Rules Index | GM Screen | Player's Guide

Chapter 1: Gamemastery Basics

General Advice

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 7
This section covers topics related to running the game. If you want to know how to build specific types of new content, this information can be found throughout Chapter 2 in sections such as Building Creatures, Building Worlds, and Settlements.

Both the Core Rulebook and this book explore many topics, but don’t feel like you have to master them all to be a good GM! It’s important to remember you’re not perfect, and the other players won’t expect you to be. Trial and error, mistakes and triumphs—they’re all part of running any game.

Session Zero

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 7
Some groups prefer to have everyone create their characters in advance and show up ready to play. However, getting the group together to make characters can be fun, and can benefit your game down the line. A session for building characters is commonly called “session zero.” Session zero is typically shorter than other game sessions, so you might plan a short introductory scene for after everyone’s finished building their characters, or just hang out and do something else after you’ve planned your characters.

Having a session zero lets players share character details, making it easier for their characters to have links and relationships with one another before the adventure starts, and gives players the chance to become invested in each other’s characters by organically learning what decisions other players made. These sessions also give veterans the chance to help less experienced players through character creation. Lastly, session zero can give you a better understanding of the characters and help the players integrate them into the adventure in interesting ways.

Pacing Game Session

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 7
Chapter 10 of the Core Rulebook explains how to structure, start, and run a game session. This is all part of pacing your game. Most sessions should have lulls in the action punctuated by challenges such as intense encounters, puzzle-based exploration, and investigation. Presenting players with a variety of such obstacles can help them feel more engaged at the table. Information flow matters, too. If the group meets a large number of NPCs in short order, that can make it harder for them to remember individuals. It helps to break things up into smaller scenes and memorable moments.

Knowing when to end a session takes practice. About 20 minutes before a play session is scheduled to conclude, it can be beneficial to figure out how you’d like to end. It can be memorable to end with a cliffhanger—a moment so curious and abrupt it raises questions about what happens next. Examples include ending play before combat, when the PCs find vital information, or as they discover treasure. Doing so can inspire the PCs to discuss the game between sessions. Note anything that could be satisfying to resolve over media, such as email. This could include divvying up treasure, leveling up, or completing downtime tasks.

Stakes and Consequences

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 7
A GM should always convey a clear picture of the stakes and consequences of the PCs’ actions or inaction. What horrible things will happen if the PCs fail? What can they achieve if they go beyond what’s expected of them? A well-constructed adventure conveys the stakes at the outset, but it’s also important to remind the players of those stakes throughout play. The Core Rulebook summarizes the scale of the stakes for each mode of play, and these are varied on purpose. A game where the stakes are extremely high all the time cuts out the opportunity for low-key scenes, and can be overwhelming or even monotonous. In most games, players enjoy having some scenes where their characters can relax and socialize with low stakes as well.

Consequences should be specific and evocative. Don’t just tell the players what happened after their characters’ success or failure; let their characters witness it in the world. Are they greeted as heroes by townsfolk? Does the bastion of evil crack and shudder, falling apart as the PCs escape? Does a failure lead to the death of an ally and a somber funeral? It’s usually best if the PCs can foresee the consequences, at least in a general sense. If a villain demonstrates their intention to conquer a city, and the PCs don’t stop them, then the city gets conquered. It’s OK if you have an idea for an interesting subversion occasionally, but keep those to a minimum or the chain of cause and effect will become too muddy.

You can emphasize consequences by awarding PCs accomplishment XP. It serves as a good reminder to the players, reinforcing their success.

Failing Forward

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 8
An unexpected failure can bring the game to a halt, particularly during exploration. “Failing forward” means finding a way to progress the story instead of just saying, “That didn’t work.” This doesn’t mean that the group can’t fail, or that the PCs should get what they wanted despite failing. Rather, it means that a failure might still impart more information, reveal a way to improve their chances next time, or even cause unforeseen difficulties. Doing so means the player’s choice to attempt a check mattered, even if the results weren’t what they wanted. Allowing the PCs to fail forward means fewer dead ends and perfunctory checks. It’s important however, not to put unnecessary pressure on yourself to do so all the time. Sometimes you won’t know immediately how a PC can fail forward, and in those cases, it’s usually best to just move on.


Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 8
As a GM, you often make things up on the fly. You can find tips for improvising rules on page 491 of the Core Rulebook and within the Adjudicating Rules section of this book. When an issue seems to pertains to the story instead of the rules, ask yourself the following questions.
  • Does something already established in our story so far tell me what should happen here?
  • If an NPC is involved, what would their personality lead them to do?
  • What does the player expect to happen?
  • What would best fit the themes of our story?
You might not have a good answer for every question, but asking them can inspire useful solutions. If what you need to invent is significant in the storyline or world, there’s nothing wrong with asking the group to take a little break while you fill in the gap. If it’s not particularly significant and you can’t come up with anything more compelling, it’s also okay to say, “Nothing happens,” and move on.

Often, a player will ask, “What happens when I do that?” This is a good indicator that the player expects that what they’ve done will draw a reaction from an NPC or the environment. Unless the player is way off base, provide an in-game response, even if it’s minor. The player has telegraphed what matters to them, and the perceived importance of their action can draw them into the game.

False Information

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 8
A critical failure to Recall Knowledge can result in you needing to convey false information, requiring some improvisation. If you aren’t careful, this information can be perceived by the PCs as too silly, or could derail the game. For example, if a PC misinterpreted text about the god of commerce, Abadar, saying they believe the god is an incompetent chaotic spendthrift who’s bad with money is absurd. Similarly, if they incorrectly believe Abadar will reward them with great wealth if they ring bells in four different temple corners, this could send them on a tangent.

