Kingmaker Postmortem

Note: This is a re-upload of the original post from 2019

Hey everyone, with my Dungeons and Dragons campaign Kingmaker drawing to a close in one session, I wanted to take some time to reflect on how the whole project went. This has been one of the most important games I’ve ever run, and I have learned a lot about Dungeons and Dragons as a game and myself as a Game Master. The campaign had a lot going for it and had some great moments; but in my opinion, in the end, it was a failure.

I will also compare Kingmaker to its predecessor, Among the Bones of the Second Age (ABSA). ABSA was a successful campaign, despite it ending with a near-TPK. What made the two so different? Let’s find out.

Kingmaker’s Concept.

Kingmaker was a campaign centered around a succession crisis in the continent of Arbante, a standard European high fantasy land. The game focused on political intrigue and power dynamics between the different factions of the country. The player characters (PCs), are nobodies trying to escape their pasts who get tangled up with the war between houses. The big bad evil guy (BBEG) from ABSA returned in this campaign.

Landing page for Kingmaker

One of the main problems with Kingmaker was its core concept. My players are not that interested in courtly intrigue, and rarely engaged with that part of the world. They were more focused on the dynamics between their characters and the NPCs rather than the big picture machinations in the background. When faced with a problem, they were more likely to go solve it personally rather than employ contacts or other agents for help. Making alliances didn’t matter, and they didn’t try to recruit allies as often as I thought they would.

I think I made this campaign as a game that I wanted to play in rather than run for my players. I was hoping to play the campaign of my dreams vicariously through them, and it did not work out. They are not the kind of player that I am, and therefore didn’t follow the paths I expected them to.

Among the Bones of the Second Age’s Concept.

The concept of ABSA was simple, the PCs are swords-for-hire that traveled to the desert continent of Kal’dein in order to escape their pasts. Mercenaries of a walks of life fled to this continent to get away from the rest of the world; people could disappear here. After a few expeditions into the desert and some ominous tarroka cards, the PCs found themselves uncovering a conspiracy that revolved around the forbidden city of Shattered Lond. Each of them found themselves drawn to this forsaken city for their own personal reasons, and it was truly a clash of characters at the finale of the campaign, resulting in a near total party kill and a dissolution of the party.

Landing page for Among the Bones of the Second Age

This campaign concept fit my players perfectly. They love character drama and backstory integration. Being self-motivated was a catalyst for the character-driven stories they craved. This game was fun for both me and the players. I had fun crafting the conspiracy (that they still haven’t fully uncovered) and the tarroka card prophecies, and they had fun struggling against each other and a hostile environment.

I think I gave them more direction in this campaign in the form of jobs with Poole and Raddinger Ventures, Inc.

Magic Items.

A huge problem in Kingmaker was the power level of the party. I had a hard time making challenging fights that posed a real threat to the party and their allies. The main reason for this was the copious number of magic items I gave to the party. With a huge endgame in mind, I thought that I should supply them with powerful artifacts to help them. However, they took on more personal challenges where these tools were not necessary. I also used real-world logic too much in determining the distribution for these items. I figured that most powerful figures would have a magic item or two, and why wouldn’t the party be able to take it off of their corpse? Logically, this makes sense. But balance-wise, this really screwed me over, especially in the late game.

That’s a lot of items… (they were level 7 at the time!)

Troupe Play.

Also related to balance, I attempted to make this game a more troupe-style play experience. Each player created two PCs that they could choose between when leaving their home base. However, they did not use this system like I thought they would I intended it to be a Mass Effect style character selection, but they eventually just ended up taking all eight (!!!) PCs with them on every quest. This was a nightmare to balance, as D&D’s CR system barely works at four PCs, let alone eight. If I wanted to properly pull off a troupe style campaign, I needed to force the players to only control one character per session.

This playstyle also slowed the game down and made it less focused. Managing two PCs in combat was tough for a lot of players, it was a lot to keep track of. More characters in combat means more turns in a round which means arbitrarily long combats. These are not fun.

Also, the presence of two times as many PCs took the spotlight away from the original four, which made the game lose focus. The game was less about the core four characters (The Rowdy Crowdy), and more about all eight of the characters together (adding the Lemons). If I were to redo this campaign, I would not have introduced the Lemons at all. As cool of characters they were, I think the focus of the game is more important. It was also kind of funny and weird when a player would have a conversation with themselves if their two PCs were talking to each other. Since my players get so into their respective characters, requiring them to keep track of another one took their focus away from playing their one character to its fullest extent.

For me, integrating the backstories of eight PCs is a nightmare. It is already difficult to do four characters justice. Add double that amount, and the threads get a little tangled. I think I did a few of the characters justice, but I think a majority of them got shafted in the personal story department.

Eight player characters at once! Ahhhh!
Compare that to the four character party of Among the Bones of the Second Age

Non-Player Characters (NPCs).

My NPCs in ABSA were a little more eccentric and focused than in Kingmaker. I tried to make the NPCs in Kingmaker realistic and grounded, with their own motivations and goals. In ABSA, the NPCs all had one personality trait that they stuck to. Whereas my Kingmaker NPCs were better people, my ABSA NPCs were better characters, and my players had more fun interacting with them.

NPCs from Among the Bones of the Second Age

My specialty is most certainly not in creating NPCs; I have a hard time making them interesting to interact with. I can make them a part of machinations, but I am not good at making them a part of the actual world. In the future, I will focus on making my NPCs more focused characters rather than making them like actual people and spend my time really focusing on what I’m good at. However, I really should practice making better NPCs, as this is an essential skill when running games for players who love talking in character and engaging with the world from their character’s perspective.

