As the Game Master, you wear many hats: storyteller, entertainer, judge, inventor, and player. You’re in charge of creating an entire world for your friends to explore, and you fill the shoes of every nonplayer character they interact with. While this can be a lot of work, it can also be deeply rewarding. As the GM, you’re the ultimate arbiter of everything in your game—you can change setting details or even fundamental rules of the game as you see fit—but below are some systems and tips to help make your GMing experience fun and smooth.
Building an Adventure
- Building an Adventure
- Stat Blocks
- Level Equivalent for Monsters and NPCs
- Designing Encounters
- Adding NPCs
- CR Equivalencies
- Terrain Factors
- Gear Adjustments
- Tactical Considerations
- Gaining Experience
- Gaining Wealth
How much work you put into preparing your adventure is up to you. The easiest approach is to simply modify or run a published adventure (see the sidebar). While published adventures are usually quite intricate, with beautiful maps and interwoven storylines, don’t let that intimidate you. If you’re the only one running your adventure, you can easily get by with just a few notes, such as an outline of the plot, a map or two of main adventure sites, and a few stat blocks or notes for the creatures you plan to use as enemies. Some people run entirely off the cuff, while others write everything down. Whatever lets you relax and have fun at the table is the right choice.
If you decide to write everything out, however, remember that an adventure is not a novel. The other players control the main characters, and you should leave room for them to shape the action. If the characters steal a shuttle and head down to the planet when you expected them to try and capture the ship’s bridge, don’t despair! Just grab the Starfinder Alien Archive, flip it open, and tell them what weird creatures—perhaps lurking within some strange alien ruins inscribed with mystical signs—they find when they land. Maybe you can still bring the story back around to your original idea after this side quest, but adapting your story in response to player action is what makes a group storytelling game exciting and surprising for the GM as well as the players!
The following section contains some key issues you should consider before sitting down to run a game, as well as elements that, if prepared in advance, can save you a lot of time and frustration at the table.
Stat blocks are one of the most complex parts of the game, but also the most useful. They tell you everything you need to know about a creature or character’s abilities in a fight, much like a condensed version of a character sheet.
How you use stat blocks is up to you. Some Game Masters like to create custom stat blocks for most of the allies and enemies encountered during an adventure, some like to create them only for the biggest and baddest enemy characters, and others are perfectly happy to repurpose statistics from other adventures or books like the Alien Archive. Some GMs don’t even bother with full stat blocks and just write down a few key statistics—Armor Classes, attacks and damage, Hit Points, and saving throws—and ignore the rest unless it becomes important.
All of these approaches are valid, but in general, the ways you expect your party to interact with a character determine what you need. If your PCs go to a nonplayer character (NPC) for research assistance before their next mission, then you probably need to know only a few skill values, whereas you’ll probably need to know all the combat statistics for the Free Captain pirate they battle in the adventure’s climax. Also remember that in addition to using published characters and creatures as written, you can simply “reskin” those creatures. If you use the statistics for a haan but describe fins and jets instead of claws and balloons, a cold spray instead of firespray, and a swim speed instead of a fly speed, congratulations—you’ve created a brand-new alien, and your players will never know the difference!
Level Equivalent for Monsters and NPCs
Many abilities and effects are based on a creature’s level. Unlike player characters, however, monsters and NPCs don’t have levels. Instead, the CR of a monster or NPC functions as its level for any ability or effect based on level.
An encounter is any event that presents the PCs with a specific problem that they must solve. Most encounters involve combat with monsters or hostile NPCs, but there are many other types: a corridor full of robotic traps, a fraught negotiation with government authorities, an environmental hazard on a strange planet, an encrypted database that needs to be hacked, or anything else that adds drama to the game. Some encounters involve puzzles, interpersonal interactions, physical feats, or other tasks that can be overcome entirely with roleplaying and skill checks, but the most common encounters are also the most complex to build—combat encounters.
When designing a combat encounter, decide what level of challenge you want your PCs to face and follow the steps below.
