Monday, March 31, 2008

Rewriting the Story and Setting Some Gameplay Parameters

Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite
On Monday, I rewrote my story outline, deleting entire paragraphs in several instances and writing new ones. I'm not attached to the first draft that I had written, so I had no problem with demolishing parts of my story structure. The most difficult part for me was coming up with non-combat encounters to break the mind-numbing monotony of battling the hordes. There was only so much of it that I could do before I ran out of creative juices.

Combat is the easiest type of encounter to put in a game. One simply decides what monsters need to be in each area and where to put the spawn triggers. It's easy to mass produce encounters this way. Trying to come up with role-playing encounters, on the other hand, is difficult because they have to be individually crafted rather than mass produced.

Fortunately, Melirinda has been giving me feedback on the outline that I emailed her. She has an excellent sense of what makes for an engaging RPG story and what doesn't. It's very helpful to have a dispassionate reviewer looking over your work, particularly if that person already has a good track record for writing stories. Melirinda is well known in the NWN2 community for her top-rated mod, Bishop's Romance, which is currently number one in the charts and has been for a long time. I count my lucky stars that she's helping me with "Faithless."

Also, Corrugath from the NWN2 forums has offered to help me with the story. I had to rewrite the outline while incorporating Melirinda's first set of comments before sending it to Corrugath. That took me an entire day to complete, but from then on, I'll also be having Corrugath's help. Now I can concentrate on other aspects of building the module.

Skills: Which Are Useful and Which Are Not?
Skills in NWN2 are not created equal. Some are more useful than others, and some modules put greater emphasis on certain skills than others. Social skills such as Diplomacy or Intimidate are generally useful in modules that emphasize role playing over combat. Those same skills may be useless in a hack-and-slash game.

For "Faithless," I want to give players the opportunity to make good use of nearly all the NWN2 skills. Some skills are useful in any combat encounter. These skills are as follows:

  • Spellcraft: Gives a bonus to save versus spells

  • Taunt: Lowers AC and Concentration of enemies

  • Tumble: Helps avoid attacks of opportunity while moving and increases armor class

Other skills are particularly useful for certain types of characters. These skills are the following:

  • Concentration: Good for spellcasters

  • Hide: Very useful for characters that can hide in plain sight. Also useful as a pre-requisite to becoming a Blackguard.

  • Move Silently: Very useful for characters that can hide in plain sight

  • Perform: Very useful, but only for bards

Some skills are more situational. Player characters will want to take them only if the module provides opportunities for their use. For "Faithless," I intend to make the following skills useful:

  • Appraise: This is of some use at stores but not if the PCs have lots of gold in their pockets. The module should be balanced so that PCs will always be hungry for more gold. This may be done by limiting the amount of money that PCs may earn or by having lots of expensive things that they will want to spend on. I'll probably give a few opportunities to use this skill in conversation.

  • Disable Trap, Search: Useful only if the module has lots of deadly traps. If the traps are too weak, PCs will probably prefer to barrel through them instead of using up time to disarm them.

  • Heal: Requires access to healing kits, which are easily provided. Nevertheless, this skill is of questionable value when there are divine casters in the PCs' party or if the party may rest at any time to replenish their hit points. If opportunities to rest are limited, however, the Heal skill may become a lot more useful.

  • Listen, Spot: Useful only if there are lots of hidden enemies, especially if they can hide in plain sight. Rest assured that I'll have a good number of stealthy enemies in "Faithless."

  • Open Lock: Useful if there are lots of locked doors and chests that may be impossible or inconvenient to bash in. I'll probably give the PCs several opportunities to gain more experience points and/or rare magic items only through the use of the Open Lock skill.

  • Lore: Useful if the PCs may acquire lots of magic items that are initially unidentified. (Also useful as a stepping stone to becoming a Red Dragon Disciple.)

  • Set Trap: Useful for PCs that will have access to deadly traps. If the traps are not strong enough, players will probably prefer to fight their enemies directly instead.

  • Sleight of Hand: Useful if there are NPCs with items that may be pickpocketed. I may give PCs several opportunities to gain rare magic items through successful use of Sleight of Hand.

