Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Fileloser Queenbreaker

I think we're all finding our own personal silver linings to the current social-distancing, sheltering-in-place regime. One of mine is guilt-free gaming, and specifically buckling down and playing through the finale of Pathfinder: Kingmaker. It actually did end up feeling a bit like a neglected household chore: I thought "Oh, I'm so close to the end, I should just finish it," then winced at the thought of enduring one more tedious, frustrating battle against the Wild Hunt. But, much as I've finally fixed that one chair and repaired that one electric light, I've finally done the necessary and defended my queendom.


I would say that for me, the game roughly breaks down to be about 30% awesome, 40% fun, 25% fine and 5% aggravating. Which is not bad! But it's a long game, so that 5% leads to hours and days of lulls. But countless more hours of wonder and excitement. It's almost certainly the longest story-based RPG I've ever played, and, notwithstanding its warts, one of the most satisfying.


Before dipping into spoilers, here are a few random thoughts that may be of interest to others playing the game. They aren't, like, the most important thing of "5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Playing Pathfinder: Kingmaker," just a couple of items of personal interest.


Regarding romance: You can advance most romance content by just talking with your love interest at the capital, but certain romance scenes will only play while the two of you (and others!) are camping inside a quest area. They do not play when camping on the world map, which is where I camped like 98% of the time. I think that you may need to get these conversations to get the conclusion to your romance.


Regarding builds: Your party is well-balanced, and you can pick from up to 11 companions to fill 5 available slots (12 companions with the Wildcards DLC, and infinite companions if you want to generate your own from the Pathfinder Academy). Much like the earlier BG games, this means you can be whatever you want, and honestly can be kind of useless and let your party carry you. I doubt that I'll play again, but if I do, it would be interesting to be a Monk: You find some cool unique weapons and robes that only Monks can wear, and there are no Monks on your team. (The other "missing" classes are Druid, Paladin, Slayer and Sorcerer, but I didn't see any similarly unique equipment for those.) There are two times in the game when you're on your own without your party; you shouldn't plan around that, but it's worth holding onto extra potions or scrolls or things for that.


Okay, let's get into it! We'll call these

MEGA SPOILERS

Things I Liked

Romance. I would have liked more romance content, and for the romances to be deeper - but I say that about literally every RPG romance, and Pathfinder is better than most. It did what it tried to do and was sweet. I especially want to call out the very cool polyamory angle for some of the romances, it was designed very well and made sense, both in terms of the story, the characters and the mechanics.


Characters. What I liked best about your party is how dynamic they are: everyone gets some good growth and evolves over the course of the game, as a result of their experiences and conversations with you. I'm thinking of stuff like Harrim's journey, which in the early chapters seemed kind of boring and one-note, but ended up being really nuanced and interesting. This is the rare game to strike the balance between giving your party members agency, and giving your player character influence over them.


Villains. There are a lot of them, but they are each distinct and have sensible motivations for why they do the things they do; I especially appreciate that some of them have Good or Lawful alignment while still threatening your reign. There are also some good roleplaying options while encountering them, and you often have the option to bring them to your side or otherwise help determine their fate.


Voice acting. The amount is inconsistent throughout the game, with plentiful voiceover during plot-critical dialogue and then long periods of silence during other conversations. But I like that for this style of game which is so text-heavy. It does add a lot of character, particularly bringing alive people like Linzi and Amiri.


Music. It's super-memorable and catchy and atmospheric. It's really remarkable that I never got sick of it with as long as the game is. There's great development of themes over the course of the game, too; it's very cool to hear the kingdom theme in a new mix near the finale.

Core mechanics. The crunchy numbers and rules feel really solid. They're varied and interesting, with lots of useful options to choose between. They are definitely complex, but the similarity to D&D helped a lot. It doesn't feel excessively balanced like Pillars of Eternity did, but also doesn't offer just "one right way" to approach builds.


Kingdom management, sort of. It felt really good to have an ongoing connection with the people in your barony, on a macro as well as a micro level. There are a few interesting choices, both in the level-up throne room events and in how you choose to resolve various problems. Some of the mechanics were fun, and I still really like the dice-roll with bonuses and maluses that resolves political events.



Things I'm Lawful Neutral On

The economy. It does pass my primary test for an RPG: there are things that are worth buying, and not enough gold to just buy everything. That said, there is lots of jank and needless complexity: some  stuff, like books and bottles of alcohol, is completely useless but not considered "junk" and thus you need to manually search for and click to sell dozens of items scattered through the hundreds of things you're carrying. And on the other hand, a few items (like an Emerald) is actually required to complete a quest, but is considered "junk" and will almost certainly be sold by you. I hate inventory systems in RPGs in general, but Pathfinder: Kingmaker isn't worse than most.


Choice and consequences. Early, seemingly random decisions can have huge and devastating consequences 150 hours later. I'm thinking now in particular of Kanarah and Kalikke's fate, which is based on a single choice you make much earlier in the game. To its credit, the story does make sense, and the consequences flow from the choices, but it still feels rough. Even rougher for me was losing Jaethal: I'd taken her side consistently throughout the game, varying from my standard Good approach to indulge her Evil tendencies and always backing her up. In contrast, I'd sided with Tristan only maybe 50% of the time. But, in the end I lost Jaethal and kept Tristan, which was a hit to the core party composition I was planning to run with through the end of the campaign. From reading online, it's possible to save both, but requires a very specific route through their respective personal quests and some metagaming knowledge. I dunno... I do really like your choices having impacts and your decisions having meaningful consequences, it just feels frustrating when they seem tenuously connected and temporally distant.

Things I Disliked

Saving times. Loading saved games and loading new areas takes a while, which I'm used to, but even a "quicksave" will freeze the game for a good 10+ seconds by the end of the game. This did get a bit better once I installed the Cleaner mod.

