Kicking It Old School

One of the modern byproducts of getting into tabletop roleplaying games is that you accumulate PDFs. The proliferation of sites like DriveThruRPG and charity bundle sites like Humble Bundle and Bundle of Holding make it very easy to have piles of rulesets to games in electronic format. What used to take up tons of shelf-space now sits in a folder on your hard drive. While I much prefer having physical books to read, this trend makes it easy to expose yourself to a wide variety of game styles. It’s especially easy because many of these games are available in PDF for free or next-to-nothing. One wing of the hobby that has taken advantage of this movement is the Old School Revival.

The Old School Revival is a trend in tabletop roleplaying that could easily take up a whole series of articles by itself, either as a history or a philosophy. I’m too new to the hobby to do write such a retrospective, or even to sum it up. But in short the Old School Revival (normally abbreviated as OSR) encompasses a variety of game systems that are either directly or indirectly inspired by the rules of classic roleplaying games, which often means Dungeons & Dragons. Many OSR games are overt (and it should be noted, legal) recreations of games like the original 1974 D&D, the various Basic sets from the late 70s and early 80s, or the 1st edition of Advanced D&D. Those that aren’t direct copies of the rules (known as retroclones) are often very similar rulesets in new settings, or else are inspired by older games in a more abstract way. The overall goal is not generally to dial back the clock on advancements in game design, though there is certainly some of that. Instead it’s focused more on making sure that a certain type of game stays relevant, one that is much deadlier, much simpler, and more reliant on the players to create interesting moments than on the DM to meticulously create things.

If you’ve been reading my work for any length of time you know that I have a soft spot for old games. As a result the OSR has taken up a huge amount of my spare reading lately. Games like Basic Fantasy Roleplay, Swords & Wizardry, and Labyrinth Lord are meant to evoke very old RPGs, but they do so in a form that is much more readable than the classic versions of the games. I’m also a big believer that any gamemaster in any game needs to at least have a passing understanding of how things are done in other system. It’s a little like understanding another language, which can have the effect of helping you understand your own a little better. Knowing other rulesets can only make you a better gamemaster.

But as I’ve given it more thought I find myself thinking about that “old school” moniker. As I write this I am two weeks away from my 37th birthday, and I feel like I am surrounded by people trying to get me to return to a feeling I had all those years ago. Movies, TV shows, and video games have all leaned hard into the familiar. And the thing is, it absolutely works. We all want to be reminded of how we felt when we were young. Whether it’s comfort food at home, sequels to familiar movies at the theater, or classic RPGs on the table, you’ll never go broke with nostalgia.

Ultima Underworld is actually a very cool game, if you are fine with taking lots of notes. I kind of am not.

However I’m also becoming more aware at how the promise of nostalgia is often more satisfying than the nostalgia itself. Throughout 2019 I have buried myself deep into retro PC gaming. Much of it has been rewarding (I wrote about the first two Monkey Island games a while ago) but far more of it has been an object lesson in why things aren’t done a certain way anymore. It turns out I don’t want to have to take notes during Ultima Underworld, engage with the janky controls of Thief, or look at the ugly polygonal graphics of Jedi Knight. I love the idea of Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Railroad Tycoon, but both games are just too old-fashioned in their interface for me to fuss with. It’s telling that those last two Sid Meier games have had semi-recent remakes in the last 20 years, making them far more approachable. Sometimes progress is just that, and to pretend otherwise is an act of self-delusion.

Even those OSR retroclones tacitly admit this. The mere act of reorganizing old rulesets requires a bit of interpretation on the part of the writer. This is especially true now that all of the old editions of Dungeons & Dragons are available for legal download in PDF form, something that wasn’t true when the OSR began some fifteen years ago. If they were perfect such reimplementations wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. Just go download the original Players Handbook and call it a day. No one would accuse the writing of Gary Gygax or Tom Moldvay to be perfect, of course, but in reading some of the discourse surrounding these retroclones there’s certainly a touch of wistfulness, a desire to go back to things as they used to be. In this nostalgia’s most sanctimonious form, there is just a hint of scorn for “kids these days,” with their desire to have less character death and detailed character abilities.

