Pathfinder: Kingmaker Update #41

Chris Avellone is back with a new Kickstarter update for Owlcat Games' upcoming CRPG Pathfinder: Kingmaker. This time around he starts by talking a bit about the rogue class and the people who play it. And after that, he spends the better part of the update describing the process of creating compelling RPG companions and their personal story arcs. Check it out:


First off, if you play rogues and were taken aback at my blatant discrimination of the thief class in Part 1 – I deserve it. I even have an apology written and ready to go, but your rogue will have to find a way to steal it from my dungeon of deathtraps, since I never give away an apology easily especially to some filthy rogue. (Although at some point, I should do a blog about rogues, I have a lot of pent-up frustration there.) And by the way, while I’m at it (referencing Part 1 of this companion update), players choosing rogues and mages is one of the reasons for providing tanks and healers early as companions to act as walls/distractions for your enemies – the tanks absorb the damage and draw fire while you get schwifty with the backstab and of course, the healers are there to mop up all the blood that usually results.

Anyway, enough about that – today, let’s discuss change. And companions. Companion change. Should they?

So companions don’t have to change. They can be mysteries you unlock (or mysteries you can’t). They can advance the plot in ways when other NPCs in the world simply won’t do. They may be an emotional rock you can always rely on to act a specific way in specific situations. They can be golems, robots, undead, dogs, or dire wolves (although even dire wolves can change, as proved in a certain popular TV series about thrones and gaming).

However, it’s often better if companions evolve or change in some way – even for the worse – based on your (the player) actions. Maybe you, through example or action, made their lives better. Maybe you left them in a grave – and then resurrected them as an undead. Maybe you taught them to break through some mental block, doubt, or unhealthy obsession. Maybe you caused them to doubt or develop unhealthy obsessions, but you’re both fine with that because now you have a dependent addict as a sycophant that you can count on for emotional support on rainy days. Maybe you had to sacrifice them for the greater good. Whatever the change is, it heightens the role-playing experience. And it may be telling about what kind of person you and your player character are by the companion choices you make.

So what’s the process? Well, we start with the system bits, as described in Part 1. Class, race, rough stats (and also where the companion is found and if their joining the party is optional), alignment, and often the deity the character worships in Pathfinder – essentially, the basics.

From the basics, a paragraph summary is drafted that gives the high-level pitch for the character – the character’s background in broad strokes: what drives them, how they interact with other characters, what will players enjoy about this companion, what will they remember, and what are the big end states for the character – and yes, believe it or not, this is a lot, but we try to keep this short and to the point. The reason is because an excess of detail at this stage can waste time and potentially cause too much attachment to the details as well on all sides – either positive or negative. As a result, the first step is to paint the overall picture, see if it strikes a chord with the team and the Backers, and then move on to increasing stages of detail with the companion. It’s a lot like making a narrative sculpture – chiseling away at the block bit by bit.

Next comes establishing the details of the companion’s development arc. When doing a companion arc, we do it within the framework of an outline that mirrors the chapters of the game. This includes details on what do we want the player to feel toward the companion at each stage, what does the companion feel or emote at each stage (both internal and external), what significant change or evolution occurs in a chapter (if any – sometimes it’s escalation of a character’s trait in either a bad or good way), and what do we see the character’s branching paths being – even if they leave the party, we want the player to understand why the companion left and attach significance to that event. This outline also includes what role the player assumes or can assume in each of these events – are you helpful, apologetic, sacrificial, pragmatic, or uncaring? As the descriptors indicate, this isn’t always a binary choice, and it’s often affected by things you’ve done previously with the companion in earlier chapters – or haven’t done.

We coordinate with audio and the voice casting department during this stage as well – and the concept artists. We establish the adjectives of the character, provide a range of sample lines, and then do auditions to see who hits the right tone for the character (note that sometimes an actor’s delivery can be so unexpected, it’s possible that a voice actor can change a character’s personality, and we’ll write the character with the actor’s voice and personality in mind – this occurred when working with James Urbaniak in Fallout: New Vegas: Old World Blues, for example).

After we establish this arc, tone, and run some auditions, we run internal critiques, kick a few iterations around until we think it’s ready to be shown to Paizo and see what they think. Paizo is easy to work with, so this usually isn’t a huge discussion. No chairs are thrown. (Unless we think throwing chairs would be fun to do, then all bets are off.)

After the approval stage – we take that outline “skeleton” (if you will), then add the organs to it, taking this skeleton of stats and high-level progression and breathing the personality into it. Sometimes people are surprised a designer waits until this stage to really start writing, but I believe it is the best time to find the soul of a character – after you’ve established the systemic foundation and have an idea of where the companion starts and ends – it informs everything about your word choice, tone, and more concerning the character.

And that’s a slice of the companion design process – hope you found this interesting. On my end, I keep forgetting how much pre-production work is involved before you really start writing, so detailing it all out is a good exercise to understand just how crazy narrative designers can be. But we do our best to make great companions that you’ll love and remember – or despise, for all the right reasons.