Kingdom management, sort of. After an initial giddy thrill at all the subsystems and options, it's very deflating to realize that so much of it ends up being useless, both mechanically and narratively. 95% of buildings are pointless. Opportunities are pointless. About half of the Economy projects are pointless, and about a third of the Other projects. 100% of Curse projects are pointless, except for one particularly obscure ending of the game that you won't be able to get unless you also follow a few other specific metagaming routes. Story-wise, it's frustrating to invest so much effort and so many resources into improving your kingdom, and seeing all your stats at maximum levels and all your advisors reporting how awesome things are, and then as soon as a story beat happens it shifts to "Everything is falling apart! Your citizens are abandoning you! Everyone has lost confidence in your rule!" Which... I mean, what's the point of having a Loyalty stat if there's zero difference between Loyalty I and Loyalty X when the manure hits the windmill?


The Darven/Hellknights quest. It's really weird and dumb. I told Darven to go away and attacked him, then Linxia acted like I had allied with him. Most of the quests in PF:K can provide at least the illusion of meaningful choices, so it's particularly jarring for this one particular quest to be so railroaded. The rewards at the end are good, but it's such a nothing story filled with annoying characters, aggravating all the way through to the final slide about it at the game's end.

Things I Hated

The Wild Hunt. Bullshit, terrible, un-fun, grindy fights. It reminds me of playing Dragon Age 2 on Nightmare difficulty: not at all rewarding or interesting, just a slog to get through. It's especially infuriating since the boss fights in this zone are so underwhelming: I killed the Wriggling Man and the Knurly Witch and the one other tree guy in about 10-20 seconds each, but the "trash" fights leading up to them drag on for minutes. There are so many of those fights and they're all the same and they're all terrible and boring and I hate them.  It really sucks to have this be one of the last things you experience in the game, which up until then has generally fun, varied, interesting combat. It's right up there with Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines in souring the ending by throwing tons of bad guys at you, burning off the goodwill the game has painstakingly built up up until the finale.

That's It!

I should probably summarize the story, so here we go:


I played as Guchok, a Half-Orc Bard. She started as Lawful Neutral and gradually drifted into Lawful Good over the course of the game. This is mostly because, like vintage D&D, the moral choices in PFK lean towards "be a decent human person or be a terrible psychopath?". But I like to imagine that it's also because Guchok grew as a person, shifting from primarily being self-interested in establishing a base of power to feeling personally involved in the needs of her companions and subjects.


I romanced Octavia, which was a great and really interesting romance. I didn't invite Reoganar to join in, but also never pushed Octavia to break up with him. So I guess we just had kind of an open relationship, since I was technically also dating Kanerah on the side; that relationship didn't seem to ever conclude, but I'm not sure if that's because the Octavia one pre-empted it or if it was because I rarely quested with Kanerah or something else. When Octavia and Reoganar finally split I was super-supportive, we had some sweet talks together (where I bit my Lawful tongue and sided with her Chaotic whims), and it ends up being surprisingly traditional, which, given where it started, was entirely unexpected.


I had good relationships with pretty much everyone and did all of their personal quests. Valerie fought and defeated her tormenter, got a scar, then forgave the Shelyn crew and adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards their faith, getting healed in the process. Amiri killed her old chief, elevated her friend to lead the tribe, and made peace with the spirit who owned her sword. Octavia rescued the Technic League prisoners, tracked down her mother, reconciled and got her title. Linzi recruited her old teacher, exiled her old bully, and wrote a searing expose on abuses within the Academy. Jaethal was pure evil, resurrecting her foes against their will, taking forbidden knowledge on dark rituals, and making her daughter into a thrall. Kalikke used Kanerah as bait to save the Sweet Teeth from the Soul Eaters, then Kanerah wanted to voluntarily join the Forefather, and quit angrily when I killed him anyways. Harrim came to accept his role of creative destruction, and first grudgingly but eventually with some satisfaction. Jubilost won the Inconsequent Debates and selflessly donated his prize to a random deserving gnome. Ekundayo turned away from the path of vengeance over his dead family and started a new life with the tavernkeeper. Okbo is a good boy. Nok-Nok retained his high opinion of himself, gaining even more confidence and embracing the title "Hero," all while openly worshiping Lamashtu and erecting statues of himself and Guchok. Reoganar killed his Technic League captors, grudgingly let his "owner" escape, and found the depopulated tribe that had birthed him. Tristan stole the Oculus, then rejoined my team, and pledged to return to Sarenrae after the quest was complete.


Running through main-plot stuff: I made peace between the mites and the kobolds. I killed both the kobolds and the trolls. I saved both Jhod and Kesten, then burned the Everblooming Flower. Tristan took the Oculus before I could stop him. I killed Vordekai and then annexed Varnhold, bringing Maegar Varn into my court. I pursued Amiri before Tristan, rescuing her, then finding Armag and defeating the Sisters. I spared Armag's life but made Dugath the new chief. I was generally polite but unyielding towards Pitax, pressing back hard against libel while avoiding violence as long as possible. I convinced all of the various Pitaxian stakeholders to support my conquest; once done, I executed the drug-dealing thieves guild leader, turned the Academy management over to new blood, and reinstated the old nobility to govern Pitax. I fought both the Knurly Witch and the Wriggling Man, convinced Nyrissa to join with me, fought the Lantern King, and defeated him by relying on the strength of my kingdom. I turned down the offers of immortality at the end, severing the link between the Stolen Lands and the First World, and was an awesome queen for the rest of my life the end.