Step 1: Determine APL
The first thing you need to do is determine your players’ Average Party Level (APL), which represents how much of a challenge the group can handle. To get this number, add up the levels of all characters in the party, divide the sum by the number of party members, then round to the nearest whole number (this is an exception to the usual “round down” rule). If the group contains fewer than four characters, subtract 1 from the result; if the group contains six or more characters, add 1 to the total. For example, if a group has six characters, two at 4th level and four at 5th level, its APL is 6 (28 total levels divided by six characters equals 5 after rounding up, and 1 is added for having six characters).
Step 2: Determine CR
Challenge Rating (CR) is a convenient number used to indicate the relative danger presented by an enemy, trap, hazard, or other encounter; the higher the CR, the more dangerous the encounter. Refer to Table 11–1: Encounter Difficulty to determine the Challenge Rating your group should face depending on the Difficulty of the challenge you want and the group’s APL.
Step 3: Build the Encounter
Determine the total experience point (XP) award for the encounter by looking up its CR on Table 11–3: Experience Point Awards. This gives you an “XP budget” for the encounter. Every creature, trap, and hazard is worth an amount of XP determined by its CR, as noted on the table. To build your encounter, simply add creatures, traps, and hazards whose combined XP does not exceed the total XP budget for your encounter. It’s easiest to add the highest CR challenges first and then reach the total by including lesser challenges.
For example, let’s say you want your group of six 11th-level PCs (APL 12) to face a hard encounter against a crafty necrovite (CR 13) and some elephantine ellicoths (CR 9 each). Table 11–1: Encounter Difficulty indicates to you that a hard encounter for a group of APL 12 is equivalent to CR 14. According to Table 11–3: Experience Point Awards, a CR 14 encounter has an XP budget of 38,400 XP. At CR 13, the necrovite is worth 25,600 XP, leaving you with 12,800 XP to spend on ellicoths. Ellicoths are worth 6,400 XP apiece, so the encounter can support two ellicoths in its XP budget. or you could skip the necrovite and use three ellicoths instead, leaving you with 19,200 XP to spend on other creatures or hazards (perhaps a CR 12 creature that shares the ellicoths’ lair).
Creating fun and balanced encounters is both an art and a science. Don’t be afraid to stray from the formulas by making changes—sometimes called ad hoc adjustments—that you think will make the encounter more fun or manageable for your particular party. In addition to the basic rules above, consider whether any of the following factors might apply to your encounter.
Creatures with abilities that match a class, such as creatures that belong to the PC races, function differently than creatures with substantial innate abilities. Their power comes more from gear than from nature, and they might have skills and abilities similar to those of PCs. Generally, the CR of an NPC equals the level of a PC with the same abilities—for example, an NPC with abilities similar to a 2nd-level technomancer would be CR 2. An NPC usually has armor and a weapon each with a level equal to its CR, give or take a level, and possibly one or two more items of a level equal to its CR. For more information on creating nonplayer characters, see the Alien Archive.
The sheer number of experience points involved in building high-CR encounters can seem daunting, especially when you’re trying to craft an encounter on the fly. When using a large number of identical creatures, Table 11–2: CR Equivalencies can simplify the math by combining them into one CR, making it easier to find their total XP value. For example, using this table, you can see that four CR 8 creatures (worth 4,800 XP each) are equivalent to one CR 12 creature (worth 19,200 XP). You can also use this table to work backward and build encounters with much less math. Need a CR 7 encounter using CR 4 creatures? Just check the table, and you’ll see that you need three CR 4 creatures to create a CR 7 encounter.
An encounter against a creature that’s out of its favored element (like an enormous dragon encountered in a tiny cave) gives the PCs an advantage. In such a situation, you should probably build the encounter as normal—you don’t want to accidentally overcompensate and kill your party—but when you award experience for the encounter, you may want to do so as if the encounter were 1 CR lower than its actual CR.
The reverse is also true, but only to an extent. Creature CRs are assigned with the assumption that a given creature is encountered in its favored terrain. Encountering a water-breathing kalo in an underwater area shouldn’t increase the XP you award for that encounter, even if none of the PCs breathe water. But if the terrain impacts the encounter significantly, you can increase the XP award as if the encounter’s CR were 1 higher. For example, an encounter against a creature with blindsight in an area with no natural light needs no CR adjustment, but an encounter against the same creature where any light brought into it is suppressed might be considered +1 CR.
