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Rules Index | GM Screen | Player's Guide

Chapter 1: Gamemastery Basics

Running Encounters

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 10
Running engaging encounters can require you to track a lot of different information. Knowing what details to prioritize can make encounters easier to run and more fun to play. This section provides tips to help you run encounters that are fast and entertaining to play.

Though the Core Rulebook discusses running encounters starting on page 493, this section supplements that information. Though this chapter contains detailed advice about many topics, it’s important to remember that, as a GM, you should primarily focus on the following tasks.
  • Answering questions quickly and decisively whenever possible.
  • Building anticipation for what happens next.
  • Emphasizing thrilling action and setting a rapid pace.
  • Letting players know when they’re up, and preferably when they’re “on deck” to go next.
  • Showing the immediate consequences of actions.
If you’re interested in building on the topics in this section, information on designing combat encounters appears on page 46. Additionally, Chapter 3 presents subsystems used in special types of encounters, such as the influence subsystem.

Speed of Play

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Encounters should move quickly, giving the PCs just enough time to savor successes and lament failures. This requires effort from everyone, but you can make it easier by running creatures and NPCs efficiently. First off, don’t worry too much about little mistakes you make when running encounters. If you forgot to apply a creature’s special bonus or didn’t take an action that would have prevented the creature from taking damage, it’s not a big deal. Keep an eye on what you emphasize during the adventure, as well. Be quick when describing a normal attack, but spend a little more time on a critical hit or a big spell. This all boils down to significance. It’s fine to slow down the game for something important, but it’s best to move briskly through anything less important. As you run the game, you’ll quickly develop a sense for what’s significant and what’s not.

Looking Up Rules

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One of the primary ways the game slows down is when you or another player needs to look up a rule. For something that isn’t too impactful, it’s better to just make a ruling on the spot and move on. Tell the player they can look it up when it’s not their turn, and you’ll play it as written after that, but that the game needs to move on in the meantime. It’s okay to look up something that’s both significant and heavily rules-dependent, such as a spell description or the death and dying rules. Even then, reciting a full chunk of rules text can pull players out of the flow of play, so summarize. It also helps to train your players to look things up in advance if they think they’ll need them, so they’re ready to go when their turns come around. This can be tough as a GM, since it’s essentially always your turn. However, you can ask a player to look something up for you, or, if you need to pause long enough to reference certain books, remind the players to plan for their next turns while you’re busy.


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Though “rewinding” can happen in any mode of play, it’s usually most troublesome in encounters. Rewinding happens when a player forgot to add in a certain bonus or take a certain action, or wishes they had used their actions in a different order, and wants to rewind to account for what they missed. The best policy is usually to let them rewind as needed within their own turn but stop them before they intrude into someone else’s. This keeps interruptions within reasonable bounds. You might find some adjustments are easy enough to make outside of a turn and can be allowed. For instance, if someone forgot to add the fire damage from a flaming rune to one of their hits, it’s pretty easy to reduce the monster’s HP on another turn, but if they realized their attack missed only because they forgot the bonus from bless, that could be too much of an interruption. Your ruling should stand on such matters. Try to be consistent about what kinds of things you will rewind for and when.

Complex Rolls

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You’ll often make multiple rolls at the same time, especially when attempting saving throws for multiple creatures against area or multi-target spells. This can sometimes take a considerable amount of time if you’re resolving the result of each creature’s save and then determining its degree of success. To do so quickly, you could use one of the following techniques. Each of the examples below uses a PC’s spell as an example, but these recommendations also apply to similar rolls that aren’t caused by spells.
  • Get the PC’s Difficulty Class first, and have the player roll damage while you roll the saving throws.
  • Use separate colors of dice for the different types of foes, or arrange the dice in such a way that it’s easier for you to tell which creatures or NPCs are which.
  • Go in order from the best enemy results (the highest total) to the worst. This means you’ll need to ask for the results on a success only once, the damage on a failure once, and so on. It also means you only need to figure out when you’re moving to a lower degree of success, rather than recalculating them each time.
This can be more of a challenge when asking for PC rolls. Make sure you get the attention of every player whose PC is affected. Have them all roll but hold off on announcing their results. While they roll their saves, roll damage or other variable effects. Then, announce the DC. Say, “who critically succeeded?” “who succeeded?” and so on down the line, so you only have to share the results for each category once. You can choose not to announce the DC if you want and ask for results by multiples of 10 instead, but it typically takes longer, and it’s still possible that the players can determine or estimate the DC anyway.