Favorite Companion: Amiri.
Favorite Romance: Octavia.
Favorite Voice: Linzi.
Favorite Main Plot: Troll Trouble.
Favorite Villain: Nyrissa.
Favorite Dungeon: Vordekai's Tomb.
Favorite Class: Alchemist.
Favorite Prestige Class: Arcane Trickster.
Favorite Spell: Legendary Proportions.
Favorite Summon: Barbarian spirits.
Favorite Weapon: Lots of great choices! I'll probably give the edge to Vanquisher, but the Unstoppable Khanda and Devourer of Metal are excellent, too.
Favorite Feat: Outflank.
Favorite Skillcheck: Persuade (Intimidate).
Favorite Enemy: Adamantine golem.
Favorite Advisor: Jubilost.
Favorite Building: Aviary.
Favorite Region: Toss-up between Tors of Levenies and Glenebon.
Favorite Project (Economy): Trade Agreement with Surtova
Favorite Project (Other): Land Defenders

END SPOILERS

Pathfinder: Kingmaker deeply impressed me. By about the 80% mark I was thinking that this was my favorite RPG since Baldur's Gate 2. By the 90% mark I was hating every minute of it and going for days without playing because the thought of yet another Wild Hunt fight bored me to tears. I'm very glad that I pushed through that rough slog, though. By the end they turned it around and stick the landing with a very satisfying final chapter.


Steam says that I've played this game for over 200 hours, which seems insane. I'm not sure that any game is worth 200 hours of our precious, limited lives; but if you're in the mood for a deep and complex fantasy role-playing game, this could be perfect for you! As I reflect back on it, it doesn't feel so much like an absurdly long RPG as like like 8 full-length RPGs that you're playing back-to-back, automatically importing the same character and progression along the way. I think that helps keep the pace and momentum a lot higher than you would expect, with nicely self-contained arcs and story beats throughout, which do finally all together in the end.


I did enjoy this enough to get in on the Kickstarter for Wrath of Heaven, and I'm highly optimistic about the sequel. Based on my scouring of the patch notes for Kingmaker between its initial release and when I started playing it, the team at Owlcat has been very receptive to feedback and made drastic improvements in the gameplay of Kingmaker, and it sounds like they're taking those lessons to heart for WoH, while also pushing forward with some major innovations (army combat, anyone?). Kingmaker was an insanely ambitious first game for a new developer and they accomplished something incredible with it, so I have very optimistic hopes for their next outing.

Monday, March 09, 2020

BLOOD FOR GORUM!

I'm cruising along in Pathfinder: Kingmaker. I don't think I'm in the endgame yet, but I'm pretty sure (or at least I hope!) that I'm past the halfway mark. My companion roster has been stable for a while, my kingdom is growing strong and prosperous, and a majority of the world map now lies within my benevolent borders.


For as far along as I am, I still don't know what the overarching plot is, who the main villain is (if there is one!), or what the endgame will be. I don't have much story-related stuff to discuss yet, and it's premature to render a verdict on the game as a whole, so for this post I thought I'd just get a bunch of small complaints off my chest. This will probably sound like a whiny post, so I should emphasize that I do really enjoy the game a whole heck of a lot. The positive aspects vastly outweigh these negatives, and in many cases the negatives are necessary side-effects of the good. Without further ado:


I've previously complained about inventory weight and management. Today I'd like to complain specifically about sorting. I'm often in a situation where I need to check whether I'm carrying something, which swiftly becomes a needle-in-a-haystack exercise as I scroll through the hundreds of distinct items in my shared stash looking for one square that may or may not have what I need. "Wait, did I already buy that book?" "How many Taldan artifacts am I already carrying?" "I'm carrying too much, should I sell off some food ingredients?" Sorting by weight can be helpful when I'm trying to drop pounds, and the very cool sorting by date is great if I'm trying to find some recent loot or gift. Otherwise, "By Type" is usually the best option if I'm trying to figure out what I'm carrying: it groups all the potions together in one contiguous section, all the weapons together, all the scrolls together, and so on. Unfortunately, though, there seems to be a big "Other" section that just jumbles together lots of different groupings of items. So cooking ingredients never appear next to each other, books never appear next to each other, Storyteller collection items are grouped by individual set but those sets aren't next to each other. It's conceptually easy to describe what I want: "Put all the similar things next to each other!". It's a little strange to not have that ability when seemingly more-challenging features like per-item timestamps and acquire locations are implemented well.


Of course, you need to get that loot first before you can sort through it. As with earlier games in this genre, I'm generally weight-conscious and pick items with a high gold-to-pound ratio; in practice, that usually means picking up gear that has Masterwork quality or enchantments; miscellaneous valuables (gems, household goods, etc.); scrolls; and potions. I usually leave behind unexceptional weaponry, armor, and animal skins. After a big battle, there may be a dozen or more enemy corpses. One thing that's nice is that the game will highlight bodies you haven't yet examined with a yellow outline. Once you click on them, a loot window appears showing the items carried by that corpse and all other corpses in the near vicinity (which may not include everyone from the battle, depending on how wide-ranging it was). After closing that window, all the bodies you had examined will lose their yellow outline, switching to gray instead. This helps you efficiently see which corpses still need to be looted. Except. Sometimes it doesn't. Maybe about half the time, you'll click on a yellow corpse, and see that, no, just kidding, it's actually one you previously saw, ha-ha made you look. It's only a matter of seconds to dismiss, an almost infinitesimal annoyance, but the aggravation does build up over the thousands of victims left in your wake.


In my last post, I babbled a lot about kingdom management. For the most part I really like the system, which is surprisingly fun; I find myself wishing that there was a companion app part of the game so I could continue playing that part of the game while I'm out and about. Still, there are some problems with it, mostly related to the Problems in it. Guaranteed failure is never fun, and it's really frustrating to get a new Problem card in the last week or two of a month, due on the first of the following month, with only a single Advisor capable of addressing it... and that Advisor is already tasked with a second in-progress Problem. You're screwed no matter what you do in this scenario: ignore the new Problem and fail it, taking hits to your Kingdom stats, or cancel the old Problem, immediately fail that one and take the hits, then reassign your Advisor and hope they can handle the new one. I don't mind so much about Opportunities that have only a single Advisor, or Problems that offer more than a month to resolve, but the combination of a short timeframe and a limited resource that may be completely unavailable smacks of the highest BS.


