In this guide, I’ll give a complete rundown of my suggested party. The party has been used to beat Hard with minimal difficulty. As such, I’m confident it would perform well at Insane and possibly even Heart of Fury difficulty.
Unlike Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale (IWD) doesn’t have any companions waiting for you to pick up. Instead, the entire party is created from scratch at the beginning of the game, and you won’t get a chance to swap someone out at a later point. Hence, the party creation stage is arguably both the most important and difficult part of IWD. While the default party is somewhat decent, it is not even close to what I would consider optimal. The party I’m suggesting will be much closer to that goal, though I won’t pretend to have the game figured out to such a degree that there wouldn’t be potential for improvement still. Either way, this party has all the bases covered, and even if played poorly, will have no trouble finishing the game including Heart of Winter and Trials of the Luremaster.
If you spot any errors in the guide or disagree with some of my choices or reasoning, please feel free to let me know in the comments.
Choosing a Difficulty
In the EE, one can choose between quite a few difficulty levels. Easy, Normal, Core Rules, Hard, Insane, and Heart of Fury are available, and can be switched at any time. Hence, there is no need to choose a difficulty and stick to it for the remainder of the game. On the other hand, having a clear idea of which difficulty you want to play on is important for character creation.
The reason for this is simple. In IWD, higher difficulties have two main scaling factors: (1) enemy damage and (2) experience (XP) gained. While Easy and Normal give normal XP and have lower enemy damage, both damage and XP will increase at difficulties higher than Core Rules. In addition to that, Hard and above also have an increased enemy count, compounding the XP gain even further. As a result, your party will end up with significantly lower XP if you’re playing Core Rules or lower, in turn resulting in your party having lower levels. This has direct ramifications for how your party can and should be planned.
For the purpose of this guide, I recommend playing on Hard or higher. Due to the added XP gain, the overall difficulty may in fact be similar to Core Rules, and getting higher levels also means you’ll get to see more of the high-level spells and whatnot.
An obvious disadvantage to choosing Core Rules or higher, however, is the introduction of a rather annoying D&D mechanic, which is spell learning. In D&D 2nd edition, the odds of successfully learning a spell from a spell scroll are governed by the Intelligence score of the character in question. In order to ensure that learning a spell never fails, you’d need an INT score of 24. Below that level, there is a chance of failing to learn that spell. Getting an INT score of 24 is impossible by normal means, so you’ll always be at the risk of failure, just the odds will differ. Normally, this wouldn’t be so bad, but spell scrolls are a very limited commodity in IWD. Some of the more precious spells are only available a single time in the entire game, and if you fail to learn it, there will be no way to ever learn that spell. Since that spell could be utterly essential to winning certain fights, I consider this a reload condition.
Given that reloading over and over again isn’t exactly fun, I solve this issue by resorting to metagaming. Whenever I want to learn a spell, I go into the options, lower difficulty below Core Rules, learn everything I want to learn, and then go back to my intended difficulty. This isn’t cheating but rather dealing with a highly unfun mechanic in the most efficient way possible. Accordingly, for the purpose of this guide, INT is only important for maximizing spell level.
For those further inclined to abuse the difficulty system, one could set difficulty to highest whenever a quest reward is given. Inexplicably, the difficulty scaling affects quest rewards too in IWD EE, so by setting difficulty to max before turning a quest in, it is quite easy to effectively break the game. I advise against doing this as not only is it tedious, the suggested party is also effective enough to streamroll any content with ease anyway.
A final word on Heart of Fury difficulty: I advise against playing on HoF on a first playthrough. Instead, up the difficulty to HoF on a second playthrough. You’ll have all the necessary endgame items and spells then without which HoF will be an exercise in frustration.
To Lure or Not to Lure
When starting IWD for the first time, one can choose between the main campaign or Heart of Winter, the expansion. Choosing the latter option allows one to start the expansion campaign either with the default or an exported party. Alternatively, one can simply play the main campaign and access Heart of Winter from there.
