The Analog Gamer: Neverwinter & Nemesis

aribeth_de_tylmarande_2-1280.jpgThis week we kick off the first in a series of columns focusing on bringing the pen-and-paper experience of RPGs to life using technology, tools and primarily the internet.

With the big announcement of the Wizards of the Coast Digital Initiative, the expansion of Gleemax and the forthcoming D&D 4th Edition digital toolkit, it seemed a good time to work toward our eventual review of these services by looking at what tools are currently available for gamers to virtualize their game sessions.

Seeing that this is a video game website it feels most appropriate to discuss first the video game entry in the virtual desktop series – Atari’s Neverwinter Nights series. Developer Bioware began the Neverwinter Nights project almost a decade ago with the stated intent of not only taking their popular Forgotten Realms adventure series into the 3D world but also to provide players and dungeon masters the tools necessary to truly recreate the experience of a tabletop session of D&D on the net in a video game.

exemplars.jpgTo that end, Bioware created a number of tools and even a complete game mode that has kept the now aged Neverwinter Nights an active and thriving game on the web long after its release. These tools, called the DM Toolkit allowed players a few different options in managing and creating new adventures for players worldwide. The DM tools offer potential storytellers a palette of monsters, settings and magic items to build their world. Building a new adventure in Neverwinter Nights was like casting a digital movie. DMs simply construct sets and cast actors and at the most basic can write adventures with little scripted text and basic A.I. functionality and can then personally control the enemies and NPCs via the DM tools in game.

Once the core set design and casting is done, players could join the server, generate characters and the DM could then control, create and manipulate the virtual game sets with a great deal of power. The problem though with this method (and where it often falls short of real D&D) is the lack of flexibility DM managed games in NWN have when compared with its pen-and-paper origins. Players never follow a script as every DM learns and often the complexity of the NWN tools keeps new DMs from really making best use of the tools.

There are also rule drift issues with the Neverwinter game that present issues out of the box – like the video-game sensibilities that mandated changes to summoned creature timing and the instant ability to rest and heal that suited a video game but didn’t always help in a role playing sense. Fans soon found ways to tweak some of the rules and character settings to more accurately reflect D&D but it still fell somewhat short because of the work needed to pull off a live game with live players who all could choose to act independently of a story.

Neverwinter Nights 2, the sequel released a few years ago, improved on some of the core issues of its predecessor but still has some of the same limitations. While the sequel and its DM tools expanded the character options, feats and races; the move from fixed sets to custom designed paintbrush style levels increased a lot of the prep time needed for the Dungeon Master.

neverwinter_nights_dm.jpgWhile it may sound like NWN and NWN 2 were failures in bringing the pen-and-paper experience to the online game space there quickly developed support communities and other resources that strongly focused on mentoring future game masters in the use of the game tools.

Both Obsidian Entertainment and Bioware both added features to encourage and enhance module creation. Unfortunately though the need for preparation time keeps NWN from being the ultimate conversion tool. The ability to let the game arbitrate and allow DMs to focus exclusively on storytelling is nice and the graphical effects and video game engine make it attractive and interesting, but only a well trained or seasoned NWN DM can pull off a game with the depth of a tabletop session. Here it is a case of the tools getting in the way of the game.

I’ve run a number of stand alone games using NWN over the years and had mixed success to some degree. The success or failure of these games came down to the different sort of gamers a video game like NWN attracts. The video game nature of the experience often changed the dynamic from dramatic storytelling to Monty Haul style games. There are a number of websites that offer modules designed to be run by a human but more often the NWN games lend themselves better to modules designed to be played and not managed in fully scripted scenarios where the human DM is not needed. There are also a number of persistent worlds for both games out there where human DMs create and monitor players in the game world, interacting and possessing NPCs from time to time in a sort of ½ tabletop, ½ MMO experience.

One reason that NWN does make a good online game client is that it runs on Mac, Linux and Windows platforms (though Mac and Linux DM tools take a little more technical knowledge to implement).

Those interested in using NWN or its Sequel as virtual tabletop replacements should definitely run down this list of websites for advice and resources:
Bioware’s Tips for Beginner DMs
Bioware’s article on the NWN DM Friendly Initiative (DMFI)
The DMFI website’s article on NWN and Pen-and-Paper RPG’s

products_dndacc_9780786943616_lgpic.jpgBook Review: Exemplars of Evil, Wizards of the Coast – 3.5 ed. D&D, $30

Every game seems to have one, the DM guidebook on making interesting adversaries. I personally have purchased at least 3 of these books for my D&D games over the years from the 2nd Edition Villain’s Handbook to this title, Exemplars of Evil. There are whole sections of the Book of Vile Darkness devoted to tips for making enemies formidable villains and while much has been published before that is not tied specifically to any one game system, this latest book from Wizards does a remarkable job of giving Dms tips and tools tailored for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 that will enhance any faceless meglomaniacal enemy and when applied correctly might even push that big baddie into Darth Vader or Sauron-like status among your game group.

Exemplars of Evil is the latest in the blue DM series of accessories. Costing $30 dollars and with a light page count of 160 or so pages it still manages to be a sound investment for the Dungeon Master audience. Like most books of this type, Exemplars begins with an examination of what a villain is. The Evil portion of the book’s title however might be a bit misleading as the content immediately points out that not all great heroic antitheses are evil, some are misguided, some are “Awful Good”, etc.

Unfortunately, only the first 30 pages or so are devoted to the “Villain Toolkit” aspect of the book. This section highlights new class options, feats and new spells that might suit your homegrown creation and tailoring of a campaign big bad. The majority of the book covers example enemies that can quickly be integrated into an existing campaign. These foes vary greatly from truly evil, mustache twirling enemies to a family with goals of raising an ancient evil.

All of the included exemplars come fully developed with back story, tips on integrating them into Wizard’s existing worlds like Eberon or Faerun as well as settings and encounters tailored for introducing or culminating the villain’s plots and goals. I found plenty of content to poach here and will likely use some of the concepts, if not the exact mechanics and characters in a future game of my own.

Exemplars of Evil contains some good resources on creating arch-villain’s for a game but for DMs who prefer to create their own foes this may not be the best investment. The pre-made baddies and their story hooks will work well for those who are not dedicated to creating their own and are looking for some interesting and varied foes that are mechanically balanced and ready to drop into a campaign.

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