Among the gaming subgenres which have enjoyed a little renaissance thanks to Kickstarter are CRPGs of a certain vintage. Whilst producing something as lavish as, say, one of the more recent Witcher or Mass Effect games can involve a massive AAA budget and be a decidedly difficult product to handle on a Kickstarter budget, a top-down isometric-style RPG of the sort made popular by the first two Fallout games, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment is a much more modest affair; Shadowrun Returns and its Hong Kong-based sequel are good examples of CRPGs in this style which came about via Kickstarter.
What happens, though, when this sort of game tries to offer more than a mere RPG experience? We’re going to find out with Pathfinder: Kingmaker, an attempt to add a kingdom management layer on top of a CRPG foundation.
Usual Note On Methodology
Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.
The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.
Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.
For those of you who don’t follow the world of tabletop RPGs very closely, Pathfinder is a phenomenon which requires a little explanation. You see, once upon a time Paizo were a third party publisher of Dungeons & Dragons material who, among other things, had landed from Wizards of the Coast the licence to produce Dungeon and Dragon magazine, two venerable institutions of the hobby, during the 3rd Edition era of the game.
Following the model established by Wizards of the Coast (and TSR before them), Paizo filled Dragon with news, previews, reviews, articles, rules ideas and advice about the D&D game, whilst Dungeon was dedicated to offering prewritten adventure material that could be deployed direct to the game table. Over the course of their tenure, Paizo established the popular “adventure path” model in the pages of Dungeon: each adventure path would unfold over a six-issue span of the magazine’s run, and offer a series of adventures which could be run in isolation if you wanted or could be strung together to provide a more epic campaign.
After a well-regarded run in charge of the two magazines from 2002 to 2007, Paizo were left somewhat high and dry when Wizards of the Coast decided not to renew the licence. Fortunately for them, Wizards of the Coast had done two very generous things. The first is that 3rd edition D&D (both in its initial form and its revised “3.5 edition” release) came out under the then-revolutionary Open Gaming Licence, which allowed third party publishers to make liberal use of the rules – to the point where cheeky UK publishers Mongoose Publishing made pocket versions of the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide for 3.5 edition and there was nothing Wizards could do about it under the terms of the OGL.
The idea was that the OGL would help D&D retain its industry dominance by encouraging third party publishers to produce D&D-compatible products in the hopes of tapping into D&D‘s larger audience. A somewhat more restrictive licence was necessary if you wanted to use the Dungeons & Dragons trademark and logo, but publishers very quickly realised that if you just made its clear that your product was “compatible with the world’s most popular roleplaying game” or words to that effect, consumers would suss out what you mean, so many publishers didn’t bother using the trademark licence. Bear this in mind – it’ll be relevant later.
So, when Paizo lost the rights to do Dragon and Dungeon, they decided to refocus their D&D support around the adventure path concept, coining the new Pathfinder trademark to publish their adventure paths under. Essentially, they just kept right on going in the same magazine-style format – they just didn’t call it Dungeon any more. Their new adventure path product line did good business in part because of the goodwill they’d developed as publishers of Dungeon, and in part because of the other really generous thing Wizards of the Coast did for Paizo: they allowed them to retain the subscriber mailing list they’d developed over the course of managing the two magazines, which of course meant that Paizo could market their new adventure path lines directly to folk who, having been Dungeon subscribers, were likely in the market for precisely such material in the first place.
From August 2007 onwards things really hotted up with the announcement of D&D 4th Edition’s impending release – and the details emerging of the Game System Licence, the 4th Edition equivalent of the OGL. This proved controversial, since it would prove to be substantially more restrictive than the OGL. In particular, many publishers objected to what they believed to be a “poison pill” tucked away in the licence which meant that if you published any products under it, you had to give up publishing products under the OGL – a move which would leave many companies back catalogues legally unpublishable.
There were differing opinions on whether the “poison pill” meant what some said it meant, but nonetheless, the GSL was vastly more restrictive than the OGL; whereas the OGL made it viable for publishers to produce entirely separate games based on the 3.0/3.5 rules (such as superhero RPG Mutants & Masterminds), the GSL was very clearly only useful for producing supplements or adventures or similar intended for use with 4th Edition D&D, and nothing else. Whilst there was a round of modifications made to it around Gen Con 2008 so as to allay concerns about the “poison pill”, it remained evident that this revision process would not lead to any great opening-out of the GSL itself – with the result that many third party publishers simply passed it by.
