Pathfinder: How To Be a Good Game Master

A good game starts before you get behind the GM screen

Being a good Game Master is hard. If you’re new, being a GM can be nerve-wracking. So we came up with some tips to help you overcome the new GM jitters.

15. Don't Target One Character All the Time

When you’re in combat, attacking one character all the time can get tiring for the player. While there might be in-character reasons for it, like the book saying the monster attacks a character of that class if there aren’t, players get irritated. Especially if they have to revive their character all the time.

There are ways around this. If multiple opponents are attacking the monster that meets the conditions, roll a die to determine the target if you’ve already attacked the same target multiple times. You might roll the dice and decide who to attack based on whether the dice is odd or even or some other factor depending on the number of applicable targets. Granted, it can’t be helped if it’s hard-coded into the monster. But if you can help it, you should.

This makes things more fun because one player doesn’t feel singled out and other players aren’t stopping to heal them every turn. Some GMs feel compelled to do this because they feel a character is too powerful. However, this stifles creativity and therefore fun.


14. Come Prepared 

GMing is hard and requires a lot of materials. Maps, books, figures, and a general idea of what the monsters’ tactics are in a given situation. You also need to show up before everyone else.

Preparation also requires reading ahead and getting the stats of monsters memorized, and the pages they’re on. There’s always the chance that the players will do things out of your intended order. Some players thrive on that. You should also come early to get things set up.

This makes things more fun because a more prepared GM can have a more fluid game. There are fewer pauses as you try to find the monster’s stats. That also means quicker combats and other scenarios. This in turn means more game time instead of struggling to find the monsters or maps.


13. Cater to Players

Every party is different. Some like more action-packed adventures. Others like social encounters and diplomacy. Some like more interactive environments that they can use to their advantage in combat while others like to keep things simple.

Learning what your players prefer takes time and multiple adventures. It also takes communication and talking with your party as a group. There will have to be some compromises and you might want to change things up from session to session.

By catering to what players want, you make things fun for them. You can keep your players coming back. Which keeps your game from fizzling out.


12. Know what People's Red Lines Are


Part of catering to players is knowing what they’re willing to tolerate. This also requires a bit of talk. But can also be helped with a generous application of good sense.

Some people who have lived through certain violent events, like sex crimes, probably don’t want to relive them by playing a game. If you’re dealing with high school students (which is becoming common as schools set up tabletop game clubs), you probably don’t want to include a lot of sex and violence. 

To go beyond this, you’ll have to talk to your players. Talk to them beforehand to see what they’re comfortable with. If somebody seems uncomfortable during the game, talk to them in private afterward and if a scenario caused discomfort, resolve to avoid that scenario again.

By respecting people’s red lines, you avoid psychological triggers. Triggering psychological flashbacks is bad for everyone at the table. However, you need to remind your players that if they have these issues, they need to communicate them with you before it becomes an issue.


11. Use Warhorn or a Similar Site

Part of the issue with tabletop games or any other group activity is getting everyone on the same page. You need to know where and when you’re meeting. Relying on word-of-mouth can lead to miscommunication. Luckily, there are Warhorn or other sites.

You create your group on Warhorn and schedule the games there. Then you post it to your group’s social media and send it to your group’s email. If you’re running Pathfinder Society, social media is best since it could attract new players.

Miscommunications are never fun. People need to know where and when they’re gaming. Miscommunications create friction, arguments, and ruined sessions. If you have multiple GMs in your group (which is common in Organized Play), Warhorn keeps people from signing up for multiple games at once.


10. Start with Low-Level Scenarios Before Creating Homebrews 

When some GMs first start, they have ambitious ideas for their homebrew campaign, it takes practice to put those ideas into a game. You need to know how Pathfinder works on the GM’s end before you start making high-level campaigns.

Scenarios that are geared towards new players, like Abomination Vaults will help you. It gives you an idea of how to use all the mechanics to create a fun adventure. Plus, the low-level monsters are easier to use and keep track of.

Getting this practice is a necessary part of preparation. You’ll understand how the game works better so there won’t be as many awkward pauses. Doing these low-level scenarios first will also give you a feel for how the group works and what their lines are before you start making your campaign.


9. Use a Variety of Monsters

Pathfinder has no shortage of monsters. Pathfinder has everything from Goblins to literal space aliens. Paizo is constantly putting out new variants of monsters too. This keeps combat fresh and adds new challenges for the players. 


How this works is simple. Most pre-written scenarios have monster stats laid out. If you’re creating your homebrew, you can look through the Bestiary books or on Archives of Nethys to find monsters that fit your environment and the party’s level. You can add templates too.

Using a variety of monsters allows your party to have more challenges. Different monsters have different weaknesses, strengths, and skills. This forces the players to think on their feet because they never know what’s coming next.

8. Have Someone Handle Out-of-Character Things Like Scheduling Venues

Part of running a game in a public place is scheduling. If you’re in college, you have to compete with other clubs for space. If you’re dealing with a store, you’ll have to navigate around things like tournaments and releases. This can be overwhelming for a new GM.