As a general rule, the goal of ad hoc XP adjustments based on factors like terrain is not to penalize PCs for doing well, but to make sure they’re being challenged and rewarded appropriately.
You can significantly increase or decrease the power level of an NPC by adjusting its gear, particularly its weapons or crucial items such as powered armor. An NPC encountered with no gear should have its CR reduced by 1 (provided that the loss of gear actually hampers it). An NPC with better gear than normal—such as a weapon with 2 levels higher than the NPC’s CR or a large number of items with a level equal to its CR—has a CR of 1 higher than normal. This equipment impacts your treasure budget, so make overgeared NPCs like this with caution!
Just as a player slowly learns how to use his character’s abilities, so does a GM learn how to best deploy her collection of foes. CR can’t cover every situation, so a GM should think through both a creature’s abilities and the encounter’s setting for any potential pitfalls.
One major concern is the CR of the enemy. The CR system works best when the CR of each of the GM’s creatures is relatively close to the PCs’ Average Party Level. It might be tempting to throw a single higher-CR creature against the party, and sometimes that works out fine, but you may run the risk of obliterating the party when their saving throws aren’t yet high enough to protect against the creature’s abilities. Conversely, if you throw a horde of CR 1 creatures against your party with an APL of 8, those creatures are unlikely to hit the characters’ Armor Classes or succeed with any of their abilities, and thus they won’t be challenging, no matter how many you include.
Yet just as a tidal wave of low-CR enemies can become a tensionless slog for players, fighting a single opponent can also be a bore, depending on that opponent’s abilities. A lone technomancer without any bodyguards or defenses in place might find himself quickly surrounded or unable to cast his spells after being grappled, and a creature with a single powerful attack might still not be a great match for a party of five slightly less powerful characters due to the sheer number of attacks they have each round. In general, the strongest encounters have a handful of enemies that guard vulnerable creatures with powerful abilities and balance out the PCs’ number of actions each round.
Characters advance in level by overcoming challenges ranging from combat situations to diplomatic encounters. All of these are symbolized by experience points (XP). Many GMs choose to simply keep a list of all the encounters PCs overcome during a session, add together the experience points, and award them in a lump sum at the end of the session. That way, if characters earn enough XP to gain levels, you won’t have to pause the game while they level up their characters, and you can instead let them do so between sessions.
Every opponent, trap, or obstacle the PCs overcome (including starship combat and vehicle chases) is worth a set amount of XP, as determined by CR. Purely roleplaying encounters are generally assumed to have a CR equal to the Average Party Level, but you may award XP as if it were higher or lower, depending on Difficulty. Note, however, that encounters with a CR of less than the APL – 10 merit no XP award, as they’re too easy. Similarly, using starship weapons against a settlement or driving an asteroid into a planet may kill thousands, but in such instances, the party should generally not receive XP or wealth, as these massacres are neither heroic nor challenging. Experience gained in a fight comes not from enemy death but from expertise acquired as a result of combat, which such impersonal situations lack.
To award XP, take your list of defeated encounters and find the value of each encounter’s CR under the “Total XP” column on Table 11–3: Experience Point Awards. Add up the total XP values for each CR and then divide this total by the number of characters. The result is the amount of XP each character earns. For a slightly less exact method, you can add up the individual XP awards listed in the table for a group of the appropriate size. In this case, the division between characters is done for you.
In addition, don’t be afraid to give players extra XP when they conclude a major storyline or accomplish something important. These “story awards” can consist of any amount of XP. While a good rule of thumb is to award twice the XP for a CR equal to the group’s APL, you can also customize your story award amounts to help your players’ characters reach a particular level for the next adventure you want to run.
|Easy||APL – 1|
|Challenging||APL + 1|
|Hard||APL + 2|
|Epic||APL + 3|
|Number of Creatures||CR Equivalency|
|2 creatures||CR + 2|
|3 creatures||CR + 3|
|4 creatures||CR + 4|
|6 creatures||CR + 5|
|8 creatures||CR + 6|
|12 creatures||CR + 7|
|16 creatures||CR + 8|
|CR||Total XP||Individual XP (By No. of Players)|
As PCs gain levels, they tend to obtain wealth. This game assumes that all PCs of equivalent level have roughly equal amounts of wealth in the form of gear, magic items, and raw currency. Since a PC’s primary way of gaining wealth is through adventuring, it’s important to Moderate the amount you place in your adventures. Thus, the amount of wealth PCs earn from their adventures is tied to the Challenge Rating of the encounters they face.