Enemy Tactics

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As noted on page 493 of the Core Rulebook, enemies don’t need to make perfect decisions. It’s usually better to make a decision quickly than to pick the perfect enemy tactic. The chaos of combat, desperation, or ego could all cause a villain to make a poor decision, and that’s something you can play up if you realize they’ve done so, acting out the foe’s response to their own folly, or chiding them through the sarcastic remark of one of their allies.


Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 11
The rules for rolling initiative can be found on page 468 of the Core Rulebook, and the GM guidelines on 498. Below you’ll find specifics on how to run certain types of initiative or deal with problems. These are guidelines, and you might prefer to execute initiative in a different way at your table.

When do you ask players to roll initiative? In most cases, it’s pretty simple: you call for the roll as soon as one participant intends to attack (or issue a challenge, draw a weapon, cast a preparatory spell, start a social encounter such as a debate, or otherwise begin to use an action that their foes can’t help but notice). A player will tell you if their character intends to start a conflict, and you’ll determine when the actions of NPCs and other creatures initiate combat. Occasionally, two sides might stumble across one another. In this case, there’s not much time to decide, but you should still ask if anyone intends to attack. If the PCs and NPCs alike just want to talk or negotiate, there is no reason to roll initiative only to drop out of combat immediately!

Initiative and Stealth

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When one or both sides of an impending battle are being stealthy, you’ll need to deal with the impacts of Stealth on the start of the encounter. Anyone who’s Avoiding Notice should attempt a Stealth check for their initiative. All the normal bonuses and penalties apply, including any bonus for having cover. You can give them the option to roll Perception instead, but if they do they forsake their Stealth and are definitely going to be detected.

To determine whether someone is undetected by other participants in the encounter, you still compare their Stealth check for initiative to the Perception DC of their enemies. They’re undetected by anyone whose DC they meet or exceed. So what do you do if someone rolls better than everyone else on initiative, but all their foes beat their Perception DC? Well, all the enemies are undetected, but not unnoticed. That means the participant who rolled high still knows someone is around, and can start moving about, Seeking, and otherwise preparing to fight. The characters Avoiding Notice still have a significant advantage, since that character needs to spend actions and attempt additional checks in order to find them. What if both sides are sneaking about? They might just sneak past each other entirely, or they might suddenly run into one another if they’re heading into the same location.

Batch Initiative

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If you have multiple enemies of the same type, such as four goblin warriors, you might want to have them act on the same initiative for simplicity. If you do, you can roll just one initiative check for all of them. They still take individual turns and can still individually change their initiative by Delaying. Note that a lucky initiative check could mean the batched creatures can easily gang up on the PCs, and a terrible roll could mean they all get struck down before they can do anything, so use this technique only when necessary to keep the game moving.

Placing Characters on the Map

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If the PCs are already moving on a grid, as often happens in small dungeons, you already know where they are when they roll initiative. If they’re moving in free-form exploration, place them on the map when they roll initiative. The fastest way is to have the players set up their miniatures in a basic marching order ahead of time, then just move them onto the map in that formation. When that doesn’t work, such as when one or more PCs were in a different location or the map doesn’t fit the marching order, you can either set up the PC minis yourself, then ask if everybody is happy with where they are, or have the players place their own minis. If you find having the players do it themselves causes too much indecision (especially if they try to count out distances in advance), you can switch methods. Remember to place characters using Stealth in reasonable places to hide, even if that means you have to adjust the marching order to do so.

