If you’re interested in learning how to play Paizo’s second edition Pathfinder, you’re in the right place! This series of articles is geared toward players familiar with fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. While there will be information relevant to newcomers to tabletop gaming or veterans of other systems, you may be better served directly jumping into the Pathfinder Beginner Box or Core Rulebook if that is your situation since both contain excellent onboarding materials for players of all experience levels.
In this article:
Deep dives on additional topics: (work-in-progress at this time)
Coming soon (will update as more articles release)
Rules Reference: Archives of Nethys
You can play Pathfinder without buying a single product from Paizo. The Archives of Nethys is a third-party partner that Paizo has authorized to reproduce all rules, mechanical content, and stat blocks for free. Think of it like D&D Beyond but without the character creation toolset.
Even better, since Pathfinder’s Open Gaming license actually applies to all their mechanical content, Archives of Nethys can exist independently of any agreement with Paizo (and did for years). The agreement with Paizo simply allows them to publish some additional helpful lore context and gives them early access to products so the site can be ready to go on a product’s release date.
Specifically, their Rules page is a table of contents index of every 2e Paizo product released to date and all the rules in them.
What is excluded from Archives is detailed lore information. They do reproduce tidbits of lore, such as information about monsters, but detailed setting information, narratives, and adventures are not on the site.
Furthermore, because Paizo makes their rules available for free like this, Paizo also discounts PDFs of their rulebooks; rulebooks cost $19.99 while other types of hardcovers cost $29.99 (exact pricing as of the writing of this post in January 2023). These discounts don’t apply to physical book pricing due to printing and distribution costs—they have to stay in business after all!
Character Builder: Pathbuilder
The other part of playing the game is building a character, of course. There are a bunch of community-built tools out there for character sheets as well as VTT systems. At the time of this writing, Pathbuilder is the most popular character sheet builder. It incorporates all the official character options and also supports some third party content.
Every year Paizo releases a one shot for Free RPG Day. These adventures are available as free PDFs in their online store or for $5.00 if you want a printed version. They may also have non-mint (used) copies of printed versions at a discount. Each of these products also contain pregenerated character sheets for players to use so they don’t have to worry about building their own character if they don’t want to do so.
Virtual Tabletops (VTTs) and Character Management
While you can play Pathfinder on any VTT such as Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, Astral, etc., Foundry is where Paizo focuses its attention. Foundry currently gets official module releases from Paizo for each adventure. You do need to buy the application for Foundry (but it does not require a subscription) and then any additional assets and modules same as any other VTT.
For character sheet management, we recommend Hero Lab Online. In addition to letting you build a character like the free Pathbuilder, it supports encounter management for combat and has toggles to apply buffs, conditions, and other adjustments so you don’t have to track their effects manually—the appropriate numbers change as soon as the toggle occurs. It also supports Starfinder.
Another character management option is Nexus by Demiplane, which is being built up as the D&D Beyond–equivalent for Pathfinder 2e. It is even being led by Adam Bradford, the founder of D&D Beyond. Nexus is not fully operational as of this article (January 2023).
Best Beginner Products
If you’re ready to jump into Pathfinder products and modules, Paizo has tried to create clear and easy on ramps for players.
If the system seems intimidating, start with the simplified ruleset in the Beginner Box. It comes with everything you need to run a one shot and has annotations on the adventure and the character sheets to explain how everything works. The simplification is more along the lines of removing more complex options, not changing core gameplay, so everything you learn from the box will still be applicable if you make the jump to future adventures.
If you’re ready to jump straight into the full system, all you need is the Core Rulebook and the first Bestiary. The Core Rulebook is all the rules for both game masters and players while the Bestiary is all the most common monsters you’re likely to encounter. You can wait on purchasing the Bestiary if you prefer as 1) the free adventures and other one shots often include the full stat block of creatures and 2) the stat blocks can also be found online at Archives of Nethys. After this point, this section assumes that you’re wanting a collection of physical books to use.
Again, we encourage you to buy the books through your local game store if possible. If not, here are online purchase links (note the Amazon links are affiliate links; there is no price difference but Amazon pays us a small percentage of the sale if you make a purchase using it):
Next step books
If you’re liking what you’re experiencing and really want to commit to the system, these are the additional “core” books that Paizo recommends for every table.
None of these books are mandatory, but they expand your options and provide details on how to run the game for a better experience. They form the foundation that newer books build upon.
This “core” line is essentially complete. New books for Pathfinder 2e should be viewed as focused expansions that provide more about a specific niche of the game. If that niche is something your table wants to use or fits with the campaign you’re running, pick it up. If not, you won’t be missing out by ignoring that particular release.
Pathfinder has broadly three categories of books (they can be further subcategorized but that’s too complicated for this discussion).
Rulebooks consist of the crunch. They have new mechanics, new rules, new player options, new stat blocks, and so forth. This is also all the content that goes on Archive of Nethys for free.
Lost Omens books are lore books. They may have some stat blocks or player options like new archetypes (a set of themed feats), but they mostly focus on setting and narrative. They expand the game’s world of Golarion or dive deep on specific aspects of the setting like religions, factions, notable NPCs and monsters, etc.
Adventures are the adventures. There are Pathfinder Society missions which are used in their seasons of organized play but also available for home use. There are also standalone adventure books. But the bread and butter of Pathfinder adventures are the adventure paths, which are 3 or 6 book series released over the course of a quarter or half a year.
Additional rulebooks to get
Lost Omens books to get
Adventures to get if you played the Beginner Box
Discounts & Bundles
Until January 25, 2023 Paizo is running a sale to celebrate Open Gaming. Details are in their blog post. The short version is you can use discount code OPENGAMING at checkout to get the Lost Omens World Guide PDF for free and 25% off the Beginner Box and the Core Rulebook in both hardcover and pocket edition formats.
Paizo also regularly participates in Humble Bundle sales where you can get an immense number of products, including some physical products in addition to PDFs, at steep discounts while benefiting charities. We usually share the Humble Bundle sales via our social media channels and that’s another option to look out for if you’re wanting to pick up a large number of products at once.