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How to Play: The Basics

We have heard from a few of our listeners that for those who have never experienced the delights of Pathfinder, it can be a little difficult following along with everything and understanding what is happening. To that end, we have decided to post a series of blog posts to explaining the rules of the game and a few examples to help newcomers get to grips with what they need to know to follow along.

Today, we're going to cover a few broad sweeping concepts and these are:

  1. Basic Ability Scores

  2. Skills and Attacks

  3. Combat Actions

This is going to be a pretty bare bones introduction, and in the future posts we'll cover some specifics and the different choices and options available to personalise characters and abilities.

Dice Notation

Throughout these explanations we will be using something called "Dice Notation" to explain the various dice rolled for different things. In Pathfinder we use 7 different dice with various numbers of sides. There is a 4-sided, 6-sided, 8-sided, 10-sided, 12-sided and 20-sided dice as well as an extra 10-sided dice with double digits on it. These dice are all used for different purposes, but are always written out in a specific format.

These appear as "XdY" where X and Y are numbers (such as "2d6"). This tells you how many dice to roll and what type of dice you should roll. Each type of dice is refered to by the number of sides they have. A 6-sided die, for example, is referred to as a "d6". A 12-sided die is referred to as a "d12". This is combined with a number before the "d" to tell you how many there should be. For example, a piece of text telling you to roll "4d10" is telling you that you should roll 4 dice each with 10 sides, or alternatively "roll a 10-sided die four times".

Basic Ability Scores

All characters in Pathfinder, both good and bad, have 6 abilities that define the general strengths and weaknesses of each character. For Player Characters (PCs) these are generated in a few different ways. You can roll 4d6 and ignore the lowest die, you can roll 3d6, or you can use what is called point buy. More information on generating ability scores can be found here.

The six ability scores are:

Strength (Str)

Strength is the score that determines the physical strength of a character. This determines how well they hit with melee weapons, how much they can lift/carry and how much they can push or pull.

Dexterity (Dex)

Constitution (Con)

Intelligence (Int)

Wisdom (Wis)

Charisma (Cha)

Each character class is likely to favour specific abilities over others, but each ability is important in some way to every character. With all of the different generation methods, characters will usually end up with one very good score, two or three pretty good scores, one or two average scores and one or two bad scores. In this way, every party can find ways to balance out each other's abilities and pick up the slack from each other.

Ability scores come with a modifier which is the actual number that is applied to dice rolls that use that ability. Modifiers are determined by the table below:

Ability Score


Ability Score


















For example, a character who rolls an Intelligence check and has an Intelligence score of 15 would add 2 to their roll.

Skills and Attacks


Skills are the backbone of determine what a character can achieve. Every level a character is given a certain number of skill ranks that they can put into a skill to signify the amount of training they have. Each class also has a certain list of skills that are counted as "class skills", which act as a set of skills that a class should be additionally skilled in. Each skill is also tied to an ability score. All together this gives us three different things that change for each skill.

Taking an example of a basic fighter who has 2 ranks in the Climb skill and a Strength score of 15 we would get the following breakdown (using the same character sheet the podcast uses as part of the Foundry Virtual Tabletop software).

The climb skill showing a +7 modifier and 2 skill ranks
A fighter with a 15 strength and 2 ranks in the Climb skill

This character as a +7 total modifier to the Climb skill. This is broken down as follows:

  • +2 from the Strength score (a score of 15 gives a modifier of +2)

  • +2 from the number of skill ranks (each skill rank provides a +1)

  • +3 from being a class skill (class skills are given a bonus of +3 if they have at least 1 skill rank)

Rolling a skill check is always done using a 20-sided die (known as a d20) and adding the total modifier. For this character, rolling a Climb check would mean rolling a d20 and adding 7 to the total. If they rolled a 14, this would give a total of 21. This total is then compared to a Difficulty Class (DC) set by the Game Master and if the total is equal to or higher than the DC then the player succeeds at their attempt.


Attacks are very similar to skills, but you cannot add skill ranks to your attacks. Each character class has a value known as their Base Attack Bonus, which is added to all weapon or unarmed attacks that character makes. A character also adds either their Strength modifier (for melee attacks) or their Dexterity modifier (for ranged attacks).

These are resolved similarly to skill checks, but the target you need to beat is actually the Armor Class (AC) of the creature you are attacking. One other slight difference is that if you roll a 1 or a 20 on the die, then things are a little different. A roll of a 1 on the die (known as a "natural 1") is an automatic miss with your attack, regardless of the modifier added or the AC of the creature you are targetting. A roll of a 20 on the die (known as a "natural 20") is an automatic miss and also a "Critical Threat".

If you hit the creature and it is not a Critical Threat, you will damage based on the weapon you have used and the attack action is completed. If you rolled a Critical Threat, you roll the attack a second time, with the same modifiers as before. If this second roll would also hit the creature, then you have "confirmed" your critical and you will deal additional damage to the creature based on the weapon you have used (usually a x2 multiplier, but some weapons like firearms can have x4 modifiers).

Combat Actions

During combat, the flow of actions is broken up into rounds lasting 6 seconds of in-game time. During a round every character will act once, in order, and take a number of actions. The keep things fair, every character is able to take a specific number of types of actions. These are divided into Standard Actions, Movement Actions and Swift Actions. Characters can also take a Full-Round Action which uses both of the Standard and Movement actions.

Characters can also take Immediate actions at any time, including on other players turns. Immediate actions vary in how they can be used and there is no limit to the number of Immediate Actions a player can take, but each type of Immediate Action might set their own limit (such as Attacks of Opportunity).

Every single thing that a character can so will specify what kind of action the player must use to attempt that activity and players cannot generally use more than one of each type of action on a turn (Standard, Movement, Swift).

Next Time

In the next post in this series we will be covering the following:

  • Races

  • Classes

  • Spellcasting

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