Worthy of Your Soul

Title's a reference to this. Review of the CRPG Pathfinder: Kingmaker.

Hoo boy. This is a big subject; it's a big game. Let's start with the good. First off, this is a marvelous translation of a tabletop game to a computer. I never played things like Neverwinter Nights, so I was not prepared to have my characters' weapons actually expressed to me in terms of literal dice. Also I get to play an eldritch archer, the ranged-oriented "archetype" (think a 2e "kit" applied to a Pathfinder class) of magus; I might do another playthrough as a divine hunter, the ranged-oriented paladin archetype. I like martial-oriented classes that aren't professional meat-shields. (I don't think frequently choosing the neutral good option will muck up paladinhood, so long as I also choose the lawful ones now and then; it's only evil acts that paladins have to avoid.)

Second off, I like how all the companions' whose backstories involve them rejecting various gods of the setting—the former paladin of the goddess of beauty (though I still don't know how "art for art's sake" can have a paladin order), the dwarf apostate who worships the god who will end the world—have character arcs that consist of them learning not to be kneejerk self-righteous fools. A lot of people on the Steam community are very unhappy with that, although they mostly misrepresent what happens in order to do it. Valerie (said ex-paladin) doesn't grovel before her former goddess and admit she was completely wrong; she just admits that just because she disagrees with the people who worship the art-god is no reason for her to treat all artists (such as bards) like criminals and social parasites.

Just in general I really like the companions. About the only major issue I have is that Nok-Nok, the goblin rogue you acquire in the third arc, is not chaotic evil, I don't care if he does worship a demon lord; he's chaotic neutral, pretty much right down the line. I don't really like Pathfinder core-setting gnomes but Jubilost is a very tolerable example of one (yes he's obnoxious, but "gnome alchemist travel-writer who talks vaguely like a male Dorothy Parker" is a very amusing take). Probably my favorite (or perhaps tied with Nok-Nok, though part of the latter's appeal is when he one-shotted a hill giant with a knife) is Amiri, who I have chosen to dub "bandere", for her hilarious-slash-adorable bashfulness.

I really like how almost every companion's "arc" consists of them reconciling their own wishes with the society and tradition that they usually partly rejected in order to become adventurers, or otherwise realizing that the world does not revolve around them while simultaneously not rejecting their own identities. Existentialism isn't much as a real philosophy but it can make for good themes in fiction, as anime can attest.

Third off, the story is mostly excellent. There's some false notes here or there (bonus dormitat Homerus) but overall it's very far from being the warmed-over Dragonlance that I've come to expect from Western fantasy games that aren't Warcraft (and I won't play that because I loathe MMOs that aren't also FPSs). Don't assume anyone is your friend, is my advice, because a lot of people will turn on you in this game, usually for very good reasons of their own, but also be willing to forgive them if you get the chance. At least one of them is a huge advantage in a fight if not for a story-based RP reason. That you can basically redeem every antagonist in this game except for three of the six "Big Bads" of the separate arcs is a huge selling-point, to me.

On to the bad. There's really only two issues. The more basic is simply that this is not a triple-A game and it was probably released a bit earlier than it should've been; if you read the early discussions of issues with it, it becomes clear that what they released was probably a mid-stage beta, and what we're getting now is probably a late beta. It's buggy and the load-times take forever; it was doing weird things with "developer tools" on my machine for a while, too. (That may have been Steam rather than the game, since I only got Steam for this game.)

The other issue, more directly relevant to game "quality" (though you're seriously going to want some hacky-sacks to juggle or something, during the loads—especially since you have to schlep through your palace and then through your capital, to get back out to the world map, starting in the second chapter) is that a lot of the quests will give you a very sub-optimal ending (as in "the lost child you were looking for flipping dies") if you don't know exactly what to do. A tip: talk to everyone in the final area the quest takes you through, that usually leads the way. You also need a walkthrough, though; accept it. There's one part where you're set up to be able to avoid a problem by not doing something, and then an NPC goes and does it anyway. Apparently there's a way to not have that NPC do it, without murdering them; I'll have to try it on another playthrough and see. (It was funny in the Steam forums, a bunch of people defending the effective railroading by saying "oh well it worked better in the tabletop adventures the game's based on". Really? Because if I tried that shit at the table, as a DM, my players would lynch me with my mouth stuffed full of dice.)

