This diary first appeared in PC Gamer magazine issue 364 in December 2021. We do one every month, taking on new challenges and approaching our favourite games from entirely new angles—and letting you know how we got on.
Fighter. Rogue. Healer. Mage. This is the archetypical role-playing party, the quadrumvirate that guarantees a good time no matter the setting. It is balanced, broad, and allows you to see as much of the spectrum of adventuring as possible—brute forcing your way into tombs, deactivating their traps, and parsing the strange scrolls found within.
OK, so you deviate from the norm occasionally; maybe you’ve got a couple of slots left over and pick a bard for comic relief, or a monk, because you’re keen to learn the combat function of a smoothly shaved head. But when was the last time you delved into a dungeon with a properly wonky line-up? What was the last RPG you completed with, for instance, six wizards?
Icewind Dale 2 is the snow-tipped hill on which I’ve chosen to die. It has no developer-made companions, so you’re free to build an entire party from scratch right at the beginning of the game. From GOG.com I download not only the game, but also the full manual and Book of Spells. I’m going to need them.
Next, though, comes the backstory. Icewind Dale 2 is set in the Forgotten Realms, and the most famous mages in Faerûn are the Red Wizards of Thay. Hailing from the Unapproachable East, they are the notoriously badnatured ruling class of a populous and cruel country built on slavery.
When the Red Wizards have appeared in other games, they’ve generally had red rings encircling their feet to mark them out as enemies. They don’t exactly help themselves when it comes to public relations: these are the types you find holding dark rituals in the middle of the woods, or belligerently pursuing vulnerable women with innate magical abilities in order to dissect and study them. Their most notable videogame emissary—the haughty Baldur’s Gate companion Edwin—would have been voted 'most likely to fatally turn on his own party' when leaving wizard school.
But we’re going to turn them into protagonists. Our group is to be a mixture of researchers and imperialists—the former sifting the Spine of the World for arcane treasures that could bolster Thay’s power, and the latter scouting the Dale’s defences as the prelude to an invasion. If anybody asks, though, they’re simple merchants and archeologists.
In the weeds
Traditionally, the Thayan council had a representative from every D&D school of magic, so we’ll try to do the same with our party. Up front are Whambam Mam and Thrul Ovvshytt, a conjurer and transmuter respectively. In close combat terms, wizards are essentially PhD students in pyjamas—but these two compensate for their weedy physiques with summoned weapons and physical transformation.
They’re backed up by two ranged specialists. One, an old and bearded evoker named Zzimerfram, will bring the magic missiles and lightning bolts. The other, who goes by Ichadad Bod, is an enchanter trained in mind manipulation—perfect for goblin crowd control.
The party is rounded out by Kul Anthurrgangg, an illusionist I hope can stand in for a rogue, and Szass Quatch, a necromancer. The Red Wizards don’t ever leave the house without a necromancer. That’s just part and parcel of being evil.
The six of them set sail up the Sword Coast from Luskan, answering the call for adventurers to counter goblin attacks in the Ten Towns. By the time they get there, however, there are just nine towns remaining—Bremen is burning, and most of the mercenaries sent to help have been slaughtered on their ships during an ambush. Unfortunately, that includes the escort of fearsome Thayan gladiators, clerics, and knights that should have kept our wizards out of harm’s way once they alighted in Icewind Dale. Our pyjama party will have to fend for itself.
To begin with, that goes rather well. Against the scrimshaw-and-snow backdrop of the town of Targos, the bright yellow goblins stand out a mile. Every time one sidles into view, I slam the spacebar to pause the action, then leisurely peruse my party’s menu of prepared spells. An ice dagger? Don’t mind if I do. Chromatic orb? Would be rude not to.
Quickly, though, the well of mana runs dry. More than once, we have to trudge back to the ship we rode in on and sheepishly ask the captain if he minds us having a nap beneath his boards. Targos burns to the ground while the Red Wizards get their heads down for the recommended eight hours, replenishing their spell bank in the process.
A local soldier, Brogan, tells us a goblin force has seized a warehouse at the docks, which piques the interest of the party. If we clear it, we’ll get a free look at the trading goods—some potentially magical—transported into Targos. But we could do with some brawny backup to take the blows for us. We head to the pub to rouse a mercenary trio, the Iron Collar Company, but they sneer in our faces. "Who the hells do you think ye are," says the one called Black Geoffrey, "butting into my tale while I’m sharing a tankard with my friends?" We’re on our own.
Brogan seems worried. "You might want to keep wounded members of your party—or, uh, wizards—outside the warehouse while the rest of your band storms the place," he says. "One arrow can drop a man before he even knows the archer is there."
"Hmm," replies Whambam. "Sound advice. Still, we wizards are a lot stronger than we appear."