(Hopefully I don’t need to say this, but I don’t mean this as a criticism of the OSR movement, or of any of these particular systems. It’s more just an observation from someone who still plays a lot of 5e, and has only been roleplaying actively for a couple of years.)

I’m no better of course. I have a lot of thoughts about what current game design trends are good and which are bad. I find myself increasingly out of step with how board gaming in particular has evolved. I just don’t want games that are trying to recreate experiences from other kinds of games. That means no board games trying to be RPGs or tactical minis or CCGs. No more multi-faction conflict games where everyone has a new win condition, alright? And while we’re at it, let’s stop crowdfunding everything! Let’s slow down the rate of release so that old reviewers like myself can keep up! Oh, and there are too many video reviews. Why don’t people write things anymore?

Maybe you find yourself nodding in agreement with some of those things, or maybe you think I’m going off the deep end. Mayne some of those trends really are unsustainable and will end. But the point is that when they end they won’t go back to how they were before. Everything has changed, because everything is always changing. That’s why so many attempts to recapture nostalgia and how things used to be fall totally flat. It can never be truly recaptured, because we aren’t the same as we were back then. I can’t go back and experience my favorite games for the first time, even if I had a perfect set of circumstances. The game didn’t change, I did.

I’ll probably go to my grave saying Cosmic Encounter is the greatest game ever. (Image courtesy of user killroy_locke on Boardgamegeek.com.)

And that’s a very good thing. So many of my first experiences with games were deeply underwhelming, and it was only after constant exposure that I understood their brilliance. There is real pleasure to be found in those games that keep on evolving as I do. That’s why I have such a deep love for Cosmic Encounter, a game so multifaceted that I am still discovering new elements. That’s why roleplaying has become such a huge part of my life, because I always have the freedom to adapt the game to wherever I am at the time. And some games, like Power Grid, have served as a little island in a sea of transition. This is its own kind of nostalgia, but one that is driven more by long term relationships with pieces of culture than by a misguided attempt to go back to the way things used to be. One embraces the changes of life, while the other wants to deny their existence.

Then of course there is the need to always be in conversation about our past. We understand our future much better when we can look at the things that came before. This is where I think OSR games have shown their greatest value to me. It’s very hard to read, for example, the 1st edition Monster Manual, and figure out what roleplaying must have been like in the early days. But thanks to a lot of these OSR games, it’s not a hard thing to imagine. And it has also served as a sort of Rosetta Stone for board games I’ve loved for many years like Dungeonquest and Talisman. While to modern players they feel random and deadly, to players in the early 1980s they truly were the most accurate representation of roleplaying in board game form.

Hopefully this hasn’t come off as either a plea for old-school gamers to shut up and quit whining, nor as a wistful look into the days of yore. In truth we all tend toward either one of those extremes now and then, because everything in our lives is changing at different times and in different ways. As gaming moves in whatever direction it’s headed, it’s so valuable to have one eye on what came before, not because we want to go back there, but because those things are still with us now.

The Advantages of Lifestyle Games

look out for dragons

There was a time when I could give an educated opinion on almost every new board game release. I made a point of playing them all, and ultimately writing a review. But last week I watched from afar as my friends attended BGG.Con, and I realized that I didn’t recognize most of the games. It wasn’t that I hadn’t played them. I wasn’t even aware of their existence. At no point in my “gamer” years have I ever felt so distant from the hobby that once meant so much to me.

But a couple of days later something else occurred to me. I was in a bookstore in Manila and was perusing their display of Dungeons & Dragons books. To my surprise, they already had numerous copies of Eberron: Rising From The Last War, the new 5e version of the old campaign setting. I had my eyes on this release, but I hadn’t expected it to make it to this side of the Pacific Ocean so quickly. Needless to say I nabbed that right away. That’s when it occurred to me: I’m no longer a board gamer who dabbles in D&D. I’m now a D&D player who plays board games on the side.

