Tabletop 101: How to Build an Effective and Fun Pathfinder Character

By Mike

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Pathfinder with a few of my friends via Skype and Roll20. In that time I’ve assembled some observations about how to effectively build a character in Paizo’s answer to Dungeons and Dragons.

One of the challenges of building a character in this game is the sheer number of options that are open. At time of writing the game has more than a dozen character classes, hundreds of feats and character traits that you can add to a character, not to mention dozens of spells per each level — and that’s only the tip of the iceburg. While these options are part of the core appeal of the game, allowing players to create characters very organically and find some way of making any aspect of a character into a tangible aspect of gameplay, they’re also overwhelming to deal with. There’s an infinite variety of ways to build a character, but only a handful of those options are actually worth pursuing.

The key to dealing with this challenge is realizing that Pathfinder, while descended from the same stock as D&D 3rd edition, is not D&D 3rd or 3.5. While of the same spirit as Dungeons and Dragons, it has clearly and distinctly re-defined itself as its own unique game, in that none of the intuitive conventions of 3/3.5 for building a character apply in any remote sense. Once this is understood, the game is INFINITELY more interesting and more workable, and you’ll begin to realize that any concept you can imagine is viable as a character — just not necessarily in the way that you’d think. For instance, multiclassing is, while easier to do than it was in 3e, almost entirely displaced by other options. Races have a stunningly strong influence on the viability of certain character builds, and the difference of allowing Traits and not allowing Traits can mean life or death for certain types of characters.

Essentially, the flow of character creation goes like this:

Step 1 – Devise Character Concept

Any starting point for something you’d like to focus on is viable, from a piece of equipment you’d like to be good at using to an unusual race/class combination or a straight-up character concept from a story you’ve written. If you’re having trouble, the random character background generator is a good way to find some inspiration.

Step 2 – Pick a Race/Class Combo

Race and class both are broad ways of defining a character, and will help you hone in on what your general strengths, weaknesses, and options are going to be. Each class has a flavor, and each race has its own set of get out of jail free cards — examine them closely, and even consider some of the non-standard races. Don’t be afraid of Mary Sue, the game insures that if you try to be one you’ll get hurt.

Step 3 – Sub Out Racial Features As Needed

Alternate Racial Traits is a variant rule introduced by Pathfinder in the Advanced Players’ Guide, and is a non-standard concept to a lot of RPGs. Essentially, all races have a set of bonuses and abilities they grant that’s “standard” from the core rulebook, but the Alternate Racial Traits let you substitute one trait for a different trait here or there — within a limited pool of traits for each race, of course, and a sense of equivalency. Certain traits can only be traded for certain other traits. However, this level of flexibility makes your race more organic and can offer incentives to play races you wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in playing owing to some traits being “wasted.”

For instance, Dwarves have some very specific, circumstantial abilities: bonuses to fighting giants, checking out unusual stonework, that sort of thing. These can be handy, but if you’re, say, a Dwarven wizard, Hatred against Giants doesn’t net you much. However, there exist no less than five options for substituting out Hatred, including Wyrmscourged (bonuses against dragons) and Sky Sentinel (bonuses to dealing with flying creatures).

The point here is that you can easily identify some circumstances that will maybe come up once for your intended character and some that will come up more often, and in that instance you can make a substitution and instantly see an improvement to your build. In some cases it’s worthwhile to look over alternate racial traits before you even settle on picking a race at all; pick a selection of possible races and narrow it down to the one that has the potential to fit best. At the very least, you can pick traits that better support your intended flavor and character traits, and believe it or not that means something.

Step 4 – Ability Score Pass 1

The Pathfinder point-buy method is immensely preferable to generating random ability scores, as it insures everybody has a fair and even shot at their abilities, if different ones. Typically I prefer adopting the 20 point limit for my games. At this stage, you’ll do a pass guessing at what ability scores are necessary to support the chosen play style. This is a guess, and not the final ability scores.

Step 5 – Fill Out Character Class

Look through your chosen character class and start filling out the abilities. Start by doing a glance at them and seeing which ones you care about.

Like with races, Paizo’s Advanced Player’s Guide introduced a system to make classes more modular and organic, called Archetypes; each Archetype is essentially an alternate progression of abilities that replaces certain other abilities. For instance, a Fighter normally gets a set of Armor Training and Weapon Training abilities, but the different archetypes for a fighter substitute those with different abilities; the Two-Weapon Fighter gets abilities that support two-weapon fighting in place of those abilities.

Every class has some archetypes, with only a few exceptions, so they’re all worth looking through. And, you can have more than one archetype applied to a character at a time, provided the abilities they substitute out don’t conflict.

Basically, pick one or more archetypes to ditch class features you don’t care about in favor of ones that support your concept and play style more strongly. Don’t be afraid to gut your character class.

