Friday, 18 January 2013

NeverWinter Orcs

A big chunk of my gaming comes from our regular(ish) Wednesday nights, where a few of us lark about in Neverwinter Nights, playing through other people's mods, or more recently, homebrew content. We had a brainstorming session about what to play, and settled on an orc-themed campaign - because hey, orcs. You know the tattered remnants of the Dark Lord's armies, driven high into the mountain wastes by a desperate alliance of the civilised races after the Dark Lord's fall, still lurking there to raid the boundaries of civilisation? That's us. It's comeback time.

As you can imagine, being orcs has been enormous fun. From our point of view, of course, we're the good guys. The other species are weak, cowardly, and just plain un-orcy, and the Dark Lord Malketh was - in the opinion of our tribe, though not all of them - not quite up to scratch, but he did at least get round to creating us. Our orcs are a sort of cheerful amalgam of Tolkien, viking, and of course, Warhams: for example, Gork and Mork were more or less immediately absorbed into the setting. Our DM Dan carefully drew up some in-world background for the traditional orc life-paths, which effectively limited class choices to a thematically-appropriate subset for the fairly low-magic setting we were looking for.

We started with a party of a classical hardy orcish warrior, a devious Orc Supremacist rogue, a bard (who unfortunately vanished early on due to technical issues) and my own somewhat philosophical orcdom-is-battle ranger. Between us we steer an erratic course between pantomime, grandstanding high fantasy, and gleeful Warhams fanfic. I think it says a lot that, despite the quite overt mechanicalness of gaming in NWN, I am genuinely concerned about my ranger having inherited the chieftainship, and therefore the heavy responsibility of guiding the clan (thankfully alleviated by my siblings' advice).

One of the great things is the largely unfurnished world, which has been constantly fleshed out by our own inventions, with things like orc beliefs, practices and behaviour invented on the fly by common consent of whatever's most interesting at the time. For example, discovery right at the start of two dead clan members led to discussion of burial practices. As we already had a mechanic for eating the hearts of slain enemies, we felt like that would be appropriate, and quickly ended up with the idea that strength lies in the heart, so orc clans retain and augment the strength of their clan by eating the hearts of their own honoured dead and of worthy enemies they defeat, while denying that strength to enemy clans. Humans and elves and other despicable creatures let the bodies of the dead rot away in the ground, or burn them, so the strength fades away, which is also why they're weak. When we started facing undead, which we decided we hadn't actually seen before but knew from legend, our characters created explanations based on this same principle: because the humans are buried with their strength, it lurked there even after the flesh rotted, and then drove them to force a way out of their graves, probably trying to find its way back to its clan to rejoin them, or to seek vengeance for their neglect.

We've also been adapting things as we go. Our rogue decided that, while orcs distrust sorcery, sources of enormous power aren't to be sneezed at and has been guzzling dragon blood and acquiring magical artefacts on the sly. Despite the initial low-magic premise, she fairly soon ended up gaining magical power (in mechanical terms, respeccing as a rogue/wizard) and much hilarity has followed with increasingly implausible attempts to explain the odd things that happen around her. My favourite being the appearance of her familiar (and running joke) panther Nero, which we were extremely suspicious of, considered eating, and have now largely accepted, only occasionally pausing to note that actually, the big talking black cat in the snow-covered mountains is still weird. Luckily, most things so far have been explicable as lucky coincidences, animals that just happened to turn up from somewhere to follow our sister around, bardic chants or handy potions she'd picked up somewhere. Because bardic and nature magic exists to some extent (though it's not treated as magic proper) she's got away with it so far. She's now pretty clearly on the Dark Lord track, and has already used breaking the hereditary mental chains that bound our clan to the Dark Lord's service as an opportunity to redirect that loyalty to the leaders of the clan - us. However, there's a lot of secretive plotting going on, and DM note-passing, so the rest of us are delightfully in the dark about some of her machinations, though Arthur keeps up pretty well-informed about most of it, so we can work out what we notice and how we feel about things generally.

Hacking for Orcs

Dan's managed to hack the NWN engine about to produce a distinctly orcy feel to the game.

