Measuring the Intangibles
Whenever I try to explain why it’s hard to recreate the Dungeons and Dragons experience, the easiest example I go to is the arcane schools of magic and the mind-bending shenanigans they offer.
You’ve got spells like Firebolt, Fireball, Haste, Dimension Door, Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Mansion, and Meteor Storm – all fairly straightforward, right? Then you’ve got things like Minor Illusion, Major Image, Suggestion, Phantasmal Killer, Legend Lore, and Wish leaning on the intangibles of collective creativity. How do you plan for that?
“Well, thankfully we actually have a lot of experience doing this sort of thing from Divinity: Original Sin 2],” said Matt Holland, Combat Designer on Baldur’s Gate 3. “As for the intangible ones, like Wish, for example, we do have to give you a limited option of things you can do.
“Depending on the situation, you never know what the options are going to be. Maybe that is your ‘win’ button. But similar to Baldur’s Gate II, there are some really snarky and funny interactions you could have with that.”
In BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate 2, casting Wish essentially gave you a list of options to choose from based on your ability scores. In many cases, you had a shot of completely screwing yourself over, and with a poor enough check, you were almost guaranteed to harm more than help. It wasn’t quite the limitless fountain of power you can get away with at the table, but it was pretty entertaining, with a diverse list of options to choose from. And that was in the year 2000. The prospect of a Larian-crafted set of possibilities are, well, pretty exciting for a video game of which they’ve only shown two hours and still managed to touch on vampires, devils pitching contracts, a red-dragon-riding-gith squadron, Illithid interplanar travel, and a somehow smarmier version of Volothamp Geddarm.“We’re thinking really long and hard about which spells we’re putting into the game and how we want to adapt them into our system,” Holland said. “Even something like Mage Hand, which was really difficult. We weren’t sure how we were going to do it, but it ended up being so that it’s [like its own] character that can push things and throw things and all that.
“Obviously you won’t see every single spell, but there’s really a lot that you get to play with. There are still spells that we are working through and trying to get the design written out for in our system. But yeah, if you’re worried about not having enough access to options and the spell lists, don’t worry.”
Real Time Stop
“What do you do?” If one question could define Dungeons & Dragons, I think it’s that. All at once it’s a call to action, an invitation to creativity, and an assurance that this story is made up of the infinite possibilities knocking around your collective imaginations. That’s a tough concept to tackle in a video game for two reasons. For one, you need time to stop for a moment, to figure out what you want to do, what you can do, and the best way to go about it. But you also need time to have a sense of continuity so the consequences of your actions or inaction can be adjudicated and therefore meaningful.
That’s why Baldur’s Gate 3 is introducing a fusion of real-time and turn-based that’s similar to Divinity: Original Sin 2, but more in line with the six-second rounds of Dungeons and Dragons. When you’re not in combat and exploring, time flows freely. When you’ve rolled initiative and turns are declared, you drop into turn-based combat – it’s roughly the same balance as Divinity: Original Sin 2. But that grey area between the two is where Baldur’s Gate 3 shines.
For example, playing Dungeons & Dragons, let’s say you’re in a village and you’ve broken into some poor cheesemonger’s shop in the dead of night to rummage for soft cheese and hard profit. How chaotic of you. Suddenly you hear a groggy thud followed by a series of shuffling footsteps on the weathered boards above you. What do you do? You ask, “Is there somewhere I can hide?” There is, in fact, somewhere you can hide. There’s a barrel that smells of fermentation or a corner beyond the offensive bright rays of the full moon where a deep shadow calls home. You make the decision and roll for Stealth. Then the footsteps – and what sounds like a large club clacking against a hard surface – begin to drift down the staircase from the second floor. They’re loud, and they’re getting louder. What do you do?
Baldur’s Gate 3 Gameplay Screenshots
These call and response moments of tension are some of the best parts of Dungeons & Dragons, and in Baldur’s Gate 3, they’re manifested in a real-time pause mechanic. In situations where you’re not in open battle, but you need to plan each action or segment of your movement, you’ll smash that pause button and begin to map out a daring and deft series of commands and then advance the turn, allowing the round to move forward before you plan the next six seconds. It’s incredibly cool to see it in action and taps that same vein of tension.
