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Modules for the Masses - Headaches for the Designers

Author: 
YuanTi

After NWN hits the store shelves, there are going to be three basic types of adventures created by fans: modules for downloading and playing, campaigns designed by a DM for a specific group of players, and persistent online worlds. The purpose of the following summaries is to highlight the advantages and disadvantages of each type, as I see it.

Modules for Downloading

For the most part, those who design modules for download by others will be designing their modules for strangers. Already, several sites exist which will archive adventures for download by the community. The target groups for such adventures will likely be both players looking for further single player adventures (or possibly an adventure to undertake with some friends but without a DM) and DMs looking for ideas or an adventure for their next gaming session. The fact that these players and DMs are going to be strangers to the designer is going to present him with some major obstacles.

Designers will have two major options when they sit down and plan out their module: Will it be designed for a general audience or for a specific audience? DMs can limit their target audience by creating modules designed for specific types of players or by designing modules for specific types of characters. (I am ignoring the case of designing a module designed specifically for fans of a genre or setting, such as Ravenloft, because module designers who do this are going to have the same problems as others. Just because a module is set in Ravenloft does not mean that every player who likes that setting will appreciate your design decisions and philosophy.)

On the one hand, module designers can target certain styles of play. Let's face it, puzzle-oriented adventures are not everyone's cup of tea. But some people love them. The same goes for dungeon delves and combat-oriented adventures. It would certainly simplify the task to narrow down what types of players you want to target when you sit down to design your module. Is this going to be a dungeon hack? Or is this going to be a skill- and interaction-oriented adventure? Some would argue that by the sheer nature of a CRPG without a DM we are going to be limited to the first kind. Time will tell, but for now let's assume both will be possible. Those players looking for a straight combat festival, or one with little role-playing, will be the easiest to make happy with the NWN toolset. The GenCon video showed how easy it will be to lay down a quick dungeon level and populate it with all manner of monsters and mayhem. Those who want to emphasize role-playing are going to find the task much more difficult, because of the extensive scripting involved. The good news is that players who want combat mixed with an intriguing story and some role-playing (such as in BG and BG2) will probably find the NWN toolset is ideal for designers who seek to emulate this type of adventure. Limited, branching conversations with the major NPCs are going to be a lot less work than extensive conversational opportunities and choices with all NPCs.

Another option for targeting an audience is to design modules -- especially single-player modules -- for specific character classes. There is a tradition in PnP D&D for DMs to occasionally give the thief, for example, a one-on-one session adventure in which the thief really gets to shine, using all his skills and really getting into role-playing a thief instead of being lost in the pellmell of the whole group. This concept can be extended, naturally, to any class. A module could be designed for mid-level druids in which they are presented with an obstacle not only especially suited to their talents and weaknesses, but also a story which presents the greatest opportunity for role-playing a druid character. Likewise, modules could be designed to suit other specific groups of characters, such as evil or neutral characters, or dwarves, elves, halflings, etc. These types of adventures will be niche adventures. Not everyone is going to play them because not everyone wants to play a thiefy rogue and not everyone wants to play an evil character or play as a halfling. However, by narrowing the target audience, a designer can make the adventure more fulfilling for the player by making his scripting count.

Designers who do not want to narrow their target audience are going to be making things very difficult on themselves. First, it will be more difficult to script NPC responses to PCs, because you will not know whether your PC is going to be a fighter or a sorcerer, good or evil, have a high charisma or a low charisma, be big and strong or small and weak, etc. If the designer knows the PC will be a halfling, you can prepare for that and make things really interesting. Still, there are ways to make it interesting even if you have to generalize. For example, maybe that elven bard in the Boogie Nights Tavern is willing to join PCs as a henchman, in order to record the PC's heroic deeds. However, if the PC is a half-orc or a dwarf, perhaps merely wishes them well and declines to join the group. Maybe the merchant who buys used armor and weapons treats everyone the same, but gives discounts to female gnomes (or male gnomes!). Sprinkling these types of factors throughout your modules will help make the difference between "a really entertaining adventure" and "just another clone" even though many of your additions may go unnoticed by the majority of players.

