Baldur’s Gate 3: an Autopsy (part 1: mechanics)

I was excited for Baldur’s Gate 3. Really excited. When I was a kid my godfather’s son had Baldur’s Gate on his computer and whenever we went over to visit, I’d fire it up and find myself lost in the Sword Coast. I’ve been running RPGs for almost 15 years and I’ve been DMing 5th Edition games since it was still called D&D Next. And guess what my favourite part of the setting is? Man, I love me some Gith and Illithids and science-fantasy spacewar. If my campaign doesn’t include at least one mind flayer, then I’ve been replaced by a doppelganger. 

And so it’s with great regret that I report that BG3 is bad. Really bad. Not bad in the “buggy because it’s early access” (though that isn’t helping), bad in ways rooted in its core design and writing choices. Even if they fix the bad optimization and crashes, even if they manage to successfully anchor characters’ hair to their heads instead of having it half-disappear into their skulls, it will be a deeply flawed experience that fails to understand why people like 5e or TTRPGs in general. 

Firstly, a caveat: a CRPG must make adaptations to fit its new environment. It can’t, for example, be as flexible as a TTRPG and I don’t think it’s fair to judge it on that criteria. I’m going to talk a lot about the things they’ve changed from 5e so I want to make clear that I don’t think changes are inherently bad, but I think the specific changes they’ve made are unnecessary and make the experience worse

I’m going to break this down into several chunks: 

  1. Basic ruleset 
  2. Encounter design
  3. Writing and characterisation 

1: THIS IS NOT ‘NAM, THIS IS 5E, THERE ARE RULES

The fifth edition of D&D has resulted in an explosion of the game’s popularity, and a big part of that is how smooth everything runs. There’s no endless shuffling through character sheets, there’s no adding up bonuses from a half dozen different places, you just say “I want to do X” and then you do X. It’s hardly a perfect system, but it is charmingly simple. Everything flows in a very pleasing and direct way because it has less moving parts and focuses on making the parts that are there work better.

So, let’s break down some of the changes to the core 5e rules that Baldur’s Gate 3 makes: 

  1. Cantrips have casting limits. This lines up with previous Baldur’s Gate games and previous editions of D&D but also like … cantrips sucked in previous editions and nobody ever used them. Removing the casting limits made them interesting again. Reverting this is a massive nerf to casters, particularly because their cantrips in 5e are balanced around being spammable. Even Warlock, a short rest class, has daily casting limits on all its cantrips. The whole class is balanced around having less access to resources but being able to get them back more easily, but in BG3 you can cast Eldritch Blast 5 times per day. This is a core failure to understand the design philosophy behind the class, and this sort of thing keeps happening.
  2. Everybody can hide or disengage as a bonus action. Now, I’m a rogue aficionado. I have played three characters in the last four years and two of them had a rogue dip, and that’s because Cunning Action is one of the best abilities in the game. It’s arguably more class-defining than Sneak Attack, and allows rogues unparalleled mobility and positioning options. An indirect rogue nerf annoys me but the bigger problem is that when you give it to every single class and NPC it’s fucking chaos. One of 5e combat’s biggest issues is that there are very limited options for tanks to lock down enemies, and this game decided to remove the big one for, honestly, I have no idea why. This results in fights turning into backpedal-athons where the ranged fighters endlessly kite the melee fighters and it just isn’t fun. 
  3. Speaking of Rogue, every class seems to have something called ‘backstab’, but Sneak Attack also doesn’t work. I honestly can’t figure out whether it’s just bugged and broken or whether they’ve changed how it works under the hood, but Sneak Attack was not applying on a lot of attacks where it normally would in 5e, somewhere around 70–80%. Either that’s a really really serious bug, or they’ve taken it back to how it worked in previous editions. The problem is that 5e is a system: it works as a unit with each part operating in tandem with each other part, and if you start dropping in 3.5 mechanics without consideration for how it affects everything else you end up with a mechanical mess. 
  4. Having a skill modifier doesn’t improve your roll, it lowers the target DC. This seems like a small change, but it’s also a pointless change that takes agency away from the player. It feels good to succeed because you built a character who is good at something. It’s subtle, but it’s a change in framing they didn’t need to implement and it speaks to their design philosophy.

