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Divinity: Original Sin 2's GM mode brings pen and paper RPGs to the screen

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Last week I spent a day playing with Divinity: Original Sin 2’s [official site] Games Master mode, and now I want to force everyone I know to play pen and paper RPGs with me. If this is what I’ve been missing in the years since I last went full goth with weekend Vampire: The Masquerade sessions, I’ve had a wasted adulthood.

The GM mode is separate to the main game, using the Divinity ruleset in campaigns either released by Larian or created by players, who can then share those campaigns online or with friends to recreate a tabletop experience digitally. At the press event, we built a chunk of Ultima VII and then started cannibalising the good guys.

Divinity: Original Sin brought back so much that I loved in Ultima (VII particularly) that it only felt right to revisit it in the sequel, now that there were creative tools to make that possible. Before digging into GM mode though, I want to contextualise it as a part of Original Sin 2.

The biggest change the sequel has made is the addition of a much weirder and more radical multiplayer component though, building on the previous game’s two player co-op. Now, more players can join in and their characters have personal goals as well as backstories that inform their knowledge of the world, and their opinions about certain people, places and factions. This allows for what Larian have described as “competitive co-op play”.

Essentially, as I’ve described elsewhere, the party is no longer a cohesive unit. It’s a collection of individuals and sometimes their goals can be in direct conflict, leading to argument, separation and enjoyably nasty systemic pranks like a lit stick of dynamite or a poisoned health potion slipped into the inventory of a frenemy.

In one sense, the design is a way to capture some of the social aspects of tabletop roleplaying while letting the computer do the heavy-lifting when it comes to telling the tale and handling the rules. The GM mode is the culmination of those efforts. It’s a standalone tool that allows for the construction of RPG campaigns, using the Divinity ruleset and mechanics but not tied to its setting. In combination with the extensive modding tools, a devoted person or team could theoretically make a campaign set in a world of their own creation, or build that Star Wars, Avengers, Doom or film noir roleplaying experience they’ve always wanted.

We’ve been here before, most recently with Sword Coast Legends. Larian’s trick is to take away all of the scripting that often drives digital versions of tabletop roleplaying, instead putting all the power directly in the hands of the GM. That means this is a very hands-on affair and you’re not going to build campaigns and then unleash them for the world to play – you can share them through the Steam Workshop, but they require a human GM.

This ties into one of the great strengths of both Original Sin itself and tabletop roleplaying as a social activity, and that is improvised storytelling. The best way to explain is to give two examples from my play session last week.

Our GM was Larian’s CEO Swen Vincke and I half-jokingly challenged him to create the opening of Ultima VII, saying I’d be doing that very same thing as soon as the game was out in the wild. We went with The Serpent Isle, part two, rather than The Black Gate, possibly because Vincke wanted to show off a battle at sea, and the results were superb. We had our battle at sea, our ship boarded by pyromancers, we had landed on the Serpent Isle and we’d killed and cannibalised an important NPC ally.

The initial combat scenario, at sea, was tough, and our deck was in flames during most of the encounter. The GM can control every combatant manually or can let the AI take over, and here they were carefully and competitively managed. Improvisation can come in many forms and one way that the hand of the GM can guide the experience is in balancing as the game plays out. If enemies are too strong, they can be tweaked, and if they are too weak new skills or stats can be added on the fly. Though you’re playing within the Original Sin ruleset, the GM can override anything, applying status effects or simply ripping away hitpoints. And if the party fall, they can be cured or resurrected easily enough.

Improvisation is a broader narrative tool as well though. We were playing through an established story in a well-known setting, but we didn’t follow the script, choosing to murder and eat a mage who would have become an important ally. We killed him because he was annoyed that we’d looted a chest that he owned, and we ate him because we had an elf in the party and in Divinity, elves can gain the memories of the dead by consuming their corpses. There was some crossover between the Ultima and Divinity fiction here, but it led to horrible misadventure so it was all for the greater good.

It was only when our elf had finished his meal that the mage’s friends arrived on the scene and asked us what had happened to their master. From there events spiralled out of control and our party ended up separated. Though there’s no built-in tool to pull party members to different areas, characters can be easily isolated on the map while events beyond their control play out.

We left that particular story in a terrible state. My character was the stand-in for Ultima’s righteous hero, the Avatar (the Adatar in this version of events) and his own party had turned on him, so that when he was greeted by NPCs as a saviour, they heckled from the background, calling him a coward and a traitor. They weren’t wrong.

The recreation was impressive, as was the GM’s ability to follow our derailment, but the highlight of the session was in our first story. A simple fantasy quest, to escort a cart of goods, became a farce of dismemberment, exploded goblin corpses and imprisonment. Along the way we befriended the oxen pulling our carts and determined that they were in a somewhat abusive relationship with one another, kidnapped a goblin raider and dropped his body down a well, tied to an explosive barrel, and languished in a prison cell, where we attempted to pickpocket a key from a naked troll who clearly had no pockets to pick.