When Whambam opens his palms to greet the first wave of goblins, flames emerge. Szass Quatch takes the opposite approach, chilling her hands to lethally low temperatures and playing 'frostbite tag' with the panicked enemy archer. Our reward for victory is a buffet of shipping crates and containers, which yields a smattering of darts and crossbows, plus one dead cat, which we take, because no self-respecting necromancer turns their nose up at a fresh body.
Then we find a ladder, at the bottom of which are some caves, stuffed with more goblins. This is D&D, after all, and there’s no such thing as a ground floor dungeon. For a little while, Kul Anthurrgangg’s illusions work like a charm, literally—turning some of the monsters against their pals. But as our spellbook thins once more, the fight starts to flow in the other direction. A tough blighter in black armour, named Rukworm, sticks Whambam in the chest with a rusty blade—killing him instantly. At least the red won’t show on his robes.
After a quick reload, it’s back to the boat for a kip. They say a rest is as good as a change, and so it proves when we hit the warehouse tunnels with an overwhelming barrage of fireworks. Once Rukworm is down, we bring the battle to some nearby kegs, as retribution for our snubbing at the hands of the drunken Iron Collar Company. Out of one smashed barrel falls a charred scroll which, annoyingly, not one wizard among our number can identify. But Brogan suggests the mayor’s wife can—she’s a powerful elven mage, apparently. We set off to find her, hoping this piece of paper will be the starting point for a collection of rare magicks.
Elytharra, famed for her supposed kindness, happily takes 100 gold pieces from the party in exchange for a glance over the goblin scroll. Turns out it’s an exhausted teleportation spell, now useless. The Red Wizards are fuming. Until, that is, Elytharra mentions it’s likely one of a pair—used to fast-travel a subject from one location to another. Somebody, it seems, has teleported the goblins into the caves beneath the docks. That somebody is a mage, a traitor to the town, and probably still nearby. It’s time for us to find the culprit, and steal their magic items.
"If you have come to aid Targos, I would be pleased to pass along what arcane knowledge I can," says Elytharra. "Uh… sure," says Whambam. "The defence of Targos and all that. What kind of magic do you have?"
Elytharra’s shop shelves are stacked with strange scrolls, most of which we can’t afford. But we do splash out on Dispel Magic, suspecting there to be a rival wizard up ahead. Old Zzimerfram, however, fails to copy the scroll to his spellbook—presumably breaking his pencil. Now we’re skint, and no more powerful for our spent coin. It’s harsh, this wizarding life.
Two doors down we find Phaen of the Rags, who gives up his beggar act when he sees our teleportation scroll. It’s his, and he wants it back—but if there’s one thing a Red Wizard won’t do, it’s part with magic.
With Whambam buffed up by Mage Armour and Mirror Image spells, and a summoned beetle blocking most of the melee room, the mages in the gallery are free to bombard Phaen and his goblin mates with frost and magic missiles. The traitor responds in kind, knocking half the party unconscious with a single Sleep spell—laying them out on the hut’s stone floor like a red carpet. But a firebomb finally does for our rival. This town isn’t big enough for seven wizards on a secret mission.
Phaen’s rags turn out to be lined with bear fur, and magically light. Whambam puts them on, reasoning their cold protection will come in handy the next time Zzimerfram gets tasty with an ice dagger and its splash damage. Then, wonder of wonders: everybody levels up. We don’t get any new spells—we’ll have to find, buy and copy those down – but with extra spell slots per rest, our arsenal practically doubles in size overnight.
Which leaves our party well-positioned to tackle its last job before leaving town: murdering the Iron Collar Company. It’s not an act that’s going to further the mission of the Red Wizards in Icewind Dale, exactly. But bitterness is practically a national Thayan trait, and what better way to celebrate it than with petty revenge?
"By the hells," mutters Black Geoffrey as red-robed figures file into the pub. "What brings you crawling back this time?" He feels the strength sap from his body as Ichadad Bod utters the incantation for a Ray of Enfeeblement. And from then on, no more words are spoken, as the Iron Collar Company funnels its remaining energy into survival. It’s not enough.
Gutherwulfe Henghelm, a river trader at the next table who drinks boar blood with milk, cheers us on. After Geoffrey falls, the innkeep demands we settle his tab. But Gutherwulfe buys us a pitcher, and soon enough, we’ve won the amulet he wears around his neck in a drinking game. It’s the perfect cap to a great night of wizardry. Not only can Gutherwulfe’s charm summon a slavering wolf into battle, but it does so by tapping into the shamanic magic of Rashemen—the rival magocracy next door to Thay.
In other words, it’s weaponised irony. If there’s anything the Thayans like more than winning a battle, it’s winning a battle in a way that’ll piss off their neighbours.