How to Come Up With and Run a One-Shot on Short Notice

one shot

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is as follows: create and run a Pathfinder session adventure for a group that includes at least one brand-new player and can be completed in a single four-to-five-hour session. The catch? You have less than one week to put the whole thing together.

One week of prep time for a Pathfinder session might not sound too rough to those of you out there who have an abundance of free time to spend on such things, but for those of us who work full-time, write, blog, and still attempt to wrestle some sort of social life into that maelstrom, it can be a real challenge. So, what’s the right way to tackle this sort of scenario? I was recently put into such a situation, and attempted to rise to the challenge. Let’s look at some of the possible methods for putting together a one-shot adventure on short notice.

Option #1

The first option is the easiest: run a module! There are tons of great pre-written adventures out there, regardless of the RPG you’re playing. Since my game of choice is Pathfinder, that gives us a large number of modules to choose from, many of which are pretty brilliant. The only complicating factor there is that little clause about being able to complete it in a single session- and most modules, though designed to be fairly brief, will still last two or three sessions, realistically. A one-shot should probably have no more than three combat encounters, as those tend to be the most time-consuming and rule-intensive events in most games. Some modules feature large dungeons with fifteen to twenty encounters therein- sometimes more than that. In my experience, I’ve found that modules make for great mini-campaigns, but not particularly great one-shots.

Now, modules aren’t the only type of pre-written adventures you can rely on; Pathfinder Society Scenarios are designed specifically to be completed in a single session. They tend to be light on role-play, however, like Pathfinder Society in general- don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean there’s no room at all for inter-character dialogue and interacting with NPCs, but in general Pathfinder Society Scenarios tend to feel a little… flat, in my experience. They also assume that all player characters are a part of the Pathfinder Society, a network of adventurers that pretty much just get hired to do all kinds of work across Pathfinder’s default campaign setting, Golarion. It’s fun if you really love combat, but Society tends to cater toward the power-gamery side of things. The Scenarios are cheap, though, at about four bucks a pop to download… but let’s assume that we don’t have any interest in spending money on something pre-made.

Option #2

That leads to our second option: homebrewing an adventure. Now we’re cookin’- homebrew is, in my opinion, where the true strength of the RPG lies. So we’re going to press on without the aid of modules or pre-fab adventures (mostly), and try our damnedest to put together something that is not only fun, but won’t overwhelm a newbie and can be completed in four-to-five hours.


Homebrew Process

Here’s the process I went through, step-by-step:

1. Pick a theme.

What kind of theme will the adventure have? Gothic horror? High-seas adventure? Urban intrigue? A good-ol’ fashion dungeon crawl? Pick one and stick with it. I always like a bit of a horror element in my adventures, so I decided to try to put together a dark, mysterious adventure that begins with the player characters being left stranded in an isolated location swarming with hostiles.

2. Pick a good monster or two- especially if they have synergy.

This is where a site like The Daily Bestiary comes in handy. You can come up with a great adventure hook on the spot if you have the right monster to center it on. My personal suggestion is to pick a monster that has some kind of association with another creature, so that you can easily come up with a variety of encounters- nobody wants to just fight the same thing over and over again. For instance, for my one-shot, I looked through some of the low-CR monsters and found the Akata- an unusual, blue, lion-shaped extraplanar creature with head-tentacles and a particularly nasty (and interesting) ability; they can infect other creatures with parasites that transform them into “void zombies,” giving them a nasty extended tongue attack. It’s not only a dangerous power for any monster to have, it opens up a ton of doors for you as the GM! No longer must you struggle to figure out why all these neat monsters you’ve picked out are hanging out together. That’s synergy, baby! If I’m planning a one-shot with about three encounters, I’m already pretty much covered with just the Akata and a couple of void zombies. The template can even be applied to non-human creatures, for extra deviousness.

3. Keep the location reined in!

In a full-length campaign, traveling long distances and exploring a variety of environments is part of the thrill. In a one-shot, however, you don’t have time to move the players around a bunch of different locations, so my strategy of choice is to pick a single location- a lonely mansion in the woods, an underground cavern, a boat out on the high seas- and roll with it. Flesh this location out as best you can, keeping it relatively small but interesting- no “plain, rectangular room with 10’ ceilings and two doors” like you might find in any average dungeon. For my one-shot, I start the players off in a wrecked vehicle, give them free reign to explore the surrounding wilderness, with the only safe haven nearby being a quiet, seemingly-abandoned mansion on a looming hill nearby.

