There’s going to be a new Baldur’s Gate campaign. Beamdog, the self-described “museum curators” with BioWare blood who’ve spent the last few years dusting off the great Infinity Engine RPGs, have finally graduated to wholly original development.
Siege of Dragonspear is an expansion for the first game’s Enhanced Edition. It’s set on the Sword Coast, has Minsc shouting all the way through and, kick my butt for goodness, Chris Avellone’s even had a small hand in it.
Like the magic missiles of a level five wizard, good things come in threes – but Baldur’s Gate 3 has been miscast on more than one occasion. Black Isle once prepped a sequel named The Black Hound, which died when the studio did – and their successors Obsidian negotiated a big-budget contract years later, only for it to evaporate with the acquisition of Atari.
The truth, however, is that the trilogy was finished long ago. Baldur’s Gate 2’s sole expansion, Throne of Bhaal, was a sequel-in-hiding that wrapped up BioWare’s seminal story of god-children.
“We always kinda laughed about that at BioWare,” said Beamdog head Trent Oster. “Man, Throne of Bhaal should have just been Baldur’s Gate 3. That’s what we had always kinda discussed.”
Siege of Dragonspear is something different, then: a bridge campaign wedged between the two existing games in the series.
“I think it just slots in so nicely,” said Oster. “Baldur’s Gate 1 ends with you as the hero of Baldur’s Gate. Baldur’s Gate 2 starts with describing these dark circumstances that forced you to leave, and we just got intrigued by that. It’s like, hmm, what dark circumstances?”
Dragonspear will pick up the series’ main thread where it left off, after the defeat of Baldur’s Gate’s berserk baritone of a villain, Sarevok. It’s “substantially larger” than Throne of Bhaal – 25 hours all told, and much longer with a little deviation from the critical path.
“It got out of control,” said Oster.
Baldur’s Gate 1 ended in unambiguous triumph, but its sequel started players off in a very dark place – literally and thematically. Beamdog have closed that tonal gap cautiously, with a story that deals with the dark blood running through the player character’s veins – while offering a new, grounded threat for them to tackle.
A crusading army to the north of Baldur’s Gate has the dukes concerned: it’s brought local instability, and refugees are flooding through the gates of the great Sword Coast city. After a number of unsuccessful scouting attempts, the player is recruited to gather information and, inevitably, become exposed to larger machinations.
It sounds like a natural fit for the geopolitics of Baldur’s Gate 1 – what other RPG can you name that kickstarts its drama with an iron shortage? Dragonspear’s plot promises political maneuvering that you “start off essentially oblivious to but then become aware of”.
“Let’s not burn the Forgotten Realms to the ground,” Beamdog decided from the off. “But let’s play with a big story. We’ve got to do it justice. It’s got to feel epic, it’s got to feel worthy. When you’re going through this storyline, we want you to have those moments when you uncover new truths about yourself, and you uncover the magnitude of the threat.”
There’ll be no equivalent to Baldur’s Gate’s “psychotic maniac who just wants war and blood and destruction”, however – Beamdog are keen to get away from evil for evil’s sake.
“Evil is paved with good intentions,” said Oster. “You start off trying to do something right, and it goes a little wrong. And then it goes a little more wrong. And eventually, it’s just this web. I always find those characters much more appealing and much more human. We really wanted to engage with the humanity of your opposition.”
Dragonspear Castle, the focal point of the campaign, is just up the road from Baldur’s Gate. Despite more than a decade adventuring in its environs, unplayed stretches of the Sword Coast aren’t so rare as you might think. Beamdog’s chosen area isn’t some unstoried backwater either – the region hosts a couple of locations known to D&D aficionados, and the castle itself is stuffed to the ramparts with lore. Its ruined walls have housed dragon remains, a portal to a hellish dimension, and a passage to the Underdark.
“We got really interested in, hey, what kind of story could we tell here,” said Oster. “I think people are going to be happy with our interpretation of it.”
Map navigation will work as it did in Baldur’s Gate 1 – areas are logically linked so that when you cross over the eastern edge of one, you can expect to come out on the western side of another. But Beamdog have mimicked the way Baldur’s Gate 2 occasionally constrained the player, as well as the overall richness of its environments.
That wasn’t the only place the original games differed. Baldur’s Gate 1’s companions were characterful, but mostly mute. Only in the sequel did BioWare’s trademark relationships crystalise, with party infighting that often descended into bickering, and sometimes ended in murder.
Beamdog have already added to the back and forth with new characters in their Enhanced Editions, and have gone further in putting together their own campaign.
“Because it is a longer run, we’ve got more time to build out relationships,” said Oster. “We’re really pushing that. There are some evil characters that are never going to get along with good characters.”
The studio have expanded the cast with four new characters, and brought back some favourites – along with their voice actors where possible. They’ve had fun with romance options, but recognise there are story continuity issues to work around – the Bhaalspawn can’t be “hot and heavy” with a companion by the end of the campaign, only for the pair to begin again as strangers in Baldur’s Gate 2.
