Pathfinder: Kingmaker is an old-fashioned CRPG based on a tabletop ruleset so complex even fans call it "Mathfinder." It's a long and complicated game, but apparently not long and complicated enough for Owlcat Games, who hid a secret ending deep within it. Finding out how to unlock that ending took datamining, machine translation, and the cooperation of multiple determined fan communities.
Players first stumbled across the existence of the secret ending while grappling with Kingmaker's many other issues at launch. "I kind of vacuumed up all the scuttlebutt I could from various sources, because this game wasn't taking any prisoners," says Prototype00, one of the players who joined the subreddit and Steam forum in late 2018 to make sense of its opaque rules and brutal encounters. "This was before concessions were made to at least inform new players about things like 'spider swarms will utterly murder you' or 'Not having enough supplies for Vordakai's tomb is basically game over.' You would run into deadly situations all the time."
Before patched-in loading screen tips and a dungeon redesign, a lot of first-time players were murdered by tiny spiders in the beginner dungeon of Fangberry Cave and turned to forums for help.
But not everyone was digging into Kingmaker just to find out how to survive the spiders or min-max their way to the most overpowered character. Some were trying to figure out how to romance its villain: Nyrissa, the Nymph Queen.
Doom and bloom
"We knew from the very beginning that we wanted to have a 'secret', hard to achieve ending to the game," says lead narrative designer Alexander Komzolov, "and that it must be tied to Nyrissa's romance. Our goal was to place hints about it throughout the game, and drop a mega-hint near the finale. We planned that gamers would play the Kingmaker 'normally', attain a regular romance and a regular ending while being constantly 'lured' by the prospect of a 'secret romance ending', to inspire thoughts like 'is it in the game, or is the game messing with me?'"
When you meet Nyrissa she's an ally, pretending to be a simple nature spirit called the Guardian of the Bloom. Over the course of Kingmaker you learn she's behind the troubles blighting your land, sending armies of fey monsters and manipulating other villains into attacking.
But—via one particular sidequest where you win a debate organized by a demigod and then risk squandering your reward by demanding as your prize that the demigod tells you about your true love—you learn this fairytale figure can be redeemed. And, yes, romanced.
Not everyone was tempted. On a Steam forum thread where players theorized about the possibility, one suggested you'd be better off romancing literally any other NPC, since they "don't look like lettuce." A player who was more intrigued by the possibility replied, "She has 36 in charisma so she is a good looking lettuce."
These players figured out what Komzolov called the "secret romance ending" was possible, but they were only just beginning to understand how to get to it.
"It was the game's biggest secret," says Alice Wu, who joined Kingmaker's Discord to talk spoilers, "but there were plenty of clues to its existence. The real puzzle was knowing all of the conditions to succeed." Kingmaker's launch bugginess made these conditions trickier to figure out, however, "since no one was sure if any complication either stemmed from a design decision or a bug."
In the early weeks after Kingmaker's release, getting any ending—let alone a secret ending—was almost impossible. Act 5 might not even end, and parts of a climactic dungeon called The House at the End of Time were so broken players had to teleport past certain areas to avoid their game breaking. If you got there and didn't have the right spell to do that? Too bad.
Several patches later things smoothed out enough for Alice to finish Kingmaker with one of its normal endings. She compiled everything she and other players on Discord had figured out, then posted it on Reddit. In the thread that followed, the communities' combined knowledge of what it would take to unlock the secret ending was brought together.
Some of what they understood was obvious. You had to choose non-aggressive dialogue options when talking to Nyrissa even after her betrayal, for example.
Other steps were less obvious.
Clear a hex, build a keep, become a research wizard
Half of Kingmaker is a game where you go on adventures and fight trolls, "and then you have Kingdom Management, where you do taxes," as Prototype00 jokingly puts it.
The endgame of D&D in its early editions was clearing a hex on the wilderness map, getting rid of all the monsters, and building a keep there. Maybe a stronghold or a wizard's tower. Then you slowly build up a domain and spend the rest of your days dealing with the problems of the local citizens.
Few ever made it to that endgame, but the dream remained part of the collective unconscious of longtime roleplayers: Some day we will clear a hex and build a keep.
Kingmaker is about that dream, and kingdom management is how it simulates the day-to-day running of your land. You assign advisors to deal with events and opportunities as they crop up, and when they're free you dedicate them to long-term projects—making trade deals with neighbours, upgrading roads and infrastructure, training a military, and so on.
You can also assign your religious advisor (the high priest) and your arcane advisor (the magister) to research the curses you repeatedly stumble across in various quests and sidequests. There are a lot of them. A hunter has become a werewolf, a murder victim is doomed to return as a zombie, a dryad transformed into a big evil tree. Each curse requires weeks or even months of research to understand, during which the chosen advisor will be unavailable to deal with disasters or improve your kingdom, leaving the land in a weakened position.
