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When playing most Dungeons & Dragons games, be it with pencil and paper or on a PC, the solution to dealing with goblins is pretty straightforward: See goblin, kill goblin. So Larian Studios impressed me when it showed off Baldur’s Gate III a few weeks ago.
You could interact with the goblins. Heck, you might even save one from an execution and befriend others.
I found this approach striking, giving what many designers treat as cannon fodder a level of backstory and personality found in other characters — especially in light of how the villainous illithids seek to strip all of that as they transform you from a humanoid with agendas, drives, and passions into a mind flayer.
It’s a goal that Larian senior writer Adam Smith has with all their games, including Baldur’s Gate III. In a long-ranging interview, I talked with Smith a great deal about the lore involved with working in D&D‘s Forgotten Realms, but we also dug into how the narrative team seeks to give many of the characters you meet some level of depth, some backstory, and some interaction that goes beyond “See monster, kill monster.”
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They want to show the plight of tiefling refugees of a Hells-torn city as they seek hope in a world that’s already predisposed to hate these devil-spawned beings. How a vampire spawn may overcome his thirst for blood … or revel in it. How a githyanki and a elf may need to work together to destroy the foul illithid tadpole time-bombs in their brains … and learn from one another, too. How a drow may still be evil and still more than you expect.
And how goblins see a chance to become more than just cannon fodder for evil masters.
This is an edited transcript of our interview. And for more on illithids, their history, and their motivations, please check out an interview I did with D&D lead story designer Christopher Perkins about the mind flayers.
Adam Smith: We’re not going to spoil that just yet. You didn’t see the full intro today. What you see is the Shadowfell [aka the Plane of Shadow]. That’s when they first fought. They start off in Faerûn, and then they fought to the Shadowfell. Then they go somewhere else, but we’re not going to show that just yet. We’ll reveal that later.
GamesBeat: I saw the icy part, and I was wondering if that was Cania, the Eighth Layer of the Hells, and not Faerûn?
Smith: No, no. But the Hells are very much part of our story. Do you know Descent into Avernus? It’s very strongly linked to our story. You’ve met the tieflings very briefly. Those tieflings have fled from [the city of] Elturel, and we take the canonical ending for Descent into Avernus that Elturel was saved. It was taken to Avernus, and it’s now been returned to Faerûn. But the tieflings have been blamed by a lot of people. A lot of people turn around and say, “This terrible thing happened. These people look like devils. They have devil blood.” They drove them out of the cities.
There’s a huge refugee train of tieflings traveling west from Elturel, and they’re mostly trying to get to Baldur’s Gate. That’s our link immediately there, but the events that happened in Descent into Avernus are going to come back and haunt people again and again. Some of the origins stories … you didn’t see every origin today. You saw five of them. Some of them in more depth than others. But there are more that are coming, and some of them have stronger links to Descent into Avernus as well, and some of them have stronger links to the Hells.
We have a lot to say about the Hells, but not quite yet.
GamesBeat: Descent is really the prologue here.
Smith: Yeah, Descent is before us. We’re not too long afterwards. We do have an exact figure on it. But it’s very recent history. We’re in 1492, Dale Reckoning. The events there — if we spent more time in the druid’s grove [in the demo] where the tieflings are currently hiding out, as you speak to them, a lot of them have a lot to say about what happened. It’s something that happened very recently to them. It’s a very traumatic incident, obviously. They’re very seriously affected by it. You get into some of the more intense world-building there. We’re looking at the events in a very serious way.
Today, we were playing very evil, and evil tends to be quite fun. It’s a lot harder to be good a lot of the time in our world, because there are so many conflicts going on. Trying to be good often leads you down darker paths, because you suddenly realize how much prejudice is in the world, how much danger people are in just by being who they are. That’s something we explore. We dig deep into that.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting you pick up here on the tieflings, because they’re already looked on with suspicion by a number of people. What spoke out to them in their plight, to you?