Tips & Tricks

  • Mine modules for maps, locations, and encounter ideas ahead of time. These things are written by industry professionals who (usually) know what they’re doing. Even if I’m not running a module, I’ll sometimes poke my nose into one that covers the same level range as the one-shot I’m running and see if there are any fun bits to swipe and alter to fit my needs.

  • Consider pre-making your players’ character sheets for them. Pre-generated characters are a love it or hate it sort of thing, but they can save a load of time when you’re in a pinch- creating a character sheet can take upwards of an hour, especially if you’re working with a new player, so anything that saves some time is worth looking at. If I’m making pre-gens, I’ll ask the players ahead of time what race and class they’re interested in playing, and make all of the mechanical decisions (stats, equipment, etc.) before allowing them to fill in all the “flavor”- the name, gender, personality, and backstory for themselves.

  • For new players, keep the game as exciting and fast-paced as you can, while allowing them ample time to roleplay and make decisions. I wouldn’t recommend a slow-paced dungeon crawl for a first-time player, as a long sequence of exploring rooms that might not have anything of note in them can be boring, and packing every chamber with enemies to fight is both too time-consuming and too video-gamey. Showing new players what makes tabletop gaming great is important- so focus on what makes it special: imagination, improvisation, and unpredictability. Keep things loose and fun.

  • When you’re not running any games, if an idea for an adventure hook hits you, jot it down! I keep a folder in Evernote where I record all my ideas for future games, mostly one-shots or module-length mini-campaigns. In a pinch, you can grab one of those ideas and run with it.

The next time you have some buddies asking you to run a game for them on short notice, keep this stuff in mind. There’s no need to panic! Running a game on short notice doesn’t have to be stressful. And, really, the whole point of RPGs is to have fun- so if at any point you feel as if you aren’t doing that, change your direction!

Or you could just play Monopoly instead, I suppose… ;)

5 Awesome Pathfinder Races You (Probably) Haven't Played

Everybody’s played as the usual fantasy tropes: humans, dwarves, elves, half-orcs, and their ilk. You might have even played as some of the better-known alternative races, like tieflings, aasimar, fetchlings, tengu, or catfolk. In my travels, there are a few races I haven’t seen much of- races that deserve a little love. This post will highlight a few such lesser-known Pathfinder races available for play (depending, of course, on what sort of adventure your GM is running) and what, in my humble opinion, makes them worth taking a look at.


Samsarans are blue-skinned, clear-blooded humanoids who continually reincarnate, retaining the memories of their past lives as waking dreams and vague impressions. While their racial abilities are interesting enough as it is (with special resistances to death effects and a smattering of spell-like abilities), the true appeal of Samsarans lies in the roleplaying opportunities they present. Being able to access memories from lifetimes long past makes creating a backstory for any Samsaran character a fine excuse to flex your writing muscles. For instance: a samsaran monk who becomes the lone practitioner of a forbidden and long-dead martial arts style, taught entirely by her own memories of being the style’s last grand master in an incarnation hundreds of years ago, slowly learning each new technique as she delves deeper and deeper into her embedded spirit-memories… There’s also a cool Archetype for Oracles (the Reincarnated Oracle, of course) available only to Samsarans that practically writes itself as the story of a character whose quest to uncover the truth of their Mystery spans multiple lifetimes.

2. Strix


Just look at the picture. You already know what makes Strix stand out: they have wings. They don’t have to cast a spell or burn a bunch of Feats (I’m looking at you, aasimar) to fly; it’s built-in to their racial abilities. Some GMs consider flying characters to be their bane, and for good reason; you can’t restrict someone who can fly around all willy-nilly to just any old pedestrian method of travel, meaning Strix characters are particularly tough to railroad. In a dungeon-crawling adventure, those wings won’t do much good, but when it comes time to tackle the evil wizard camping out on the top floor of his enormous arcane tower, well… why doesn’t the Strix just fly up there and shank ‘im? Well, it’s time to get creative, GMs. Strix have a cool look (like dark elves, but with wings!), but the bad blood between them and humans makes for a fascinating RP opportunity- things are a little more hostile than the usual “Oh, sorry, this bar doesn’t serve half-orcs!” business attached to other races that supposedly bear some social stigma. Golarion, Paizo’s campaign setting, has Strix attached to a singular location, but there’s no reason why you can’t come up with your own, vastly-different habitat for Strix in your own games.

