Feb 22, 2022 by [ "James R. Miller" ]
Categories: rpgs Tags: pf2 primer rules

Pathfinder 2E Rules Primer

This post is intended as a quick primer on Pathfinder 2E; it is by no means an exhaustive list nor a substitute for reading the actual rules; but, it discusses many of the main differences with other TTRPG systems.

Character Creation


A boost is adding 2 to any ability score up to a max of 18, and then it’s +1 per boost over 18.

Important: When you gain more than one ability boost at a specific “step” of character creation, you must apply those boosts to different ability scores.

A flaw is subtracting 2 from any ability score.

ABCs: Ancestry, Background, Class

  1. You start with a 10 in each ability score
  2. Select an ancestry
    • your ancestry gives you part of your starting HP
    • your ancestry gives you boosts/flaws
    • your ancestry gives you feats and other abilities
    • your ancestry gives you a choice of heritage
  3. Select a background
    • your background typically gives you 2 ability boosts (one that is locked to a specific ability and one that is “free”), training in a skill, training in a lore skill, and a skill feat.
  4. Select a class
    • your class gives you the rest of your starting HP
    • your class gives you feats and other abilities
    • your class lets you know what things you are proficient in (i.e. trained in perception, expert in simple melee weapons, etc.)
  5. Add 4 more boosts (1 boost to 4 different ability scores)
  6. Then you can buy equipment, calculate modifiers, pick spells, any other finishing details, etc.

Where’s the half-elf, half-orc? They are heritages you would pick under the Human ancestry.

Options marked as “uncommon” or “rare” require GM approval

Character options marked as uncommon or rare require GM approval for their use. These usually denote ancestries or other character options that may not fit in all campaigns or may have balance issues. For example, the gunslinger and inventor classes are uncommon.

You should have an 18 in your primary ability at level 1

The system allows (and assumes) that you will have an 18 in your primary ability score at level 1. I like that. :)

Martials and Casters have had the playing field “evened” as compared to older editions or even 5E

Casters and Martials are on an even playing field in this system and a lot of power in casters come from collecting, buying, and crafting magic items to expand their arsenals.

Casters will feel more like utility and support PCs compared to the blaster gods of other editions. There’s definitely blasting avaialable; it’s just more in line with what the martials can do. I think of this as a good thing, generally.

Some classes are Vancian spell casters, and some are spontaneous

Prepared spell casters like clerics, druids, wizards, have to load their specific spells into specific spell slots. For example, if a wizard wants to cast magic missile more than once, she has to prepare it more than once. At low levels this might feel constraining, but at higher levels and as supplemented with wands and staves, this is less of a hassle than it sounds. Most caster classes also have “focus” spells that refresh after using the “refocus” activity, which takes roughly 10 minutes. (You can think of focus spells like once-per-encounter powers in 4E or a power that recharges on short rest in 5E.)

Spontaneous casters, like the bard and sorcerer, cast like the spontaneous 5E casters like the 5E bard and 5E sorcerer; as long as the have the spell in their “repertoire”, they can pick the spell at time of casting. Caveat: spontaneous casters can’t upcast (system calls this “heightened”) spells unless they know the spell at the higher level, unless the spell is a “signature spell”.

Many Cantrips are automatically heightened

Many cantrips get heightened as well according to your half your class level, rounded up, which is typically the highest spell level that you can cast.

Take a look at Ray of Frost: The spell normally does 1d4 + your spellcasting ability modifier. It then says “Heightened(+1) The damage increases by 1d4”. What does this mean? It generally means that once your cantrip is heightened to a level 2 cantrip, you’d do 2d4 + spellcasting ability modifier instead of 1d4 + spellcasting ability modifier. So, generally, at level 3 (one half of 3 rounded up is 2), your cantrip would automatically heighten. Note that the (+1) etc., are referring to spell levels, as opposed to class levels.

