The Vicarious Baron of Varn

Please note this article focuses on some critical story elements and may contain a few spoilers for Pathfinder: Kingmaker

Pathfinder: Kingmaker like many RPGs offers a variety of outcomes to the events of its main story. Alignment choices, completion or incompletion of side-quests, decisions of governance, may exhibit immediate outcomes, or have an outcome in the ending slides of the game. Even nominal characters like Nyrd Zottenropple, have an impact on important events should you make the requisite choices. Yet none of this is unique, in fact it’s been done for years. As recently as Deadfire and as far back as Arcanum. As creative as Kingmaker is, and as varied as it’s choices are there is still one more unique way it approaches its storytelling that I haven’t seen in a game of this type before.

The primary focus of an epic fantasy RPG, as the genre implies, is the creation and fulfillment of your avatars life in the world. The game is played from a first person perspective with the player embodying the characters view point. We learn about the world and it’s events through the eyes of our avatar. And although mechanically we can pull the camera back for a 3rd person view in some RPG games (like Skyrim or Dragon Age) this is only a mechanical change, not a narrative shift, instead the narrative stays purely focused on something I call (for games) the singular perspective. This of course allows for the building of suspense for plot twists and removes an annoying omniscient (or partially omniscient narrator) from muddying the ‘text’ of the game keeping the player immersed in that delicate balance that is known as ‘suspension of disbelief’.

Yet this is also limiting. Where novels such as A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time or Lord of the Rings can switch easily between characters and events in far-flung spaces, which vastly expands the scope of the world as they do it. Games however largely require the player to explore the world, revealing it slowly frame by frame focused upon the avatar. As such games lay importance upon the characters agency and this is somewhat to the detriment of a concept of a world that exists externally to the avatar.

Not all illusions are art

Pathfinder: Kingmaker attempts to overcome this, with timed events that place pressure on the player to resolve them before they escalate. The world is filled with danger and wonder that both threatens and delights. The world has agency, important to the thematic elements of the plot, and it is unlike other RPGs in that this danger purely manifests as quests to resolve or monsters to slaughter. As nature, and time attempt to tear down the hard wrought community you attempt to build. These events that occur are revealed in the main quests as many media’s do, through insight from NPCs, most notably certain companions as well as through a villains monologue. Allowing the player to piece a timeline together after the fact, and discover the secrets and revelations of a forgotten past, the secondary type of exploration that games can offer.

The Varnhold’s Lot DLC offers a new approach, more closely allied to novels that switch character perspectives.

But these traditional methods are not the only technique Owlcat Games uses…

The Varnhold’s Lot DLC offers a new approach, more closely allied to novels that switch character perspectives. Running two characters in a single unified game is of course impossible, except Varnhold manages to achieve this by offering a secondary campaign that occurs in conjunction with the first campaign. Whilst the player character is exploring events in the Shrike Hills, the Varnhold Barony is expanding into the Dunsward and developing alongside your own kingdom. It offers a juxtaposition to the success of your own elevation, and may be seen as either a rival or ally. The Baron Maegar Varn who was elevated alongside your primary character by Jamandi Aldori in her scheming against the Issians and House Surtova, is genially disposed towards you, and beset by much the same curse that drives the conflict in the rest of the game.

All of this is revealed in dispatches and missives in the main game, and the fall of the Varnhold Barony is explored in depth in Part 3 entitled rather literally “The Varnhold Vanishing”, along with a little foreshadowing by one Willas Gunderson. Yet more is made available in the DLC, and whilst the player characters concern is with preventing the same forces from destroying her own kingdom, the DLC fills in plot holes as to how certain individuals survived.

Necrotic botanists

As a separate campaign the solution is easy, simply role a new character to play for the duration of the DLC. This newly embodied character gives a fresh perspective to the player of the characters involved. Not only is this character exploring the world at the same time as the main character but also reveals a few hidden truths about the nature of the curse and the depravity of the individual behind it, or perhaps nefarious assistance would be a more appropriate term when discussing the Horned God’s intervention through the aforementioned hapless Willas Gunderson, who unwittingly awakens a fallen empire.

These tidbits of information are illuminating. Not only enhancing the nature and temperament of the villains, but also expanding the scope of play. Such things have been used before in gaming where a choice of characters are offered such as in Resident Evil 2‘s choice of Leon or Claire, but took a backseat for years until being revived in games like Dishonored 2 which allowed you to play the same campaign but from both Corvo’s and Emily’s viewpoints or the more recent Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey choice of Alexios or Kassandra. But it has never truly been attempted in a multiparty game nor in offering a largely separate structure from which to view the larger narrative, although Resident Evil 2 comes closest to this.

These tidbits of information are illuminating. Not only enhancing the nature and temperament of the villains, but also expanding the scope of play.

The other more important part that the Varnhold’s Lot DLC adds is tangible changes to the games overall story. The choices you make have distinct outcomes, whether your character is left to wander the first world forever or whether they end up retiring to the comfort of your capitals tavern. And seeing your character (YOUR character) ensconced in the gameworld with your primary protagonist interacting with them is something distinct and unique.

Awaiting the final release

Of course the pioneering ability for this comes from Baldur’s Gate 2 which allowed you to import a saved character from the first game, but was refined with the release of Dragon Age 2 and Inquisition and Pillars of Eternity 2 that allowed you to not only import your previous character for a cameo, but the entire set of consequential choices that had shaped the world. Whilst this had established continuity between games, it’s only with the Varnhold’s Lot DLC that I’ve come to see the potential for expanding narratives in a lateral fashion. It is this that makes the DLC so innovative, and something I’d hope to see more of in the future. After all the fantasy novels we read have expanding vistas shaped by vain villains confronted with violently vehement adventurers! Why not expand the possibility of players and allow them to vicariously assume the identity of more than one inhabitant that can shape the events of a world? Not just by controlling side characters, that serve an important role as tools with which to shape your character through interaction, but with the primary force that makes gaming so powerful a narrative medium, the players own ability to choose the actions and shape the responsibilities of more than one protagonist and in so doing the world at large.

Varnhold’s Lot was the second DLC released for Pathfinder: Kingmaker on February 28th, 2019. It is included in the Imperial Edition of the game.

Images are property of Owlcat Games and are used here for commentary and criticism. Screenshots from in the game were taken by the author.

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