Is Pathfinder: Kingmaker Bullshit?

Did any of us tabletop gaming nerds ever actually like Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons (here defined as both D&D versions 3.0 and 3.5) all that much? Or did we just decide to tolerate it as a community? Both versions of the game, and the d20 system upon which they are based, have aged like an open jar of mayonnaise left to cultivate curiously malodorous microbiomes in the sweltering summer sun. While the d20 system was crucial in introducing the radical concept of Higher Numbers Are Always Better to the world’s most marketed role-playing game, it was also bogged down with entirely too much nonsense. There’s too many skills, there’s too many feats, and there are too many damn rules. Not only are there too many rules in absolute sense, most of these rules are interdependent, making it extremely difficult to selectively ignore some rules while incorporating others. (Also, not for nothing, the art in the Third Edition core books is ugly and charmless, which I suppose is fitting for an ugly, charmless system.)

But, despite my poor opinion of the d20 system, I still hold Pathfinder in high esteem, even though it’s quite possible I’ll never play or GM it ever again. Even though it still had too many rules, Pathfinder came out at the exact right time for me, and for the RPG group I was in at the time. Having grown completely sick of D&D 4.0 after a scant year of playing it and wondering how we let ourselves get swindled into abandoning 3.5, it was refreshing to return to a game that was just like 3.5, except marginally better. Every class had new, cool features! Martial classes (Fighter, Paladin, Barbarian, etc.) were worth playing as, all of a sudden! And, perhaps most importantly, it wasn’t D&D 4.0! There were things to do other than trudge through a joyless, MMO-inspired slog. (Also, not for nothing, the Pathfinder artwork fucking slays!)

It was around this time that, having taken a chance on Dragon Age: Origins, I came back around to RPG video games after a few years of contempt for the genre. And, because this enlightenment coincided with the peak of my Pathfinder obsession, I found myself pining for a Pathfinder video game with great zeal and intensity. But, alas, no such game was imminent during this era, and I was left with nothing but my dreams of a Pathfinder game until those yearnings receded to a low murmur.

And then, many years later, I heard tell of Pathfinder: Kingmaker, a CRPG that marries the Pathfinder rules system to a game engine reminiscent of Baldur’s Gate and all of the other Infinity Engine classics, with the inclusion of a Turn-Based Combat mode, so as to make the particular fussiness of d20 combat rules more manageable. In other words, this is the exact Pathfinder game I thought I’ve always wanted. I finally picked up Pathfinder: Kingmaker this past weekend, but now that I have it, I’m reminded that thinking you know what you want and actually knowing what you want are two different things.

This is not to say Pathfinder: Kingmaker is a bad game, however, it is an incredibly frustrating game to get the hang of. While many CRPGs are incredibly hard to start out, when your characters are at low levels, Pathfinder: Kingmaker takes this familiar concept of Early Game Hell to extremes I previously considered unthinkable, even after suffering through the initial portions of Divinity: Original Sin II. I’ve already logged more than 20 hours of playing time in Kingmaker, and I remain shocked at how little progress I’ve made. Granted, not all of this time has been active – I took no less than an hour to mull over my main character creation options (this is one of those RPGs where you have a single main character who recruits NPCs to serve as party members) – but it’s hard to overstate how often I’ve backtracked to previous save files to correct terrible build choices, avoid murderously difficult encounters, or try to explore a different location after the location I initially chose to explore proved to be too much for my incomplete party of severely underpowered scrubs. And, remember that I’m saying that as someone who is familiar with Pathfinder rules. I can’t imagine how much worse a time I would have had if I didn’t have this familiarity.

As I see it, there are three main reasons why Kingmaker‘s Early Game Hell is so pronounced. The first is the sheer, staggering amount of build options available to not only the player’s main character, but to the other party members, as well. Auditing all of the build options you must wrangle for every party member at every level up would take far more time and far more babbling than even I can tolerate. Heck, you can multiclass any character into any class they qualify for at any time. This is outrageous in a game that already has well more than a dozen class options, to say nothing of the choices you must make once you’ve picked a class to level up. That in and of itself is mind-boggling (and woe unto anyone who multiclasses a character without having at least a rough plan for all 20 character levels beforehand), so for now, just know that each level up is a potential ordeal, and the consequences of making a bad build decision are catastrophic. That’s because you will never, ever be allowed to re-spec any previously selected build choice, so make sure you create a hard save file at each and every level up, without exceptions. That way, you’ll at least be able to backtrack and redo your level ups once it becomes clear you fucked up one (or more) of them.

