Monday, August 24, 2009

Westgate: Behind the Scenes, Part 1

Maimed God Update
Progress has been slow. I was sent on another business trip to Alaska last week, which meant zero progress was made. At the end of this week, I'll be taking my wife somewhere for her birthday. It's a surprise, and she sometimes reads this blog, so I'll have to reveal exactly where later on. Then it looks like I might have another business trip after that.

But yesterday I did manage to thoroughly test one of the areas I hadn't tested all that much yet, so I think it's pretty good for now. In addition, I finished writing a new dialog for a new "flavor NPC." Essentially, after working to add content to Act II, I thought some of the areas in Act III were bare in comparison. So more content got added.

Anyway, I have some more targeted testing this week, and then I think I'm going to do one more complete pass-through of Act III and then it's on to campaign-level testing.

Mysteries of Westgate
Since progress on TMGS is slow and I can't post screenies of Act III anyway without spoiling the hell out of the adventure, I'm going to turn to a subject I've been patiently waiting to write about: some behind-the-scenes of the Westgate development. Note that this is not going to delve into the whole "why was it delayed" saga. I almost definitely don't know everything, and what I do know is secret. However, I will reveal how I became involved and what my thoughts were as the project came together: essentially a Developer's Diary but after-the-fact. Right now, I envision this being a four-part series, but this could change if I think up more interesting content.

The Beginning, or How I Became Involved
It was January, 2007, and I had just handed in my resignation for my previous real-world job. During the time I was cleaning out my desk and ticking down my final days, I had little to do, and so on a whim, I logged into my hotmail account and - a very rare event - I checked my trash bin to see if any legitimate messages had been caught by the spam filter. Yes, I was very bored.

Well, in between all the advertisements for penis enlargements and new methods to make my girl happy, I saw a note from Alazander. Thinking back, it was odd that it got flagged as spam, as we had exchanged a couple e-mails previously in regards to some comments he made about "Saleron's Gambit," but there it was. Fortunately, it was only a couple days old at that point, so I could still answer in a reasonably-timely manner. Opening the messgae, I was surprised to learn that he was now involved in Ossian (like everyone, I had played DoD), and there were some openings coming up. They needed a scripter, but they also might need a new developer, and would I be interested? After a few e-mails, I had a phone interview with Alan Miranda, who mentioned that, though he hadn't played the SG series, he had noticed that SG V was rated right under DoD on the new modules charts (#1 and #2 - yes, I remember). By the end of the conversation, I was in. It was only left to decide in what capacity.

Of course, I would have done either the scripter or the designer jobs, but I mentioned I'd rather be a designer. As it turns out, one of their designers ended up leaving the team later that week, and I was slotted into his place. Honestly, I don't remember who that was, but I do remember he was someone pretty well known in the NWN community at the time, and he had developed some mods on his own that I had heard of. Thanks to him whoever he was...

The Birth of Charissa Maernos
So within days, I was in heavy planning. The storyline for Westgate had been finished for a while, and most of the sidequests were planned as well, but very little content had actually been done in the toolset. I was probably only one to two weeks behind in actual toolset time. Anyway, I needed to quickly come up with a companion and several sidequests, get them approved, and start writing.

I already knew that two of the companions were a fighter named Mantides and a rogue named Rinara, so I thought up a character concept for a wizard, but when I spoke with Luke, there was silence on the other end of the phone, at which point he said that because of the heavy undead content in the story, they'd rather have a divine healer.

As an aside, prior to my involvement, the third companion was going to be a female bard named, I believe, Eudice. Because bards have access to healing spells, this was agreed to even though bards are not technically divine casters. I got the impression, however, that bard was not the preferred class for the third companion (strictly my impression here), and they didn't need to worry with me. At the time, I didn't much care for bards, although my feelings on the class have modified recently for the better. What it did do was pin down the gender of the companion. As Eudice was female, a female voice actress had already been hired, so that placed an additional restraint on my companion.

So it was now back to the drawing board. Keep in mind that this was all pre-MotB, so there was no Favored Soul or Spirit Shaman, so the list of divine casters (minus bards) was Cleric, Druid, Paladin, and Ranger. Rangers aren't much in terms of spell-casting. Neither are paladins, and this would have trampled on Mantides' back-story anyway, so that left Cleric and Druid, and I just decided that Cleric worked better in a city-based adventure. Honestly, this didn't thrill me, as I was then writing a novel centered around a female cleric, but I set to work doing what I could.

It was around this time that I decided I didn't have the patience to write a novel and so changed TMGS to be a NWN2 module instead. However, I liked the protagonist I had envisioned, Sheridan Steele, and so I took most of her mannerisms and ported them over to the new companion. In TMGS, the novel, Sheridan was a tall, blonde, Amazonian, tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoners enforcer who had trained with an elite cadre of paladins in her home town of Neverwinter. There, she had learned to use both a tower shield and a warhammer. In the only battle scene I had written to that point, I had envisioned one of her favorite battle tactics as essentially bull-rushing opponents with her tower shield, pinning them up against walls, and using her weight to bash them into submission. She was also left-handed (unfortunately unable to be duplicated in NWN), and this made her tough to handle, as her blows came from the opposite direction that most adversaries expected. In demeanor, Sheridan was unyielding and merciless... at least to begin with. This created the basis for tension with her companion, Tancred, who was deeply distrustful of the Tyrran church.