“I think the big thing you guys are going to notice when it comes to that gameplay is how good it feels to play a stealth character,” Holland said. “You know that you get to move, and then the world gets to move for six seconds, and then you get to move again. Really plan it out and it just adds a whole other dimension to playing that character. Divinity: Original Sin 2 was a lot more finicky, and you really had to time it well. It just never felt as good as we would’ve wanted it to, and with this system, it feels just amazing.”
All Four One
Baldur’s Gate 3’s most apparent shift from the familiar rules of Dungeons & Dragons is the initiative system. It’s actually not a departure from the rule book, but Larian has opted to use the Side Initiative option – look it up, page 270 in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide – for better team cohesion. At the table, I prefer the standard rules: players roll, monsters roll, everyone goes in turn. And to be honest I was a little taken aback when I spotted this variant in play in Baldur’s Gate 3. But, actually, it makes a ton of sense considering the communal elements Larian is baking into the game.
Side Initiative essentially boils down to each side rolls a d20, the side with the highest roll wins, and everyone on that team goes first in whatever order they choose. On the upside, combat is faster, and it allows for some really creative combos and powerful group tactics. On the downside, characters that optimize for high initiative rolls don’t get any of those benefits, and it allows for some really creative combos and powerful group tactics. That means the side that goes first has a really good chance of unbalancing the action economy by focus firing one or two targets or dropping a bunch of utility spells to immobilize or debuff opponents before they get to go. It’s a double-edged sword.
However, here’s why it makes sense in Baldur’s Gate 3: cooperative multiplayer. Larian is pulling the two-player local and four-player online multiplayer nearly straight from Divinity: Original Sin 2. That means when you’re playing with three of your friends and a fight breaks out, instead of waiting for those three companions to go in sequence, you all immediately start shouting at each other over Discord or Ventrillo or face-to-face about priority targets and action sequences and starting that delightfully chaotic process of working together as a team. It’s a small systemic change that really captures the D&D spirit, namely, spirited D&D.
“We experimented with it and we found that it worked really well in single-player to do combos,” Larian CEO and founder Swen Vincke said, “but it also works super well in multiplayer because suddenly, you’re much more engaged with each other and doing your moves simultaneously. So then you increase your engagement, which is very similar to what’s happening at the table.”
Baldur’s Gate 3 Cinematic Screenshot Gallery
It also increases the speed of combat. Vincke repeatedly told me that the scale of the battles in Baldur’s Gate 3 is possible because they moved so much more quickly with this new system. It wasn’t uncommon to see 12 or more combatants in a fight, which should open up quite a few really cool possibilities since the threat of overwhelming odds is such a powerful one in Dungeons & Dragons. Who hasn’t wanted to stand as a bulwark against the undead hordes?
That idea of sheer numbers being prohibitively overwhelming from both a gameplay and technical perspective extends down into the roots of Baldur’s Gate 3. Not only am I talking about monsters, movement, and management but actually interacting with the world as a constant. Specifically, the regular ability checks that serve as your character’s sensory proficiencies as you wander about the wilder places.
It’s a core philosophy at the heart Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons itself: cut down on the needless rolls and keep things moving. Things like Passive Perception and Investigation just work when you’re not actively looking for things or opening every drawer in the cupboard of a cheesemonger’s shop. True to that design principle, Baldur’s Gate 3 takes care of the cascading torrents of d20s that are happening behind the scenes at all times.
“We like to make you roll but we didn’t want you to make too many rolls,” Vincke said. “Especially because each party member rolls actually, so if you have four party members, you would have to do all those rolls and that becomes too much. That’s why that was made as a passive.”
For example, as you order your vampire-in-training Astorian to walk past a wall that holds a hidden panel, there’s an automatic roll that happens above your character’s head. If you pass the check, the hidden object materializes in a shimmering bend of light and you can then interact with it. If you fail the roll, nothing happens, though it is a bit of a softball letting you know something’s there, and you just didn’t make the cut. But that’s when you can bring another character over to try and try again.
It’s not quite one-to-one with the Dungeons & Dragons rules. Most Dungeon Masters who’ve run games have a story about a really cool room or secret wall or treasure cache that the party totally missed because of a low passive perception or a bad roll of the die. And that’s why I think this system is actually pretty cool, because I, you, we can always make up more Dungeons & Dragons content in our minds. We can repurpose that room down the line or in the next adventure or campaign. There’s a finite amount of Baldur’s Gate 3, and if we miss it, that’s it. I appreciate being given the nudge to try again.
