Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Great Wall of Vaasa

Thirty game years ago, a war was fought in Bloodstone Pass between the monster armies of Zhengyi the Witch King and the civilized forces of the Barony of Bloodstone. At the forefront of the war was Sir Gareth Dragonsbane, who was to become the next baron of Bloodstone and eventually king of Damara. When the war ended, Lord Gareth built two massive walls at either end of Bloodstone Pass. The southern wall was called Damara Gate, and the northern wall, Vaasa Gate.

Like its southern counterpart, Vaasa Gate is more than just a wall. It is a well-manned fortress that stretches from one steep mountain face to another. The Gate hosts a thriving market where civilized folk from either side of the wall may trade. Its interior chambers serve as stock rooms and living quarters not only for the soldiers stationed there but also for adventurers on monster hunts.

The most detailed description of Vaasa Gate that I could find was from the Forgotten Realms supplement The Bloodstone Lands by R.A. Salvatore. I couldn't find any maps of Vaasa Gate anywhere, however, so I only had Mr. Salvatore's description to go by.

I wanted to have picture references on which to base my version of Vaasa Gate. I figured that no other real life structure comes closer to looking like Vaasa Gate than the Great Wall of China, so I downloaded a few of its photos from the Web.

From a military standpoint, if anyone were to build a fortified wall, the construction site should be higher than the rest of the surrounding area. Whoever fights from an elevated point has an advantage over anyone fighting from a lower position. Hence, my first task was to hammer the initially flat area into an uneven slope, the highest walkable end of which was to be the location of Vaasa Gate. I created a steep cliff face to border one end of Vaasa Gate. The other end is supposed to be half a mile away, far beyond the limits of the area that I created. I used trees to mark the limits of the walkable area opposite the cliff.

It took me two days to reach the point where I could say that Vaasa Gate is pretty much completed. Until I release "Faithless" at the Vault, however, I reserve the right to go back to any of my "completed" areas and rework them. The more I tinker with the toolset, the better I seem to get at creating areas. At some point, I'll probably go back and improve my earlier work.

Edit, May 7, 2008: Originally, this post started with the phrase "Forty game years ago." When I reviewed the chronology that I later posted in this blog, I found that I was off by ten years. It's not that I'm poor at math. Far from it. Actually, it's my memory that isn't so good. This is why I have to document my ideas. If I don't, I'm liable to get my details mixed up.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mind Your Manors

Bloodstone Manor is the home of Gareth Dragonsbane, king of Damara. A paladin and cleric of Ilmater, Gareth donates no less than half his earnings to his church. Despite that, Gareth is a rich man, thanks mainly to the bloodstone mining operations that are the lifeblood of Damara.

For "Faithless," I had to create a couple of rooms from Bloodstone Manor using the TSR module Bloodstone Pass as my reference. The map in that module dates from nearly twenty game years prior to the start of "Faithless," so there's plenty of leeway for artistic license if I needed to draw upon it.

I figured that because of the twelve-year war that troubled Bloodstone Village, the king's manor would be made of sturdy stone for proper defense. The furnishings and decor would have to be elegant but not ostentatious, as befitting a rich paladin and king.

I imagine that with the winds blowing off the Great Glacier from the north, Damara would still be cold even in early spring. To keep the heat in and the cold out, the spacious stone manor would have many tapestries covering not only the walls but all the windows as well. Even in the daytime, candles would be lit throughout the manor to provide illumination and a little warmth.

What of Gareth Dragonsbane? What would he look like? Gareth was already a high-level paladin towards the end of the Bloodstone Wars, so my guess is that he would be in his late forties to mid fifties by now. In peace time, he'd eschew ceremonial armor over elegant but comfortable robes, not like that pompous bald guy down in Neverwinter.

Even in his middling years, Gareth has little need for security. He's a charismatic leader, well loved by the Damarans, and an epic-level character to boot. You'd need a sizable army backing you up if you want to mess with the hero of Damara. He'd still have a few guards keeping watch in the manor, mostly to screen visitors and to escort unwanted guests out. It would be unseemly for a paladin and king to do his own dirty work.

Celebrity Trivia: Gareth started life as a pre-generated player character in the module Bloodstone Pass. His original stats are based on the first edition AD&D ruleset, which, being defunct, gives me plenty of leeway to make up my own set of stats.

The Challenge: Creating an Interior Area
I've been hearing rumors that interiors are easier than exteriors to make. Whoever espouses that view probably doesn't have great-looking interiors.

I would say that the challenges in making interiors are different but no less difficult from making exteriors. Building interior areas is done with tilesets, which does away with beating the terrain into shape like sheet metal. The use of tilesets is why many module builders feel that interiors are easier to create. One issue that is less of a problem in exterior areas, however, is lighting. For exteriors, it's perfectly fine to use the default lighting scheme. In the case of interiors, however, the default lighting scheme is ugly.

There are two ways to illuminate an area. One way is to change the area's global lighting scheme. Another way is to set point lights in specific places within the area. Both methods may be used at the same time. There is less need for placeable lights in exteriors than in interiors, which may receive point lights from lamps, candles, and other sources of illumination.

