There's quite a bit to do in the city of Baldur's Gate, being the largest city in the game. Unlike the rest of the towns, which tended to have quests with objectives to be found in the surrounding wilderness, the quests in BG City all seem to be self-contained. After waiting so long to get here, and having thoroughly explored four of the nine districts in the city, I'm already wanting to leave, to get a change from the persistently urban environment.
The game-breaking "poison" quest
If you'll indulge one small spoiler, for the purpose of preventing you from finding yourself several hours further along into the game with no way to avoid dying, take my advice and don't kill Lothander. Lothander is one of the many assassins sent from the Iron Throne to kill me, and all of them have been pretty straightforward until now. This one previously approached us with his partner Marek in a dark alley to deliver a threat, and hadn't been seen again until we went to the tent area of central Baldur's Gate. This time, he tells us that Marek poisoned us while we slept, and we'll all die in 10 days, and no spell or potion will cure us, but surprise, surprise, he has a special antidote that he'll give us if we do a task for him. He says that killing him won't help, because he only has half of the antidote. So, I'm supposed to believe an Iron Throne assassin is both telling the truth about this antidote and won't double-cross me at the end?
Well, apparently I am supposed to believe him, because killing him ensures your death. You can take his half of the antidote, certainly. Marek has the other half, right? Yes, he does. Too bad Marek is removed from the game unless you complete Lothander's quest. In fact, the way the game handles the quest, it's not actually the antidote that cures you, but talking to Marek after doing Lothander's quest. The antidote itself is unnecessary. The only way to deal with the whole ordeal cleanly (without going through the quest) is to attack and kill both of them before they disappear from their first threatening warning.
But don't do that, because the quest that Lothander sends you on is actually a very nice questline with lots of experience and loot, and you get some conversations you would have otherwise missed out on. I just didn't know what I was setting myself up to miss by killing him, any more than I knew that killing him would make the game impossible to win (unless I managed to finish it before 10 game days had passed). Fortunately, I keep incremental saves, so I was able to go back a few days to do it again the right way, but that meant losing some progress. (I also later had to backtrack a day's worth of progress when I noticed far too late that my familiar had been killed.)
Anyway, it's quite a surprise that after a game full of alternate ways to approach quests, there's one quest where you have to help out an assassin who's under contract to kill you, or die. So, don't kill Lothander.
Alyth in the Elfsong Tavern
There are a number of curiosities in the game in the form of NPCs who give you brief, cryptic messages about other places or about things that sound like they might be quest-related, but which never come up again. Earlier in the game there were NPCs that seemed to be heralding upcoming games in roundabout ways, like Neverwinter Nights (an NPC talked about the "nights in Neverwinter", where he was heading).
Well, here, in the Elfsong Tavern, there's a conspicuous NPC upstairs named Alyth who laments that their tavern has "lost the Lady", a phantom voice of an elven maid, and that her absence must be an omen of something to come. Then she changes the subject and says no more of it. I was curious enough to look it up online to see if there was something I missed, but there's nothing further about it in the game. But I did find references to this same thing in another game, the console game Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. I have to wonder how far back some of these games were planned, if these are all references to them in the first BG game.
Temple of Umberlee (WaterQueen's House)
On the docks of Baldur's Gate is what's called the "WaterQueen's House" (it's spelled three different ways in the game: with camel case in the map, as "Water Queen" in the journal, and as "Water-Queen" in a dialogue), AKA a temple of Umberlee. Umberlee is apparently an evil goddess of the ocean (also called the "Bitch Queen" by her followers), but we helped one of her priestesses before entering the city, who was being harassed by a group of farmers, who tried to hire us to kill her.
All I really want to say about this place is that it's the most interesting temple I've seen yet. Very appropriately outfitted for this goddess' attributes, with most of the floor area occupied by pools that presumably go all the way down into the ocean, since this temple is built directly over the harbour. There are what appear to be small statues mounted on poles in the middle of each pool. Narrow tiled walkways lead around and between these pools to small decoratively tiled platforms where the priestesses can stand. I'm generally very impressed with the originality of design of the temples in this game, especially as compared to the ones in Oblivion.
The temples in Oblivion were extremely uninteresting and unoriginal, especially compared to the previous games in the series. Oblivion's temples, despite each being dedicated to different gods and goddesses, all looked exactly the same -- like generic Christian chapels, with hard wooden pews, stained glass windows, and an altar in front. Even the temple of Dibella! Go back to the second game in the series, Daggerfall, and you'll see how the temples should have been differentiated in Oblivion.
