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:

  1. 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.
  2. There will be no respawning! Dead is dead.
  3. There will be no resting in the dungeon proper. You’ll need to return to base or find a safe spot.
  4. 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.

Everyone read the manifesto and agreed that these rules were the greatest gift to computer roleplaying since Ultima VII. I puffed up with pride.

The next day, we played my first masterpiece, a spelunking adventure in a maze of caves. The finale was handcrafted with care: The grim lair of giant spiders was dark, with special lighting effects. A chittering sound effect was set to go off as the party approached, and I had tiled the entry area with blood, webbing, and a highlighted “half-eaten corpse.” Examining the corpse revealed that it “has been gnawed by something with great and terrible fangs. The stain of venom corrupts the wounds.”

The time came for the party to approach. Scott, the rogue, was on point, but he had his sound turned off and wasn’t alerted by the chittering, and there was too much “junk” painted in the entryway for him to be warned by the body. Jon and Newton rushed in to help when Scott blundered into the spiders, but the paladin, Brian, was AFK getting a soda. By the time he arrived, the rest of the party was dead, and then a second later so was Brian.

A few minutes later, after I had resurrected everyone (just this one time you understand), Jon managed to accidentally hit Scott with a spell and killed him again. Since player-inflicted deaths shouldn’t count as, you know, Real Deaths, I raised Scott again. The rest of the session played smoothly, and the group assured me that this module was The Best Module they’d ever played. Of course, they had suggestions for improvement…

I grudgingly turned off the PVP flag for the second module, but kept the permanent death rule from my manifesto. I didn’t want the party to think there were no consequences to battle. Just because they had played badly didn’t mean it was my job to coddle them. However, in a nod to the difficulty of last session, I increased the experience point award for killing monsters – Neverwinter Nights defaulted to a 10% reward, and I upped it to 25%. Since there was more risk in my module from fewer, more intelligent NPCs than in traditional hack and slash CRPGs, it made sense to amp up the reward, I explained to the party.

With these changes in place, I designed the second adventure in a mere 28 hours. The module called for the group to kill an orc chief in a faraway fort. I planned for them to travel overland through a vast 64-tile by 64-tile wilderness zone to meet a mysterious druid, Kostas, who would then give them the information they needed to get to an orc village and complete their mission of slaying the chieftain.

What a beauty my wilderness zone was! I lovingly handcrafted it with immersive content and encounters (a dryad with an ogre problem! A goblin hunting party! A brook running into a lake with nearby fawns and deer!) and I completely scripted the main encounter with Kostas, the druid. I created an NPC faction system which tied Kostas into the entire ecology of the region, enemy to the goblins and orcs, friend to the deer and dryad.

When they zoned in (it took only about twenty minutes on Newton’s dial-up), the party looked at the woodlands for about five seconds. Then they began systematically killing every living thing they encountered in the zone that wasn’t labeled “Kostas.” Fawns drinking at the brook – dead. Deer bounding across the woods – dead. “Why are you slaying all the wildlife?” I demanded.

“dood… 2.5 x normal xp for killing,” explained Jon.

“Need to level up to fight orcs,” admitted Scott.

“I’m hunting to gather dried venison for our overland expedition,” rationalized Newton.

After about thirty minutes of tile-by-tile slaughter, the party finally reached Kostas, the quest-giver, their only source for the directions to the hidden orc fort. It was after Kostas killed Brian that I realized that my faction script had now set Kostas to be the party’s enemy. Too many deer had been killed, you see.

Scott, Jon, and Newton soon joined Brian and the deer in the land of the dead and the zone fell into a grim quiet. “You weren’t supposed to kill the deer! Now I have to raise you from the dead and the module is ruined!” I typed as loudly as I could.

“If you didn’t want us to kill the deer, why’d you put them there?” asked Scott.

“BECAUSE REAL FORESTS HAVE DEER! IT’S MORE IMMERSIVE THIS WAY!”

At that moment, I felt that the problem with computer roleplaying games wasn’t the games. It was the players. They just didn’t get it. Here I was with friends who were perfectly good tools for executing my storylines in the living room, but put them behind a keyboard and they simply couldn’t be bothered to try and do what they were supposed to.

After a few minutes of further hazing, the group glumly agreed to try harder to play right. I respawned them and told them where the orc fort was hidden. Play commenced. Finally, the module began to proceed smoothly. The rogue found and disarmed the cunning orcish traps. The heroes battled through the guard at the bridge. They dispatched the first band of orcs. And then they came to the worgs. (Like all hidden orc forts, this one was guarded by a fierce pack of worgs.)

