Friday, September 4, 2009

Westgate: Behind the Scenes, Part 3

As before, spoilers for MoW follow.

When I first came onboard in early 2007, my second initial task done in parallel with the development of my companion concept was the creation of several sidequests. These sidequests were broken down into four categories: companion, "fed ex", minor, and major. These categories are pretty self-explanatory, but a couple comments are in order for the last three.

"Fed ex" did not mean literally what we think of: i.e. bring me a book or deliver this wood to the shop at the corner. Rather, it meant a quest that could be done in 10-15 minutes using only one or two encounters with "encounter" meaning either a battle, a trap, or some kind of character interaction. Contrary to the traditional fed ex quest, there was supposed to be some kind of twist to it that made it interesting. Minor quests were to be around 30 minutes and major quests around 45.

I was fortunate to come on the project late in that I could peruse the sidequests already developed by the others and so try to do some different things from what had already been done. For example, if I had found a lack of hack-and-slash quests, I would have written a couple. Had there been a lack of skill-heavy quests, I would have focused in that direction. As it turns out, with one small exception (outlined below), I didn't really find any inbalances, so I could proceed with the type of quests I like with an easy conscience. Beyond that consideration, the only instruction I was given was that Alazander thought Undergate was a bit bare and so wanted me to direct some of my quests to that quarter.

Minor Sidequest: Trouble at the Track
I finished Saleron's Gambit, Part V in the summer of 2006. One of my sidequest ideas for that module was to place a halfling village in the Hullack Forest that the PC would pass en route to the penultimate showdown with The Priestess. In the village, the PC would meet a halfling who had made a drunken boast - followed by a sizeable bet - that he could outrun a deer, a bet he would have to pay off if he couldn't somehow rig the race. Que the PC... I had visions of a cutscene with the halfling hasted in some way allowing him to speed across the finish line ahead of the deer.

Ultimately, I decided the quest was out of place. At that point in the module, the player was rapidly moving towards the end, and it didn't make sense for someone to stop to help someone rig a race. But the core idea was one I still liked.

Eight months later, Ossian gave me the opportunity to resurrect the idea, but the different setting of Westgate demanded that the specifics be changed. The seediness of the city allowed gambling readily enough, not to mention the idea that people would try to rig the races, but the deer had to go. Fortunately, dog racing was common enough in civilization. The idea of a gambling house in a city filled with criminal elements led me to change the one rigging the race from the quest giver (in the original SGV quest) to the entity the quest giver is racing (in the final version). One nod to the original idea was that I kept the quest giver as a halfling.

I immediately envisioned the house owner being a thug of the fighter class. The new idea that the house was magically rigging races naturally led to the inclusion of an arcane caster that could brew the potions. The need to maintain the animals led to the inclusion of a druid. With this, I only needed a rogue to complete a balanced enemy party for the player to battle. In my design document, I therefore gave the tavern owner a brother named Haman, a rogue who formed his connection to the Night Masks and explained how his profitable business could be allowed to operate without molestation. These four, then, would form a suitable final boss fight.

However, I generally love to include ways to utilize character skills in the completion of quests. This led to some of the design choices for the other encounters. First, the player has numerous skill-based ways to get past the half-orc door guard: bluff, lock pick, and so forth. Second, players can brew the antidote to the speed potion if they have the Brew Potion feat. Third, there is a guard that the player can talk into giving up the antidote with any of the talking skills.

In my envisioning of the inner workings of the gambling house, I pictured a slave-goblin doing all the menial cleaning. This led to the encounter the player has with the goblin when it witnesses the player tampering with the dog bowls. The goblin runs away no matter what the player does, but I thought it was a cool flavor encounter that might ramp up the tension that maybe the party will be discovered.

One pain that the sidequest presented was the obvious thought that the player could just slide a potion of speed into the dish, so why go through all the rest of the work to come up with a specially-made potion? This necessitated the confiscation of all potions of speed by the door guards. While at first I thought that made things unnecessarily complicated for relatively little added roleplay value, I came to appreciate it because it did remove the ability for the player to use one particular buff (potion-wise) during the final battle.

As an aside, I was incredibly pleased by the work the map designers did on the Track. It looked better than ever thought it would and far better than I could have done. I do know that there were several rounds of cursing on the scripters' part as they tried to get the racing cutscene right. I guess the pathing proved problematic at points, so all I can say is thank God it wasn't me!

Overall, my satisfaction with the way this quest turned out was a 10 out of 10. It was pretty much exactly as I envisioned. As I'm not going over the Tyrran Enclave again here, I'll say that my satisfaction for that quest was a 9 out of 10. In case you think I'm being too much of a homer, my grades for the next two I designed will be decidedly lower.

Fun fact: Originally, I wanted to call this quest "The Amazing Race," but the title was vetoed due to copyright concerns regarding the popular reality TV show of the same name.

Fed Ex Quest: Tortured Hearts
It may seem odd, but making a fifteen-minute quest unique and fun is actually incredibly hard. There are, after all, only so many unique one-off encounters you can do without blatantly ripping off old ideas. I'd actually rather just do a full sidequest than a so-called fed ex quest. Anyways...

Back when I was young - I'd say in the range of 10 to 12 - I remember watching an episode of the old Twilight Zone in which a woman has been in a tragic accident that required extensive reconstruction surgery. Her face is entirely covered in bandages with only slits for the eyes, nose, and mouth visible. The whole episode is essentially a series of home-life vignettes and trips to the doctor's office in which the doctor tries to prepare her for how she'll look disfigured and deformed when the bandages come off. The episode is unique in that the view is always shot so that only the woman's bandaged face is visible. Everyone else is seen from behind, standing in a shadow, at an odd angle that only shows their lower body, and so forth.