3. Vishkanya


Elegant, seductive, and possessing an alien beauty that’s almost human, Vishkanya might be written off as “too much like elves” by some. But who says your campaign setting even has to have elves in it? If you decide to give our long-eared pals a break, Vishkanya make a very cool, very flavorful alternative, particularly if your campaign setting has a more Asian theme. With their poisonous bodily fluids, flexible bodies, and seductive nature makes Vishkanya perfect spies and saboteurs. Want an example of a somewhat more unconventional Vishkanya, though? I once played a Vishkanya Paladin (of a homebrewed, benevolent winged serpent deity) who treated her poisonous blood as a holy weapon, “anointing” her scimitar with it and enhancing its power with her “divine henna” tattoos.

4. Suli


Suli are the humanoid spawn of jann, a type of genie. This makes them kin to other elemental-blooded races like Ifrits, Sylphs, Undines, and Oreads, but what makes Suli interesting is that they embody all four elements. Their coolest racial ability is their Elemental Assault, which allows them to conjure up elemental energy into their fists to fire-punch (or ice-punch, or lightning-punch, etc.) enemies right in their damn faces. This makes them a natural fit for the Monk class. The alternate racial trait Energy Strike swaps out Elemental Assault and their all-round energy resistances for one of four very cool powers that focus on a single element- including the ability to walk on water by freezing it beneath your feet! That is just too damn cool.

5. Android


Some of you out there are probably groaning: “Keep your sci-fi out of my fantasy!” While I won’t open the sci-fi-versus-fantasy can of worms today, I can say that Androids are one of the most interesting new races to come out of Pathfinder’s Inner Sea Bestiary. They’re also getting a little bit of exposure as of late thanks to Paizo’s most recent Adventure Path, Iron Gods, which has a distintive sci-fi theme and even pictures an iconic Android character on the cover of the first volume. With a number of fitting immunities and penalties thanks to their bionic nature, Androids are another one of those races that open up all kinds of doors for their backstories, and their difficulty in understanding and processing emotions is just begging for some great roleplay. Also: Nanite Surge is a very, very neat ability.

All art belongs to Paizo Publishing.

Roll Initiative #8 Keeping It Classy (Part 2)

Last time, we talked a bit about some of the more physically-inclined classes and what makes each one unique. This time, we’ll hit up the other side of the fence- spellcasters! Now, again, some of the classes here are perfectly capable of engaging in melee, and can even be quite good at it, but let’s face it- shoehorning any class into a single category is a bit pointless in Pathfinder, where variety is the spice of life and, with the right stats, feats, and equipment, even a once-scrawny wizard can wade out into melee and kick some Orc butt. Anyway, here’s a glimpse into the shiny world of spellcasting classes in Pathfinder:



The oracle is a unique spellcasting class and one of my favorites. They fall under divine casters and share the cleric’s spell list, but they don’t answer to a particular deity of their choice like a cleric. An oracle doesn’t choose to receive the power given to them by a mysterious source and doesn’t fully understand this power. Their motivation is to learn about their mystery and gain revelations to increase their abilities. Unfortunately the power comes at a price; Oracles are cursed and must endure some type of disability (clouded vision, wasting disease, haunted by spirits) in order to balance out the power they can draw. The oracle is kind of like the divine equivalent to a sorcerer (see below), and has a lot of cool abilities. If you want access to divine spells and abilities without having to be a stuffy priest, oracle might be the way to go.


Clerics are essentially priests, who worship a particular deity and draw their powers directly from that divine source. They prepare their spells in advance like a wizard, but instead of studying his or her spellbook, a cleric prays to their deity every day to access spells. There are a ton of ways to play a cleric, with a healing/supporting role being the classic route, but they can make hearty fighters or offensive spellcasters as well depending on the domains they choose. Our first campaign had a cleric with the Fire domain, which helped make up for the fact that we didn’t have any Arcane spellcasters in the party.


Druids worship Nature deities, spirits, or the natural world itself. In that, they’re similar to Clerics, but they have a very different spell list and some unique shapeshifting abilities. Does having a pet wolf or transforming into a hawk sound fun? Druid’s the way to go. They tend to fulfill a supporting role in the party, and since the types of armor they can wear are limited to non-metals, they might not be the best at wading into a fight, but that’s what shapeshifting into a bear is for.



The wizard is one of the most traditional types of spellcasters out there. Wizards have spellbooks and take a very academic approach to magic, choosing a “school” to specialize in, such as Illusion, Conjuration, or Divination. With the ability to copy down tons of spells into their books and prepare different ones for use each day, wizards are the masters of versatility. That said, playing a wizard gives one such a staggering variety of spell options that we wouldn’t recommend the wizard to a first-time player- it can get intimidating having so many choices.