The influx of new cards in general can be a problem, too. Some of this is a UX issue: you stack up so many cards for Curses and Economic Projects and whatnot that it becomes impossible to glance at your potential projects. That doesn't really have a mechanical impact, though. What does have a mechanical impact is the seemingly endless stream of incoming Events. I'm not sure yet what determines when you get an Event and what specific Event it will be, but it feels like they come more frequently while you're traveling: when I'm moving around the overworld map, I seem to get a fresh event every day or two, but when I'm spending 14 days ranking up an Advisor, I might get 0 or 1 over those two weeks. The specific Events seem to be randomly drawn (and can definitely repeat), but it doesn't seem to be truly random: if I reload a previous save before a 14-day rank-up, I'll get the exact same new Events. Anyways, I've spent a majority of the game unable to do all the Projects I want, mostly because the necessary Advisors are occupied with Events. Unlocking all ten Advisor roles does give you a lot of potential people to apply, but it doesn't matter much, because so many Events require a specific Advisor anyways. I am very curious whether anything affects quantity and composition of incoming Events, which do get more plentiful and challenging over time: Is it just based on the calendar? On how many Advisors you've recruited? On how many Regions you've claimed? Some combination thereof? Very late in the game, I'm finally doing what I probably should have been doing all along and just ignoring many Opportunities: even if an Advisor is free at the moment, they'll almost certainly be in demand in the near future. You do gain a huge, free amount of Kingdom points by doing Opportunities, but they're mostly useless since only your Ranks count. You seem to get more than enough points to rank up by doing Problems and Projects that you don't need to stress out about doing every Opportunity, and you definitely don't need to build Buildings!


The system for drawing Event cards remains opaque to me, which leads me to my next complaint: general opaqueness throughout the game. For example, at a certain point you unlock Region Upgrades, special projects that can provide bonuses for previously claimed regions. Each Region has 2-3 potential choices that you can view in a menu; some of these may display as "Unknown". From research I've done, it seems like some of these are permanently closed off based on story decisions you've previously made. For example, the Outskirts region can only have 1 or 3 upgrades available in any given game, depending on how you resolved the dispute between Brevoy and Olag's Trading Post. So you don't need to worry about the other two "Unknown" upgrades in the Outskirts, you'll never get them anyways. In other regions, though, you might just need to rank up some specific stats in order to unlock an upgrade. I feel compelled to consult the wiki for things like this, since I'd hate to pick the "wrong" option for a once-in-a-game decision when I might have unlocked a better option in a week. And I am grateful to have the wiki, but the more I'm driven to it the greater the odds that I'll stumble across plot spoilers.


That in-game confusion and ambiguity also extends to the main plot. Many bad things can happen in this game, and, without out-of-game knowledge, you can't know whether those things are important and whether they can (or should) be reversed. Here are some examples!

MINI SPOILERS

Bartholomew Delgado dies in his basement when the trolls invade. This seems like a scripted outcome, but it actually isn't: if you Haste yourself prior to clearing the Fog-Of-War with him, and focus on buffing and healing him while he is being attacked, and reload a few times to reverse (un)lucky troll crits, you can save him. This has pretty huge implications for later events! He can fill two Advisor slots in your cabinet, making him the most versatile NPC Advisor. He unlocks a beneficial path through the Season of Bloom, helping you bypass some tough decisions and skillchecks to save a patient while uncovering the source of the infection. And, most importantly of all, he is a merchant in your Throne Room, and over the course of the game will save you from dozens of hours staring at loading screens.


"The Missing Brother" is a quest that kicks off the Varnhold Vanishing. You can't make progress on this quest for several weeks, until the main VV events catch up. Once they do, you'll quickly do 95% of this side quest, then probably continue with the Varnhold main quest line instead of taking a time-consuming back-tracking detour to your capital. At the end of VV, if you visit the Throne Room before visiting the Tavern, you'll fail "The Missing Brother", with scant notice: You'll need to carefully watch your "Completed Quests" journal to realize that you've failed it. And for no good in-game narrative reason: if, at the end of VV, you instead visit the Tavern prior to visiting the Throne Room, then all is well.


TMB is a quest that can easily fail when it seems like it shouldn't. Amiri's personal quest, in contrast, has a stage that fails and must fail. There's a fight here, and much like the fight between the trolls and Delgado, I assumed it must actually be winnable: I spent about twenty minutes re-loading, applying buffs, tweaking my strategy, doing everything I could think of. I finally gave up and looked online, where I found that even if you do beat him, a scripted sequence will take down Amiri and you'll still fail the quest.


And that whole sequence is completely opposite from the first fight in Valerie's own personal quest, which is a tough fight but one that you can win with careful pre-battle buffing and in-battle tactics.


I've been self-reflecting a little over recent weeks for why things like this have been bothering me so much. I think my main complaint comes from a confluence of factors, without any one of which this would be fine. First, this is a long game, looking like it may take me over 200 hours to complete, so it's extremely unlikely that I'll ever re-play the game to explore alternate routes or outcomes. Secondly, there are clear "positive" and "bad" outcomes: not just flavor or story outcomes, but things that can result in you losing your game due to your Kingdom collapsing because of a decision you made forty hours ago when ranking up to Economy VI, or permanently losing access to a key companion because of a decision you made in a seemingly-unrelated quest. Thirdly, consequences do not always logically flow from actions, so without consulting a wiki you aren't aware of what decisions can be safely role-played and which could have punishing in-game results. The ultimate effect is that I feel like I need to get a good outcome on the game, since this is my one shot at it, and to feel like I can only get that good outcome by rushing off to the Internet any time I'm facing a potentially serious choice.


This is all kind of interesting because it's pretty different from my attitude towards Dragon Age. My favorite playthroughs of those games are usually the ones where messy, unexpected, painful things happen: Alistair is forced into a job he doesn't want and marriage with a woman he doesn't love; Fenris dies under the knife of Hawke; Iron Bull betrays the Inquisition. Even after replaying with different characters and getting "better" routes, for my canon I actually prefer those flawed initial routes. So why do I feel fine with making "mistakes" in DA and not in PFK? I'm not certain, but I think it might be at least partly because of the more black-and-white D&D morality framework in Pathfinder, as opposed to the more mottled morals of Dragon Age.


