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NWN2 Hall of Fame Interview - Berliad

Aessinus & Zaknafein
Old Vault ID: 

We have an interview with Berliad about his NWN2 Hall of Fame module FRW Character Creator . Topics include his background, his aims when designing this utility module, the NWN2 Toolset and much more! This interview was conducted by our NWN2 HoF Interview team Aessinus & Zaknafein.- June. 2007

1) Could you please reintroduce yourself to newcomers of the Neverwinter community, particularly your programming background?

Hi, I'm Berliad. :) I've had my hands in a variety of projects over the past several years, including the revamp of the NWVault voting standards for NWN2, the Overlooked Module Project, and the Vault Review Guild. I also maintain the Hero's Path Module List/Upper Level Module List in the Bioware forums for NWN1, and run a small blog about NWN1 & 2. Mostly, though, I've just played modules. Not as many as some, but well over a hundred for NWN1, and about twenty for NWN2 thus far. I try to post constructive comments to authors and help promote their contributions to other players.

In real life, I'm 29 and a perpetually close-to-finishing Ph.D. student at a university in the southwestern United States, where I study the evolution of insect behavior and sensory systems. I'm married (sorry ladies!), have a delightful 12-month old baby girl, a sweet cat, and a pink house at the end of a cul-de-sac. In addition to my interests in rpg's, I also am an avid baseball fan, and do a lot of writing and research about that subject.

I don't have a very significant programming background. In high school, I did a write a fair bit of C to support a bbs I was running at the time (Renegade forever, baby). But I haven't looked at, much less written code in years, unless running general linear models in SAS counts as programming. But while I don't remember how to do specific stuff, I think my programming experience did help me pick up the basics of scripting in the NWN1/2 engine relatively quickly. Of course, I haven't gotten much past those basics, but that's ok. :)

2) For those that still haven't utilized your module, could you please brief them on it's conception?

The FRW Character Creator is a utility module that is designed, primarily, as a tool to help players create balanced characters for use in other modules. It will allow you to level your characters and give them an appropriate amount of gold for their new level. It will also permit you to purchase a limited assortment of items so that your characters can have a basic equipment foundation to take with you into new modules. The emphasis is on creating balanced, not overpowered characters that adhere to the classic D&D equipment magic standards endorsed by the Forgotten Realms Weave (FRW) group. It can also serve as a way station for characters between modules, allowing you to sell off loot, empty your inventory of unwanted items (including no-drop items), and buy new gear/potions.

While there are certainly other terrific character creation utilities available, they usually seemed geared toward allowing players to create supremely powerful characters with optimized equipment. I find that characters that I have created using these sorts of trainers can be less fun to use in regular modules because they're so over-powered. I'm sure I could be more disciplined about what I give my characters, but when I see immunity-granting items for sale, I just can't help myself. :) When I started on this project, I wanted to create something that would help players avoid creating characters that were too powerful for their level, which I often had a tendency to do when I used other trainer modules in both NWN1 and NWN2. I also wanted to create something that was a bit more of a real "place" that you could visit, such that most of the module is conducted "in character." I find that this makes the module more fun to use.

The last thing the module does is provide a place to showcase the content created by the Forgotten Realms Weave group. The Weave is a group of module builders who are all working on independent projects, yet are all creating modules with cohesive elements to them set in the Forgotten Realms D&D campaign setting. There is an emphasis among the group to keep treasure and magic levels consistent across modules, allowing you to take a character that you start in one FRW module and easily transfer him or her to other FRW modules. They are also working on other features to help maintain consistency, including a very cool persistent companion system.

When you enter the character creator, you can speak to NPC's that were exported from published FRW modules. They will give you a quick, "semi in-character" description of the module that they come from, allowing you a chance to see what the group has to offer. Furthermore, while most of the gear that is available for purchase is fairly generic, there is a slightly hidden store associated with the bartender (Sal, from the OC) that includes more powerful custom items that were created in FRW modules, albeit at a premium price.

3) To what extent did your DnD background impact the FRW Character Creator, especially regarding the balancing?

I don't really have much of a DnD background. :) I completely missed out on role playing in high school, though I played few pen and paper campaigns as an undergraduate--mostly Changeling, though we did some Rifts and Star Wars too. My pen and paper D&D experience is limited to a grand total of one gaming session, in which I played a lvl. 1 Dwarven Barbarian.

