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What I Learned When I Became a DM


... and how it can work in Neverwinter Nights

When I was a fledgling DM, I ran a single player through a D&D dungeon module. It was embarrassingly short. Not far beyond the dungeon's entrance, there was a wall with a relief sculpture on it, of a grotesque face, with its gaping maw filled with impenetrable darkness. My player was also new to role playing, and decided to put his hand into the dark cavity. I re-read the text to make sure of the effect, and I said...

"You feel nothing inside the hole."

"What, nothing?"


"I pull my hand out."

"As your arm retracts, you realize that your hand has been completely disintegrated."


"Your hand is gone."


"Sorry, that's what it says. You've lost your hand. Why didn't you try poking it with a stick first?"




After many years as a DM, I have grown and learned much. If I had a chance to do that particular module over, I would have done it differently. There was only one player in the party, so it wasn't fair to adhere to the module's text verbatim, since it would have severely handicapped the PC and prematurely ended the adventure. It doesn't matter how stupid the player's actions were, since he deserved at least a more obvious warning; after all, if he had the chance to enter the dungeon with other players, one of them would probably have urged him to be more careful.

It would have been better if I had run the scene more like this...

"You feel nothing inside the hole, except an icy cold chill shooting up your arm."


"You can't feel your hand anymore."

"Oh, I pull out my hand, quick!"

"It's very cold and numb, and you can't move your wrist, or your fingers."

"You mean like frostbite or something?"

"Yeah. Your character loses 2 hit points from the damage."

The point here is that a good DM is flexible, and will bend the rules, the module, or the story to fit the situation. This is especially important for beginners, because they may have no idea of the consequences of their actions. Beware, however, of being generous too often, and never be obvious about it. If the players think you're bending the rules for them, they will eventually think they can get away with anything.

In many ways, Neverwinter Nights gives the DM a great deal of flexibility. He can create encounters that scale in their level of challenge to match the level of the party's strength. At the same time, he can set an encounter that remains at a static level of difficulty, so that it is nearly impossible for low-level PCs to overcome, and no challenge for high-level PCs.

Neverwinter Nights will also include a difficulty slider for combat. For that inevitable unlucky streak where the PCs repeatedly miss their foes, the DM can make sure that their foes miss too. This also works in reverse, when the party gets a lucky streak and seems to be pummeling a reputedly invincible foe, the DM may be able to sneak in a critical hit against them. It might seem dishonest, but if the situation was meant to be challenging, it is the DM's job to ensure that challenge.



Another situation that recurred when I was learning to DM was the need for an improvised NPC, location or event. I was often surprised at how my players would think of a course of action that I had not anticipated, and wasn't necessarily even allowed in the module. Sometimes they would think up whole adventures to go on by themselves, and after I learned to adapt, it wasn't so important that they follow the story I had planned out — they would eventually get to that. So, if a player thinks of something to do, and it seems perfectly logical that it should be an option, then the DM should do his best to allow it. For example, in another module the party of PCs had stopped to rest for the night at a small village on their way to a dungeon. The module had only very basic information outlining the village. One of the players had an idea...

"I go to the tailor's shop."

"The tailor? Well, okay."

"What's his name?"

"Name? Uh, MacDougal."

"Hello, Mr. McDoogle, I'd like you to make some costumes for me and my comrades..."

I was completely blind sided. I had to make up the tailor's name, and allow him to craft some costumes so that the party could approach the dungeon disguised as the bandits who were known to camp there. If the players were willing to spend some of their gold, and a few extra days in the village, I saw no reason that their plan could not be attempted. Although it wasn't quite as successful as they had hoped, the players still enjoyed approaching the challenge in their own, unique way.

In Neverwinter Nights, a DM can possess NPCs to allow for such improvisations. While under his control, the NPC will suspend it's scripted behavior so that he may alter it to better fit the situation. He can also drop in extra NPCs and items if they are needed.



"Your party leaves the dungeon, and returns to the village."

"I want to visit the tailor again. What was his name?"

"Uh... didn't you write it down?"

"No... didn't you?"

If you are flexible and spontaneous, then your module will change and evolve. Make a note of any alterations you make in your module during play, as it may be important if the PCs return to that location. Nothing can ruin your players' suspension of disbelief more than inconsistency. If they encounter something in your module that inexplicably changes or vanishes if they return, then they may begin to wonder if they are all sitting around and playing a game that's all in your head. While that may be partially true, remember that it is also a world that exists in their minds too, and it has rules that exist in books that everyone in the game probably owns. All of this makes for a fantastic, dynamic place to spend some time — but if it isn't logically consistent, then it becomes less believable.

Consistency in NWN will be easy, because all the details that you add to the game will be saved along with the game. If you work on you next module based on a saved previous module, consistency is built-in. Don't forget to plan ahead and include an extra NPC or two, keeping them out of the module until you are ready to drop them into the game if they are needed. Also use the server logging ability of NWN to keep track of scripted events and the progress of the stories and quests in your module.



Let's face it, meeting in the tavern for your first quest has been done to death. Eventually, the same old dungeon romps get boring, and your players may want something different. Stories can be short episodes, or sweeping epics, and you'll need to advance them through your game.

But what happens in NWN when you've used every tile set and every creature in the game? Like your stories, the setting can evolve too. Just because the PCs are based in a boring village, that doesn't mean it has to be static. The village could change on a regular basis by applying light and weather effects. At night it's dark and gloomy; in the morning the fog rolls in, and by noon it rains. Then before sunset the clouds part, and the shadows are long, and everything is bathed in an orange light. NPCs come and go, and their situations and moods can change. Now your village feels more real, and has many moods.

NPCs and creatures can be expressed in many more varieties than at first glance. Just because your players have eighth-level characters, that doesn't mean that the once challenging kobold caves become a cakewalk...

"Okay, you've reached the kobold caves."

"We attack!"

"You rush the kobolds in the entrance cave..."

(A quick combat ensues, and the PCs are hardly scratched.)

"Well, that was easier than before! Wasn't there a big chest in the next cave?"

"Do you go in and find out?"

"Hell yes!"

"There are five kobolds there. One carries a staff, the others have battleaxes."

"Huh? We still attack!"

"The staff-wielding kobold casts a fireball at your party. The other kobolds go into a screaming bloody frenzy and charge you, moving much faster than kobolds usually do."

"Yikes! that one's a wizard or something!"

The party retreats, licking their wounds after being defeated by an eighth-level sorcerer and four eighth-level barbarians, who happen to be kobolds.


From PnP to NWN

Neverwinter Nights is a translation of "Pencil and Paper" D&D role-playing into a computer RPG. Many of the lessons learned in PnP will make the transition quite well. For experienced DMs, NWN has the potential to expand their world to include many players from around the world, as well as friends from around the block.

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