Kingmaker NPCs

Scale and Scope.

Here is where I shot myself in the foot. With Kingmaker, I wanted to give the players tons of options and just set them loose. I quickly fell prey to the classic trap of making the “main quest” too urgent while giving the PCs little time to pursue all of the plot hooks I kept throwing at them. At one point, I had to make a spreadsheet for the players to keep track of all of the quests they’d received. It was at this time that I realized that I had messed up. I tried to do too much in one campaign. Many of these “side quests” would have worked as entire campaigns. Trying to shoehorn them into a completely unrelated game just watered them down. I went with quantity instead of quality in the plot hook department.

The side quest spreadsheet

This abundance of quests made the world feel alive, yes, but it also led to a lot of analysis paralysis and anxiety with my players. They felt constrained by the world threatening BBEG and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff they had to do. Pruning the side quests and plot hooks helped focus the campaign more give them direction.

I also focused a lot on the big picture of the world with Kingmaker, planning a lot of the macro politics and economics of the world. The problem was that my players just didn’t care. That wasn’t the kind of game they were interested in playing. Later on, I talked with some of the players and they said they preferred a more character-focused game with personal stakes. I did not deliver that with Kingmaker, I was focused too much on my own world and the plans and BBEG from ABSA.

Map of Arbante, the main region of Kingmaker

Character Investment.

With all of the politicking and skullduggery going on in the background, I didn’t have a lot of time to properly integrate the characters’ backstories into the world. Instead, they were reduced to Mass Effect-style loyalty missions; you just check off the boxes until you’ve done them all. The BBEG was from a previous campaign, one that was an entire world away. These PCs did not care about Kage or Kal’dein or the Shadowfell. They barely even cared about the succession crisis. They cared way more about Cricket’s previous iterations and Eddyn and Talent’s nemesis, the Ringmaster. These personal stories that the players actually cared about only took up two sessions maximum. The things the players actually cared about were barely footnotes in the scope of the rest of the campaign. I tried to make the characters’ roles in the world realistic instead of interesting. Yeah, a lowly bard’s evil siblings probably wouldn’t mean much in the scope of things, but that isn’t interesting. I should have integrated the PCs’ backstories into the world better and focused more on their personal struggles than that of the world around them.

I don’t think the succession crisis was a bad concept, I think it was a bad choice to focus so heavily on it. The concept would work better as background goings-on while focusing more on the Ringmaster or Madame Rizelle’s Cricket abominations.

I also skipped over a lot of overland travel and fast-tracked interactions with NPCs and PCs. These are the things my players love to use to interact with each other and discover things about each other’s characters. By skipping these small moments, the characters felt like fleshed out and the players didn’t get a chance to do what they liked best about the game. I don’t play games like this; I am more interested in the actual game part and exploring the world. I need to take a step back from my own preferences and think about what my players like.

On the other hand, I still deserve to have fun. I need to strike a balance between worldbuilding and character drama. I haven’t figured out exactly how yet, but I am learning every time I GM now. I think that as long as I can properly integrate the PCs’ backstories into the world and my game concept, I should be set.

Player Base.

Early on in Kingmaker, I gave the party a home base. I intended this to be where they met up and discussed plans. I also wanted them to get attached to the place and really make it their own and care about it. This did not happen the way I wanted to; it was mainly a repository for the NPCs they were collecting throughout the campaign. They liked the initial exploration of the house, but the novelty of it seemed to wear off after a while. They did really appreciate the income from the shops they owned though.

Chateau Mercier

In the future, I will do a better job of getting the players attached to their home base, and making it feel more earned. Just giving them a place doesn’t really motivate them to do anything with it. I should do it after a long struggle so that it feels like a real reward. I really want to use the supplements for player bases that I have, so they will still be a prominent part of my games.

I also think that a big reason why the characters were never at their base was because all of the plot hooks were so spread out. The hooks spanned the majority of the country, and the party was constantly traveling to get things done. They didn’t have time to just relax at home and interact. I think that the players were more invested in the village of Cricket than they were in the Mercier Estate. I could be reading it wrong though. In the future, I will make the area that the campaign takes place in a lot smaller so that they can focus on more personal matters and really get attached to places. Going into more detail with NPCs and descriptions instead of skipping to the big picture will also help with this.

What Went Well.

Despite all of its flaws, there were still some good moments of the game. I think the beginning of the campaign was good; the players were engaged and invested in the street that I had them create before the game started. I think that by giving them a hand in the creation of the starting area, they had a reason to care. However, I think the campaign got out of hand when the left the city.

I am also particularly proud of Cricket meeting his old bodies. I think I made that sufficiently creepy and made the characters think about their morals and stuff.

The showdown

I think that there were some good dungeon crawls and other moments, but overall, the campaign was disappointing.

What is in store for the future.

For the next campaign, I seek to remedy the issues I outlined above.

  • Create rules and a system for giving out magic items. Put restrictions in place (on myself).
  • Leave more holes in the world. No region should be “solved”. Leave room to integrate the backstories. My players make a ton of NPCs.
  • Don’t try troupe play again. Pretty obvious.
  • Don’t trust the challenge rating system. Adjust fights on my own personal experience while using CR as a guide.
  • Keep the scope limited. Isolate most important things to one area, with a vague incentive to leave the area. Don’t give out very many quests with urgency, especially concurrently.
  • Don’t plan for as much stuff to fill the session with. Put the work I would spend on that into NPCs for the players to interact with.

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