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Gamemastery Guide

The role of a GM can be complex, challenging, and sometimes difficult, but ultimately rewarding. Luckily, you’re not on your own! Not only will the other players at your game table help you tell collaborative stories, but you can use the advice here to make your games run more smoothly and feel more exciting.

The information presented here provides helpful guidance on how to be a dynamic and engaging GM, and supplements the core GM advice.

  • Running Encounters is the first of three sections that explains the three modes of play in more detail. You’ll find help on tracking initiative, improving the speed of play, running special battles, and more.
  • Running Exploration gives details on making exploration activities more interesting, creating an evocative environment, lost PCs, and more.
  • Running Downtime covers ways the PCs can set goals, explains how to make good downtime events, provides sample downtime tasks, and more.
  • Adjudicating Rules offers guidance on how to make effective rules calls and create house rules.
  • Resolving Problems presents advice on total party kills, problem players, and power imbalances.
  • Narrative Collaboration includes tools for players to control the story more directly.
  • Special Circumstances discusses organized play, odd-sized groups, and players with different needs.
  • Rarity in Your Game details how rarity can enrich the theme and story of your game.
  • Campaign Structure clarifies what makes a good campaign and describes how to determine its scope and make enemies and treasure more compelling.
  • Adventure Design includes tools for building your own adventures.
  • Encounter Design explains how to build entertaining encounters and navigate the challenges that can arise when designing complex encounters.
  • Drawing Maps describes useful steps for making maps and commonly used map symbols.


General Advice

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 in sections such as Building Creatures, Building Worlds, and Settlements.

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

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 Sessions

The core rules explain 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

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 rules summarize 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

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.


As a GM, you often make things up on the fly.

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

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 a god of commerce, saying they believe the god is an incompetent chaotic spendthrift who’s bad with money is absurd. Similarly, if they incorrectly believe the god 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 the god’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

During play, you roll some checks in secret instead of allowing the player to do so. 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

The core rules offer 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.


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

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

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.


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 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

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.

Running Encounters

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 rules discusses running encounters, this section supplements that information.

Though this section 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.

Speed of Play

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

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.


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

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

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.


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

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

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

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

As described in the core rules, 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

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

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.

Setting The Scene

When an encounter begins, spend a moment to describe the location if you haven’t already. Use some of the description tips found in Evocative Environments. It can help to describe where enemies are within the environment, to better ground them in the location.

You can also use the enemies’ expressions to better convey the location. Is an enemy in a wary stance as they stand near a pit? Is another irritated by water dripping on it from the ceiling? Does a glowing glyph illuminate an enemy with a sinister red light?


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.


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.


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

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

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

A grid and miniatures can make it easier to visualize combat for players and give a visual centerpiece for the players to focus on. 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 handpainted 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 rules.


You determine whether a character has cover. The rules for drawing lines found in the core rules 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

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

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 rules, 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

The core rules covers the essential rules for mounted, aerial, and aquatic combat, but more complex battles can require specialized rules.

Mounted Combat

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

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.

Variant Rules On The Grid

These two variants can change up how distance and movement work in your game.

Uniform Diagonals

If you like, your group can count all diagonals as 5 feet instead of counting every other diagonal as 10 feet. This speeds up play, but some people find it breaks their suspension of disbelief. This is most noticeable when someone moves a long distance along a diagonal all at once or when characters start moving diagonally as much as possible to cover more distance. Using this variant requires thinking of the game map in more abstract terms, and less like a real physical environment where the map is accurately reflecting the size of the room or encounter area.

You can choose whether you measure radius-based areas of spells in the same way or visualize them as circles or other round shapes. The latter works best if you have templates to use.

Hex Grids

Some of the challenges of diagonal movement can be fixed by using a hex grid instead of a square grid, or by using a grid with offset squares, which works similarly. This allows you to count movement the same in all directions. However, it makes flanking a bit harder to pull off, requires you to arrange standard Large and larger miniatures differently, and causes challenges when drawing maps that consist primarily of rectangular structures, since you’ll have a lot of partially occupied hexes.

Aerial Combat

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

The rules in the core rules 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

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 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

Sometimes you’ll want to run a social conflict in encounter mode. The basic guidelines on how to do so appear in the core rules, 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. The core rules 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 rules, 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

Threats In Published Adventures

When you reach an encounter in a published adventure, it will give you an indication of the expected party level and what threat the encounter is for that level of party, such as “moderate 3” for an encounter that’s a moderate threat to a 3rd-level party. If your party reaches the encounter at a different level, you could recalculate the XP for each enemy individually, or you can estimate the threat posed by adjusting a step down or up per level difference. For example, the moderate 3 encounter would be severe 2, extreme 1, low 4, or trivial 5. If you still think the group can take it on as-is, you can use that estimation for determining XP, maybe giving a little extra if it ended up being tougher than you expected. Or, if you think it would be better, you can adapt the particulars of the encounter to be a more reasonable challenge to your party, usually by adjusting the number of monsters or using the elite and weak adjustments.

Running Exploration

Exploration covers a wide variety of situations, letting the group’s creativity and storytelling shine.

You can also use it to control the pace of the game, guided by the number of interesting locations and phenomena in the area being explored and the level of detail you want to go into.

The core rules discusses running exploration mode, and this section supplements that information. If you want to run a session or adventure specifically focused on exploring and mapping uncharted wilds, consider using the hexploration subsystem. If you’re looking for guidelines on managing initiative in the Running Encounters section.

As you run exploration, keep the following basic goals in mind. You’ll find more advice on many of these points in the sections ahead.

  • Evoke the setting with sensory details.
  • Shift the passage of time to emphasize tension and uncertainty, and speed past uneventful intervals.
  • Get players to add details by asking for their reactions.
  • Present small-scale mysteries to intrigue players and spur investigation.
  • When rolls are needed, look for ways to move the action forward or add interesting wrinkles on a failure.
  • Plan effective transitions to encounters.

Evocative Environments

As the PCs explore, convey their surroundings by appealing to the players’ senses. This sets the scene, gives them a better sense of their environment, and can be used to foreshadow what they might find ahead.

When determining which details to cover, think about what’s familiar versus novel. A new dungeon might have similar architecture to previous ones but feature ancient structures that set it apart.

You can use the PCs’ familiarity as a tool to single out what’s new. When preparing for a game, imagine yourself in the environment and jot down a few notes about what you would sense. Conveying these details keeps the players on the same page about what they sense, even if each character responds to it differently.

Keep in mind that the more you explain something, the more important it seems. This is valuable for you to drive interest, but can also be a mixed blessing, since describing something inconsequential to set the mood can lead players off on a tangent. Sometimes, the best solution is to find a way to make that unimportant thing as important as the players think it is!

Flow of Time

As noted in the core rules, you rarely measure exploration down to the second or minute. If someone asks how long something takes, the nearest 10-minute increment typically does the job. (For long voyages, the nearest hour might be more appropriate.)

You convey the passage of time through your descriptions, but not just by addressing it outright. In a roleplaying game, information and time are linked. Time will seem to slow down the more detail you give. Think cinematically! A long voyage through a series of tunnels works well as a montage, whereas progress searching a statue for traps could be a relayed as a series of distressing details in quick succession, and would feel more tense due to that precision.

With that in mind, when is it best to speed up or slow down the passage of game time? Usually, you’ll slow down and give more description when you’re establishing something or progressing the story. When the PCs enter a dungeon or a new area, describe how it feels, slowing down to give the players a sense of what’s ahead. When a PC stops to do something important or makes a key decision, and slowing down gives that moment its desired weight.

You can also adjust the flow of time to reflect PCs’ mental states. As a PC returns home after decades away, you might pause to ask the player what their PC is feeling, matching time to the rush of memories and emotions filling that PC’s thoughts.

Exploration Activities

PCs often undertake exploration activities while they explore. The purpose of these activities within the game is to clarify what a PC focuses on as they explore rather than being able to unrealistically do all things simultaneously.

This adds variety within the group’s behavior and can show you where players want the story to go. For example, a player whose PC is Investigating carvings on the walls shows you that the player wants those to be informative.

Exploration activities that happen continually as the group explores are meant to be narrative first and foremost, with the player describing to you what they’re doing, and then you determining which an activity applies, plus any details or alterations for the situation. If a player says, “I’m Avoiding Notice,” add more detail by asking what precautions they’re taking or by telling them which passages they think are least guarded. Likewise, if a player says they’re looking for traps and keeping their shield raised and covering the group’s tracks, ask them which is most important to narrow down the activity. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of an activity given current circumstances. For instance, someone Scouting might encounter thin ice and fall through before their group can reach them, or someone Investigating ancient hieroglyphs might critically fail and lead the party in the wrong direction. This does not apply for exploration activities that are discrete and occur when the group is taking a pause or zooming in on a particular action, such as Treat Wounds. Characters can always drop out of a continual exploration activity to perform a discrete one (even if they are fatigued and can’t sustain an exploration activity as they travel), and they can change activities at any time.

The core rules covers how to adjudicate specific activities—Detect Magic, Follow the Expert, Investigate, and Search.

Quick Environmental Details


Sights choppy water, rolling waves, sunlight glinting, the curve of the horizon, driftwood

Sounds waves lapping against a ship, seabirds’ cries, fluttering sails, creatures breaching the surface

Smells salt water, crisp fresh air, dead fish

Textures frigid water, slimy seaweed, crusty salt collecting on surfaces

Weather powerful winds, oncoming storms


Sights blinding reflected sunlight, snowy plains, distant glaciers, deep crevasses, rocky cliffs, ice floes and bergs, animal tracks in snow

Sounds howling winds, drips of melting ice, utter quiet

Smells clean air, half-frozen bog, lichen, seaweed

Textures crunching snow, hard ice

Weather frigid gales, light snowfall, pounding blizzard


Sights towering trees, dense undergrowth, verdant canopies, colorful wildlife, dappled sunlight through the trees, mossy tree trunks, twisted roots

Sounds rustling leaves, snapping branches, animal calls

Smells decomposing vegetation, flowering plants, pine trees, earthy mushrooms

Textures leaves crunching underfoot, scraping branches, water dripping from above, rough bark

Weather still air, cool shade, sporadic breeze, rain on the canopy, branches coated in thick snow


Sights bare cliffs, snow caps, hardy trees, slopes littered with scree, fallen rocks, birds flying on currents, fog among the peaks

Sounds howling wind, falling rocks, clear echoes, crunch of rocks underfoot, distant avalanche

Smells blowing dust, pine trees, fresh snow

Textures rough stone, powdery snow, unstable rubble

Weather swirling clouds, chill of high altitude, direct sunlight, powerful wind and rain


Sights grass waving gently, scattered wildflowers, rocky outcroppings or boulders, the curve of the horizon

Sounds rustling wind, birdsong, distant sounds carried far

Smells fresh air, earthy soil, distant carcasses

Textures touch of tall grass, rasp of scrub brush, crunch of dry dirt

Weather cooling of gentle wind, heat of direct sunlight, massive black thunderclouds


Sights lush leaves, clouds of gnats, algae-coated water, shacks on stilts, darting fish

Sounds croaking frogs, chirping insects, bubbling, splashing

Smells rich moss and algae, pungent swamp gases

Textures pushing through floating detritus, tangling creepers, thick mud

Weather oppressive humidity, still air, pouring rain, rays of sunlight


Sights winding passages, sputtering yellow torchlight, uneven or cracked floors, ancient writings or architecture, stalagmites and stalactites

Sounds dripping condensation, scurrying rats or insects, distant clunks of machinery, tinny echoes of your voices and footsteps

Smells staleness of still air, sulfur, tang of metal deposits

Textures rough rock walls, erosion-smoothed stone, cobwebs

Weather chill of underground air, geothermal heat

More On Searching

The rules for Searching deliberately avoid giving intricate detail on how long a search takes. That’s left in your hands because the circumstances of a search can vary widely.

If the group isn’t in any danger and has time for a really thorough search, that’s a good time to allow them to automatically succeed, rather than bothering to roll, or you might have them roll to see how long it takes before they find what they’re looking for, ultimately finding it eventually no matter the result. Conversely, if they stop for a thorough search in the middle of a dungeon, that’s a good time for their efforts to draw unwanted attention!

PCs might get to attempt another check if their initial search is a bust. But when do you allow them to try again?

It’s best to tie this to taking a different tactic. Just saying “I search it again” isn’t enough, but if a PC tries a different method or has other tools at their disposal, it could work.

Be generous with what you allow, as long as the player puts thought into it! If you know a search isn’t going to turn up anything useful, make that clear early on so the group doesn’t waste too much time on it. If they’re determined to keep going—which they often are—you might have them find something useful but minor in the search.

More On Follow The Expert

Follow the Expert is a truly versatile activity that lets a PC who’s lacking at a skill or exploration activity have a better chance to succeed. It’s important that this doesn’t become too rote. Let the players decide how one of them is helping out the other. The description can give you more to work with and add fun color to the exploration beyond just the mechanics. Also, if one PC helps another in the same way over and over, that could be a sign of the character being helped growing in a particular way. If the rogue has been helping the fighter Avoid Notice over and over, the fighter is essentially receiving training in Stealth at that point and might want to consider taking or retraining a skill increase to make that true. Connections like these can breathe life into the characters and their relationships, and it can help promote camaraderie and interactions between characters.

Improvising New Activities

The list of exploration activities isn’t exhaustive. More appear in special subsystems and adventures, and you’ll often need to create your own. When making your own, it’s usually fine to just consider whether the amount of effort the PC has to put in is comparable to the other exploration activities and go from there. If you’re having trouble, try finding a comparable activity. For example, if the PC are Swimming as they explore, consider that travel speeds are based on the equivalent of 1 action per 6 seconds, and that other exploration activities the PCs can keep up without getting tired are generally based on alternating between 2 actions per 12 seconds, averaging to 1 action per 6 seconds. (Defend, for example, is based on using 1 action to Stride then 1 to Raise your Shield, which is why the PC moves at half Speed.) Hustle is a good example of an activity that can’t be done indefinitely, so you can use it as a model for strenuous activities where the PCs are using the equivalent of 2 actions every 6 seconds.

When improvising an exploration activity, have in mind some advantages and disadvantages of that activity to inspire you. What else might the PC be neglecting while doing this activity? How does it interplay with activities the rest of the party uses? If the new activity seems like it’s a better option than other activities all or nearly all the time, chances are you might want to adjust it so it’s more balanced. Eventually, you’ll start to find which exploration activities your group enjoys the most.