The first thing is the aforementioned heart-eating mechanism: humanoid enemies drop hearts, which can be used as a light heal, or a temporary buff (Cure Light Wounds, Bull's Strength, Cat's Grace) to represent the surge we get from eating them. This is a great and thematically-appropriate little boost. Because of the low-magic setup, and the clan-based background without much in way of economy, there's very little of the usual CRPG looting going on. It wouldn't be worth our orcs' while to pick up ordinary weapons and clothes to drag back to the clan caves, and we're not trying to scrape together cash to buy something from a merchant. Instead, we get equipment directly by looting, or sometimes as RP awards - for example, we killed some wyverns and had the clan tanniers craft us some wyvern armour. The hearts mean there's something we can gain from a fight, which is very appropriate for orcs.

The low-magic setting also means no clerics, and little in the way of magical healing. Since there's a lot of combat, that can be an issue. We're also using a limited rest system, where it's not necessarily possible to just rest when you're injured (I haven't checked the mechanical details, and it's partly an RP thing) - this works pretty well, particularly as we don't have many spells to regain. So the hearts are a great balancing mechanism to help us regain our strength after a difficult fight.

Another of the hacks is a way of making us properly orcishly tough. This also, once again, helps deal with the healing issue. Dan's created a script that gives us a limited amount of regeneration on death, providing we stay within a certain negative HP threshold. This means we can go down, but then recover from our wounds to just above the point of consciousness, as long as the rest of the party can draw the attackers off us. It's been extremely useful, and it creates a nice spectrum of recovery from normal healing, through regeneration, to the actual respawn mechanism - which then feels less in need of excuses, because you can view it as just a particularly draining form of regeneration.

He's also put a lot of time into orcifying and customising our gear, creating brutally orcy rapiers for my ranger, wyvern leather armour that looks okay on orcish frames, and a boar helm made from the skull of the legendary giant death-pig we slew. Which, in one of my favourite moments so far, he dropped into the game shortly after our characters invented the legend to get one over an NPC.

Gaming in NWN

NWN is great in some ways as a D&D experience. It models some pretty complex things for us without constant calculations, helps with quick levelling, and has built-in monsters and items you can drop into the game. Also, pretty graphics. It does have some practical downsides though, both for DMing and playing.

One of the downsides is that while content generation is very easy within specific limits, it's impossible outside them. Dan can't create new areas on the fly, even if we only need a cave or another bit of mountain; they have to be created in-engine and saved to the module, which would mean a break while he made the content and we logged back into the new version. Nor can he easily create items or creatures during play, though you can use existing ones and adjust them slightly with DM powers. This means quite a bit of prep time is needed between sessions, whereas in tabletop you can often invent areas without any prep time.

Also, the same AI and scripting that streamlines a lot of the DMing aspects can be a two-edged sword, because the problem with computers is they're precisely as intelligent as you make them. Sometimes creatures attack us when they weren't intended to, at least until we'd talked, or when we were supposedly invisible or carrying out some sneaky plan. Creatures we cleared out from an area need to be DM-killed on the next session, because they respawn unless you delete them from the module between sessions. We found that enemies would continue attacking 'dead' regenerating orcs, and sometimes kill them properly, so Dan had to manually pause and redirect their aggro. Continuing damage spells like Meld's Acid Arrow can remain on characters even after they die, occasionally leading to the same attack killing you two or three times.

Similarly, the problem with using existing NPCs is that it can take a lot of checking and testing to completely understand what they do. Many creatures have abilities or powers that aren't immediately obvious, and which only show up once combat starts. Giants turned out to have infallible long-ranged rock-throwing attacks that could take out half the party before we reached them. Some creatures ended up immune to most of our attacks. Demons that were carefully nerfed combat-wise had some insanely dangerous spell-like abilities lurking around. Often these are unexpected - in our recent 'season finale' session, we faced down one of the ancient Dragon-Blooded in their lair, but the combat collapsed into immediate farce because her bat familiar had an unexpectedly powerful fear effect that left all of us unable to act for several rounds. In each case, Dan had to pause the game, nerf or DM-kill enemies, reset the combat or otherwise deal with the fallout of the NWN engine's quirks.

Writing your own scripts is very powerful, but can still have pitfalls because you need to write exactly what you want. Dan added a mechanism so that once hearts have been expended as buffs, we can physically devour them for some XP. However, the script for doing that has a couple of disadvantages. One is that it isn't clever enough to pick only expended hearts, so you can accidentally eat unused buffs. This means we tend to end up waiting until we've used up all our hearts before eating any; but there's a fairly regular flow of new ones. The second is that you can only eat one heart at a time. What tends to happen, then, is that we suddenly realise we have half our inventory full of hearts, carefully (and individually) drop all the unused ones, then use the special widget to go through the script to eat each heart individually in a mammoth heart-nomming sesh, then pick up the unused ones again. Quite often this is when we level up, because we get quite a sizable dose of XP this way. While the idea "use a heart, eating it in the process" is very simple to articulate, actually scripting it is pretty complex and so Dan hasn't had the time to work out anything smoother.

