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9 Lessons From My First NWN2 Mod

 

So a few weeks ago, I published my first Neverwinter Nights 2 story module, Pilgrim Chapter 1 (you can find it here). I've been messing around with the NWN2 toolset pretty much since it was released - never with any real thought or ambition, just picking it up for a weekend every six months and creating an area or two - but this is the first time I've actually released anything in a playable state.

I'll definitely be making more updates (because there's always another bug) but on a cold and miserable weekend like this, I'm starting to think about Chapter 2 and how that might look, so inevitably I'm reflecting on the things I could have done better, and which I'll try and improve on next time. I figured I'd write them up, too, in case they're useful to anyone else.

These won't be good pieces of advice for game design in general, I'm sure, since a lot of it's based on 'make do with what you have' - but it's hopefully good advice for people knocking together an over-ambitious creative project in their spare evenings and trying to make it work.

 

1. Area design is your tone-of-voice document and your re-orientation tool

When you're modding for something like NWN2, it's almost odd to be considering something like aesthetics...because after all, unless you're doing a total overhaul, your base style has already been chosen for you. There's a limited number of assets to shape your world with (is this better than NWN1, where there are far more custom assets but a lot of them clash with each other stylistically or are of widely varying quality? Not sure.)

And problematically, if you want to do something a bit different, a lot of the assets that come with the toolset, are, well...generic. There are a lot of swamp houses, castle walls, crates, and ugly pavements. Then there are a few placeables that are so specific as to be unusable (if you can figure out a place for the hideous 'crystal spire' placeable in any story or setting, well done).

Something I did by accident - and which I'll repeat with more discipline next time around - was to use my first big area design session to create some basic standards of the game's style and tone. 1) Leafless, barren trees. 2) Ruins and statues, abandoned, with glowing energy fields or arcane blue fire still lit, to attract the adventurer's attention. 3) Spiky, weird-looking architecture - lots of runed columns and obelisks to create a Planescape-esque feel without doing too much.

That helped me to get a grip on knowing which assets I definitely didn't want to use, and therefore what could be ignored.

But more importantly, it helped me to anchor myself on several occasions later on, when I was picking up modding work after a few months of absence.

When you're an amateur hobbyist, working alone, using someone else's assets, I think tone can be a very easy thing to lose track of (I feel like even some of the very best mods have too much mood shift and wacky Easter eggs packed into them, possibly just because it's a distraction for the author and a way to avoid getting bored with the project - I'm a big admirer of Adam Miller's work, for example, but his more recent mods in particular give me focus-whiplash).

So having those simple design standards to come back to really helps - I could just pick up a new area, and knew instantly the palette I was going to be working with.

 

2. Be modular in your process (even if not in your design)

The last time I tried to do anything serious with the toolset, I decided I was going to make a mod of the Black Hound. It was, I figured, an easy win; there were old design documents floating around, lots of hints from Black Isle developers and Josh Sawyer about what the game would have included...I could just use a lot of their factions and locations and start with those firm foundations.

So I read up on the storyline, and made a rough version of the first area, where the player encounters a hound and mysterious cleric in the woods. I read up on Archenbridge, the main town location, and felt inspired to make a rough version of that. I read up on the first town hub, White Ford, and made a rough version of that, but you know, first towns are so boring, so you put that to one side...

For obvious reasons, I lost focus. And six months later, when I came back to the toolset, all I had to show for my work was three unfinished areas with nothing to connect them, and no clear place to pick things up from.

With Pilgrim, I've learnt to be more patient, more disciplined, and more plodding. I work on an area, and the dialogues and placeables within it. I get it to a playable point of quality. I work on the next area. Then I work on quests and dialogues that take place between the two areas. Etc.

That tactic has been crucial, and it'll continue to be crucial if I do get to finish this project. Because it means that when I lose focus or faith, or real life takes over, I can come back to the mod in the future, play through it with a character, and pick things up again fresh rather than beginning with a bunch of loose ends to tie up.

 

3. Pacing matters to the player, and it matters to you.

I don't really like the second half of the module I've just finished making.

That's completely my fault. I'd created the first half, a journey through wilderness areas with a single hub for the player to hang out in...

...and I decided that, for a change, I wanted to create a large town hub. Multiple areas, multiple factions for the player to interact with (two rival guilds, one rabble-rouser at the town gates, and a fourth way where nobody has to get killed), in order to get a place on the boat to sail away and end the chapter.

In retrospect, I should have taken a deep breath, and created a single town area, with two factions (one guild; one rabble-rouser). Because actually, while a big hub might have worked well as a separate chapter, it actually ends up killing the pacing. The player goes from being a fast-paced explorer to someone running back and forth between NPCs in different houses. There's too much static content clogging up the climax of the adventure.

And, of course, it brought me closer to burn-out as well, since I was now rushing out four faction quests, working solely in the conversation editor and going back to the same few areas to polish and test, rather than being able to keep my work varied and progressive.

