Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can. ~ Arthur Ashe
Explore, report, cooperate. ~ Motto of the Pathfinder Society
This article will be a workflow of how to learn to play Pathfinder Society, with links to the appropriate resources peppered throughout, to make joining PFS a smooth and easy process. I recommend bookmarking the links I provide in a bookmark folder for PFS. That will make it quick and easy for you to access and use the wealth of information and resources the internet provides for Pathfinder and PFS.
Initiative – First Steps towards Understanding PFS
Pathfinder Society play is an international organized play campaign for the Pathfinder RPG, set in the world of Golarion. If you’d like to catch up on the story of the Pathfinder society, here is a brief synopsis of previous seasons of PFS.
You’ll need to make an account on Paizo. If you select the ‘Create a Character’ tab on that link, you should be able to get through all your registrations easily.
If you are already familiar with Pathfinder RPG, but new to Society play, this will be a fairly simple transition. A simple breakdown of a Society session is as follows: You’ll sit down at the table with 2-6 other players and a GM. The GM will then brief the players on their mission. The players will then accomplish this mission to the best of their abilities. They will then be given a chronicle sheet detailing what their rewards are, including any boons usable in the future. All of the rules specific to society play are in the Pathfinder Society Roleplaying Guild Guide. This includes which non-Core races (human, elf, dwarf, etc.) are available for play in the current season.
If you are not familiar with the core concepts of Pathfinder RPG, don’t panic. You can find the vast majority of the rules you will use consistently on Pathfinder Reference Document (PRD), which is publicly available. The panel on the left will take you to the various categories of rules in most of the ‘hardcover’ texts the game uses. One should give the Getting Started and the Combat sections of the Core Rulebook a read after your first or second game. It’s best to just ‘go for it’ and get taught by the other players as you play for a game or two, but you’ll need to read to really get a feel for the finer points after that. It’s actually a pretty fun rule-set to read, in my opinion.
You can even play a few sessions with one of the pre-generated characters paizo has made until you know enough about how things work that you feel comfortable making a character of your own. No need to be afraid to ask questions of other players or the GM, or even online. PFS is a very friendly community; we love to help out beginners.
From here on, I’ll dive into the rules that differentiate PFS from a Pathfinder home game. The big difference is that there’s less room for ‘house rules,’ though the GM still has appreciable discretion over rules interpretation. Rewards, and what resources (hardcovers, splats, etc.) and character options are permitted for use are also carefully controlled by the global Campaign Directors, rather than at the whim of whatever GM happens to be at your table. The vast majority of Paizo published content is allowable, but nothing too ‘evil’, some of the more unbalanced options are taken out, etc. Honestly, I think Paizo does very well in what options it permits and which they leave out.
Profession (scribe) – Creating and Maintaining Characters
All of the information below can be found within the Roleplaying Guild Guide, but I’ll take it from the top and give some quick-and-dirty need-to-know basics.
First you will need a character sheet. The one I linked here is a fillable .pdf, but you can just as easily print it and write the fields in by hand. There are a wealth of character sheet options out there.
Every character begins with a race, 1 class level, 1 feat (unless additional feats are a race or class feature), 2 traits (these are basically ‘half-feats’, a searchable list of them can be found here), and 150 gp. Attributes (STR, DEX, INT, etc.) are decided using a 20 point buy system, which is explained in the Core Rulebook. You will also choose one of the factions described in the Roleplaying Guild Guide. These factions each have an optional associated tracking sheet, the journal cards, that can be used to get additional benefits from your chosen faction. You can be of any alignment that doesn’t have the word ‘Evil’ in it.
In Society play, any ‘character option’ you want to give your character (races, class/archetypes, spells, feats, items, traits, etc.) must be PFS legal. The document that serves as the ultimate arbiter of what is or is not PFS legal is a free-to-download document known as the Additional Resources. If you or someone you live with owns a Paizo product (in PDF or physical form) and a certain character option is in that resource, and said to be legal in the Additional Resources, you may use that option.
The most efficient resource I have found for looking through the many character options in existence is a player-created site called the Archives of Nethys. Any given character option with a page on the Archives will list the resource (i.e. book, module, etc.) it came from as well, so finding out what you need to buy becomes a snap. Anything* PFS legal will have a Glyph of the Open Road (the image at the top of this guide) next to its name.
*Archives of Nethys is accurate on the PFS legality of character options the vast majority of the time, but not always. Be sure to check with Additional Resources before playing with a new character option.
