There are few gaming experiences as chaotic and memorable as sitting down in person with a group of pals to play a tabletop role-playing game. Some video games have tried to capture this in digital form, with limited success. But Baldur’s Gate 3 conveys the highs and lows of a tabletop co-op campaign thanks to clever systems, a dense world, and multiple avenues to pursue every quest. This makes Baldur’s Gate 3 co-op flexible and daring in a way I haven’t seen before — but it’s also a campaign that constantly runs the risk of descending into pure chaos.
I have been playing tabletop games for years, both in person and online, because I love the improvisational nature of tossing a narrative back and forth. By ceding control and letting other people grab the reins of a campaign, you’re never 100% sure what will happen next. However, in video game RPGs, I haven’t found a campaign that scratches that itch.
Star Wars: The Old Republic has an interesting system wherein you and your pals can engage in dice rolls to see who gets to respond in a conversation. Divinity: Original Sin has an interesting conflict mechanic in which the dual protagonists can debate the best course of action in a rock-paper-scissors-style dialogue. Original Sin 2, also by Larian Studios, has a robust co-op campaign option that feels like the prototype of Baldur’s Gate 3’s take on multiplayer. But it felt like herding cats; the party would often split and wander off, or be forcibly grouped together by an exasperated host.
More often than not, I find that co-op video game RPGs either default to a vote, or the host just keeps control over choices. Baldur’s Gate 3, on the other hand, gives agency to everyone in the party. There’s an early interaction where the elf Astarion ambushes the player character in the night — I’ll keep the specifics vague to avoid spoilers — and the protagonist awakens. In a co-op run, this scene is assigned to one player. If they choose to kill or exile Astarion, well… you snooze, you lose, other players. Au revoir, Astarion.
The Druid grove is an early quest hub, and a way for chaos to easily break out in co-op games. Tiefling refugees are staying at the outskirts of the grove, at odds with the Druids within, who are using a powerful Idol of Silvanus to fuel a protection ritual. I simply did not consider that one of my friends would be a silly little guy and attempt to steal the idol. We had to rush everyone into a side room and have our tank block the entrance so we could snipe the Druids one at a time. It was utter mayhem.
The other members of a co-op run can start their own conversations, kill NPCs, steal their stuff, and otherwise throw your careful plans into disarray. They have agency, and feel like an actual second protagonist as opposed to a silent sidekick. This means I’m hesitant to suggest a co-op run to perfectionists, the chronically impatient, or completionists. Even physical Dungeons & Dragons has this problem, however, so I’m not convinced there’s a cure. Every tabletop group has a guy who wants to talk to the barkeep at length or has a personal, petty mission to assassinate an important yet impudent NPC.
There’s plenty of fuel for conflict, and that makes the role-playing even sweeter. Even if your friends aren’t doing anything as over-the-top as stealing idols and assassinating party members, Baldur’s Gate 3 is stuffed with crisscrossing choices. Do you risk a deal with a devil to cure a fatal, horrifying affliction? Do you trust a benevolent visitor who appears in your dreams with an offer of protection, or do you view them with suspicion? Are cultists the scum of Faerun, or victims in their own right?
These are the kind of questions that come up during a Baldur’s Gate 3 run, and there’s not always a simple good/evil choice. Instead, it’ll come down to your character’s morals and values, and how they intersect, run parallel, or violently clash with those of your partners. It’s not easy to make a game that can adapt and respond to that level of nuance, especially from multiple protagonists, but Larian Studios has pulled it off so far. I’ll be curious to see if my co-op campaign keeps any level of coherency as we get into the endgame and these narratives conclude.