Review – Gamemastery Guide (Pathfinder)

The Pathfinder 2E Gamemastery Guide covers a potpourri of topics. Like many books with so many different choices, it hits a few that I’m not a fan of, and probably a few that you’re not a fan of. But it’s entirely possible that the ones I’m not big on are the ones you love, and vice versa. But in addition to those taster’s choice options, the Gamemastery Guide has some options that I think almost any GM will want to have handy (it is, as one might expect, an entirely GM-facing book).

The Gamemastery Guide is divided into five sections. There’s gamemastery basics (how not to be a terrible GM), tools (how to make your own items, creatures, worlds, etc.), subsystems (what, that wasn’t in the core rulebook?), variant rules, and the NPC gallery.

My personal favorite sections are the subsystems and variant rules. The subsystems makes sense for me. Spanning about 30 pages, it has a lot of things that come up so much that you’ll definitely want to have them, starting with chases. Many of them are variants on the ‘victory points’ concept – playing out research, infiltration, or social influence by identifying a series of rolls and then the players try to succeed at enough of those rolls. These are the inheritors of classics like the rooftop chase in Curse of the Crimson Throne (making skill checks for obstacles to keep up in the case) or a influencing NPCs in PFS scenarios (skill check to find out what they care about, skill check to sway them). You can also find out more about running organizations or how to use vehicles in combat (if you be so bold). There’s a section on “hexploration” – making overland exploration/mapping a thing – which can be cool in theory, but the subsystem here is so sparse that I’m not sure it can carry the weight in practice.

The rules variants have some cool options. There are some ‘standard’ sort of options, like sort-of adding back in a traditional point ability score point buy (yeah, I know the random stat rolling is really more traditional, but I’m not interested in going back that far). You can be more radical and change the stats altogether, lumping Strength and Con together, but splitting Dexterity in two. Your players will probably love you if you implement dual-class characters (pick two classes, take all the best stuff, rock out), free archetypes (best used to make everyone in the group fit with a certain concept without taking away their usual options), or ancestry paragons (get more ancestry feats). Personally, dual-class characters are best-suited for low-player-count games, but free archetypes and ancestry feats can add cohesion or give players some extra cool feeling without unbalancing things. However, I for one would not want to be the one who goes with a variant like simplified ancestries, which just takes stuff away from the players – that sounds like a good way to get put up against the wall when the revolution comes. You can replace the gathering of loot with automatic bonus progressions (just giving abilities and bonuses to the characters to represent a typical magic item array). Or you can pop back to the tools chapter and use relics, which lets the character have a single important item that grows in power over time.

I also like getting basic information on the planes in the tools chapter. However, that chapter and the NPC gallery are less for me overall. I’m a busy sort of person in my old age (parenting, amirite?), and Paizo makes great campaigns. So I see an extensive section about how to design your own monsters, and I wonder why I would ever do such a thing when Paizo has already created these fantastic adventures to run that use the existing creatures, and PF2 will presumably join PF1 in having an endless buffet of Bestiary options. But that’s a thing I used to do, and it’s a thing a lot of people still do, and on that front there’s great guidance on how to build creatures, items, hazards, settlements, and entire nations (on top of the guidance on designing adventures and encounters in the ‘basics’ chapter). More handy to me than guidance on how to create hazards is a decent selection of already-created ones, along with cursed items, artifacts, and afflictions. And piles of NPCs are great, because even if I’m whipping up my own campaign that doesn’t mean I want to stat out every NPC from scratch. To that end the NPC gallery has courtiers, criminals, religious types, explorers, commonfolk, law enforcement, combat types, performers, politicians, merchants, sailors, and scholars. There’s also a pawn collection of these NPCs coming in June, and I do love Pathfinder pawns.

The gamemastery basics section provides a broad, but shallow, array of advice. As a long-time gamer, it’s the sort of thing that makes my eyes start to glaze over as my internal monologue starts griping about how I’ve covered these basics dozens of times before – dealing with rules adjudication during games, speeding up dice rolls, playing to your players’/characters’ interests, keeping sessions moving, etc. But, frankly, it’s probably never a waste to be reminded of these things from time to time. Have I been providing an evocative level of detail in scenes (without bogging everything down with extraneous drivel)? Have I been providing focused social encounters with at least somewhat clear goals? And, of course, these are important issues for a new GM to think about. It’s still not deep, by any means, and in particular I wish there was a bit more advice on dealing with problem players, because I know I’m in some RPG social groups where it feels like every other question is something about a problem player (or the flipside, the problem GM). The most “Pathfinder” feeling part of the gamemastery basics was adventure design, which provides “recipes” for different types of adventures, along with estimates of how many sessions they might take. So, for example, a classic dungeon crawl might have exploration scenes getting to the dungeon or in mazes, the precise number and hazard of combat encounters involved, what sort of roleplaying encounters can go in a dungeon (and how many you should have), and what encounter tropes might be handy.

For me, the highlights of the Gamemastery Guide are descriptions of the planes, subsystems for chases and other non-combat objectives, and some of the variant rules like free archetypes, ancestry paragons, and replacements/alterations for needing to find piles of magic loot to keep up with your level. Those personal highlights of mine probably won’t be the same as the personal highlights for you, but I’m confident that Pathfinder GMs out there will each find their own gems in the Gamemastery Guide.


Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

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