Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Lead Writer of Baldur's Gate - Lukas Kristjanson

    D u r l a g ' s  T o w e r  &  R i d d l e c r a f t   

You may have read my in-depth retrospective on the original incarnation of Baldur's Gate, in which I deem Durlag's Tower to be the greatest dungeon crawl in cRPG history. Well, to my delight the Lead Writer of Baldur's Gate, Lukas Kristjanson, was recently kind enough to answer my questions on Durlag's Tower, and also offer insights into riddlecraft and the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion, in general.

I asked him: Who conceived the idea of the Tower, Who wrote it (the riddles & rhymes, the allegory on Fear), and Who did the dungeon design? His memory was a lil' fuzzy on the specifics (understandably!) but the response was quite enlightening, regardless!

Wow, a long time since I thought out those days.

It was our first crack at an expansion, and we wanted something that could plug in and be engaged at almost any point. And since it's Dungeons and Dragons, we wanted to try our hand at a traditional crawl. A real adventure just for the sake of it. And like so many other things, we went back to the tabletop source.

I really liked the extended lore of things like the Dragon Mountain module, and we all have nightmares from the Temple of Elemental Evil. So we went for something established in Forgotten Realms, but not so detailed that fans would nitpick what we did as "not accurate". I don't remember who suggested it, but Durlag's Tower is mentioned in Volo's Guide to the Sword Coast by Ed Greenwood. So it was "legendary" but not a focal point, and that gave us room for interpretation. More or less the same tactic we would later employ with KotOR, by setting that game thousands of years before the movies. Still recognizable to fans, but lots of room to do your own thing.

I wrote a lot of the expansion and the tower. And while it's hard to remember specifics, I do recall being a jerk about the riddles. Because some players would reload after a wrong answer, so I built in redundant riddles, and made the game pull them randomly on load. So if you got the wrong answer and reloaded, there was a good chance to got a different riddle. That wasn't a fix, by any means. We always knew that multiple choice was a weak way to present a riddle. We briefly toyed with a text entry system in BG1, but realized that it was out of scope. Not just due to coding for the interface and GUI art, but also maintaining it across the different language translations of the game. But riddles are very AD&D, so we still wanted them. I tried to integrate them as much as possible, and sometimes had fun with them. Like having Minsc jump in to give wrong answers to some quizzing Guardian in BG2.

Personally, riddles were always (and still are) a pain in the butt, because there's a very small window for them to be satisfying. If you don't know it, it's impossible. If you do know it, it's obvious. Riddles that allow the player to consider and solve are rare, and made all the more challenging by multi-language releases. That's why you keep seeing physical puzzles repeat in many games. Those at least can be manipulated and give you time to "get it." Translation isn't a factor, and even if you know how to do it, there's still a process to solving it, instead of just "answer, move on." Like the Towers of Hanoi, or the "Towers of Annoy" as they came to be known.

Honestly I can't remember who all was involved in the dungeon design. All of us, to some extent, and I'd only leave someone out if I started trying to go through them all. You'll have to run through the credits. The Level Art team drove a lot of it, because we wanted the environment to be interesting. Plus their time was at a premium. Text was cheap back then, so it was easier to react to what Art could deliver. And we stretched ourselves pretty thin in places. Not so much in the tower itself, I'm thinking more of that mage-trap island cave that we crammed in. I believe we ended up using the same layout as the Ankheg caves, just mirrored, altered slightly, and recoloured.

That's some stuff off the top of my head.

Lukas Kristjanson

Thanks Lukas! I'm sure all veterans of Baldur's Gate appreciate your brilliant writing.

(Lukas went on to write for Baldur's Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights, KotOR, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age 2 & Dragon Age Inquisition).

   E x p l a n a t o r y  N o t e s   

Dragon Mountain is a Forgotten Realms meat-grinder for AD&D 2nd Edition, published by TSR in 1993 and authored by Lidberg and McComb. The Temple of Elemental Evil is a Greyhawk module for AD&D 1st Edition, published by TSR in 1985 and authored by Frank Metzer and the late, great Gary Gygax (co-inventor of D&D). ToEE is also a cRPG by Troika, but its representation of the prime dungeon crawl pales in comparison to Durlag's Tower, a largely original effort by then-fledgling developer BioWare. True meat-grinders are rare in cRPGs, though the dungeon design in the Swordflight Series stands as a current gen exemplar.

The "mage-trap island cave" is the icy dungeon of Ice Island, one of three main regions that may be explored from Ulgoth's Beard, the hub and launch-pad for Tales of the Sword Coast expansion content. And yes, Ice Island (and, to my mind, Werewolf Island as well) were comparatively underwhelming (factors were most likely time and financial constraints, as always). Also, in referring to the "Ankheg caves" as being similar to the ice dungeon, Luke probably meant the Firewine Ruins aka "kobold dungeon" aka "my mage just got one-shotted by a stray kobold commando arrow - again!"

