Thursday, June 16, 2011

Putting the Exclamation Mark on TMGS

As far as modding goes, I'm still in limbo. TMGS has been out a year, and my interest in another major project still hasn't returned. I think it's time to put that one to bed permanently. I'm not the only one, however. Nemorem's expressed antipathy as well recently. In that post, he wrote:

However, I have to note that there's one thing that's very different this time around. When I went back to work on my NWN mod, there was still a vibrant community from which to draw energy and inspiration. There was a giant CEP hak coming out with loads of new creatures. Mods were getting thousands of downloads a month on Neverwinter Vault. Bioware was strongly supporting the game. In short, NWN still seemed to have a bright future. I'm not sure I can say the same thing about DA.

I agree, but I'd go further and say that I'd say the same at this point about NWN2. However, as I mentioned in my comment in that post, there doesn't seem to be a better option currently or in the near term than the current NWN2 toolset. Therefore, for those who like modding, that's as good an option as any. However, the heyday when the individual modder might expect 10,000 or more downloads is probably over until the "next big thing" emerges.

To be honest, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. It might sound elitist - and to hell with it if it does - but I'd rather be downloaded by 2000 people who appreciate a crpg game for its story more than for it being the current fad with the best graphics and biggest visual effects.

Which brings me to the topic of TMGS. When I performed my statistical analysis of NWN2 scoring and downloads, I grimly noted that TMGS would probably never make the Hall of Fame due to a lack of downloads. Then the Vault changed the criteria from 5000 downloads to 2500. Suddenly, TMGS is a shoo-in, and it will either happen (barely) on July 1st or, if not, definitely on August 1st.

That's lit a bit of a fire under my ass to get version 1.02 out with fixes for the last few bugs before it is actually inducted. If it happens in July, I won't make it, but if it holds until August, I should be OK. So I guess I have a little more toolset work ahead of me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In Memoriam: Elisabeth Sladen

I just heard the news and I'm shocked. It's unbelievable how saddened I am to hear of the passing of someone I've never met. I didn't even know she was sick, and I'm not alone. Even her former co-star, Tom Baker, claims he was taken completely by surprise.

Crazy. Utterly crazy. 63? Really?

Yes, this is a forum for mostly RPG-type stuff, but I couldn't let my little corner of cyberspace go without some sort of tribute to the amazing actress who portrayed Sarah Jane Smith...

I know Doctor Who has the reputation for being a children's show. Or maybe it's derided for being "just genre stuff" or (in the 60s through 80s) cheaply-made. But when it was good, it was great. And I mean great television, period. Above-and-beyond any other consideration.

And there was no better era of Doctor Who than the one which featured Lis Sladen. Sarah Jane was my favorite companion and she traveled with my favorite doctor. She, Tom Baker, producer Phillip Hinchcliff, and script editor Robert Holmes put together the most amazing era of Doctor Who ever, and I still get great enjoyment watching the episodes those four (and others, of course) put together.

I'm not alone, of course. The most recent testament to her popularity among Doctor Who fans is that she above all other classic companions was chosen to return for the new series. She was also picked to star in one aborted spin off and one successful one. She was chosen to return for the 1983 Five Doctor special. It seems every time Doctor Who looked to its past for a popular companion, Lis Sladen was the obvious choice.

And now she's gone. The world no longer has Sarah Jane in it. I still can't believe it.


PS: While reading the copious testaments to Lis Sladen, I learned that Nicholas Courtney, aka the Brigadier, also died a couple months back. It seems it's been a bad year for fans of the classic Doctor Who era, and we're not even half through it yet. R.I.P Nick Courtney.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Dungeon Design Example: Westmount

All of the recent talk of dungeons has led me to outline an example of my own current thought process as I put one together, a task I've now done for a NWN1 series, another NWN2 campaign, and a NWN2 adventure pack, all of which have won some measure of acclaim. I wish I had solidified my thoughts on the subject years ago; I actually don't think some of the early SG dungeons are very good anymore - TONS of newbie mistakes.

So I'm going to discuss the process by which the "dungeon" of Westmount from TMGS came into existence. To be clear, it's a small dungeon and I don't mean to suggest that it's a great dungeon worthy of any top 10 list (not close), but a lot of the thoughts from my previous few posts did come into play as I was designing it. So without further ado...

Summary
The basic steps were as follows:

1. Quest Conception - This was the step that developed the need for the dungeon and tied it to the overall game world. This step also defined the exact locale and locked in a few very basic core goals.
2. Dungeon Layout - This results from knowledge of how the dungeon came into being and should make sense given that knowledge.
3. End Boss Development - Pretty self-explanatory.
4. Dungeon Population - This comes from imagining how the current denizens use the dungeon... and how the party will find it when they enter.
5. Finishing Touches - The final step adds in some cool items or encounters that put the dungeon over-the-top.

A greater explanation of how these steps applied to the development of Westmount follows.

Step 1: Quest Conception
Westmount was pretty close to the last thing added into TMGS campaign. As I was play-testing the supposedly-finished campaign, I became wary that every side-quest was directly related to the critical path. To be clear, that was a decision I had definitely made at the beginning. I didn't want Navatranaasu to feel like a bustling metropolis with all sorts of people throwing their problems upon the PC. Rather, it was to be a small, desolate village where most of the inhabitants' problems ultimately had the surrounding Malarite cult as the culprits. (Compare this to Waterdeep, where two people hand you totally unrelated quests in just the short time you're there... but then Waterdeep is a completely different animal.)

Nevertheless, I eventually decided that it would be better if there were at least a couple optional quests and so Westmount was born. Other quests added around this time for the same reason include the Haunted Tree and the Legal Conundrum posed by the two fools in the tavern.

I knew right off the bat that a large Durlag's Tower-style dungeon wouldn't make sense given the setting; nothing that big would be near so small a town without being a large topic of conversation. So the dungeon had to be small enough to be believable within the setting.