So much for the publisher side of things: on the fan side of things, controversy was sparked by the radical new direction which it became obvious that 4th Edition was taking, with an increased focus on providing an interesting tactical skirmish combat game as the heart of play. There’s been many flamewars fought over 4th Edition’s merits as a system, but one factor which is pretty undeniable is that 4th Edition had to make some major changes to Dungeons & Dragons as a system in order for the new GSL to actually work as intended – otherwise it would be too easy for people to reverse-engineer its principles under the OGL and keep on truckin’ under the older, broader licence. It was pretty clear from the GSL that Wizards wanted to make the new edition substantially more “closed” than 3rd edition ended up – a radical redesign was an unavoidable prerequisite for accomplishing that goal.
(Various other requirements also necessitated substantial revisions to the game. For instance, Wizards of the Coast had sold their masters at Hasbro on the project by pushing the idea that the new edition would roll out in parallel with bespoke virtual tabletop software, with subscriptions to the platform supplementing income from book sales. This meant that the game was designed with half an eye on making it easier to implement in the virtual tabletop format. Unfortunately, the virtual tabletop was massively delayed, and ended up underdelivering on its promises, in a large part as a result of the project lead committing a shocking murder-suicide.)
Unfortunately, when you radically redesign a game, you’re often going to get a backlash. Don’t get me wrong – 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is nowhere as far away from prior editions as, say, WFRP 3rd Edition is from 1st, 2nd, or 4th, or Traveller: the New Era is from other editions of Traveller. In those cases, I’d have said that the games would have been better off being published under entirely new names – why confuse the matter by taking up the baggage of a system you don’t really share any central axioms with? – whereas 4th Edition D&D includes enough recognisable D&D sacred cows that it’s clearly part of the same design tradition.
Nonetheless, it was too much of a leap for a good chunk of the fandom; whilst I suspect there’d have been no controversy had there been another couple of editions between 3.5 and 4, with the system converging on the 4th edition style over the course of those interstitial editions, at the same time that would clearly not have been economically viable – Hasbro simply couldn’t afford to give Wizards the sort of time necessary to drip-feed those changes into the system and prepare the player base accordingly.
The upshot of this was a schism in the fanbase. Edition changes always resulted in a certain amount of this, of course – there’s people out there who never upgraded from 1st edition AD&D, or from the original little brown booklets, and are perfectly happy like that. But the 4E edition war felt different; it was enough of a schism that the 4E-refusers, whilst I suspect they didn’t represent the majority of the fanbase, at least represented a sufficient percentage to create a commercial opportunity.
A few fans responded to the perceived betrayal represented by 4E by retreating into the past – dusting off the old TSR-era editions of D&D, using the OGL to produce “retro-clone” versions of those rules, and taking the game back to its roots to rediscover varieties of D&D-related fun which had perhaps fallen by the wayside under Wizards of the Coast’s watch. This developed into a cottage industry referred to as the OSR – “Old School Renaissance” or “Revival” or whatever the writer in question thinks that the R stands for – which, despite its initially reactionary origins, has led to some interesting new game designs emerging as a result of people engaging with and creatively reinterpreting older games and developing them along new lines, taking the opportunity to explore the “path not taken”.
A larger chunk of fans, however, didn’t want to go very far backwards, and didn’t want to go especially far forwards. They were happy with 3rd edition D&D, by and large, and wanted to keep playing it – or a game which shared its basic axioms and designed approach, at any rate. They weren’t wearing rose-tinted sunglasses, mind – they knew that the game had some issues here and there and they wouldn’t say no to a “3.75” revision which further tuned-up and improved the system, but they were entirely against a revision (or a reversion) so radical as to render their existing collections of 3rd Edition material near-useless.
Thanks to the OGL, anyone out there could have jumped in to serve this demographic – but Paizo were perfectly placed to do so. Thanks to their tenure running Dragon and Dungeon, they were familiar to the 3rd Edition fanbase and generally understood it; after all, through those magazines they’d been as much a part of the “voice” of 3rd Edition as Wizards of the Coast themselves had been. Since they intended to keep their adventure path campaigns 3rd Edition compatible, they had a vested interest in keeping the 3rd Edition game mechanics visible in the market. Because they had those subscriber lists, they were perfectly placed to market directly to enthusiastic, core members of the 3rd Edition fanbase.
