I’m a fan of tabletops, that’s no secret. In my upcoming article on Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, I even managed to gush about the migraine that is Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: 2nd Edition. I started in third edition, but really got going with the revised ruleset that came in 2003. Already a sizeable catalogue, Wizards of the Coast pumped out content for D&D 3.5 like there was no tomorrow, and no small part of that would be Dungeon and Dragon Magazines. Though long time staples for the game, WotC had its hands pretty full in general, and in 2004 they passed off the game-aid and news magazines to Paizo Publishing (Paizo Inc since 2014). Paizo was another Western Washington based company, and their love for the game was evident from day one. Along with Dragon and Dungeon magazines, they created their own campaign setting and supplementary ruleset, The Pathfinder Chronicles, set in their own fictional world that would become, in my opinion, a fantastically cohesive kitchen-sink of a world, Golarion.
In 2008, Wizards of the Coast put out what was easily the single most divisive release in their history to date, Dungeons and Dragons: Fourth Edition. I could harp on 4e all day, I’m not a fan, and this article could easily just become one of those for a chunk, but it was really a great move long term. While 4e wasn’t my cup of tea, what it excelled at was being accessible. D&D was at its most popular point (at the time, Fifth Edition is ridiculously popular), but it had a mountain full of content, and for new players it was a labyrinth.
I have a folder in my google drive that’s roughly 40 gigs, and it’s *literally* only .pdf files of third edition content. It’s fantastic content, but Bruenor’s Beard was there a lot of it, and rules, races, and classes scattered across obscure secondary releases. Fourth Edition was the answer, it refreshed everyone on the same level, and the game was organized to function comparable to an MMO. The mechanics for the later MMO release Neverwinter by Cryptic Studios needed very little adjustment from the tabletop 4e rules, in fact. The game was very newbie, and cinematic, friendly. It was way more attractive for new players, especially those who preferred the smooth action of a videogame, but a lot of the old players weren’t fond of it.
In 2009, Paizo Publishing answered with a full, this-is-our-own-game release based on their campaign setting, and fully compatible with 3rd edition rules with some pretty minor conversions (even included a handy guide both directions); The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Pathfinder, as it turned out, would be the tabletop I lived in for the next decade. I played other games; a decent amount of Shadowrun, a smattering of Cyberpunk 2020, some 4th and more 3rd edition D&D, I even playtested what was then called “D&D Next” that became Fifth Edition (which has *exploded* into the mainstream), but Pathfinder took the cake. Fans of third edition only-sort-of-jokingly called it 3.75 (Editor’s Note (PY): Can confirm), as there were enough similarities to be easily converted between each other, but the game worked much more smoothly overall. Even some of the most basic things had enough flare to be interesting.
Picking Human Fighter was way easier to be cool and customized in Pathfinder than it was in 3.5, and while you can flavour your roleplay however you like, PF had the mechanics to back up that customization. Fast-forward a bit, and we get a kickstarter for some folks I’d never heard of with an awesome plan. Owlcat Games was going to make a CRPG out of Pathfinder, and the Baldur’s Gate fan in me went off the wall. Pathfinder: Kingmaker, one of the more interesting premade Adventure Paths that had been released for the tabletop. In the AP with the same name, you’re set to clear and establish a kingdom in a tumultuous region of Golarion known as the River Kingdoms, a prime spot for such a tale as it’s a region defined by wildly varied and not always cooperative city-states who were sometimes little more than a name on a signpost. I have been excited for this opportunity since that kickstarter was announced, so let’s move on from my ravings about tabletop history and get to the reason we’re all here.
The first thing I did with this game actually was go to the settings. Figured I’d take care of the Subtitles preferences right away. What I found instead was the single most customizable CRPG I’ve ever seen. Some of it is standard, tutorial messages, font size, language, autosave, but then it goes farther. Custom number of auto-save and quick-save slots, from 0 to 25 each. Autopausing for 21 separate triggers, the ability to replace blood splatter in the game with “Critters,” and then a lot of functions for turn-based mode.
Pathfinder: Kingmaker does another thing I really like, and it shares this quality with Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity; the ability to choose between Real Time With Pause and Turn Based combat. Jumping into a New Game we’re met with a range of difficulties. Lowest is Story Mode, which I always like to see just because some stories are just better told through this medium, and not all stories need skill to complete. This mode’s pretty comparable to other Story Mode setups, 80% damage reduction, you can’t be crit, no character death (but if your whole party goes unconscious it’s still Game Over). Along with the ability to customize a list of aspects of the game for your own personalized difficulty, the game also goes all the way past Insane difficulty to one I love the label of: Unfair.
