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On screen, my module - the second I've created with the Aurora toolset for Neverwinter Nights - is finally proceeding smoothly. Jon is playing a fighter/sorcerer, Newton a ranger, Brian a paladin, and Scott has a rogue. They're in the groove, fighting smartly, working as a team, a dozen years of collective pen-and-paper experience brought into real time to dispatch the pack of Worgs I've just flung at them.
The fight is just wrapping up, with Newton slaying the last dire wolf, when he gets weird on us. "Woof," Newton suddenly texts. "Arooooooo!"
What's going on here? Newton is a consummate roleplayer, and always in character when he types in the public channels. And unlike the other players, he's a computer game novice. The two - his earnest roleplay and his computer RPG virginity - are of course correlated.
"sup, newt?" texts Jon. "y u barkin?"
It annoys me every time Jon speaks. Jon used to be even better at staying in character than Newton, back in the days of face to face. That gift is long since gone, devoured by the gaping maw of MMORPGs.
MMORPGs are, in fact, what has led us here, to Neverwinter Nights, to my second module. Jon, Brian, Scott, Newton, and I used to all game together, in high school and college. Now this is back before D&D got dumbed down. We had to keep track of weapon speed factors and "to hit versus armor" adjustments. There was an entirely separate rules system just for pummeling. I mean, you had to be dedicated to be a gamer back then. And we were.
Years later, some of the band gathered together on the PvP server of Asheron's Call in a noble attempt to recapture these halcyon days. That experience was, shall we say, less than successful. Jon still bears the scars, unable to speak in complete sentences or roleplay for more than five seconds. Scott refuses to play characters who aren't chaotic-evil. Brian keeps the online strategy guides handy to ensure he always has the optimal build for his dual-wielding dark elf paladin/ninja. Newton is the only one of us who stayed whole, because he stayed away from MMORPGs.
Despite our scars, our desire for re-capturing that tabletop experience didn't go away. When Neverwinter Nights came out, I investigated: Could NWN be the answer? I played through the campaign single player, and tested it out with cooperative play. I downloaded modules designed by players like myself. I installed the Aurora toolset and learned about scripting. And I realized, with that deep, soul-searing inner knowledge that leads people to make the most foolish decisions of their lives, that this was the Holy Grail. Using Aurora, I could succeed where Turbine, Verant, and all others had failed. I could re-create the pen and paper experience.
I analyzed where the computer RPG (CRPG) experience had gone wrong and what I had to do to change it. Death - a slap on the wrist in CRPGs - would be restored to its full tabletop menace. "Friendly Fire" would be on, forcing players to think about tactics and position rather than just fireball everything they encountered. Restrictions on resting would keep wizards in check. Yes, yes!
I feverishly created a manifesto - a mission statement - of what my modules would be like, and emailed it to my friends. I wrote:
- The adventures will have plots and puzzles, not just hack-and-slash. Items with glowing grey names ("half-eaten corpse") should be examined for clues to the story.
- There will be no respawning! Dead is dead.
- There will be no resting in the dungeon proper. You'll need to return to base or find a safe spot.
- This will be a Full PVP server, meaning you can damage each other. This is for realism's sake, not because I want you to slay each other.