Always in season
Image credit: parrais
Paizo’s Adventure Paths are amongst their most popular and exciting products, but they can be intimidating. Designed as epic campaigns taking PCs from first to fifteenth level – or higher – they can consume years of both game time and real time. Thus it is crucial to understand exactly what you are getting yourself – and your group – into.
The goal of this review is to provide both players and GMs hunting for an Adventure Path the information they need to determine whether to take the plunge into Kingmaker. I will keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, so that your entire group should be able to read this information and discuss whether it is for you. However, you will inevitably learn some high-level information about what to expect when you play this series. If you are strongly allergic to spoilers, stay away – but for the most part I won’t provide any more information than the Kingmaker Player's Guide.
A word on my experience with Kingmaker: this review is based on a detailed reading (and review) of the six adventures as well as my experiences as a player in a Kingmaker game through the first three adventures. (It’s worth noting that my group switched campaigns at that point because of real-world issues, not because of the adventure.)
What Is It?
Kingmaker consists of six full-length adventures that take the PCs from first level to about eighteenth. The campaign has two distinctive themes: wilderness “sandbox” exploration and kingdom-building. The PCs first explore the uncivilized Pathfinder #031: Stolen Land, eventually gaining the privilege of founding their own dominion, which will eventually expand into a regional power if all goes well. The second adventure, Pathfinder #032: Rivers Run Red, contains new rules for building a kingdom, while the fifth, Pathfinder #035: War of the River Kings, contains simple rules for mass combat.
The PCs will gain experience through the usual adventuring – there are a lot of wilderness encounters with a sprinkling of “dungeons,” especially in the latter half of the path – but also by exploring the map and advancing their kingdom.
There is one very important decision to be made if you dive into Kingmaker: should your PCs assume leadership of the nascent kingdom, or should your campaign focus on the adventures themselves and let kingdom-building slide into the background? I’ll provide some information on that question below, but for now I will assume that you will be incorporating the kingdom-building into your game.
Reasons to Love Kingmaker
Despite its relative age, Kingmaker is still one of Paizo’s most popular Adventure Paths. It holds this position for a number of reasons:
Kingmaker allows many different characters to shine. The wilderness environment and wide range of challenges opens the door to many different character classes and concepts. Everyone from a beater to a skill monkey to a social butterfly will find interesting challenges and encounters.
There is a strong emphasis on the wilderness. Unlike most of Paizo’s adventure paths, which focus on sequences of dungeons (or other constrained environments), there’s a great deal of wilderness here, and only a couple of large dungeons. The encounters generally do an excellent job of emphasizing this side.
There is a strong focus on exploration, leaving the players a lot of choice in where the adventure goes. If your players like to take the initiative and drive you crazy with unexpected turns, they’ll very much enjoy the open-ended structure of (most of) the adventures.
Kingmaker has a much less structured story than most adventure paths, with a highly episodic structure. The lack of obvious threat means that the campaign can end early without much trouble – my own game ended halfway through, but we all see that as a successful campaign with a satisfying end for our characters.
The adventures hit many of the popular tropes of fantasy kingdoms – war, treachery, tournaments – missing from nearly every other D&D adventure.
The PCs actually increase in power and influence beyond their own collection of magic items: they all take leadership roles in a kingdom, projecting power on a much larger scale than most D&D adventures. If your players like to feel as though they make a difference in the wider world, Kingmaker may be ideal.
Kingmaker presents a wide range of interesting personalities and settings. For the most part, these are quality adventures, with a lot of nice set pieces. My personal favorites are Pathfinder #031: Stolen Land and Pathfinder #033: The Varnhold Vanishing.
The large territory provides lots of room for GM tinkering. By the end of the path, the PCs will have explored a huge territory, and there’s plenty of room – and a wide range of terrains – for the GM to drop in his or her favorite encounter, dungeon, or even adventure. In fact, the overall structure is loose enough that one could change that entire overarching plot while keeping 75% of the adventure intact, especially at low levels.
The leisurely pace (in game time) opens up a new dimension for characters. The action in this series takes place over many years, with lots of breaks for kingdom-building and consolidation. Characters have a chance to grow and change that is usually absent at the frenetic pace of world-saving adventures!
Reasons to Avoid Kingmaker
Although Kingmaker has a lot of strengths, it’s not for everybody – here are some reasons you might be wary of it.