Scenes Within Exploration

It can help you to think of exploration as a series of scenes, with encounters not just breaking up exploration, but functioning as subsections within it. Many of these are based on geography, for example, with exploring a series of dungeon corridors as one scene and entering the dungeon’s great hall another. Other times, you’ll break out of a scene at a point of interest. If the PCs decide to stop their travels and investigate a statue, think of that as a new scene.

This gives you a good point to describe the transition between scenes. Describe what was happening to reinforce where the group was, then describe what they now face to show the change. For example, “You’ve been making your way through this long hallway, but after a moment of debate, you stop, your footsteps and voices still echoing down the hall. The stone statue before you is seven feet high, adorned with rubies. It represents… maybe a god? Its face is damaged and broken. What do you do?”

When playing out a scene, your initial description should set the expectation of what level of detail the scene might go into, with you and the players adjusting as needed as you play. Also, it can be useful to go from PC to PC to avoid everybody talking at once. Start with someone who instigated the scene change, if possible, or perhaps the PC using the most relevant exploration activity, like a PC Investigating artwork or Searching for secrets in the example above.


The task of looking for and disarming hazards comes up frequently in exploration and is an example of a type of exploration scene. Hazards don’t usually appear out of nowhere. A trap might be on a door’s lock, at a specific bend in a corridor, or so on.

You could have a pit trap in the middle of a large room, but a surprise that’s entirely unexpected can be pretty unsatisfying. The same pit trap appearing in the middle of a 10-foot-wide, suspiciously featureless hallway can make the players say, “Okay, we should have seen that coming,” with even that minimal amount of foreshadowing.

When a complex hazard triggers, move to encounter mode. Simple hazards are usually dealt with in exploration mode, but that doesn’t mean they should be glossed over.

Give a clear picture of what action by a PC set off the hazard, what happens as the hazard activates, and any aftereffects. PCs have many ways to heal themselves, so keep in mind that a damaging hazard won’t always have a huge effect. They tend to work best if their activation might alert creatures in the area, lock the PCs out of an area, or cause a similar setback beyond just damage.

If a PC detects a hazard and wants to disable it, slow down a bit. Ask the player to describe what the PC is doing and give concrete details about how their efforts pan out to make it feel more real. It’s good if the player sweats a little bit! It’s supposed to be a tense situation, after all. If a hazard requires multiple checks to disable, it’s good to describe what happens with each success to show incremental progress.


The Investigate exploration activity is pretty broad and can lead into a more thorough investigation scene. Lead off with a definite clue that has details but clearly isn’t the whole picture: “These runes look like ones used for arcane magic but are some kind of variant form,” “As you assess the architecture of the room, you see the pillar caps are all made of granite, except for one that appears to be painted plaster,” or “Each of the stained glass shows scenes of one of the god’s aspects, but there are only three windows, and the god has four aspects.”

Then, if this piques a player’s interest, you can go into a more detailed investigation. They might look at the runes more closely, chip away at the plaster, or search around for a representation of the god’s fourth aspect. Avoid calling for checks if it’s not necessary. In the last example, you’d likely tell them which of the deity’s aspects is missing without another Religion check, and if the aspect is represented as a statue in the room, asking for a Perception check to find it might short-circuit the investigation in an uninteresting way.

To make the investigation feel real, it helps to talk the player through their character’s thought processes by saying what clue inspired them to think of an important detail, explaining what the detail is, and possibly mentioning a further question that detail raises. Then let the player extrapolate rather than telling them their conclusion. Even if the investigation doesn’t lead to a an unambiguous conclusion, the players should feel they’re more informed than when they started.

Though one person starts the investigation, getting others involved can help them become more interested and bring different skills to bear to get other types of information. Reward collaboration and clever ideas.

Getting Lost

When PCs are exploring the wilderness or twisting dungeon corridors, they might get lost. This is most likely if they fail to Sense their Direction using Survival but can also happen based on the story, such as if they drop out of a portal in some strange land or come up from an underground passageway into a forest. Playing through the process of wandering in the wilderness and trying to find their way can be fun for a party, provided it’s a fairly short interval. If a party is lost at the start of a session, they should usually have found their way and reached a significant destination by the end.

The Sense Direction activity uses Survival to find north.

You can combine this with Recalling Knowledge about the area—typically using Nature or Society—for the PCs to get their initial bearings. The DCs for these checks are normally trained or expert if the group is still fairly close to settlements or established nations but might be higher in deep wilderness. As the PCs try to find their way, think of ways to include notable landmarks they can seek out or stumble upon. Some of these might be useful, such as a great tree off in the distance they can climb to get a better vantage point or a mountain slope where multiple plumes of smoke billow up, indicating a settlement. Others might be mysterious or dangerous, such as haunted glades or animal hunting grounds. When the PCs first look around or scout, pick two or three landmarks to point out.

Let the group decide on their course from there.

If the trek takes multiple days, you can move through each day pretty quickly.

You might need to have the group Subsist if they run out of food, and you might want to include some encounters if they’re in a dangerous area. For these encounters, choose creatures that live in that type of environment.

Remember that not all creatures attack on sight. Friendly or cautious creatures might approach, resulting in more interactive scenes that might even help the PCs.

If the PCs get unlucky or are just awful at Survival, you might end up stuck with no way for them to reorient themselves. In these cases, have someone come to them!

They might get captured by local humanoids or monsters or stumble upon a dangerous location. They’ve figured out where they are, even if it’s not where they wanted to be!

Surprise Attacks

The core rules covers the mechanics of how surprise attacks occur while PCs rest. Such surprise attacks should be used sparingly, even in dangerous areas. The fact that PCs are in a group scares away most animals and setting a watch can deter even more attackers. Surprise attacks are most likely if the PCs did something in advance that would lead to the ambush. For instance, they might be ambushed by bandits if they were flaunting their wealth or showing off expensive items earlier in the session, or they might be counterattacked by enemies if they attack the enemies first, only to retreat to rest. If the PCs set up camp hastily and decide not to set a watch, they might be in trouble if they’re attacked.

This should happen only in cases of extreme sloppiness, since if you take advantage of minor lapses, you might end up with a group that repeatedly spends an inordinate amount of time describing all their camping preparation to keep it from happening again. It’s usually better to ask the PCs if they’re setting up watches, rather than assume that their silence on the issue means they aren’t.

Running Downtime

There’s more to life than fighting monsters and looting treasure. What happens when a PC wins a deed to a tavern in a game of cards, crafts a magical item, builds a home, or pursues a relationship? All these goals and more are resolved by running downtime.

You can use downtime in a variety of ways that can streamline gameplay and flesh out the story, such as to:

  • Demonstrate changes to the setting that result from the PCs’ previous achievements, giving them time to breathe and appreciate what they’ve accomplished.
  • Emphasize the PCs’ planning and the fruit it bears.
  • Avoid bogging the game down, even if a great deal of time passes. Keep the number of rolls small.
  • Bring back compelling NPCs or plot threads established in previous downtime or adventures.
  • Interject interesting events and scenes related to what the PCs do to make the world feel more alive.
  • Switch to encounter or exploration more as needed when actions spur a new scene or adventure.

This section covers advice on how to fit downtime to suit your group. The amount and complexity can vary greatly depending on the game.

Depth of Downtime

Determine how involved your group wants downtime to be at the start of the game. If your players vary greatly in preference, you might need to find a middle ground, or some way to give the players least interested in downtime something they would find compelling.

You can adjust downtime depth as the game goes along, and you might find it becomes more important to the players as their connection to the setting grows stronger.

Pay attention to the amount of real-world time you spend in downtime and the level of detail. Downtime should rarely last a whole session. Usually, a half hour between significant adventures is about right, and 15 minutes for shorter lulls in the action, such as when PCs return to a town briefly in the middle of an adventure.

You can extend this as needed for more detailed roleplaying scenes.

For the level of detail, it’s important to give more than just an overview, but often the basics will do. “A fleet of merchant ships arrives in the port, and an officer puts you to work unloading cargo” might do for using Sailing Lore to Earn Income, and “Your shipment of iron arrives late, but you’re able to complete the armor” could be enough for Crafting. Go deeper if the player sets out to do something specific or asks questions you think have potential for an interesting story, but be careful with too much detail, as you run the risk of boring most of the table with minutiae.

Group Engagement

One major challenge of downtime is keeping the whole group involved. When you can, combine multiple people’s tasks into one. For instance, if one PC wants to Earn Income with Performance and another wants to offer their services as a medic, you might say that a traveling caravan is stopping briefly, seeking entertainment and treatment for diseases and injuries their group suffered on the road. That means you can put both PCs in the same scene.

You can also look for downtime activities that affect multiple characters’ interests. For instance, if the rogue’s contact at the thieves’ guild wants a special magical cloak, a different PC might Craft that cloak.

PCs can help each other more directly. For instance, if the barbarian’s player doesn’t plan to do anything in downtime, you might let the barbarian Aid another character in crafting weapons—feeding the forge and working the bellows, for instance.

If a player really isn’t interested in downtime, they might not want to engage at all. In that case, it’s best to shorten the time you spend on downtime and give their actions a one-sentence description. If other players want a deeper downtime experience, consider extending game sessions or running side sessions for just those players.

Campaigns Without Downtime

There are two ways you might end up with a game that has no downtime: no time and no interest. In the first, the story moves along so quickly that the PCs don’t really have time to engage with downtime. Think of it like a breakneck action movie, where the characters barely have time to breathe before they’re on to the next challenge, and even the end of an adventure is a cliffhanger.

In the second, you and the other players just don’t care about downtime at all. It doesn’t interest you. In this case, just summarize what happens between adventures and skip using any downtime rules.

If you skip downtime, you might not need to adjust your game. The money PCs can earn during downtime is minor compared to what they can gain through adventures.

However, the PCs will have less choice in what items they get if they don’t Craft or earn extra money to buy items.

Long-Term Goals

Downtime’s more satisfying when the PCs work toward long-term goals rather than perform disconnected tasks.

You can ask players what their PCs’ goals are, and also look for storylines they’re interested in that you can use as seeds for long-term goals. Long-term goals might include running a business, creating a guild, establishing an arcane school, returning a despoiled land to its natural splendor, reforming local politics, or rebuilding a ruin.

Goals involving organizations are a good opportunity to use the leadership subsystem. If players don’t have clear ideas for their goals, look at their backgrounds, NPCs they know, and things they’ve expressed interest in during adventures to develop some suggestions. Remember that you’re not trying to get them to accept your exact suggestions, but to pick a goal they really like.

Long-term goals should shape the game, and reinforcing their progress is key. Show changes, good and bad, that result from the PCs’ efforts, both in downtime and on their adventures if applicable. This doesn’t have to be subtle!

You can directly say, “You’ve been trying to get the magistrate to allow you to buy this plot of land, but the fact that you entered the wizard’s tower illegally seems to have soured him toward you.”

Think ahead in stages. For instance, if a PC wants to run a business, you might have them…

  • Start with a simple stand to sell their wares.
  • Show they’re drawing big crowds and need to expand.
  • Build a storefront.
  • Open to modest success.
  • Get a small but loyal following.
  • Hire employees to keep up with demand.
  • Deal with supply issues or competition.
  • Get enough interest in a nearby settlement that they might want to expand their business.

And so on.

You can deliver each of these details through a little vignette. For example, if you use the second bullet point, you might describe the throng of people crowded around the PCs’ stand, and say they sold out of goods before half the people were served. Downtime goals are a great way to weave the PCs’ agency into the story.

Success and Failure

Success at a reasonable long-term goal should be likely, but not guaranteed. Give the player an expectation of how likely their goal is to work out based on how ambitious it is.

Be clear about how much downtime it will take compared to the amount of downtime you expect the party will get during your campaign. Then let the player decide how to commit their downtime, and to which tasks.

Repeated failures or outside problems could lead to the whole goal failing. It happens! But give the player a fair chance. Even if their goal is really hard to achieve—they might find a way.

Don’t undermine their efforts or ideas, but do make clear the magnitude of the task they’ve chosen. Remember that even if a goal fails, the effort was worthwhile.

A failure or a success at a long-term goal can be a major emotional beat for the character. They’ve changed the world, after all! Don’t shortchange it just because it happened in downtime. In fact, because it might have taken place over multiple sessions, the player might have been looking forward to the results for a really long time!

Buying and Selling

The game leaves it up to you to determine what items the PCs can and can’t purchase, and the final market Price for them. Settlements the size of a town or bigger typically have at least one vendor for basic, common gear, and even magic and alchemical items of 1st level. Beyond that, it all depends on how much you want to allow the players to determine their abilities and how much verisimilitude you want in your game.

You can set the specifics where you need, but let’s look at three possibilities.

PCs can buy what they want where they want. You gloss over the details of markets. PCs can sell whatever they want for half the Price and buy any item to which they have access at full Price. This approach is focused on expediency over verisimilitude and is likely to reduce the number of unusual or distinctive items the PCs have, as many players seek out the ones that most directly support their characters’ strengths. This still means there’s a limit on purchasing uncommon or rarer items, but you could even do away with rarity if your group wants, or add a surcharge instead (depending on your group’s play style, that could be anywhere from 10% to 100% for uncommon items, and 25% to 500% if you also want to open up all rare items).

PCs can buy what they want but must put in additional effort. If they want to sell or buy items, PCs must be in a location where the markets can support that. They can usually sell a single item for half its Price, but the Price for something already plentiful on the market could drop lower, typically to 25% or 10%, or be refused entirely if there’s a glut. Buying an item usually costs the full Price; buying higher-level items (or uncommon items if they’re available at all) requires seeking out a special vendor or NPC and can take extra time, representing a real investment by the PCs. They might be unable to find the item at all even after their time investment, based on the settlement’s parameters. This approach allows PCs to determine some of their items, but forces them to really work to get more powerful items and discourages looting every enemy to sell off fairly ordinary armor. This can be the most work for you but can make the world feel diverse and complex.

Magical markets are rare or nonexistent. PCs get what they find in adventures and can Craft their own items, if you allow them to get formulas in some way. If you have magical marketplaces at all, their selections are small. They sell items at full Price and have difficulty attaining the funds to buy more items. They might purchase items for half of the Price but are far more selective about what they take. If you use this approach, PCs are far more likely to use strange items they find but might be dissatisfied or even underpowered depending on what items you give them. Even in this style of game, you might want to allow them to get weapons and armor with fundamental runes fairly easily, or make sure you award those on a regular basis.

Tasks and Events

Players will often look to you for tasks they might take on during downtime, especially if they’re looking to Earn Income.

You should also interject special events to surprise your players and add interesting scenes. If you need some quick ideas for tasks characters might offer a PC, look at the tables below for inspiration. The Earn Income tasks are arranged with tasks appropriate for low-level PCs first, but most can be adapted to the level you need. For the events, you might need to “zoom out” to focus on a special scene or even a short encounter or adventure.

