Side A: Lie to Me
First off, a little housekeeping. I originally planned for this blog to update anywhere between weekly and twice a month, depending on how much I could compress the subject material. As I get further into the game, however, I find that, if anything, there's more to talk about rather than less. So, at least for the time being, I'm going to be maintaining a weekly schedule. If, down the road, the same amount of play leads to a lower word count, this could change. For the time being, at least, this game contains amazing depth.
In this entry, I'm going to be covering Beregost and mostly talking about the ramping up of quest complexity. If you recall, we started out with, "Hey, go grab this thing for me." We then moved on to, "Hey, go kill these things for me or go get this thing that's far away." Now, with Beregost, we finally have questgivers with motivations and deceit. Unreliable narrators, just like Ed Greenwood always envisioned, and I love it.
First, we make a brief jaunt north to round out our party by grabbing Ajantis. Though he may sound like an insurance provider, he's actually a Paladin with all the personality of wet paste. In Faerun, he's what's known as "basic." Bioware is eventually going to get much better at NPCs, becoming one of the best in the business, but for now, a lot of the characters are only two dimensional in that they're "Trustworthy but loyal" or "Forthright but virtuous." There's nothing more boring than a lawful good Paladin but I need him mechanically. Not only am I short of frontline fighters, but he's also going to provide a valuable source of healing in the early game. The Paladin is a weird class but I'll talk about that more in the B side.
Oh, and Ajantis is surrounded by Ankhegs, a classic DnD enemy that I'm in no shape to take on now. Listen Ankhegs, don't put on coffee, I'm not staying.
So on we move to Beregost, our first real quest hub, and there are a couple of quests here that I think are pretty remarkable.
Outside the Burning Wizard Inn (Torment anyone?) you run into Garrick, a bard with a lisp that maybe wouldn't fly today. He tells you that his mistress, Silke, is looking to hire some protection. She agreed to perform at an Inn and later refused, so the Innkeeper is sending thugs her way. Fair enough. When you arrive, she ups the reward and says, whatever you do, don't listen to the lies of anyone who shows up. When three well meaning idiots arrive, claiming to be delivering gems for Silke, the truth becomes clear: Silke is trying to get out of paying for some trinkets and using you to do so. This isn't a sophisticated lie but the fact that she's lying is important. Up until this point, you could accept anything said as truth. You were out to do good and the people in the world just needed your help. Silke flips the script here. It's not a complex shade, but gray is the most flattering color for morality and the series will do more with this as it continues. The true torch for this sort of thing will ultimately fall to Obsidian but Bioware blazed the trail.
When you side against Silke, she turns on you and you get to take her stuff (always a plus) and Garrick finds himself without a master. Despite his alignment showing as Chaotic Neutral, Garrick is essentially a good kid. He traveled with a theater troop but became disillusioned when he found that his performances were being used as a distraction to aid a group of thieves. He's gullible. I don't really have a place for him in my party in the long term but I let the lovable scamp join up for a time.
This is my favorite thing that happens in Beregost, full stop. Upon entering a different Inn (Beregost has three for some reason), you're accosted by a drunk named Marl. Deep in his cups, Marl got beef with you because you're adventurers. He starts out aimlessly railing against your kind, how you think you're high and mighty, how the influx of treasure fucks up the local economy(!) and he isn't going to take it anymore. You're presented with a choice of how to handle this. If you want, you can fight him, and you'd certainly be justified, but you're also given the option of talking him down. If you're a soft touch, you find out that Marl is pissed because his son, inspired by some adventurers like yourself, went off to die. You have to deftly navigate this conversation, emphasizing how it was his son's choice and being careful not to implicate Marl. What could have been a simple fight instead ends with you buying a round for the bar and raising a toast to a naive youth gone too soon. It's genuinely touching.
But wait a minute Gary, aren't you a fucking wizzzzzard? That's right. If you want, you can cast charm person on Marl and calm him down that way. That's some serious Charles Xavier shit right there and it rules. I've bemoaned the lack of subtle evil in games before but this is a golden exception.