Dice Rolling and math

Many checks now have 4 outcomes instead of just 2

These four outcomes are referred to as:

  • critical success
  • success
  • failure
  • critical failure

For example, let’s look at the Fireball spell. It does 6d6 fire damage but subject to a “basic Reflex” saving throw. The “basic” portion means that the 6d6 damage would be dealt to the creatures affected by the spell as follows:

Degree of success Effect
Critical Success Target takes zero damage
Success Target takes half damage
Failure Target takes full damage
Critical Failure Target takes double damage

Other spells, skills, checks, etc., will say what to do on each outcome but not every spell, skill, check, etc., will have all four degrees of success. Compare the Sleep spell, and all 4 degrees of success, to something like Chilling Darkness which only has effects on a Success or Critical Success.

Critical Success on a Natural 20 or beating the DC by 10 or more

And similarly, a Critical Failure is on a natural 1 or missing the DC by 10 or more.

For example, if a creatures AC is 15, and you roll a 25 or higher to hit, that is also a critical success, even if you didn’t roll a natural 20.

However, just because you rolled a Natural 20, doesn’t always mean it’s a critical success. The way the rules work, is that a Natural 20 makes your degree of success/failure only one “step” better. And vice versa for a natural 1: it makes your degree of success/failure one degree worse. For example, if you are attacking a monster with AC 30, and you only have a +5 to hit, rolling a Natural 20 would only result in a success because a 25 is less than AC 30 meaning its a failure; but, the natural 20 raises it to a success.

You double your damage on a critical success

As opposed to 5E’s roll double the dice, in PF2 you roll your normal damage roll, and then double the result, meaning you’re also “doubling” any modifiers to damage that you would not be doubling in 5E.

No opposed rolls

Checks typically go against a static DC as opposed to having competing rolls. Any reference to something like a creature’s “Stealth DC”, “Will DC” etc, means to take 10 and add the appropriate modifier. For example, if a creature rolls 1d20+5 for a Stealth Check, its Stealth DC is 15.

Many rolls are rolled by the GM in secret

Gone are the days of rolling your stealth check, seeing that you rolled low, and being a little bit cautious on how far you move in. If you’re trying to sense motive, you tell the GM your modifier, and the GM rolls behind the screen and tells you the result to combat metagaming. These checks have the “Secret” trait attached to them. The most common secret check will be perception checks.

Monsters are not just bags of hitpoints

Most monsters have unique abilities and can do things beyond soak up lots of damage (cough 5E cough).

Single-boss boss fights are viable even at higher levels

Due to the 3-action economy and tight math, single-boss boss fights actually work out.

For GMs, the encounter-building rules actually work

This is glorious to me. The math just works when it comes to encounter design. I know that if I have 4 level-4 PCs and I put them up against 3 level-4 monsters (or 1 level-7 monster), that should be a “severe” threat encounter.

Generally the creatures you fight would be in the range from Party Level-4 to Party level+2, with Party level+3 and Party level+4 reserved for boss fights.

See tables 10-1 and 10-2 in the CRB.

Small bonuses are a big deal in this system

Big picture: giving you or your teammates even just a +1 is a huge deal in this game; as every increase also greatly increases your chance to get a Critical Success. And vice versa, debuffs on monsters do the same to them, lowering not only their chance to hit but their chance to critically succeed.

As far as I can tell +2/-2 to checks are about the equivalent to 5E’s advantage/disadvantage. On extremely hard or extremely easy checks, the system will even do +4/-4 and +5/-5, but those are about where the system appears to bottom out on buffs/debuffs during combat

For example, a Level 1 Fighter with an 18 STR can have a +9 attack modifier. The weakest goblin in the current rules is the Goblin Warrior, which has an AC of 16. This means that a Fighter can Succeed on a hit against the Goblin on a roll of 7 or higher, or can Critically Succeed on a roll of 17 or higher. A +2 buff to the fighter would change that to Succeeding on a 5 or higher, or Critically Succeeding on a 15 or higher. That means the fighter would have a 30% chance to crit after the buff! And if the +2 buffed fighter is striking a Goblin Warrior that was flanked, giving it a -2 penalty to AC due to being Flat Footed, the fighter can hit on a 3 or higher, or critically hit on a 13 or higher.

