A Toil of Love, A Toil of Destiny

Let's get cracking.

SIDE A: Intro, Character Creation and Candlekeep

I'm playing the Gog version of Baldur's Gate and I want to stress that I'm playing it with zero mods. No Tutu, no ease of use fixes, no nothing. And brother, do I want to zoom out. Every fiber in my being is screaming to zoom out. The hedonic treadmill of resolution is an amazing thing. I played this game at release and thought it looked beautiful. And while there is still a lot of good things to say about the meticulously crafted pixel backgrounds, I feel like I'm so close that I can smell this "Elven Arse" Winthrop keeps going on about.

This charming man.

This charming man.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The game starts with a cinematic that sets up the primary antagonist Sarevok as an enigma. He says, "I will be the last and you will be the first" or something to that effect before tossing a fool off a roof. This rubadub says something interesting before he's impaled: "There are others. I can tell you where they are." But Saverok must already know because all he does is chuckle and murder. Ol' Chuckle Murder Saverok. This scene, despite looking a little "Thunderbirds are Go" still does a great job of instilling a sense of mystery. And we're off.

                     Here she is. Avellona. 

                     Here she is. Avellona. 

I roll up a character, Avellona (yup) and make the initial choices that will impact how I play the game from here on out. BG is based on 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons which is notoriously clunky as far as RPG systems go. It was also my first and there is a lot of value in The Devil You Know. Of the many problems with 2nd edition, class balance is maybe the most obvious. In a true table top game, this can be ameliorated somewhat by good role playing. A computer game, however, with it's stiff win states and mechanical efficiency, creates a world where some classes are more equal than others.

With this in mind, I go Elven Wizard. Fighters have a very strong early game but quickly drop off in power. I almost went cleric but I like the moment to moment engagement of playing a wizard. Baldur's Gate is from a vintage before MMOs (and even a lot of later tabletop games) attempted to make every character interesting by giving them all spells, essentially. If you are a fighter in Baldur's Gate, you can fight. Thieves are pretty fun in that each encounter becomes a contest to position yourself for backstabs and Bards can do everything, albeit poorly. But I'm going wizard. Elf for the resistance to sleep and charm. For spells, I choose Charm Person, which is super handy against humans in the early game and magic missile because it remains useful the whole game.

Alignment is the other major choice I'm making here and I go with Lawful Good. Not because of any personal affiliation, but because I want to see as much of the game as possible. Bioware has a hard time with moral choice. Even as recently as Dragon Age, the rewards for choosing between good and evil tend to boil down to choosing between XP and gold. BG1 specifically has an issue with gray morality as you are literally hunted down by guards for being evil and shops give you a huge discount based on your reputation. Having morality explicitly tied to reputation is one of the bigger failings of Bioware's take on good and evil. Where is the room for being secretly evil? Every time I kill a kitten in one of these games I then go home and Livejournal about it, apparently. I'll probably do a future "B-side" all about allignment.

For the record, IRL, I'm Chaotic Good.

So, I get a little voiced text scroll laying out my backstory. Baldur's Gate needs me to be clueless about my past in order for the plot to have impact and they go the orphan route rather than the amnesia route, which is a smidgen less clichéd.

So I'm running around Candlekeep getting a tutorial from literal tutors, in sort of a nice touch. I love the idea of a tiny town springing up around a library the way that towns spring up around sources of water and trading centers in real life. This is a nice little nod to the values of this world.

Such Menial Tasks

Candlekeep is here to do a few things mechanically, some obvious, some not. We're learning what the buttons do and how to move our little dudes around, how to buy stuff, etc, but we're also introduced to a couple of non obvious things.