Smith: For me personally, I write a lot of tieflings. We have this world where so many things are possible. In Baldur’s Gate itself … Baldur’s Gate is a place where pretty much anyone can be anything, and no one really blinks, because they’re so used to strange things. But they’re still probably gonna cut your throat and pick your pockets. We want to look at how it is to be strange in a very strange world, and how it is to be treated in — well, in just about every way. How it is to be treated as a hero, how it is to be treated as a villain, whether you deserve that or not.
One thing we are trying to move away from is having these very strict laws of alignment, where it’s good and evil. Those are words I’m always slightly uncomfortable with, because everything’s grayer than that. When we look at tieflings, we don’t want to say, “Oh, every tiefling is a victim. Every tiefling is somebody who’s suffering.” But it’s absolutely part of their experience a lot of the time. It’s something that, for me, there’s obviously real-world parallels.
There’s also personal parallels. All of us at points in our lives have felt judged for things that we don’t deserve to be judged for. Sometimes it can simply be who you are. There’s a natural draw there to me as a storyteller. I really enjoy writing tieflings. I think that — Descent into Avernus gave us a good hook for what’s happening to so many of them. But like I say, it doesn’t mean we want to say every tiefling is in the same position. That’s really important to us. When you do get to Baldur’s Gate, you find tieflings who’ve never experienced that kind of prejudice, because it’s not everyone’s story. We don’t want to take any race and say, this is who you are. But if you play as a tiefling, you have a very different experience, like in what you saw today. It’s great, because you can be drow or you can be tiefling, and you’ll have a very different experience than if you play human or elf. There’s going to be people who expect certain things from you, and you can absolutely tell them that they can — well. I won’t use the strongest word.
GamesBeat: It’s funny you’re talking about that, because you look at the goblins, and they’re full-fledged characters. They’re not just little monsters shouting “Bree-yark!” you have to deal with.
Smith: And some people will never realize that. You can meet the goblins and become immediately hostile and kill them all. And you think — the goblins are really close to my heart. I really like them. I’m genuinely fond of the goblins, and I get laughed at a lot for it. But we did so much research on goblin culture. The latest Volo’s Guide actually is great on goblins. It gives you a story, and it’s a story of people who are very close to the bottom of the food chain, who are bullied and enslaved. We take them and we say, what is it like to be a goblin? When we’re writing a goblin, a gnoll, any character, I think of them all as characters. We say, what fundamentally can we find in here that makes them individuals? You’ll meet goblins who are very aggressive and they’re bullies, but we want to know why.
They have this new god, the Absolute that’s mentioned, and that’s kind of given them this sense of, we might be OK now. Some of them are using that to just crap on everybody else. They’re just like, finally — the bullied person who gets a bit of power and immediately becomes a bully. That’s how some of them behave. But some of them are just like, we might have a chance of actually making something of ourselves now. They really see this possibility to just not be what they often are, which is the thing that people get experience by killing. We’re not that meta, but when we’re talking about writing goblins, we absolutely talk about that stuff. These guys know that they’re at the bottom of the food chain. They know the drow are going to use them as slaves and as chattel and don’t care about them at all. Giving them this sense of hope, that maybe things are changing for them, that does make them slightly tragic in my eyes as well.
GamesBeat: When you’re going into your research on them, it reminds of one of the early RA Salvatore Drizzt story, where his experience with a goblin changes his worldview on who deserves justice. But he was working with this goblin for a while. This goblin had a background, a personality. It wasn’t an evil thing; it was a slave of humans. It was the first time in D&D that a goblin had been treated like that. And even now, he keeps thinking about his encounter with this goblin. Did this experience factor into your treatment of goblins and other monsters?
Smith: Absolutely, yeah. It’s not a case in this example of saying, oh, we should do a similar thing. We tried to do that for everyone. But we read everything. We’ll never be 100% perfect with this, but I absolutely believe that there’s not a single line that gets through our very strict writing and editorial process that isn’t grounded in the Forgotten Realms. We think deeply about what we make, even the little bandit team.
