What A GM should learn from Baldur’s Gate 3

Like a lot of people, I’ve played a lot of Baldur’s Gate 3 this winter. We also play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, and while it’s a different medium, there’s a lot to consider in the digital game that can have direct use at the tabletop. Starting with something hands on:

Players are more horny than you think

Yes, some people found the amount of horny party members in Baldur’s Gate 3 problematic. But it’s fair to say that people talked about and wrote about and made videos about the game a lot more because of all the sex.

This is interesting, because Dungeons & Dragons is designed to be devoid of even implied sex, let alone having players design their character’s genitals. I am shocked that Wizards was okay with this. On the other hand, it makes sense, because there’s always been a conflict around sex in D&D. Many of the most beloved, classic artists are all about titillation, while the text pretends none of it exists. There is a substantial amount of interest in sex in the audience, but the game doesn’t do anything with it. Until Baldur’s Gate 3, which absolutely ran with it.

Alias, a fantasy warrior woman with very revealing armor that wouldn't protect her all that much. There's a lizard warrior in the background with an unwieldy looking sword.
Curse of the Azure Bonds by Clyde Caldwell, 1988. This AD&D cover was on my bedroom wall as a kid, and I got her titular tattoo myself in 2023. By today’s fashion standards, it’s tame stuff, but it was pretty risqué back then. I read the adventure itself a few years back and find it unplayable due to the amount of literal mind control going on. Copyright Clyde Caldwell 1988, Wizards of the Coast 2014.

D&D doesn’t have any rules or mechanics around sex, unlike a game like Monsterhearts or Thirsty Sword Lesbians. (Which I both love!) That makes it a lot harder to bring sex to the table – games tend to revolve around things there are rules for. Can you roll for it? If not, it’s just not going to be as high in priority as things you can roll for, and that are present on your character sheet. A D&D game’s central tension revolves around “do we get to roll initiative soon”, and changing that to “do we get to hop in bed soon” is not straightforward.

My advice is to accept that players like to include romance and indeed sex with their fantasy gaming, and embrace it. How you bring sex into the game is completely up to your group. In many (most) adventuring groups someone is going to seduce an NPC to get somewhere or learn about some secret at some point, and then you can simply spend a little more time on it. Don’t glance it over. Make it obvious that the game has room for it.

To get started, all you need to do is to bring in characters or behavior you think your fellow players might respond to, and make it obvious that there is room for romance – a teasing smirk, a compliment on someone’s outfit, a warm smile, prolonged eye contact, an invitation for dinner. You might want to highlight details of their look or physique.

I’m not saying your game will or should turn into a dating simulator (again, no rules for that in most games), but if intimacy and romance are something your players enjoy, let them have their fun. Perhaps there’s a bit more time spent during camp at who’s sleeping with who, or maybe some folks sneak away during the day’s travel for some private time. Who knows what might happen when the party’s divided like that – the innocent fun could lead to adventure!

Something you want to be careful around is player characters getting it on with each other. It can be a lot of fun! But all players need to be into it, and you want to be extra careful with your level of detail – again, check your safety tools and be mindful of everyone’s level of comfort. There is a high probability of bleed, and your players should understand what’s happening.

As a detail, in BG3 the characters don’t care about the protagonist’s gender, and they’re willing to get it on with whoever. My advice is that your characters probably shouldn’t care, either. If the players are into it, just let it happen, unless you want your game to be about rejection and heartbreak. Your game table should be a safe space for everyone to explore without judgement or ridicule.

You should set clear expectations and boundaries, as what’s okay for you might not be the same to another player, even if it’s someone you’ve played with for years. I recommend the Lines & Veils safety tool for this. Most groups do not want explicit descriptions of sex at the table, and in most circumstances it is enough to know that sex happened between characters, and then focus on how that’s changed things between them.

In any game where you introduce romantic or sexual themes for the first time (or any time, but especially the first time), I highly encourage setting aside enough time for aftercare: talk about the game, do a Stars & Wishes round, and see how everyone responded to the new elements.

Conflict within the party is good

Everyone is suspicious of everyone else! There is a threat of violence within the party! Of course in Baldur’s Gate 3 this is made a lot more more interesting because everyone still wants your attention as the sole protagonist of the story, and that’s a different dynamic to the real life gaming party. In a gaming party we usually treat all player characters as protagonists, and we need to tell a satisfying story about their shared adventure.

This leads to a lot of attention being paid to cohesion in adventuring parties, and how their goals should align. I feel that’s emphasized too much. A healthy of amount of conflict goes a long way in maintaining a good dramatic tension in everything the party does. Even a standard fight gets a lot more interesting when there’s people who don’t really like each other needing to work together.

The trick, of course, is “healthy amount of tension”. You can go far with conflict as long as the players are on the same page (they’ve talked about what they’re doing here) and know that ultimately the characters will work together and tolerate each other.

I have a player who has a tendency to create characters that go so far off the rails that ultimately they’re written out of the game. That’s also fine, as long as all players are on board with that, and as long as they don’t make the game terrible for everyone else.

To get started with intra party conflict, I always do a round of “who’s your best buddy” and “who you don’t really get along with at this point” during character generation, in all games. We talk about the reasons why, and how usually those differences might ultimately be settled. This helps seed the drama and gives players something to hold onto in their improvised play.

There’s a game that can help you play with intra party conflict: The Mountain Witch. It’s essentially Reservoir Dogs set on a witch haunted mountainside in mythical Japan, and it revolves around building character conflict.

Key in managing conflict within the group is setting expectations. To be able to responsibly play conflict between players, the players need to be able to talk about it in advance in plain terms. (Yes, just like sex.) After intense intra party conflict, enough time for aftercare and debrief is essential. Check in on everyone and discuss the heated scenes. Ask how everyone is feeling.

Really big back stories are great!

…If you bring them to the table. Case in point: Gale the white guy wizard in Baldur’s Gate 3. Gale is the one guy I never used because he’s just so bland. Why pick this guy when you have the vampire, the multiple demons, the devil worshipper, and so forth to choose from?

Spoilers for BG3 in this paragraph: Then it’s revealed that Gale needs to eat magic items. This is when I started using him – his really severe limitation made him interesting. Then he claims he’s the lover of the goddess of magic herself, literally spending time in her bed, only to be kicked out by her for being an over ambitious fool. At this point he became a regular in my group – a mythical playboy fallen from grace? That’s proper character building material. Then Elminster the arch wizard shows up, eats some cheese, and explains how the magical bomb inside Gale is the only way to stop the Abomination… tying his personal story to the shared story. Just like that, the dull wizard became the coolest wizard! Spoilers end!

I used to say that nobody cares about your stupid back story. They don’t – if all you do is merely relate it, and then leave it on the table, or worse still, never share it. Make it the driver of the night’s story, and that’s a very different situation.

Again I direct you to The Mountain Witch. The way the game works is that it only advances after all players have advanced their personal story arcs. Until then, all the GM does is hit your over the head with increasingly bad demon attacks. You get a very limited “budget” to do this – only three to four scenes to lay out your tragic past, build it to a climax, and resolve it. Starting out, this is very hard to do. It gets dramatically easier with repetition.

You can’t approach all RPGs like The Mountain Witch, as most other games have other components that also need space at the table. But if you challenge yourself to advance your personal story by one beat per game, that’s already plenty, and likely your chacter will become way more dynamic than you’re used to.

The trick to making this really work is to involve other player characters in your personal story. The lone wolf stereotype does not work in a roleplaying game, because the play is about the group, not any single character. Invite other players to come up with details for you, and to invent even wild, previously unknown connections to their characters that turn up in play. Dramatic soap opera twists like long lost siblings work really well at the table – they don’t feel like cliches when they’re happening to you! Avoid bringing in new NPCs if you can help it: always see if there’s a way to tie your story to the other characters first, no matter how outlandish. This is fantasy gaming, after all. (In a more down to earth setting you might want to hold off a bit to maintain the tone, but soap opera structures still work very well.)

Same goes for the GM. You want to pay attention to the character back stories, and build them into your bigger story. Be ready to make changes to your NPC back stories to accommodate the player characters – they are the protagonists, after all.


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