highest-rank spell it contains, so a staff with up to 4th-rank spells would be at least a 10th-level item.

Structures

Source GM Core pg. 132
Structures are evocative and make great tertiary items, quirky but not part of a combat build. This allows you to price them affordably, but make sure there isn’t some hidden abuse where the structure drastically alters encounters. The structure trait is intended to help as a starting point.

Talismans

Source GM Core pg. 132
Because talismans are affixed ahead of time but don’t take an action to retrieve, they reward forethought and planning. Those that can be activated as a free action also have the best action efficiency of any consumable. In the same way scrolls reward specific spellcasters, talisman requirements reward particular types of characters. Talismans might grant a single use of a feat, with an additional effect if the character already has that feat. Think of talismans as martial characters’ answer to scrolls to expand on the options of the non-spellcasters at your table.

Wands

Source GM Core pg. 132
You won’t need to design basic magic wands, but you might want a special wand. When designing a new special wand, your wand’s level will usually be 1 to 2 levels higher than the basic wand, depending on the magnitude of the special effect. Remember that if you make the wand 2 levels higher, it’s now competing with wands of a spell a whole level higher, so the special effect should be worth that cost!

Worn Items

Source GM Core pg. 133
Worn items vary wildly in their effects, but they all take up one of a character's 10 invested items. Remember to include the item's worn entry, if applicable (or “—” if you could imagine someone wearing 10 or more with no difficulty). Where the item is worn should usually match its effects or bonuses: shoes help you move, eyepieces affect your vision, and so on. As with held items, imagine a character wearing the item to picture how they use its magic.

Apex items are always at least level 17 and should have unique abilities on top of their bonus, just like other items.

Fill in the Numbers

Source GM Core pg. 133
You’re almost done! The final step is to fill in the numbers.

DCs

Source GM Core pg. 133
Choose any DCs for the item’s abilities, typically using the typical DCs in the table below. An item with a narrow function might have a DC up to 2 higher, and one that forces a save (such as with an aura) is typically 2 lower. The lower the DC, the quicker the item becomes obsolete.

Table 2–18: Magic Item DCs

Item LevelDC
115
216
317
418
519
620
723
824
925
1027
1128
1229
1330
1431
1534
1635
1737
1838
1941
2043

Item Prices

Source GM Core pg. 133
Each item level has a price range. Based on the item's role and abilities, decide where in that range to place it. There's plenty of variation, and you primarily need to worry about Price only if you expect the PCs will be able to sell it.

Primary items cost near the highest value for their level. They have a big impact on combat or player ability. This includes weapons, armor, and Perception items. The highest price is for items like runic weapon, magic armor, and apex items. So a +1 striking weapon is 100 gp at 4th level.

Secondary items, with middle values, give significant secondary benefits or enhance highly consequential noncombat or support skills like Medicine or Crafting.

Tertiary items, with low value, are weird or very specific items, ones not usually core to a character's build. Especially strange ones might fall into the gap between two levels.

Table 2–19: Permanent Magic Item Price

LevelPriceCore Item
110–20 gp
225–35 gp+1 weapon
345–60 gp+1 skill item
475–100 gp+1 striking weapon
5125–160 gp+1 armor
6200–250 gp
7300–360 gp
8415–500 gp+1 resilient armor
9575–700 gp+2 skill item
10820–1,000 gp+2 striking weapon
111,160–1,400 gp+2 resilient armor
121,640–2,000 gp+2 greater striking weapon
132,400–3,000 gp
143,600–4,500 gp+2 greater resilient armor
155,300–6,500 gp
167,900–10,000 gp+3 greater striking weapon
1712,000–15,000 gp+3 skill item, apex item
1818,600–24,000 gp+3 greater resilient armor
1930,400–40,000 gp+3 superior striking weapon
2052,000–70,000 gp+3 superior resilient armor

Consumables

Source GM Core pg. 133
Consumables have a slightly narrower range, with top-end items like scrolls, optimum healing potions, or super-useful consumables like a potion of invisibility at the high end.

Table 2–20: Consumable Price

LevelPrice
13–4 gp
25–7 gp
38–12 gp
413–20 gp
521–30 gp
631–50 gp
751–70 gp
871–100 gp
9101–150 gp
10151–200 gp
11201–300 gp
12301–400 gp
13401–600 gp
14601–900 gp
15901–1,300 gp
161,301–2,000 gp
172,001–3,000 gp
183,001–5,000 gp
195,001–8,000 gp
208,001–14,000 gp

Building Worlds

Source GM Core pg. 134
As a Game Master, you control the details of the world your players explore. The Age of Lost Omens campaign setting is a lush world suitable for countless adventures, but you might prefer to adventure in entirely new worlds, where every aspect of the setting and story is yours to decide!

Building your own campaign world can be a deeply fulfilling creative process, as it lets you bring to life the exact setting you envision. It gives you great flexibility, in that you can build only as much as you need for the next few adventures, and you can adapt the world on the fly to meet the demands of your story. It also gives you great control, allowing you to build precisely the setting you need for the story you want to tell. Finally, it bypasses some of the issues that can come with playing within an existing campaign setting, where you might create a narrative that contradicts published canon, or your players might stumble across major plot or setting spoilers. Whatever your world-building goals, this chapter guides you through the design process step by step.

Design Approach

Source GM Core pg. 134
World building can be approached in many ways, but it fundamentally comes down to a simple preference. Do you start at a high level and zoom in, or do you start small and build up? This section outlines a largely top-down approach, but you can design from the bottom up simply by starting at the end of this section and working backward. Either way, you may find yourself skipping between sections as inspiration strikes—and that's OK!

When building a world, there's a risk of becoming overwhelmed by the sheer number of decisions to be made. Remember that you don't need to make every decision for every aspect of your world all at once. Focus first on the elements you need for your story and the game, then add as much of the rest as you'd like. You'll also want to allow room for input from your players—gaming sessions are more memorable and engaging when the storytelling experience is shared between everyone at the table (page 32 has more information on players contributing to the narrative).

Before you decide anything else, however, you should establish your concept and your goals. Do you envision a high-magic steampunk setting where humans are a tiny minority? A world where the only magic derives from squabbling pantheons of gods whose followers are caught up in their wars for power? A quaint town isolated from an otherwise-unknown world beyond a vast, impenetrable forest of mist-choked, skeletal trees? Are you designing a world for a multi-year campaign, or for a fast-paced one-shot adventure? Having an idea in mind will help steer your choices as you build your world, and knowing your goals will help you focus on building what you need.

Top Down

Source GM Core pg. 134
The top-down approach is great if you have a lot of time to dedicate to world building. When designing a setting from the top down, your initial focus is on the big picture. You may already have an idea of the big movers and shakers of your world or your multiverse. You may want to chronicle a thousand years or more of the setting’s history. You may have already sketched out a world map with continents, nations, and trade routes spanning the globe. This approach begins with broad generalities that get more detailed during play and as you design them.

Bottom Up

Source GM Core pg. 134
With a bottom-up approach to world building, you start small and local. Focus on the starting location and immediate needs of your campaign, then expand outward as the story unfolds. This strategy works well for those with less time to devote to world building, as you need to prepare only the minimum detail necessary to entice your players toward adventure, fleshing out your world only as the campaign requires it.

The World

Source GM Core pg. 134
While world building might include designing much more than a single planet, most adventures occur entirely on one world. It’s a good idea to have a broad understanding of that world as a whole.

Planetary Basics

Source GM Core pg. 134
When designing the physical features of a campaign world, you’ll want to determine its shape and the general distribution of landmasses. You can also establish the world’s size, though note that the scale of a world generally has a fairly small impact on the adventures taking place there.

Shape

Source GM Core pg. 134
In a fantasy setting, the shape of your world need not be spherical as governed by the laws of physics. It could be any shape you desire, and it might not be a planet at all!

Globe: Barring some catastrophe, worlds in our reality are roughly spherical due to the influence of gravity.

Hollow World: What if the landmasses and civilizations of a world existed on the inner surface of a hollow sphere? In such a world, the horizon would climb upwards, permitting creatures to see landmarks at extraordinary distances. Light might emanate from a sun-like orb in the world's center, from various other natural or magical sources, or not at all.

Irregular: What if your world is flat, a toroid, or shaped into a cylinder, cube, or other polyhedron? What if it's something even stranger? With such an unusual shape, you may need to decide how gravity, atmosphere, and other details function.

Landmass

Source GM Core pg. 135
The next major step in world creation is to sketch out the planet's oceans and major landmasses. On Earth, these geological features are the result of plate tectonics. In a fantasy world, however, the oceans might have been cleaved from the land by the actions of titans, or the continents shaped to suit a god's whims. The following are some common landmass types.

Archipelago: A stretch of vast ocean, dotted by chains of small island groups, atolls, and islets.

Major Islands: A region of seas dominated by large islands, each several hundred miles across.

Island-Continent: An enormous island nearly the size of a continent, surrounded by ocean.

Continent: A substantial landform that (usually) rests on a tectonic plate and gradually shifts in position over geologic timescales.

