I Like Imagining the Bandit Camp Being Full of Dogs with Bandanas

SIDE A: Just Chill For A Bit

You may have noticed a bit of a gap between this entry and the last. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, it was my birthday (more about that in the B side) but secondly, it's because Baldur's Gate just got fucking hard.

I didn't even manage to clear as much of the game as I wanted to before writing this. I woke up early in order to play but stalled out a bit before getting into the Cloakwood Mines, which is where I wanted to get. So, let's get some miscellaniary out of the way first and then talk a bit about difficulty.

So I kicked 'em in the head til he was dead!

First, I went to the bandit camp, having been guided by letters, clues and Elminster. There are ways to infiltrate the camp if you run into certain stray jerks and pretend to be a blackguard but that's not how I've been playing. I'm going for righteous justice toe to tip so I just storm in and fuck shit up. I acquired a wand of fireballs dealing with some Ankhegs (more on that in a later entry) so I cleared this place out toot sweet. I made someone invisible and had them scout out clusters of bandits, leaving a single arrow on the ground to mark their location and sprayed fire on them from afar. This bandit camp actually contains two kinds of bandits, like a Reese's cup. On one side, we have the Black Talon, mostly human and on the other The Chill, a group of Hobgoblins.

There really wasn't much to this area since I took the straight forward approach. I accidentally killed a guy named Ender Sai while making short work of the five mini bosses here, one of whom drops some documents referring to something called The Iron Throne and mentions another mine in Cloakwood, which is where I'm off to next. Ender Sai was a prisoner of the bandits, god bless, pour one out #onelove, #namaste.

If I had infiltrated, I could've had a sneak preview of one of the big bads in the game: Tazok. I sort of wish I had just for the blog but as is, I'll have to wait to meet that specific jabrony.

Life of the Party

 Huh? Oh nothing. Just looking at Twitter. 

Huh? Oh nothing. Just looking at Twitter. 

Before I move on to talk about Cloakwood, a difficulty spike in the early game, I want to get you guys up to speed with my party. First, in Cloakwood, I abandoned Kivan for Coran. This was hard to do because Kivan is a beast but Coran...

a) ...is even more of a beast and b) ...his portrait looks like he's sneering at his iPhone.

He also has impossibly good stats and more importantly, he's part thief. I dualed Immoen over to wizard but I still don't have access to her thiefly skills and I sorely miss them. Kivan, as much as I love him, is sort of a one trick pony. It's possible that I'll actually ditch Immoen for Kivan if I find that I don't really want two mages but for now Coran Rules and Kivan Drools(tm).

Coran is a rascally Robin Hood type, a thrill seeker who wants us to hunt down some wyverns for cash. It seems Beregost just opened up a Wyvern2Cash branch loaction.

I've leveled up a couple of times and they're significant levels. Branwen is level five which means third level spells which means Animate Dead which fucking rules. Summoned monsters are immensely powerful in Baldur's Gate because combat is so quick and deadly. My skeleton crew may not do a lot of damage but they can take a hit. And anyone who knows me knows that I'm going to relish rolling with an army of bone.

Further, Avellona is now level five so she can cast fireball. There are more interesting third level spells but fireball is so useful for clearing the riffraff that I can't resist. Between that, Algernon's cloak and a sizable amount of magic missiles, she's turning into a really useful little bomber/controller.

Save Scummin' USA

Save Scumming is looked down upon. In many games it can trivialize difficulty, especially shooters and platformers. The thing about Dracula at the end of Castlevania is that it's not enough to beat him; you have to beat him while performing the stage well enough to have sufficient resources to defeat him. The whole last level is a sort of boss, a sprawling, multipart nightmare that, when you conquer it, you feel amazing. When this philosophy works, you master the run up to a boss and you feel a sense of ownership over the area. When it doesn't, it's Ninja Gaiden and it's just too much.

 More than a few of these badboys in Cloakwood.

More than a few of these badboys in Cloakwood.