There's nothing to prevent a module builder from brightening an entire interior area using global light settings. In my first pass at creating Bloodstone Manor, I did just that, but I wasn't happy with the result. My way of gauging whether an area looks good is to take several screenshots of the area from different places and angles. I then look at my screenshots in thumbnail view. Thumbnails filter out most visual details, leaving behind color and contrast information. If the thumbnail image does not look good, I go back to the area and try to improve on it. Globally brightening an interior is a surefire way of getting bland thumbnails. Balancing light and darkness to achieve a chiaroscurro effect is one way to put the "wow" factor into an area.

Using different degrees of illumination is a subtle way of getting players to go where you want them to go. Like moths to a flame, human beings are naturally drawn to light. Darkness, on the other hand, is dull at best and terrifying at worst. Either way, it's something to be avoided. As a general rule of thumb, there should be more light where you want your players to go and less light everywhere else. (Like all "rules," this one may be broken at times, but doing so should be done judiciously.)

Another related issue is color coordination, which is an important aspect of interior design. Some module builders don't bother changing the color of any of their placeables, which is unfortunate because color and lighting are important ways to set the mood of an area.

For the throne room, I decided to use placeable, tintable floors. The first set of colors that I chose for the floor was painful to look at when viewed from thumbnail images. I agonized over the color scheme of the floor for some time until I was satisfied with the result. The dragon tapestry behind the thrones was another placeable whose colors needed adjusting. Depending on the chosen colors, the tapestry may look heroic, sinister, or ridiculous. Needless to say, I was going for the heroic look.

I don't know how many module builders realize that there is a technique for "tinting" the ceiling. This is done by setting the DiffuseColor of the GroundLight in the area properties to the desired color. There are many different ceiling colors that one may set using this technique. Of course, this detail will be lost on players who run the game primarily in strategy mode, but it can make for better-looking screenshots.

The Sitting King
At the furthest end of the throne room are a pair of thrones, one of which belongs to King Gareth. The other belongs to his wife, Queen Christine.

Celebrity Trivia: Gareth rose to a position of political power by marrying the daughter of Baron Tranth of Bloodstone. On the day of the wedding, Tranth abdicated his postion in favor of Gareth. Nice wedding gift, if you can get one of those.

Because he has a throne, it behooves Gareth to fulfill his kingly duties by sitting on it. As the module builder, I encountered some minor difficulties in getting him to sit. The throne is placed on a raised platform (which is actually a stage placeable with a carpet on top), and the throne itself is higher than a normal chair. The challenge for me was to bring Gareth's royal butt to the level of the throne.

My first step was to make the throne walkable so I could push Gareth a little into the throne itself. This way, when he sits using a call to PlayCustomAnimation, he'll look as if he is sitting on the throne rather than on an invisible chair in front of it. Nevertheless, this solution by itself does not raise Gareth's feet off the platform, causing him to look as if he had sunk into his seat. I needed a way to set his feet slightly above the platform to raise his butt to the right level.

My solution was to temporarily push another placeable under the throne. I tried several placeables, including docks and stairs, but the only placeable that worked for me was the stage. I had to change the stage to the proper size by setting its scale to (0.15, 0.5, 1.5). This was the right dimension to fit under the throne and the right height to raise Gareth to the appropriate level. After putting the resized stage under the throne, I baked the area, after which I deleted the resized stage. I ran the module to check if my solution worked and found Gareth sitting perfectly on his throne.

Sit, Gareth, sit. That's a good king.

Edit, May 7, 2008: Shortly after posting my chronology in this blog, I found a number of errors pertaining to game dates in some of my previous postings. I edited this particular post to correct those errors.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Second Helping of Desert

When I first took screenshots of the desert area in "Faithless," Corrugath told me that the landscape looked too mundane. He suggested changing the color of the sky to make the area look like a truly strange place. (Those were not his precise words, but I don't want to quote him directly and risk giving the story away.)

It took me a while to change the desert landscape. I wanted to finish the mining camp first, after which, I got sidetracked with enhancements for "Battle of the Builds."

It was only yesterday that I finally had a chance to redo the desert area. This entailed changing the colors of the sky and repositioning the sun. Although I didn't touch any other part of the area, when I was done, I sat in awe of the results. The desert acquired a strange kind of beauty. I don't think I got the effect I was going for, but the screenshots I took were amazing nevertheless.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

News Flash: No Work Done on "Faithless"

I haven't been able to do any work on "Faithless" over the past week. Instead, I enhanced my "Battle of the Builds" module by adding three new power builds for player characters to fight. I had considerable difficulty creating the custom AI of one of the NPCs, the Blood Scholar, mostly because I had to work around the limitations of the NWN2 engine regarding NPC wizards casting spells with metamagic.

When I finally released version 1.18 of "Battle of the Builds," I discovered a flaw in the rangers' AI. To make matters worse, I realized that a long-standing bug in the NWN2 engine was confusing players because clones of their characters were sometimes more powerful than the PCs on which they were based. I immediately set myself to ironing out these flaws. Three days later, I released version 1.19 of the module.

