The Gamemasters

What Manner of Game


Max Steele’s article, “Don’t Roleplay the Bugs,” in issue four of The Escapist, sparked a lot of conversation among the Neverwinter Nights community. One of the members of this community came to us with a response to Mr. Steele, putting a more positive spin on his experiences. We listened to his ideas – and here’s what he had to say.

I remember fondly the day I discovered Dungeons and Dragons. I was in the fifth grade when a friend of mine attempted to describe D&D to me. I have to admit, I was very confused. I probably stared at him like he’d grown another head as he tried to explain a game that has no game board, no turns, and no game pieces. I was half convinced he was kidding. It really required playing D&D before I understood – it was no ordinary game. It was something completely new.

Just as a pen-and-paper (PnP) RPG was a new type of game that had evolved from an older type (in this case turn-based, game – board-based strategy games) Neverwinter Nights (NWN), with its built-in toolset and Dungeon Master client, is an evolution of both PnP RPGs and computer RPGs. Indeed, I would contend that it is really a new type of game altogether.

Perhaps it is not surprising that people try to fit NWN, into familiar molds. Looking at massive NWN fan projects such as “Hardcore Rules,” which attempts to rewrite Neverwinter Nights to be closer to PnP D&D, or the myriad of NWN online persistent worlds, it’s not hard to see that NWN has a large following from people that want it to be the same as a PnP RPG. It’s hard for them to see it in any other light.

Trouble in Paradise
CorWyn stood in the temple of Soladon, holding the Seeing Stone carefully in her hands. Centuries ago, this relic of her people’s history had been lost. With the help of these strange humans, she had recovered it.

“My Sovereign, we have recovered the Seeing Stone from the ruins of Mauglin,” she stated boldly, holding out her treasure for all to view.

The Sovereign failed to keep his composure. “Can it be?” he asked, not willing to believe yet, “But how? Our best warriors failed to retrieve the stone.”

CorWyn trembled slightly at what she had to say next. “My Lord, the humans, they have strange powers … their leader,” she motioned to the one named Samuel Meladon, “claims to be of the race of the ancient emperors, a Veranite.” CorWyn paused before continuing, “My Lord, I believe I died and his power brought me back from the dead.”

A guffaw from next to the Sovereign reminded everyone of sheriff KyMin’s presence.

“Don’t be foolish, CorWyn, you know the Veranites were of our race, and there have been no Veranites for over 1000 years. And certainly there is no being alive today that can bring people back from the dead,” the sheriff chuckled.

Matteo the ranger interrupted, “Why not let Samuel give it a try and let the Seeing Stone determine what he is or is not?”

Stallos reached for his sword, but was waved off by Samuel. Anade shifted nervously, content to let Samuel work this problem out with the elves.

“My Lord, if I may,” Samuel said, “I do not know the history of the Veranites. Perhaps they once were all elves. But I assure you, I have the power of the Veranites. That is why we asked you to come here. I intend to use the Seeing Stone to reveal who murdered your daughter, My Lord.”

The Sovereign looked startled, “You intend to what?”

“My Lord, this is some sort of human trick, surely you don’t believe …” KyMin interrupted.

“No, I don’t believe it. Samuel, you are a human. Humans are not Veranites.”

“My Lord, if you will allow CorWyn to let me use the Seeing Stone, I will both solve the murder and prove that I am a Veranite, for none but a Veranite could use the Seeing Stone,” Samuel protested.

The Sovereign considered quickly Samuel’s proposal, then gave a curt nod to CorWyn. CorWyn reluctantly gave up the stone to the strange human. Samuel took the stone reverently and walked over to the altar …

The story above was part of my ongoing NWN campaign. CorWyn was a new member of the group. She lived in Glitterdale, an elven village that the party encountered during one of its adventures. There was tension between her and the group since she had joined, because elvish beliefs differed from those of the party.

This whole scene was roleplayed by the players very convincingly and with real emotion. My experience is that people in NWN naturally roleplay very well, without practice. I’ve played with random groups – more than half of them consisting of newbies – on, and have found poor roleplayers to be the exception rather than the rule. This might be due to the culture of the Neverwinter Connections community, but I think there is more to it.

There is a long-standing belief that people “roleplay” while playing PnP RPGs. My own experience of 25 years suggests that it’s rare for players to mentally become their character. Most of the time players say things like “CorWyn gets angry” or “I get angry at them and say to them…” When you’re sitting around with a bunch of guys at a table, who look nothing like their characters, it’s sometimes hard to get “into character.” Trying to roleplay a romance with your buddy Charlie’s female mage is even harder.

For the reverse reason, I’ve found that in Neverwinter Nights, players naturally roleplay well. When all you see of your party is what is presented on the screen, you quickly forget that there are real people behind these characters. Players consistently surprise me with the depth of their character’s background and personality. In longer campaigns, characters often develop into fully three dimensional characters that seem very real. If we define “roleplaying” to mean literally to play or act out a role of a fictional character (as opposed to merely viewing the fictional character as a game piece, as most of my PnP RPG experiences have been), then Neverwinter Nights is the first and only roleplaying game I’ve ever played.

