You Must Gather Your Party

SIDE A: Dangerous Highway to the Dangerous Zone

So me and my boy Gorion hit the road. Gorion says, "If something ever happens, head to the Friendly Arms Inn and seek Jaheria and Khalid." It's dark and nasty out and I won't be seeing my home in quite a while. On cue, we're stopped by the skull masked fiend from the intro who demands that Gorion "hand over his ward." What follows is a fight between Gorion and Saverok's Ogre Entourage that, as far as I can tell, isn't quite scripted. Gorion will always lose but taking out all of the ogres before Saverok chuckle-murders him or exactly how many hits he gets off on the dastard seem to be at least somewhat random. That's pretty neat! I escape in the confusion and later on I return to loot my surrogate father's body and get a letter signed by a mysterious "E." Hmmm.

This is not how I pictured Imoen. The Baldur's Gate 2 Imoen is also not how I pictured Imoen.

This is not how I pictured Imoen. The Baldur's Gate 2 Imoen is also not how I pictured Imoen.

"Ay-Uh! It's me! Imoen!" My sister figure has snuck out and seen the whole thing. Imoen is an interesting character... in Baldur's Gate 2. For this adventure, she mostly serves as a utility NPC. She's a theif, covering one of the three sets of unique skills D and D classes have (everyone can fight) and she has a suspiciously high intelligence which allows her to easily dual class over to wizard. She has a wand of magic missiles with her, in case you're like me and your two memorizations of spells just aren't cutting it. She's so useful, in fact, that the game makes you take her with you, at least initially.

This also fulfills a ludic/narrative purpose, giving you a measure of comfort when the game's systems and settings are doing their best to make you feel desparate and scared. This stretch to The Friendly Arms can be a nightmare. You have quite a bit of land to cover and you are very fragile. I had all of four hit points as I set out. Much like in real life, enemies as mundane as wolves pose a serious threat. I have to respect the ballsiness of the game to start you this fragile and stick to it. The challenge curve of Baldur's Gate is a harsh one.

The other ludo/narrative goal accomplished here is to make you recognize strength in numbers. The game is balanced so that the number of enemies you encounter is not tempered by the number of companions you have. Gathering a party increases your strength immeasurably in the early game. So, as I struggled to fight "Xvarts" and wolves, I ended up taking a couple of dingalings with me that I would otherwise never associate with: Xzar and Montaron.

Worst driver's licence picture.

Worst driver's licence picture.

These guys are bad news and I'd know that even if I couldn't click on them and read their alignment. Xzar's portrait is of him trying to crush his own head. Montaron carries a nasty scowl. I don't want to take these guys with me but I need to in order to survive. Ultimately, if I were to use them the whole game, it's revealed that they work for an organized crime syndicate called the Zhentarim and thier assignment is to investigate the Nashkel Mines (we'll be hearing about those mines quite a bit). Their request that you check out the mines is actually a timed quest and they'll bug me about it if I don't hop to it. Luckily for me, they aren't going to live that long. They're the first bonded pair you run into. Xzar and Montaron are like penis butter and bloodfart jelly.

As I continue, I run into Elminster, though he doesn't reveal himself as such. He's a celebrity to fans of the setting, so having his doughy fingers in the plot pie is at least partially fan service. He doesn't do much here other than reiterate that I should head to the Friendly Arms and convey a sense of importance. It's a little like when Watcher shows up in Marvel comics. Shit's real.

Sadly(?), I decide to fight a belt fetish ogre (yup) and Xzar and Montaron die in the fight. I'm not going to ressurect those jabronies because I'm almost to the Friendly Arms and I have no intention of adding them to my final party.

Right outside the Friendly Arms, there is a mechanical oddity I'm conflicted about. At a very specific pixel position there is a very well hidden and useful ring. Baldur's Gate, unlike some later Bioware RPGs, lacks a key to highlight interactable scenary. On the plus side, this means that there can actually be hidden objects. In Dragon Age, you just hold tab the whole time and click on anything that is glowing. Here, you have to actually look. What this adds is the thrill of discovery. What it also means is that if you want to find everything, you have to pixel hunt like a mother fucker, which is generally not that fun. It's a mixed idea, any way you cut it.

At the Friendly Arms Inn, we're gradually ramping up the complexity of our quest structure. People are still telling us to go grab their laundry but the route is more convoluted or dangerous. Some lady asks us to get a ring but instead of just grabnabbing it, it's guarded bysome orcs. Another gentleman asks us to go grab something (I forget exactly what) but it's a town over.