A second desire was that I wanted all of these unrelated quests to have one thing in common with the core path: the central theme of justice, a topic near-and-dear to every Tyrran and the thread that holds the entire campaign together.

With these two goals, I began to toss around ideas for a few days. Fortunately, I was helped in this task because I had already written a detailed history of the area and so had established the previous existence of a ring of defensive fortifications built by the town's founder, Alred I, which had slowly fallen to ruins in the three to four generations thereafter. I soon seized on one of these ruined forts for a ready locale that was believable within the setting, but how would this lend itself to the central theme of justice?

The established history of the town again provided the answer. The town's past already included a series of wars against local orc tribes. I could extend this to include the notion that one of the defensive forts fell to demi-human enemies several decades before. The notion of justice came in by adding rumors of collusion between the fort commander and the invaders which led to the fort's surrender and the slaughtering of the garrison. Since that time, the family had been shunned in the town as the descendants of a traitor. Needless to say, they had tried to prove their ancestor's innocence, but none had had the adventuring skills required to investigate the ruined fort. Today, the current member of the family, Fahl Derrickson, comes to the PC asking him or her to find the proof for them.

Fortunately, the outer forts and the demi-human wars had already been written into the dialogs of several of the town's inhabitants, so everything was entirely believable within the setting. If this hadn't been the case, I would have needed to amend certain conversations or else develope an entirely knew locale unknown to the inhabitants. Fortunately, I could skip this because I had done a lot of homework with the town history up front.

So everything until now had shaped the outline of the quest. Obviously, a quest is not a dungeon, but the narrative created above would dictate how the dungeon developed.

Step 2: Laying Out the Dungeon (or Westmount, the Bad Old Days)
When mapping out the dungeon, I turned my mind to the way the fort must have been used in the past. My original concept was of a hilltop fort reminiscent of - but not an exact replica of - a motte-and-bailey from medieval Europe. The exterior map is shown below.

The hilltop fort is built on a hill with a surrounding moat (in this case without water) and an interior wall at the top of the moat. A bridge leads across the moat to a small gatehouse that serves as the fort entrance. All structures are now in a state of disrepair.

In the past, the hilltop fort would have been surrounded by small wooden buildings holding some of the more dangerous or uncomfortable functions (such as black-smithing), but these temporary buildings have since been destroyed with the wooden pieces used for other purposes. In case of an attack, a few guards could have held the gatehouse against a much larger force, but if the worst happened, the bridge could have been destroyed and the interior wall held against a much larger force.

The first floor map is shown below. Note that green boxes are meant to illustrate where doors are.

I think the notes on the picture are sufficient to explain how the fort would have once worked, so I'll refrain from further comments on that. My estimate is that there would have been three officers, including the garrison priest, and around 20 - 25 soldiers manning the fort.

The lower level map is shown below.

This is where the nasty business happened. Note that the part outlined in yellow is the portion of the map that wasn't part of the original fort. It is meant to model the point where the invaders tunneled into the fort. The passage has since collapsed and from the area that is accessible to the player, it looks as though the "tunnel" goes on for some time.

Why go through this exercise? Because examining the motives of the people who built the fort helps me determine exactly how large the dungeon should be, what the general layout should be, and what material should be in each room. For example, even if the banquet hall is no longer used as such, knowing that's what it once was helps the level designer (still me in this case) use the right placeables and effects to tell the room's story. This step starts the dungeon's story, and we'll finish it as we go.

Sometimes, of course, the builders of the dungeon will be the current inhabitants. Even so, that doesn't mean every room shouldn't have a purpose or a place. It just means this step and the fourth are pretty much the same step and can be treated as such.

So back to the example, the fort garrison was slaughtered 90+ years ago, but the demihuman mob that overran the fort has also moved on in the meantime. So the question confronting me, the dungeon designer - and eventually the player - is what's moved in since?

Step 3: The Big Bad
The big bad is an important piece of giving a dungeon it's personality. Since this dungeon was by definition separate from the core path, I had absolute freedom to create a new villain with motivation entirely separate from the Malarites. I knew that the party would consist of a single cleric and a single ranger of about 8th level at the point they would arrive, so whatever enemy I chose had to be a suitable challenge for that party structure.

I tossed several ideas around but eventually dismissed most for one reason or another. A couple of these level-appropriate options were:

1. Yuan-Ti: Navatranaasu was already established as a mountainous environment, which wouldn't fit them, and the yuan-ti had already been done extensively in SoZ.
2. Demon/Devil: Generally too powerful and most are immune to normal weapons. Since the party would only have normal weapons at this point and an encounter in which the PC would take possession of a magical weapon already formed a crucial and unchangeable part of Act III, I had to throw this group out.
3. Powerful Human/Playable-Race Demihuman: A possibility, but the campaign was already heavy on human villains (the Mistress, Eton Skye, and Dezlentyr), so I wanted to use this chance to feature non-human monsters.

In the end, I chose an ogre mage. I've always liked them for some reason - maybe it's the combination of brains and brawn - and I don't think they've been overly done in official games. I used one in SG V as a boss in the sewers beneath Tyrel's Pass and I thought that went well.

However, part of making a dungeon memorable is making its boss memorable, and part of making a boss memorable is giving it a bit of a different spin, i.e. surprise the player a bit. So I started by giving him an admittedly-slight back-story. He was supposed to be an ogre with a gift for magic that had been exiled from his society for studying the work of a now-deceased human illusionist named Melifluorius. So enamored by the work of this illusionist was he that he actually took the human's name for himself. Although the ogre mage was aware of the Malarites in the region, he was not allied with them. In fact, he had little respect for their transmutative magics and so had come to despise them. He had even come into conflict with them on rare occasion, though never seriously enough to cause one to wish to eliminate the other.

