It is now time for an unscheduled tour of my creative process, such as it is. Originally, I had planned this series out a certain way, and it was all very well organized and so forth. A big part of my writing process is just figuring out what order I want to say things in, and I thought I had an order that would work. Then when I started writing it the whole thing fell apart and I realized I needed to reorganize. I realized that I couldn’t do this alone. I needed help.
So I brought in two of my friends. Their names are Achilles and The Grognard. We all agreed that they would sit down and play through Baldur’s Gate while I sat nearby and recorded their conversations. It’s all very scientific and official.
I did this because I think this game is best viewed from more than one perspective. The Baldur’s Gate seriesConsiting of Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, and Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal. – also known as the Bhaalspawn saga – is generally considered to be one of the high-water marks of the genre, an achievement in visuals, atmosphere, mechanics, and reactivity. It has also become an object of nostalgia, and the widespread belief that they just don’t make’em like that anymore. How to best locate the real Baldur’s Gate through the fog of its reputation? By employing a pair of guides. Let’s meet them.
The Grognard was born on November 30th, 1978, and the original Baldur’s Gate came out on her twentieth birthday. A tabletop veteran, she spent her college years immersed in the many classics of the Infinity Engine era – games that, to her, set a standard that has yet to be met since. To the Grognard, PC RPGs are like Saturday Night Live in that in any given year, they were better five years ago. The direction the genre has taken in the last ten years has filled her with disappointment, which she self-medicates with deliberately cultivated hope. Maybe yesterday’s magic has not been lost, she tells herself. Maybe there are enough people out there, schooled in the old ways, to bring it back. Maybe the developers of Larian studios are the chosen people, here to lead us back to the promised land.
Achilles was born exactly twenty years later, on November 30th, 1998, the day the first Baldur’s Gate was released. He’s never played it – in fact, he’s never played an Infinity Engine game. The first roleplaying game he can remember playing is Fallout 3Which he just calls “Fallout.” on the Xbox 360 during his half-remembered days of adolescence. During his teenage years he caught the RPG bug, catching up with Mass Effect, Skyrim, Dragon Age, and others. He’s aware of the old classics, but he’s never played them.
The scene: two people on a couch. They look like however you want them to, but the art is reminiscent of a 90’s era webcomic. On the screen opposite them is:
The Grognard: This already feels wrong.
The Grognard: We’re sitting on a couch, for one. This is not the way our ancestors played. And for another, this is the enhanced edition of the game, the Beamdog one. The remaster. It’s sacriligious in several ways. It doesn’t even have the original Dagger of Venom! It would be one thing if you modded together the two games, with Tutu for example, but this? This is like seeing Hamlet as an Instagram story.
Achilles: I only understood about a third of the words you just said. Why wouldn’t I play the enhanced edition? It’s the same as the original game, but doesn’t look like it was rendered using a potato battery. Do you want to go back to the way it was? Look upon 1998, and despair!
The Grognard: Yes, it’s true RPGs look better now than they did back then, but there’s more to a game than the graphics.
Achilles: This way we get the game AND the graphics. And why would it matter where we’re sitting? You have something against couches?
The Grognard: Where you sit is part of the experience! For PC games, you sit at your desk. For tabletop games, you sit at the table. It changes your mentality, your perspective. I’m here to make sure you don’t play the game wrong – that you play it with the right mentality.
Achilles: You see, this is where I think you can learn something from me. The game has an obligation to entertain me; if it doesn’t meet that obligation I stop playing it. I don’t have an obligation to the game – to play it a certain way, or with a certain “mentality.” If the game isn’t fun, that’s the game’s fault, not mine.
The Grognard: There’s a certain pro-consumer sentiment there I don’t want to stifle, so I’ll rephrase. There’s a skill to appreciating Baldur’s Gate. It was made for a certain time – a time when PC RPGs were trying to replicate the tabletop experience, and should be experienced as such. And if you follow my wise, guiding hand, you’ll discover what I mean.
Achilles: I, on the other hand, am here to cushion your disappointment. It’s obvious you’re attached to this game. You played it at a formative time in your life, I get it. It’s a rose-colored glasses thing. But now all of its jank and weirdness is finally going to be witnessed by an objective third party, and I’m going to have to start saying things like “well, it was their first game with these tools,” or “I see what they were going for there,” or “they just didn’t have the technology back then.” Things like that, to make you feel better.
The Grognard: I would be offended by that if I wasn’t an impenetrable fortress of self-confidence. Your sympathy won’t be necessary. This game holds up. People still play it, over twenty years later – still mod it even. There’s a reason it was remade into this version. Speaking of which, we should start our game. Have you thought about what type of character you want to roll?