It's a tricky balance, pitting patience versus that promised sense of accomplishment. A modern game that does this phenomenally well would be Dark Souls or Volgarr the Viking. But you can find other examples, often in the form of Capcom and Konami NES platformers.

Games that go a different route would be Super Meat Boy or Hotline Miami, where rapid iteration is encouraged. SMB and Hotline Miami have this in common with Baldur's Gate for a couple of reasons. First, because of instant death (a certifiable "Baldur's Bummer" to talk about at a later date) but also because the mechanical depth of Baldur's Gate works on the micro and macro level. Yes, you can try different tactics in a battle, similar to a different jump arc in Super Meat Boy, but you also have a party build made up of individual character builds. These decisions have been made long before you're beset by Sword Spiders. So the former, that individual tactical choice, is elevated in importance.

Further, unlike SMB or Hotline Miami, Baldur's Gate is lousy with dice rolls, adding luck to the equation in a way that isn't really a factor in SMB or Hotline.

This means that when I fail an encounter, I failed for one of three reasons:

1) Bad luck. A series of shitty dice rolls is hardly my fault. I should be able to try again.

2) I made a tactical error in judgment. Hopefully, I learned from it. I should be able to try again.

3) My party is unsuited for the encounter. If this happens, it's not my failure but the failure of the game for allowing me to get to this state. I should be able to try again and hope that I get good enough luck to gloss over this failing.

If I was forced to trek from one end of Cloakwood to the other without this feature, say with a JRPG checkpoint system, the game would quickly cross the frustration event horizon. Cloakwood is filled with encounters that are more akin to individual SMB levels that need to be approached separately. The game allows you to set your own demarcation lines via quick saves.

I realize that if you wanted to, you could poke holes in this white knighting of Baldur's Gate. You could argue that the way I'm playing the game (in short iterative bursts) devalues the mechanics of resource management(more on that in a sec) or that I'm eschewing the Castlevania challenge factor and that I'd feel like a million gold upon a flawless run of Cloakwood. But I don't think so because a flawless run of Cloakwood seems god damn impossible.

Cloakwood is filled with spiders, ettercaps and wyverns, all poisonous, all plentiful. There are two boss encounters, one with a spider queen in the center of a giant web, one with a family of wyverns and both of which are balls hard and, to my mind, require that iterative SMB approach.

I don't feel like I'm losing anything with this approach. When I figured out a way that worked for my individual party build, I felt a similar but different satisfaction than I would have if I had cleared Dracula's Castle in one go. The Wyvern Family fell to a volley of fireballs, some from my casters and some from Oils of Firey Burning, bringing that resource management concern into play.

 Not my party but the only image I could find online. Badass.

Not my party but the only image I could find online. Badass.

As a quick side note, the Wyvern cave is one of the coolest setpieces in the game so far, a cave littered with dead livestock and a giant dead wyvern. Who slayed it? I imagine the local druids given it's unnatural size. In anyf case, the visual of a family of wyverns gathering around a paragon of their kind is striking.

The spider queen was much tougher, requiring charming a sword spider and sending Minsc into berserk mode, on top of Bless, Chant, etc. After the queen fell, big dumb Minsc wouldn't stop attacking Branwen so Adjantis tanked him for a moment while summoned some skeletons for him to take out his aggressions on. These little moments of quick, lateral thinking are where I get my dopamine squirt in Baldur's Gate. Sure, the Spider Queen took me ten tries but each one taught me something. Oh, and interesting note: The Spider Queen was created by Jon Irenicus, the villain from Baldur's Gate 2!

 Blorb. 

Blorb. 

And that's high, uh, quality game design. It feels frustrating in the moment but by allowing me to try again and by giving me such a wide vocabulary in the form of spells to memorize and potions to use, it proves to be challenging rather than cheap. And the random factor exists in service of this too, preventing it from becoming a puzzle game where each encounter has one solution. The solutions I came up to for these problems may not work for someone else but they are given the tools to come up with their own solution via save scumming.

Next time I'll be clearing the Cloakwood Mines, clearing up some additional dungeoneering in the south, and in two entries, I'll finally hit Baldur's Gate proper. I'm also planning on talking about gender and Baldur's Gate a little bit. I have a few levels in Social Justice Warrior, just so you know.