Supercontinent: An assembly of the world's continental blocks into a single immense landmass.

Environment

Source GM Core pg. 135
The environment and terrain of a region can pose as much of a challenge to an adventuring party as any of the foes they face. The following section references the environment categories beginning on page 90.

Common Environments

Source GM Core pg. 135
The following environments are common enough that they might appear in nearly any adventure or world.

Aquatic: Oceans, seas, lakes, and other large waterways are aquatic environments.

Arctic: Arctic environments usually appear near the northern and southern extremes of a world, though extreme elevation, unusually shaped worlds, and supernatural forces could result in arctic terrain elsewhere.

Desert: Deserts can appear anywhere on a world where precipitation is scant, even along some oceans. Any large landmasses that entirely lack bodies of water are likely to be deserts.

Forest: The composition of a forest depends on the climate and the elevation, with thick jungles more common near an equator, hardwood forests in more temperate zones, and evergreens at higher latitudes and elevations. Most worlds have a tree line—an elevation above which trees can't grow.

Mountain: A world's highest peaks can stretch tens of thousands of feet above sea level. This category also includes hills, which are typically no more than 1,000 feet tall.

Plains: Mostly flat and unobstructed, plains are usually at lower elevations, but they can also be found at higher elevations on plateaus.

Urban: Cities and settlements are urban environments. These areas are detailed in Settlements, beginning on page 168.

Swamp: Wide floodplains, shallow lakes, and marshes can appear at most latitudes.

Extreme Environments

Source GM Core pg. 135
Some adventures lead to fantastic reaches of the world or the multiverse that are seldom tread by mortals.

Aerial: A world might include windy realms of floating islands and castles in the clouds.

Glacier: Massive sheets of dense ice constantly moving under their own immense weight, glaciers are frozen wastelands riddled with columns of jagged ice and snow-covered crevasses.

Volcanic: Hellish landscapes of molten lava, burning ash, and scorching temperatures pose immediate danger.

Undersea: A subset of aquatic environments, undersea environments are those areas submerged beneath the waves.

Underground: Some worlds have deep natural caverns, while others have extensive winding tunnels and expansive realms below the surface.

Mapping a World

Source GM Core pg. 135
Many Game Masters like to have an overland map for their local region, nation, or even the whole world. The primary goal of this scale of map is to designate sites of import to the campaign; you don't need to detail every hamlet or woodland grove, but having a sense of the major features can help you and the other players visualize the world in which you're playing.

Step 1. Coastlines: The easiest first step is to separate land from sea. Regional maps may only have a single shoreline, if any. At larger map scales, consider the placement of major islands, archipelago chains, atolls, and islets. A world map should consider the size and placement of continents.

Step 2. Topography: Pencil in a rough ridgeline for each mountain range in the region. Mountain ranges are common along coastlines where continental plates push together. If extended into the sea, mountain ranges typically result in a chain of offshore islands. Indicate hills in the regions adjacent to the mountains and elsewhere as necessary to demonstrate elevation. Unmarked terrain on an overland map is usually lowland plains.

Step 3. Watercourses: It's important to keep in mind that rivers flow downstream, from high elevation toward the sea, always taking the path of least resistance. Powerful watercourses might carve canyons or gorges over millennia, but they should never cross through mountain ranges. On a similar note, watercourses don't branch—tributaries join into rivers as they flow downstream.

Step 4. Terrain and Environment: Sketch in interesting terrain features such as forests, deserts, or tundras. You may want to differentiate these by climate, separating coniferous and deciduous forests from tropical jungles or arctic taigas. Terrain not specifically called out on an overland map is typically presumed to be some variety of grassland.

Step 5. Civilization: Now you're ready to place the elements of civilization. Major cities should typically be located near fresh water and natural resources. Major roads connect larger settlements, circumventing forests and other difficult terrain, but they may wind through mountain passes when lucrative commerce demands it. Add smaller settlements along your roads, further connected by smaller roads and trails. Finally, draw political boundaries and mark other sites of interest.

Civilization

Source GM Core pg. 136
With the major geographical features and terrain of your world decided, it's time to establish significant nations and settlements.

When it comes to designing a world's cultures, you might want to focus primarily on areas the party is likely to explore first. This allows you to establish the details and depth of one region's peoples before expanding out to address others. That's not to say you shouldn't have ideas about the cultures beyond your starting settlement—it just means you don't need to decide every detail of every culture all at once.

As always, you don't need to demarcate every realm on the globe or indicate every town, hamlet, and thorp. Keep your focus on what you need for your story and your adventure—leaving terra incognita can lead to stories down the road as the party ventures further from home.