Changing and debugging my scripts was unexpectedly difficult. It's a good thing I had invented a trace debugging technique for NWN scripting. Otherwise, I would never have finished my enhancements for "Battle of the Builds."

I can't help but be reminded of the Biblical admonition against serving two masters, that you'd hate one and love the other. Well, it seems to be also true for developing two modules. I love both "Battle of the Builds" and "Faithless," actually, but I'm loving the new module more. Besides, "BoB" is a high-maintenance beast that is taking away much-needed time from "Faithless."

It has been a crazy week, made even more hectic by the preparations my wife and I made to celebrate our son's birthday last Sunday. Actually, he turned three today, but we celebrated his birthday in advance. I had to take a bit of time off from modding to prepare for his little party. That was perfectly fine with me. I know where my priorities lie.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Oh, This Is Priceless

While idly browsing through the forums today, I discovered that four years ago, someone had posted an NWN1 module called "The Lord of Terror - The Diablo Campaign". Here's an excerpt from the description of the module.

This module is a remake/reimagining of the original Diablo game published by Blizzard Entertainment in 1996, as well as its expansion Hellfire published by Sierra Online in 1997. This module is HEAVILY COMBAT-ORIENTED with very light role-playing.

In the four years that this module has been at the Vault, it has had 57,294 downloads as of this writing, and it has garnered 199 votes with an average score of 9.72. Can you believe it? I wonder if players of NWN1 are any different from those of NWN2.

Bah, get thee behind me, Diablo.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Playing with Mud

Despite its abundant veins of bloodstone, the Galena Mountains in Vaasa don't attract as many miners as it could have. Besides the dangerous and hostile creatures that make their home in these mountains, the bone-gnawing cold keeps away all but the most foolhardy prospectors. Fortunately, the Forgotten Realms are never lacking in foolhardy people of any sort, and many of them seek their fortune in the Coldlands.

One of the challenges that I faced in constructing "Faithless" was building the mining camp that the player characters will find themselves in. I've never seen a mining camp, much less set foot in one, but that didn't stop me from rising to the challenge.

First, I had to do some research, which is not at all difficult in this age of the Internet. To this end, Google Image was my friend. Looking specifically for old photos of mining camps in the mountains, I downloaded as many images as I felt I needed. I also downloaded several images of mountain trails, which served as my bases for making the paths to and from the camp.

What struck me about these images was how muddy some of the early camps appeared. I decided that this was the kind of look I wanted to go for. It seems reasonable to assume that when the snow in the mountains melt and the miners clear the land to set their camp, the ground that they churn is going to be terribly muddy.

In the story of "Faithless," the camp at which the PCs arrive has been newly set up. Hence, not everyone in camp has a house yet. Most of the miners still live in tents.

Aside from living facilities, the mining camp will have a merchant store where adventurers may buy and sell goods. There will also be crafting stations for those with the appropriate skills and feats to create their own items.

I started creating the mining camp three days ago. Being a novice at making outdoor areas, I didn't realize it would take me so long. Even after having worked on this area for three days, I still feel that the mining camp has plenty of room for improvement. Nevertheless, I have probably reached the point where further improvement will result in diminishing returns. Hence, I have no qualms about presenting screenshots of the mining camp as it stands now.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

I Made It from Scratch

In my first post, I showed screenshots of an area that I created by modifying an existing area from Mask of the Betrayer. Yesterday, I created an area from scratch. Here are screenshots of what I have so far.

The flying bats in the background are from Nihlar's A Cloud of Bats visual effect files. (Nihlar is also known as Amraphael at other forums.)

I'll be posting more screenshots as I add areas to the module.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Matrix: Scenes and Skills

Over the weekend, Corrugath and I annotated the story outline to discuss its areas for improvement. We identified what parts of the story to flesh out and what parts to discard. Our comments, together with those of Melirinda, were color-coded for us to easily spot them from the regular text. We each used different colors, and after a series of exchanges, the text looked like a strange patchwork of tints. All told, it was a very productive virtual discussion.

At this point, we have ironed out the main storyline, but there are still a number of side quests and alternative branches that need to be done. Nevertheless, with the material on hand, I decided to create a matrix that identifies which skills may be used in each scene of the story. In this matrix, I blocked out all the skills that players will use on their own as the need arises. These skills are typically the ones that may be used in combat. The skills that I did not block out are the ones for which I need to create situations for their use in the game.

Along the columns of the matrix, I listed all the NWN2 skills. The scenes in the story were listed along the rows. If a particular skill may be used in a specific scene, I marked their junction with an "X." This matrix gave me a view of what skills were underutilized. For those skills, I had to think of situations for their potential use in the story's scenes. I don't need to make all instances of skill use equal to each other, but I had to ensure that their use did not deviate too much from the average skill use in the game.

Having completed this, I am now ready to create more areas for the module. My work over the next few week is definitely cut out for me.