This weekend while moseying through Baldur's Gate 3 on a train ride up to Boston, I wrapped up what might be my favorite quest in the game yet: an Act 3 quest to rescue a child named Vanra who's vanished from a tavern in the city's lower gates.
"Save Vanra" wraps up a series of events that the player can kick off in the game's first act if they choose to wander into a nearby swamp and seek the counsel of a capital-H Hag named Auntie Ethel. Though the overall arc of the quest is familiar for fantasy RPGs. (A kid goes missing, probably kidnapped by some magical scourge. The player chooses to save or damn the child), how it's structured felt like a breath of fresh air.
The quest is not put together like a linear rescue mission, but rather assembled through a staggered set of encounters that delivers a wide amount of agency and equally exponential possibility of unintended consequences. From the moment Auntie Ethel is first introduced to players, she has the potential to be a high-level foe, a possible ally in the main quest, or a neutral party to be ignored.
I chose to go against Ethel, and rescue the poor residents of Faerûn by the horrible Hag. Larian Studios rewarded me not with an easy path to the moral high ground, but a set of challenges that sold the fantasy of struggling against a trickster fairy creature.
Defeating Auntie Ethel is no easy feat
If you haven't played this part of Baldur's Gate 3 yet, here's your chance to either flee from spoilers, or blaze through a quick summary of my time with the quest.
The Auntie Ethel questline has two major foundations: first, the locations to progress the quest are rarely highlighted on the in-game map. Time and again, the player needs to deduce what the next steps are by paying careful attention to the world around them.
Second, it's a quest littered with uncertain choices. Ethel is an incredibly well-written antagonist who employs a mix of threats, trickery, and coercion to try and keep the player from upending her plans.
The first of these choices comes when the player finds two men accusing an old woman of using witchcraft to kidnap their sister Mayrina. Ethel begs for the player's help—and if they're as naïve as I was, they'll fall for her plea and defend her from their attackers.
Ethel invites to the player to her hut, and reveals the aforementioned sister is a willing—though unhappy—guest. Players are free to ignore Mayrina's plight, or start investigating why the woman seems so uncomfortable. Pulling on that particular thread leads players deep into the bowels under Ethel's house, where they will learn that Ethel's intentions are indeed nefarious—but also that the kidnapped woman is embracing them willingly.
With that news in hand, Ethel gives the player another chance to walk away. I didn't—the whole thing smelt rotten (and not just because we were deep under a swamp). Besting Ethel in combat only drives her to keep bargaining with the player—she won't die unless the player has some very specific knowledge about how Hags draw their power in the world of Dungeons & Dragons.
Rescuing Mayrina at first seems like a thankless task. She's angry at the player for sabotaging her deal with Ethel. But she eventually departs for the city of Baldur's Gate.
That first act quest is already pretty stellar, but things grow more open-ended in the third act. When players are first invited to rescue Vanra, there's no indication any hags are involved. In fact, the owner of the bar where Vanra disappeared is eager to pay players to off the girl's mother, describing her as a murdering psychopath.
But! If players keep an eye on the walls, they may spot signs for an "Anti-Hag Support Group." (Alcoholics Anonymous it ain't). Helping members of the group will reveal they're led by Mayrina, who came to the city determined to help other victims of Hags like Ethel.
Here, Mayrina binds the two quests together: she suspects it was a Hag (revealed to be Auntie Ethel again) who kidnapped Vanra—and since you last saw her, she's learned how to both kill hags and free children from the...uh, grisly conditions they're subjected to once captured.
Mayrina doesn't give you this information outright. She encourages the player to dive into a safe behind her where she's left the information. Players who go hag-hunting without popping open the lockbox might be able to defeat the Hag again—but lose Vanra in the process.
What makes defeating Auntie Ethel feel so special?
Tangoing with Auntie Ethel from swamp to city feels so notable because it's a quest littered with uncertainty.
That uncertainty comes in many forms. It's most literally displayed with Ethel offers to cut a deal with the player. Over and over again, she offers easy ways out of your conflict with her, and offers decent rewards that she'll make good on. Even when deceiving the player, she tempts them with tangible benefits that can't be easily turned down.
But the "uncertainty" trickles down deep into the objectives of the quest as well. Players aren't given instructions on how to investigate Mayrina's plight. Players aren't outright told that Hags are involved in the vanishing of Vanra. And the secret to killing Ethel is buried in a lockbox that players could easily glance over (or even unlock without Mayrina's help—the player might decide to kill the Anti-Hag Support Group, plunder the safe's contents, and heroically rescue Vanra. It's a morally head-spinning set of decisions).
An important variable in making this quest feel special is that by the time you set off on your rescue mission, all of that uncertainty has burned away.
Putting what you've learned against Ethel to use in the final battle puts the Hag on the back foot, and she very loudly and clearly signals that what you are doing works against her wishes. She does not want to lose the child, and does not want you to destroy the plants keeping her alive. Mayrina and other NPCs shower you with praise afterward for pulling off this feat, and to top it off, Vanra's mother has a high-value item for the player—ensuring a mechanical reward lives up to the difficulty of earning it.
If you're a storytelling nerd like me, you'll appreciate how much this quest feels like a fractured fairy tale by the time it wraps up. The player confronts a trickster fae creature who's cutting deals, keeping secrets, and kidnapping children. The closest comparable quest in another RPG would be the witches of Crookback Bog in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Like in Baldur's Gate 3, the witches of The Witcher are perfectly willing to help Geralt on his quest, providing he looks the other way while they prey on the locals.
But even if you're not knee-deep in fae bullshit, you might appreciate this: this is a quest where doing the right thing and saving as many lives as possible takes a lot of work and a lot of cunning.
If you help Mayrina, if you pay attention to what she has to say, and if you follow through on that information, you have the best chance of vanquishing Ethel and reuniting a little girl with her frightened mother. You also have a shot at saving other the Hag's other victims along the way—I was not savvy enough to pull that off.
The quest logic makes good on an idea RPGs sometimes struggle with: the idea of selfishness being easy and satisfying in the short term, and selflessness being difficult but more fulfilling in the long term. In this questline, Larian wonderfully toys with morality just by tempting the player and being coy with key information. It's no easy task—but it's a wonderful template for other quest designers to take inspiration from.