This is not an unusual situation. A lot of people play one game to the exclusion of others. I just didn’t think I would end up as someone with a “lifestyle game.” If I am perfectly honest, I generally looked down on people who played a single game to the exclusion of all others. They were missing out! They weren’t interested in experiencing the full breadth of the hobby! But as I’ve become one of those “lifestyle” gamers, I have seen some big advantages to focusing time and energy on a single game system.

Magic: The Gathering
I haven’t played Magic in a long time, so help me out: is this a good card?

Many of those upsides revolve around the removal of choice. This seems like a strange thing to say, but humans actually don’t care much for extensive choices. We like choosing from three things, rather than 150. There’s a reason why some of the most successful board game designs have offered players a narrow range of choices, because for the average person choice is an easy thing to overdo. At any rate I have seen this played out in my own life. We’ve all stared at our game shelves, vainly trying to decide what to play. I no longer have to worry about what games to bring to game night, because most game nights will actually just be D&D.

It also removes that little hassling voice telling me what I should and should not play. This was especially bad when I was in the thick of the review treadmill. Invariably there would be some mediocre new release that needed to get played, even though I would generally rather play Cosmic Encounter or Argent again. So the things I really enjoyed about the hobby were being deferred, which is not a way to engage with a hobby at all.

This has especially become a challenge in the last few years as the rate of board game releases has ramped up. My inability to recognize new releases says as much about the growth of board gaming as it does about my own disconnection from it. Focusing on the releases from a single product line has been a huge corrective for me. Wizards of the Coast releases 2-3 new D&D books every year, and for a game that has as huge a scope as D&D that is more than enough content to last any group. I can’t follow the tide of every new board game release, but I can offer insight into why I’m excited for the newest published D&D adventure.

As a result I think I’m actually spending less on gaming than I have for most of the past ten years, while still enjoying the things I buy much more. I want to be careful here because one pastime among gamers is to prove that our hobby really isn’t as much of a money-sink as it is. And to be perfectly fair, my ability to spend less on D&D now is predicated on larger purchases I made a few years ago, like buying all of the core rulebooks with birthday money. But we also live in a time where it’s common for board games to cost over $80 at full retail, at which point a $50 sourcebook seems less extravagant. While that’s a ridiculous amount for a hardcover book, the age of the $50 board game is rapidly fading. Once you start adding in expansions, some games can creep over the $100 price tag. It’s always expensive to be a gamer, but walking away from keeping up with new board game releases has relieved some of the financial demands for me.

D&D cover
Come on now, this dragon wasn’t bothering anyone. Just let him sleep!

Don’t misread me, lifestyle games can be expensive. Magic: The Gathering and Warhammer 40K are living proof of that, and because they have robust organized play scenes some people will always have the desire to stay abreast of the current meta. That says nothing of all of the side purchases that supplement your favorite game. Whether it’s sleeves for Magic, paints for Warhammer, or minis for D&D, there’s no end of stuff on which you can spend your money. And there will always be a need to stay current with releases when you follow a particular product line. It’s not a coincidence that the most successful lifestyle games come from large companies like Wizards of the Coast and Games Workshop. Those companies have the money to keep their games alive with well-paced new releases and robust organized play.

But following a game from a large corporation has its advantages too. Chief among them is that it’s easy to find a way to play. If you live in a major city, your odds of being able to find a game of Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer are quite good. At the very least, you will likely be able to find the products nearby. That structure of organized play is a boon here too, because even if you aren’t an organized play person, most game stores will run some version of what you like to play. This unity extends to the online community for these games, if only because board game discussions are so much more fractured. Say what you will about edition wars, but at least you are discussing the merits of the same game.

And the built-in community is really where I’ve found the strength of a lifestyle game the most. Games of all kinds are a great source of connection, and a lifestyle game can be a little spot of common ground between people from different places. It’s not unlike two cultures that at least share a common language. Finding like-minded people with whom you can enjoy something you already love is one of life’s great pleasures. Focusing on a single game has been the best way for me to facilitate that human connection, which is why we do this hobby in the first place.

