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Building an Adventure

Source PRPG Core Rulebook pg. 396
There are countless ways to build an adventure. The classic method is to simply write everything out beforehand. While this does get everything you need to know about the adventure down on paper, it’s an awful lot of work. If you’re the only person who’ll ever be running the adventure, it’s okay to simply outline the plot, draw a map of the adventure site, create encounters and stat blocks, and have at it. An adventure need not look like much more than a shopping list—you only really need to write down what you can’t easily remember come game time.

One important tip to remember about adventure writing—you’re not writing a story. The main characters of the adventure should be the players, and they’re missing from the tale when you prepare the adventure. Instead, think of the adventure as an outline for a script. You can have an idea in your head of how things will work out, but if you avoid making assumptions about what your characters will do in the adventure and instead just focus on creating the building blocks of the adventure (such as room descriptions, NPC motivations, stat blocks, and the like), you’ll be much more capable of reacting to the unexpected when the PCs do their thing.

Whatever you decide to do in your adventure, there are three elements that, if you prepare them beforehand, will save you a lot of time and anguish in the end—stat blocks, encounters, and treasure.

Stat Blocks

Source PRPG Core Rulebook pg. 397
One of the most complex parts of the game is the stat block. Every NPC, every monster, and every timid little forest creature in the campaign world has its own stat block. This isn’t to say, of course, that you need to generate a stat block for every creature that appears in your adventure, but you should certainly generate stat blocks for all of the important NPCs and monsters with whom you expect the PCs to interact. The Pathfinder RPG Bestiary provides more than 300 pre-made monster stat blocks for use in adventures, and that’s just the beginning—you can use stat blocks from other monster bestiaries or adventures just as easily in your game. One good trick is to copy a stat block onto a 3×5 card or into a small document you can easily bring up on your computer during the game—you can keep these cards and documents forever to reuse them as needed.

Think of stat blocks as shorthand versions of character sheets. For a sample stat block, see the Monster Index— definitions for the various abbreviations in the stat block can be found here. For a more detailed description of how to read a stat block or additional examples of what a stat block looks like, consult the Pathfinder RPG Bestiary.

Designing Encounters

Source PRPG Core Rulebook pg. 397
The heart of any adventure is its encounters. An encounter is any event that puts a specif ic problem before the PCs that they must solve. Most encounters present combat with monsters or hostile NPCs, but there are many other types—a trapped corridor, a political interaction with a suspicious king, a dangerous passage over a rickety rope bridge, an awkward argument with a friendly NPC who suspects a PC has betrayed him, or anything that adds drama to the game. Brain-teasing puzzles, roleplaying challenges, and skill checks are all classic methods for resolving encounters, but the most complex encounters to build are the most common ones—combat encounters.

When designing a combat encounter, you first decide what level of challenge you want your PCs to face, then follow the steps outlined below.

Step 1—Determine APL: Determine the average level of your player characters—this is their Average Party Level (APL for short). You should round this value to the nearest whole number (this is one of the few exceptions to the round down rule). Note that these encounter creation guidelines assume a group of four or five PCs. If your group contains six or more players, add one to their average level. If your group contains three or fewer players, subtract one from their average level. For example, if your group consists of six players, two of which are 4th level and four of which are 5th level, their APL is 6th (28 total levels, divided by six players, rounding up, and adding one to the final result).

Step 2—Determine CR: Challenge Rating (or CR) is a convenient number used to indicate the relative danger presented by a monster, trap, hazard, or other encounter— the higher the CR, the more dangerous the encounter. Refer to Table 12–1 to determine the Challenge Rating your group should face, depending on the difficulty of the challenge you want and the group’s APL.  

Table 12-1: Encounter Design

DifficultyChallenge Rating Equals...
EasyAPL -1
ChallengingAPL +1
HardAPL +2
EpicAPL +3
 Step 3—Build the Encounter: Determine the total XP award for the encounter by looking it up by its CR on Table 12–2. This gives you an “XP budget” for the encounter. Every creature, trap, and hazard is worth an amount of XP determined by its CR, as noted on Table 12–2. To build your encounter, simply add creatures, traps, and hazards whose combined XP does not exceed the total XP budget for your encounter. It’s easiest to add the highest CR challenges to the encounter first, filling out the remaining total with lesser challenges. For example, let’s say you want your group of six 8th-level PCs to face a challenging encounter against a group of gargoyles (each CR 4) and their stone giant boss (CR 8). The PCs have an APL of 9, and table 12–1 tells you that a challenging encounter for your APL 9 group is a CR 10 encounter—worth 9,600 XP according to Table 12–2. At CR 8, the stone giant is worth 4,800 XP, leaving you with another 4,800 points in your XP budget for the gargoyles. Gargoyles are CR 4 each, and thus worth 1,200 XP apiece, meaning that the encounter can support four gargoyles in its XP budget. You could further ref ine the encounter by including only three gargoyles, leaving you with 1,200 XP to spend on a trio of Small earth elemental servants (at CR 1, each is worth 400 XP) to further aid the stone giant.

