Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 24, 2013
I 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.
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