In the past five years, Dungeons and Dragons (and TTRPGs in general) have found their second wind. They are making a comeback like never before as the pencil and paper RPG has skyrocketed in popularity. It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly where or why it’s had such a strong resurgence. But live stream shows like Critical Role and Harmon Quest have gone a long way in helping. In addition, a shift from Pen and Paper to the digital age gives fans more ways to play. Wizard’s of the Coast DnDBeyond website and tools make playing across long distances easier than ever. Roll into that (pun intended) virtual tabletops like Roll20 and there was no stopping the TTRPGs from rising again. Baldur’s Gate 3 is capitalizing on that popularity and doing it right.
With the rising popularity, more and more people are getting into TTRPGs. And more and more companies are looking to cash in on it as well. But it’s been difficult in the past to adapt what makes D&D special to a medium other than the table. Movies just end up being another fantasy story at best and whatever this was at worst. But Larian Studios’ newest take on the Baldur’s Gate franchise may have cracked the code.
More Than Dungeons, More than Dragons
Why has no movie, show, or video game has come close to capturing the magic of D&D? Put simply, because the mediums weren’t built for it. The true joy in D&D is that every time you sit down to play it’s going to be different. Every time you roll your dice, no matter how much preparation you put into it, it can go awry. At the heart of every TTRPG is chance, improvisation, and imagination. And while playing through the first phase of Larian Studio’s Baldur’s Gate 3 early access I experienced all three of those core principals multiple times.
The first and most obvious thing that Larian does with Baldur’s Gate 3 is to put the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons front and center. It’s all about rolling dice for success or failure. This is a mechanic that is as old as gaming and technically, is in all video games. Every time you pull the trigger on a gun, swing a sword, or toss a spell there are equations and rolls happening behind the scenes that you can’t see. Attack chance is measured against evasion or a defense stat. And the game is deciding if you hit and how hard you hit. So, why does actually showing the dice in Baldur’s Gate 3 make a difference? It’s the anticipation, the sound of the roll regardless of the fact it’s virtual. Watching the critical failure or natural 20 just adds to the heartbreak or joy of the moment.
Nothing is Ever The Same
If you play through a game long enough, you’ll see everything. Even if it boasts hundreds of ways plays, numerous interactions, and consequences. Video games will never truly achieve the potential of TTRPGs. Sitting around a table with friends and using your imagination will tap into an unlimited potential of improvisation. However, in the two playthroughs of Baldur’s Gate 3 that I’ve done so far, it’s rarely gone my way. In all the battles I’ve attempted to prepare for…just like Dungeons and Dragons, something goes wrong. Whether it’s monsters showing up that I hadn’t seen. A lucky critical hit from a Goblin mage sending my Warlock tumbling into a river. Or an unexpected Mind Flayer Thrall that I let live turning the whole Goblin camp against me.
All of these moments were created by the choices and decisions that I made, not the developer. They weren’t 1 to 1 choices from a dialogue wheel that my friend will also get if they choose correctly. Larian Studios have managed to create, even in this early access, a living, breathing world that reacts to you, the player.
The Magic of TTRPGs
Finally, the true magic that Baldur’s Gate 3 manages to capture is unexpected. Even as we play through sourcebook and module’s with our friends, adventure’s we’ve played a million times, we can add or change things to be unexpected. While the game will inevitably lose out on that through multiple playthroughs, the first time I came across Spider’s in an abandoned well, I thought I was prepared.
But, just like when your Dungeon Master decides to spice up the Lich at the end of the dungeon by giving him a pet Beholder, I was gob-smacked when I realized these weren’t normal spiders. They were Phase Spiders who could teleport around and my entire plan was now ruined and I had to improvise. It didn’t end there either! After vanquishing them and emerging victorious, the cavern now mine to loot and plunder the invisible, digital Dungeon Master that is Larian Studios throws at me the mama Spider, the Phase Spider Matriarch, Predator of the Ethereal Planes.
I’ve had video games fill me with joy and inspiration, dread, and sadness. But never has a video game spurred within me the same feeling I get at the table rolling dice with my friends. Baldur’s Gate 3 early access has captured a part of the table and put it into what is sure to be a long-time classic for any fan of Dungeons and Dragons.
LISTEN TO THE DISCUSSION ON CHECKPOINT DAILY
Checkpoint Daily breaks down the biggest stories in esports, gaming, and geek culture. From Cosplay to consoles and everything in-between, we have you covered.
Hosted by gamers and video game journalists, Norris Howard, Kali Scales, and Chadd Callahan. They’ve got your daily update on all the things you love in 30 minutes or less.