Table 1–1: Earn Income Tasks
Academia, Library, Other Educational Lore
Work at a school or library
Compile information on a distant land for an expedition
Serve as administrator for a school or library
Acquire a rare book on dragons for a local noble
Make tools for local farmers
Brew a crate of healing potions for a local church or hospital
Sew a dress for a noble’s débutante ball
Supply magical weapons for the palace guard corps
Engineering Lore
Assess the fortifications built to protect a town
Plan the mechanism for a drawbridge
Create schematics for a new mill
Food or Drink Lore
Brew simple ale or cook an ordinary dish for the local inn
Identify a dozen bottles of wine
Create a showpiece dish for an upcoming festival
Create a nine-course meal for a noble banquet
Genealogy Lore
Compile a family tree for a minor noble family
Determine next of kin to settle an inheritance dispute
Map the web of intermarriages of a sprawling royal family
Determine the lineages of an ancient civilization
Trace the lost heir of an ancient empire
Guild Lore
Recruit initiates for a guild
Identify symbols of an ancient guild in a tome
Consult on rearranging a guild’s hierarchy
Oversee the merger of two guilds or one guild splitting into two
Herbalism Lore
Supply poultices to a physician
Prepare herbs for a small restaurant
Identify the poisonous plant eaten by a local lord
Legal Lore
Clear some minor red tape
Defend someone charged with theft
Bring a corrupt noble to justice through the legal system
Find loopholes in a contract made with a devil
Mercantile Lore
Price a crate of imported textiles
Find the best trade route for a pirate crew to raid
Set exchange rates for a trade consortium
Mining Lore
Work a shift in a coal mine
Determine where a raw ingot was mined
Prospect to find a site for a new mine
Busk for townsfolk at a street fair
Play in the orchestra at an opera
Attend a society figure’s salon
Perform for visiting nobles
Impress a visiting maestro to bring glory to your hometown
Put on a performance for a patron from another plane
Politics Lore
Lobby for a vote or decision to go a certain way
Smear a noble to lower their station
Sailing Lore
Crew a ship on a short voyage
Render a ship in dry-dock seaworthy
Pilot a ship through monster-infested waters
Underworld Lore
Find out where a stolen item ended up
Get someone an audience with the head of a thieves’ guild
Smuggle a shipment of valuables out of the city
Warfare Lore
Teach a spear fighting class at a dojo
Instruct an officer in various military stratagems
Advise a general in planning a battlefield offensive
Table 1–2: Downtime Events
Craft or Earn Income (Crafting)
A shipment of important materials is delayed, and the PC must find out why.
The PC creates a superlative work, which draws the attention of a collector or museum.
The PC discovers a more efficient technique to work a material and must decide to share it or keep it secret.
Create a Forgery (Society)
The format for paperwork the PC is attempting to mimic gets changed, and they must adjust.
The paperwork is spoiled by a freak accident, such as a leaky roof above the workshop or a clumsy assistant knocking over beakers of chemicals.
A mysterious benefactor provides the PC with special tools or a source document they didn’t have, but suggests they’ll ask for a favor later to reciprocate.
Earn Income (General)
A fussy client demands multiple rounds of changes throughout the process.
An accident at a work site puts someone in danger.
Something the PC is working on becomes a fad or hit— demand skyrockets!
A visitor is impressed with the PC’s work and offers them a more lucrative task in a distant location.
Conditions on the job site are abysmal, and other workers ask the PC to join them in confronting the bosses.
The bosses or guildmasters are doing something illegal and attempt to bribe the PC to look the other way.
The PC returns to their work one day to find someone has tampered with what they’ve done.
Earn Income (Performance)
Due to the performance’s success, more shows are added, running the PC ragged.
A competing show across town draws away customers.
A powerful noble finances a special performance but demands some changes to the contents.
One of the PC’s fellow performers doesn’t show up, but the show must go on!
Subsist (Survival)
Over a long time subsisting in a single area, the PC finds an unknown berry or herb that could be useful for making a new medicine.
The PC finds signs indicating some large creature has been foraging as well—possibly a monster.
Buy and Sell Items
The PC sells an item of interest to members of a particular group, who pursue the PC.
A merchant sells the PC a fraudulent item.
A shop the PCs frequent is in trouble and about to go out of business without help.
Someone else offers a higher bid for an item a PC wants, resulting in a negotiation or in the NPC offering a job the PC must perform to claim the item.
The PC sustains an injury in physical training.
Tapping into new magical powers inflicts a magical curse or creates an odd phenomenon.
A retraining instructor falls ill or goes missing.
Someone witnesses the PC retraining and asks to join them as they study or practice.
The PC’s training comes to a halt, and they need to acquire a rare book or something similar to continue.

Money In Downtime

While the amount of money the PCs can earn during short periods of downtime is significantly less than the value of the loot they gain adventuring, it can still serve as a satisfying bonus. The PCs might use their money to outfit themselves better, donate it toward a good cause, or pool it together to save for a major purchase. If you find that a PC tends to forget about their money or save it up more cautiously than they really need to, offer them rewarding opportunities to spend it. For instance, they might be approached to contribute to a charity in desperate need or sponsor an artist looking for a patron.

The downtime system includes a guide for calculating the cost of living, using the values found in the core rules. Tracking cost of living is usually best reserved for months or years of downtime since that’s when someone might earn a substantial amount of money from downtime activities and find that costs really add up.

You can usually ignore it if there are only a few days of downtime, though if a PC is roleplaying a fine or extravagant lifestyle, you might charge them during even short periods of downtime to reinforce the story they’re telling.


The downtime system isn’t meant to deal with investing money, receiving interest, or the like just to make more money. Rather, investing should result in changes in the world. PCs might invest in founding a museum, and find on their return that the collection has grown. If they fund an expedition, they might get access to interesting trade goods later on.

When characters are investing in a major endeavor, the amount of in-world time invested often matters more than the money. While spending additional money greatly increases the efficiency of Crafting an item, you can’t build a fort in a day just because you have enough money to pay for the whole process. Downtime is a good opportunity for characters to start long processes that can continue in the background as the PCs adventure, provided they can find a trustworthy, competent person to run things in their stead.

Money During Long Periods of Downtime

If the PCs have a very long time between adventures, especially years, they have the opportunity to collect a great deal of money through downtime. Use the guidelines for average progress and cost of living in the core rules to figure out how much they get.

Because you’re trying to convey that a long time has passed, have them spend it before you jump to the end of downtime. What did they invest in during those years?

What drew their interest? Did their fortunes rise or fall?

Did they acquire interesting objects or hire compelling people? Consider this expenditure another way to show how the PCs impact the world.


The rules and suggestions for retraining are covered thoroughly in the core rules. Your primary responsibility here is to determine the time, instruction, and costs of retraining, as well as adjusting details to align cohesively with the story and world.

Consider what effort each PC puts forth as they retrain, so you can describe how they feel their abilities change.

What kind of research and practice do they do? If they have a teacher, what advice does that teacher give?

You can run a campaign without retraining if you want the PCs to be more bound by their decisions or are running a game without downtime. However, if your campaign doesn’t use downtime rules but a player really regrets a decision made while building or leveling up their character, you might make an exception for them.


Most of the abilities PCs gain come through adventuring.

They’re learning on the job! Retraining, on the other hand, is dedicated study that might require a teacher’s help.

You don’t have to use teachers, but it gives you a great way to introduce a new NPC or bring back an existing one in a new role. The role of a teacher could also be filled by communing with nature for a druid, poring through a massive grimoire for a wizard, and so on. The important part is the guidance gained from that source. The following list includes sample teachers.

Extreme Retraining

By the default rules, PCs can’t retrain their class, ancestry, background, ability boosts, or anything else intrinsic to their character. However, you might be able to find a way to make this happen in the story, going beyond the realm of retraining and into deeper, storybased quests. Class and ability modifiers are the simplest of these to justify, as they could come about solely through intense retraining. Especially at low levels, you might let a player rebuild their character as a different class, perhaps starting by retraining into a multiclass dedication for their new class and swapping into more feats from that dedication as partial progress towards the class change.

Just be mindful that they aren’t swapping over to switch out a class they think is great at low levels for one they think is stronger at high levels. Retraining a class or ability scores should take a long time, typically months or years.

Changing an ancestry or heritage requires some kind of magic, such as reincarnation into a new form.

This might take a complex ritual, exposure to bizarre and rare magic, or the intervention of a deity. For instance, you might require an elf who wants to be a halfling to first become trained in Halfling Lore, worship the halfling pantheon, and eventually do a great service for halflings to get a divine blessing of transformation.

Retraining a background requires altering the game’s story so that the events the PC thought happened didn’t.

That can be pretty tricky to justify! The most likely scenario is that they had their memory altered and need to get it magically restored to reveal their “true” background—the new retrained background.

Of course, in all these cases you could make an exception and just let the player make the change without explanation. This effectively acknowledges that you’re playing a game, and don’t need an in-world justification for certain changes. For some groups it might be easier, or require less suspension of disbelief, to ask the group to adjust their ideas of what’s previously happened in the game than to accept something like an elf turning into a halfling via magic.

Adjudicating Rules

As Game Master, it falls on you to adjudicate the rules. This means you’re making judgments and decisions about the rules, especially when their application is unclear. Roleplaying games encourage creativity, and however well crafted and well tested a set of rules is, players will always find situations that require interpretation and judgment by the GM.

You need at least some familiarity with the rules to run a game well. But you don’t need to be the foremost expert on the rules.

You don’t even need to know the most about the rules at your table to be a great GM!

There’s a key difference between “knowing” the rules and “adjudicating” the rules.

While GMing, strive to make quick, fair, and consistent rulings. Your rulings should encourage your group to work together to interpret the rules and to be creative with their characters’ decisions and actions. If your group is satisfied with the interpretation, you’ve made the right adjudication!

Core Principles

These are the most important things to keep in mind.

  • Remember the basics of the rules.
  • Be consistent with your past rulings.
  • Don’t worry if you don’t have a specific rule memorized; it’s OK to look it up!
  • Listen to concise opinions from the other players.
  • Make a call and get on with play.
  • Review your decision after the session is over, if necessary.

The Basics

Start by looking at the basic guidelines of the core rules for the fundamental principles that can help you make rulings quickly and fairly.

You should also be familiar with the rules relevant to encounters, exploration, and downtime.

Consistency and Fairness

As an arbiter of the rules and the person who’s setting the scene for the action, it’s in your best interest to appear fair at all times. Your main defense against appearing unfair is consistency in your rulings.

Achieving consistency is as easy as explaining why you’re ruling a certain way and comparing this ruling to past rulings you’ve made in a way that makes sense to your players. For example, you might say something like “When your character swung from the chandelier and attacked the air elemental, I required an Athletics check as part of the action and gave a +1 circumstance bonus to the attack roll. Hanging from the rope bridge to attack the giant bat sounds similar, so why don’t you roll an Athletics check.” Do this any time it’s applicable when you make a ruling, but don’t feel compelled to do so for truly new rulings.

Through the course of playing, your previous rulings will form a set of shared preferences and an understanding between you and your group—or even become formalized house rules.

Over time, your players will think about these examples when planning their actions, which can improve consistency during play.

Looking Up Rules

It is perfectly acceptable to refer to the rules during a session. However, you don’t have to do this alone.

If you’re leafing through a book or searching an electronic reference, your players are idle. There are a few techniques that make these intervals more palatable for the players. Letting them know that you’re looking something up might prompt some players to also read the rule. This can increase the chances of collaboration and sets expectations for the length of the pause. Alerting your players that you’re going to take a minute and read the rules also lets them know that it’s a good time to tend to away-from-the-table tasks like refilling a drink.

Listen To The Players

The friends around your game table are perhaps your best tool for achieving quick, fair, and consistent rulings. Sharing the task of remembering the rules makes rules discussions collaborative rather than combative, greatly increases the chances of accurate and comprehensive recall of the written rules and your own past rulings, and is true to the shared storytelling spirit.

Asking if anyone knows how a specific rule rewards those players who have spent time mastering the rules and involves more people in the discussion. It signals to other players that you are willing to hear opinions before making a ruling, and it builds a more collaborative environment.

In addition, for groups with access to a large number of sourcebooks or rules resources, you can ask different players to examine separate sources. This can greatly increase the speed and accuracy of a group’s rulings.

Approaching the rules as a group problem also means that you should never trivialize player concerns about a rule.

You must also think about each player and assess how important the rules actually are to each player. Remember, though—while rules recall is a group challenge, making the final decision on the rules interpretation and getting the session moving again falls to you.

Make The Call

Though all the above are great practices for making good rulings, often the best ruling is the one that keeps the game moving. Avoid getting so bogged down that it takes you several minutes to decide what ruling you’ll proceed with. Take what’s close enough and keep playing. If necessary, you can tell your group “This is how we’re playing it now, but we can have more discussion between sessions.” This gets you back in the action, puts a clear stamp on the fact that this is your decision in the moment, and empowers your players with permission to express their opinions on the ruling at a later time.

When in doubt, rule in favor of the player’s request, and then review the situation later.

The best time to really go in-depth, possibly putting the group on a short break, is when a situation is life-or-death or has major consequences in a character’s story.

Take Time For Review

When you make a decision you’re not sure about, look back over it at the end of a session or between sessions.

You might change your mind—there’s nothing wrong with that! If you change or clarify your original ruling, inform your players before the next session. No one likes being surprised by a rule change. Even better, include them in a rules conversation just like you might during a session. The guidance on discussing rules with your players still applies between sessions. Unlike at-the-table rules discussions, there’s also much more time in these situations to read existing official rulings or sources.

Saying “Yes, But”

Some of the most memorable moments come from situations that inherently call for a rules interpretation, like when a player wants to do something creative using the environment. The variety of these situations is limited only by the imagination of your players. It’s usually better to say “yes” than “no,” within reason. For example, imagine a player wants to do something borderline nonsensical like grabbing a spider and squeezing it to force it to use its web attack. But what about a player who wants to use a fire spell to deliberately ignite a barrel of oil? Surely that should have some effect!

This is where you can use a variant of the well-known improv “Yes, and,” technique: you can say “Yes, but.”

With “Yes, but,” you allow the player’s creative idea, but tie it into the world and the game rules via some sort of additional consequences, potentially adding the uncertainty of an additional roll.

Here are some simple ways you might implement this tool. Almost all of these require an action or are part of another action.