This was all I came up with, but even this slight background began to shape the boss encounter. Most obviously, it influenced the encounter dialog, which provided hints - assuming the player asked - of the ogre mage's motivations. Second, I wiped the spells of the standard ogre mage template and instead gave him spells suitable for a wizard who had studied illusion magic. Finally, I was led to a quick thought on combat tactics that would allow me to do something a little unique. I imagined that an enemy who was an illusionist would make themselves invisible once they realized their home had been entered so that they could observe the intruders from a position of safety and make a surprise attack first, if needed. I hoped all of these would keep jaded players overly-familiar with D&D and CRPG conventions just a bit on their toes and provide a slightly more memorable encounter. This was accomplished by having the ogre unleash a fireball as the encounter begins, thereby revealing his location, unless the player has already been able to unveil him and thwart his plans.

Step 4: Populating the Dungeon
The ogre mage had already been decided, but what else is there now in Westmount? To answer this question, I needed to return to the idea of dungeon ecology. What would the ogre mage permit to live there, or what could live there in spite of his wishes? Also, I needed to understand which of the already-existing rooms would be inhabited by which monsters.

I started to answer these questions by remembering that every high-level wizard needs some evil henchmen. I imagined that some lesser demihumans would have been drawn to the ogre's power and these in turn would be useful to him as workers, fetchers, and guards. Having taken the bottom level for himself, the ogre would have given his underlings free reign of the upper level. He would want his privacy, of course, and so would not want them to come to the lower level. When he needed something, he would shout his orders up at them or communicate via a projected image. After playing around with goblins and gnolls, both of which were discarded as being too weak for 8th-level adventurers, I settled on bugbears. The map below shows the upper level as it currently exists. The red box outlines the area currently inhabited by the bugbears.

The front room has become their main living area while the area once used by the soldiers as a barracks has been converted to storage and also a small shrine to one of the bugbear gods. For the most part, the bugbears only inhabit the main room and the immediate grounds outside, where they spend most of their waking hours. (Indeed, this is where the player first meets them.) The bugbears freely roam into the right-most wing of the ruins, but only rarely, as anything of interest to them has already been stripped and hoarded into their main living area. After some play-testing, I settled on five as the population that provided the most suitable difficulty level for a party of two 8th-level adventurers.

Even though the bugbears roam into the right wing of Westmount, a group of giant rats has found a way to coexist within this same area. For the most part, they stay hidden when the bugbears approach, as some of their number has ended up in the stew pot. Normally, they scavenge for food in the interior, only occasionally venturing outside through holes too small for the PC or bugbears to use. However, they are not very well-fed, and when creatures other than bugbears approach, they are liable to leap from the holes and attack.

There is one denizen of the first level that has moved into the left-most wing, and it's one the bugbears have learned to give a wide berth to. A giant black widow spider has taken up residence in the rafters above the old dining room. It lies in wait until someone ventures too far into the room, and then it descends in such a way as to cut off escape through the door and attacks with its venom. One of the bugbears has been killed earlier and so the others now fear the spider and have closed off the room. The spider, for its part, doesn't have the sentience required to fear the bugbears in the same way. It almost certainly would if it could, as the combined strength of the bugbears would overpower it, but it is content to inhabit only its small territory. For the most part, because the bugbears rarely enter the "no-man's land" between the two territories, the spider must resort to feeding on birds, snakes, and other carrion.

Those are the ecological rationales, but the selected creatures also work from a combat diversity standpoint. The bugbear group was formed into a more balanced party by including a shaman in the group of five, and the black widow's poison provides a completely different type of challenge to the party. By having the spider descend from the roof only after it can place itself between the PC and the door, the PC is put on notice that an "empty" room doesn't necessarily mean it is truly empty. The rats are a nuisance that will likely only nick the player, but they do seem to swarm the player from all sides and may serve to keep the atmosphere a bit tight.

A last comment before I move on is to note the projected dungeon flow, which I give with the green arrows. If the player picks the leftmost path from the interior, it is possible they could bypass most of the level. Since they must already confront the bugbears outside and the rats and black widow are extraneous to the main narrative of the dungeon, this is an acceptable scenario. However, as a practical matter, most players will take the opportunity to explore, even if they've already found the means of advancing forward, and so will encounter these monsters too.

The current map of the lower level is given below.

Note that even though there was once a door between the prisons and the torture chambers, I "blocked" it with a huge desk so that the flow outlined by the green arrows is forced upon the player. It's not an important detail, but it's one of many I included to show how the current inhabitants of the fort utilize it differently from the previous ones. Whereas it once made sense to have a direct path between the prisons and the torture chamber, the ogre mage prefers there to be only one path into his sanctum, and of the two paths he could have chosen, he selected the one that leads more fully through the lair of his undead guards.

Speaking of which, I decided that the ogre mage has raised a few ghouls from the remains of those who died in the prisons. These serve as his final guards as well as posing as a buffer against the bugbears in the event they decide to try to overthrow him or steal his treasure. For the most part, the ghouls roam the prison area in search of food that has long since been consumed. Hence, they are ravenous and attack anything - except their creator - that enters the room... including the bugbears. Occasionally, Melifluorious captures a creature either for his research or to torture them to learn information (he even nabbed a careless Malarite once!). When he finishes with these unfortunates, he throws their remains to the ghouls, but these snacks do little to sate their endless hunger.

The actual end fight starts with the ogre mage invisible, and he'll try to question the player to determine their reason for being there. During this dialog, the player can learn of the ogre mage's interest in illusion magic as well as his disdain for the Malarites. If they have "Detect Invisibility" memorized, they can even strip away his disguise (and avoid his initial fireball attack). Regardless of how the conversation progresses, however, Melifluorious will sense the PC's inherent power and attack.

The final room before the rockslide includes the evidence the PC has come here for and will allow the completion of the quest. (As an aside, I decided to have the evidence prove the treachery instead of disprove it, a slight twist to the quest that is outside the dungeon design.)

As far as combat goes, the entire challenge for this level comes from the boss himself. The ghouls would provide some stress to nearly any other class, especially given their stun ability, but an 8th-level priest can destroy them quickly. Hence, like the rats, the ghouls are there because the dungeon ecology demands they are, not because they pose a real challenge to the player, although they do flesh out the flavor of the dungeon. As a practical matter, the only combat encounters that will challenge the group for the whole dungeon are the bugbears, the black widow, and the ogre, and I adjusted the difficulty of these three encounters - especially the first and last - accordingly.