Bards are a little different from the typical spellcaster- they certainly have plenty of spells to choose from, but not only are they decent fighters (and get proficiency with whips!), but their greatest gimmick is their Bardic Performance, which allows them to make beautiful, beautiful music- or dance, or insult comedy, your choice- with a variety of effects, from boosting the combat abilities of their allies to confounding enemies. They’re also great with Skills, and while they’re not the best fighters or magicians around, their variety of abilities make them great supporters, and an excellent way to round out any party.


Sorcerers are similar to wizards in many ways- they share the same spell list, after all- but they’re a good deal easier to understand. Sorcerers possess innate magical abilities instead of formally studying magic, and get to choose from a variety of bloodlines from which to draw their power. Want to play as a descendant of a dragon or demon? Sorcerer’s the way to go! In addition to their spells, they also get a small variety of powers based on their chosen bloodline. They only “know” a certain number of spells, so they may not have the variety a wizard possesses, but in general they can use their spells more times per day than wizards can.


The Magus is Paizo’s answer to that classic conundrum: what if I want to fight and cast spells? While multi-classing Fighter and Wizard is one way to achieve this, as is the Eldritch Knight prestige class, the Magus is probably the most direct route to achieving that sort of character. Built around the idea of holding a weapon in one hand and casting spells with the other, the Magus gets some cool powers like being able to deliver a touch spell by attacking with their melee weapon. They also get to wear armor while casting without penalty, gaining the ability to wear heavier types as they go up in level.


Summoners are an interesting idea: they sacrifice a good deal of variety in their spell selection for vastly improved Summon Monster powers, and gain a unique companion called an Eidolon that works kind of like a customizable animal companion, which evolves and gains new abilities as it levels up. Many GMs hate dealing with Summoners, but they can be a really fun class when played responsibly… since you’re basically getting to roleplay two separate characters


Witches operate in a similar fashion to wizards, but the flavor of the class is very different- witches are creepy. Instead of a spellbook, they have a familiar that acts as their conduit to eerie occult forces. They also get access to Hexes, which can be used without limit (although most can’t target the same creature more than once in a given period of time), which helps make up for their smaller selection of spells. With spells like Vomit Swarm on their list, witches have a very particular niche- debuffing enemies, pumping up their allies, and creeping everybody the hell out.


Now, by the strictest definition, Alchemists aren’t really spellcasters, but the way in which their Extracts work suggests that they imbue their alchemical creations with a hint of magic from their own being to give them their spell-like properties. These Extracts emulate various spells- generally ones that only affect the user. In addition to this, however, Alchemists get bombs! Tossing explosives into crowds of enemies is tons of fun, and alchemists also gain “discoveries” every couple levels, allowing them to customize their abilities. Alchemists have one other key ability: mutagen, which transforms them physically, making them better combatants, Jekyll/Hyde style.

Well, that about wraps it up for this installment of Roll Initiative. There are still more classes out there- the new Hybrid Classes from the Advanced Class Guide, the countless Prestige Classes, and don’t even get me started on the smorgasbord of Archetypes available for every class. Those we may cover in a future installment, but for now, well… just look at all those classes! If you don’t see anything in this or the previous installment’s breakdown that you want to play as, then fantasy role-playing games might just not be for you. So what’re you waiting for? Go grab your dice and get to rollin’!

Still have a few questions about classes? Ask us in the comments! 

Images belong to Pathfinder/Paizo Publishing. 

Roll Initiative #7 Keeping it Classy (Part 1)

Picking a class to play can be a difficult matter sometimes. Should I be a fighter, picking fights with gnolls and being in the center of battle, or maybe a wizard, blasting skeletons with arcane spells? But I want to use a bow… so maybe I should be a rogue or ranger instead... See what I mean? Pathfinder has almost 30 classes to choose from (with more coming). So, to keep this simple, I’ll only be discussing the core and base classes. Hybrid classes are still relatively new and they will touched on another day.

Hopefully at this point you’ve decided on a race. If you recall Creating a Character, choosing your race first can help you narrow down what class to choose. If that doesn’t work ask yourself this question: To magic or not to magic? Classes are be generally split into two categories: martials and spellcasters. Martials focus on close or long distance physical combat, while spellcasters tend to be a support/utility role or blasters. Keep in mind that a lot of classes can take on a variety of roles, and there’s a good bit of crossover possible there with classes like the Inquisitor, Ranger, or Paladin, who can also cast spells.

