Help for the Pathfinder GM Running a Game for New Players

As many of you will no doubt know, I am a GM with about thirty years experience.  The past couple of years has largely been running the Pathfinder game and this year I am running more Pathfinder games than you would find in the Paizo home office.  Yesterday I did two things that were new for me.  The first was I ran a game for my friends from USA on hangouts.  They are all experienced role-players but only one of them had played Pathfinder before and not to any great extent.  The other thing I did was run a third party provider (Rite Publishing) setting being the Kaiden campaign setting.  This post details what went on and gives some tips to the experienced Pathfinder GM who finds himself needing to teach a group of Newbies the system.

Rules, rules and more rules.  What is the best way to
introduce new players to the system?

Some of you have already called me out.  I have run Kaidan before but only as a one off, high level convention adventure.  This outing I am hoping to build a group of characters from 1st level and round out the game from just the Samurai focus I had at the con.  Kaidan is an interesting campaign world that  currently does not have a central book for the world.  This has been Kickstartered and is due in October and will be on my must have list.  Kaidan is an oriental setting, specifically a Japanese based feudal society system.  The land is plagued with the supernatural (ghosts, spirits etc.) of a great variety all based somewhere in Japanese folklore.  The setting offers intricate devices that I love, like the fact that dead adventurers tend to get reincarnated in some kind of ever turning wheel of life as a natural process.  This is a layered and interesting world with a bunch of material already out for it.

The setting is one of my rewards for playing this game.  I really like it.  The other reward is that I am teaching my friends Pathfinder at the same time.  +Cameron Corniuk+Jennifer Corniuk+Jonathan Henry were all Pathfinder virgins until yesterday and +Jeffrey Meyer has had a little experience in the game but it is limited.  I thought that this would be an easy thing to do but as it turned out it is a little more difficult to do than I had originally thought.

When I first came to Pathfinder both my group and I were completely new to it and we took a learn as you go approach.  This was natural really as we waded through the core book, the Advanced Players Guide and I powered through the Game Masters Guide and a Bestiary to get the ball rolling.  We converted characters (4th Ed. D&D to Pathfinder), started adventuring and we sort of worked things out as we went.  At the time I thought the people I was playing with was likely to be the only people I would ever play with but after finding Google+ Hangouts this has broadened the people I play with exponentially.  But I never really gave a lot of thought to how would I teach people Pathfinder?  I assumed that as it is currently the most played game that most people would have some experience in it.  But of course this is not the reality.

I really am not sure how the game went either.  I did my thing, added a sprinkle of plot, introduced a combat (an easy one although two players got knocked out) so they could get the feel and finished with a cliffhanger.  I had also built them a clan that they were a part of and a history to the clan that they were able to browse in an online community also.  I had done all the right things and ticked the normal boxes that I normally tick when getting ready for a game.  But I did not factor in the need to teach the game which was totally my error.  One of the players +Cameron Corniuk who I consider a pretty good friend wrote a blog about the game which you can read here (it also contains a review of the combat chapter).  It is a good read and though he is having a dig (or teasing if having a dig is Australian slang) there is truth in those words.

Fickle fate of dice were on my side yesterday

What do I need to consider for the next time we play?  This is the question that I need to think about.  +Cameron Corniuk points out very well that Pathfinder is seriously a rules heavy game and combat is the focus of a lot of those rules.  My style as a GM though is to try and keep a lot of the rules in the background of the game and try to keep a handle on them.  But these players want to know what they can do from a rules perspective and so I will need to address some of these issues.  I have had a good think about the game and I believe I really need to focus on helping them learn the game by following this four stage approach.

  1. The absolute must have in the game is that the player understands their character.  Feats, abilities, basic abilities, standard character actions.  I do find (and this happens in my other games as well) that players get a bit bewildered by the amount of options available to their characters.  Really there are some guiding concepts that need to be understood and then the rest should follow pretty easily.  There are a LOT of options in Pathfinder though.  The Feat list alone does my head in with the variety available.  It is important that the players are across these abilities so the GM does not need to know every single one.   In the understanding of the character they would need to be taught the basics of the core rules like bonuses, stacking, slots, skill uses, feats, healing and ability damage.
  2. Once they have a good handle on their character the players should learn about character interaction above combat.  It seems in my groups that  the options available to them for interactions such as diplomacy to improve attitude are a little bit lost on them.  Using a module which was the focus of this has helped in my in-person group and hopefully the Kaidan group will pick this up as well seeing that an oriental game tends to revolve around honour, diplomacy and tact.
  3. When they have got the details of interaction down they should expand their knowledge to dealing with conflict.  Be this a combat or environmental conflict (traps, weather etc.).  They should be well aware of how their character can fully act in these situations.  What are the range of actions common to all characters.  How do they operate and how can they use them to their advantage.  In here you would need to look at such things like teamwork feats and the like.
  4. Once they have reached this part they pretty much have what they need and can start to really branch out looking at the optional rules systems included in other books of the system.  Variant play rules located in Ultimate Magic, Ultimate Combat and various other campaign books to try out options that may suit them.  Other players once they reach this level may want to branch out into a GM role and start learning the rules of the GMG and the material surrounding creatures and their actions.
Monsieur Jonathan Henry, mage extraordinaire
I really am a little disappointed with myself that I did not consider this first.  I must have assumed that my experience would keep the game and players moving toward a great game.  In fact I felt that I was a fair way from that but I am fairly self critical too.  I have wondered now if the Beginner Pathfinder Box may be a reasonable item to purchase.  I have been fighting this for a long time as I wondered what purpose would simplifying the rules help with but I think I might now know.  I probably wouldn’t run it with this experienced group but if I were to introduce a younger group it would be a good start.

Perhaps I should have started with a stock standard fantasy world also.  I really wanted to get Kaiden under way though and I have found the Oriental styled games offer a great style of play.  In the longer run with the game if it takes off does using the setting add a layer of complexity to the game that blocks the players understanding of the basics.  Will they lose out on the experience as they have to focus on alternate rules whilst trying to learn the main system?  These are all questions that I hope to have answers to over the games sessions.  It is, I am sure, not a unique problem and others have faced it before.  If you have, feel free to share your experiences so I can learn what else I should be doing to help the new players acclimate to Pathfinder.  Until next time, keep rolling!

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