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What works (and doesn't work) about Baldur's Gate 3's D&D-driven systems
Baldur's Gate 3 shines a light on how devs can use tabletop role-playing systems in video game form, and the frustrations such a system can bring.
August 9, 2023
9 Min Read
Baldur's Gate 3's well-earned roaring success is making it the kind of overnight hit that was years (maybe a decade) in the making. Larian's experience with the Divinity series signaled that audiences were ready for a return of number-crunching role-playing games like the kind labeled as "computer role-playing game" in the '90s. (And lest we forget, Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity and Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun also laid the groundwork for genre revival).
When looking through one lens, the CRPG might be viewed as kind of a transitionary product—they were games that relied on tabletop-inspired systems to drive rousing adventures with 3D graphics. Leading developers like BioWare would shed many sourcebook-inspired frameworks as they advanced through the ages. As game budgets, computing power, and audience size increased, what need did RPGs have for dice rolls and dense sourcebooks?
It turns out—quite a lot. Baldur's Gate 3 feels special in part because, for better or worse, it's a digitized (and streamlined) way of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Character creation is deep with nitty-gritty stats. The game maps look like grid-based dungeons from Wizards of the Coast's sourcebooks. Automatic dice rolls that progress as you play sub in for a game master, giving you a small heart attack by suddenly asking you to make a Perception check.
It feels great. And terrible. But then great again! It's a fascinating example of what tabletop-inspired design can do for your game—but also how challenging that design can be for players who don't have the 5e sourcebook on their shelves.
What works well about tabletop design of Baldur's Gate 3?
Larian Studios employees, if you are reading this, please go give a high-five to your UX and sound design people for me.
One of the best parts of any tabletop game is the moments when players interact with physical objects—particularly when rolling dice. And Baldur's Gate 3 puts a lot of love into dice. The executions are simple, but you can tell it took a lot of fine-tuning to get them to feel just right.
The game does an excellent job of prioritizing what dice rolls should be shown to the casual player. Rolls that occur during lockpicking and conversation are called up on a big screen, and players are shown what modifiers they can use to increase their odds of success. There's a very animated sound that plays during the die roll—one that sounds more like a slot machine than the clunking of a die crossing a wooden table.
Then, there are the various checks that occur while navigating the environment. These include Survival, Wilderness, Perception, etc. Players aren't shown all of the modifiers going into each roll, but a combination of text popups and die symbols that appear by each character (and another pleasant rattling noise) catch their attention. These do a great job simulating the aforementioned surprise rolls your GM asked for—if all of your party fails these rolls, the player's left wondering, "Wait, what triggered that?"
And finally, there are the combat rolls. These are thankfully near-invisible. When warranted, players will receive information about key die rolls that trigger Reactions, but this is a great spot to let the digital interface and graphics take over. It's also a key diversion when it comes to sound effects—dice rolls in tabletop D&D are meant to help simulate imaginary attacks but might be distracting when you're more focused on the woosh of a fireball.
One surprising translation of tabletop design is the environmental traversal. As RPGs evolved over the years, this was one of the first mechanics that vanished from gameplay. Players were given more and more direct control of how characters moved through terrain, especially with controllers. It made less sense to tie dice rolls to jump mechanics if you could animate different types of jumps (or jetpacks, or teleportation, you name it).
Here, Baldur's Gate 3 turns back the clock in some very intelligent ways. To navigate rough terrain or pull off risky jumps, players often need to do some form of skill check. These are usually executed through the "passive" checks, the second of the two described above. Success may mean taking less damage from a fall; failure may mean breaking your ankles.
It can actually feel fairly clunky, especially if you're more used to the smooth flow of traversal in other games. But keeping these skill checks in feels rewarding—partly because it beefs up the purpose of stats like Athletics and Strength. If you didn't have to make these checks and just let a game-like traversal system move players where they want, you risk making those stats feel like a bad choice.
There's something fascinating about the fact that while almost every action game since Borderlands has begun borrowing from RPG skill trees and equipment stats, Baldur's Gate 3 was able to reclaim some of the tabletop purity by moving back towards the analogue elements of such games.
This is good, because it's in the skill trees and class systems that the tabletop inspiration becomes five times more frustrating.
What doesn't work about the tabletop design of Baldur's Gate 3?
I refuse to learn the difference between a cantrip and a spell.
You can tell me the difference, but it will right slide off my brain. It's one of a few design conceits taken from the Dungeons & Dragons sourcebooks that's massively inferior to all of the improvements made in video game spellcasting over the years.