Wealth per Encounter
Table 11–4: Wealth Gains per Encounter lists the amount of treasure each encounter should award based on its CR. When looking at this number, it’s important to understand that it represents wealth from many different sources: hard currency, looted items, and earned or story-based wealth. Relying too much on any one category can skew the game’s power balance. Additionally, most encounters are part of an overarching adventure, in which case it’s useful to look at wealth for the adventure as a whole. Don’t be afraid to have some encounters grant more wealth while others grant less, as long as it balances out by the end of the adventure. (After all, a well-armed NPC is more likely to be carrying valuable items than a mindless beast.) Below are some important considerations regarding each type of wealth.
|CR||Wealth Gain (In Credits)|
Gear looted from fallen enemies or otherwise acquired during adventures can generally be sold for only 10% of its face value. This is important to gameplay, in that it discourages players from picking up every dropped helmet or low-level weapon and turning their ship into a flying garage sale, yet it’s also crucial to keep in mind when placing treasure. If an item is significantly better than the PCs’ current gear, assume they keep it and factor it in at its full value. If it’s no better than what they already have, assume they sell it when they have the chance. (Comparing the item level to the Average Party Level can be an excellent guideline for this purpose.) For example, if the characters face a high-CR enemy with a correspondingly awesome laser rifle, assume they keep it. If they fight eight aeon troopers with armor comparable to their own, assume most groups will leave it rather than carry eight bulky sets of armor with them. In general, beware of providing single items far above your party’s APL. Instead, provide several items equal to or only slightly better than your party’s current gear, and then make up the rest with consumable items and items likely to be resold.
Given the inefficiency of constantly looting and selling enemy gear, this game assumes at least part of player wealth comes from story-based sources, usually completing a mission or adventure. Perhaps it’s payment for finishing a patron’s quest, a gift from a grateful populace, a bounty on a criminal, or proceeds from selling an alien artifact or the exclusive interview rights to a PC’s account of an adventure. Regardless of the source, consider setting aside part of the budget from your encounters to allow for large lump-sum payments at appropriate points in the story.
It’s important to include credits in your rewards, so that players can buy items appropriate to their characters, but avoid regularly giving out handfuls of credsticks, as pooling large sums of liquid capital can enable a party to buy better gear than would normally be appropriate for the group’s APL.
|PC Level||Wealth (In Credits)|
Wealth by Level
Table 11–5: Character Wealth by Level lists the amount of treasure each PC is expected to have at a specific level.
In addition to providing benchmarks to make sure existing characters remain balanced, it can also be used to budget gear for characters starting above 1st level, such as a new character created to replace a dead one. Characters in this latter case should spend no more than half their total wealth on any single item. For a balanced approach, PCs built after 1st level should spend no more than 25% of their wealth on weapons and 25% on armor and protective devices.
This is a roleplaying game of interplanetary travel and exploration, and it assumes that most adventures will start with PCs either already having or quickly gaining access to a starship. But starships are expensive—what’s to stop them from simply selling their starship and retiring, or using the money to buy gear far too powerful for their level?
The answer is you, the GM. Starships are not considered part of character wealth and thus are not intended to be sold (unless it’s part of a trade-in to obtain a different starship). How to frame this is up to you. Some GMs may prefer to simply tell the players not to sell the ship because it would ruin the game. If you need an in-character reason, however, there are many: The ship could be the equivalent of a company car from whatever patron or faction the PCs are working for. It could be a family heirloom they’re contractually not allowed to sell. It could be stolen and thus unsellable without getting the PCs arrested. It could have a hyperintelligent AI that’s bonded to its crew and doesn’t allow itself to be sold. Whatever the justification, the real answer is that starships are just too much fun to restrict to high-level play. (Though if you want to play an entire campaign on one planet or simply have PCs pay for passage when they need to get somewhere, that’s fine, too!)
