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Rules Index | GM Screen | Player's Guide

Chapter 1: Gamemastery Basics

Resolving Problems

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 30
Being a Game Master and running a game can be a tremendously rewarding and fulfilling experience: you get to sit down with friends old and new, roll some dice, tell stories, and have fun. That said, being a GM and running a game can present unique challenges. Sometimes problems present themselves at the table, and it’s up to the GM to resolve them.

When dealing with problems at the table, keep in mind the primary reason to play Pathfinder is to have fun. And that’s true for everyone—player or GM. Don’t “solve” a problem by reducing everyone’s enjoyment of the game or their ability to forge a path for their characters. Of course, sometimes your solution might not make everyone deliriously happy. Play style is a highly personal, individual thing, rarely does a group agree on all things all the time. Solving problems can be as collaborative as the rest of the game. Only a foolish GM ignores the players’ opinions— but that said, the final decision in resolving a problem rests with you.

Issues at the table arise occasionally. Broadly, such problems can be separated into four main categories: distractions, total party kills, problematic players, and power imbalances. The first of these is covered in detail on page 491 of the Core Rulebook, and guidance for the others appears here.

Total Party Kills

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 30
Perhaps the most feared of any outcome of a gaming session, a total party kill (TPK) can spell the end of an adventure or campaign. In a TPK, every member of the party dies. Think in advance about how comfortable you are with TPKs and discuss them with the other players. This can provide valuable insights into not only how you should handle one but also the implied level of lethality the players expect.

TPKs are rarely unavoidable. Usually it becomes evident at some point during the session, whether to everyone or only to you, that disaster looms. What the players do with this insight is up to them, but you have more control and can take steps to avoid the TPK. For example, perhaps the PCs’ foe gets distracted by something, an ally arrives to help the heroes, or the villain captures them instead of slaying them outright. The simplest path is to just allow a clear escape route the PCs can take—perhaps with a few characters still falling along the way. It’s not entirely your responsibility to defuse the TPK, but offering such opportunities gives players more say in their characters’ fates.

Should a TPK occur anyway, the kind of game you’re running should influence your approach to the situation. For example, in a campaign centered around dungeon crawling, a TPK is less of a problem—the players simply form a new adventuring party and take up where the dead ones left off. If you are running a story-intensive game in which each PC has a personal stake in defeating the villain, saving the town, or the like, a TPK could demolish multiple plot threads. Here, you might use the story you have in place, having the NPCs take up arms to find or avenge the slain group—or raise them from the dead.

Note that the game should continue only if the players want it to. The premature end of an adventure or campaign isn’t always a bad thing. If the group is interested in moving on, there’s nothing wrong with ending the campaign and starting something different.

Problematic Players

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 31
Most players who cause problems do so unintentionally— perhaps bringing out-of-game issues and stresses to the table. You shouldn’t immediately jump on every instance of problematic play—everyone has a bad night on occasion. However, if someone disrupts the game on an ongoing basis, you owe it to all the players to deal with the problem. If you don’t, bad feelings, grudges, and even ruined friendships could result.

Handling a problematic player requires tact: making demands in front of the rest of the group is rarely the best way to resolve the problem. Attempt to handle the problem privately away from the game, or call a break to have a private conversation if the situation is really urgent. As with all emotionally charged conversations, email, text messages and the like can lose the subtlety of speech—it’s better to meet the player face to face, if possible. Here are some problematic behaviors that often come up and might require you to intervene.
  • Obsessing over the letter of the rules.
  • Constantly “helping” other players make the optimal choice on their turn.
  • Making their character the center of attention, without allowing space for other players.
Other behaviors are unacceptable and must be dealt with firmly and decisively. These can be severe enough to pause the game in progress. Such actions speak to a deeper problem and require more drastic action to solve.
  • Repeatedly arguing with decisions made by other players or the GM.
  • Ignoring other players’ opinions.
  • Deliberately derailing the adventure’s plot.
  • Being deliberately rude or cruel to other players— especially if it’s on the basis of their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, political or religious affiliation, the color of their skin, or the like.

Safety Tools

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 31
Introducing and using safety tools at your table can help head off some problematic behaviors. The X-Card and Lines and Veils tools allow anyone who feels uncomfortable or unsafe to express their discomfort, with clear guidance on how the rest of the table should respond. This clarity sets obvious boundaries to help enforce the social rules of the table.

Ejecting a Player

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 31
Ultimately, there is no place for a serially or deliberately disruptive player in your gaming group. Such behavior is not fair to you or the other players, and the problem player needs to either modify their behavior or leave the group.

Before meeting with the problem player, discuss the situation with the other players in private to ensure you make the right call, and figure out what repercussions you expect and whether the game should continue at all.

When you break the news to the problem player, be compassionate but firmly state the decision is final and restate which behaviors are responsible. If parts of having the player in the game were rewarding or you want the player to remain a friend, make that clear and decide if a player’s behavior merits other changes to your relationship.

Power Imbalances

Source Gamemastery Guide pg. 31
You might end up with one PC who outshines everyone else. Perhaps the player is a rules expert with a powerful character, other players are less experienced or more focused on the story of their characters, or there’s just a rules combination or item that’s stronger than you expected. In any case, this imbalance might mean you have other players who feel ineffective, or the overpowered character’s player becomes bored because they aren’t challenged during gameplay.

Talk to the player between sessions, and make it clear that no one at the table is to blame in this situation. Most players have no problem making some concessions for the happiness of the group. If the problem results from rules options, offer an easy way to retrain. If the imbalance resulted from an item, come up with a way that item might need to be lost or sacrificed, but in a satisfying way that furthers the narrative.

If you meet resistance from the player, listen to their counterpoints. If you’re still convinced they need to change, you might need to be more firm.

It’s worth stating that players might still have fun, or even enjoy an instance of power imbalance. You don’t have to do anything to address it unless it limits fun at your table.