Table 12-2: Experience Point Awards

Individual XP
CRTotal XP1-34-56+
 Adding NPCs: Creatures whose Hit Dice are solely a factor of their class levels and not a feature of their race, such as all of the PC races detailed in Chapter 2, are factored into combats a little differently than normal monsters or monsters with class levels. A creature that possesses class levels, but does not have any racial Hit Dice, is factored in as a creature with a CR equal to its class levels –1. A creature that only possesses non-player class levels (Adept, Aristocrat, Commoner, Expert, or Warrior) is factored in as a creature with a CR equal to its class levels –2. If this reduction would reduce a creature’s CR to below 1, its CR drops one step on the following progression for each step below 1 this reduction would make: 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/6, 1/8.

High CR Encounters: The XP values for high-CR encounters can seem quite daunting. Table 12–3 provides some simple formulas to help you manage these large numbers. When using a large number of identical creatures, this chart can help simplify the math by combining them into one CR, making it easier to find their total XP value. For example, using this chart, four CR 8 creatures (worth 4,800 XP each) are equivalent to a CR 12 creature (worth 19,200 XP).

Table 12-3: High CR Equivalencies

Number of CreaturesEqual to...
1 CreatureCR
2 CreaturesCR +2
3 CreaturesCR +3
4 CreaturesCR +4
6 CreaturesCR +5
8 CreaturesCR +6
12 CreaturesCR +7
16 CreaturesCR +8
 Ad Hoc CR Adjustments: While you can adjust a specific monster’s CR by advancing it, applying templates, or giving it class levels (rules for all three of these options appear in the Pathfinder RPG Bestiary), you can also adjust an encounter’s difficulty by applying ad hoc adjustments to the encounter or creature itself. Listed here are three additional ways you can alter an encounter’s difficulty.

Favorable Terrain for the PCs: An encounter against a monster that’s out of its favored element (like a yeti encountered in a sweltering cave with lava, or an enormous dragon encountered in a tiny room) gives the PCs an advantage. Build the encounter as normal, but when you award experience for the encounter, do so as if the encounter were one CR lower than its actual CR.

Unfavorable Terrain for the PCs: Monsters are designed with the assumption that they are encountered in their favored terrain—encountering a water-breathing aboleth in an underwater area does not increase the CR for that encounter, even though none of the PCs breathe water. If, on the other hand, the terrain impacts the encounter significantly (such as an encounter against a creature with blindsight in an area that suppresses all light), you can, at your option, increase the effective XP award as if the encounter’s CR were one higher.

NPC Gear Adjustments: You can significantly increase or decrease the power level of an NPC with class levels by adjusting the NPC’s gear. The combined value of an NPC’s gear is given in Chapter 14 on Table 14–9. A classed NPC encountered with no gear should have his CR reduced by 1 (provided that loss of gear actually hampers the NPC), while a classed NPC that instead has gear equivalent to that of a PC (as listed on Table 12–4) has a CR of 1 higher than his actual CR. Be careful awarding NPCs this extra gear, though—especially at high levels, where you can blow out your entire adventure’s treasure budget in one fell swoop!

Awarding Experience

Source PRPG Core Rulebook pg. 399
Pathfinder Roleplaying Game characters advance in level by defeating monsters, overcoming challenges, and completing adventures—in so doing, they earn experience points (XP for short). Although you can award experience points as soon as a challenge is overcome, this can quickly disrupt the f low of game play. It’s easier to simply award experience points at the end of a game session—that way, if a character earns enough XP to gain a level, he won’t disrupt the game while he levels up his character. He can instead take the time between game sessions to do that.

Keep a list of the CRs of all the monsters, traps, obstacles, and roleplaying encounters the PCs overcome. At the end of each session, award XP to each PC that participated. Each monster, trap, and obstacle awards a set amount of XP, as determined by its CR, regardless of the level of the party in relation to the challenge, although you should never bother awarding XP for challenges that have a CR of 10 or more lower than the APL. Pure roleplaying encounters generally have a CR equal to the average level of the party (although particularly easy or difficult roleplaying encounters might be one higher or lower). There are two methods for awarding XP. While one is more exact, it requires a calculator for ease of use. The other is slightly more abstract.

Exact XP: Once the game session is over, take your list of defeated CR numbers and look up the value of each CR on Table 12–2 under the “Total XP” column. Add up the XP values for each CR and then divide this total by the number of characters—each character earns an amount of XP equal to this number.

Abstract XP: Simply add up the individual XP awards listed for a group of the appropriate size. In this case, the division is done for you—you need only total up all the awards to determine how many XP to award to each PC.

