SIDE A: Of the New Hampshire Trollkillers
Last entry, we tackled the mechanically shitty side of Tales of the Sword Coast which, despite some narrative pluses, I would consider sort of a failure. This entry, we look a Durlag's Tower, Baldur's Gate's take on a "prestige dungeon," and a wonderful intersection of play and narrative (with only a few exceptions.)
First, what do I mean by prestige dungeon? D and D has a history of legendary dungeons, some as iconic as Vecna or Bigby or Balduran. I mean places with intensely evocative names like The Temple of Elemental Evil or The Tomb of Horrors. What's interesting about these dungeons is that they tend to be designed as meat grinders. Gygax is on the record as designing Tomb of Horrors to try to TPK (total party kill) a group of particularly tenacious players. These dungeons are full of "what is the Dm thinking" style puzzles. They're the table top equivalent of I Wanna Be the Guy. Completing them is a badge of honor, or it's meant to be at least, and I think Durlag's Tower can take a seat at this table.
Our reason for heading off to the tower is pretty simple. A descendant of one of Durlag's adventuring buddies wants you to go get a dagger called Soultaker (is it metal?) and we're off! There's actually a tour guide who will take you inside and sell you fake "runestones" (more on those later). This haunted tower is a tourist trap in this world but it hides a much more dangerous and much more creamy center than the outside lets on.
Before we get into the tower, let's talk Durlag. Durlag is probably the single best defined character in Baldur's Gate, at least up there with Serevok and Gorion. Durlag has legitimate lore around him, which you discover by rooting through his home. This is AWESOME and, honestly, probably the high point of the first game.
His motivations make for tragedy. Durlag was the son of Bolhur the Clanless who, despite great wealth, died alone and without extended family. Durlag set out to create a family, or clan, in his eponymous tower. Contrasting him with Balduran, he's not motivated by wealth but instead a very real fear: dying alone. This is the story we know going into it and we'll revisit it in the b-side but it makes not only a great contrast to Balduran but also to Sarevok.
So, after clearing out some riff raff outside the tower, you find your tour guide within. The monsters you fight outside are actually significant in that they're pretty tough. The game is trying to signal a difficulty boost as this is by far the hardest content in the game. Ike, the tour guide, tells you and some other looky-loos about Durlag's known history. But, sadly for Ike, a demon teleports in and starts tossing fireballs everywhere! Watch out! This kills just about everyone else and any sane person would run at this point, but you're out for adventure.
There's not much in the upper parts of the tower. Just some minor treasure and Riggilo, who is a total douchebag, and another imprisoned nymph. She wants you to trick Riggilo into taking some of her hair so he will be trapped in the tower instead. Since he's such a prick, I had no problem with this but interestingly, he actually looks on your gift with suspicion. The trick is to make him think you're bribing him so he doesn't stab you in the back while you sleep. Since he's a weasel, this makes sense to him. This ends predictably with him upset that he's trapped for eternity (baby) and you methodically dispatch him.
The real meat of Durlag's Tower lies below, which I'll be tackling floor by floor, but first I want to make a comment about traps. I talked about traps a little bit a few entries ago but they haven't truly been a problem until now. Durlag's tower is fucking full of traps. Fireball traps, mostly, and christ, I wasn't specced for it. So I respecc'd using a save editor. It's conventional wisdom to have a competent thief with you but to be honest, I didn't have the patience to go grind for levels. So I turned Coran into a master thief. I don't feel good about it. I'm trying to play these games as vanilla as possible for the blog, but this dungeon absolutely requires a master thief. So, disclosure out of the way.
There isn't much to this level other than an NPC who tells you a little bit about the tower, mostly warnings. Interestingly enough, his name is Bayard and he might be the same Bayard who consecrated a pair of bracers from the table top game. It could also be a coincidence. Mechanically, you can't move on from this level until you find a secret door, which signals that they are going to be common, along with traps.
Here we go. If you've played Baldur's Gate, you know about the Four Dwarven Warders. This is a huge floor, made up of rooms and tunnels, is occupied by four ghostly dwarves. The rooms versus tunnels distinction is important. Not only does it make combat and navigation more enjoyable, but it's more interesting to look at. You're adventuring in a functional space. This was Durlag's home and the site of his future clan before it got all dungeoned up.