Every scenario completed with a character will garner your character 1 EXP*. Each time you gain 3 EXP, you ‘level up’, granting you all that comes with your next character/class level. Advancing your character’s level is done in the same manner as any other game of Pathfinder RPG. When a character reaches level 12, the vast majority of PFS scenarios become unplayable, and most characters ‘retire’. There are a few ways to continue play beyond level 12, which is known as Seeker content. No need to worry about that right now.
*While this is true of ‘scenarios’, there are longer form missions known as ‘modules’ that award 3 EXP. There are also certain mission types such as ‘quests’ that do not necessarily award any EXP at all. By and large however, scenarios give out 1 EXP and up to 2 PP.
Appraise – Using Wealth and Prestige
You don’t get to keep what you find during a mission after it is completed (though you can use what you find until the end of the adventure), but you get paid pretty darn well for your work as a Pathfinder agent. Think of this as the Society’s muckity-mucks giving you your cut of the proceeds from your mission.
Gold can be spent on anything you can afford that is on either a chronicle sheet that character has earned, anything on the ‘Always Available’ list (detailed within the Roleplaying Guild Guide), or anything they have adequate ‘Fame’ for. Fame is the total amount of Prestige Points a character has earned in their career, regardless of how many of said PP a character has already spent. What are Prestige Points? So glad you asked.
In addition to gold, players are awarded Prestige Points (PP) at the end of every mission. For completing the primary objective of a mission you receive 1 PP. Every scenario* also has a secondary objective (they are not always made explicit to you during the briefing, so keep your ears open!) that yields a second PP if completed. These prestige points can be used in a number of very useful ways. My brother and I wrote this guide to getting the most out of your PP that many have found helpful. Most players use their first 2 PP for a wand of cure light wounds, so as not to place the onus of keeping themselves healed upon other players. Even if your character cannot use such a wand themselves, there is usually someone at the table who can use it to heal you after combat is over. Some characters may have another purchase more important to make at the beginning, but the wand should be obtained as early as is feasible in a character’s career, and replaced when it has been exhausted.
*Very occasionally special scenarios are produced that for one reason or another only award 1 PP, as they have no secondary objectives. They are very rare, and typically feature special ‘pre-gen’ characters to play as rather than your own character.
Back to Fame: Fame dictates the maximum amount of gold any given item in a character’s possession may be worth. In other words, as you get more famous, youget access to buying fancier bling. If an item appears in the Always Available list or upon an earned chronicle sheet you don’t have to worry about Fame. This system is spelled out in greater detail in the Roleplaying Guild Guide. This mechanic is rarely much of an obstacle, as your Fame spending cap will generally keep pace with your how much gold you’ve gotten.
To purchase a direct upgrade of an item you already have, a character needs to pay only the difference in value between those two items. For example, if Timmy owns a +1 rapier (worth 2,320 gp), and he wants a +2 rapier (worth 8,320 gp) he can just pay the 6,000 gp difference to upgrade his item. He cannot, however, upgrade his rapier to a +2 naginata, as that is not a direct upgrade: it is a different item entirely. There are other nuances with this process, but that is the general procedure.
Purchases, whether made with GP or PP, must be recorded, or “tracked”. Here is the recording Excel spreadsheet I made and use. It looks a lot better after downloading and opening in Excel or OpenOffice. The second page is for recording your rewards from Chronicles, and the first page for recording your purchases. It then uses these numbers to calculate your remaining gold and prestige. There are many other recording spreadsheets out there if mine doesn’t suit your style.
Knowledge (local) – Engaging with the PFS Community
If you are looking for a game in your area, I recommend contacting your nearest Venture Captain. These are the people who organize PFS at the local level. If you don’t know who that is in your area, here is a list of Venture Captains by location.
Beyond that, there are many social media outlets for Pathfinder, and organized play in particular. Here are a few:
There are, of course, the official Pathfinder Society forums on paizo’s website.
Facebook also has a lively banter between society players in this group.
Most of the people on these communities are kind, helpful players and GMs looking to build the community and have fun. There are occasional jerks, like anywhere, but by-and-large they’re easy to ignore.
To figure out what a ‘good’ character is, I’ve written an article called Bench-Pressing. Not to toot my own horn, but it has become respected in the Pathfinder community as a system for character evaluation.
Once you have a few levels under your belt, I recommend reading Painlord’s What to Expect. I really do recommend waiting a few levels before reading that, as it can be a bit daunting before you have some system familiarity.
There are also many optimization guides for nearly any build or class you can imagine. I even wrote one myself. These are sort of like reading cook-books. You won’t necessarily make the exact recipes in there, but you get an idea of what sorts of character options to use together to make what you want.
Well, that about covers it. Happy adventuring, and may your dice be ever natural 20s. If you have suggestions for this guide, just let me know on here or the paizo forums. My username on there is Le Petite Mort.