Story Awards: Feel free to award Story Awards when players conclude a major storyline or make an important accomplishment. These awards should be worth double the amount of experience points for a CR equal to the APL. Particularly long or difficult story arcs might award even more, at your discretion as GM.

Placing Treasure

Source PRPG Core Rulebook pg. 399
As PCs gain levels, the amount of treasure they carry and use increases as well. The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game assumes that all PCs of equivalent level have roughly equal amounts of treasure and magic items. Since the primary income for a PC derives from treasure and loot gained from adventuring, it’s important to moderate the wealth and hoards you place in your adventures. To aid in placing treasure, the amount of treasure and magic items the PCs receive for their adventures is tied to the Challenge Rating of the encounters they face—the higher an encounter’s CR, the more treasure it can award.

Table 12–4 lists the amount of treasure each PC is expected to have at a specific level. Note that this table assumes a standard fantasy game. Low-fantasy games might award only half this value, while high-fantasy games might double the value. It is assumed that some of this treasure is consumed in the course of an adventure (such as potions and scrolls), and that some of the less useful items are sold for half value so more useful gear can be purchased.

Table 12–4 can also be used to budget gear for characters starting above 1st level, such as a new character created to replace a dead one. Characters should spend no more than half their total wealth on any single item. For a balanced approach, PCs that are built after 1st level should spend no more than 25% of their wealth on weapons, 25% on armor and protective devices, 25% on other magic items, 15% on disposable items like potions, scrolls, and wands, and 10% on ordinary gear and coins. Different character types might spend their wealth differently than these percentages suggest; for example, arcane casters might spend very little on weapons but a great deal more on other magic items and disposable items.

Table 12–5 lists the amount of treasure each encounter should award based on the average level of the PCs and the speed of the campaign’s XP progression (slow, medium, or fast). Easy encounters should award treasure one level lower than the PCs’ average level. Challenging, hard, and epic encounters should award treasure one, two, or three levels higher than the PCs’ average level, respectively. If you are running a low-fantasy game, cut these values in half. If you are running a high-fantasy game, double these values.

Encounters against NPCs typically award three times the treasure a monster-based encounter awards, due to NPC gear. To compensate, make sure the PCs face off against a pair of additional encounters that award little in the way of treasure. Animals, plants, constructs, mindless undead, oozes, and traps are great “low treasure” encounters. Alternatively, if the PCs face a number of creatures with little or no treasure, they should have the opportunity to acquire a number of signif icantly more valuable objects sometime in the near future to make up for the imbalance. As a general rule, PCs should not own any magic item worth more than half their total character wealth, so make sure to check before awarding expensive magic items.

Table 12-4: Character Wealth by Level

PC Level*Wealth
21,000 gp
33,000 gp
46,000 gp
510,500 gp
616,000 gp
723,500 gp
833,000 gp
946,000 gp
1062,000 gp
1182,000 gp
12108,000 gp
13140,000 gp
14185,000 gp
15240,000 gp
16315,000 gp
17410,000 gp
18530,000 gp
19685,000 gp
20880,000 gp
*For 1st-level PCs, see table 6-1 in Chapter 6.

Table 12-5: Treasure Values per Encounter

Treasure per Encounter
Average Party LevelSlowMediumFast
1170 gp260 gp400 gp
2350 gp550 gp800 gp
3550 gp800 gp1,200 gp
4750 gp1,150 gp1,700 gp
51,000 gp1,550 gp2,300 gp
61,350 gp2,000 gp3,00 gp
71,750 gp2,600 gp3,900 gp
82,200 gp3,350 gp6,000 gp
92,850 gp4,250 gp6,400 gp
103,650 gp5,450 gp8,200 gp
114,650 gp7,000 gp10,500 gp
126,000 gp9,000 gp13,500 gp
137,750 gp11,600 gp17,500 gp
1410,000 gp15,000 gp22,000 gp
1513,000 gp19,500 gp29,000 gp
1616,500 gp25,000 gp38,000 gp
1722,000 gp32,000 gp48,000 gp
1828,000 gp41,000 gp72,000 gp
1935,000 gp53,000 gp79,000 gp
2044,000 gp67,000 gp100,000 gp

Building a Treasure Hoard

Source PRPG Core Rulebook pg. 400
While it’s often enough to simply tell your players they’ve found 5,000 gp in gems and 10,000 gp in jewelry, it’s generally more interesting to give details. Giving treasure a personality can not only help the verisimilitude of your game, but can sometimes trigger new adventures. The information on the following pages can help you randomly determine types of additional treasure— suggested values are given for many of the objects, but feel free to assign values to the objects as you see fit. It’s easiest to place the expensive items first—if you wish, you can even randomly roll magic items, using the tables in Chapter 15, to determine what sort of items are present in the hoard. Once you’ve consumed a sizable portion of the hoard’s value, the remainder can simply be loose coins or nonmagical treasure with values arbitrarily assigned as you see fit.

