Now that I’m over 150 hours into Baldur’s Gate 3, still actively playing it on my Steam Deck or PC almost every single evening, you’d never guess that I initially gave up on the game 10 hours in. Yes, I was playing on the easiest setting. Yes, I have played Dungeons & Dragons multiple times before, and I understand how D&D works. None of that was a problem for me. But I found myself in a frustrated rage because Baldur’s Gate 3 has multiple complicated aspects to its turn-based combat that are never explained.
I never would have gone back to the game if I hadn’t seen so many funny clips shared on social media. After that, I became convinced that I wanted to see more of the story, so I dove back into Baldur’s Gate 3 and forced my way through its absurd learning curve. I’m glad I did – the game is a colossal achievement in RPG design and character work. Its combat turns out to be extremely fun, too, and it’s challenging in all the best ways – but only once you actually learn how to fight, which to be clear, the game will scarcely lift a finger to teach you.
Did you just purchase Baldur’s Gate 3 as a holiday present for yourself, and now you’re wondering if you made a huge mistake because you don’t understand how the hell to get through the first few fights? I’m here to help, and to tell you all the tips I wish I’d known back when this game first came out in September 2023.
You have to understand how other classes work
You know how in D&D, you build a character and then you play as that character for the entire campaign? Not so in Baldur’s Gate 3, unless you intend to completely ignore all of BG3’s companion NPCs (which you absolutely shouldn’t do – they’re all great, both in battle and in conversation – and the game is way too hard to be played solo rather than in a four-person party). The only exception to this would be if you were playing a four-player cooperative multiplayer game, in which case every single player would truly only need to know how their specific character operates. Statistically, though, that is not going to be how you play Baldur’s Gate 3 – so that means you’ve got a lot of learning to do.
For me, a person who rolled up a barbarian half-orc out the gate, fully prepared to melee my way through the experience, it came as quite a surprise to discover that I would not only need to learn the ins and outs of hitting people with axes but also every other completely different fighting style. Now, 150 hours into my BG3 experience, I’ve completely mastered spellwork, healing, and so on. But it was a hard road. Every single class feels completely different and needs a completely different playstyle, set of armor, and items on hand.
This, among many other reasons, is why Baldur’s Gate 3 is actually not very similar to D&D at all. It’s a lot more comparable to an old school, turn-based RPG with a party made up of super-different characters, like Final Fantasy 6. Except it’s also way harder and more complex than Final Fantasy 6, even on easy mode.
Elemental attacks – fire, ice, and so on – cancel each other out
Let’s say you’ve got one character using a spell slot to shoot off Ice Storm at a group of enemies for a huge pop of damage — and the chance to make them slip and fall on an ice patch if they try to move. Then, on your next turn, you prompt the next character in the lineup to shoot a fire arrow at that enemy. Wrong!!!! Bad strategy!!!! Unless you wanted that useful ice to become a little puddle of water. (Again, the game will never tell you this is wrong and bad. You’re welcome.)
Speaking of old school RPGs: You know Pokémon? Sure, you do. Baldur’s Gate 3 operates according to a lot of the same principles. When you “examine” enemies, which is an option you can find by right-clicking on them (or pressing X if you’re on the Steam Deck or Xbox, or pressing square on PS5), you’ll see a list of their resistances. If an enemy is resistant to acid damage, say, then you wouldn’t get much utility out of throwing an acid vial at them. If you were playing a Pokémon game, there’d be a pop-up saying, “That’s not very effective,” but you’re playing Baldur’s Gate 3, so you have to pay attention to the damage numbers and put that together using those context clues.
More importantly, you don’t want to mix conflicting types of elemental damage, because you can accidentally cancel out the potential for further damage. If you throw a bottle of grease at some enemies and then cast some fireballs, that burning damage can keep on going for multiple turns. You wouldn’t want to waste an ice arrow on all of that powerful burnination. With all that in mind, be sure to examine enemies and stick with attacks and items that you know will actually hurt them, without accidentally canceling anything out.
Don’t “end turn” too soon
You’re done attacking an enemy and you’re about to press the button that ends your turn and passes along to the next character. But wait!!! Did you forget anything?
Cast your eyes downward towards the ludicrous number of buttons at the bottom of the combat screen in Baldur’s Gate 3. Several of these buttons will be grayed out, like the “attack” button, because you just used that. But several others will still be available.
There are two different things I like to do at this point. One of them is to use the “push” button to push the nearest enemy away from me, provided they don’t have the “too heavy to shove” status popping up. A successful shove doesn’t inflict damage points in and of itself, but if the enemy happens to be next to an infinite abyss, you can kill them by pushing them into it (although you won’t be able to loot the body afterward). If an abyss isn’t handy, you also have the chance to inflict the “prone” status on the enemy, which means they’ll take an extra beat to get back up again. Most of the time, though, I shove enemies and it doesn’t really do anything, other than amuse me. (Still worth it.)
Don’t end your turn yet, though! Keep on scrolling through those options. You may have a bonus action — this is confusing but I promise it’s worth figuring out, because most classes have a Very Good Thing they can do with their one precious bonus action. Plus it doesn’t cost any actions! You know what’s super useful if you’re dying? Casting a free, if weak, healing spell. (You’re welcome.) You can find it by looking at your toolbar, at those little square tabs. It’s the glowing blue square on the right.