The four warders give you riddles with fairly unintuitive answers. They personify different aspects of Durlag and you need to find objects that symbolize those aspects. The connections fairly tenuous, to be honest, but for once you're doing more than just murdering monsters and taking their stuff. The riddle solutions involve manipulating your environment, making wine, forging weapons, etc. It's all pretty standard but noteworthy for the attempts to integrate play and story.
While accomplishing this laundry list, you're dealing with phase spiders and ghouls and fireball traps. The traps are intentional, placed by Durlag, but the others have taken up residence like evil hermit crabs.
After you solve all the riddles, the warders come to life, personifying fear, pride, love and avarice. For my money, this is the hardest fight in the game. Each aspect has special powers. Fear obviously radiates fear, Love casts dire charm, Avarice goes invisible and backstabs and Pride seemingly inflicts random status ailments (he kept making my guys drunk).
This is SO HARD. SO SO SO SO HARD. I died a dozen times. What's frustrating about working with characters at this level is that you don't really have a way to bring people back to life when you're outside of town, so you really want to win without losing anyone.
What won the battle for me was that, at this point, money had become no object so I'd been buying protection scrolls and monster summoning scrolls like mad. I created an army of gnolls and skeletons to stand in between me and warders and took them out at range. Even with this cheese strategy, it took me many tries. Because this fight is one the player instigates, you can take advantage of the central feature of Baldur's Gate's combat, preparation.
More doppelgangers! At this point, Baldur's Gate is leaning on this monster so hard that it's a miracle it works at all. In this level, you run into ghostly versions of Durlag and his family who turn out to be doppelgangers, as well as puzzle doors. It's OK but nothing too special. My favorite part, honestly, is that there is a false staircase that triggers a trap. I like to think it's simply painted on the floor like a Looney Toons short.
This level owns. Starting out, you have your choice of two paths to get to the end, each with its own challenges. One is full of skeleton archers and invisible stalkers but I recommend the other, and you know it takes a lot to make me turn down a skeleton archer.
But if you go west, there's a skeleton too! A friendly skeleton who explains that this portion of the dungeon is built around a natural cavern and is infested with wyverns living unnaturally long lives. And there is a statue garden of heroes who have died trying to take Durlag's treasure! And you can animate them to create a small army of NPCs to help you fight a trio of giant wyverns INSIDE THE SKELETON OF A DRAGON. This is one of the coolest setpieces in the game and an gobsmacking encounter.
Further in, you find four passage ways that lead to four elemental monsters. All are pretty straightforward except a slime that divides unless you kill it with fire. How do you know this? A room full of giant talking masks tells you. This is where Baldur's Gate is getting into that bonkers hyper imaginative territory that makes me love D and D so much. And it gets better.
After killing the four elemental monsters, you're teleported to a giant chessboard! There are rules for movement that the enemies don't seem to follow and unfortunately, are sort of impossible to adhere to. And when you break them, you get zapped with lightning. Luckily, you can send a bunch of fireballs across the board to soften up the opposing "pieces" and then let them come to you.
Here's where we get the meat of the backstory on Durlag (which I'm covering in the B-side to keep this entry to a reasonable length). Mechanically, you're heading through three wings of a dungeon to complete a challenge at the end of each. You fight a ghoul (Grael), who just wants to die in honorable combat, you talk to a statue who quizzes you on Durlag and you face a room full of traps. At the end of each of these spokes, you're teleported to a room that seems to represent Durlag's conscious. After gathering information from three poetic statues, the fourth will quiz you. And what's neat is, it's not like these are riddles. These are reading comprehension puzzles, or literary analysis puzzles. The statue is not just testing if you paid attention but also if you got the point. It wants to know if you took the appropriate lesson from the Fall of Durlag. This absolutely owns.
After doing this, Durlag's ghost will open the final passage way because he trusts you to eliminate the evil in the tower. The demon who killed our tour guide? It's a demon that Durlag and his buddies had formerly imprisoned in the dagger Soultaker, and now he's plotting to fuck up Faerum. There's a lot said about evil within versus evil without and it's all very tragic. On your way, you run into Clair De'Laine, the sole surviving member of a band of naive adventurers you've been running into from time to time. She warns you that instead of the demon at the center of all of this, there's actually a Demonknight and he means business.
