If you have literally no experience with tabletop roleplaying games, or Pathfinder specifically, and want a (very) high-level explanation of how these games work, this page is for you. This is NOT definitive—it’s just info intended to give someone a frame of reference for what we’ll be doing.
Playing in a roleplaying game like Pathfinder is super easy and fun, especially if you like telling stories, thinking about stories, and making stuff up. Together, you and your friends use the ruleset, dice, and your own imaginations to solve problems and tell a story together.
Your role as a player is to run your character, who has a personality created by you. Your job is to make all of their choices and decide how they handle the circumstances faced by the party. It’s that simple. For many, many things they do, like talking or walking somewhere or buying something, you just tell the Game Master (or GM) that you’re doing it, and they’ll tell you what happens in the world of the game in response to your actions.
Player 1: I open the box!
GM: It’s mostly filled with neatly folded uniforms, but you see an old silver locket in there, as well.
Player 2: I tell the bartender that he’s a lousy, no-good slimeball!
GM: Ooh. The rest of the patrons start looking preeeettty upset. A few larger dudes in the back stand up and start edging toward you. One draws a sword. Looks like nobody insults that bartender in this town.
Player 3: I light myself on fire!
GM: Weird choice, but it’s your character. So, you’re burning now. I’m going to roll a 6-sider for damage here.
Player 3: Don’t worry: it’s all part of my plan!
Some actions involve a lot of danger or risk or particular consequences and they are governed by an element of chance and the ruleset of the game. Things like swinging a sword in combat, trying to hide in the shadows when escaping from the castle guards, seeing whether your character remembers the name of the fifth earl of such-and-such, seeing whether your character can fight off the poison that’s streaming through their system.
For those activities—typically attack rolls, saving throws, or skill checks—you roll a 20-sided die and add the bonus on your character sheet that you figured out during character creation. At 1st level, this number will be low. Maybe you have a +2 bonus to attack with your sword, or a +4 bonus to use the Stealth skill to hide, or a +1 bonus on your Fortitude save to keep the poison from killing you.
There’s always a number you’re trying to hit that will indicate success. That’s the difficulty class, or DC. In the case of combat, the DC could also be called Armor Class (or AC) or CMD (Combat Maneuver Defense). You might know the number you’re trying to hit, or you might not. Whether you succeed or fail at hitting that target number with the die roll, the GM will tell you what happens. Or sometimes you’ll figure it out together.
Player 1: I attack the goblin with my sword!
GM: Awesome. Give me an attack roll.
Player 1: I’ve got a +2 on that. (Rolls) I rolled a 12, so with my bonus, that’s a 14!
GM: You hit! A nice slash across the midsection. Roll for damage.
Player 2: I want to climb the tree!
GM: Cool. Normally, I wouldn’t bother with making you roll, but the guards are shooting at you and the tree’s pretty tall, so there’s some element of danger here. Give me a Climb check. DC 15.
Player 2: Crap! I’m super bad at this. –1 to Climb checks. All right. (Rolls) I got a 6 on the die, so that’s a total of 5.
GM: Oh, no! Well, that’s a fail by more than 5, so normally you’d run the risk of falling, but since you were just getting started, you basically make no progress.
Player 2: Too busy dodging arrows, I guess.
All of these mechanical things are governed by your character sheet, which is a record of choices you made at the outset and how they all add up to reveal the unique way in which your character does stuff.
You’ve got ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom & Charisma. They all make you better or worse at various things. For example:
Higher Strength makes you hit better—and harder—with melee weapons.
Higher Dexterity makes you better at avoiding attacks and dodging fireballs.
Higher Constitution means you can take more damage and survive it.
Higher Intelligence means you remember more old lore or learn arcane magic more quickly.
Higher Wisdom makes you more perceptive and in tune with divine magic.
Higher Charisma helps you influence others or control magical powers inherited in your bloodline.
Then you pick your race, or ancestry. It could be something fairly standard, like Dwarf, Elf, Human, Halfing, Gnome, or Half-Orc. And there are less-traditional options, too.
Then you pick your class. If you want to be tough and good with weapons, you might be a Fighter. If you want to cast powerful arcane magic, you might be a Wizard or Sorcerer. If you want to hide in the shadows and be a master of a ton of skills, you might be a Rogue.
Your choice of class will give you special abilities that only members of your class can do. This choice of class, combined with other facts like your Ability Scores, determine what kind of skills your character might be good at. And there’s a bunch of those, covering all sorts of things: Acrobatics, Diplomacy, Heal, Knowledge: History, Knowledge: Religion, Linguistics, Perception, Stealth, and more.
Characters also get to choose feats to differentiate themselves and specialize their focus. Feats are like small perks or advantages that characters can learn to do, regardless of their class. Though some classes get more feats than others, a deficit or abundance of feats is usually balanced by class abilities like spellcasting or getting really good at certain things very quickly.
When you have all those choices made, you and your friends bring yourselves and your character sheets to the table and start playing. The GM will describe the world and play the role of everyone that’s not one of the players–they’re called NPCs, or Non-Player Characters. The GM will tell you what’s happening, answer your questions, and act as referee when the rules need adjudicating.
There’s a lot of rules in the game, which can sound kind of intimidating to new players, but the important thing to remember is that you really don’t need to know all of the rules right off the bat. It’s helpful to know the ones that will mostly apply to you, but really—if you want to do something, tell the GM and they’ll tell you either what happens, or how to work it out inside the rules of the game.
The GM is there to help everyone tell the story, both inside and outside of the rules, and the rules are there to keep the game, the challenge, and the story balanced in a meaningful way.
And the players are all there to help each other navigate and flesh out their characters, their relationships and their story. Are you out for money? To help people? To defeat monsters? To take down a tyrant? As a group, you decide what kind of story you want to tell, and then together you all find out what happens when your characters set out to do just that.