Roll Initiative #5 Game Flow


Welcome back to the table! It’s Roll Initiative’s fifth incarnation, and this time we’re talking about Game Flow. What we’re doing here is basically going over what a typical session of Pathfinder is like, along with a couple of general tips and tricks regarding each of the assorted phases of gameplay.

There are three main “phases” of play in Pathfinder: combat, exploration, and interaction/storytelling. Don’t take that to mean that these phases are always separate, however- and more often than not, they flow seamlessly into one another. Chatting with an NPC can quickly lead to a battle (especially when you roll really, really badly on that Diplomacy check), for instance- you know you've done badly when the answer to that scalding question you just asked the shady overlord is “Roll Initiative!”

First, let’s go over what these three phases entail. Combat is exactly what it says on the tin- that’s where your characters are engaged in battle with some sort of enemies controlled by the GM. Combat in Pathfinder is turn-based, with the order the characters and enemies acting in determined by Initiative. When a combat situation begins and the GM tells everyone to roll initiative, each player rolls their d20 and adds the Initiative score indicated on their character sheet (typically this is just adding their Dexterity modifier, but Feats such as Improved Initiative and other factors can hike up this bonus). Each “round” of combat, every character (or enemy) acts in the order determined by these rolls, from highest to lowest. Since each round of combat is roughly equivalent to six seconds of realtime, these events are happening at the table much more slowly and tactically than they would actually occur in the game’s world, so the theater of the mind is important to visualizing what’s actually supposed to be happening. Each character can perform a certain number of actions on his/her turn, including moving from one spot to another, attacking an enemy, casting a spell, or countless other types of actions. The next post will cover combat in more detail, since it can get very complicated and really deserves its own article.

Exploration is what happens when the characters are moving about in an environment outside of combat (though who’s to say one can’t explore while fighting?  It can happen). When the party is trekking across the countryside, browsing about a town, or spelunking in some cavern or ruined fortress, that is the exploration phase. This is usually accomplished through the GM asking what the characters are doing, giving some nice description to set the mood and create an image for the players, and asking for assorted skill checks when necessary. Players will quickly learn that, in Pathfinder, making Perception checks as often as possible is a good way to keep from getting killed- whether it be at the hands of some slavering zombie or a devious trap (foreshadowing!).

Interaction/storytelling is, in my opinion, the real meat of the roleplaying experience. This is when the characters have a chance to chat amongst one another or with NPCs created by the GM. The players can really bring their characters’ personalities to the forefront in these moments, and a good GM can have just as much fun playing a colorful NPC during this phase. When the players really get into character and learn to bounce off one anothers’ personalities well enough, this phase is where the tabletop RPG experience really shines, and it becomes as much a communal storytelling experience as it is a game. There might still be skill checks involved, but for the most part, this is just pure improv theater. Protip: add drinks and snacks and watch this phase of the game erupt into mayhem.

So, how does it all come together? I’ll illustrate with an example of the game in action. For what it’s worth, many roleplaying games include a segment similar to this in their core rulebooks or GM guides- this was one of the things that really brought it all together for me when I was first learning the ropes of RPGs.


The group meets around the table for their bi-weekly Pathfinder session. Everyone settles in, snacks, has drinks, and makes small talk for about twenty minutes while the GM goes over his notes for the session and tabs a few pages in the Bestiary for later. Once everyone is ready to start, the GM does a quick recap of the last few sessions to bring everyone up to speed.

GM: “You guys have been hired by the town mayor to investigate the recent strangeness at the local graveyard while the militia’s occupied fighting off the orcs in the north. Somebody was digging up bodies during the night, and the townspeople were freaking out pretty badly with all their family members’ remains being desecrated and all. So you headed out to the graveyard at night and did a little recon. You didn't find the grave robbers, but you did see some dark shapes shambling about in the dark. Surprising no one, it turned out to be zombies! You managed to fight off a few of them, but were forced to flee into one of the nearby mausoleums and barricade the door to keep from being overrun. Did I miss anything?”

It turns out that he forgot to mention that one of the players, the party Barbarian, got munched on by a zombie and failed a Fortitude saving throw. The GM never said what happened because of that, and the GM’s wry smile indicates to all that something terrible is amiss.

“So, you’re pretty much barricaded in the mausoleum now. It’s dimly lit in here, with only the light from your lanterns providing any kind of illumination. You can still hear the undead clawing at the heavy mausoleum doors. What do you want to do?”

Now the game has started proper. One of the players, playing a Rogue, says that she wants to look around for a way out- a back exit or trapdoor or something. She rolls a Perception check to determine how she fares. She rolls a d20 and adds the Perception bonus from her character sheet; her d20 ends up on a 16, and she adds the +6 bonus for a final result of 22, which she announces to the GM. They’re in the “exploration” phase now.