  • Use Magic Device: Requires access to magic items that have class, race, or alignment restrictions. These are easily provided.

Aside from the above, there are two sets of skills that are also module-dependent for their usefulness. These are the crafting skills (namely, Craft Alchemy, Craft Armor, Craft Trap, and Craft Weapon) and the social skills (namely, Bluff, Diplomacy, and Intimidate).

For the crafting skills to be useful, the PCs must have access to the right materials and workbenches. Also, the items that may be crafted should either be cheaper than what can be bought from the local merchants or they should not be available at any store. (Red dragon armor, anyone?)

For the social skills to be useful, there should be several opportunities to use them throughout the module. PCs should not be the only ones capable of using these skills. I intend to allow NPC companions to speak for the party if the players want to.

There are two skills that players may want to avoid in "Faithless." These skills are the following.

  • Parry: Theoretically, this skill may be of use if PCs have access to items that can raise their Parry skill. Unfortunately, the Parry skill is bugged at present. (Click here for DirtyFinger's findings on the Parry skill.) Even if the Parry skill were to work as advertised, PCs may dispatch their enemies faster if they attack them directly.

  • Survival: Seriously, this skill is of questionable value. If the spawning triggers are not designed well, PCs may find themselves suddenly beset by enemies without warning. Even if the triggers are designed to spawn enemies a good distance from the PCs, there is little advantage in knowing where the enemies are if they are easy to dispatch. It's possible to put this skill to good use in a survival-type adventure, but "Faithless" will not be like that.

There are too many feats in NWN2 for me to list. What I can do is confirm that the Disarm feat will definitely be useful.

Limiting the Strength of Magic Items
As early as now, I have to decide how powerful magic items may be. The magic items available in Mask of the Betrayer are much too powerful in my opinion. On the other hand, I'm not about to make magic items exceedingly rare, especially since Toril is a high magic world.

To determine the limits on item enchantment that I'm going to allow, I decided to turn to the Dungeon Master's Guide v.3.5 for help. Page 209 of this book has a table that shows the suggested total value of epic characters' starting gear. According to this table, a 30th level character will have about 4,300,000 gold pieces. I decided that this amount will be one of the bases for determining the maximum strength of magic items in my module. (The DMG also says that I may set a limit on how much of this total wealth may be spent on magic items, but I decided not to.)

The DMG and the Epic Level Handbook both provide recipes for crafting magic items. These are useful for determining at what level PCs may acquire or craft certain magic items. After studying these books, I decided on the following tentative guidelines:

  • Maximum spell resistance granted by any item is 30. A character must be at least level 15 to acquire an item that grants spell resistance.

  • Maximum damage resistance allowed is 40/-. The damage resistance conferred by any item of a 3rd level character may not exceed 10/-. This limit increases by +10 for every 4 character levels up to level 15.

  • Maximum skill bonus is +30. Skill bonuses are given in increments of 5. As a rough guide, the maximum skill bonus may not exceed the character's current level. Hence, skill bonuses granted by the items of a 12th level character may not exceed +10.

  • Maximum bonus to ability scores, armor class, weapon enhancement, and saving throws is +10. This bonus may not exceed a third of the character's current level. Hence, the bonuses that the items of a 10th level character confer may not exceed +3.

  • Maximum random damage bonus of any weapon is +3d6. (Contrast this with the crafting system of Mask of the Betrayer, which allows damage bonuses of up to +20d6.)

I may make some exceptions to the above rules in the case of plot devices that are vital to the story. I'll probably have no more than two such items. Neither may be crafted.

PnP Magic Item Crafting System?
The magic item crafting system that comes with the game is frustrating to use because of its its reliance on rare gems and essences. To make matters worse, items created with the Mask of the Betrayer system tend to be ridiculously overpowered. The system described in the Dungeon Master's Guide is actually simpler and more flexible. Its main drawback, however, is that it requires the expenditure of experience points to craft magic items. NPC companions have the same amount of experience points as PCs, so if anyone crafts a magic item, all active and inactive members of the party will lose experience points. It's a simple matter to modify the existing crafting system so that the crafter may spend only gold, although it may not be such a bad idea to let all party members contribute experience points for crafting magic items.

