Seven Fireball-Sized Lessons Baldur’s Gate 3 Can Teach Us About D&D
Oh look, a listicle. Mother said I’d never amount to more than a clickbait title and quippy bullet points, and by Bhaal, she was right.
A lot of folks have been escaping the brain-sucking apocalyptic mind-leech that is the 24-hour news cycle in America this week by delving into the comforting escapism of Baldur’s Gate 3 early access, which launched on October 6th on Steam, and features a plotline driven by… brain-sucking apocalyptic mind-leeches. Cool. Cool cool cool.
While there’s a lot of commentary circulating about what is (and isn’t) present in the game in this early build, I’ve found the assorted peccadillos of Baldur’s Gate 3 running more to the hilarious than the unplayable, with my favorite moment so far being my halfling wizard finding his head thoroughly lodged in the posterior of a new companion, while said NPC bent himself in half to deliver witty death-threats and make height-contextual eye contact (good feature) with his own nether regions.
Instead of dwelling on what the game is currently lacking, I was captivated by what the game gets so incredibly right about translating a traditional pen-and-paper roleplaying experience to a digital platform, especially from the perspective of adaptive freeform storytelling. As a long-time RPG enthusiast and semi-professional dungeon master, Baldur’s Gate 3 delivers on the feel of narrative and mechanical choice in a simulated TTRPG-style environment more than any other title I’ve played to date. What follows are some of the game design and direction choices that I think make BG3 a standout RPG experience, and ones which both veteran and greenhorn dungeon masters alike can immediately pocket to elevate their own games at home.
1. All Roads Lead To Rome
One of the things I found immediately delightful about BG3 was the feeling of organic malleability in approaching quest objectives while still being guided through a coherent experience; no matter what path I took through the first act, I was invariably going to run across the beleaguered settlement which makes itself the hub for most quest-based activity in the early access build. However, my path to reach the settlement might take me through a harrowing dungeon, an owlbear cave, or just over the next hill (as long as I had a way to deal with the raging inferno blocking my way). This translates back to the tabletop in a pretty simple way: maintain the illusion of choice, even when you have a story you want to tell. You can put the plot at the end of any path your players choose to navigate your world.
2. Build Combat Around Your Heroes
Larian’s design of combat encounters deserve praise for beautiful incorporation of terrain and verticality into their fights. Even experienced DMs sometimes fall back on the old dungeon standard of “You kick in the door; it’s a 20' by 20' stone chamber filled to the rafters with orcs. Roll for init-” “FIREBALL!”. BG3 rejects the orc room paradigm at every turn, with lavish attention to rich, interactive set dressing; obdurate thorn bushes, mud wallows, and droppable chandeliers abound. The strategy here seems to be “when in doubt, throw some terrain hazards in”, and it works wonders. Additionally, the traversable verticality of many fights lends approachable tactical depth to what might be an otherwise relatively flat (geddit?) encounter with yet another goblin patrol. I consistently found myself strategizing to take the high ground instead of just wading into melee, and investing in mechanical abilities that let me hurl enemies off elevated terrain; there’s absolutely nothing more gratifying than the disgruntled scream of a goblin scout as he’s thrown bodily off a cliff. I’d often considered these abilities (Repelling Blast and distance shoving builds) of limited use in a more traditional tabletop dungeoneering context (what’s 5-to-10 feet of knockback really going to do for you in the aforementioned ACME-certified orc chamber?), but the encounter design in BG3 makes these powers sing.
3. Keep It Classy And Play It Cool
By which I mean “reward roleplaying player class and the rule of cool”, even when the raw mechanics don’t directly support it. Larian does a great job in BG3 of allowing the rule of cool to influence what a character can and can’t do based on their class alone. For example, when exploring an area shrouded by a strange illusion, my warlock was presented the special dialogue option of attempting to pierce the obscuring magic by invoking her infernal patron, even though I didn’t possess an ability that would specifically do that. While she still had to make a skill check, this special interaction neatly replaces the player asking “Hey, can I try to do x because I’m a y?”, to which the answer should generally be “Sure, if it’s cool and doesn’t break the game”. Nowhere is this reflected in the rules-as-written of D&D, but it’s a beautiful and successful attempt to capture the personal tableside dynamic of letting good roleplay trump rules in an otherwise digital environment.
4. Ecology, Ecology, Ecology
Why are the goblins coming out of the woods to make trouble? What are those druids really up to? Who’s calling the shots? Designing a cogent ecology for your D&D world is a critical step in bringing the setting to life, and many great adventures (not to mention fantasy novels) are based around establishing the power players in an ecosystem (from the denizens of dungeon to the politics of nation) and then disrupting a core aspect of it. The best part of using the ecosystem disruption model for storytelling is that once you’ve established your world and thrown in an inciting incident, you don’t really have to write a plot anymore; you just have to ask “how will the world react to what my players just did?” and roll with it. The first act of BG3 is a marvelously executed love-letter to this style of game design, with every major NPC acting on logical agendas in response to the inciting incident of the game. Everything that shakes out after the players get rolling is in response to what they do, which makes their choices feel meaningful. What’s better is that when the players don’t make a choice, either by remaining willfully inactive or by not encountering a situation before it resolves, the results still play out and the world evolves. This makes the game feel alive, and encourages the players to dig deeper looking for ways to shape the story to their own ends.
5. Goblins Are People Too
Springboarding from ecology, many hostile but otherwise intelligent antagonists aren’t strictly relegated to becoming axe-fodder in BG3. With the right approach and some fast talking, you can reason with many of the enemies in the game and defuse combat before it begins. This lends depth to the world in a number of ways (thinking beings generally don’t want to die), and it forces the player to confront fantasy races who have sometimes been traditionally used as othering analogues in Eurocentric fantasy media (orcs, Vistani) as fully realized individuals, not just monsters or walking bags of XP and gold.
6. Make It Deadly
Short and sweet; combat in D&D should have stakes for the drama to be meaningful. If not the lives of the PCs, something precious should hang in the balance when swords are drawn, and Larian doesn’t pull any punches here. Combat is tough, PCs can go down, and if they die, they’re dead (until you scrape together enough coin to drag them back from the other side). Similarly, the game throws in a few rescue scenarios where the adventurers may not be in immediate harm, but if they fail to act in time there will be lethal consequences for important NPCs. When lives are on the line, players are engaged and attentive to the consequences of their actions.
7. Reward Success Outside Combat
Ok, I lied; I have one gripe. As I mentioned in the first point, BG3 loves branching paths (literal and quest-related) that converge on the same objective. To foster diverse gameplay, there are almost always multiple ways to tackle an in-game obstacle, and Larian has done a great job playing off the Three-Pillars concept of D&D encounter design (combat, exploration, and roleplay), to the point that I can’t think of a single problem I encountered in the opening act which I couldn’t choose to talk, fight, or navigate my way around, depending on my inclination and abilities. However, the game really doesn’t make it clear whether you accrue experience by cleverly bypassing fights, as opposed to the healthy +10 XP notification I got whenever I defenestrated another unlucky goblin. I will say that while some solutions other than incredible violence weren’t always immediately obvious (D&D is, at its core, a wargame), they were always possible, and usually pretty satisfying to pull off. Always give your players clarity on whether roleplay and exploration will yield experience (they should), and you’ll have a richer game because of it.
All told, I think Larian has the bones of the best digital D&D content ever produced on their hands; now all they need is time (and maybe a wheelbarrow full of onyx) to bring it to life.