But I have been playing computer rpg's for a long time, starting with Might and Magic 3 a long time ago. I happened upon Baldur's Gate in college, and since then played the BG sequelPlanescape Torment, Fallout 1 & 2, etc. I tried Neverwinter Nights when it came out, but unfortunately I soured on the official campaign during chapter 2 and put the game aside for a few years. It was just by chance that I happened upon NWVault a year or two later and discovered this amazing community. Since then, I've been a complete addict.

Anyway, the point is that my knowledge about what is and is not appropriate "balance" probably has more to do with my experience playing NWN community modules than anything else. I've always enjoyed taking a character through multiple modules by different authors, but sometimes the gear gets out of hand in one module, and that can negatively affect my enjoyment of the next module if it becomes too easy. So, based on this experience, I got really excited about the idea of creating a utility module that helped one create and maintain balanced characters. My thought was to create a module that provided a very basic set of equipment--almost entirely generic +x armor and weapons, with only a few additional options--to give characters a basic foundation that they could build upon in the modules they'd play next.

Getting this balance to actually work as well as it does, however, required a lot of collaboration and testing. When I started this project, members of the FRW group had already begun discussion about what would be an appropriate magic item progression for their modules. Using these guidelines as a base, Lord Niah (a FRW founder) and I did some testing and settled on a good gold progression. We originally had planned to use the D&D Dungeon Masters Guide's recommendations for gold, but we discovered that items in NWN2 tend to be a bit cheaper (by default) than the DMG recommends. Therefore, the distributed gold needs to be less as well. It turns out that granting gold at 1/2 of what is recommended in the DMG tables works really well with NWN2's equipment pricing schemes, so that's what the module uses. When coupled with a carefully chosen set of available equipment, these modified tables make it easy to create competent but balanced characters ready to have exciting adventures.

At this point, I need to specifically acknowledge Lord Niah's contribution to this work. The FRWCC was built upon his FRW Base Mod, which included some of the most important scripts (level-up and gold granting) in the module. What I did is take what he provided, make a few modifications to the basic scripts, construct the stores, design a fun in-character environment, and do a bit of additional scripting to make everything feel nice and polished. In addition to providing a base to work from, Lord Niah made a lot of extremely helpful suggestions early in the project that made the trainer what it is today.

4) You were heavily involved with the NWN community as a reviewer, active on the Bioware forum and the overlooked modules report. Why did you wait until NWN2 to make a module?

Well, I still have about 30 minutes worth of a module I started for NWN1 on my hard drive, so I have dabbled before this. I've always liked the idea of creating a module for other folks to play, and I have a killer (at least, in my opinion) idea for a module that I'd love to do one day. The problem I have is that my free time is fairly limited and unpredictable. I also have a notoriously short attention span, relative to what you need to see a real module through from start to finish. And, frankly, while module building can be fun now and then, I get more consistent enjoyment out of playing other people's modules, so that's what I always fall back to doing after a week or two of building.

Nevertheless, when the idea for this module came up in the Bioware forums (credit goes to flem1 for the initial idea), I got really excited about it. It was a project that I could complete in a relatively short time frame (a few weeks for the initial build), update from time to time, and yet still be something that would be useful to a lot of people, and something with which I could be a bit creative. As someone who is predominantly a player, I felt like this was a great way for me to dabble in the toolset and yet still do what I enjoy the most--play modules and help other players find the ones I enjoy.

Why NWN2? I think, mostly, it was just good timing. There weren't many modules out yet when I started it, and I was pumped about the new engine and ready to try my hand at a project--as long as I could find one that was manageable. It also helped that everything in NWN2 was so new and wide-open. There were certainly other trainer modules out there, but nothing that quite did what I wanted mine to do.

5) Has it accomplished what you set out to do concerning a character builder, especially for the Forgotten Realms Weave?