One of the best! Image credit: parrais
The lack of structure can make it hard to push the story forward. Players have some incentive to explore, but they generally need to take the initiative to drive the action. This means the pacing can be fairly random, and the players may get distracted or bored at times. The primary mechanism provided for the GM is a series of “quests” that incentivize the PCs to solve certain mysteries or find certain items, but there are few clues to follow – it is just a push to explore generally, until you hit upon the right hex.
There is very little overarching story, at least until the final installment – and what story is there is largely hidden from the players. If your group likes to follow one big plot or pursue one supremely evil villain, they won’t like Kingmaker.
Nevertheless, every adventure path is ultimately a railroad. There are six adventures worth of challenges, and while each one leave the PCs a great deal of freedom, there is a set progression. Their kingdom can’t expand in certain directions, they can’t get too involved with other nations (and when they can is largely driven by external factors), and there are clear expectations of their adventuring. This is certainly not a free-form game!
The “away party problem” leads to some major cognitive dissonance. The PCs rule a kingdom…but also adventure. By the rules, they can travel for three weeks out of each month without penalty, seeking their subjects’ lost children, eggs for dinner, and lost rings. It’s a little odd that the king and his most important advisors put themselves in danger for such trivial expeditions…but such is the nature of the game.
There’s some unfortunate repetition in the challenges. In particular, the climaxes of two adventures are very similar.
Kingdom-building can place stringent requirements on character types. This is not so much a mechanical problem as a conceptual one: the players must build characters with a reason to care about their nation and subjects. This is very different from many adventuring archetypes!
The combat challenges are often rather easy. With the large amount of travel in the campaign, PCs often encounter only one challenge per game day – but most of those challenges are set as usual for Pathfinder games – which makes for many easy adventuring days. On the other hand, there are some very challenging mini-dungeons and set pieces interspersed throughout.
The exploration element adds some focus on random encounters. There’s a fairly limited number of fixed encounters, and the GM is expected to make up the difference through random elements. If that doesn’t appeal, you can simply leave them out but may need to make up the XP elsewhere.
Finally, and most importantly, Kingmaker requires an experienced GM. The open-ended nature means PCs can go in many different directions, so there is a lot to prepare each session. Random encounters add more difficulty, if they are not to be fight after fight. And, as we’ll see in a moment, the kingdom-building game is very difficult to run effectively.
My Kingdom For A Horse!
Kingdom-building rules here! Image credit: parrais
If you decide to tackle Kingmaker, there is one extremely important decision to make: should you use the kingdom-building and mass combat mini-games, or let that slide into the background? This is a difficult one, because the idea of ruling a kingdom is one of the two primary attractions of the campaign – but, at least in this reviewer’s eyes, the system itself is deeply flawed. Here are the problems we encountered.
First, as described above, kingdom-building limits the scope of useful character concepts. If half your group wants to play outlaws out for revenge, nobody will enjoy themselves.
There is a disconnect between the game’s focus on cities and its kingdom-wide scope. The only substantial way to customize your realm is through the buildings inside of each city – which can have enormous effects on the realm. The urban focus in a fantasy environment is tough to swallow for many.
There is a tremendous amount of bookkeeping involved in the game. Every kingdom has only a few statistics – but every hex, building, leader, etc. affects those statistics. I spent several hours constructing an Excel spreadsheet to track these modifiers, and others are available through Paizo’s messageboards. The problem is that this level of bookkeeping is a strong deterrent to participation in the game – if not for an entire group, then for those members who have not mastered the intricacies of this bookkeeping (which, unfortunately, a spreadsheet renders even more opaque). And don’t even get me started on having to roll for your city’s magic items each turn!
The number of decisions per turn is quite small: where do you expand, and what building do you make? The first is usually quite obvious (and not very important). Your group needs to come to consensus on these. There’s a big risk of a dominant player taking control (or, in our case, of the complexity of the bookkeeping sidelining all but the one who could understand the consequences of that one important decision). This is also complicated by the in-game authority structure – shouldn’t the king decide everything?
There is, effectively, only one way to design a “successful” kingdom – by which I mean one that is not perpetually on the edge of destruction, and completely unable to field an army in the later stages of the campaign. And that way is extraordinarily unappealing to many of us (here comes the one spoiler, mouseover to see it): generate magic items. So far as I can tell, there is no way to generate a self-sustaining kingdom without this strategy, which makes it more of a puzzle than a game.