Why is this important? Well, there are two ways to handle the expansion content. Either beat the game and then finish the expansion afterwards, or to play the game right until endgame, beat the expansion, and only then face the final boss of the main campaign. Both approaches are viable, though from a metagaming perspective, the second approach is preferred. The reason is simple: The expansion not only provides plenty of XP, but some of the best items in the game as well, which then can be used to utterly ruin the final boss.
In general, it is a good idea to ponder whether doing the expansion is something you may want to do or not. In particular, some characters will end up considerably weaker due to the loss of XP, and dual-classing at an earlier level is advised as well when not doing the expansions.
On top of Heart of Winter, the EE also comes with the second expansion called Trials of the Luremaster, which is accessible from within Heart of Winter. TOTL has some of the toughest fights of the game, so this will be a test even for the most optimized party. In terms of items, only HOW is really needed, whereas TOTL will serve as a good benchmark for how optimized this party actually is. At the end of the day, the choice is yours.
To Enhance or Not to Enhance
With the Enhanced Edition, IWD has been ported to the Baldur’s Gate II (BG2) engine. From a gameplay perspective, this has a major impact. BG2 introduced various class kits, several of which can be highly effective. None of those have ever been present in vanilla IWD, which is why game balance is thrown off quite a bit by their addition. At the same time, from a metagaming perspective, it would be foolish not to use (or rather abuse) some of these newly introduced kits.
For the purpose of this guide, I will make use of some of those kits, but refrain from using the ones I consider too broken. I feel this is a healthy middle ground between keeping the challenge largely intact while enriching one’s party composition.
- You’ll need some weapons that do fire damage. You can use fire arrows on your ranged character for finishing off trolls, but there is a finite amount of those in the game.
- Use scripts. There are plenty of pre-defined scripts available that will make your life much easier. Your Bard and Thief in particular will benefit greatly from these.
- Don’t hesitate buying expensive items. Eventually, you’ll be swimming in gold.
- Any spell scrolls that don’t go to your Mage go to your Bard.
- Use shields. IWD is full of quality shields, and you can never have enough AC.
- Beholders are among the most annoying monsters in the game. Thankfully, you’ll only encounter them in TOTL. Here’s how to beat them with ease: Have your mage summon a Nishruu. This thing will be immune to anything the beholder throws at it. Meanwhile, have your ranged character fire it to death with regular arrows. Easiest fight ever.
- The final boss and his lackeys are immune to any weapons below +3 enchantment. Adjust your equipment accordingly.
- You’ll want a minimum of 18 DEX on all of your characters. DEX is hard to come by on items and AC valuable throughout the entire game. STR will only become trivial come endgame, when you’ll be showered in STR 18/00 gauntlets. Until then, a high STR roll pays off greatly. CON should be 18 for Fighter types and 16 for non-Fighter types.
Skald: The Party Leader
Your first party member will be a Bard—more specifically, a Skald. The Skald will have three major functions within your party:
- (1) Identify items
- (2) Party leader with high Charisma
- (3) Sing the Skald song
(3) is the big one here. The Skald song is simply ridiculously powerful, especially from level 15 onwards. Bonuses to THAC0, AC, damage, along with immunity to fear, stun, and confusion are just too good to pass up. Set your script to Bard, place the Skald at the back of your formation, and then forget this character is even in your party. Outside of singing the Skald song, the only thing your Skald will get to do is casting the odd spell once in a while. Skull trap in particular will be a great asset due to its power scaling with level, and your Skald will level faster than your Mage. Fire some of these into high-danger zones to weaken tougher enemies before moping up what’s left. Other than that, the Skald will simply buff your party all the time.
- Doesn’t matter. Half-elf is fine.
- Doesn’t matter.