Moral of the story, look for ways with your team mates to stack buffs and debuffs. But bear in mind, you only get to apply the best buff in a category and the worst debuff in a category. I.e. three of you can’t cast bless and stack it three times, as the bonus from the bless spells are the same category.

Rules on bonuses and penalties:

As with checks, you might add circumstance, status, or item bonuses to your damage rolls, but if you have multiple bonuses of the same type, you add only the highest bonus of that type. Again like checks, you may also apply circumstance, status, item, and untyped penalties to the damage roll, and again you apply only the greatest penalty of a specific type but apply all untyped penalties together.

Common untyped penalties are the Multiple Attack Penalty and the Range-Increment Penalty.


You get 3 actions and 1 reaction per round

PF2 has gotten rid of Standard Action, Full Action, Bonus Action, etc., and has said that the PCs (and NPCs) get three actions and one reaction per round. You typically don’t get your reaction until you’ve had your turn, so winning initiative is important.

You’ll see symbols showing one action, two actions, and three actions, as well as a little swoopy arrow to show a reaction. There are also free actions that can be done freely, but for ones that have triggers, you can only use one free action per trigger.

This means—from level 1—you can Stride (move up to your speed) three times, or you can Strike (attack) three times. There are many different actions you can do to spend these 3 actions and 1 reaction; and that’s part of the incredible beauty of the system.

In case you can’t tell, I adore the action economy in this game.

Many Spells are cast differently depending on how many actions you wish to expend

Take a look at the Heal spell. It has different effects depending on whether you spend 1, 2, or 3 actions when casting it.

Look at the versatility?

# actions effect
1 action range of touch for 1d8 HP
2 actions 30 foot range to single target for 1d8; and an additional +8 HP if target is living
3 actions 30 foot emanation of positive energy for 1d8, targeting all living and undead in the emanation

It’s an incredibly versatile spell, and can even work as an offensive area-of-effect spell if you are fighting undead or creatures that otherwise take damage from positive energy (although they do get a basic Fortitude save against the damage).

Successive Attacks suffer from the Multiple Attack Penalty (“MAP”)

Your first Attack (meaning an action with the “Attack” trait, such as Strike or Escape) is without any penalty. Your second Attack is at -5, and your third Attack is at -10.

If you have the “Agile” trait on your weapons, then the penalty is -4 and -8 respectively.

Big Picture: This means that the third attack is pretty-much always a bad strategic choice unless you greatly overpower the creature you’re trying to hit. So, be looking for things your PC can do that will help other than a third attack. (Demoralize, Feint, Create a Diversion, Take Cover, Raise a Shield, Recall Knowledge, etc..)

Ranged Weapons have a “range increment”

For example, the shortbow just lists its range as “60 feet”. So attacking at 60 feet or less takes no range penalty. 65-120 takes a -2 penalty, 125-180 takes a -4 penalty and so forth, up to the sixth range increment, which is the absolute maximum range and with a -10 range penalty. So, if we know the range is 60 feet, we know the maximum range of a shortbow is 60 x 6 = 360 feet.

Combat is WAY more mobile than 5E

Attacks of Opportunity are greatly changed in this system in that not all monsters and not all PCs have it. This means that combats have a lot more movement and re-positioning than a 5E combat since not everything and its dog has an attack of opportunity.

Flanking (see in this document here) is also a key concept in the game, as flanked creatures are “flat footed” and take a -2 penalty to AC and makes them subject to other abilities, such as a Rogue’s Sneak Attack. But note, flanking only makes the monster flat-footed as to the two flankers, not to other creatures.

Diagram of areas of effect

originates at a single corner
shoots from you in a quarter circle on the grid. Diagonal cones must touch a corner of your space; orthogonal cones must touch a side of your space. It can’t overlap your space. If you’re Large or Larger, you can pick the edge of the first square.
issues forth from each side of your space
straight line in direction of your choosing, 5-feet wide unless stated otherwise


Shields are more complex. You do not get the AC bonus from a shield unless you spend 1 action a round to “Raise your Shield”. Many classes also get the “Shield Block” reaction, which, if the shield was already raised, lets them spend their reaction to have the shield absorb some damage at the risk of the damage breaking the shield, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the shield can be repaired in between combats. They idea is mainly to use the shield to block damage that is lower than the hardness of the shield, so that neither the shield, nor the shield wielder take any damage.