Achilles: You bet. A kensai, who switches to mage at either level 9 or 13, I haven’t decided yet. Oh, and I’m gonna dual-wield longswords.
The Grognard: That’s not a character. That’s a build. You’ve never played these games before, so I’m going to assume you got it off the internet?
Achilles: I can hear you making a face when you say that. Yes, I got it off the internet. This ruleset is famous for being confusing and unintuitive. I don’t want to get forty hours in and realize I picked a trap build, so I just googled “Baldur’s Gate OP” and went with the first post I saw.
The Grognard: But what character do you want to play? Never mind the numbers – who are they, what is their personality? Or, how about this: which character portrait did you pick?
Achilles: Well, the coolest-looking one is Top Hat Guy.
The Grognard: All right – it’s a starting point. Now, because I’ve played this game, I happen to know that “Top Hat Guy” is a gnome, not a human, so you won’t be able to dual-class – you’ll have to multi-class instead.
Achilles: What’s the difference? Is that going to gimp me? Is it going to make my THAC0 too low, or too high, or whichever one is the bad one?
The Grognard: Too high is the bad one. And I promise not to gimp your character. A gnomish fighter/illusionist will do just fine. Alignment?
Achilles: Do I have to pick one? Don’t they just let you say “unaligned” now? The closest thing is chaotic neutral, so I’ll pick that.
The Grognard: At this point I feel I should remind you that we want to roleplay, not just make a standard-issue chaotic neutral murder hobo.
Achilles: I thought you wanted this to be like tabletop gaming. Aren’t murder hobos a tabletop tradition? If it’ll make you happy, fine, we’ll roleplay. Top Hat Guy has always been a free spirit. Pulling pranks, stealing things, that sort of thing. It fits with the illusionist thing.
The Grognard: A prankster – a schemer. Okay, we can work with that. Now, for the ability scores.
Achilles: So you can reroll your ability scores as many times as you want? I’ll just keep clicking until I have all 18s.
*thirty minutes later*
The Grognard: Achilles. I’m begging you. Just stop. Just go with your saved roll, it’s a 93. It’s plenty high.
Achilles: What, and let the game win? I once saw a screenshot of someone who got triple digits!
The Grognard: At some point I want to actually play the story. I promise you, this character is not gimped. How do you want to arrange your points?
Achilles: This is the hardest part, probably. Do I dump WIS or CHA? You know what, how about both.
The Grognard: Well, you rolled stats for half an hour, so you can only “dump” them down to ten apiece. Would persuading you to consider your character here be a lost cause? A gnome with 18 STR?
Achilles: He’s like the Shaquille O’Neal of gnomes. He often gets mistaken for a stocky human, or a tall dwarf. It’s why he multiclassed into fighter. Built like Barry Sanders, give or take. But with a top hat and a cane.
The Grognard: Against all odds, I’m starting to be able to picture this guy in my head. Weapon proficiencies?
Achilles: Dual-wielding and longswords, of course. Don’t roll your eyes. I know how these things work. Dual wielding is always good, and there’s gonna be, like, twenty good longswords. The other weapons will have one or two good ones apiece that you don’t get until you’re 80% done with the second game or something.
The Grognard: First of all, this game is a classic. You should have more faith in the itemization. Second, this is a prank-pulling gnome. His weapons should reflect his personality and inventiveness. I say… he dual-wields a morningstar and a wakizashi.
Achilles: Am I reading this right? “Longsword” is one proficiency, “katana” is another, and “scimitar/wakizashi/ninjato” is a third? Don’t all those weapons fall under the category of “long sharp metal thing”? Why do they need three seperate proficiencies?
The Grognard: You think this is bad? First edition had, I believe, 24 different polearms. You had to know the difference between a ranseur and a voulge. But this fits the character. That cane in his portrait – say it’s made of tropical hardwood, and has a lead core in the handle. He can swing it around like a shillelagh. And the wakizashi is small enough to conceal inside his coat.
Achilles: I’m getting a tiny little Gandalf vibe here. Okay, I admit that is kind of cool. Now I have to pick spells?
The Grognard: Your starting spells. Don’t worry about it too much, you can learn any ones you skip from scrolls later.
Achilles: Well, sleep is a classic. Blind sounds useful, and I have to pick one illusion spell anyway. And charm person may have comedy potential. I’ll pick those. For voices, none of them are quite right, so I’ll pick the posh-sounding english guy who says his spleen hurts when he gets injured.
The Grognard: Well chosen. And, to top it all off, “Achilles Grognard” sounds like the type of name a gnome would have.
Achilles: According to the cinematic, I’ve lived my whole life with my foster father, Gorion, at Candlekeep, which is essentially a giant library. But now I have to leave suddenly. And so our adventure begins.
The Grognard: And so our adventure begins.
 Consiting of Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, and Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal.
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