Note on Luke's "text entry system" comment: The Aurora Engine (Neverwinter Nights) would later include a text entry system for user input of riddle answers and passcodes (to break warded doors, and the like); however, to my knowledge this feature was never employed in official NWN content by BioWare: it was only availed of by select community-made modules - and was VERY cool! 

   D u r l a g ' s  T o w e r — D e l v i n g  D e e p e r   

For quick reference, here are pics showing the three emotive riddles posed towards the end of this venerable deathtrap: Riddle One, Riddle Two, Riddle Three.

BioWare's Durlag's Tower is a masterpiece on every level, and this legendary mega-dungeon has already been treated by me, in full, as part of my ongoing Baldur's Gate Blathering series of posts.

Part V: Durlag's Tower: The Venerable Deathtrap, Overview, Upper Storeys, Cellar.
Part VI: The Labyrinth of the Warders & The Labyrinth of Doors.
Part VII: The Labyrinth of Elements & The Chessboard.
Part VIII: The Labyrinth of Durlag's Ghost & The Demon Knight, Ulgoth's Beard: The Return & The Beast Unleashed.




  1. Interesting. I think trying to find a part of the Forgotten Realms that is not so obscure there are no significant source materials for it, on the one hand, but that also has not already been done to death, is often the reason why FR games, modules etc. end up getting set where they do. I also had not thought about how the necessity of translation would affect the sort of riddles one could put in a big commercial game, though it is obvious when mentioned. Naturally, a riddle that depends on subtle wordplay would be very hard to translate!

    The mage trap island definitely had a bit of a "phoned in" quality to it, but personally I quite liked Werewolf Island. It had a decent amount of atmosphere and interesting combat challenges (though with basically only a single type of monster I suppose the latter would have gotten quite repetitive if it had gone on much longer than it did). Nowhere near as impressive as Durlag's Tower of course, but what is?

    1. Werewolf Island is definitely a cut above Ice Island, yes. The lore on Balduran alone places it several rungs above. I'm grateful for the dev insights, really grateful. I didn't expect a response, at all.

      Btw, sorry about the newly applied comment moderation. The comments on my Siege of Dragonspear walkthrough necessitated the change. On the bright side, the increased traffic to my blog may drive a percentage to check out the NWN modules I've treated, and that's a always a good thing. Speaking of which, have you given, or do you intend to give, Siege of Dragonspear a whirl?

    2. I have not played Siege of Dragonspear at this time, though naturally I have thought about obtaining it at some point or another. Not sure if I will actually get around to it, though, since it will be hard to find time for a major new game in the immediate future. At the moment, a lot of my gaming time is being taken up play-testing and putting the finishing touches on Swordflight 3.

    3. Excellent news! I don't expect an exact ETA, but what are we looking at here? Two weeks, a month? I'm just wondering if I should speed up my Siege of Dragonspear walkthrough.

      How about game length? (Your "rough estimate" for Chapter 2 was 50 hours).

    4. Something like 2 months is more likely, so no need to rush through anything beforehand. Exact time of course depends on how many problems my play-testing finds and how easy they are to fix, how kind the rest of my life is in allowing time for such things (hitherto, it has not been as kind as I would have liked with regard to this particular module), and so forth.

      Game length is something I determine through the play-testing I have not yet done nearly enough of, so any estimate at this point would be very rough indeed. That said I would guess something in the 25-30 hour range.

    5. Good to hear! That gives me more time than I thought for my Siege walkthrough. I can take it even EZer now.

      I suppose you will write another in-depth walkthrough, too? It would be funny if you delayed its release a bit, forcing people to work things out for themselves. Then again, your comments section may be inundated with Qs... do you enjoy giving out hints like that or is it just too much work?

    6. I plan to write a walkthrough at some point, yes. Actually, with Swordflight 1, I was not initially certain whether I needed to bother with a walkthrough but eventually figured if I did not include one I would have hordes of people demanding a solution to the statue puzzle, so I went ahead and typed one up - and then had various people point to its thoroughness as a remarkable feature of the module. Kind of funny since it was basically an afterthought. I might not mind just dealing with issues in the comments section in theory, but it is not as if I have unlimited time for that.

  2. It's really great that you managed to get a response from one of the developers of the game. The dungeon that to me looks like the Ankheg caves is the one in the Werewolf Island. It's a shame that the Ice Island was "rushed" there's even the unused second level. It would be awesome to know what was the other content that was cut both from the original and the expansion. Several mods restore some of the cut stuff (like Unfinished Business), but I'm curious about other missing content.

    I remember one of the modders mentioning that there was an unreleased demo of the game, where the player was controlling Ajantis, doing the investigation in a keep (Candlekeep?) and Eldoth was the main antagonist (he was the captain of the guard, not the bard). This was the inspiration for one of the locations in the Northern Tales of the Sword Coast mod (Northern Citadel).

    1. Thanks, Tuth! I have dabbled with Unfinished Business but have not even heard of that demo or the Northern Citadel mod. I guess that's something to look into if I ever get burned out on the user-made NWN modules that I've been exploring for the last few years (highly unlikely!)


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