Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Being Pathetic and Loving It

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 24, 2013

BGEE1I recently re-played Baldur’s Gate via Overhaul Games’ updated “Enhanced Edition,” which I personally felt did a pretty decent job of enhancing the game (and fixing some of its flaws, especially on modern machines).

After so many years living in more modern systems, it was kinda fun taking the wayback machine to the 2nd edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. It was also a harsh reminder of how brutal those earlier rules were.

How did anyone ever make it to level 4?

Oh, right – combat was not nearly as common in the “real” dice & paper game as in the computer versions, and the computer versions allow saves. But… man. It seemed like every half-hour, combat would begin, and *SPLUTCH*. If you’ve not played Baldur’s Gate, the other members of your party are pretty optional, and can be killed (and, sometimes, brought back) as needed. But if your primary character has his or her hit points dropped to zero (or some other nasty permanent state, like getting petrified), the game is immediately ended.

For the first three levels, characters are pretty much a single critical hit or failed save away from death. Even at higher levels, there are a number of “save or die” effects in that system.  Many of these remained well into 3rd edition, too.  Insta-death really was kind of a lame factor of the rules system, but it came from an era where characters were expected to be pretty disposable. After all, in the original D&D rules, it took all of maybe ten minutes to create a new character.

But while I’m not a huge fan of insta-death, there’s something to be said for characters being so incredibly weak and pathetic in the older D&D rules. I mean, even in edition 3.5 (which lives on, in part, due to Pathfinder), someone once calculated that in a straight-up melee fight, on the average a 1st level wizard would die in a fight against a common HOUSE CAT. Yes, denied the use of his magic spells, four times out of five first-level Gandalf would be shredded and left in a bloody pulp on the floor by Mr. Whiskers.

Most modern CRPGs try to get away from that legacy, and bend over backwards to make you, as a player, feel at least somewhat badass at lower levels. And I’m okay with that.

But there’s a certain charm in the old-school style of starting your character out as a common nobody, perhaps with less-than-stellar stats, a doofus who barely knows which end of the sword is the business end, and for whom an oversized rat is a fair fight, and a lowly hobgoblin is a “boss monster.” The charm really doesn’t come from having your characters shot out from under you, of course – it comes from your character surviving long enough to no longer be pathetic, managing to escape the extreme vulnerability of the early levels and emerge powerful. Maybe it’s only out of pure luck, but you feel like that survival means something, rather than being pre-ordained.

I read once about the difference between mythological heroes and fairy-tale heroes. In most mythologies, heroes are born. Sometimes – for example, Greek / Roman myth – they are the children of gods. Or they are born with particular powers that set them apart from normal men. By contrast, fairy-tale heroes are more often ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. They are intended to teach, and thus the heroes are supposed to be easy to identify with.

Baldur’s Gate bridges that gap somewhat – you play a character whose origin is very much like the mythological hero. But you start out pretty dang pathetic and vulnerable.

Maybe there’s something to that. Maybe that’s a part of the reason (if only a small one) why Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 have become classics of the CRPG genre.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 14 Comments to Read

  • Adamantyr said,

    Baldur’s Gate was definitely a “last visit” to the classic AD&D rules system… I actually disliked how they added new spells and started bending the system starting in Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate 2.

    That said, it WAS hard to play. The constant combat made it so you almost had to do the “save, rest, restore if random encounter” pattern in order to succeed.

    Sadly, I never managed to even finish BG. I could just finish the Cloakwood story line and get to the city and I would just lose all interest in continuing after the near constant grinding.

  • Anon said,

    I never saw Baldur’s Gate.

    You see, I never was a P&P RPG player and my knowledge of the AD&D stuff is very limited.
    That being said I read several Forgotten Realms novels back when a lot of you probably still pooped into your diapers (you know: the 80ies ;-)).

    You could say that I was a fan of the setting and the characters and when Baldur’s Gate came out I naturally was interested in it and immediately bought it.

    At first everything was alright and the first dozen or so hours flew by. I wandered the lands, helped people, defeated beasts whether on two or more legs.

    But I always had problems with one thing: The magic system.

    Either I’m simply too stupid to get it or it was one of the bad consequences of sticking too much to the official rule set.

    I just never understood the “plan/prepare your spells, sleep/rest to fill your “magical energy”, use your three spells in combat”-cycle.
    Of course you get more spells than three but they always seemed to be a very limited resource. It’s been a long time since I played BG so my memories may be a bit foggy but I distinctively remember often having prepared spells I didn’t have use for. If I remember right I couldn’t trade them for others in combat.

    The result: My mages were always underpowered and often totally useless in combat. My warriors always had to babysit them as they couldn’t defend themselves on their own with their daggers and weak armor.

    It was a disaster waiting to happen.

    In the Gnoll Stronghold where a dozen or so enemies unleashed fire arrows on me my game was instantly over.
    Regardless what tactic I applied my party was reduced so much that I began to lose interest. Somehow I was lucky and got through, though, and could continue.

    In Cloakwood Forest with the teleporting “phase spiders” (or what they are called in the English version) my journey was finally over. I was too unnerved and lost interest – I guess I’m just not masochistic enough.

    To be honest, I don’t know right now if I even needed to go into Cloakwood or could have skipped it for the moment, but as I wrote I’m probably too stupid.

    It’s still unfinished business, though, and I continued even older games at some point so I got the download versions from the good folks at GOG.com and my save games also still exist – so, yes, perhaps I’ll feast my eyes on Baldur’s Gate some time…

  • Myrkrel said,

    For tabletop lately I’ve been playing the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG – and this takes “starting as a nobody” to whole new levels. Each player begins with a handful of 0-level commoners of various professions (like herdsman, butcher, carpenter, etc.) The few who survive the early adventure get to be actual 1st-level characters (choosing a class) played long-term. It’s an interesting system as it kind of builds the character as you play. My guy ended up loosing an eye early on – so instant character trait there.

    It has been a refreshing change from stuff like 3.5 / Pathfinder where intricately planning out a character build is the norm. I’ve had a lot of fun with DCC so far, and struggling upwards from nothing has been rewarding.

    But I like both approaches, depending on what I’m in the mood for.

  • Darius said,

    The brutal difficulty turned me off of Balder’s Gate when it first came out. I had read the 2nd edition rule books, but never actually played, so I didn’t realize it was just that hard. Always figured I was doing something wrong when I had to restart combats a dozen times or so just to survive.

    Glad to know I’m not the only one who had trouble getting through it, I always felt like a pariah for not having finished it.

  • McTeddy said,

    You know I’m a fan of old-school RPGS… but one thing about ALL those D&D games that bugged me was the combat.

    I had to save-scum because everything was so random… and I couldn’t do a thing to change it. My fighter could only attack by rolling a D20. He lived and died based on that single die roll. While I love that he could die from one hit, I never felt like I had any control of it.

    I always wished someone would do a similar game but allow a player to change his “Stance”. Allow a player to play defensively against a high threat enemy… carefully target a fast moving enemy… overwhelm an amateur fighters defenses with constant attacks. Give me just a little control over the random numbers so that a smart player doesn’t have to die.

    I just wish I could keep the lethality of D&D without the constant reloading because of bad dice rolls.

  • Adamantyr said,

    What’s scary is that 2nd Edition AD&D is actually “easier” than classic 1st Edition AD&D. I’ve run some vintage “throwback” games of both, and I found 2nd Edition was much smoother to run. And a lot easier to look up rules in.

    By the mid-90’s though, nobody wanted to play it anymore because everyone was bored with AD&D, and it was so difficult to get characters advanced. I had to bribe players to play in a campaign I was doing by letting them have ridiculously high stats (one min-maxed to get a 20 strength) and starting them out at level 3.

    I forget where I found it, but I read an article once about how the Black Isle dev team was completely confused by the magic item system in AD&D and how some items couldn’t be worn with others, while some could overlap safely. Creating a class-based object that supported all the edge cases must have been a nightmare…

  • Void said,

    The problem with ADnD system is that character’s capabilities and HPs are developed linearly.

  • CdrJameson said,

    D&D? Strictly softcore. In Traveller your character could die before you’d even finished generating them.

    Seriously though, I like being weak. Not random-insta-death weak, but have-to-be-careful weak.

    I really enjoyed Fallout 3 when creeping around the wasteland with a BB gun, avoiding every random Robbie. I had to think or I’d get into real trouble. Often, running away made sense.

    A few tens of hours later and I can just go wherever I feel like it. Don’t need to think, plan or consider tactical advantage. If anything jumps out at me, it’s dead. Don’t need to forage for stuff. Got loads.

    Dull, dull, dull.

    Got rid of my companions, because they were just making it even easier, but it just ran out of challenge and I stopped playing.

  • Maklak said,

    I like starting somewhat weak, but not too weak. Fallout 1 was great about it: you get a gun, some ammo, a few stimpacks and caps, a knife and that’s it. You’re strong enough to survive the rats and random encounters with radscorpions and you find help (Ian) and a better weapon and armour pretty fast.

