Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Battle of Wyvernsword

I usually cite Baldur’s Gate 2 as my all-time favorite game. It’s a little hard to define exactly what that means. Was it the original story I played back in 2001? The heavily-modded versions I’ve played since then, which add their own variations to the original’s backbone? Am I giving it partial credit for the other games that followed in its wake, ushering in an era of character-centric narrative RPGs?

As with many experiences in life, it’s interesting to look back at it now across a span of MANY years and wonder how much of what I like is inherent in the thing itself; how much is due to my memories of the first time I played it (which is loosely but inextricably bound up with memories of college and young adulthood); and how much is due to the significance I’ve given it over the years (giving it credit for video-game romances, etc.). That’s part of why it’s such a gift to get to play something that’s of a piece with the original game, but still wholly original and surprising to me. I experienced that back when I played the Ascension mod for the first time, and experienced an even longer version of it over the last two weeks as I played Siege of Dragonspear.

SoD is a new expansion created by Beamdog, the company that created the EE versions of the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale games, which bridges the gap between the end of Baldur’s Gate and the start of Shadows of Amn. In their previous games, they have added new scenes and characters to the older games, weaving them into something new. In SoD, virtually everything is completely new: the entire main plot, all new maps, and major new NPCs.

What I was most surprised and gratified by, though, wasn’t the new: it was the old. Beamdog managed to hire back many of the original voice actors from the original games, playing their old characters in new situations. That means that, for the first time in 15 years, we have new dialogue from Minsc and Boo, Dynaheir (Jennifer Hale!), and many others who I will talk about in spoilerville down below. I never expected to get to spend more time with these characters, and felt surprisingly emotional at the extension of our journeys.

So, how is the game itself? As with every time before when I’ve returned to the Infinity Engine, it takes some time for me to re-acclimate to the old-school interface and design. Many of my biggest pet peeves are still around, and will forever be an inherent part of these games. Spending ages in inventory screens, shuffling around items, dodging encumbrance limits and trying to decide whether an item with THAC0+2 and +2 damage is better than one with THAC0+1 and +1D6 damage. Needing to guess in advance which spells will be useful for upcoming fights. Getting ambushed and wiped out, then reloading and buffing and floorstomping your opponents.

The latter especially stands out for SoD: for people who have replayed the originals so many times, we already know in advance what’s going to happen, and so don’t think much about the preparations we’re taking with our foreknowledge of the battles to come. SoD puts us back into the shoes we wore in 2000, and the same shoes that new players to those games need to wear. They can be frustrating shoes! AD&D 2nd edition is fairly notorious for its brittle difficulty, where mistakes get brutally punished and small setbacks snowball into large disasters. I’ll always love these games, but I have to concede that, if I hadn’t played them so long ago, I would almost certainly find them intolerable today.

Again, much of that trouble is inherent in the underlying mechanics and will never be able to be changed. However, Beamdog has done a fantastic job at updating the user interface and certain aspects of the ruleset, significantly improving quality of life. Here are some of my favorite upgrades; I think some of these may have been previously added to the EE versions, but at least some are brand-new for SoD (though my understanding is that they’re also being added to BGEE and BG2EE).

You can equip weapon sets! This is HUGE. That means a character can wield both a 2-handed sword, and a longsword plus a shield, and easily switch between the two in combat. Previously, you would need to unequip your shield to pick up a two-hander and vice versa, which in practice was such a pain that characters would exclusively stay in a single style even if they had the proficiency points available to switch it up.

Spells are still remembered even when you lose their slot! This almost drove me to quit back when I played BG2: if you suffer level drain, then are restored, you need to remember all of the spells you had memorized and manually add them back in, only to have them wiped back out again after the next vampire attack. Now, you still lose the slot, but not your spell selections; once you get your Lesser Restoration, you’ll immediately be back in business.

When you drag items around, party portraits highlight to indicate who can use the item. If they show up in yellow, it’s better than their current equipment; if it’s lit up, they can equip it but it’s equal to or worse than their current loadout; if it’s dim, they can’t equip it.

Active actions are shown on the party portraits. I think this might have been added before, but it was extremely useful in the bigger and more complex battles of SoD. You can see at a glance what ammunition people are using, whether they’re about to chug a potion, which spell they’re preparing; more importantly, you can see when they’ve finished doing what they’ve done and are ready for their next orders.