  • Move yourself in initiative to directly before creature or effect that knocked you to 0
    • Gain dying 1 condition, or if crit success knocked you out, gain dying 2,
      • and then add your “wounded” value to it. I.e. if you were wounded 1, and a normal success knocked you to 0, you would start with Dying 2, instead of Dying 1.
    • add one level of dying if damaged, or 2 levels from crit success or your crit fail
    • Recovery check = DC 10 + current dying value
      • Crit success: dying level reduced by 2
      • success: reduce by 1
      • fail: increase by 1
      • crit fail: increase by 2
      • dying 4 = death
      • if you recover or are healed, gain +1 wounded
  • unconscious / knocked out takes -4 status penalty to AC perception, reflex saves, are blinded, and flat footed
  • wounded condition ends if someone successfully restores HP with “treat wounds” action OR if you are restored to full HP and rest for 10 minutes
  • doomed 1 means dying level 3 = death, doom 2 = dying level 2 etc.
    • doomed decreases by 1 each time you get a full night’s rest or die
  • Heroic recovery!
    • you can spend all remaining Hero Points to return to 0HP, lose the dying condition, and you do not gain wounded condition.
  • Immediate death
    • trait in an effect or spell
    • take damage equal to double your HP max in a single blow


Movement is typically based on a 5-foot grid, with diagonal moves following a 5/10/5 alternative pattern. See the following diagram for an example:

  • Can move through willing creatures space but can’t end
  • Can end in a prone creatures space if they are willing, unconscious, or dead IF it is your size or smaller
  • Must use “tumble through” action to move through unwilling creature space
  • You can move through spaces of creatures 3 sizes larger or 3 sizes smaller without having to tumble through
  • difficult terrain extra 5’ per square, greater difficult terrain extra 10’ per square

Movement that triggers reactions

Please see the attached diagram. It’s when you leave any square that is already in the monster’s reach, as opposed to 5E’s rule of leaving the entire reach of the monster.

(But remember: most monsters do not have Attack of Opportunity.)


  • Weakness is take the number extra of that type of damage; use only highest applicable weakness
  • non lethal attacks are a -2 circumstance penalty
  • Resistance is reduce the damage by that number; use only highest applicable resistance

For example, if a creature had Fire Resistance 5, and you did 7 fire damage to it, it only takes 2 fire damage. If it instead had Fire Weakness 5, and you did 7 fire damage to it, it would actually take 12 fire damage.


  • see diagram here:

How to get flat footed

  • flanking
  • grabbed
  • restrained
  • paralyzed
  • hidden/undetected
  • bluff
  • feint
  • knock prone
  • climbing or swimming
  • rogue’s surprise attack feature

Cover pg 477

  • See diagram here:

  • Lesser: +1 AC can’t hide (typically provided by creatures in between you and target)

  • Standard: +2 to AC, Reflex, Stealth, can hide

  • Greater: +4 to AC, Reflex, Stealth, can hide

  • if in standard cover, can “take cover” action to increase to greater, or take lesser cover to standard

  • Taking Cover is also something good to do instead of a 3rd attack. And, standard and greater cover are huge in reducing enemy critical hit chance as well as increasing Reflex saves to things like a Fireball.

Darkness, Light, Detection, and Vision

There are three different light levels, and different conditions that trigger off of it.

Light levels are:

bright light
This is normal light
dim light
Creatures in this get the “concealed” condition. Low-light vision treats dim light as bright light
This is completely dark, and only creatures with Darkvision can see in it but they see in black and white.

Items or spells that shed light give only one value. For example, the Torch just says 20 feet. This means it sheds bright light for 20 feet and dim light for another 20 feet beyond it.

