A Bastard In Neverwinter: Part Two – Tipping The Tables

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.

40 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    … oh god open beer bottles on the table and a whole pint glass of juice spill risk spill risk spill risk auuugggh …

    Err, sorry, boardgamer OCD overload there.

    Yeah, the lack of freedom always felt like a frustrating limitation in computer RPGs, but especially when it came to mages. You’re wielding all kinds of magical power, you should be able to find all kinds of interesting uses for spells — a bolt of fire could burn a rope, or serve as a warning shot, or set off a trap, or even just cook your dinner, just as much as it could kill someone — but no, you’re limited to “pick spell, click on baddy”. The magic mods in Minecraft offer way more magical freedom than a game with an entire character class (or sometimes, several) dedicated to it.

    A notable exception would be Divinity: Original Sin — they did at least spice things up with their wonderful interactions between the elements, and even if it’s not as much freedom as in a real pen-and-paper game, it’s enough to make me actually enjoy playing a magic user.

    • gunny1993 says:

      I wonder if this would change if a CRPG was based on a TTRPG that was less combat focused than DnD (I’m making an assumption that a hell of a lot of RPGs are based on DnD like systems, I mean, if you took the rules for DnD and transcribed them as intended into computer code you’d have a tonne of really easy to follow combat rules then a bunch of more obscure guidelines to rollplaying and in world actions (such as burning a rope).

    • The Godzilla Hunter says:

      Come now – no character sheet is truly complete until it has at least one large stain on it!

      • Devencire says:

        Indeed, it’s a part of the game. One of my fondest character sheets suffered over years of use: it became more and more tattered and worn until eventually it started developing a tear down the centre. Marvellous for a character whose sanity was being tested beyond its limits – nay, torn in half – by otherworldly horrors and the dual nature of their capricious deity.

  2. baozi says:

    There are role-playing games and then there are RPGs.

  3. Vast_Girth says:

    Coasters!

  4. Asurmen says:

    I refuse to call them cRPGS. When I first heard the term I thought c was for combat aka ARPGs. I never ever thought the c could be computer because it seems somewhat redundant. Context of the discussion always told me whether it was tabletop or computer.

    • mgardner says:

      Then I shall henceforth refer to you as Surmen.

    • Michael Anson says:

      Except that context is becoming increasingly strained. There are virtual tabletops available that replicate most aspects of playing at a table (and in some ways improve upon them) for groups with either a lot of laptops or a lot of distance between them; there has always been roleplaying (MUDs, MUSHes, et al) games on computers with a lot of freedom, and many cRPGs have made the transition from computer to table without changing their nature (usually in the form of board games of various types), continuing to be restrictive. Using RPG, cRPG, ARPG, and JRPG as rules of thumb for the degree of freedom and authenticity afforded by various games is generally a good idea, as, without the aforementioned context, the addition of a single letter instantly frames the expectations of all parties involved. That letter IS the context.

      • Asurmen says:

        A or J etc are genres and as you state there’s a certain level of expectation. I’m fine with those prefixes. The c however isn’t a genre. I don’t need to call NWN2 a cRPG because the context of the discussion lets everyone know we’re talking about a computer based RPG. The c becomes utterly redundant.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    I’ve been playing P&P RPGs for around 20 years, and I was never bothered by the restrictions of CRPGs when compared to P&P. Maybe it’s because I’ve been playing CRPGs for more or less the same time, so that I’m used to their limitations.

    Also, Mr Walker, in case you don’t know, there are huge variations in P&P RPGs. Not all of them have so many rules and numbers as D&D (though some of them have much more of both), or they have rules that have completely different goals. For example, not every game has hit points, or declares a character that loses a fight dead (some leave it to the player when their character dies). Maybe Mr Rossignol will one day GM a game based on FATE for you. Or something really indie, like Dogs in the Vineyard, or Polaris.

    “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.” Hah! That’s the kind of plan only pen&paper roleplayers think of. :D

    • gunny1993 says:

      There’s been a huge revitalization of indie RPGs in the bast 5 or so year thanks to kick-starter, its literally got to the point where small indie game are popular enough to print a second edition (apoc world is currently working on 2nd ed), something that was pretty much restricted to the big boys only a little while ago.

      ALL HAIL THE NEW ERA OF P&P GAMING

    • liceham says:

      My favorite P&P roleplayer moment was when my nephew cast Spider Climb…in a room full of ladders.

