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.

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