Martial Classes


Inquisitors are the shadowy secret agents of the Church; the secret weapon to the cleric’s public servant. Inquisitors have a huge sack of cool tricks to play with aside from the usual weapons and spellcasting. Their abilities are very flavorful and focus on intimidation and interrogation, declaring judgment on enemies of the church, and applying the “bane” ability to their weapons, which can rack up a lot of extra damage. **Now, while we've grouped Inquisitors in with the fighting classes for simplicity's sake, you should know that these guys can use divine magic, too- they don't have the variety of magic that, say, a Cleric might possess, but their magic definitely gives them another excellent tool in their Swiss Army Knife skill-set.** If you want to play something along the lines of Castlevania’s Belmont clan or Van Helsing (the goofy Hugh Jackman version, that is), this is the class for you


Rogues are your classic sneaky characters, and every good party should have one (or at least a character who can ape one or more of the Rogue’s abilities). They’re the best at stealthing about, unlocking doors, detecting or disarming traps, and sneak-attacking enemies. They make great flanking buddies for a fighter or monk, since sneak attack damage can quickly sap an opponent’s hit points. Some players complain that rogues are underpowered compared to other classes; there may be some truth to this, but you don’t play a rogue to be the hardest-hitting, baddest-ass character at the table. There’s a particular sort of niche the rogue fills better than any other class, and if you play to its strengths, it’s a lot of fun. Just don’t go walking up to every enemy and trying to stab them in the guts. That’s the fighter’s job. Rogues wear light armor and don’t have the hit points to take a beating, so play smart and keep out of harm’s way.


Rangers are almost like a cross between a fighter and a druid; they have limited access to some nature-based divine spells, and can have an animal companion, but the real meat of the ranger lies in their ability to focus on a chosen fighting style (traditionally either two-weapon fighting or archery) and pick out an enemy of choice that they’re extra-good at fighting. Does your character concept involve parents or a loved one killed by the undead? A ranger with the undead as a favored enemy makes an easy, built-in roleplaying opportunity with gameplay benefits to boot!


Gunslingers are fairly unique in that they specialize in, well, guns. This makes them uniquely focused on long-ranged combat, but there’s more to them than just shooting holes in the bad guys. They gain a pool of “grit” points, which let them pull off cool stunts and trick shots, which gives them a lot more variety than, say, any random fighter or rogue who learned how to use a gun. There’s a lot of risk and upkeep involved with guns, since they can misfire at the worst possible moment, but the reward is usually worth it since firearms will punch through armor at normal range.


Barbarians, thanks to their Rage ability, can hulk out and gain extra strength and durability for a limited time. They’re not as versatile as fighters, but they can cause just as much if not more damage in a scrap, and that makes them very, very dangerous. Of course, that danger extends to themselves as well, as coming out of a rage leaves the barbarian fatigued- and losing those temporary hit points that come along with raging can cause a character to fall over dead at the end of that Ragesplosion. If you want to play the angriest character at the table, barbarian’s your class of choice.


Fighters may seem straightforward, but they’re incredibly versatile thanks to the heaping helping of feats they get, level after level. They may not have much in the way of class features, but with the ability to use just about any non-exotic weapon or armor in the world and the feats to craft their own play style, fighters are a lot more fun to build and play than one might think. Want to walk into battle with a sword and shield? A two-handed Cloud Strife-style greatsword? A bow and arrow? Fighters can do any of those things. If you want to do damage to your enemies, you could do a lot worse than the traditional fighter.


Like a shining knight from a classic fairy tale, the paladin is devout, chivalrous, and gains special powers that set it apart from the fighter thanks to the favor of a divine entity. Paladin’s are fantastic front-line combatants who also have abilities that let them heal their allies, can smite undead or fiendish enemies, and can cast some divine spells after a few levels. Paladins do have a very strict code of conduct they have to follow, however, lest they lose their divine gifts, so some players might be turned off at having to watch their behavior so closely. Don’t expect the GM to be okay with you torturing captives or executing a surrendered enemy and let you keep your paladin abilities!


Monks are martial artists who have trained their minds and bodies into their weapon of choice. Some choose to fight solely with their fists and other choose a weapon focus. They have strict guidelines to how they live and fight. If you’re into kung fu movies or wuxia, the monk is the closest thing you’ll find to creating a character along those lines in Pathfinder. They don’t wear armor, but they have a lot of cool wuxia-inspired abilities like High Jump and Slow Fall and get access to a pool of “ki points,” a resource that recharges with rest that allows them to pull off a variety of cool martial arts-y abilities. We always house-rule that Monks get a d10 hit die and full-Base Attack Bonus progression like a Fighter, which helps them survive better in melee combat.