Step 5: The Final Touches
I wanted to add a couple neat non-combat things to Westmount as well. One of these actually necessitated itself during one of my play-throughs when I got hit by the black widow and suffered an ability score drain when my PC didn't have a restoration spell memorized. That proved a problem, so I added the option to use the old chapel within the "no-man's land" on the first floor. By cleaning up the Tyrran altar, the player can pray and relearn spells, if necessary, allowing a second full dose to handle the lower level or the learning of a restoration spell if one is required after battling the black widow.

Ever since my P&P days, I've also tried to place some unconventional treasure now and then. Again, variety is the spice of life, and gold and jewels aren't the only valuable thing out there. For example, in SG V, I had a painting in one of the manors that was exceedingly valuable, and the player could take it if they passed a lore check identifying it as a lost masterpiece. I returned to a similar idea with Westmount. The red dot in the kitchen on the right is the location of an old vintage bottle of wine that is still in good enough condition to be sold for more than many gems or necklaces would bring.

In Conclusion
So that's a quick outline of my methodology in creating a dungeon. It's not remotely good enough to be considered a classic, but it serves its purpose, which is to provide a couple hours of fun and a memorable quest for my players.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Dungeons That Didn't Make the List

OK, so my personal list of 10 greatest D&D-Based CRPG Dungeons is complete, but several big and/or popular dungeons didn't make the cut and some may wonder why. As an aside, I've just finished replaying the Windspear Hills dungeon and am more convinced than ever of its greatness. But here's a number of popular dungeons and the reason I didn't put them on the list. I understand that this may come across as negative; I'm not going to spend the time talking about what each of these did right, only the reasons I feel they're not top 10 worthy. Note that many of these dungeons would still rank between 11 and 20, so they are all very solid designs. They're just not the best of the best.
I'm going to group them by game and roughly in their order of awesomeness for that game and discounting any dungeons that already made the top 10.

IWD1
Severed Hand (IWD1): This came very close to making the list, but in the end I thought the lack of any end boss at all (that you fight) and it's over-reliance on undead adversaries was enough to keep it off. I also thought some of the dungeon flow was lacking, as one of the tower levels actually required you to access the level from two different staircases to clear it. Fortunately, by the time the IWD2 version came out, this flaw had been corrected. Yes, it's nitpicking. It would probably rank in the 11 to 12 range for me.

Dragon Eye (IWD1): Dragon Eye was a bit too large for me, featured repetitive fights, and the dungeon theme totally changed between the 3rd and 4th levels, going from a cave to a stone-walled temple. Yxunomei was a decent boss but not great.

Black Wolf Temple (IWD1) This was the final contender from IWD1, but it suffered from a lot of the same flaws that the Severed Hand did. There was no end boss (that you fight), pretty much only undead adversaries for level after level, repetitive fights, and in addition, there were no non-combat encounters. Still a memorable dungeon, though.

IWD2
The Ice Temple (IWD2): This temple featured way too many repetitive fights and was definitely too big for the number of fresh ideas that it had. I couldn't help thinking it was made bigger simply to lengthen the game play time. Also, I wasn't wild about the lay-out and the end boss, Oria, was lame.

Dragon Eye (IWD2): This had many of the problems of the IWD1 version, but it also had the totally frustrating time-travel puzzle at the end. Even if IWD1 Dragon Eye had been on the list, that annoying puzzle would have booted this version right back off.

BG1
The Cloakwood Mines (BG1): This was the closest contender from BG1 proper and would almost certainly have landed in the 11-15 range overall. The exterior set-piece against the party of four bounty hunters was great as was the second level, which featured a great set-piece against two rooms full of guards. The third level was still pretty good and offered a nice array of enemies. But the first level was a total waste, I thought there were a couple of unfair traps, and Daevorn was not a memorable dungeon boss.

The Nashkell Mines (BG1): First, I didn't much care for the layout. To a degree, any mine will stink because there are tons of corridors and far too few rooms in which set-pieces can be staged. Also, there was virtually nothing here except kobolds, although a couple ghouls and spiders showed up near the end. Finally, Mulahy, the dungeon boss, was just a goon working for the Iron Throne.

BG2
Spellhold Asylum Dungeon (BG2): Spellhold's major problem was that it lacked a cogent narrative. Why did the Cowled Wizards make this place? Just to torture people? Just to dump their prisoners? I thought Spellhold was to house their prisoners? Why not just kill deviants when you're done. Why throw them into a dungeon and have them pass a series of tests so they can prove they're sane after all? And if they do, what then? Do the Cowled Wizards really let them go? Bah! There were some cool individual ideas in Spellhold, but as a narrative it sucked.

Irenicus’ Dungeon (BG2): Irenicus' Dungeon would certainly be somewhere between 11 and 20, but it's a bit too disjointed in its ideas (a frankendungeon), and there's no end boss whatsoever (yet). Also, its place in the game means it can only be traversed with a limited combination of party members (the PC, Imoen, Jaheira, Minsc, or some subset thereof). That's not a fault of the dungeon design, per se, but it does limit the repeated enjoyment.

Umar Hills (BG2): In my review of what makes a good dungeon, I mentioned how much I loathe the Amaunator ritual "puzzle." In addition, every enemy inside is pretty much undead, and the dungeon is also too small. The Shade Lord is an interesting boss though if you count the Shade Lord as the boss, and the Shadow Dragon is a pretty cool boss if you count him instead. However, it lacks the personality of Firkraag. Oh, and I love Mazzy better than most BG2 players, I'm sure, but she's not really a part of the dungeon design.