Societal Benchmarks

Source GM Core pg. 136
The following sections can help you establish certain truths about your world as a whole. From there, you can decide the details of specific cultural groups, including whether they deviate from these global standards.

Technology

Source GM Core pg. 136
Throughout history, a major driver of world culture has been the continuous advancement of technology in warfare, agriculture, and industry. The following categories roughly approximate real-world technological levels, but progress might vary on your world. What heights of technology have been achieved? Have any groups fallen behind or leaped ahead?

Primeval: Weapons and tools in this early era are crafted primarily from bone, wood, or stone. Knowledge of stonecutting allows early civilizations to raise stone walls and buildings.

Ancient: Advancements in mining and metallurgy lead to weapons and tools made from bronze. Crop rotation and storage in granaries ensure greater survival in times of famine. Trade between river and coastal settlements is aided by oar- and sail-powered galleys. Chariots come into strong use during warfare.

Classical: Superior military tactics and engineered roads allow for rapid deployment of infantry wielding iron weapons and aided by mounted cavalry. Advances in complex irrigation and construction of aqueducts lead to an abundance of harvest foods and dramatic improvements to sanitation.

Medieval: Warfare in this era is defined by iron armor, crossbows, and weapons forged of fine steel.

Enlightenment: The development of black powder and muzzle-loaded, single-shot firearms greatly changes warfare, making plate armor mostly obsolete. Larger ships permit ocean crossings and long-range trade to distant shores. The printing press speeds literacy and the dissemination of new ideas.

Steam: Steam engines replace conveyances drawn by animal power or sail, leading to a significant shift from wood fuel to coal. Further advances in science lead to dirigible airships and observation balloons. Simple firearms are replaced by repeating revolvers and boltaction rifles.

Divine Involvement

Source GM Core pg. 136
What is the nature of the gods? Do they even exist? If so, are they omnipotent and omniscient? How does a follower request their divine favor? The answers to these questions will help you determine how strongly divine faith impacts the cultures of your world.

None: Deities do not exist in this world, or if they do, they are oblivious to or completely unconcerned with mortal affairs. If they exist, they don't make their presence known, nor do they grant power to theirworshippers.

Limited: Deities exist, though they remain aloof from the mortal world and make their divine presence known only to a chosen few.

Accepted: Divine influence is an accepted fact of everyday life. Their will is enacted through priests and organized religions. Divine avatars may appear in the world during extreme circumstances.

Ubiquitous: Deities live among mortals, exerting their divine will directly. Gods rule entire nations, commanding absolute obedience from their faithful followers.

Magic

Source GM Core pg. 137
Does magic exist? If so, which traditions are available? What are the sources of a spellcaster's power, and how do they gain and channel that magic?

No Magic: Magic of any kind does not exist in this world. Spells and magic effects do not function. Consider the variants on page 82 to handle the lack of magic items.

Low Magic: Magic is mysterious and taboo. The few practitioners of the mystical arts are feared or shunned. Again, consider the variants on page 82 to handle the relative scarcity of magic items.

Common: Magic is an accepted fact of everyday life, though its mysteries are beyond the reach of most people. Magic portals and gates can whisk travelers “in the know” halfway across the world or to the other side of the multiverse.

High Magic: Magic and magical items are commonplace in society. It may be as easy to learn spellcasting as it is to learn a new language. Magical objects simulate various modern technologies to great effect and are just as accessible. The fantastic is never more than a stone's throw away.

Designing Nations

Source GM Core pg. 137
For any nation you establish in your setting, you'll want to provide at least a minimal description—the core concept of that nation. The amount of additional detail you provide depends on the needs of your story. You likely want to establish enough information to create a stat block (page 130) for the nation your adventurers are from, any nations they're likely to spend significant time in, and those nations' main allied and enemy nations, if they are likely to become part of the plot.

When building a nation, remember that the various elements connect to the history of the land and its people, its relationships with nearby nations, and the current residents. This interconnectedness will help you build a wealth of story hooks and provide immersive detail for your players.

Beyond those basic details, the following considerations can help flesh out the nations in your setting.

Location, Size, and Population

Source GM Core pg. 137
Major geographical boundaries, such as mountains, seas, and large rivers, often present natural borders for a realm. Depending on its leadership, culture, and the resources available, a country may be as small as a city-state or as large as a continent-sweeping empire. Barring widely available technological or magical travel and communication, most nations remain relatively small (only a few hundred miles across), simply because it becomes too difficult for a single governing entity to oversee and maintain the entirety of a larger state.

National populations ebb and flow due t