Ajantis shows his true colours (black and white)
Ajantis has abruptly started getting pissy. He had been getting along fine with Viconia for the past few game days, but once we stepped into the Undercellar, it triggered no less than three bits of dialogue from Ajantis. Again, I'm not sure which dialogues are original to BG, and which were added by the NPC Project.
The first one was his usual unprovoked insults toward Viconia, insulting the way she dresses, for one thing. Hey, Ajantis, if you don't like the +2 Ankheg plate armour she's wearing, then you should be complaining to me, the one who gave it to her! Or maybe you're feeling insecure, since it's the exact same armour you're wearing? Anyway, the rest of his insults are basically racist rants against the "always chaotic evil" drow, and ignoring the fact that Viconia ran away from her people because she didn't fit in, much like Drizzt Do'Urden. It's also the case that she has never done anything evil or immoral in the time since we've known her, and has in fact been indispensible in helping us with all of the noble deeds he had previously been praising.
Next, he began a new rant complaining about being in the "famous" Undercellars at all! He said they were "no place for a paladin," and rather imperiously demanded we leave as soon as possible. Keep in mind that I didn't even know what the Undercellars were at that point. I stumbled upon the place through a door in the sewers, and so far all I could see of it was an empty room, and I assumed from the name and its location that it was just another "dungeon" sort of place (turns out it's a harmless brothel). Would have been nice if Ajantis would have given a little more information about the place other than that it "stinks of crime and oppression".
Finally, before we could even take a step, he just blew up at Viconia and started yelling at her with every hateful insult in his repertoire, and then had the audacity to command her to leave the party within a day or face his wrath! So now Ajantis has gone from harassment of fellow party members to trying to go over my head in command. The game at least offered me the option to either confirm or belay his order, and I chose the latter, of course. It was far too politely worded, however; I really wanted to slap him down for that. If it comes to a choice between Ajantis and Viconia, Ajantis will be the one getting kicked out. He's a troublemaker, and his only useful paladin ability is his instant "heal minor wounds" ability, which is getting less and less useful as our hit points increase.
One strange thing about the rules in this game is that stealing is apparently not an evil act. Our resident paladin never complains about Imoen being a thief, nor seems to mind when she picks locks and steals whatever's inside, and there's never any loss of reputation unless the guards actually catch us. I'm curious if the D&D rules state that a certain number of thefts will eventually change a character's alignment.
Imoen shows her stuff, too
Until recently, I had mainly been having Immy stay at range with bow and arrows. I picked up a nice Eagle bow (+2 damage, +2 THAC0) from Marek when finishing that poison quest, and I have plenty of special arrows scavenged from enemies, as well as thousands of normal arrows from same (unlike sling bullets, I never have to buy arrows). But when I ended up with a +2 short sword and a +2 dagger, I played around with equipping her with those items dual-wielded, and then later tried swapping the dagger for a +1 long sword, which she could also dual-wield.
For a couple of fights, when I could tell a conversation was likely to end up in battle, I started positioning my party strategically around the soon-to-be enemy, with Imoen behind him and stealthed into the shadows. It would be a nice game feature if NPCs would react to such an obviously threatening action, but it would probably be impossible to pull it off without getting into false accusations, like the Fallout 3 NPCs giving you stern warnings if your line of sight happens to briefly fall on a door or container that you didn't even know was locked.
Anyway, all that positioning wasn't even necessary in these cases (except for Imoen and the one in front initiating conversation, of course), because both times, Imoen got critical hits, triple-damage backstabs, and took them out before any of the other party members even landed a shot. Now that's an impressive rogue! I never saw Leliana pull off one-hit kills like that in Dragon Age!
I know the usual advice is to dual-class Immy to mage once she has enough thief skills, but I was fuzzy on how many is "enough", and I wasn't really in need of another mage anyway, so she's still a pure thief at level 8, with Open Locks at 90, Find Traps at 85, Hide In Shadows at 70, Move Silently at 72, and Pick Pockets at 45 (that last one needs work -- there's one person's pocket that I can't seem to pick successfully). I think I wasted 17 points on the Set Traps skill, because I never use it, and I also have 1 point in Detect Illusion. I actually don't think I'll be dual-classing her at all. There's no time in the game that I can foresee not needing a thief, and if I dual-class her to mage, she won't be able to use her thief skills until her mage level equals her thief level, which would be a very long time. I think I'd rather just have an excellent thief, and leave the spellcasting to me and Edwin. I'm looking forward to taking her into Durlag's Tower, which should be soon, I think, since I hear the minimum level for it is 7 or 8.
