Divinity: Original Sin 2 developer Larian Studios is working on its follow up to one of the best RPGs on PC—a third adventure with a new party of heroes and more fate-of-the-world quests. Just what you'd expect from Baldur's Gate 3. Cue fainting elves and gasping halflings. 18 years after the Bhaalspawn saga came to a close, we're finally returning to the Forgotten Realms.
The world's moved forward quite a bit since the last games, so instead of picking up where its predecessors left things, Baldur's Gate 3 is a brand new adventure set in the Forgotten Realms as it is today, where Bhaal's unruly kids are history. Not to worry, though, as Larian's got another crisis to fling at the unfortunate city.
With over 20 years of D&D-adjacent RPGs behind it, from Divine Divinity to Divinity: Original Sin 2, Larian's hardly a wildcard choice, but when CEO Swen Vincke first approached Wizards of the Coast, he didn't get very far. Wizards called the studio "a bit too green" when Vincke tried to convince the publisher during the development of the first Original Sin. It was Wizards that got in touch with Larian, however, once Original Sin 2 was in the works.
"During Divinity: Original Sin 2, we had to submit the design for Baldur's Gate, which was annoying because we were about to release DOS2," Vincke says. "So we sat in a hotel for a weekend the month before release, me and a couple of writers and designers, and we made the initial design document. It wasn't very good, but it had the core ideas and they did like it."
Larian made another version, Wizards loved it, and that became the foundation for Baldur's Gate 3. Much of that foundation, unfortunately, remains a mystery. Larian is going to be taking more of a 'show, don't tell' approach, both in how it reveals things like combat and within the game itself, which will still have plenty of text and dialogue but also a greater dose of environmental storytelling than Original Sin 2.
The first trailer is appropriately enigmatic until the end, with only a few hints that it's Baldur's Gate. A man with a flaming fist emblazoned on his tunic stumbles across cobbled streets, sweaty and distressed. The trailer quickly descends into gruesome body horror as he spits up teeth and violently transforms, evoking the appetite-ruining transformations of Akira and American Werewolf in London, until his final form is unveiled. Baldur's Gate is being invaded by mind flayers.
If you've not got your Monster Manual at hand, mind flayers are a race of Cthulhu-looking villains that use their psionic abilities to control their victims and slaves. They're a pretty rotten bunch and absolutely the last thing you'd want flying around inside your city. Their glory days, when they ruled a vast astral empire, are long behind them, and the squid-faced tyrants have been skulking around in the Underdark, impressing the also-not-very-nice duergar and drow. Unfortunately, they've had an upgrade.
Mind flayers used to be able to travel between worlds using via the Astral Plane, piloting massive shells with protruding tentacles known as nautiloids. They made the mind flayers even more formidable, but the art of making new ones has been lost to them. Until now. "Those are big problems," says Vincke. "They want to restore their empire, so we see the mind flayers invading a city, with a nautaloid, so you can imagine what might happen—but it's not what you'll expect!"
With Divinity, particularly the crowdfunded Original Sins, Larian's been free to build its world how it sees fit. With the Forgotten Realms, however, the studio's playing with a license that's been developed over decades by countless writers and designers, full of its own lore and rules, but Vincke says it's not been an obstacle.
"There are a lot of people at Larian who play D&D and there are a lot of game sessions going on continuously, so that already makes it easier because we have the internal lore police. I'm the guy that usually tries to break it, but then I get the lore police on me. Usually that's sufficient, and our internal checks sometimes go further than Wizards of the Coast's. They're very flexible about making cool adventures, and most of the things we've pitched to them have been passes. We're really very aligned in our thinking and how we do things, but ours is just the videogame version."
Original Sin 2 already shares quite a lot with D&D, beyond the things that most fantasy RPGs share. The Game Master mode and co-op effectively let you play a tabletop RPG on your PC, but even when you're playing alone it can still feel like you're doing so under the gaze of a Dungeon Master, hoping they'll let you try this brilliant new idea you've come up with. The sheer variety of systems and Larian's willingness to let players bend or occasionally break the game leaves so much room for ingenuity. Vincke loves to talk about players solving conundrums in ways Larian had never even considered, and it's exactly like listening to a proud Dungeon Master gush about their party.
Baldur's Gate 3 will similarly give players lots of tools and then let them have at it. "We'll stay true to our roots," says Vincke, "so we'll give players lots of systems, and lots of agency to use these systems and try to accomplish what you need to on your adventure. That's not going to change; that's the core of what we're doing."
There are some things on the chopping block, however. It's an interpretation of D&D, specifically 5th Edition, because porting the core rules, which Larian tried to do, doesn't work. Or it works, Vincke clarifies, but it's no fun at all. One of the culprits is missing when you're trying to hit an enemy, and while the combat system has yet to be revealed, you can at least look forward to being able to smack people more consistently.
"You miss a lot in D&D—if the dice are bad, you miss," he says. "That doesn't work well in a videogame. If I do that, you're going to review it and say it's shit. Our approach has been implementing it as pure as we can, and then just seeing what works and what doesn't. Stuff that doesn't work, we start adapting until it does."
This interpretation should still be more true to the tabletop RPG than its predecessors, however, capturing the feel of D&D even if it's not borrowing every single system and rule. Some of this is because of a difference in technology. Black Isle faced a lot of limitations that Larian doesn't. The studio has invested heavily in this side of things, as well as in staff, who now number in the hundreds. Internally, 200 people are working on Baldur's Gate 3, while another hundred are working on it externally.
To save Baldur's Gate you'll need a party of heroes, and like a typical D&D party they're all the protagonists of their own stories, each with their own motivations and ambitions. When you make a character, you'll be filling in your character sheet, essentially, not just with abilities and skills, but backgrounds, personality traits and ideals. If you make a Mage, you'll be able to look at the last pages of your Players Handbook and find, for the most, exactly same spells. You'll have all the pieces you need to make a D&D adventurer.
While he's not ready to confirm that it will feature in Baldur's Gate 3, Vincke's also interested in taking another crack at Original Sin 2's origin system, which gives players premade characters with unique backgrounds, quests and talents. They're better defined than their custom counterparts, and more connected to the world.
"I thought the origin stories were a really good addition to the RPG genre, like we did them, and it would be strange if we went back on that," he says. "The ambitions for the origin stories in Original Sin 2 were actually higher than what we managed to do, though we did it well if you think about all that we fit in there, but there's so much more that can be done with it. I'd certainly be interested in exploring it."
You'll be controlling your whole party, but Baldur's Gate 3 will also let you strike out on an adventure with pals. Larian's not ready to spill the beans on how the multiplayer system will work, but something resembling their last two co-op systems seems likely, letting each player choose exactly where to go and what to do independent of the rest of the party. It's how it works in D&D, too, where parties can split up and one player might be getting sozzled in the tavern while another is trying to pilfer a relic from a nearby temple.
Despite the success of Larian's last two Kickstarters, it won't be going down the crowdfunding route this time. It's in large part to those successes that it doesn't need to. Larian will still be publishing the game itself, as well as involving the community and posting regular updates. For prospective players wanting to follow the game's development, there won't be much of a change. For Larian, though, it's the studio's greatest challenge, and when players finally get to return to Baldur's Gate, Vincke thinks they'll be very surprised by what they find.
"We're going beyond what we've done before to make it the game it deserves to be. That sounds like a slogan—it is a slogan—but it's true."
Disclosure: Larian senior writer Adam Smith worked at Rock, Paper, Shotgun when I wrote on the site as a freelancer.