Waking the Witch

BioWare gives Neverwinter Nights fans a freebie with its “official” mod, Witch’s Wake

Brett Todd

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This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #150

Neverwinter Nights is almost as much about philosophy as it is about gaming. BioWare created the Baldur’s Gate follow-up to be more than just another elf-centric role-playing epic, providing users with the editors and online support needed to make all of their Dungeons & Dragons dreams come true. So far, that approach has been remarkably successful. Although gamers haven’t been as enthralled with the single-player storyline as they were with its positively Homeric predecessor, it seems like everyone has taken to the toolkit. There are over two-thousand user-designed modules online at present, allowing gamers to revisit classic pen-and-paper campaigns in the Forgotten Realms or move their adventures into brand new worlds.
But even the most thriving online community could use a jumpstart every now and again. For precisely that reason, BioWare has started the development of Witch’s Wake, a free module series set in a new fantasy realm that’s a little darker and a lot more enigmatic than the usual sword-and-sorcery setting. The first chapter in the open-ended story, Witch’s Wake I: The Fields of Battle, made its online debut on December 11 and was warmly received by the Neverwinter Nights community. Author Rob Bartel, who is best known to BioWare fans for writing the Charwood plot in the original campaign, and the BioWare Live Team responsible for administering the official community website have been overwhelmed by its “wild success,” which was downloaded more than a quarter of a million times in its first month of availability. Such immediate acceptance came as something of a surprise.
“The concept of unlimited downloadable gameplay is still a pretty foreign one to most role-playing gamers,” says Bartel, “so a free official module series is a great way to introduce our user base to the idea.” He says it’s also proven to be a great way to showcase some of the new features that the BioWare Live Team has been adding to the original game, such as the Guilds & Player Registry, some scripting functions that were vital to the camera work and skill usage in The Fields of Battle, and to the rats and kobolds that we were able to add as all-new downloadable creature models. “Internally, we’ve also found that the low-risk environment provided by a free module series allows us to be more experimental and to develop the genre more aggressively than is possible on a more traditional project,” he says. “A number of the features that I’ve introduced in the Witch’s Wake series are already finding their way into other projects we’re working on here at BioWare. It’s been a wonderful test bed for future development.”
One of the reasons The Fields of Battle has proven such a hit with fans of Neverwinter Nights is the use of some cool additional features. Although the module is built on the conventions introduced in the single-player campaign from the original game, and it unfortunately recycles that dreary “hero with amnesia” plotline featured in what seems to be two out of every three role playing games to hit the market, many elements have been borrowed from the mod community. Bartel and his team started by looking over hundreds of top fan-created applications and selecting components that could be adapted to the new setting. Joseph Hardesty and Richard Scheepstra’s outstanding DM’s Helper utility, which provides Dungeon Masters with greater control over everything from keys to kobolds, has been integrated into the first module, as has Georg Zoeller’s helpful Inventory Spy applet that allows DMs to examine character inventories.

Looting Corpses for Fun and Profit
Other additions make an even greater impact on gameplay. The use of Emmanuel Lusinchi’s Lootable Corpses mod has allowed Bartel’s team to set the decay rates of bodies and a “clean-up” schedule for the leftover loot, while the application of Pausanias’s Henchman Inventory and Battle AI has smartened up NPCs and allowed players to partially control the movements of familiars and other animal companions. Finally, the design team adapted parts of Archaegeo’s popular Hardcore Ruleset, an extensive collection of tweaks designed to make the original game play more like tabletop D&D. Courting the support of individual users has paid dividends with series development as well. More than 1,000 people have signed up with the Witch’s Wake Guild, a support website with message forums where gamers can go to form adventure parties or to post their feedback about the series. Bartel’s promised to act as an online Dungeon Master and incorporate suggestions from fans into the upcoming adventures.
Of course, many features showcased in The Fields of Battle come from BioWare itself. Foremost among these additions is the setting, which was created from scratch by Bartel. He wanted to provide a game world mysterious to players, a place that couldn’t be referenced with a quick glance through a D&D sourcebook, so he dropped the familiar Forgotten Realms for a haunted land full of secrets, where the workings of magic are a little bit off. Gameplay mechanics have also been designed to provide players with a few surprises. Characters can now use skills during conversations. Rather than simply pick and choose from selections on a dialogue tree, you can employ special class abilities to push discussions in desired directions. For example, a Bard can use his Performance talent to pull off a lie, while a Barbarian can fly into a Rage to intimidate those nearby into doing his bidding, and a Cleric can manipulate people with Charm Person or Fear spells. Those who prefer getting into character to hacking and slashing will also be pleased with changes to the experience point system. In the Witch’s Wake series, experience is awarded based on locations reached, not on the number of monsters slain. Points are handed out for reaching the climactic boss battle in a dungeon, not for killing the boss. This way, you aren’t penalized for talking your way out of a fight, sneaking past the big bad, or immobilizing it with a spell. You get to roleplay your character here in a way that was previously possible only with dice-and-Doritos D&D, although if Bartel had his way earlier, Neverwinter Nights players would have had these options in the original campaign.
“Many of my favorite aspects are those that I had originally intended to include in the official Neverwinter Nights campaign, back when I was lead designer in the early days on the project,” says Bartel. “The whole skill check system that allows you to use a variety of skills, feats, spells, and class abilities to Intimidate, Bluff, Pacify, Provoke, and Obtain Favors was drawn almost verbatim from some of my early designs, as was the use of third-person narration in conversation. The goal-based experience point model was also an idea I had tossed around when we received our early copies of the 3rd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. Deus Ex was picking up a lot of ‘RPG of the Year’ awards around that time, and I really liked how the gameplay opened up as a result of experience not being tied to combat. This has been a very controversial component of Witch’s Wake and I’m looking into providing a limited form of combat experience in the second module, but I’m still very proud of how the module opened people’s eyes to the concept of alternate approaches.”

