Rules Index | GM Screen | Player's Guide

Chapter 10: Game Mastering / Game Mastering

Running a Game Session

Source Core Rulebook pg. 489 2.0
A campaign happens over a series of sessions. Each session is usually several hours long, with multiple encounters, some exploration, and possibly downtime. Your session can be compared to an episode of a TV show; it should include some twists, turns, and changes, and end leaving people excited about what comes next.

Planning a Session

Source Core Rulebook pg. 489 2.0
One of the greatest challenges in gaming is scheduling a time for everyone to get together and play. Often, this responsibility falls on you as the GM, since you're the one who has to prepare your game between sessions. Many games have a set schedule, such as once per week, once every 2 weeks, or once per month. The less frequently your group meets, the better notes and recaps you'll need to keep everyone on the same page.

Plan a time for everybody to arrive, and also try to set a time when playing the game will begin. This can make it easier for everyone to finish chatting, catching up, and eating in a timely fashion so you can start playing the game. Having an end time in mind is also fairly important. A typical game session lasts about 4 hours, though some groups hold 2-hour sessions or play marathon games. Less than 2 hours usually isn't enough time to get much done in most Pathfinder campaigns. If your session will be longer than 2 hours, plan out some 15-minute breaks (in addition to bathroom and beverage breaks, which players can take as needed).

Starting a Session

Source Core Rulebook pg. 490 2.0
Once everyone is ready, get everyone's attention and cover the following topics. These are in a rough order that you can change based on your group's style or a session's needs.
  • Recap what happened during the previous sessions.
  • Establish where the characters are at the beginning of this session. Have they been resting since their last challenge? Are they in a hallway, preparing to raid the next room of a dungeon? Tell players whether their characters had time to rest or recover since the last session.
  • Remind players that they each have 1 Hero Point at the start of the session.
  • Establish goals. The players should have an idea of what they want to do next. Reestablish any goals the group already had, then let the players weigh in on whether these goals still apply, and on whether there's anything else they hope to accomplish in this session.
  • Commence adventuring! Decide which mode of play you're going to start in, then lead off with a verbal prompt to get the action started. You might ask a question related to a particular character, have everyone immediately roll initiative as a monster attacks, or briefly describe the environment and sensations that surround the player characters, allowing them to react.

Running a Session

Source Core Rulebook pg. 490 2.0
During a session, you’re in charge of keeping the game’s action moving, managing the different modes of play, fielding questions, and making rules decisions. You’ll also want to keep a rough eye on the time, so you can end when most convenient for the group.

You’re the interface between the rules and the imagined world you and the other players share. They will ask you questions, and they’ll act based on their own assumptions. It’s up to you to establish what’s true in the world, but you don’t do this unilaterally. You’re informed by the setting’s backstory, your preparations, and the suggestions and assumptions the other players bring to the table. Keep in mind that until you announce something, your own plans are subject to change. For example, if you originally intended the owner of a tavern to be kindly and well-intentioned, but a player misreads her and invents an interesting conspiracy theory regarding her intentions that sounds fun, you might convert the tavern owner into an agent of evil after all.

You’ll also determine when PCs and foes need to attempt checks, as well as the consequences of those rolls. This comes up most often outside of encounters, as encounters are more regimented about when checks happen and how they are resolved. In an encounter, a player can usually determine their own character’s turn, with you chiming in only to say whether an attack hits or if something in the environment requires a character to attempt a check.

The Spotlight

Source Core Rulebook pg. 491 2.0
As you run the game, keep track of who has the spotlight. It can be easy to keep attention on the most outgoing player or character, but you need to check in with all the players. If a player hasn’t contributed in some time, stop and ask, “What’s your character doing at this point?” If the player’s not sure, add a detail or nonplayer character to the scene that the player might find interesting.

Distractions and Interrupting

Source Core Rulebook pg. 491 2.0
Maintaining the players’ attention keeps a game moving and leads to memorable moments when everyone’s in the same zone. Too many interruptions break the flow. This is fine in moderation. Distractions become a problem if they’re too frequent, as they cause people to miss things and make misinformed decisions as the session becomes disconnected. Yet every game includes breaks—sometimes intentional, sometimes not—and digressions. Finding the right balance of diversions for your group is essential.

