Neverwinter Nights 2 Gameplay
By Dwip March 22, 2011, 10:14 pm Comments (9) RSS Feed for this post

I promised in my last post that I would sit down and write a post talking about some of the design issues in NWN2. Instead, I think I’m going to do two posts – one on the way NWN2’s story got told, and this one that you’re reading, which will discuss elements of the gameplay, by which I primarily mean things like dungeon and encounter design. You may recall that I’ve talked about this before in relation to Valve games, but I want to take a slightly different tack here.

So, dungeons in NWN2 tend to be several things:

– Essentially linear, with few branching paths, although there are exceptions to this.

– Monochromatic, in the sense that one Illefarn ruin pretty much looks the same as the next Illefarn ruin. There aren’t, off top of my head, any Illefarn ruins in caves or what have you.

– Generally filled with a straightforward mix of monsters and traps with little else going on.

Now, I’ve discussed the whole monochrome dungeons thing before when I talked about Valve games, so I won’t go over it again except to say that in some sense that’s a limitation of the game itself – it’s fairly difficult to tack tilesets together as I recall. That said, variety is to be strived for, which NWN2 primarily did by offering up a whole lot of different tilesets and different environments, which is fine.

As to linearity, my experience is that there’s something of a fine line to walk. Lack of choice makes the players feel surly and railroaded. Too much choice is sometimes confusing and leads to aimless wandering. Nevertheless, exploration is a fun part of a game like this, and ought to be present to a greater or lesser degree. There are a bunch of ways to go about this, and generally as long as you put the end stuff at the, you know, end of the dungeon, pretty much anything goes.

A couple of examples:

This is the Highcliff Castle ruins, where you go during the quest to save Highcliff from the lizardmen. It’s the culmination of an entire plot arc. Pretty small overall, only the two branches that split off, not much going on.

By comparison, this is a random level from the Cloakwood Mines in Baldur’s Gate 1. It’s only a little bit bigger, but there’s more going on, and instead of two branches, each room generally has two or more ways in and out, allowing for both exploration and more exciting tactical combat – instead of “enter room, kill everyone”, it turns into “half the party enters the room and starts killing everyone, half the party circles around behind to flank from the other side” or “enter room, start killing everyone, get flanked from the other side for a tougher fight.”

Now, by contrast, let me show you a map from pencil and paper D&D:

That’s the dungeon level from A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity. It’s a bit bigger than either of the computer game maps, but I think it serves to illustrate my point. You’ll notice how many different branching paths there are for exploration, and most of those rooms are big and have something going on in them. In addition, there are at least three different access points from the surface, so depending on where you come in, you get a different experience. Again, all of this makes for a better tactical game, a more tense and thus more fun experience for the player (“Am I going the right way? What’s down this tunnel? Treasure? Enemies?”).

That was mostly absent from NWN2, and that was something of a problem.

Now let me talk a little bit on mixing up monsters and challenges. Let me quote from my 1986 copy of A1-A4: Scourge of the Slavelords here:

We also set what would happen in each encounter. Thus we came up with the following list:

2 Traps
1 Trick to fool the players
1 Problem the players had to solve
1 Encounter with a basic monster of the round (orcs, hobgoblins, gnolls, etc.)
1 Ambush prepared by the basic monster of the round
1 Encounter with the basic monster and a friend (an ogre, for example)
1 Encounter with an unintelligent monster
1 Encounter with a brand new monster
1 Grand Finale

The 4th edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide sets out a slightly different set of encounter guidelines:

1 encounter weaker than characters
3 encounters on par with characters
3 encounters slightly tougher than the characters
1 encounter significantly harder than the characters

The difference here is that the 4e DMG leaves the precise trap/puzzle/monster mix up to the individual designer.

For my part, I believe the A1-A4 design guidelines are pretty good – they allow for a varied mix of challenges (6:2:2 between fights, traps, and puzzles) as well as a varied mix of enemy types – mostly whoever you choose as the theme monster (orcs in A1), but sometimes new monsters (giant sentient ants in A1) and the odd random monster (I think an ooze in A1). Where the 4e DMG comes in is providing a sense of how tough you should make things – weaker encounters serve as atmosphere for the players, cause them to use some resources, and let them feel powerful when they overcome the fight without too much difficulty. The hard encounters actively challenge them, and cause them to really think how to win.

