This section gives a basic overview of how playing the game works. More detail on specific mechanics is be explored in later sections.

Table of Contents

The Gameplay Loop

The basic interaction of the game can be though of a “gameplay loop”, occurring in three steps:

First, the Dungeon Master (the “GM”) establishes and describes the state of the world. Depending on the situation, this will vary in scope and detail. In some cases the GM might set out the state of the world at large, describing the world which the player characters inhabit, and where the characters are in the world. In some cases, it will be more specific, such as describing the state or contents of the room where the characters currently are. The GM will also describe anything which is currently happening, such as non-player characters doing something or a rock falling.

Second, the players describe their actions. Depending on the scenario this might be a strictly defined action like attacking in combat, or it might be more freeform, like having a discussion with a NPC or examining an object.

Third and finally, the GM describes the outcome of the player’s actions and handles any events which occur outside of the players’ control. This may be an objective mechanical response such as a player hitting or missing an attack or a player succeeding or failing on an ability check, it might be the actions of another creature such as a troll attacking the players in combat, or it might be a more narrative response like telling a player that the object they’re examining is warm to the touch.

After the GM describes the outcome of the players’ actions and any other events, the loop begins again. The GM can describe any changes to the state of the world (the GM need not repeatedly describe the size of a room, for example), and can add any new information.

In brief: “muck around and find out.”

In practice, this interaction is less formal and much more conversational. Actions and reactions are a persistent back-and-forth between the GM and the players which takes place verbally and which periodically includes rolling dice.

The Three “Modes” of Play

Pathfinder 2e explicitly separates gameplay into three “modes”. Each mode handles time an actions in a slightly different way to appropriately manage the scale of that mode.

Combat Mode

Combat Mode handles actions and time very precisely because combat is both decisive and deadly. In combat, gameplay takes place in a specified turn order (“Initiative” order) and each creature takes some number of actions on their turn before play continues to the next creature’s turn. Movement is measured in 5-foot squares, and your specific position and movement are extremely important.

Combat almost always begins while in Exploration Mode, and when combat ends players will almost always return to Exploration Mode.

Exploration Mode

Exploration Mode handles time more loosely than Combat Mode, and typically doesn’t require tracking a turn order. Characters act in narrative time, often performing tasks which take several minutes to complete, including things like treating an ally’s wounds, search a room for traps, or sneaking down a hallway.

Your location in Exploration Mode is often less specific than while in Combat Mode because you don’t need to worry about things like enemies standing around with pointy spears. However, your location in a space might matter if you’re surprised by something like a trap or an ambush.

During Exploration time, characters are typically performing an “Exploration Activity”, such as “Avoid Notice” or “Scout”, each of which provides some specific benefit. Some benefits only affect Exploration Mode, while others like Avoid Notice can have an impact at the beginning of combat.

The "Scout" exploration activity detailed in the Pathfinder 2e Core Rulebook.
“Scout” is an exploration activity, which you can easily identify by the “Exploration” tag under the name.

Downtime Mode

Downtime Mode handles time very loosely, typically measured in increments of at least a day. During this period, your character’s specific actions and location usually don’t matter, and can be handled narratively. Characters often use downtime to pursue long-term activities like working a job to earn income, crafting items, writing spells into a spellbook, and travelling long distances.

We’ll explore downtime more later in this article series.

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