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!

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Birth of Plenty

Every once in a while, I go down the Bogleheads rabbit hole. Usually I emerge with a refreshed conviction about my savings and investment plan, but I usually pick up some other stuff along the way. On my most recent excursion, I picked up a book: The Birth of Plenty, by William Bernstein. Bernstein is an interesting guy: he worked as a neurosurgeon for an entire career, and along the way got interested in finance. He became one of the most eloquent and passionate early advocates of the philosophy of index-fund-based investing. He started his own financial advising firm, wrote several general-audience books on investing, and then branched out to write on a broader set of topics related to economics.


"The Birth of Plenty" was the first of these books. It's a sprawling, ambitious project, but the main thing it's trying to do is answer the question: why has the world been growing more prosperous over the last 200 years? He offers a thesis that there are four pre-requisites for a nation to turn into a wealth-generating engine. Prior to those dependencies being available, things will just grind along at barely subsistence levels; once in place, they become impossible to stop, and lead to ever-increasing levels of prosperity.

He wrote this book back in 2003, and I was a little surprised to see how much of its content I recognized from "Capital in the Twenty-first Century", particularly the first 1/3 or so of that book. I think there are a lot of things that have been generally known to economists for decades, but that only more recently became widely discussed among the general public. One particularly striking area is the last 2000 years of economic history. From roughly 1AD to 1000AD, there was no per-capita growth of income on the planet: things stayed at the same level for fifteen centuries! Obviously, individual people and groups would gain wealth through conquest or exploitation of resources, but it was very much a zero-sum game. Starting around 1000, there was a very very tiny increase in the world's per-capita GDP. Barely 0.1% growth year over year; but over 800 years, this cumulatively did lead to some increase in wealth. Things really took off after 1820, though: there was a drastic shift in the developed nations (the UK, then America, then gradually more "first-world" nations) of roughly 2% annual per-capita growth. The result has dwarfed thousands of previous years of advancement.



Bernstein's thesis, which he introduces and repeats often, is that four factors must all be present to unlock the compounding advances of the modern economy.

  1. Property rights. For him this is the first and most important element. Basically, you need to be assured that you will be able to hold on to the results of your labor and your investments, and that neither the state nor private parties can take them from you without following well-established law.
  2. Scientific rationalism. Embracing an outlook that allows for dissent, looks to advance knowledge via empirical experimentation rather than deductive reasoning, shares the results of science, builds on previous results and remains willing to question and throw out previously accepted ideas that are proven false.
  3. Capital markets. To start new businesses or expand operations, entrepreneurs need to be able to access money, in sufficient quantities and at reasonable enough rates. On the other side, holders of capital need to trust that they will stand to gain by loaning out their money, rather than keeping it sewn into their socks or mattresses.
  4. Rapid communication of ideas and movement of goods. The most awkwardly-phrased of the four pillars, this mostly boils down to "the telegraph and the steam engine". The former greatly facilitates collaboration, which enables larger-scale and more efficient planning. The latter greatly expands markets, allowing goods to be sold far away from their point of manufacture, and supplies to be sourced from far away as well.

Going into these a bit more:

I've been feeling a bit down on property rights lately, and this book was a good reminder of the arguments in their favor. (More broadly, I think most of my economic readings of the last 10+ years have been arguments against economic liberalism, and I think I'm well overdue to actually read an argument in its favor.) Going back to that period from 0-1000 where there was no growth: during this time, the vast majority of Europeans were serfs living in feudal regions. Under feudalism, there really is no concept of private property or ownership: your entire self, body and labor and land and production, belongs to your liege; your liege, in turn, belongs to his superior, and so on. As a serf, your lord will come by and take almost all of your production, leaving you only enough to live and continue producing. Now, if you were a very motivated serf, you could work a lot harder and a lot smarter and maybe find a way to double your yield: but it wouldn't really matter, the lord would still take all of your additional production and still leave you with the minimum required for subsistence. So why would you want to put in all that extra effort? Multiply that decision-making by the entire population of Europe, and you have a good understanding why there was no growth.