There are some balance problems amongst the buildings. They are really only distinguished by their costs and pre-requisites, and it is far too easy to determine the optimal choices. If your players are more interested in building a cool city than “beating the game,” this probably won’t be a problem – but, since you will spend much of the game on the edge of disaster, that temptation to optimize by building a long network of Graveyards is pretty strong.
The mass combat system is also flawed: it is decided by too few d20 rolls, adding a great deal of luck, it is extraordinarily expensive for a kingdom to maintain an army, and army design is much more interesting than the combat itself.
There’s no role-playing in the game! As written, there’s little scope for character personalities to shine. A good GM will make this work, but the onus is on him or her – the game provides very few tools for role-playing the kingdom.
As much as it pains me, I cannot recommend the kingdom-building game. I would instead abstract much of it, let the players make some high-level strategic decisions, and let them add character to the kingdom.
The Bottom Line
My group had a lot of fun with the first half of Kingmaker, and I’m sure we would have continued to do so had the campaign survived long. The paired themes of exploration and kingdom-building have a lot of appeal, and even if the latter is not executed as well as it should be, we had a good time with the idea of a kingdom at our fictional fingertips. The adventures themselves are mostly very good, the opponents are interesting and varied, and there’s a lot of theme and fun to be had. I comfortably recommend the adventure path if the theme appeals to you, even if you may not get through the whole thing – there are enough milestones along the way to feel like you’ve had a successful campaign no matter where you stop.
Just beware the kingdom-building rules themselves!
Need More Information?
Need more information to make your decision? I’ve reviewed all of the Kingmaker entries individually. These reviews most definitely contain spoilers, but they include a detailed accounting of what you’ll get:
Kingmaker Player's Guide: Preparing you to take over the world…or at least about 100 hexes of it
Pathfinder #031: Stolen Land: Kingmaker, kingmaker, make me a king (volume 1)
Pathfinder #032: Rivers Run Red: Cities, Roads, and Farms (sorry, no Cloisters)
Pathfinder #033: The Varnhold Vanishing: Roanoke in the sandbox
Pathfinder #034: Blood for Blood: The plot thickens
Pathfinder #035: War of the River Kings: This means war!
Pathfinder #036: Sound of a Thousand Screams: A scream of a finale
Note: This is my thirty-fifth entry in the Iron Reviewer series.
- Last edited Sun Jul 27, 2014 7:06 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Tue Feb 28, 2012 9:17 pm
Crafts keep me sane.
New recruit to the spoonie army.
with that title, I was hoping for a quiz...
Ramping up my reviewing.
Happily playing games for many, many years.
More and more, it's seeming like the new rule systems that Paizo introduce into their AP are massively flawed. The Caravan rules in Jade Regent fall apart badly in the one adventure in which they're the main feature.
It's really disappointing.
I wish to provide legendary service to the RPG community to help grow our hobby and enrich the lives of gamers everywhere.
We're just starting book 3 now and having a blast with Kingmaker as our primary campaign. We don't spend too much time kingdom building - just enough to get that 'big picture scope' of building and growing and surviving months and years which lends a real sense of history to our campaign. Mostly we focus on the adventure hooks and quests and then come back to run a quick turn or three of kingdom building - not thinking too much about it as we want to get back to the hero-stuff.
Overall I love the free form nature of the adventure path and so long as you keep kingdom building to a smallish part, it will add to the fun.
One thing I will say is that the game is designed to go days exploring hexes so even when questing and such, spell allotments for the day are hardly ever a problem - so you get to experiment with a wide variety of spells since it seems like exploration is long enough to get several spell refills (and, obviously, kingdom building is on the 1 month scale so you not only get your spells back but heal fully).
Limited Access - Wellycon XI - Back 5th June 2018
with that title, I was hoping for a quiz...
From the BGG thrifts I was expecting a Long Live Kingmaker!
Great review Steven, makes the concept sound very appealing.
- Last edited Sat Mar 3, 2012 10:31 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Sat Mar 3, 2012 10:31 pm
AaAaAaAaAaAaA! Oh no! You shanked my Jenga ship!
"We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can't think what anybody sees in them."
I have to agree! In fact, I had been actively avoiding Pathfinder, since I wasn't a big fan of 3.0 and 3.5. The review of this Adventure Path managed to get me curious about it.