As much as I love video games, there is something about tabletop games that has a special place in my heart. Of all the various games out there, of the digital and analog varieties, Dungeons and Dragons is my favorite. Yep… I am that nerd. And how could I not love it, with the degree of agency it gives you as a player?
And when Baldur’s Gate 3 was released for the PlayStation, I was beyond excited to play it. Not just because it is a game that exists in the world of Dungeons and Dragons, but because it is a beautiful example of how to carry over the core elements of a Tabletop RPG into a digital realm. By this, I don’t mean gameplay… although that is excellent. But the core elements that make Dungeons and Dragons amazing — choice and chaos.
But to understand how Baldur’s Gate is groundbreaking and why it’s so amazing to play, we first need to understand how DnD works.
The anatomy of DnD
A game of DnD is set up around a set of guidelines and rules established in 3 core books: The Dungeon Master’s Guide, the Players Handbook, and the Monster Manual. The dungeon master (DM) uses these and additional resources to craft stories in the various ‘lands’ or ‘periods’ of the world of DnD. Of which Baldurs Gate is one, a part of the Forgotten Realms. With this, the DM crafts the story setting for their party of players, who create their characters with the help of the DnD character sheet. Once this is all set, the adventure begins, and it is the players that drive the game.
The writer in me loves the fact that you get to live in your character’s shoes and drive the whole world through ‘their’ actions. Together, the party of players craft their journey, often destroying the dungeon master’s well-laid plans. It’s chaos in the best way because in between the random paths the players pick, they have to roll dice to dictate the (degree of) success of their actions.
Since the dice never go my way, I am currently playing a giant Tiefling mercenary who fails to hit most of my enemies even though I am supposedly an expert combatant and was once a Commander. Ah… I jumped ahead. My bad.
The gameplay is pretty straightforward. When presented with a situation, the party decides what they want to do and communicate it to the DM. When a character does something, the DM will ask them to roll a 20-sided die, the result of which will dictate the degree of success or failure. 1 is considered a dramatic failure, and 20 is a dramatic success. That is because most decisions can be traced back to a character trait like persuasion, charisma, dexterity, strength, intelligence, stealth, etc.
Usually, the DM will try and plan ahead, to try to think of everything the party can potentially encounter to come up with options. But this is where a tabletop game is usually more adaptable. When the players go entirely off the map, the DM can come up with the stuff they need on the fly. They adjust their story and the game by pulling from all the material they prepare.
The problem of free choice in video games
DMs need to have that adaptability because you can never completely plan for what the players are going to do. You never know when someone is going to go completely crazy at the table and do something random (and even be backed by a dice roll!). The DM has to adapt. In a pre-made video game, there is no way to do that. The game can only playback what has been built.
Designers will try and plan for as many player choices as possible. But they can’t anticipate everything, and they have to constrain what they build to save on cost and game size. Baldur’s Gate 3 stands out for the sheer amount of choice within the game. They have done such an amazing job that it is being hailed as the gold standard for RPGs going forward.
How Baldur’s Gate 3 seems to have done it right
Baldur’s Gate 3 starts with the ability to create a character. Like crafting a character on the DnD character sheet, you get to pick your race and character class as well as assign specializations and spells. Then you get dropped into the story with the soothing voice of a narrator.
Instead of having the game be a silent DM, BG3 has a narrator to tell you about the world and what is happening in it. It’s a fun little touch that immediately evokes the feel of our Sunday DnD sessions. But for the average player, this may seem like a shallow element that is more about the personality of the game than anything else. So let’s dig a little deeper.
Disclaimer: Since I missed the Early Access, I have stayed away from a lot of videos and news that might give me spoilers. Everything from here on out is a commentary based on the beginning hours of gameplay.
Part of DnD’s charm is the ability to do anything you want, in whatever order strikes your fancy. Of course, there are always consequences but that is only to be discovered later, after you have already stuck your foot in it. This includes interacting with anything the DM describes.
Even as you barely start Baldur’s Gate 3, you can interact with almost everything. If you can highlight it, you can interact with it. Depending on the option you take, you might just have the narrator say something to you or you might be asked to roll the dice to determine the outcome.
Right at the outset, as you explore, you get to discover and free brains from their once-human shells. Yep… walking, talking brains who can become your allies if you set them free and create that relationship by choosing the correct prompts. You can also use your dice to investigate elements, like a strange basin that you see at the start, housing some worms. If you succeed, you will learn a bit more about the world. That being said, you can also interact with random elements… like squirrels.
But you can also explore the world of Baldur’s Gate 3 in whatever order you want. You will discover crypts and other secrets that might require you to gather more information or be at a higher level to breeze through it.
That, however, is the beauty of choice. Instead of waiting, you can try and brute force your way through. If you take a walk through internet discussions about the game, you will find hilarious stories of the ‘dumb’ things people were able to do within the game. Some with wild success and more with hilarious failure, which is every DnD player’s favorite element.
You can also use game elements, from items like crates to unique items like special arrows to solve problems in a variety of ways. You are only constrained by your imagination (for the most part). This is perhaps where a DnD player might have an advantage as they may already know how they can use an item and find a more unique way to use it.
The dice system, companions, and choice
These various ways of interacting with the game form the base of Baldur’s Gate 3 and why it so accurately represents the feel of playing DnD around a table. Mostly because you can, for the most part, make those random decisions, and choose those random paths. And your success is ever tied to the dice.
The developers have somehow created a framework that allows for a fair amount of randomness and chaos in a way that feels deliberate and free choice. It’s a feat that absolutely blows my mind. The Karmic Dice system in BG3 is to be applauded as well.
Then there are all the other little details that boost the power of the player’s choice. As a BG3 player, you can create the party of your choice from the key NPCs/companions you meet. As you create these alliances, you can also romance them and create a variety of different relationship mashups. There is a wide variety of conversation options and quirks.
Every single detail works to create a world that feels alive. But the best part is, instead of sitting around a table trying to exercise your imagination and create your own voices for the characters, you can now experience it in a pre-made game.
Basically… I am incredibly excited to keep diving deeper into Baldur’s Gate 3. And I would like you all to join me in the madness. I can say, with a lot of confidence, that you won’t regret it.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is now available to play on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S, Mac OS, and Microsoft Windows (Steam, GOG).