Inappropriate Skills

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As described in the Core Rulebook on page 498, you can allow PCs to roll skills other than Perception (or Stealth when Avoiding Notice) for initiative. You might find that once a player gets to use a stronger skill for initiative, they’ll keep trying to use it for future encounters. As long as the narrative plays out in a reasonable manner, it’s fine to allow the skill. If you find that they start making up odd circumstances to use their pet skill, or that their justifications for using the skill take too long at the table, just tell them you’d like them to go back to using Perception for a while.

Ad Hoc Bonuses and Penalties

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This section covers a few ground rules for how to best respond to PC tactics, when to apply ad hoc bonuses and penalties, and when to use certain tactics for NPCs. When PCs put effort into getting advantages against their foes, there should be some payoff provided their tactics make sense in the narrative. Ad hoc bonuses and penalties give you some mechanical tools to emphasize that. Also keep in mind that you can change the flow of the story to respond to tactics as well. Changing an enemy’s behavior can be a more satisfying consequence than just getting a bonus. When you’re determining whether to grant a special bonus that’s not defined in the rules, including when a player asks you whether they get a bonus for doing something, ask yourself the following questions.
  • Is this the result of an interesting, surprising, or novel strategy by the character?
  • Did this take effort or smart thinking to set up?
  • Is this easy to replicate in pretty much every battle?
If you answered yes to any of the first two, it’s more likely you should assign a bonus—typically a +1 or +2 circumstance bonus. However, if you answered yes to the third, you probably shouldn’t unless you really do want to see that tactic used over and over again. Try to use ad hoc bonuses a little more often than ad hoc penalties. If you do think a penalty might be appropriate, ask yourself the following.
  • Does the environment or terrain create any applicable disadvantages for the character?
  • Should the character have expected this would be more difficult based on what they already knew?
  • Was this circumstance caused by a bad decision on the part of the one taking the penalty?
  • Is this negative circumstance easy to replicate in pretty much every battle?
Once again, answering yes to most of these questions means it is more likely you should apply a penalty, and answering yes to the final question means it less likely you should do so.

Adjudicating Actions

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Some of the basic actions of the game require you to interpret how a rule should apply. Here, you’ll find advice the types of rules calls that can occur frequently. For rules decisions that are either/or (such as whether a creature can Aid or Take Cover), a PC can usually determine before they take the action whether doing so is viable; if it isn’t viable for some reason, alert them that it won’t work before they spend time, actions or resources trying. There are some exceptions, especially if the reason an action wouldn’t work is something a character wouldn’t know. For example, if a character tries to Take Cover behind a wall, not realizing it’s illusory, you shouldn’t reveal the deception prematurely.


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It’s up to you whether someone’s preparation is enough to let them Aid an ally. The preparation should be specific to the task at hand. Helping someone hold a lockpick steady might be enough preparation to Aid an attempt to Pick a Lock, but just saying you’re going to “encourage” them likely wouldn’t. Second, the character who is attempting to Aid needs to be in a proper position to help, and able to convey any necessary information. Helping a character Climb a wall is pretty tough if the character a PC wishes to Aid is nowhere near them. Similarly, a character usually needs to be next to their ally or a foe to Aid the ally in attacking the foe. You’ll also need to determine how long the preparation takes. Typically, a single action is sufficient to help with a task that’s completed in a single round, but to help someone perform a long-term task, like research, the character has to help until the task is finished.


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The Ready activity lets the acting person choose the trigger for their readied action. However, you might sometimes need to put limits on what they can choose. Notably, the trigger must be something that happens in the game world and is observable by the character rather than a rules concept that doesn’t exist in world. For instance, if a player says, “I Ready to shoot an arrow at her if she uses a concentrate action,” or “I Ready to attack him if he has fewer than 47 Hit Points,” find out what their character is trying to specifically observe. If they don’t have a clear answer for that, they need to adjust their action.


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The Seek action leaves it up to you how long a search should take. Use common sense. Most of the time, just trying to spot a creature hiding in a small area, or something else you could find with a simple Seek action rather than a long-term Search exploration activity, should default to a single action. The biggest distinction is whether something uses 3 actions or fewer—and can therefore be accomplished in a single turn—or requires more than that and can’t be accomplished in an encounter at all. Consider whether it makes sense for the character to pull this off during the encounter or not, and whether that could be an interesting wrinkle in the story.