Another issue that just doesn't exist in tabletop is the purely technical side. A couple of people were completely unable to get NWN running, or to maintain it for online play. At one point I was plagued by crashes, dropping out half a dozen times every session to immense frustration. Not only is this directly inconvenient, but you can end up losing valuable or even plot-critical items, and missing out on battles. It also tends to mean fall short on XP, both because you haven't saved since you got it, or because you temporarily stopped existing while the big fight was coming to an end and missed the XP reward. Thankfully that's now stopped, but there are still occasional crashes.

And of course, you can just accidentally do things in a way that doesn't happen in tabletop: losing a spell because you accidentally walk away, or getting confused because you can't tell the relationship between what you're trying to do, and what's show on the screen, particularly in terms of whose turn it is. My character, for example, is built around high Dex and parrying, which requires you to actively adopt Parry Mode. However, it's not a toggle you can keep on: you have to get into combat, select Parry Mode, and wait for your turn to come around so you can switch. At times it gets quite hard to tell whether it's actually working, or whether your character's doing something else for some reason.

Future Plans

We're now taking a break from NWN, which Dan's been running for about a year, to give him a rest and mix things up a bit. The current idea is to switch to just running tabletop games over Ventrilo. It's not settled exactly what we'll be doing, but it looks like the indefatigable Arthur will be running some flavour of straight-faced High Fantasy, as a change from the rather knowing tongue-in-cheek games we tend to run.


  1. Yeah, the NWN campaign has been fun but (and this is in no sense Dan's fault, it's a perennial issue I have with NWN) Fear is absolutely brutal.

    I mean, you can defend against it to a certain extent by taking stuff to buff up your Will saves but there comes a point when you have to mildly compromise on that in order to play the character you actually want to play rather than a character optimised not to get Feared.

    1. I remember had similar problems in just about every module we've tried - fear just nerfs everyone, even my religiously-inclined dwarves with really good Will saves cracked every so often. Having it as save-per-turn thing does make it particularly brutal, especially if you get two or three fear-causers in a combat. And those kinds of effects can be really hard to spot on an NPC when you're adding them to content, or to alter for balance.

      I'm not sure it's even NWN's fault as such. There's certain types of status effect that are just really hard to translate for computer-based gaming: fear's a very strong example, same with charm and dominate, and probably more I can't think of off the top of my head. They're supposed to limit or dictate behaviour within specific parameters that really need subjective adjudication.

      I mean, leaving aside the strength of the fear effect versus saves, D&D fear is supposed to either give you a penalty, or prevent you taking offensive actions, or else send you running for the exit. The second and third might actually be impossible to implement in a CRPG, I'm not sure - defining "offensive action", pathfinding issues and so on. What NWN does is make you run away a bit, then stand helplessly around while people beat on you, and to be honest I'm not sure what else they could do.

      You're dead right about the buffing. It's kiiiinda okay in the single-player (at least the limited amount of that I could stomach) but you really don't want to end up taking specific gear and picking feats or stats just to ward off mechanical brokenness. You want to make choices for, not against.

    2. Yeah, at least in an actual tabletop you can direct the player to play their character in certain parameters if they've been feared or charmed and more or less trust them not to exploit it (and step in to stop them if they do exploit it), whereas in NWN they seem to have decided the only option is to take control of your character away from you, which is incredibly frustrating.

      Especially since the AI is shit at making your character flee. I wouldn't have minded in the boss fight if my character had run down the stairs they were STOOD RIGHT NEXT TO in order to get away from the thing which was enfearing them because at least it'd take them out of danger.

    3. And you can agree on what sort of thing is a reasonable response to certain levels of fear for particular characters. I mean, we've all seen the books/films where terror leaves you emptying your clip at the scary thing, or flinging random stuff. Panicking and conjuring a Wall of Fire between you might perfectly okay some of the time. Obviously some of the time you should run and hide, but it's very situational.

      Yeah, the NWN fleeing AI is completely terrible.