The second reason is the fact that, once you complete the game’s prologue chapter, you will not have enough recruited party members to form a complete, six-person party, and it’s going to be some time before you do. Not only do you have to find the other recruitable party members, you will almost certainly have to successfully complete a difficult battle or three to earn their services. On top of that, true to the old BioWare way of doing things, they often come with levels in obscure, hard-to-use classes and obscure, hard-to-use abilities pre-selected at time of recruitment. So, even once you have found enough people to fill a party, you’ll be faced with even more work in trying to get the most out of your new companions, and in finding a combination of party members that makes sense.

The third reason Kingmaker is such a pain is the biggest one; since the game uses Pathfinder rules, the game is based on dice rolls, and that means that outcomes are incredibly random and incredibly variable. Since just about every action in the game uses a dice roll, this means that your success or failure will be determined less by your own decisions and more by sheer dumb luck. This isn’t so bad if you, say, fail a Nature check and thus miss out on a few wolf pelts here and there, but in combat, all it takes is one bad round for your best laid plans to get completely wrecked. Hell, some early battles were so hard that I got into the habit of reloading a battle if I decided the random turn order was unsatisfactory, since I knew I would be annihilated in short order. Good planning and good use of party buffs helps with this problem, but not as much as you’d hope. Even with every buff I had in my bag of tricks going at once, my front-line fighter types often only had about a 50% chance of hitting with their attack each turn, and naturally, those odds were even worse against more difficult enemies. It’s one thing if a game is random only in low-stakes situations, or is random because it’s a procedurally generated Roguelike, where failure is part of the fun. Pathfinder: Kingmaker is not that; it’s a story-driven RPG where failure means death and death means reloading, and reloading means more time logged without any meaningful progress made.

All of this conspired to frustrate the actual hell out of me. I spent all day Sunday in an endless doom cycle of reloading and backtracking. It became impossible to remain composed and make responsible strategic decisions when I was compulsively and angrily reloading every time my tank failed a saving throw for several hours at a stretch. Eventually, I finally did the sensible thing and stepping away from the game for a few hours, and when I did so, I was clear-headed enough to get past a particularly vexing section. Eventually, I got my party to Level 3, thus giving everyone enough hit points and abilities to have some margin for error in combat, and thus completing my escape from Early Game Hell.

And, now that the very worst of the early game is behind me, I must confess that I’m coming around on Kingmaker. (Also, in the interest of full disclosure, note that I am playing with custom difficulty settings that make the game harder than Normal mode but not as hard as Challenging, the next difficulty setting up.) This always happens with RPGs that start out this hard. Those enemies that were smushing your party into a fine paste just a few minutes ago can now be taken down without a sweat. You start to get a feel for how your party is meant to work together, allowing you to relax and settle into a tactical routine. And, when you are faced with harder battles, that’s less of a problem, too; because you had to throw every buff and scroll and potion at even the most mundane encounters earlier, now you know what to do against scarier opponents. Now that I’ve reached that part of the game, I’m finding it much easier to sit back, chill, and enjoy myself.

Once it gets going, Kingmaker does an admirable job of giving me all of the stuff I like about party-based RPGs without throwing too much extra nonsense in on top of that. Pathfinder is a system of too many rules, but Kingmaker uses that to its advantage. I wouldn’t enjoy party-based RPGs half as much as I do if I didn’t like micro-managing build options and equipment in search of marginal advantages. Because the Pathfinder system has so much stuff to keep track of, the game is a micro-manager’s paradise. There’s entirely too many weapon types – and feat trees for specializing in those weapon types – and armor types, and spellcasting methods, and just about everything else (although Kingmaker does substantially pare down and streamline the original Pathfinder skill list, which was too dang long despite itself being a pared down, streamlined version of the D&D 3.5 skill list).

