GMing an Adventure Path – My Advice and tips

Posted on Posted in Matt's Blog, Pathfinder

Note, this is an that originally appeared on another blog I used to maintain.  I’ve updated it and present it again…

I think I did things around the wrong way..
When I first started GMing tabletop roleplaying games back in the 1980s I made up my own adventures first and foremost.  I enjoyed the writing process and making up my own maps more than using what TSR was publishing at the time.  In fact I avoided GMing all those old D&D ‘classics’ that people go on about; whether it’s ‘Keep on the Borderlands’, ‘Against The Giants’, or whatever. I recently downloaded some of them and see what the fuss was all about.  Suffice to say, let those people remember them with fondness, I’ve no plans to tread through them because of a desire to create the illusion of nostalgia.
Fast forward thirty years and I no longer have the time or the inclination to run my own adventures as my time is much more valuable.  Fortunately I don’t need to, as there are hundreds of great published adventures available; notably Paizo’s excellent Adventure Paths (APs) for starters – 6-part campaigns that are published regularly and take a group of 4 characters from 1st level to somewhere in the mid teens. Perfect right?
The thing is that running published adventures is different from running your own adventures.  There is a myth that no preparation is required; that you can just pick the book up, read it once, and you’re away! Certainly, you can just open the book and run the adventure, but the experience is likely to be less than either you or your players are hoping for.  You’ll also end up confused, frustrated, and may even give up altogether.
So, without further adieu, here are my 10 tips on running Pathfinder Adventure Paths.
Note: I should add that of these tips are relevant for any written adventure, and all are relevant for running published campaigns.

1. Read the whole AP before you start

Ideally you will read the whole AP before you start running the first part.  That may not be possible if you want to start playing before all six parts are published (as might be the case with Pathfinder APs), but even if you can’t, make a point of reading them as soon as you can.
This is because the parts are written by different authors and, though guided by central editorial team, not all the subtleties of the story will be clear to you from just reading the first part.  Reading the whole path gives you the chance to understand what the overall story is, the relevance of certain story aspects that might not be initially clear, allow you to better understand where you should change the plot to suit the needs of your group or link the plot elements together, and much more.
This is by far the most important advice to making your running of an AP as enjoyable as possible.

2. Foreshadow

Every great campaign benefits from foreshadowing the plot.  In your own adventures it’s notoriously easy to do it – hell, you can just make something up on the spot and weave it in later! That’s not so easy when the plot isn’t yours and you might even ‘break’ something by doing so, and you end up forcing yourself to step away from the plot of the published adventure because of your initial foreshadow.
In an AP, and once you’ve read the whole thing, you can now foreshadow future events. You don’t need to go overboard, but a few subtle hints will better integrate your PCs into the story and will pay off later in the game.
Once you’ve read the whole AP, make a list of cool things you want to foreshadow and then find places to insert them into the plot.  This is especially true of APs where the Big Bad End Guy (BBEG) isn’t immediately obvious.  You need to be careful with this, just a few hints can help the game, but you don’t want to send the PCs off after their Nemesis too soon.

3. Understand Stat boxes

Make sure you take the time to read through and understand the thinking behind the stat boxes for the opponents in the AP.  This is especially true of BBEGs, important NPCs, and later (books 4-6) when the level of the opponents invariably means that they have many more options (including a list of feats as long as your arm!)
Things to look out for:
  • Defensive Abilities:  Is there a DR? SR? Any immunities? Make sure you understand what these mean.  DR comes up a lot in the game, so you need to be comfortable.
  • Special Attacks: Make sure you understand the rules to these.
  • Spells:  Things get complicated with high level spell casters.  If there isn’t one already (and there usually is something), consider the tactical use of the spells listed. Make a list that you know you’ll want to use, and keep the page numbers to hand.  Read up on each of them.
  • Feats: Don’t forget feats! A lot of high level opponents will have things like Imp Vital Strike, Power Attack, etc. so make sure you understand how these will affect the combat.  If you don’t use the feats you are really underplaying the opponents; especially if they are fighter-types.
  • Tactics:  Most stat blocks in Pathfinder APs include ‘Before’ and ‘During’ Combat information.  Take time to read both.  Pay attention to spells cast before combat, as these are usually reflected in the stat block for you – it’s worth checking this though, and understanding what will happen when a PC casts a Dispel Magic.
Don’t forget to use a highlighter pen to mark the important things in the book.  Some people are against this, but I think it’s a valuable thing to do.  Sure it permanently marks your book, but APs aren’t there to sit pristine on the shelf, they are there to be used.  Makes notes the margin as well! Just think of the fun you’ll have flicking through the book in 10 years time and coming across all your personal bit of gaming history…