Several game mode options have been decoupled from difficulty settings. I prefer playing on Core Rules, but will totally abuse save and reload to get the HP I want on level-up. Now, “Max HP on Level Up” is a separate setting that you can toggle in Options, independently of the overall difficulty settings. Hooray! (Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent toggle for “Spell scribing always succeeds”, which is the one remaining case where I still abuse save/reload.)

The NPC AI scripts are much improved. They aren’t as detailed as the Tactics slots in Origins and Dragon Age 2, but are much better than the stock “Archer”, “Defender”, etc. options. You can now toggle individual abilities on and off depending on the character’s needs. For most of my companions, I leave selected “Attack nearest enemy”; this is nice since, once an enemy dies, party members will automatically select a new target without me needing to select them. However, I’ve disabled this for my cleric, since she sometimes needs to keep Turn Undead active. The nicest thing might be the way that Detect Traps automatically turns on as soon as my thief exits combat.

Changes in combat stats are now surfaced early on when comparing equipment. Instead of putting on the new item, than flipping over to the Character Record to see what happened, you can now easily see the delta in your THAC0, damage per hit, etc. right on the inventory screen.

I’m sure there are a lot more that I’m overlooking. These are all great updates, and make the game more usable and enjoyable than ever before. Ever since the old Ease of Use mod first allowed arrows to stack up to 80 per slot, players have been looking for ways to make the game more playable without affecting its underlying difficulty, and the latest EE updates feel like a culmination to those enhancements.

Let’s see… before I get into semi-spoilery plot stuff, here are a few mechanical notes that may be of interest to players, especially munchkins. No spoilers here, but you still may want to skip if you want to be completely surprised.

You can either create a new character in SoD, or import a save from BG1EE. If you create a new character, you’ll start off at a decent XP level and receive an initial party based on your alignment. If you import, you’ll get your PC and everyone who was in your party in your save.

In my case, I imported my post-game save from the end of BG1; in that game, two of my party members died in the final battle. They imported correctly, but since they had dropped all of their gear when they died, they arrived without any equipment. It wasn’t a huge deal, since I was able to re-equip them in the tutorial dungeon; but if I had to do it over again, I probably would have just imported the save BEFORE the final battle and kept their gear. As far as I can tell, the game doesn’t import any plot flags (other than maybe the BG1EE NPC quests), so there isn’t any particular significance to selecting the post-game save.

After the tutorial dungeon is complete, your party will leave you. Some of the party members can rejoin later, in which case they will keep all of their equipment and have the same items when they come back. Everything in their inventory gets dumped into a common storage chest, which is accessible throughout the rest of the game, so you don’t need to worry about handing everything to your PC prior to exiting the dungeon. However, I think that equipment which people are WEARING will go with them; so if there are any enchanted items that you especially want, you should strip them off before ending the intro. (You get plenty of advance notice before this happens.)

And, final mechanical note to super-munchkins: you lose all of your gold after the tutorial dungeon, so feel free to stock up on any healing or stuff you want.

Okay! Let’s get into the story!


The overall game design also feels like a bridge between BG1 and BG2. You tend to progress linearly through chapters, gaining access to new areas and losing access to older ones, just like in BG2. However, individual map exploration feels a lot more like in BG1. There are large areas of wilderness to explore, lots of random quests scattered around, plenty of stuff to find and plenty of stuff to miss. There’s a meta-plot driving you forwards, but I spent a majority of my time on (fun) side-quests.

They do a good job at making your character feel powerful and significant; honestly much better than the big reset button at the start of Shadows of Amn. Crowds gather to cheer you as you leave the city, powerful nobles courteously ask your opinion, military leaders look to you for direction. There’s still good narrative justification for you heading into the wilderness with your party - you hold no official rank, you’re just an incredibly powerful individual who people want on their side.

I’d mentioned before that they bring back many of the original voice actors for the NPCs. There aren’t as many available party members as for BG1, but I think the overall selection is better: less redundancy (seven thieves?!), while still offering choice for each major party role and much more content for each individual. People become available throughout the game, with narratively-distinct reasons for joining. My final party was:

Raenir: My Cavalier PC. She specializes in two-handed swords. She’s Lawful Good, but as I’ll address below, she gained some additional nuances and layers throughout the story.

