Monday, March 09, 2020


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!


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.


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.