How Lost Made Me Better At Running Roleplaying Games

lost cast

Everyone who runs tabletop roleplaying games brings a certain set of influences with them, particularly when we act as the gamemaster. My own influences pull from common ones like Tolkien and Star Wars, but I pull from other properties like Doctor Who and Tintin. Of course we all have our favorite TV shows that influence us, like Breaking Bad, or even the new Dark Crystal TV show. (Seriously, watch it. It’s so good.) But I think the single biggest single influence in my understanding of roleplaying and how to structure adventures comes from my favorite dramatic TV show, Lost.

I can hear a lot of people groaning about this. It’s been almost a decade since Lost took its final bow, and the ending has soured some people on the show permanently. But more than most shows, Lost is actually structured in much the same way GMs build adventures for their groups. There’s a mythology that is often somewhat sketchy in its details, even as it seems to go forever down the rabbit hole. There are the shifting character motivations that turn the plot on a dime, sometimes in ways that serve the needs of the show more than anything else. Even the structure of the show, where characters frequently need to trek around the island to find this or that gewgaw, reflects how many roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons play out.

Of course the ending has made it hard to talk about Lost without people getting upset. I’m not here to defend the ending (not many people want to listen to me anyway), but I do think the show has given me numerous lessons for how to run games more effectively as a GM, particularly from the narrative and character perspective. So here are some valuable GM lessons I learned from Lost.

Note: Lost ended in 2010, which I think is well past the statute of limitations on spoilers. Nevertheless, if you haven’t seen Lost and want to go in totally cold, I do have a couple of small image spoilers here, as well as some other very light plot points. Nothing earth-shattering, but I’d hate for people to feel like I spoiled a show that was so fun because of how unexpected it was.

Make sure your single session is strong.

As TV shows have become more serialized, the emphasis on the individual episode has been diminished. Consider any show that comes on Netlfix. They know they’ll get at least a full season, so they can chop up a single story into different pieces. But like many older TV dramas, Lost was not guaranteed a full run. Each individual episode had to be compelling and exciting in its own right, and even those who were ultimately frustrated by Lost can name some episodes that were so good they hurt. Episodes like “Pilot,” “Walkabout,” “Flashes Before Your Eyes,” “Ab Aeterno,” and of course, “The Constant” told memorable contained stories, even as they advanced the overall arc of the show.

the constant
Desmond makes an important phone call.

GMs can learn a lot from this. It’s easy to worry about the great sweeping narrative of the show, but the bulk of our time really needs to go into making sure THIS session will be fun. That means we don’t overemphasize any one component too much, like having endless combat dominate the session. It also means we need to begin with a strong punch, and find an ending that will make the players want to come back for the next session. I try to end every session on some kind of cliffhanger, or at least on some kind of major development. Maybe the players are about the enter combat with a crowd of bugbears, or maybe they’ve finally reached the dwarven stronghold. Either way, they’ll be excited for how everything picks up again next time.

Like old network TV shows, we can never be sure that we’ll get to the end of our proposed narrative. We may not have ratings to worry about, but every group has scheduling conflicts, players who move away, and other distractions. Hopefully everything works out, but maximize the time you have, because your only guaranteed session is the one you’re about the play. Make it count.

Let characters interpret their surroundings.

Lost set itself apart with a mythology that was not only dense, but at times was inexplicable. It stretched across millennia, and the characters in the show only ever got to interact with little bits of it at a time. This sometimes resulted in a show where no one seemed able to explain what was going on. Instead they could only ever offer interpretations. Characters like John Locke or Benjamin Linus acted like they understood the mysteries of the island, but as the show went on their understanding was shown to be misguided or outright wrong. Some characters, like the mysterious Jacob, were shown to similarly be in the dark about what was happening. The reality of all of that mythology wasn’t something any one character could know. They could only express it as best they knew how and respond accordingly.

This is a terrific way to add richness to the world of your roleplaying game. You as the GM have the only full knowledge of what is happening in your world, and so it’s tempting to use NPCs as vessels for that knowledge. Maybe it’s a wizard who explains the whole thing to the characters, or an ancient book the players discover that fills in the details. But what if instead of imparting that wisdom to the NPCs, we instead thought about how they feel about the reality they face? If an ancient lich is marshalling an army of the undead, maybe there are some villages that treat that lich like a god rather than a menace. Every NPC in your game will have a certain point of view on the world you’ve created, and we can lean into that as GMs.

Fans may recall Richard’s own interpretation of the nature of the island. Everyone sees things differently.

Now this may seem like a lot of work, and it could be. You also don’t want the different interpretations to be so varied that it hampers the ability of the players to engage with clues and secrets. But it doesn’t have to be really overwrought. While you can decide the specific perspective of major NPCs, think in terms of communities to simplify it. How would a specific village view the reality of your world? Little touches like this can give great texture to a game world, and it can provide space for the players to interpret the game world as well. They’ll do it anyway, so you might as well build it into the fabric of your game.

Geography is fluid.

If you watch Lost long enough, you will eventually notice that even though the show is set almost entirely on a single island, the actual geography of that island is highly malleable. Think about the stretches where the characters are frequently hiking between their camp, the caves, the hatch, New Otherton, and all manner of ruins in service of some kind of plot device. There never seems to be much consistent distance between any two points. Maybe there was a map in the writer’s room that helped them keep it straight, but in truth it never mattered very much. If the show needed Jack and Kate to be hiking through the jungle for a couple of days, well, then that’s what they would do.

Dungeons & Dragons, long the trendsetter in tabletop roleplaying, has its roots in tactical wargaming. That particular hobby favors precision and structure, which is one reason that D&D from its earliest days asked the GM to create a map for their campaign. Even today, in the fifth edition of the game, the Dungeon Master’s Guide tells DMs to start by making a map of their world, preferably on a hex-grid. Other RPGs have had a much softer understanding of geography, but there is almost always a component of physical space to every game. I do think a map with some key points of interest is valuable, and if you are the type to make a detailed world map, I salute you. But as GMs we have the ability to create a softer geography. No place is a set distance from anywhere else at the outset. Instead, you can look to the needs of your game, and decide that the gnollish camp is, say, three days from the village where the characters are.

That interesting element in your world, like a mysterious wrecked plane, can be wherever you need it to be.

In my experience as a GM I’ve run published adventures almost exclusively. However, I’m working on some homebrew stuff as well. My method has been to think about where the characters will start, then to make a list of a ton of interesting locations they could discover. The plan then is to slot those locations into the game when a new one is needed, based on what would be interesting to the players and where they are now. If you need to fill it in on a map that’s fine, but don’t consider any of those places set in stone until you actually need to set them. Not only that, but think of all the interesting stuff they could encounter on their way there. Instead of rolling random encounters, you could formulate a couple good ones for any different kind of terrain, and then insert them when things need a kick. I have always found it more constructive to come up with ideas independent of an actual structure, and allow the players to dictate the structure as the game goes on. We see this most at work when we use a soft geography.

(I feel differently about smaller-scale locations, like the interiors of dungeons. Those benefit enormously from concrete maps, although even then the specific contents are more up in the air until the players are in a room. In that case I make a list of different monsters that I can use, and then I put them in as needed in different encounters. The point is to leave yourself with flexibility, not with a set level that can’t respond to your players.)

Know the expectations of your players.

Lost’s legacy as a TV show will forever be tied to its finale. Instead of unpacking all of the dense mythology, the final season of the show mostly set up a final conflict, and then had the characters resolve that. Along the way there were lots of great character moments, but those who wanted the show to actually explain itself were left frustrated. I have always been one who found the ending moving and exciting, but then I liked Lost more for its ambiguity than for its details. Or to put it another way, the details were interesting to me BECAUSE of their ambiguity, not in spite of it. To explain those elements would be a classic instance of telling instead of showing. But a lot of fans were disappointed because for them the mysteries existed to be solved. Everyone brought different expectations to the show, and from that standpoint disappointment is totally understandable.

TV shows can subvert expectations more easily that games can, because games bear the additional burden of being fun.