Sense Motive

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When someone tries to Sense the Motive of an NPC, you’ll need to figure out how to convey the information they receive. It’s best to try to convey this indirectly, such as by describing a lying target’s body language, odd word choices, sweating, or other details rather than saying, “They aren’t behaving normally.” However, sometimes dropping a punchy, “Oh, she is 100% lying about this!” on a critical success can be satisfying. You also might need to determine when the situation changes enough for someone to try to Sense Motive again. Usually, this means either the behavior of the subject needs to change, or the person attempting the check needs to receive new evidence that something is out of the ordinary. If another PC tries to Sense Motive, gets different information about the target, and shares it, that doesn’t really count as new information for a PC who tried previously. Rather, it’s up to the players to roleplay out any changes in their thinking as a result.

Take Cover

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You’ll often need to determine whether someone can Take Cover. They usually just need a large enough object to hide behind. Imagine the character crouching, and picture whether the object could almost entirely cover up their silhouette. Taking Cover might also require them to Drop Prone, such as if they want to take cover under a table. Most of the time, you can let them combine this with the Take Cover action instead of using 2 separate actions.

Maps and Miniatures

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A grid and miniatures can make it easier to visualize combat for players and give a visual centerpiece for the players to focus on. Some advice for drawing maps appears on pages 52–53. A setup can range from a basic grid with some hasty marker lines and coins for miniatures to a full-color Flip- Mat with official prepainted minis or cardboard pawns, all the way to a set of 3-D dungeon terrain and hand-painted minis for each character. Many online tabletops have preset maps, token packs, and built-in functions for movement and line of sight. All these are fun to play on! Your setup should match your time commitment, budget, and the aesthetics you want.

You can also bring the setting alive by describing sensory details like sounds, smells, temperature, and 3-D elements that aren’t represented on your map. Including the echoing ring of a sword striking a shield, an errant ray of frost freezing solid an apple in a bowl of fruit on the table, and the like makes the game feel more alive.

Placing miniatures on a grid can make it feel like you need to be exacting with the rules, but there’s still room for improvisation! You might give another 5 feet of movement to someone running downhill if it will make their turn more dramatic. You’re empowered to give players minor boosts that fit the story you want to tell, and to fill in nuances of the location beyond the elements covered in the Core Rulebook.


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You determine whether a character has cover. The rules for drawing lines found in the Core Rulebook are useful in simple cases, but in more complicated situations, use your own discretion to make the call. Consider the details of the environment and 3-D space beyond what’s on the battle mat. For instance, hanging banners might give cover, or a PC who has climbed onto a ledge might have a clear shot at an enemy standing behind a short wall. Be generous to PCs who use creativity to get into smart positions, especially if they spend valuable actions to move or Take Cover.

Splitting and Combining Movement

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The different types of actions representing movement are split up for convenience of understanding how the rules work with a creature’s actions. However, you can end up in odd situations, such as when a creature wants to jump vertically to get something and needs to move just a bit to get in range, then Leap, then continue moving. This can end up feeling like they’re losing a lot of their movement to make this happen. At your discretion, you can allow the PCs to essentially combine these into one fluid movement as a 2-action activity: moving into range for a Leap, then Leaping, then using the rest of their Speed.

This typically works only for chaining types of movement together. Doing something like Interacting to open a door or making a Strike usually arrests movement long enough that doing so in the middle of movement isn’t practical.

Going Gridless

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As described on page 494 of the Core Rulebook, you can play encounters without a grid. This is best for groups who can easily imagine their surroundings without a visual aid, and for battles that don’t require understanding a complex physical space. Your game doesn’t have to be entirely on or entirely off maps—you might decide to play out most simple fights without a grid, then use one for highly tactical fights or major set pieces. As noted in the Core Rulebook, the 3-action structure is your best friend. You might find yourself answering a lot of questions about actions and space, like “Can I get there this turn,” or “How many of the gnolls can I catch in a fireball?” If you find yourself needing to repeatedly remind players of the physical features of the environment or enemy positioning, that might mean you’re making your encounters too tactical for what a gridless game supports. This style works better to encourage imaginative, cinematic action and quick play without getting too hung up on details.