Before the Game
Everyone approaches game mastering differently—some with intensive preparation, others with a sticky note and a prayer. Yet, regardless of your personal style, there are a few matters every GM should consider in advance to save time at the table.
If you’re running a published adventure, be sure to read it beforehand so that you know what you’re in for and can adequately prepare your notes and foreshadow upcoming events. (If short on time, you can sometimes read just the first few encounters —enough to keep several steps ahead of the players.) If you’re creating your own adventure, make sure you have enough written down to feel comfortable. Gather any props you need, such as miniatures and handouts, in addition to the usual dice, pencils, Tactical maps, and so forth. Consider helping your players prep for the game as well, such as by resolving character story issues that don’t involve the group as a whole (perhaps even via one-on-one side quests), answering questions, and helping them level up their characters.
It’s also important to consider real-world logistics. Make sure that all the players can make it to the game; if someone can’t, consider whether it’s still worth running the game, and if so, what happens to that person’s character. Do you or another player play him? Does he continue to gain wealth and experience, or will he fall behind the rest of the group? Also, consider matters such as food, children, pets, and other factors, and have a plan to handle any concerns that might arise.
Running the Game
Addressed below are several of the common situations and issues that you’ll invariably need to handle during the game.
It is up to you, as the GM, to determine the DCs of the various skill checks the players will attempt during play. Many of the skill descriptions include guidance on typical DCs for skill checks, but there may be times when you need to come up with a DC on your own. If a skill check does not have a predetermined DC, or if a player wants to attempt a task that is not covered in a skill’s description, use the following guidelines. A challenging DC for a skill check is equal to 15 + 1-1/2 × the CR of the encounter or the PCs’ Average Party Level (APL). For an easier check, you might reduce the DC by 5, while increasing the DC by 5 makes for a more difficult check. Changing the DC by 10 or more makes for either a trivial check with little chance of failure or a prohibitively high check with little chance of success, so be cautious when adjusting skill check DCs!
Rolling and Fudging
Player cheating can ruin a game, but as a GM, you may sometimes find yourself in situations where cheating might actually improve the game. We prefer to call this “fudging” rather than cheating, and while you should try to avoid it when you can, you are the law in your game and shouldn’t feel bound by the dice. A GM should be impartial and fair, and in theory, that’s what random dice results help support. At the same time, you’re trying to create a compelling story, and if fudging a given roll makes a scene more fun and satisfying for the players in the end—go for it! It’s no good if a single random roll of the dice would result in a premature end to your campaign or in a character’s death when the player did everything right. However, be wary of using fudging to nullify players’ achievements. Remember that you’re playing with the group, not against it. Maybe you didn’t expect the players to take down your villain so quickly, but as long as they had fun, who cares?
Published adventures are a busy Game Master’s best friend. Not only do they allow you to sit down and start playing quickly without coming up with intricate storylines or cool encounters in advance, but by studying how they’re put together, you can hone your own adventure-creating skills. A published adventure is the script that lets you, as the GM, Focus on the directing and acting portions of your job.
It’s important to remember, however, that the writer of a published adventure doesn’t know your group or their characters. If your players are all paranoid, then an adventure involving an unexpected betrayal by a friendly NPC may not work as well. Similarly, if one of your characters has a deep hatred for necromantic elebrians, her player may have more fun if you change the villain from a member of the Aspis Consortium to an agent of the Bone Sages. Customizing adventures to your group is an easy way to raise the stakes in your game and make things feel more personal.
If you’re interested in published adventures, Adventure Path products offer finely crafted adventures that are tied together into epic six-part campaigns. For more information, visit opengamingstore.com.
An easy way to avoid getting called out on your fudging is to make your dice rolls behind a GM screen, so that players can’t see the results. But don’t worry overmuch about being “caught.” As the GM, your responsibility is to the experience, not the dice. But if you elect to roll your dice in the open, you still shouldn’t show a die roll that would give a player knowledge that their character wouldn’t have, such as a saving throw for a disease a character doesn’t know she’s been exposed to.