Property rights are closely bound together with a bunch of other concepts, including civil liberties (basically a property right over yourself), the legal system, and, interestingly, separation of powers. If the executive is the judiciary, then any action that the lord takes is legal: your property rights are only as strong as your relationship with the current king. Having a separate judiciary seems like a technicality, but actually is huge: it's an entity that can say "No" to your lord, or the king, or the President or whatever. This devolves true ownership of property from the king and the state to the individual.

Property rights doesn't necessarily mean that you get to enjoy uninterrupted use of your property in perpetuity: for example, if you fail to pay someone else what you owe them, you may be forced to sell some property to make them whole. But the key is that this is a legal process, with well-defined rules that are well-known in advance.

The upshot of all this is creating an incentive to generate more wealth. If you feel secure that you will get to enjoy the fruits of increased labor or a brilliant new invention, then you'll be motivated to take those steps. And that will eventually benefit all of society: you will then be able to buy more goods and services from others, or show others a more efficient way of doing things that will then allow them to increase their own productivity and create more wealth.

Next up, science! I found myself thinking of Ryan North's "How To Invent Everything" often while reading this book. Most of our technological advances are things that seem trivial and simple in retrospect; if you already know how something works, it's very easy to recreate it. But in practice, it often took a thousand years or more for a thing to be invented after all of its pieces were available. Why did it take so long? In Bernstein's view, the main issue is the historical lack of a system for discovering new knowledge and propagating the results. More specifically, we needed to embrace an empirical system that can be experimented on and proved, rather than lofty intellectual arguments that didn't need to be based in reality.

A secondary aspect has to do with the intellectual culture that surrounds potential innovators. If you know that your discoveries may cause you to be denounced by the church and burned alive at the stake, you're extremely unlikely to pursue those discoveries, and even less likely to share what you've found. Much like how the feudal attitude towards property kept the masses of serfs from improving their land and work, feudal dogma from the medieval Catholic Church locked up potential advances in European sciences for a millennium.

There's a bit of a dovetailing between science and property in the form of patents. Patents are a creation of law that confer a temporary monopoly to the creator in exchange for a thorough explanation of how their invention works. Patents replaced the old secretive guild-based systems, in which knowledge was jealously guarded, unavailable for outside improvement, and could be lost altogether - in one of the most startling anecdotes, the Romans knew how to make concrete, but that knowledge was lost during the Dark Ages, again for nearly a thousand years. Patents also replaced the old granting of monopolies, which were typically issued by monarchs for the benefit of a favored group of merchants: these monopolies created wealth for the monarch and the clique, but at the strict detriment of everyone else, and were a net destroyer of value. In contrast, patents generate entirely new value, and open the doors to future innovations in the future.

Here, I found myself thinking a lot of "The Code of Capital" by Katarina Pistor, as I think these two books use slightly different vantage points to describe the same history and outcome. Patents were a creation of the English legal system, are friendly towards private parties, and allowed Britain and then the US to significantly grow their wealth. It's a bit of magic, how the mere "idea" of a patent didn't exist, and then did exist, and brought a whole new major source of wealth along with it.

Moving on, capital markets are the third major component Bernstein demands of modern wealth-generating economies. A tantalizing question he asks is why Leonardo's helicopters never were produced. The concept seems solid, and there were materials around to make at least a primitive version of it. I don't think Bernestein ever directly answers the question, but capital markets seem like a major explanation. To bring helicopters from sketched doodles and diagrams to real working contraptions takes a lot of effort and a lot of money: experimenting, prototyping, developing, manufacturing and selling. Leonardo himself definitely didn't have the money to fund all that, and even if he did, he would understandably have balked at risking his entire fortune. He was connected with wealthy families in Florence and Milan, but again, the costs and risks were more than a single individual could bear, and there weren't yet the widespread risk-sharing instruments available for shared investments.