Corwin: Human archer, and a new NPC. She’s a member of, uh, either the city guard or the Flaming Fist, I forget which. Her bare stats are mediocre, but with the proper equipment she’s an absolute beast on the field.

M’Khiin: Goblin shaman, a new NPC and new class for SoD. Shamans are to druids what sorcerers are to mages: they don’t need to memorize individual spells. She has a fantastic personality, with a mixture of resignation and stubbornness and taciturnity that I absolutely love.

Viconia: Drow priestess, fortunately much closer to her BG2 persona than her minimal BG1 presentation. In BG2 she can become a decent frontline fighter; in SoD she’s still squishy enough that I kept her on the back line, but she’s still very useful and has a compelling story.

Safana: Human thief. Not really my favorite, but one of the few thieves available in the expansion. She’s a decent archer and has good thief skills, but otherwise isn’t too remarkable.

Neera: Human wild mage. The last addition to my party, she was added in BG1 as a new NPC and has her story extended here. Not as strong as a PC-designed arcane caster would be, but still extremely useful to have around. I already liked her in BG1, and I think she’s even better here, with terrific dialogue and voice acting.

Other people I had in my party at various times include:

Minsc! Human “ranger” who plays like a berserker. One of the most beloved NPCs of all time, and a true joy to have back.

Dynaheir: Human Invoker, voiced by the terrific Jennifer Hale. A solid all-around spellcaster; I kept her around until picking up Neera later in the game.

Jaheira: Half-elven fighter/druid. The longest-serving companion in the BG franchise, she has a notoriously prickly personality and a complex, fully-developed personal arc. She’s extremely useful and I would have loved to keep her if I had one more slot, but I eventually and reluctantly dropped her so I could fit in the new NPCs.

And some others who I ran across but never traveled with:

Khalid: Half-elven fighter. As usual, a nervous but very decent man, who in SoD gets thrust into a new position of responsibility.

Rasaad: Human monk. Another new NPC from BG1EE. I enjoyed his quest in the earlier game, but, well, no room this time around, especially for a squishy melee fighter.

Dorn: Half-orc blackguard. The final new NPC from BG1EE. I actually wanted to get rid of him, but missed the earlier dialogue choice to tell him to get lost, and so he hung out at camp and glowered.

Edwin: Human conjurer. One day I’ll play an evil party! Maybe!

Baeloth: Drow Sorcerer. Apparently he’s a returning character, although I don’t remember meeting him in BG1.

Glint Gardnersonson: Gnome thief/cleric. Interesting multiclass! I actually really liked the little I heard from him, and will likely pick him up if and when I replay the game.

Voghlin: Human skald. When we first met, he was like “Hey, you saucy wench!” and I was like NOPE! Apparently he’s actually a good character, but I wasn’t inclined to give him a chance.

There are a bunch more cameos and such from older NPCs. Imoen doesn’t journey with you after the opening dungeon, but is a major part of the story, as is Skie. Tiax gets a great, if much shorter (heh), cameo. And there’s one particular returning voice actor who just FLOORED me. I'll avoid spoiling it, even though it's revealed early on.

The new voice actors are really good. My favorite is definitely M’Khiin, followed closely by Caelar Argent. I wasn’t initially a fan of Corwin’s voice, but it really grew on me and I ended up loving it. Weirdly, the weakest voice of the entire cast belongs to the final boss, even though he/it is supposed to be the most powerful of all the characters. I suspect that they had intended to put a filter on it but neglected to do so.

Overall build strategy for party composition and loadouts will be very intuitive for anyone who has played the other games. Missile weapons are still very useful, as they were in BG1; as you may have noted, my final party consisted of a single melee fighter and a whopping five ranged fighters; it isn’t ideal, but worked perfectly fine for most fights. Turn Undead comes in very handy on a couple of maps. Having a thief is very handy. Traps tend to be clustered in logical places, so if you find yourself thinking “There might be traps here”, you’re probably right and should focus on scouting. That said, many traps can be stepped around, so you could probably survive with a Detect Traps spell and occasional tanking.