4. Maps

Take your time when reading the AP to look at, and understand, how the maps relate to the text.  Some of the maps are complicated and if you wait until you’re actually running the game before you understand them, you WILL trip up or make a mistake.  Don’t take the maps for granted; there may be mistakes and clarifications you need to explore.
Photocopy the maps from the book (or use/print the optional AP Map Packs) and staple them together.  You’ll find it easier to read the book, as you won’t have to keep flicking back to the map, and you’ll find it far easier when you’re running the game to have the map to hand and not hidden away in pages of text.  I find this particularly relevant when I have to draw the map out on the battle map for my players, and don’t want to carry the book with me.

5. Use the Bestiaries

When you’re reading the AP initially, keep the Bestiarys to hand so you can read the creature stats, and understand their abilities and feats. You might want to consider photocopying the pages of the monsters so you have them to hand or, if not, use PostIt notes in the pages so you can find them easily when you’re playing. Don’t be afraid to change the colouring, the weapons, or aspects of the creature to enrich the game – or to keep your players guessing!
The important think is that you are 100% happy with what the monster can and will do in combat, and that referencing the stats from another source doesn’t detract from the game.

6. Paraphrase, don’t read

‘The boxed text curse oh how I hate thee..’
We’ve all been there.  The GM is happily ad-libing and then we enter a new location, or an NPC arrives with a quest or some story exposition, and suddenly the GM is head down and droning out the text of a box.
It feels so false, you hate it as a player, so DON’T do it as a GM!
As part of your prep, read the boxed text out to yourself.  Mark the aspects of it that are important, and anything else you would like to ensure is described to the PCs.  In play, paraphrase the content instead of reading it out like some Dalek. Allow yourself to be interrupted with questions, or expand on what an NPC has said.
Ideally the players should never know that there was boxed-text at all, and your game will flow better.

8. Extend and Expand

There isn’t a single Pathfinder AP that doesn’t have room for you to expand by adding your own adventures, or even integrating a standalone adventure that you think will work well.  In fact some of the APs suggest specific modules that you might want to add in, and even offer suggestions on how to do it.
Once you’ve done that important read through, you can go back and consider where you would like to add additional side-adventures.
Take a look at the appropriate Pathfinder Chronicles guide for the area of Golarion that the campaign is set in and mine it for information to expand the game.  Remember that the space in the AP is limited and there’s always more that can be done to make the setting come alive.
The recent Rise of the Runelords Anniversary Edition has much supplementary material available for it in the other products released at the same time, and it’s not the only AP like that.
Expanding an AP can really make it your own and the beauty is that the line between someone else’s work and your own can blur so much that the whole thing feels very personal to your group, as it should.
Other ways you can expand the AP is filling in the little gaps:
Give all the NPCs (no matter how minor), names and a trait or two – you can use the NPC Tables in the Pathfinder Gamesmastery Guide to assist you with this. Suddenly those hordes of ‘mooks’ will appear at least to be more significant, and therefore more memorable.
Give magic items a name and a bit of background.  You obviously don’t need to do this for every one (though you can!), but finding out that the +1 Ring of Protection was originally worn as a wedding ring by an ancient Thassilon lord makes it more than just a minor item.  You can even consider integrating these a little into the plot of the adventure.

9. Personalise for your PCs

Many players invest a lot of time and effort in developing the background of their PCs.  They will intentionally, or unintentionally, provide you with story hooks. They may even have a mystery that they want to explore in the campaign.
In a published campaign it’s too easy to forget about the PCs backgrounds and just run the game as written, but that’s a bit unfair on the players.
If my character has come to the region on Golarion where the AP is set, because my investigations into the murder of my parents has led me here, then I would hope that the GM will find a why to weave that into the plot.
Of course the background hooks don’t need to overshadow your campaign, but by finding a way to integrate them will really pull your players into the story, and you’ll find it easy to keep their attention.

10. Use the Messageboards

Finally, Use the Paizo Messageboards! Every AP has it’s own forum and there’s always a wealth of information, clarification, ways to expand the campaign, pitfalls to avoid, encounter tips, errata, the list goes on. The Paizo staff and authors regularly post answers to questions raised, and you’ll even find additional unpublished material added from time to time.
If you’re serious about running a Pathfinder AP, take an hour just to check out the messageboards and take a few notes.  You won’t regret it.
Thanks for reading this far, and I hope you find that these enrich your GMing experience. Comment to let me know what you think.