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!

Monday, March 21, 2011

What Makes a Good Dungeon?

I'm still working on the NWN1 portion of my statistical analysis of modding, so I'll have to get to that another time. However, I've recently replayed Baldur's Gate I and have moved on to Baldur's Gate II. One of the last quests I completed in BGI was Durlag's Tower. It was a dungeon I hadn't faced in several years and so seeing it again got me thinking about my own ideas for what constitutes a good - or even great - dungeon. A quick brain-storming produced the following list.

1) The dungeon can't be too big. I'm sure several people will scratch their heads over this rule. I don't list the converse, which is obvious, but this less-obvious rule is just as true when you think about it. A great dungeon should have several memorable encounters, but the bigger the dungeon the less likely each additional encounter is to be memorable. And simple fodder encounters add little awesomeness to any dungeon but potentially add irritation. After all, very few players enjoy meaningless fights unless their objective is experience farming. Plus the bigger the dungeon, the more likely we are to face the dreaded repeated encounter trigger giving us (in effect) hordes of the exact same thing coming at us. All designers should learn and/or know that when the good ideas for encounters run out, so should the dungeon.

So what size is perfect? In my opinion, three sizeable levels is just about right. This doesn't count one-off encounters outside these levels. For example, a couple guards on an exterior map before you enter level 1 doesn't make the exterior map a "level."

Take a look at this map I pulled from the web by simply Googling "Big Dungeon Map." Now honestly, would anyone like to get lost in this? If a DM I was playing with pulled this out, I would fire him. And if he were doing it for free, I would stop being his friend. Utterly Ridiculous.

2) The dungeon should have more rooms than corridors.
This goes doubly for a party-based game. Take a look at the map to the left. It's the Firewine Bridge ruins in BGI... and it's terrible. A big NO. Getting six characters around that maze of corridors is a nightmare. They each run every which way and get themselves into some dumb trouble before I know what's going on. Oh, and corridors are boring. Far better to have a few big chambers with interesting content than what we got here.

3) The dungeon should feature different types of adversaries. The more types of monsters, the better. Note, this doesn't mean having an orc, an orc soldier, and an orc chieftain. It doesn't even mean having a Fire Salamander and an Ice Salamander, although this is better because each is immune to different energies. Rather, I mean having a few totally different species that require different abilities and pose different dangers. Essentially, if you've used three or more of the different creature groups from the NWN2 editor (i.e. Undead, Humanoid, Magical Beasts, etc.), then you're probably good to go.

4) The dungeon should feature at least one memorable non-battle encounter. In modern CRPGs, this encounter most often falls into the puzzle category, but it doesn't have to. At the very least, it doesn't have to be a traditional puzzle. The NWN2 module Trinity featured a collapsed bridge that needed to be crossed. Durlag's Tower had a room that constantly exploded fireballs and could only be crossed during safe intervals.

4a) Make sure all puzzles don't suck. A corollary to point #4 is that if you do go the puzzle route, try to make the puzzle non-annoying. Mostly, this means allowing the character to do something other than reading lengthy texts or endless dialogs. Durlag's Tower had statues that asked questions about the Tower's history. This was a real drag. The Umar Hills Temple Ruins in BGII had a point where you had to detail the daily rituals of Amaunator - information that could only be gleaned from actually reading the scrolls scattered around the dungeon. *yawn*

But an even bigger no-no as far as puzzles go is the endlessly repeating and/or random rooms and locations. These are the "puzzles" where the trick is to learn the correct sequence of map exits in the correct directions to get through a supposed maze. Often, this comes combined with the endlessly respawning enemies every time you reload a map. Nothing gets me headed to the walkthrough sooner than this tired idea. The worst offender ever was The Fell Wood in IWDII. Yes, I know that wasn't a "dungeon," but it still sucked. Watcher's Keep Level 3 in ToB was another unfortunate example in an otherwise wonderful dungeon.

So what are examples of good puzzles? The Machine of Lum the Mad on Watcher's Keep level 4 is a good one. The HotU puzzle on level 1 of the Maker's Island (in which you deactivate the golems) is another good one. While the NWN1 campaign was generally dire, most of the puzzles were pretty good - or at least I've managed to forget the bad ones. Remember the creator ruins that took you back in time so you could learn the correct sequence of notes to play to open a door in the present? That was a pretty good idea.