  • Get a fleeting benefit without a roll. Example: dip a sword into a burning brazier to add 1 fire damage on the next attack against a troll.
  • Require a check, then apply a circumstance bonus to the PC’s action. Example: swing from a chandelier above a foe.
  • Require a check, then apply a circumstance penalty or condition to a foe. Example: throw a barrel over a monster’s head.
  • Require an attack roll or skill check to deal minor damage and gain another benefit. Examples: jump from a higher elevation down onto a foe for a small amount of damage, potentially knocking the foe prone; throw sand in an opponent’s eyes.
  • Require a directed attack against an object, then allow foes to attempt saving throws against the object’s effect at a DC you choose. Example: cast a produce flame spell at a barrel of explosives.

Another powerful tool you can use to help you say “Yes, but” when you’re unsure of the game impact is to allow the idea to work just this once, letting your players know that this is part of your decision. For instance, maybe you think a PCs attempt to Grapple a spider to aim its web attack at another foe is so fun you have to let them do it, but you’re worried that the effect would be so powerful that the PCs would just carry around a spider to shoot webs for the rest of the campaign. By making it a one-time effect, you can have fun but don’t have to worry about whether you’re setting a disruptive precedent for later on.

House Rules

You and your players will inevitably come across a rule you disagree with, or that runs counter to the theme of your game.

You might even decide to add a specific rule to an area not covered by the written rules. Collectively, these rulings, changes, and additions are known as house rules. It’s a good idea to record them in a place where the group can easily access and refer to them, and where a potential new player could find them. Such record-keeping is a great thing to delegate to a player!

The best rule of thumb in these situations is to be slow to change the written rules and quick to revert a problematic ruling or house rule. The simple reason for this is that sticking to the written rules is the easiest way to remain fair and consistent. However, the more you learn your group’s play style, the more often you’ll find times where you and your group feel it’s correct to institute a house rule of some sort.

Resolving Problems

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 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 in the core rules, and guidance for the others appears here.

Total Party Kills

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

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

Introducing and using safety tools at your table can help head off some problematic behaviors. The X-Card and Lines and Veils tools described in the core rules 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

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.


Players rarely cheat knowingly, so if you suspect a player of cheating, it’s safe to assume first that they’re unaware of—or simply forgot—how an aspect of the rules works. A gentle reminder of how the rule, spell, or ability in question functions is usually enough to move past the situation. Every once in a great while, you’ll encounter a player who is deliberately cheating. The spirit of roleplaying is one of cooperative storytelling and overcoming challenges together, so one player cheating steals fun from every other player at the table. It’s natural to feel some anger in this situation, so make sure you let some time pass between when you discover that a player is cheating and when you address it with them.

Ultimately, it will fall to you as the GM to gently make it clear that this behavior must stop. To do this well, think carefully about why the player is cheating before approaching them. The reason behind the cheating often points to a reasonable solution. When discussing the matter with your player, do your best to remain calm and inquisitive rather than accusatory.

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

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.

Narrative Collaboration

The relationship between you, your players, and the story is what makes roleplaying games successful and memorable. If all the players at the table contribute ideas, the game holds more surprises for everyone—including you!

While some players like to sit back and let the Game Master control everything, most players want their contributions to shape the campaign’s story. This is central to the concept of player agency—making players feel like the choices they make really matter, and that the world is a living place they can change through their decisions. In some games, the players can step beyond the traditional divide between GM and players to directly influence how the story progresses. Below are three methods you can use to balance the narrative control of your game.

Idea Farm

Coming up with ideas for a campaign can sometimes feel overwhelming. This is where your players come in handy!

You can solicit direct feedback from them and implement their ideas into the game. This style of narrative control preserve your authority over the game while giving players the chance to incorporate elements into the game you know they want to see. It doesn’t venture beyond the traditional structure of a fantasy roleplaying game.

Plan for a few checkpoints throughout the campaign where you touch base with your players to get their ideas. The most crucial comes at the start of the game. It’s best to take this step before you even set to work on crafting the world or plot, so that player input can define what’s important in the game world. Later, checkpoints can coincide with major story milestones. For example, if the players set off across the sea, you might ask where they want their voyage to end and what sites, if any, they’d like to explore along the way.

Creative Collaboration

You might have players develop the stories of some of the regions or NPCs, while your contributions serve as the glue that makes it all work together. This breaks somewhat with traditional RPG structures, in that you might not be the expert on all areas of the setting and plot.

Your collaboration will depend on the interests of you and the other players. Maybe one draws a city map, another makes the stats and personality for an NPC, another controls some monsters in combat, and a fourth doesn’t want to do anything beyond playing their character. There’s a trade-off here, because while you’ll be off-loading some of your work, you’ll also need to ensure consistency across these multiple sources of ideas. It can really help to keep a log of which player is in charge of each part of your setting.

If you expect one of a player’s specialties to appear in an upcoming session, let them know ahead of time so they can prepare or discuss their ideas in advance with you.

Decentralized Storytelling

So what if you want to go all the way and completely break down the walls between the GM and other players?

What if you want to preside over a game in which anyone can speak for any of the NPCs, and when someone tries to determine what’s down the next hallway, it’s just as likely to come from another player as from you? Now we’re talking about decentralized storytelling, the least traditional approach we’ll cover here.

In this approach, one of your biggest jobs is asking questions or giving prompts. “When you open the door, what’s beyond?” “How does the king react to Lem’s taunt?”

You can direct your questions to individual players, leave them open to all, and put forth your own suggestions.

This approach works best when players are comfortable with one another and willing to both take responsibility in building the story and accept that some of their ideas will go unused. It’s well suited for shorter campaigns, or ones in which players take turns in the GM’s seat.


The largest risk of putting narrative control in multiple people’s hands is losing a cohesive story. When multiple people have conflicting ideas about the tone of the game or particulars of the setting, you can end up with something that doesn’t satisfy anyone. One of your tasks as GM is to recap events to clarify and reinforce the shared narrative.

Shared narrative control also complicates planning ahead. The group might need to improvise an encounter, take a break while you (and maybe other players) prep to go in a new direction, or even revise their plans. It helps to limit yourself to creatures that you can quickly find stats for in a Bestiary volume or in the NPC Gallery to avoid spending hours of work on creatures you won’t use.

Also, don’t lose sight of your own enjoyment!

You shouldn’t sacrifice how much fun you have for others.

Story Points

If you prefer, you can give players a number of Story Points at the start of each session (typically 2 or 3). They can cash these in to determine what happens next in the story. Having a currency like this means you can keep your steady hand on the tiller while allowing other players to interject when it’s important to them. For most groups, a Story Point should allow the player to suggest a plot twist that can be resolved quickly, or to establish a relevant fact or NPC attitude. It can’t determine the outcome of an entire scene or vastly alter the reality of the setting.

Special Circumstances

No two groups are exactly the same. At each gaming table, the GM and players work together to find their own style for the game and to tell their own stories. Some of these differences require the GM to make adjustments, especially for groups in which one or more players has needs that are not addressed directly in the core rules.

Unusual Group Sizes

The standard group size assumes four players and a GM. The core rules gives instructions for how to adjust for other group sizes, but additional changes may be helpful.

Small Groups

Small-group games focus more intently on the interests of the players and their characters, allowing for an experience that can be more customizable for each individual. However, they can also run into trouble when the PCs have gaps in their abilities. In many cases, the easiest way to adjust for a small group is to add additional characters. This could come in the form of allowing each player to play two characters or adding hirelings and support NPCs to the party to shore up roles that the PCs don’t fill. When adding GM-controlled NPCs to the party, it’s important to be sure that the PCs remain the stars of the show. In general, GM-controlled characters shouldn’t make major decisions, and they shouldn’t outshine PCs at their primary skills or roles (see GM-controlled NPCs).

You can also use variant rules like dual-class characters, free archetypes, or even just a few extra trained skills to help improve the PCs’ overall flexibility.

If you don’t add additional characters to the party or modify the PCs, it’s a good idea to tailor challenges and storylines to their abilities as well as player interest.

For example, if you have two players, a rogue and a bard, a heist could be a good fit. In combats, carefully consider how the PCs will fare against each opponent.

Some monsters are particularly likely to incapacitate a single PC; in small groups, use such creatures carefully and consider raising the encounter difficulty and XP awards beyond what a creature of that level is normally worth. Meanwhile, creatures that depend on affecting or damaging large numbers of PCs at once might be less effective.

Large Groups

Large-group games bring together the creativity and enthusiasm of many players, and they lend themselves to combat at a grand scale. However, they also divide the GM’s attention. Large groups also need to set ground rules for how many players need to be present for the game to run when some players are missing. Recaps at the beginning of each session are crucial to keep everyone on the same page. Delegation is one of your most powerful tools to keep the session running smoothly. For example, you can put the players in charge of recapping the events from the previous session, handling initiative, managing the party’s treasury, looking up rules, or helping with accessories like props and music. Also consider which tasks really need to be taken care of while everyone is there. For example, you could ask your players to handle selling items, deciding which common items they want to buy, and leveling up between sessions instead of at the table.

Each additional player adds to the length of combat twice: once for their own turn, and once for the additional foes on the field. By encouraging players to pay attention to the battle when it isn’t their turn and to plan their actions as their turn approaches, you can shorten each player’s turn and keep the battle moving swiftly.

Inevitably, there will be situations and circumstances that don’t involve the whole group. In a sufficiently large group, splitting the party is not necessarily dangerous. If the party splits up for more than a short stint, you can call for separate sessions to determine what happens to the two halves of the group, allowing them to reunite and share their findings afterward. Whether or not the party splits, having more players means less active time for each character. Look for opportunities to highlight each PC by providing challenges that play to their strengths or tie in story elements to which they are particularly connected.

Player Needs

Sometimes, making your game accessible and fun for everyone at the table requires making some adjustments to your typical GMing style or setup. The first step is open communication so you can learn what the players need, what accommodations would be helpful, and what type of assistance players do and don’t want to receive.

Sensory Differences

Players may have differences in the way that they process sensory information, as well as which senses they use.

For players who are hard of hearing or who struggle to process large amounts of sensory information at once, selecting a quiet gaming venue and establishing ground rules about table talk (such as asking players not to interrupt each other) can make the game more accessible.

Such players can also often benefit from handouts they can consult during the session. Keep in mind the way your players perceive the world when describing locations.

For example, if you have a blind or visually impaired player at the table, instead of simply describing what a location looks like, describe how it sounds and smells, the temperature of the room, the feeling of the breeze, and other aspects of the scene that they can identify with.

Attention Span

It’s not uncommon for people to struggle to maintain their attention for hours on end, especially for young players. If keeping attention is an issue at your table, add breaks to the game. Whether you’re just taking a break to stretch and chat or enjoying a full meal in the middle of the game, switching up the context helps players refresh their focus. Some players remain more engaged if they have something else to do while playing, such as doodling or pacing. Maintaining attention can be particularly challenging for some players when their character is not engaged, such as when the party splits or when they have just finished their turn in a large combat.

You can allow players to engage in other activities during the session, such as texting, reading, or playing other games, and then draw them back into the game when their character is active.

Rarity In Your Game

The rarity system is a powerful tool that helps you and your group customize your story, your characters, and your world to better match your game’s themes and setting.

You can also use it to keep the complexity of your game low by limiting access to unusual options.

The Four Rarities

Let’s first review the default usage for the four rarities in the game and how these already start to tell a story about your world.

  • Common elements are prevalent enough, at least among adventurers, that a player is assumed to be able to access them provided they meet the prerequisites (if any).
  • Uncommon elements are difficult to access, but a PC can usually find them eventually with enough effort, potentially by choosing a specific character option or spending substantial downtime tracking them down.
  • Rare elements are lost secrets, ancient magic, and other options that PCs can access only if you specifically make them available.
  • Unique elements are one of a kind. You have full control over whether PCs can access them. Named NPCs are unique creatures, though that doesn’t mean their base creature type is unique. For instance, an orc named Bloodtusk is unique, but that doesn’t mean it would be any harder for a PC encountering her to tell she’s an orc—just to discern specific information about her.

Different Contexts

Just because something is common or uncommon in one context doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the same in others. This is specifically true when comparing the commonality of a creature and an ancestry. For instance, while hobgoblins are a relatively common monster for adventurers to encounter and are a common creature, in most settings they are still far less prevalent than humans or elves and would be an uncommon ancestry.

Because uncommon elements are available in certain circumstances, it often varies by locale, even within the same setting. For instance, a katana is uncommon in the core rules but in Asian fantasy, a katana would be common and some western weapons might be uncommon.

Similarly, in an elven kingdom, uncommon elven weapons like the elven curve blade might be common.

Access Entries

Uncommon elements sometimes have an Access entry in their stat block. A character who meets the specifications listed there has access to that option just like they would to a common option, even though it’s uncommon.

Starting Elements

Elements like ancestries, backgrounds, classes, and heritages that a character must select at character creation can still be uncommon or rare. Obviously, there’s no opportunity for the character to search for them during play, but these rarities still indicate the prevalence of adventurers with those elements in the world.

You can decide to allow them on a case-by-case basis depending on the campaign and the story your group wants to tell. For instance, a game set in a lizardfolk empire might have lizardfolk (normally uncommon) as a common ancestry while the typical common ancestries are less common. An official player’s guide for an Adventure Path might have uncommon backgrounds that you can access by playing the Adventure Path.


You might craft a quest involving an uncommon or rare subject. For instance, players might encounter a door that requires a rare spell to open, and need to travel to an academy to learn it. If a player has their heart set on an option that’s not common, look for ways to build a story in which their character acquires that option.


With the rarities at your fingertips, you and your group can start building a unique world using rarity as a tool. Imagine a world where one or more of the core classes are rare.

Maybe the gods rarely answer the call of the faithful and a PC cleric is one of the only clerics in the world. Perhaps sorcerers are rare and feared by wizards’ guilds, which have a stranglehold on spell access. For a grittier feel, you could make abilities that can remove afflictions uncommon or rare.

You could even create a low-magic setting where all magic and magic items are uncommon or rare.

You can add, remove, or alter Access entries to fit your world. For instance, if in your world the goddess of death guards the secrets of resurrection, you might add an Access entry to raise dead and resurrection for characters who worship that goddess.

These are just a few ideas to help get you started. The number of ways you can vary rarities to adjust your setting, story, and game are nearly unlimited.

Campaign Structure

Each adventure presents one contained story, but your campaign tells a more expansive one. Think of each adventure like an episode or arc and the campaign as a whole series.

Though each adventure might tell a vastly different story, they should all tie into the themes and characters that stretch across the whole campaign.

A campaign interweaves multiple stories: the events of each adventure, the personal triumphs and failures of each PC, and the stories of NPCs who appear throughout.