Luckily, there are other people in your group. Give one of them the role of dealing with the out-of-character things. This takes some pressure off of you. When designing an adventure, things can fall through the cracks so it’s essential to have someone in this role. If you’re new to an area, have it be someone familiar with the venue who knows the tournament schedule.

Taking this issue off of your plate is helpful. It decreases the chances of forgetfulness impacting the game. This way you won’t walk into a card shop and learn you don’t have a table.

7. Make Sure the Venue is Accessible to All Players


The world of tabletop gaming is becoming more diverse. With the increase in interest thanks to shows like Stranger Things and the Dungeons and Dragons movie, there’s never been a better time to play games like Pathfinder. However, not every gamer can walk

When scouting venues, you need to check for handicap accessibility. You and the person designated to help with venue-related matters need to check for handicap accessibility. Make sure the venue has no stairs and that the bathroom is accessible. Check for newer buildings as they’re more likely to be up to code.

Not only is this good for disabled players, but it’s also good for you. GMs have to carry a lot of heavy things. Removing stairs from the equation makes life easy for you. This is better known as the curb-cut effect.


6. When Designing Homebrews, Consider Basic Principles of Level Design

If you’re a homebrew maker, it’s important to consider the level design. Each challenge should build upon what the last challenge did and help prepare the party for upcoming challenges. For example, monsters should start weak but get progressively stronger. As should the items that get dropped.

If you want to see what these principles look like, play or watch a playthrough of the first Super Mario Brothers. Everything starts simple but each challenge builds upon another. New mechanics are introduced. The final world becomes a final exam that tests everything the player has learned. This is a good structure for designing a homebrew.

By starting out small and building up the difficulty, the players don’t feel overwhelmed when they first start. This is especially important for first-time players. It’s also important for first-time GMs. Harder monsters are hard to manage.

5. It’s Not Them Vs. You

A lot of GMs fall into the trap of the adversarial role. They think the goal is to kill the party. However, it’s not. The goal of the GM should be to guide players through a fun story and provide challenges along the way.

You want to abandon the adversarial mindset. People pick up on the hostility even if it seems minor. This also results in a lot of escalation, especially in homebrews. What you end up with in this mindset is GMs trying to screw over players with cheap traps and monsters. Then players start power-gaming and being cheap too. It becomes one big mess before the table dissolves.

Treating the game as a collaborative experience makes the whole thing more pleasant. You’ll have people power-game and try out new things. But it won’t result in the entire table declaring an arms race.

4. Solicit Feedback

The best way to improve your abilities as a GM is to get feedback. Feedback helps you craft your stories and improve yourself. Feedback lets you know what you’re doing wrong and what you’re doing right.

The best way to do this is to talk to your players. Ask them what they want from you. Ask them what they like in a game. You’re not a mind reader even if the characters often are. The more you know, the better.

By getting feedback, you can improve your game. This goes back to catering to your players. By communicating with them, you can cater to their tastes. And you can draw inspiration as the story goes along.


3. Trying to Kill Players is Not Fun


Some GMs go out of their way to get total party kills. These GMs are not fun to play with. Once the tendency becomes apparent, people stop playing with them. It’s usually a slow process but it does happen.

People grow attached to their characters. They put a lot of effort into them. No one wants to end an adventure because all the characters died. This is not to say that death shouldn’t be a threat. But it shouldn’t be your goal. 

Going back to the idea that your relationship with your players shouldn’t be adversarial, a GM that actively sets out to kill players will quickly kill the fun. I’ve seen this happen before. It never goes well for anyone. 


2. Have the Books Ready

As a GM, you’re supposed to know the rules. However, you are only human. As Paizo puts out more of, well everything, it’s going to be a lot of information. And you can’t have every possible variable on the top of your head at all times. Especially when someone brings in something new.

This is why you need to have the books on standby. Some people’s abilities, and combinations of abilities, can be downright confusing. You’ll need to know how they interact with each other. I’ve seen a lot of people who like multi-classing do some bizarre things. While they operate in good faith, you do have to double-check. Plus, if you’re dealing with new players using a class you don’t usually use, having a book on standby helps. I know my fighter classes back to front but when the sorcerer starts doing something that confuses me, it helps to have a book handy. 

This is as much for them as it is for you. People build their characters with the assumption that they’re within the rules. They need you to know the rules before you make rulings. And it helps to have books handy on character creation day.

1. The First Rule is the Rule of Fun

One of the things that are always worth repeating is that tabletop games are games. The first rule is to have fun. All the other rules are secondary.

As a GM, that often means erring on the side of fun. Players will try to get out of situations and encounters in ways you do not expect. A sorcerer might use a Create Pit spell to dig their way under an obstruction. This happened at my table and nobody thought of it nor was there precedent in any books that we had. But it was funny. So we went with it.

The rules are important. But sometimes, a player will come up with a wild yet plausible solution to a problem that no one in their right mind would dream of. In these situations, I highly encourage you to let the player try it. These usually lead to the funniest stories.


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As one of North Carolina's numerous rogues, Matt Stafford is always using his stealth and diplomacy skills to get the next scoop.
Gamer Since: 1995
Favorite Genre: RPG
Currently Playing: Dragon Quest 11
Top 3 Favorite Games:Stellaris, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic,

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