Another gameplay issue is that the kingdom-management aspect of the game, after which the whole work is arguably named, is mostly a chore and very often counterproductive. Trying to manage each arc's crises by assigning advisors to deal with the hordes of monsters, bandits, etc., is usually a recipe for disaster; just go handle it personally by resolving that arc's plot. Still, the kingdom-management does give you bonuses, e.g. my current party have permanent poison immunity while in territory that I control (presumably a blessing placed on my followers via my domain's priests).

All in all the game does one thing very well: it is a tabletop RPG in computer form. So the "score" I give it depends on how much you itch to see a tabletop experience translated about as faithfully as it can be. If that is, for you as for me, an abiding yearning, the game is easily an 8 out of 10 overall, and storywise a 9.5; knock a point off both if you do not ceaselessly hunger and thirst for the specific kind of thing this game is.


Playing with Fantasy XI

Fantasy gaming thoughts. Will also be reviewing Kingmaker, the official Pathfinder CRPG, in the coming days.
  • Decided to scrap the fiendish, celestial, and elemental language, Primordial as I (and 4e and 5e) called it (except mine also includes Aklo/Deep Speech), because the glossolalia thing is thematically interesting and I still don't like how my conlang was going. They also use proto-writing instead of real writing, because the concepts they use cannot be directly divided into words, let alone sounds.

    Of course in some ways a language-that-isn't-a-language—because it works like speaking a common language, in-game—is, in its written form, really more language-independent ideograms than it is proto-writing. But a proto-writing like Naxi Dongba or Nigerian Nsibidi has quite a bit of overlap, in how it "behaves", with a language-independent ideographic script like iConji or Blissymbols.
  • I can't find it to link it, a thousand pardons for the inadequacy of my Google-fu, but I found an article that makes an interesting point: the main thing alignment does, in practice, is tell your DM what kind of game you, the player, would like to play. "I'm lawful good, so please give me the chance to uphold righteousness and social order." "I'm chaotic good, so I expect to right wrongs without necessarily following the rules to do it." "I'm chaotic neutral, I'm down for pretty much whatever." If all your players have created lawful good characters, don't give them a "black and gray morality" story.

    The two-axis alignment system is actually a very convenient storytelling shorthand just in general; it tells you what variety of hero or villain you're getting. Transformers offers excellent examples: Optimus is lawful good, Bumblebee and Ratchet are neutral good, Cliffjumper is chaotic good. Megatron and Shockwave are chaotic evil, Starscream is neutral evil, Soundwave is lawful evil. Megatron can work as chaotic evil because he's at the head of his faction, he can't be a follower; Shockwave isn't even trusted by other Decepticons for the same reason. Soundwave is absolutely loyal to the Decepticon cause.

    Or, since I've said D&D as usually played is more "sword-and-sorcery superheroes" than it is "murder hobos", Superman is lawful good, the Flash and Aquaman are neutral good, Batman is chaotic good; Ra's Al-Ghul is lawful evil, Sinestro and Lobo are two very different kinds of neutral evil, the Joker is chaotic evil.
  • Apologists for the "murder-hobo" playstyle, and similar puerile "gritty" themes that only appeal to literal or mental adolescents, often compare it to the Wild West. Only, by "the Wild West" they mean movies, like those by Sam Peckinpah, or Unforgiven—not history. In real history the villain of Unforgiven would've been lynched; if the prostitutes don't feel safe, they leave, and that might mean the miners and cowboys annoy the "respectable" women, and we ain't having that. (Why did you think those towns tolerated the brothels? These people jailed you for spitting on the sidewalk.)

    "Gunslingers" (anachronistic term, they were really called "badmen") were not as simple as fiction would have them be, neither for good or for ill. Almost all of them were down-on-their-luck itinerants from a society with a long history of dueling customs—they weren't Pennsylvania Quakers who moved out West and randomly acquired itchy trigger-fingers. (One could probably cite the Southern cultural aversion to manual labor—pre-existing in the parts of Britain their ancestors came from, but reinforced by slavery—as a factor in the "badman" lifestyle; a lot of the towns and farms were made by immigrants, often from Central Europe.) And even they had a code of sorts, one that largely precluded the "attack any NPC who looks at them funny" aspect of the "murder-hobo" stereotype, among other things. A "badman" who flouted the code could not be assured of help from past compatriots, and might see current ones leaving him; you can't maintain a lifestyle like that by working with people you can't trust.

    Take the claim that "kill the orcs, take their treasure" is just like how the settlers dealt with Native Americans. In the real world, public opinion was actually quite likely to side with the natives against the cavalry, let alone against some random cowboys or outlaws making trouble. The public was likely to side with Native Americans even when the Native Americans were absolutely in the wrong, as in the case of most conflicts with the Southern Plains cultures—19th-century polite society preferred not to talk about the kinds of things Southern Plains cultures did, in both raiding and war.
  • Was deciding what archetypes I have in my setting, and man, clerics get short shrift in that regard. Only a few of the archetypes are even worth it, and even those mostly have reduced spellcasting compared to the standard one. I suppose it's okay, though.

