What The Average Joe Thinks…Dungeons & Dragons: Murder in Baldur’s Gate

There are big changes afoot in the world of Dungeons & Dragons.  As part of the lead-up to the eventual release of D&D Next, an event called “The Sundering” is being implemented over the next half year or so.  This event will play across gaming products, novels, video games, and other media.  In simple terms, this event is ripping the Forgotten Realms apart1.  In more complex terms, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is building a story-based excuse for the implementation of their new system and new in-game cosmology.  The first product in this massive event is an adventure that is on sale right now at Modern Myths: Murder in Baldur’s Gate (MBG).

MBG offers a 64-page setting book for the politically divided and socio-economically strained Baldur’s Gate, a 32-page multi-part adventure (the same adventure that is being run this season for the D&D Encounters program2), and a DM screen with maps of the city and a couple tables for random encounters.

The text of the setting book is fairly dry, listing off a ton of details about the city without a lot of time spent on flowery language or graphics (or, for the most part, fleshed-out NPCs besides the 4-5 major players).  In fact, the dearth of decent artwork in this product is one of the low points for me.  Instead of the lovely, full-page, painted illustrations we’ve seen in previous D&D releases, the most common graphics in this product are maps or blown-up icons linking to maps.  Even the main artwork on the cover of the binding sheet is reproduced (via Photoshop layers) on the covers of the two internal books, giving the whole thing a kind of thrown-together feel visually.  This is upsetting, as WotC’s Senior Creative Director, Jon Shindehette, has done a bang-up job on previous products.  I realize he’s probably got budgetary constrictions with an in-between product like MBG, but it’s clear that his hands were tied for this whole release.

What do I mean by in-betweeen?  Unlike previous releases, MBG is edition-less.  That is, it can be run in 3 different editions of the game (3.5, 4e, or Next), but it’s not officially a 4e product or a Next product.  While there are no stats for antagonists or foes in the book, full enemy stat blocks can be downloaded from WotC’s special Sundering web page3.

The adventure is where MBG actually shines.  While the end result is a bit of a foregone conclusion, there are multiple paths to get to that point, and the details are totally up to the players’ decisions.  There are different factions within the town, and the players may ally with one or more of them.  In each segment of the adventure, events around town are listed as happening, but the PCs will likely only interact with the ones that match the goals of the faction they’re allied with.  If PCs aren’t present to affect an event, there’s a default value for “what happens”, and each event has the potential to affect one or more of the NPCs who could end up being the final villain of the adventure.

The constant action of the adventure gives you a lot of options as a DM.  If your party allies with none of the groups and just hangs out in the bar the whole time, they’ll still see certain parts of the larger plot in each segment (though not as much as they would under the employ of one of the factions).  With each faction believing itself to be the true best bet for the city, there are also lots of conflicting ideas about corruption, lies, socio-economic concerns4, and the will of the townsfolk.  And if political turmoil isn’t your cup of latte, there is also a lot of lingering energy from the dead god of murder, Bhaal, that will make folks more and more murderous as the adventure continues (and puts the “murder” into “Murder in Baldur’s Gate”).  There’s plenty going on here, and while it’ll take a LOT of reading ahead of time for the DM, if you do your homework you’ll have a fantastic adventure for your players.

The biggest thing that I feel is really missing from this product is tactical play maps.  Every city has its own feel, and there are plenty of options in the adventure for unique locations.  However, there are no tactical maps provided with the product, so you’ll need to use other city tiles & maps for any fights you have (assuming that you play an edition that uses tactical maps).  But if you look at previous setting-related releases, even the really cheap ones that obviously didn’t cost a lot (like the Tiefling city of Vor Rukoth), you still got at least a double-sided map with cool locations flavored from that setting.  But not with MBG, because if you play it with the D&D Next rules, you won’t need a map, so why bother putting it in for the 4e or 3.5 players5?

There are a number of little things like artwork and play maps and interesting NPCs that would have made this a good product, instead of the mediocre product that it currently feels like.  It’ll work fine for a home campaign, but it’s effectively no different than an adventure you could download off some 3rd party web site.  As a fan of the Baldur’s Gate games and the Forgotten Realms novels, I wanted something epic and inspiring… but what I got was something that technically filled the requirements of a product released at the end of an edition’s run, and tried to survive on the strength of plot alone.

As a tool for organized play, MBG is a bit less satisfying than it will be for the home game market.  The multiple options in each segment (one segment each week) will make universal narratives difficult across a 12-week Encounters season, especially at a place like Modern Myths, where we run multiple tables with shifting players each week.  That means that players who shift from one table to another may have completely different and sometimes conflicting experiences week-to-week.  It’s possible that they could share clues from what they experienced in different parts of the town, but as you track which NPCs move into which positions for the final conflicts, having other players with different versions of what happened may change things significantly.  Organized play has always been a bit of a railroaded process, and MBG is almost too open to succeed as an organized play product.  Of course, we’ll see as the new season of D&D Encounters progresses6, but I’m a bit more wary about this than I have been about previous product-related seasons.

Murder in Baldur’s Gate is available at Modern Myths and other fine local gaming stores currently (weeks before the big box retailers are allowed to sell it), so if you’ve really been hankering for source material to Baldur’s Gate7, you can pick it up at our store before anyone else gets their hands on it.  If you’re participating in this season’s Encounters adventure, you’ll get to experience Baldur’s Gate week-by-week… and if you want to relive that experience with your home games, expanding on it in new and exciting ways, this product will certainly give you some tools to do that with.  While this is hardly the best thing WotC has ever produced, it’s still a valuable source for completists out there, or for anyone looking for a fairly detailed base city to insert interesting characters into.

1. That’s not a metaphor, either.  A while back a second world/dimension  was smashed into Toril, the world of the Forgotten Realms, and now the two worlds are being torn asunder again.
2. Though that’s not an invitation for all you players to buy it and learn all the secrets.  Let’s be fair, here, people.
3. There are also additional in-town encounters available on the site.  Unfortunately, this feels like another cost-cutting measure… if the players have to print the extra pages, that cuts down on the production costs for WotC and lets them stay within their page count limits.
4. And we all know what a HUGE market there is for socio-economic urban planning games that don’t involve resource management
5. Excuse the bitterness, but at a certain point you realize how far things have fallen at WotC from what they were even a year ago.
6. Every Wednesday from 7-9 PM at Modern Myths, starting August 14 with a character creation session.
7. For anyone who was a fan of the video games, you’ll find lots of familiar stuff here.

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