For all three of the above-Normal difficulties you get the warning “Choosing this difficulty is NOT RECOMMENDED for the players not familiar with the Pathfinder system,” which, by itself, excites the hell out of me. Unfair goes substantially farther though with it’s warning. “Choosing this difficulty is NOT RECOMMENDED for the players not familiar with the Pathfinder system, as well as the Pathfinder: Kingmaker battle system, and those who are not willing to suffer. The enemies will not forgive any mistakes made during combats, and your characters’ builds must be no less than perfect.” I’ve played campaigns on the table that were unforgiving in the extreme, and that is definitely getting played. For purposes of this article, I’ll be writing about the Challenging difficulty, as it appears to be intended as the one closest to the tabletop mechanics. Note, I’ve not actually played the Kingmaker adventure path, so everything but the setting and the mechanics will be fresh to me. HERE WE GO!
Character creation is nice and varied, Definitive Edition is the console release and comes with all the add-ons the PC players had to wait for. Pathfinder: Kingmaker includes five premade characters each fitting a different role, or you can create your own. While Pathfinder has as many playable “races” as it has sapient creatures (as well as rules for custom ones), Kingmaker settles on nine. Likewise, Pathfinder boasts forty classes to pick from (with rules to build your own), and while Kingmaker shaves that down, they keep it at a solid sixteen to choose from, with multiclassing available at each level. At this stage, you can even choose a premade build for your customized character, so long as you don’t choose an “archetype” for your class. This will, however, turn on auto-leveling, which will take your control at level-up away. In a true “this is your game” approach, however, even that decision isn’t set in stone. At level-up, you still review the new character sheet. If you change anything, it simply turns auto-level off.
My favorite part of Pathfinder’s Class system is its Archetypes, a variation on the way each class works. Usually this keeps the core class concept and shifts it, but some go substantially farther than that, and it’s nice to see the mechanic represented. The number of archetypes varies per class in the tabletop, but Owlcat included three for each, in addition to the base version. With the limit on archetypes, I knew a number of my favorites would be cut. Many are little more than flavor, and even more would be functionally useless in a video game. Some, like the Rogue’s Knife Master, which grants the rogue bonuses on their sneak attack with dagger-sized blades, I’d not been surprised to see. Others I’ hoped but not been sure of, like the Magus archetype Eldritch Scion, which switches the Magus from casting Prepared, (more spells known but has to plan each day) like a Wizard to Spontaneous (fewer known, but more flexibility) like a Sorcerer.
One that I’d fully not expected though, was the Bard archetype that takes away Performing, the Archaeologist. This bard archetype takes a smattering of Rogue traits, switching the class’s role potential entirely away from crowd control and party buffs it traditionally is. I created my most recent Pathfinder character, a little Dragon-Blooded Gnome mage/thief named Khaz. He’s manifested a few different ways on the tabletop, most of them readily available in Kingmaker. This time, we went with Knife Master for his starting class, and we’d level him into Eldritch Scion at 2, giving him his Blue Dragon sorcerer bloodline and his ability to grow claws.
His original incarnation is almost doable in the game, and most of his alternates are, but they’re all minor flavor changes. This build gives him a bit more combat ability than most of his incarnations. The biggest reason I still play Pathfinder more than any other TTRPG is the character customization, and it is here in this game deliciously. Two of the other races, Aasimar and Tiefling, even come with six subraces for further flavor-and-ability shifting, in addition to the base version. I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t tell you I played the opening level ten times just making characters, some new, and some old favorites.
The game opens up in the great hall of a manor house, where dozens have gathered in answer to a call for adventurers. You’re in the great hall of the manor belonging to Swordlord Jamandi Aldori, and with her is the Mayor of the city you’re in, Restov, Ioseph Sellemius. They want you all to go and take out a bandit king and his followers, and when you’re done, whoever the group chooses gets the land and a title to do what they want with it, and a lucrative trade deal with Brevoy, of course. Throughout the expositional dialogue, and all dialogue throughout the game, pretty much any setting/Pathfinder related terms will be highlighted in Green in the text on screen, and there is an ever-present glossary button to answer questions you might have, like what a Swordlord is, or why Brevoy matters.
Announcement ends, “Go to bed and head out at our expense in the morning.” and the game centers back to you, but you’re not in control yet. First you meet Linzi, a halfling bard who’s actually writing a book about this adventure. The whole game is framed as this book, actually. The menus, skill checks, loading screens; there are all-text decision-making sequences, usually at story-relevant points, that look like a book page, often with an illustration, and it’s clear the story is from her perspective, but you are the hero of her tale.
I love the way this was done, and applaud it each time it pops up. Owlcat uses a solid mixture of in-game scripted action, enforcing one-off circumstantial rules, dialogue, and these little decision-making and skill check moments to capture more of the feel of that tabletop experience. Introductions over, setting established, you head to bed, only to be awoken by Linzi busting into your room, talking about an attack. A scream is heard, she rushes out, and an assassin rushes in. it’s here you get your first tutorial, and it’s pretty good at explaining what’s about to happen.