So, the final boss of Durlag's tower is sort of a let down. There's neat theming here as he has a mirror of opposition. He uses this to create doppelgangers of your party to attack you and there is a lot of potential gravitas to how, even if they don't kill you, the act of killing a copy of yourself would be sanity breaking. However, the way this plays out mechanically is weak.
Clair hinted that you could maybe turn the mirror on the Demonknight, which would cause a Demonknight to spawn and help you out. In game, if you attack the mirror, it spawns creatures that attack everyone in the room, including the Demonknight. You can either do this, which is slightly easier, or try to take the Demonknight on directly for more experience points.
The Demonknight isn't very interesting. He gives a mustache twirling villain speech and falls to a well prepared and sustained attack, though he has a habit of casting dispel on your party which makes keeping buffs up a pain.
And with that you have defeated the evil at the center of Durlag's Tower and Durlag's ghost wife will helpfully teleport you out. You have the Soultaker and can bring it back to Ulgoth's Beard. But we're not done yet because...
My Death With the Thrill Kill Cult
When you get back, a cult leader steals the dagger! This is supposed to be a little more climactic than it feels, I think, as you've just come from a harrowing and emotionally draining short story with Durlag's Tower and now you're just fighting generic cultists who want the demon within Soultaker. You chase these guys and find them in a basement, summoning Aec'Letec.
Aec'Letec is a tough fight. First off, he's surrounded by cultists. They dont' do anything but if you kill Aec'Letec, he'll be reborn through them so you have to destroy them first and they're tanky for people wearing robes.
The fight is mostly about taking those guys out with fireballs, wand and otherwise, and then making the rest of your party as immune to status stuff as possible. Luckily, since money is no object at this point, I had bought a lot of scrolls of immunity to magic, which are OP as hell. It doesn't, however, make you immune to Aec'Letec's "Death Gaze" which inflicts a status called, "Dying" on your character. If your character is dying, this must be dispelled as soon as possible but sadly, you can't cast dispell while you're immune to magic. So, this took me quite a few tries before I could slay the demon. It still wasn't as hard as the Dwarven Warders for me.
And with that, you've completed Tales of the Sword Coast. Durlag's Tower, despite some annoyances (Wardstones taking up inventory space, too many traps), is a triumph and makes up for the other shitty quests. Next time, we'll be finishing Baldur's Gate. I hope to see you then.
SIDE B: THE FALL OF DURLAG
So, we know Durlag was scared of dying alone like his father and adventured to gain money to build a new clan. In pursuing this goal, he created a massive tower with an even more massive dungeon underneath. Things looked good.
However, his Avarice was his undoing. His legendary treasure attracted enemies and though his fortress could repel any invaders, it couldn't fight evil from within (THEME ALERT!). Enter the doppelgangers, employed by Ithilids. They slowly killed and took the place of Durlag's family, the beginning of his clan.
When Durlag figured this out, to him, it seemed his family had turned against him. He was forced to kill his workers and his family. He had to destroy his clan, which caused him to lose his mind. He created elaborate tombs for his family and protected them with layers and layers of traps and riddles.
Ultimately, he died of that classic chestnut, old age. And he died exactly as he feared he would, alone and clanless. Mechanically, when you're learning this in game, you're learning about the regrets he came to have. There's a lot of talk about who is at fault and you get the sense that he has gone from blaming outside forces to those within.
And yet, he's not entirely at fault, is he? And the game respects this gray area. The correct answer when you're quizzed on understanding his story is that, yes, the invaders are at fault, but that Durlag was myopic as well in his pursuit of wealth. It's a cautionary tale and a tragedy.
And thematically, it plays off several of the other stories in the game. Balduran was also punished due to his greed by invaders from within as well. Is the idea that when you become wealthy you can no longer trust those around you? In a genre that is primarily about power fantasy, killing monsters and stealing their stuff, there's a surprising anti capitalist streak in this game that I appreciate like the dickens.
Sarevok is also driven by family, driven by his heritage. As is the player character. And we'll see two contrasting tales of how that can work out for you in the next entry.