And that’s just the out-of-combat micro-management! In combat, there’s an endless array of party combinations and tactical combinations to futz around with. Not only are there goofy pre-made party member builds to mess around with, there’s also a mechanic whereby you can hire a fully customized party member, thus circumventing the perpetual disappointment of pre-made party members, and I am now convinced every single RPG needs this feature. Hiring a new party member is expensive (2000 GP per character level!), but having done so myself, I can confirm it is worth every penny. I finally have the paladin I’ve always wanted.

You see, before I hired my custom paladin, my front line was comprised of the tank with a not-so-great Strength bonus – and thus, a not-so-great attack bonus – and the barbarian with an also-not-so-great attack bonus, who refuses to equip a weapon other than the impractically large sword that imposes a -2 on her attack rolls (which, like…why? It’s only a +1, she’s gonna need to upgrade eventually, anyway). It does good damage at least, but barbarians always have shitty Armor Class, which means they can scarce afford to miss their attacks. There’s also my main character, a cleric who can sort of hold the line but who also doesn’t have a great attack bonus, and really has better things to do most turns, anyway. My new custom paladin, however, has both a high AC and the highest attack bonus of all three, and now that my front line includes a character who almost always hits, it is has transformed from functional but anemic into a true monster. I now want a custom party member for every class, because they’re the damn best. My point is this mechanic provides multiple additional dimensions of customization to play around with, and it’s glorious.

However, I must point out that, once you complete the first chapter (which I haven’t done just yet), your main character is tasked with managing a whole freaking kingdom (hence the name Kingmaker). I suppose it would be a bit naive to assume that all of the base management mechanics are all that fun; maybe that’s when I’ll be swamped with a bunch of crafting mechanics, tedious fetch quests, and dull mini-games. But there’s plenty of fun base management games out there, from Civilization to XCOM. Therefore, I’m choosing to be cautiously optimistic.

That said, Pathfinder: Kingmaker is still a flawed game. Just like Shadowrun Returns, another Kickstarter funded CRPG based on a tabletop system that I hold in high esteem, Kingmaker clearly aspires to tactically sophisticated combat. But, also like Shadowrun Returns, Kingmaker uses an isometric, fixed-angle camera view. You can’t rotate the camera or alter your perspective in any way (although you can at least zoom in). As a result, it’s quite possible you’ll be unable to position your party members exactly where you want to, because the exact spot you want your party member to go to will be close enough to an enemy or ally so that, when you pan your mouse over to that location, the cursor will highlight that enemy or party member rather than allow you to actually move to that location. At several points, I’ve also had trouble seeing me party members, because they’re behind a tree or a wall or a rock from the camera’s perspective. You can still see your party members in silhouette, but it’s not the same as actually seeing them and it annoys me.

That’s so dumb! How can a game aspire to tactically sophisticated combat when the player can’t even position their party members precisely, according to their strategic goals? In my more cynical moments, I get the impression that the developers (and backers) wanted a Pathfinder game that hearkened back to the days of the Infinity Engine classics without fully considering what does and does not work about using a fixed isometric perspective. Again, my thoughts drift toward Divinity: Original Sin II. Since I’m playing Kingmaker in Turn-Based Combat mode exclusively, combat much more closely resembles combat in D:OS2 than combat in Baldur’s Gate. D:OS2 uses a similar default perspective, but allows the player to rotate and zoom the camera just about any way you can think of, and also features a Tactical Mode, where the camera is fixed to a straight top-down perspective, enabling extremely precise movement and spell positioning.

I do feel like a bastard, though, because this is probably an unfair comparison. Yes, D:OS2 was also backed on Kickstarter, but Larian almost certainly had more resources at their disposal than Kingmaker developer Owlcat Games. Maybe the development team did realize the perspective was an issue, but ran out of time and/or money to fix it. It’s tough out there, and the more I learn about the economics of game development, the more messed up they seem. Even so, my point stands. If you’re gonna make a CRPG, and you want your combat to be based around careful strategic planning and tactical positioning, make sure the player has an unobstructed view of all party members at all times, and make sure movement isn’t restricted just because a spot on the map is hidden behind an object the cursor will highlight.