Planar Sphere (BG2): I do like this quest, but I'm forced to admit the dungeon design is lame. The core idea of a plane-traveling sphere made sense, but not the room layout or enemy selection. Every room did not have a purpose that I could see. For example, what was up with the dirty cave that housed the feral halflings? For that matter, what's up with the feral halflings? What about the fire and ice rooms? They might be cool rooms, but would a travel machine really have them around just for the hell of it? Even if those rooms were needed for some kind of pseudo-science "energy-flow," then why the need for the room before them except that there needed to be a place for Tolgerias and the Cowled Wizards to make a stand? Otherwise, it's just a blank room. I get the impression all this just existed to make the dungeon longer, and that's always a bad sign.

ToEE
Temple of Elemental Evil (ToEE): I'm sure many will disagree here, but the Temple of Elemental Evil has a major problem. It's too big and seems to be a mish-mash of ideas thrown into one. All four elemental temples in one? Yes, I guess it's one "idea," but it's four dungeons! And it drags on like four dungeons with far too much filler. Oh, and Zuggtmoy wasn't nearly a cool enough boss to pull it up despite these flaws. This whole idea would have worked better as a series of dungeons, each devoted to one element but with different spins and monsters.

NWN1 Franchise
As I hinted at earlier, I think the NWN1 graphics and design decisions regarding "henchmen" make the game unplayable at this point, but beyond that a review of the list of dungeons in the franchise really bring home how crappy all of them were. What a bunch of time fillers! Remember the prison from the peninsula district? How about Helm's Hold? The troll caves near Port Llast? The Host Tower? Klauth's Lair? The Source Stone? All of these had a decent idea or two, but none was a real contender for a great dungeon.

Btw, I thought some of the quests were cool. The snow globe quest had a neat twist, but there wasn't a dungeon attached to it. Therefore, NWN1 was a waste for great dungeon design. The same could largely be said for SoU. Undrentide itself was just average but had enough flaws that I never felt it was remotely worthy of consideration. As for HotU, I've already listed the Drearing Deep Cult Compound, but there was only one more dungeon of note.

Maker's Island (NWN1: HotU): Maker's Island was too small, and the second level was really only the framework for a single quest involving two competing ations of golems. It was an interesting idea that wasn't exactly well-executed, but even if it had been, it doesn't make for a great dungeon. The first level was better and had some neat ideas and a pretty good puzzle. The end boss was a pretty cool monster (a demilich) that was the first of it's kind for the NWN franchise, but wasn't cool enough or memorable enough on its own to make up for other deficiencies.

Addendum: Kobold Caves (NWN1: SoU): As I prepared this post, I saw that JFoxtail recently commented on the Dungeons # 1-5 Post and argued for the inclusion of the Kobold Caves from NWN1: SoU. This is another one that had a couple neat ideas. Yes, kobolds jumping in a bucket was interesting as were the stampeding cows in the lower level. Tymofarrar was a decent enemy who showed some craftiness. However, I can't realistically view it as a great dungeon for many of the same reasons as above. It's a cave with mostly kobolds in it, the flow is highly linear, the endless tunnels all look the same. I honestly felt much of it was uninspired.

NWN2 Franchise
NWN2 was another game with occasionally decent quest design but epically bad dungeon design. Bad layouts and nasty repeated encounter triggers featured throughout. In fact, NWN2 remains the only game I've ever bought I've been unable to finish. I got right up to the final showdown and so feel competent to judge the game, but I couldn't be bothered to care enought to kill the King of Shadows.

MotB was the day to NWN2's night. An amazing game that nevertheless had few true dungeons. I struggled with the Thaymount Academy. Can it be called a dungeon? My gut was that it was a cool setting with some interesting quests but no, it wasn't a "dungeon." However, there were a couple other good examples (the Skein I've already mentioned).

Death God's Vault (NWN2: MotB): This one suffers from being a "dungeon" that requires two trips to traverse it, at least in practice if not exactly in theory. First, you will almost certainly go there near the beginning of the game (Kaelyn's family sends you there right off the bat!), but the lower levels including its entrance to the Fugue Plane is not meant to be accessed until the end game. And in practice the denizens of the lower level before the gate are incredibly difficult until the party acquires the levels and equipment spread throughout the mid-game. There were some nice encounters and several good ideas, and the Vault is incredibly atmospheric, but it's just too disjointed in its flow to be a great dungeon.

Okku's Barrow (NWN2: MotB): Totally honest here, it's hard for me personally to get excited about a dungeon in caves, so I was totally lukewarm about this one. Yes, that's just personal preference. Okku was a pretty cool end boss made more memorable by his later role in the game. Yes, that's a little beyond the dungeon, but he's still cool. There were too many repeated triggers with very similar encounters too many corridors for the number of set-pieces, and too little variety to the challenges. The Illefarn portions of the dungeon didn't fit well enough to warrant them, although there were some interesting ideas there. I do, however, think those portions would have worked better as a small sidequest elsewhere. Finally, like Irenicus' Dungeon, this one suffers in my memory because, being right at the start, your only choice is to traverse it with a PC and Safiya.

As for SoZ, there's only one dungeon that should remotely be considered due to size alone.

Yuan-Ti Temple (NWN2: SoZ): Honestly, this dungeon had nothing that stuck out at me other than the final battle against the Herald of Zehir and some scrubs. There was one puzzle using Se'Sehen's almanac that was decent, but most of the battle encounters were against some variant of yuan-ti. The trap placement was OK and there were some neat role-playing opportunities, but there just wasn't enough to make me go "wow" or care very much after it was done.. Finally, about the Herald of Zehir, he was OK but I have to think he should have been a much bigger bad-ass than he was, and the opportunity to make the player hate him much more not only throughout the game, but even throughout the dungeon, was lost. I really do think the final encounter could have been much better.

So that pretty much explains my thinking about the dungeons that didn't make my lists. I thought I was done with this topic, but I thought of one more thing I'd like to discuss, so in the time-honored tradition of blogging, I'm going to stretch an already-tired subject one more post.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

TMGS: A Scooby Doo Hoax?

