Tuesday, November 28, 2023

"Gift" Exchange

Hot on the heels of "The Birth of Plenty", I've devoured "A Splendid Exchange", another book by William Bernstein on economic history. As is my wont, let's compare and contrast them!



"The Birth of Plenty" felt like a book that was written around a thesis, and used examples from history to demonstrate that its thesis was correct. On the other hand, "A Splendid Exchange" feels like a book that's primarily interested in telling stories from history, and then allowing observations from those examples to bubble up. It actually reminded quite a lot of Piketty's transition from Capital in the Twenty-First Century to Capital & Ideology, where the earlier book makes the argument that certain phenomena will occur whenever other preconditions arise, while the latter book looks at the many varied ways different cultures have behaved over time.

"A Splendid Exchange" tells the history of global trade, and it turns out, it's a very long history indeed. Bernstein starts with prehistoric evidence we have of tools, metals and decorative stones being moved far from their point of origin, showing that in addition to conquest and raiding there was also an innate drive to "truck and barter" in goods that's been with us from the beginning. Most trade was regional, but there was intercontinental trade over two millennia ago, when Chinese silks made their way to Rome. Romans had no idea that China existed; they got their silks from Asia Minor, which got them from Persia, which for them from India, which got them from the Moluccas, which got them from China. Roman silver coins made their way in the other direction, mysteriously appearing in the Far East.

One of Bernstein's overarching ideas is that, while we think of global trade is being a modern phenomenon that started after the Industrial Revolution, it has been with us for much longer than that, and it really hasn't changed all that much. We have faster and safer ships now, which brings down cargo cost and puts the price of goods within reach of people other than the Roman Emperor, but the overall system and drive is remarkably similar. (And, not to keep on comparing authors to one another, but that perspective also reminds me a lot of Neal Stephenson's view of currency, which is basically that nothing new has happened for hundreds of years and the systems set up under Isaac Newton are basically the same ones we're using today.)

There is definitely a rise and fall to global trade, and that Roman-Chinese silk trade is a great example: after the Pax Romana ended and the trading routes grew too dangerous to travel, the doors swung shut. China still made silks, but they no longer traveled all the way to Europe; Italians still mined gold and silver, but it stayed on the continent.

Islam plays a huge role during the book, dominating international trade for nearly a millennium. I thought Bernstein was much more complimentary of Islam in this book than he was in TBoP. In the earlier book, he examines why Muslim countries have so badly lagged Western countries, and concludes that it's due to cultural values driven by their religion: a distrust of scientific rationalism and a prohibition on paying or receiving interest on investments. In A Splendid Exchange, he focuses more on the positive aspects of Islam. He notes that it's the only major religion to be founded by a trader, and there's a higher esteem given to traders and merchants under Islam than, say, under Confucianism. He also notes how, for many centuries, the Islamic world was a beacon for scientific advances, with some centers like Baghdad particularly known for attracting scholars. Bernstein observes that the growth of Islam was in large part fueled by economics, and economics drove the further expansion of Islam: Muslims were allowed to raid and pillage non-Muslims, but couldn't raid other Muslims, which gave a strong incentive for nearby neighbors to convert; in doing so they joined a cooperative economic community of lighter taxation and access to markets across Europe, Africa, the middle-East, Asia and Indonesia.

So, what ends Islam's control over world trade? Mostly technology and guns. First the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British establish their own trading system, forcing their way into ancient entrepots and enabling single voyages from Asia to Europe without passing through the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf.

Perhaps even more so than with The Birth of Plenty, I thought a lot about Europa Universalis IV while reading this. The trading system in particular is really closely aligned with it and reflects how different nations profited from, say, the Spice Trade or Cloves over time. I found myself wondering whether Paradox was directly inspired by these books; but also, Bernstein relies on distilling the research from historians, economists and scientists in writing these books; it isn't like he's just making it up, so it makes sense that both these books and this grand strategy video game would reflect the same understanding of truth.

In EUIV, you will generally make income through some combination of the following:
1. Production; that is, the direct value of things you grow and produce.
2. Trade, which is based on the value of goods you export and your level of control over their distribution.
3. Conquest; directly pillaging enemy land and/or demanding tribute to end wars.
4. Directly mining gold.

#2 is pretty much always the best approach in the game. Production is decent, but if you cede control of trade to your neighbors, they will profit from your own production. Conquest and mining can give significant short-term boosts in revenue, but can spell the long-term death of your economy as they cause inflation to grow, so once you run out of rich neighbors to fight or your mines are depleted, you'll be far poorer than you would have been without conquering or mining to start with. In these books Bernstein shows how, say, Rome and Spain and other once-powerful empires were built on unsustainable expansion and that led to decay and collapse, while other nations like the Netherlands had outsized success and much more graceful declines once they were surpassed.

Back to the book: In Birth of Plenty, Bernstein has a laser-sharp focus on 1820 as a sort of magical year that separated the pre-modern world of stagnation with the modern world of endless growth. A Splendid Exchange portrays a much smoother and more gradual transition. We see how sailing technology gradually improved, thanks both to scientific discoveries and advances in engineering. Seemingly simple ideas like "Let's cut out some big chunks of ice and sell it!" opened up huge new markets for the export of fresh produce and meat; interestingly, sometimes those businesses started a generation or more after the technologies that enabled them. And while the telegraph was a huge advance in instantaneous communication, even the humble postage stamp was a huge jump forward in the de-facto ease and speed of communication.

Bernstein seems to have very strong opinions, but he also seems to let the data drive his conclusions. Overall he is extremely pro-free-trade and anti-tariff, and looks critically at the wave of protectionism that arose in the 19th century; but based on studies, he rejects the idea that protectionism caused or prolonged the Great Depression. (Though, as with Chernow's House of Morgan, he does believe that the one-two punch of reparations and tariffs after World War 1 directly led to World War 2, as the defeated Central Powers were unable to acquire the foreign exchange necessary to service their crushing debt.)

He sees everything through an economic lens, and so, for example, he sees the American Civil War as more of a result of trading factors than a moral crusade. The South favored free trade, as they wanted to export cotton to Britain, while the North favored protectionism, as they sought to grow their industrial base while keeping out superior British products. I'm personally skeptical that trade policy was the primary factor in sparking the war, but I can definitely understand how it would contribute to tensions.

Late in the book, Bernstein presents a really interesting and cool framework for analyzing trade disputes within and between nations. When two nations trade with one another, prices tend to normalize between them: so if Country A was selling bread for $1 a loaf, and Country B was selling bread for $5 a loaf, then after they open markets between them, bread will most likely grow more expensive in Country A (as they're exporting more of it and so there's less to sell) and less expensive in Country B (as they can import cheaper foreign bread, driving down the price local bakers can charge). Very crudely, consumers will benefit in County B and be hurt in Country A, while producers will benefit in Country A and be hurt in Country B. Bernstein argues, pretty convincingly, that opening up trade in this way will be a net benefit for the entire system, growing total wealth and lowering total costs; but some individuals will be greatly harmed in the process.