  • In the various fetch quests we're given, we have the option to keep the items we fetch. Sure, this means that the quest will remain forever open, like a festering sore, but it's really neat that the game allows for this. A wizard sent me to fetch an identify scroll from a tutor. Rather than turn it in for a paltry XP award, I kept it. Bam, free Identify. This comes up more than a few times and I'm always happy when it does.
  • Assassination attempts! It's incredibly easy to die in the tutorial of Baldur's Gate. I'm going to talk about the wussy nature of first level characters in the next entry's B-side but man if this isn't a wakeup call to get your PC gaming save game regimen in order, I don't know what is. Assassination attempts are going to be a constant in this game and are going to remain challenging. They add a sense of unpredictability to your quest, they hint at the macro plot (someone has it out for you) and it gives you the perverse pleasure of seeing your bounty rise. (100 Gold at this point). For the record, “Shank” died to a magic missile and a couple of dagger swipes. Dagger swipes I had a 50% chance of landing. And if I had started with a fighter, I would have had a 55% chance. Think about that.

Baldur's Gate features a tutorial area that isn't mandatory in any true sense of the word. You can just go to Gorion and blow this joint. The material gains for doing all of these fetch quests aren't so substantial that you'll seriously miss them. It's elegant and immersive. I'm ready to hit the road next week, meet some companions and touch on the insane lack of proficiency you start with in this series.

SIDE B The Forgotten Realms

The Forgotten Realms may as well be the default Dungeons and Dragons setting even if that honor officially belongs to Mystara. Most of what you think about when you think about D 'n D comes from Faerun. How and why does this setting support all this weight? Well, probably, like most things worth a damn, it largely springs from a singular mind. Ed Greenwood conceived of the realms in 1967, using it as what he called a “dream space” in which to set his own fantasy stories. Ed is the kind of weirdo that would write sequels to his favorite books. You know, that kind of drive that borders on insanity.

Ed adapted his creation to fit D and D, not the other way around. When he discovered Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, he felt like it was a template, a framework he could drape his creation over to give it quantifiable meaning. But, since he remained a natural storyteller, the conflict between stories, with their messy abstracts, and games with their hard numbers, was always present. This is how Ed and the realms advanced the RPG medium by introducing an unreliable narrator to the mix. Previously, a DM might say, “You guys should go to the Jiffy Lube. There are six orcs there.” Ed's narrator would instead say, “You guys might want to go down to the ol' tire dungeon because some ancient mechanics have heard tell of a group of orcs in the area.” This introduction of gray areas back into something solidly in the realm of game was nothing short of revolutionary.

            Don't sit next to this guy on a bus.

            Don't sit next to this guy on a bus.

This unreliable narrator took the form of Elminster (who we'll meet next entry), the rascally Gandolf stand in that serves as Faerun's mascot. A primer on Elminster might serve as a B-side in the future but for our purposes, he serves as a catalyst. Full disclosure, I've never read any of the Elminster novels, or many D and D novels at all, but that might be a hit I take for the team if you guys are interested.

Ed gained the attention of Jeff Grubb(!) due to his submissions to Dragon Magazine (then known as The Dragon). Jeff worked with Ed to publish his voluminous works, including many beautiful, hand drawn maps. I don't know if I can speak for every dorky roleplaying kid, but making maps in class is truly one of life's greatest pleasures. If there was a way to combine it with Chicken and Waffles or Super Metroid, I might go form some sort of map drawing/Super Metroid and Waffles monastery. Seriously, combining these things is the best thing we can expect from the singularity. I think that's why Ed's story speaks to me. It's easy to imagine that, were I a little more fucking nuts, I could have created something like this.

      Don't sit next to this guy on a bus.

      Don't sit next to this guy on a bus.

Ed Greenwood is Lord Brittish crazy. The kind of crazy that I respect and results in me getting things I love. This dude goes to cons dressed as Elminster. He has been asked to father children as Elminster. It's bonkers. But as I get older, I sort of think that level of insanity is required for truly gigantic works. I'm not talking about the quality of this world or his writing, just it's ubiquity. The Realms is probably the most played table top RPG setting ever. There are hundreds of novels set here, several video games, and hundreds of RPG splatbooks. It's the sort of thing that, even if you're not a fucking goon like me, you have to at least appreciate.

Next time on The Infinity Engineers, I'll be talking about the road to the Friendly Arm Inn, Beregost and a little about table top mechanics and disempowerment. I hope you'll join me.