This is the aftermath of the battle with the worgs: The worgs are dead. Newton is growling. Jon, Scott, and Brian are silently wondering what the hell is going on. The confusion goes on for literally forty-five minutes.

“Why are you howling like a wolf, Newton? Speak English!” I demand.

“Grrrr…. I am lyncathropic! I have transformed into a wolf! Woof!”

“Newton, why do you think your character has lyncathropy?” I text.

“OOC: My avatar has been replaced with a wolf. I must have gotten infected during the fight and transformed!”

“your lousy dialup connection sux. u got a lag-bug!” says Jon. He’s right, I realize. Newton’s modem connection is prone to terrible lag. Somehow during the fight his game client has replaced the avatar of his ranger with an image of one of the worgs. We’re still seeing his ranger, but he’s seeing a wolf. It’s a bizarre bug.

And we’ve lost almost an hour because Newton has been roleplaying the bug.

“Newton, stop growling. Stop roleplaying! Log out and log back in and let’s get this module going again.”

That moment was the turning point when I began to realize: Even with a hands-on gamemaster and a small group who knew each other, the unpredictability of the computer environment wreaked havoc. How, I pondered, could I hope to capture the essence of immersive tabletop play when I couldn’t even protect the players from bugs?

Everything went downhill from there. The escape route from the orc fort took the players into an underground tunnel swarming with fire beetles and an umber hulk! The tunnel was another favored area where I had lovingly spent hours crafting and designing. The beetles fed on mushrooms I had painted onto the tiles throughout the tunnel network. The umber hulk fed on the beetles. A special spawn script created the fire beetles and caused them to trek through the tunnels, while the umber hulk (a very powerful monster) was set to a faction opposite the beetles. My thinking was the group would lead the beetles to the umber hulk and use them to distract the creature while they snuck out.

A few minutes after entering it, Brian, Scott, Jon, and Newton were all dead and it was my fault. The script I’d use to place the fire beetles caused them to endlessly re-spawn. That wasn’t a problem when the beetles were just being led to the umber hulk, but the party had no idea there was an umber hulk in the dungeon. So they had just kept fighting… and fighting…

Now it was their turn to level the criticism on me. How were they supposed to know what to do? Was it immersive to have a spawn on endless repeat? After sitting through their righteous anger, I raised them all from the dead and we went on to finish the module. But the joy was gone.

My manifesto was in shambles. My efforts at deep content and story-telling had been at best mediocre. Roleplaying had proven unworkable. What little immersion there was died at the hands of designer error, lag, client bugs, or player mistake. There was no fear of consequences – rather than be an impactful and tragic event, death was a comedy.

I went back to the drawing board, and re-worked everything for my next module using what I had learned. I replaced my sprawling 64×64 zones with smaller areas that would be easier to load. I eliminated subtle clues in favor of short, simple, and direct messages that couldn’t be missed, from NPCs that couldn’t be fought. I got rid of “immersive” fauna and flora that were just for looking at, and added random encounters with random spawns to give the players the experience points they craved. I added instant respawn on death at a cost of gold and experience. I let the players rest wherever and whenever they wanted, and let them pause the fights if they needed to. And I told the players not to worry about roleplaying and just to have fun. In short, I created every other CRPG out there.

We played it the following week. It didn’t have a damn thing to do with tabletop gaming but it was the one and only successful session we had. It was also the last session.

I couldn’t go on. Each module had taken me twenty to thirty hours to create, and ultimately where I ended was nothing different from – and certainly no improvement on – what was already out there. Even with a hands-on gamemaster, and a crew of gamers who knew each other from their face-to-face days, I hadn’t been successful in my quest to emulate the tabletop experience. The Holy Grail was forever outside my reach.

The gameplay of computer RPGs doesn’t feel like D&D in the old days and it never will. Trying to design a computer game that plays like a tabletop RPG just makes for a broken computer game. It seems obvious now, but like so many designers before me, I had to learn it for myself.

I’m left with a new found respect for the craft of computer game design, and a strange sense of gratitude I didn’t learn the lesson with a $5 million budget and a team of twenty under my control.

And Newton – next time we play online together, please don’t roleplay the bugs.

The Highest Form of Flattery

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