One of the most reassuring elements of Larian’s grasp of Dungeons & Dragons was how well they understand the personality of environments in the game. Whether you’re perched on the sizzling red shelves of a blazingly bright canyon wall waiting to get the drop on enemies below, or you’re skulking through the darkness of a shadow-blanketed tomb to avoid patrolling skeletal guardians, the need to interact with your surroundings in meaningful ways is the mortar that holds these make-believe worlds together.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is set up to tackle as many of the pillars of environmental interactivity as one could reasonably expect, namely: verticality, light, and manipulation.
Throughout my preview, I saw roughly a half-dozen different environments, maybe a few more, as the party trekked through a typical medieval forest, a craggy coastal area, the wreckage of a Nautiloid ship, overgrown chapel ruins, a dusty subterranean tomb, and a recently goblin-claimed fort. In each of these locales, a common theme of verticality was emphasized, and that may sound like a simple thing. But while I don’t have the data to back up my suspicion, I’d wager one of the leading causes of low-level adventurer death is gravity. Well, the sudden stop, but gravity certainly plays a part. Elevation plays a huge role in Dungeons & Dragons.
In Baldur’s Gate 3 that’s manifested in the cliffs you jump up and down getting from one point to another. It’s apparent in the rafters you can sneak across to find yourself perched above the Hobgoblin boss inspiring bloodlust through a rage-inducing sermon, ready to cut the rope to the candelabra swinging above its head. It’s woefully apparent when you walk into a seemingly abandoned township and find yourself caught in a deluge of jagged goblin arrows from the roof of the building towering over you. In moments like this, you’re forced to decide whether you stand and trade with firebolts and crossbow bolts, or split the party and scale the structure.
These kinds of tactics are really at the heart of D&D. Even if you’re outmatched, outnumbered, and out-crossbowed, with a little ingenuity you can overcome incredible obstacles.
Icons of the Realms: Baldur’s Gates: Descent into Avernus Complete Set Gallery
“We take that same mentality and put that into combat as well,” Holland said. “You saw it with Swen during the combat encounter with the bandits in the chapel. He took one of his characters and branched off from the group and got up top and behind [them]. It’s a way to mitigate those different layers of advantage and disadvantage, to approach every single combat as creatively as possible. ‘How do I avoid having to be at the mercy of the dice?’
“One interesting thing about working with a combat system that’s so reliant on percentages and rolls and randomness, is how do you as a player mitigate that? We have randomness mitigation,” Holland continued. “Any event the player can interact with, we want to give them as much freedom to interface with that situation as possible, as many different ways to solve that scenario as they can.”
The other major environmental scenario I noticed this principle really hammering home is lighting. Light plays a major role in Dungeons & Dragons, dictating whether or not you’re making perceptions checks at disadvantage in dim light, or if you can even target an enemy with a spell in total darkness. Those are the obvious ones, sure. But it also matters when that Shadow Demon you’re chasing turns a dark corner and is able to hide as a bonus action, or when that cackling Boneclaw that just stuck three of its favorite finger-talons into the chest of your cleric suddenly Shadow Jumps 60 feet away with your healer in tow. It’s all in the lighting.
“Light manipulation actually goes quite far in giving you advantage, sneaking up on somebody, surprising them to get the initiative,” Vincke said. “These are very important mechanics that change the entire flow of combat.
“The light system is literally how it is in the book and it works super well. It compliments very well with the environmental manipulation, which is something that we already pioneered in Divinity, that we upgraded here. But it’s a logical thing, right? If it’s something that normally would be happening passively behind the scenes or as part of the calculation, can we make it active so that the player actually knows that they’re doing this?”Baldur’s Gate 3 seems to be taking this seriously, though I can’t speak to the demons or Boneclaws. For me, it was best illustrated in that aforementioned skeletal-guardian tomb, where Vincke was attempting to stealth through the seemingly random patrols with his impossibly moody half-elf vampire spawn Astorian.
