Lately my intense jones to play some Dungeons & Dragons with someone, ANYONE, has led me to pick up a game I hadn’t played in years: Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliances. I had a choice between that and Neverwinter Nights (assuming I hadn’t lost or thrown the discs away in the last 4 months). I opted not to pick Neverwinter Nights largely in part because I remember playing it was a buggy disappointment (when I got it, I had lousy internet, so I didn’t get it all nice and patched up), where every treasure chest meant rolling 1d12 to see if the game crashed. That, and I’m not really spending any time in front of my personal computer these days for games or any other reason.
Why does it scratch an itch? I guess because in so many ways, it reminds me of Gauntlet, without the backtracking. Gauntlet Dark Legacy is an amazing game, but sometimes you just want to kill wave after wave of monsters without having to worry about flipping this switch or pressing that button, then running around all over creation to find out what door got opened. I also find myself making all of these mental comparisons between Baldur’s Gate and actual Dungeons & Dragons. How Baldur’s Gate handles and emulates its D&D source material, how the combat situations in Baldur’s Gate would work out in D&D, and how a Baldur’s Gate that retained its engine and combat but more faithfully retained the raw numbers of Dungeons & Dragons (in terms of damage, armor, XP and volume of enemies) would look have all been my brain candy of the last few days.
At the turn of the century, 3rd Ed gaming was coming into vogue, with numerous attempts to recreate the new d20 system digitally for our lonely gaming enjoyment. For what it was worth, Neverwinter Nights managed to somewhat faithfully cobble together something resembling the actual d20 system, complete with non-plot moving and non-utility spells that functioned something like their dead tree pulp counterpart. I never played the “real” Baldur’s Gate games, (or Planescape: Torment), though if something very drastic changes in my life, I may take the opportunity to play them someday. I did, however, pick up Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliances for Xbox out of the bargain bin on a friend’s recommendation.
Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliances purports to be based on 3e rules, but only in the most abstract possible sense. It’s more Diablo, than anything else, just with better graphics and less (no) mouse clicking. You have three locked race/classes (Human Archer/fighter, Dwarf Fighter, and Elf Wizard) to choose from. Any degree of customization comes from the point-buy based ability system, but as down as I am on point-buy based custom class/ability systems in table top gaming, they work perfect in video games.
The first time I played it, back in 08, I played as the Wizard. I’ve always really liked magic-users in D&D, despite all of their weaknesses, failings, and clichés. No Vancian magic here, just rapid fire casting followed by mana potion chugging. Not much of a D&D feel to it, really, but the hordes of hundreds of monsters your lone self is up against doesn’t have much of that feel either. Even though I beat the game with the wizard eventually, it was rough going. Part of the problem, I’m now realizing, is that I never utilized the Block feature any. In Dungeons & Dragons, all Defense is passive. Even active Defense, like “I run around in circles to avoid being hit”, is passive in that it maybe granted a small penalty to the attacker’s roll. So, in any case, I tend to slug it out and trade blows with monsters, thinking my armor would make enemies “Miss”. When you’re fighting even a few monsters, they can make pretty short work of you if you’re opting for this kind of melee. Unlike Neverwinter Nights, where combat is simulated using some sort of d20 approximate logarithm, calculating each combatant’s rolls vs. armor and then rolling for damage, in Baldur’s Gate, if you’re there when something is stabbing at you, you get stabbed.
I started playing Baldur’s Gate again recently, this time playing as the Archer. The sheer amount of monsters you face, combined with the HP inflation makes playing as the Archer somewhat challenging. If you’re fighting over a hundred monsters per dungeon, and each monster takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 to 20 arrows, you’re going to be running out of arrows often. Fortunately, I had my trusty Fine Masterwork Mace of Disruption +1 to fall back on, and I relied on it quite heavily on in Act 1. Still, a skeleton would take a good 4 or 5 whacks with it to take out. The Hit Dice/Hit Point inflation, combined with keeping the base damages and bonuses of weapons, makes combat very different from what we’d see in actual Dungeons & Dragons. With the rapidity of attacks, one round of combat is equivalent to about 1 second. One is typically able to get off enough ranged attacks against a single enemy before that enemy is able close the maybe 60-80′ distance from the edge of the screen to your character to engage in melee, but the bow isn’t particularly good for crowd control. Once things get face to face, there is a small resemblance to D&D combat: you and the monster take swings at each other till one or the other dies. But as mentioned before, monsters never ‘miss’ and their numbers ensure that you’ll be made short work of if it comes to trading blows, even against the smallest enemies.
