Thursday, February 06, 2020

Take Me To Funkytown

I'm really getting into Pathfinder: Kingmaker. It's one of those rare, special games that opens up entire new dimensions of gameplay as you get further along, somewhat like Mask of the Betrayer. I'm now close to the end of Chapter 2 and so have gotten to see the other part of the "Kingmaker" title, actually building a kingdom, in addition to completing the next major plot arc of the game. I'm liking it more and more, and even many of the specific gripes I had about Chapter 1 have now gotten better.

I complained a lot about weight: it feels micro-manage-y, and your early companions' builds seem particularly designed to make weight as painful as possible (Valeria being unable to carry her own equipment, and people like Linzi are min/maxed with STR as a dump stat, penalizing the whole party's carry capacity). But, one of the best things about the start of Chapter 2 is that you can buy a Bag of Holding (and a second Small Bag of Holding comes later in the chapter), which helps immensely with your quality of life. They're implemented in a very clever way, too: I was expecting something like the old-school Baldur's Gate bags, where you have to manually open them and slot items in and basically have limited slots but unlimited weight. In P:K, it's a lot simpler: they're just ordinary inventory items, but with a negative weight. A regular Bag of Holding weighs -200 lbs, so once you have one, your party can haul up to 200lbs of stuff and still act as if you aren't carrying anything. This makes going on quests a LOT more enjoyable, as you can effectively start at 0 and then gradually pick up more loot before you're forced to return to a store to liquidate it.

Even the insanely heavy Rations items become more feasible once you have a Bag of Holding: 6 rations weighs 60 lbs, which is a lot but can be totally covered with a single Bag. And, thanks to the importance of passing time in this game, they start to make a lot more sense in the second chapter. You do periodically need to rest in order to refresh your spells, remove exhaustion and perhaps heal. You can rest for free without using any Rations, but it may take 20 or more hours to successfully hunt the food you need and rest. Or, you can have a complete rest in just 9 hours, at the cost of consuming rations (and the gold they required to buy, and the weight they demanded you to carry). This turns into a classic tradeoff: purchasing rations will let you complete your quest and return to the capital more quickly; you will profit a little less from the quest, but you may be able to make up that cost by doing more quests in the time you (eventually) save. And even the weight becomes less of an issue once you start to plan your expeditions. You'll be collecting loot gradually as you progress through your quest, while periodically consuming rations, so your total weight may not change that much. I'm starting to view this as an interesting part of planning: anticipating how often I'll want to rest for a given expedition from the Capital, and bringing along enough rations to support that timeline.

I think I've now set a pretty good cadence. This isn't explained very well in the in-game UI, but the best overall approach seems to be to appoint a Hunter and to check the "Use Rations" option. This way you'll still typically collect ~2-5 rations and be able to do a 9-hour rest.  Even better: if you've used a Region Project to expand the borders of your Kingdom, your Player Character can use their Special resting ability to collect free rations from the populace! At this point, Resting becomes trivial: there's no need to Hunt, so you can just focus on the Meal and have the rest of your party do double-duty on Camouflage or whatever else you need.

I'm really digging the kingdom management stuff in general. It's a lot more game-y than I expected, in a really good way. I'm used to stronghold management in an RPG generally being a particularly complex and well-crafted dialogue tree, with various choices to spend money and get intangible results. P:K, though, has its own separate system and game mode with unique views, including city planing (an ultra-simple version of Sim City), strategic maps for planning settlements, a sort of clearinghouse Events and Projects view that allows you to view ongoing and potential endeavors in parallel, and so on. This is a Pathfinder game, so most things still come down to a D20: Solving a Problem will require you to match the Difficulty rating of that particular problem, and you can gain bonuses based on your advisor's stats (say, Amiri's Strength as the General or Valerie's Charisma as the Regent); your Kingdom ranking based on prior investments and accomplishments (an Economy rating of II will grant a +4 on all future tasks performed by your Treasurer); some miscellaneous improvements you can make (a +2 to all challenges in a region from putting up a Bulletin Board attracting adventurers, or a +1 to all Military challenges due to selecting ambitious recruits); and even consumables, reservoirs of goodwill from previous advancements that you can strategically spend to give a bonus to your dice roll. There are equivalents of "Crits" (exceeding the DC by a large amount to get a particularly beneficial outcome) and "Fumbles" (failing it by a correspondingly large amount and actively hurting your barony). Anyways, it's all very fun, both congruent to and distinct from the other D20s you roll while slaying trolls.

That said, as with the more traditional systems in the game, I do wish that the game more clearly described how these systems work. One major example: The game does warn you early on that, if any of your kingdom stats drop below 0, it will cause unrest and make your rulership more difficult. So, you naturally keep an eye on, say, your Economy and your Loyalty and so on and try to keep them positive. But, what the game doesn't say is that your BP (Build Points) also count as a kingdom stat. You can't ordinarily spend them to negative amounts, but certain throne room events will auto-deduct a fixed amount of BP. This can put you in the negative without even realizing it. And worst of all, this can lead your kingdom into a death spiral: insatibility causes a malus on all Kingdom challenges, so you may end up failing previously-scheduled Problems that you thought were under control. Those disasters can further lower kingdom stats, plunging you deeper into stability and worse penalties, and so on. Fortunately I only lost about a day of in-game time before I realized what was going on and was able to reload a prior save (I have around 50 separate saves by this point), but it's the sort of situation that could have caused me to rage-quit otherwise.