"You're going to put your Kingdom underwater if you try to do this from the outset," Prototype00 says.
Standard advice was not to bother with most research, that it was one of Kingmaker's many "noob traps" for new players to fall into. "People were right in that you could safely ignore most of them—from the standpoint of a normal playthrough," says Alice. "Yet it turns out they're actually one of the main requirements for the romance."
There are 16 curses and to get the secret ending you need to have researched 13 of them, though it doesn't matter which 13, as discovered by a Russian player named FreeSergey. While the English-language Kingmaker community was struggling through bugged 100-hour playthroughs to figure it out, FreeSergey simply datamined the information. He even wrote a guide explaining not only how to get to the secret ending, but how to track variables in the player.json file to make sure you hadn't goofed along the way.
The thing is, he wrote it in Russian.
"Even though it was out there, nobody had translated it," says Prototype00, "so if you wanted to know what it said, you had to machine translate it yourself." Which he did, sentence by sentence. "I gave it a once-over and minorly adjusted some sentences for readability and then posted it on Reddit. You can go through the Reddit thread and compare it to the Steam guide and you'll see some places where I left some hilariously ill-translated stuff in there. To the guide's and FreeSergey's credit, it's written in a clear and comprehensive fashion, so even with my many mistakes, the meaning he meant to convey shines through."
Knowledge (Endings) skill check passed
FreeSergey's datamining didn't just confirm the necessity of curse research. It also confirmed that you had to have specific conversations with end-of-chapter bosses, who are each under a curse of their own. You had to either talk to a kobold chief, which was only possible if you killed his ally the king of the trolls first and then passed an Intimidate check, or talk to a barbarian king who was slowly being taken over by a cursed sword, which was only possible if you complete the quest within one of Kingmaker's many hidden time limits.
Manage that, and you then had to get a specific dialogue with an undead cyclops that only triggered if you passed a hidden skill check while talking to him.
"You would not even know if you failed unless you checked your log and scrolled all the way up to where those hidden checks would have happened after the fact," says Alice, who calls this "by far the hardest step."
Somehow there's more. As Redditor u/charlesatan noticed, you needed to bring a certain companion with you to a dungeon, then talk him into destroying an artifact you find there. The chain of events that sets off makes it possible to obtain a different artifact, a sword of thorns called the Briar, which becomes essential later. It's absurdly specific.
With all that in your pocket—the Briar, a knowledge of curses gained from research projects and triggering specific dialogues with bosses, and having said the right things while talking to Nyrissa—it's possible to make it to the secret ending. As long as you never tried to romance any other NPCs along the way or idly suggested abdicating your throne in one conversation with Nyrissa, which will lock you out completely.
Following FreeSergey's guide, Prototype00 got there on his first try. Having confirmed the guide's information was correct, he revised it with his own screenshots and corrected text from English dialogue choices in place of the machine-translated ones and put it on Steam, where it's now helped hundreds of players.
I followed the guide on my own second playthrough, and made it to the hidden ending in a breezy 126 hours.
Toward Kingmaker's climax it's revealed that Nyrissa herself is the subject of a curse. In the distant past, a trickster demigod of the fey lands called the Lantern King stole her emotions and empathy, made the Briar out of them, and hid it from her. In the tabletop version of Kingmaker, the Briar is a thorny vorpal sword, a weapon players can use to defeat Nyrissa. Her death is described in the text as "an unfortunate beheading from a sword forged of her own capacity to love."
The videogame is more sympathetic, revealing that the Lantern King forced her to fill a magical cup called "the Apology" with grains of sand, each formed from a kingdom she destroys. Your kingdom will be the thousandth grain in this cup. If you choose to return the Briar to Nyrissa rather than chop off her head with it, you return her soul and empathy, making her realize what she's done.
That's not enough to free her, however. You have to combine that decision with your degree in Advanced Curse Knowledge from the University of Kingdom Management and Hidden Skill Checks to convince Nyrissa there's a way to turn the curse back on its creator. While the videogame version of Kingmaker does away with hexes on its map, it's still a game about clearing a hex and building a keep—only it's a "hex" in the other meaning of the word.
Following this branch to its conclusion makes an optional multi-stage final boss fight against the Lantern King mandatory, piling on yet another layer of difficulty. An absurd fairytale happy ending follows, but by god you have to earn it.
The thing is, like everything about Kingmaker, from the spider swarms of Fangberry Cave to the intricacies of the kingdom management system, its creators genuinely don't seem to realize how hard they made it to achieve. "We expected the secret ending to be rather easy to reach when you know where to look for it," Alexander Komzolov told me. Rather easy, he says. I don't want to know what a harder version would have looked like.