Some more of the comedy in Baldur's Gate
In another example of the kind of humour in BG (where they can have a perfectly serious storyline, but really not take themselves too seriously), I entered what was marked on the map as "Poultry Store", and found myself facing a room full of rabid chickens. No NPC, no explanation, just chickens. It was an easy fight, but a good laugh.
In a nearby tavern, I met an NPC named "Borinole Mann" who told a very rambling, incoherent story with no real point. Joke names like this "Boring Old Man" are fairly common in this game. And yet it doesn't take away from the real emotion of the more tragic and serious questlines.
Did I ever mention that the game is also very pretty to look at in some places? Most of the screenshots I see online focus on the more fantastic dungeon-looking places with fancy lighting, but the normal forests are quite nice, and some of the upper class inns and other interiors (like Ragefast's home) are very nicely decorated.
Desreta & Vay-ya the nihilists
On the gambling ship The Low Lantern, there's a small encounter with a couple of strange women who appear to be simple thrill-killers who justify their actions with some bizarre nihilistic notion of "entropy" (which Edwin disputes in an amusing flirtation), which amounts to the idea that since there is no "ultimate purpose" to anything (if the universe will eventually use up all of its energy and die out), then we should all just give up now and embrace death. I have actually heard real people express similar sentiments before, which made it all the more satisfying to kill these two after their inevitable attack.
I finally came across Skie, in one of the last sections of Baldur's Gate I explored. It seems I'm pretty late in the game at this point (I'm late in chapter 5, and there are a total of 7 chapters), so I don't see why they hid several of the potential party members locked inside a city you can't even access until chapter 5 (plus the fact that you'd have to take her boyfriend along as well, and I'm pretty happy with a bardless party). Not much to say about her, except that I'm tempted to pick her up temporarily just to see some of the banter between the two lovers. As Ragefast said, "Eh, love is a-blind, a-deaf, and ever, ever so dumb."
There's also a gnome in the docks who seems to have something to say, but only if I have that gnome mage Quayle in my party.
Alora and the Iron Throne fight
Okay, wow. I take back what I said about not needing any thief but Imoen. I regret that I took so long to get around to the telescope-stealing quest, because that's where you meet Alora, and this lovable halfling thief is an instant addition to my party. She's so cheerful and happy, it brightens up everything. I love her voice, and the things she says.
"Isn't this great? All of us, doing nice things, being happy! It's great!" --Alora <3
I left Ajantis on the steps of the House of Wonders where I found her, and good riddance to that troublemaker. After the incident mentioned above, and also running into another paladin in a tavern, who righteously attacked us because he detected two of my party members (Edwin and Viconia) as evil, I think my party's better for the absence of bigoted, self-righteous zealots.
Alora gets along great with Imoen, and even with Edwin, who she sees as someone who just needs to loosen up a little, though unfortunately she seems to be bringing out a mean side in Viconia, who doesn't seem to like halflings. A backlash against the persecution from the now-absent Ajantis, no doubt. I hear I can find a helm of alignment changing in BG2, and if I do, then I know what I'll be getting Viconia for her birthday. Should pretty much solve everything.
So now my party consists of Minsc, Edwin, Viconia, Imoen, and Alora (and myself). Two magic-users, two cheerful, perky, pink-haired thieves, one cleric, and one tank. I think the rest of us are strong enough to carry Alora through a couple of levels, especially if I give her the Eagle bow Imoen was using, and have Immy doing the stealth backstabbing dual-wielding thing (finally her catch-phrase "My blade will cut you down to size" will be appropriate, since she's using blades now instead of arrows.)
I can say with fair confidence that we can make it through, since we made it through our first really difficult fight, in the Iron Throne tower. It took me four tries, but I managed it finally, after trying different strategies and buffing everyone up with all the advantageous spells at my disposal. I tried the first time stealthing everyone up by using my fairy dragon familiar's 10-foot-radius invisibility spell, and that got us all up there with no problem, but the rear assault in the narrow hallway wasn't very effective. As an aside, it was a bit confusing when I did that, since Ambassador Tam did not approach us when we were invisible, and thus never went upstairs, but she was upstairs anyway when we got there.
It was interesting getting up to the roof, and suddenly recognising it as the place where the opening cinematic took place, where the big evil armoured guy threw someone over the edge. Fortunately, this evil armoured guy was not currently at this location, but perhaps I'll meet him on my return to Candlekeep, because that's where the quest took me after I finished up everything there was left to do in Baldur's Gate.