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What TTRPG Should You Use to Play Baldur’s Gate 3? (It's Not 5e!)

A pedantic dive into which tabletop games would be best for emulating the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired video game from Larian Studios.

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Screenshot: Larian Studios

There’s a lot going on in Baldur’s Gate 3: incredibly detailed response options, making friends with your companions, intense battles, and sometimes even-more-intense romance scenes after the battles. Larian Studios really put a lot of depth into BG3, and while the basis for the way the game moves though the world is rooted in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, the more I heard about it, the less convinced I was that if you wanted to play a tabletop roleplaying game that emulated Baldur’s Gate 3 at your own table, you would actually want to chose 5e.

First, a disclosure: I haven’t played Baldur’s Gate 3. Before you dismiss my opinions based on that alone (which… fair, I suppose), I want to assure you I’ve done research. I spoke with multiple folks who have played the game and I’ve watched a couple hours of Twitch streams. And after a good amount of thinking and sorting through a library of games and hours of gameplay, I came to a key realization for the purposes of this exploration: Baldur’s Gate 3 is two different games. There is a combat game and then there’s a relationship game. Let’s start with combat.


Combat in BG3 uses the 5e ruleset, but in practicality, very few players play 5e to the degree of specificity that a video game replicates. What you want to do is to play a modified version of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5e that also uses the Pathfinder three action economy system. 3.5e put a lot of emphasis on miniature combat and distance—people got out rulers in order to help move their characters around terrain—which helps emulate what BG3 is doing with character positioning. Additionally, instead of relying on the D&D framework of ready action/reaction-action-bonus action, you’ll want to institute a modified Pathfinder system that allows three actions to be done within a combat turn. This is partially because 3.5e is already extremely rules-heavy, but also because it will make it easier to recall all the actions that a character can take during combat, allowing players to better control the flow and pace of battle.


Another argument for 3.5 here is that the rules for magic in that edition are not only for how and when to use magic, but why magic happens. It’s got a little more context than 5e, which again, is a very forgiving combat sim. If you really want to get into the fiddliness of BG3’s magic, my vote is still 3.5.

Which means we’re on to the relationship game. Arguably BG3’s greatest feat is its story and all the interpersonal relationships that unfold. Larian Studios said in a Steam post pre-launch that this was a massive investment: “Baldur’s Gate 3 has more cinematic dialogue than three times all three Lord of the Rings novels combined. It has 174 hours of cinematics, making it more than twice the length of every season of Game of Thrones combined.” Now, here’s where we’ll get into the thorny, objective opinions. There are no real rules for social interactions in D&D, largely because all interactions are treated like a prelude to combat. Or, as we all know (and as BG3 players know particularly well), a prelude to getting laid.

The reason that BG3 was able to do so much with regards to dialogue and character choice is precisely because there are so few “real” rules for social interactions, and all interactions are based on the same rules that combat is based on. Without rules, BG3 was free to push the boundaries of what a video game could offer with regards to dialogue and relationship. It also treats relationships like an approval matrix, where all your choices tick boxes of approval or disapproval, which opens up various paths as you go through the game.

One of the complaints I heard about BG3 is that if you don’t have a high charisma (or you just roll like shit when you talk to people in the game), you end up on game tracks that you really really don’t want to be on, with little way out. A friend I spoke to said that she saved before rolling charisma checks and rebooted if she got a particularly unfavorable roll. What this says to me is that the relationships in BG3 are already being artificially manipulated because people want to be able to control how they react within interpersonal dynamics, even if they can’t totally control the outcomes.


When sorting through TTRPGs to emulate BG3 I wanted to remain true to both the structure of the game—an approval matrix that impacts storyline—and how players are manipulating the game by “controlling” their own characters’ reactions, even if they were asked to roll stat checks to do so. My first instinct: something Powered by the Apocalypse. This framework (developed by D. Vincent and Meguey Baker in Apocalypse World) gives you narrative cliffs to jump off of and allows you a lot of wiggle room with your approach and outcome. A lot of PbtA games also use some kind of relationship tracker to help inform and influence the outcomes. And of course, there’s the underlying horniness. I reread the rules from a bunch of different TTRPGs: the Avater TTRPG, Interstitial, Urban Shadows, Monsterhearts 2, Pasion de las Pasiones… but at the end of the day there was only one option. Thirsty Sword Lesbians.


I chose TSL for a few reasons; it’s an incredibly open-setting game and doesn’t have ties to a singular source material or trove of lore, and it keeps some of its focus on personally intense, high-stakes encounters. It has rules for character interaction and NPC interactions where the players can customize their approach, but not necessarily wholly determine outcome. Additionally, a huge theme of the game is about building trust. TSL also utilizes a mechanic called “Strings” which represent “emotional influence over another person,” which you can gain and lose as you play. The moves that you use with these strings can also help dictate reactions—another way to help emulate some of the more restricted results that are seen in BG3 when you choose your responses. Throughout the game, you attempt to achieve the goals of each player that are explicitly determined at the start of the game during character creation. And, not to ignore the very thirsty elephant in the room, there are specific moves that allow you to seduce people.

While TSL is not a great fit for the combat of BG3, it works alongside the established narrative structures of the game and the way that players attempt to influence their rolls. It’s not a perfect way to emulate BG3, but it’s a far sight better than D&D, which has literally no rules for character interactions beyond rolling checks that are also used in combat. (This lack of rules regarding character interactions and emotions is, naturally, why some people feel drawn to using D&D to play out extended character arcs; no rules = more freedom.)


There is no single TTRPG out there truly capable of emulating a video game, just like there’s no video game out there that’s capable of emulating a TTRPG. With regards to Baldur’s Gate 3, unless you want to be weird (and I would love to see a Baldur’s Gate game played with something like Pasion de las Pasiones, which might just be crazy enough to work) you should probably just stick to D&D 5e and ignore pedants like me who pick out the problems with that choice. But honestly, if you’re going to sit down at a table with your friends, why not try something new? I’ve heard Thirsty Sword Lesbians will let you fuck the Beast if you roll your dice right.

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