You Can Go Home Again

SIDE A: But It's Going to Suck

Back before the hiatus, while exploring the city, I uncovered the Doppleganger infestation at the Seven Suns merchant consortium and found clues telling me that the Iron Throne leaders were at Candlekeep, my old stomping grounds, for some reason or another. Our buddy Scar has also given me a very valuable tome that I can trade for entrance into the Library City, again enforcing exactly how neat Candlekeep is in the world of Faerun.

On Watch Out For Fireballs, Kole is fond of saying that one of the coolest things a game can do is make you go back to the first area but in a different context. Baldur's Gate pulls this off with aplomb, having you encounter your old friends with a twist. Once you introduce Dopplegangers into a storyline, everything gains new complexity, which is something I'm going to talk about in the B-side. Here though, it's underlined in a few encounters.

The Priest of Oghma

 Hey, give me a slice!

Hey, give me a slice!

This was the site of our very first assassination attempt and boy, they've really spruced the place up. Instead of being decorated with nothing, it's instead covered with dead cats which are presided over by a priest. If you question him, he'll say that he's studying it, trying to determine what caused it to die. His speech is off and alien and you can keep pressing him if you're suspicious, until he shows his true colors. I know I mentioned this before, but I love the idea of these alien presences not having a full understanding of humanity causing them to do surreal things. The excuses he gives you for his shack of dead best friends are almost plausible. That sense of subtle off-ness can't be undersold.

You'll also run into lots of your old friends, many of whom don't seem to be monsters. These are the monks who raised you, doddering nerds, and if you're going into this with a modicum of role-playing, you feel a genuine sense of apprehension about your home being invaded. Who has been corrupted and who is just going to get hurt in the cross fire?

Your buddy Karan seeks you out specifically and mentions that there's a guy named Koveras haunting around who knows all the prophecies of Alaundo by heart. Alaundo is a big deal, the famous sage who made Candlekeep what it is and his predictions tend to come true, lending weight to the predictions he made which have yet to pass, most notably that of the Bhaalspawn.

Most of you have probably already figured out that Koveras backwards is Sarevok, the dastard who killed Gorion. This is a trick that only works in fantasy settings where Sarevok and Koveras roll off the brain equally as fantasy name tripe. In real life, if I wanted to go on a crime spree, I would have to do better than calling myself Yrag Dleifrettub.

 Seems legit. 

Seems legit. 

You run into Koveras inside Candlekeep but regardless of if the player has figured out his ruse, you can't confront him. He wants to give you a Ring of Protection and there's really no consequence to taking it or not. It's not a trick or anything. If you refuse it, however, he does say something interesting: he wants you to outright kill the leaders of the Iron Throne on the 3rd floor.

Depending on how you want to play, you can kill them or not. I was a bit fire and brimstone so I decided to take them out but interestingly enough, you don't have to. In either case, before you do, you should go to the fifth floor and Gorion's old room for a lore bomb.

Origins

Here's where it is all laid out, in a letter. Gorian adopted you because you are a Bhaalspawn, a seemingly normal person who has a bit of divine taint from Bhaal. Now, the prologue of the game mentions the Bhaalspawn and if you're genre savvy, you could have easily surmised this but this is the first time your character comes face to face with her heritage. The Cliff Notes version is that Bhaal, cheerily called The Lord of Murder, foresaw his own death and went on a boner spree, mating with as many ladies as he could. The idea was that he could use these offspring to come back to life. Ultimately, he wanted the Bhaalspawn to commit fratricide until one was left because, like murdery little Highlanders, a Bhaalspawn absorbs the essence of another Bhaalspawn on death. The opening movie, with the puppet Sarevok throwing the unlucky bastard off the roof was essentially the aftermath of a Mega Man boss battle.

 The Symbol of Bhaal. Looks familiar. 

The Symbol of Bhaal. Looks familiar. 

So that explains why Sarevok has been hounding but not his involvement with the Iron Throne, which comes out soon enough.

Anywho, onto the battle which is a good example of the terrain working in your favor instead of against it, as it usually does. The Iron Throne aren't girded for war and are instead holding up in a conference room with a tiny chokepoint. Tactically, this means you can prepare the outside area as much as you like. I started the fight off with a Web spell and a fireball to soften them up before 300-ing them at the door.

Regardless of if you kill them, you're blamed for it, likely the doing of Koveras. Regardless of your excuses or innocence, you're imprisoned underneath Candlekeep and there's a sinister implication that killing you isn't necessary, it's just necessary to keep you out of the way while Sarevok completes his plans. There's a sense of urgency here that makes your calls to reason more desperate.

You're eventually sprung from jail by another Forgotten Realms celebrity, Tethtoril, the First Reader of Candlekeep. Tethoril, due to magic nonsense, can only teleport you into the catacombs beneath Candlekeep, the best dungeon so far.