A game is a social gathering, so there’s definitely a place for conversation that’s not directly related to playing the game. These interruptions become a problem if they’re too frequent, or if people are talking over others. If a player repeatedly interrupts you or other people or undercuts every crucial moment of the game with a joke, talk to them about limiting their comments to appropriate times. Often, all you need to do is hold up your hand or otherwise indicate that the player is talking out of turn to delay them until after you or another speaker finishes talking.

Phones and other mobile devices are another major source of distraction. Banning them entirely is often impractical—many players use apps to roll dice or manage their character sheets, or they need to answer texts from their partner, check in on a work project, or otherwise stay connected with people who rely on them. However, you can set ground rules against using a device for anything that’s not time-sensitive or game-related, such as refreshing social media, checking the score of a hockey game, playing a mobile game, or answering a non-urgent text. You can relax these rules for players when their characters are “offstage.” If a player’s character isn’t in a scene, that might be a good time for the player to use a mobile device.

Adjudicating the Rules

Source Core Rulebook pg. 491 2.0
As the GM, you are responsible for solving any rules disputes. Remember that keeping your game moving is more important than being 100% correct. Looking up rules at the table can slow the game down, so in many cases it's better to make your best guess rather than scour the book for the exact rule. (It can be instructive to look those rules up during a break or after the session, though!) To make calls on the fly, use the following guidelines, which are the same principles the game rules are based on. You might want to keep printouts of these guidelines and the DC guidelines for quick reference.
  • If you don't know how long a quick task takes, go with 1 action, or 2 actions if a character shouldn't be able to perform it three times per round.
  • If you're not sure what action a task uses, look for the most similar basic action. If you don't find one, make up an undefined action and add any necessary traits (usually attack, concentrate, manipulate, or move).
  • When two sides are opposed, have one roll against the other's DC. Don't have both sides roll (initiative is the exception to this rule). The character who rolls is usually the one acting (except in the case of saving throws).
  • If an effect raises or lowers chances of success, grant a +1 circumstance bonus or a –1 circumstance penalty.
  • If you're not sure how difficult a significant challenge should be, use the DC for the party's level.
  • If you're making up an effect, creatures should be incapacitated or killed on only a critical success (or for a saving throw, on a critical failure).
  • If you don't know what check to use, pick the most appropriate skill. If no other skill applies to a check to Recall Knowledge, use an appropriate Lore skill (usually at an untrained proficiency rank).
  • Use the characters' daily preparations as the time to reset anything that lasts roughly a day.
  • When a character accomplishes something noteworthy that doesn't have rules for XP, award them XP for an accomplishment (10 to 30 XP).
  • When the PCs fail at a task, look for a way they might fail forward, meaning the story moves forward with a negative consequence rather than the failure halting progress entirely.

Special Circumstances

Source Core Rulebook pg. 492 2.0
The player characters in your group will at times attempt tasks that should be easier or harder than the rules or adventure would otherwise lead you to expect, such as a PC Gathering Information in their hometown. In these cases, you can just apply a circumstance bonus or penalty. Usually, this is +1 or –1 for a minor but significant circumstance, but you can adjust this bonus or penalty to +2 or –2 for a major circumstance. The maximum bonus or penalty, +4 or –4, should apply only if someone has an overwhelming advantage or is trying something extremely unlikely but not quite impossible.

You can also add traits to actions. Let’s say that during a fight, Seelah dips her sword into a brazier of hot coals before swinging it at an enemy with a weakness to fire. You could add the fire trait to this attack. A PC getting an advantage in this way should usually have to use an action to do so, so Seelah would get the benefit for one attack, but to do it again she’d need to bury her sword in the coals once more.

Incorporating Additional Options

Source Core Rulebook pg. 492 2.0
You might grant players access to additional rule or character options. If you feel confident that allowing a character to take a particular option will be a good addition to your game, then go for it! If you’re uncertain or worried about a request, you don’t have to allow it, and it’s your call to make. However, try to meet players halfway or suggest alternatives. If you want to allow an option on a trial basis but are worried it might become a problem later, talk to the player beforehand and explain that you are tentatively allowing the option, but might change your mind later, after you see how the option can be used during play.