Every so often, I Google "Maimed God's Saga" and even still "Saleron's Gambit" just to see what, if anything, is being said about them. My last search produced this link to the TV Tropes and Idioms page Nemorem recently mentioned. Scroll down to the video games portion to see that someone felt compelled to add TMGS to the page for the Scooby Doo Hoax... except that they then say it really doesn't fit at all.

For those who care, the Scooby Doo Hoax is when an area with purported supernatural activity is eventually found to be rife with earthly criminal activity that is using the supernatural legends as a mask to hide the criminals' true nature. I can see how a player may initially think that's what will be revealed in Navatranaasu, but no, that's not the truth behind the town's mystery.

Now, there are tropes galore in TMGS... How about The Treacherous Quest Giver? How about the Well Intentioned Extremist? I could probably find a hundred that fit.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Top Ten D&D-Based CRPG Dungeons: Nos. 5-1

Are you ready for some controversy because you're about to get some! This post will go a long way to explaining my own views on dungeon design, so without any further delay, let's get on to the completion of my list of the ten best D&D-based CRPG dungeons.

No. 5: Durlag’s Tower (BG1: TotSC)
Once I bypassed Watcher's Keep, I'm sure many had Durlag's Tower pegged for the #1 spot, but sadly, the same two problems that plagued Watcher’s Keep also plague this dungeon. But as always, I'll start with the positives. Durlag's Tower is, hand's down, the best back-story of any of the entries on this list and it's mostly that back story that lands it above its BGII sibling. As with Watcher's Keep, there are an array of monsters, traps and secret doors abound, and tactical combat is plentiful. Many of the non-combat encounters and puzzles are interesting, though not all. The entire portion of the dungeon above ground – including 4 whole levels in the tower – are fantastically entertaining and might have warranted consideration for this list in their own right, but it's only once the party descends to the lower levels, the portion of the dungeon that stands as a monument to Durlag's pain, loss, and insanity, that the real fun begins. Once below, the first level of the cellars is one of the best individual levels of any dungeon anywhere, and the second level isn't too far behind. Enemies include doppelgangers, spiders, a host of undead, wyverns, and many others, and the saga played out over and over again by the ghosts of these dwarven halls hits all the big emotions: grief, fear, anger, vengeance, and ultimately triumph.

On the flip side, the dungeon is again a bit too large and there are a couple annoying puzzles, although the bad puzzles are mercifully not as irritating as those in Watcher's Keep. Specifically, I mean the puzzles accessed from the 4th floor where the player has to answer historical questions posed by the statues. (Remember the one where the correct answer was something like, "we came from the west, then the north, then the east, then again from the east, and finally from the west again." – Ugh!) As a point of fact, the entire 3rd floor could be lopped out of the dungeon along with the horrid chess board where only you have to play by the rules. But even still, that level isn't quite the loss of the 3rd level of Watcher's Keep. Finally, the boss is a bit of a let-down because, although the demonknight is hinted at a few times, he doesn't really come to the fore until very near the end. To the contrary, you can complete 80% of the dungeon all the while thinking it fell simply to an external attack on Durlag's clan before finally learning that the doppelgangers were merely a manifestation of "the evil that was already there." Nevertheless, a better story and fewer irritants land Durlag's Tower above its BGII sibling.

No. 4: The Ruined Moathouse (ToEE)
Here's another entry that will have a fair number of people exclaiming "WTF," but I think there's a general dislike for low-level adventures out there that will have many disregarding this dungeon on principal. Yes, it's meant for 1st to 2nd-level parties, but that doesn't change the fact that it's also very well designed and incredibly fun. In a sense, it almost has to be a classic, because it was first seen in Gary Gygax's own 1979 P&P module Village of Hommlet and so has been entertaining D&D fans now for 32 years. As for the computer version, in an otherwise forgettable game, this dungeon is still a real gem. The ruined moathouse near Hommlet only has two levels, but the exterior has enough to almost count as a third. Therefore, it's very nearly the perfect size. The diversity of enemies is amazing and even includes a nifty encounter with giant frogs on the moat's drawbridge. It was very cool to watch one swallow one of my characters, who then had to be cut out after the frog was dead. The atmosphere was suitably creepy, and its backstory as an outpost of the Temple of Elemental Evil that has been re-inhabited lent the dungeon an oppressive air of foreboding. The number of traps and secret doors was perfect, the subplot of freeing the prisoners provided an interesting diversion, and the ability to wear the temple cloaks to bypass certain encounters allowed for some neat role-playing. As mentioned, it is a low-level dungeon, which will undoubtedly put some people off, but for those who don't mind adventuring with such weaklings, the reward is great.

I only have three slight criticisms. First, there wasn't quite enough empty space; indeed, some of the monsters were right on top of each other. Second, there were no true non-combat encounters. Finally, the end boss, a cleric named Lareth the Beautiful, while having an interesting moniker for an evil henchman, is just a more powerful adventurer with no apparent motivation other than being a bastard in service to the Temple of Elemental Evil. Nevertheless, this dungeon is nearly 100% pure fun.

No. 3: Soloria (NWN2 Module: Trinity)
If the ruined moathouse at #4 came has a shock, this one will really get some heads shaking. Yes, I actually believe an amateur module ranks among the best dungeons of all times. If you believe it doesn't belong on my list because it's not in one of the games I originally mentioned, I'll just say it's in the NWN2 franchise. Also, you probably haven't played it because anyone who has certainly wouldn't come up with reasons to exclude such awesomeness.

Soloria is damned near perfect as a dungeon in every way. Its backstory as an old school of magic in the fabled elven city of Myth Drannor means it's chock-full of lost tales, not to mention powerful loot and old forgotten magics. The atmosphere is utterly amazing with every detail really bringing to life this relic of a bygone age. But while the dead certainly rule here, they are not alone. The party must face hags, giant spiders, rival adventurers, and even a well-placed doombat in addition to the shambling corpses and ghosts of long-dead students. And a Death Tyrant, while technically dead, poses a completely different kind of challenge as well. But combat is only a small number of the obstacles the party will face in Soloria. Collapsed bridges no longer span wide chasms that nevertheless must be crossed, barriers of ancient magics must somehow be dispelled, and magical mouths demand answers to questions long since forgotten. There are traps galore, though none stand out as being particularly unfair, and there are so many secret doors and compartments within that I am certain I have still not seen all that Soloria has to offer. Finally, the dungeon's boss, the ancient lich Azimer, is memorable not only as a powerful adversary, but as a character. Hints of a lost love and regrets from his time as headmaster of the academy appear to have driven Azimer mad, causing him to fondly chide the party's wayward ways one moment (i.e. believing them to be students at a still-functioning academy) and then trying to kill them the next.