There are four different levels of “detection” in the game:

You have no clue the creature even exists
You know some sort of creature is here, just not where. I.e. you can smell it or you saw it and it turned invisible.
You know the square the creature is in, but its just barely perceptible
you see the creature as normal

The game also distinguishes “precise”, “imprecise”, and “vague” senses. The rules assume that most PCs and creatures have vision as a precise sense, and hearing as an imprecise sense. At best an imprecise sense can only detect a creature and make it “hidden”. Vague senses at best can make a creature go from unnoticed to undetected but not more than that.

If a creature is in dim light or otherwise concealed, and you don’t have low-light vision or darkvision, you would roll a DC 5 Flat check before attacking. This means roll a straight up d20, and hope you get a 5 or better. Otherwise you automatically miss.

If a creature is hidden, it’s a DC 11 Flat check before attacking.

If a creature is undetected, you are flat-footed to it, and can’t easily target it. You guess at a square you think it was in, and the GM rolls the flat check and the attack roll in secret, and the GM only tells you if you hit or missed, but does not tell you which roll you failed if you missed, meaning that GM won’t tell you if the creature is in the square unless you hit.

Invisibility means that the creature is automatically undetected to any creatures relying on sight as a precise sense (but you can use the Seek action to try and make it hidden).

Darkvision is rarer in PF2E than in 5E

Out of the core classes, here is what the vision situation looks like:

Ancestry Vision
Elf Low-light vision
Dwarf Darkvision
Gnome Low-light vision
Goblin Darkvision
Half-elf Low-light vision
Half-orc Low-light vision
Halfling Keen Eyes
Human None

The system, at least in the Core Ancestries, prioritizes low-light vision over darkvision; meaning, that dwarves and goblins have a large sight advantage over other ancestries.

Note: Darkvision is not “ranged” like in 5E; you either have it or not.

Persistent Damage

Persistent damage comes from effects like acid, being on fire, or many other situations. It appears as “X persistent [type] damage,” where “X” is the amount of damage dealt and “[type]” is the damage type. Instead of taking persistent damage immediately, you take it at the end of each of your turns as long as you have the condition, rolling any damage dice anew each time. After you take persistent damage, roll a DC 15 flat check to see if you recover from the persistent damage. If you succeed, the condition ends.

The system expects you to heal up, repair broken items, and refocus focus spells in between combats

Going into the next combat injured or with existing debuffs is usually a bad idea. It’s OK to be down spell slots and other resources, but it’s quite important for health to be up.

See the Treat Wounds Skill Action for non-spell related ways to gain back HP during the adventuring day (it’s important at least one party member is able to treat wounds). The Refocus activity is also an important one for in between combat encounters.

Many classes have “Focus Point” abilities, which you can think of them like spell slots that recharge after a short rest.

Hero Points

Every session you start over with one hero point. You cannot save hero points. You can earn additional hero points for role playing your PC well, or succeeding on daring actions, etc., (or making the GM or table laugh :) )

You can spend one Hero Point to basically re-roll any d20 roll but you have to keep the second roll.

You can also spend ALL of your Hero Points, if you are dying to stop dying at return to 1 HP.

Perception is a standalone skill

And almost every PC and monster is at least trained in it. It is also the primary stat for initiative, instead of dexterity. The system does allow different abilities to be used for initiative, such as using Stealth if you were trying to “Avoid Notice” when a combat broke out, or using a CHA based skill for some sort of diplomatic encounter where the order of speaking mattered.

The Skill system is the largest difference coming from 5E

The Skill system (CRB Chapter 4) is more complex than 5e, and there are many skills with “Skill Actions” that are combat relevant. This is what I struggle with the most as a GM as compared to 5E; but, the more experience we get with it, the smoother it becomes.

Degree of Training

For each skill, weapon type, save, perception, armor type, unarmored defense, you are one of the following:

  • untrained
  • trained
  • expert
  • master
  • legendary

Which translates to this:

degree bonus
untrained no bonus
trained 2 + your level
expert 4 + your level
master 6 + your level
legendary 8 + your level

You’ll see on your character sheets may places with “TEML”, which stand for trained, expert, master, and legendary.

So, as you level up, your trained skills grow with your level, and your untrained skills do not.

Many Skill Actions are available to everyone, and some are only available if you are trained in the corresponding skill, such as Feint. Let’s look at a very useful combat Skill Action: Demoralize.