Baldur’s Gate 3 borrows Divinity: Original Sin 2’s really straightforward and easy-to-understand stealth system. You pop into stealth and you can visually identify the areas every enemy can see thanks to the shifting bright red blanket that covers the affected terrain. Stay out of the red and you’re good. But why it illustrates the functionality of active lighting so well happened when he was stuck out in a hallway as a Skeleton was turning the corner. He was dead to rights. Except, one small corner, where a pillar cut off the light from a torch burning on the wall a ways back, casting the smallest shadow behind it. He ducked into the corner and every inch of tomb around him lit up in bright red vision-cone as the skeleton rounded to face his direction, except for the shadow. He was safe, hidden in the dim security of a crumbling old pillar. That kind of organic light manipulation and active application is really impressive and I can’t wait to mess around with it.
The Action Economist
I think there’s room for debate here, but the action economy – how many things each side can do on a turn – in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition is arguably more important than it’s ever been. It’s key to the core central experience of combat thanks to bounded accuracy, a term that, boiled down, essentially means there’s always a chance for something to be threatening.
Doesn’t matter if you’re a fresh-faced level one or a half-god level 20 – a pack of goblins can still kill you given the right circumstances. Gone are the days of an armor class of 47, and so more hits mean more chances for something to happen, and Larian is running with that principle.
It’s easy to see the skeleton of Divinity: Original Sin 2 supporting Baldur’s Gate 3’s combat, but even just a slightly deeper past the surface reveals them to be two different beasts.
Icons of the Realms: Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica Complete Set Gallery
“Baldur’s Gate is a class-based system, which is not the case in Divinity,” Vincke said. “That changes a lot of things. The economy of actions is very different. You get one action, you get a bonus action, that’s a hard lesson. Then you get your movement, which is different, so this affects things heavily.”
Though what you can do with each of these actions is fairly clearly defined in Dungeons & Dragons, it’s still coming together in Baldur’s Gate 3. Since every system directly or indirectly touches one another, considerations need to be taken to make sure some things aren’t unintentionally overperforming.
“We’re fooling around with these things, so don’t take anything [as it is now] as definitive,” Vincke said. “This is one of the reasons we go to early access, to see what’s overpowered to us.” For example, Vincke really likes to shove monsters off high places. Can’t blame him. In Fifth Edition shoving a creature is a special attack, which is an action, which is expensive considering you can use that action to hit that creature in the head with your Flametongue Axe. That’s a decision to make, and it might not translate entirely in Baldur’s Gate 3. Hence the tweaking.
“[Shove] is a bonus action right now, so we cheated there on that. We did it on purpose because we were going to change it now, but we’re still fooling around with what is a bonus action, what is an action,” Vincke said. “We have made some changes to the original system when we felt that people would never use it if it’s an action because it’s too expensive. But we found that with the shove, we can make it an action now because it’s powerful enough, but we’ll increase the chance that it works better. Right now it works correctly. If you do it from sneak, your shove actually always has an advantage, and that is cool.”
And to bring this idea of actions, economy, and accuracy home, Larian said it’s still very much intending to keep the bounded elements of D&D Fifth Edition accuracy. In short, they want you to feel the threat of danger whether you’re fighting goblins or ancient red dragons.
“Well, we are making sure that every single common encounter can be deadly,” said Holland. “We want to make sure that the player has options to mitigate the risk. So there’s always going to be encounters where if you don’t play it right, don’t take the time to really set yourself up, these little goblins that have, what, seven to 10 [hitpoints], are going to mess you up.”
Holland continued: “The thing we want to avoid is having the player enter every single encounter and use the exact same skills in the exact same order way every single time. We want the players not only to think during combat, but before combat. ‘How am I going to approach this? How am I going to maximize the most out of my action?’”
My biggest question was how Reactions are going to work. How will the game know when you want to cast Shield or Feather Fall? What about Counterspell? How will the game know if you’d rather not take an Opportunity Attack in favor of saving your reaction for something else? Long story short: Reactions are still very much a work-in-progress in some cases, and just not used in others.
“What we found was that pausing the game action for a popup for the player to choose to take a reaction, it didn’t feel good,” Holland said. “It kind of really cut away at the snappiness of the gameplay. So we have a similar Opportunity Attack,” which is based on proximity and is automatically triggered.
“With something like Counterspell, it could go a similar way, but it has yet to be decided.”