If Soloria had any negatives as a dungeon, they would be slight indeed. First, it's too small. This would be a petty complaint if I was judging this module strictly as an amateur work, but since I'm placing it on a list of all-time best dungeons, it gets the same treatment as everything else. Second, it does have a little bit of a confusing layout, and one wonders how it could have successfully operated as an academy back in the day. Finally, related to point two, it's a bit of a frankendungeon. I gather parts of the academy have caved in, so the dungeon regularly switches from stonework to earthen tunnels and back, sometimes seemingly at random. But these are only meant to be the slimmest of criticisms for a mostly awe-inspiring dungeon.

No. 2: The Windspear Hills (BG2)
The Windspear Hills dungeon is a fantastic, if too short, dungeon that features the second-best end boss on this list. But the dungeon really works well before you get to him. There is a nice mix of adversaries: orcs and hobgoblins, a troll, vampires, werewolves, golems, and then some. The layout makes some of the battles difficult, but not in such a way as to make it a pain to get around the dungeon. I don't recall any secret doors, the traps are few, and there are no real non-combat encounters, so the variety of challenges is a bit small, even if the variety of combat is not. Firkraag is, of course, the dungeon's crown jewel, and while a living dragon isn't innately as cool as a dracolich, Firkraag still stands above Vix'thra (at #8) as a boss because of his personal connection to the player. Vix'thra is a soulless monster that preys on the innocents of Drearing's Deep and is in league with the Valsharess. He definitely needs to die, but it's just a job. With Firkraag it's genuine hate. He hates you because of Gorion. You hate him because he framed you for murder. And then he dismisses you as an insignificant gnat. And he's got reason to because he's a bad-ass that will probably slap you around the first time you challenge him. So you'll remember him. And you'll come back. Just to even the score. That's the kind of end boss that pushes a dungeon way up the list all by himself even if the dungeon did nothing else right. But this one does so much right.

So why isn't the Windspear Hills at #1? Honestly, I'd have no qualms pushing it all the way up the list, but in the end I placed another entry a hair above this one. The Windpear Hills has a couple minor problems. First, it's basically one level with only Firkraag's lair and a small cave with a couple encounters outside that level. Second, there isn't a solid non-combat encounter. Third, the subplot with Samia and King Strohm's tomb is interesting, but misplaced, and it ruins the dungeon's narrative. Is this dungeon a tomb or a dragon's lair? If you think I'm being nitpicky here - maybe you think the dragon moved into a tomb and expanded it for his own purposes - then answer why greedy ol' Firkraag wouldn't seize the existing treasure for himself, especially since the sword and shield are designed to slay dragons. Perhaps it was the guardians that scared him off... oh, wait. They're fire-based guardians and Firkraag is a red dragon. Oops! See? No consistency, and we have to try real hard to concoct a story ourselves to make it fit. And then how did Samia get in past Firkraag's henchmen? Shouldn't we find either her corpse or the hobgoblins' corpses in the front room? But this negative doesn't ding the Windspear Hills as much as the 3rd level of Watcher's Keep, for example, because while it was inconsistent with the dungeon, it wasn't boring and frustrating as an objective. Inherently, collecting mask fragments so you can see an otherwise-invisible guardian is kind of cool. So these really are minor quibbles with an overall masterpiece.

No. 1: The de'Arnise Keep (BG2)
Yes, the choice will no doubt cause controversy, but this dungeon pretty much hits every point needed to be truly great. It is the perfect size and well laid out. The back-story is well-defined, and the ruined castle is quite atmospheric. It has a nice mix of encounters, plenty of creepy places to investigate, and just the right number of secret doors and traps to keep things interesting. Finding and reassembling the Flail of Ages, rescuing Daleson, the Lady Delcia, and Glaicas (if you break the domination spell on him), and opening the drawbridge all provide non-combat objectives. The golem-guarded treasure room on the second floor allows for a neat diversion entirely separate from the main quest while remaining consistent within the dungeon's narrative, and there are five different types of monsters (troll, yuan-ti, umberhulks, golems, and an otyugh), thereby ensuring a fair number of different encounters types. Finally, the monsters are well spaced-out, meaning it is easy to envision (i.e. role-play) a small crack party being able to enter the keep and wiping out its inhabitants a few at a time without having to suspend belief too much.

If I had to say anything bad about this dungeon, I would have to say that its boss, a big troll named Torgal, is on the weak side as a character, although his hints of a larger alliance against the de'Arnise family are intriguing shadows of something more. (Later we learn he was probably in league with the Roenalls, but that's outside the dungeon experience.) All-in-all, Nalia may be annoying to deal with, but her family's keep most definitely is not.

So when deciding on #1, I had to choose between a dungeon that did everything right except for have a slightly weak boss or a dungeon that had a couple minor flaws but a kick-ass boss. In the end, I chose to reward the one that was better over the first three hours over the one that was better for the last ten minutes.

I'm going to have one more post in this series in which I discuss some of the other major dungeons in the various franchises and why they did not make the list. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Top Ten D&D-Based CRPG Dungeons: Nos. 10-6

Last time I discussed what made a good dungeon. That got me to thinking about specific examples and what I would choose as the single best dungeon of all time. That, of course, would be an incredibly difficult choice to make, so since this blog is primarily about CRPGs, I thought I'd restrict it to just those.

