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Encounter Mode

When every action counts, you enter the encounter mode of play. In this mode, you have turns during which you use actions. Your turn in sequence with everybody else’s turns makes up a round. A round is 6 seconds of time in the game world. Depending on the details of the encounter, you may have the opportunity to use reactions and free actions, both on your turn and on others’ turns.


An encounter is played out in a series of encounter rounds, during which characters act in sequence. You roll a special kind of check to determine this order at the start of the encounter and then play through a series of rounds until a conclusion is reached and the encounter ends. An encounter is structured as follows.

Step 1: Roll Initiative

When the GM calls for it, you’ll roll initiative to determine your place in the initiative order, which is the sequence in which the characters will take their turns. This roll marks the start of an encounter. More often than not, you’ll roll initiative when you enter a battle, which is often called a combat encounter. As a default assumption, these rules are written for that type of encounter.

Typically, you’ll roll a Perception check to determine your initiative. The more aware you are of your surroundings, the more quickly you can respond. Sometimes the GM might call on you to make some other type of check for the initiative check. For instance, if you were Sneaking during exploration, you’d roll a Stealth check instead. Alternatively, a social encounter could call for a Deception or Diplomacy check. If you are about to start a wrestling match, the GM might ask how you want to play the opening move in the competition and decide based on your answer that your initiative roll should be an Athletics or Acrobatics check.

The GM rolls initiative for any potential adversaries in the encounter. If the potential adversaries include a number of identical creatures, she could roll once for the group as a whole and have them take their turns within the group in any order she wishes. She could even change the initiative order within the group from round to round.

The GM could also roll any or all creatures individually.

Unlike a typical check, initiative rolls are ranked instead of being compared to a DC. This ranking sets the initiative order in which the encounter’s participants act. The character with the highest result goes first. The second highest then follows, and so on until whoever rolled lowest takes their turn last.

If your initiative roll result is tied with an opponent’s result, that opponent goes first. If your initiative roll result is tied with another player character’s result, you can decide between yourselves who goes first when you reach that place in the initiative order. Once you’ve resolved who goes first, your places in the initiative order usually don’t change during the encounter.

Step 2: Play a Round

A round begins when the participant with the highest initiative roll result starts their turn, and it ends when the one with the lowest initiative ends their turn. The process of taking a turn is detailed below. Creatures might also act outside of their turns by using certain reactions and free actions.

Step 3: Begin the Next Round

Once everyone in the encounter has taken a turn, the round is over and the next one begins. Don’t roll initiative again; the new round proceeds in the same order as the previous one, repeating the cycle until the encounter ends.

Step 4: End the Encounter

When your foes are defeated, some sort of truce is reached, or some other event or circumstance ends the combat, the encounter is over. You and the other participants no longer need to follow the initiative order, and a more free-form style of play resumes, with the players typically moving into exploration mode. Sometimes at the end of an encounter a GM will award Experience Points and treasure for the party to divvy up.


When it’s your turn to act, you can use actions and applicable activities, free actions , and reactions ; when you’re finished, your turn ends and the character next in the initiative order begins their turn. Sometimes it’s important to note in what point during your turn something happens, so a turn is divided into three steps.

Step 1: Start your Turn

Many things happen automatically at the start of your turn, and it’s also a common point for tracking the passage of time for effects that last multiple rounds.

Take the following steps, plus do anything else that is specified to happen at the start of your turn, in any order you choose.

If you created an effect that lasts for a certain number of rounds, you reduce the number of rounds remaining. The effect ends if the duration has expired. For example, if you cast a spell on yourself that lasts 3 rounds on your first turn of a fight, it would affect you during that turn, decrease to 2 rounds of duration at the start of your second turn, decrease to 1 round of duration at the start of your third turn, and expire at the start of your fourth turn.
You can use free actions or reactions that have a trigger of “Your turn begins” or something similar.
If you’re dying or unconscious, attempt your recovery saving throw. The last step of starting your turn is always the same.
Regain your 3 actions and 1 reaction. If you have not spent your actions or your reaction from your last turn, you lose them. You can’t hold over actions or reactions from one turn to another turn. Some abilities or conditions (such as the quick and slowed conditions) can change how many actions you regain and whether you regain your reaction. If a condition prevents you from being able to act, you don’t regain any actions or your reaction.

Step 2: Act

You can spend actions in any order you wish during your turn. What actions you can use often depend on your skills, feats, and items, but there are a number of default actions you can take, described under Basic Actions. Some effects will prevent you from acting. If you can’t act, you can’t use actions, activities, reactions, or free actions.

During an encounter, successive actions must be spent within a single turn—if an activity requires 3 actions, you can’t spend 2 actions in one turn and the third on your next turn.

Once you have spent all 3 of your actions, your turn is over and the next creature’s turn begins. You can always forgo using any remaining actions, and end your turn instead. As soon as your turn ends, you lose all your remaining actions.

Multiple Attack Penalty

Attacks are particularly strenuous and become less and less effective the more you use them during a single turn.

