Make Your Good Game Better – Review of the Pathfinder GameMastery Guide

Those of us who spend the majority of our gaming time behind the GM screen, if we’re doing our jobs properly, are always looking for ways to make our games better. We post to discussion boards, we talk about it at conventions, we think about it while we’re falling asleep. I don’t know if, during all of that thinking, I ever thought about asking to have a solid resource that I could always refer to, but now that I’ve got one, I don’t think I want to game without it.

The Pathfinder GameMastery Guide is a book published by Paizo Publishing LLC, the creators of the Pathfinder RPG. Now, the first thing that needs to be said about this book is that, even though it clearly has the name “Pathfinder” in the title, this book is a valuable resource for GMs of any system, period. Of course, there are references to things that are specific to the Pathfinder RPG, but many of the core ideas are things that can apply to any game, in any system.

There is a lot to cover in this book, so we’re going to drill down and take this thing chapter-by-chapter.

1. Getting Started

The book kicks off with a good overview of what it means to be a GM. When I was reading this part, I found myself nodding along with it as I went. There are a bunch of concerns that it raises, including Tone and Maturity, the GM as the Host, Rules of the House and Game Prep. Two of the best sections are the sections on Tone and Maturity and Rules of the House. Without covering out-of-game things like snack, payment for snacks, cell phones, general courtesy, etc, a game can derail very quickly. We all like to be respected, and any one of those things can lead to disrespectful situations before you know it. As well, knowing what you can and cannot include in a game is super-important. I covered this in my post on gaming expectations; without knowing where the lines are, you can make a great game implode before you know it.

2. Running a Game

This chapter was, for me, the most useful. Very often, I find myself considering a particular aspect of actually being a GM, such as how much to prep, how to effectively use story, how to avoid railroading, but make sure the group experiences what I wrote, winging it vs planning every detail, the GM as an actor, the mechanics of the game system and encounter building… in short, all of the stuff that most people consider when they think about what it means to be a GM. This chapter covers it all, and covers it well. You want to know what to do when faced with a TPK? Check here. I read the section on TPKs and found myself shaking my head, finding my own thoughts about how I mishandled one echoed in that section.

As well, this chapter begins the inclusion of two of my favorite parts of this book: tables and lists. Now, some of you might be groaning, but I love good random tables, and I love useful lists. In this chapter there are tables of Plots, Plot Twists, and Macguffins and Quest Items. The lists are awesome. A whole table of cultural titles (I never knew the Ethiopian work for King; now I do: Negus) and, my favorite, an entire page of Words Every Game Master Should Know. You have a hard time making your language flowery and descriptive? This list is for you.

3. Player Characters

Here we have the chapter that deal with the other folks at the table , in game terms. How to build characters, handle metagaming, plot development, and new players. There is also a lengthy discussion of how to bring a party together, and how to deal with things if there is a role in the party (i.e. healer, wizard) that is not filled.

The best part of this chapter talks about the different types of players that you will usually find at the gaming table and how to help manage them, or get them involved. This section is super-useful because the majority of posts I see from GMs are along the lines of: “Help! I have a player who always ****” where the **** is filled in with everything from “steals the spotlight,” to “never does anything outside of combat,” to “always corrects my rulings.” We’ve all run across these player archetypes as we’ve been gaming, and this part of the chapter gives you advice on how to handle each and every one of them, while also asking you to be aware of your own proclivities along these lines.

4. Nonplayer Characters

Everything from the basics of NPC design to customizing them, to making them memorable, to making sure that they don’t become a crutch for your story. There is a whole list of boons/rewards that various types of NPCs could give to the party as part of a reward for services rendered. As well, this chapter deals with the GMs favorite type of NPC: the villains. There are descriptions of various types of villains, how to play advanced villains (recurring, etc), and how to make sure that your villain doesn’t buy the farm before you’ve had a chance to use them properly. Finally, closes out with a wonderful set of tables for randomly determining NPC characteristics, including a name generator for Adventuring Parties.

5. Rewards

Here we have a section on how to handle everything from experience rewards and levels to actual treasure given to the party. I found the section on XP really interesting, as they give some cool options for how to handle leveling outside of the framework of set experience points. As well, the sections on dealing with trouble items, over-powered magics, and wishes was really useful. This chapter wraps up with another great set of tables that, unfortunately, are likely to only be useful to those who play Pathfinder. The last dozen pages or so have extensive tables to let the GM generate random magical items, weapons, scroll, wands, etc.

