Kingmaker is Dead, long live…

…well, what comes next.

My Kingmaker Adventure Path campaign died last night. Not a TPK or a violent death. Just a loss of interest. I’ve been frustrated and considering the end of the campaign for a while now but I put the question to my players to allow them to decide where we’d go.

Ultimately, we’ve decided to stick with Pathfinder, but not Golarion, and to start a new campaign.

But I wanted to reflect a little on the Kingmaker AP (and the APs in general) and discuss some of what made the experience more frustrating for our group. But first — a quick disclaimer:

I do not want to say that anything was “wrong” with the Kingmaker AP. I think for many people it was a great success, a lot of fun, and it certainly has a lot of great work put into it. My reflections focus on what created the frustration for my group and I. That is all. I also want to say that I shoulder a chunk of the blame for my frustration for a decision I made before starting the AP. I intended to run it as close to “by-the-book” as I could — meaning following the AP closely and not “tinkering” too much other than the obvious need for occasional course corrections and tailoring encounters a little for my group. But I left the flow and overall narrative alone. I believe this was a mistake. I will not do it again.

I’ve written before about what frustrated me in the Kingmaker AP. Specifically, if I had to point to one frustration that exceeded all others though, what would it be? It would be the way the entire AP was set up. The focus of the AP is on carving a kingdom out of the wilderness. But as you set up your kingdom, almost no focus whatsoever is actually put on “the PC kingdom.” It is a backdrop for things happening “elsewhere.” This bothered me, and if I were to ever use the set-up of the Kingmaker AP again, I’d change that.

Personally (and again, this is just stuff that occurred to me as I ran the thing, not a commentary on Paizo’s work) I would have made more use of the Black Sisters. I think I would have built more of the adventures around events that happened in PC kingdoms and would focused my attention less on stories like Varnhold Vanishing. While it was a relatively interesting adventure in its own right, my PCs spent most of that adventure, which took us the longest to get through of the chapters due to its dungeon-crawly feel (even the exploration of Varnhold is basically just an above-ground dungeon crawl). And since my PCs were the rulers of the kingdom (one was the actual Ruler, as I’m sure many groups’ were) they struggled with the logic of why their PCs were actually doing this instead of sending out scouts or spies, or anyone other than the Rulers of the Kingdom to investigate a trouble across the mountain. After VV my ruler actually retired her character to become an NPC so that she wasn’t in danger of dying every adventure and upsetting the Kingdom. And this disconnect between rulership and exploration is a problem throughout chapters three and four of the AP.

We also struggled with the XP distribution. The fourth chapter of the AP, for example, seems to assume that after the battle of Tatzlford, the PCs are going to wander around in the swamp doing every little side quest that comes their way before heading to Fort Drelev. That seems sorta silly if you think about it. When there is a really, really easy way around the swamps that is a LOT faster.

Also, when word came of the attack, my PCs were asking “hey, um, what good is our Spymaster that he didn’t know our neighboring kingdom had been smashed by barbarians and Pitax?” It’s a good question. Unfortunately, since I was picking up the chapters as we came close to them, I had less time than I would have liked to actually work in new rumors and such.

So here’s a major recommendation for running Kingmaker. Read the ENTIRE AP first. All six chapters. And use the rumor table for the chapter after the one you are currently in. That is, if you are in chapter three, give rumors to the PCs off the chapter four table.

Also, the final villain of the Kingmaker AP is a problem for me. Even though the GM knows she’s out there and has heard her name and her backstory — the players know nothing at all about this villain until the end of Chapter Five. And she seems to just sorta “come out of nowhere” because even though she’s been behind other plots, the PCs have no way of knowing that information. It’s pretty frustrating.

Again, a recommendation: focus more on your PC kingdom. The trolls in Rivers Run Red are a good example. If I had it to do over again, the Trolls would represent a much bigger threat and I’d tie the crazy-huge Owlbear to them instead of to an off-camera Ranger seduced and tossed aside by a faceless villain. And throughout that chapter I’d allow the troll threat to build as the PCs search for their hidden lair until the Owlbear attack leads them back to the troll’s leadership. And I’d put in more clues about the larger metaplot.

Overall, don’t get me wrong — some parts were fun, some were average, and some were downright frustrating. But we’ve moved on. Kingmaker is done and we are embarking on a new adventure in the world of Harseburg (my homebrew campaign world) with a party full of native outsiders. It’s… weird. but after one session, it feels much more like home.

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9 responses

  1. Kingmaker is a tricky beast in my opinion. It has a large amount of potential to go exceedingly well but on the flip side there seems to be plenty of opportunity to go very poorly as well. I am still running our Kingmaker campaign, so far we’re on the positive side of the line still.