That means a campaign can become more than the sum of its parts. When you start out, you’ll likely have a core structure in mind for your campaign, but through play it can—and should—grow and evolve.

Basic Structures

When building your campaign, you can use these structures as a starting point. The Adventure Design section explains various styles of adventures that, after creating your basic campaign structure, can be used to inspire the creation of the adventures in your campaign.


An adventure lasting one session, a one-shot works well for a highly themed adventure using characters or concepts that are novel, but that players might not want to stick with long-term.

Adventures 1, typically a dungeon crawl, horror, intrigue, or mystery

Top Level 1, but often starts at a higher level

Time Frame 1 session

Brief Campaign

This structure is meant for a brief, self-contained campaign. It can be ideal for introducing new players, and can be extended to a longer campaign if the group wishes.

Adventures 2, typically one dungeon crawl followed by one high adventure; this format also works well for horror adventures

Top Level 4–5

Time Frame 3 months weekly, 6 months biweekly

Extended Campaign

An extended campaign works well for a dedicated group that might want to switch to a new campaign or a different game after a year or so. It allows for significant character and plot development but doesn’t reach the higher levels of the game.

Adventures 5, typically with multiple adventures fitting the main theme of the campaign (such as high adventure or gritty adventure), with other adventure styles for variety.

Top Level 11–13

Time Frame 1 year weekly, 1-1/2 years biweekly

Epic Campaign

An ambitious and complex game, the epic campaign takes PCs all the way to level 20, pitting them against the greatest threats in the world and beyond. This can be challenging in terms of time commitment and complexity, but it lets PCs develop into true legends, and the players will likely remember it for years.

Adventures 6 long adventures, typically starting with high adventure or a dungeon crawl and including military adventure, planar adventure, and romantic adventure

Top Level 20

Time Frame 1-1/2 years weekly, 3 years biweekly

Linking Adventures

In a campaign that includes multiple adventures, a smooth transition from one adventure to the next ties the story together.

You might use NPCs who could appear in both adventures, a treasure or clue found in one adventure that becomes important in a later one, or even fallout from one adventure that causes the next adventure to take place. Related locations can help, too. Adventures that take place in neighboring regions, or both in the same region, have an inherent link. If they take place in two different places, you’ll need a reason the PCs should travel between the two, and you can use this journey as a short, interstitial adventure.

Adventure Themes

Consider how each adventure’s theme plays into the campaign as a whole.

You might want to keep similar or recurring themes, especially if each adventure is part of one overarching storyline. On the other hand, this can feel repetitive, and some groups prefer variety and seeing their characters play off of different situations. To convey shifting themes, you can show established parts of the world changing to reflect the new theme. For instance, if you’re switching from an adventure about subjugation to one of mayhem, the PCs could take down a villain who wants to enslave the populace, but then face opportunistic brigands who loot and pillage once order breaks down.

Player Goals

Ask what you and the other players enjoy and would like to see in the game.

You can use these ideas as touchstones to build off of. When you get into the campaign itself, the PCs’ goals come to the forefront. Find out what each character wants to achieve and look for opportunities you can place in the game world and adventures. Consider which part of the game most closely ties to each goal. A PC who wants to build an institution will need money and interpersonal connections, so you can use treasure and NPC interactions to give them the resources they need. For a character whose purpose is to help people in danger, build some encounters that include people who need to be rescued.

Look for good times to recap the state of a character’s goals and remind the player how their character has progressed, particularly when something changes in relation to their goals. The Long-Term Goals section gives you more details on how you can use goals in downtime.

Changing The World

As the group moves through the campaign, the events of their adventures and downtime should change the world around them. Show this through the responses the characters get from other people, the scenery they see around them, and their environment.

You might be able to anticipate some changes, but most will come up in play and require you to make adjustments later on.

Power Level

As the game progresses, the power level of the PCs and their foes increases. Going up in level brings new, stronger abilities into the game, and likewise adventures bring in new monsters with commensurate capabilities.

Higher-level adventures should present new challenges appropriate to the PCs’ abilities, such as areas that can be accessed with flight at 7th level or higher. Beyond just the rules, PCs should compel different reactions from the people they meet, as their reputation spreads and they exhibit abilities beyond what most people have ever seen.

Recurring Villains

Consider including villains who can appear multiple times over the course of several adventures. They don’t necessarily need to be masterminds. Imagine an unscrupulous mercenary who works for major villain after major villain. When you create a recurring villain, it’s best not to make them too integral to the story, since the PCs might take them down earlier than you expect!

Have some contingency plans in place.

The advice about Portraying NPCs applies especially to these recurring villains. As they reappear throughout the campaign, they should change in some of the same ways PCs do. Think about how previous run-ins with the PCs have shaped the recurring villain’s emotions and plans. Which PC do they have the biggest grudge against and why? Do they bear scars from previous battles? Have they developed a countermeasure against a PC’s spells or tactics?

Villain Goals

Just as PCs have goals, so do your villains. A recurring villain might have a vision for what the world should be and a step-by-step plan to get there. A plan gives you a clear way to progress the plot, and an underlying goal guides you in deciding what the NPC does if their plan goes awry. It can be especially helpful to contrast the villain’s goals with those of the PCs. If a PC wants to establish a trade network, maybe a villain plans to get rich robbing caravans or merchant ships.

If a PC plans to found churches to a deity, a villain could worship one of that god’s adversaries. Just like with PCs’ goals, show how the villain’s goal has impacted the world, even in small ways. Try to find ways the villain can make a difference even if the PCs are successful against them. A villain will look ineffective if the PCs foil every single plot or plan. For instance, the villain might turn a memorable NPC to their cause, set an institution ablaze, or invade a village.

All of these outcomes can have memorable, long-lasting effects even if the villain’s ultimate plan fails.


The core rules explains three types of concrete rewards covered by the rules: Hero Points, Experience Points, and treasure. Experience Points and treasure are the bedrock of progress in a campaign, since attaining a higher level and acquiring magic items let PCs take on more challenging adventures.

Experience Points

In a standard game, Experience Points come from encounters of low threat or higher, and from accomplishments. Try to be consistent about what is worth accomplishment XP and what isn’t, and give out at least some accomplishment XP every session. If two PCs pull off the same magnitude of task, they should get an equal amount of accomplishment XP. That doesn’t mean you should allow XP “farming,” however. Part of the assumption of accomplishment XP is that the accomplishment is novel and the result of something challenging. If someone got accomplishment XP for snatching a dragon’s egg from a lair, someone collecting another egg wouldn’t necessarily get accomplishment XP.

You might find that accomplishment XP doesn’t work well for your game, especially if you’re running a dungeon crawl or other game with less interaction with NPCs or fewer quests. In this case, you can remove accomplishment XP and use fast advancement speed (800 XP to level up) to move at the standard advancement speed.


The game’s math is based on PCs looking to find, buy, or craft items that are the same level as them—this includes weapons and armor with fundamental runes, and items that help with the PC’s favorite skills or tactics. A PC who gets the item at that level will typically be ahead of the monsters, hazards, and skill DCs briefly, before their challenges start to catch back up. The guidelines for awarding treasure, meanwhile, have you give the party items 1 level higher than the PCs. This means the items found on adventures are more powerful than those a PC could make (which are capped at the PC’s level). The treasure assignment is measured across a level instead of per encounter because some encounters won’t have treasure, some will have extra treasure, and some treasure hoards or rewards might be found outside encounters entirely. If your campaign structure works better by giving out treasure for individual encounters—such as some dungeon crawls or sandbox games—see Treasure by Encounter.

As you choose treasure, look at the flow of treasure in the campaign, and see which PCs are ahead and which are behind. It’s usually best to mix “core items,” treasure linked to a PC’s main abilities, with treasure that has unusual, less broadly applicable powers. For instance, a champion might not purchase plate armor of the deep, but they will likely wear it if they find it. These items should always be useful—a party without a primal spellcaster won’t have much use for an animal staff.

The number of core items to give out depends partly on how much the campaign allows for crafting and buying items.

  • If there are few limits on buying items and there’s plenty of time to craft, make about half the permanent items you give out core items. The PCs have plenty of ways to obtain the items they want.
  • If purchasing items and obtaining formulas is somewhat difficult, make about three-fourths of the permanent items core items. If a PC really wants an item, they might have to do extra work to get it.
  • If there are no magic item shops or other ways to purchase items and formulas, make all the permanent items core items. In this case, it might work better for your game to use Automatic Bonus Progression to eliminate the need for core items.

Selling Items

The PCs’ ability to sell items plays a big part in their ability to equip themselves how they want. It’s expected that a campaign strives for some amount of verisimilitude—that PCs can’t find a buyer for every item, especially if they’re selling multiple copies of the same thing. Players should not have the expectation that they can sell whatever they want whenever they want. They might be unable to sell items that wouldn’t be in demand, have to take a lower percentage, or have trouble selling items in places without massive wealth.

If you don’t want to deal with that level of detail, you can choose to make selling items more abstract, allowing the PCs to sell anything for half Price essentially at any time.

Since this makes it far easier for PCs to outfit themselves how they want, they might be more powerful.

Starting The Campaign

Before your first session begins, communicate back and forth with the players about the following details to make sure you’ve planned your campaign to fit their preferences, then recap and communicate your final decisions.

  • Establish the expected schedule and generally how long you expect the campaign to last. It’s okay if you don’t know the total length for sure, but you should still give an estimate.
  • Inform the players when and where the first session will take place, what they should prepare in advance, and what materials to bring. If you’re running a session zero to create characters first, let them know. You might also need to tell them whether to bring food, drinks, and other supplies beyond what they’ll use for the game itself.
  • Let the players know any restrictions or extra options for character building. Even if you plan to run a session zero, give them a heads-up before the session starts.
  • Tell the players where in the game world the first session will take place.
  • Give the players a basic idea of the genre or theme.

At The First Session

If you’re running a session zero, read the Session Zero section for advice on your first session. For the first time you play through an adventure, follow these bits of advice.

  • Recap the basics of the campaign you established earlier, particularly where it starts and any themes you feel will be important for the players to understand as they roleplay.
  • Have the players introduce their characters. If they have detailed backstories, it’s usually best that they start out just describing what the other PCs could learn with first impressions. If they want to go deeper into their backstory during play, they can do so later.
  • Ask questions about the characters. Note down anything you think will be significant, so you can adjust your plans for later sessions. You’ll want to keep doing this throughout play.
  • Begin the adventure, using the Starting a Session steps in the core rules. For your first adventure, find a good place for the PCs to meet and a reason for them to be together.

Starting At A Higher Level

A typical campaign starts at 1st level, but you can start at a higher level if you choose. This can be especially satisfying for a one-shot or short campaign, or if your group wants to play a specific adventure made for higher-level groups.

The PCs should start at the same level. They simply make a 1st-level character, then level it up the number of times needed to reach the starting level.

The Character Wealth table indicates how much currency and what common items of various levels the character should start with.

Let the players choose their own items and spend their currency on common items as well if they choose. This table gives them fewer items than they might have had if they had gained items through adventuring, balancing the fact that they can choose what items they want.

Ending The Campaign

A campaign might have a well-planned, emotionally resonant ending that executes perfectly, or the group might die in a ridiculous fashion at the worst time possible. It’s important that the ending follow the story, wherever it has gone, even if it doesn’t match the idea you had in your head at the start. Check in with your group, especially when you’re getting close to the end of each adventure, to see how long they want the campaign to go on. Check in with yourself, too, and express your opinion to the other players. Ideally, you know at least a session in advance that the end is coming, allowing you to prepare for a thrilling conclusion.

You might plan for the final session’s gameplay to be a bit shorter—possibly just one big showdown—to allow time for an epilogue and for the group to reminisce and decompress at the end.

An epilogue can make the end of a campaign more fulfilling. First, let the group finish out their roleplaying in the final moments of the adventure until they’re content.

Then tell the group the results of what they accomplished in broad terms, with concrete details of what happens to certain places or allied NPCs. Ask the players what their characters do after the adventure.

You might want to narrate a few short scenes, such as a PC tracking down an escaped villain and bringing them to justice. When your epilogue is done, thank everyone for playing. If the campaign ended in success for the PCs, give yourselves a round of applause. A victorious ending warrants celebration!

Dealing With Failure

If a campaign ends prematurely, get a sense from the players of whether they want to continue. The advice on Total Party Kills should be helpful. If the campaign ended in a stranger way than a total party kill— say, a PC handing over the powerful relic the villain needed to complete a master plan—you can still look for ways the campaign might continue. Maybe the PCs struggle to survive in the world after the calamity, or maybe they have just enough time they might still be able to stop the plan.

The Next Campaign

If the group plays another campaign in the same world that takes place after your previous campaign, think through the repercussions of the last campaign and change the world as needed.

You might introduce new elements into the world that call back to the previous campaign: newly powerful factions, new settlements, or new options for player characters such as backgrounds, all based on the impact the previous PCs made on the world.

Adventure Design

When making your own adventure, you get to choose the themes, play style, and NPCs that most appeal to you and your group. This section gives you tips for making your adventures exciting and memorable, and for creating them quickly and efficiently.

Creating an adventure for your players can be one of the most fulfilling parts of being a GM. Get started with the basic tips on adventure building of the core rules, then flesh out your adventure using the following adventure recipes to quickly outline an adventure based on your chosen theme. Reading other adventures is a great way to get ideas, whether they’re published adventures or ones your friends have written.

You can borrow ideas and structures if they work for your game, and tweak as needed.

Player Motivations

One of your most important and rewarding tasks is getting to know your players and what makes them tick, then implementing plot hooks that speak to their motivations.

If your players all like similar things (maybe they all like epic storylines, or all prefer tactical combat), your job will be a bit easier. But for most groups there’s a mix, and you’ll want to put in a detailed NPC who appeals to one player’s love of social scenes, a powerful villain to engage a player who loves stories of winning against overwhelming odds, and exotic animals that attract a player who’s into having animal friends. If you’re not sure what your players enjoy, ask them in advance what they’d like to see in the game!

Considering player motivations doesn’t mean assuming you know what the players or their characters will do!

It can be risky to expect PCs to react in certain ways or take certain paths. Knowing their motivations gives you a way to put in elements you expect will appeal to your players, but their decisions will still take the adventure in unexpected directions. The important thing is getting the players engaged, not predicting the future.

Keeping It Varied

You can give players variety through the types of challenges the group faces (combat, social, problem-solving, and so on), the locations they explore, the NPCs they meet, the monsters they face, and the treasure they acquire. Even if you’re building an enclosed dungeon, you don’t want to place a combat in every room, or exploration will quickly become stale.