I spent most of Act 1 trading blows and chugging healing potions. Unlike my first play thru years ago, I managed to beat the Beholder easily on the first go-round. Something as concrete as simply being able to jump around like a lunatic gives one a better shot than any saving throws to avoid the various death-gazes of an Eye Tyrant. It wasn’t until the start of Act 2 that I realized I had been playing things all wrong and making them harder than they needed to be. I’d been playing under a few incorrect assumptions caused by having played similar games and by D&D itself: the best defense is a good offense and armor makes you harder to ‘hit’.
I had forgotten that Act 2 begins outside of a ‘base’. You have to fight your way through an army of gnolls and mountain yetis before you reach the dwarven mining camp that will serve as your ‘recall’ point through the rest of the Act. I had not returned to the Elfsong Inn (‘base’ for Act 1) to restock my supply of arrows and potions, so I went into the fight against the gnolls and yeti woefully under-equipped. Using my blow trading strategy, I could only make it through 6 or 7 baddies before I was out of arrows, out of potions and out of luck. I had to start using my shield.
I was playing a very different game. In Dungeons & Dragons, there is no blocking and a shield is only a small bonus to add to (subtract from) your Armor. It makes you slightly harder to hit. Now, in Baldur’s Gate, the shield itself and the bonuses to armor that it construes are immaterial to blocking (indeed, you can block without a shield), but the act of blocking and completely negating an attack fundamentally alters the nature of combat. Actual armor value may have some nuanced effect on damage, but as far as actually stopping an attack, not receiving damage from a blow, or causing a monster’s attack to ‘miss’, one is reliant entirely on one’s own timing and skill.
Combat began to resemble the flow of D&D combat featuring an upper middle level fighter, as I’d block the attacks of 1 or 2 gnolls at a choke point. After each attack, I would lower my guard, get a chop in, and hope that my shield came back up in time. Sometimes a blow would get through my guard, but more often than not, I was dishing out far more than I was taking, just slower than before. Even though the fights began to look more like D&D, they felt less like it. A part of me was screaming “These defenses should be passive!” Besides, any time I was pressing the block button was time I wasn’t hitting something with a mace. But I thought about the combat in Neverwinter, waiting for the characters’ models run through their animations, rolling their virtual dice against one another and slowly grind down numbers. I want to be the one rolling those dice! Passive player involvement in combat does not typically make for fun video gaming.
So, what would a Baldur’s Gate that more closely resemble Dungeons & Dragons look like? For one thing, there would be fewer monsters. Both monsters AND the player character would have hit points that resembled the tabletop counterparts. To make it fairer, you might give the player maximum HP at level 1 and average all monster hits, but let’s not have what should be 1 hit die undead taking five or six whacks from a magic blunt weapon specifically enchanted against undead. Monsters would also do less damage to compensate for your own lowered HP. You would also level up a lot faster. It might also have more NPCs within dungeons and more to do than simply kill everything on each level. Would it be a fun game? Or more fun than Baldur’s Gate? Could a game retain the depth and scope of something like Neverwinter Nights while retaining Dark Alliances’ simplicity of play? I don’t know, but it would be interesting to see.
All in all, I’ve found my return to Dark Alliances fun and rewarding. It’s easy to plunge into for some D&D-themed mind-numbing violence. Sometimes you just want to beat lots of monsters with a stick, story, puzzles and exploration be damned. Nothing to see here, just more monsters. Floor to ceiling with monsters!
I feel like I should mention that there are some particularly jarring and embarrassing moments of unnecessary and extreme boobage. The bar-maid is cartoonishly endowed, and the almost naked drow queen is cringe-worthy. I’m only about half-way through, but I doubt those are the only two examples. It would be nice to play some D&D video games without the bizarre sexism in those I’ve seen. Still, nothing in Baldur’s Gate is as bad as Neverwinter Night’s god-awful “have a nice conversation with prostitutes for 100 XP” brothel, but in a way, that makes BG’s boobage seem even more out of place. Neverwinter Nights always felt like it was written with murderhobos specifically in mind, and I’m surprised that it never got the shit that Oblivion got, even though it was more deserved.
Sorry for rambling on so long. Like I said, I’m jonesing for D&D, and this is the best I’ve got.