Alignment itself continues to be an awkward concept in PFK as it was in BG and NWN. Sometimes good is good and evil is evil: giving money to the poor and welcoming refugees is good, entering demonic agreements and terrorizing civilians is evil. But there's often an uncomfortable racist dimension these axes. In BG, actions where you showed kindness to Viconia, defended her from unwarranted charges and accepted her value as a person were treated as "evil", while murdering her was "good". Why? Because she's a Drow, and supposedly inherently evil, despite all evidence to the contrary. Likewise, in PFK you get to know goblins and kobolds rather well. You'll definitely fight a lot of them, but I find them endearing: they're sentient creatures, with their own rather modest desires, definitely considered uncouth by human society but otherwise not really any worse than the bandits you frequently come across. So it feels kind of messed up that respecting their culture and trying to coexist with these civilizations is "Evil", while carrying out genocide is "Good". Without those labels, I think these could be good interesting dilemmas to navigate: prioritizing the safety of your own subjects over the sovereign rights of your neighbors, for example, is an interesting problem with potential good-faith arguments on both sides. But slamming a rigid binary good/evil system on top of it makes everything feel more squicky.

END SPOILERS

To re-iterate: I love this game! It continues to engage and please and even surprise this far into it. To end this update post on a more positive note, I wanted to revisit some previous complaints I've written about that have now gotten better.


Inventory management. This might partly be Stockholm syndrone, but after playing through many more chapters I'm now enjoying this time-consuming chore, or at least tolerating it. It does feel satisfying to dump 95% of your loot after finally returning home from a long and profitable adventure. Sorting through the remaining good gear takes a little time, but now that I have a handle on everyone's role and capabilities I can get through it pretty quickly: check whether that Heavy Shield is an upgrade for Harrim and sell it if not; check whether that Composite Longbow is an upgrade for Guchok or Ekundayo and sell it if not; check whether that Robe is an upgrade for Linzi, Nok-Nok or Octavia and sell it if not. Then check the hand-me-downs (can Linzi take Octavia's old robe now?) and go from there.

Likewise, leveling up is more chill. Earlier in the game I wasted time reading up on theorycrafting and optimization strategies, but that level of min/maxing definitely isn't necessary at the standard difficulty setting. The classes are decently well balanced and there's nothing wrong with sticking to a simple progression, so for the most part I'm just ranking up everyone in their initial class and not re-speccing or taking prestige/dual classes. There are a few minor exceptions: Octavia is an Arcane Trickster, and a great one at that; I just got that class to level 10, which has been a great progression. Linzi is now an Arcane Knight, mostly just to avoid overlapping too much with Guchok, but she isn't part of my primary party anyways. And I've made a few of my fighters take a single level of Vivisectionist, which lets them add Sneak Attack dice when they "flank" opponents, and also get Mutagens for a long-lasting boost to STR or DEX. But yeah, on the whole I really like the Pathfinder classes: other than Clerics, everyone gets interesting and cool progressions all the way from Level 1 to Level 20, so there's almost always something unique and fun to look forward to.


I can confirm that time limits are implemented well. So far there has been one single part in the game where the limits felt a little overwhelming; unlike the previous chapters, which had a cadence between Bald Hill events and primary quests, the Varnhold chapter is immediately followed by another one. But even that ended up being fine, with me wrapping up the unexpected second quest with months to spare. And that whole experience was compensated for with an incredibly short and easy (and, frankly, dumb) main quest in the following chapter with the Hellknights, so overall you get basically a year and a half of down-time to focus on building up your Kingdom after finally putting away that two-fer. Having time limits adds to the narrative coherence of the story: "Yes, we spent three weeks in that tomb! Why? Well, because we didn't bring a healer and didn't want to drink any potions!" It gives a great reason to actually make use of consumables. And it oddly but pleasantly inverts the effect of boredom: instead of thinking "Ugh, there's nothing to do!" I find myself thinking "Ooooh, I'm free of responsibilities for a while! Finally I can focus on running my kingdom!"


Build Points are a little annoying early on: there's never enough, and most things that can earn you more BP cost BP themselves. For me, there's been a recent (in real-world time, not in-game time) snowballing effect: I implemented my Economy VI/VII taxation policy around the same time that I finalized my trade agreement with Surtova, so my weekly income basically tripled overnight. In retrospect, I should have bought more BP early on to get those trade deals signed earlier. When planning out my overall kingdom priorities, I'd seen some online comments recommending that you keep at least 500k gold pieces available, so in the mid-game I was only buying BP from the pool above that amount. But by the time that the event those 500k GP was intended for, I had well over 900k in my wallet. You want to eventually sign all those agreements anyways (at least the BP-producing ones), and the sooner you sign them the greater the total return. So, amending my earlier priority order, I now think that it's worth buying BP in order to complete Projects that generate future income. (That said, I don't necessarily regret holding on to so much gold; I spent almost every penny of that 900k, and there were several more items I would have bought if I'd had the resources.)


 All right, that's it for now! I'm going to enter a Barbarian Rage and gib some more plants.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

You Work 14 Days And What Do You Get? One Kingdom Rank And 30BP In Debt

Some good news on the labor front: the Kickstarter union has been recognized! There is still more work to go, particularly their negotiations with management, but it's a very exciting development.

The immediate impact on me is selfish and silly: I'm ending my self-imposed boycott of the platform. And just in time, too! I've been staring regretfully at the Kickstarter campaign for Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, the sequel to Pathfinder: Kingmaker, the game I've been obsessing about for the last several months. I haven't yet beaten Kingmaker, but am having more fun with it than I have with any recent RPG I've played, and was looking forward to supporting more of the same. And now I can!