Whatever your feelings on the finale, GMs can learn a lot from this. Unlike a TV show, I think GMs are putting together their story purely for the enjoyment of the players. We can’t make big meditations on life and existence if we cannot fulfill the basic need to entertain the people who play our games. This is one place where the difference between games and other narrative mediums needs to be pronounced. You absolutely CAN tell a nuanced powerful story in a tabletop RPG, but as a GM you aren’t doing this for you, or at least not just for you. You’re doing it for your players, and their expectations need to be met on some level, even if you do so by defying those very expectations. As you move toward the endgame of your adventure or campaign, think about the loose threads that are still out there. Is it best to subvert them, or will it be more satisfying to lean into an expected ending? Can they be resolved before you are done? Or will they have to wait until a sequel adventure? If the latter, make sure you let your players know there is always more to be discovered, even if the group can’t continue to play together.

None of these ideas are gospel laws that everyone must embrace if they want to GM effectively. Instead they are specific lessons I learned from one of my favorite TV shows. Maybe they are useful to you as an aspiring or experienced GM. But even if these don’t work for you, all of the stories we experience have the potential to give us lots of tools to create great RPG adventures. Whatever stories you love, you love them because they speak to you. If you can create roleplaying experiences that speak to you as well, that enthusiasm will bleed through for your players.

Baldur’s Gate – Better Late Than Never

Baldur's Gate cover

In 2016 I began to seriously engage in tabletop roleplaying with my friends. As it grew into the lion’s share of my face to face game time, one of the side-effects of this new love has been a new interest in computer roleplaying games, or CRPGs. Since I’ve spent most of my life as a Nintendo gamer, roleplaying has never been high on my list. Unless you count Zelda games, before 2019 the only real roleplaying game I had completed was Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. (Nintendo, if you read this, I would gladly pay full retail for a remastered version of this game on the Switch.)

When you combine the desire for a CRPG experience with an interest in classic PC games, I suppose it wasn’t long before I found my way over to Baldur’s Gate, the classic CRPG originally released in 1998. Along with the original Fallout, Baldur’s Gate is often credited as the game that made roleplaying games vital once again to Western developers. It was the first game developed by Bioware, who would go on to produce the Mass Effect games and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. It also spawned a very successful sequel, and as the first game to implement the Infinity Engine, it served as a template for other classic CRPGs from the turn of the millennium, like Planescape Torment and Icewind Dale. I played the Enhanced Edition, released several years ago from Beamdog Studios. This included several adjustments to make the game just a little more palatable to modern audiences, even bringing it to mobile devices.

I’m not sure I actually qualify as a “modern audience,” but a couple of things made Baldur’s Gate immediately appealing to me. First of all there’s its setting in the Forgotten Realms. A longtime fan favorite among roleplayers, the Forgotten Realms is still the default setting in Dungeons & Dragons to this day. Secondly, the year 1998 is squarely in my nostalgia zone. That’s when I played PC games the most, titles like Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, and of course, Starcraft. Baldur’s Gate is clearly from a world where real time strategy was still a major genre in PC gaming, because that’s basically the control method it uses.

The controls of Baldur’s Gate will be intuitive for anyone who played Starcraft and Command & Conquer.

Baldur’s Gate also represents a move away from the tile-based terrain that had dominated CRPGs up to that point. Instead enormous backgrounds were rendered into the game, making the game take up a whopping five CD-ROMs. The character sprites move around the rendered backgrounds, giving the game an almost painterly feel. When you reach the edge of one of these backgrounds, you are presented with a zoomed-out map with every explorable area on it, and you pick the next one to which your party will travel. A huge number of these areas are unnamed and are not strictly necessary for the quest. They are mostly wilderness areas that exist for their own sake, often with ruins or hidden quests tucked away for the player to find on their own. While Baldur’s Gate is far from the first CRPG to really embrace a huge open world for the players to explore, it doubles down on that format as the bulk of the game.

