Like many of us over the past year, I’ve been wandering down, down, down by the river. The absolutely massive Baldur’s Gate 3 by Larian Studios has not only wormed its way into my brain, but also my heart. The core cast that make up your party, all having their own desires and fears, slowly open up to the player depending on their actions, and that’s what ultimately sold me on playing it.

The following contains major spoilers for Baldur’s Gate 3 and descriptions of violence that may be triggering for some readers.

Now, I have a confession to make… I’m not a huge tabletop player. So many here at Sidequest have wonderful recommendations for tabletop games, but I am no such person. In order to get me to sit down and play a board game, you literally have to lure me with food long enough to explain the rules to my ADHD-riddled brain. By then, I’ve hopefully become competitive enough to stay engaged. So, to be honest, the first 20 hours of Baldur’s Gate were a bit of a slog for me. Being assaulted by D&D lore and spells was a lot.

What ignited my drive to carry on was hearing every character meticulously voice-acted, including the NPCs! I can’t overstate how much work was put into every living being in this game. Just from listening, you get a sense of their personality. Shadowheart’s determination tinged with the slightest bit of fear, Karlach’s enthusiasm bursting from the seams, Astarion’s flippant quips that obscure his feelings. Love! That’s the only way I can describe it—it’s love! Love for the world and its characters on a whole other level! And over time, the dedication to their characterizations made me realise I needed to trust my companions. I don’t have moral authority over their decisions. After all, shouldn’t you trust your friends?

The player character, dressed in chain mail and a jaunty hat, sits in front of a barkeeper with a frothy mug.

The small touches of backstory you can glean while travelling with different companions were precious to me. Astarion has a love of cats (yes, cats should be allowed to do as they please, always) which put him at odds with my player character when I asked Gale to stop Tara, a tressym, from eating delivery pigeons. Wyll took on one hell of a contract with a devil in the past, so of course we were gonna help him break it. Anything to bring them joy, I would carry out. I truly wanted what would be best for them. It could be a struggle, though—there were times when I didn’t agree with them, but had to respect their agency. But that’s a relationship, isn’t it? You influence someone else and they influence you. What will we become?

There were times when I didn’t agree with them, but had to respect their agency. But that’s a relationship, isn’t it?

After gathering my fellow adventurers—and all agreeing to get the telepathic tadpoles out of our heads, lest we turn into mindflayers—we accomplished victory in a major battle against a camp of goblins and got to party! Despite not pairing up with anybody, I started to get to know my comrades. As the game went on, I looked forward to every camp night I could give them a warm meal. Before bed, I’d speak with all of them. Their fears, their hopes… everything. I wanted to know it all. I fell into a comfortable domestic routine. Faerun was in peril, but I was playing this like a cottagecore life sim, petting Scratch the dog and letting Astarion know I could be his Capri Sun for the evening before retiring.

My sun and star, Karlach and Astarion. They never left my party, unless story bits got in the way. Their stories are rather similar: both were enslaved by a powerful being, both while young, and both were able to escape because of the mind flayer tadpole. Where they contrast is their outlooks. Karlach is jubilant to be out of Avernus, and is ready to enjoy life. Astarion has been under the thumb of his vampire master for over two centuries. This has made him rightfully distrustful and somewhat unsure of what to do now—but don’t you dare impede his freedom in any way. Needless to say, I was ready to throw hands at their previous captors alongside them.

Wyll, a scarred black man with curved horns coming out of his forehead, says, "Now how about we go and reverse Cazador's fortunes."

Shadowheart was different—she expressed surprise at the feeling of going out of her way to help people. Generally she preferred to look out for herself and said she didn’t expect to care for the downtrodden. While she is usually your first party member—therefore one you’ll become close to early on—the only thing she is deeply committed to is the goddess Shar, the Lady of Loss. Over the course of the adventure, you learn just how much she’s given up to prove herself to her goddess… much of it not by her consent. She’s desperate to have a place to belong. When I gifted her favourite flower, Night Orchid, she was touched that I remembered a previous conversation we had at camp. At the time, I think she thought me a nuisance, so it felt nice to show I wasn’t just all talk.

There’s a moment in Shadowheart’s journey where I regretted not believing in her. Shar tasks her with slaying the Nightsong—actually the demigoddess daughter of Shar’s rival, Selûne—to complete her initiate journey. Desperately rolling the dice, I begged her not to do it, but each roll failed. Even so, Shadowheart tossed the spear aside, unwilling to kill this caged person. I began to learn that for all of Shadowheart’s life, she had been told who to be and what to do. Forcing my choice on her was the worst thing I could have done at that moment. She deserved to choose who she wanted to become. From then on, I knew I should trust my companions more.