- STR: 10+
- DEX: 18
- CON: 16
- INT: 13 or 16 or 18
- WIS: 10
- CHA: 18
Your Skald does no fighting, so STR isn’t important. A slightly higher score can be beneficial since it will allow you to carry more items. INT can be left at 13, but if you don’t want to do any metagaming cheese for spell learning, a score of 18 is advised. Furthermore, unlike in BG, bards get 7th and 8th level spells, but not 9th level spells. Realistically, you won’t have many 7th or 8th level spell scrolls to give to your bard, but if you get a good roll, INT of 16 is advised for the highest possible spell level. You want high DEX and CON to make sure your Skald doesn’t get randomly oneshotted. CHA is a no-brainer.
Your Skald won’t ever fight, so it doesn’t matter. Pick one of the defensive proficiencies for added AC against missiles and make sure to give the Skald a weapon that provides resistances or other defensive bonuses. The Elven Chain Mail +3 is useful since it has decent AC yet allows spellcasting.
Fighter / Thief: Heavy Hitter
Every party needs a thief, but there is no point in creating a single-class thief. Hence, we’ll be doing a Multi-Class Fighter/Thief (F/T). Why Multi-Class? Because we want Half-orc as race and Multi is the only option. Sometimes, it’s that simple.
Keeping your AC up can be a challenge since you can’t equip metal armor if you want to use your thief abilties (which you definitely do). That said, with some of the later gear getting AC to -10 is no problem, along with some serious physical resistances. Coupled with natural Thief abilities such as Evasion your F/T will be an unstoppable force of nature.
- Half-orc. Natural STR 19 and CON 19 and huge bonuses to Thief abilities. Using any other race is tantamount to gimping yourself.
- Chaotic Neutral. Some of the better Thief items require you to be Chaotic or not Good.
- STR: 19
- DEX: 18
- CON: 19
- INT: w/e
- WIS: w/e
- CHA: w/e
This one is very easy to roll. Everything but STR, DEX, and CON are dump stats. Keep them at a double-digit value nonetheless, simply because there’s no reason not to. Once you get the Ring of Dwarven Bone, enjoy a STR of 20.
- Short Swords
Axes are by far the best DPS option, though the best ones are only available in the expansion. Daggers and short swords can be useful if you plan on backstabbing a lot. Use a shield such as the Great Shield +3 to turn this guy into a juggernaut.
Cleric / Ranger: Buff Machine
The only benefit of creating a pure Cleric would be the ability to use Turn Undead. Turn Undead is level-based and only a pure Cleric will have a high enough level to get any use out of this ability. Turn Undead is quite useful since IWD is full of undead. At the same time, a single-class Cleric will have a hard time against anything that isn’t undead, which is why Cleric/Ranger Multi-Class is the more sensible option. Your C/R will hit hard and buff your party to great effect. The Ranger part of your class will give you access to additional spells on top of that.
- Half-elf, since there is no other option.
- Lawful Good. The Evil divine spells are all terrible, wheareas the Good ones are all incredibly useful. Some of the better items also require you to be Good or even Lawful Good.
- STR: 18/xx
- DEX: 18
- CON: 18
- INT: w/e
- WIS: 18
- CHA: w/e
WIS 18 isn’t really necessary since you’ll have enough spells by the end of the game anyway, but if you can roll it, why wouldn’t you? CHA is a dump stat since we won’t be using Turn Undead. While you’ll be getting STR 18/00 gauntlets and a 19 STR belt later on, rolling high STR is very much worth it.
- Morning Star
Flail will be your best option come lategame. Before that, maces and morning stars will be the sources of crushing damage in your party. Several of them also come with Priest-related bonuses.
Fighter / Druid: Summons
Multi-Class is the name of the game in IWD, and the Fighter/Druid is no exception. A Druid will have insane survivability due to defensive buffs, natural resistance, and summons of course. Compared to Arcane summons Divine summons are incomparably stronger and more useful. Woodland Beings in particular will be incredibly useful early on. The Fighter part is important since you’ll get to don Metal Armor, which further adds to your already top-tier AC. On top of healing you’ll also get some very decent damage spells. Melee damage will be lackluster until you get your STR up through items.
