"What’s your background?"
I didn’t know how to answer that. I was an Elf, sure, a cannibalistic elf apparently. But beyond that, I went with most of the plain settings for this particular demo: default face, default name (Scarlett). With my character at home, I spent an hour making sure my Elf was perfect. I usually agonize over these things—character customization that is—but felt like sticking with the basics. I stumbled on this question though. But it wasn’t the game that asked me it through some arbitrary questionnaire. Instead, our living, breathing Game Master did; the officiant over our stint in this particular role-playing campaign.
Here we were, embarking on Divinity: Original Sin 2’s upcoming Game Master mode, traipsing across the familiar Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) campaign of “Lost Mine of Phandelver.” Divinity: Original Sin 2’s Game Master mode was the final stretch goal of developers’ Larian Studios’ Kickstarter campaign of 2015, the cherry on top of the already-ambitious RPG. The long-promised Game Master mode is almost exactly what players would ideally expect from any other tabletop D&D campaign: where players’ imaginations are boundless, and nothing can restrain it. It lets a single player of a party (the Game Master) essentially be God; the maker of a story and the spiritual guide for all its inhabitants, where every whim is to their bending.
Divinity: Original Sin 2’s Game Master mode begins as any basic campaign does: with character customization and some minor set-up. I’m embarking on this campaign with three others alongside me, as a Game Master leads the way. We stocked items, geared up, and then it was off to the races. With that, our short-lived, two-hour campaign began. (And an efficient campaign it was. We allegedly ended up getting the farthest of the day’s scheduled demos, according to the few hosting our demo from Larian Studios.)
Everything in Divinity: Original Sin 2’s Game Master mode is customizable on the Game Master’s end, as they wield a variety of tools to twist and turn the campaign. They orchestrate NPCs down to their looks, and drop enemies into locales. The Game Master can control the enemies firsthand, or let them roam automatically. The Vignettes, bite-sized scenarios that pop up in environments, have preordained events with accompanying text and images. Alternatively, the Vignettes are fully editable on the fly by the Game Master. The corresponding choices for a scenario, voted on by the players, are constantly adjustable too. Y'know, in the event of a spontaneous idea from a player.
In one early area, we voted whether to attack a foe or parlay with them, but when the parlay failed (via a digital dice roll, and stats attributed to a character at the start), a brawl broke out. Barrels burst into flames, goblins caught fire, an acquaintance fired arrows into our own bull by accident. The whole sequence was a mess. But we talked—and most importantly played—our way through it. By the end, we lived to tell the tale, but not before interrogating a dimwitted goblin and tossing him over a cliff. Literally. (To do this, the Game Master dragged the creature to the edge, held him there while we barked questions, and dropped him with a splat.)
There are other customizable features too. The primary map, where objectives and paths are set along, can be preloaded with a variety of choices. Or, players can upload their own image. Just think: an image of players crawling across the map of Mordor, or even an urban city, like my very own San Francisco. The full customization of campaigns—from maps to vignettes—presents a wide breadth of possibilities for the most creative Game Masters; where an entire campaign can be conjured from scratch. (If they're okay with the default fantasy areas of Divinity, which are also customizable in their own ways—by atmosphere and item placement that is.)
All the customization, all the interactivity, was perhaps best summarized by our Game Master Mike Mills, the creator of the module himself: "It’s really critical to make shit on the fly." Conjuring shit on the fly is integral to being a Game Master during any creative tabletop game, and for Divinity: Original Sin 2, it’s no different. Even if the tools have been laid out, imagination has to be an editable Vignette or a drag-and-dropped scenario of NPCs away for everything to work. "[And] anything you can do to an NPC, you can do to a main character," he added.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 is mostly seamless though, from what it seems. The atmosphere for a particular scene can be shifted, whether by ambient sounds, music, or time of day even. If a player makes a split-second choice, it's the Game Master's job to follow suit. When one of my own teammates made the decision to skin a beast, our Game Master decorated the ground with oozing blood, representing the mess our self-described Jon Bovi-like teammate made. Everything lightly imaginable is only a click away in the face of some daunting looking menus for the Game Master to navigate. But with keyboard shortcuts, and an adept Game Master, ideally the developers want players to spend as little time technically paused in-between scenarios as possible.
In essence, Divinity: Original Sin 2’s focus in their Game Master mode isn’t applying the firm rules you’d possibly find in the structured, computer-only campaign of Divinity itself, but in what you’d find elsewhere in more freeing tabletop adventures. Game Master mode's focus is more on storytelling and less on rules, to allow players to craft their own journeys in whatever ways they wish.
I’m a first-timer to tabletop RPGs. I’ve had a passing familiarity with them, having listened to a few podcasts where they are the focus, but have never dove into the field myself. It was surprising how simple it was to ease into the campaign wielded by the ever-changing tale weaved by Divinity: Original Sin 2’s Game Master mode (or perhaps, my combatants and Game Master were just extra accommodating to my tabletop baby needs).
That was what I was most worried about entering this demo. Where the tabletop aficionados would lapse into their Dungeons & Dragons sensibilities, and I’d be left floundering. But with the active engagement of a video game combined with talking my way through it with my team, it felt weirdly novel. A seamless blend of two creative gaming ventures, now tied into one big, pleasantly active social experience.
I eventually dreamed up my Elf Scarlett’s history on the spot, after an awkward pause that felt like eternity. "What if she was a vegetarian," I said. At the start of our campaign, we were told that Elves consume the flesh of their foes' corpses, absorbing their memories in the process. What if, I proposed, one incidence scarred my Elf. Scarred her so bad that she swore off all flesh: flesh of corpses, flesh of animals. That’s what led her to this ragtag group of misfits after all.
In my kinda-first legitimate tabletop RPG experience, I kept in step with my vegetarian vengeful Elf Scarlett all along the way. I used up a resurrection scroll on our wagon-pulling bull that accidentally died, much to the chagrin of my combatants. I yanked arrows out of another bull too, wanting the beast to be assuaged and no longer in pain. I exercised caution, usually, to ill effect when our Bon Jovi-like ushered us into danger. But whatever. I stayed true.
Game Master mode was a pleasant surprise, as someone who wondered how limiting it would end up being. The answer was not very limiting at all. Divinity: Original Sin 2 is available now on Steam Early Access. Customized campaigns created with Game Master mode will be able to be uploaded through Steam Workshop. The mode will launch with "100 to 120" areas and modding tools, separate from what players bring in themselves. The full game, with Game Master mode included, will release later this year on PC.
To see the new Game Master mode in action, Larian Studios is hosting a Twitch stream at 4pm PT, featuring Matt Mercer, Game Master of Geek and Sundry’s Critical Role show.