Think in terms of sessions. If your group gets through five scenes per session, how do you make one game session feel different from another? Maybe two of the scenes in each are fairly basic combat encounters, but if you make the other scenes significantly different, or even if you set the encounters in different environments, the sessions won’t feel repetitive. Also think about the tools used to solve each situation. Maybe one requires complex negotiations, another brute force, and a third sneaking about. Aim to give everybody something compelling, and ideally targeted at their motivations. This translates to mechanical details, too. Inching across a balance beam requires different skills than rebuilding a broken key.

Theme and Feeling

Think about the emotional and thematic touchstones you want to hit during play. Good games elicit strong emotions, and planning for them can give an emotional arc to an adventure in addition to the narrative arc. Consider what you want players to feel as they play. Is it triumph?

Dread? Sadness? Optimism? None of these will be the only emotions to come out, but they will inform how you build the settings and NPCs. Adventure Recipes (below) gives steps to effectively implement theme and feeling.

Adventure Presentation

When you’re writing up your own adventure, you don’t need to go into the same level of detail you’d see in a published adventure.

You might be able to get by with just an outline, some bullet points for each NPC, a breakdown of encounters, and a few rough maps. Or maybe for your style of running games, you prefer to have some text written about each scene, or even particular lines of dialog. If you’re creating your first adventure, it can be good to write out a little more than you need. Just keep in mind that things might change in play. If you prepared more than you actually used, that’s normal! Detailing NPCs or locations in particular can be useful, especially if they’re going to appear again. But in many of these cases, you’ll add details at the table and can jot down those notes for later.

Running Your Own Adventure

It’s often easier to run an adventure you made yourself, but that’s not true for everybody. If you notice as you run your adventure that your notes don’t have enough for you to go on, you can be more thorough next time. and if something ended up inconsistent, there’s nothing wrong with telling your players you want to revise something you previously said.

Because this is your own creation, it’s closer to your heart.

If the adventure doesn’t go well, it can sting. Sometimes this is because of random chance, sometimes due to unforeseen decisions, and occasionally because you made a mistake.

Those are all normal parts of the game! One of the things you’ll internalize the more you run games is that you’re a part of the creative process and don’t need to be perfect.

Adventure Recipes

These procedures help you build an adventure skeleton or outline. You’ll then go through and flesh out the details of the adventure, including adversaries and locations. As you play, you’ll keep adjusting to fit the events of the game. Anything you haven’t already introduced can be changed as needed. Just like with any recipe, you’re meant to adjust the details to fit your group’s preferences.

You might stray far from your starting point, and that’s OK!

These recipes use six steps.

You might want to look ahead to your future steps and make choices out of order based on what’s most important for you to convey.

The catch-all term “opposition” refers to the various adversaries and obstacles the PCs will face. The opposition should be thematically consistent, but not necessarily monolithic. It might contain multiple individuals or groups, who might not get along with one another.

  • Styles: The overall vibe of your game, such as a gritty game, dungeon crawl, or high adventure. These frameworks offer guidelines for the number of sessions and types of encounters that work best.
  • Threats: Thematic dangers to incorporate into your game, and ways to evoke them as you play. The style and threat are the core parts of your recipe.
  • Motivations: Determine more specifically what the opposition’s goals and motivations are.
  • Story Arcs: This section gives you guidance on how to construct story arcs that will play out over your adventure and maybe beyond.
  • NPCs and Organizations: The characters and factions you include should fit the theme.
  • Mechanics: Your last step is adding in the individual creatures, hazards, treasure, and so on.


These frameworks for building your adventure include some basic elements to get you started outlining an adventure. Slot ideas from the threats section into this structure, then customize as you see fit.

Dungeon Crawl

Number of Sessions 3–4

Exploration Scenes 1 long voyage to reach the dungeon; 3 voyages through long, trapped hallways or mazes; 1 secure cave or other staging area; 2 secret passages or rooms

Combat Encounters 2 trivial, 4 low, 6 moderate, 6 severe. Many encounters can be bypassed through secret routes.

Roleplaying Encounters 4 conversations with dungeon creatures; 1 negotiation to establish a truce

Encounter Tropes Cramped quarters, short lines of sight, and poor lighting conditions, with occasional vaulted chambers and flooded crypts. Traps and puzzles.

Gritty Adventure

Number of Sessions 5–7

Exploration Scenes 1 long voyage, plagued by attacks; 2–3 voyages through urban environments; 1 prison break, heist, or other test of skill

Combat Encounters 2 trivial, 4 low, 7 moderate, 8 severe; possibly 1 extreme. Foes are often other humanoids.

Roleplaying Encounters 2 battles of wits, 2 chances to bypass opponents with deception or threats, 2 opportunities to gather information and rumors

Encounter Tropes Stakes are often more personal, such as the PCs clearing their names from a false accusation or being paid to eliminate a problem. Betrayal, ambushes, and other duplicity. Town fires, weather conditions, unfriendly crowds.

High Adventure

Number of Sessions 6–8

Exploration Scenes 2 long voyages, often by sea or air, punctuated with combat; 1 trapped dungeon, tournament, or other test of skill

Combat Encounters 16 moderate, 8 severe. Avoid low- and trivial-threat battles.

Roleplaying Encounters 2 battles of wits; 4 conversations with bizarre creatures

Encounter Tropes Unique environments and terrain for dynamic battles. Swinging from balconies on curtains, fighting atop high wires, racing chariots, and so on. Use difficult terrain sparingly, coupled with creative ways to get around it. Large groups of low-level troops the PCs can defeat with ease.


Number of Sessions 1–2

Exploration Scenes 1 short voyage on foot; 2–4 creepy areas to investigate, like haunted mansions or dark forests

Combat Encounters 2 moderate, 1 severe, possibly 1 extreme. Avoid trivial- and low-threat encounters, except as moments of relief in a longer adventure. Extreme-threat encounters against overwhelming foes are excellent in horror one-shots.

Roleplaying Encounters 2 conversations with doubtful authority figures, 1 opportunity to gather information and rumors, 1 revelation of a horrible truth

Encounter Tropes Surprising and jarring encounters, making it hard for the PCs to feel safe. Encounters that feel overwhelming, even when they’re not. Retreat is often the right option (include a reasonable way for the PCs to escape).


Number of Sessions 2–3

Exploration Scenes 1 long voyage, often by land or sea; 3–4 competitions, performances, or other test of skill; 1–2 infiltrations or escapes

Combat Encounters 2 trivial, 2 low, 4 moderate, 1 severe. Severe threat encounters should be reserved for major reveals of the ongoing intrigue—an ally is revealed to be a foe, a schemer is exposed and must call on his guard, and so on.

Roleplaying Encounters 2–3 battles of wits; 2 political or courtroom scenes; 1 conversation with a cryptic source; 2 opportunities to gather information and rumors

Encounter Tropes Urban environments, including fights atop runaway carriages, around (and atop) banquet tables, and running over rooftops. Ambushes in apparently safe social settings. Assassination attempts.

Military Adventure

Number of Sessions 2–3

Exploration Scenes 1 long march and 2–3 short marches, or a tour of the defenses for a siege; 2–3 trapped enemy campsites and secret spy redoubts

Combat Encounters 4 low, 4 moderate, 1 severe. Most combat encounters should be made up of 2–4 foes, typically humanoid soldiers with a range of capabilities.

Roleplaying Encounters 1–2 skill challenges to convince neutral parties to become allies or raise troops’ morale

Encounter Tropes Fortified battlegrounds, with moats, walls, defensive towers, and siege weapons. Victory conditions that are goal or deadline oriented—holding a gate for 10 minutes while reserves rush to defend it, setting fire to an enemy catapult, rescuing prisoners, and so on.


Number of Sessions 2–3

Exploration Scenes 2–3 trapped rooms, concealed hideouts, or other tests of skill; 2 puzzles or investigations

Combat Encounters 2 trivial, 4 low, 6 moderate, 6 severe. Solving the mystery uncovers an advantage over the most powerful foe.

Roleplaying Encounters 1 battles of wits, 1 conversation with a bizarre creature, 1 opportunity to gather information and rumors, 1 gathering to reveal the answer to the mystery

Encounter Tropes Encounters come naturally during investigations or upon discovering some element of the mystery. Multiple clues can send PCs to the same locations; if the mystery stalls, some creature that doesn’t want the PCs to solve the mystery can attack to move the plot forward.

Planar Adventure

Number of Sessions 6–8

Exploration Scenes 3–4 long voyages through different planes, often by gate, spells, or planar vessel, punctuated by combat; 1–2 scouting a demiplane, planar city or fortress, or other planar stronghold

Combat Encounters 12 moderate, 12 severe. Avoid trivial- and low-threat encounters, except as set dressing to introduce a new plane.

Roleplaying Encounters 6 conversations with bizarre creatures, including some with alien ways of thinking; 2 opportunities to gather information and rumors

Encounter Tropes Fights showcasing otherworldly environs— on the sides of glaciers, in limitless oceans, on chunks of rock floating along rivers of lava, atop bottomless pits, or on the chains of 100-foot-tall gates.

Romantic Adventure

Number of Sessions 4–6

Exploration Scenes 1 tour of a kingdom or other central locale; 1 adventure into the wilds on a hunting trip or bandit hunt; 1 tournament to prove a PC’s love or worth

Combat Encounters 3 low, 6 moderate, 3 severe. Emphasize emotional stakes and battles that end with the loss of honor or pride, not life.

Roleplaying Encounters 2 battles of wits, 1 grand ball, 1 entreaty before a ruler, 2 scenes of relaxation or carousing with unexpected import

Encounter Tropes Duels—social or combat—against romantic rivals. PCs and their foes fight only for a purpose or cause. Savvy enemies have strong connections to the PCs.


Think of each type of threat as the deep, visceral danger the enemies represent. NPCs should be avatars of the threat, whether they’re enemies who represent different aspects of the threat or allies and bystanders damaged by it. Each threat entry gives a brief description, followed by some bullet points you can use to guide you in expressing the consequences of the threat. This is followed by monsters that typify this theme. As always, you can come up with your own thematic threats too!


The opposition wants to weaken or even change the motivation of a place, person, institution, ideal, or group.

  • Show the effects of corruption on people and places, especially those closely connected to the PCs. Once-safe areas become less friendly and present threats, allies become unable to help or even turn against the PCs.
  • Make enemies subtle; patient; and willing to allow rumors, lies, diseases, and poisons time to take effect. In battle, they may be satisfied to curse PCs and their allies or otherwise inflict long-term afflictions, then retreat.
  • Contrast the corruption with education, healing, and working towards betterment.
  • When the PCs make progress, allow them to expose agents of corruption, and inoculate allies and neutral parties against the growing threat or educate them about it.

Foes alghollthu, fiends, undead


The opposition wants to destroy or lay waste to a place, person, institution, ideal, or group.

  • Show the effects of destruction on people and places, especially those the PCs hold dear. Show them desperate, devoid of resources, and psychologically changed.
  • Make enemies hard to reason with and overwhelming in number. In battle, they want not just to win, but to kill, maim, or devour.
  • Contrast devastation with forces of preservation and order.
  • When the PCs make progress, show the slow recovery from devastation.

Foes chromatic dragons, demons, orcs


The opposition seeks a massive change—one they think is for the better. Their violent means of achieving it put them in conflict with the PCs.

  • Demonstrate the ruthlessness of the enemy, especially the discrepancy between their care for their cause and their ambivalence or hatred toward everything else.
  • Have enemies focus purely on their goal. Have them fall back on their rhetoric or dogma to justify themselves.
  • If something about the extremists’ cause is just—such as preserving the natural world or protecting their people— reveal the foes’ sympathetic side. Demonstrate the horror of what they’re fighting against in addition to the horror of the way they fight it.
  • When the PCs make progress, show uncertainty or demoralization in their foes, possibly even desertion.

Foes cultists, revolutionaries


The opposition is a force for mayhem, without any greater plan or long-term goal. It may be a mindless force of violence such as a wounded beast, or a thinking foe that simply revels in causing chaos and damage.

  • Mayhem is easy to track and find, often leaving a trail of destruction in its path. Show how the senseless violence causes uncertainty and fear, disrupting both settlements and the natural order of things.
  • A single powerful foe is a common source of mayhem, but a pack, herd, cult, or secret society could also be to blame. The source of the mayhem may be the result of the natural order being out of balance, or might be a distraction set off by a different foe looking to use it to further its own goals.
  • Emphasize the cascading effects of unchecked mayhem. Normal trade, farming, migration, and similar systems are disrupted, causing problems far from the immediate location of violence and disruption.
  • When the PCs make progress, show how resilient systems can recover from massive disruptions but may need additional help or protection.

Foes beasts, dinosaurs, drakes, giants


The opposition wants to rule over a group, location, or even the world. Their ultimate objective is to control and rule.

  • Show how groups submit to subjugation rather than suffer the consequences of resistance. The PCs see elements of culture destroyed to ensure subjugation—are religions and churches destroyed, subverted, or replaced? Are lackeys put in place to keep oppressed populations in line?
  • Make enemies self-righteous, focused, and in control of groups they have previously subjugated. Fights aren’t just for the sake of violence, but steps towards greater control.
  • Show opposition: open conflict, rebellion, secret groups, sabotage, and countercultural art. Give PCs the opportunity to support or participate in each.
  • When the PCs make progress, have previously cowed or neutral parties be moved to rebel.

Foes chromatic dragons, devils, hags, hobgoblins, rakshasas


Think about your opposition, and what their goals and motivations are. The motivation of the opposition needs to match your threat. If you have multiple adversaries, their motivations should all work toward your theme, but they might have different goals and act more as rivals or enemies. Motivations should be more than one dimensional. There should be a reason for every action the opposition takes—not necessarily a good one or a smart one, but a believable one. Be true to each character!

Consider these questions so you can use the answers when deciding what the opposition will do.

  • What does the opposition want?
  • Who or what does the opposition fear? (And no, “the PCs” isn’t an answer.)
  • Why is the opposition sure to succeed? If the PCs don’t do anything, what makes the opposition unstoppable?
  • What are the opposition’s weaknesses? How can they be bribed or tricked? What’s something they ignore that might be used against them?

Story Arcs

Keep several story arcs in mind. Most of these will be driven by the opposition in the early going, but PCs might initiate their own story arcs. Think of what the beginning, middle, and end of each arc might look like. Imagine a logical end point the arc would reach if nothing else changes. Then, adjust it based on events in the game. As changes occur, revisit the end point you’ve imagined. If the adversary’s plan has been derailed, what might they do instead? Story arcs should reflect the theme of the adventure and be well-positioned to show off motivations.

Many arcs will last only for the duration of one adventure, but others build up and recur across the whole campaign. Include some of each so you have variety.