6. Creating a World

Worldbuilding is a subject that I am particularly interested in, as I am in the process of doing just that in preparation for my upcoming campaign. This chapter has a long set of questions that every GM should take into consideration when designing a world, or even a single city. If you’re the type of GM who plans little and lets things evolve as the game progresses, you might not get a lot from this chapter. If you’re a big pre-planner and you want to have a good handle on how a given place feels, then this chapter is something like nirvana. There are questions that cover almost every eventuality and will let you build a world that feels real to you and your players.

Additionally, this chapter contains a bunch of two-page sections that deal with different types of cultures, from primitive, all the way up through cosmopolitan and many stops in-between. It also deals with the level of technology that you allow in your campaign, making sure that you don’t include something anachronistic by mistake. Finally, it closes off with discussions about time, the universe and the worlds outside of your world.

7. Adventures

Crafting a good adventure is, for me, one f the hardest things about GMing. There are so many different directions that a given scenario can take, and you always want to make sure that you’re satisfying both your players and your story. It’s a tightrope. There are a lot of things to consider when making an adventure, and the chapter starts right off with that information. I think that part of this chapter is a little light; they could have gone into more detail about adventure creation. However, they make up for it by filling the rest of the chapter with descriptions of the various locales that you might have your party explore, such as dungeons, the planes, taverns, urban areas, underwater, the wilderness, and every area is capped with a set of (mostly Pathfinder-specific) tables for random generation.

While I could have used more direct info on adventure creation, the descriptions and things to be aware of in a given locale go a long way towards getting your brain chewing on what might be found by your party in a given area. That kind of thinking can naturally lead to plot hooks and the other goodness that makes good adventures. From that perspective, this is a great chapter.

8. Advanced Topics

This chapter delves more deeply into specific topics that GMs might run into while designing or playing a game. Things like world disasters, drug use (in game), fortune-telling and sanity are the big-ticket items for this chapter. However they also discuss haunted locations, various hazards that a party might encounter and puzzles/riddles. The best parts of these sections are the ones that describe how to use these things in moderation; any of these topics, if hammered on by the GM, could sour a party on a game. A light touch is needed with some of these topics, and this book helps develop that.

9. NPC Gallery

This last chapter gives statted-out examples of a wide variety of NPCs for you to use in your Pathfinder game. If you need an NPC quickly, the combination of this chapter and the NPC chapter will prove invaluable.

The Wrap-up

All in all, I loved this book. It covers so many different topics that are germane to the practice of GMing that anyone GMing a Pathfinder game should go out and buy it, immediately. This is especially true if you react to GMing information the same way that I did when I cracked this book open. My first thought was: “I’m a good GM. I already know how to do this stuff!” I had to shake that attitude quickly, and not just because this book surprised me with its depth. If I start thinking that I’ve got the GMing thing wired, and that I have no more to learn, then I should put down my dice and walk away because there is always more to learn, and I can always improve.

If you’re a GM of a non-Pathfinder system, I would still give this book a look. The book does get more Pathfinder-heavy as you get closer to the end, but there is still a wealth of information that any GM can use to improve their game.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

The Pathfinder GameMastery Guide retails for $39.99.

[tags]rpg, rpgs, role playing games, Pathfinder, GMing, review, reviews[/tags]

7 thoughts on “Make Your Good Game Better – Review of the Pathfinder GameMastery Guide

Add yours

  1. As a Pathfinder fan I’m a bit biased, but this is in my top 3 best GM/DM Guides ever. Even after years of running games I still found myself enjoying this book and taking quite a bit of useful info from it.

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  2. I agree with you (and I’m also a bit Pathfinder biased, so take that as you will).

    The book has a ton of information, anecdotes, and advice that’s worth reading. Either as new info or as a well packaged refresher course for seasoned GMs.

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  3. Trying to put my own Pathfinder bias aside, I agree with both of you. There’s a lot of great information in the book; that’s part of why it took me so long to be able to read/review it. =)

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  4. You told me it was taking so long because you went on a gambling binge in Las Vegas, won that jet in that card game and flew to Transylvania to do first hand research on a vampire RPG!

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