The main reason for these sorts of mixes is to keep the player interested. In NWN2, the game pretty much throws indistinguishable mobs of whatever the base monster of the dungeon is at you, roughly the same power level all the time except the boss fight. Mixed in there are some random traps to keep the rogue busy, maybe a few locked things so you can justify bringing said rogue along. It’s essentially straightforward, and gets pretty old after a while.

By contrast, let’s go back to the Cloakwood Mines from Baldur’s Gate. There’s a basic enemy type there (Black Talons and Hobgoblins) in a variety of greater and lesser encounters (roving patrols, a barracks jammed full of hobgoblins, etc), a wholly different type of monster (the ogre mage), and Davaeorn (a powerful wizard) at the end. There are also a few traps to deal with (most notably the traps near Davaeorn), a puzzle of sorts (find the thing to flood the mines), and various problems (find the key, but also some non-combat encounters).

Do you remember clearing out that cave of lizardmen in the hills in Act I of NWN2? I bet you don’t. Do you remember Davaeorn and his Helmed Horrors? I bet you do. Why? Probably because you had to really think about how to navigate the Cloakwood Mines and accomplish your task.

Now, as far as non-combat encounters go, I’ll say that NWN2 did a pretty good job of both setting these up and of allowing for the possibility of various skill checks to do things – if you’re a good enough diplomat, you can make friends with the lizardmen in Highcliff, for instance. That’s pretty good, but it could be better – there’s a lot of ways to integrate challenges outside of dialogue. For instance, making a dexterity check to avoid falling off a ledge, or an intelligence check to figure out how to put something back together in the dungeon. This sort of thing is an easy way to add flavor to the dungeon and provide an obstacle to overcome that isn’t just another combat encounter.

For that matter, I tend to think that there are, or ought to be, let us say three and perhaps four distinct ways to solve problems and complete quests in fantasy RPGs:

– The Warrior Way: straightforward hack and slash killin’.
– The Rogue Way: using stealth and guile to sneak your way past the obstacle.
– The Diplomat Way: simply talk your way past the obstacle when you can.
– The Wizard Way: Solve it with a spell. In something like NWN2 (or Oblivion), magic is versatile enough that wizards generally pick which of the three other ways they want to do things, making this sort of a quasi-way.

The best quests, I think, are those that give you several options towards completion. NWN2 generally wants you to fight on through, but most of the major fights are avoidable or negotiable via dialogue. For example, depending on how you treat Slaan at Highcliff, you may or may not need to fight his whole tribe later. Ditto the orcs and some others. This is good stuff, although it can be done better – that other Obsidian game, Fallout: New Vegas, pretty much gives you your option of straight fights, diplomacy, or stealth to solve most if not all quests.

Why this is a good thing is pretty self-explanatory, I think. Not everyone is a warrior, and letting people use their unique skills a lot makes them feel better about their choice of path – if you made a diplomat, endless combat is extremely discouraging.

Next up, I’ll have a few words to say about NWN2’s storytelling.

Computer Games - Baldur's Gate Series, Computer Games - Uncategorized, Dungeons and Dragons, Gamecraft Comments (9) Trackback URL for this post RSS Feed for this post
Comments on Neverwinter Nights 2 Gameplay
avatar Comment by Dwip #1
March 25, 2011 at 5:01 am

And fixed the fact I forgot to upload the images when I made the post.

But since I’m probably the only one who even saw this post, maybe not a big deal.

avatar Comment by Samson #2
March 25, 2011 at 9:44 pm

Nice read, although most of it was a bit more than I usually consider when just playing the game.

I think the main difference here is that Bioware didn’t write the campaign. They let those knuckleheads at Obsidian do it. Or maybe Atari pushed them both into it.

NWN2 suffered horribly for being so linear and restrictive it wasn’t even funny. Baldur’s Gate has some of the same problems but at least you had some freedom of choice as to how to pursue things. Contrast that with Bethesda’s games and you can simply go where you please, but I think a lot of that is more the fault of the type of interface that’s offered to the player than anything.

avatar Comment by Dwip #3
March 25, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Well, part of the reason I’m doing these NWN2 posts is less as a general review thing, and more of a craft exercise like the Valve thing – we know NWN2 kind of sucked, but why precisely is that, and what can we take away from it that helps us as modders and quest writers?