There's also a major fight in Beregost that's worth talking about for it's mechanical significance. If you recall, some rubadub in The Friendly Arms wanted us to clear his house of spiders (happens to the best of us). That house is here and the fight is a doozy at this point. It's worth noting because it illustrates a few concepts of Baldur's Gate combat very well.
- Minor incremental advantages will save you. Since I have Jaheria with me, I can cast Bless before this fight and man, that +1 counts for a lot. In the last entry, I talked about how much swing there was in the combat. The other thing that you can make work to your advantage is how quick rounds fly by. If I give my party a +1 to hit, it's going to add up to a huge difference. The first time I tried this fight, I failed miserably. Casting Bless, along with some smart potion use, made all the difference. at
- Status Effects. Status effects are serious business in The Realms. These spiders are poisonous and the questgiver gave me five antidotes to fight these guys. Temporarily forgetting how serious poison was in this game, I neglected to place them in my quick bar and was treated to three of my six party members buying the farm. To succeed in this game, you must be able to combat status effects quickly and you must use your consumables.
That's about it for Beregost. There are a couple of other minor things that happen here but I'll address them next week as I tackle the High Hedge and other surrounding areas. Trust me, you can't wait to meet Mellicamp.
Side B: Alignment is Fucking Weird
Let's talk about alignment for a little while. Gygax originally added this feature to the game because he was a fan of the stories of Michael Moorcock, which featured a law/chaos axis. Good and evil weren't really part of the equation (elves were always chaotic, dwarves were always lawful) but alignment was born. Later, the good/evil axis was added and the classic system of nine alignments we all know and love came to be.
You can see what the intention was. These were roleplaying aids. A simple two word phrase that described your character outlook. And this made a lot of sense in classic sword and sorcery stories. You were the good guys and there were bad guys and it was up to you what kind of good guy you wanted to be, for the most part. Cross alignment parties were (and are) discouraged in the text. They certainly are in Baldur's Gate.
Alignment did more than this, however. It contextualized play in a way that discouraged sophistication. If I am "Good" and goblins are, by their nature, "Evil" anything I do to hinder them is then defined as Good. It doesn't matter what the goblins do. Many old modules feature a crew of good doers simply moseying down to a goblin fort and killing everything that breathes and taking everything that isn't nailed down. Alignment encourages juvenile power fantasies. This is some straight up Columbus shit. I know this is going to sound crazy, but it's the kind of thinking that justifies real world atrocities. Old school DMs could give their goblins more motivation but they didn't have to in order to be mechanically in line with the game.
Even if some enterprising DM gave a goblin a little more nuance, the players would still be justified in slaying said critter, just because of his race. They'd be justified and would get experience points and gold.
Alignment also served as a restriction on certain classes, the idea being that if you wanted access to some of these cool powers you had to be willing to walk the line. This rarely works well in practice. The most noteworthy example of this is the Fallen Paladin. Paladins must be Lawful Good and if they fall from grace, they become "fallen," essentially fighters. This is a huge mechanical disadvantage! Not because you're going to miss your ability to Lay on Hands so much as because you have a bunch of points in Charisma and Wisdom that aren't doing you much good. It's a really cool idea: you go against your code and you have to do something to make it up. But in 2nd edition, at least, the requirements to regain your class and penalties for losing it are draconian. And it's worse in video games. In Baldur's Gate, there is no chance to regain your honor and in BG2, the chances are extremely limited.
Most modern table top RPGs, especially those with a story telling slant, wouldn't touch traditional alignment with a ten foot halberd and even if you're playing old school DnD, any DM worth his or her salt will sacrifice mechanics at the altar of story and drama, making alignment and fallen paladins a neat idea rather than a trash one. But looking back on the history of this concept, you can see the designers struggling to find the balance between story, character and game and not quite getting it. It took years for designers to find a good way for mechanics and narrative to actually intersect and unlike the work of David Cage, they've made amazing strides. Look at the Aspect system from Fate or the Obligation system from Edge of the Empire. Hell, look at Torment which does a wonderful job of marrying the two ideas. But alignment, as much as I have nostalgia for the concept (chaotic good 4 life), isn't the way to go.
See you next week.