I'm still coming to grips with the risks and tradeoffs in the kingdom management system. One common quandry is whether to start a long-running Project, which might tie up an important advisor for 30-60 days and leave him or her unable to respond to more urgent Problems that arise in the meantime. And the most important projects in Kingdom Management (annexing new realms, advancing your barony's rankings) require your personal attention for two whole weeks; more problems can crop up during this time, not just in the kingdom management interface, but out in the real world of adventuring and dungeons, too.

Your quests feed into the kingdom management: you might recruit a new party member who then becomes an key advisor, or encounter a traveler on the road who pleads for you to start a new project to repair a bridge. And it's particularly fun when your kingdom management feeds back into the quests: you can decide where to found a new settlement, and then it will show up THERE, on the OVERWORLD MAP. And if you decided to build a Temple there, why, then you can visit the Cleric and purchase healing scrolls; if there is a Shop, you can visit the trader and sell off all your damn heavy loot. I find myself mulling over these considerations now as my dominion expands: where do I, selfishly, want this outpost to be located to best support my future excursions as a chief executive with a careless disregard for her personal safety?

That said, I have felt a little conflicted about the way the game treats me as a ruler. It's slightly disconcerting to walk into your capital for the first time and be greeted by your minions, bowing and scraping before you, calling out "Your Grace!" It's probably because I've been immersing myself in social-democratic writing recently, but my immediate reaction is "Ew! Down with autocracy!" I find myself wishing that the game would let me organize my "barony" as an anarchist utopia. But... I'm Lawful Neutral! Not Chaotic Good! Argh!


My party is a lot bigger now, and more flexible too. In my previous post I talked about wanting to respec Linzi, but now I think I'll probably just fill her slot with another person on the team. I now have multiple options for tanking, damaging, supporting, spellcasting, and so on, giving me plenty of options in pulling a gang together.

I even went so far as to spend real-world money to build my party! PK has a few DLC, including a couple of free ones and some paid ones. I sprang for the Wildcards DLC and have been happy with the purchase. My immediate motivation was to acquire a Treasurer, as that's the one advisor slot that's empty at the start of Chapter 2. In retrospect that was a poor reason; the standard treasurer is actually a lot easier to recruit (just 1 space away from your Capital, versus a medium-length expedition into a mountain range), and his higher INT stat makes him perform better than Kanerah. But I'm still enjoying it immensely; the storyline is really cool, with some really unique mechanics above and beyond the Kineticist class that makes her really interesting to include in my party. It opens up some additional side quests that I'm still working through that are adding some more fun flavor to the game.

I like how this game gently encourages you to use the new party members, without forcing them on you. It's a well-known problem in RPG design, where most players will just stick with the initial party they receive and not try all the cool new people who arrive later on: you've already learned how to roll with the original team, and it doesn't feel worthwhile to switch it up. In P:K, you usually get the option for a new character to join your party immediately; but you don't have to take them, and can send them to your capital instead. The new members have personal quests that bring you to the same place you need to go for the main chapter story quest; you don't have to bring them with you, but it feels efficient to do so, getting to knock off four quests for the cost of one.

My party to the troll hideout ended up being:
  • Valerie, again, who is hands-down the best tank in the game (as you would expect from a Tower Shield Specialist!).
  • Harrim the cleric, who is probably the best off-tank. He can wear heavy armor and a heavy shield, with some racial bonuses to movement. I've built him as more of a buffer than a healer, so he ends up kind of filling the role Jaethal played in Chapter 1.
  • Ekundayo the ranger. His pet Wolf is another front-line fighter, not nearly as survivable as Valerie but able to plug up the front and protect the rear row. Ekundayo shoots lots of arrows, very fast, and with great accuracy. I guess he's a little like Amiri in terms of being focused on raw damage output, though he lives a lot more! It's cool to have an archer with high STR, and he puts my various Composite bows to great use.
  • Jubilost the alchemist. His acid bombs were key to dispelling the troll menace. I've taken the "Extra Potions" feat a few times, granting him a ton of them to use; he'll also attack with a crossbow at times, but I rarely need to worry about running out of bombs.
  • Guchok, my player character Bard, still mostly focuses on buffing the party, and contributing some damage with her own bow and arrow. I've recently unlocked some more compelling debuff songs that I should play around with, I'm curious how they compare to the normal Competence-boosting ones. 
  • Octavia returns as my spellcaster-and-thief. I've now officially combined the roles and made her an Arcane Trickster. She mostly focuses on direct-damage spells, both single-target and AOE, leaving the arcane buffs to Guchok and others. She can also push out a lot of physical damage with her Hurricane Bow. I liked her combat a lot more once I learned the trick to making her default to using her crossbow instead of Acid Split (set a damaging ability with limited uses, like Telekinetic Fist, to her auto-attack, and then she'll fall back to using her weapon once they're exhausted).

