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

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.

26 Comments

  1. Scelous says:

    It sounds like you’re just describing Neverwinter Nights. NWN’s DM mode let the DM change things on the fly, and the DM mode didn’t *require* scripting, just like Divinity 2 doesn’t require scripting, although you can use scripting if you want. Really, I’m not hearing anything revolutionary about this.

    • Troubletcat says:

      If it comes even close to NWN, it’s not revolutionary but it would be filling a gap that some of us are longing to see filled.

      I have basically given up on any game ever doing what NWN did with player created worlds ever again because it results in a game with an infinite lifespan. Modern publishing houses do not like that.

      This sounds sort of similar, but it still doesn’t sound like it’ll allow for Persistent Worlds on the level of NWN.

      • Wulfram says:

        Even NWN wasn’t really designed to support persistent world, though. It was intended to do much the same thing that D:OS2 seems to be aiming to do, but people wanted persistent worlds so they made it work for that.

        In practice it didn’t seem like NWN really got used much for what it was designed for, though. It was either single player modules, or persistent worlds. I’m not sure there’s actually all that much demand for the tabletop experience in a video game.

        • Hedgeclipper says:

          I did all three, I think most of the small group play was with established groups though and it still took a lot of work from the DM to set everything up – they didn’t really need scrpiting as they could do most things directly but just building areas and making creatures and so on could be a huge job – and an fight that might take an hour on the tabletop could be over in a minute or two in NWN. Still lots of fun.

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          Harlander says:

          I probably spent most of my NWN MP time in one persistent world or another, but I did play through a complete campaign with one group back in the day.

          There was a whole site, Neverwinter Connections, based around arranging GM-led campaigns and sessions. It was pretty great.

      • Unclepauly says:

        “but it would be filling a gap that some of us are longing to see filled” – That’s what she said
        */discreetly exits curtain left*

    • dontnormally says:

      Neither impressive, fun, nor well implemented require revolutionary especially in this case where examples of proper execution are few and far between. Pardon me of course, I shall remove myself from your lawn. d:

      • Scelous says:

        Oh, absolutely. I agree completely. But with Adam raving about this feature, and how “Larian’s trick” is to take away scripting, and how amazing this experience is… I think it’s disingenuous *at best*, given the precedence set by Neverwinter Nights. It feels like a lot of overhype and PR talk. At least that’s how it feels like to me as a reader and consumer.

        • Be_reasonable says:

          I agree. Does it have anything to do with the website getting sold? Serious question. How do we know what’s legit anymore?

          • Guy Montag says:

            Be reasonable, Be_reasonable, there isn’t an owned or un- news organization that hasn’t been casually accused of having a bought off article like this comment line just did.

            Maybe Adam’s just genuinely impressed by Larian’s method of doing this, and also happens to have a knack for writing with a flourish. Or he’s been bought and paid for in short order after the site officially changes hands over to the group that already ran all the parts of the site they now run.

            I say we call shill and run off into the sunset holding hands and singing songs! Ya with me?

        • Nahadoth says:

          So, Adam isn’t allowed to be impressed/hyped because something similar has been done before *once* many years ago. Okay then. Clear sign of game journalism gone wrong.

          • April March says:

            He’s allowed to, but if we’re not allowed to scoff at his naiveté why even have a comment section?

            SCOFF SCOFF SCOFF SCOFF

        • elevown says:

          Why are assuming everyone has all knowledge that YOU have?

          That’s super dumb. If he even played nwn back in the day – and remembered it existed, he would very much likely NOT have played with it’s DM mode – the vast majority of nwn players just played the single player mods.

          I personally played almost all the highly rated mods but never saw DM mode in action even once – though I was aware of its existance – I couldn’t tell you what it could and couldn’t do.

          So – someone who has likely never experienced anything like that in a game sees it for the first time and is excited and YOU have a problem with that? Even though you have NOT experinced the os2 version to know how similar it is or isn’t? and have no idea if he ever touched nwnw or its dm mode?

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          kfix says:

          He never said it was revolutionary, you twerp.

          “We’ve been here before, most recently with Sword Coast Legends”

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      NWN was a really great platform. So many fond memories of the user generated modules. I had dozens of characters I used to dispatch on those “missions” like some mercenary band.

  2. Cosmo D says:

    I am beyond hyped for this. Fond memories of NWN / NWN2 but with plenty of lessons learned and innovations made since.

  3. Sly-Lupin says:

    I’m honestly kind of angry at how little attention Latina is gettin. DOS2 is, by leaps and bounds, the most ambitious game we’ve seen since the dawn of the medium, back when we were too ignorant of the media’s limitations to even guess at what they might be.

    Swen is, quite clearly, a crazy person.

    …Anyway, how do NPCs work? Does the GM write out text trees and dialog options like NWN, or simply type in the dialog in real-time with the players like a PnP game? Or, ideally, both?

    • Rizlar says:

      Super duper hula-hooper hyped for D:OS2. Backed it and played a little of the early access version without wanting to spoil too much. Really look forward to the release (this summer?).

    • thekelvingreen says:

      Maybe it’s done via voice chat, because we didn’t really have that back in the days of NWN.

      What I would love to see is live voice changing so the GM can speak the lines and the players hear it in the voice of a dwarf warrior, or an orcish bard, or whatever. We’re probably a few years away from that still.

      • dontnormally says:

        > We’re probably a few years away from that still.

        That technology absolutely exists today and would be no big deal to implement. Paying people to tweak it so it sounds good would definitely be an investment, though

  4. futabot says:

    I literally just fired up Neverwinter Nights and now Larian has secured my munz for good.

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    subdog says:

    I’d love to read the impressions of someone who’s familiar with Roll20 and other virtual tabletops. (Yeah, I know they’re not the same thing as this.)

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      So as a player this looks a lot more fun than roll20. The game seems to give the players more mechanical agency, instead of relying on the DM to make almost everything happen that the players do. The interface is going to be more video gamey than playing roll20, but that’s nice since you’re sitting at your PC playing anyway.

      For the DM it’s hard to say without seeing the actual tools they use to build the campaign. Much of Roll20’s available content is only available as purchases. I’m hoping D:OS2 will have more of a NWN style of freely available “mods” and maybe DLC that includes multiple campaigns.

      Very interesting that there is a Lost Mine of Phandelver module already made for D:OS2. I hope they release this as it’s a great newbie adventure so a large amount of DnD players are familiar with it. Personally it would be fun to play it in a video game setting, as I’ve only ever run it as DM.

  6. Nahadoth says:

    You can see a little more of Larian demoing the GM mode at Wizards of the Coast HQ in their latest Kickstarter update video.

  7. Sparkasaurusmex says:

    Check out Matt Mercer running this game with a bunch of voice actors all speaking in character: link to twitch.tv

  8. April March says:

    I dunno, man. I think I’d still much rather play a pen-n-paper RPG rather than something like this. I get the hype, though.