How Baldur’s Gate 3 Captures and Changes the Dungeons and Dragons Experience

Think of Baldur's Gate 3 as Larian Studios’ homebrew D&D campaign, complete with their own gameplay alterations. Some are improvements, others are questionable, but all are immune to rules lawyering.

Baldur's Gate 3
Photo: Larian Studios

At their core, tabletop games are very different beasts from video games. Many try to fill the same niche by giving players tons of customization options to make them feel like they’re stepping into their character’s shoes, but at the end of the day, their respective rulesets form an impassable barrier. No matter how much developers try, they can’t fully translate one medium’s governing gameplay laws over to another.

Since Dungeons & Dragons is the most popular tabletop game out there, countless studios have tried to convert it into a video game format with varying levels of success. Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate 3 is the latest and probably best attempt. Not only does the game provide fantastic characters and storylines, but it also has set numerous records and stands a decent chance of topping many “Best Games of 2023” lists.

One of the secrets to Baldur’s Gate 3’s success is its attention to detail. At first glance, the game flawlessly transcribes D&D’s Fifth Edition (5E) ruleset into digital form, thus giving it an authentic feel, but that isn’t completely true. Someone at Larian must have rolled a Nat 20 on their Deception check because Baldur’s Gate 3 actually changes the core D&D rules in a myriad of ways.

Spells Have Been Significantly Altered

Magic is the bread and butter of many Dungeons & Dragons classes. Wizards, Sorcerers, and Warlocks rely on spells to deal damage, Paladins and Clerics require magic to heal their allies, and Bards use enchanted songs to alter probability itself. Baldur’s Gate 3 boasts a huge library of spells and keeps the tried-and-true mechanic of tying spells to spell slots, but the game also changes how many spells work, although most of these alterations are necessary, either for simplicity’s sake or for the sake of the medium’s requirements/abilities.

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In normal D&D, spell duration is measured in minutes and hours, mostly because every in-game interaction uses the same yardstick. Many combat-oriented spells produce effects that last one minute. Since combat rounds take six seconds in-game, that means spells can last 10 rounds. However, Baldur’s Gate 3 doesn’t utilize the same kind of in-game clock. The game doesn’t even take time into consideration until players take a Long Rest to heal up and prepare for the next day.

To accommodate this change, spell durations are now measured in turns. Sleep, for instance, only lasts two turns, which is significantly less than the tabletop’s one-minute duration. Similarly, Baldur’s Gate 3 reduces the range of many spells. Attacks such as Fire Bolt and Missile fly up to 120 feet in 5E, but in Baldur’s Gate 3, they can’t go further than 18 meters (60 feet). This might sound like an issue, but Larian Studios built each battlefield with these smaller rangers in mind, so it’s really just a design choice that doesn’t change the overall feel of combat.

For that matter, Baldur’s Gate 3 changes how magic works in general, although this works in the game’s favor as it simplifies rules that would otherwise be left up to the DM (and some DMs disagree on these matters).

Unlike the tabletop game, spells in Baldur’s Gate 3 don’t rely on specific components such as hand gestures or magical reagents like bat poop (no seriously). Instead, they only require a simple incantation. Among other things, this change makes every spellcaster vulnerable to the Silence spell. On the one hand, removing reagents takes some of the busy work out of spellcasting some DMs require. On the other hand, it also takes some player freedom away. What better way to surprise monsters that try to shut down spellcasters with Silence than by blasting them with spells that don’t require verbal components?

This change also carries over into spell scrolls. In 5E, only magic-using classes can utilize these items to cast magics without sacrificing spell slots. However, in Baldur’s Gate 3, anyone in any class can read them. This change gives characters more combat options than they would normally have, but then again, the effectiveness of these spells is determined by a party member’s spellcasting stats. Is letting Karlach nuke enemies with a Fireball really worth it when Gale would deal more damage with the scroll? It depends on the player and the situation.

The only objective issue with magic in Baldur’s Gate 3 is how it handles spell preparation. Normally, a character can only prepare spells after a Long Rest, but in BG 3, you can prepare them at any time so long as you aren’t in combat. This change sounds like a boon, but it actually ignores the point of spell preparation: A player has to commit to certain spells for one day and adapt to situations where their selected magics aren’t effective. Preparing spells at any time may trivialize the system for some.