For the most part, yes it has, especially after the most recent update. From the first release I felt like it was doing a good job of helping people create balanced characters, which was its primary purpose. But in terms of the atmosphere of the little pub, it initially felt a bit empty. In the most recent update, I was able to add four new NPC's that showcase additional modules that FRW authors have released on the Vault. It also includes a variety of new items in the bartender's private store, which showcases a lot of custom items from FRW modules. I will continue to add npc's and custom items as new FRW modules go final, but I think the atmosphere is closer to what I imagined it to be when I started. I've been very surprised at how well the module has been received. It is just a little utility module, and is certainly not comparable to any of the story-based modules that have been produced by our community. But I think it does what it does pretty well, and I'm glad to see that it's been useful to so many people.

The one thing I'd really still like to do is to add persistent storage. Caesarbear's brilliant Zorco's Keeps was one of my favorite modules for NWN1, and the reason was that it provided a way station for my characters to recover and re-equip between adventures. One of the biggest innovations his module offered was persistent storage--put something in a specified container in his module, and he saves it to the NWN database. You can then exit the module, load it back up later, and retrieve the item--even if you've been off playing a different module in the meantime. My character creator works as intended to serve as a way station as well, but it would be so much cooler (and useful!) if there was persistent storage. Unfortunately, that's something I haven't had the time to learn how to do yet, as it involves scripting that extends well beyond my current capabilities.

6) With the recent announcement of Obsidian increasing the level cap to 30 and the new classes, how much could this potentially affect your module?

Well, right now the character creator is set up to work well through about level 16 or so (+3 magic items are the highest available). I think it's likely that some day I'll extend it higher, but I may wait until there are FRW modules (or even a fair number of non-FRW modules) supporting characters that start that high. Is it likely that I'll support character construction all the way up to the new lvl. 30 cap? It's possible, but we'll see what sort of need there is for that kind of support.

I also would have to think about how to make high-powered equipment available for purchase in a way that makes sense within the context of the module. I find it kind of strange when generic +5 longswords, for example, are available for purchase off the shelf. That's just insanely powerful. Seems like something on that level would need to be found or custom-made for a character. I could probably contrive some sort of solution for this, of course. Might involve a visit from a merchant from another plane or something.

7) What are your future plans for the NWN2 toolset?

Right now, aside from continuing to work on the character creator, I don't have any immediate plans. Someday in the future, I might eventually like to try my hand at making a "real" module (I have a half-written design document that is pretty darn cool, IMO), but finding the time, motivation, etc, is going to be tough. Maybe after I graduate, find a job, and get settled in... It certainly is not likely to happen in the coming year.

8) Any chance you'll back up & try the original NWN toolset, now that you have a HoF tag under your belt?

Very unlikely. I dabbled with the original NWN toolset a bit in the past, but I found it to be very clunky. The NWN2 toolset has its own issues, to be sure. But simple things like not being able to have more than one window open at a time, and the endless delays while I waited for property screens to open, really drove me crazy. I much prefer the NWN2 toolset, which has a lot of wonderful little innovations for conversations and scripting that I'd really miss if I tried to go back. Besides, I'm in love with the graphics engine in NWN2! :) I think it would let me do a better job of rendering some of the areas I want to create in my hypothetical module anyway.

9) Can you offer any advice for new module makers, who perhaps feel somewhat intimidated by the toolset?

Well, first, Don't Panic(tm). :) You really do have to make a decision that you're going to take the time to learn a complicated and imperfect beast, and recognize that it might be a while before you're able to create something you'd actually want to play. Read through the documentation that Obsidian provides, and take your time working through their example module, Uninvited Guests. Once you finish that, you might try to do Bioware's tutorial module, just in the NWN2 toolset. That'll give you a good base of knowledge, and practice at doing your own thing on a very small project. At that point, you should be able to use the in-editor help, nwn lexicon, and the friendly Bioware forums (use search!) to solve most of your problems.

Second, there's a lot that you can do to make building more efficient. Use Lord Niah's Base Mod, make heavy use of Lilac Soul's script generator when appropriate, and spend an evening or two coming through the wonderful plugins and prefabs that have been posted to the Vault.

