Running a Game Session
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
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 will 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 the game 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).
Running A Session
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.
Starting A Session
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.
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 Interruptions
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
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 adding 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.
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, a character 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 the character 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
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.
You can purchase adventures at paizo.com/store/pathfinder/adventures, opengamingstore.com, your local game store, or many book stores.
Running Modes of Play
Pathfinder sessions are divided into three different modes of play: encounters, exploration, and downtime. Each mode represents different kinds of situations, with specific stakes and time scales, and characters can use different sorts of actions and reactions in each.
Encounters take place in real time or slower, and they involve direct engagement between players and enemies, potential allies, or each other. Combat and direct social interaction usually take place in encounter mode.
Exploration is the connective tissue of an adventure, and it is used whenever characters are exploring a place where there’s danger or uncertainty, such as an unfamiliar city or a dungeon. In exploration mode, characters aren’t in immediate peril, but they must still be on their toes. Exploration and encounters are collectively called adventuring.
When the party isn’t adventuring, the characters are in downtime. This mode covers most of a normal person’s life, such as mundane, day-to-day tasks and working toward long-term goals.
Encounter mode is the most structured mode of play, and you’ll mostly be following the rules presented in Chapter 9 to run this mode. Because you usually call for initiative during exploration before transitioning into an encounter, guidelines for initiative order appear in the discussion of exploration mode.
Stakes: Moderate to high. Encounters always have significant stakes, and they are played in a step-by-step time frame to reflect that.
Time Scale: Encounter mode is highly structured and proceeds in combat rounds for combat encounters, while other sorts of encounters can have rounds of any length. In combat, 1 minute consists of 10 rounds, where each combat round is 6 seconds long, but you might decide a verbal confrontation proceeds in minute-long or longer rounds to give each speaker enough time to make a solid point.
Actions and Reactions: In combat encounters, each participant’s turn is broken into discrete actions, and participants can use reactions when their triggers occur.
Reactions can occur in social situations, though their triggers are usually more descriptive and less tactical.
Choosing Adversaries’ Actions
Players often coordinate and plan to be as efficient as possible, but their adversaries might not. As the GM, you’re roleplaying these foes, and you decide their tactics.
Most creatures have a basic grasp of simple tactics like flanking or focusing on a single target. But you should remember that they also react based on emotions and make mistakes—perhaps even more than the player characters do.
When selecting targets or choosing which abilities to use, rely on the adversaries’ knowledge of the situation, not your own. You might know that the cleric has a high Will save modifier, but a monster might still try to use a fear ability on her. That doesn’t mean you should play adversaries as complete fools; they can learn from their mistakes, make sound plans, and even research the player characters in advance.
Adversaries usually don’t attack a character who’s knocked out. Even if a creature knows a fallen character might come back into the fight, only the most vicious creatures focus on helpless foes rather than the more immediate threats around them.
Running adversaries is a mix of being true to the creature and doing what’s best for the drama of the game. Think of your encounter like a fight scene in a movie or novel. If the fighter taunts a fire giant to draw its attention away from the fragile wizard, the tactically sound decision is for the giant to keep pummeling the wizard. But is that the best choice for the scene? Perhaps everyone will have more fun if the giant redirects its ire to the infuriating fighter.
What happens if you’ve planned a fight or challenge and the PCs find a way to avoid it entirely? This could leave them behind in XP or cause them to miss important information or treasure.
In the case of XP, the guidelines are simple: If the player characters avoided the challenge through smart tactical play, a savvy diplomatic exchange, clever use of magic, or another approach that required ingenuity and planning, award them the normal XP for the encounter.
If they did something that took only moderate effort or was a lucky break, like finding a secret passage and using it to avoid a fight, award them XP for a minor or moderate accomplishment. In an adventure that’s more free-form, like a sprawling dungeon with multiple paths, there might be no reward for bypassing an encounter, because doing so was trivial.
You’ll have to think on your feet if information or items get skipped when players bypass encounters. First, look for another reasonable place in the adventure to place the information or item. If it makes sense, move the original encounter to another part of the adventure and give the PCs a major advantage for bypassing the encounter in the first place.
A combat encounter typically ends when all the creatures on one side are killed or knocked unconscious. Once this happens, you can stop acting in initiative order.
The surviving side then has ample time to ensure that everyone taken out stays down. However, you might need to keep using combat rounds if any player characters are near death, clinging to a cliff, or in some other situation where every moment matters for their survival.
You can decide a fight is over if there’s no challenge left, and the player characters are just cleaning up the last few weak enemies. However, avoid doing this if any of the players still have inventive and interesting things they want to try or spells they’re concentrating on—ending an encounter early is a tool to avoid boredom, not to deny someone their fun. You can end a fight early in several ways: the foes can surrender, an adversary can die before its Hit Points actually run out, or you can simply say the battle’s over and that the PCs easily dispatch their remaining foes. In this last case, you might ask, “Is everyone okay if we call the fight?” to make sure your players are on board.
One side might surrender when almost all its members are defeated or if spells or skills thoroughly demoralize them. Once there’s a surrender, come out of initiative order and enter into a short negotiation.