 

4. Get better at selective cutting (because it's better to cut the right content if it appears at the wrong time).

I had everything set up for what I thought would be a real shocker of a quest, at the end of Pilgrim. 

In the private chambers above the Khundir brothel, there's a mysterious woman who everyone finds hopelessly alluring, who can be visited for a price. If the player visits her, she'll take on a number of different appearances through some form of illusionary magic, trying to buy his/her custom.

Turns out the woman's a doppelganger, and at the very end of the chapter, she'll take on the player's appearance and try to steal his/her place on the boat to freedom.

I'm not really sure if it would have been a good bit of choice and consequence or just a bit skeevy and high-concept. But more importantly, it was an extra piece of content crammed into that Khundir marketplace section at the tail-end of the mod, slowing things down more.

I'm still learning to be ruthless, but taking a knife even to good ideas if they unbalance the pacing has been a great help to me.

 

5. Companions are a lot of work. Keep them lean. Start with a strong concept. Build on that with mystery.

Again, a real game designer would have their party members' backstories and narrative arcs mapped out beforehand.

But as a modder, that's very possibly not going to be the case - it definitely wasn't for me, which is why I created and then cut two companions (a paladin and a mad Ahab-esque cleric who's hunting gods). 

It's also why I'm only really happy with two of the existing companions in Pilgrim, and why I have absolutely no idea how to continue two of their stories in Chapter 2, because they already feel 'complete'. (Nephias and Lurk, and Caul and Nephias, respectively)

I'm going to have to do a lot of rewriting work to fix that. I don't think it's practical to have all this stuff planned perfectly in advance, but I should have seeded some more backstory into their pasts, bearing in mind that we need to be discovering new things about them, and encountering people who might know them, even 50 areas later on.

 

6. Know your limits. Know the toolset's limits.

My biggest active time-waster on this module was trying to come up with a working environmental effects system. I loved the idea that a player could find themselves gradually freezing to death in wilderness areas, before ducking into an abandoned hut to light a fire and rest...

I still love that idea. The trouble was that I'm not a scripter, and I'm not a team of eager professionals; and so I spent hours messing around with half-thought-through systems and stolen code, running myself into the ground trying to make it happen.

I'm sorry not to have that gameplay element in the mod, and I'm sure it's weaker for it - but I'm comfortable with the fact that I'm a hobbyist, working with a frequently awkward set of tools, and I need to focus on what I can do in order to produce something that can be played. (Same applies for crafting).

 

7. Play other mods, dammit.

There are almost no dungeons in Pilgrim so far - and the ones that exist are tiny.

That was deliberate, for a number of reasons: 1) I'm not a fan of NWN2 combat and didn't want to prolong it longer than necessary, 2) I'm not much good at NWN2 combat and find it hard to judge balance, 3) I find many of the tilesets boxy and plain, and wanted to steer away from large-scale interior areas as a result.

I don't think any of that's changed - but if I'd played Swordflight a little earlier (with its well-paced, often stately symmetrical dungeons, and its tough combat and corresponding generous itemisation), I'd probably have been bolder and more confident in giving the player combat areas to explore.

So while I'm creating Chapter 2, I'll try and keep going back to mods that do dungeon design really well, to keep myself inspired and to steal ideas.

 

8. Label everything properly, by area or purpose.

I have conversations and items in Chapter 1 that are tagged as 'gahahahey', 'thingy' and 'nastydagger'. At the time, it seemed like a perfect legitimate, if stupid, way of keeping myself amused through the more tedious parts of module-building, but 100 conversations on, you suddenly realise that you're never going to be able to find anything again.

That's going to change.

 

9. The toolset will break for no discernible reason, and always at the worst possible time. Make multiple saves.

Pretty self-explanatory.

First Release: 
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Tarot Redhand

Did you try The Guide To Building Volume II The Design Manual? As far as I can tell it is just as valid for NwN 2 as it is for NwN.

TR

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Grog

I haven't, but thanks a lot - it looks really helpful!

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SeriousSams

Very insightful. Thanks for sharing.

I started your mod but haven't had time to finish it. You did a great job with the mood-setting area design, similarly to Trinity, (MoW,) H&C and Misery Stone.

 

Looking forward to finish Ch1 and even more to Ch2. Also kudos to Tarot for the reading advice.

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Grog

Thanks! Really glad you're enjoying it so far, those are some big names to compare it to.

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Happycrow

I build for a PW and I gotta say, you are DEAD on the money when you describe tone and pacing and throwing out stuff. I constantly have to prune and twist, and have thrown out any number of areas because they just didn't seem to fit. (I also felt the difference between in and out of town play, though I've not finished yet).

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Grog

Oh, cool - what's the PW, Happycrow?

The thing is, I like city adventures. I like exploring alleyways and taverns and thieves' guilds. I just suspect I put this one in the wrong place!

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