My third piece of advice--and this is more as an observer than an actual builder--is to be conservative in the sort of project you plan to do. Think about how long you're willing to commit yourself to the project, and how much free time you really have. Everyone wants to do the next Baldur's Gate, but that's usually going to be unmanageable. Creating smaller modules (~3 hours is a nice baseline) allows builders to focus more on creating interesting areas, stories, and characters and less on creating filler content. It also allows you to make good progress in a reasonable amount of time, which can be important to maintaining motivation and actually completing your project. If, after you complete a short module, you still want to do the epic project, that's fine--you'll know what you're getting yourself into. But I'd definitely recommend starting small and getting a release under your belt (along with all the experience and feedback that goes with a release) before you spend six months to a year on a project and discover that you're ready to move on before it's finished.

And finally...make a lot of backups! I, fortunately, haven't been hit by any of the corruption issues that have plagued other builders, but they are still not uncommon (unfortunately). At the minimum, create a backup copy of your module every time you exit the editor. I can't imagine anything worse than losing massive amounts of work due to corruption.

10) You’ve recently started a NWN blog, where you post your own observations of modules you’ve played, links to other builders, and important news items. How important do you feel this type of communication is to the community?

You know, I'm not sure. I started the blog to give myself a home base for my activities in the community. I'm really happy with what it's become, both in terms of the content I've been able to release and the reception it has gotten from the community. I think, for example, that it serves as a good source for concise nwn2 module reviews and comments. The blog also gives me the chance to draw attention to other people's work, be they creators of modules, UI mods, scripts, art, or other custom content, and comment about current community news. From time to time, there have even been good discussions among myself and my readers in the blog comments. And I have a terrific time writing for it--it's a great outlet.

But whether that means a net positive for the community is another question. Some (though not all) of the posts I make on the blog would otherwise probably have been made in the NWN2 Modules forums, which gets more traffic than I could ever hope or deserve to have. And I've been far less active in the forums in general since I started the blog, be it answering questions, musing about what makes a great module, or getting involved in some larger project to promote modules. So one could make a legitimate argument that the community would be better off if I ditched the blog and focused my energy on interacting with people in the forums (that's assuming that the community benefits when I'm around--might not be a good assumption!).

Personally, I really enjoy reading the various developer and player blogs that have popped up around the community in the past year or so. They allow me to keep in better touch with some of my online friends than I was able to before, and learn about cool upcoming projects. Furthermore, I think the posts on these blogs tend to be more thoughtful, insightful, and provocative than what you typically see in the forums. So again, for me personally, I think they're great. But I do wonder if they're perhaps partially to blame for the somewhat fragmented state of the current NWN2 community, at least compared to the NWN1 community that I knew back in 2004-2005.

11) Building anything for NWN2 can absorb a phenomenal amount of one's free time. Any special words of thanks or closing words?

Well, first, I'd like to thank the FRW folks for allowing me to produce a Character Creator that has their name on it, and for all their input and help into its design. While I'm at it, thanks to everyone else who has contributed feedback, advice, scripts (several of which I blatantly stole), items, NPC's, etc to the module. It would be a pretty boring module without all that wonderful content, and the feedback I've gotten from the player base has been priceless. I will probably miss some people if I do this, but I specifically want to thank Lord Niah, Phoenixus, dirtywick, vendalus, Lariam, Styraxian, Maerduin, flem1, bietu, Seryn, madchem, Wizbane, NuclearSorcerer, Drakenon, RangerSG, fardoche77, and Caesarbear.

I'd also like to thank some of the friends I've met and interacted with over the years in the community, particularly folks like Alazander, Caesarbear, Hugie, and QSW. Caesearbear and I, in particular, put in a lot of hours working together (along with others) on two major projects (the Overlooked Module Project and the NWVault Voting Standards), and I'm really proud of what we were able to accomplish. I'd also like to thank Maximus for running the Vault with such grace, enthusiasm, and openness for all of these years.

Finally, I have to thank my wonderful wife and kid for not getting too upset about the amount of time and interest I direct toward this game and its community. I haven't yet been able to get them interested in trudging around dark forests wearing studded leather armor and wielding a shortsword (I'm working on the kid, but she's still a bit young). But at least they understand how much enjoyment I get out of this hobby and don't protest too much when our bedtimes don't coincide.

And thanks to you guys for this interview! It has been fun!

We'd like to thank Berliad for taking the time to answer our questions, and his various and many contributions to the NWN1 & NWN2 community. We'd also like to thank Aessinus Zaknafein for conducting this interview, and to welcome them as our NWN2 Vault HoF interview team.

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