    The samurai archetype of cavalier and the ninja archetype of rogue are both available as indigenous warrior-vassals and covert agents, rather than coming from a fantasy-counterpart Asia (because none of the cultures are the fantasy counterparts of anywhere, or at least of any one real-world place); my "barbarians" are also not generally foreign berserkers, but come from a tradition within the setting's "mainstream" cultures.

    Hot dang but the green knight archetype from Ultimate Wilderness is OP (to be fair so was the source material), and not very like any other cavalier. Still a valuable addition to a setting in terms of "flavor", though—basically even more "druidic paladins" than rangers are.
  • Got Kingmaker, the Pathfinder game reminiscent of Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights. I'll do a full review later. For now I'll just say that, while overall I'm impressed by how faithfully they've ported a tabletop game to a computer, there are a number of problems that make the experience far less than flawless. At least one quest sets up something cool only to railroad you into it not working, and a bunch of things give absolutely no indication of how you make them work. Also, in a game with a "kingdom management" component, that's basically named after its kingdom management component, it makes no sense for it to be genuinely harmful to try to solve things via the kingdom-management mechanic rather than up and handling them all yourself.
  • Was thinking of doing it before, but Kingmaker cinched it: instead of all my hill giants being the fallen version of the giants they were, as frost and fire giants are fallen wood and stone giants, respectively, the hill giants will be the unfallen ones and the fallen ones will be cyclopes. I don't like the Pathfinder version of cyclopes as remnants of a fallen, advanced civilization (this comes up at several points in Kingmaker).

    Another thing I'm glad I'm doing different is my gnomes aren't mutant fey; my setting doesn't really have fey. Especially distasteful is "the Bleaching", the illness Pathfinder gnomes contract if they get into a rut. In my day we called that "Banality". Borrowing ideas from White Wolf (other than their core mechanic) is no way to live, son. Especially because Changeling was the second weakest of the major "Old" World of Darkness games (and Mage was only worse for its moronic setting, the game itself was better)—and being weaker than Werewolf takes some doing.

    I did actually consider having all my nonhuman races acquire something like the Bleaching, and that be how they would die, but that was when I wanted them to all be immortal. (I still toy with the idea.) But it wouldn't be boredom; it would be existential crisis, in the real, "inability to reconcile subjectivity with facticity or heed the call of conscience" sense. Remember, the Old Norse for things like elves and dwarves (and trolls) is vættir, from the same root as "be" and "was"—which is the same use of "being" as a common noun as found in existentialism (also a direct calque, possibly accidental, of "entity").
  • Kinda changing some of the flavor of druids and the Green Faith (to the extent the latter even exists) in my setting. Druidic as a language doesn't exist, for one thing. More significantly, the whole "resist civilization for the sake of nature" aspect is gone. Only humans even have the concept "civilization" as something distinct from "nature"; they look out into the wilds from their settlements, in fear, and assume that their fear is born of a conscious, antagonistic agenda.

    It's not. Every other race (who invented druidism before there even were humans) would no more object to settlers building a town than they'd object to prairie dogs building one; they no more object to loggers taking logs than they object to birds taking twigs. They only make an issue when these things are done to excess, which admittedly is a permanent risk with humans. Every other race knows that human(oid)s are a part of "nature", and only incidentally at odds with it.

    Of course, those "incidents" can still be pretty big, and that's when things like Green Knights get involved.
  • I guess a 120-foot dragon based on Coelophysis would be about 9 feet 3 inches wide, since in this image it's about one-thirteenth as wide as it is long (not counting the hips, since on my dragons the hindlegs are more like the forelegs). That means its 260-foot wingspan has each wing at 125 feet 4.5 inches. Which, conveniently, divides in half to make the wings basically "reach" weapons, which for a Colossal creature extend to 60 feet (ignoring the other 2 feet 8.25 inches)—although dragons are not otherwise "tall" creatures (for "long" Colossal creatures a "reach" weapon would only extend to 40 feet). A bird's wings could actually be used as weapons for more like two-thirds or even three-quarters their total length, but it could be that dragons' wing-buffets use the wing's "wrist", or that (if I decide to have them deal slashing damage instead, since they have Archaeopteryx-like wing-claws) the claw is treated as originating at the wrist.