I was hoping to create a crafting system that uses an XML interface, but it doesn't seem possible to enumerate item properties in list boxes. What I can do instead is modify the existing crafting scripts to accept gold pieces in lieu of gems and essences. Below is a sample of crafting recipes that may be used to create magic armor.

  • AC Bonus: CL = AC Bonus × 3, Light, gp = 1,000 × (AC Bonus)²

  • Bonus Feat: Deflect Arrows: CL 5, Shield spell, same price as a +2 AC bonus

  • Cast Spell: Control Undead (13) 1/day: CL 13, Control Undead spell, +49,000 gp

  • Cast Spell: Ethereal Jaunt 1/day: CL 13, Ethereal Jaunt spell, +49,000 gp

  • Damage Reduction 5: CL 18, Stoneskin spell, same price as a +3 AC bonus

  • Damage Resistance: (Absorbs 10 points of specific energy damage) CL 3, Resist Energy spell, +18,000 gp

  • Damage Resistance, Improved: (Absorbs 20 points of specific energy damage) CL 7, Resist Energy spell, +42,000 gp

  • Damage Resistance, Greater: (Absorbs 30 points of specific energy damage) CL 11, Resist Energy spell, +66,000 gp

  • Damage Resistance, Superior: (Absorbs 40 points of specific energy damage) CL 15, Resist Energy spell, +90,000 gp

  • Skill Bonus: Hide +5: CL 5, Invisibility spell, +3,750 gp

  • Skill Bonus: Hide +10: CL 10, Invisibility spell, +15,000 gp

  • Skill Bonus: Hide +15: CL 15, Invisibility spell, +33,750 gp

  • Skill Bonus: Hide +20: CL 20, Invisibility spell, +60,000 gp

  • Skill Bonus: Hide +25: CL 25, Invisibility spell, +93,750 gp

  • Skill Bonus: Hide +30: CL 30, Invisibility spell, +135,000 gp

  • Skill Bonus: Move Silently: Similar to Skill Bonus: Hide, but with Silence spell instead of Invisibility spell

  • Spell Resistance 14: CL 15, Spell Resistance spell, same price as +2 AC bonus

  • Spell Resistance 16: CL 15, Spell Resistance spell, same price as +3 AC bonus

  • Spell Resistance 18: CL 15, Spell Resistance spell, same price as +4 AC bonus

  • Spell Resistance 20: CL 15, Spell Resistance spell, same price as +5 AC bonus

Many of these recipes are actually similar to the ones in NWN2. Without gems and essences to determine the power of the items created, however, it may be necessary to use conversation files so that players can choose how strong they want their items to be. Alternatively, the crafting system may determine how strong the magic item is supposed to be based on how much gold is in the crafting table. This approach isn't user-friendly, however, because PCs would have to compute how much gold to put in the table before casting the appropriate spell.

On the other hand, creating a new crafting system for NWN2 seems to be too much trouble for little gain. It might be better for me to simply extend the current system to allow epic characters to create more powerful items without having to drain spirit essences out of anybody. To address the problem of finding rare gems and essences, I might make them available at shops for appropriately high prices. Also, I may remove the limit on the number of enchantments any given item may have.

I'm not yet decided on this matter. This is something for me to think about over the next few days or weeks.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The First Two Weeks

Welcome to my very first blog. This is an online Designer's Diary that records my efforts to create an ambitious Neverwinter Nights 2 module called "Faithless." This blog may be of interest primarily to other module makers who use NWN2's Electron Toolset. Players who would like to know how my module is progressing without having to peek behind the scenes may prefer to access my post at the NWN2 Modules forum.

Faithless: In the Beginning

Life is hard in the cold wastelands that border Vaasa and Damara. A major war had been waged there nearly thirty years ago, but many treasure seekers had since picked the area clean of all spoils. Still, with a bounty on the goblinoids that infest the place, an adventurer could do worse than hunt down goblins for five gold pieces per head.