Bernstein identifies three groups of "scarce factors": land, labor and capital. There's no intrinsic link between these, and depending on a nation's natural resources, population, technology and other concerns, their allegiances can shift dramatically. For example, in the 1800s America had abundant land, but scarce labor and capital; Britain had abundant capital and labor, but scarce land; India had abundant land and labor, but scarce capital. So, it makes sense that in the 1800s America tended towards protectionism, benefiting domestic bankers and factory workers, while Britain promoted free trade, benefiting its own workers and financiers. British farmers were hurt by free trade, but only a tiny fraction of Englishmen were engaged in farming; in contrast, France employed a much higher share of its population in farming, and so their concerns were heeded more than on the other side of the Channel.

While he's very pro-Free-Trade, he cheerfully concedes near the end that trade is actually a relatively small factor in overall economic growth. The US was highly protectionist throughout the 19th century, yet had enormous growth. Since World War 2, trade has been an increasingly large factor for growth, but far from an unalloyed good.

The very end of the book covers much the same ground as the end of The Birth of Plenty: looking at the rise in income inequality (which was already evident when he wrote these books 15-20 years ago and has only accelerated since then), the poisonous effects that has on international amity and domestic social cohesion, and what to do about it. He makes a very vigorous case for a stereotypical Liberal program: unfettered private-sector free-market activity, including low tariffs, combined with redistributive taxation that compensates the "losers" with the excess wealth generated. That includes people like laid-off factory workers in America, poor craftspeople in Uganda, and so on. It's a very different approach than the more muscular Progressive economic policy proposals I've been focused on lately, but I can definitely see where Bernstein is coming from and his reasons to advocate for this approach.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Mo' Money

I was more surprised than I should have been to learn recently that Mint will be shutting down at the end of this year. Mint is a free online personal finance tool that I've been using for well over a decade: it consolidates all of your linked accounts (banks, credit cards, loans, and investments), giving you a great holistic view of your finances. At the granular level you can see every transaction you've made (so credit card and debit card purchases appear in the same view); you can also zoom out and see how your savings have changed over time, what you've been spending most of your money on, and so on.


Mint is one of those services that I've felt a lot of irritation at over the years, and yet now that it's going away I feel a lot of disappointment. It had obviously been under-invested in for years and years after Intel acquired it, most obviously in continuing to use Macromedia Flash up until the very last possible minute that Apple and the web browsers eliminated it. A lot of little things irked me, like transfers between accounts showing up as "expenses" that dwarfed my actual expenditures; but still, it's been a really helpful tool for me to keep on top of my personal financial picture for a good chunk of my life.

I've never been good at budgeting. I think I'm good at spending - I'm a natural saver, and have consistently lived below my means, and don't feel much regret about hings I've bought. But never in my life have I sat down and actually made a plan about what I'm going to spend money on in a given month. That seems so dull!

That's another way where Mint has been really helpful for me. Where old-fashioned pen-and-paper budgeting and most modern software programs require forward planning, Mint supported a more passive form of reactive budgeting: it tracks how much you've spent on, say, groceries or restaurants over a series of months, and calculates the average you've been spending. It then presents that for the current month, along with your costs to date. This gives a good way to see trends and notice when you're skewing higher or lower, without requiring any up-front work.

As with a lot of Mint stuff, I tended to focus more on the annoyances. For example, there's a "Gas" category. Since I mostly take transit and rarely drive, I would only need to fill up once every 3 months or so. Mind happily assigned an "average" expense of, like $15 on gas a month, but my actual spend would either be $0 or $45 depending on whether I filled up that month or not, so it wasn't very useful. Still, in retrospect what it was doing was pretty cool.

The most value I got out of Mint was probably as a short-cut to filling out a separate spreadsheet I maintain. Basically, whenever I'm moving money from a short-term spending account into long-term investments, I want to look at my overall asset allocation between my 401k, my Roth and my taxable account, and direct the incoming money into the appropriate asset class. For example, I'm currently aiming for around 28% of my assets to be in an International Stock fund, so if I'm currently at just 26%, I'll direct most or all of the incoming money into that fund. With Mint, I can just lot into one service, look up the balances for all my accounts and funds, plug those into the right cells on my spreadsheet, and figure out what to do.

I imagine a lot of other people are in the same boat as me: people use Mint for different reasons, but no matter what that reason is, they'll need a new option. In the past I've occasionally searched for alternatives to Mint, and found that there aren't any other good free services that exactly replace it. Since it's going away entirely, I decided to take another look.

There are apparently a lot of banks and brokerages that now offer free Mint-like services, where you can link other accounts to the bank, and view all your balances, transactions and history in a single place. Unfortunately, neither my credit union nor Vanguard are among those offering it.

Intuit is hoping to move the Mint users to Credit Karma, another service it runs. Credit Karma doesn't come anywhere close to replicating Mint's features, though: it mostly shows you your credit score and steers you towards sponsored products.

From some reading around Reddit, Bogleheads and other sites, it sounds like YNAB (You Need A Budget) is the most popular alternative. I've been reading about YNAB for years, and it has a lot of enthusiastic adherents. After some more investigation, though, I don't think YNAB is a good match for me in particular. For better or worse, it's heavily budget-based, and is built around the kind of prescriptive forward planning that I dread. I'd need to change my whole approach to personal finance, and man, I just don't want to make that effort!

I'm currently trying out Monarch Money, which was started by one of the original founders of Mint and seems to share some of its DNA. Like all of these alternative services, it does cost money; I'm on a 30-day trial at the moment, and they're offering a coupon code for half off the first year: ordinarily it's $100 a year, but the first year will be $50. That feels like a lot compared to the $0/year I've been spending for over a decade, and I'm still trying to make up my mind whether that's worth it or not. Mint was my go-to for a financial overview, but I probably only opened it a couple of times a month. Looking at the data is interesting, and it would save me some time over logging into like four accounts individually. Is that worth eight dollars a month? I don't know.

I can tell that Monarch Money is relatively new, for better and worse. The UI is much better than Mint's: well-designed and intuitive, with nice colors and organization. The default categories are much more 2020s than 2000s; Mint has a category for DVDs! One of the more glaring things I've noticed so far with Monarch is with its charts; after importing 10+ years of data from Mint and viewing my account histories, I noticed that the labels for, like "June 9" and "December 13" were only giving dates and omitting years. If I'm looking at 13 years of history, I want to see those years in the labels!

