Saturday, June 22, 2013

Observations brought about by a NWN campaign

Instead of playing Baldur's Gate like i'd planned to after giving up on Icewind Dale, i'm indulging my nostalgia and replaying my very first exposure to Dungeons and Dragons, and one of the first RPGs i ever played: Neverwinter Nights.

So, random thoughts.

Aribeth's voice acting is as annoyingly over-the-top as i remember it, but the rest of the game is actually not too painful to read and listen to. It is inescapably basic though. NWN 1 and 2 both took advantage of being "the" D&D computer adaptations in order to tap audiences which don't necessarily play computer games, or RPGs, or D&D, etc. Unfortunately this gives them (especially the initial releases) as a reviewer said about NWN2's original campaign, a "my first roleplaying session" feel to them. There's a lot of emphasis on clearly defining game concepts and not much on nuance or originality.

As an introduction to D&D, NWN1 is actually slightly better than NWN2. The second game's main campaign revolved largely around the alignment system, which is nice because it seems a great part of the spirit of the game system. However, when you're first introduced to a new system, you're much less worried about the spirit as about the letter of the law, and here NWN1 does a much better job of intuitively showing combat rounds, attacks per round, damage ranges, saves, etc. Learning a new system is less about creating a deep and well-rounded character as about figuring out just how to get your club to impact that goblin's head.
This is not to say NWN2 was not an overall improvement. It was more expansive, complex, a bit more interesting in pretty much every way. In between 2002 and 2006, WoW broke onto the mass market, and NWN2 could count on an audience which was already familiar with class-based, level-based third-person gameplay. It didn't need to be a perfect introduction to game mechanics anymore.

I generally play spellcasters or other support classes in any class-based game, largely because of my own personal conceit but also because autoattacking is boring. This time around, i made an exception. I'm playing a Barbarian/Ranger. And it's boring.
I think this is something game developers didn't really expect when adapting tabletop RPGs for computers. Hack'n'slasher classes are probably much less boring when you're sitting with others around a table. You declare verbally what you're attacking, you roll dice every time you do so, you crunch the numbers, you still engage in as much actual character-growth role-playing as any other player. However, character growth is minimal in a computer game with a fixed storyline and all your attacks' results are easily automated by the machine, so all that's left is choosing your targets, which is itself reduced to clicking instead of talking. Many of the logical expansions of the hack'n'slasher archetype like hitting specific body parts or angling your shield to protect an ally from an incoming arrow, while they could easily be handled by a flesh and blood GM, are difficult to implement in an entirely automated system. There's an overall reduction in complexity from the tabletop to the desktop, but it hits the fighter archetype the hardest.

Though my character is dull to play in terms of game mechanics, i find that i really like him as a concept. I didn't want to just do the whole "big beefy guy with one big beefy weapon" routine. He's an elf , started out as barbarian, chose ranger as a secondary class. I wanted to be able to cast just one or two magic spells without these being too much a part of my raison d'etre. 14 intel, dexterity higher than strength and only 12 constitution to start, livin' on tha wild side. 14 wisdom with ranger spellcasting in mind (turned out to be overkill, but i didn't want to plan this guy out too thoroughly.) My spellcaster nerd conceit is shining through. Sacrifice charisma as always, who needs that junk, i'm a vagrant anyway. Also i wanted to dual-wield, so i don't get to be a barbarian with a bow... this time around.
Specifically i wanted to dual-wield some type of weapon which normally gets ignored, neither a basic shortsword or longsword nor an "exotic" like a katana or dual axe. I settled on the light flail. I forgot that my off-hand weapon has to be small, not medium, but if NWN1 has the "monkey grip" feat, i'm golden. I'm also sticking to the "enemy of civilization" theme by picking humans and constructs as my favored enemies.

So basically i wanted something with a barbarian's reckless offense, soaking up wounds instead of avoiding them, high attacks per round and ranger damage bonuses, a raving, nimble whirling dervish dual-wielding flails. Quick, clever, self-destructively aggressive, close-up and personal and not afraid to bleed. He's like something out of a Tarantino movie.
Largely by accident, i ended up picking the character voice that yells out "die.. DIE... DIEEEEEEEEE!"

Why's it so timelessly fashionable to be hatin' on bards? Every mention i see of D&D bards in people's comments online, in webcomics, on forums, seems desperate to characterize them as "useless." I mean, largely it's shortsightedness. The average idiot never sees secondary causes. He sees himself hitting an orc for twenty damage and thinks "i did twenty damage" instead of "if that bard behind me hadn't buffed me i wouldn't even have landed the hit, much less dodged the orc's attack." Hm, i guess this is going to turn into a whole post of its own.

Anyway, i vaguely remember using the cleric and half-orc henchmen a decade ago so this time around i'm bringing Sharwyn the bard along, and i'm as happy with her performance as with any other's. Pun intended. The bard song is the difference between making a reflex save on a trap or not, between being able to crack open a chest or not, between getting incapacitated by mind spells or not. Then there's the simple joy of beating down ogres stunned by her endless sound bursts. I've always insisted that as a support class i'm a lifesaver whether the morons i'm saving realize it or not, but it's nice being on the receiving end for once.
Soldier on, Sharwyn.
Just please, please stop trying to cast spells while surrounded by half a dozen trolls. NWN1's AI is incredibly rudimentary.

I've never been happy with the way the "taunt" skill works in both NWN games. I'm not sure how functional it is in actual D&D, but i'm putting a lot of effort into using it as a barbarian ("yo momma!") in NWN and it's still iffy.
I shouldn't need to be in melee for it (NWN2 did away with this flaw as i remember it).
I shouldn't have to be in combat with the target for it to work - seriously, shouldn't taunt actually function more effectively if you take the target by surprise? It should initiate combat. Isn't this the action-movie routine of the comic relief character jumping out from behind cover and yelling "hey you big ugly so-and-so" to distract the monster into acting rashly? The only conflict i see is rogues exploiting it with sneak attacks from stealth, but that would easily be fixed by making the taunt action drop your stealth.
The DC for it is usually fairly high for the high-armor boss-type monsters which you'd logically use it on, requiring a heavy skill point investment to ever make attempting a taunt worth the combat action. It was especially annoying in NWN2- why exactly would everything from giant spiders to bloodthirsty ghouls and ogres have such high concentration?
It doesn't interrupt spellcasting for some reason... even though it's an attack. Honestly, this is too logical not to be implemented, the action of taunting itself should have a chance to break concentration.
This should be a free action with a cooldown timer of sorts, not a full-round combat action (usually two rounds because of NWN's combat mechanics, but that's a specific game flaw). At higher levels, you're giving up at least two or three attacks for a minor chance to land your attacks in the next 5 rounds. Also, leaving you flatfooted while you do it? Giving myself -4 armor for 1-2 rounds is a pretty hefty penalty, though i suppose that'd be less of an issue if i weren't a high-dex artful dodger type. Still, where's the logic behind making taunt so much less viable for barbarians, rangers, rogues, etc. than for fighters and paladins? Are lawful good stick-up-the-ass paladins just better at calling people names?

Well, that's enough for now. Time to listen to Aribeth chew some more scenery.

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