Speaking of Pathfinder: Kingmaker: Dang, this game is huge! I'm now deep into Chapter 4 and have no idea how many more chapters there are to go. Any single Chapter could have been a perfectly satisfying RPG. The overall sense of this game isn't so much playing a big campaign: it's playing a series of campaigns. There's a really nice cadence to how things unfold: there's a large, complex, overarching plot that you follow for some time, dealing with factions and conspiracies and lore. You eventually resolve that, then have a few (in-game) months of time to focus on ruling your kingdom: appointing advisors, resolving political and economic issues, touring the land to chart your map and personally clear out stragglers. Then you rush back to the capital to attend to the Curse of Bald Hill, and soon after the next campaign starts. Most good CRPGs feel like a long campaign with a pen-and-paper party; PK feels like a series of campaigns, where you take periodic breaks while the GM plans your next adventure and then get back together again for another journey.


For this post, I want to focus on kingdom management, which might be my favorite aspect of this very fun game. I'm not really an expert, but have a much better handle on things, based on both my own experience and some focused Googling. I basically follow a priority queue of work. From most important to least, it is as follows.


Bald Hill events are the most important. These appear in your Journal under the Kingdom section, with a title like An Ancient Curse. There's a visible countdown timer here, like "The next development is expected in 237 days." That timer is accurate but misleading! About a month before it hits zero, you'll receive a warning to expect something in the next 2 weeks. Don't start any 14-day projects during this time. Exploring is fine, but be sure you can return to within your kingdom borders within a day. When you have ~14 days left on the countdown, you'll get an urgent Problem card that must be addressed within 1 day. For every day you ignore or fail the card, you'll get a significant penalty to your Kingdom (in my case, it was -2 points in multiple categories). I suspect that you actually lose the game if the timer goes all the way down to 0, so it would more accurately be phrased as "the final development" instead of "the next development."

At the same time that you get the Problem card, you'll get a quest to physically go to Bald Hill. This is a little less urgent than addressing the Problem card, so you can afford to Rest and stuff first. There is a very challenging fight here. Enemies dematerialize once you near the top, so apply any buffs before you head up. There are multiple waves and some very powerful enemies. Once you've both defeated the enemies and resolved the Problem, the chapter is officially complete and you'll head into the next phase of the game.


There are some things that will require your exclusive focus, like Bald Hill, but a lot of Kingdom things can be done in parallel. Highest on the priority queue here are other Problems, one of two card types that can appear in the Events filter. Problems will cause (mild but real) penalties if you fail them or ignore them, so, uh, don't do that. The phrasing on the card will say something like "This must be attended to by the 1st of Month XI"; "attended to" just means that you need to appoint an Advisor and start work on it, it doesn't need to be completed by then. All Problems (and Opportunities) expire on the first of the month. You'll almost always have less than a month to do it, but occasionally one will be due the following month. If you have no free Advisors for a Problem, check their current assignments and plan to bring them on before the Problem expires; if their current tasks complete after that, you should probably consider canceling less-important work to move them over, though so far that hasn't happened to me. When multiple Advisors are available for a Problem, my priority order is usually:
  1. The most-available Advisor (someone who doesn't have anything else they can work on).
  2. Severely under-leveled Advisors who need more experience. In this case I'll probably need to also spend some Crisis Points to raise their success chance.
  3. The Advisor with the highest natural success rate. This is partly based on their experience, but also their personal stats and Kingdom buffs you may have previously acquired.


Once all your Problems are being looked at, the next priority is probably claiming Regions. This takes 14 days for your PC, so check if there are any Projects you want to do (and can afford) in parallel. Always save before doing one of these 14-day things so you can reload if something terrible happens during it! There are a bunch of benefits to having Regions: It's a lot more economical to Rest in them while traveling (as your PC can acquire rations instantly and for free, freeing up your Hunters); you tend to get better random events while traveling (weaker enemies or peaceful encounters like merchants); you can access your Kingdom Management UI while traveling in lands that you own; and you can do construction in villages and region-specific Projects in parallel with doing other things (more details on construction below!).


After this, it's probably best to focus on your main quest. Each chapter has its own primary plot, which has a separate section in your Journal, such as "The Season of Bloom". It's nice to wrap this up soonish: If you go too long without solving it, you'll start getting more severe Problems. You'll also get tons of XP and loot and gold by following this plot line, and unlock additional Kingdom-related Projects and things.


Once you have annexed new Regions, be sure to establish villages. There are two schools of thought on this. Some people like clustering them close to your Capital, which cuts down on travel time and helps you complete the highly lucrative Artisan quests quickly. Personally, I've been placing them far away. This makes the Artisan loops a lot more time-consuming in the short term; but, eventually, you will unlock Teleportation Circles which allows instant traveling between Villages.


Inside your villages, you will meet your Artisans, which should be your next priority. Usually you will have a short initial mini-quest, then a task to construct their unique artisan building in the village, and then at some point in the future a more involved multi-stage quest to unlock their masterwork. Artisans may seem like a fun but minor feature; actually, though, they are hands-down the best source of equipment and money in the whole game. The in-game text implies that they cost your Barony money, but in fact, they generate it. Each month they will come and present you with a gift, with usually will either be best-in-slot for one of your companions, or, if you can't use it, something you can sell for a cool 10k or so gold pieces. So, prioritize getting these Artisans up and running ASAP so you can get that revenue stream flowing!


Keep in mind that you can convert GP into BP. At least in my game, I'm always short on BP. I'd say that everything above this point on the priority queue is worth spending GP on to build and do as soon as possible. For everything below it, wait for your BP to naturally build up over time. Also, as I noted in a previous post, you'll want to always keep your BP in the positive zone. Usually you can't spend below it, but you can go negative based on throneroom events and the outcome of certain Events. If you do go negative, you can immediately open the Kingdom interface and buy enough BP to get back up to 0; you won't suffer an Unrest penalty unless you carry over the negative balance into the next day. It's a good practice to always keep at least 100BP in the bank to avoid accidentally going negative, particularly while traveling outside of your Kingdom borders.