Beyond my camera-based woes, I’m also starting to take real issue with the encounter balancing. When I was in Early Game Hell, I figured the reason I kept running into difficult, taxing battle after difficult, taxing battle regardless of what area I was trying to explore was that, well, I was in Early Game Hell and them’s the breaks. But, now that I’m Level 3 and the game is easier in general, I’m finding that I’m running into easier enemies. As in, easier in the absolute sense (lower attack bonuses, fewer hit points, and so on), and in lesser numbers. What the hell!? With more careful encounter design, I could’ve been working my way up in the world fighting two or three giant centipedes at a time, or maybe a small handful of goblins, instead of getting continuously skullfucked by magic-wielding slaver bandits and impossible-to-hit giant spiders that deal poison damage (suffice to say, poison damage under Pathfinder rules is a motherfucker and a half). They still would’ve been tricky fights at lower levels, too!

I don’t think it’s wise video game design to front load difficult battles to this extent. It can work in a tabletop setting, because a tabletop game has a GM whose job includes making sure the party doesn’t get fucked over just for getting caught in an unfair fight. A video game does not have this luxury. Like many modern games, the load screens in Kingmaker feature quick blurbs of advice, and one particular blurb states that it’s perfectly fine to run away from fights that seem like they’re just too difficult for your current level. That’s well and good, except like I said, early in the game nearly all of the fights are too hard; you just have to find one you can get through by hook or by crook, and hope for the best (because again, outcomes are highly variable).

On top of that, Kingmaker gives you a time limit! You have three in-game months to accomplish the first chapter’s main objective. That’s kind of neat – most other CRPGs are content to say “You must work quickly to stop the foul plot of the Evil Bad Person(s), but also feel free to spend however long pissing about and doing whatever, it’s fine” in a way that sort of bugs me – but it also puts pressure on the player to explore efficiently. Traveling from one significant location to another is likely to take a day or two of in-game time, and while the quest journal insinuates that three months will be more than enough time to accomplish the first chapter’s objective, any CRPG veteran knows that quest journals gently mislead and/or outright lie to the player all the damn time.

The net consequence of all this is that I’m forced to question the wisdom of visiting a location more than once, and therefore, I’m under pressure to complete every battle and side quest in a location on my first visit, even if those battles and quests are too difficult at my current level for that to be a good idea, because I don’t know if I’ll ever actually have time to come back to any given location. Also, as I’ve established, lots of fights in this game are brutally difficult, so the line between “tough but doable” and “you’re gonna want to come back later for this one” can be extremely blurry. And for what it’s worth, I’m already operating under the assumption that later on in the game, I’ll be placed under a much more significant time crunch at least once, since why would you place a time limits on the main quest if those time limits are never going to be a factor? I’m mildly annoyed just thinking about it.

This has all been a lot of complaining and nitpicking about a game I mostly enjoy, and I try to keep things positive in this space. So I’m going to conclude by saying no, Pathfinder: Kingmaker is not bullshit. It has a ludicrous learning curve (seriously, if you’ve never played tabletop Pathfinder before, good luck! I recommend scouring all corners of the internet for any advice you can get; I also have some thoughts, so hit me up on Twitter @RobMackie10 if you have Pathfinder questions and I’ll answer to the best of my ability) and a few design flaws, but it’s fun. It may not be the exact Pathfinder game I always wanted, but it’s the Pathfinder game that actually exists, which is good enough for me!

Update (8/19/2021): Since this article consistently gets more view than its follow-up, I am obligated to let you know that I changed my mind. Kingmaker is bullshit.

3 thoughts on “Is Pathfinder: Kingmaker Bullshit?

    1. No I have not. I am still a bit intrigued with WotR, and was very seriously thinking about picking it up during Steam Summer Sale, but I held off. It does sound like it does a better job with the big-picture game design stuff – and if I had to summarize my beef with Kingmaker in a single sentence, it’s that I think it screwed up all of the big-picture game design stuff – and I’m open to the idea of enjoying it much more. However, lots of real life stuff has been getting in the way of my gaming time these days, and I have a huge backlog going. So perhaps I’ll check it out at some point, but that point isn’t gonna be any time soon.


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