There are quite a few battles against large numbers of enemies with low HP, so having AOE options comes in very useful; I still had some Wands of Fire left over from BG1, and picked up a couple more throughout this game, and used them fairly liberally as the situation demanded. You finally get the Raise Dead spell at the new XP levels available in SoD; before that, don’t forget (as I did) that you can get Scrolls of Resurrection for pretty cheap; there’s no Rod of Resurrection, sadly, so you should probably have at least two divine casters available for post-battle raising. Must-buys for me included the Bag of Holding and lots of +2 ammo and fire arrows. Pretty much everything else can be found through drops. I thought the money curve was handled really well. I only bothered looting and selling magical equipment (including precious stones but excluding un-enchanted weapons and armor); I kept a close eye on my money for the first couple of chapters, but felt free to spend recklessly nearer the end, and finished the game with well over 100,000 pieces of gold.

There’s a lot of nice equipment that you can pick up. Here are a handful of highlights; this is just based off of what I had equipped on my party near the end, I remember selling a lot of other great stuff that we couldn’t use.
  • The Sword of Ruin: +2 THAC0, adds 50% or 100% to your crit chance, deals an extra 1D6 on a crit.
  • Sundermaul. +3 Warhammer, 15% chance of inflicting -1 AC on the target... but wielder has a 2% risk of triggering a quake centered on themself.
  • Daeros’s Full Plate: Ridiculously low AC, plus an extra 40% fire resistance and bonuses to Breath saving throws. 
  • Ring of Wizardry: Doubles the number of first-level arcane spells you can memorize. This stacks with Evermemory, with a multiplicative effect! You now have more Identify and Magic Missile spells than you’ll ever need!
  • Cloak of Minor Arcana: +1 to caster level for mages.
  • There are a lot of pieces that give boosts to stats (like +1 to WIS, +1 to CON, etc.). Other than strength belts and one or two dex items, I don’t remember seeing many other attribute-boosting items before.
  • There are quite a few items that can be worn by many classes, but have additional bonuses for a specific kit. For example, Stalker Gauntlets give a boost to everyone, but also increase a Stalker's backstab multiplier.
  • Many items that are unique to particular characters; especially M’Khiin (which makes sense, given goblin physiology), but Corwin also has several.
  • Multiple summoning items: no longer just monsters, but also ankhegs and stone golems and more! I often forgot I had these, and they turned the tide whenever I deployed them.

Let’s talk about plot now!


I’ve been playing as a Lawful Good paladin. For the most part, this had made things very simple from a role-playing perspective: never lie, never cut deals with evil forces, always do good, and always uphold the law when it does not interfere with the above. This bypasses the moral judgment I usually struggle with when playing my more typical Neutral Good alignment, which can sometimes make things a little boring.

In Siege of Dragonspear, though, I found myself periodically questioning myself in-character, even from the Lawful Good angle, which made things much more interesting. One early example: the crusaders (your putative enemies) have seized control of a bridge that you need to cross, and have laid siege to an adjacent fort that has some of your sympathetic forces trapped inside (led by Khalid). The defenders are outnumbered, but now that you have arrived with the Flaming Fist, you have a chance at breaking the siege.

After I finally gained access to the fort, I talked to everyone, and was surprised to see multiple lines of dialogue that dealt with the possibility of surrender. I was reassured that surrender would not be a disaster: they could destroy the supplies before exiting, which would deprive Caelar’s forces of their primary goal. I made sure to disavow any chance of surrender: I was a holy warrior, fearless in the face of adversity, and would defeat the enemies no matter what.

But… as the time for a decision grew nearer, I found myself second-guessing my course. Yes, I could fight off Caelar’s forces, but what would be the gain? This was not our main objective; we only needed to secure crossing, and then would immediately proceed to Dragonspear. Caelar’s army was my enemy, but the more I learned about them, the more convinced I became that they weren’t “evil”. They were misguided, and had caused a great deal of harm, but were ultimately fighting in the service of what they believed to be the greater good.

And, furthermore, what would the cost be? I was confident in my own ability to survive, thanks to my mastery of the meta-spells of Save and Reload. But the defenders were another story. If I negotiated a surrender, they would all join the coalition army and be of use in the final battle. If we fought, then many of them would die, and for what? My pride, I realized. There was no strategic reason for this battle, and no moral reason, so its only purpose would be to prove my own power. Not the best reason in the best of circumstances, and definitely not the best reason for a child of Bhaal, the God of Murder.

