If you were to put my hobbies on set of scales that can measure how geeky a person is, my interest in table top role playing games would probably break them. I’ve played a myriad of different types too, from Dungeons & Dragons, World of Darkness and Paranoia – which incidentally is the greatest B-Movie Sci-Fi ever transformed into an RPG – and even some home-brew concoctions that range from the hammiest of superhero plots to a gothic take on Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why.
Naturally upon receiving my invitation to see Divinity: Original Sin II’s Game Master Mode, I was instantly pondering to myself just what the day would entail. Given Larian’s raison d’etre is “Fantasy RPGs with interactivity”, I was expecting to come across something similar to this rather than the more contemporary or futuristic RPGs I’d had more experience with. That was certainly the case, but my months of playing one character in the recent D&D release were of more use than I originally thought.
Upon my arrival, I noticed a small, familiar looking box on the table, and it transpired that, in order to demonstrate to us how the GM Mode works, Larian had decided the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure bundled with the D&D 5th Edition Starter Set.
I must emphasise the fact that Larian had based the scenario on this pre-published adventure, rather than the whole game. It still feels very much like Divinity: Original Sin, with the key difference being that everything was built from the ground up specially using the in-game tools.
While we took control of our characters when the action wasn’t paused, the GM would take control of the NPCs and enemies on screen. Larian’s reasoning for doing this is that they want it to be as simple to use as possible, meaning there’s no plans to enable scripted movement. This certainly made sense as the last thing a GM wants is to lose control and for their minion to do something unintended.
As we ventured through the forest, wagon in tow, we were presented with a quandary. There was a wolf eating the freshly killed horse in the middle of the road, and it was at this point that the game was paused by our GM to display what Larian have dubbed a Vignette, in which players can vote on actions to take. This is a surprisingly elegant way of presenting an issue without the need to render the game accordingly, meaning that the flow of the adventure doesn’t slow to a crawl.
Speaking of time saving, by having shops use in-engine trading between NPCs and Players, it eliminates the dreaded RPG session that most players will experience at least once: the shopping trip. There is a simple interface where players can request a price for buying/selling items before confirming. Of course, players might have more specific requirements, so the GM is able to create an item on the fly for them to purchase.
It also streamlines combat, which is turn based, with the GM taking control of the enemy. Initiative is automatically calculated, so no initiative rolls are necessarily required. Skills and characteristics are the same as those used within Divinity: Original Sin II’s engine, so we didn’t need to keep an eye on which skills were used beforehand or roll dice to attack.
This may be off putting for some wanting the table top experience, but Larian have incorporated dice rolling should that be your preference. The GM will select the dice for the player to roll, and then declare whether or not they’ve been successful, sending clear feedback through the game. We weren’t able to add the skill modifiers found in D&D to the rolls, though it was simple for the GM to adapt the rolls to fit.
Further down the line, we came across a Goblin camp and another vignette. The options laid out for us were not ideal considering the situation, so I asked whether we were able to try and trick the goblins into not only letting us pass, but also helping to remove the barricade. Weirdly enough, this plan worked and it was even incorporated into the vignette on the fly, but emphasises a very welcome degree of adaptability in the system.
After our session led by Larian, we got a chance to play around with the GM mode creation tools. Firstly is creating the overall map, which allows GMs to import maps using any image file. They can then place pins to any area they wish, which are then the basis for the game map. Larian informed me that the game would ship with over 200 pre-made maps, though users can create their own using the map editor bundled with the full game.
Secondly, we took a look at building encounters, which is where the bulk of your time as a GM will probably be spent. That isn’t to say that it is complicated to use, as it’s a case of finding things through menus, dropping them onto the map, and editing their character sheet and items held if they’re a NPC. You can also create encounter groups that are defined by how they see the party – Allies, Neutral, or Hostile.
There’s an awful lot of versatility within the assets that have already been created, and though there are gaps in the range of fantasy archetypes, most are represented and can be equipped with a host of gear and skills. Items have unique properties, such as oil drums exploding on contact to cause massive fires – something we experienced first-hand in our D&D game when we set fire to them. Music and ambience are also selectable, for those GMs with a penchant for the dramatic.
Finally there are the Vignettes themselves, which like the overall maps are really easy to create. You can set the image using image files, but you can also customise the borders, text, and choices that players get to vote on. I can’t stress enough that this, as an experienced GM, is what impressed me the most. It allows for such versatility that when the developers asked us what the biggest surprise of the day was, Vignettes came up repeatedly because of just how simple yet adaptable it was.
Were there limitations? Certainly. There’s currently no functionality for the GM to roll back saves in case of glitches, so things would need to be edited manually, and there’s also no prompts in place to ensure that players are sure they want to end their turn without spending all their Action Points. However, these may well be addressed by launch, and what we have here is a surprisingly dynamic GM Mode that is relatively simple to use.
Most will probably buy Divinity: Original Sin II for the main campaign, yet the inclusion of the GM Mode could reach out to more people who may not care a great deal about gaming against AI, but want to create adventures to share with their friends. Compared to Roll20.net, it’s got a higher barrier of entry as it isn’t free, but GMs and players have a more elegant interface to play around with.