Thus, after the gaming community had spent some 7 months digesting the news of the coming new D&D edition, Paizo made their move: in March 2008 they declared that they would be producing Pathfinder, a set of roleplaying game rules intended to support the Pathfinder adventure path series. Thanks to the generous terms of the OGL, Paizo could put out Pathfinder as exactly the sort of “3.75” edition of D&D which a good number of fans wanted – they just couldn’t call it D&D, but Pathfinder isn’t a terrible name for an RPG. By inviting gamers to take part in an extensive open playtesting process (culminating in the finalised core rulebook’s release in 2009), Paizo adeptly kept up community engagement and generated buzz for the game, as well as providing a stark contrast with the rather closed 4E D&D development process. (Indeed, they ended up sparking a fad for open playtesting which eventually Wizards themselves would jump on with D&D Next, the playtesting and development process which yielded 5E D&D.)
The combination of savvy community engagement, excellent marketing reach, first-mover advantage (all in all Paizo acted pretty fast once it became apparent that the GSL was going to be an issue) and a good reputation within the D&D 3rd Edition fanbase meant that Pathfinder became a hit – a hit largely based on a reactionary backlash to change, but a hit nonetheless. The “3.75” design approach generally caught on, and the regular stream of new material – both in terms of the adventure paths and in terms of other supplements – meant that Paizo became an oasis for gamers thirsty for yet more 3rd Edition-compatible material.
Pathfinder, then, became the natural home for gamers who’d wanted the new D&D to represent an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary change; indeed, in my experience it’s much more common to find people running Pathfinder than it is to find people running 3rd Edition D&D these days, which in part is likely due to Pathfinder still being active in the marketplace but I suspect is also due to most 3rd Edition diehards migrating to Pathfinder over time.
What’s the relevance of all this? Well, it turns out that Pathfinder replicates 3rd Edition D&D so perfectly that my preferred means of engaging with it is largely the same: I’m entirely disinterested in playing it as a tabletop RPG, but I’m fine with engaging it as a system for a computer RPG where the PC is handling most of the system stuff near-invisibly…
There’ve been several Kickstarters for Pathfinder videogames over time. I didn’t touch the one for the Pathfinder MMO, and given the troubled history of that project I’m glad I left it alone. Pathfinder: Kingmaker, however, I did go in for, because it’s a single-player CRPG in the mould of Neverwinter Nights. (Indeed, there was a Neverwinter Nights premium module called Kingmaker, though I’m fairly sure it was no relation to this one.) Kingmaker is one of the more well-regarded of the Pathfinder adventure paths, and the proposal for the Kickstarter was that the videogame wound adapt the adventure path to the CRPG format. The game would not be developed internally by Paizo, but would instead be a project undertaken by Owlcat Games, a Russian development house made up of seasoned industry professionals for whom this would be their first major project.
The prospect of Pathfinder getting the videogame treatment (following a path already paved by 3rd edition D&D with Neverwinter Nights) proved to be a tempting prospect, with the $500,000 target being confortably exceeded and the pledges reaching $909,057.
What Level I Backed At
Digital DownloadYou will get a digital download of Pathfinder: Kingmaker, at a special value for Kickstarter backers. You will also get a special in-game item — a magical cloak available early in the game.
Delivering the Goods
The delivery process by and large went swimmingly. The estimated date of delivery of my tier was August 2018; as it stood, the downloads actually got released for backers on the 25th September 2018. This a 1-month delay, but frankly by the standards of videogame Kickstarters that’s minimal.
Reviewing the Swag
The plot of Kingmaker starts out fairly simple: in the lands of the River Kingdoms there’s a stretch known as the Stolen Lands, called that because they’ve not been under any sort of rule of law in living memory. You are recruited to go forth, oust the bandit leader who’s been treating the place as their personal kleptocracy, and set yourself up as ruler of the region in his stead, with the backing of your more developed neighbours. Once this is done, however, it becomes clear that the lands in question are subject to strange long-standing curses, and that your rise to power has been part of a grander plan by forces stranger than any mortal kingdom…
As far as games in the Baldur’s Gate/Neverwinter Nights vein go, Kingmaker gets the core RPG gameplay more or less right – or at least, as right as you can get it working within the constraints of this sort of game format. There’s a number of tweaks you can make to the game to make it easier or more difficult, and to make it more or less true to the tabletop RPG rules, but there’s some axioms you can’t shake – like the awkward way that Baldur’s Gate and its successors attempt to present turn-based combat in a realtime-like style, or the ways in which 3rd edition D&D ends up breaking at high levels.