If you can’t find something satisfying, re-evaluate the chosen class and think about a different one. One time in ten a multiclass or prestige class might be in order, but most of the time an archetype can handle that more effectively and create a satisfying unique spin (IE – Arcane Bomber, Spellslinger in place of Alchemist/Wizard or Gunslinger/Wizard). Multi-classing is inefficient for almost everyone except Half-Elves.

Step 6 – Pick the Skills to Support the Class

Once you’ve picked a class and have refined its class features, you’ll have a good picture of what your character’s play style will be like and subsequently what skills will matter to you. You’ll know by now if you need Acrobatics or Use Magic Device, or if a particular Crafting skill will be in order.

Collaborate with the other players in your game when picking these as well, because what you’ll learn quickly is that they’ll fill in certain skills way more effectively than you do and you’ll fill in certain skills way more effectively than they do. You just don’t need two interrogators most of the time; if it isn’t your sole duty to be a face, let the other guy play bad cop and let someone else play good cop while you concern yourself with being slippery. Likewise, you don’t need the whole party to have a high Perception check. It helps! But if you’re short on skill points for the essentials it helps to realize you don’t need it, and that realization can lead to creativity with how you roleplay a character as well as a more optimized build.

Step 7 – Ability Score Pass 2

Refine ability score choices based on what came up insufficient. If you didn’t have enough skill points; if your damage on your main weapon doesn’t look like it’s going to be good enough; if you aren’t happy with the DCs for your spells; if your AC looks like crap and you don’t think you’ll get the chance for better armor; these are all good reasons to adjust your ability scores with a second pass.

We do this iteration because very often your first guess is going to be wrong and things that look good on paper actually suck in practice. By now you’re far enough down the road to see what ability scores you actually need. That said, I’ve got a few tips:

  • Leaving ability scores at odd-numbered levels is a good way to both conserve points and allow room for character growth, as at every 4th level you’ll see an instant improvement in many important abilities.
  • By the Pathfinder point-buy system, unless you have a really focused character who will rely almost exclusively on one ability score, it’s best not to go for the “natural 18” but to instead pursue a 16 and a 14 and to let a racial ability adjustment bump one of those up.
  • Put an eye towards condensing your ability scores. If you have a means of substituting one for another, it’s always helpful.
  • Don’t be afraid to “dump” an ability score if you really aren’t going to use certain kinds of skills or abilities. These character flaws will bite you, but that’s why you have the other party members, too.

Step 8 – Pick Favored Class Bonus

The idea behind the favored class is that you pick something you’re going to spend the majority of your time leveling, and for the rest of the game you’ll be getting an extra bonus any time you gain a level in that class. You’ve got Door Number 1: Hit Points, Door Number 2: Skill Points, and What’s Behind Door Number 3: Racial Favored Class Bonus.

The way I like to pick these is to fill in whatever ability scores came up short with even after my second pass. I should be reasonably satisfied with a build without a favored class bonus, but there will always be weaknesses or disappointments, and this is a good opportunity to clear those up. One extra skill point per level is one extra skill you can max out, which can make a big difference for unusual characters that happen to depend a lot on skills. One extra hit point per level can make up for an overly soft fighter who didn’t go for a high constitution. If by some chance you feel really satisfied with BOTH those things, each class has a racial favored class bonus for each race, usually gaining more uses per day of specific class abilities.

Step 9 – Sprinkle Feats to Support Play Style

It’s best to choose feats during play to adapt to actual campaign needs, as these are the least static and most numerous abilities you can pick up. The key to not getting too worked up about them is handling all the other stuff first and then seeing what you can benefit from once you’ve narrowed down your character’s play style to about three or four things it can do. This makes the benefits of a lot of feats — maybe even ones you never considered before — an awful, awful lot clearer, and you should be able to zero in on ones that are central to your character right away.


On one hand, if you manage ALL THIS, you can make an awesome character fitting almost any concept, that also happens to play very effectively. This is, in all actuality, the way Pathfinder WANTS you to build a character.

On the other hand, none of this is intuitive because it depends so very, very strongly on non-core material that’s become much more central to the game than what’s in the core rulebook. While playing all-core material is viable, it leads to some very vanilla and uninspired types of characters, such that they can end up feeling almost “pre-canned.” Alternate racial features, class archetypes, and the new base classes are indispensable parts of the game when it comes to breaking out of this mindset and enabling a wider array of more interesting options, so much so that I can’t imagine playing without them anymore. It’s a mutation that’s on the brink of becoming an evolution, in that while un-intuitive, it’s effective.

That having been said I feel like Pathfinder is due to have a second edition to fully cement its place as its own game as opposed to being known as “3.75” — to break away from conventions and artifacts from 3rd edition that’re holding it back and settle fully into the space and flow that it desires to fill. Whether Paizo does this or not and when is a good question, but I think people will generally agree that a 9-step character creation process that’s this involved would be a bit much if it weren’t for the widespread adoption of 3e and 3.5 materials.

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