The bandits that Sven killed at the chapel, if you spend more time talking to them, you can learn a bit more about them. If you Speak With Dead, you can always learn a little bit more about who people are. For every NPC, even if they have three or four lines and they mostly get into combat with you — you can usually avoid it. But I know where they were born. I know what their background is. I know where they’re from. We’re not always going to communicate that to you, but it’s important that we do know it. We want everyone to be grounded in a world that feels very believable and feels very — that it has a history. All these people have their own history.
With the goblins in particular, it was important that if you decide to engage with them on a different level, there’s entire stories there. We have goblin kids in the camp that you can speak to and learn about. In fact, we saw Sazza. I don’t think you will have learned her name, but she’s the captured goblin that gets shot. If you save her, then you have an entire series of events where you can spend hours of the game with her hanging around with you. You can learn a lot about her. You rescue her from this really awful situation, and it is genuinely awful. She’s a prisoner of war, and she gets executed at point blank range if you don’t do anything about it. But you can save her, and if you save her, then you learn a lot about her. She’ll help you out a little. She’ll also do some shitty things to you as well. But there’s various ways that she can survive or die, and she kind of relies on you to get her out of there. That was important too. At that moment, ideally, for me, when people first meet her — it won’t always be the first goblin people meet, because we don’t lock you down. You can go multiple different routes and come into different places by different angles. But for a lot of people, she’ll be the first goblin they meet, and it was important to me that she’s not just a monster. That goes for anyone.
The drow are really interesting. You only met one drow today, Minthara, and she is incredibly villainous. But again, if you spend more time talking to her, and you will, and you’ll meet her multiple times — unless you kill her, or she gets killed — you can learn a lot about how she fits in. She’s evil. She’s very wicked. But she’s also someone who’s lived in the culture of extreme paranoia and extreme violence, almost whimsical violence at times. People can just be killed on a whim [in drow society]. To survive in that world is not easy, even if you have the power that she has. We’re always thinking about that. We’re always trying to give people ways to learn more and explore without having characters come out and say, this is who I am, this is where I’m from. We want all that to be in there to discover.
Speak With Dead is really important for that, because any corpse in the game you can talk to. You can learn just little bits, and sometimes they can be funny or weird or informative, but sometimes they’ll be tragic as well. You kill some guy in a dungeon and then you find out, oh, he was here for a reason that I now know, and I feel bad about that.
GamesBeat: Going to the Absolute, of course you’re not going to tell me what that is. But is the Absolute just playing a role in this part of the game, or does the Absolute play a role in the entire thing?
Smith: It’s a big part of the story. The initial setup is that the illithid tadpole, obviously, is the infection. That’s what kind of binds our characters together. It’s their only common cause at the beginning of the game. They don’t know each other, even if you play a custom character. They’re all strangers to each other. But they all have this parasite in their head, and they mostly want to get it out.
Astarion, who we played as today, the vampire spawn, he’s the closest to wanting to maybe keep this thing, because it’s immediately doing something good for him, because he can walk in daylight. You can play Astarion and just reject it completely, but he’s the one who has the biggest temptation to say, “This might not be entirely a bad thing.”
If you play as Lae’zel, the githyanki, then she is absolutely, “This thing needs to come out, or I need to die,” because she’s becoming the thing that she most hates. The other characters have varying thoughts about it. They do all start to realize that it’s doing something that isn’t necessarily terrible to them, but it’s also an illithid tadpole. This is not going to end well. That’s the common cause at the beginning of the game.
Very early in the game, or I say very early, but you’ll start to learn more about this new cult. This is a thing that Volo is concerned with when you first meet him. He’s not really thinking about illithids. You can tell him all about it, and Volo has a lot to say about it if you tell him you have a parasite in your head. He’s fascinated. He wants to learn more about that. We have some very fun scenes with Volo. You haven’t seen anything yet.
GamesBeat: It feels like, based on what I saw here, that the Absolute — is it a demon lord like Grazz’t or an archdevil such as Glasya masquerading as something?
Smith: Oh, oh — I can’t tell you.
GamesBeat: But would I be wrong in thinking this?
Smith: What I will tell you is that some of the origin characters have exactly the same guess that you have. As you go deeper, they’re all going to start having their own ideas about what this thing might be. Usually driven by their own agendas and their own understanding of the world. Each of them is going to start to suggest, “I think this might be this.” You won’t find out for a while. Obviously, you will find out. We won’t leave you on a cliffhanger.
But we have a lot to say about a lot of different powers. We’re making a game in which there’s a lot of different powers, both good and bad, that are shifting and coming into opposition with one another. There are entire worlds coming into opposition with one another. We put the players in the middle of that, and we let them, to an extent, pick a side in that. It’s not always up to them, because sometimes a side picks you. Navigating through other people’s conflicts and other powers that are clashing is part of the story we want to tell.
GamesBeat: One thing I’m intrigued by are the various factions we saw in the demo. You have illithids, githyanki, the Zhentarim, drow, a vampire from Baldur’s Gate. There’s a lot of factions, a lot of stuff going on. Is it too much, just flavor for flavor’s sake, or do all these powers and interests intersect?
Smith: Everything intersects. One of the big changes from Divinity: Original Sin II, one of the things we wanted to improve on, is how stories intersect. For all of the origin characters, the ones you see and the ones you’ve not seen, they all have a very specific agenda. They all have a backstory that’s going to come to light. But they’re not side stories. They all cross over. They weave into the main story.
Something like the Zhentarim, they’re present in the world. They’re not necessarily going to play a huge part in the story, because it’s not their story necessarily. But they exist in the world, so therefore they exist in our game. The Harpers exist in our game. The Flaming Fist exist in our game. Other people I won’t mention right now exist in our game. But all these different factions are at play in the world. Some will play larger parts and some play smaller parts. A lot of them, the part they play is kind of up to you. If you want to dig deeper into the Black Network, you absolutely can. You might be able to get a little Zhentarim badge of your own at one point. You might be able to get a Harper insignia of your own. We want to give people the opportunity to align themselves with different people and different factions.
But the main storylines are all converging. The origin storylines all converge. All the different factions — essentially, something that is happening in the world is so big and magnetic that it’s drawing everyone in. Of course the centerpiece for it is Baldur’s Gate. Baldur’s Gate is the place where everything is going to change. Everyone’s being drawn toward Baldur’s Gate for their own reasons.
Lae’zel, she’s the one who’s disinterested. She doesn’t even know what Baldur’s Gate is. You can have really cool conversations with her if you’re a Baldurian. It’s one of the tags we can give to people. Some of the origins are from Baldur’s Gate. They all know it. And if you make a custom character, all the custom characters have at least some association with Baldur’s Gate. If you’re from Baldur’s Gate, you can tell her what you think of it, and you can just tell her, oh, it’s a utopia, the most beautiful city in Faerûn, it’s gorgeous, it’s fantastic. And she’s just like, well, I’ve not seen anything impressive yet, but maybe when I get to Baldur’s Gate it’s going to be as good as you say it is!
She’s not that impressed. [Laughs]
GamesBeat: What about that illithid and its nautiloid — what is its association? Is it a renegade from a hive, or is it part of a hive? Does this hive have a different agenda than other mind flayer hives?
Smith: I can’t tell you that. Whew. That’s a really good question. But I can’t answer that one. You will find out. You’ll find out all of this. None of this is unanswerable because I’m being vague. It’s just that these are really good questions, because they touch on things that we ask ourselves all the time. One thing that you obviously know, knowing D&D very well — when you get to see the intro video again, you probably even noticed this, but the very first shot, do you remember what it is? It’s a mural inside the nautiloid. You’ll see that it has a lot of background on what this particular nautiloid is, but also the history of the illithid empire is told by the murals in the nautiloid. You can find out a lot about it just through the visuals there. It’s very deliberate that it’s the first shot you see in the entire game, a history of the illithids. Then, when you finish character creation and the red dragons attack, you see it shattered. That’s very important. Even with the mind flayers, obviously we want to make them scary. They are terrifying and we want them to be intimidating and terrifying. But we also want to dig into what they need and what they want and who they are. There’s more to them than just — you’ve picked up on so much already.