Cavaliers are a bit like fighters on the surface, but they have some nifty abilities. For one thing, cavaliers choose an Order to belong to, which gives them different abilities. They can challenge enemies to a one-on-one duel and gain bonuses if they fight appropriately. They excel at mounted combat. Now, cavaliers aren’t for every campaign- dungeon crawls don’t leave much room for lugging your horse around, for instance- but in the right kind of adventure, cavaliers are really fun, especially if you roleplay your Order well.

Spellcasters will be covered in Part 2! 

Roll Initiative #6.5 Game Time


So here we are, at the tail end of Roll Initiative’s first sequence. We’ve covered pretty much all of the basics of Pathfinder from a player’s point of view, from building a character on up through how a battle unfolds in the game. Before moving on to the next phase of the series, where we’ll tackle GMing, let’s take a quick look back at what we’ve covered so far.

Roll Initiative #1: An Intro to Pathfinder - Here, we talked a little about what tabletop roleplaying games are, why they’re fun, and what my game of choice (Pathfinder) is.

Roll Initiative #2: Getting Started - Want to know what you need to get started playing Pathfinder, or what to look for when putting together a group? We covered that here.

Roll Initiative #3: Creating a Character - In this installment, we covered the creation of a player character, from concept to crunch.

Roll Initiative #3.5: The Character Sheet - This interlude served as a fine tuning on the previous post, in which we used one of our own player character sheets as an example of what to look for and how to put your character sheet together.

Roll Initiative #4: Staying in Character - The tricky art of role-playing your character can be difficult to get a handle on at first. Here, we shared a few of our tips for making it a little simpler.

Roll Initiative #5: Game Flow - So how does the game actually go, anyway? We illustrated a typical example of Pathfinder in action, along with the various phases of gameplay, here.

Roll Initiative #6: Combat! - Of course, combat is by far the most complicated aspect of the game, and in this post, we went over how a round of fighting in the game might go.

And what have we learned? Tabletop roleplaying games can be complicated. Pathfinder is a big system with tons and tons and tons of options- feats, equipment, archetypes, all kinds of stuff- and it’s not the easiest game in the world to learn overnight. But all those options also mean practically endless customization, which also means that this is a game that can last you a long, long time- especially as you play multiple characters across several campaigns, you start to realize that the enormous amount of options Paizo and the various third-party contributors to the system have provided means that one could stick with Pathfinder exclusively and never exhaust all the different types of characters and situations that might come up.

That’s really the beauty of this particular form of gaming, regardless of the rule system you’re playing- Pathfinder, D&D, Dungeon World, Savage Worlds- in the theater of the mind, there are no limits to what characters you can create, what adventures they might run into.

Illustation by GENZOMAN

Roll Initiative #6: Combat!


Welcome back to Roll Initiative… it’s KOMBAT TIME!

Last time, we talked about how a typical session of Pathfinder tends to go down. We left off with our intrepid unnamed adventurers stumbling upon a creepy ritual in the tunnels beneath the local graveyard. Surely nothing bad could come of this!

Naah. It’s time for those two magical words that every RPGer knows so well: “Roll Initiative!”

Let’s rejoin the Rogue, the Cleric, and the Barbarian as the battle is about to begin. Let’s also assume that another player has shown up for this session (maybe he got called in to work or something last time…), playing a Sorcerer. Such things do happen. Sometimes you do need to press forward and play a session without all your players there; I’ve found that it’s usually best to just keep playing, but have the missing player’s character just kind of stay out of focus. They’re there, just not speaking up or making big decisions.

Anyway, back to the fightin’! “Roll Initiative!” says the GM, and the players grab their d20s. Rolling Initiative is as simple as rolling that d20 and adding the Initiative bonus on your character sheet- this is usually just your Dexterity modifier, but there are Feats (such as Improved Initiative, which adds a +4 bonus) and other factors that can give your character an extra leg up. Initiative order determines the order the characters act in battle, and usually the advantage goes to whoever ends up at the top of said order. In this case, the Rogue ended up with a 22, meaning she goes first, followed by the Barbarian (16), the Sorcerer (12), and the Cleric, whose character is not very dextrous at all, got a cruddy 6. The GM rolls for the enemies- usually, the GM will roll one Initiative to represent an entire group of enemies, only doing another roll if there’s a different sort of enemy also involved. In this case, the enemies are made up of three acolytes and a scarlet-robed leader. The GM rolls twice here: the acolytes get a 14, and the Leader gets an 8. The final Initiative Order looks like this:

1. Rogue

2. Barbarian

3. Acolytes A, B, and C

4. Sorcerer

5. Cult Leader

6. Cleric

The GM takes a moment to draw out the room on his battlemat (one of the most common RPG accessories), then places tokens representing the Leader and the trio of Acolytes in the appropriate squares, and puts the players’ tokens at the entrance of the room, based on their marching order from earlier from last time. He also draws in a few key features of the room, namely the altar the cultists were gathered around last time.