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Bonus Actions Are More Beneficial 

In D&D combat, every character has a total of four actions: move, basic action, bonus action, and reaction. However, many classes don’t have worthwhile abilities or spells that use the bonus action slot, which means it can often go to waste. Larian Studios decided to alter the action economy to speed up combat, and the gamble paid off. Mostly.

In Baldur’s Gate 3, many maneuvers that were originally classified as actions have been changed to bonus actions. These include drinking a potion, shoving, and jumping. Because characters can now follow up attacks by downing potions, players can fight more aggressively without having to worry about losing party members. That’s a huge benefit because Baldur’s Gate 3 is a challenging game. And because shoving is now a bonus action, plates can create strategies that wouldn’t work in the tabletop game (e.g., letting someone climb up a ladder, shanking them, then shoving them back down for some extra fall damage). As for jumping…well, that skill now has a lot more utility and can make characters move further than normal, but it also makes traversal feel a little more “video-gamey.”

On a side note, while Larian gave certain moves new life by making them bonus actions, the studio removed other moves, such as the ability to grapple. A disappointment to be sure, as some players build characters around the ability to lock down enemies via wrestling moves, but its removal is understandable.

Character Creation Changes Are a Mixed Bag

Character creation is one of the most involved processes in D&D, but it is also the most enjoyable. You have to do is decide what your character looks like, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and where they came from. Many players use this step as an excuse to go nuts and write entire novels on their hero’s backstory. One might think this is the easiest mechanic to port over from the tabletop game, but Larian didn’t fully commit to the process, and I can’t say I agree with all of their changes.

First off, let’s address the Loxodon in the room: Characters have a max level of 12 in Baldur’s Gate 3, as opposed to 5E’s level cap of 20. Larian Studios ended character progression at 12 for the sake of balance since any further progression results in overpowered skills. Understandable in terms of traditional video game balance, but isn’t that the point?

Once a character reaches those levels, they are essentially living legends. They suffered greatly to achieve that power, so why not let them have it? Besides, it’s the only way to fight the strongest evil monsters in D&D history. We’re talking ancient dragons, the rulers of Hell, and an undead fetal god (no, seriously).

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Moreover, when crafting characters, BG3 players have to rely on a points pool to form their stats. On one hand, many DMs use this technique to help players, especially first-timers, craft heroes. On the other hand, many more let players roll for their stats. Whether or not you like Larian’s decision will depend on how you play stat-based RPGs and tabletop D&D.

Speaking of stats, Larian Studios has done away with all racial stat bonuses and multiclass stat requirements. This change makes every race equally viable for every class, but depending on your point of view, it can ruin some of the fantasy, especially if you subscribe to the belief that gnomes can never be as strong as a half-orc. As for Baldur’s Gate 3’s lack of traditional multiclass requirements, this decision simplifies the process and opens up numerous class combinations that would otherwise be impossible in D&D.

Changes to Healing Are a Give and Take

No matter what players do in an RPG, they will eventually need healing. This is especially true in Dungeons & Dragons, as quite a few abilities and spells damage players no matter what they do. Eventually, everyone will need some patching up. Baldur’s Gate 3 carries these rules over into the video game format, albeit with some changes. Larian’s alterations create a new balance, if only because the good changes negate the bad ones.

As previously stated, players can now heal characters by using potions as a bonus action, but that isn’t the panacea’s only positive alteration. Since D&D lore doesn’t exactly state how potions function, Larian decided to make them work via both ingestion and skin contact. To get the most out of potions, players can group up their characters and chuck one at them for some AOE healing. Of course, tossing range depends on character stats, and tightly packing characters is generally a bad idea in combat, but it still gives healing potions even more utility than normal. Plus, the rule applies to all potions, not just healing ones. Toss a Potion of Speed at some characters, and they all gain Haste, rather than just one.

When outside of combat, many D&D players opt to heal via short and long rests. The former lets players recover lost HP by expending and rolling hit die, whereas the latter grants full HP and some used hit die. However, Baldur’s Gate 3 does away with hit die. Short rests automatically heal characters up to half of their max HP, but players can only use two short rests a day (technically three if they use the Bard spell Song of Rest).

Admittedly, healing characters whenever they Short rest streamlines the process, but if one or more party members weren’t damaged during a fight, you have to essentially waste their short rest charges to keep allies who were hurt in tip-top shape. While using hit die takes more time and doesn’t heal for consistent amounts, at least it gives players more control over when to tend their wounds.

