When people talk about the best Adventure Paths, they generally mention Kingmaker. It’s easy to see why. In a lot of ways, Kingmaker goes back to the mythical high-level play that Gary Gygax implied occurred in the original D&D and AD&D books, and saw fruition in Mike Mentzer’s Companion and Master boxed set for the D&D game. A party of adventurers found a kingdom and rule it! It’s an iconic part of D&D play, even if one that most people didn’t experience. Finally, with Kingmaker, you can!
The problem is that the Pathfinder system is a fairly bad fit for the style of play the campaign encourages. For the most part, the adventures consist of exploring wilderness hexes and defeating whatever challenges might exist in that space. They’re often combat encounters, and it’s here that Pathfinder shows its cracks pretty badly: Pathfinder, as 3E before it, is balanced based on about 4-5 combat encounters per day. When you only get one combat encounter per day, that balance goes out of the window. As a result, most of the combats are utterly too easy to defeat. It’s one of the few occasions I would suggest 4E as a preferred system – it does lone encounters much, much better.
However, more problems arise when we get to the new rules systems that the Paizo team created for running kingdoms and mass battles. They don’t look so bad to begin with: you get to develop land, buy buildings and play SimCity. Except that the calculations for running the kingdom quickly become tedious, and after a while it doesn’t matter what decisions you make, the kingdom will be fine. Or it won’t be – but for the most part, once you get past the difficult early part, kingdoms become self-sustaining and ever-growing. The mass battle rules are incredibly bad, leading to a lot of one-sided battles. Yes, they’re meant to be simple and abstract, but it’s very easy to tell that most of the tactical options you might take are worthless. The less said about the process of raising and training armies, the better. It really doesn’t help that the rules for armies are introduced several adventures after the kingdom-building rules and don’t integrate that well. Why were you building barracks? It wasn’t for an army…
That every village and city described in the text doesn’t meet the rules laid out for city and kingdom-building just exacerbates my frustrations with the system.
Due to the large amount of game time that will pass during the Kingmaker campaign, the magic item creation rules get demonstrated in all their brokenness. When I ran the campaign, the group ended up with every magic item creation feat and abused them as much as they could – which was a lot. You know those wealth-by-level tables? Once the players are creating magic items, they become broken very quickly, with bonuses generally three to five points above what you might expect.
It was thus something of a surprise for my group when they reached the final encounter that they couldn’t hurt the Big Bad. This was because she had layered several protection spells upon herself and could only be hit by natural twenties, despite the power level of the characters. We thus got my most hated type of final boss: the one which you have to cast multiple dispel magics upon to defeat. All of which require a lot of recalculation. If you wanted an example of all the flaws inherent in the Pathfinder system, it’s hard to go past Kingmaker.
Why then do I not completely dismiss this adventure path? The fact is, despite the system working against the adventure at every turn, there is some truly inspired design in the path. Exploring wilderness to defeat threats and then expanding your kingdom into those hexes? That’s fun. The events in The Varnhold Vanishing, where an entire settlement disappears? They’re handled extremely well. And the climax to the series, when a mythical fey returns to wreak her vengeance is a great idea, if not foreshadowed or implemented quite as well as I’d like.
Kingmaker has got a lot of good ideas in it, but you’d do well to convert it to your favourite system and go with the ideas behind the adventures rather than the specific implementation. It could have been great, but it isn’t.