So now that the map’s drawn up and the Initiative has been determined, it’s time to start the first round of combat! One “round” ends when the last character in Initiative Order has acted and the cycle restarts. Sometimes there’s a “Surprise Round” at the start of combat, when the GM determines that some of the participants are not aware of one another when the fighting starts, but in this case, thanks to the Barbarian’s awful Stealth check last session, the cultists are already aware of the party’s presence.

The Rogue is up first. There are different types of actions one can take in combat- Move Actions (generally that means moving, but it can also be used to draw a weapon, load a light crossbow, et cetera), Standard Actions (such as attacking or casting a spell), and others- but Move and Standard Actions are the most commonly seen. The Rogue takes a look at the map and gauges the distance between her token and the Leader- six squares, or about thirty feet. “Okay,” she says, “I’m going to use my Move Action to draw one of my daggers and then throw it at the leader.” Throwing the dagger is a Standard Action. A dagger can be thrown or used in melee, but the range isn’t so hot- 10 feet is as far as it can go without a negative. The GM warns: “Okay, you can reach him, but it’s going to be a -6 to your attack roll.” The Rogue agrees- it’s worth a shot. She rolls her d20 and adds her attack bonus- for a thrown weapon, that’s her Base Attack Bonus plus her Dexterity modifier. But don’t forget- last time on Roll Initiative, the Cleric cast Bless on the party in anticipation of a fight, netting everyone an extra +1 to the roll. The final result? She rolls a 14, adds her +4 attack bonus and the +1 from bless for a 19, then subtracts the -6 for the range penalty for a final total of 13. A number like that could go either way.

Luckily, the GM checks his notes and sees that this hits the Cult Leader’s AC of 13 right on the money! The Rogue then rolls for damage- for a dagger, that’s a d4, and adds her Strength modifier to the damage, ending up doing 4 damage total to the Cult Leader. “You throw the dagger across the room, and it strikes the cultist right in the arm. He growls in pain and clutches at the wound, but doesn’t go down.” The Rogue, having used up her Move and Standard Actions, is done for this round. “Okay, our Barbarian is up.”

The Barbarian’s player grins. “I’m gonna charge at the boss man. Maybe we can take him down before he can act.” Charging is a type of special action you can do in combat called a Full-Round Action. Basically, the character is using his entire turn to barrel toward the enemy and deliver an attack, and it’s pretty bread-and-butter for a Barbarian. It lets you move up to twice your movement speed (so long as you have a clear path to the target) and grants a +2 bonus to attack, but due to the reckless nature of the action, it lowers the user’s AC by 2 until the start of the user’s next turn. The GM makes sure there’s nothing that would cause the Barbarian’s charge to be impeded and gives the OK. The Barbarian’s token is moved next to the Leader’s, and the Barb rolls an attack. “I run at him screaming bloody murder, and heft my greatsword overhead.” His d20 roll lands on a 9, but with his +5 attack bonus, the +1 from Bless, and the +2 from charging, his final result is a 17, more than enough to hit the leader. He then rolls his damage- a Greatsword is 2d6, plus the Barbarian’s +4 Strength bonus, plus another 2 for wielding two-handed (which allows you to add 1 and a half times your Strength bonus, making two-handed weapons a great choice for players looking to do a lot of damage). His final total is 12 points of damage, meaning the Leader has taken 16 points of damage already this turn.