In practice I always assign Opportunities at the same time I'm dealing with Problems, though Opportunities are significantly less important; there's no negative impact if you fail or ignore one (and, in fact, I've sometimes seen Opportunities grant a tiny benefit on failure). Opportunities are by far the best way to raise your Kingdom stats: you'll always get at least +3 on a Success, and it isn't unusual to see +8 or increases for up to 3 total stats. This is free, costing no BP or resources, just some of your advisors' time (usually in the range of 7-21 days). I'll usually follow the same advisor prioritization as for Problems here.


Remember to periodically revisit your Advisor lists and see if the people you have assigned are still the best for the job. I almost always pick the person with the highest stat bonus. Whenever a Kingdom stat rises high enough to increase the associated rank, your advisor will present you with a dilemma and will lobby for a particular solution. I usually just follow their advice; mechanically, the difference between these is usually pretty insignificant. (For example, one option might give +3 Loyalty, another might give -1 Loyalty and +3 Economy, another might give 50BP.) On the rare occasion where one option has significantly better benefits and the Advisor wants me to do something else, sometimes I'll just choose what I want; I think that as long as you typically agree with them, they won't quit over the occasional disagreement. Other times I'll reload a previous game and swap out advisors to get someone more in line with my thinking, do the throne-room event, and then swap the original one back in.


Leveling up your Kingdom Ranks is important, but, at least so far, there haven't been as many opportunities as I'd like to do it. You need an unbroken 14-day stretch without any urgent business to attend to, and have the undivided attention of the relevant Advisor. This is particularly hard for the Economy rank, as there are a ton of Projects and Events that can only be handled by your Treasurer. So, whenever you get a chance to rank someone up, take it. These are the things I would personally focus on first.
  1. Bring Economy up to 3. This ensures you get the benefit from ranking up other stats.
  2. Bring Loyalty, Community, Divine, and Military up to 3. Each of these will unlock another advisor, which allows you to do more at once.
  3. Once you have an Arcane advisor, rank this up to 2 to unlock Teleportation Circles in your Villages, which is a huge help in moving around the map quickly. 
  4. After you unlock Relations, bring it to 3 to unlock Espionage and your Minister, which will probably be your last Advisor.
  5. Continue ranking up Economy whenever you have the opportunity. You want to try and keep this at or above your other stats to maximize your BP generation, and, as noted above, your Treasurer will tend to be in more demand and less frequently available for ranking up.
  6. Rank up the other stats when you can. I'm not yet sure yet what the best priority here is. You might want to focus on raising your lowest stats, so that all your Advisors can be equally useful in tackling Problems and Opportunities. But, from what I've read, you can unlock some massive bonuses once you reach Rank 9, so it might be worth rushing those. I will report back in a future post!


I was thrilled early in Chapter 2 when I saw the City Building interface for the first time. I absolutely adore the idea of playing Sim City inside my fantasy RPG, and it's evocative of other games with fun crossovers, like Fall From Heaven 2. I went on a bit of a building spree at the start, and, as I've since learned since, that was a mistake. Buildings are expensive, take time to build, and don't give great benefits; for example, building a Barracks will cost 30 BP, and gives a one-time increase of 1 Military point (not per-week or per-month: one, ever). Meanwhile, addressing a single Opportunity with your Military Advisor costs 0BP, will take about as long to execute, and will yield 3-8 points in Military.

That said, there are a handful of things worth building. In order:
  1. Artisan workshops. As noted above, these should be a very high priority, as they will be a primary source of revenue and gear.
  2. Once you have unlocked them, Teleportation Circles let you instantly teleport between villages. In my game, I unlocked Mage Tower before this, which has additional Arcane bonuses but is significantly more expensive, requires two open slots, and must be constructed in a Town.
  3. Bulletin Boards, if you are Lawful, give an impressive +2 to resolving all issues in this region.
  4. I don't think this is ever explained in-game, but in order to upgrade from a Village to a Town, you need to have a certain number of Villages and have have a certain number of buildings in the Village. I think you need 6 buildings (out of the ~10-12 slots available), but am not certain. Upgrading to a Town lets you build some new buildings that you can't construct in a Village, though most are still not worth building. Anyways, if you're trying to upgrade, I think it makes sense to lean towards buildings that (1) have synergy with existing ones, e.g. building a Tavern adjacent to Artisan Shops for bonus Economy; (2) are relatively inexpensive; (3) have synergy with each other or future buildings; or finally (4) raise your lowest stats.
  5. Once you have a Town, the Aviary reduces the time to resolve Events, and lets you manage your Kingdom from adjacent unowned regions.
  6. Upgrading an Artisan's Workshop theoretically can get you better offerings and increase the odds of them completing their masterwork.
  7. Hospitals, Stocks, and Courthouses all require specific alignments and can be expensive, but do provide bonuses to resolving Events.
  8. I don't think anything else is worth building, but maybe that changes in future chapters if BP is less tight and/or useful!

Everything below this paragraph is, in my opinion, significantly less important!


First, a word for Projects in general: they all sound cool, but you really need to consider the absolute cost (in BP) and the opportunity cost (in BP and advisor time). I'll break these down separately below.

Some Projects provide a buff to event handling: giving a bonus to resolving Events, granting bonus BP on issue resolution, etc. These can be worth doing.


Some Projects give you bonuses while questing. For example, one acts like a permanent Bless while inside your kingdom borders, another grants immunity to poison while inside your kingdom borders, another speeds up mountain travel everywhere. These are useful but not urgent; in particular, you'll probably spend less time fighting within a region that you've already annexed, so these buffs may be less helpful than they initially appear.


Doing Companion quests is good, but should usually be left to the down-time between other events. There isn't a timer or particular urgency for these, so you may want to wait until something else is bringing you in that direction. I suspect that you'll want to do these by the endgame, but the immediate impact so far has been relatively minor, usually just a little XP and loot. (Exception: If the text in the Journal says something like "We need to do X before it's too late!" then you should probably rush the quest.)


Back to Projects: If you are using a civilian (non-party-member) Advisor, like Jhod or Bartholomew, it's usually worthwhile to Train them to be better, which directly translates to better success rates on Events. Don't bother Training unassigned Advisors.


