Last Updated: May 31, 2022
Pathfinder 2nd edition (commonly abbreviated to “PF2”) is a dungeon fantasy roleplaying game. While styles vary between groups and campaigns, it is often described as “swashbuckling fantasy adventure”, which means that there are lots of exotic locations and magical themes, and that conflicts are often resolves by defeating an enemy through force of arms.
Pathfinder (both editions) is created and published by Paizo, and was originally a modification to Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition. Pathfinder 2nd edition is a much different game, but does draw many of its mechanical and thematic roots from Dungeons and Dragons.
Table of Contents
- What kinds of stories does Pathfinder 2e tell?
- Core Mechanics
- Getting Started With Pathfinder 2e
- Should I Play Pathfinder 2e or DnD 5e?
- Further Reading
What kinds of stories does Pathfinder 2e tell?
Pathfinder is primarily a Dungeon Fantasy game. Heroes of diverse backgrounds and capabilities come together to face dangers both mundane and supernatural in a world full of monsters, magic, and adventure. Protagonists will sometimes engage in “dungeon crawling”, though that’s certainly only one aspect of the game.
Official adventures written for Pathfinder also include horror elements, mystery elements, retro-sci-fi elements, and other types of stories.
Like the games that before it, Pathfinder can be defined by three conceptual “pillars” which define its themes: Exploration, Social Interaction, and Combat.
Adventures in a fantasy world take you to all manner of strange and exotic locations. A single character might spend their whole life within the borders of a single country, or they might walk across the out planes, visiting the mountains of Celestia or the infinite layers of the Abyss.
Exploration and discovery are a foundational part of the game, but the exact definition of “Exploration” is intentionally vague. Sometimes and adventure will take you far from home, but sometimes you’ll discover adventure right beneath your feet.
While Pathfinder involves a lot of going to dangerous places and fighting the monsters which live there, you’ll often spend just as much time talking. You’ll meet creatures as mundane as other humans and as fantastic as sentient mushroom people. While some of these creatures will be hostile and often violent, many are willing to sit down and talk to you rather than attempt to kill you on sight. An adventure might take you into the den of strange, cannibalistic ghouls, or it might take you to the halls of power, eating and drinking with kings and nobles.
The bulk Pathfinder’s rules are dedicated to combat, and while combat may not be the defining aspect of your game it’s likely to be part of it. Combat is important and defined strictly in the rules because even the least important fight has the ability to completely change the game by killing one or more of the player characters.
Combat can be hugely exciting. The thrill of eking out a victory while narrowly surviving! The triumphant feeling of defeating a great foe! The sense of strength and confidence as you carve a bloody path through hordes of implacable foes! Sweet, sweet victory!
However, combat is also the most complicated part of the game. While the GM and the players can typically act out a social situation using only their voices and occasionally an ability check, combat happens in a fixed turn order and requires tracking resources like hit points, spell slots, arrows, and other minutiae. Some people find the combat rules daunting, but when your character’s life is on the line you want to know that everyone is using rules that are fair.
While you get comfortable with the rules, expect combat to be slow and require frequent excursions into the rulebooks. This is totally normal, but in this guide I’ll offer suggestions and strategies to help speed things along.
PF2 is d20-based, which means that success and failure are determined by rolling a d20+modifiers against a target number (or “DC” in the case of PF2). Success is “binary” which means that you either succeed or you don’t, and generally a d20 roll will have no immediate results other than success or failure at whatever you’re attempting to do.
Most tabletop RPGs involve doing some amount of math, though this varies. PF2 is reasonably light on math: if you can handle adding and subtracting two-digit numbers, and very occasionally multiplying or dividing two-digt numbers, you’ll be fine. If you’re worried, bring a calculator (a calculator app on a phone works great, too). The most math that you’ll need to do unassisted is adding up the totals of damage dice from spells, and even then that won’t be difficult until you’ve been playing for a while and gained a bunch of levels (and real-world practice).
Characters in Pathfinder 2e
Characters in PF2 are defined primarily by their level, ancestry, and class. You might describe your character as a “Level 5 Elf Wizard”. While this doesn’t tell you all of the great details of your character, it helps to explain to everyone else roughly what your character is and what they are capable of.
More information on characters, including how to make them, will be covered later in this guide.
Combat in Pathfinder 2e
Combat in Pathfinder 2e is turn-based, so each character takes one turn to act in each “round”. If you’re familiar with turn-based tactical CRPGS like Fallout 1 & 2 or XCOM, that’s a decent comparison. More information on combat will be covered in later sections of this guide.
Getting Started With Pathfinder 2e
2nd Edition is the current edition. The Starter Set includes several pre-made characters and an adventure designed to teach you the mechanics of the game.
In addition, Paizo publishes the rules content of the game for free via their official partner Archives of Nethys.
Should I Play Pathfinder 2e or DnD 5e?
If you’re the sort of player who enjoys extremely robust mechanics, who enjoys deep and meaningful decision points when building a character, and complex, tactical combat, Pathfinder 2e is an excellent game. PF2’s mechanics are beautifully robust, and everything fits together in a very sensible way. There are a few rough edges, but Paizo also very actively published errata to keep the rules in good shape.
Because Pathfinder 2e is published under the Open Gaming License, the text of the rules is available for free. This makes new rules content very accessible for players, and removes the need to pay for books just to get access to one of two pieces of content from any individual book.
However, Pathfinder 2e is also more difficult to learn than DnD 5e, and those robust mechanics are often more complicated than comparable systems in DnD 5e. If accessibility and ease of play is more important, you may prefer DnD 5e. That’s not to say that PF2 is hard to play, just that 5e’s relative mechanical simplicity often makes it easier for new players to pick up and play unassisted.
The fundamental trade between the two systems is accessibility vs. mechanical depth. Neither answer is bad, and many people (including me) greatly enjoy both systems.
The Wikipedia article on Pathfinder provides a long and thorough summary of the history of the game.