Baldur’s Gate 3 is the latest, and perhaps greatest, attempt to bring the Dungeons & Dragons game to the video game world. At the same time, it’s a new chapter in a long legacy that surrounds the interplay between the original tabletop RPG and the video gaming hobby. It’s a strange truth that, even as a video game, Baldur’s Gate 3 has emerged as one of the most potent arguments in years for trying out the actual D&D game at a table.
When I was a kid growing up in the ‘80s, playing D&D was not something you would readily admit to. Beyond the open ridicule you might face from your peers, it had a genuine chance to get you barred from some of your friends’ homes. No joke. More than a few parents back then truly believed that D&D was tantamount to actual demon worship, and they wouldn’t want their kids to have anything to do with you if you played. It was a hobby that came with some serious baggage.
But for those of us who played, it was worth the problems. Over numerous editions, different fantasy worlds, publisher changes, and various creative voices behind the game, D&D has always remained a hobby with enormous potential for creativity, deepening of friendships, emergent storytelling, and fun.
Over the years, we’ve had some strong video games rooted in the license, going as far back as the SSI Gold Box games like Pool of Radiance, to deeply complex narratives like those in Planescape: Torment, to later successes that provided options for adventure creation like Neverwinter Nights. It’s also highly arguable that the D&D tabletop game helped give rise to every other fantasy RPG you’ve ever played on a screen. It’s an influential game for both the tabletop and video game hobbies.
The core mechanics of D&D are deeply baked into the Baldur’s Gate 3 adventure
With Baldur’s Gate 3, Larian Studios takes the torch from BioWare’s earlier establishment of the franchise and launches it to higher levels of acclaim than ever. Our review is just one of many that praise the game’s flexibility, narrative, and immersion. The final game is a triumph by almost any critical or commercial measure, bringing the fiction and rulesets of the D&D game to new audiences and ably translating the tabletop experience into a rewarding and nuanced journey.
If you’ve discovered something you love in Baldur’s Gate 3, it’s likely that part of what clicks for you is D&D itself, or at least the broader flexibility of an actual role-playing game.
Many video game RPGs borrow elements of true role-playing, such as character progression or long-form storytelling. Still, they stop short of truly embracing the magic of playing a role and shaping the outcome. That’s part of the magic of a tabletop role-playing session, in which a gamemaster has the bones of a story, and the players control that story’s chief characters; no one knows precisely how it will turn out.
That’s nearly impossible to fully emulate in a video game, since there’s no gamemaster to respond extemporaneously, and players are limited in their choices. But Baldur’s Gate 3, perhaps more than any game I’ve played, seems to anticipate the weird and clever things a player might try to do. Speak to animals? Sure – virtually every animal in the game has scripted dialogue. Try to steal that crucial quest item before the villain can use it in the cutscene? We’ve got you covered. It’s a fascinating attempt to give players the flexibility to play how they want.
Praise for Baldur’s Gate 3 aside, this kind of stuff happens all the time in a real game of D&D. Having played for over 30 years myself, I can’t count the number of times a player in my D&D group came up with a completely outlandish idea that changed the course of an entire story or adventure, creating a memorable tale that the attending group would recall for years to come. If that high level of creativity in Baldur’s Gate 3 got you excited, a real D&D game has that baked in.
But it’s not just the flexibility of storytelling. Many others have noted that Baldur’s Gate 3 has fantastic and enjoyable systems underlying the flow of combat, exploration, and interactions. Again, that’s because the team at Larian has done a phenomenal job of adapting those same systems from the tabletop game. You could hardly have a better tutorial for playing D&D at the table than several dozen hours with Baldur’s Gate 3. From the d20 dice-rolling resolution mechanic to character-leveling to the skills and abilities you use in play – that all comes from the tabletop RPG. Most of those systems have been tweaked and refined over decades of play, and the current edition of D&D is celebrated for its excellence in synthesizing what has come before into a highly playable form.
There’s also the possibility that Baldur’s Gate 3 gave you a first glimpse at the fiction of D&D – specifically the Forgotten Realms setting through which the game weaves. Decades of growth and development have enriched that setting (considered the core and default setting for most groups), and there’s now a wealth of characters, stories, locations, and dastardly villains to discover. Moreover, if high Western-centric fantasy isn’t your thing, there’s no shortage of other official (and unofficial) campaign settings to discover. You can take on magical adventures in outer space with Spelljammer, a titanic clash of armies and gods in the Dragonlance setting, or skyships and mechanical beings in the intriguing world of Eberron. There’s a multiverse of D&D settings out there to discover, and it’s hugely entertaining to learn about them, much less set a game in each.
For players ready to take the leap, the Player’s Handbook offers a good place to start, or get a more catered introduction with the D&D Starter Set.
On the other hand, if Baldur’s Gate 3 worked for you as a role-playing narrative, but you didn’t love the way combat was handled, or you weren’t a fan of the setting, it’s possible that what you’re looking for is one of the hundreds of other awesome tabletop RPGs on the market, which explore all kinds of approaches to gameplay, narrative, and setting. In the last few years, games like Vaesen, Starfinder, The One Ring, Dragonbane, or the Marvel Multiverse RPG offer highly recommended routes into tabletop play, each with unique perspectives.
There’s a good reason that Baldur’s Gate 3 has gotten the reception it has in recent weeks. It’s a fantastic game that deserves to be played, and it’s finally available on both PC and PS5 (and coming soon to Xbox Series X/S). If you’re playing it as we speak or just finished, and you’re hungry for more, there are other excellent video game RPGs to discover. But I’d encourage the idea that it’s also an ideal time to gather a group of friends, sit down at a table, and give a shot to creating your own adventures. It’s a learning process that takes time to fully grasp all the rules, but the good part is that no one is there to judge you. Make whatever mistakes you make, and keep rolling those dice. I suspect even the talented developers at Larian would be the first to tell you that sitting around that table is where you can truly create a story that is all your own.
For some great recent tabletop RPG releases, feel free to peruse our picks for the best role-playing releases of 2022 and 2021, or explore a broader selection of tabletop recommendations through our Top of the Table hub.