Baldur’s Gate 3 is obviously a triumph. It’s an astonishingly ambitious and successful RPG, which brings the long-abandoned series back to its D&D routes, while building on everything developers Larian learned when making the exceptional Divinity: Original Sin games. But if there’s one aspect of the game that is constantly getting me down, it’s the dice rolls.
Now, let’s be clear: dice are a great aspect of D&D, introducing elements that smartly combine ability with luck to allow for surprises and entertaining failures to up-end an intended story. They make battles more interesting, and allow a good Dungeon Master (DM) to improvise on the fly in any given scenario. I am not, to be abundantly clear, anti-dice. It’s just, I don’t think Baldur’s Gate 3 gets them right, and I don’t think it gets them right in very important ways.
Let’s explore a bit more of what makes a bagful of D20s, D10s and D6s a boon to tabletop gaming, in order to better understand their role (and roll). If you and some friends are playing a game of D&D (or any other variant of chance-involving tabletop gaming, but I’ll just keep saying “D&D” for ease), then the handful of dice can be the difference between a staid and standard storyline, and one of endlessly twisting revelations and deft improvisations.
As humans (even when pretending to be tieflings) we are deeply prone to both idealizing situations, and repeating ourselves. Both can make a fantasy world incredibly limited, especially when we allow everything to work out how we want it to. Adding in dice, and letting that element of chance scupper all our best laid preparations, forces us into the novel, and almost always the best and most memorable moments of imaginary play.
Rolling a 3 when you needed a 13 means immediately thinking on your feet, scrapping your plans and frantically coming up with something new. Perhaps you’ve now fallen down a crevasse so easily crossed that the DM didn’t even plan for what’s down there. Maybe you rolled a natural 1, whiffing your attack so badly you set yourself on fire, and have to find a body of water fast. It could be that just missing that all-important 15 sees a player character die, absolutely devastating your story, changing everything, and in turn introducing a whole new character to the story. All moments that would never have occurred if just assuming success.
Therefore, surely it should be wonderful that Baldur’s Gate 3 makes dice rolls such an integral and visible part of the game? RPGs in the game’s lineage have always been rolling numbers, but more usually in secret, only the results playing out in front of you as if inevitabilities. And while BG3 keeps a fair amount still behind-the-scenes (such as in combat), the game’s purple D20 appears in the middle of your screen with astonishing frequency.
It appears in two main roles. The first is the more obvious use, when deciding whether your attempts to pick a lock or disarm a trap are successful. A lock’s difficulty is determined by the number you need to match or beat, and then your character’s personal abilities and gained skills can help add on to the rolled result. The consequences of failure can be a face full of poison, or a wasted lockpick, but it feels like a fair and common system. The second use, and it’s just as frequently used, is when deciding if narrative choices will succeed. And it’s here that I think BG3 so messes things up.
It doesn’t help, of course, that the D20 animation is bad, with the fuzzy, meaningless “roll” of the die not using physics or any real-world elements. Imagine a version where you could pick your own sparkly-colored die, and then watch a real-time physics-based roll as it bounces off the walls of its container and settles on its number in front of you. Oh, and at the other extreme, imagine if they could just let you turn off the animation altogether and just immediately get a result, rather than sit there hammering at mouse buttons, waiting for it to bloody let you click on the “Continue” button. Nope.
But that’s an aside. The more serious reason is that it sucks the magic out of the atmosphere. Because in real-world D&D, the dice roll creates opportunity. In Baldur’s Gate 3, it stifles it.
Given BG3 obviously can’t allow a player to improvise their own responses to situations (yet—AI DMs are going to be a thing, I’m sure), so instead in the game you’re given a list of possible choices in any given scenario. This is obviously how all good RPGs have worked for decades, with specific choices only appearing for specific characters, based on classes, races, backgrounds, or gained skills. But in most, either the choice being there means it’s available to you, or the odds of success available and the roll to determine its success is hidden from you, and the failure fairly inconsequential.
BG3's incredible ambition means you’re constantly offered absolutely fascinating-sounding possibilities, with no way of knowing your odds, then shown a shabby animated D20 denying you it. And it’s infuriating!
Let’s take an incredibly unimportant moment in the game to illustrate this, so as to avoid spoilers: the entrance to the goblin camp on your way to rescue the druid Halsin. When you get there, you can chat to the goblin in charge—Sentinel Olak—with a bunch of different approaches available. As a Ranger, I tried to impress him with my knowledge of worgs, asking if they were a member of the “Nordiland worgata family.” For some reason, it required a dice roll to determine if I...successfully said these words out loud? I didn’t think it would. But it was only asking for a 5, so maybe not so bad. Except, incredibly, I rolled a natural 1.