Much like the scientific method, capital markets need both the technical presence of a thing, as well as a broader cultural embrace of it. It's one thing to know how science works, and another to feel safe pursuing new ideas. Likewise, it's one thing (and not a small thing!) to have banks available that take in deposits, pay interest, loan out capital and charge interest. It's another thing to have banks that are trusted enough by the citizens to entrust their hard-earned life savings with them. In countries with low levels of corruption and long histories of financial safety, a large share of a country's wealth will be placed within institutions that can put that money to use in growing the economy. In other countries, such as France in the 18th century or many developing nations today, people will be far more likely to keep their money in household safes or buried in the back yard, thus preserving their value but denying the utility of growth.

Like many other elements in this book, capital markets form a virtuous circle: as they grow more trusted, people will place more wealth in them, which will generate more wealth in the national economy, which makes more wealth available for investment, which can further grow the economy, and so on. Now that I'm writing this, I realize that it's just another way of expressing Piketty's formula about the increasing share of the national income going to the owners of capital, but told from the perspective of the investor. So long as the additional investment unlocks growth in the economy greater than the rate of return, the total growth will cause the proportionate share going to capital to shrink; but if (e.g.) a 4% rate of return on capital is matched with a 2% per-capita growth rate, then while the economy will continue to grow, it will increasingly benefit the existing holders of wealth at the expense of others.

Anyways - how does that virtuous cycle get started? Bernstein argues that it's initiated by the state through the issuance of national bonds, like England used to fund its wars. The government is the ultimately reliable backstop of value: if the government isn't in good enough shape to pay its bonds, then as a citizen you're screwed anyways.  So people with excess wealth put that money to work by funding their government, experience passive income, and become familiar with the concepts of bonds. Once this is in place, local governments and large private enterprises can likewise begin issuing bonds. Being riskier, they'll offer higher interest rates, and an increasingly informed public can begin funding them. While Bernstein doesn't draw this line, it makes me think of Alexander Hamilton's genius in nationalizing the debt from the Revolutionary War: at a time when everyone else saw the debt as a troublesome burden, he had read enough economic texts to understand that the national debt would begin establishing creditworthiness for the US, and create a sort of financial umbrella that would facilitate the creation of capital markets on this side of the Atlantic.

Finally, there's rapid communications and transportation. I kind of threw up my hands at this point: why not just have 5 things instead of 4 things where the last one has an "and" in the name? Near the end of the book he tosses in the generation of energy as well. Overall, these things are kind of the magical ingredients that lead to a critical mass of positive developments that cause a self-reinforcing process of growth to occur.

I found it more helpful to think of this last point in specifics rather than generalities. Property rights and science are all that you need to come up with a good invention that will increase productivity and generate economic growth. Capital markets will allow you to get the funds to make that thing. And... then what? Prior to the creation of the telegraph, most people were only aware of things that were happening within their town or within about a day's ride of it. And before the creation of railroads, most people were born, lived and died within a short distance: long-distance travel of people or goods was extremely hazardous. So, even if you did manage to manufacture a cool new invention, you would maybe only enrich the lives of the 5000 or so people living in your town. With the telegraph, though, you could tell everyone about it, learn which markets were demanding your product, and communicate with local agents to source materials or deliver goods to places where you'd never go. And the railroads could ship more materials to you to ramp up production, and cart away manufactured goods for sale.

Bernstein is very insistent that all four ("four") elements are required in order to make a wealth-producing economy. In England and the US, the first three of them (property rights, scientific method, and capital markets) were available early on, and once those new technologies became available, they took off. (In an interesting sidebar, he claims that the Netherlands actually got a head start on it, as their capital markets were even better developed than those of Britain; they didn't yet have the steam engine, but were blessed with a geography that was compact and had lots of navigable waterways, which for most of history were far faster than travel by horse.) Because those inventions were the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution, modern economists and policy-makers have tended to believe that the key to improving a developing economy is to introduce these inventions and improve their infrastructure. But to Bernstein, these tools are insufficient on their own. If you're a communist or absolutist dictatorship that doesn't respect private property rights, then your citizens will not voluntarily toil to improve their lot in life and grow the economy. If you're a fundamentalist tribal society that values inherited religious wisdom over the cacophonous seeking of science, then your citizens will be unwilling or unable to engage with the rising tide of technology and make their own discoveries. And if your citizens stash their savings in their socks or in overseas bank accounts because they don't trust domestic financial institutions, then any profits from enterprises will flow to foreigners instead of citizens, causing newly-generated wealth to instantly evaporate from your soil.