So those who have played Westgate can see how Sheridan became Charissa, but only externally. I was determined that I would not give Ossian that character in case I wanted to come back to her in the future, and so I resolved that the new character would have a different name and a different backstory. When I release my character creation guide for TMGS, one of my hints will be to not make the character from Waterdeep because the story doesn't work if the character already has contacts in that city. I already knew this, of course, and so I deliberately chose Waterdeep as the home of my new character, as this would force me to think beyond the character I had already created.

So I downloaded the Waterdeep source book from the Ossian server and began to just read. I'm not sure I can really outline how all the ideas began to come together from there, but the pirate theme from Westgate's lore combined with the Waterdhavian nobility to coalesce into a new backstory that featured both aspects as well as slave-trading. Looking through the businesses of all the noble houses of Waterdeep, I saw that the Maernos family had once specialized in slave-trading, though it is now illegal in Waterdeep I believe. From there the name and backstory just worked itself out.

Because I was already working on TMGS in a couple forms, I didn't want Charissa to be a Tyrran. Originally, she was a Lathanderite, but this was vetoed by Alazander because of the heavy inclusion of the Lathanderite church in MoW. On my own, I tried to work Charissa into the churches of Ilmater and several others before reluctantly coming to the conclusion that, because her backstory dealt with the theme of justice or lack thereof, Tyr made the most sense. Thus, in a sense, when Charissa mentions to the player that she tried several different churches before settling on Tyr, it's the truth.

So by mid-February of 2007, Charissa had been born in her final form. Next time, I'll give my interpretation of the character. Despite her apparent one dimensional nature, she is actually the most complex character I've written to date, though some in TMGS will best her. But all that's for another post.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


I returned from Maryland a few days ago and got right back to work on TMGS. I've finished my last play-through and have already handled most of the issues I noted. There are a few left, including a couple rather serious ones. For example, there was a bug I found by handling quests in a different order from what I originally envisioned; a needed character for one sidequest leaves at a certain point in the core path making the sidequest unworkable. That's pretty much a "DUH!" moment, but it's amazing how blind you can be when you're so used to thinking about the adventure in a certain way. It's easily correctable, though I will need a bit of time to implement the change.

Still, overall I was very pleased with how polished it was. Release is getting closer all the time.

Thomas Cromwell
One thing that my trip to Maryland did for me, though, was that it forced me away from the computer and therefore made room for me to churn through some of the books I've been meaning to get to. Actually, I got through one book: "Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII's Most Notorious Minister" by Robert Hutchinson.

I can't remember where I saw the comment now that caused me to buy the book, but in the back of my mind, I had the impression that one of the author's ideas was to present a case for Cromwell being much more active in Anne Boleyn's downfall than is generally accepted. Having read the book, I don't really see that as his case; he pretty much took the standard line on the subject... to the extent that Anne even featured in the book, that is.

My biggest gripe is that the author didn't seem to know what he wanted to do. As a quick explanation, there are two extremes to historical writing, either of which is valid and useful. On the one hand, you can write for a professional audience, in which case you present a clear, logical case with copious notes and well-documented sources for any argument you present, no matter how small. The only things that are not documented are facts so universally accepted as to not be in dispute. This type of book is tedious for any but the most interested reader.

The other extreme is what is sometimes referred to as "popular history," in which the author uses notes sparingly or not at all. Often, these are written almost as a narrative or story designed to hold the attention of a reader who is potentially only mildly interested. In the latter, the book is written for a reader who will mostly assume that the author is a superior authority on the subject and so will just accept what is written as true. In the former, the audience is likely not to consider the author a superior authority on the subject and will need convincing if they are to agree with a view different from the one they already hold.

With the book in question, however, the author seemed to jump back and forth a bit too much for my preference, though he obviously tried more for the former style than the latter. As such, it's hard for me to recommend the book to a serious scholar and impossible for me to recommend for those merely interested.

"Thomas Cromwell" is certainly negative in tenor towards Cromwell, as could be gleaned from the title. This is another big sign that the author isn't entirely interested in an academic treatise, as he has no problem interjecting his opinion of the man. Oddly, however, the epilogue then credits him with several useful and even positive changes in English government. These include reformation of the tax system and a curbing of some government abuses, though the author points out that this did not extend to Cromwell himself. Indeed, Hutchinson claims that Cromwell so enriched himself, both legitimately and illegitimately, that by the end of his life he was the third richest man in England after only Henry himself and the Duke of Norfolk. (Incidentally, if the claim is true, then that would make him wealthier even than Suffolk, which would be quite the accomplishment.)

What I do find interesting is that this book seems to be one of a recent slew of offerings on the subject of Thomas Cromwell, which leads me to believe he is drawing increased interest lately. It might make an interesting juxtaposition with another recent publication, "The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant." The strange parallel in the titles, publication dates, and even the similarity of the covers make it look like two neighbors got together and decided to have a sort of mini-debate in the presses.