Before we can get inside to meet our next bonded pair, we have another assassination attempt: Tarnesh. And Tarnesh is a bastard. A wizard, for one, with spells particularly powerful at this level. He cast mirror image on himself to stand up to physical attacks while casting fear on your group. This is our introduction to fighting mages, something that is emphasized even more in the sequel. It's tough but it's somewhat helped by taking advantage of the setting. If Tarnesh is going to be dumb enough to attack me in broad daylight near guards, you can be sure I'm going to draw him towards the guards and get some back up. After dispensing with him, I learn my bounty is now 200 gold.

We're almost done here but before we are, we head inside to meet Khalid and Jaheria. It's impressive the way the game uses audio to simulate a bustling inn when it really only has a few millabouts. Though I only see a few people, I hear a crowded tavern, and it sells the illusion well.

                        In Faerun, accents have you!

                        In Faerun, accents have you!

Khalid and Jaheria recognize me at once and join up without question. Khalid is timid and speaks with a stammer, having grown up trying to prove himself in the shadow of his brothers. Jaheria is cynical, but deeply loves Khalid. Her neutral alignment, part and parcel of druidity, shines in her personality. She's stoic about almost all things. These two are Harpers, an organization dedicated to maintaining the balance of good and evil. Gorion was too.

This is it for now, before next entry where I clear the way to mines, ramp up the quest complexitiy even more and round out our party a bit. See you next time!

SIDE B: It don't mean as much of a thing if it got that swing

I want to talk a little bit about RPG design as it applies to Baldur's Gate. Before I get started, I want to say that I'm no expert. This is something I'm deeply interested in but I'm just now dipping my toes into the study of it, so take any missteps with the elemental plane of salt.

D and D, specifically 2nd edition, is a game with a great deal of "swing." Swing is a term indicating exactly how random results of a given action are. Consider: in D and D, the princpal die roll is a D20, which is then modified by your abilities. 1 to 20 is a huge range! To put this in context, for a character with no abilities whatsoever to hit someone without armor, they must roll above a ten, a 55% chance. The smallest increase you can have to your THAC0 is +1 and the lightest armor, padded gives an identical bonus to defense. Both offense and defense have a linear progression. The difference being that you can buy heavier armor, invest more in dexterity, etc, much earlier than you can improve your THAC0. This gives a defender a tremendous advantage in the early going. It's a system where you can be more confident that your armor can hold out than that you'll be able to smack a Zvart.

This is undermined, however, by the high amount of swing in damage and hit points. Disregarding constitution bonuses, wizards in D and D can start with, at max, four hit points and fighters with ten. Weapons, again disregarding strength bonuses, tend to do 1-6 to 1-8 damage. So, if you're able to wear armor, you can make it pretty unlikely you'll get hit (relatively) but the consequences of those hits remain high. This makes battles a tense contest of whose luck beats armor class first given that even as little as two swings of a short sword can slay a paladin.

This focus on luck is further emphasized in a computer game setting. In a tabletop session, especially in later editions of D and D, the players are encouraged to find and in some cases, argue for, advantages. You can take cover, you can aim, you can intimidate a foe into losing their cool, all ways to tip the scales slightly in your favor. In Baldur's Gate, this level of discretion is non existent. It makes combat fast and brutal in a satisfying way while simultaneously feeling a little arbitrary and unfair.

In tabletop, it's not all combat. Second edition brought about non weapon proficiencies, further adding a pleasant gray area to the pen and paper world. Where an armor class has a hard minimum of ten, using a non weapon proficiency for role playing purposes can be as easy or as difficult as the DM makes it. Again, this is missing from the computer version of the game where most of your interactions are punchy.

This isn't just an issue in games based on Dungeons and Dragons but rather it rears it's ugly head in all RPGs. High swing is what people are complaining about in low level Deus Ex when they can't shoot an NSF agent.

In the realm of video games, as well as tabletop, high swing seems to have gone out of fashion. Modern tabletop RPGs use a couple of different methods to reduce swing. Iron Kingdoms bases it's skill tests on two six sided dice. This means you have an average to work with (seven), which is huge. In games such as FATE, they do this by reducing the spread in general. FATE uses "Fudge Dice" which are essentially three sided. When you reduce swing, you're more likely to suceed at something you try so what you try is more important.

I prefer the latter philosophy when it comes to tabletop but in the world of games, there's something to be said for the D and D method. It can be frustrating to be so disempowered initially, to miss so god damned often. But the game moves fast. Each attempt at swinging a sword only takes a second or two so you're getting a lot of chances. At the table, you have to wait for everyone else to roll dice and joke and chat. You know, jam some strips. In a video game, there is a deft brutality to it that I really enjoy.

Ultimately, I think high swing is probably a flaw. But it's a flaw I see the merit in. That's it for this entry. Join us next time as we talk about Alignment.

The dice are a sharp mistress. But not in that sexy end boss of Battletoads way.

The dice are a sharp mistress. But not in that sexy end boss of Battletoads way.