When reviewing an RPG book, there are different aspects to consider. How professional is the layout? Is the art of good quality? Can the author and editor deliver a text that’s free of typos and grammatical errors? And, of course, how well does it play in your game? This last question can be one of the most difficult to judge, because there’s no better way to judge how well a supplement or adventure works than playtesting – unfortunately, if you want to make regular reviews, playtesting is next to impossible; there’s just not enough time to thoroughly dig into a book.
That’s why, for me at least, it’s special when I’m able to review a book that I have gotten the chance to playtest, as I did with Jon Brazer Enterprises’ Book of the River Nations: Exploration and Kingdom Building.
Now, to be clear, what I playtested wasn’t this book per se, but rather the material that it’s drawing from…which segues nicely into noting this particular elephant in the room: virtually all of this book is reproduced Open Game Content. More specifically, this book takes the exploration rules from Pathfinder Adventure Path #31 and the kingdom-building rules from Pathfinder Adventure Path #32 and merges them into a single file. Now, there’s more here than just a cut-and-paste job; new events and new buildings are the most obvious, but I also noted some subtler additional material, like a few new terrain types listed in the costs/time expended for preparing a city in different terrains, or how there’s a sidebar that gives an abbreviated flowchart for how the kingdom-building turns progress.
To be entirely fair, the new material here may not be enough to entice you into picking up this product if you already have the aforementioned Pathfinder products. Having a few extra buildings like an apiary, a butcher, or a keep – along with a few new events such as rowdy adventurers coming to town, or holding a public execution – is nice, but extra. You can get along just fine without them.
Having said that, I’ve been running a Kingmaker (the Pathfinder Adventure Path that makes use of these rules) game for the last several months, and I think that this product is a godsend. First, it’s much easier having the exploration and kingdom building rules all in one place instead of having to flip back and forth between two different books whenever I want to use them again. Secondly, this product changes the layout regarding how the information is presented – unlike the original files, this book presents the kingdom-building turn first, and then gets into the specifics of what you do on each turn. This makes it far easier to understand the rules for those who haven’t read them before, and easier to reference for those who have.
But enough with the comparison to the original material, let’s go over this fresh.
Book of the River Nations: Exploration and Kingdom Building is a twenty-page PDF for the Pathfinder RPG. The file has full, nested bookmarks and allows copy-and-pasting, which are standard for professional PDF publications. The book has several black and white pieces of interior art shuffled throughout it, and has fairly ornate borders on alternating sides of each page. Having a single page for the cover, and another for the OGL and credits, there’s also four pages of graphs and charts, allowing you to draw the layout of your kingdom, its cities, and records the various statistics for both. This leaves a full fourteen pages of rules and material.
The first two pages cover the mechanics of exploring land. Overland areas are charted in a hex map, with each hex covering 144 square miles of land (the text characterizes this as being “just over 100 square miles”). Rules are given for how quickly a party can cross a hex based on their speed and the kind of terrain it is, followed by rules for actually exploring that area based on those same two factors. A helpful flowchart is given here for determining the order in which events occur (e.g. when you find something obvious versus when you find something hidden versus when wandering monsters attack, etc.).
The remainder of the book deals with the mechanics of building a kingdom, and it’s here that things start to get truly interesting. A kingdom has its own set of mechanics that are created and kept track of over time. It measures things like Stability, Loyalty, and Economy as measures for tracking the health of the realm, Unrest (which is a penalty to the aforementioned three scores), and Consumption, which is the cost of maintaining your kingdom and building new things. This cost is measured in Build Points, or just BP. The more BP your kingdom has, the richer it is and the more you can expand it; lose BP, and you’ll become poorer and even go broke (which can eventually lead to your kingdom collapsing).
Because these rules are written under the assumption that the PCs are the ones who not only explored the land, but are the founders and active rulers of their kingdom, there are eleven political positions in a kingdom for characters to occupy, from the Ruler to the General, Treasurer, High Priest, and more. All of these allow for some sort of benefit to the kingdom (and most have a penalty if there isn’t someone acting in these roles), meaning that you’ll likely need some trustworthy NPCs to fill some posts. There are also various edicts you can declare, such as raising or lowering taxes, running campaigns to promote goodwill amongst the public, or throwing festivals.
The main thrust of running a kingdom, however, lies in building cities. Cities are the heart of your kingdom, and occupy a significant position in the kingdom-building rules. These largely revolve around having a “city grid” that represents (a district in) your city, and which can be filled with various buildings, of which several dozen are listed. Each has a given cost to construct it, and has some statistical effect such as helping or hurting your Economy, Loyalty, Stability, or Unrest, and possibly affecting the cost of other buildings. It’s a very detailed system for managing how your cities grow, and is surprisingly fun (my players quickly grew to love it).
Finally, there are also random events that can happen. In this book, these are expanded from the original material and sub-categorized into good events, bad events, adventurer events, and leadership events. Events don’t always happen, but they’re fairly likely from month to month (as a note, each turn of kingdom-building represents a month of game time).
Personally, I love this system, and my players and I are having a blast using it. Hence, I’m overjoyed to have this new incarnation from Jon Brazer Enterprises, since it nicely consolidates all of the material and expands on it.
My only real complaint about the book, however, is that it didn’t correct several of the smaller mistakes that crept in to the original rules. None of these were major, nor was there ever a formal errata sheet for them, but if you read the Paizo message boards you were told what they were. Barracks and Watchtowers should have their costs reversed, for example (since otherwise the latter is cheaper than the former), and Graveyards should not give a bump to your kingdom’s Economy. Add in to this minor errors that cropped up here – such as some buildings not having their mechanical effects properly emboldened and italicized, or the occasional “+1” somehow being a “-1” instead, and the book could probably stand to go through one more round of editing, just to iron these kinks out.
Having said that, however, I just can’t bring myself to give this book anything less than five out of five stars. I have no problem with this material originating elsewhere, since I’ve used the source material and I still prefer this take on it – consolidated exploration and kingdom-building rules, revised layout, new mechanics, and helpful flowcharts all ensure that this will be the version I have in hand the next time I sit down to my Kingmaker game (after making a few manual fixes). And that’s overlooking the sheer convenience of having these rules available as a cheap stand-alone product, something that’s very convenient for those who don’t have the original materials.
If you’ve always wanted to run a Pathfinder game of exploration and nation-founding but never got the original books, or if you have the original books but just wanted something more, pick up Book of the River Nations: Exploration and Kingdom Building and send your characters forth to create a new empire!