You inevitably end up with characters of absurdly high skill and armour class fighting random mobs who need to tote around significant numbers of magic items just so they can pose a threat to characters in the first place. This incessant numbers inflation is a known issue with 3rd edition D&D and for Pathfinder to fix it would have required such a fundamental redesign as to defeat the purpose of making Pathfinder a “3.75” version of D&D in the first place.
As far as the plot and setting go, Owlcat had a range of advantages. Using an existing adventure path for the game did at least give them a leg up in terms of plot writing, although further work was still necessitated – most notably in terms of coming up with a cast of interesting NPC companions for your player character to adventure with, who of course need to end up filling the niches which in the original adventure path would be handled by other players.
In some respects, the concept actually works better for a single-player CRPG than it does for a multiplayer tabletop game. The joy of single-player games is that when you play them you don’t really need to think about anyones’ needs other than yourself. That isn’t to say that I always play greedy characters – but the choice of how avaricious or how generous I want my character be comes down to my own personal desires. In a tabletop RPG, you have a bunch of other participants whose out-of-character enjoyment of the game you need to take into account of (or at least you should be taking into account if you aren’t deliberately being an arse).
When one player is given a significant level of power and authority over other players, they need to handle it very carefully, because what might come naturally to their PC on an in-character level might be game-ruining for other players on an out-of-character level. Making Kingmaker a single-player experience not only skips past any internal party debate as to which player character should become monarch (or whether to abolish monarchy entirely and rule as some sort of council or junta or whatever), but also means that you can have your PC monarch rule as you wish – you can adopt whatever policies you like, and whilst your NPC companions might get grumpy about some of them, they aren’t played by real people whose game experience might be ruined if you steer the kingdom down a particular course.
In setting terms, Paizo have spent about a decade or so developing Golarion, the world of Pathfinder, and it’s got a range of interesting features. For instance, in the Pathfinder setting, the realm of faerie is known as the First World, because it was, in fact, the first world – it’s the rough draft of reality which the gods worked on as a sort of grand cosmological playtest, before they rolled their sleeves up and created the universe for realises. Packed away into its own little demiplane, the First World’s denizens have been left to their own devices, and enjoy a number of advantages; being created before concepts like time and death and cause-and-effect were pinned down gives them a certain immunity to those new fangled ideas so long as they don’t go traipsing into realms where death’s rule is more firmly established, living in a realm where the laws of physics are a bit more mutable brings with it many advantages, and since the gods have lost interest in the First World it’s a good place it hang out if you want to be overlooked by a deity you’ve offended.
Overall, it’s a fun concept, which not only provides a nice basis for a realm of faerie where everything is simultaneously richer and more vibrant than in reality but also more insubstantial and unfulfilling (a contradiction I quite like), but also has various other setting consequences here and there. Gnomes, which in other D&D settings can tend to be a little indistinguishable from dwarves, get a distinctive flavour in Golarion: they originally came from the First World but migrated to Golarion in ages past, at which point they came under the jurisdiction of death and had to adjust to that. (There’s an entire side quest where you and a gnome companion have to get to the bottom of this.)
Another thing that Golarion is known for is a somewhat better level of LGBTQ+ representation than in many fantasy settings – including many Wizards of the Coast-published campaign worlds. There’s not much overt romance or sexuality in the game when it comes to your own player character, though there isn’t zero, and there doesn’t seem to be a gender block on you flirting with particular characters; likewise, some minor NPCs will turn out to be gay when they mention having a spouse somewhere. This is hardly a major breakthrough in terms of representation, mind – the fact that this content is represented in the game, despite the present climate in Russia, is in and of itself a brave move by Owlcat.
So, is the game perfect? No, far from it. My main issue with the game is the kingdom management system, which is shaky enough that the game includes an option which makes your kingdom indestructible (though it can still be severely degraded) so you don’t get an insta-Game Over due to things going wrong on that front.
The main problem I had with it is that you get things done on the Kingdom is by either assigning advisors to deal with a problem or opportunity that’s arisen, or spending building points on building new towns, new things within those towns, and whatnot. A few things require your personal attention and will eat up a couple of weeks of your time, and a few things require both an advisor and an expenditure of building points.