Special Battles and Movement

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The Core Rulebook covers the essential rules for mounted, aerial, and aquatic combat on page 478, but more complex battles can require specialized rules.

Mounted Combat

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The logistics of mounted combat take some extra work. If you know one is coming up, make sure the fight takes place in a location with plenty of space to move, since you’ll likely be dealing with multiple larger creatures. For a fight in which only one side has mounts, you might want an environment with a few areas too small for mounts, so the side on foot can get a tactical advantage there to offset the other side’s greater mobility.

When the PCs are mounted, their enemies should focus most of their attacks on the PCs, not their mounts. Having foes target PCs’ mounts too often gets really annoying, so have the enemies remember who the real threat is! When PCs fight mounted enemies, try to keep the mount’s level fairly close to the PCs, rather than putting a 13th-level enemy on a 2nd-level war horse, use an 11th-level greater nightmare or something similar. This will fit better thematically and prevent the enemy from being dismounted too easily. If a mount is knocked out, the rider might be able to dismount without trouble if the mount was stationary, but if they were in motion, you should probably have the rider attempt a Reflex save. If they fail, the rider is thrown a short distance and falls prone. Setting a simple expert DC of 20 often works well for such checks.

Mounted combat on a grid is difficult for a running fight with both sides racing at full speed. For something like that, it can be better to no grid at all, though miniatures can still help for relative positioning and distances for ranged attacks. For such a race, consider using the chase subsystem instead.

Different Types of Mounts

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The mount rules are for common cases: humanoids riding quadrupedal animals. However, you might allow someone to ride a beast or other type of creature by making a few adjustments. For an intelligent mount (such as a pegasus or unicorn), use the standard rules for mounted combat, but instead of attempting a check to Command an Animal, the rider uses the same number of actions to ask the creature to do what they want. As the GM, you determine whether the creature does as requested and whether Diplomacy checks or the like are needed. It’s recommended you disallow humanoid creatures and most other bipeds as mounts, especially if they are PCs. If you choose to allow this anyway, either the rider or mount should use at least one hand to hold onto the other, and both should spend an action on each of their turns to remain mounted.

Aerial Combat

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Determining positioning in the air can be tricky, and it’s often best to be more relaxed with movement rules, flanking, and so forth than you would be on a flat grid. Note that battles can get more spread out with flight. If any creature is flying, it’s important to establish the height of potential obstacles in the area early. This way, no one’s surprised to suddenly find out the ceiling is lower than they thought or tall trees create a barrier. Be careful about using aerial combat before PCs have magic that lets them fly. Be especially careful with flying foes who use ranged attacks, because PCs might have few good tools to fight them.

The rules for flight say that a creature might need to attempt an Acrobatics check to Maneuver in Flight to pull off tricky maneuvers. You can generally use the same judgment you would for calling for Acrobatics checks when someone’s moving on the ground. Trying to dive through a narrow space, make a sharp turn, or the like might require checks, usually with a simple DC.

Falls can be deadly, and often happen when fly or a similar spell gets dispelled. This is part of the risk of flying! Flying enemies might keep closer to the ground to avoid this danger, or have the feather fall spell to prevent the damage or a jade cat talisman to reduce it.

Aquatic Combat

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The rules in the Core Rulebook are fairly generous to allow high-action battles underwater. Two significant challenges for non-aquatic creatures are breathing underwater (or holding their breath) and lacking a swim Speed. It’s often best to save aquatic adventure until higher levels when PCs can get magical solutions for these problems, but you can instead give out such magic early, since it’s not easy to exploit in land-based adventures the way flight magic can be. As with flight, dispelling can be deadly if someone relies on magic to breathe underwater. It’s generally best to avoid having enemies who can breathe underwater dispel the water-breathing magic aiding PCs. Though PCs might be able to use air bubble and quickly cast water breathing again, having this happen repeatedly can be frustrating, and being forced to prepare an extremely high-level water breathing spell to avoid it isn’t much fun either. Lacking a swim Speed is easier to deal with, except for characters with poor Athletics, who might need to strategize around their shortcomings. The DC to Swim underwater shouldn’t be very high—typically 15, or 13 in calm water.