That was a pretty good loadout; Harrim is on the weak side as a healer, but Guchok can fill in the gap, and by this point I was carrying around about 20 pounds of healing potions and another 10 points of healing scrolls, so it actually felt good to use those consumables when needed and lighten the load.

In my journeys since then, I've continued to adjust my party, prioritizing any active companion quests and filling in the remaining slots with people to balance out our roles or just add some personalities I like. I think that my all-purpose go-to party for the near future will look like:
  • Valerie, as before. She's recently picked up some levels that decrease the Tower Shield penalties, making her more effective.
  • Amiri. She hits like a tank and absolutely shreds opponents, even more so while raging.
  • Jaethal. She's surprisingly tanky, has great buffs for the party and herself, and does good damage. These three front-liners also share many Teamwork Feats; I'll often keep them focused on the same opponent, but even without spreading their targets they form a solid line and protect my rear.
  • Guchok sings.
  • Tristian doesn't contribute a whole lot during combat, but has a lot of great buffs for the pre-fight, and practically unlimited heals for the post-fight. He knows great cures and situation-specific buffs, but it's hard to know in advance which will be useful.
  • Octavia continues being a great offensive mage and reliable ranged fighter. I've spread her memorization across a range of types (single-target, DOT, AOE) and elements (fire, acid, cold, electricity), so she'll typically have something for almost any situation.

I am still feeling some mild aggravation at not being able to anticipate obstacles, particularly with characters like Tristian and Octavia that use Vancian magic which requires you to memorize specific spells while resting before encounters. As one example, when you visit an island in the middle of a lake, you will find a ton of Wisps. They can be deadly, but get a lot easier with Protection from Electricity (Communal). Tristian knows that spell, but never bothers to have it memorized, since he has precious few slots and nobody else in the game uses electrical attacks. And, to the best of my knowledge, there's nothing in the game letting you know to expect wisps prior to you arriving on the island. So, you to go the island, fight a little, experience a near TPK with multiple Death's Doors, reload a saved game, swap out your spells, rest, then visit the island again. Which, I mean, it's fine, but it's really clunky. It feels like very old-school, late-90s/early-2000s RPG design. Which might be good for many people! It's just not something I enjoy these days. It feels way more rewarding for me to adjust and respond to overcome a challenge, rather than relying on the meta-magic of Save and Reload.

Let's talk plot!


So: I've been playing a Lawful Neutral character. I've been very focused on eradicating the Troll menace from my lands, hunting them down and tracking their lair. This situation got considerably more complicated when I met Bartholomew Delgado, a reclusive (but surprisingly friendly) mage. It turned out that he has been carrying out research on trolls, having captured a specimen and running experiments on him. This is slightly grisly, but I was even more disturbed to find that this specimen was capable of speech and demanding release. I'd thought that trolls were part of the general mass of anonymous monsters, and hadn't realized that they were sentient beings.

This led to a tricky and tense situation, particularly as Octavia, my ostensible (co-?) girlfriend emphatically demanded his release. But, I mean, every single other troll I'd encountered had attacked without provocation, and I felt a responsibility to my citizens, so I reluctantly backed Delgado's research.

I felt even worse about this after finally arriving at the troll stronghold, where right off the bat you're greeted by a friendly and loquacious troll named Jazon. I was nervous but delighted to get to use my [Diplomacy] to secure an audience with the troll leader. That's right: there is a King of the Trolls, who, it turned out, had founded a new society and government, with the aim of establishing a sovereign Troll state that can exist alongside Human ones.

Which is all pretty fascinating! I mulled over the prospect, eventually deciding that I saw the value in forging peace with these creatures. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be in the cards: the king is under the sway of Tartuk, the reincarnated kobold leader, and the two will attack you no matter what. I eventually defeated them and the troll threat. It was fun, and felt like a big, weighty, challenging achievement, but I am still left with some nagging worry that I might have done a genocide. I don't think that the game has a peaceful way out of this, though.


I seem to now be in a period of respite. There's a sort of clock ticking down in my journal to the next major event, giving me about two months of in-game time to bum around and do stuff: explore the map, claim resources, clear zones, and, best of all, do some Kingdom Management! I'm still trying to find the right balance between doing Kingdom things and doing questing things. I think questing stuff will be the most important overall, as it's the only way to get XP and Gold; Gold can always be turned into BP, but BP can't be converted back into Gold. And the items and levels I gain can help increase my advisors' stats for better Kingdom actions, but Kingdom actions have (at least so far) only a nominal impact on your questing ability.

So, yeah, this game is really fun! I find myself thinking about it a lot even between sessions, which hasn't happened with a game for quite a while. There are lots of really complex systems that interlock in interesting ways, and now that I'm getting a handle on those systems, I'm finding it especially compelling.

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