The Rogue’s Perception check was high enough that the GM decides she’s succeeded in finding a trapdoor in the back of the little room. He asks the other players what they’re up to while the Rogue is looking around- this kind of playing with the exact order events happen in does occur pretty regularly in my group’s games. Theater of the mind! Anyhoo, the party Cleric, whose player intended to be a nurturing, caring, big-brother-type to the rest of the group, speaks up in-character to the Barbarian: “Are you okay? You took a pretty nasty bite. How are you feeling?” They’re doing some of that fancy interaction/roleplaying phase, even while the exploration is going on.

The Barbarian’s player looks to the GM and asks, “How would I be feeling right now?”

GM: “Your wound doesn't hurt too bad, but it’s really itchy. Could be infected.”

The Barbarian, staying true to his character, turns to the Cleric and declares: “I’m good. Just a flesh wound.” As he says this, the player scratches at his neck. This little bit of extra effort in roleplaying can really bring a character to life.


The characters follow the Rogue down the staircase into a weird tunnel of carved stone that runs beneath the mausoleum, hoping to find a way out of the graveyard. The GM asks the players for a “marching order.” The Rogue says she’s going in front so that she can keep an eye out for traps, while the Barbarian stays in the back in case the zombies make it inside and come after them. The GM asks the Rogue to make another Perception check as they make their way down the long tunnel. She rolls again, but this lands one of the dreaded “nat 1s.” This means you rolled a 1 on your d20, and most of the time that means an automatic failure- and it’s one of the scariest things that can happen to a player.

GM: “Unfortunately, you’re so busy watching the ceiling for traps that you completely miss the slightly raised tile on the tunnel floor until you feel it sink slightly underfoot.”

The GM rolls his own d20- some GMs like to do this behind a screen and keep the results secret, though our group usually does it all out in the open- and adds the trap’s attack bonus from his notes. He asks the Rogue’s player what her flat-footed AC is (flat-footed meaning that the character is surprised and doesn't have a chance to dodge, meaning they don’t get to add their Dexterity bonus to their AC); she has a 13, and the GM’s roll of 18 beats that easily. “You hear a loud thunk as a small, sharp object flies out of the darkness ahead of you and slams into your arm.” The damage for this trap is a d4, which the GM rolls and lands on a 3. “You take three points of damage from the dart, and you’ll need to make a Fort save.”

When the Rogue’s Fort save comes up short, the GM reveals that she’s been poisoned by the dart trap, and she takes 1 point of Constitution damage- attribute damage is a nasty thing in Pathfinder, because it’s hard to heal from and having your core stats reduced even by a little bit can cripple your character. This Rogue has a 13 Constitution, so she’s not in grave danger yet, but she’ll need to make a successful Fort save in order to keep the poison from continuing to eat away at her. Luckily, she makes the next save, and the group presses on.

Finally, the group presses on, passing through a series of lonely rooms and chambers that the GM mostly uses to set a sinister mood- creepy vats filled with unknown, foul-smelling chemicals, bookshelves filled with forbidden texts, and unholy symbols scrawled on the walls. The group begins piecing together that whoever dwells in these underground chambers is probably behind the grave robberies and the zombies, and they start preparing themselves for a fight. When presented with a heavy door, the Rogue makes a Perception check to see if she can hear anything on the other side, and indeed there is the sound of eerie chanting coming from beyond. Expecting a fight, the Cleric casts a “Bless” spell on the party to give them a nice leg up (+1 to attack rolls for one minute), and they open the door cautiously.

GM: “As you open the door, the sound of chanting becomes even louder and more clear. Do any of you speak Abyssal? Also, make me a Stealth check if you’re trying to sneak in unnoticed.” No one in the party speaks Abyssal, so they can’t understand the chanting, but everyone rolls well on their Stealth checks… except the Barbarian, who ends up with a 4. The rest of the players groan (this is such a Barbarian thing to mess up on, by the way). “Well, as the rest of you make your way into the chamber as quietly as can be, the Barbarian accidentally stubs his toe on the door frame, causing a loud bang. The chanting coming from up ahead stops abruptly. You see a man in scarlet robes standing behind an altar, upon which a desiccated corpse lies, dressed in tatters and still partly covered in graveyard soil. Three acolytes in black robes kneel nearby, and now all of the robed figures are looking in your direction. The man in scarlet raises a gnarled hand and points in your direction. ‘Intruders!’ he screams, and the acolytes jump to their feet, daggers in hand. ‘Kill them quickly!’ Everybody roll initiative!”

And just like that, they've entered the combat phase.

Now that we've had a chance to illustrate the typical flow of an adventure, it’s time to dig into combat properly. Next week, we’ll do just that- and see how the battle plays out in the process!