Monday, June 26, 2017

15 Years Later - Remembering NeverWinter Nights

In mid-2002, I was looking for a new RPG to play.  Luckily two had recently been released, and both were getting decent reviews.  So I had to make a choice between Morrowind and NeverWinter Nights.  I chose Morrowind, probably due to its graphics and open-world gameplay.  I never actually beat it, but I played through tons of sidequests and spent months playing with the toolset.  When I finally got sick of Morrowind, I found a cheap copy of NeverWinter Nights and picked it up.  And I have to say, despite having more primitive graphics and a less exciting control scheme… it really was a much better game.

The main quest was just… there, but where the game really shined was the toolset.  For most computer games, if they include a toolset at all, it’s an afterthought.  While a lot of popular games have a modding community, those modders are often part-time programmers who have a working knowledge of writing code.  But NeverWinter Nights made it so easy to create worlds that anyone could do it.  You could literally build a playable dungeon in 5 minutes.

It was an incredible tool for dungeon masters.  If you knew your friends were going to be online, you could spend a few minutes making a dungeon, then host it with your DM Client, and have your players join the server.  Then you could join as the DM, and narrate a story for them to play through.  You had the power to drop enemies, items, and other objects at will.  And that was just using the easy functions.

Once you developed a little more skill with the toolset, you could add scripts and triggers that meant the module no longer needed a DM.  You could even leave it running, and areas and would reset after a while, making it more like actual MMOs.  Players could come and go as they pleased, getting quests from NPCs and farming XP in the wilds.  Hundreds of persistent worlds were hosted, listed in categories like “Story” and “Action”, so if you didn’t like one world you could just try another.

Unfortunately, having hundreds of choices just made it harder to find one of high quality.  Rather than randomly trying different modules on the server, it was probably better to head to one of the NWN websites, where many of the persistent worlds were listed and given user ratings.  But I didn’t know that at first, and so it was very lucky that I managed to find a good one on my first try.

The first persistent world I tried was called The Silver Marches.  It was a large world, with many areas to explore.  It had a lot of scripted quests, and encounters that would reset every few minutes, so you didn’t need a DM online to find something to do.  It had a lot of DM-led events, though they were usually at times I wasn’t online.  It encouraged players to stay in character at all times, in order to keep things immersive. 

I made several friends on that server, and had a lot of great times.  I’d played in plenty of MUDs and other online games, but this was the first time I played one where people stayed in character.  It was the first time I played a game where I felt like I really was the character.   Unfortunately, the “stay in character” thing was both a blessing and a curse.  I eventually ran into some problems with the management.  They had a lot of strict ideas about what constituted good roleplay, and while I was never specifically on the receiving end of the banhammer, I spent a lot of time watching the DMs harassing other players for dumb reasons.

So I left.  I spent a fair amount of time on a few other servers for a while, but none of them really held my interest like The Silver Marches.   Finally I got it in my head that if I wanted something done right, I’d have to do it myself.  I decided to make my own module.  I’ve already written at length about Itropa, so I’ll spare you all the minute details of the module.  If you like, you can read this blog about the NWN module, or this blog about my PnP version.  I hosted Itropa for about two years (I think), and had a lot of loyal players.  I can’t say it a huge success, but at its peak it sometimes had about 30 simultaneous players, which was pretty impressive at the time.

Eventually someone else offered to host it for a while, so I took that opportunity to work on another module.  It was called “Fairies Vs Dragons”, oddly enough based on a chess set I once saw.  During character creation, players could choose from several types of the title creatures, and were restricted from visiting certain areas of the world based on their race.  Roughly one third of the world was Dragon only, another third was Fairy only, and the middle ground was full PvP.  Whenever I would add a new area to the Fairy side, I would  add a similar sized area to the Dragon side.  It was like creating two mods at once.

FvD did not prove to be as popular as Itropa, but it still had a player base.   Later I reskinned FvD into a roleplay module called Fairy Haven.  Shortly after that I had to give up hosting due to bandwidth issues.  And then a few years later, all the servers closed for good.  (There are still ways to play online, but it's a lot less user friendly.)  You can still buy NWN with its expansion packs included for cheap, but its biggest selling point is now gone.  Hopefully a future licensed D&D product will use similar techniques for quick module creation and hosting, but with MMOs being a lot more profitable, I won’t hold my breath.

Rest in peace, NWN. 

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