'Baldur's Gate 3' Director on Re-Creating the "Table-Top Experience" in New Role-Playing Game

Baldur's Gate 3 Game Still - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Larian Studios
Swen Vincke explains the upcoming third installment of the popular RPG series' approach to crafting a virtual 'Dungeons & Dragons' campaign: "We give the player lots of agency in shaping how their adventure is going to evolve."

Set in the popular Dungeons & Dragons' Forgotten Realms universe, the long-awaited third installment in the Baldur's Gate franchise is packed with promise and potential.

On top of the solid foundation laid by its predecessors — arguably two of the most influential games in the role-playing genre — Baldur's Gate 3 is crafted by Larian Studios, the seasoned team behind the Divinity: Original Sin series. It's surprising, then, that the game's main source of inspiration isn't its history or pedigree.

“That's not the way we're going about it,” game director and Larian Studios CEO Swen Vincke tells The Hollywood Reporter at a recent press demo of the upcoming title. “With Baldur's Gate 3, we're aiming to give you the same freedom you'd experience playing a tabletop session.”

Based on D&D's fifth-edition rule set, the threequel's not looking to relive the series' — or Larian's — past glories, but rather aims to emulate the more social, nuanced experience you'd have around a table with friends on game night. This ambitious goal is informing everything, from the game's combat and story to its deep dialog system and companion character interactions.

Vincke views the latter as especially integral to delivering an authentic, conversation and debate fostering, pen-and-paper experience. “There's a very strong focus on the party, and the relationships between the companions," he says. "When it comes to companions and your party, trust is the central theme of the game.” 

The narrative in Baldur's Gate 3 has been specifically designed to test that trust. The hands-off demo begins with a stunning cinematic: The heroes are kidnapped by mind flayers, before the sinister race introduces toothy “ocular tadpoles” directly into their eye sockets. The infection's aim is to transform the protagonists into mind flayers themselves in a few short days, but it seems the creepy crawlies also grant unexpected powers.

This conundrum gives players the freedom to resist or embrace the evil growing inside them, fueling a delicate dynamic among party members who may possess different agendas. While all characters initially seem dedicated to finding a cure, for example, the vampire of the group is a bit too taken by his newfound ability to bathe in sunlight. This all feeds into the game's robust conversation system, impressively brought to life by full-performance capture and 1.5 million words of voice-recorded dialog. 

As Vincke explains, players will find themselves engaged in conversation as often as combat, frequently making decisions that will lead to the fate of their character and companions. “We give the player lots of agency in shaping how their adventure is going to evolve," says Vincke. "They'll make choices that have consequences they'll have to live with. When you add the dice on top of that, it affects the choices and becomes really interesting.” 

The “dice” Vincke refers to is the iconic, 20-sided game piece at the core of any D&D tabletop adventure. The d20, as it's called by seasoned dungeon masters, plays just as prominent a role in Baldur's Gate 3.

“When you play D&D, the d20 is the core, it's everywhere. The entire game is built around it, and we wanted to recreate what you have at the table, while also making it accessible,” Vincke says. 

A big part of that accessibility is achieved by visually depicting the die, front and center, in the game's user interface. Seeing it actually roll before you, as it decides your fate, injects each decision with a tense, almost tangible feel. This was especially evident when the demo's protagonist invited a goblin to shoot him point-blank in the chest with a crossbow, a request which luckily landed in his favor with a double-digit roll. 

When not clicking the d20 during dialogs, you can expect to swing steel and sling spells against a massive assortment of authentic D&D beasts and baddies. Of course, bloodying the cobblestones of Baldur's Gate also relies on the fifth-edition rule set. “The combat is very close to what the tabletop offers, implemented in very similar ways, and focused on the rules.” 

In fact, Vincke and his team of 250 developers, most of whom play the pen-and-paper version on the regular, have forgone the previous games' real-time combat in favor of a more tabletop-like approach to cracking orc skulls.

“In trying to port the tabletop as faithfully as possible, we found we had to make the combat turn-based," says Vincke. "There's so many things you can do and the stakes are much higher with turn-based combat; it gives players more agency, like the source material.”

A highlight from the preview (and Vincke's personal favorite moment) showcased the extent of this agency. With his party's resources completely depleted and defeat imminent, Vincke threw his character's boots at the enemy. The apparently lethal footwear delivered enough damage to put the party on the right side of a life-and-death scenario. “The boots made the difference,” laughs Vincke.

If you're expecting Baldur's Gate 2 with a current-gen paint job or Divinity's take on D&D, you might be a little disappointed when the RPG hits early access later this year on Google Stadia and PC. Vincke, however, urges fans to leave their expectations at the dungeon entrance: “We made a D&D campaign, we're the dungeon masters. Come to our table and you'll enjoy yourselves.”