Providing false information can cause the PCs to make mistakes, but the consequences should typically be immediate rather than continual or far in the future. Avoid dispensing false information that might not be used for hours or entire sessions, after the check is forgotten. If you’re unsure, the safest form of false information is information that’s wrong but not in a way that causes major consequences. Remember that a critical failure says you get incorrect information, not that you get important-seeming false information. Erroneously believing Abadar’s symbol is a set of scales instead of a key might lead to a miscommunication, but one that’s not dangerous, pretty easy to clear up, and only a little embarrassing for the PC.

Secret Checks

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 8
During play, you roll some checks in secret instead of allowing the player to do so, as explained in the Secret Checks section of the Core Rulebook. This rule helps ensure that a player remains uncertain at times when their character is unsure of how a situation may resolve, immersing the player in their character’s perspective. It can be handy to keep a list of the PCs’ modifiers on hand to help you roll secret checks more quickly. At least, you should record each player’s Perception modifier, their saving throw modifiers (especially Will), and the skill modifiers of any skills they often use to Recall Knowledge. Check in anytime the PCs level up, and consider asking the players to update you when any of these modifiers change.

You can still have the players roll the checks even if an action has the secret trait. This is usually best done when the results are going to be immediate or when stakes are low, like when the PC is trying to recall something during downtime that they’ll see is false through the course of their research. You can instead have the players handle all their rolls, secret or otherwise. This works best when the group is interested in leaning into the dramatic irony of knowing a PC is wrong and playing up their characters’ mistakes.

Hero Points

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 9
Page 507 of the Core Rulebook offers guidelines for determining how many Hero Points to award and when to do so. These recommendations are flexible. Consider Hero Points a way to reinforce your personal style of Game Mastering and to reward what you value during play. The toughest part of awarding Hero Points can be remembering to do it! Keeping a Hero Point token on hand in front of you can provide a visual and tactile reminder. You can also solicit help from your players by asking them to remind you when they think a PC’s action merits a Hero Point.


Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 9
Knowledge the players have that their characters don’t is called “metagame knowledge,” and using it to influence characters’ decisions is called “metagaming.” Some metagaming results naturally from play and is wise to disregard. The wizard aiming a fireball precisely enough to include three enemies in the very edge of the spell’s area is probably unrealistic, but isn’t that disruptive to play. Things get more questionable if the player says, “That’s a rakshasa, so don’t use divine spells against it,” regardless of whether their character has encountered a rakshasa before or identified the creature. Each group is different, and the assumption of what the characters know varies. If metagaming starts to get out of hand, you might just use some gentle reminders, like, “I’m not sure your character’s aware of that,” or, “Can you explain your character’s thinking when they do that?” If the problem persists, see the guidelines mentioned in the Problematic Players section.

Portraying NPCs

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 9
Although the PCs are the stars of the game, NPCs make the world around the PCs vibrant. They can become a part of the story, sometimes for years, weaving into the story right alongside the PCs. Portray NPCs however it works for you. Some GMs keep it simple, describing the NPCs simply by their looks, or their hook (see below). Others go into more detail, using accents, mannerisms, or acting.

Because NPCs have smaller roles than PCs, imparting enough information to convey their identities while they interact with the party can be challenging. When you create an NPC, start by integrating a single “hook” into their concept: a widowed merchant, a refugee from a distant realm, or a child who constantly asks awkward questions. Each hints at a backstory but is easily described in a synopsis. If the NPC continues to interact with the party, you can then add to their backstory later.

NPC Limitations

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 9
Always remember that the PCs have the greatest role in your story. Avoid including allied NPCs who could easily solve any problem the PCs get assigned. An extremely powerful NPC should be engaged with matters beyond what the PCs are tasked with or have some limitation that necessitates the PCs’ involvement. Remember that an NPC is not “your character” in the way each player has a character. Though NPCs who travel with the party can be effective and fun when handled with caution, an NPC who effectively acts as the GM’s character is often called a GMPC (Game Master Player Character) and can contribute to a feeling that the players are being coerced into making certain decisions.


Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 9
NPCs, even allies, can shift allegiances. They might betray, fail, or sell out their companions, which can make for a meaningful story event. If an NPC is betraying the party in some way, lay groundwork early on so the players don’t feel ambushed by the twist. If the players can look back and see a clear path to this result, it is likely they’ll feel the decision makes sense in the context of the story. Try to give the NPC a “tell” or a paper trail they can detect.

Respecting the Character

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 9
Sometimes, when creating characters, a GM can unintentionally play into themes that can be harmful or hurtful. For example, an NPC with a background of abuse, a former or current slave, or a character with disabilities requires respectful handling. This is particularly true if you, as the GM, do not have the same life experience as the NPC in question. If you want to include these themes for an NPC, you should probably bring it up with your players beforehand and set expectations. You don’t need to spoil the character, but sitting down and checking in with your players can help prevent unpleasant surprises and is better than assuming. To keep the representation respectful, avoid clichés and don’t use the hook as a joke. Your group’s guidelines for objectionable content can also help you portray NPCs respectfully.

A Proper End

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 9
An NPC’s story should have a satisfying ending. The NPC might leave your story when they achieve a major goal, go on to other adventures, give up their dream, or die. The death of a beloved NPC should have weight. Make it sympathetic and powerful, and ideally have it take place “on stage” with the PCs present. Be prepared that NPC deaths might stir up strong emotions within the group, and be prepared to cut the session short or to fade to black to mitigate the full brunt of the event if necessary. An NPC’s death should matter beyond the PCs’ emotions or search for revenge, too—maybe the NPC’s sacrifice saved a village or inspired others. Let players see that legacy carried on.