A character in Baldur's Gate rolls here eyes to the burnt sky while wearing a sword and chainmail
Games

‘Baldur’s Gate 3’ Is a Brilliant Crash Course in ‘Dungeons & Dragons’

Even in early access, Larian's latest shows off the flexibility and fun of a storied role-playing system.
October 8, 2020, 3:44pm

There was a dungeon on top of a cliff near the beach and I wanted to check it for supplies. Other people in the party wanted to find a healer to kill their brain worms, but I was in charge and Baldur’s Gate 3 is a Dungeons & Dragons game. I wanted my dungeon. I didn’t notice the thorns and brambles near parts of the entrance and some of my characters wandered into them and took damage.

We were all level 2, with few hitpoints, and the brambles hit us hard. I walked straight ahead and though I noticed the glowing floor in front of the dungeon entrance, I still ran my party into it. More brambles grasped their ankles. It was here I learned a valuable lesson about Baldur’s Gate 3 and Dungeons & Dragons: it’s dangerous and if you aren’t paying attention you’ll get the party killed. As a first time Dungeon Master who hasn’t played very much Dungeons & Dragons, it was a lesson I needed to learn.

Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t quite like other video game RPGs. There’s a sense of danger that permeates the setting that I delight in. It’s difficult—my party members are dying a lot—but it’s only because I don’t have a good grasp of its minutia yet. In most party-based computer game RPGs, if your characters are a high enough level, you can just brute force your way through most encounters. That kind of attitude will get you murdered in Baldur’s Gate 3.

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Playing Mass Effect or Pillars of Eternity, I can gather the party and move them through encounters as a murderball. You can’t make a murderball in Baldur’s Gate 3 because you have to more carefully consider your movements and  your character's relationship to the space around you. Early in the bramble-coated crypt, I trapped my frontline fighters behind my casters during combat because the hallways were narrow and Baldur’s Gate 3 doesn’t let party members just slide past each other. That mistake almost wiped the party.

Too many RPGs give the player a bunch of choices and make it easy for the player to either explore all the options or face few consequences for their choices. Baldur’s Gate 3 feels like it’s playing for keeps. In an early encounter a wounded Mindflayer had taken control of a group of fisherfolk that attacked the party. I could have slaughtered the fisherfolk, but I killed the Mindflayer instead. That ended the combat encounter.

To get into the dungeon, I bluffed my way through the front door using my character’s deception skills and then slaughtered a rival party of adventurers inside. Exploring the grounds after the killing, I discovered two other points of entry I could have used to get into the dungeon. One of which would have likely allowed me to avoid fighting the other adventurers all together. They all had names and personalities. Maybe I could have avoided combat and interacted with them down the line. Who knows, my party killed them off.

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Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t a finished game. I broke the camera a few times, cutscenes display with a watermark that reminds you it’s in early access, and during one cutscene my party stood around while text that read “cutscene pending” played across the bottom of the screen. In some ways, the early access nature has been freeing for me. It’s made me care less about failed skill rolls and missing parts of the story. It’s giving me permission to experiment. It’s possible that a future patch will wipe out my progress and destroy this save entirely. $60 is a lot of money for an unfinished game, but there’s a lot to love here for CRPG and Dungeons & Dragons fans alike.

For me, $60 was a small price to pay to learn so much about how Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition functions. They were lessons I desperately needed. A few months ago, on a whim, I told my quarantine pod that I could run a Dungeons & Dragons game if they were interested. They were and we’ve been playing. I’ve run tabletop RPGs my whole life, but never Dungeons & Dragons. I wasn’t allowed to play it growing up because my mother—I am serious here—bought into the satanic panic of the 1990s. I’m using pre-written modules and the players and I are learning the rules as we go, but Baldur’s Gate 3 has been a boon for me. It’s teaching me the lore of the world and the rules of the game in a visceral way that it’s hard to get from just reading the source material.

I did not know, for example, that a charmed creature won’t attack the person who charmed it but can still attack their companions. I didn’t know Sacred Flame was a great cantrip the cleric could cast over and over during combat. I didn’t know opportunity attacks—the ability to get a free attack on creatures that disengage in combat—has the potential to turn the tide of combat. The death saving throw system was a bit of a mystery to me until I saw it play out again and again during my Baldur’s Gate 3 games.

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My players and I have been having fun running through the Lost Mines of Phandelver—a low level starting adventure for Dungeons & Dragons. But Baldur’s Gate 3 has shown me all the big and small ways I’ve been screwing up the mechanics of the game. Baldur’s Gate 3 is based on D&D’s fifth edition and the rules are slightly modified to make it work as a video game. But more often than not, I watch something play out in the video game, say to myself “I didn’t know that’s how that spell worked,” and look it up in my sourcebooks only to discover I’d been DMing wrong the past few months.

Dungeons & Dragons has the capacity to create powerful tactical chains of cause and effect. In Baldur’s Gate 3, when I encountered the rival adventurers in the dungeon, I used a spell to burst open a barrel of oil next to them then used my next character’s turn to throw a lit candle into the oil. It caught fire. I figured the rivals would run through it and take damage. Instead, they tossed their own fire bomb to push my party line back and started wearing my party down with ranged attacks.

The two parties stood on either side of the inferno, waiting for the fire to die and doing what we could at ranged. The other party had more spellcasters and better ranged attack and my party barely survived. My close-range fighter became dedicated to helping downed party members. Tabletop and computer RPGs are increasingly story driven, and that’s wonderful. Too much tactical stuff at the table can slow the game down. But Baldur’s Gate 3 has shown me that thoughtful use of tactical combat can create story beats. I thought I was so smart, using a lit candle to create a fire trap. But it was a mistake that almost wiped the party and gave me a fun story to tell about a combat encounter.

One of the best ways for a Dungeon Master to learn is to play a bunch of games as the player. Baldur’s Gate 3 is letting me simulate that experience and make up for all the years I missed playing Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. I’ve already made changes to next week’s session, tweaked some of the traps, and carved out new paths for my players to discover in the final dungeon of their adventure. All thanks to Baldur’s Gate 3.