Creating a Pathfinder Campaign

When I look to start a new Pathfinder campaign I have a few steps I go through before I am happy to look at characters:

  • Agree on the Storyline
  • Get an Overview of the Storyline
  • Make Character Creation Limitations
  • Have a Character Creation Session
  • Determine Character Advancement and Story Modifications

Agree on the Storyline

The storyline can either be dictated by the Games Master or agreed upon by the group as a whole. I have done both. At the moment I am selecting the games based on what I have physical copies of as I prefer referencing a book instead of a PDF.

So how do I select a storyline? I have a bunch of the Paizo Adventure Paths and I have 3rd party supplements created by other companies. Because of the number of adventure paths I have I run two of those a fortnight and I run the 3rd party products on the other night. The adventure paths are a set of six modules that tell a story from first level to a high level. I have completed seven official adventure paths, running two more, and have one more complete set with five incomplete sets. I also have the two revised books, the super dungeon and the Shackles City which was their first product based around this multi-part storyline.

For the other I am running books from the Frog God Games world of The Lost Lands. This starts with Necromancer Games and 3rd edition D&D and has got quite a few interesting (but adult content) material. I am enjoying running their books having completed three of their campaigns in Pathfinder with another being run and have already selected the next book to move onto due to it grabbing my interest.

The core to running a storyline is that it must interest YOU as a Games Master or it will not be fun to play or last very long.

Get an Overview of the Storyline

Now that you have a storyline selected you need to understand what you are getting into. You need to know where it is set. This includes the game world and the specific locations in that world. Having access to a map to show you where the characters will be starting means you have some idea of what character types will easily fit and which would require a strong back story to explain themselves.

It’s important to understand the theme of the adventure and what sort of terrain and concepts is it trying to introduce. By knowing the theme (such as horror) you can once again work that into the characters if you like. As for terrain there’s certain overall concepts that can be quick to resolve such as oceans or deserts not being applicable to certain characters. If its about limited resources in your location and having to make the most out of what you find then access to teleportation can be very helpful.

Who are the opponents? The last thing you want to do when starting a campaign is to set up the players for failure because one of their number (or more) are going to turn against the party due to their connections with the big bad of the storyline. While this might sound like an interesting thing to run and may actually be fun (if you have a good group and they are on board) it is most likely going to end badly. Insider knowledge issues, a party traitor or player and Game Master arguments over story can all contribute to this. I have been through a lot of these due to players wanting to use their concept (a game mechanic, not a roleplating mechanic) and attempting to me into accepting their character into the game. No GM is immune to player bullying unfortunately.

As a personal note I generally don’t read too far ahead of where the players are as I like to see what they do without leading them to the next step of the story as it’s nice to be surprised as to how the game turns out. Knowing everything about a story before running it does lose its challenge over time, as its nice to not know everything. Plus there is a lot of fun in making the reveals that appear in the later story relevant.

Make Character Creation Limitations

List all the limitations that you identified in the overview but make them specific and clear so players know what they can’t use before they get to character creation.

This includes:

  • What rules are available, such as sourcebooks
  • How are attributes going to be created
  • How are hit points added
  • What are the starting resources
  • Where are the characters going to begin
  • How much of their backstory is required
  • What character elements are not permitted in the game
  • What optional rules are being used
  • What house rules are being used

Once you go through all these you can go to character creation.

The reason you would limit source-books is to provide some boundaries in the knowledge and capabilities of characters in the game. It also reduces the need for you or players to grab random source materials for obscure rules that weren’t intended for use in the current game.

Attribute creation for things like hit points can be either point buy or rolled. Point buy means that you know all other characters in the game are equal to you in how they are built and there is less arguments about a character being more powerful than another. Hit points are standardised to everything is fair. Rolling for attributes and hit points adds luck to the character creation process because you can have either an outstanding character (beyond point buy potential) or a abysmal character (below anything possible in point buy) and I have seen both. A character with mostly 18 in the six characteristics travelling with a character with mostly 3 in the same characteristics shows you just how much harder they are to play. While it can be “fun” it is not “fair” and I prefer the fair play style knowing that as a group they should be able to handle a set challenge level, instead of having to tailor it to each character based on their individual power levels. Note: this is also possible when characters are at different levels.

Starting resources can either be rolled or selected. I like to start with 150 gp for all the characters again to make it an standard amount instead of having luck play a piece in character creation. It is possible for characters to start without any real gear when you have to roll for starting resources. I usually like to start characters near or at the location of the storyline with purpose so they all have to have a reason to be at the chosen location and be willing to work with the other characters. A loner or a character who is against the rest of the party will not be allowed to join the campaign but it might make for an interested NPC in the background.

Noting down how the rules are different for this game is necessary but I try to avoid explaining why as it can reveal plot lines they did not need to know about beforehand. One thing I dislike is complex rules characters that players can’t manage and in the end they cheat because of badly done rules interpretation. I tend to take those character options out of play in future games.

Optional rules can make the game more or less fun depending on how you take it. I have trialled a few optional rules ranging from mythic to magical item availability and some work better than others, or easily break the game. House rules are where you have a set of rules that are not part of the Pathfinder publishing books such as extra dimensional spaces cannot travel through a teleportation effect. Or Critical Hit roll changes. I put such things on a web page that is referenced to my games so players can look at any time to see what the rules are. If they change at any point the date of change is put there and a notification is sent out.

Have a Character Creation Session

In the character creation session I expect to find out what class, race and link to other characters a player character is expecting to have for the campaign. A lot of the basics of first level is not necessary to be completed before play but enough for the player to get some idea of what to expect from their character. Such as not selecting all the skills or languages set before play begins and if a language or a skill is needed they can select it then to help advance the story. The same can be done with equipment, pulling out and spending their gold as needed until they run out.

While this is not realist in a real world concept of how things work it does make starting a game quicker and cleaner. Games are really an abstract interpretation of reality designed to allow us to experience the fantasy setting via the Pathfinder rules. So I like to push that early on to help make the early game more about the player characters being the heroes of the story.

I usually start the game during the character creation session making it a roleplaying session where they have the chance to introduce the backstory and goals for their character. I have a personal belief that a characterss background does not exist if that player has not introduced it in gameplay. What is on a character sheet or submitted to the Games Master is only unfulfilled potential as very few characters actually use their intricate background. I have read ten page backstories that were never mentioned. This is why I have stated in my games that a written backstory in meaningless until they bring it into the game.

Determine Character Advancement and Story Modifications

The last concept needed to start a campaign is how am I going to manage character advancement. The core version is to keep track of XP (Experience) and award it for overcoming obstacles which is usually killing things from a players perspective. While there are multiple ways of gaining XP most of it does appear to come from the slaying of foes.

Another approach is to set a number of sessions and as long as the character attends the set number of sessions they gain a level. This can be group or individual depending on the tracking that is desired. Having characters at different experience levels can make the game harder for some of the characters and easier for others so I tend to avoid situations where this occurs.

The next method that I use most of the time is a story milestone award. This has a couple of advantages. If the characters wander off plot they don’t advance until they come back to the story and everyone is the same as I apply the level across the group. This makes running the adventure paths so much easier.


Setting up a game can be a rewarding experience and a lot of potential fun for the players and games master involved. If you have not tried it you should give it a go. I have and I love it more than playing. Here’s to another 1,000 games run over the next ten years. 🙂

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