This also provides closure, as the players can see some storylines wrapped up in the short term and others over a long period. Too many dangling plot threads can result in some being forgotten or make players feel overloaded.

Touchstones like the ones below make a story arc adaptable, not too restricted to specific scenes or characters.

  • Use motifs. Use repeated thematic elements, visuals, phrases, and items to reinforce the connection between one adventure or segment of the story and another. The motif can also build in complexity as you move further along in the overarching story.
  • Follow character growth. Respond to how the PCs changed in previous adventures. Their next undertaking should reflect who they are now.
  • Escalate! Build on the previous story and show that the next threat is scarier. The first adventure may endanger a village, the next a city, the next a whole nation, and so on.
  • Bring in recurring characters. A recurring character is especially strong if they appear in similar circumstances each time. For instance, a merchant who travels the world might appear in the campaign only when she wants the PCs to undermine her rivals.
  • Make each adventure count. While developing an arc, don’t diminish individual adventures by making what happened in them inconsequential compared to the larger story. Illustrate the consequences of such adventures so the players feel a sense of accomplishment for completing one before they move onto the next. Each adventure needs some sort of denouement to show immediate and lingering effects of the PCs’ victory or defeat.

Building A Sandbox

In a “sandbox” game, you give the players a sizable location to explore and let them decide how to go about it. A sandbox doesn’t have as many time-sensitive events as a directed adventure, and the flow of the game is driven more by the players than by the opposition.

You can put self-contained dungeons or other locations within the sandbox, but it’s up to the players when and how to visit them or deal with them.

To make a sandbox, create about triple the number of encounters and spread them out among multiple locations or factions.

You can expect the PCs won’t deal with all of them. In most cases, you’ll want to determine where the PCs are headed next before the end of a session so you can prepare for the next session. Depending on the size and complexity of the location, the number of encounters might be much higher. Treat each sub-area as a kind of mini-adventure, and only loosely sketch it until you know what the PCs’ plans are.

NPCs and Organizations

Allied, neutral, and adversarial NPCs and organizations can all contribute to the theme. You’ll want most to follow the theme directly, like the examples in Threats. However, you can add a few counterpoints to the theme. For example, a horror game might include one or two NPCs who are more hopeful, either to grant respite from the dread or to kill off to show just how bad things are. Including NPCs who aren’t adversaries makes the world feel more real. It also increases the stakes, as PCs have people to care about, protect, and socialize with. You’ll often find that NPCs you create will become more or less important than you expected.

You can “demote” an NPC if the players don’t find them interesting or “promote” them if the PCs like them more than expected.


Last of all, you’ll fill out specific encounters, NPCs, treasure hoards, maps, and so on. For many games, you can save most of this work for between later sessions, spreading out your preparations over the course of the game.

Encounter Design

Creating a compelling encounter goes beyond just following the guidelines for selecting monsters of a given level. Good encounters have a place in the story, compelling adversaries, interesting locations, and twists and turns to make them dynamic.

Encounters play a fundamental part in roleplaying games, but it can be tricky to know where to start when building them. This section covers ways to expand on the basics provided in the core rules to make your encounters an exciting and integral part of the plot.

Encounter design goes hand in hand with location, map, and adventure design.

You might set an adventure in a swamp and populate it with swamp creatures and environmental features. Or you might have a dungeon denizen in mind, and structure a section of your dungeon to fit that creature.

When you’re starting out, straightforward encounters of low or moderate threat can let you get your bearings. Then, you can increase complexity as you get more confident and as the PCs collect more tools to use against their foes. The more encounters you build, the more comfortable you’ll get with your own personal style.

You can always come back here to get more ideas or advice on executing a certain type of encounter.


Variety in encounters is essential to let players try new tactics and give different PCs chances to shine as they face foes with weak points they’re uniquely suited to exploiting.

Consider the following forms of encounter variety.

  • Theme: Look for ways to include varied creatures and locations. Even if the PCs delve into a dungeon inhabited by drow, they should encounter other creatures, too! All creatures should have a justification for fitting in, but no place needs to be uniform.
  • Difficulty: A string of moderate-threat encounters can feel flat. Use low- and even trivial-threat encounters to give PCs chances to really dominate, and severe threat encounters for especially powerful enemies. Extreme-threat encounters should be used sparingly, for enemies who match the threat posed by the PCs and have a solid chance of beating them!
  • Complexity: Use high complexity judiciously, saving it for important or memorable fights.
  • Encounter Composition: The number of creatures per encounter and their levels should vary. Higher-level single enemies, squads of enemies, and large numbers of lackeys all feel different.
  • Setup: Not all encounters should start and end the same way. PCs might sneak up on unprepared enemies, get ambushed by foes hunting them, enter into a formal duel, or find a diplomatic overture fails and turns into a fight. On the other side, enemies might all be taken out, retreat, beg for mercy, or even shift the encounter to a chase or other phase.
  • Information: Uncertainty can increase the tension and sense of danger the players feel. Ambushes, fights against unknown foes or foes behind battlements, and other scenarios can create this basic uncertainty.

Encounter Locations

Choose compelling settings for your encounters. When encounters take place in a building or lair, the most significant environmental features originate from the occupants, both past and present. Think about their tastes, biology, or wealth. These features could be natural, such as the sickening reek of decay in the lair of a great predator.

They could also be alchemical, such as a cloud of poisonous gas, or magical, such as a strange electric current that arcs through the walls and occasionally leaps out at passersby.

In some cases, you’ll have a location in which an enemy always appears, and you can design your location to suit that specific creature. Other times, an encounter might appear in a variety of places, such as a guard patrol or wandering monster. In these cases, you’ll need several terrain and structure options so there’s something interesting about the environment no matter where the battle takes place.

Maps and Terrain

Features on the map have a substantial impact on the flow of combat. Three considerations to keep in mind when designing a map are maneuverability, line of sight, and attack ranges. Even empty rooms and corridors can provide variety based on their size and shape. Narrow passageways make natural choke points. In particularly small rooms, space is at a premium, favoring melee combatants and making area effects hard to aim without friendly fire. By contrast, huge areas lend themselves to spread-out combat, which gives plenty of room to use all manner of abilities but poses challenges for ones with limited range. To make large rooms more interesting, add furniture, stalagmites, or other features the PCs and their foes can duck behind for cover.

Inhabitant Or Intruder?

In most cases, the PCs enter territory that’s far more familiar to their foes than it is to them. NPCs and monsters who live in an area are likely to be adapted to its dangers, either because they know where they are and how to avoid them, or because they are unaffected by them. A kobold in their lair might bait a PC into walking into a trap the kobold avoided. Marshland may be troublesome terrain for most PCs, but it poses little inconvenience to amphibious creatures. When using creatures with the ability to burrow, climb, or swim, consider incorporating features such as mazelike corridors, high walls with platforms, or rivers.

If the foes are smaller or larger than the PCs, consider including paths, cubbyholes, staircases, or narrow passages that one side of the fight can use more effectively.

Sometimes, though, the PCs must defend their own base from intruders. In these situations, you’re flipping the script, so give the PCs time to trap and ward the area. Watching the invaders fall prey to hazards and ambushes can be a delightful change of pace for your players.

Wild Weather

On a bright, sunny day, the PCs see clearly and fight without obstruction, but adding wind, precipitation, or fog creates additional challenges. Rain creates sloshy, muddy ground that slows movement, and cold weather introduces the threat of slippery patches of ice. Only the most extreme temperatures have a direct impact on the PCs during an encounter, but a slog through blistering heat or freezing cold can leave the PCs worn out and more vulnerable to foes. Light levels play a key role in both outdoor and indoor encounters. Although torches are plentiful, their reach is limited, and lights are sure to draw attention in dark areas.

Budgeting For Terrain

If you include terrain that’s tricky to navigate or takes extra work to deal with, consider whether it should count toward the encounter’s XP budget. A fight that requires Climbing, Swimming, or pushing through difficult terrain can be much tougher—especially if the enemies have strong ranged attacks. Think about the impact of the terrain in advance, especially if the battle would already be a severe threat, or you might kill the party.

You can pick an equivalent monster level for your terrain and factor that into your budget, or just assign extra XP at the end if the threat without terrain is on the low or moderate end.

Enemy Motivations

Every encounter should happen for a reason. Consider a creature’s motivation to fight. Is it defending its lair?

Robbing to enrich itself? Following sadistic impulses? Simply being paid to fight? You may realize a creature doesn’t have a compelling motivation, or that the PCs have done something that eliminates the impetus to fight. In that case, the encounter doesn’t need to happen! Your game might be more satisfying if the PCs’ clever actions avoid the fight—provided you award them XP accordingly.


Think how an enemy reacts when a fight is going poorly for them—or well!

Enemies who do something other than fight to the death make an encounter more dynamic and believable. While PCs occasionally encounter truly fanatical zealots or single-minded creatures that would never back down from a fight, most creatures—even nonsapient creatures like animals—back down from a battle they’re obviously losing. This normally means foes fleeing at a certain point, potentially ending the encounter, but if the PCs need to capture those opponents, it could add a secondary objective and split their focus. Look at how differences in morale between participants impact the fight.

For instance, after the necromancer’s living allies surrender to the PCs, she might activate a latent magic she implanted within them, killing them and merging their bodies into an enormous undead abomination. An enemy’s morale could even change the encounter from combat to social, as the PCs enter negotiations over a surrender or try to convince their foes of the errors of their ways.

Dynamic Encounters

While you can certainly create enjoyable encounters by placing a group of opponents in a square room with little else, you have numerous tools to create encounters that are more interactive and dynamic. These tools can challenge your players to invent new strategies, inspire interesting character decisions, and make your setting richer.

No encounter needs to use all of the elements presented here, and not all encounters need more than one or two. The more complex a dynamic encounter is, the longer it takes to run and the more demanding it is. In general, these tools are perfectly suited for boss encounters, for memorable foes, and as a spice to add throughout your campaign however often works best for you and your players.

Hazards In Combat

In isolated encounters where the PCs have plenty of time to recover from hazards’ effects, simple hazards can feel more like speed bumps than true challenges. But when combined with other threats, even simple hazards can prove perilous.

A noisy explosion can draw attention, allowing foes to burst through the door for a dramatic start to the encounter.

Simple hazards can also be an active part of an encounter, particularly if the foes know how to avoid triggering them.

As their name suggests, complex hazards are a more powerful tool for encounters. Because they continue to act, they are an ongoing presence in the fight. When combined with hostile creatures, complex hazards offer the PCs plenty of choices for what they want to do next. This is particularly true if foes benefit from the hazard. Should the PCs first disable the array of pipes spewing magical fire into the room, or should they prioritize the fire elemental growing stronger with exposure to the inferno? There’s no right answer, and the PCs’ choices have a clear impact on the obstacles they face. Hazards in combat shine when they give the PCs ways to contribute meaningfully other than dealing damage to a creature. Interesting actions to disable a hazard are a fun way to give several PCs something fresh and different to do rather than piling on damage.

Evolving Battlefields

While some battlefields are relatively static, allowing the PCs and foes to clobber each other until one side wins, complex or evolving battlefields can lead to far more memorable encounters. One of the most straightforward ways to create an evolving battlefield is with dynamic environmental features. Maybe the floating platforms that make up the room’s floor shuffle around on their own turn each round, or various points teleport creatures to different locations—possibly between two rooms where separate battles take place simultaneously. These dynamic features have some overlap with complex hazards, though they don’t tend to be an opposition or obstacle specifically threatening the PCs.

Similarly, a third party in the encounter, perhaps a rampaging monster or a restless spirit, could pose a danger to both sides but potentially benefit either. For instance, perhaps the PCs or their foes could harness this third party as a dangerous but powerful ally with a successful skill check of some kind or by making a risky bargain.

Sometimes the evolving battlefield is more of a state change, or series of state changes, and less of a constant presence. For instance, defeating a ritualist and ending his ritual could cause the foes to lose a powerful beneficial effect but unleash a demon that crawled through the remains of the botched ritual, or cause part of the room to collapse from the magical backlash. Major physical changes to the environment, like such a collapse, portions of the room rising or falling, or water beginning to rush in and fill the room, can force the PCs to rethink their plans to handle the new situation. Sometimes the evolving battlefield is more of an unexpected plot twist that occurs in the middle of the encounter. Perhaps the evil tyrant reveals that they were a dragon all along, or reinforcements arrive for whichever side was outmatched. Whatever you choose, make sure it changes things up and makes the encounter feel more dynamic and different. For instance, raising up a portion of the battlefield that isn’t particularly relevant when neither the PCs nor their foes are likely to care is less interesting than raising up the pedestal holding the jewel the PCs and their enemies are trying to recover.

Quick Adventure Groups

If you want an easy framework for building an encounter, you can use one of the following basic structures and slot in monsters and NPCs.

  • Boss and Lackeys (120 XP): One creature of party level + 2, four creatures of party level – 4
  • Boss and Lieutenant (120 XP): One creature of party level + 2, one creature of party level
  • Elite Enemies (120 XP): Three creatures of party level
  • Lieutenant and Lackeys (80 XP): One creature of party level, four creatures of party level – 4
  • Mated Pair (80 XP): Two creatures of party level
  • Troop (80 XP): One creature of party level, two creatures of party level – 2
  • Mook Squad (60 XP): Six creatures of party level – 4

Combining and Separating Encounters

Picture this: the PCs storm a castle. They choose to eschew stealth in favor of a direct approach. On the ramparts, a guard spots them and raises an alarm. The sound of horns and whistles blare throughout the keep as each defender ensures that everyone is ready for a fight. and then, they politely wait in whatever room they were already standing in for the PCs to come and attack them. It sounds pretty unrealistic, and it feels unrealistic at the table. Many players find it far more satisfying when their foes take reasonable actions and countermeasures against them.

This means moving to defensible positions or banding together with allies. Taken to an extreme, combining encounters can quickly lead to fights that are unwinnable, so be careful. In the castle example, some guards may come out to attack the PCs, while others cluster around the central keep. Perhaps each individual patrol of guards around the castle is a trivial-threat encounter, but as they gather together, they form groups of gradually escalating threat. Such groups give the PCs a sense of how challenging their opposition is, so that if a fight against six guards is a challenge, they won’t try to pick a fight with 30. When the PCs’ foes amass into an overwhelming force, give the PCs fair warning and a chance to retreat and try again another day. of course, if the PCs come back after the alarm has been raised, the guards are likely to change their rotations to better secure the keep.