There’s several issues with this setup. The first is that you start out with only half the advisor positions filled – you can only get the other half once you’ve upgraded their corresponding posts in the first half a set number of times, a fact which is not well-communicated at all – but that doesn’t seem to affect the flow of problems and opportunities needing advisor attention, which means you’re very overwhelmed in the early game and will often be in a situation where you’re going to lose out on an opportunity or take a hit to your kingdom stats due to not solving a problem, but you can’t do anything about it because either you literally have no companion yet who is eligible to be assigned to the problem or because the only advisor who can deal with the situation is caught up dealing with something else. Later on in the game, the events cycle around again, so it feels like nothing ever actually gets properly sorted, just kicked down the road for a while.
Another problem is that the supply of building points is quite limited and the rate at which you regain them, at least at first, is fairly slow. I suspect that in principle you can speed it up by making appropriate structures in your settlements, except I could rarely afford to do that and still spend building points on the various events that demanded them as well.
These issues combine when your kingdom starts properly game mechanically suffering: there’s opportunities you can take to drag it up a status level and thus make it one step further away from collapsing, but they tend to be either actually difficult to pull off or horrendously expensive (one of them is something like 1000 building points cost, which is astonishing).
My kingdom collapsed in my playthrough – before I turned on “kingdom never collapses” – because of the above issues all stacking on top of each other. My espionage stat was rubbish, because your spymaster is the last cabinet member I got to appoint. Even once I got them in place, there was a total death of espionage-boosting opportunities which they could actually have a decent shot of succeeding at, and so when my espionage stat hit zero my kingdom collapsed.
As it turns out, I might have been messing up and not playing the kingdom management game as intended: apparently, you can buy building points using the vast amount of treasure you amass whilst adventuring, which makes sense – why wouldn’t you be able to use your own money to underwrite the kingdom’s treasury when you were rich enough? In fact, it made so much sense that I wished I could have the opportunity to exchange money for BP during the game, only to find out later, when doing research for this review, that I’d overlooked the opportunity during this time.
See, the problem is, in the version of the game I played, you do most of your kingdom management from the map screen – some tasks you can do anywhere, some you need to go to your capital and interact with the map in the throne room to do. The logical place to put an option to exchange money for BP would be either on the map screen or in the throne room, right? Wrong. Apparently, to buy extra BP, you need to leave the throne room, go to the marketplace in your capital, and buy them from potion seller. Strong as their potions may be, the logic behind this is absolutely unfathomable, particularly when your minister for the treasury is right fucking there in your throne room and it would be far more logical for you to dump the gold in their lap and say “OK, there you go, here’s some more funds for the realm.”
Owlcat are now putting out an “Enhanced Version” of the game, which will include among other improvements the option to buy BP directly from the kingdom management map screen – in other words, where the fucking option should have been all along, and would have been all along had the game been designed according to regular Earth logic. I strongly suspect that the potion seller route here is some sort of fudge – an artifact of the kingdom management system being grafted onto a game engine directed more towards classic D&D adventuring – but even if it is an old bit of redundant scripting, surely it would have been massively inconvenient for the developers to have to schlep back and forth between throne room and potion seller to buy BP?
Either way, the kingdom management is a bit shaky here, and whilst the straight-up adventuring is a more solidly-implemented aspect of the game, as mentioned Kingmaker doesn’t quite manage to get around the absurdity of the Pathfinder system as it hits high experience levels. In fact, towards the end of the main plot I got bored with the busywork and annoying puzzles the game had to keep throwing at me to stop my party just steamrolling everything, and largely gave up. On the whole, Owlcat have proved that they can competently technically implement the Pathfinder system in a game context, but the selfsame system proved the downfall of the dungeoneering aspect of the game, just as the lack of system rigour was the downfall of the kingdom management aspect.
Would Back Again?
I’m not sure about backing Paizo projects in future. Unfortunately, since I backed this project, I became aware of a number of issues surrounding Paizo’s handling of abusive behaviour, including the infamous Bill Webb incident at PaizoCon – issues suggesting that whilst Paizo do talk a good talk when it comes to incorporating diversity into Pathfinder products, they don’t do a great job when it comes to looking out for their staff. This RPG.net thread gives a good overview of some of the issues there.
On the other hand, if I saw that Owlcat were doing the heavy lifting on another computer game Kickstarter, I’d regard that as a positive sign, since they were able to get this project sorted and out the door in an efficient manner and turned out a fun game; although I did lose patience with it by the end, a lot of that comes down to issues with the Pathfinder system itself which Owlcat were kind of stuck with in terms of implementing the game as intended.