In addition to not being bound by die rolls, don’t feel tied to the predetermined plot of an encounter or the rules as written. Feel free to adjust the events or interpret the rules creatively, especially in cases where you as the GM made a poor assumption to begin with. For example, you might design an encounter where a pack of demons have invaded a space station through a planar rift, only to realize too late that none of the PCs have good-aligned weapons and thus deal very little damage. In this case, it’s okay to “cheat” and say these particular demons are hurt by normal weapons, or have a chaplain show up at the last moment to bless the PCs’ weapons. As long as you can keep such ad-hoc developments to a minimum, these on-the-spot adjustments can even enhance the game—perhaps a church now demands a favor from the PCs, sparking a new adventure!
Debates over rules inevitably drag a game down and should be put to rest as quickly as possible. As the GM, you set the law of your game, and your interpretation of the rules is the one that matters most. When complications regarding rules interpretations occur, listen to the players involved and strive to be fair, but don’t feel like you need to convince them. If the rule in question isn’t one you’re familiar with, you can go with a player’s interpretation, perhaps with the caveat that you’ll read up on the rule after the game and make an official ruling going forward from the next session. Alternatively, you can simply rule that something works in a way that helps the story move on.
One handy tool to keep on hand is the GM fiat: simply give a player a +2 bonus or a –2 penalty to a die roll if no one at the table is precisely sure how a situation might be handled by the rules. For example, a character who attempts to trip a robot in a room where the floor is magnetized could take a –2 penalty to his attempt, at your discretion, since the magnetic pull exerted by the floor anchors the construct.
Player Character Death
Eventually, through bad luck or bad tactics, a player character is going to die, or else suffer some similarly permanent fate such as petrification or being shot into deep space at relativistic speeds. A player character’s death doesn’t need to be a terrible experience. In fact, going out in a blaze of glory can become a dramatic highlight for the player and the group as a whole!
When a character dies, try to resolve the current conflict or combat as quickly as possible. Once that’s handled, take the player aside for a moment and find out whether she’d prefer for the group to try to save her character or simply create a new one.
You aren’t required to let a dead character return to life. Sometimes dead is dead—and a horror-themed game often benefits from a sense of danger—but it’s nice to take a player’s feelings into account. If it’s possible for the party to get a character raised or reincarnated, don’t delay it with additional encounters; just gloss over the return to civilization so you can get the player back into the game as quickly as possible. If you’d rather treat the situation as the seed for a side quest, consider offering to let the PC play an established NPC for the rest of the session so she isn’t bored. A PC death is a great time to end the session, since you can then handle unresolved issues out of game and get the player back in the action by the start of the next session.
If the player of a dead character instead prefers to move on to a new character, consider the NPC option above to keep her entertained for the rest of the session, or let her create her new character there at the table. Once the player’s new character is done, let the other players take a 5-minute break while you step aside to talk to the player, learn about her new character, and work out a way to introduce the new party member quickly.
One other thing that PC death can do is bloat the surviving characters’ treasure. If a party simply splits up or sells a dead PC’s gear, the group can become obscenely overgeared for its level. Thus, it’s usually easier to simply assume that the dead PC’s personal gear (though not necessarily important story items belonging to the group) is destroyed, lost, or otherwise goes away.
As with any group activity, sometimes you’ll run into a troublemaker. Don’t be shy about politely and firmly asking a player to alter his behavior if he’s being inappropriate, antagonistic, or otherwise annoying—and don’t accept “But I’m just acting how my character would!” as an excuse. If a player (or character) is negatively impacting the rest of the group’s experience and won’t change his behavior when asked, it’s your duty as the Game Master to tell him to leave.
Having a record of each session’s events can help you remember details and keep a sense of continuity. Consider taking notes during a game or getting a player who’s excited about such things to write up a campaign journal summarizing each adventure. These can also be distributed to remind players where you left off.
Ending the Campaign
The most important thing in a campaign is to end it at a point that’s satisfying for the story, such as when a major storyline wraps up or after a climactic battle with a longtime foe. After each significant adventure arc, discuss as a group whether you’d rather continue with these characters or start something entirely new. Some people like to play many short adventures with different characters, while others like to run the same campaign for years. There’s no wrong answer!