7 October 2013

A Game within a Game: Kingdom Building in Pathfinder

Today's turning out to be a headachy, unproductive kinda day, so maybe I'll procrastinate a moment writing about my RPG experience last weekend. (It's not that rare for me to get a headache after an RPG session, dunno if it's caused by stress or what. This one turned out to be a real whopper, lasting into the next day as well. But I digress.)

This was the first session of my Pathfinder campaign in several months. In the previous session, the party got their hands on a Deck of Many Things, which is a pretty hilarious thing to unleash on unsuspecting players. As a result the party's wizard suddenly had a brand new castle at his disposal. We decided that it might actually be pretty interesting to skip several levels—none of us had previously played a D&D style game at very high levels—and the new castle was a perfect excuse to fast-forward a few years of game time, as the party settled down and focused on building their own realm.

As it happens, last spring Paizo released the Pathfinder sourcebook Ultimate Campaign, which, among other things, contained rules for running player led kingdoms and mass combat. (I haven't actually managed to purchase this book yet, but, like all the core Pathfinder rules, the content, under the Open Game License, can be read for free at Paizo's website, and other sources.)

I hadn't originally thought of utilising these rules, as I generally abhor overly complicating games with various systems, but in the days preceding Sunday's session I decided to read through them anyway, and thought it might be fun to try them out. So I spent Saturday putting together a simple realm for the players. Normally this would be something the players start from scratch, but I felt this would take up too much time in the current circumstances, and we'd agreed on fast-forwarding several years, so I opted to give them a kingdom that already had a decent amount of resources at its disposal.

Kingdom building using these rules is basically an entire game of its own, not entirely unlike certain computer strategy games. It's played in turns of one month of game time. Each turn you can claim new hexes on a map and build things like mines, farms and settlements in those hexes to provide income. A kingdom has three basic attributes—Economy, Loyalty and Stability—which are used in rolls in various circumstances. These attributes increase primarily by constructing new buildings in your settlements, which you place on a district grid of six by six 'lots'. (For instance, you could build a bank, which adds 4 to your Economy attribute.) Each turn there's also a chance of a random event taking place. Each player character takes on a particular role in the kingdom's leadership—ruler, general, spymaster or whatever—which grants bonuses to the kingdom's attributes based on the characters' ability modifiers.

Naturally the system is meant to be interspersed with more traditional adventuring, whether exploring new lands to claim, engaging in diplomacy or dealing with threats to the kingdom. We didn't actually get around to anything like that this time—the session was more about getting to grips with the new system, and also doing some finishing touches on the updated characters, which took up some time. This should change in the future, though. I hope. Running the kingdom for the first time was pretty fun, but I think on its own it would get pretty repetitive fairly soon.

An aspect of the system we didn't have a chance to try out yet were the mass combat rules. I had prepared stats for a few army units recruited by the players' kingdom—and some potential enemies that they know little about as of yet—but the timing wasn't opportune this time. I'm sure this will be a feature in future sessions, though. I've dreaded the idea of running combat in a situation where the characters would realistically have a large number of NPC allies fighting with them. Running such scenes as mass combat would certainly simplify things a lot. The system is quite simple and abstract, compared to regular Pathfinder combat. Army units are defined by just offence and defence values (and HP, of course), determined by the unit's size and the Challenge Rating of the creatures it's made up of. (There are special abilities and tactics to spice things up, of course, but overall it's still a pretty simple and straightforward system.)

Of course I still want to have the characters engage in traditional combat as well. That is, after all, the heart of Pathfinder. But getting them into suitable situations at this stage of the campaign is something of a challenge...

So, in a nutshell, for a more tactical experience, the kingdom rules from Ultimate Campaign are certainly an interesting thing to try out. Finding the right balance between a more game-like experience and a storytelling experience can prove to be something of a challenge, however. Only time will tell how I manage to work it out in this campaign.

(Oh, as a side note, Sunday's experience inspired me to create a spreadsheet in Google Drive to keep track of our kingdom's attributes. After just a few turns of running the kingdom, it was clear that there was enough erasing and recalculating to make keeping track of things on the paper sheet provided by Paizo bloody annoying. Strangely enough, despite being something of a lifelong computer geek, I have no recollection of actually ever making a spreadsheet before. It just hasn't been something I've ever had a need for in my day-to-day existence. But you live and learn...)

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