These conversations are really about whether the winners will show mercy to the losers or just kill or otherwise get rid of them. The surrendering side usually doesn’t have much leverage in these cases, so avoid long back-and-forth discussions.
Fleeing enemies can be a problem. Player characters often want to pursue foes that flee because they think an enemy might return as a threat later on. Avoid playing this out move by move, as it can easily bog down the game. If every adversary is fleeing, forgo initiative order and give each PC the option to pursue any one fleeing foe. Each PC can declare one-action, spell, or other ability to use to try to keep up. Then, compare the PC’s Speed to that of the target, assess how much the pursuer’s chosen spell or ability would help, and factor in any abilities the quarry has that would aid escape.
If you determine that the pursuer catches up, go back into combat with the original initiative order. If not, the quarry escapes for now.
If the PCs decide to flee, it’s usually best to let them do so. Pick a particular location and allow them to escape once they all reach it. However, if they’re encumbered or otherwise slowed down, or if enemies have higher Speeds and a strong motive to pursue, you might impose consequences upon PCs who flee.
Most conversations play best as free-form roleplaying, with maybe one or two checks for social skills involved.
Sometimes, though, a tense situation or crucial parlay requires a social encounter that uses initiative, much like a combat encounter. As with any other encounter, the stakes of a social encounter need to be high! A failed social encounter could mean a character is imprisoned or put to death, a major rival becomes a political powerhouse, or a key ally is disgraced and ostracized.
Using the structure of an encounter is helpful because it makes the timing clearer than in free-form play, and each character feels like they’re contributing. When running a social encounter, establish the stakes up front, so the players know the consequences of success or failure and the circumstances that will cause the encounter to end.
You have much more flexibility in how you run a social encounter than in a combat encounter. Extending the length of rounds beyond 6 seconds, allowing more improvisation, and focusing less on special attacks and spells all differentiate a social encounter from a combat one. In most cases, you don’t need to worry about character’s movements, nor do you need a map. Some examples of social encounters include:
- Proving someone’s innocence in front of a judge.
- Convincing a neighboring monarch to help defend against an invasion.
- Besting a rival bard in a battle of wits.
- Exposing a villain’s deception before a noble court.
Initiative and Actions
Initiative in a social encounter typically has characters rolling Society or a Charisma-based skill, such as Diplomacy or Deception. As with other encounters, a character’s approach to the conflict determines which skill they’ll roll. On a character’s turn, they typically get to attempt one roll, usually by using a skill action. Let the player roleplay what their character says and does, then determine what they’ll roll. Allow them to use any abilities or spells that might help them make their case, though keep in mind that when most people see the visual signs of a spell being cast, they think someone is using magic to try to influence or harm them, and they have a negative reaction.
Good social encounters include an opposition.
This can be direct, such as a rival who argues against the characters’ case, or passive, such as a mob that automatically becomes more unruly as each round passes. Give the opposition one or more positions in the initiative order so you can convey what it is doing. You can create game statistics for the opposition, especially if it’s an individual, but in situations like that of the unruly mob, you might need nothing more than establish a set of increasingly difficult DCs.
Measuring Success and Progress
You’ll need to decide how to measure the characters’ success in social encounters, because there’s no AC to target or HP to whittle down. Chapter 4 includes guidance on setting DCs for social skill actions, often using a target’s Will DC. If you need a DC for people who don’t have stats, such as a crowd or an NPC for whom you haven’t already generated statistics, use the guidelines on setting DCs. You can either pick a simple DC or use a level-based DC, estimating a level for the subject or how challenging it should be to sway them.
The attitude conditions—hostile, unfriendly, indifferent, friendly, and helpful—provide a useful way to track the progress of a social encounter. Use these to represent the attitude of an authority, a crowd, a jury, or the like.
A typical goal for a social encounter is to change the attitude of a person or group to helpful so they assist you, or calming a hostile group or person to defuse a situation.
Try to give the players a clear idea of how much they’ve progressed as the encounter proceeds.
Another option is to track the number of successes or failures the characters accrue. For instance, you might need to trick four guards into leaving their posts, and count each successful attempt to Lie or Create a Diversion toward a total of four necessary successes.
You can combine these two methods; if the PCs need a group of important nobles to vote their way, the goal of the encounter might be to ensure that a majority of the nobles have a better attitude toward the PCs than they have of a rival—all within a limited time frame.
When you set stakes at the start of a social encounter, give an idea of the consequences. Beyond whatever narrative benefits player characters might gain, a social encounter usually includes an XP award. Because these are encounters along the same lines as combat encounters, they grant a sizable amount of XP, typically that of a moderate accomplishment, or even a major accomplishment if the encounter was the culmination of long-term plans or a significant adversary got their comeuppance.
The outcome of a social encounter should direct the story of the game. Look for repercussions. Which NPCs might view the PCs more favorably now? Which might hold a grudge or formulate a new plan? A social encounter can seal the fate of an NPC and end their story, but this isn’t true for player characters. Even if something looks truly dire for them, such as a death sentence, the social encounter isn’t the end—there’s still time for desperate heroics or a twist in the story.