Behind the Screens – Musings on Mastery

I had a question come in from a reader asking how proficient with the rules he should be before taking a seat behind the GM screen. How long did it take me to master the rules? How did I go about doing it?

First off, while I’m comfortable with the Pathfinder rules, I’m hesitant to claim any sort of mastery. I have a decent grasp of game theory and a basic understanding of rules design. But I suppose I’m competent enough that I’m giving out game advice on the internet. So I guess that’s something?

But I get it. For some, the steep learning curve of the game can be incredibly off putting, especially if a prospective player hasn’t be initiated into anything like this before. The rulebook is enormous. The character sheet looks like a tax form. The amount of terminology and jargon used in the game can sound like its own language. And that’s all without considering the background lore of Golarion or whatever setting you’re using the rules for. It took me months for me to develop a comfortable, conversational, proficiency with Pathfinder such that it allowed me to make characters, run encounters, and feel at home behind a GM’s screen.

The gap between rules novice and rules proficient can be intimidating. And for some players, it can prevent them from taking the leap to GMing for their group. For me, my learning curve for Pathfinder was much abbreviated to what it could have been had I not been familiar with 3.5 D&D. Furthermore, 3.5 D&D was similar enough to 2nd Edition AD&D in terms of how to roleplay, what the dice were used for, and what ability scores meant for my characters that I didn’t go into that system cold either.

I did start optimizing my characters for specific purposes almost immediately. Searchable databases like made finding feats and bonuses for specific abilities or spells incredibly easy. Soon I was making casters with spell DCs that started in the mid-20’s or a Monk/Magus hybrid that got stacked three different ability scores for his defenses and had a Touch AC of 30. Years later, someone put it all together and published the “Getting X to Y” document that went into fine detail about which character options, feats, traits, or spells might allow you to stack all of your characters eggs into one super optimized basket.

But I wouldn’t call being able to power game a system the sole requirement for system proficiency. It can certainly be an indicator. The ability to put together a min/maxed character requires an understanding of the game and a level of comfort with the rule set that takes time to develop. But there are other things sub-systems within Pathfinder – things like action economy, d20 based percentiles, and Vancian magic, the list goes on – that are necessary for total system proficiency.

But if I were to have one piece of advice for would-be GMs, it’s that one should never let the rules get in the way of a good time. One of the things that took me way too long to realizes is that the rules exist as a way to frame the structure of your narrative. The rules aren’t the game. The narrative – the collaborative story – is your game. By the same token, don’t let something like rules proficiency (or lack thereof) keep you from trying your hand at running a game. You’ll never know whether or not you’ll like it without giving it a shot. Rules proficiency will come with time. But there’s no time like the present to start.


How rules proficient are you? Your group? How long have you been playing the game? Let me know in the comments section below!

Anthony Li

Anthony Li has been pretending to be someone or something else for about as long as he can remember, which some people might consider a problem. He cut his teeth on 2nd Edition AD&D when he was 14 years old and his only regret is that he didn’t start rolling dice sooner. Due to an unhealthy addiction to Magic: the Gathering he missed the entire cultural phenomenon that was the 3.X era of D&D. After a brief stint with 4E, he was dragged kicking and screaming into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game where he has since acclimated, adapted, and thrived. Most of his roleplaying experience has been behind in the GM screen where he has trained his dice to confirm crits on command. He always roots for the bad guys.

1 Comment

  1. Kevin

    Another well-written article by you Anthony.

    I love this line from the article:
    But if I were to have one piece of advice for would-be GMs, it’s that one should never let the rules get in the way of a good time.

    I’ve been running games since the original D&D (before Advanced D&D) and it took me some time to get that. I hope both beginning and seasoned GMs keep that advice in mind whenever they run.