The second time you use an attack action (anything with the attack trait) during your turn, you take a –5 penalty to your attack roll. On your third attack (and any subsequent attacks if you have a way to take more) you take a –10 penalty. This penalty is called your multiple attack penalty. The multiple attack penalty applies only on your turn and resets at the end of your turn. Attacks you can make outside of your turn might include their own penalties.

Activities in Encounters

Activities that take longer than a turn can’t normally be performed during an encounter. Spells with a casting time of 1 minute or more are a common example of this, as are several skill activities. When you commit to an activity during your turn in an encounter, you commit to spending all of the actions it requires. If the activity gets interrupted partway through, you don’t get any of the activity’s actions back.

Reactions in Encounters

Your reactions let you respond to what’s happening around you immediately. The GM determines whether you can use reactions before your first turn begins, depending on the situation in which the encounter happens.

Step 3: End Your Turn

Once you’ve done all the things you want to do with your actions, you reach the end of your turn. Take the following steps, plus resolve anything else specified to happen at the end of your turn, in any order you choose. You then pass play to the next character in the initiative order.

  • End any effects that last until the end of your turn. For example, spells with a duration of concentration end at the end of your turn unless you use the Concentrate on a Spell action during your turn to extend them. Some effects caused by enemies might also last through a certain number of your turns, and you decrease the remaining duration or end them during this step.
  • If you have a persistent damage condition, you take the damage at this point. You also attempt any saves for your afflictions at this time. Many other conditions change at the end of your turn, such as the frightened condition decreasing in severity.
  • You can use free actions or reactions that have a trigger of “Your turn ends” or something similar.

Tracking Initiative

The GM keeps track of the initiative order for an encounter. It’s usually okay for the players to know this order, since they’ll see who goes when and be aware of one another’s results. However, the GM might want to conceal the names of adversaries the PCs have yet to identify.

Once the encounter’s order is set, it’s not necessary to track the original initiative numbers. The GM can create a simple list, use a series of cards or other markers, or use a Pathfinder Combat Pad, which has magnetic markers to allow for easily rearranging the initiative order.

Changing the Initiative Order

Any method used to track the initiative order needs to be flexible, because the order can change during the encounter. A creature can Delay to change its place in the order, in which case you can erase it from the list or pull its marker aside until it reenters the initiative order. It can Ready to use an action that’s activated by a trigger but that does not change its place in the order. When a creature gets knocked out, its initiative order changes automatically.

Striding and Striking

Two of the simplest actions you’ll commonly use during your turn in combat are Stride and Strike.

Stride is an action with the move trait that allows you to move up to your Speed in feet. You’ll often need to Stride multiple times to reach a foe who’s far away or to run from danger! Reactions in the game are often triggered by move actions. Unlike other actions, however, a move action can trigger reactions and free actions not only when you start, but also every 5 feet you move during that action or reaction. The Step action lets you move 5 feet without triggering reactions.

Strike is an action with the attack trait that allows you to attack with a weapon you’re wielding or an unarmed attack (such as with a fist).

You have to attack a creature within your reach if you’re using a melee weapon or unarmed attack, or attack a creature within range if you’re attacking with a ranged weapon. Your reach is how far you can physically extend a part of your body to make an unarmed attack or the farthest distance you can reach with a melee weapon. This is typically 5 feet, but special weapons and larger creatures have longer reaches. Your range is how far away you can attack with a ranged weapon or with some form of magical attack. Different weapons and magical attacks have different maximum ranges, and they get less effective if you exceed their range increments.

Striking multiple times has diminishing returns. The multiple attack penalty applies to attacks after the first, whether those attacks are Strikes, special attacks like the grapple use of the

Athletics skill, or attacks from spells.

Once your first turn begins and you gain your actions and reaction, you can use 1 reaction per round anytime it’s triggered. Reactions can be used on anyone’s turn (including your own) but only when a trigger is satisfied.

If you don’t use your reaction, you lose it at the start of your next turn, though you typically gain a reaction at the start of that turn.

Some reactions are specifically meant to be used in combat, and can change how the battle plays out drastically! One example of a reaction is Attack of Opportunity, which fighters receive at 1st level.

Attack of Opportunity

Traits Fighter
Trigger A creature within your reach uses a manipulate action or a move action, makes a ranged attack, or leaves a square during a move action it’s using.

Make a melee Strike against the triggering creature at a –2 penalty. If the attack hits and the trigger was a manipulate action, you disrupt that action. This Strike doesn’t count toward your multiple attack penalty, and your multiple attack penalty doesn’t apply to it.

This reaction allows you to make a melee Strike if a creature within reach uses a manipulate action, uses a move action, makes a ranged attack, or leaves a square during a move action it’s using. The Triggering Moves diagram above illustrates examples of movements that might trigger an Attack of Opportunity from a creature without reach and one with reach.

You’ll notice this reaction allows you to use a modified basic action, a Strike. Because an Attack of Opportunity is a quick and opportunistic Strike, you take a –2 penalty when using it, and even though it is an attack action, it doesn’t incur a multiple attack penalty to the attack roll.