Baldur’s Gate 3: How Larian Became Gaming’s Dungeon Master

Every Dungeons & Dragons adventure needs a great Dungeon Master, and Baldur's Gate 3 is no exception. Larian writer Adam Smith talks to us about the new sequel.

Baldur's Gate 3
Photo: Larian Studios

When it comes to a series as legendary as the Baldur’s Gate franchise, every PC gamer and Dungeons & Dragons fan has a story to tell about their first experience with the ’90 RPG series that put developer BioWare on the map. Now that the first new Baldur’s Gate game in more than a decade is set to hit Steam Early Access later this year, players are feeling more nostalgic than ever for the iconic series. So, what does Baldur’s Gate 3 writer Adam Smith remember about his first Baldur’s Gate playthrough?

Baldur’s Gate came out just around the time I moved out of my family home,” Smith tells Den of Geek during a Baldur’s Gate 3 press event in February. “At the time, my sister and I played pretty much every game together, so Baldur’s Gate was the game we played when I visited her. We kind of played it cooperatively even though it was a single-player game, and we would just make major decisions together. It was a big bonding experience.”

Not long after those Baldur’s Gate adventures, Smith transitioned into the (arguably just as adventurous) world of video game journalism. After nearly a decade as a writer and editor for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Smith moved from reporting on games to writing them. Just a couple of years later, he got an offer from Larian Studios founder Swen Vincke that was hard to believe.

“When Swen first told me, ‘Here’s your contract and the NDA,’ I asked, ‘What are we working on?’” Smith recalls. “He said, ‘I can’t tell you until you sign the contract.’ I just said ‘Dang, okay,” and I signed. Then he finally said ‘Okay, we’re going to make Baldur’s Gate.’ I was just like, ‘Okay, but what are we really working on?’”

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It’s easy to understand Smith’s disbelief. With the exception of a somewhat controversial expansion released in 2016, fans haven’t been treated to a traditional Baldur’s Gate RPG since the release of BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate 2: Throne of Baal expansion in 2001. It seemed like a new Baldur’s Gate would never come until Larian’s sequel was unveiled at E3 2019.

A lot has changed in the gaming world since 2001, so it only makes sense that Larian decided early on that 100 years should pass in the world of Baldur’s Gate. Filling in that large of a time gap is always a daunting proposition, but as Smith points out, constructing such a narrative is really just part of the D&D experience that the Baldur’s Gate franchise is based on.

“A huge part of Dungeons & Dragons is filling in the gaps. A lot of what a DM does is say ‘Here’s some cool stuff, oh here’s a little corner that’s not quite filled in yet,'” Smith says. “So we’re set a hundred years later, but we have all this backstory not just from the Baldur’s Gate games but from the Forgotten Realms [universe]…There’s a huge amount that’s already been written [about this world], so we can look at stuff like that and say ‘This is what was happening just out of scene.’”

So does Smith see himself and the team as gaming’s premier dungeon masters?

“That’s exactly how I think of the game,” Smith says. “What if Larian was your DM? You have a group of really talented, passionate people who are just like, ‘We want to give you cool stuff.’ That’s what a DM does…A good DM will always give the players the opportunity to tell the story they want to tell. I want you to feel like we’re telling this story together. You’re telling me your story, and I’m telling you how that interacts with mine.”

Of course, working on a project like Baldur’s Gate 3 offers certain advantages that most DIY dungeon masters don’t get to enjoy. Namely, Smith is happy to no longer have to verbally explain every visual element of an environment to players. 

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“Everything is so much easier to write when you don’t have to keep telling people what’s happening,” Smith says. “As soon as you have this entire group of people whose job it is to make everything that I write look really fucking cool, it makes my job a lot easier. They’re my favorite people in the world.”

For as much as advancements in the fields of video game writing and technology have helped Larian evolve the Baldur’s Gate formula, other advancements posed new challenges. That’s especially true of the dialogue system. While Baldur’s Gate 3 may afford players more dialogue options than ever before, that expanded range of possibilities means that the team had to rethink how those games approached something as fundamental as conversations.

“We don’t want dialogue to just be ‘I’m going to ask you this question, I’m going to ask you this question, I’m going to ask you this question. Ok, that was the number of questions [on-screen]…bye,’” Smith says. “Even in those situations where a person only has a couple of things to say, we want it to feel like ‘I said this, so therefore our conversation is going to be different.’ With voiceover, that’s so much easier and much more cinematic. It feels like actual dialogue.”

The original Baldur’s Gate games didn’t feature voiceovers or the advanced visuals you’ll see in Baldur’s Gate 3. What they did have was exceptional writing that forever set a gold standard for storytelling in video games. What does Smith think made the writing in those games so revolutionary?

“The boring answer is that it was just really good writing and good writing is good writing whatever medium you’re working in,” Smith says. “[Those games] had a very good structure. They had a great flow and a story that was both personal and global. They dealt with threats that are cosmological but in all of us…The world-building felt believable. Baldur’s Gate is a place, and I recognize it. You get to know the corners of it.”

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Indeed, the opportunity to tell a story in that world seems to have been one of the major draws for Larian, which has already made two of the best games to ever capitalize on the broad ideas of Baldur’s GateDivinity: Original Sin and Divinity: Original Sin 2. So what does the Baldur’s Gate series allow Larian to do that it couldn’t do with Divinity?

Divinity is not going anywhere. That’s Larian’s baby,” Smith says. “But this gives us a way to talk to people who already have an imagination about this world that we’re now playing in. You communicate with these people through the game in a way that fulfills their fantasies. That’s always going to be fun.”

Yet, as Larian’s foremost dungeon master, Smith is committed to ensuring that adventurers don’t need to study the ancient texts (or, you know, download Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate 2) in order to understand and appreciate the rich history that’s built into Baldur’s Gate 3

“I’ve had a lot of people ask, ‘Do I  need to play Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2?” Smith says. “Well, you don’t need to read every book about New York to understand a bit about New York. You want to give people a world in which a lot of cool shit has happened and people have memories of it, but they’ve also got to experience it. You want them to experience the story without being told the story. When you experience the [real] world, the world doesn’t stand there and say ‘This happened in 1472 and this happened in 1465 and this was the effect of it.’”

While there may indeed be advantages to working within the world of Baldur’s Gate, there are potentially significant disadvantages. Namely, there’s the problem of dealing with the expectations that come with the legendary Baldur’s Gate name. So far as that goes, Smith recognizes the pressures of tackling such an influential franchise.

“I don’t think anyone has higher expectations than ourselves,” Smith says. “If there was no weight to expectations, then nobody would be looking at us. We are entertainers and we like it when people pay attention to us…We want to make this amazing. We want it to be as complex, reactive, funny, strange, sad, weird, and frightening as it can possibly be.”

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Based on what we’ve seen so far, there’s little doubt that Larian is working to make Baldur’s Gate 3 as great as it can be. There is, however, one very important question that remains. Will Smith play Baldur’s Gate 3 with his sister when it launches?

“I hadn’t really thought about that,” Smith admits.  “I think I’d spoil it for her…Although having said that, I am very much somebody who likes to role-play, so I think I could do it. I think I could absolutely put myself in the character’s mindset and role-play a little bit more. But she wouldn’t believe I was doing that. Maybe that’s the point. I’m not the problem, she’s the problem!”