Another advantage of Neverwinter Nights over PnP is that in the above scenario, as Samuel used the Seeing Stone, a vision broke over the whole group, dramatically showing the party who committed the murder. In PnP games, this exciting climax of the game would have been kept brief. PnP players would have quickly become bored listening to a Dungeon Master describe what was seen in the vision. In NWN, a cut scene was used. The group all saw what happened, complete with musical scoring and special effects. Not having to hurry over a climactic moment like this built excitement for the plot twist that took place. Storywise, this became the moment that would clinch CorWyn’s conversion to Samuel’s cause, even though she would have to leave her beloved forest to join the party. Without the visual and sound effects I don’t believe a dramatic moment like this is as effective in a PnP game.

Combat moves much faster in NWN compared with traditional PnP D&D. As a result, adventures often have much more combat than those in PnP. This can create intense excitement, but also unique challenges as well. Events can move so quickly that it is sometimes difficult for the DM to intervene before a disaster happens. For example, when a mage shoots a fire ball, she can – well, let’s be more accurate – she usually will kill one of her team members if the server is set to allow friendly fire. The chaotic nature of real-time combat does not lend itself well to a destructive spell that explodes in a 60 foot radius. In NWN you’d probably never use it if you couldn’t turn off friendly fire. To address this, most Dungeon Masters set NWN to not allow damage from friendly fire. (First time DMs avoid doing this because they think it’s “less realistic,” not realizing that disabling friendly fire actually approximates the true usefulness of a “fireball spell” from a turned-based PnP game. )

Unfortunately, real-time combat can result in death before a DM can intercede. To handle this some DMs allow “respawning” with a penalty to experience and gold. Others – myself included – play with permanent death, but have rules to make death a rare occurrence. In my story, the party is under the protection of a powerful cleric (Samuel) who “touches” them with his power. The in-game result is that each party member can return from death once per module. After that, the “power” fades, and were the character to die again, the death is permanent. (This is why CorWyn mentioned that she had died and been brought back to life.) We have worked the “one – time-respawn” rule into the fiction of the game.

You Can’t Do That in PnP!
Neverwinter Nights allows scenarios and stories to be developed that are not possible in PnP. In PnP, I always wanted to let the parties split up. I tried to come up with ways to handle this, such as letting one group of people play video games while the other enacted a scenario in PnP. It just didn’t work in real life because boredom set in quickly and people lost interest in the game.

NWN allows parties to split up at will if the scenario is scripted. Whether it’s a party all falling into different parts of a death trap, or Kalyl the Vampire Lord kidnapping one of the characters to be his bride, NWN allows for the party to split up without stopping the adventure to play out each scenario. This trick usually shocks players with a PnP background. I often get questions like “Should I wait here?”

Later, I became intrigued at the possibility of creating a NWN mod where the good guys and the bad guys were both played by real players. I created a story-oriented PvP mod about rescuing a duchess before a vampire lord comes to take her away. Because I was new to this type of mod, I kept it mostly combat oriented. I experimented with adding story and cut scenes so that it felt more like an adventure. The mod assigns “roleplaying” motives to the players and then offers XP awards for roleplaying the part. The XP awards are policed by the other players.

At last, with this mod, the holy grail of roleplaying is within our reach! Imagine a roleplaying module where the multiple factions are all played by real people and the story “emerges” from actions of the players. To rescue the duchess, you must break into a prison guarded by real players. The lich terrorizing the countryside that you are on a quest to destroy is actually a real player. The possibilities are endless.

The Starving Artist Finds an Audience
I feel Neverwinter Nights is a medium very different than traditional PnP D&D. For DMs, this is the ultimate chance to create something unique and have other people join in. Consider the difficulty of writing a novel and trying to get it self- published. Yet, in NWN anyone can easily write their “novel” as a series of adventures, and then actually watch people play it online. Imagine watching player’s reactions to your story twists or to puzzling traps. I find that I can even make improvements for each new round of players, as I play through my creations many times with different groups.

There is a whole community of people ready and willing to partake in a DMed game of Neverwinter Nights. NWN is really a whole new art form, and probably the most freely accessible one in terms of capturing an audience. Even people who can’t script can create full adventures and run them using the DM-client. The community made “DM Friendly Initiative” wands-and-widgets package will help budding DMs make the most of such an adventure.

While I will always love pen-and-paper RPGs, I find that Neverwinter Nights is superior in terms of roleplaying and characterization, speed of combat, and depth of story. In addition, I have found it capable of creating certain types of scenarios not possible in PnP games, and much easier to find an audience for. I suppose that is why I made the jump to NWN to get my roleplaying fix.

Bruce Nielson is the designer of The Light Reborn, a critically acclaimed and popular module series for Neverwinter Nights designed with online Dungeon Masters in mind. He was also the producer for the Great Battles of History series created by Erudite Software and Interactive Magic.

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