I turn left into the rabbit warren of corridors that make up the campus center--tiny rooms behind worn blonde wood doors, each dedicated to a student group: the hang gliding club, the transgender union, the young republicans, ROTC. Turning a corner, I see Donovan, Chris and Ellen sitting on the floor.
“Oh good, you’re here,” says Donovan, adjusting his glasses. “I was going to start without you.”
“Thanks for waiting.” I sit down on the cold floor and reach into my black Jansport knapsack. I remove my Players Handbook. Unlike my fellow players, mine is first edition, dog-eared and filled with pencil drawings from when I was 11. Thiers are second edition, and pristine. Noobs.
Donovan pulls out a folding, cardboard DM screen and a Crown Royal bag that jitters with the sound of possibilities--10 siders, 20 siders, and more. Ellen fumbles with her single companion set of pink dice. Chris stares at page 59 of the Fiend Folio.
“Chris, you and the Lamia Noble are just never going to work out. She eats internal organs or something.”
“Shut up Jules,” he says, blushing, closing the page on the bare-breasted serpent woman I know all too well.
For the next few hours, we sit on the floor and make a world. It’s cold. It’s uncomfortable. But the story we tell feels wholly ours. The choices we make matter in a way that little seems to in college classrooms. The sound of the dice ticking on the concrete floor is magical.
This week, Baldur’s Gate was released by BioWare. Unlike the loose interpretations of the old Gold Box D&D games from my college days (Pool of Radiance, etc), this new computer-aided imagining of D&D isn't just a familiar place (the same Forgotten Realms setting we adventured on in college, and in which Pool was also set), it recreates with deep precision the same ruleset we used at the time: straight-up Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and in a level of detail that makes the Gold Box era seem like the age of dinosaurs.
If there’s a fault to Baldur’s Gate, it’s that it may be too faithful a recreation of the AD&D ruleset. Character creation is incredibly detailed--down to rolling and rerolling and rerolling dice to get that perfect “min-max” character with nothing but 16s and a few key 18s. Combat, while it eschews actually showing you dice rolls for every attack, is AD&D to the core. With fighters standing toe-to-toe, trading blows until somebody keels over dead. Mages start the game made out of tracing paper, tediously memorizing spells, but become out-of-balance superpowers by the mid-levels.
Personally, all of that feels to me like putting on a pair of old jeans fresh out of the drier. The depth and complexity of D&D is here in all its hot twisted mess, and it’s glorious. The faithful recreation of D&D tropes like thieves’ skills and charisma add real depth to the role playing experience, a depth that’s been frankly missing from Computer RPGs. But for gamers used to either a more straightforward dungeon crawling experience (Diablo), or a more nuanced combat system (Fallout), AD&D could seem an odd collection of conventions.
Thankfully, all the bookkeeping mostly disappears, and once out of the way, Baldur’s Gate shines, and shines bright. The story--a fairly simple affair of impending doom, really--is beautifully told. Broken into chapters, much like a pen and paper D&D game is broken into sessions, the pacing is spot-on.
The characters--not just your own, but the NPCs who join your adventuring party, and those who will aid or thwart your quests--are well realized. Their motivations are quite complex (don’t mess with someone’s alignment!) and their dialog genuine, and occasionally quite funny.
The environments are richly detailed and feel far more like art than the repetitive garishness of Diablo. There’s a real satisfaction of walking through the landscape knowing that each tree and rock was placed there on purpose--perhaps just to look pretty, but perhaps to hide a treasure, or serve as cover for an ambushing gnoll. The environment is so vibrant that, just as in a good book, it becomes a character itself, as seagulls fly overhead, flames flicker, and smoke billows.
Unfortunately, I have yet to test BioWare’s real innovation in Baldur’s Gate--multiplayer. Criticism of computer RPGs is often that they are solitary and sterile experiences, far removed from the inherently social and organic experiences that evolve on both sides of a DM’s screen. BioWare has included support for up to 6 players, each player controlling one character in the adventuring party. While this sounds amazing, I can’t help thinking that if I could cat-herd 5 like-minded friends into a 4 hour session on some Tuesday night, I should perhaps have them over to play actual D&D.
And I just might. The best part of Baldur’s Gate may not be the game itself, but the residues it will leave behind. Memories of just how good D&D can be, and just how much fun it is to role play in the land of Elminster and Drizzt Do'Urden and the rest of the Forgotten Realms.
Those are lessons that Jules knew 10 years ago very well. A bit more grown up, the world a bit heavy on his shoulders, they are lessons 31 year old Julian could perhaps use tutoring on.