The end prognosis is as clear as it is grim: becoming a "modern" wealthy society is more a matter of history and culture - vibes, if you will - than following a development plan or importing a certain set of technical and legal institutions. The reason why the West is on top of the world is because it lucked out centuries ago in developing a certain set of home-grown institutions. There's nothing about those institutions that's intrinsically tied to our bodies or our soil, but they also aren't something that can be flipped on at will. It will take generations for these institutions to fully take root, in an organic, fully-embraced way. But once they do, nothing will stop those other countries from enjoying the same growth and, eventually, surpassing Europe and the US.

This book was written in 2003, and one of the most striking and infuriating aspects of it was just how clearly Bernstein knew that George W. Bush's project to export American-style democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan was doomed. And this was written during the heyday of "shock and awe", long before the insurgency started. Bernstein confidently wrote that this was going to be an expensive disaster, a hopeless experiment, that no matter how much money we poured into these countries we wouldn't be able to turn them into Western-style democracies or shift their economies from resource-exploitation to manufacturing and service jobs. Anyways, it's really depressing to see Bernstein get this so right when the vast majority of our elected officials got it wrong. Watching the fall of Kabul nearly 20 years after he wrote this is really humbling; and, in many ways, can be explained through his lens. Why didn't the Afghans fight to stay in power? Well, why would they? Without a sense of ownership and a stake in the success of their country, there was really no rational reason to risk their lives.

One of the more provocative arguments Bernstein makes is that wealth produces democracies, and not the other way around. For the last 75 years or so, the more-or-less consistent message of the First World has been to encourage developing countries to create systems of representative government, with the thinking being that this will minimize corruption, help untap free-market forces within the country, encourage development and lead to an increase in posterity. From Bernstein's view, this is backwards: historically, political power has devolved in response to economic power devolving. The Magna Carta was signed after King John needed military and financial resources from his vassals. Parliament was empowered after the merchant class became wealthy and influential. The voting franchise was expanded after the economy shifted to industrial and service jobs. And so on. That's a surprisingly Marxist view of the interplay between economic and political power! In Bernstein's explanation, again, it all comes back to property rights: there needs to be enough wealth to be worth protecting, and then that wealth needs to receive legal assurances of durability; this will produce a sizable class of citizens who are invested in the long-term success of the country and will work to protect and expand it, and eventually will have the motivation and power to demand more say in how it is governed. Bernstein feels much better about the long-term prospects for democracy in a monarchy that assures private property rights than he does in a populist democracy can redistribute property at will. Again, this is a very different perspective than most of the other books I've been reading lately! But well-argued and a good perspective to understand.

I had a kind of hard time following Bernstein's politics while reading the book. He's obviously very focused on private ownership of property, and he frequently rails against socialism and communism. And yet he equally heaps scorn upon libertarians: he absolutely sees a role for government in establishing rules and ensuring everyone plays fairly, and like Piketty he sees value in increasing national tax receipts up to a certain level. In the last few chapters of the book, he abruptly shifts into asking the (very important!) question "What does this matter?". More specifically, does increasing wealth making us happier? Following a data-driven approach, he sees only a loose correlation between happiness and wealth at the national level: residents of very wealthy countries have a general tendency to be happier than residents of poorer countries, but it's only a rule of thumb, and lots of poorer countries report better well-being than richer countries (for example, Columbians are poorer but happier than Spaniards). But, within a country a person's relative wealth has a huge impact on their happiness. The people who are at the top 1% of a country's wealth and income distribution are significantly happier than those at the bottom 10%, and the size of that gap corresponds strongly to the level of misery. In Northern European countries with small gaps between rich and poor, everyone tends to be happier than in England, the US and other countries with larger gaps. And the source of this research that Bernstein cites? None other than Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez! I gasped when I saw them, much like Nick Fury showing up in the final chapter of a Marvel movie.