Coins: Coins in a treasure hoard can consist of copper, silver, gold, and platinum pieces—silver and gold are the most common, but you can divide the coinage as you wish. Coins and their value relative to each other are described at the start of Chapter 6.

Gems: Although you can assign any value to a gemstone, some are inherently more valuable than others. Use the value categories below (and their associated gemstones) as guidelines when assigning values to gemstones.

Low-Quality Gems (10 gp): agates; azurite; blue quartz; hematite; lapis lazuli; malachite; obsidian; rhodochrosite; tigereye; turquoise; freshwater (irregular) pearl

Semi-Precious Gems (50 gp): bloodstone; carnelian; chalcedony; chrysoprase; citrine; jasper; moonstone; onyx; peridot; rock crystal (clear quartz); sard; sardonyx; rose, smoky, or star rose quartz; zircon

Medium Quality Gemstones (100 gp): amber; amethyst; chrysoberyl; coral; red or brown-green garnet; jade; jet; white, golden, pink, or silver pearl; red, red-brown, or deep green spinel; tourmaline

High Quality Gemstones (500 gp): alexandrite; aquamarine; violet garnet; black pearl; deep blue spinel; golden yellow topaz

Jewels (1,000 gp): emerald; white, black, or fire opal; blue sapphire; fiery yellow or rich purple corundum; blue or black star sapphire

Grand Jewels (5,000 gp or more): clearest bright green emerald; diamond; jacinth; ruby

Nonmagical Treasures: This expansive category includes jewelry, fine clothing, trade goods, alchemical items, masterwork objects, and more. Unlike gemstones, many of these objects have set values, but you can always increase an object’s value by having it be bejeweled or of particularly fine craftsmanship. This increase in cost doesn’t grant additional abilities—a gem-encrusted masterwork cold iron scimitar worth 40,000 gp functions the same as a typical masterwork cold iron scimitar worth the base price of 330 gp. Listed below are numerous examples of several types of nonmagical treasures, along with typical values.

Fine Artwork (100 gp or more): Although some artwork is composed of precious materials, the value of most paintings, sculptures, works of literature, fine clothing, and the like come from their skill and craftsmanship. Artwork is often bulky or cumbersome to move and fragile to boot, making salvage an adventure in and of itself.

Jewelry, Minor (50 gp): This category includes relatively small pieces of jewelry crafted from materials like brass, bronze, copper, ivory, or even exotic woods, sometimes set with tiny or flawed low-quality gems. Minor jewelry includes rings, bracelets, and earrings.

Jewelry, Normal (100–500 gp): Most jewelry is made of silver, gold, jade, or coral, often ornamented with semi-precious or even medium-quality gemstones. Normal jewelry includes all types of minor jewelry plus armbands, necklaces, and brooches.

Jewelry, Precious (500 gp or more): Truly precious jewelry is crafted from gold, mithral, platinum, or similar rare metals. Such objects include normal jewelry types plus crowns, scepters, pendants, and other large items.

Masterwork Tools (100–300 gp): This category includes masterwork weapons, armor, and skill kits—see Chapter 6 for more details and costs for these items.

Mundane Gear (up to 1,000 gp): There are many valuable items of mundane or alchemical nature detailed in Chapter 6 that can be utilized as treasure. Most of the alchemical items are portable and valuable, but other objects like locks, holy symbols, spyglasses, fine wine, or fine clothing work well as interesting bits of treasure. Trade goods can even serve as treasure—10 pounds of saffron, for example, is worth 150 gp.

Treasure Maps and Other Intelligence (variable): Items like treasure maps, deeds to ships and homes, lists of informants or guard rosters, passwords, and the like can also make fun items of treasure—you can set the value of such items at any amount you wish, and often they can serve double-duty as adventure seeds.

Magic Items: Of course, the discovery of a magic item is the true prize for any adventurer. You should take care with the placement of magic items in a hoard— it’s generally more satisfying for many players to find a magic item rather than purchase it, so there’s no crime in placing items that happen to be those your players can use! An extensive list of magic items (and their costs) is given in Chapter 15.

Although you should generally place items with careful consideration of their likely effects on your campaign, it can be fun and save time to generate magic items in a treasure hoard randomly. You can “purchase” random die rolls of magic items for a treasure hoard at the following prices, subtracting the indicated amount from your treasure budget and then rolling on the appropriate column on table 15–2 in Chapter 15 to determine what item is in the treasure hoard. Take care with this approach, though! It’s easy, through the luck (or unluck) of the dice to bloat your game with too much treasure or deprive it of the same. Random magic item placement should always be tempered with good common sense by the GM.
Magic Item CategoryAverage Value
Minor Item1,000 gp
Medium Item4,000 gp
Major Item40,000 gp