Another difficulty will be in designing encounters and other player obstacles. A designer can create fascinating, complex obstacles if they know there will be a single PC rogue. Without knowing how many PCs there will be or what classes will be represented this becomes more difficulty. Certainly, combat encounters will be scalable in the NWN toolset, so that is not a major concern -- though it would still be much easier to create an interesting/challenging encounter if you knew exactly what your minions were going to face. What about other types of obstacles, however? The easy solution -- but the one requiring more work for the designer -- is to create modules which provide for multiple paths to a solution. Whenever an obstacle is created, the designer should think about how it can be overcome. How can my players overcome the guard on the bridge? Can they sneak past him, bluff him, charm him? stick a sword in his chest, a knife in his back or an arrow in his eye? Not every encounter/obstacle has to have several solutions, but the more solutions that are available, the more players will want to play your modules. What you don't want is to design a module tailored for all kinds of characters only to have roguish players post on your message boards "if you like playing a rogue, don't touch jerkhead's modules, because they are impossible for rogues."

Scripting is going to be a huge problem for module designers. Many future and potential module designers who post on the official Neverwinter Nights message boards seem to think that each of their NPCs are going to be scripted to respond differently to a wide variety of circumstances. This is probably not feasible. Even scripting branching conversations, such as those in BG and BG2, is going to be very time-consuming. When you add to that the desire to script henchmen who are interesting, you can bet that most module designers will provide non-essential NPCs with as little script as is absolutely necessary to maintain the player's suspension of disbelief. (There is also some question about using system resources for non-essential scripts: if every PC in town is constantly checking to see if it is time for bed yet, it could cause server-side slowdowns. Again, though, we will know more about this when the game is released.)

Whatever decisions a designer makes, he probably will not be able to please everyone. As a result, some people will hate his work and some will love it and he will have to learn to live with that.

The Traditional Set

The second category, those campaigns designed by a DM for a specific group of players, is very much like traditional PnP D&D and it will have several advantages over the first category. In most cases, the DM will design a series of adventures through which he will lead a limited number of players, who are known to him. Because they are known to him, the DM will have the advantage of knowing player likes/dislikes as well as which classes are represented and the strengths and weaknesses of the characters. These types of adventures, in the hands of a creative DM, have the best chance of being rewarding for the players. Like in the class-specific modules discussed above, the DM can be sure to include obstacles best overcome by the skills of different characters, such as:

  • as part of the adventure the PCs need to recover an artifact, which his best done by one player sneaking past the guards, evading the traps and unlocking the chest in which the artifact lies

     
  • a group of townspeople have been charmed by an evil wizard and are guarding the entrance to his tower, and the DM knows the party's sorcerer likes to use the sleep spell, which will prevent a horrible slaughter in this case

     
  • the DM can be sure to include the favored enemies of the party's ranger in the opposition, etc.

More importantly, the DM can play to the interests of the players. Do they prefer role-playing encounters or combat? Which players prefer one over the other? In this way the DM can tailor his adventure to give everyone some of those elements they look for in an adventure. In other words, it will be easier for the DM to make more of the people happy more of the time.

The biggest advantage will be in terms of role-playing. Since the DM will be following a small group of players (assuming they stick more or less together), the scripting of NPC conversations can be minimal. If the players decide to go ask Farmer Bill what he knows about the recent attacks by ogres in a downloaded module, they might be faced with the scripted response of "Yep, it sure has caused havoc. I wish someone would do something about it." End of conversation. With a live DM on the scene, the players can have a more or less realistic conversation with the farmer, who may actually be able to shed some light on the attacks. ("As a farmer you must spend some time in the outer fields. Have you seen anything suspicious out there?" The DM realizes he placed the Ogre camp in the woods near the outer fields and jumps into the conversation: "Oh, now that I think about it, I did notice some smoke in the woods like from a campfire or something.") Similarly, in a scripted adventure without a live DM, the players will have limited choices about how to respond to NPCs and their suggestions, requests, threats, etc. The local wizard might offer the PCs 1000 gold to perform some task. With a live DM, the players can say, "We don't need your money, but we will do it for a wand of sleep."

Likewise, players can be rewarded for outsmarting the module designer when a live DM is handy. Perhaps you intended your 1st level PCs to have to fight a tough battle against that group of bandits, but since they got a wand of sleep from the wizard instead of 1000gp, they walk right in and put the majority of the bandits to sleep for a few rounds. A live DM could also rule in such a situation that the sleeping bandits can be tied up and turned over to the authorities for the reward. Without a DM there is likely to be some cold-blooded throat-cutting. Alternatively, a live DM can cover up his mistakes if he needs to. Let's face it, all of us who design NWN modules are going to make some silly mistakes which will be quickly discovered by players.