    • Arglebargle says:

      D&D rules are pretty haphazard and murky. Plus they have kept the ossified errors of previous editions. And probably always will, given the reception that 4th edition received. Plus the general lore and backgrounds are less than stellar. Though a good GM trumps all!

      I’ve been roleplaying since the first year D&D was released. The number of games using rules from AD&D on could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. There’s a ton of different rules sets out there, enough to fit most any taste.

  6. Chaoslord AJ says:

    Playing pen and paper for over 20 years now. Earthdawn, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Star Trek, DSA, Rolemaster.
    There’s so much entertainment to be had here especially with a heavily invested group- people who write fictional biographies, draw their characters, GM’s (unlike say in Card Hunter) who don’t just want to off you at the next opportunity with an ogre from the random table (but rather for the sake of a good plot point).
    Friend of mine once invented a campaign spanning three adventuring groups with a game of thrones rivaling plot that ran for three years. It was bloody marvelous.
    Can really recommend to every nerdcore gamer to get some friends and try it out.

    • gunny1993 says:

      I think personally the best thing about pen and paper is there’s so many ways to go about it, for instance I prefer a more free form style of play and recommend my players not create back stories for at least a few session, if at all, this allows ideas to arise organically and lets play inform history rather than history inform play.

      For instance currently DMing a Dungeonworld game, a system which heavily encourages improv and player input, and as of the first session the characters are now facing a army of kobolds which bare an uncanny reseblence to the 3rd reich, literally just because of a few offhand comments and a bad joke made 30 mins into the session XD

    • Michael Anson says:

      Another way to understand bad roleplayers is to read Knights of the Dinner Table, which is about that very same adversarial relationship between gamemasters and players that tends to hurt roleplay. Also, in reading about the trials and tribulations of the titular Knights, the Black Hands, the Ladies of Hack and other roleplaying groups, you also begin to get a glimpse of the kind of struggles that Steve Jackson Games and TSR went through throughout their publishing history (right down to the silly idea of RPGA roleplaying tournaments). Plus, it’s a darn good read.

  7. Kefren says:

    Ah, I loved the campaigns I DM’d for years. We didn’t use cardboard or counters though. Too Old Skool. Just the map the players drew (badly) and imaginations. And bagels. Silly voices optional.

  8. Saiko Kila says:

    I wanted to finish NWN2 last month, so I fired it up (I decided to clear the backlog this year). The last normal save was from 2008, though I had one quicksave from 2010. But soon I discovered a technical problem – apparently the game isn’t very compatible with my graphics drivers, which are of course much newer than the game itself. The characters are moving with a jerky motion, like skipping some frames of animation, or teleporting short distances. Only when they move this is visible. When they are standing, the idle animation is fine.

    This is annoying me so much, that I can’t really play. It also shows a problem with GFX drivers in general (not only nvidia, I believe), that they are doctored to play some fresh games and display them in a better light, so to say, but the older games may actually be left behind, and perform even worse than if no “doctoring” was ever made in the first place.

    I remember some issues with Fallout 3, when I wanted to finish it after a couple of years. The graphics was worse than on my old screenshots, and effects and animations were also downgraded. Why can’t they just leave the old games alone?

    • Beanbee says:

      (Anyone feel free to correct me, I’m not an engine programmer)

      It’s actually kinda the other way around, hence why new drivers are a problem.

      It’s the game that make use of the drivers, not the drivers that run the game. Maybe they coded in a way other people didn’t, a cheat if you will, which worked fine at the time but was later ‘fixed’. They aren’t changing the old games, it’s more the wall they leaned on has changed place.

      • jamesgecko says:

        It’s a bit of both. Game developers use graphics APIs in horrible ways they weren’t intended to be used, and NVidia/ATi developers add all sorts of game-specific workarounds to their drivers.

        Computer graphics is hard, yo.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    Most ranged/spellcasting classes a poor choice in NWN2, at least at first. My first playthrough of NWN2 involved a Sorcerer (I’d not long finished playing BG2 with one), and you can imagine my frustration as the game decided to place my character within two feet of the enemy whenever there had been a conversation beforehand. There also seemed to be little-to-no penalty for the enemy to waltz past my fighter and engage me in melee, therefore interrupting my spells and generally causing a nuisance.

    My second playthrough invovled a Paladin, which was far more successful, and I completed the game with this one. The way the game forces companions on you was a bigger annoyance after that though, especially since certain companions don’t arrive until later in the game so you can be stuck with a druid as your main healer for quite a while. I didn’t like most of the companions either, so that didn’t help.