5) The dungeon needs enough traps and secret doors to keep things interesting, but not so many that you destroy the flow. Let's face it. Finding hidden stuff is part of what exploring is all about, and the rogue in my party needs a time to shine and feel all manly (or womanly, as the case may be), but I do like these items to be in places we would all at least suspect. Traps on chests are obvious. Traps around that odd statue or the evil altar on the dais are fair game. Even traps in the middle of an open, empty, inviting room are fine. After all, the wary and/or intelligent adventurer might ask why the denizens of a dungeon would leave such a nice spacious area alone.

But the 100+HP trap of death in the hallway in-between all this is a sign of suck. Why? Because it then means that I literally have to have the rogue creep inch-by-inch throughout the entire dungeon. Move forward a bit and wait. Then move forward a bit and wait. Rinse and repeat forever, and that equals no fun.

6) The dungeon needs a memorable boss.
This is almost self-evident, but it still needs to be stressed. All the coolness that is your dungeon needs to build up to the coolness that is the dungeon's master, and there are a couple of ways to do this. First, the boss can have a cool back-story that grips you as a player. This is probably the way to go for humanoid adversaries. Second, it can be a monster that is awesome just for being awesome. Either way, it needs to be a suitable challenge for the party. Firkraag was a cool boss that was a bad-ass monster WITH a cool back-story. Durlag's Tower fell down a bit with the Demonknight because you spent the whole time talking about dopplegangers and Durlag, but he was still pretty cool. The all-time coolest end-boss was Demogorgon in Watcher's Keep. On the other hand, the Ice Labyrinth in TotSC... had a dude with a cape. Not cool.

7) The dungeon needs a compelling reason for being. Note the word "compelling." Durlag's Tower took this to an extreme. In fact, it was essentially an entire expansion in itself. You could learn an entire new story independent of Sarevok's plans in BG1 just at this tower, but you don't need near that level of detail. A beholder cult sprung up beneath the city works fine. So does a dragon's den. Each of those creates a narrative for your dungeon that provides a framework for everything else (layout, creature selection, traps, loot, etc.). You do, however, need something more than a hole in the ground with a bunch of creatures in it. The ankheg warren in BG1 is an example. Is it realistic to think a few ankhegs would be burrowing around some farms? Sure, it certainly works logically, but it isn't the makings of a great dungeon.

8) The dungeon should have a logical ecology. It's a point I've made a dozen times, so please excuse the boredom if you've already heard this, but every dungeon should have a proper ecology. What I mean is that it should be logical that all the creatures therein could live together and survive. A carrion crawler in every room doesn't work for a number of reasons (the boredom of repetitive fights, for one), but it also doesn't make sense logically. Where do all these monsters find enough food to eat? It would have to be the cleanest dungeon in all of Faerun.

Along the same line, it is possible to jam 300 orcs into some caves if you've made some provisions for how they will eat. Are there supplies picked up from highway robbery that's feeding them all? OK, but do they have enough room to sleep?

Finally, do you really think that basilisk and troll are going to live in adjacent rooms in harmony? Don't most creatures carve out a territory? Let's try to avoid monster overload.

So when every room in your dungeon looks like the picture below, time to rethink your design.

8a) Some empty spaces are awesome and awesomely scary. This is the corollary to point #8 because if every creature has carved out its place in the dungeon, then there must be some empty spaces between them. This leaves room for other kinds of cool encounters (see points 4, 4a, and 5 above) or neat details that will really bring a dungeon to life. And sometimes the anticipation of the next encounter can be more scary than the actual encounter.

9) Just say "No" to Frankendungeon. With only the rarest of exceptions, a dungeon should look like it flows together. And the exception is when your characters have somehow traveled into the mind of a schizophrenic. The vast majority of dungeons, however, should utilize different tilesets (or styles) sparingly. This goes back to the dungeon's narrative. If it has a good reason for existing, then it should be consistent within itself. Throwing a bunch of things together just because they are individually cool creates a dungeon that overall sucks. Most often, this rule is broken between levels, but an example of this within the same level is Irenicus' Dungeon from BG2. Much of the dungeon was consistent, but then we had these odd rooms seemingly out of nowhere: a mineral cave, a copse of trees, an entrance to the Elemental Plane of Air. There was a lot of strength in Irenicus' dungeon, but the Frankendungeon aspect kept it from ascending to elite status. Is this dungeon a laboratory for experimentation or a prison or a shrine to a lost love... No wonder Irenicus failed to dominate the mind of an ascending god. He couldn't even control his own...

