Baldur's Gate II, Dungeons & Dragons, and Character Creation: 6 Questions for Matt Bell November 11 2014

Today in our interview series, Chrono Trigger author Michael P. Williams asks Matt Bell some questions about D&D and his forthcoming book, Baldur's Gate II.

Michael P. Williams: I've got to tell you up front: I'm a Dungeons & Dragons nerd who has never roleplayed in real life, but I read almost every Dragonlance novel published through the mid-1990s, and I adored the “Monstrous Compendia” published by TSR. What has your history with D&D and roleplaying games in general been like?

Matt Bell: My D&D history begins with the computer games, not the pen and paper game, although the timing of getting into both modes was pretty close. As far as I can remember, the first D&D experience I had was SSI's extraordinarily difficult Heroes of the Lance, adapted from Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Dragons of Autumn Twilight, which I didn't read until years later. Shortly after, I found my dad's copies of the Basic and Expert box sets hidden high in a closet in our spare room, which introduced my brother and I to the original game. In the following years, we played nearly every D&D game that came out for the PC, and we bought and read and planned from many of the second edition AD&D rule books and campaign settings. Despite how much time and money we invested in the game materials, I don't think we actually played very often, or at least not until we were much older. (My brothers still play, and when I was writing The Last Garrison I rejoined them, but by then we were playing fourth edition.) At the time, we just couldn't find enough other people to play with, and it's very hard to play a two-person game. I think that was one of the alluring aspects to most video game versions of D&D: They simulate what is essentially a social experience, translating it for a single player.

As a novelist and an RPGer, you've had the power to create characters in a variety of settings. What similarities and differences have you experienced with creating characters for novels, for customizable computer RPGs, and for tabletop RPGs?

One of the things I talk about in the book is about how Gorion's Ward, the protagonist of the Baldur's Gate saga, is presented to the player in a very similar way to how fairy tale characters are constructed. Rather than the kind of fleshed-out round characters we're used to in most novels, where characters come with explicit full psychological motivations and backstories and so on, Gorion's Ward is given very few traits when the story opens, just a sketch of a past and a handful of starting statistics and skills that do not by themselves create character. Instead, the player is tasked with interpreting these mechanical aspects of the game into a person they can invest in emotionally, which occurs through character choices in response to the puzzles and story decisions of the game, and through character customization when you gain new levels or equipment. In a novel, you're usually given quite a bit more about the character, and of course you don't usually get to chart the course of the action. But in my own work, it's still important to leave some blanks in the character's makeup that the reader will have to fill themselves. That's part of what allows a reader to become invested in the character and his or her story, this sense that they're the ones who actually created the character, by imaginatively investing so much of themselves.

Your book is centered around Baldur's Gate II, a game that is a sequel to Baldur's Gate, and with its expansion pack Throne of Bhaal considered, is also a sequel to itself. What makes this a standout game compared to other video games in the larger Baldur's Gate series?

I think Baldur's Gate II is the heart of the series. The first Baldur's Gate was a revolutionary advance in D&D gaming, but its story is much thinner than BG2's. Because it deals with lower level characters, the gameplay in BG1 isn't nearly as difficult or as interesting, and it also has a more generic fantasy art style than BG2. As for Throne of Bhaal, it's a great expansion—really almost a true sequel—but it's so reliant on an understanding of Baldur's Gate II that it would have been hard to write about on its own. Despite being the middle of what is essentially a trilogy of games, Baldur's Gate II is probably the best vantage point from which to discuss the whole.

Baldur's Gate II is set within the context of the D&D campaign setting, Forgotten Realms, while your own D&D novel, The Last Garrison, is not set within any particular campaign. How important is the Forgotten Realms brand name to Baldur's Gate II? How might the game look if it were set in another D&D campaign, like highly polytheistic Dragonlance universe, or the very gothic Ravenloft setting?

It's an interesting question, because Baldur's Gate II is set in a part of the Forgotten Realms I hadn't read much about at the time, in the setting's novels or rule books. I think that was probably by design, as Bioware has made a similar smart decision with other licensed worlds, like not setting their Star Wars RPGs in the same time period as the movies. BG2 definitely has the Forgotten Realms in its DNA, and your quest takes you to some of the most famous places in that world, like a drow city in the Underdark, which must have pleased fans. At the same time, I think the designers had a lot of room to make their corner of the Forgotten Realms their own, for the purposes of the game. The other games built on the Infinity Engine that powers Baldur's Gate are probably more tied to their respective settings: The Icewind Dale games are set in the titular location, made famous by R.A. Salvatore's bestselling Drizzt Do'Urden series of novels, and Planescape: Torment—maybe my favorite of these games, despite writing about BG2—is absolutely integrated into its campaign setting, and probably couldn't exist without it.

So far, Boss Fight Books has tackled three very different RPGs: Earthbound, a Japanese RPG set in a modern world; Chrono Trigger, another JRPG set in a fantasy world; and finally Jagged Alliance 2, a Western RPG set in modern times. Baldur's Gate II, a fantasy WRPG, completes this matrix. What similarities and differences do you see among Baldur's Gate II and these other games? Also, how will BG2 the book differ from these previous Boss Fight installments?

To be honest, I haven't played more than an hour or so of both Earthbound and Chrono Trigger, so I can't speak to them too much. My instinct is to say that Baldur's Gate II is less whimsical than those games, but BG2 has its moments of whimsy and humor too, and I know both Earthbound and Chrono Trigger are very serious in their own ways. I do think Jagged Alliance 2 and Baldur's Gate II share a lot in the ways that players interact and come to care for their characters, as that was the most memorable part of Jagged Alliance 2 for me. As for how my book will differ from the earlier books: I'm sure there's some crossover, but one unique thing I'm trying to do is to explicitly explore how different game systems work from a novelist's perspective. For instance, Baldur's Gate II is such a story-driven game, but how do narratives work to create tension and conflict when the character isn't bound to follow any particular storyline at any time? Or how does character development work, compared to how it works in a novel? There will also be critical discussions of the game's depictions of violence and morality and romance and gender, subjects I don't think have been covered in the same way in earlier books. It's an incredibly rich game, and its ambition means there's a lot of material to explore.

I'd like to say I'm chaotic neutral, but I'm probably just a boring ol' neutral good. What is your favorite of the nine D&D alignments, and where do you think you'd fit into this scheme?

In pen-and-paper D&D, I pretty solidly played chaotic good characters, which seems about where I'd categorize myself in real life, although I probably lean more lawful these days too. In novels, I like a character who's willing to bend the rules for the greater good, and in my own writing I perhaps especially like characters whose belief in their own goodness compromises them morally, by allowing them to take actions that without that self-justification would be clearly wrong. I think most otherwise good people compromise themselves morally in many small ways, and I'm always interested in the stories we tell ourselves to get away with those compromises. That seems like the province of the chaotic good, and it's probably one of the more interesting spaces in D&D's alignment system.