The most common reason to separate an encounter into multiple pieces is to set up a combined encounter, like when an injured foe retreats to gather reinforcements. This provides the PCs with a choice: do they ignore the fleeing enemy and focus on the battle in front of them, or do they split their own forces, weighing the risk of being led into a dangerous encounter against the chance of stopping later foes from preparing for their approach? An encounter might also separate into pieces because of dramatic changes to the battlefield, such as a collapsing ceiling or a magical wall that prevents those on each side of the barrier from accessing the other without spending actions to bypass the obstruction.

Time Pressure

Time pressure adds an extra sense of urgency to any encounter and can be a great way to make an otherwise trivial- or low-threat encounter tactically engaging, satisfying, and memorable. After all, while low- and trivial-threat encounters have an incredibly low chance of defeating the PCs, the opposition can usually hold on long enough to make the PCs spend a few rounds to defeat them unless the PCs expend more resources than they normally would on such foes. Time pressure is often related to a secondary objective in the encounter, though it could be a countdown directly related to the encounter itself. For instance, if the ritual will grant a lich its apotheosis in 4 rounds, the heroes need to defeat the lich before then!

Secondary Objectives

One of the simplest and most exciting ways to create a dynamic encounter, even if the combat itself is not so difficult, is to add a secondary objective beyond simply defeating foes. Perhaps the villains are about to burn captives in a fire, and some of the PCs need to divert their efforts to avoid a pyrrhic victory. Encounters with a parallel objective that require PCs to take actions other than destroying foes can keep those foes around long enough to do interesting things without inflating their power level. It also makes PCs skilled in areas related to the side mission feel amazing when they handle it quickly or well.

Sometimes a secondary objective might present a time limit, like if the PCs need to prevent evidence from being burned, either by fighting quickly or actively protecting the documents. Another type of secondary objective relates to how the PCs engage in combat with the primary opposition. The PCs might need to use nonlethal attacks against guards who mistakenly believe the PCs are criminals, or they might need to prevent slippery scouts from retreating to alert others. Options like these highlight mobile characters like the monk.

You could even create truly off-the-wall secondary objectives that require the PCs to lose the encounter in order to succeed. The PCs might need to put up a believable fight but retreat and let foes steal their caravan in order to follow the foes back to their lair.

Secondary objectives are a great way to highlight different abilities in combat and make for a memorable encounter, but—like all of these tactics—they can become annoying if overused.

Opponent Synergy

Most encounters assume that the PCs’ opponents work together to oppose the PCs, but when groups of foes have been collaborating and fighting together for a long time, they can develop additional strategies. Consider giving each member of these tightly knit teams a reaction triggered by their allies’ abilities, or another benefit they gain based on their allies’ actions. Just as a team of PCs learns how to best position the rogue to flank enemies and minimize the harm they take from the wizard’s fireball spell, NPCs can learn to complement each other’s strategies and avoid interfering with each other. On the opposite end of the spectrum, opponents with poor coordination make the fight much easier for the PCs. Poor coordination between mindless creatures is common, and PCs can use clever tactics to run circles around these foes. When intelligent creatures accidentally (or deliberately) harm each other or pursue conflicting strategies, particularly if they engage in banter with each other as they fight, it can make for an amusing break in the typical rhythm of combat.

When taken to its extreme, synergy can represent the actions of a hive mind or a single massive creature. These synergistic components can be creatures, hazards, or both.

For example, instead of representing a kraken the size of a warship as a single foe, you could represent each of its tentacles as an individual opponent. Perhaps the kraken can sacrifice actions it would otherwise use to crush PCs in its maw to use its tentacles more freely. In this case, you could model a field of tentacles as a complex hazard that mainly reacts to the PCs moving within it, but allow the kraken’s head to act with a few tentacles directly.


Sometimes, a bit of misdirection can add a lot of interest to an encounter, especially against offense-heavy groups. Rather than amping up the opposition to match the PCs’ firepower and creating opponents whose own offenses are too powerful for the PCs’ defenses, consider a little sleight of hand. For instance, a villain might have an illusory or disguised decoy target with just enough durability to take a few hits while the true villain is hiding nearby, ready to emerge and attack. Spells like project image can allow a foe to attack from a safer position, and possession grants the foe a disposable body unless the PCs brought along spirit blast or similar magic. Sometimes you can even hide the villain in plain sight: for instance, in an encounter with three goblins with similar-looking gear and an ogre, one of the goblins might be the biggest threat, but the PCs are likely to target the ogre first.

Care when setting up the battle map can also go a long way to misdirect your players—or at least avoid accidentally telegraphing what an encounter will be. For instance, if you always put out statue minis whenever there are statues in the room, the PCs might at first be overly suspicious of ordinary statues, but they will be more surprised later on when a statue turns out to be a construct than if you place minis only when the statue is actually a construct.


This section arms you with a wide variety of useful tricks to add interest to your encounters, but you should keep an eye out for some common pitfalls of encounter building.

  • Don’t Make Every Encounter Complex: There are many ways to make complex and dynamic encounters, but making every single encounter complex will become exhausting for you and your players. Some encounters should be simple, both because it will make the world feel more real and because it’s a good way for the group to relax without as much to keep track of.
  • Avoid Flat Difficulty: Ensure that not too many of your encounters fall at the same threat level. Having some low and even trivial-threat battles adds variety, and it’s great to throw in a few severe encounters beyond just bosses.
  • Beware of Unexpected Difficulty: You might end up with creatures that have abilities that fit well together, making them extremely powerful as a combo, or that are particularly well-suited against your PCs. Compare the creatures and what you know about your PCs in advance, especially if the encounter is already a severe threat by the numbers.
  • Watch for Overpowered Terrain: As noted under Budgeting for Terrain, some features of the environment can increase the danger drastically. Consider your creature and the environment, and see whether the creature has a massive advantage compared to PCs in that terrain, such as a monster with powerful, long-range attacks when PCs are stuck at a distance. If so, you might want to adjust.

Recurring Villains

Not every villain dies the first time the PCs defeat them in combat. Some may escape, perhaps through teleportation, misdirection, or with other ploys. When a villain escapes and lives to fight the PCs again another day, it’s good to have that foe learn from their past failures. In their next encounter with the PCs, give them additional minions, spells, or other defenses designed to counteract the strategies the PCs used against them previously. Even if the villain doesn’t escape, they might have other tricks up their sleeves, rising again to oppose the PCs. They could well return later in the adventure—or they might come back immediately for a second battle, so long as there is a proper justification for doing so. For example, a previously living necromancer might rise again as an undead monstrosity bent upon destroying the PCs, or defeating an otherworldly villain’s outer shell might reveal its terrible true form.

Social Encounters

The setup for a social encounter tends to be less detailed. For the NPCs involved, you’ll just need statistics for their social skills, Perception, and Will. If you’re making your own, you can find guidelines under Non-Combat Level.

You also need to decide the objective or consequences of the social encounter—what the PCs can achieve and what happens if they fail—and the form of the challenge. It might be a public debate, a private audience with a powerful person, or some kind of contest. Just like with combat encounters, think about the environment, with a particular eye toward the other people around. Is there a crowd the PCs can sway?

Are they in an imposing, luxurious throne room or at a city gate? Is the atmosphere oppressive? Hopeful?

You might find the PCs’ goal ends up being quite different from what you initially thought they would be. Fortunately, social encounters can be pretty adaptable. Thinking of their likely objective helps you construct the scene in your mind more easily but shouldn’t limit you.

Treasure By Encounter

The standard rules count treasure over the course of a level, rather than dividing it up by encounter. If you need to select treasure for a single encounter, such as in a sandbox game, you can use the table below. It takes the treasure budget for each level from Table 10–9 of the core rules and breaks that down per encounter based on the encounter threat, similar to how XP varies by threat.

The final column shows extra treasure you should award if you build an entire level this way. Unlike the standard table, this doesn’t include items by item level, as the value doesn’t cleanly break down for most single encounters. It’s recommended you still give out those permanent items, but you’ll need to borrow from other encounters’ treasure to account for their value. Include encounters against creatures without treasure to account for this.

Table 1–3: Treasure By Encounter
Level Total Treasure per Level Low Moderate Severe Extreme Extra Treasure
1 175 gp 13 gp 18 gp 26 gp 35 gp 35 gp
2 300 gp 23 gp 30 gp 45 gp 60 gp 60 gp
3 500 gp 38 gp 50 gp 75 gp 100 gp 100 gp
4 850 gp 65 gp 85 gp 130 gp 170 gp 170 gp
5 1,350 gp 100 gp 135 gp 200 gp 270 gp 270 gp
6 2,000 gp 150 gp 200 gp 300 gp 400 gp 400 gp
7 2,900 gp 220 gp 290 gp 440 gp 580 gp 580 gp
8 4,000 gp 300 gp 400 gp 600 gp 800 gp 800 gp
9 5,700 gp 430 gp 570 gp 860 gp 1,140 gp 1,140 gp
10 8,000 gp 600 gp 800 gp 1,200 gp 1,600 gp 1,600 gp
11 11,500 gp 865 gp 1,150 gp 1,725 gp 2,300 gp 2,300 gp
12 16,500 gp 1,250 gp 1,650 gp 2,475 gp 3,300 gp 3,300 gp
13 25,000 gp 1,875 gp 2,500 gp 3,750 gp 5,000 gp 5,000 gp
14 36,500 gp 2,750 gp 3,650 gp 5,500 gp 7,300 gp 7,300 gp
15 54,500 gp 4,100 gp 5,450 gp 8,200 gp 10,900 gp 10,900 gp
16 82,500 gp 6,200 gp 8,250 gp 12,400 gp 16,500 gp 16,500 gp
17 128,000 gp 9,600 gp 12,800 gp 19,200 gp 25,600 gp 25,600 gp
18 208,000 gp 15,600 gp 20,800 gp 31,200 gp 41,600 gp 41,600 gp
19 355,000 gp 26,600 gp 35,500 gp 53,250 gp 71,000 gp 71,000 gp
20 490,000 gp 36,800 gp 49,000 gp 73,500 gp 98,000 gp 98,000 gp

Drawing Maps

Once you have an idea of the scope and the challenges in your adventure, the next step is to map out your adventure location, whether it’s an underground dungeon, a desert ruin, or an undersea coral forest.

If you’re worried that you don’t have the kind of artistic mastery to create a map, don’t be! Fundamentally, your maps should serve your purposes, framing the flow of action and story in a way that allows you to track the campaign’s action and possibilities. No one expects you to create stunning maps that look as professional as those in published adventures. Just follow some best practices to make your maps both interesting and clear.

So, grab the following supplies and let’s get started.

  • Sheets of graph paper
  • Scratch paper
  • A pencil, preferably with H or 3H lead to leave a soft mark that’s easy to erase
  • An eraser
  • Ink pens (optional)
  • Ruler and compass (optional)

In all stages of map-making, don’t be frustrated by missteps.

You can always fix them later—the eraser is your friend! Drawing or erasing too much can weaken the paper, but you can always throw out a draft and start again. Remind yourself that this doesn’t need to be the most exquisite piece of art ever made—all it needs to be is a tool for you to keep your story straight.

Create A Legend

Begin by making a list of the features your adventure site should contain—from geographic features to the types of rooms in a building to the monsters and traps the PC will face—and deciding the map’s scale and orientation. The scale, orientation, and a key for any symbols you use to indicate features will go in the map’s legend.

The scale for your adventure maps is usually the easiest to decide. If the map is meant to be usable for combat on a grid, where 1 inch equals 5 feet, you can assume each square of your graph paper equals 5 feet. If you are mapping a larger area, you could use each square to represent 10 feet or even more.

For the orientation, draw an arrow toward the north, write an “N” above the arrow’s point, and you’re done.

The key of the various details your map depicts is less predictable. Once you’ve decided what features your map should include—such as monsters, secret doors, and traps for a dungeon, or settlements and ruins for a regional map—think of a symbol to represent each feature on the map.

You can also use the symbols in the sample map.

Start Sketching

Now that you have your legend, it’s time to start the map.

Grab a pencil and begin sketching your adventure site.

If you’re drawing a dungeon complex, start by detailing the corridors and rooms. If you’re creating an outdoor area, begin with any bodies of water, rivers, and topography.

No matter what you are drawing, do so with soft lines so you can easily erase—you might make mistakes, or you might have better ideas later in the process. As your map starts to take shape, start populating it with features matching the symbols you’ve designated in your map key.

Try not to over-complicate your maps. Keeping your map as simple as possible will make sure important details stand out and aids in the map’s legibility.

When sketching your maps—especially when drawing areas of wilderness or buildings—pull inspiration from the real world. An internet search will turn up reference images that can help when you’re deciding the placement of trees and shapes of canyons and streams, or when you’re replicating ancient, medieval, renaissance, or fantasy architecture. Basing your terrain and buildings on these references will help your creation seem more natural and believable.

When you draw dungeons and similar adventure sites, remember the size of the creatures that live in your complex, and give them enough room to live and move around. In other words, make sure the ancient black dragon fits through the entrance to its lair! Second, avoid empty rooms, and don’t put rooms in just to have them. Each room should have a purpose. Maybe it’s an abandoned purpose, but each time you create a chamber, ask yourself, “Why was this room built?” Lastly, avoid symmetrical or just plain dull structures. Part of the fun of exploring is being surprised by what you find, and needless symmetry and repetitive layouts can ruin that surprise.

Number Encounter Areas

The next step is to number the encounter areas.

You can then use that numbering system in your encounter notes.

If you are designing multiple sites, or many levels of a massive dungeon, consider adding a letter designation before your numbering. The first area of your first site can be A1, while the first area of your next site can be B1, and so on.

Add Definition

With your map sketched and keyed, you can solidify your sketches with either darker pencil strokes or ink. This allows you to preserve your map so you can rerun the adventure or reuse the map for a different adventure. If you’re feeling artistically inspired, you can color your map with colored pencils, marker, or paint.

Section 15: Copyright Notice

Pathfinder Gamemastery Guide © 2020, Paizo Inc.; Authors: Alexander Augunas, Jesse Benner, John Bennett, Logan Bonner, Clinton J. Boomer, Jason Bulmahn, James Case, Paris Crenshaw, Jesse Decker, Robert N. Emerson, Eleanor Ferron, Jaym Gates, Matthew Goetz, T.H. Gulliver, Kev Hamilton, Sasha Laranoa Harving, BJ Hensley, Vanessa Hoskins, Brian R. James, Jason LeMaitre, Lyz Liddell, Luis Loza, Colm Lundberg, Ron Lundeen, Stephen Radney-MacFarland, Jessica Redekop, Alistair Rigg, Mark Seifter, Owen K.C. Stephens, Amber Stewart, Christina Stiles, Landon Winkler, and Linda Zayas-Palmer.