The combat in Baldur’s Gate was also the first example I know of turn-based combat represented in real time, with a pause button used to issue orders. All of the minutia of D&D combat (at least the AD&D Second Edition version of it) is represented here, where characters go in initiative order and make attacks with weapons or spells that are determined through invisible die rolls. It makes sense if you have ever played D&D, though the end result can feel pretty chaotic. The idea is for the player to pause the game and issue orders to specific characters, telling your mage to cast whatever spell on whichever target, or issuing orders to your heavy fighter character to make them attack a particular target.

Baldur’s Gate uses the ruleset from the Second Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which has a few little perversities that make the game hard to learn, particularly for modern D&D players. For one thing, in 2e your AC is better when it is lower. There is also the little matter of THAC0 (meaning To Hit Armor Class 0), the mechanic that determined the success of your attack roles in 2e. It’s actually not too different in practice from what is used today, but it’s a backwards way of figuring it out for the player, and it feels awfully counterintuitive. Still, it was the current version of D&D in 1998, and one of the big selling points for the game twenty years ago was that it recreated the tabletop experience. This in spite of the fact that D&D has never been designed to function as a computer game, something that shows in the final product. There are WAY more magic items and spells than are actually useful, but those things exist in the game because it existed in D&D. Likewise, there is far more combat in Baldur’s Gate than there would be in any tabletop game of D&D, where a single large-scale fight can take up most of your evening. All of these eccentricities lend the game a somewhat woolly quality, as if it placed fidelity to the original ruleset over what might be called good development.

The mechanics mostly get the job done, but in the end they aren’t really the point of the game. Both Baldur’s Gate and especially its sequel have always been cherished as exercises in great video game storytelling. In the first game the player is an orphan leaving their home, Candlekeep, and their adoptive father, Gorion, for the first time. From there you are given some quests and some direction, but you can take it in pretty much whatever way you like. A concrete narrative does emerge eventually, but in the first half of the game in particular it’s pretty subtle. It was certainly engaging, but it was also hard to escape the feeling that it wasn’t totally clear what the overall story was for the first two-thirds of the game.

The truth is that the first Baldur’s Gate has something of a pacing problem. Most of the first half of the game is spent doing things that are actually important, but don’t really feel like it in the moment. Not only that, but the big story goals the game places in front of you are not actually attainable for a while. Players who try to race to the next section of the story will find themselves in over their head quickly, because this game represents a low-level adventure in D&D, and you’ll need to grind for a while. Lots of RPGs require the player to do some grinding, but in Baldur’s Gate the grind feels particularly transparent because of how many wilderness areas there are in the game. In the second half of the game, after the characters enter the city of Baldur’s Gate itself, the plot suddenly picks up and moves at a breakneck pace, cutting off some of the exploration that the huge city is just begging for. The overall story is strong, but it reveals itself in a rather lumpy way.

The combat does the game no favors in this regard. While there is a lot of space to plan and make interesting tactical decisions, the fact that the game is based on rolling dice means that a shocking amount of the time your character will die, even when the odds say they shouldn’t. A human DM might find a way to mitigate this, but the computer doesn’t really care Like many late-90’s PC games, it is recommended that the player make liberal use of the quick save feature, reloading old saves after failure. The rhythm of exploring wilderness, engaging in combat, and save-scumming until you succeed, is what Baldur’s Gate is made of. The combat does get less streaky as your party gains levels, making you less likely to die when facing wolves in the middle of nowhere, but it is still slow going.

Different NPCs respond to your party members, offering them quests based on whoever is following you around.

This is the Baldur’s Gate experience, and it has been for twenty years. It represents not just a game-changer in the CRPG genre, but the most important D&D video game since Pool of Radiance, the very first D&D computer game in 1988. It’s place as a classic has been established for years now, and I would say it deserves that reputation. That said, this is a long, difficult game with lots of very 1998 design choices. It is most rewarding for the kind of D&D players who learn rulesets and get joy out of min-maxing their character builds. There’s something to be said for the challenge that is present here, but I’m more the kind of player who cares about the overall broader narrative more than tactics. As such I found myself losing motivation to continue playing. Beamdog, the developers of the Enhanced Edition, understood this might be the case, and included in their versions of Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 something called Story Mode. This is essentially an invincibility switch. Your characters can’t die, and the need for save-scumming is basically erased.

No doubt a lot of old fans of the game will think this is an abomination, but it was exactly what I needed to see Baldur’s Gate through to the end. I put in 20 hours of what felt suspiciously like work before basically quitting the game in exhaustion. Story Mode allowed me to return to the experience and treat it like, well, a game. I was no longer annoyed at having to brave my way through huge wilderness areas to find a quest item, or afraid to open a secret door for fear that an army of trolls was on the other side. It’s not a perfect solution, because it makes combat a mere speed bump, and combat is a huge part of Baldur’s Gate. Pursuing loot becomes meaningless in Story Mode, since you’ll never lose a fight or find the need to upgrade your gear. But the positive effect is that it refocuses the game on interaction with NPCs and exploration, two of what the current designers of D&D call the three pillars of roleplaying. It was at this point that I began to really get into the groove of Baldur’s Gate. I felt more free to engage in dialog trees, to accept any quest that was given to me, and to explore every inch of the map. And most importantly, I grew more attached to all of the different characters you encounter throughout the game.

The characters are where I connected with Baldur’s Gate the most. You will meet all sorts of people on your journey, many of which are available to join you on your quest. You only ever get a party of five other playable characters besides yourself, so each game will play out differently depending on who joins you on your journey and what quests they open up. There are some who will be more common among parties than others, like Imoen, a rogue who joins the player in Candlekeep. However, others are hidden in strange places on the map, and sometimes quite far into the game. This is where I can see myself playing the game through again someday, just to create a different party and see where their stories take me. Beamdog also added their own new characters in the Enhanced Editions, though they have proven somewhat controversial among longtime fans. For what it’s worth I had Neera, a wild mage, in my party for most of my playthrough. I noticed that she tended to utilize voice acting for her dialog more than the original characters.  Of course there are also tons of non-playable characters in the game too, some of whom are just there for their own sake. I especially liked the guy who, if you talk to him, just follows you around interrupting you until you either leave the map, or just kill him. They didn’t have to put that guy in there, but he’s there, and it demonstrates the attention to character and detail that the original developers got right on the first try.

A scene from Siege of Dragonspear.

Beamdog’s contribution extends beyond the game itself. In 2016 they also released Siege of Dragonspear, an expansion pack that bridges the gap between Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2. The original Baldur’s Gate did have its own expansion, Tales of the Sword Coast, but it added more quests to the game, not a new storyline. (Tales of the Sword Coast also adds Durlag’s Tower, a huge dungeon-crawl often celebrated for its brilliantly diabolical design.) Siege of Dragonspear is kind of a mixed bag, though it does provide some different sorts of quests than were in the original game. It revolves around a large-scale war, so there are several large battle set pieces that distinguish it from the original experience. It suffers most of all from a need to take the character from point A to point B, sometimes transparently so. It will occasionally present you with what seems like a major choice, but when you try to do something weird it immediately pushes you back onto the tracks. There’s not a huge sense of agency, in other words. It’s a decent enough campaign if you are interested in the whole Baldur’s Gate saga, but it’s definitely a step down from the games on either side of it.

Isometric CRPGs had their heyday in the late 90s and early 2000s, but they are having another moment currently. Games like Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin have given us new entries into the genre, and Beamdog’s own efforts to release Enhanced Editions of all of the old Infinity Engine games has put the classics back on people’s radar. That means that next year, we will get Baldur’s Gate 3, from the Larian Studios, the makers of Divinity: Original Sin. From that standpoint it’s fun to go back and see one of the games that really started established the genre in the first place. Baldur’s Gate is a classic, and it’s been delighting roleplayers for decades now. It’s worth digging into, because it does a great job at giving the player a world to explore and get to know. There are lots of tactical challenges that will delight certain people, but even if that’s not your bag, the Enhanced Editions allow anyone to put in the time to enjoy this epic. If you’ve never dug into computer RPGs before, this is a terrific starting point.