Now, as I play BG3 I’m being pretty strict with myself about allowing things to play out as the dice fall. I made a bad decision to kill an owl bear, and I’m living with it. I ended up killing a bunch of people I could have helped, and I’m sucking it up. But in moments like this, where I was just interested to see the result of a conversation, yeah, I’m save-scumming. I reloaded out of bloody-mindedness, determined to see the result of this incredibly bland conversation option, and rolled another 1. I loaded again and got a 5, which became a 4 after a -1 Intelligence was applied.
On a fourth attempt, I succeeded in saying a sentence, and it opened up an even more trivial situation: one where Olak decided he’d only let me into camp if I smeared worg shit on my face. It was a deliberate attempt to make a fool of me, and I was given the [ATHLETICS] option to “Scoop up the warm dung and fling it at Olak’s face.” That sounded fun, so I picked it, and it conjured another dice roll! This time, for the athletic feat of picking up some poo and throwing it at a person stood immediately in front of me, I was required to get a 10. I had a 50:50 chance of being able to move some shit. And I failed at it.
At this point, the whole exercise was purely academic. Both success and failure end in the same fight (agreeing to wipe poo on your face is a far more interesting route to take, it turns out, as discovered by my now endemic save-scumming), so not getting the 10 mattered not one bit. But I was determined to anyway, just to spite the stupid system.
Yes, this is a dumb example, but I picked it because giving any of the hundreds of more serious ones might spoil a key moment of the game, and it’s emblematic of the issue. BG3 dangles interesting possibilities in front of you, then tells you you’re not allowed to experience them because of an arbitrary system of deeply weirdly balanced dice rolls.
Here’s another dumb example: the time I failed to peer at a dog’s collar. I failed at looking at a thing in front of me. It asked for a 10, and I had a total of +4 to add to my result because I’m so good at...looking at dog collars. And I failed. I guess I thought about a drawing of a lemon or something.
A good DM doesn’t operate like this. A good DM wants the players to experience the most interesting possibilities, especially if they’re trying something as weird as throwing feces at a goblin. It should be a very simple check to pass, with the possibility of failure the far more unlikely and potentially interesting situation. Oh, and it’s also the case that a DM wouldn’t offer players a list of five possible ways to react to a circumstance, making one of them sound brilliant, and then not letting anyone experience it.
Throughout BG3, the temptation to save-scum your way through scenarios to view the more interesting outcomes becomes overwhelming. Of course there will be those who will diligently refuse, ascetically accepting the plainest experience and priding themselves on this feat, but it’s hard to think of them as the winners. Yet, it feels fake and crappy to reload a quicksave (and to be clear, the game lets you quicksave in the middle of conversations, even on the dice roll itself), just to keep re-rolling a die until you get the number you want. That’s an awful way to go about playing a game, and yet I’m arguing one Baldur’s Gate 3 engenders in its players.
Infuriatingly, there’s a much better system that could have been used: use the dice rolls to determine whether you see the interesting choices. In that list of replies, have the ones dependent upon rolling the right number be invisible until your roll! You get shown there’s an [CONSTITUTION] check available, know what your Constitution score is, and decide if you want to roll to unlock it. Fail, and there are still consequences. Succeed and you’ll get to see the interesting possibility you can now select. It makes so much more sense in every way, not least when as it is, the roll is so often nonsensically determining whether your character is able to have an idea you’ve just clicked on.
But even short of this (and there are obviously arguments that such a system wouldn’t work for, say, Persuasion or Intimidation situations), at least show us the number we’re going to need to roll before we pick it! It can vary from as low as 2 to as high as 20, but you can’t know before clicking, and it’s often absolutely bizarre which extreme it picks. (Again: 10 to be able to throw a piece of poo.)
The core point here is: Baldur’s Gate 3 dangles its most interesting options before you, then denies them to you based on random luck. And that’s not D&D at its best. Worse, there’s a way around it, a way to “correct” this for yourself, but it’s save-scumming, and you just feel dirty and rubbish. Yet, the alternative is knowing you just killed an entire village of characters who could have given you information, even quests, or fleshed out later stages of the game, because you didn’t roll a 15 in that one conversation.
There’s no right answer here as a player. Those who will angrily demand no one ever reload are likely having a less interesting time with the game as a result. Those who are reloading unlucky dice rolls are also diminishing their own experience (even if it’s just because they feel bad), as once you start, it’s hard to stop. Or even worse, people might start picking the more bland options simply because they don’t come with the unfair risk.
However, there’s also no wrong answer too. You’re allowed to save-scum if you want to, no matter how furiously Steve comments below this article! It’s your game, to play how you want. And of course this remains an amazing game, that I’m absolutely loving. My issue is that BG3 so frequently creates this specific dilemma, when it could have been so much better handled.
Disclaimer: In a former life, I was BG3 lead writer Adam Smith’s boss. But he abandoned me to go work for Larian so I hate him.