However your preferred style, Turn Based or Real-Time-With-Pause, you can switch it on a whim with the press of a thumbstick. I find myself using both, RTwP roaming around and dispatching trash mobs, and switching to Turn based when I want to really focus and allocate everything myself. For RTwP, the game has a pretty good AI you can attach to the whole party, including your character, and just sit back while they play out the fight their way. They went all in with the Real-Time aspect too. one round in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game represents six seconds. Likewise, during RTwP, action types take up a specific amount of time. Something that’s a “Full Round Action” in Turn Based really will take six seconds in RTwP.
Once you’re out of your room, you head toward Linzi (or explore the room the other way, your choice), and you find Tartuccio, a gnome you heard earlier in the great hall, held captive by a pair of assassins. After this, you gain Linzi and Tartuccio as party members you can control directly. You’ll fight your way through the manor, making a couple of moral decisions along the way, a variety of skill checks and the trapfinding mechanic, and gain a couple more party members before the big fight at the end, where you see this is a very planned attack, as they have a trio of mages channeling a barrier and summoning powerful monsters to trap Jamandi Aldori and Mayor Sellemius and keep them occupied, there are a lot of units here, and turn based takes some time to get through at this level. After it’s all clear, it’s revealed that somebody present is a spy, but that the mission will go on regardless, split into two teams instead. Your actions, and explanation for them, determine who goes with you from here, and you’re given your deadline. Three months. ninety days to find the Stag king, kill him and his bandits, and claim the Stolen Lands for yourself, and Restov will pay for the construction of your capital city, and you’ll instantly be landed nobility.
“Travel takes time” is the biggest kicker in this adventure. You need to sleep, you need to eat, regardless of difficulty, you’ll find yourself becoming fatigued, and you’ll have to rest. If you’re not in a dungeon, you can hunt with the Knowledge (Nature) skill, and this can be done any time resting is triggered from the travel map as well. Like most CRPGs, Kingmaker is split into limited squarish regions to explore at a time, and they can vary in size quite a bit. There’s not a ton of sidetasks in these, but there’s enough to keep you wandering around to see what there is to see. Sometimes it’s just somebody else’s story. One example is when I found a “Lonely Shambling Mound,” and nearby was a corpse, and a lab journal, and what happened became clear. I had a genuine emotional response from this easily-ignored little spot that contained nothing particularly useful. I think there were a couple potions I didn’t really need, I wasn’t really paying attention to that part because I got to find out why this non-aggressive Shambling Mound is also Lonely, and it made the world feel more whole, more cohesive, and more alive.
Your base until you establish your kingdom is Oleg’s Trading Post, which is being attacked by the Stag King’s goons when you arrive. After a chance to explore and set up for an ambush, you’ll see directly how what you say can affect what happens going forward, and then your first safe rest since leaving Restov. You encounter the spirit of a nymph here, and you get your first hint at a bigger story than “Kill the bandit king,” and more chances to shift the game and your alignment. As you go, you’ll find the Stag King’s childhood home, the lost sister of Oleg’s wife, a group of warring Mites and Kobolds that Khaz convinced to stop fighting and worship him, giving them each a glove to serve as new sacred relics. Pay attention to the dialogue in this game, it has such a strong pull on what happens. The combat is fairly frequent, but it’s definitely secondary. The fighting is something active to do to get you from A to B in the story, and it really does work like a tabletop in that way. Especially when there’s thirty units on the screen each taking a separate six second turn (you can tap a button and make it speed up through the NPCs).
I hit the Stag King around hour thirty, which is probably pretty slow. I like to explore, and there’s a fair bit of it. Besides, Khaz and I had a cult to start. His isn’t a fight to snub your nose at either. Not only is his base chock full of lesser bandits, the actual fight with him includes a whole party of class-leveled baddies, so you’d better be ready. Rest and spell preparation is a major part of the game as well. I’ve always been a “spontaneous” caster in these games, and always forget to arrange my Wizard’s spells, while my Sorcerers just refill what they know. Resting requires food, which means rations or someone to hunt, and you can’t hunt in dungeons.
The rest of the game is a mixture of kingdom management and continued adventure as you continue diving into the mysteries of these wild lands; of the slave-hunting Technic League, and what is here that the agents of Pitax were willing to kill dozens at that meeting back in Restov over? Keep an eye on the calendar as you dive into the Stolen Lands and your new Barony, as everything is on a schedule that you’re free to ignore, but not without consequences. There’s a handy automated mode for the management, however, so it’s much more smooth if you’re uninterested in that part of the game. Again, Owlcat really leaned into the ability to customize your experience.
Along with the main story, the Definitive Edition that is the console version includes the additional adventure Varnhold’s Lot, in which you take the role of the Right Hand of the new Baron of Varnhold, your main-game neighbor to the east. This adventure starts at the ceremony during which you’re granted your title in the main game, and carries on in this other barony run by a mercenary group you help lead.
Shortly after release a major patch was put out that cleared a lot of early-reported bugs, with more patches said to come, but even so, it was a pretty smooth port from PC in my play experience. The love for this game and where it came from shows through so clearly, and in such a genuinely fun way, I know I’ll be dumping hours into this game long into the future.