Finally, at the end of the episode, the bandages come off to reveal a total hottie, but when they give her a mirror, she screams in disbelief at how ugly she looks. Then the camera pans back to show the doctors and nurses staring at her, and the viewer sees that they all have the same series of disfigurations, meaning that in this world, the disfigured is normal, and what we see as normal is disfigured.

Place that idea in the Forgotten Realms and add a magical rationale for the "disfigurement," and you have Tortured Hearts. Two factors went into the exact form the quest took. First, the fact that I could use almost any race for the protagonist was what ultimately allowed me to use the idea without the need for bandages, etc. Simply, to a lizard folk, humans must be ugly. Second, the use of lizard folk as the important NPCs in this quest also played into Alazander's request that I utilize Undergate as much as possible.

In the end, I can't help feeling the quest is incomplete, but I think that's a general aversion to fed ex sized quests in general. Therefore, I can't give this quest more than a 7 out of 10 in satisfaction.

Fun fact: In the original draft, if the PC revealed to Gracie that her love, Sarl, has already moved on, her body would later be found in a sewer with evidence that she had killed herself. However, in an official product, suicide is a no-no, so in the final version, she ends up wasting her days away drinking and gambling at the Track. Apparently, killing thousands of bad guys is ok, but killing yourself is not.

Major Sidequest: The Knot of Shou Lung
This idea sprang from the legend of the Gordian Knot, the great Turkish puzzle that promised conquest of Asia to any who solved it. I knew that I did not want the same answer that Alexander the Great used to solve that puzzle, but otherwise I started only with this historical kernel, ideas from a book I was reading at the time on the organization of medieval European guilds, and the idea that I again wanted to take the quest into Undergate if at all possible. Additionally, the only shortcomings I noticed in the list of sidequests already confirmed for the game was that there was a shortage of puzzles, so I tried to add some in here.

And that was key. At heart, I wanted the quest to be what the actual Knot was: a big puzzle. This led to the mysterious circumstances surrounding the trophy's dissappearance, the riddle in the case, and the puzzle door lock in the lair of the riddler. The prominence of the riddle led to the idea that a sphinx would be the quest giver, but there were no sphinx models in the toolset, and creature models are simply too expensive to do for just a single sidequest. Therefore, the sphinx became polymorphed into bipedal form. The poem itself went through a few iterations, and the final form was heavily influenced by Hugie, who turned out to have a bit of a poetic streak in him.

Undergate necessitated an enemy or faction who would be at home there. As I thought - and still think - the drow are overplayed, and I'd already used monstrous creatures for Tortured Hearts, I settled on the duergar. Once I had the final enemy, the backstory of the Knot began to formulate as an artifact of the wars between dwarven factions, and once the artifact became dwarven in origin, the truth that the Knot is simply a marvel of ancient dwarven construction popped out.

The duergar also brought to mind another game in which they were prominent: Icewind Dale 2. I remember in that game that as the party exits the cellar of the Black Raven Monastery, they are ambushed by several duergar who had aided the party earlier. The first time I played the game, I was just clicking my party towards the door, and some unfortunate pathing issues left my party scattered when the ambush was sprung. The resulting battle was brutal and required all my wits to survive... and almost ten years later, I still remember the immense satisfaction I got when I beat those bastards with only two characters left standing. With the duergars slated for The Knot of Shou Lung, I decided I wanted to replicate that battle if at all possible. To do that necessitated a situation where the duergar could appear to be helpful only to then ambush the party.

Originally, however, the party had to penetrate the duergar compound, and I specifically requested some interesting battles up front. In my quest document, I didn't specify what they were, and so I was dismayed when I didn't see any battles at all in my initial play-through. It was Alan Miranda of all people came up with the solution when I pointed this out. The crossbowmen on both of the raised platforms as the party tries to fight their way to the ladders are all his idea.

That also illustrates one of my design philosophies. I hate making upper-level enemies by simply making superhero versions of lower-level enemies (like the Thayan Gnolls in MotB who must be 15th level). I would rather increase difficulty level of battles by giving lower-level enemies superior position, numbers, or some other advantage. In this way, the player gets to keep the "specialness" of his advanced levels while still being challenged. All of the duergar in that battle except the bosses are 5th level, though some of them are rogues which gives extra oomph to their blind-side attacks.

Incidentally, that same philosophy applied to the fight in the main room of the Thayan Compound of the Tyrran Enclave, in which the player must bash through crates, navigate a grease-covered walkway, and dodge explosive barrels, all while getting pounded from all sides by elemental-arrow-wielding 3rd level rogue archers.

With all the twists and turns, the quest ended up being a very long one. Nevertheless, I do not feel it offers enough variety in how one can solve it. I don't have any ideas for other options, but I normally favor quests with a great deal of openness to them, so I can't really say I'm more than 7 out of 10 in terms of satisfaction at how this turned out.

Fun fact: Originally, Porthyria's polymorphed form was a human woman, but WotC's insisted she be changed to an elven woman, as they sought to increase the racial diversity in the game. As far as I'm concerned, she's actually a sphinx, so who cares what she looks like.

So these are the four quests I wrote. Of the 17 total sidequests, I believe the breakdown is as follows: Alan Miranda - 1, Hugie - 2, Me - 4, Nemorem - 5, Alazander - 5. Sorry to anyone I might have short-changed.

Next time, I intend to discuss a hodge-podge of other topics regarding Westgate.


Anonymous said...

Good stuff.

flem said...

Fascinating, particularly the odd level of micromanaging by WOTC.

Russ said...


Just to be clear, WotC did overrule Porthyria's illusionary race. However, it was Ossian - probably to forestall problems with Atari - who vetoed the suicide in Tortured Hearts.