Catacombs

The Catacombs have three levels, all with vastly different focuses. Before I discuss the individual levels I want to get some general frustrations out of the way. This dungeon is the first where traps become a serious problem and, if you're not spec'd for them, you're in for a world of hurt. I have two thieves in my party, Coran and Immoen, but neither have particularly high find/disarm traps skills. This means I rely on Branwen casting Find Traps to spot them. However, this causes her to stop every round, which is annoying and it only finds the traps. Clerics have no means of disarming them and given that neither of my thieves had high enough skill to do so, I was in trouble.

Couple this with the fact that potions of master thievery don't affect this skill, well, this first floor sucks. It's absolutely full of traps, many of which I couldn't avoid. My strategy was to send my tankiest character through to set them off but in the case of lightning bolts, this would often prove to be deadly. What I ultimately did was send Minsc through, hasted, with a potion of absorption to trigger all of the lightning bolts at once. Though I was kind of proud of myself for thinking outside the box, it required massive amounts of save-scumming.

The treasure here is worth it, however, which includes several permanent stat upgrades.

The second floor is more noteworthy from a flavor perspective. Here, amid rotting piles of corpses, you'll encounter dopplegangers that have taken the form of your old friends. The dialogue they have seems as if it means to taunt you and tease you, and references things you did in the tutorial, which fucking owns. The guy with the sick cow accuses you of poisoning it in the first place. You run into Gorion and Elminster who play good cop/bad cop and when you accuse them of being Dopplegangers, Elminster says that his image is copyrighted! There's little to this floor mechanically but it's full of atmosphere. I love it.

The third floor isn't too exciting, though you do have a couple of tough fights, one with a party of Sarevok's goons and another with some greater basilisks. Because money is no object at this point, I stocked up on potions of mirrored eyes, which made the basilisks tolerable. On the way out you run into a guy named Diarmid and you can impersonate the party of goons you dispatched earlier, playing dumb to get information. It seems Sarevok is back at Baldur's Gate and his plans are coming to fruition.

We're going to go stop him but first we have to deal with some Tales of The Sword Coast, the DLC. I hope you'll join me then.

SIDE B: Monster Spotlight, The Doppleganger

Dopplegangers own. They're gangly gray mutants, unnaturally smooth, with yellow octopus eyes and the ability to detect thoughts, which they use to better imitate their pray. In the game, when they're trying, but failing, to approximate natural human behavior, this is because they're reading your thoughts and trying to guess what you expect them to say.

Greater Dopplegangers even eat the brains of the people they replace, gaining their memories.

These things are intelligent, natural spies and assassins, and creepy as all get out. And they were inevitable. Gary Gygax, bless is soul, was a shameless thief. The original Monster Manual, a must read, is full of nonesense monsters and blatant swipes. For ever beholder or displacer beast, there is a mashup of two animals (Owlbears), another variant on goblins or something like the doppleganger, which is straight up an ancient concept. I haven't done tons of research but I see shades of Greek myth in the idea of shape changing creatures. Were I to accidentally bone around with Zeus or a Doppleganger, I'd be equally creeped out.

Probably the most famous pop culture expression of this concept is the various versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Both versions have merit and reflect the anxieties of their respective times. The 50s version makes a handy allegory for McCarthyism and the 70s version being a cautionary tale of materialism and the plasticizing of people.

 UWUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUHHHHH

UWUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUHHHHH

These guys have a comic book counterpart as well, in the shape changing Skrulls, and the "who can you trust?" issue was brought up in the Secret Invasion Marvel Comics event, which I remember being relatively successful if totally scattershot. Hell, it's the main focus of The Winter Soldier, which, for my money, was the best Super Hero movie to come out this year.

But back to the actually D and D doppleganger. I had a bit of a hard time trying to figure out why they did what they did. I've talked about alignment before and I really didn't want to accept that such a cool monster was merely evil. Eventually, I found an article in issue 80 of Dragon Magazine called The Psychology of the Doppleganger, which took the form of a very short story. In it, the doppleganger is proud, implies that their kind are carrying out their birthright, taking riches and wealth from the humans they impersonate. Further, in their natural form, they lack genitals so they actually have to take human form to mate. This is gross and rapey, yes, but when you start thinking of them as akin to cuckoos, it's a very creepy idea.

"Who can you trust" is one of those narrative tricks that only works once but works really well. Unpredictability is sort of a pre-requisite for intrigue and, if properly used, dopplegangers are a ready made tool to this end. Not that I've used them well personally. I've sort of ruined them in the table top games I've run, mostly Call of Cthulhu. My players get pretty suspicious whenever they're A) offered a meal or B) meet someone alone. I should have taken a lesson from Baldur's Gate and used this sort of thing sparingly.

For more on Dopplegangers, consult the fantasy library that only exists in my mind.