Pathfinder: Kingmaker brings the classic tabletop series to life

Chris Avellone? Chris Avellone.

At first glance, Pathfinder: Kingmaker looks like any other modern CRPG.

With an isometric perspective and fantasy setting similar to Pillars of Eternity or Divinity: Original Sin, one wouldn’t be blamed for mistaking it for another game. Kingmaker was even funded via Kickstarter, much like Pillars, Divinity, and most other recent throwback RPGs. In a presentation before our demo, Owlcat Games creative director Alex Mishulin’s opens by saying Pathfinder: Kingmaker is “inspired by games like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment.” To his right sits Chris Avellone, writer of Planescape: Torment. He also wrote for Pillars of Eternity, Divinity: Original Sin II, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, and… you get the idea.

What I'm saying is that Pathfinder: Kingmaker might have a little trouble carving out an identity of its own in the videogame space. But it does have a heck of a pedigree.

Many have already played Pathfinder: Kingmaker, albeit in pen and paper form. Originally a Dungeons & Dragons offshoot first published in 2009, Pathfinder is one of the top-selling tabletop RPGs of the last decade. Kingmaker is a fan favorite for its many six-part “Adventure Paths” published by IP creator Paizo Inc. Owlcat’s crowdfunded game is a somewhat direct adaptation of that adventure, with the necessary adjustments and extra content to properly fill out a videogame narrative. While any budget-limited digital game will have trouble replicating the freeform tabletop experience, the studio has done its best to stay true to the Pathfinder feel. Such is the first of the game’s three main design pillars (no pun intended), as described by Mishulin.

I start in the world map, in the first chapter. When I pick a location to explore, a miniature figure slides across the digital board. A cute detail. Meanwhile, I pause and click through my party to get a sense of their classes and personalities.

“For most of the classes in the game, you can try to replicate your tabletop build,” Mishulin chimes in behind me. Minutes later, during my first combat encounter, a window in the corner of the screen not only reads off what damage is inflicted to whom, but what value of d20 rolls triggers each hit (or misses). From my perspective, lacking much tabletop experience, this only adds a bit of pen and paper flavor onto otherwise typical RPG interactions, but it’s a fun gimmick nonetheless.

When I finally arrive at my destination, my barbarian companion Amiri requests to forge ahead alone in search of an animal she wishes to hunt. Her reason is personal, compelling, and illuminates a significant piece of her backstory. This story beat was a highlight of my session, and yet its metatextual significance went over my head. I’d forgotten I’d been told Amiri is a popular NPC that dates back to Pathfinder’s origin. I see this as a win-win, for I didn’t need to know this to enjoy the moment, yet if I were longtime Pathfinder fan, it could’ve been even more satisfying to see the scene come to life. This leads to me to suspect that Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s second pillar, the game’s companion-focused story, will likely be its strongest.

If you’ve gotten this far in the article, you’re probably at least vaguely aware of Chris Avellone or his work. Along with the handful of his credits listed above, he’s written for Fallout 2 and New Vegas, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Prey (2017), Into the Breach, and many others. He’s a freelance writer and designer often sought out by studios that want to prioritize storytelling, and a common thread through his credited games is his memorable player companions. Based on my brief interactions with Amiri, the mercenary knight Valerie, the bard Linzi, and the half-orc magus Regongar, among others, Kingmaker’s second pillar -- its character writing -- does feel encouragingly strong.

Every party member subscribes to a different morality type from the D&D-born alignment system, meaning these already interesting companions are designed to get into even more interesting disagreements. Mishulin and Avellone won’t outright confirm that characters could leave your party if too displeased, by they implied they might do some surprising things. Again, squabbling companions is absolutely not new this genre, but it’s yet another indication toward what Kingmaker’s strengths will likely be.

Frankly, I can’t speak much to the third pillar Mishulin described: growing and managing territory. This is not for spoilers’ sake; I simply didn’t see it in action, despite it sounding like the most novel part of the game. Players will slowly go from owning a patch of land to ruling an entire kingdom, the fate of which will be influenced by the decisions made by them and their companions. NPCs can be assigned to rule different regions, and which other leaders form alliances with the player will depend on their moral alignment.

Though the circumstances of my demo kept me from witnessing this third design pillar, I did make plenty use of a pausable, real-time combat system not unlike that of Pillars of Eternity or Dragon Age, and spent time poking around a few bland-looking inventory and character menus.

Despite the interesting emphasis on character and its tabletop roots, what I saw of Pathfinder: Kingmaker doesn’t feel particularly groundbreaking. This isn’t to say it looks to be a lesser knock-off of other CRPGs. Rather, it’s the game’s apparent genre authenticity that keeps it from standing out.

Of course, as is the case with most preview coverage, what I didn’t see could help easily differentiate Kingmaker from its contemporaries. The kingdom-building mechanic looks to be a massive piece of the game, and one that’s new to the entire Pathfinder franchise, at that.

At the very least, if you’re a fan old-school, western RPGs or their modern counterparts, you might want to consider taking a look at this interesting digital adaptation after it launches on PC, Mac, and Linux on September 25th.