GamesBeat: Vampiric mind flayers exist in previous editions. You have a character who’s vampire spawn. Is there any interaction there?
Smith: There’s a lot of stuff we’re doing with the illithids. We talk about this with Wizards constantly. Every single time we come up with an idea of what we want to do, if we want to push the mind flayers, push the ideas around ceremorphosis, then we speak to them about it. And yeah, in the broadest possible terms, whenever we introduce a possibility, then we’re going to push it as far as we can.
GamesBeat: Gale brings up the Darklake, which of course is from the Underdark, which makes me suspect that — is he a drow?
Smith: [Chuckles] I’m not going to tell you. Well, I’m going to tell you that Gale is not a drow. But Gale knows a lot of things. There’s something off with Gale. There’s something off with everyone, which is what makes them more interesting. But Gale’s secrets are buried pretty deep.
GamesBeat: When you’re playing a tabletop RPG campaign, often those first five levels, the first beginning of getting to know your character, are the best part of the game. Whereas in a computer role-playing game, that can be the hardest and the worst part. They can be slogs.
How do you try to bring the magic that comes from starting a tabletop campaign into starting a computer game?
Smith: Partly by making sure that we have fairly quick escalation. We give an immediate, urgent problem. That helps to give direction. That’s really important.
The other thing is by having lots of choice from very early on. The first clicks you’ll make in the entire game are to press start and then do character creation. If you choose an origin, or you choose a custom character, what we immediately do is say: These choices are very important, and we immediately try to reward you for them. If you play an origin, then you’re going to get a lot of unique dialogue, unique sequences, and unique characters. If you play a custom character, you’ll get a lot of unique gameplay because of your background, class, and race. Then very quickly, you decide who you are, and then you decide what you do. You decide how to react to things. That allows us to build more and more layers where we can essentially reward you for choices. The deeper you get into the game, the bigger the repercussions of that.
But one of the things I’m really glad we showed this today, but we didn’t show the consequence of it, is when you spoke to Minthara, the drow. That’s not early-early in the game. It’s still in the first act. It’s still very early, but it could be 20 or 30 hours in depending on how you play and how much you do. But when you do what he did and you sell out the tieflings, then you can burn down the entire region of our Act One. You can kill every character in it. You can do all of that just through your own agency, or you can do it through story choices. That completely changes the way the story goes. It completely changes how that region feels and how it looks. It completely changes how your party deals with you. Really it’s by front-loading all that stuff, not by saying this is the climax of the game, but saying this is just a thing you can do in act one.
GamesBeat: The last few years we’ve seen elements of Baldur’s Gate III hinted at in a bunch of D&D products, going back to Storm King’s Thunder. Now we’ve started with Spelljamming ships. There’s the pirate captain mind flyer down in Halaster’s dungeon. There’s githyanki coming into that. And, of course, Baldur’s Gate itself. Did you, as Larian, take those elements and say, OK, let’s try to bring in the last few years of D&D into Baldur’s Gate III? Or did Wizards say, “Can you do this?”
Smith: It works both ways. One of the things Swen [Vincke, the head of Larian] will say again and again to people is that — Swen loves Spelljammer. If we say that we’re doing this, then they have to do it as well. There’s a lot of cross-pollination. This is a big game for them as well as for us. There’s aspects that they decided to explore more because we started to touch on them, and there’s aspects that we draw on that they do. But it’s a collaboration, and very much a cross-pollination of ideas. We’re very canonical. We’re very firmly entrenched in what is going to happen to the future of the Sword Coast and the Forgotten Realms and other places. We’re pushing very deep. But we get ideas from them and they get ideas from us. Mostly we get ideas from them because they have decades of them that we can draw from. But they pay attention to what we do, and they plant seeds in other places as well.
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