Players started the sequel imprisoned alongside the “iconic party” – some of the key companions from the first game – and Beamdog have embraced that, structuring Dragonspear’s story so that the group comes together. Oster isn’t especially worried about offering party members who, by the beginning of the next game, we know to be dead. Those companions come as one half of a couple, and in each case their other half is “pretty compelling” – decent compensation for the player’s future loss.
Beamdog have the advantage of knowing which characters have been most fondly remembered in the last decade and a half. So of course Minsc and Boo return, at length, voiced at considerable volume by original actor Jim Cummings.
“It’s been a hoot working with him,” laughed Oster. “When you get Jim excited about stuff, it’s hilarious. Minsc is just so much fun to play with. He’s like a walking caricature – he can just do so much.”
No Baldur’s Gate fan forgets the bark of the Flaming Fist or the yip of a kobold, and recording sessions for Dragonspear have been suitably over-the-top. Oster recalled the efforts one actor went to for a single-part character.
“He just went totally nuts in the sound booth,” he said. “He’s a big, heavy guy. At the end of it he came out and his voice was shot, he was sweating profusely. He looked like he’d run a marathon. When you listen to his voice you just lose it – it’s so good and so funny.
“That’s part of what makes Baldur’s Gate a lot of fun. It’s some fairly serious fantasy stuff, with these injections of the absurd. We really tried to keep that flavour going.”
As you might expect, the sudden appearance of a whole new campaign in the middle of the Baldur’s Gate saga makes for some major levelling issues. Beamdog will update Baldur’s Gate 2: Enhanced Edition for the release of Dragonspear to smooth the transition. But if a player goes out of their way to overlevel, squeezing every last drop of XP out of their enemies before porting over their character, nobody’s going to stop them (“I think that’s one of those things that Baldur’s Gate fans have enjoyed”).
The studio hope to eventually weave all three campaigns seamlessly together, with every class in the series – including Dragonspear’s new ghost-calling shaman – available from levels one to 27.
“I think we’re going to get there,” said Oster. “And I think when we do, it’s going to break a lot of people’s lives. It’ll be just be this one, brilliant continuous story. We’re pretty excited about that.”
Beamdog now know the Infinity Engine better than any team ever has. They’ve spent the last few years cleaning up and making sense of the code they inherited from early BioWare.
“At the time we were making Baldur’s Gate, we literally had no clue how games were made,” said Oster. “We were just making it up as we went. We got really lucky.”
This time, they rewrote the entire UI system, from bottom to top. Every pixel of Dragonspear’s interface is new, incorporating health bars and other additions that’ll make it a little easier to track the action.
The inventory system, too, will be far friendlier. It’s simple stuff: like being able to click on a piece of equipment, and have the game highlight the character it makes most sense to give it to. That’ll help mitigate some of the arcane mystery of 2nd edition D&D – a land where lower numbers mean better armour.
“We really took that idea of, let’s show people the maths,” said Oster.
Last year Oster hired Jason Knipe, who led the 3D graphics group at BioWare for seven years. He’s helped put together a “shader cocktail” that gives characters a subtle outline and makes them look sharper in high-res – without straying away from the series’ painterly look.
Beamdog also think they’ve worked out what sort of environments look best in the engine – building maps with plenty of intense colour and enough contrast that the paths through are clear.
“When Icewind Dale came out, I looked at it and went, wow, [Black Isle’s] artists are so good it blows my mind,” said Oster. “And I honestly think we’ve hit that bar and in some places potentially even exceeded what they’ve done.”
What’s more, after years spent building on BioWare’s work with companion quests and the Black Pits arena battles, Beamdog’s own identity as writers has begun to emerge.
“We’re still aping the original style, but we have started to speak in our own voice,” said Oster. “I think you’ll feel more of that in Siege of Dragonspear than you have historically.
“We’re really trying to balance that almost novelesque feel of Baldur’s Gate, and at the same time be more sparing with our words. Let’s not hit people in the face with a wall of text.”
Dragonspear’s journal system is a microcosm of that – unusually succinct, focused and goal-oriented for Baldur’s Gate, it tells you only what you need to know. And a certain well-known RPG writer has been involved with it all.
“There’s this designer fellow named Chris, who may have recently become a free agent,” said Oster, meaningfully. “I want to collaborate with him in any way I can. He’s a fun individual.”
Is this a solicitation for help through a journalist, we wondered? Or might there already be something in the works?
“That’s a great question. Possibly a bit of both, maybe.”
It transpires that Chris Avellone was brought on late in Dragonspear’s writing – playing the campaign through and offering a “couple of pages of hate” – suggestions for the team to work on.
“If Chris is going to be available for the future – I have great respect for the guy,” said Oster. “Every time we’ve hung out, it’s been a blast. Any way we can work together going forward, I’m happy to facilitate it. He has the world in front of him right now, though. He’s like the belle of the ball – everyone wants to work with him.”
After Dragonspear, Beamdog want to catch up with D&D’s “brilliant” fifth edition ruleset, and get involved in the sweeping story arcs of their partners at Wizards of the Coast.
“There’s so many big, fun things they’re doing with the Realms,” said Oster. “We just need to be part of it.”
Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear will come to Windows, Mac and Linux.