Matt Rhoades has got us playing Neverwinter Nights co-op at work now - since we've made our submissions to the console manufacturers and are just sitting around waiting for them to pass or fail us - and we're enjoying it a lot. The way the different classes complement each other in D&D was always cool; NWN brings it home. A lot of shouting across the halls at each other: "Where are you going?" "Should I open this door?" and so on.
So, since I've reinstalled it on my laptop and I got the D&D bug again, I thought I'd play some of the fan modules that I heard were pretty good, singleplayer. There's this one called *Dreamcatcher* by Adam Miller that I saw recommended on a game design forum, but it's a sequel to *Shadowlords*, so I decided to work through that before moving on to *Dreamcatcher*. I just finished *Shadowlords* a few minutes ago, and I got that feeling I always get at the end of a good game - sorry that it's over.
Now, it didn't totally blow me away. I was expecting some kind of revolution and really it's basically just a competent, near-professional expansion pack. Still: done by one guy. Now, there's only so much you can do when you're reusing the same tilesets and monsters that we've already seen a dozen times. So how does Adam Miller keep us into it? I'm not sure, but he did: I played late into the night last night and when I woke up I wanted to dive right back in again.
Maybe it's the story. Miller breaks it down into five chapters, each a separate module. Although I would have been reluctant to start a 20 hour epic, I had no problem starting a 4 hour one...and then when that one ended with questions left unanswered, I thought, maybe just one more. Each chapter is like a layer of an onion; you solve a mystery only to find there's a deeper, larger mystery behind it. Which, at the end, left me kind of confused and wondering how I got there and what happened...sort of like watching the X-Files, I suppose.
Also, Miller does a good job of making you feel like you're in a story rather than watching a story where you get to play inbetween the plot points. Even more so than the original Neverwinter Nights. I think this is because Miller, in a way, subscribes to the Half-Life philosophy of "no cut scenes" - events conveniently happen as you arrive, you overhear important dialog as you saunter by, and the story unfolds that way. The third module has you chasing evildoers through an abandoned temple - if it was a movie, there would no doubt have been cuts to the evildoers sabotaging the bridge, etcetera - but here you just come across a destroyed bridge and have a comment from your henchman to piece things together. For a game, I think it's better this way; you're more in the character, in the world. Also, you get the feeling that the world would continue on without you; if it wasn't for you, the evildoers would no doubt complete their evil schemes.
Another nice thing is the single unifying theme or motif. Death runs through the entire thing, starting with corpse-trading and then undead and then immortality and gods of death. Adam Miller manages to put a message into the story - if we didn't have death, we'd have to invent it - and really involves you in that message by having a scenario where you have to choose between giving a sick girl immortality or easing her onto the next life. Of course, I saved the game and played it both ways, just to see what would happen. It amounts to an endorsement of assisted suicide, with you playing Dr. Kevorkian, and is probably the highlight of the module, because when are you going to be able to buy a game in a store with that kind of message? Whether you agree with it or not doesn't matter - the fact that it's there takes the game to a new level. I'm reminded of Harlan Ellison's "Paingod" - a story about a god of pain who learned to respect his job when he realized that without pain there could be no joy - except the prose isn't quite as good.
It has issues - there were times when the difficulty seemed overwhelming, although that may have been because I was playing a sorcerer and things are tough for a sorcerer before they get their third level spells. And every now and then Miller would try to be funny - quote Monty Python or whatever - which broke the mood, took me "out of it", but I'm willing to let it slide because - hey - the guy's doing this for fun, right? In fact, if he was too serious, it might make me a bit uncomfortable, like having a DM that's *way* too into it.
(When I was a kid who was *way* too into D&D, I used to dream of having some kind of machine that would make custom miniatures and tiles that would look just like my characters and dungeons - NWN isn't quite there but it's close.)
You know, it's a nice thing that Neverwinter Nights has all this fan-created content, because it gives me the opportunity to try different classes and races without having to see the same story over again. (*Cough* Diablo 2 *cough*.) Maybe once I've finished *Dreamcatcher* I'll try one of these paladin-only ones.