Far more sinister things than goblins have started to threaten life at the border, however, so much so that the goblinoids have offered to ally with the Damarans against this new foe. As if that wasn't strange enough, a divine crusader has appeared out of nowhere with a mad scheme to repel the enemy. All the crusader asks in return is that the mightiest Damarans help assault a death god's citadel and tear down the Wall of the Faithless.

Yes, an adventurer could do worse than hunt down goblins for five gold pieces per head.

Much worse.

I wrote the above blurb a week ago for my upcoming Neverwinter Nights 2 module, "Faithless." The idea for this module grew out of a question posted by asonne1, who wanted to know if there were any Diablo-like modules available for NWN2. (Click here for the original thread that asonne1 started.) Intrigued, I did an advanced search for modules at the Neverwinter Vault using the keyword "Diablo," but I came up with zilch. Then I started wondering -- what if I were to make such a module myself?

Once the game flow is designed and the scripts written and compiled, developing a Diablo-style module is fairly easy. Using the NWN2 engine, this type of module can be built with the following features:
  • Hordes d'minions capped with boss fights for dessert. Each map should have lots of relatively low-level minions to fight. At the culmination of the player characters' exploration, there should be a major boss fight, at the end of which the PCs should be rewarded with unique treasure. When the PCs are done with that map, they should be able to return to it at any time. They will still be able to fight the hordes of low-level minions, but the boss of the map won't be there. It's one way to earn extra experience points, although the XPs earned will diminish as the PCs rise in level.

  • Minimal story. What makes Diablo and its clones replayable is that they don't have much of a story to muddle through. Role playing in this type of game is somewhere between non-existent to negligible. I'm not saying that this is good for modules in general, but it is good for Diablo clones. The story should be there to give flavor to the game, but the real focus of a Diablo clone is hack and slash.

  • Designed for one to four players. Support for more than one player is already built into the NWN2 engine. The module creator should make a roster of NPC companions if there are less than four players available in a game.

  • Random item drops. With a bit of scripting, it's possible to create items whose powers are chosen randomly.

  • PCs start at level 1 and eventually rise to level 30. What's the use of a Diablo clone if player characters can't level up all the way?
Much of the challenge in developing this type of module is technical. There should be a good system for spawning enemies that scale with the level of the player characters as well as the chosen difficulty level of the game. Scripts for randomly generating loot that is appropriate to the player characters' current level should also be in place. Finally, the Artificial Intelligence of the creatures to be fought should provide enough of a challenge to keep the game fun without overwhelming the players.

Aside from the technical challenges involved, the level design must allow the gameplay to flow smoothly. This means that each area must not be difficult to move around or fight in. This also means that the paths around each area must subtly but inexorably guide players to where the module maker wants them to eventually go.

Also, the visuals, music, and sound effects of the game must be appealing to players while conveying the appropriate mood. The toolset for NWN2 comes with its own set of 3D graphical objects, music, and sound effects, and it also has powerful features for building indoor or outdoor areas. Nevertheless, putting all these elements together is a skill in itself, one that a number of players have difficulty mastering.

All told, I estimated that crafting a Diablo-like module would take me about three to six months to complete. As for the module's story, I had already proposed one that seemed to garner some interest. The idea that I had in mind was to create a module that continued where the NWN2 expansion Mask of the Betrayer left off. This is what I wrote in assone1's thread:
"If I were to make such a module, I might make the story revolve around Kaelyn's continuing crusade to bring down the Wall. She'll recruit the PCs and their companions to handle increasingly more difficult minions until they finally come knocking at Kelemvor's doorstep. At some point, however, I'll probably offer an alternative branch for the PCs to side with Kelemvor instead.

"As for the title of the module, maybe I'll call it Up Against the Wall.

"Or maybe not."
With a game concept in mind and a vague idea for a story, I figured it would be a cinch to complete this game in a few short months.

I was wrong.

What's Wrong with Diablo?
When I created a thread at the NWN2 Modules forum to announce my upcoming module, the responses to my game concept were less than enthusiastic to say the least. Players who bought Neverwinter Nights 2 aren't necessarily fans of Diablo. In fact, putting the word "Diablo" and my module in the same sentence was like cursing my module with the plague. I don't have any statistics on preferences among NWN2 players, but judging from the messages that other people have posted at the forums, it seems that a significant number of players prefer role playing over hack and slash.

