As I replay Neverwinter Nights 2, being as horrid as possible, I’ve noticed how much my year of playing a table-top D&D game is affecting my experience.
In the last year, I’ve begun playing my first ever real-life D&D game. We’ve the mighty Jim Rossignol as our Dungeon Master (DM), and alongside me at my dining room table sits RPS’s own Graham Smith and Marsh Davies. Together we adventurers from Far Lotus explore the lands in search of signs of an old god that Marsh’s bonkers zealot cleric Tiefling worships. And as someone who’s played RPGs since the 80s, it’s been quite an interesting process to finally learn from where it all came. It certainly influences how I’m seeing Neverwinter Nights 2 this time around.
Jim is the experienced one of our group. He’s been D&Ding since he was a teenager (a fact starkly revealed at his wedding last month, when his best man passed out photographs of a teenage Jim, sat in his bedroom, surrounded by D&D posters on the wall). Graham, Marsh and I were all FAR too cool in our adolescence. My teenage walls had posters of the X-Files on them (including ones advertising VHS tapes that I nicked from the GAME I worked at), so I think we can see that’s true.
So it was that Jim had (and very much still has) a lot of patient explaining to do. As we sat in front of sheets of stats, despite decades of RPG experience between us there was complete bemusement as to how to fill in all the tiny boxes. A year in, we’re still all forgetting what we’re supposed to add on to initiative roles. And the confusion between the stat we have for a particular skill, and the +n number that comes after it, makes it a wonder Jim has hair left on his head. D&D, when a computer’s not doing it for you, is an awful lot more tricky.
Returning to Neverwinter Nights 2 with this perspective makes me both aware how much is really going on behind the scenes, and indeed how much is being left out for the sake of faster-paced action. The game very deliberately gives you a superb amount of freedom in terms of how much of the stats you want to dig into when creating your character. You could, should you wish, let the game make all the choices for you beyond a race and class. Or you can get into some really finicky precision, tweaking every microscopic detail. I’ve always approached these character creators with a paralysing fear of not knowing what to pick. Should I be putting an even balance of stats across the various details? Am I going to have a miserable time playing if I put too many points into Constitution and not enough into Strength? Should I be committing to a weapon type at this stage, or waiting to see what weapons I get? How important is it if I give myself the ability to pick locks instead of be better with projectiles? It’s so overwhelming that I’ve always ended up picking compromising mediocrity for fear of creating a character not fit to play.
But having played a very limited amount of table-top D&D, again I had more confidence at this point. I now know that such numbers are addenda to dice rolls, that opening up certain skills means I’ll experience the game differently, rather than incorrectly. I’m still woefully unsure, but slightly less so. Although I remain completely convinced that Warlock was completely the wrong class to pick, so tricky is it to keep out of melee range in the game. Playing a ranger in our live game, it’s weirdly worked out that I deal the most damage, adept at keeping to the wings and avoiding direct contact (although Jim does go to some lengths to thwart that). But on the table, the enemies play slightly fairer – as indeed do we. The ability to run around at will in what I’ll now have to begrudgingly call CRPGs (computer RPGS) obviously makes for a much more fluid and lively game, but it also lets the bads charge you when you’re trying to keep yourself out of the way. I’ve been spoiled by my dining room experience, it seems.
I’ve found that on this trip into the digital Forgotten Realms, I’m giving far more personality to my character. I am, as seems apposite, playing a role. That’s partly the reason for the whole “bastard” aspect to this. My habit in gaming is to try to be as much of an idealised version of me as possible, and that’s both a good and bad thing. I adore that games as superbly crafted as BioWare and Obsidian’s afford me the ability to preen my ego in such a way, let me be the John I would love to be in both that fantastical situation, and indeed my own. But I’m also missing out on a huge part of D&D by not letting myself be someone else entirely. I’ve made a similar mistake in our live game, I should add. It’s only latterly that I’ve realised the advantages of playing my character to be far less like me, and far more like someone in his situation might be.
So I’m trying to give Serpentes far more personality than I usually would, obviously rather severely constricted by the confines of a pre-scripted tale. It’s interesting to find how limiting this is, now I’m caring a bit more about it.
The other aspect that’s really striking me differently in returning to a D&D game is death. If you’ve not played with pens and papers, you may be surprised (as I was) to learn that death is just that. Characters that don’t make it out of an encounter are gone, forever. I imagine at later levels, with the right character, there may be magic users who can bring people back with a fortuitous dice roll, but in the main, all that investment and character development vanishes. The DM can then of course write in a new character for that player, allow you – the person – to still be involved in your ongoing story, but gosh, the consequences of an unfortunate moment are pretty dramatic. And of course, not so in CRPGs. Because, more than anything, you can save – if all goes badly, or you regret a choice, you can rewind time to the moment you choose. And even without that, the only way to actually die in battle is for your entire party to go down at once. A lot is put in place to ensure you get to keep on winning, because here the purpose is to keep turning the pages of a pre-written book.
Of course, what’s truly magical about cardboard and counters is the genuine freedom. Gaming strives to create increasingly open worlds, and attempt to offer emergent experiences, but it will never come anywhere close to the extraordinary pleasure of being able to do absolutely anything. It’s always with some measure of guilt that Graham, Marsh and I realise that we’re deciding to do something that’s not what Jim had in mind, not what he’d have prepared for. But he’s really rather good at his job, and improvises on the fly with such aplomb that it’s often not until we’re packing up at the end that we’ll learn it was entirely made up on the spot. We can also have brilliant ideas never conceived by the storyteller, or come up with ridiculous ways to get ourselves out of a pickle. (“THANK GOODNESS YOU’RE HERE!” has become a running joke in our game, but it’s also gotten us out of some tricky fights.) The time we attempted to throw our halfling across a hole tied to a rope and nearly got him killed, before remembering our warlock has a teleport spell does rather stand out.
So, as someone who has always madly delighted in the fixed storytelling nature of RPGs like NWN2, it’s odd to approach the game somewhat missing the deviations. I’ve long argued, and will continue to argue, that linearity is to be cherished when being told a great story. But it’s interesting to sort of not want it, a bit, maybe. Of course, NWN2 comes with the options to create your own games with friends, DM them, etc – but it’s perhaps a little late in the day to convince people to fight through this archaic tech. I do find myself really rather looking forward to Sword Coast Legends, and seeing what we can do with it.
I’m really enjoying how having played so many RPGs on my PC is a helpful aid when approaching our table-top game, and even more how the paperwork and D20s are impacting how I’m approaching CRPGs. I do suspect, however, that in the end it’s going to make NWN2 slightly more frustrating.