Demoralize example

See skills like Demoralize which is an Intimidation(CHA) Skill Action. With one action, you can taunt a creature, making an Intimidation check against the target’s Will DC (meaning 10 plus it’s Will modifier). A Critical Success makes the target Frightened 2, and a Success makes it Frightened 1.

The Frightened condition reads: “You’re gripped by fear and struggle to control your nerves. The frightened condition always includes a value. You take a status penalty equal to this value to all your checks and DCs. Unless specified otherwise, at the end of each of your turns, the value of your frightened condition decreases by 1.”

This is huge; you just spent one action, to possibly lower your opponent’s AC, attack rolls, and saves! (It’s much better to say, Demoralize before you attack, instead of using a low-probability third attack.)

It also means that ability scores like Charisma are useful not only in role play but also in combat!


Crafting and Downtime Rules are great

Check out the “Craft” skill action and all the cool things you can make in the downtime section.

There are actually things to craft, income to earn, etc., for periods of downtime in campaigns. These rules can feel a bit arcane at first, but make sense after reading the rules a couple of times.


Most wands cast a single spell at a set level. I.e. if you have a Wand of Heal Level 1, it can cast the Heal spell once per day without penalty, or it can cast it a second time to “overcharge” the wand, and after which, there’s a DC 10 flat check, on a success the wand is broken and needs to be repaired using the Crafting skill; on a failure the wand is destroyed forever.


Runes are how you upgrade and customize weapons and armor. They can be confusing but make sense after you read the rules. https://2e.aonprd.com/Rules.aspx?ID=733

If I say you have a “+1 longsword” that means you have a normal longsword, with a “weapon potency” rune. If I say you have a “+2 greater resilient fire-resistant chain mail” that means you have normal chainmail with a +2 armor potency rune, a greater resilient rune, and a fire-resistant rune. These runes are craftable and transferable. It’s a really neat subsystem.

There are two broad categories of runes “fundamental runes” and “property runes”. Fundamental runes are further broken down as follows:

Fundamental Rune Etched Onto Benefit
Armor potency Armor item bonus to AC and determines number of property runes
Resilient Armor item bonus to saves
Weapon potency Weapon item bonus to attack rolls and number of property runes
Striking Weapon increase number of weapon damage dice

Note: a +1 longsword means it merely gets an additional +1 item bonus to attack rolls. That +1 does not apply to damage rolls. If you want to increase damage, you need to add a striking, greater striking, or major striking rune, to increase the number of dice rolled. In other words, a “striking dagger” would roll 2d4 instead of 1d4 for damage. A “greater striking dagger” would roll 3d4 and a “major striking dagger” would roll 4d4.

The +X of a potency rune also determines how many property runes can be added to an item. For example, a +2 longsword can have 2 property runes in addition to its fundamental runes.

Property runes give all sorts of different effects to weapons or armor. For example, the Flaming property rune can be etched onto a weapon to deal an additional 1d6 fire damage on a success plus 1d10 persistent fire damage on a critical hit.


Staves work differently than in other systems, where the staff always says how many charges and other features. In PF2E, a staff starts the day with a number of charges equal to the highest level of spell slot you have. For example, if you are level 5 and cast level 3 spells, your staff would start with 3 charges for free each day. Prepared spellcasters (cleric, druid, wizard, etc.) can also choose to expend a single spell slot to add in additional charges. For example, if the same cast with level 3 spells decides to spend 1 level 3 spell slot at the beginning of the day, the staff would have 6 total charges (3 for free and 3 for the spent spell slot). This gives that caster the ability to prepare differently depending on if they would rather have more lower-level spells cast out of the staff versus the one spell slot.

Spontaneous casters (bard, sorcerer) can spend spell slots at time of casting a spell from the wand to save the cost to activate the staff.

Staves can be etched with fundamental runes, but not property runes. The runes only apply to physicall attacks; not the staff’s spellcasting abilities.

Coinage is smaller

In other words, 1 gold piece buys a lot more value than 1 gold piece in other editions. For example, Leather armor is 2 GP and Full Plate is 30 GP.

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