The end of the book was honestly a bit of a whirlwind: after spending most of the pages explicitly defending the sacralization of private property, Bernstein shifts towards arguing for high tax rates on the richest people, redistributing wealth via transfer payments to the very poor. I didn't see that twist coming! He has some opinions on how best to do this. He's rather skeptical of funding social programs, like subsidizing higher education or health care, due to the "deadweight loss" of value: the dollar price of providing e.g. health care in America is greater than the value a consumer would assign to it. He never uses the phrase "universal basic income", but I think he's advocating for something closer to that, just straight-up taking dollars from rich people and giving dollars to poor people.

He acknowledges that higher rates of taxation and transfers of wealth will have a negative impact on overall wealth creation and economic efficiency; it removes some incentive to grow wealth at the highest levels since innovators won't retain as much of their income, and may similarly remove some incentives at the lower levels if people are sufficiently comfortable without working very hard. But he still thinks it's a good idea for several reasons. First, it helps with overall happiness, which at the end of the day is more important than money. And relatedly, it also improves social cohesion: people who are desperately poor and hungry are far more likely to steal than those who have their essential needs met. You could have a highly unequal society with a few very rich people surrounded by massive slums of very poor people; but such a society would also need lots of policemen, high walls, private security, and other ongoing costs to defend that wealth. In contrast, a more egalitarian society doesn't need to spend as much of its wealth on maintaining internal security from its own citizens.

Or, to put it another way: Bernstein, like Piketty and Pistor and Elizabeth Warren and others, doesn't see unfettered capitalism leading to an eternity of inequality; rather, they see unfettered capitalism as bringing about the downfall of capitalism, when the miserable masses have finally had enough and rise up in violent revolt against a system that has treated them poorly. All of them ultimately see capitalism as a machine that hums along and creates wealth that can benefit society, but that needs to be kept in check lest it destroy itself.

Ultimately, I think Bernstein falls squarely in the category of being a Social Democrat, while being vehemently opposed to Democratic Socialism; where most of us see a gradual continuum between the two, for him there's a very sharp line dividing them. In his view, it's absolutely necessary to reward inventors, entrepreneurs and investors, so it's desirable to have a society where some people are richer than others and where risk-takers receive greater benefits. "Socialism" crosses a red line into a world without private ownership, where people are expected to labor for an amorphous promise of uplifting society rather than concrete incentives of making a better life for themselves.

Adding a bunch of random thoughts here:

Reading this book felt a lot like reading Neal Stephenson. There's an ostensible central thread - why and how we changed from a world where the vast majority of people had a subsistence standard of living, and transformed to a world where many people share in an increasing amount of wealth. But it's surrounded and often overwhelmed with a ton of fascinating digressions and side-notes. Orbital mechanics! Farming techniques in the Attican hills of Greece! Calvinism! Intrigues of the Elizabethan court! With both Bernstein and Stephenson, you get the sense that they stumbled across something so interesting that they just couldn't help sticking it into their book, whether it belongs there or no. And there's a huge amount of overlap with The Baroque Cycle and this book, dealing with the creation of reliable specie currency, creation of the scientific method, and investments in long sea-voyages.

It was actually a bit stunning in just how many ways this book connected with other stuff I've read recently. "House of Morgan" was a fantastic concrete example of the creation and application of capital markets, and Bernstein name-checks Morgan as only investing in established technologies, due to the very high failure rate in new ventures. "Freedom & Necessity" occurred during the social upheaval of post-1820 as the existing social classes adapted to the new economy, and Bernstein's extensive quotations from Engels line up with his presentation in that novel as a businessman-slash-revolutionary. And ALSO I was amazed by all the detailed ways in which this book and Europa Universalis IV lined up with and commented on one another, down to details like how granting monopolies worked, why conquest-driven expansion can produce short-term power but leads to long-term economic decline, the ways in which trade-based economies differ from production-based mercantilist ones, and so on. Reading this book made me appreciate EU4 even more, and having played EU4 gave me a deeper appreciation of this book. EU4's institution-embracing gameplay pretty exactly covers the progression out of the Dark Ages through the renaissance and development of property rights, science and trade, and ends in 1821, exactly when Bernstein's modern world kicks off. That makes me want to play Victoria even more!