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Paladins and their Lay on Hands ability underwent a similarly evenhanded change in Baldur’s Gate 3. Instead of using points from a pool to heal characters for an equal amount of HP, or spending 5 to cure someone’s poison, players have to make do with charges that provide a set amount of HP pre-charge or cure a poison status effect. What Paladin users lose in control they gain in streamlining. That’s a philosophy we see throughout the game.

Many Classes Were Streamlined

Since Dungeons & Dragons sports so many classes and subclasses, more than a few run into problems during campaigns. Many a rules lawyer has questioned whether a class feature or ability works a certain way, so to avoid this problem and generally speed up the action, Larian changed many class features. They are still instantly recognizable, but using some of them is akin to playing a homebrew campaign where the player’s handbook is a guideline rather than a set of immutable laws. 

Every class and subclass’s core mechanics is intact in Baldur’s Gate 3, but Larian removed many extraneous conditions and results. For instance, Barbarians can still rage the day through, but the benefits are no longer limited to Strength-based melee swings. Any attack, whether it uses dexterity or involves chucking a javelin at a target, receives the ability’s benefits, which simplifies the system and gives players new avenues of action.

Meanwhile, Wild Magic Sorcerers are still vulnerable to the whims of chaos, and a Wild Magic Surge can hit at any time. However, the results mostly stem from Larian’s custom Wild Magic Surge table, which can slow down the caster, help them regain sorcery points, or summon Mephits. These results, while different, are far more gamey and less random than the vanilla Wild Magic Surge table possibilities. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the changes, but Larian missed a golden opportunity to let players accidentally turn their sorcerers into potted plants.

Some class changes in Baldur’s Gate 3 are less mechanical and more cosmetic, likely due to engine limitations. For instance, Druids can equip metal armor and shields in the game. This isn’t an example of Larian altering how Druids work, but rather an example of how the game engine prioritizes armor classes over armor materials.

Larian Added Features to Gamify the Adventure

When a studio uses an existing game system as the skeleton for a video game, many players want the company to stick with the established system since it’s part of the reason people want to play the title. However, Larian Studios snuck in some mechanics that didn’t originate from Dungeons & Dragons into Baldur’s Gate 3, and the company did such a good job at it that the additions feel at home in the Forgotten Realms.

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One of Larian’s best original inclusions is weapon proficiency-centric abilities. While weapon proficiencies are already part of D&D, they only make attacks more effective and likely to hit. Baldur’s Gate 3’s proficiency attacks add another incentive for players to use specialized weapons as each type adds one or two abilities. Not only do these skills speed up combat, but they give some classes rechargeable skills to make them feel just as dynamic as spellcaster classes.

Since Baldur’s Gate 3 runs on the same engine Larian used to develop Divinity: Original Sin 2, some features from that title were carried over to Baldur’s Gate 3. However, they help battles feel even more tactical than vanilla D&D. For instance, if a character uses a ranged attack against an enemy from a significant elevation, they gain an advantage because they have the thigh ground. This change forces players to rethink how they approach battles and focus on preparing for battle instead of charging blindly into combat, which is the point of Baldur’s Gate 3.

Another holdover from Original Sin 2 are the elemental effects and surfaces. A common strategy in that game was to douse opponents in water and then unleash electric or cold-based attacks for extra damage. No such system exists in D&D, but Baldur’s Gate 3 uses a similar idea to make combat extremely tactical and force players to think several turns in advance. Granted, many D&D combat scenarios require the same kind of thinking, but Baldur’s Gate 3’s version is more video gamey, which is a good thing since that’s exactly what it is: a video game.

These are only a few of Larian’s game-centric changes. Some additions, such as being able to respec characters and retrying after losses, are necessary evils for a video game. The Karmic Dice, meanwhile, takes some of the randomness out of dice rolls to keep the game feel fair and is yet another necessary evil to make players feel like they are still in control of their adventure.

Ultimately, Larian Studios’ take on D&D rules is a mix of improvements, questionable decisions, and necessary sacrifices. Still, the company did such a great job implementing these alterations into Baldur’s Gate 3 that unless you had a photographic memory and encyclopedic knowledge of the tabletop’s minutiae, you probably wouldn’t notice in the heat of the moment.