One thing that is cool about Monarch is that they are very transparent about what they're doing, unlike the absolute silence from Mint for the last decade-plus. Monarch has a really cool public tracker where you can see what feature requests users have made, can vote on the one(s) you want to see, and see what items are in progress and recently completed. Their CEO and their engineers are fairly active on their blog and Reddit, not just writing about what they're working on but the reasons behind decisions they're making. Among other things, they have given a frank explanation of the reasons why they charge: as the old adage has it, if you're not paying for a product, then that means that you are the product.

Monarch does have a Budget (/Plan) option, which I haven't really checked out yet, but from what I've read it's more similar to the reactive Mint approach, so I'm hoping that it works for me: more of an occasional temperature check of how I'm doing than a detailed roadmap of what I should do.

So anyways, it's been an interesting experiment so far. Part of me kind of wants to massively build out my existing spreadsheet to add transaction-tracking and categorization, but while that would be fun to set up, I doubt I'd have the patience to keep it up-to-date. It's possible that some new free alternative will come around, or maybe Vanguard or my credit union will start integrating the core features for me... or maybe I'll just get used to spending eight bucks a month on this. That's a lot less than Netflix costs nowadays, I guess.

Friday, November 10, 2023

Bronze Sunset

I think my mind must be slipping. I've been reading "Iron Sunrise", a hard sci-fi novel from Charles Stross. It's the sequel to Singularity Sky, which I knew I'd read previously but couldn't remember when. I just checked my blog and saw that I read it, um, just about four months ago! It feels like a lot longer.


I've now enjoyed reading quite a few of Stross's series. While they've all been sci-fi, they've explored very different flavors of the genre. These two novels form what's apparently called the Eschaton series, and are the most science-based books of his I've read: he grapples really deeply with the implications of faster-than-light travel, how that impacts causality and time travel and such. He also looks at how those technologies impact civilizations, society and culture, but the science is the key to it. (Unlike, say, the Merchant Princes series, where the main impetus seems to be exploring a social/economic framework, with the science a convenient excuse to do so.)


Iron Sunrise starts with a literal bang: a man-made nova, destroying a star by means of temporal manipulation, essentially accelerating the passage of time of the star's core, fast-forwarding it a few billion years until it has collapsed into iron, then snapping it back into the "present" and unleashing incredible destruction over the entire bounds of a solar system. It's an awe-inspiring bit of prose that makes the stakes feel incredibly high.

This is set in the same universe as "Singularity Sky", and also shares some of the main characters, particularly Rachel Mansour and her now-husband Martin. The action takes place in different places, though: from the destroyed system (confusingly named "Moscow", apparently named after the Idaho city rather than the Russian capital) to Earth to several other planets, stations and large starships. And other than Rachel and Martin there's a large cast of new characters. For better and worse, they are unevenly represented in point-of-view: some just pop up for a chapter or two, while others end up driving most of the narrative.

The main character is probably Wednesday, who seems to be inspired by Wednesday Adams: she's a very Gothy teenage girl, always dressed in black and often sulking. Her family are refugees from the Moscow system: they lived on a station outside the Oort cloud equivalent, and so had time to evacuate before the blast wave reached them. She's also in contact with "Herman", a component of the cluster of intelligences and agents that make up the Eschaton, the totally-not-a-god entity who touched off the singularity and has shaped the fate of humanity.


The pacing in this novel feels a bit uneven, with a ton of setup and backstory and musings for the first 7/8 or so and then a ton of action crammed in at the end. It's all very readable and fun, though.

The main villains are, unsurprisingly, the ReMastered. From the beginning they have strong Nazi overtones, with Stross calling out their blond hair and blue eyes. He's pretty vague about what their whole deal is for much of the book, but you can piece it together and infer a lot, so much of the big reveals near the end feel more like the characters catching up than us being surprised.

It's interesting to think that this book was published in 2004, likely written during 2003, during the height of the rush to the Iraq War. I don't think this book is directly commenting on that, but when Stross notes how the ReMastered used the threat of security and terrorism to whip local populaces into a panic and use that fear to install their own leaders and carry out their agenda... well, I don't think that storytelling is happening in a vacuum. Of course there are the straightforward analogies to the Reichstag Fire besides the more sideways links to yellowcake.

The plot gets pretty messy and complicated near the end, but I actually really liked that. As Herman warns, there isn't just one group of "good guys" and one of "bad guys", but multiple sub-factions, with the same group often at odds with itself. That feels a lot more real to life than most books; I mean, just look at how frequent turf wars between bureaucracies in the US play out. I appreciated how the characters in the book would share the reader's confusion, with their assumptions of who was responsible for what and to what end being upended, and subsequently questioning the rightness of a course of action.

Some of the "twists" in the book are incredibly choreographed: it's pretty obvious that Svengali the clown is an assassin long before it's officially revealed. Others did catch me by surprise, especially Steffi's role in the action: it is a neat trick to use a character's POV but elide some topics.


Ordinarily this is where I would write "I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series", but in this case, there are no other books. Apparently Stross has found irresolvable problems with how he's set up this particular universe and won't be returning to it. I'm not surprised about the trouble - causality is such a delicate idea both in reality and in fiction, and while it's ballsy to play with it (even within constraints) like Stross does, doing so seems especially fraught. Especially in a hard-science-fiction context like this, where you can't just hand-wave away problems and attribute them to midichlorians or The Weave.  I am a little sad we won't get more, especially since (unlike the first book) this one ends by strongly setting up the next course of action. Still, I hugely respect that decision, and hey, there's still plenty more Stross for me to read!

Friday, October 27, 2023

Take Three

My trip through Roberto Bolaño's bibliography has been meandering, to say the least. I'm not following publication order or themes, just seeing what the library has in stock whenever I'm in the mood for another book. The latest I've read, The Third Reich, immediately evokes "Nazi Literature in the Americas," and more broadly his periodic ruminating of far-right-wing violence.



The Third Reich is different from his other books in a lot of ways. Most of them have been set in Latin America and feature Latin American characters, while this one is set in Spain with a German narrator. His books are often populated by poets and writers and artists, while this one features office workers on vacation. And this is the only novel of Bolaño's I've read that centers a nerdy activity: tabletop wargaming.

The narrator and protagonist is a youngish German man named Udo, on holiday with his even younger girlfriend Ingeborg at a Spanish beachside resort town. They are here to enjoy a romantic time together, but Udo also has a specific goal in mind. He has won the German championship for tabletop gaming, and his friend Conrad has convinced him to write a magazine article on his winning strategy for The Third Reich, a game that covers the events of World War II. Upon arriving in their hotel room, Udo immediately sets up the board and commences "working"; that is, playing the game.

Ingeborg seems to genuinely love Udo, but she detests his game, seeming baffled and annoyed at it. While she's out sunning on the beach, he's studying the board, musing about his next moves, or napping after being up too late the night before.

