…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.