So, I was astonished to find myself doing the thing I was so certain I would not, and negotiating a surrender of Bridgefort. Much like the British soldiers in Last of the Mohicans, we marched off, holding our weapons and carrying our colors with pride. It was a supremely satisfying moment.

The next point where I questioned my actions came during the titular Siege of Dragonspear. The plot requires you to plant some explosives underneath the castle walls (the wonderfully-named Barrel of BWOOSH!). There’s an optional additional objective: to poison the defenders’ supplies. I instantly turned down that mission, and didn’t really second-guess it. But, once I reached the castle, I started to wonder just how far I should go.

As a Paladin, I made it a point to say “Hi, I’m Raenir!” whenever I met someone, even if they were a Crusader. Most of the peons aren’t too aware of larger issues, and won’t turn hostile. Later on, I saved some crusaders who were afflicted by a fungal infection, and in return I received a crest that identified me as a crusader myself.

This, then, posed a quandary. By presenting the crest, I could gain peaceful access to the castle basement. This would allow me to carry out virtuous missions (freeing a captured ogre, rescuing hostages, etc.), without causing additional loss of life. However, it would mean mis-representing who I was. What’s a Lawful Good paladin to do?

I ended up turning into a scrupulous lawyer. I avoided lying outright, while also allowing others to make erroneous assumptions about my identity. This allowed me further access to carry out my work. I’m somewhat happy with this, while still feeling conflicted; it felt a bit like “the ends justify the means,” which is not the most Lawful Good policy, and also felt dangerously similar to Caelar’s rhetoric. I got as far as I could without bloodshed, then reloaded to the point just before and headed back to camp. (In addition to my moral qualms, I also had practical considerations: the whole purpose of this venture was to secretly plant a bomb, and if the Crusaders discovered that the Hero of Baldur’s Gate had popped up in their basement, surely they would have searched my route of entrance and discovered the explosive?)

This stuff was good for roleplaying; I’m looking forward to playing again as a Chaotic (or at least Neutral) alignment, since it seems like there are a lot of opportunities for espionage and manipulation and backstabbing and such. There are some trees where you’re allowed to cut deals with enemies, only to turn around and trick them. That stuff is really fun, and will make for a nice change of pace on my next replay.

Roleplaying decisions are good on their own, and I was happy to see that it seems to have some ultimate impact on the end of the game. One of the very last scenes sees you put on trial for a crime, and in your defense you can cite instances of your moral character. It felt great to be able to say “Hey, I didn’t poison that stuff, even when YOUR commander asked me to! Poison is a murderer’s tool, and I’m no murderer!”

I’m a little unclear on exactly what impact the trial has, but looking back at it, I suspect that it affects the circumstances of your departure from Baldur’s Gate. As it was, the Grand Dukes banished me from the city, but I was allowed to leave with my own equipment; I imagine that, if you “fail” the trial, you instead escape from prison (perhaps with the assistance of the same sympathetic guard, perhaps with Imoen).

And, as a sidebar, it was a little funny/weird/odd to see that transition into Shadows of Amn, since both Minsc and Khalid had died in this game. So we were just a foursome heading out, but I’m pretty sure that this will not carry over to the start of BG2. Anyways, that’s definitely not a new problem, just interesting to see it again.

The plot of the game as a whole was really enjoyable. I found myself frequently thinking of Mask of the Betrayer, one of my favorite RPGs; there are many similarities between Kaelyn the Dove and Caelar Argent, and Caelar’s crusade to rescue the unjust dead of the Dragonspear Wars reminded me of Kaelyn’s crusade against the Wall of the Faithless. The final assault on Avernus kind of reminded me of the climax to Hordes of the Underdark, the final expansion to the original Neverwinter Nights.

Some of the specific plot developments didn't make a lot of sense to me. I particularly had trouble understanding the tactical situation at Dragonspear. Caelar's forces are under "siege" by, apparently, 450 soldiers, until your additional 100 soldiers swell the ranks to 550. When negotiations fail, SHE attacks YOUR camp. You beat her back, and then assault the castle. I mean... I guess it may make a slight amount of sense if her main goal is to capture you, but since you're going to attack her anyways, why on earth would she not just wait for your assault? And if she really just wants to capture you, why not send some spies/assassins to do the work instead of foot soldiers? This would all make more sense if you had chosen to poison her supplies, since that would put more time pressure on her plans, but as it stood in my game it seemed like a rare illogical development.