I should pause here to note that Udo might be the least pleasant narrator from any Bolaño novel I've read. By the second or third chapter we've seen lots of examples of his internal thoughts and internal actions that set our teeth on edge: he's incredibly rude and hostile to the hotel staff, seems to dislike almost everyone he meets, has a grossly inflated sense of himself, belittles Ingeborg's interests, and has a tendency towards paranoia. He isn't the worst person that Bolaño has written, probably not even the worst person in this book, but I can't think of another narrator that seems as intentionally off-putting as this one.

The structure of the story is pretty interesting: it starts out small, then expands, and then contracts, growing increasingly suffocating in the second half. But in the early days, Udo's universe consistently expands, much to his frustration and disgust. Ingeborg makes friends with another vacationing German couple, Charly and Hanna, who are staying at a nearby hotel. Udo is very annoyed by these people, especially Charly, but is outwardly polite and endures going out with them for dinner and drinks most nights, and often abandoning Ingeborg to their circle while he "works".

Through Charly, Udo comes to meet two Spaniards whose names he never learns, but who he calls The Wolf and The Lamb. They have a more dangerous sheen to them: they're locals, partiers, blue-collar people who talk crudely and lead the Germans off the beaten path into wilder environs.

Through The Wolf and The Lamb, Udo finally meets El Quemado, a badly-burned paddle-boat vendor who Udo has studied from a distance for a while. Udo is disgusted by Quemado's appearance, but there's a weird magnetism between the two, and Udo seems obsessed with getting to know Quemado, despite the latter's reticence and their very different backgrounds.

While Udo spends most of his time by himself closed up in his hotel room, he doesn't seem to be actually doing much: he isn't writing his article, and isn't playing the game, just "studying" it. He eventually invites Quemado to play against him, and pushes hard until Quemado eventually relents. Udo plays the Axis powers, while Quemado plays the Allies and USSR.

As another side note, Bolaño's description of the progress of the game are amazing, very accurate to my experience. (Which is limited, but there was a time of my life when I was very into Avalon Hill games like Bull Run or Axis and Allies.) A lot of Udo's behaviors are strange, but spending over a day to set up a game is not at all unusual. Once Udo and Quemado get into a cadence of playing, they typically do one or two turns per session, with those sessions lasting several hours. Again: that's how these kind of games go!

The specific cadence of Third Reich also matches my experience in every simulation of a World War II game. Germany is always very strong out the gate, romping through nearby neighbors, expanding to the coast of Europe, often surpassing their historical reach. But there's almost always an inevitable apogee to the Axis expansion: the thrilling sense of endless victory fades, the industrial might of the Allies' superior production ramps up. Things reach a stalemate, then gradually shift in the other direction, with the Axis powers pushed further back.

That flow of the game parallels the flow of the novel. The turning point seems to be when Charly goes missing; he has previously disappeared and then returned, so the other three aren't as concerned at first, but it gradually dawns on everyone that he has likely drowned. Hanna returns home. Things grow frostier with Ingeborg, and she departs as well. Udo, oddly, remains behind, well after his scheduled vacation is over. He claims that he needs to do this to handle bureaucratic tasks associated with Charly's death, but nobody believes him, and his continued presence after the matter is closed proves that it wasn't a real consideration.

He spends more time with The Lamb and The Wolf, but is put off by their increasingly predatory vibe. One very unpleasant element of this book is repeated references to rape. It's never clear whether anyone is actually raped during the book, but it's one of those ominous hovering clouds that Bolaño is so good at invoking. Charly and the Wolf and the Lamb laugh about the possibility that they will rape someone, there are swirling rumors of rapes occurring, Udo contemplates the possibility that Charly himself was raped, the Wolf and the Lamb seem to be on the verge of raping Clarita before Udo interrupts them, and so on. Of course this all felt really off-putting, and seems more jarring than in Bolaño's other novels, though that may be because of the time since I've read them. I do know that 2666 refers a lot to widespread sexual violence in Santa Teresa, and multiple novels have grimly borne witness to the rape and murder of the sister-poets. Maybe it's the causalness of references to rape here that make it seem particularly wrong.

While most relationships wither away in the back half of the book, there's a sort of undertow with Frau Else. When Udo stayed at this hotel years ago as a teenager, he had a crush on Frau Else. He seems determined to make her remember him, and tries hard to establish a rapport with her. She's generally distant with him, but as the book goes on they spend more and more time together, even spending nights full of passionate kissing. Her husband is dying, which seems to delight Udo on some level. I never really got a bead on Else's deal. She generally turns him down, but remains present and occasionally encouraging: does she harbor some deep-seated feelings for him that she suppresses? Is she overwhelmed by her husband's terminal illness and acting erratically? Or is she just put off by this deeply weird nerd, and trying to fulfill her basic duties as a hostess with as little awkwardness as possible?


There are two techniques Bolaño uses in his novels that I absolutely adore and keep me coming back for more: absence and ambiguity. He's possibly the best novelist I know at writing around a subject, pointedly leaving things left unsaid, or making someone's absence loom larger than their presence ever could. And he's also a master at forcing us to examine a subject while considering multiple overlapping and contradictory interpretations of what that subject is or means. Both of those techniques are on fine display here.

There are a lot of absences in this book, but one of the most striking is that of Frau Else's husband. Seemingly everybody other than the Germans knows him and talks with him and sees him, but the tourists never lay eyes on him. It's a bit of a surprise when, in the last few chapters of the book, Udo finally confronts him and has a conversation with him. And what a conversation! As Udo notes, it feels like they're talking past each other: they're using the same words, but seem to be referring to different concepts, each one baffled and vaguely frustrated by the other's inability to grasp what they're saying.

Another odd absence is one of description. After several play sessions, Quemado gifts Udo with some photocopies. This puts Udo into a very odd frame of mind, kind of passively-aggressively-hostile, and he goes out to bully the hotel watchman into giving him some push-pins and then attaches the photocopies to the wall. And yet... Udo doesn't describe just what those photocopies are! Are they photographs of the war? Newspapers? Game rules? Strategy articles? It's as if, by throwing a mini-tantrum in pinning the photocopies up, Udo can avoid having to actually look at them and consider what Quemado is trying to say through the gift.

Quemado himself is probably the most mysterious figure in the novel. Conrad has a premonition early on that Quemado is the Devil. Frau Else's husband is very friendly with Quemado, but also fears him, and has pointed warnings for Udo about the terrible danger Udo faces in his relationship with Quemado: again, there are undertones of sexual violence (explicitly rejected, but poisoning the mood by even being mentioned), as well as bodily harm. Udo had somehow made the (accurate!) leap that the husband was consulting with Quemado on strategy, but it turns out that Quemado didn't need any help, and has the raw intelligence and drive to succeed at the game.

The last few chapters also bring in the specter of Naziism. Clarita asks Udo if he is a Nazi; he's surprised she would even ask, and denies it, saying something like "If anything, I'm an anti-Nazi." Which... that's an interesting and odd thing to say! Despite living inside Udo's head for the entire novel, I don't think we've ever really gotten any hint of his personal politics. He is enjoying playing the Nazi faction in the Third Reich, but this doesn't seem to be connected to nostalgia for the party or a desire that they had won. But I also can't think of any actions he has taken or thoughts he'd have that would qualify him as an Anti-Nazi. Really, he's mostly defined by a broadly malevolent misanthropy. It doesn't seem racialized, but he dislikes almost everybody. Anyways, I just think that's kind of interesting, given Bolaño's very specific and pointed polemics against far-right movements in his other writings, for him to raise that flag here and let it just sort of flap weakly in the air.


After finishing the book, I did a bit of light research, and learned a few relevant things. First, The Third Reich is a real game! On the one hand that makes me slightly less impressed that Bolaño so accurately nailed the lingo and cadence of wargaming, since it's based on a real game; but I also think it's really cool that this literary novelist was secretly a super-nerd all along.

Secondly, like a lot of Bolaño novels this one was posthumously published. I'd assumed that it was a late manuscript of his that was eventually finished after his death. Apparently, though, this was the very first novel he ever wrote: it was written way back in 1989 and just never published. So, while there were several parts in the book where I thought "Ah, Roberto is once again doing that thing he likes to do", but no: this was the first time he did that thing! I think that makes me like and admire this novel even more, since he already had such a mastery of his prose and characterization.

But that factoid also confused me, since there's one chapter where Udo is wandering the street, and realizes that it's September 11 and everything is closed in remembrance. Naturally,  I assumed that this was a reference to the 9/11 attacks in the US, and was a little surprised that a sleepy Spanish resort town would shut down to observe it. But anyways I've done some additional Googling, and learned that September 11 is the date that Barcelona fell, and is honored in Catalonia as a sort of anti-Independence day. Interesting!

Anyways, back to the actual book: As usual, I really loved this. I've read a couple of Bolaño novels that seem like remixes of other pieces: a short story that spins out into a novel, or the same event told from multiple perspectives, or familiar characters resurfacing at different stages of life. On the one hand, The Third Reich stands apart: its setting, characters and concerns seem wholly unique to anything else Bolaño has done (that I've read, at least!). On the other hand, it's a really powerful demonstration of his fantastic writing chops: creating a sense of a kind of heavy, sleepy, humid summer that saps away your dreams of productivity, conjuring up vaguely ominous presences that hover at the periphery of your vision, following along a mind that's obsessed and yet curiously reluctant to make eye contact with its obsession. I do hesitate a little to recommend it as a "first Bolaño book" mostly because the narrator can be so off-putting, but anyone who already enjoys this author will get a lot out of it.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Baldur's Gate 3: Existence Precedes Essence

Before I forget, a major PSA: when searching for Baldur's Gate 3 information, I highly recommend going to bg3.wiki .  This is the community wiki for BG3, and in my opinion is highly superior to the commercial wikis and aggregator sites that crowd the first several pages of Google results. There's maybe a smidge less info on this one than the fextralife one, but also zero ads, no auto-generated repetitive crap ("This is an item. Items are a key mechanic of Baldur's Gate 3. Your character can collect many items in the course of their journey. Items are useful to have. Items may be used in combat or while exploring or traded for coins. The specific item you are looking at has a page on this wiki but absolutely no useful information whatsoever."), a clean UI and a nicely browseable structure. While the plot stuff was a bit thin at launch, it's been filling out nicely, and it's always been a great resource for reading about game mechanics, classes, skills, abilities, and other factual information.


Baldur's Gate 3 has less-drastic transitions than the earlier BG or Divinity games did. In the original Baldur's Gate and its sequel, when you reached a certain point you would see a new slide for "Chapter 4" or whatever, and a narrator would intone the latest exposition while you looked at some nice imagery. Divinity: Original Sin 1 and 2 were divided into major Acts, with massive loading screens separating them. For BG3, there's a ton of online discussion about "Act 1", "Act 2" and "Act 3", but those terms don't appear anywhere within the game itself. Instead, there are sort of transitional mini-zones that occupy the space between the major portions of the game, and even after advancing forward you still have some time to retrace your steps to tie up loose ends or even kick off quests you may have missed.



All that to say, I think I'm done with Act 2, and I think I'm in Act 3 now, but might be like in Act 2.5 or something. I'm sure all will become clearer later on.



Some random mechanical thoughts before starting to chat about characters and plot:



I would be pretty tempted to roll a Monk for a future play-through. There's a lot of cool equipment that seems to be tailored for monks, particularly unarmed combat, and none of the companions can really use it. (Though I suppose Karlach might be a good candidate to respec or dual as a monk.)



Similarly, I wish I was playing a proper thief/rogue in this game. My PC Bard handles locks and traps just fine, and I don't really want Astarion in my party, but there is a lot of really cool gear that interacts with stealth in an interesting way. Similarly, there are some really cool mechanics that trigger directly off of shadows and light, which I haven't seen much of before. 



I've been thinking of light a lot, in large part due to some Act 2 stuff. In my limited tabletop D&D experience, light is pretty important: a DM will often try to keep track of who's carrying a torch, what characters can naturally see in the dark, etc. In CRPGs, these visual mechanics are usually implemented but very unimportant: you can just switch to a character with night-vision and you, as the player, can see everything fine, even if the humans in your party are theoretically blind. Anyways, BG3 is one of the only games I've played that gets back at this classic D&D focus on light and dark, in a way that works pretty well mechanically and is compelling thematically.



I'm playing as a Bard, which plays very differently in BG3 than in BG1/BG2. In the earlier games they tended to be more passive, hanging in the very far back and singing songs to buff the rest of the (6-person party); occasionally you would use a wand to shoot fireballs or something. In BG3, I have a chunk of pretty good arcane magic: I've been leaning towards loading up on Rituals that help with gameplay outside of combat, but as I reach higher levels I'm getting more spells that are good in-combat as well. I'm also a pretty decent archer, although at 1 attack per round I'm way less effective than dedicated fighters; but, much like the D:OS games, special arrows can be extremely tactically useful, like knocking someone back over a ledge, blowing up an explosive barrel, dispelling an effect, healing someone, teleporting somewhere, etc. Also, in BG1/2 bards could only Pick Pockets, but in BG3 you can pick locks, stealth and disarm traps, making you a full-on thief replacement.