When someone gets knocked out underwater, they usually float up or sink down. You decide based on their buoyancy; most adventurers carry a heavy enough load to sink.

When one group is in water and another outside it, note that the aquatic combat rules for attacks apply when either party is in water. You might judge that a character in the water is concealed against someone outside it due to distortion, and vice versa.

Unexpected Difficulty

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What do you do when an encounter ends up being far more or less challenging than you anticipated? If the encounter is unlikely to kill all the characters, it might be best to roll with it, unless the fight is so frustrating that no one really wants to continue it. If it is likely to kill everyone, strongly consider ways to end the encounter differently. The villain might offer the PCs the chance to surrender, consider their task complete and leave, or use their advantage to get something else they want. If the worst does happen, suggestions for dealing with a total party kill can be found on page 30.

If a battle is too easy, it’s often best to let the players enjoy their dominance. However, if you intended this to be a centerpiece battle, that might feel anticlimactic. Look for ways the enemy might escape or bring in reinforcements, but the PCs’ success should still matter. Make sure the PCs feel the enemy’s desperation—possibly have the enemy sacrifice something important to them to secure their escape.

In both these cases, consider whether the discrepancy from your expectations is due to luck. One side benefiting from extreme luck is to be expected from time to time. However, if the challenge comes down to a factor you had control over as a GM—like unfavorable terrain making things hard for the PCs or a monster with an overpowered ability—it’s more likely you should make adjustments.

Social Encounters

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Sometimes you’ll want to run a social conflict in encounter mode. The basic guidelines on how to do so appear on page 494 of the Core Rulebook, and this section expands on them with additional advice and examples. Social encounters still require opposition—typically an adversary arguing against you, but sometimes institutional opposition or strongly held beliefs. It’s important to note that some NPCs are much more adept at certain types of social encounters than at combat. You can find guidelines on creating such NPCs, and some examples in the NPC Gallery chapter. The Core Rulebook suggests a few means of measuring success and progress in social encounters. If you want something more detailed, look at Victory Points, or the more specific rules for Influence.

As noted in the Core Rulebook, social encounters don’t usually use 6-second rounds. The time scale you use can be flexible. Usually, you’ll want a participant to go on just long enough to make one salient point and attempt one check before moving to the next character in the initiative order. Be flexible and encouraging as you run a social encounter, and don’t worry about nitty-gritty details like character movement except in extreme cases. Allow the PCs to share information about as freely as the players can around the table. If one character is watching the opponent for signs they’re lying, assume they can easily convey that to other characters subtly. It’s good to remind players of things their characters might know or be likely to notice even if the players, in the moment, don’t have them in mind. Describe NPCs’ mental states and ask for clarification about the PCs’ attitudes when needed. The following list describes various types of social encounters that PCs may find themselves in.
  • Besting a rival bard in a battle of wits
  • Brokering peace between warring groups
  • Convincing a dragon not to eat the party
  • Convincing a monarch to defend against an invasion
  • Disproving a rival’s scientific theories before an alchemists’ guild assembly
  • Ending a tense standoff
  • Exposing a slippery villain’s deception before a court of nobles
  • Getting a desperate criminal to free a hostage
  • Persuading a clan to trust their ancient rivals
  • Petitioning for admittance to a magical academy
  • Proving someone’s innocence in front of a judge
  • Securing a major contract over a rival
  • Quelling an angry mob
  • Swaying a fallen priest to return to the faith
  • Tricking a charlatan into contradicting their past lies
  • Turning a leader against their corrupted advisor
  • Turning a low-ranking cultists against their leader
  • Urging a lawmaker to grant clemency or a stay of execution
  • Wining a debate about a contentious topic

Related Rules

Encounter Mode (Source Core Rulebook pg. 468 2.0)