SIDE B: And a good morrow to you m'lady

 What Parked Lot of Metal Beast I doth cross to fine these gates forsooth. 

What Parked Lot of Metal Beast I doth cross to fine these gates forsooth. 

This is only tangentally related to Baldur's Gate but it's my blog so... I went to a Ren Faire for my birthday. They're called Ren Faires because no one has ever spelled Renaissance correctly the first time. Even Jacob Renaissance used to screw it up all the time and it's named after him!

The connection, of course, is that Ren Faires and villages in Fantasy RPGs, Baldur's Gate included, are trying to emulate a specific kind of lifestyle I suspect didn't actually exist and has little to do with the Renaissance. I tend to associate the Renaissance strongly with artistic and philosphic movements and the actual dungpile/feudal system presented by BG/Ren Faires more with the Middle Ages. I'm no expert, but shit, the Renaissance period was fairly late and, you know, there were guns and stuff.

So, how was my experience with a simulated Middle Ages village? Silly as hell. I hadn't been since I was 13, a little fantasy dork, way into D and D and fantasy novels, and to me, it was absolutely the best. I loved looking at the olde tyme weapons, I loved seeing jousts and escaping to a world that probably never existed.

This time, with the weight of 20 years of irony on my back, I had a harder time getting googly eyed about it but still had a fun time. There was a serious sense of "There but for the grace of god go I..." to the whole affair. The teens working there, ye of squeaky voice and whispy stache, were full of Monty Python style puns and accents. I got stopped by a sherif who forced me to sing a song before continuing. The little guy taking tickets asked what sorcery my phone was.

 Pictured: me looking at an owl, a lady and an owl.

Pictured: me looking at an owl, a lady and an owl.

The adults in the group seemed like theater majors to me, maybe with a few too many Dream Theater records. They bought into it, spoke in character and bowed to the queen but didn't really make puns or jokes, didn't point out my anachronistic shades. The novelty had worn off for these people but they were still into the fantasy. Was this just a job for them? Did they look at sword sharpening the same way I look at data entry?

Then there were the old hippies. Older eccentrics and weirdos, long haired men with van dykes and feathered caps and white maned madrigal singers. These were the most fascinating of all to me. I had a flash of a train, slowly gaining speed. I got off when I was young with one replica dagger and a bunch of fantasy novels but I very well could have ended up as a fakey bootblack in Sommerland Hamlet in Hillsboro Oregon.

I realize this all makes me sound egotistical and shitty but what I want to express more than a sense of superiority over these folk is a sense of identity in myself. There's value in firmly realizing that something is not for you. Especially after previously, as a young person, thinking maybe it would be. To that end, and with a perhaps unfortunate aire of anthropological detachment, I was game for whatever the faire threw at me. Here are the highlights:

  • The Washing Wenches show. Two super bawdy ladies who pretended to be ribald laundry girls. They essentially joked about their looks and finding a man in a very old school way that reminded me of Phyllis Diller a bit. Lots of goofy humiliation.

  • The Mystical Magical Michael, a Roma looking stage magician who, I swear, talked exactly like Eddie Pepitone. He was great at what he did and he kept referring to tricks as (full Brooklyn accent) Warmup Effects. I was tickled.

  • Falconry! This was really educational and amazing. A young falconer with a soft southern accent taught us all about different birds of prey while coaxing said birds into flying over our heads. Beautiful animals!

  • A stand called "Vegetable Justice" where a guy makes fun of passersby and you get to throw tomatoes at him. This guy did a tight three about me being a worthless generic hipster and, due to my crippling bursitis, I missed my tomato toss by a mile.

 Look at this magnificent predator!

Look at this magnificent predator!

These were the highlights but there was, of course, turkey legs on the bone, mead, tuneless lute noodling and games of skill. In the end, it's easy find things to appreciate about this specific historical fiction. I no longer think I could devote any serious part of my life to it but it was fun to visit.