    I think you’ve already found the key that leads to successful or unsuccessful Kingmaker campaigns – how much the GM is willing to play with the narrative. I think running Kingmaker and leaving the narrative alone leads to the most issues. There needs to be more foreshadowing in many sections than is in the canned AP. Without it certain things seem to come out of thin air at you. Work in some foreshadowing though and it really makes the AP pop in my opinion.

    Other issues can be trying to get timelines to match up it seems. My group’s kingdom is pretty big and they get to a place like Fort Drelev and it seems small in comparison to the PCs kingdom which makes certain events awkward.

    Overall though we’ve been having a good time with Kingmaker. It does, as you’ve noticed, take more GM effort than some of the other APs I think. I guess that is the nature of a sandboxy campaign.

    Great write-up though. I am always interested to see how people’s campaigns are going.

  2. I certainly agree with you. The narrative must be restructured for events to seem to flow fluidly and naturally. A GM really needs to work in information from later in the AP much earlier than it is presented.

    The kingdom size issues are a problem too. Why Fort Drelev and Varnhold have not thrived like the PC kingdom was a big question in my game too. But I played it off to having more difficulties and poorer leadership than the PC kingdom.

    I realized as I was writing this comment, I also forgot something important. The relationship with Brevoy and the internal problems of that nation would have made great fodder for the later parts of the AP, and they are effectively “ignored” until after the AP is over. The foreshadowing in the early chapters of the AP led me to think Brevoy would play a bigger part later so I was referencing events to the north a lot — and then it turns out they aren’t really involved at all…

    Weird.

  3. We’re plugging thru Kingmaker too. I think most of our entertainment has been from jokes about the kingdom building system.
    So, the sorcerer makes the best general just because of his Charisma mod?
    A giant owlbear destroyed some buildings? Was this thing the size of Godzilla? Nope
    And one of my favorites: How soon is our kingdom able to hire some adventurers to do all of this dangerous stuff?
    Don’t get me wrong. Our DM is doing a great job and we’re having fun but I think the AP would be a lot more fun if it was just run as just a big sandbox.

    1. Heh! I half-wish my group would hire some adventurer’s to take care of the exploration bits in the background! I enjoyed the exploration in the first two books as GM. After that it seems sort of monotonous to me.

      I’ve asked the group for feedback and offered them ways to streamline some of that, but they seem to keep saying I am doing a good job with the exploration and they like doing it.

  4. I’ve written about this one before (which is why I didn’t mention it again) but yeah, my players didn’t really want to explore after the point where the kingdom had started to grow up. And several of the encounters are significantly too easy for parties of their level at the time, so it seemed superfluous in many cases.

    We had the same feeling. Like, if we have a Royal Warden, with like, rangers and stuff at his disposal, why are we — the rulers — still the ones out exploring? Didn’t really make sense.

  5. I’ve run several Paizo APs start to finish and, while they are great adventures, the more recent the AP the more tinkering the narrative requires.

    Savage Tide, Rise, Curse and now Carrion Crown all have respectively needed more and more narrative tinkering. I’m not sure I can pin down exactly why but it seems the writers of the adventures are auditioning for writing a novel instead of focusing on writing one part of an ongoing adventure. I think the Paizo editors need to dial back the story telling a bit and get back to the adventure crafting.

  6. This may be a fair criticism of some of the other APs. I’m a player in a Carrion Crown game right now and my DM has complained about how the backstory doesn’t really translate well to the players as is…

    But I don’t know that this was the problem with Kingmaker. I think with Kingmaker the issue is more that — because it’s a sandbox with kingdom building elements — the writers had to be really generic and stay away from the PC kingdom… because they had no idea what the PC kingdom would look like…

  7. I believe everyone is forgetting that the whole thing is a template to be used and modified by the DM. A DM should read the whole series before he begins and allow changes where is apropriate to his own players and story context within the adventures own story context. Some material could be managed by the players army or npc mercenary groops at cost to the PC’s. The success and failure based upon the army concept within the adventure.

  8. I am looking at running Kingmaker although it does seem a little daunting. Thanks for the comments that you have left, very enlightening.

    I think I would encourage either the use of NPC’s to do some exploring whom would report back or encourage players to have 2nd and 3rd characters who are “starting out” and are hired or followers of the main characters who do the side missions etc.

    I have also read lots about the kingdom making rules being clunky and time intensive. I would almost be tempted to run the kingdom building part in the background. Perhaps with an NPC King and the actions of the team effect the development of the kingdom.

    Additionally I cant imagine running a game as written.

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