From the moment that Divinity: Original Sin 2 was announced back in August 2015, there was little doubt that developer Larian Studios would produce an excellent single-player epic of a role-playing game. But as a follow-up to 2014’s well-loved Divinity: Original Sin — a game we praised as “one of the deepest and most unforgettable games” of the year — Larian wanted to do something bigger than more of the same.
In the game’s initial announcement and Kickstarter campaign, that ambition manifested in the form of an expanded cooperative play mode, where players can take on the roles of different characters who may have varying motivations and even end up working against each other. That wasn’t all Larian had up its sleeve, however.
By raising over $2 million in its wildly successful crowdfunding campaign for Divinity: Original Sin 2, the developer reached a stretch goal promise for something called “game master mode.” At an event last week, Larian revealed the depths of game master mode to Polygon, and in true fashion for the developer, it’s a whole new way to play that seems completely impossible for such a small studio to pull off. And yet they seem to be making it work.
Game master mode is inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, and Larian isn’t afraid of that comparison. In fact, the developer cut a deal with D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast, allowing them to demo the game to press using the “Lost Mine of Phandelver” module. This is a popular campaign from the D&D 5th Edition starter set, and as such, one of the most recognizable Dungeons & Dragons campaigns of all time.
To play “Lost Mine” in Divinity: Original Sin 2, we gathered five players around five laptops in a conference room in downtown San Francisco. I took on the role of a hungry dwarven warrior named Scarlett, while a writer from another outlet and two Larian representatives filled out the rest of the four-player party. The fifth player stepped into the role of game master, which meant his laptop was surrounded by a flurry of papers, dice and anything else he might need to check on during the game.
Our party began in a small shop. The game master rolled dice to determine how much gold we started off with, and we used our meager wealth to purchase beginner’s equipment.
The flexibility of Divinity: Original Sin 2’s game master mode was immediately put to the test. One of the players had taken on the role of a magic-wielding lizard who was more than a little conceited. The lizard — confusingly, he went by the name Walrus — looked at the wares on offer in this shop and was not satisfied. He demanded that the shopkeeper procure his finest magic wand, something he kept hidden away from the regular rabble that come to the shop.
To determine how the shopkeeper would respond, Walrus had to complete a dice roll. With a click of a button, the game master created a pop-up on Walrus’ screen that had him roll a 20-sided die. The GM also noted that since that character had an intelligence higher than 12, he got a bonus of plus one to the roll. The roll was successful; the dwarven shopkeep begrudgingly trudged to the back of the store and returned with a powerful fire wand that was not originally part of his stock.
It’s important to note that none of this was scripted. There was no dialogue option in the game to confront the shopkeep, and the wand that Walrus purchased was not actually hidden in back in the initial version of the map as it existed when we loaded in. Rather, as in classic pen-and-paper role-playing games, the GM went along with the flow of the storytelling as it happened, adapting the world of the game, taking control of NPCs and spawning in items to meet the needs of the party.
This is what Divinity: Original Sin 2’s game master mode offers: the fun of Original Sin’s underlying mechanics and its visualization, but the freedom for creativity and group storytelling that D&D provides.
Later in the campaign, our party found itself ambushed by a small group of goblins camping in some ruins. We were able to handle two goblins on the ground, but a third was raining arrows on us from up above. Our fastest party member, a dwarf named Dwemer, decided to take care of this nuisance.
Dwemer scaled up a vine and ran up to the goblin. But rather than attacking using Divinity’s normal turn-based combat system, the player controlling Dwemer turned to the GM and announced that he wanted to grab the goblin and toss him off the nearby ledge. The GM paused for a moment to consider and then had Dwemer do a dice roll while checking his strength stat and comparing it to the goblin’s. The roll was successful; the goblin got tossed to the ground and knocked out, even though there were no specific combat skills on Dwemer’s bar that would normally allow for this.
This flexibility exists outside of individual combat scenarios and across the overall structure of any given campaign as well. Unique encounters can be prepared as what the game calls “vignettes” — short written descriptions that offer the party members a number of choices. There’s also freedom to edit these vignettes on the fly, adding in a surprising new option that the players come up with.
Running a great RPG campaign means being prepared for players to go in a completely different direction than you intended. Divinity: Original Sin 2 will let game masters queue up dozens of single-screen levels to be used over the course of a campaign, and you can even upload your own unique world map. The game will ship with somewhere between 120 and 150 pre-made levels that can be added into your module and loaded up at any point. These maps run the fantasy gamut from deserts to pirate ships to dark caverns.
If you’re not seeing the exact level you need for your campaign, or if you want to design something more tightly tied to what you’re planning, you can hop out of the game proper and into its modding tools.
“It’s a full modding package,” said Larian Studios creative director Swen Vincke. “You can create your own levels. The level editor allows you to make your own creatures, and you can also import those. You can create new art assets. What you’re seeing here now [in game master mode] is just the storytelling part.”
All user-created assets will also be fully shareable via Valve’s Steam Workshop, as well. Maybe you don’t have the skills to create your own legion of new monster models, but you can always download someone else’s hard work for use in your campaign. Or download a new campaign entirely.
Larian has pushed the flexibility and openness of game master mode as far as possible, though there are limits. Vincke says players will not be able to change the core mechanics of Divinity: Original Sin 2 and its combat system. No matter what, you’ll be stuck using action points and taking turns. But beyond that, almost any tweak is fair game.
“Our skill system is so big now,” Vincke said. “There’s over 200 skills in the game. The modding abilities that we have are so extensive that you can probably make any skill that you can come up with.
“You can create a sci-fi campaign if you want. You’re not going to do that overnight. But we allow you to customize all the visual effects. You can come up with a lot of stuff.”
One thing Larian is not certain of yet is whether the “Lost Mine of Phandelver” module we spent several hours playing will ship with game master mode. The developer’s deal with Wizards of the Coast allowed them to show it to the press, but they haven’t yet determined whether they’ll be able to share it with players. However, Vincke calls the business relationship with Wizards of the Coast “a cross-promotion that works really well,” and he clearly hopes to get this module into the final game, possibly alongside other classic D&D campaigns.
The company also isn’t sure about the future of user-made content. Asked whether they could eventually allows players to sell modules, Vincke offered a simple, “We haven’t explored that yet.” In a lot of ways, it seems like the developer is still trying to come terms with its own creation, with the sheer potential of the complex system it has designed on top of an already deep and complicated game.
“The game master mode was a Kickstarter stretch goal,” Wincke explained. “It’s grown a little bit out of hand. It’s become its own thing. But we’re really happy with it.”
Divinity: Original Sin 2’s first act is currently available on Steam Early Access. The full version of the game, along with game master mode, is planned for launch later this year.