- Half-elf. No other choice.
- True Neutral. No other choice.
- STR: 16
- DEX: 18
- CON: 18
- INT: w/e
- WIS: 18
- CHA: 15+
This will be very hard to roll. Since getting a high STR roll on top of a high attribute point roll would take forever, the easy way out is to keep STR at 16 for the time being. Later on you’ll get gauntlets that set your STR to 18/50 which will go straight to your F/D. You may actually be forced to compromise on DEX and CON as well. In the latter case, the Vexed armor from the expansion can make up for some of the lower CON.
For the first half of the game your F/D will be lacking in the DPS department. Get yourself the Lucky Scimitar +2 from Conlan early, it’ll be a trusty companion for a good portion of the game. During the expansion you’ll get Svian’s Club +5 which will crush any opposition from that point on.
Fighter / Mage: Spellcaster
While Multi-Class Fighter/Mage has its benefits, Dual-Classing is the overall best choice. The main advantage is grand mastery in weapons, which will help you greatly later on. The big question is when to dual-class. The only sensible choices are level 9 or 13. Level 9 will give you grand mastery, while level 13 will give you an extra half-attack and better THAC0. I would say level 13 is preferred when playing on Insane difficulty or higher and/or when doing the expansion. If you only plan to do the main campaign and on Core Rules or lower, level 9 is the only reasonable choice. In general, you don’t need an arcane caster as badly in IWD as you do in BG, so transitioning to Mage a little later is no problem.
- Human. Others can’t dual-class.
- Neutral Good. Some of the better Mage items require you to be Good.
- STR: 18/xx
- DEX: 18
- CON: 18
- INT: 18
- WIS: w/e
- CHA: w/e
You need INT 18 for the highest spell level. STR should be a good roll. Everything else is pretty straightforward.
- Long Swords
- Bastard Swords
Long swords are all you need, so get grandmastery ASAP. The best long sword in the game is the Long Sword of Action +4 which you’ll get halfway through the expansion. TOTL will give you a very good bastard sword that’ll be of great use for dispatching trolls and the like. While you’re gaining your Fighter levels back you’ll want to use a Sling. Slings scale off STR, so your damage with them will be surprisingly good, although your number of attacks and THAC0 won’t be.
Archer: DPS Machine
Archer already is a completely broken kit in BG1, and this continues to be the case in IWD. Often enough, enemies won’t even make it to your frontline fighters as your Archer fires them to death from the back. Expect 30+% of your party kills to be made by the Archer. The Archer also becomes essential when it comes to taking out some unreachable enemies along with allowing you to employ hit-and-run tactics. The priest spells and high natural stealth (for scouting purposes) are the cherry on top. Occasionally, you’ll stumble upon enemies immune to missile damage below a certain enchantment level or in general. In those cases, you’ll want to be good at swinging melee weapons provided you don’t have the right arrows at hand. AC will be subpar until you get the Black Dragon Scale or White Dragon Scale.
- Elf. Natural DEX 19 makes this the easiest choice ever.
- Doesn’t matter. Restricted to Good.
- STR: 18/xx
- DEX: 19
- CON: 18
- INT: w/e
- WIS: 14+
- CHA: w/e
DEX 19 is very much obvious. You don’t really need high STR, but for the select moments where you’re forced to melee having a high STR roll pays off.
All you need is grandmastery in longbows. Crossbows and shortbows simply do not compare, at all. The best bows in the game are the Longbow +3: Defender and Longbow +3: Repeater, which are mutually exclusive random drops from Kelly in Lower Dorn’s Deep, which is endgame. Your F/D won’t be able to use all the good scimitars, so the second-best goes to your Archer.