“You hack into him with such force that he nearly loses his footing, and his blood splatters across the floor,” the GM says. “His eyes go wide with shock, and it looks like he’s barely standing. Fortunately for him, his Acolytes are up.” Indeed, it’s not the Acolytes’ turn to act, and the GM thinks briefly on what they should do. “You’re clearly the biggest immediate threat,” the GM says, looking at the Barbarian. “So two of them are going to approach you and attack with their daggers.” He moves two of the Acolytes up, and now the Barbarian has enemies on three sides of him. Caught between enemies, the Barbarian is now “flanked.” This basically means that because he’s having to defend himself against several directions at once, his enemies will have an easier time hitting him- thus, the flanking opponents will get a +2 to hit. This is why getting surrounded in combat is so dangerous, and the Barbarian has just put himself into a dangerous situation. The GM rolls for the two Acolytes’ attacks; one of them, who is directly behind the Barbarian and thus flanking him with the Leader, gets the +2 flanking bonus, but the one standing adjacent to him does not. In any case, with the Barb’s AC lowered by 2 thanks to his charge, both attacks hit him, and the Barbarian takes 6 damage from one and 3 from the other. “The cultists are on you in a heartbeat, and slash at you with their ceremonial daggers. You’re getting carved up pretty good.” The Barbarian notes that he has 5 hit points left, so he isn’t done for yet, but another round caught between enemies like this could finish him off. The third Acolyte, the one who didn’t attack the Barbarian, moves away from the party and casts a spell, Ray of Frost, at the Rogue. The GM rolls a ranged attack (1d20+his dexterity modifier+his base attack bonus) against the rogue’s “touch” AC (meaning she does not get her armor bonus; this is used for attacks that only have to touch the target to be effective), and it hits. The Rogue takes 2 points of damage. Considering the 3 damage she took from the poisoned dart last session, she’s down to 4 hit points from her maximum of 9. “A bolt of icy magic strikes you, and you feel a deep chill wash through your body,” the GM says. “And that’s all three Acolytes. Sorcerer’s up.”

The Sorcerer, eager to get into the action since he missed the last session, asks: “Any way I can position myself to cast Burning Hands and catch those two Acolytes”- he points out the two that are pummeling the Barbarian- “in the blast radius, but not burn up my friend?” The GM looks at the situation and replies that he can if he moves to this square. Burning Hands is a spell that projects magical fire in a fifteen-foot spread. The Sorcerer doesn’t have to make an attack roll for this spell, since anything in that area of effect is getting burned, but the Acolytes do get to make a Reflex save to try and take half damage from it. The GM rolls their saves, but neither makes it- and they both take 3 points of fire damage. “Your spell lights their cloaks on fire, and they begin crying out in pain. Unfortunately, it seems like you’ve gotten their attention, and now the Cult Leader’s turn is up.”


The GM is aware that the Barbarian is still being flanked by the Leader and one of the Acolytes, so he makes the obvious choice and has the Leader attack him using his dagger. He easily beats the Barbarian’s diminished AC thanks to the flanking bonus, and the Leader deals a mean 6 points of damage, reducing the Barbarian’s hit points to -1. That doesn’t mean the Barb is dead- a character in Pathfinder doesn’t die unless their hit points are reduced to a number equal to their Constitution score in the negative, so unless the Barb takes another fifteen points of damage, he’ll live- but he’s in great danger, as he’s now unconscious and will have to make a Stabilization check (1d20+Constitution) each time his turn comes around to keep from losing another hit point every round. “The Leader snarls and stabs you in the gut with his dagger, and it’s one wound too much. You collapse to the ground in a heap.”  The Leader then moves toward the back of the room, keeping his Acolytes between himself and the rest of the party.

Finally, it’s the Cleric’s turn. Clerics are often (but not always) healers, and seeing the Barbarian go down so quickly, realizes he has to do something to keep his team from dying. “I’m going to move here and Channel Energy,” he says. Channel Energy is a class feature for Clerics that allows them to call upon the power of their deity to heal (or harm) targets within a 30-foot radius centered on the user. Luckily, the Cleric has the “Selective Channeling” Feat, so he is able to pick a number of targets equal to his Intelligence modifier and keep them from being affected; here, that lets him keep the two injured Acolytes from receiving any healing, and as the Leader has moved out of range, he can only do good here. He rolls a d6 to determine how many hit points the party gets back and lands a 3, which heals both the Barbarian and the Rogue. Now that the Barbarian is no longer in negative hit points, he’s conscious again.

“All right,” the GM says, “that’s the first round. Back to the top of the order! Rogue, you’re up.”

And that’s how a typical round of combat in Pathfinder might go. Let’s say that the party is able to rally and finish off the Acolytes and their leader- the game would shift back into the exploration or role-playing phase as the players react to what just happened, look around the chamber, search the cultists’ bodies for clues (or useful items), and finally press on.

That will conclude our look at the basics of Combat in Pathfinder. When Roll Initiative returns, we’ll be looking at some advanced aspects of the game, and begin moving into the fine art (and science) of GMing!