I beelined to Astarion any chance I got. At our first celebration, he opined on the earlier battle with the goblins, commenting that the lives lost equaled out the lives saved. He didn’t see it as a celebratory moment, and I had to agree. For all the care put into this game, I was disappointed that I couldn’t find a way to dissuade the goblins from attacking the grove (and the fact that certain races in D&D lore keep being written a certain way). He was willing to jump into the bloody fray, but he held no illusions about what transpired.

Astarion is a tricky character to pin down. Go help some enslaved gnomes? He disapproves. Dude! Why? Well, it’s not that he thinks slavery is fine and dandy—he’s unsure about getting involved in shit that could get us killed. He spent over two centuries under the thumb of Cazador, the vampire who sired him. Any moment he attempted to resist an order, he’d be punished a thousand times over, which left him with little trust, if any. Astarion’s actions aren’t as simple as Mass Effect‘s Paragon/Renegade morality system—they’re directly tied to his struggle toward freedom and all the terror that comes with it.

Astarion, a pale elf with white hair, holds a glowing mace.

When we reached Cazador’s lair, something horrible had already started. The scars on Astarion’s back tied him to a ritual to ascend a vampire, letting them walk in the sun and giving them strength beyond anything of their kind. And it would take, oh, seven thousand souls to do it! Many of whom had been Astarion’s victims.

Once we’d wrested the staff away from Cazador, Astarion stood over him, the possibility of his own ascension tantalisingly close. When we peered into his eyes, we saw fear in them. His whole world had been a nightmare… how could I blame him for wanting to feel safe forever, like nothing could ever hurt him again? I gently reminded him of the souls, victims like himself, left to rot, never given a chance at freedom until now. I knew full well I couldn’t let him do it, but I needed to hear him make that decision. I needed to believe in him. It didn’t take much; he knew what needed to be done. He freed those seven thousand souls to the Underdark to try and navigate life as best as possible. He also got to stab the hell out of Cazador, of course. That was a given!

For Astarion, ascending would have been a decision made out of fear. Reminding him that the thralls he would have sacrificed were victims just like him was all he needed to make the right choice.

For all of my companions, I didn’t push the power of the tadpoles further when I became suspicious of the Emperor—the one who gave you the power and who kept the transformation at bay.

Despite their power, the tadpoles couldn’t cure one thing: Karlach’s engine. A machine in place of her heart runs so hot she’s a mobile BBQ to anyone who gets too close. This frustrates her, as she’d like to experience heat that doesn’t involve third-degree burns. When the opportunity came to have Dammon, a tiefling blacksmith, repair the engine so she could touch people again, I jumped at the chance. Getting a hug from Karlach was something I didn’t know I needed until it happened.

Alas, all adventures must come to an end. We told the Emperor to fuck off and spiked a giant evil brain into the water and took back Baldur’s Gate! Briefly feeling the tadpoles wither away, we all breathed a sigh of relief. My vampire bestie needed to find some shade quickly and Lae’zel got to ride a dragon. But what was happening to Karlach? Doubled over in pain, she proclaimed she’d had a good life and only asked we be with her at the end.

No… NO! If she went back to Avernus, where her engine was made, it would stabilise and she wouldn’t burn up. She initially rejected this idea, understandably so. Why would she want to return to the place she was forced to be a soldier for a decade? Tears in my eyes, I selfishly begged her to live. I could not watch her die. And the answer became obvious. She wouldn’t go alone. I would travel with her to Avernus. We would face the hells together.

Karlach, a red tiefling in golden armour, lights two cigars with her thumb and takes a smoke.

Maybe it’s a little silly of me—since it’s all roleplay—but I did ask myself if I would have made that decision if I was there. At the time, I could feel my body leaping at the screen, ready to jump into whatever portal ensured my friend was okay. As if Karlach could hear my thoughts, she lit a cigar in the coolest fucking way possible and reminded me that I asked for this. She trusted that I made my decision, as she did hers. I had relied on her for so long, and now I was to return the favour.

In Baldur’s Gate 3, all my companions truly felt like people. I didn’t feel they were boxed in or stereotyped. Their decisions had reasons, even if I disagreed with where they would take us. It wasn’t just my actions guiding that journey. These people—these friends—helped me see better ways to travel. Karlach or Wyll would encourage me to help someone. Gale would romanticize the adventure ahead. I’d laugh at a snide remark from Astarion. Sometimes I’d get tired of being clever and want to just fight, and then one of them would say they were exhausted, and we’d have get up from the game board and have a long rest.

My time in Baldur’s Gate 3 was unexpected and engrossing. It’s calling to me even now, with over 160 hours in it. All the what-ifs and wishes flitting through my mind after such exhaustive battles only go to show how much passion the beautiful people at Larian poured into this story. The journey may have been a hot mess, but as Withers would put it: it is thine.