My biggest disappointment in the game was the romance, or more specifically, my lack of one. I’d deliberately avoided researching available options, which ended up thwarting my ability to pursue one… I didn’t recruit Corwin until Chapter 9, and temporarily kicked her out of my party while shuffling members, which may have broken the kickoff. Alternately, it MIGHT have been because I imported a character who had used the “Neera Expansion” mod to romance Neera in BG:EE; that romance didn’t continue either, so I’m guessing that it re-checks your eligibility instead of just relying on the romance flag.

As is usually the case, I ended up fiddling around in CLUAConsole and save game editors to try and get things back on track, but this time around did not have luck, mostly because the expansion is so new and there isn’t much info out there yet about how the new romances work. I’ll probably come back to this in a couple of months to reload my old saves and cheat my way back into one. My tentative plan is to look for an updated Neera mod so Raenir can continue that romance. Beamdog has indicated that, if SoD does really well, they may make updates to BG2EE to continue some of the new companions’ storylines as well; if they bring Corwin forward, I’ll probably start a fresh character at the start of SoD and then do a Corwin romance through SoD, SoA and ToB.

All right, there’s a ton more to say but I’ll do it in my album as usual. In the meantime, some summing-up:


Significant UI/UX improvements. It’s still the same fundamental game, just with a lot of unnecessary annoyances removed.

Fantastic voice acting across the board.

New stories with beloved old characters.

Strong tactical challenges.

Varied combat, including major fights alongside allied factions and against enemy armies.

Gorgeous maps.

Decent money curve.

Terrific music! (Composed by Sam Hulick, the same guy who created the Mass Effect score! This is seriously some of the best fantasty music I’ve heard.)

Player choice. There are the expected “good or evil” choices we’re used to in this series, and also some good nuanced options for reaching your goals.

New goodies. The Shaman class is a great addition (one I’d be tempted to pick for a new PC thanks to the ease of casting), and the new items are useful without feeling ridiculously overpowered.

Sense of humor. It feels like Baldur’s Gate always has: against the macabre and dark backdrop, there’s a lot of silliness and terrific quips. Neera’s banter in particular stands out, as does CHARNAME’s dialogue options.

NPCs. Again, it feels like Baldur’s Gate. It’s not as nuanced as, say, Dragon Age, but these are still interesting people with unique backgrounds and unique perspectives on the world, who can be fun to love or to hate.


Some bugs. I only ran into one that really affected me, where Khalid died during the magical attack on the fort. Apparently that’s already been fixed in a new patch, and I was able to CLUAConsole my way back on track without too much trouble.

Graphics. The new environments look gorgeous, and animations are still attractive, but the character sprites look increasingly dated.


Inherited game quirks. We still need to live with encumbrances, spell memorization, and other things that felt fine back in 2000 but seem archaic now.

Pathfinding is still awful. Get used to watching the party member with Boots of Speed eternally bumping into the person in front of them.

Difficulty. This is probably my own fault for playing on Core Rules without reading any guides, but there are massive difficulty spikes at a few points. I’ll be able to prepare for them in the future, but it annoys me when games require foreknowledge. (Again, this is more of an inherent issue with BG that I’m freshly reminded of.)


This was a lot of fun! I wasn’t necessarily expecting to pick this up so soon; my standard MO for new RPGs is to wait a few months for the initial round of patches to come out and the most essential mods to be created before picking it up. Given the ridiculous harassment that this game has received, though, I wanted to show my support for people carrying the torch, and am glad I did. For all my frustrations about the romance, I’m really glad that I went into this cold with no expectations of the plot or characters. I haven’t experienced a “new” Baldur’s Gate in 15 years, and I’ll treasure the memories of this new journey.

As is my wont, I have assembled an album of only the finest screenshots from my playthrough of this game. It is approximately 180 photos long. A majority of those photos were selected due to the text in the dialogue, which is small to begin with and rendered unreadable when viewed on the web: for this I apologize. The vast majority of photos are annotated with my pedantic, rambling thoughts about the game. So, uh… enjoy!

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