Mar 19, 2020

Creative Gaming Watch: Divinity: Original Sin 2

A rare non-Storium post here, but even if that has largely taken over the blog, I do still keep an eye on other forms of creative gaming!

One concept I've always been interested in is a game which merges, as much as possible, the ease of play of a video game and the creative power of a tabletop RPG. Not just a virtual tabletop, but something that actually played like a video game, but allowed someone to create and run their own adventures. There have been some attempts throughout the years - Neverwinter Nights, for instance, was a good shot at it, and Sword Coast Legends was a recent...not-quite-as-good shot at it. But nothing's quite gotten there for me - either there was too high of a barrier to entry for the GM for my tastes, or things were easier for the GM but fairly limited in power.

Obviously, that's quite a balancing act. But, fortunately, it hasn't stopped game companies from trying...and that brings me to today's subject, Divinity: Original Sin 2.

The first Divinity: Original Sin is quite a nice game, full of tabletop flavor and with an impressive amount of freedom for a video game - there are constraints, as one would expect since nobody can program for everything, but it definitely feels like you have more approaches to situations than in many other video game RPGs. I've found this particularly interesting in combat, where there seem to be all sorts of interesting tactical options that I can try to take advantage of and usually end up accidentally shocking and stunning my own guy, because I suck at tactical gameplay. The system's pretty brilliant, I'm less so.

Divinity: Original Sin 2 is building on that and adding new tactical options, and expanding the rest of the game besides...but it's also doing one more thing that has me very excited. It's adding a GM mode.

Like the mode in Sword Coast Legends, it appears this one is focused more on the concept of live GMing, rather than building a plot that can be played without a GM like Neverwinter Nights allowed. Not sure if that will be an option too or not. Regardless, the live GMing mode looks very promising in the previews I've seen so far. A few highlights:
  • It will be both providing a lot of prebuilt areas and allowing them to be built via some kind of modding package. This was a major early weakness of Sword Coast Legends, which only provided some prebuilts at first (I believe they did eventually add a toolset) - those only work for so long, so it's tough to build a full adventure. The combination of prebuilts and more extensive construction tools should allow a good mix of having what you need to grab at a moment's notice and being able to build something more detailed when needed.
  • It looks like it will, like Sword Coast Legends, allow some on-the-fly setup. Not sure on the extent yet, but this is one of the things that game got very right, so I'm pleased to see other companies exploring that idea. If you're used to GMing, you know for a fact that nothing ever goes exactly how you'd plotted it out. Having the ability to add characters, quests, areas, and the like during a session is pretty essential.
  • There's a GM override function, so if players want to do some tactic the game doesn't natively allow for, you can improvise and apply effects as you wish. That's just plain cool. One of the weaknesses of video games compared to tabletop gaming has always been that there's constraint over the options players have, to it's great to see that they've planned for ways around that.
  • The system itself is turn-based, which...I just always find works better for the tabletop atmosphere. A little more time to think, and more allowance for players to come up with unique tactics that way, too.
  • There's a "vignettes" feature that sounds excellent - a way of using images and text (they've compared it to PowerPoint) to convey parts of the story, and allow players to make choices. These sound like a great idea. Sometimes you really don't need to have a full, populated area for part of the story, but you still want to have a little more "pop" to it...this system should allow GMs to present stories in more freeform ways when needed. It looks very pen-and-paper, too.
  • This hasn't been confirmed to my knowledge, but Divinity: Original Sin had co-op for two players on a single console - I know the sequel is planning on expanding co-op in general to up to four, but haven't heard if they are going to have two or four players on the same console, or if that can interact with GM mode in any way. It'd be great if we could have the ability to run an adventure for a full party of players on only two computers, one for the GM and the other for the players, but that's probably wishful thinking. Still, it's a good dream.
We're still in the early going here and the mode isn't available for general tryout yet, but it looks promising. Here's hoping it goes well.

I'm less enthused by the character creation engine...specifically, for appearance. There's just not that many options at this point for those of us who really get into appearance creation, and I honestly don't know why games based on tabletop roleplaying don't ever go whole hog with character appearance creation the way things like Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires or Dragon's Dogma do, to say nothing of various WWE 2k wrestling games or the like. If any game type should let you truly put the character in your mind on to the screen, it's one with a strong tabletop gaming concept like this, but it never really happens. Here's hoping that they take another look at this at some point, but it seems pretty locked in now. Ah, well. If this GM mode works out, I'll be happy with that...and encourage them to take another look at appearance creation for Divinity: Original Sin 3.