Hopefully I’ve answered some of that, and will do even more when I start talking about storytelling later, which will cover your point about writing.

As far as Bioware vs. Obsidian, well, keep in mind that most DAO dungeons have most of the same problems I’m talking about here, but with a more engaging plot backing them up. Again, I may go into more detail later.

I’m curious how you thought BG was linear, at least gameplay-wise. Part of my story discussion will hopefully do a bit of compare/contrast between NWN2/Baldur’s Gate/Bethesda styles.

Interface I think we’ve beat into the ground, and given my stated goals, I don’t think there’s a lot to be gained by doing more of that, since we have so little control over it in the first place.

avatar Comment by Samson #4
March 25, 2011 at 11:17 pm

The interface argument ties in somewhat. Not so much that the camera sucked in one and didn’t in the other, but the general top-down view on restricted maps vs a full on first person game on a unrestricted free form world (to a point).

Most D&D areas I’ve seen tend to be nothing more than glorified large squares, and even within those squares you can’t access everything. You can’t, for instance, deviate from the assigned path and climb over the mountain instead. It simply won’t allow it. You can’t cut through the forest off the path. The game simply doesn’t allow it. DA:O suffers from the same issue, and I suspect strongly DA2 does as well based on what I saw in the demo.

Yes, most DAO dungeons suffer from the ill fated restrictions you see in NWN2. I think though you’ve already hinted at the problem. Obsidian sucks at writing stories and Bioware doesn’t. Or at least Bioware adapts its source material better.

It’s been a long time since playing BG and BG2 but they both definitely had the railroad problem. Not nearly as bad as NWN2 because you did eventually get to a point where you could do things out of order, but in the end you had to do them all anyway.

I guess I’ve just been totally spoiled by true free-form exploration games like Elder Scrolls and the Might & Magic series. I probably always have been considering even Bards’ Tale and Ultima were very free-form games.

avatar Comment by Dwip #5
March 26, 2011 at 12:34 am

Well, kind of.

1. NWN2 (and the Infinity engine, for that matter) actually has some fairly good abilities to create fairly non-linear areas with offroading, multiple paths, and what have you. In the case of NWN2, they just didn’t choose to use them very often.

For that matter, NWN2 has the ability to create vertical space and non-blocky dungeons, but again, deliberate choices were made. For that matter, a lot of that is tileset limitations, not engine limitations – you could make diagonal tiles or whatever if you knew how.

Which is to say that in all the IE games, NWN2, and DA:O, forced linearity where it exists is a concious decision, not an impossibility.

2. Non-linearity is actually something both Baldur’s Gate games did fairly well, and I suggest you go back and look again at both.

In BG1, you’re pretty much free to go wherever you want (with the exception of plot-doored Baldur’s Gate city) straight after Candlekeep and the initial Gorion/Sarevok showdown. Go to the Friendly Arm, go to Nashkel, go fight ankhegs on that farm, whatever. It’s practically a Bethesda game in that way.

In BG2, you’re pretty much free to go shortly after the Irenicus dungeon and maybe the initial talk with the Shadow Thieves. The amount of straight up wandering the world is a lot less than it was in BG1, but it’s still pretty significant, and certainly there are more sidequests in Chapter 2 of BG2 than in all of NWN2 period.

All that said, from a gameplay perspective none of this is going to be quite the same as something as like Oblivion, though.

Slightly related tangent to this subject: would it be useful/desired for me to discuss, in some fashion, dungeon creation and how one might apply the freedom of a pencil/paper D&D dungeon to something like Oblivion? I think I’ve got one that might fit the bill.

avatar Comment by Hanaisse #6
March 28, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Slightly related tangent to this subject: would it be useful/desired for me to discuss, in some fashion, dungeon creation and how one might apply the freedom of a pencil/paper D&D dungeon to something like Oblivion?

Yes please.

avatar Comment by Samson #7
March 29, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Seconded, because I apparently didn’t see that part.

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