10) Like all real estate, it's about location, location, location. Certain types of locations are naturally more atmospheric than others. A tried and true winner is the abandoned castle/fort/temple. Almost all my favorite dungeons have the bones of an old medieval stone building. I concede that this entry on the list is much more a matter of my personal preference than the others (it obviously fits with my other interests), but I also believe I'm in the majority here. As proof, think back on what you consider the "classic" dungeons, and I'd wager that most of them fit this profile even as far back as the P&P days. Temple of Elemental Evil? Check. Keep on the Borderlands? Check. Village of Hommlett? Check. Isle of Dread (the abandoned temple in the middle)? Check. And so on. I don't think this is coincidence.

On the other hand, when was the last time a bunch of caves became a dungeon for the ages? How about mausoleums and tombs? Tomb of Horrors is a big classic for this group, but by-and-large they're pretty forgettable too. BGII had a couple dungeons that were completely outside the box like the Planar Sphere and the Astral Prison, but these never quite sang to me the way other dungeons did, and my totally unemperical gut feeling is that I'm not alone here.

I mean, this is a cool map to look at, but it isn't the makings of a great dungeon.

11) The dungeon must be fun. This is the one rule for which you can break all previous rules. All great dungeons must leave the player wanting to restart a new game just to go through that dungeon again. Thinking back on them years later, the player is likely to remember them with the same fondness reserved for first loves...

OK, maybe that's stretching it, but you get the point.

So what are examples of great dungeons? I'm glad you asked because that's the topic of my next couple posts.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

NWN Modding Statistical Analysis: Part 2

Some of the most interesting studies I've ever done resulted in my discovery that the initial assumptions that lead me to the study were wrong. This is one such case.

Last post looked at download and voting rates for NWN2 modules. However, I also wanted to discuss module scores, as it seemed to me that scores were increasing over time. This occurred in NWN1, and there were many explanations posited. One of the most common was that as time progressed, modules were getting better and more sophisticated. Therefore, the rising scores actually did reflect rising quality. Wouldn’t the same phenomena apply to NWN2?

I admit that my initial thought was "no" for three reasons. First, the community-made content for NWN1 increased at a much more rapid rate than it has for NWN2. It is undoubtedly true that some of the community-made tilesets far exceeded those developed by Bioware for the initial game, and the same would apply to a host of creature models, placeables, and so on. NWN2, on the other hand, hasn’t seen nearly the same amount of content. Therefore, newer NWN2 modules use the same tilesets and monsters older ones did and so don’t look decidedly better as a result.

Second, NWN2 started from a higher standard than did NWN1. Very few people just played around with the toolset and released a half-baked mod for NWN2 whereas several dozen did that within the first few months of NWN1's release. Therefore, there wasn’t as far to go up in terms of quality.

Finally, one of the earliest NWN2 modules I played was Zach Holbrook's "Harp and Chrysanthemum" - a module I shall dwell on quite a bit in this post – and with absolutely no false modesty here, I firmly believe that module, released in December of 2007, is every bit as high quality as TMGS, although shorter. Therefore, the Module of the Year for 2007 is not substantially different in terms of quality from one of the top mods by vote score of 2010.

Therefore, I set out to see if I could discover if module scores were really increasing, and if so, why. I took the top 50 modules from the NW Vault, which is all of them from the first page. The only one I removed was "Mysteries of Westgate," which checked in at #46 because it really wasn't a "community-made" mod. Otherwise, everything from the front page was included. I then graphed (1) the current score as of February 28 vs. the release month and (2) the module rank vs. the release month. These graphs are below.

As can be seen, I did denote which of the modules were not traditional adventure modules – things like character generators or OC add-ons – but I included them on the graphs anyway. Now, looking at the first graph, it is clear that scores are generally increasing over time. The equation represents the linear "best fit" for the scoring of only the traditional adventure modules. Theoretically, an adventure mod of a quality to get on the Vault's first page that is released today (x = 0) should get a score of 9.67 whereas one from the beginning of 2008 (x = 38) would be 9.32. So the average adventure module has seen its score increase by 0.35 in a little more than three years. Although I didn't include the equation here, the difference is virtually the same if you include the non-adventure modules, although all scores generally increase.