The prison didn’t exist in the original plans for the campaign but we failed in our infiltrations and deceptions so comprehensively and repeatedly that the GM had no option other than to lock us in a dungeon. Because it was built on the fly, the prison scene wasn’t particularly elegant; it was the equivalent of a stock model rather than something tailor-made for our particular circumstances, but that brought out the best aspects of the GM mode. Because it is a live storytelling experience, the maps and graphics are props rather than intricate components. A GM can utilise all of the tools specific to the mode, and the actual systems within Original Sin 2, but they exist to enable a social form of gaming rather than to put limitations upon it.

That’s not to say the tools aren’t important and though they’re not quite finished, they’re easy to use and flexible. There are essentially three basic components: storyboard type scripted sequences for encounters, scene-setting and decisions; a world map with important locations marked; and the locations themselves.

As GM, you load a campaign and have all the necessary pieces in those categories available to you, and can then bring them onto your screen and share them with the players. So as they move from place to place, you’ll probably want them to see the world map, with a marker representing their party moving across it, and when they reach a destination, you’ll serve the associated scene to them. For the world map you can draw an image and use it, or pull one in from elsewhere. I see myself using Google Earth to set a few campaigns in and around Manchester.

One of the most important design decisions, running counter to the base game, lies in the size of the location maps. They’re small. Think houses and streets and forest clearings rather than entire cities and woodland areas. This is to ensure the GM can handle every NPC present, construct encounters and react to the players’ actions. When I built my own mini scenario, spread across four locations, the small maps were very useful as a gentle guide on my creativity. They encourage the writing of scenes rather than acts or chapters, and that will most likely lead to campaigns made up of many small, dense, flexible encounters rather than sprawling but lifeless worlds.

There are lots of prefabricated maps as well, all of which can be modified or pulled apart and rebuilt. You can build from scratch too, as well as sharing the individual components you’ve built for use in other campaigns. That means you might not find a gothic space cathedral at launch, but you’ll either be able to build one or download one somewhere down the line, provided GM mode finds a community.

On one level, it’s essentially a Powerpoint-like overlay plugged into the modding tools, but it’s also a way to create stories and worlds as a group without the need for papers and dice, and proximity. The lack of scripting means it’s a very hands-on job for the GM but that means the players aren’t at the mercy of a story that can’t accommodate their unexpected successes and failures, or their stranger urges. If you want to set fire to a chicken, you can and if the GM wants to add an actual flaming status and graphic to that chicken, so be it. If taking direct control of the chicken and making it run into a pond to cool off seems like fun, that’s possible too. There could even be a hastily written decision tree stemming from that choice.

The GM could also just describe everything that happens though, without using any graphical tells or status changes. The level of detail that the game shows visually and the stats that it tracks are entirely up to whoever’s in charge of a session.

When I created my own scenario, it was text-heavy and combat-light. I’d share a page, with a decision at the end, with the players and then load up the map that the encounter took place on. In half an hour I had a complete story – silly and small, but complete – and running it with four players was simple. You can pause the action at any time, while sorting through notes or making reactive changes, and you can force players to make dice rolls against their stats whenever it seems like a fun idea, or an important challenge.

Some people will build elaborate campaigns with hundreds of scenes that they want to guide their players through step by step, but the real strength of the GM mode might be for shaggy dog stories as much as for heroic quests. There is downtime, when constructing encounters and maps while the players are already in the game, but that’s space for characters to interact with one another and to ponder their next move.

I didn’t have any real expectations before getting my hands on the tools and sitting down to play. At worst, I thought the mode would be an afterthought that I’d ignore, or maybe even a distraction from the game it’s attached to. It does feel like an entire new game, despite using the familiar combat and character-building systems, but it makes sense as an extension of Original Sin 2’s tabletop ideals.

What I didn’t expect is to slip so readily into the role of a GM. I haven’t played a tabletop RPG since I was a teenager, almost two decades ago, but now I’ve got the bug again.

Original Sin 2 lets players become actors in a world of systemic design, where almost every possible outcome seems to have been second-guessed by the writers and coders. The GM mode strips away many of the systems and replacing them with a human director, giving that person the basic props and tools they need to tell a collaborative story. The (unfinished) UI is still a little plain and occasionally counter-intuitive, and it feels a little like an experimental trial run for a project that might be perfected at a later date, but even so, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being almost as big a draw as the game itself.

The most surprising thing is that the mode’s strengths are in its simplicity. No coding, no scripting, no bestiaries, no rulesheets. The maps and story cards and rules are there to do their job quietly, and to obstruct the conversation between players and GM as little as possible. That, I think, is precisely what their role should be.

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