    I also like the phase when I’m pretty much the king of the hill and can go almost wherever I want and prevail. Granted, the game tends to loose it’s appeal not long after that, but at first it’s great. One of the fun things about Morrowind was that at some point I could equip my permaflight amulet, dwemer crossbow for cliffracers and just explore whatever I felt like. Some enemies were still tough enough to force me to flee, but I wouldn’t usually die.

  • Xenovore said,

    Ah AD&D 2nd edition, how I hate thee.

    This was the first fantasy RPG system that I played (my very first RPG was GammaWorld); initially I was like “hey, this is pretty cool” but the luster wore off pretty quick. I had rolled up a magic user, with a whole 3 HP, and was soon rather bored. For me, a session would consist of either A) trying to save my single Magic Missile spell for the most opportune encounter (while doing little more than cowering in the mean time); or B) casting it right away (and then doing little more than cowering for the rest of the session). So most of the time I wasn’t really participating, only watching. And other classes weren’t much better; without major coddling by the DM, low level characters just didn’t survive. Also, after having played GammaWorld (which had a much better system than AD&D), the arbitrary, ad hoc nature of the AD&D ruleset really started to annoy. So, most of the time playing AD&D, I was like, “well, I guess this is fun…”

    Then some of us discovered MERP, which was a breath of fresh air. Right away, MERP made so much more sense; the rules were actually intelligent — genius even, compared to AD&D. And we got to play in one of our favorite fantasy settings. More importantly however, we could play characters, casters or otherwise, that could actually survive and participate at level 1 (and without constant GM intervention).

    TL;DR: “being pathetic” isn’t actually much fun. I do appreciate the whole weak-to-strong progression thing — that’s how it should work — but AD&D took it (unnecessarily) to the extreme. And Baldur’s Gate was that much worse again, since there was no DM to intervene on behalf of the characters. So, much like my early role-playing with AD&D, I played Baldur’s Gate for a bit, then moved on to better things.

  • Adamantyr said,

    Researching older editions of D&D does net some surprising results.

    For example, if you look at the treasure tables, it’s very clear that players were SUPPOSED to get tons of treasure. Like, dragon hoard levels of treasure.

    Money in the game was more like a score in a pinball game. You usually had so much XP from money that you essentially leveled up at will, so long as you had money to pay for the training. Level loss from monsters didn’t really matter; you usually had an excess of money and XP to just retrain up.

    So what happened? Well, it’s clear that many DM’s didn’t really like this at all. So they cut the treasure down from the original tables to almost nothing. After awhile, it just became the accepted norm.

    The problem is, the system was designed to give vast rewards to players. Sure it was lethal at low levels, but consider if you walked out of a dungeon with 5,000GP at first level. You’d level up fast, and you’d have money to buy the best gear, upgrade your spellbook, etc. Without that reward, though, you just extend the misery for several levels.

    In some ways, AD&D was actually a backwards step for the system. The first real set of rules (Blue box) had enough ambiguity and arbitration that the system was configurable for any style of play. Gygax put an end to that by making AD&D static and fixed, and inferred in the rules that deviation was “unacceptable”. It took nearly two decades before we shook off the concept that it wasn’t okay to play the game the way you wanted to.

  • Darklord said,

    Huh I never found it that hard. Simple tips, make sure everyone has a ranged weapon, target one enemy at a time. Take out spell casters ASAP! Use scouts (a ranger or thief) kite enemies if needed, use your area effect spells well.


  • Shryke said,

    Agree with Darklord. I think AD&D, just like any other game system, is only truly challenging if you don’t have a firm grasp on the rules. I remember spending so much time studying the rules, asking questions on forums, and trying different strategies, before I learned which skills and spells were useful in what situations and so on. Baldur’s Gate was my introduction to the tank/ranged damager/healer base combo you now see in every party-based fantasy RPG. I died a lot until I figured out that that was the most effective combination. Then I really got into the spells. It was a lot of fun figuring out the different ways to maim, disable, and otherwise get NPCs off your ass. I totally disagree with the statement that mages being too weak. A well-placed Cloudkill sometimes meant the difference between success and failure, or the only economical means of taking down some foes. I soloed a mage through BG2 once, and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had in video gaming. Role-playing him the whole way, it was an all-out effort to survive on my lonesome, with only my wits and knowledge of the rules and maps to help me.

    In a way, I wish they had never moved away from 2nd edition – but that could be because I now know it so well.

  • Ed said,

    Nah you’re not pathetic, some of us are so old skool its not even funny. Personally I don’t have tweeter, facebook or even iphone/android phones.

    I do liked to re-play fallout 2 more than baldur’s gate though…