The saving grace of my module concept was actually the story that I proposed. A number of people have expressed interest in being able to defeat Kelemvor and tear down the Wall of the Faithless. Perhaps it's because the idea of punishing mortals for not worshipping the gods rankles the people of today. (Until about two hundred years ago, nearly everyone in the Christian world seemed to accept the concept of everlasting torment for sinners.) Or maybe it's because a number of players were disappointed that they weren't given a chance to pwn Kelemvor in Mask of the Betrayer.

Regardless of the reason, there are people who would probably play a module that lets them kick some godly butt. In all likelihood, those people would put great importance in role playing and would like to experience a story that is at least as good as Mask of the Betrayer. Furthermore, many players would like the game to have some romance options, with Kaelyn being a popular choice for virtual girlfriend. Sounds like a lot of work.

What have I gotten myself into?

Cobbling a Story Outline
When people in the NWN community talk of "scripts," they are referring to user-made computer code that an NWN2 module runs. Most other people who hear of scripts would be thinking along the lines of Hollywood or Broadway screenplays. My primary strength is in creating computer code, although when it comes to writing fiction, I'm not without skills. Nevertheless, I have yet to use my literary abilities in crafting a popular NWN2 module.

For "Faithless," my first step was to write a story outline, which intially consisted of only three phrases. It looked something like this:

Act 1. Yadda-yadda-yadda
Act 2. Blah-blah-blah
Act 3. Yadda-blah-blah
(Note that I can't give away my actual outline in this blog.)

From there, I expanded my outline by describing specific scenes and key NPCs. When identifying an NPC for the first time, I would provide that NPC with a one-paragraph background. The expanded outline will eventually serve as my guide in developing the areas, NPCs, and encounters in my module.

The first two acts took me a day each to write. The last act took me two days to complete. My biggest problem in writing the expanded outline was in figuring out how to handle encounters involving greater deities. I have to make sure that these deities correctly use the powers ascribed to them in the source materials. I don't consider myself an expert in the Forgotten Realms setting, but I do have a number of source books on hand to which I can refer. Nevertheless, while doing my research, I came across some conflicting information about whether greater deities can kill mortals with but a thought. To clarify this matter, I posted a message to ask what greater gods can do. Several people posted their responses, some of which gave me ideas for my module. By the time I had completed my first draft, I felt that the events described in my outline made sense in the context of the Forgotten Realms.

Domi Sotto (aka Melirinda at the NWN2 forums) had graciously offered to write the conversation files for the romance options with Kaelyn. Because she would need to know the story to write these files, I emailed her my outline. A few days later, she sent the outline back to me with a number of invaluable comments. Basically, Melirinda suggested cutting many of the combat scenes and adding more role playing encounters. Thanks to her comments, "Faithless" is veering away from the Diablo formula with a stronger emphasis in role playing.

I am very grateful to Melirinda for helping me improve the story. Without her comments, I'm sure my module won't be so well received.

Of course, this means that I'll have to write a second draft of my outline. I'll do this over the coming week.

Remodeling the Wall
I didn't want to end the week without creating an area for my module. I decided that the easiest area for me to make would be the Supplicants' Gate at the City of Judgment. All I had to do to was to modify an existing area from Mask of the Betrayer.

The original Supplicants' Gate area was laid out to subtly guide player characters into the city. Obstructions such as trees and ruined walls were strategically positioned around the area to discourage player characters from going anywhere but through the gate. I had to modify this area to allow major battles to take place in it by making the area larger, changing the location of some of the trees and walls, and smoothening the ground. By the time I was done with it, the Supplicants' Gate looked ready to be besieged by a large army. The changes that I made are subtle enough that players probably won't notice any difference between how the Supplicants' Gate appeared in Mask of the Betrayer and how it will look in my module.

No siege would be effective without siege engines. I wrote a script to make catapults fire at the gate, but the script still has room for improvement. Also, I haven't quite figured out how I'm going to implement a large scale battle without straining the players' computers. I'll try to come up with a solution within the next few weeks.