Spellcasting, in general, is one of the mechanics most pained by the transition from tabletop to digital. From character creation onward, players are overwhelmed with a constant barrage of spells that aren't organized with a sense of progression. Someone less familiar with D&D spellcasting (like me) might struggle to know what spells they should take and why since they don't know what obstacles they'll face on the road ahead.
From there, players are told they can only cast a limited number of spells per day, unless that spell is a cantrip, a word rarely used in other games and a type of spell that plays host to what most video games describe as spells (see Fire Bolt, Ray of Frost). But not all cantrips come off as "basic" spells. Some, like Selûne's Dream or Shillelagh, require a newcomer to pause and read the text. The names don't convey their purpose, and their uses aren't necessarily easy to understand.
The limited spellcasting system creates its own headaches. Players can only prepare a certain number of spells after leaving camp, which limits what they take from the library. Sure, fair enough, it adds an element of preparation that's pretty fun.
But then each spell will consume a "spell slot," and there are different tiers of spell slots affiliated with the type of spell. Spell slots are generally refreshed by taking a Long Rest, which requires players to return to camp, sleep until the next day, and by the gods, my brain hurts regular D&D players, how do you deal with this?!?!?
I'm sympathetic to Larian, however, because completely stripping out this system but leaving others in would break the role-playing rules intended for a core part of their audience, and because on both ends of the analogue/digital equation, the system actually serves some key design and thematic purposes.
Requiring players to return to camp at regular intervals creates natural breathing room points in an in-person campaign and for the adventuring party of Baldur's Gate 3. My own D&D experiences tended to have players just "Long Rest" in between sessions, so I personally interacted with the system less than many players. In Larian's game, returning to camp on a regular basis creates a hub where the studio can safely let players converse with NPCs or have key story encounters without designing a "home base" that players would have to return to.
As BioWare's RPGs evolved, the studio turned away from the idea of pitching camp and more toward having players regularly return to such a home base—the Normandy in the Mass Effect trilogy, the Ebon Hawk in Knights of the Old Republic, various keeps and camps in the Dragon Age games—etc. Baldur's Gate 3 definitely feels better for not relying on such a location, and it frees players to stay out in the wild.
Requiring limitations on spells goes all the way back to 1977's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which introduced what would later be called "Vancian" magic (named for Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, whose magic system inspired Dungeons & Dragons). D&D co-creator Gary Gygax wrote in 1976 that without magic systems, the game "quickly degenerates into a weird wizard show where players get bored quickly."
Then there's the thematic element. Limitations on magic like those seen in the Dying Earth stories or Dungeons & Dragons help reinforce the mysticism of it all—like mortals are tapping into a fraction of a greater force tied to the fabric of reality. This mysticism is even a plot point in the character of Gale's backstory in Baldur's Gate 3. Streamlining the magic system would risk undermining his quest.
These are great reasons to keep D&D's magic system in place. They don't make me dislike it any less.
Even Larian admits D&D's ruleset creates some challenges
I'll close by pointing out that Larian Studios' founder Swen Vincke has already admitted to challenges caused by the Dungeons & Dragons rules system. Baldur's Gate 3 caps the player level at 12, which is a significant level in the 5e sourcebook. It's the highest level where player abilities still feel "mortal."
Levels 13 through 20 are where players start to approach godhood, and raising the level cap in DLC would demand a storyline and game experience that matches that growth. Vincke told PC Gamer that it would be "very hard" to design downloadable content for Baldur's Gate 3 that takes players on that journey.
Fair enough! But that's a consequence of adhering so closely to the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset.
Vincke probably isn't that upset, though. The game is performing "way beyond" expectations, and I'm sure he and Wizards of the Coast parent company Hasbro are eager to juice its sales with more content down the line.
That said these hiccups in translating Dungeons & Dragons to video game form are just that: brief hiccups. A little controlled breathing, and they stop bothering you. Larian's pulled off an incredible feat by reviving a genre of video game and franchise that has lain dormant for over a decade, and its creators deserve nothing but praise for capturing some of the best-feeling moments that come from sitting around a table rolling dice with your friends.
It makes me hope other developers jump on the train. Tabletop RPGs are in the middle of a years-long boom, and even smaller games like Citizen Sleeper are making the most of the positive power of dice rolling.
If you pitched me on a Star Wars role-playing game that used Fantasy Flight Games' Age of Rebellion rules...look. I know what I'm about. I'd gladly deal with all the janky systems that game has to offer.
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About the Author(s)
Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com
Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.
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