As I noted before, this book also dovetails nicely with Pistor's "Code of Capital". Very briefly, Piketty notes how much additional wealth has been created in entirely new categories that didn't even exist centuries ago (copyrights, patents, financial instruments, etc.). Pistor covers how those categories were created, describing the common-law process of private-sphere contracts that endow certain intangible assets with the public protection of property rights. Bernstein more vigorously argues for why it's actually a good thing that more of our wealth is in these new categories, and does so rather persuasively. Prior to the 20th century, most wealth was in the form of agricultural land. The problem with this is that it isn't very scalable at all. Obviously, there's only a finite amount of land on the face of the planet, and all the good land is taken already. If society is going to grow, we need to bring more farmland into production; but because all the good land is taken, that will either mean enormous expense at reclaiming new land (as the Dutch did), or else bringing marginal land into production (irrigating deserts, planting in places with shorter growing seasons, etc.). Increasing investment leads to diminishing returns as worse and worse land gets brought into use.

In contrast, once we shifted to an industrial economy, we had much lower marginal costs. Building a second factory costs about as much as building the first, and may even be slightly cheaper if you already have plans and know-how. If you start with 1000 workers, and later expand to 2000 workers, you'll probably roughly double your output: the second batch of workers will likely be about as good as the first ones. And in fact, there may be some small improvements in productivity and returns: training 2000 workers costs less per worker than training 1000 workers does. So (making up numbers here), while doubling farming profits might require farming 3x or 4x as much land, doubling industrial profits just requires about double the investment, leading to a much more scalable economy that can continue to grow.

Bernstein sees even more promise for the more recent forms of capital, particularly digital copyrights and software patents. Without any physical product to manufacture or replicate, your marginal costs are zero, or close to it: it costs Larian about as much to sell 10,000 copies of Baldur's Gate 3 as it does for them to sell 10,000,000 copies of it. There are no supply shortages to be concerned with: you can produce more at will, scaling up to meet demand instantly. This has the potential to lead to even greater growth than industrial and service jobs. Not infinite exponential growth - you're still ultimately limited by the number of people on the planet and the money they have - but far faster growth and far fewer limits than in the past.

While for the most part I loved this book and found many of its arguments strong, there were certainly parts where the author's enthusiasm and belief seemed to outrun the data. For much of the first 2/3 of the book, he'll be making some argument and say "We'll cover this in more detail in [a later chapter]". In the last third of the book, he turns to a lot of contemporary research and raw data (from surveys, old national records, studies, etc.) to try and prove correlations between things. Often times this takes the form of a very noisy scatter-plot with a trendline drawn in. Beneath one he'll mention "there's a lot of variance here, so it's a weak relationship between [X and Y], just moving from 0-2% between the extremes". But the immediately preceding scatter-plot will look equally messy, and have a trend line moving from -1% to +1%, and yet have been claimed as definitive proof of a strong correlation. I look at these sorts of arguments with extreme skepticism: it's very likely that some other factor better explains the correlation, or, even more likely, that it's a complex multiplicity of factors, nay, individual histories, and there are strong limits on what sort of universal truths we can derive.

From the opposite angle, while Bernstein makes an eloquent and passionate case for the primacy of empiricism over deduction, he does periodically lapse into deductive arguments. He'll write something like, "Unfortunately we don't have good records of the size of the economy in Britain during the 15th century, but we know that it grew by about 0.1% annually, because the population of London grew by about that amount over that time." Um, no: the correlation between population density and economic development is a theory that your book is trying to argue, you can't use that same theory to infer a fact!

Overall, I found this a really impressive book. I think that 25-year-old me would have thought it was the most amazing book ever: ambitious, sprawling, persuasive, fascinating, touching on technology and science and warfare and money and politics in one heady stew. Middle-aged me is sorting this somewhere in my much-expanded mental bookshelf, shoving over some Piketty books to make room for this one, mulling whether to move it to a new shelf or rearrange my other tomes. There's a lot to nerd out on, a lot to chew on, and a lot to enjoy about this book.

Friday, September 01, 2023

Baldur's Gate 3: Everyone Is Still Evil

Whelp, I've gone and done it: started playing Baldur's Gate 3! I'm loving it so far and can tell this will be another nice big meaty game to dig my teeth into. So far I've played for maybe a dozen hours or so; it's a little hard to tell because I now realize that Steam is (sensibly) including the time I played the Early Access game three years ago.


So far, this seems to be very similar to the Early Access experience: I haven't noticed any changes in the plot so far and only minor additions to the characters. But it's definitely a lot more polished and enjoyable. For example, you can actually disarm traps now! The animated cut-scenes are also a lot less janky; they still don't really look like a AAA game, but have a nice Dragon Age: Origins level of polish, which is plenty for me. 



A lot of my current thoughts line up with my initial post from early access. Recapping those briefly:

  • This feels more like Divinity: Original Sin 3 than like Baldur's Gate 3.

  • That isn't a bad thing! Divinity was a great game, and I'm loving the strategic combat (no trash fights), good use of the environment (e.g., traps are driven by physics rather than just triggered by entering an area), exploration, and subtle sense of humor.

  • Combat isn't as tightly tuned as D:OS, but, again, individual encounters tend to be more fun and rewarding than individual encounters in BG.

  • Party members still love walking over discovered traps. This game badly needs an option to automatically stop party movement when a trap is detected; I think every other modern RPG I've played recently has had that option, and I keenly feel its absence here.

Some technical improvements I've noticed from early access:

  • I still hate inventory management, but at least they've added powerful sorting options to the inventory (sort by latest, sort by weight, etc.), which helps a ton. They've also added a Search option, which is awesome! The only thing that would be better would be not having an inventory at all!
  • You can now select genitalia for your character! And they've further split up the male/female categorization. I think this is the most genderqueer-friendly game I've played: facial hair, genitals, chests and voices are all freely mix-and-matchable. It's a little thing, but I like how when you select a voice, it alternates between masculine and feminine voices, instead of having them all grouped together or defaulting based on your preferred form of address.


While the high-level plot seems to still be the same, my experience so far has been very different, mostly because I'm playing as a new PC. Instead of playing as a Tiefling... Cleric, maybe? it's been a while... I'm playing as a (Seldarine) Drow Bard. This is drastically changing my experience playing through the game. The Tiefling refugees react to me with a lot of fear and dread, while the goblins react to me with... well, fear and dread, but helpful fear and dread. Whereas before they came at me with a lot of aggression and challenging persuasion rolls, now when a goblin sees me they're always like, "Oh, dreaded mistress! I cower before you in my abject despair! Please tell me how your lowly servant can be of use to you, my dark master!" It's really funny and enjoyable.


I've avoided reading reviews, but one thing I have seen noted about this game is its high level of reactivity. My drow experiences are great, but not unique: apparently, everyone gets a lot of custom reactions and dialogue based on their race, class, decisions, and other levers.


Oh, yeah: playing as a Bard opens up a lot of fun stuff as well. I chose Bard in large part because I wanted to be the party spokeswoman, so that synergized with high Charisma and bonuses to Persuasion, Deception and similar conversational rolls. But there's also a lot of straight-up [Bard] dialogue options. A lot of these bypass conversation rolls altogether, which ironically de-values some of the mechanical advantages of being a Bard. But anyways, they're a blast: you might start singing a limerick to fluster an ancient evil guardian, or sing an inspiring song to lift the spirits of a dejected warrior. I'm sure that other classes get similar advantages as well, but I'm loving the Bard experience.



I've reached level 4. I took the College of Lore specialization at level 3, and am serving as a substitute Thief as well as my primary role of talker. There's a slight annoyance at this specialization - 5E D&D rules say that you should be able to pick any extra 3 proficiencies, and apparently that was implemented in earlier builds of BG3, but in the public release it's hard-coded to always pick Sleight of Hand, Intimidation, and Arcana (!). Proficiencies don't stack, so any duplicates from character creation are wasted. That's a bit of a bummer, but I'm hoping they'll fix it in the upcoming patch, and then I can make use of the in-game respec option to take the proficiencies I actually want. 