  10. Sarfrin says:

    I’m disappointed by the complete lack of bastardry in this part.

    • mgardner says:

      Did you miss the photo where someone left an uncapped ink pen directly on the paper map? Also, if you look at the megaclump of dice, you will see “666” near the upper left, don’t tell me that is a coincidence.

  11. Aetylus says:

    My favourite article from Mr Walker in a while… a lovely view on how the other half lives. I can’t really conceive of playing CRPGs without having played RPGs, and I’d sort of always assumed that every middle age computer geek was once nerdy D&D kid. But I guess that fact that there is a lost generation out there explains how we went from RPG to CRPG to CrpG to ArpG. But its okay because now we have kickstarter and ex nerdy D&D kids have high paying tech jobs to fund the new golden age.

    • Michael Anson says:

      There might be a bit of rose-colored glassery in your post there. I’ve been reviewing the history of cRPGs, and with the meaning of the emphasis you’ve been putting on the acronyms fairly clear, I feel it is safe to say that there never was truly a CRPG. Though there have been games that came awfully close. Roleplaying is something that currently, with current AI tech, is simply not possible.

      • cpt_freakout says:

        I’ve never played a tabletop RPG (I was more of a Warhammer nerd kid when it came to tabletop) but the videogame versions comprise one of my favorite genres, as well as some of my all-time favorite games. While I agree with Michael Anson, I also think there are various degrees of roleplaying, like Aetylus’ acronyms sort of indicate. The ‘fullest’ degree, so to speak, is the one where you are the character, the ’emptiest’ perhaps being that where you’re ‘restricted’ to manipulating a selected few actions and stats of a character.

        I think most CRPGs fall into the latter category (though there are a few great examples that go near the earlier, like Consortium), but that doesn’t mean you’re not roleplaying, because, through those actions and stats, you’re still pretending to be some role or another in a story. You could argue that then such a wide ‘definition’ allows for COD to be a roleplaying game, but I think that would be correct. You’re playing someone else, after all. So my point would be that you don’t need to be a tabletop RPG player to understand what roleplaying consists of, or what its implications are when it comes down to applying your imagination to a certain system of checks and restraints. MMOs are good examples of this, too, in the sense that you get your RPers, who enhance the systems with highly conceptual interpretations, and your regular players, who get a simpler kind of enjoyment from the same systems, but that nevertheless make a ton of aesthetic choices, whether they think of them as important or not. I think that all kinds of RPGs are valuable in some way or another, and that the more types and degrees there are, the better.

  12. Dawngreeter says:

    *generic token comment filled with gnashing and wailing in regards to the chosen RPG title*

  13. Arglebargle says:

    It’s nice to see the newfound joy of PnP RPing. Though I’m kinda ultra-snooty about it, having played with GMs who were (or became) best selling authors. As mentioned before, a good GM trumps all. You could play a game using sticks and stones, and it would still be wonderful.

    link to prismnet.com

  14. steves says:

    “Warlock was completely the wrong class to pick”

    Was not. The warlock is a great class in 3.5 D&D, evil or otherwise. Or at least it is when you’re like me and are always saving the limited-by-rest casts on the more flashy magic users. I get my magic from demons, and they keep on giving it, without having to take a nap every couple of fights!

    Anyway, much more importantly, what is up with that elbow in the second pic? Its pastiness is matched only by its knobbly-ness, and there’s a disturbing ‘stain’. Though that could just be a shadow from the (unidentified, probably cursed) pint-glass potion.

  15. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    A couple years ago my son (then 11) created a PnP RPG system of his own and I had the most fantastic time playing a campaign with him as the DM. It was a wonderful experience to see an imagination unfettered by my DnD preconceptions.

  16. Michael Anson says:

    John, I’m always happy to hear about someone new joining the RP community. You’ve got just enough experience under your belt that you may appreciate the Things Mr. Welch Is No Longer Allowed To Do In Roleplaying Games list. It is a laugh riot, and endlessly creative.

  17. -Spooky- says:

    I started with cRPG on the C64 .. D&D / Buck Rogers etc. (good old SSI), later i experience my first P&P with the old Star Wars system. Still played cRPG in all settings and still a DM myself for D&D: FR and Shadowrun.

    But NwN2 .. never rly got hooked into it, when u are coming from a NwN1 RP server. :/

    PS: Hypu for ARPG like Diablo 2 and Path of Exile. ;P