Then I realized that would still be difficult, as I hadn't bothered playing Dragon Age yet and the Ultima series is so long ago I can't remember it in detail. Then I'm sure some would argue for "dungeons" out of games like KotOR or Mass Effect. Therefore, I'll restrict this list to what I'll call recent D&D-based games. This includes the BG series, the IWD series, the NWN franchise, ToEE, and PS:T.

Even so, this list will likely not be without controversy, as I'm reasonably sure I have a few opinions that are not necessarily widely shared. Nevertheless and without further ado, here's the first half of my personal top-10 list.

No. 10: The Severed Hand (IWD2)
The IWD1 version of this dungeon isn't too far off this list, but the IWD2 version does enough right to make it. No individual level is all that big, but the main tower has four full levels and then four smaller towers that each have three or four levels above the main tower. There is no end of things to do, as the dungeon is an active citadel/fortress for the bad guys. You can free some slaves, solve a bit of food theft, and do a number of minor quests more reminiscent of a town than a proper dungeon. When the fighting starts, the variety of enemies is a bit restricted to demons and devils, but there are a fair number of golems, elementals, and humanoids to give a little variety. The dungeon is light on traps and devoid of secret doors, but the atmosphere manages to stay tense throughout as you are always aware that every living being in the place can turn on you in a moment if they ever discover you're an imposter. This is the enemy's stronghold, after all. Oh, and about that enemy? The dungeon bosses, the demon-siblings Isair and Madae, also happen to be the game bosses. They aren't the greatest bosses as games go, but for dungeon bosses, they’re pretty cool.

No. 9: The Skein (MotB)
The Skein beneath Coveya Kurg'anis has a number of slight problems, but it does one thing better than anything else on the list: atmosphere. The endless cackling of an insane hag alone would make it a strong contender for best atmosphere, but the mood-setting portion of the area design (lighting, flooded lower levels, shadow door entrances) put it over the top. The puzzles, such as reactivating the machine to deactivate the air elemental guardians, are well-designed and the selection of enemies isn't bad, although it also isn't great. I'm not wild about the layout of the Skein - too many corridors - and it's a little small with only one true level and a few encounters on the exterior and an upper level. Finally, the boss "fight" in the lower level is weak, although the hag's revelation that she's Gann's mother is a neat twist that gives her some characterization. It is true that the real bosses of the dungeon are the floating hags above, but most players will simply talk to them. In short, despite its incredible atmosphere, it doesn't do enough right to contend for the overall crown, but it's still an enjoyable romp.

No. 8: Drearing’s Deep Cult Compound (HotU)
I’m going to do my best to overlook the fact that NWN1’s graphics have aged worse than even the Infinity games because its second expansion pack produced the greatest dungeon in the official NWN franchise and one of the best ever. Drearing’s Deep was a perfectly depressing city where the inhabitants lived in fear until the day their number was called for them to be sacrificed to the cult’s god, Vix’thra. It’s a perfect recipe for a hero, and the cult compound turned out to have more than a few surprises. It had an awesome non-combat encounter at the dark altar on the upper levels where you could “Bless” your weapon into becoming one of utter evil. The idea that you needed a rope to be able to descend down the pits into the lower levels was cool. That you actually needed to stake a vampire once you killed it to keep it dead was new to the NWN-franchise (although BG2 had beaten them to it). The weak points of this dungeon were its comparatively-small size and its overreliance on undead for adversaries, including the level boss, the high priest Soldaris who you actually have to beat twice. Oh, but wait, while he may be the level-boss, he isn’t really the dungeon boss. That’s left to the so-called “god,” Vix’thra. If a dragon is a cool end-boss, then an undead dragon is even cooler. And this battle with a dracolich is one for the ages.

No. 7: Goblin Fortress/Warrens (IWD2)
This entry is something of an enigma to me. The above-ground portions are first-rate whereas the below-ground portions leave me a little - though not completely - cold. The size is a little large but almost perfect, and most of the dungeon is well-laid-out. The exception is the upper level of the warrens, which is essentially a big, long, snaking corridor. While not completely annoying, this level could certainly be scrapped. The range of enemies is larger than might be supposed given that it is a goblin fortress, with trolls and a demon featured alongside the expected goblins, orcs, orogs, and so forth, but the vast majority of enemies are still humanoids of some type. The set piece battle in the fortress courtyard is a gem that lends itself to a variety of party tactics, and the fortress interior leads nicely to the end-boss tussle with a giant bugbear named Guthma. And while a simple bugbear may seem to be the lamest boss of all the dungeons on this list, he poses a suitable challenge for the party level and there are just enough hints of his personality and motivation written into the narrative to make him a believable character in his own right. There are a ton of orcs and goblins stuffed into these warrens, but in this case, it makes sense according to the dungeon's back-story (the enemy is amassing troops for an assault on the Ten Towns), so I can overlook it. There aren't too many traps and no secret doors at all (at least according to my memory), and although there are some non-violent ways to bypass certain battles, there are no truly non-battle encounters.

No. 6: Watcher’s Keep (BG2: ToB)
The behemoth dungeon that came with BGII's expansion pack, Throne of Bhaal, is almost certainly considered by many to be the quintessential dungeon in CRPGs - or at least D&D-based CRPGs - but I can't go that far. First the positives. The back-story for the dungeon is terrific, and the atmosphere is first-rate. The first floor is probably one of the best individual floors of any dungeon anywhere, the fourth floor isn't too far down the list, and the number of different enemies and different types of challenges is staggering. And, of course, Watcher's Keep boasts the best end boss, bar none (assuming you've got the cajones to take him on). So what's the problem? First, at five levels, the dungeon is a bit too big, but the most egregious problem is the third level, a "puzzle" that demands the player choose the correct sequence of exits from each subsequent screen to get through the supposed "maze." Amazingly, simply removing the third level from the dungeon would solve both of these problems, almost certainly leading to the top ranking. As it is, even given that 20% of the dungeon is total garbage, it's still good enough to land at a very respectable #6.

Stay tuned for Nos. 1 through 5!