Dead Again
Speaking of alternate approaches, death has also been changed. Where players in the original Neverwinter Nights campaign bought the farm just like they always did in D&D games, slain characters in the Witch’s Wake series are transported to the Plane of Sorrows. This alteration provides some nifty new cinematics, but it is also more than cosmetic in that you become a permanent resident if you visit the misty place too often. And you might very well find yourself facing that possibility thanks to revised rest settings. Instead of regaining all of your hit points after an uninterrupted rest, you get back a random number based on a re-roll of your total hit dice divided by two. There’s no getting around this by resting multiple times in succession, either, as you can only get out the bedrolls and spellbooks once every seven minutes.
Expect more new features in future additions to the series. Witch’s Wake II: The Witch Hunters should be out by the time that you read this. The story will continue the adventure begun in the first module, with the protagonist slowly regaining his memory. Bartel isn’t giving much away with regards to the plot, although he will say that the tale will be “built around a flashback” and that the whole saga will be “all about memories and how the past affects the present and the present overcomes the past.” Gameplay tweaks will include some significant enhancements to the conversation skill-use mechanics, so that the game will be able to track successes and failures and provide the option to make extra attempts at higher difficulty levels. More user-designed content will also be utilized, including hakpaks and scripting systems, and a script has already been added to allow fallen Paladins the chance to redeem themselves…or descend deeper into evil.
For more information on the Witch’s Wake project, check in with the regularly updated official website (nwn.bioware.com). Modules can be manually downloaded by visiting the “Download” area of this site, or automatically installed by simply clicking the Update button on your Neverwinter Nights intro menu and selecting the optional content after you obtain the latest patch.

Ten Must-Have Neverwinter Nights Modules

Wondering where to start with user-designed modules for Neverwinter Nights? You can’t go wrong with the following recommendations, culled from the top-rated residents of the NWN Vault (nwvault.ign.com).

Dreamcatcher 1: Skyfall (Adam Miller)
Multiple quests, NPC romances, and a unique plot for evil characters are the best characteristics of this module.

Elegia Eternum (Stefan Gagne)
Prolific designer Stefan Gagne’s claim to fame is this plot-heavy module for high-level characters.

Four Demons (Windhawk)
The lengthy first module in a planned series where you battle an ancient evil in the Forgotten Realms.

Keep on the Borderlands (ShadeRaven)
An updated look at one of the first and best loved pen-and-paper D&D modules.

Lone Wolf Series (Altaris)
Multiple chapters are planned in this story-driven series based on the Lone Wolf interactive “gamebooks” written by Joe Dever in the 1980s.

Penultima Campaign (Stefan Gagne)
Gagne’s acclaimed series of six modules includes everything from basic dungeon crawls to battles with fearsome werehamsters.

Pool of Radiance (Chris Fowler)
Remakes the now-legendary late 1980s “Gold Box” game from SSI with 3rd Edition D&D rules.

Sex and the Single Adventuress (Lisa)
A bawdy romp for those who like the chain-mail bikini covers of classic D&D modules.

The Sunless Citadel (Jeff “Dueeliz” Weaver)
Another pen-and-paper module adaptation, best known for its enhanced NPC interaction and resting innovations.

The Vethboro Dragon (Jason Robinson)
A short, tightly scripted adventure perfect for an evening’s entertainment.

This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #150