Last year I made the transition from a meager player of tabletop RPGs to the vaunted position of Dungeon Master. Though my initial performances left something to be desired, the experience provided an inroad into something that had been bothering me for ages: why could I never bring myself to finish Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate 2, Icewind Dale, or Icewind Dale 2? I couldn’t get into these games the first time around, nor could I find much joy in their enhanced editions. Only a reflection on my truly terrible stint as a DM parted those clouds.
In my experience, freedom is the defining trait of a role-playing game. This is something I’ve known as a player, but it’s a truth I forgot as a DM. A good DM understands and accounts for the way freedom will see the party fucking with the story in the DM’s head. A bad DM (to wit: me) is angered by the party’s expression of freedom. I wanted people to play my story. I attempted to rein things in with punitive plot twists, impossible scenarios, and pedantic rule enforcement. In reflecting on those actions, I came to the revelation that I was doing to my party what Baldur’s Gate and its siblings did to me for so many years. I was punishing my players for not doing what I – the all knowing and all powerful DM – wanted them to do. Outside of a sex dungeon, who is going to have a good time if they feel put upon and punished?
From character creation onward, I felt like a heretic. Baldur’s Gate is a game where progression is almost exclusively married to dungeon crawling and combat. I had the audacity to roll a magic user. With Baldur’s Gate acting as my first exposure to the AD&D ruleset, I found myself shocked by my level 1 character’s utter lack of utility. I had four hit points to my name, a couple magic missiles, and a fear of absolutely everything in the game stronger than a gust of wind.
But magic users are squishy, Adam. Deal with it.
That may be the case, but how is that fun for me? Is strict adherence to the rules adding to my experience or taking away from it? Before I finished the prologue I saw my party wiped, repeatedly. I thought my fortunes would change when Jaheira and Khalid joined the party, but no. I still kept dying. I died harder and faster than if I were playing Darksouls drunk and blindfolded.
Victories were few and far between. I’d break immersion by autosaving after every three steps for fear of a party member’s near-permadeath. Yes, yes, I know could resurrect at the temple. Do you know how expensive that is for a level 1 party? It was easier to take myself out of the internal narrative/ruleset and cheese my way to victory through the all-mighty power of the level 20 user.
Save, die, reload, die, reload, die, reload, and then sneak in a win because I knew exactly how to pull the enemies one at a time. Oh, and then save before the next thing killed me.
Eventually, I cashed in a few quests, but I wasn’t having fun. The game was beating me over the head with the rules, and to compensate I was pushing its rigid inflexibility to the absolute breaking point. Progression became more about defiance of the game’s obtuse adherence to D&D scripture than any sense of personal triumph.
The sage advice of fellow Baldur’s Gate adventurers led to one, near-universal, conclusion: I should have rolled a human cleric with a plan to multispec cleric/fighter. My only consolation for what many a player called a clear fuck-up on my part was the promise of Palpatine-like powers once I hit level twelve. I never stuck to any AD&D PC adventure game long enough to see level five.
With quest completion seemingly impossible I turned to level grinding in the wilderness, a la Final Fantasy. That choice led to even more death. I could practically hear a nasal and churlish DM chiding me for straying from the path He, in His infinite wisdom, laid out before me. As a gamer who came into his own with the likes of Wing Commander: Privateer and Grand Theft Auto, I want the RPG setting to accentuate a sense of freedom, not put me on rails. Yet attempting to explore the Sword Coast, or what little of it was available to me, almost always resulted in blundering into fights I couldn’t possibly win. Each death was a reminder that I was doing it wrong. I wasn’t playing the game the way it wanted me to play, so I quit. And now, finally, I understand why I quit.
It’s not that the game is bad, it’s that I don’t respect Baldur’s Gate’s authority. There’s no way for me to break the DM’s story – or feel like I am even if it is a controlled burn. It’s not you, Baldur’s Gate, it’s me.
So please, good reader, don’t assume the above to be my way of saying Baldur’s Gate and company aren’t worth playing. Obviously, a lot of people think they are very important. I don’t necessarily think those people are wrong. For my time, I see Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale as part of an artistic evolution. We don’t get Pillars of Eternity, which I love, without Baldur’s Gate, which I’m sure other people love enough on my behalf. Fortunately, one needn’t particularly enjoy the foundation of a genre to appreciate the greatness built on its back.