You might also have the juice left in your turn to use an item or a single-use magic scroll. Which reminds me – I need to explain how to use items and magic scrolls, don’t I?
How to use items
During my frustrating first 10 hours in Baldur’s Gate 3, I only really used health potions. It’s easy to understand them; you click on them and your character drinks them. You can use the “throw” action to throw a health potion at another character and that works, too. (Just make sure you throw it on the floor near them, or you can hurt someone by hitting them with the bottle. Seriously.) You can also go into the inventory screen and transfer a potion from one character to whichever one is currently having their turn. All of these are good options for making sure the right character gets a health potion down their gullet at the right time.
But what about every other item in your possession? Well, not all potions are made equal, and so obviously you would not use them all in the same way. It’s easiest to give an example – let’s say, a basic bottle of poison. Early on, I kept selecting the “dip weapon” action and trying to select a poison bottle or similar. Guess what, that doesn’t fucking work! Instead, you click on that dangerous bottle the same way that you would click on a health potion, but your character won’t drink it, even though you’re doing the exact same action on your end that you’d be doing if you were prompting them to drink it. If you click on an acid or poison vial in your inventory, your character will coat their weapon in the substance, which adds even more damage to that weapon.
Other potions are basically what they say on the label — like an invisibility potion or one that makes you stronger. Just make sure to read the fine print so you don’t, for example, drink the invisibility potion that’s supposed to last 10 turns and immediately do an attack, which of course cancels the potion and makes you visible again. (Not that I’ve done this.)
In addition to bottles and vials, you’ll also start collecting magic scrolls around the world of Baldur’s Gate 3. The most important thing to know about these is that they’re single-use; unless you’re a wizard, in which case you can learn the spell from the scroll. But, alas, my character was not a wizard. I got really excited by these scrolls at first thinking that if I used one, it would grant my character the ability to use that spell any time – but, nope. Still a pretty useful item, and they’re quite plentiful, so don’t hoard these. Don’t hoard any of your items, for that matter. Just use them.
Don’t dip your weapons
OK, OK – you can dip your weapons, but only once you’ve actually learned how to do everything else in the combat menu first. Like I said before, this tool doesn’t apply to dipping your weapons into an acid vial or any other potion you have on hand. You can only dip your weapon into a substance that’s already nearby in the physical world, like a grease puddle on the ground or whatever. It sounds useful, but again, I’ve been playing Baldur’s Gate 3 for over 150 hours now and I barely ever use this option. I’m not entirely sure why it’s even in the game. I get a lot more mileage out of just putting acid on my weapon via item selection, or equipping specific weapons that have elemental damage.
Going back to camp
Going to “camp” in Baldur’s Gate 3 is a bit of a mind-bender, if you’re somebody who understands the laws of physics. Your camp, in this game, is not a physical place you can walk to. I mean, it is a physical place – or rather, it’s a variety of physical places, depending on which part of the world you’re in, because the appearance of your camp will change according to the local biome. It’s just that you can’t get to your camp without navigating to it via the menu, so it’s kind of like a metaphysical island that’s always just within reach but not on the map.
The game gives you the option to take a “short” rest, which doesn’t make you go back to your campsite and gives you back a little health and refreshes some class-specific skills. Or your party can take a “long” rest, which takes you to your campsite and recharges everything — most importantly, this includes spell slots. You can take two short rests before you run out of those and have to take a long rest; you can also just go ahead and take a long rest from the get-go, as long as you have enough camp supplies to pay for one. A long rest is where many of the game’s companion cutscenes happen, so it’s not worth being precious about them — lest you miss out on a little smooching.
You can also use the menu to go back to camp and not take a long rest at all. You can walk around the camp and talk to your NPC companions, talk to a cool skeleton guy named Withers (he can resurrect dead companions, for a fee, if you find him in Act 1), or store items at the campsite traveler’s chest so you don’t have to carry them around in the “real” world. If you’re at your campsite and you decide you want to take a long rest after all, you can still select that in the menu, or you can walk over to the literal campfire (or a character’s bed roll) and click on it.
Some parts of this game won’t ever “feel” good
This is just something you have to accept in order to engage with Baldur’s Gate 3. There are so many fiddly UI screens – a predictable knock-on effect of a game that offers so much player freedom. Selecting a shitload of items to sell to a merchant? Tedious and boring. Going through your entire party’s inventory to equip each person with new gear? Tedious, boring. Going all the way back to camp because you just want to switch out one of your party members for somebody else? Tedious! Boring!
In those first 10 hours, I wasn’t sure it was worth it. It’s why I put the game down at first, with no intention of going back. I’m glad I changed my mind, though. Now that I’ve spent so much time with it, I can promise you, it’s a story that’s worth enduring all of the frustrating and fiddly aspects. I still wish the game had told me more of this stuff right out of the gate, instead of making me learn it by trying different things and failing a lot. But, hey, at least now I can pass on my wisdom to all of you – and hopefully, it’ll take you far fewer than 10 hours to start enjoying Baldur’s Gate 3.