The information is shown a bit differently in the second graph. Here, the module rank is on the y axis, so only one point can have any given value of the y-axis. Every y-value from 1 to 50 is represented here with the exception of the missing #46 ("Mysteries of Westgate’s" rank). Again, the modules represented to the left of the graph – meaning they’re newer – generally have a lower rank. As can be seen, none of the eleven modules released before December 2007 currently has a rank better than 33rd while none of the twelve modules released in 2010 or later is ranked worse than 35th. Clearly the newer modules tend to be doing better.

As an aside, another major trend jumps out at me, especially looking at the second graph. The non-adventure modules tend to be scoring better at every stage of NWN2's life than their adventure mod counterparts. This trend started early. Looking at the modules released in 2007, "Harp and Chrysanthemum" is far and away the best performing adventure mod, and it's still ranked an amazing #14. However, "Bishop's Romance," released a mere two weeks before H&C is ranked #6. Even today, of the top 10 modules on the Vault, an overwhelming EIGHT – including all of the top FOUR – cannot be considered adventure modules. These eight are "Lute Hero", "Romance Pack for the OC", "Halloween", "The Heist at the NW Lights Casino", "Bishop's Romance", "NWN2 OC Makeover", "SOZ Holiday Expansion", and "DM101 for NWN2" (a new addition to the top 10). The only two modules to buck the trend are "Planescape: Shaper of Dreams" at #5 and TMGS at #7.

This trend, at least, should be easy to explain. Niche modules are apt only to be downloaded by people looking for those types of modules. People looking for said modules are likely to be favorably impressed by them. After all, who would download "Bishop's Romance" except someone looking to romance Bishop? And if that's what you're after, I'm sure the entry does a sterling job and so it will garner high marks. There's very little room to misinterpret what you'll get with such an entry.

To be quite honest, even "Planescape: the Shaper of Dreams" and TMGS are on the niche side of adventure modules. The Planescape setting isn’t for everyone, and I imagine I've lost quite a few downloads from players who have no interest in playing a cleric, much less a Tyrran specifically. Even the Ravenloft setting of "Misery Stone" at #11 might make it a niche module.

But getting back to the main point, it seems pretty clear that some vote inflation is occurring. Now the question is why. My initial thought was that a different kind of player predominated in the early days of NWN2. This player was in the community only because NWN2 was the "new" thing at that point. They bought the game, played through the campaign, downloaded everything that came out, easily had their attention diverted elsewhere, dumped a module if they weren't grabbed by it in 10 minutes, and then left the community as soon as Mass Effect or Dragon Age became the new "new" thing. Now – four years later – we’re only left with the truly dedicated, those people who appreciate D&D and well-developed stories, and their votes aren’t being as diluted by the more transient masses.


My test for this hypothesis was to look at the votes of some older modules. The Vault registers the date on which each vote was cast, so we can look at voting trends on the same module over time. If the prior paragraph were really true, even established modules should see their votes trending upwards over time.

My perfect test case for my hypothesis was the oft-mentioned "Harp and Chrysanthemum." H&C came out in December, 2007, and it has the most votes of any NWN2 module on the Vault at 505. So I logged every vote H&C has, split them by month, and then calculated both the score for that particular month, and the aggregate for all scores up to that point. For example, in December of 2007, H&C had 108 votes that averaged 9.55 for that month. At that point, the module score was (theoretically) 9.55 but because of the way the Vault doesn't count the top and bottom 10% of votes, the actual score at that point was 9.63. In January of 2008, there were another 60 votes that averaged 9.62 for just this batch of 60. However, the aggregate score of the 168 votes through that point after discounting the top and bottom 10% was 9.65. The complete chart is given below.

As can be seen, the hypothesis that H&C's votes are generally rising doesn't hold up. Every month since the beginning, the aggregate score has been between 9.63 and 9.66. In the 14 months since January 2010, six months have had monthly averages below the aggregate and six months have had averages above it. Two months – May and October of 2010 – had no votes at all and so have no data point associated with them. To confirm, I looked at the average scores for each year. In 2007, H&C had a score of 9.63. For 2008, it was 9.67. In 2009, it was 9.64. In 2010, it was also 9.64. Thus far in 2011, it's 9.83, but that only includes five votes thus far, two of which (the high and the low) must be thrown out according to the Vault algorithm, so this is thus far statistically irrelevant.