The obvious drawback to such a module is that it will require a DM presence. This means, naturally, scheduling playing times with one or more other people. It also means dealing with people who you know—and that can be both good and bad. Perhaps the DM is not the best, or some of the players are disruptive. But these are the potential pitfalls of PnP gaming, as well, so nothing new for most of us. Overall, though, if you can manage the scheduling of such games, they have the potential to be the most rewarding of the various NWN experiences.

Persistence

To be fair, the persistent worlds we see will also be differentiated. Some will be online 24 hours a day, with our without constant DM presence. Some will be online only during certain hours. Some will be public and some will be private. These are all, however, persistent in the sense that they will be seeking in some way to replicate a MORPG (not necessarily massive, though that will be attempted as well). Most of the persistent worlds will and are being designed by teams of experienced DMs, who will not only design the world, but will oversee play online. It will be a major challenge, not only to design a world, but to manage its operation across several servers.

Even those with fairly limited "membership"(i.e., requiring a password to enter the server) will run into some of the same problems as the downloaded module. The players will be unknown quantities, at least at the beginning. Some players will undoubtedly make their preferences known beforehand and others will definitely make their preferences known once they are playing on the server. Still, during the initial design phase, the designers of persistent worlds will be faced with the fact that they do not know their players' style of play and they do not know for certain what types of classes will be represented, over-represented or under-represented. Of course, here too, most designers will be designing a world to suit themselves and will advertise what kind of a world it is in order to attract players who will enjoy that particular experience.

The advantages are similar to the advantages of adventure type two. The prospect for role-playing and real interaction, both between the DM and between players is excellent in a persistent world. If you can imagine a D&D adventure run by a team of DMs in which you might have two or even three groups of human-controlled players striving for the same goal, while NPC interaction is controlled by live DMs and there can also be individual PCs about who may help or hinder the various groups... Well, if you can even begin to imagine the possibilities for role-playing and adventure provided by such a prospect, you can see why so many people are excited about NWN.

However, anyone who has played some of the MMORPGs (or any multi-player online game, for that matter) know that a few bad apples can really spoil a game and that anonymity breeds bad apples. It will be up to those running the game servers to weed out bad apples who want to spoil everyone else's fun. Most likely these types will get weeded out but most of us will probably have several bad experiences nonetheless and we should be prepared for it.

The management problems associated with this type of endeavor will likely drive some into insanity. The larger the project the more people, time, coordination and money will be required to operate it. Some projects will have several servers, interconnected so that players may traverse freely from one part of the game world to another. If the servers are up 24 hours a day, it will be difficult, though not impossible, to maintain enough DMs to provide significant coverage to players who are online. Admittedly, there will be peak times and low times, and players may simply learn that it is not worth logging in during low times if there are not enough DMs or players online at those times. There still may be gaps. If a server area has two DMs and there are 30 players, it will be difficult for the DMs to provide everyone the kind of experience they may be expecting. The ALFA project, which is seeking to recreate the Forgotten Realms land of Faerun, is trying to overcome some of these problems by dividing the world into server areas run by a head DM who is responsible for a given area and who has assistant DMs to help out. It will be interesting to see if they can pull this off, but if they can it will be a glorious day for NWN persistent worlds.

Most persistent worlds will probably fail within a couple months of opening, either because there are not enough interested players, or because of some of the management problems discussed above. The good news is that for every persistent world that gives up the ghost, there will be one or more capable and reliable DMs who are able to move on and support one of the remaining persistent worlds. In the end, this sort of consolidation will certainly make the dream easier to realize.

Conclusion

This is just a beginning to highlighting the advantages and disadvantages of the various types of fan-created adventures for NWN. Hopefully, this will give designers pause to consider how best to implement their vision and how best to overcome problems inherent in the type. It seems to me that the most fulfilling experiences, and those which most closely mirror PnP D&D will be those cases where a single DM creates modules through which he leads a specific group of players. The persistent worlds, however, have greater potential (if more problems) to simulate real-world dynamics. Naturally, for those who prefer, or find more time, to play alone will undoubtedly find many excellent modules for download.

Author Bio:

Kevin Curow is also known as YuanTi on Bioware's official NWN message boards. He is American, but lives in Germany where he soaks up as much medieval and renaissance atmosphere as he possibly can.

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