I almost never use Bardic Inspiration, the most bard-like ability of the class, which buffs a companion. Instead, I almost exclusively use Cutting Words, a College of Lore-specific Reaction. This uses a BI charge, and allows you to apply a D6 or D8 malus to any enemy's roll. So, if they would have hit someone, you can use CW to make them miss instead; if they would have saved against a spell, you can use CW to make them take the effect. This is a crazy good ability, more than making up for the slight squishy feeling of my actual combat actions.


I'm enjoying the game a lot more since I stopped trying to pick up every piece of trash to vendor later. There's some decent stuff to buy, but as of the end of Act 2 no real money sinks and I have way more gold than I know what to do with.



There's definitely not a pacifist route through the game, but I've been pleasantly surprised by just how many boss-type encounters you can complete just through dialogue. It's pretty cool!



For the most part, it's best to handle dead companions by paying Withers to raise them. Revivify scrolls are more expensive; you can almost always go back to camp between combat encounters, and if you revive someone mid-combat, they raise with 1 HP and will almost certainly die again. Late in the game your clerics can learn Resurrect, but that slot is usually better spent on offense, buffing or a utility spell. But anyways, it is worth carrying a couple of scrolls, because sometimes you'll be stuck in an area without fast-travel or Camp access, and Revivify will keep you from needing to carry the deceased's hundred pounds of gear back to safety.


One of my few complaints about the game so far has had to do with the companions, or more specifically, that they seem to skew evil: other than Gale, most folks you can recruit seem to fall squarely into the "Evil" camp. After playing much further into the game, I have a much better idea of what Larian is going for here, and am really enjoying it.



First off, there are characters like Karlach who just weren't a big presence in Early Access. She's great. One of those characters who looks evil: a literal devil! With piercings!!! But she's big-hearted, loyal, brave, has a good sense of humor, just a delight to be around.



More impressively, though, the "evil" companions are "evil" when you meet them, but don't necessarily stay that way! At least for two of the companions who I've been traveling with, there's a great, long, slow-burn effect where, based on your actions and choices and conversation, they may actually start to question some of their beliefs and rethink their self-conception. Which, honestly, is way more compelling than "This person is evil all the time, now and always!" or "This person is good all the time, now and always!"



Which, now that I'm writing that out, is not totally unprecedented. There are some games with shifts in the other direction, like Alistair potentially "hardening" in Dragon Age: Origins, or Leliana turning into the murderpope in Dragon Age: Inquisition. And one of the best arcs in Baldur's Gate 2 is Viconia undergoing a similar evil-to-much-less-evil transition through the course of a romance. So I'm not totally sure why I was so convinced that we were "stuck" with these "evil" characters in BG3. Anyways, it's been a real delight to discover that these people get their own meaningful arcs, and aren't just there to help define and guide the player character.



I'm not sure if everybody follows this description - it would be funny if, say, Astarion remains a cheekily selfish bastard no matter what - but as long as at least some do, I think that's a sign of A Good Game.



While on the topic, I'm also deeply loving how BG3 has completely removed the traditional two-axis alignment system from the game UI. I don't play D&D 5E, but from what I understand alignments are now considered optional, and I personally find it very liberating to describe characters rather than sort them.


Writing a bit about my own journey thus far:



My "Tav" is a Drow Bard named Triel. I thought I came up with the name, but apparently it's also the name of a city in Forgotten Realms, whoops. It was funny and mildly disorienting the first time it popped up in a book. I'm curious if I'd read that name before and buried it in my mind or if it's just a coincidence.



Triel has reluctantly embraced at least some of her tadpole powers, picking up some handy passives but avoiding over psionic abilities. She has been resolutely on the side of good, defending the Tiefling refugees against the druids and then defending the grove against the goblins (by slaughtering all the goblins). For the most part she tries to use diplomacy to advance her goals; when that fails, she'll switch to subterfuge; what that fails, murder.


It's been a pretty completionist playthrough so far. I've probably missed some companion-exclusive things since I tend to travel with the same core group, but for the most part I've done everything to pop up in my journal. The major exception was quietly failing a bunch of kidnapping-related quests in Act 2 due to doing some stuff in the wrong order.


My party has shifted a bit. Early on I was the probably-canon group of Shadowheart, Lae'zel and Gale. I really liked Karlach, but at that time was kinda romancing both Shadowheart and Lae'zel, so I reluctantly swapped out Gale. The big hurt there was losing access to a bunch of AOE damage spells, which are game-changing on fights with large numbers of small enemies. Still, this isn't a crazy-hard game, and I've had decently-optimized builds, so the overall loadout has still been working fine.



I was kind of trying to romance three ladies all at once, but "locked in" with Lae'zel and have been rolling forward with it. It's a cool romance; she is very different from Morrigan, but the arc of this romance reminds me a little of that one, starting off as a purely physical connection but gradually growing closer together emotionally. That said, Lae'zel is literally alien, and I like how she retains a bit of strangeness throughout, instead of just transforming into a pliant waifu.  


In Act 2, I saved the Last Light Inn, reloading after Isobel got snatched during the fight. I raced to get the faerie protection from darkness, then went back east and cleared out all of the wilderness outside the town.



Once in town, I followed a mostly pacifist route through the Thorm children, using my bard's superior Persuasion and Deception to defeat them. I could have squeezed out some more XP by initiating fights against their followers, but, eh.



My big mistake in Act 2 was clearing the Gauntlet of Shar prior to visiting Moonrise Tower. The game does helpfully display a warning popup window when you're about to progress things, but I had thought that it only referred to the actual Gauntlet of Shar area, not the entire Shadow-Cursed Lands, and thought the only thing I was giving up was a chance to fight Balthazar in the crypt. After completing the very challenging Balthazar fight and completing some very risky die-rolls to persuade Shadowheart to renounce Shar, I noticed that half of my quests involving Moonrise Tower had failed, but was not willing to redo all that gameplay.



As a side-note: I alluded to this above, but I love the arc Shadowheart has so far in this game, it's so darn well-written and earned. I honestly felt a little choked-up and emotional during this section, which also leads into the beautiful and heartwarming reunion of Nightsong and Isobel, which in turn adds another big layer of pathos to Ketheric Thorm's story.



In Moonrise Tower, I was able to briefly trick a guard outside, but was forced into combat as soon as I entered the basement. I gradually cleared the tower from the bottom to the top, fighting alongside Jaheira with her Harpers and the Flaming Fist. That's another fight I reloaded a couple of times, mostly because it triggered when I was in a very awkward position and was playing out in real-time to the detriment of my allies while I was running around the exterior looking for a way in. The fight itself was crazy fun, though, with tons of bodies on the battlefield, great use of elevation and terrain: a bunch of archers were stationed on the rafters, so Lae'zel used her Athletic Jump to boing up there, then her Battlemaster Pushing Attack to knock them down and make them go "splat".



Fighting alongside Jaheira was so much fun. That character gets some grief from the BG community and isn't as universally beloved as others like Minsc and Imoen, but I think she's great, and it felt so fun to fight by her side again. It's a new voice actress performing her, but it's a convincing likeness, and I think the writers did a great job at her character: it's recognizably her, with her fiery spirit and stubbornness and slightly haughty sheen, but at the same time tempered through two centuries of additional living, more experiences giving her a bit more patience and flexibility.


For the assault on Moonrise, I brought along Wyll and Halsin, because they had mentioned specific reasons for wanting to be there. Wyll was a pretty good choice; you never see his dad the Duke, which was a bummer, but he does get a good long scene with the devil that advances his story. Halsin was honestly kind of a bust though, it sounded like he had some major unfinished business with Ketheric, but they don't have any meaningful dialogue together. There's some minor chatter between Halsin and Jaheira, but basically just "Oh, I've heard of you!" "Oh, that's cool, glad to finally meet you." After finishing this section, I realized that I should have brought Gale: I hadn't realized that we would actually come face-to-face with the Absolute in this section. Oh, well!



Like I said before, I just started Act 3. Between starting this post and now, I did the bit inside the Astral Prism with the big reveal about who the Dream Visitor is. It's a pretty cool plot; I'd been wondering if the Dream Visitor was an Illithid, but hadn't predicted the specific background and connections between the Gith and Ilithid and all that. I initially tried to turn down the mega-tadpole with a... I think Insight? Or maybe Wisdom throw; but failed that, even with burning all 4 Inspiration points, so I reloaded and just squashed it. That said: I really, really love the mechanical impacts of this choice. From what I can see and the little I've read online, there's absolutely no mechanical reason not to take the tadpole: it unlocks a bunch of really cool new abilities, and doesn't force you into any particular endings. But there's still the choice to turn it down, following a harder path because you think it's the right thing to do. I absolutely adore these sorts of asymmetrical choice in video games, where it's an actual sacrifice to do the "right" thing, and not just two different labels for equivalent outcomes.


Also, I really dig Shadowheart's new hair!


Steam says that I'm about 100 hours into the game, but it's hard to know for sure. I think that includes my Early Access playthrough three (!) years ago, and also a lot of time that I've left the game up and running while I'm away doing something else. In any case, I assume that I'm about 2/3 of the way through. Feeling really stoked to finally get to Baldur's Gate and see how things wrap up!


Monday, September 25, 2023


I've recently entered Act 2 of Baldur's Gate 3, so I think this is a decent time for another quick check-in! This post will mostly be focused on my impressions of the mechanics and gameplay of the game, I'll probably get more into the plot and characters in a later post.


Some general tips and thoughts for others who are playing or will play:


I need to re-learn this lesson every time I learn an RPG, but: it isn't necessary to loot everything. You get plenty of money through picking up coins and selling the more valuable trinkets, which are highlighted in the map and containers. You can squeeze out hundreds more coins by muling around shields and scimitars and rotten carrots and stuff... but (at least so far) there's no benefit in doing so, since there isn't all that much valuable stuff for you to buy from merchants. That said, I can't stop looting! I'll spend an entire play session just picking up garbage until I've maxed out my weight, then hunting down a merchant, selling it all, trudging back to pick up more stuff, and then curse Larian for my own OCD. This gets especially tedious in some spots of the game: merchants can be killed (sometimes by you!) or move on, which can lead to especially lengthy backtracking to find someplace to offload all of your looted sets of Plate Armor.


One phrase that often comes up in D&D contexts is "MurderHobo". Seen from a certain perspective, the typical D&D adventurer is someone who wanders around, shows up someplace, kills everyone there and takes all their stuff, then moves on and does it again. In BG3, I often feel like I'm not a murderhobo, just a straight-up hobo: I'll spend an inordinate amount of time poking through crates and barrels and vases and burlap sacks, digging out rotten carrots and tongs and oily rags, then selling those for a coin per pound. You know that smelly guy with the big beard pushing a shopping cart down the street that's full of a teetering mountain of trash? That's me in this game.



Anyways, I'm very belatedly training myself to NOT pick up every piece of near-worthless equipment in the game, and expect to have a better time going forward.


Some combat thoughts:



Shoving enemies into Chasms will insta-kill them and give you XP. You don't get loot from them in 99.9% of the cases (excepting one or two specific fights where you can knock someone into the Underdark and find their body down there later). But only bosses have loot that's particularly valuable or memorable, so there isn't much downside to it. Shoving is really fun, I do it all the time and you should too!



Enemies that are Larger than you cannot be Shoved normally; but they can still be knocked back via Thunderwave and similar spells, so use those instead! (If you have Gale or your spellcaster specialize in Evocation, your party can ignore friendly fire effects, so you can use Thunderwave with impunity even if your melee fighters are in the midst of your foes.) 


I forgot about Dipping until pretty recently, after enthusiastically using it in Early Access. You spend a Bonus Action to dip your active weapon into an elemental source: you can Dip into a lit Candle to turn your arrows into Flaming Arrows, or your sword into a Flaming Sword. This will give an extra... I think +1D4 elemental damage for each subsequent attack. It's a pretty great thing to spend a Bonus Action on!


My thoughts on healing have changed over time as I play. The best defense is usually a strong offense, and so you're usually much better off spending your in-combat Actions on dealing damage to end the fight than on chugging potions, casting healing spells or Aiding fallen comrades. That said, Healing will interrupt the bleed-out counter for Downed characters, so having a ranged Heal spell prepared can be really helpful if someone is failing their Death saving throws. You can also Throw a healing potion at someone to heal them. (Apparently, in Early Access you could throw a potion at the ground which would Heal all characters in a small AOE around that spot; apparently this has been patched, though, so only a single character will now get the benefit of a Thrown potion.)


In most cases, then, you're better off Healing out of combat, so you enter fights with high health and can spend your actions killing enemies. I'm still undecided on the best approach for healing out of combat: spells, potions or rests. In most RPGs, I would lean towards healing via spells because spells are rechargable and consumables are not; but spell slots feel really limited in this game, especially at low levels. So, unlike most games, I tend to actually use my healing consumables. A Short Rest will refill half of each party member's maximum HP, and you can do this at any time out of combat. I'll usually Short Rest if all of my party is dinged up OR if at least 2 party members are missing more than half their health.


Unlike the original Baldur's Gate games and many other RPGs, you are also limited in your ability to Long Rest. You must spend Camp Supplies to do this, so it feels like something to avoid, and in Early Access I went as long as possible without Long Resting. Much like how I need to tell myself not to loot every item in the game, I find myself telling myself to Long Rest way more often. While technically limited by supplies, there are a ridiculous amount of supplies in the game, probably enough to long rest before and after every single minor combat encounter. Long resting refills valuable spell slots and other crucial resources like barbarian Rages. Finally and most importantly, a lot of plot-related, character-related and romance-related story items only advance on a Long Rest. You seem to get one of these events per Long Rest, so even if you're eligible for a certain scene, you won't see it until you've done enough Long Rests for higher-priority scenes. Anyways, much like how BioWare had to tell everyone "Leave the Hinterlands!", I think Larian should be telling everyone "Take long rests!"


I just hit Level 8 on my party. (n.b.: This was some time after entering Act 2; I'm playing a lot of the game in between writing paragraphs for this post!) So far I've been single-classing everyone, the origin characters in their initial class and my PC in Bard. This has been working well; I'm pretty sure that it isn't optimal and I could be min-maxing more, but there's enough choice in leveling to keep things interesting, and I don't need to worry about shooting myself in the foot.


It's also worth remembering that respeccing is really cheap in this game, just 100 gold (unlike D:OS, the price doesn't seem to scale). Much like in the Pathfinder CRPGs, you may want to focus on what's best for you in a given level, rather than just working towards a final build. For example, Lae'zel starts with 17 STR, 13 DEX and 15 CON. At Level 4, you might want to choose an Ability Improvement with a +1 to both STR and CON to boost her rolls for those skills. When she gets another feat at level 6, though, you could consider respeccing and taking both Athlete and Durable; this would still give a total of +1 to STR and CON, while also giving some other useful abilities. Doing this might have a better experience during levels 4-5 than only taking Athlete or Durable would. Similarly, if you find a great piece of equipment that makes you want to shift up your playstyle, it's very reasonable to swap your stats around to better work with it.


You get a LOT of XP from fighting. There are a whole lot of optional combat encounters, that you can pretty easily talk your way out of, but be aware that you're leaving XP on the table by doing so. Even setting those aside, doing a completionist clear of a map will net you a lot of levels, and I think the XP you get from fights significantly outweighs that from quests. That said, I have a strong feeling that I'll reach the level cap of level 12 well in advance of the end of the game. I hit level 7 shortly before starting Act 2, on a pretty completionist approach (doing all quests, but not all fights). I suspect players will level fine by focusing on the main plot line and not doing all the side-quests; but to be honest, getting an extra level helps a LOT, and the game is easier if you're consistently facing enemies that are lower-level than you are.


Last cluster of thoughts: conversations. While this game doesn't really feel like BG1/BG2, it does feel like a BioWare game, specifically in how interesting and important the conversations are. Like BioWare games, it's good to get in the habit of saving your game before starting to talk! "Losing" a dialogue can feel much more devastating than a poor combat outcome.


A lingering frustration from the EA version of the game is that, in any given conversation, only the party member who initially talks can participate in the dialogue. This gets annoying when you want to take a skill check branch that another member would be better suited for, like letting your wizard take an Insight check, your scout take a Perception check or your bard take a Deception check. Other RPGs either always make your PC lead the talk, or let other party members interject at appropriate times. What's most baffling is that even other Larian games let you swap between party members during a conversation - that was kind of the whole point behind Divinity: Original Sin! I usually just roll with it, since most skill checks just provide more context, but it's still annoying and doesn't make much sense in-game.


I almost always lead with my PC, who is a Bard; there are some really helpful class abilities like Jack Of All Trades that make you at least somewhat decent in all skills and pretty darn good in quite a few. A big improvement from my initial foray into Early Access is the Insight system. When certain things occur in-game, a party member will get Inspired: that might be something like a cleric learning more about her deity, or a warrior defeating a hated foe, or an artisan crafting an exotic weapon. You can bank up to four Inspiration points. Whenever you fail a skill roll in a dialogue, you can choose to spend an Inspiration point to re-roll. This isn't usually worth it for a long-shot, like a DC18 when you just have +1, but it's really great for those moments of "Oh, come on, I shoulda nailed that roll!" I do like this system of having a limited number of a replenishable resource; since it does encourage you to actually use them; it oddly reminds me of Flasks in Elden Ring, but with narrative rather than combat implications.


In my game, I hoarded Inspiration for a while, then started spending freely... a little too freely. When there is a conversation (or conversation-style cut-scene) that has a dramatic impact on the game, it's common for you to need to pass a series of checks. At one point, I got stuck with a permanent debuff on my main character because I couldn't pass 3 varied skill checks that occur back-to-back-to-back in the same dialogue. I had a single Inspiration point left, after squandering some on far-less-significant flavor-related outcomes in a previous conversation. I reloaded until I got the outcome I wanted, and since then I've tried to keep at least 3 Inspiration points in stock unless I'm sure I need them.


Those strategies help, but one seemingly irreconcilable hassle is that many (maybe even most) important conversations automatically initiate when someone gets close enough, rather than by you selecting a character and clicking on the person to talk with. Because of this I switch to have my PC Bard in the lead whenever I'm in a settlement or see NPCs in the area; the rest of the time my high-Wisdom Cleric is in front to help spot traps and secrets.


Oh, traps! Traps are still annoying. I know I harped on that in my last post but they still bother me. Traps were actually somewhat decent in the D:OS games: what was cool there was that traps were always part of the environment, so e.g. if you (the player) looked closely you would see a tripwire strung across a corridor, tied to some firing mechanism. You could resolve them however you liked in the physics engine: step around the wire, place a big urn in front of the crossbow, fire at the tripwire from the far end of the corridor, etc. The OG Baldur's Gate games, in contrast, had very abstract traps: if your thief Detected the Trap, a trapezoid on the floor would highlight red, and if you stepped inside that red, you would take damage; your thief could alternately Disarm the Trap, which would make the red trapezoid disappear.

BG3 brings forward the "detect trap" and "disarm trap" mechanics from BG1/2, and tries to marry that with the physics-based traps of D:OS, and the whole result feels really awkward, unfun and unsatisfying. Unlike BG1/BG2, you don't get any XP from Disarming Traps. Any time you fail to Disarm, you trigger the trap, making it way more punishing than failing to Lockpick. Party AI is often garbage when it comes to traps: they seem to try to avoid spotted traps, but will inevitably jostle one another over the line and then FWOOSH everyone is on fire. Traps feel like the one thing where BG3 is worse than its predecessors.


The only other thing annoying me at the moment: "Pick Up and Add to Wares" seems to be broken for me about half of the time. This should be a decent way to minimize the pain of my loathed inventory management, but more often than not I end up having to go through my inventory and find twelve individual suits of chainmail to sell off, even though I know I went through all the bother of right-clicking and selecting that specific options.

Other than that, though, it's great! More later, I gotta play more BG3 first!