Chapter 1 is “Getting Started” (12 pages). This chapter contains a brief introduction to the game, an overview of each chapter, a glossary of common terms, an example of play (very useful if this is your first RPG ever), and the rules for generating ability scores for a character (how physically and mentally capable they are).
Chapter 2 is “Races” (11 pages). The “Core” races presented here are: Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Half-Elves, Half-Orcs, Halflings, and Humans. As you would imagine, there are advantages and disadvantages to each race. The chapter spends a page on each race, and beyond the rules ramifications it takes care to talk about what members of that race typically look like, what their culture is like, why they often become adventurers, and how they relate to other races. It’s not an overwhelming amount of information (which is good for new players). For the most part, these races stick to fairly standard fantasy expectations.
Chapter 3 is “Classes” (57 pages). There are eleven “core classes” presented in this book: Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, and Wizard. The spread of classes does an excellent job covering different play-styles and roles within a group. The power level of these classes has been significantly bumped up from D&D 3.5, and there are a lot more choices to be made within each class. This makes the classes more complex, but also more satisfying to see advance up through each level. If you’re brand-new to Pathfinder, it might be good to stay away from spell-casters like the Druid, Cleric, Sorcerer, and Wizard until you get more experience, as the sheer number of choices to be made can be overwhelming at first.
Chapter 4 is “Skills” (27 pages). Skills are something that every character has and they determine the likelihood of success in doing certain things. Want to leap from one rooftop to another? Roll an Acrobatics check. Want to figure out what spell that evil wizard just cast at you? Roll a Spellcraft check. Different classes get bonuses to using particular skills, but every character, regardless of class, can become good at something if they invest their “skill points” in a particular skill. Pathfinder has condensed the number of skills slightly from D&D 3.5, though it still has more than newer RPGs tend to have. I like the diversity and ability to specialize in discrete areas, but some think there should have been further consolidation. Each skill is described with great detail on specifically what it allows you to do and not do, which is quite helpful in avoiding rules arguments.
Chapter 5 is “Feats” (29 pages). Feats are special abilities. Every character gets to choose one feat at every odd level, and some classes and races get “bonus” feats. A feat might be something that lets you fight better in darkness (“Blindfighting”) or it might be something that makes certain spells you cast more effective (“Spell Focus”). There are several dozen feats to choose from, so this can be one of the parts of character creation that takes the longest to do. Their value, again, is that they allow for enormous customization of a character. Just because there are two Fighters in the party doesn’t mean they’ll be identical, because feats allow them to operate in very different ways!
Chapter 6 is “Equipment” (16 pages). Your character will need a weapon, maybe some armor, and some other gear like a backpack or a coil of rope. But in addition, you might wonder how expensive a night’s stay at an inn is, or how much it’ll cost to persuade a local wizard to cast a spell for you. All of the answers are in this chapter. I really appreciate that every item and service isn’t just listed on a table with a price, but in addition most receive a description, a picture, and (sometimes) additional rules to explain how it works in actual gameplay.
Chapter 7 is “Additional Rules” (13 pages). The title of this chapter isn’t particularly helpful, as the entire book consists of rules. Really, it’s a miscellany of various things about your character. First up is Alignment, which is whether your character is good, evil, or somewhere in between. A lot of other RPGs dispense with such questions, but it is “hard-coded” into Pathfinder in the sense that it’s not just a role-playing choice: many spells, magic items, and other effects change depending on a character’s alignment. Next, there’s a few pages on “Vital Statistics” like determining a character’s age, height and weight, and (most importantly) carrying capacity (also known as “encumbrance”). If your character has a low Strength score, don’t expect him or her to be able to carry a lot of gear. Then, there’s a discussion of movement speeds in various contexts (in the course of a combat encounter, for example, or for travelling great distances overland). Last, a bunch of little things are covered under the title “Exploration”: how far characters can see in different levels of light, how to determine if an object can be intentionally broken, etc. It’s a chapter that’s easy to overlook but provides answers to a lot of “little things” that might come up during a session.
Chapter 8 is “Combat” (29 pages). Combat is a major part of Pathfinder, and there’s admittedly a lot to digest in a short number of pages here. The way the chapter is laid out isn’t necessarily intuitive, and later Paizo products (like the Strategy Guide) do a much better job making combat clearer. You’ll find everything you need in this chapter, but you’ll be flipping back and forth for a while. I’ve been playing for years and I still refer to it occasionally.
Chapter 9 is “Magic” (19 pages). This chapter discusses different categories of spells, how characters learn them, and how to read a spell entry in the next chapter. It’s a chapter that’s easy to skip over at first, but is actually pretty important once a campaign gets serious.
Chapter 10 is “Spells” (156 pages). You read that right: about a quarter of the book consists of an alphabetical list and description of several hundred different spells! The spells have been cleaned up and improved from D&D 3.5 for better gameplay, but what hasn’t changed is that magic still rules. If pure power is what you want, play a true spell-caster and you’ll find it.
Chapter 11 is “Prestige Classes” (23 pages). Prestige Classes are special classes that characters can eventually take, well into their adventuring careers, if they meet certain prerequisites. This book has ten of them: Arcane Archer, Arcane Trickster, Assassin, Dragon Disciple, Duelist, Eldritch Knight, Loremaster, Mystic Theurge, Pathfinder Chronicler, and Shadowdancer. For the most part, and until very recent, Pathfinder hasn’t been a game where prestige classes thrive. Apart from some specific flavour reasons, a character would usually be better off simply continuing in their base class rather than taking levels in a prestige class.
Chapter 12 is “Gamemastering” (15 pages). As its title indicates, this chapter helps the person running a game (the “Gamemaster” or “GM”) prepare an adventure, referee the rules, deal with common problems at the table, etc. It’s okay for what it is, but I’ve seen better resources to help new GMs figure out what they’re doing.
Chapter 13 is “Environment” (39 pages). This chapter contains a lot of little things to help make the setting interesting. It contains rules on weather, travelling through the wilderness, dealing with traps, and so forth. It’s primarily for the GM too and shouldn’t be a priority to master until more fundamental rules are digested.
Chapter 14 is “Creating NPCs” (11 pages). This chapter gives rules for creating background (non-player) characters by using “NPC classes” like a Commoner. I have to admit I never use this chapter, as I just rely on NPC stat blocks already generated in other Pathfinder products.
Chapter 15 is “Magic Items” (101 pages). Your adventurer is going to want some cool magic gear, and this chapter explains what it does, how much it costs, and how it’s made. It’s pretty extensive and detailed.
Last up, there are appendices summarizing “Special Abilities”, “Conditions” (status effects a character might be under), “Inspiring Reading”, and “Game Aids” (other products you can purchase).
The Core Rulebook is a hefty tome for an RPG book. For players coming from D&D 3.5, it’s basically a combination of the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide in a single volume, but refined and improved. The book is, with the single exception of the deities, completely “setting neutral” (that is, it’s suitable for play in any campaign world or a homemade setting). There’s some excellent artwork taken from other Paizo products mixed in with some artwork that’s more pedestrian. Still, the production quality overall is fantastic. I would normally go into more detail, but there are hard word counts on these reviews. So I’ll sum up by saying: this is the one book you won’t leave home without, and it’s worth every penny.
Special Note: The Core Rulebook was recently released in a smaller softcover. The interior is exactly the same as the sixth printing of the hardcover, but it’s lighter and easier to carry. I’ve been using it for a few months now, and I’m quite happy with the font size, reduced price, durability, and ease of use.