Saturday, September 10, 2016

Jan Jansen vs Grobnar Gnomehands

Been trudging through Baldur's Gate 2 over the past couple of weeks,  once more suffering the Infinity Engine's dated clunkiness for the sake of the classics created for it. Being a Chaotic Neutral sort of wolf, I ended up recruiting Jan Jansen the gnomish illusio-thief into my party.

It took a few dialogues with him to figure out why this felt vaguely familiar, only to realize he reminded me of Grobnar, the gnome bard from Neverwinter Nights 2. Despite the change in developers between the two games, these two were basically the same stock character: the goofy comic relief support role spouting random nonsense.

Except... I despised Grobnar. NWN2 was in most ways a kid-friendly reiteration of DnD tropes, plagued to a large extent by a "baby's first RPG" feel to the setting and characters. Just as Qara was a G-rated pale imitation of Ignus from Planetscape: Torment, Grobnar seems to have been a cutesy re-hashing of Jan Jansen. Except... I actually like Jan. What gives?

The trick to writing a good stock character seems to be allowing that character to own its situation. Grobnar, like most of NWN2's roster, lacked that extra layer of self-awareness. He was nothing but an annoying little pissant spewing white noise. Yet this ignored one of the most basic rules of the good old DnD alignment wheel: alignments, as I understand them, were not meant to be just quirks. Chaotic Neutral is not a mental disease. Jan Jansen spouts gibberish about turnips and his improbably large clan of relatives getting eaten by gryphons, but he does so as a performance artist who consciously enjoys promoting such storytelling.

The writers made this awareness come through in dialogues such as his taunting of Viconia, where the player is allowed to join in on the joke and feed Jan extra material ... which Jan picks up and runs with, batting not one bushy eyelash in the process. He knows it's bullshit. He just loves being able to spout bullshit. When push comes to shove Jan shows actual awareness and concern for his family and occasionally some rather cool-headed insights during your adventures.

Chaos allows for pockets of order. Randomness is not homogenous. Freedom less so.

Given the six year lapse between the two games, I wonder how much of this difference between our two gnomish jesters can be taken as illustrative of D&D's own decline toward the idiotic simplification of the alignment system in 4th edition?

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