Errands are worth doing; these get a separate section in your Journal. Like Companion Quests, it usually makes more sense to wait until you're headed in a direction anyways. These tend to be pretty straightforward fetch quests with decent but not amazing rewards.


General exploration is also a good and fun way to pass the time. You'll typically only need to visit a half-dozen or so overworld map locations in the course of doing a main quest, and will pass near another dozen or so locations along the way. Personally, I ignore those while doing the main quest, then come back and do these later. It can be especially nice if you can claim their region before doing them, as you'll get some nicer buffs while doing them. There's an enormous range in sizes of maps: some are tiny with just a single monster and a chest; others are bigger than your capital and have merchants, factions, sub-areas and side-quests. And of course there are occasional storybook events, which are always pleasant surprises. Unlike kingdom management tasks, these activities will generate XP and GP for you and your party, which is important for leveling up and completing future quests. In aggregate, you can pretty easily get another level or two while exploring and clearing the various off-the-beaten-path maps. It's fun, too! It reminds me a lot of Baldur's Gate 1, sweeping back and forth across a zone, clearing away the fog of war, looking for cool monsters and interesting people.


And back to Projects again: Curse research should be a very low priority. From what I gather it's important to the end-game, but you shouldn't focus on it early. These projects are time-consuming, often 30-90 days long, and require BP, and will only grant a couple of Divine or Arcane points on completion; during that time, your High Priest or Magister could easily earn 15 or more points for free by tackling Opportunities. You'll eventually want to do them, but there's no rush, and you'll want to get to the point where you can easily afford to keep a critical advisor on the bench for multiple months.


A few Economics Projects offer discounts on constructing buildings, typically a 10% discount for a specific list. This looks and sounds good, but it's always fewer buildings than it seems at first glance (each variation is a building is listed separately, like both a Bank and an Andoran Bank). These Projects are relatively expensive, you would need to build a lot of buildings to break even on them, and, as noted above, you really shouldn't be building many buildings anyways.


Similarly, Trade Agreements are tempting, but are hard to justify. The math for these is simple: divide the BP they cost to sign by the BP per week they yield to determine how long you will take to break even and start profiting on them. Most of them take more than a year to start paying off! Which, to be fair, the game does take more than a year, but still. In addition to that you should be thinking about what other benefits you could have gotten for your 500 (or however many) BP during that time. I'll probably eventually do these, but they're a very low priority.

As noted above, each chapter really does feel like its own full-length self-contained RPG plot, so I feel like I should record my thoughts as I go along, lest I forget by the time I finish the game.

MEGA SPOILERS

I do really love how these plots are structured. Modern RPGs often lead with the big threat from the very beginning: "An archdemon is invading the land and must be stopped!". PK tends to be more of a slow burn that gradually reveals itself as you progress. Season of Bloom is a great example. It starts with some reports about monsters mysteriously appearing in the midst of your villages and wreaking havoc. After some more investigation, you learn that the monsters are actually bursting out of people. There's a multi-pronged research project as you and your advisors try to isolate exactly what is going on here: is it a mystical curse? Some sort of physical disease? After a harrowing surgery, you finally crack the case: the victims had all ingested physical seeds that lay dormant in their stomachs before sprouting into monsters.


There are some great decisions and skill checks along the way, and I'm curious how else it could have played off differently. In a previous chapter, I had reloaded a specific encounter multiple times to ensure that the evil wizard Bartholemew Delgado survived; he ended up joining my administration and was an invaluable help during this surgery. Without that, I would have needed to pass several high-level Lore: Nature and Lore: Arcane skill checks, and I strongly suspect that the patient would have died on a failure. Along the way you're mediating the well-intentioned disputes between Tristian and Jhod about the nature of the threat and how to address it.

The plot continues to develop, moving more like a wave than a straight line. Tristian helps you infiltrate a cult that seems connected with what's going on. There's a strong indication that goblins are behind the problem; you eventually learn that they are gleefully accelerating its spread, but are not the initial source. More skill checks come into play as you try to convince your lieutenant to do his job and keep order in your capital rather than rush off into a mysterious cave and try to solve the problem himself. (Recklessly exposing yourself to personal danger is the exclusive responsibility of the chief executive, not her cabinet!) Again, my personal Persuasion skills proved highly useful in achieving my desired outcome; from peeking at online spoilers, I would have otherwise needed to choose between the death of Kesten or Jhod.


Multiple threats are now bearing down on you simultaneously, with your capital under the active assault of erupting monsters, while a mysterious cave upstream is pulsing out more and more seeds. You must prioritize the threats and execute on them, all while under a challenging timer. Once inside the cave, you discover a portal to another world, the First World, the original source of all reality on Golarion; here there is an intriguing series of visions that hint at future plot developments and also illuminate some of your previous experiences with the Guardian of the Bloom. This all leads up to an exciting and challenging fight where you split your party in two and simultaneously destroy the Everblooming Flower in both worlds.


Difficult and interesting fights are a wonderful and consistent hallmark of this game. There are lots of trash fights along the way, which are quick and fun to play with in the RTWP engine. Once you near the end of the main quest, you'll need to remember that you've been collecting potions and scrolls and wands along the way, inspect your foes, adjust your tactics, swear a lot, reload and eventually triumph. It's fun!


Likewise, the Vanishing of Varnhold starts out with a mysterious and innocuous plot hook ("Nobody has heard from Magar in a few weeks, someone should check in on him") that ultimately builds up to a bonkers, fun, lore-heavy resolution ("The lich ruler of a millennia-old cyclopean civilization received the Eye of Abaddon from Hell and used it to imprison the souls of all smaller races who dared enter his old territory, and also Tristian is now a bad guy I guess?")

END SPOILERS

My one very mild complaint at the moment is that the main plot is sometimes a little too exciting, and I don't feel like I have as much time as I would like to devote to kingdom management stuff, which is less exciting but also deeply fulfilling. If only these extra-planar creatures would stop invading our reality so I could finally get back to the more important work of adjusting marginal tax rates and negotiating bilateral tariff agreements!