(Update: In the time between when I drafted this post and when I published it, Larian released Patch 1, which does, indeed, fix this bug! Hooray for Larian!)

Anyways - I'm currently mostly focused in CHA and secondarily in DEX. INT is my main dump stat, and I do like the roleplaying aspect of being a very good-natured and likeable but dumb person. I was initially planning on dumping WIS as well, but Perception rolls are very useful in the game: unlike most skill checks where you just want one party member with a high value, for Perception everyone's roll is potentially useful. And there are a lot of WIS saving throws, which protect against nasty effects.


My CON is pretty decent; I plan to mostly fight from range, but I'm pretty decent with a rapier, and a handful of useful Bard abilities require being in melee range (including a nice destabilizing attack that can be done as a Bonus Action), so it's good to be able to take a couple of hits. STR isn't very important for me since I can Finesse my melee weapons, but it is a nice quality-of-life for carrying loot and performing my favorite action in the entire game: Shoving enemies off of very high places.

In combat, I typically try to get to high ground and snipe enemies from a distance with my crossbow, but I'll sometimes move in close to Threaten enemies or draw their attention from vulnerable teammates. All of my spell picks so far have been for out-of-combat utility: Talk with Animals, Friends, Detect Thoughts and so on. I'm honestly not using them a whole lot, except for Talk with Animals, so I may shift some of them into buffs or offensive abilities.

My main party at the moment consists of La'zel, Shadowheart, and Gale. La'zel is mostly used for melee combat but is also very effective at range when I'm dealing with exploding enemies or other people I don't want to get too close to. She hates me! I haven't found any ranged weapons yet that Shadowheart can use. I'm mostly using her ranged cantrips, but sometimes bringing her to the frontline. Her buffs are useful, but at this low level she doesn't get many casts per day, so I don't get to use her magic a lot. I'm thinking of shifting away from Concentration spells and focusing on buffs that last until the next Long Rest. Finally, I'm mostly using Gale as a ranged AOE damage dealer: I had him take the Evoker specialization, which includes a really nice ability that prevents friendly fire from Evocation spells, which in turn lets him cast with abandon. He also gets a lot of utility out of disabling spells like Sleep. I recall Grease being really useful during Early Access but haven't used it much in this playthrough. I'm hoping to load him up with more utility spells in the future, especially to clear out environmental hazards.


Gale's storyline is the biggest difference I've noticed so far from Early Access. I remember La'zel's hunt for the creche and Shadowheart's relationship with Shar, but I don't remember Gale talking about his peculiar condition. I suspect that was added to the game between then and now, but it's possible that I just missed whatever trigger causes him to open up about that. I vaguely remember Gale being the one person in the party who's just generally nice and enjoys doing good things, so it's cool to have a complication to the character now that isn't just "he's secretly evil". I'm still very early in this storyline and very curious where it will lead; so far I'm getting the impression that this is some form of an addiction, and Gale's personality does remind me a lot of some other addicts: very charming and persuasive, which may serve to hide or support the addiction.



I'm still very early in the storyline, not having reached the Goblin camp yet. So far I'm basically making the same decisions and alliances as I did in Early Access. For better and for worse, the morality system in this game seems more in line with classic Baldur's Gate than with more modern and nuanced systems like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. The "Evil" choices feel very evil, while the "Good" choices are more like the defaults - being good doesn't require truly sacrificing anything important, just behaving decently towards people and protecting them from harm. I think it's cool that the game provides these choices and that players can choose to go down other paths, but personally I never really find it enjoyable to take these kind of cartoonishly evil decisions.



That said, from what I've seen so far there isn't a formal alignment system in the game: you don't create a character as being "Lawful Evil" or "Chaotic Neutral" or anything like that, and you don't see those labels slapped onto other party members. That's a good thing! Those rigid alignment descriptions have always bothered me, and I'm glad that at least the system isn't beholden to them, even if the writing so far seems to be.


I think that's is so far! Lots lots more game to come. I'll probably chime in again as I complete major Acts or something. Don't expect any Elden Ring updates in the meantime, but I am expecting to jump back into that once I finish this journey in Faerun.