These are just the four most egregious changes I noticed in my playtime: there were many more, but I hope these are emblematic of what’s going on here. At least one reviewer called it a “perfect CRPG simulation of the 5th edition experience” but what it really feels like is somebody taking 5e and replacing all the things that make it run smoothly with broken bits we left behind in past editions. It’s not even replaced with the good stuff from past editions: Pathfinder is wildly overcomplicated but it also has a depth and weirdness that make it a joy once you’ve figured out what the hell you’re doing; ask me about how deep a PF swashbuckler can go into mechanics of using their cape, I dare you. Instead, they’ve chosen to roll back the parts of 5e that were obvious improvements on previous editions, and it’s baffling. 

okay so Dueling Cape also works on curtains, rugs, or ‘other similar objects’ and if you’re willing to ruin your friendship with your DM you can get a lot out of that, it also says a cape instead of your cape so RAW you can—

Worse, they’ve smashed this into 5e class sheets and damage dice. Okay, maybe Warlocks being the EB spam platform can get a little dull, but putting EB on a hilariously low daily use limit makes the class next to useless. Oh wow, I can do 1d10 force damage 5 times a day? That seems like a lot. How many times can the archer do it? Oh

Rogue now uses old sneak attack rules but 5e everything else and that sucks. When they made it easier for rogues to get sneak attack, they also rebalanced the rest of the class features around it, and keeping the core 5e rogue features with Pathfinder sneak attack rules is, you guessed it, a massive nerf. It isn’t balanced, and it’s unbalanced in a way that shows a shockingly sloppy approach to adapting the rules for a CRPG. 

One of the big advantages CRPGs have on TTRPGs is that a lot of the weird fiddly behind-the-scenes mechanical stuff can be hidden away and basically just run without a DM needing to suddenly break out a calculator. It seems like the most obvious 5e CRPG adaptational change in the world: when a rogue attacks a target and has Sneak Attack, it automatically adds the damage. 

Yes, I’m still talking about Sneak Attack. 

It should add that damage automatically, but it doesn’t. Instead, the rogue has buttons for “Attack” and “Ranged Attack” and then, in a different part of the HUD, has buttons for “Sneak Attack” and “Ranged Sneak Attack”. Which, once you’ve found them, don’t work 75% of the time. Also if you click ‘attack’ and are at obvious bow range, your character will run forward their maximum movement and then swipe impotently at the air with their blade. It seems like there should’ve been a way to make this whole thing, you know, work better.

When the devs sat down and thought about how to change 5e from a TTRPG into a CRPG, the decisions they made were “Warlocks needs a daily Eldritch Blast limit” and “skill mods lower DC” rather than asking themselves which advantages CRPGs have over tabletop and leaning into it. They’re not trying to adapt 5e, they seem to be trying to fix it, and by ‘fix’ I mean “revert to older editions as much as possible, but only when it makes things more complicated and never when it makes them more fun.” 

And hell, I still play Pathfinder on the reg. I love how deep it is. I’m not anti-complexity if that complexity is rewarding, but here it feels punishing for no good reason. It’s an older style of RPG design that I have no patience for, the domain of “um AKSHUALLY” grognards and LGSs that reek of body odour, a place I thought we’d finally managed to break out way out of but which BG3’s whole attitude reminds me unpleasantly of. I was running RPGs in the early 2000s and it was not a good time, fam. There’s value in those rulesets, but their weird exclusionary complexity is not it.  

tl;dr: Larian, why did you make the game less fun?  

COMING SOON: 

PART 2: HOW NOT TO DESIGN ENCOUNTERS 

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