So I wondered if H&C was a unique case due to its overwhelming early and enduring popularity, so I then looked for something a little newer that still had a fair number of votes. I saw that "Asphyxia" was released in April of 2008, has 179 votes, and is currently ranked #26. The data will come in a bit, but the long and the short of it is that the same trend is apparent. The total score for "Asphyxia" for 2008 was 9.49. In 2009, it was 9.51. In 2010, it was 9.39. Thus far in 2011, it’s 9.5, but that’s only one vote.

Splitting Asphyxia's votes into quartiles, the first 45 votes covering from April 1, 2008 to May 15, 2008, averaged 9.48. The second group of 45 votes, covering until July 30, 2008, averaged 9.54. The third group of 45 votes, covering until January 2, 2009, averaged 9.54. The final 44 votes averaged 9.48. Again, no substantial increase over time, whether that time is defined in years or votes.

So I looked again for a third module. The first two I had looked at had the vast bulk of their votes cast before 2010, and I wanted one that had a substantial number of its votes cast both before and after Dragon Age's release. My idea was that that might be the game that took away all the great unwashed I discussed earlier. I therefore looked for something that released around mid-2009, say April through August. There are surprisingly few that fit that single criteria. "Dark Waters (Full)", "ZORK", "Last of the Danaan", "Serene", and "Lolthanchwi" are it. I removed "Dark Waters" because it is a re-release of a couple already existing modules. "ZORK" only has 26 votes. Among the last three, all have roughly 5400 downloads, but "Serene" has 115 votes compared to "Last of the Danaan's" 69 and "Lolthanchwi's" 51. Additionally, 32 of these votes, or about 27.8% come after January 1, 2010. This is about the same percentage as the others, but the sample size is bigger. So "Serene" was my choice.

The votes for "Serene" for 2009 averaged 9.32. The 2010 votes averaged 9.49. The six 2011 votes to date average 9.35. This module came closest to proving my hypothesis (because the 2011 vote total is still statistically insignificant). However, I'm still not convinced. Even though I picked "Serene" because of its closer proximity to Dragon Age, I'm still left with the obvious fact that the first two modules also garnered a number of votes after January 1, 2010, and they didn't show the same pattern. In fact, H&C has had 31 votes since New Year's Day, 2010, which compares favorably with "Serene’s" 32 votes, although this represents a much smaller percentage of H&C's overall total. Also, a closer look will reveal much more scatter in the month-to-month votes for "Serene." Breaking down the voting further, it started out with a high peak, then came down sharply, and then slowly rose a bit during the time of Dragon Age's release. It's just not the pattern I would have expected if my original hypothesis were correct.

Finally, I did the same analysis for TMGS for my own interest. Because it's only been out 7 months, I don't think anything interesting can be gleaned from those numbers, but for the record, the score has been coming down for it. The monthly aggregate scores for the four modules are given below. Again, note that these are only the monthly aggregates calculated as I described above.

So this analysis sort of shot down my thought that we would see score inflation for all modules, not just the newer ones. There are, of course, problems with the preceding analysis, so I'm not 100% sure I was wrong yet. It is possible that people are less likely to vote on a module that already has a bunch of votes. There may be the thought that their vote doesn't count when there are 500 others unlike when there are only 10-15 votes. People may also vote with the crowd. If they know that H&C has a score of 9.65, they may approach voting from a standpoint of deciding whether it should be a 9.5 or 9.75, even if they would vote a 10 or an 8 if they did not see the score before-hand. To get a much better idea of voting patterns, we'd need to look at the behavior of individual voters, and that gets into psychological factors, not to mention I have no interest in calling attention to individuals here. To get the best idea, we'd have to somehow wipe everyone's memory, re-release H&C today, and see what it would score. That, of course, is impossible.

From my own standpoint, my thoughts on voting have changed recently. When I first played and reviewed H&C in December 2007, I said it was "in the 9.00 range and probably higher" by the new NWN2 voting standards. Right now, I say it's a 10.00 because it's pretty obviously near the pinnacle, if not actually the pinnacle, of NWN2 mods. By the time I reviewed "Trinity" in March of 2010, I didn’t mention a score, but I was pretty ready to call it a 9.75 if not a 10.00. Today, I'd go all the way and say it's a 10.00. So I guess I would admit to some voting inflation of my own... if I voted. I bet there are a number of people who feel the same way.

So another post and I've solved few of my original questions. I am convinced vote inflation is occurring, but I assumed it was occurring universally across the board even for older modules. That doesn't appear to be the case. It's the reason I'm not sure about.