Friday, December 30, 2011

Neverwinter Nights 2: Grimms' Fairy Tales contest mods

There have been several "firsts" surrounding this game, which ended up also being "lasts", such as Mysteries of Westgate, which was described as the first adventure pack for NWN2, with the promise that there would be more to come. Alas, Atari's handling of that program looked about as disastrous as the Premium Module program for NWN1, and the release of Mysteries of Westgate was delayed for a year and a half after it was finished and ready to go (allegedly for some nebulous, asinine DRM-related reasons, but more likely because Atari wanted to release the two official expansion packs first), and it became the first and last adventure pack for NWN2.

Other such "firsts and lasts" were in community projects and contests, such as the excellent but overly optimistically-specified 2008 Halloween community pack reviewed earlier, and Obsidian's own community contest, which I'm reviewing here. Early after the release of NWN2, Obsidian held a contest for modmakers to make a short module with the toolset, with the theme of Grimms' Fairy Tales. As far as I can tell, this was the only contest that was held, and I wish it had been only the first of many, as they had planned it to be.

I would think, since Obsidian specified the versions of the stories as collected by the Brothers Grimm, that they wanted the modules to be the harsh, often undeveloped or half-remembered Germanic oral versions of the stories, rather than the watered-down derivations from modern times, or the older Italian and French stories many of them originated as (Perrault published some of them over a century earlier than the Grimms in Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé, and Basile published some close to two centuries earlier in Il Pentamerone). In practise, the modules ran nearly the full gamut, from dark Germanic, to Disney, to patchwork spoof (which may be redundant when in the same sentence as "Disney" in this case), so the actual theme of some of these modules was more along the lines of fairy tales in general rather than Grimms-specific.

A little note about the Grimms themselves, and how to refer to them. I see many variations in spelling and punctuation whenever the topic arises, many of them wrong. The two brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, can be referred to correctly as "the Grimm brothers", "the brothers Grimm", or simply "the Grimms" (plural because there are two of them). The main confusion arises when referring to the stories they collected and published. The translation of the title they used themselves was "Children's and Household Tales", but the stories were published under many titles over the last 200 years, some of which used incorrect grammar themselves, all relating to where and when to put an "s" at the end of the name or use an apostrophe. Here are a few grammatically correct variations: "Grimms' Fairy Tales" (plural possessive with the apostrophe at the end), or "tales from the Grimms", "tales from the brothers Grimm", "the Grimm brothers' tales", etc., etc.

All right, enough historical and grammatical pedantry -- on to the modules!

The Birthday, by Zach Holbrook

This was the first one I tried, and it was very well-done, despite being a solo adventure. If I had played as a mêlée character I would certainly have had an easier time of it, but I was a ranger, and unprepared for the amount of solo combat this module contained.

I had trouble getting this mod to run properly, but this was entirely my fault, due to a mistake in installing it.

This author went with a stark German feel with the names and overall story themes (aside from the fairy tale source material itself), though it also had a strong French/Celtic/Scottish influence with the unseelie fairies and redcaps (I don't recall the Grimms writing about redcaps, aside from Little Red Riding Hood, who they called "Little Redcap", but I could be forgetting something). Regardless, these elements were highly welcome, and gave a very different feel to this world than usual D&D settings. The overall plot is based largely on The Wolf and Seven Kids, but I can't think of any fairy tale the "village secret" theme might have come from.

There's a side collection quest, though I'm not sure it's necessary to formally take the quest in order to get the rewards, since the items you collect are all pieces of gear that you can use in their own right. These items have names and descriptions which make reference to other well-known tales. They're hidden all over the woods, the trees of which are very large and dense. I played the mod with the fading trees turned off, and it made for a nicely claustrophobic experience.

The module is well-written, and features multiple endings depending on a critical choice you make during the course of the main quest. Recommended.

The Rampion Champion, by Death Quaker

This second module I tried was much shorter, and took a more lighthearted approach. It focuses entirely on the prenatal period of the story Rapunzel, and you play as the husband of the pregnant mother-to-be who craves the rampion growing in the enchantress Gothel's garden. Your house interior, where you begin, and the garden itself are the only two locations in this module.

The house is a typical NWN2 interior, and is rather larger than it needs to be. It also has no lighting at all, and I could only see by the dim ambient light. Having seen this kind of poor lighting in at least one other module from the early times of the game's release, I suspect this is due to people typically having played the game with shadows turned off at that time, since they were a little too processor-intensive for many computers of the time. Anyway, after receiving the quest from your wife and picking up some equipment from the armoire, you end up in the garden.

The garden is very large, and rather pretty. Time doesn't advance here, and it's always night, and as an exterior it's free from the poor lighting of the interior. There are two tilled patches -- one for maize and the other for rampion -- with "garden gnomes" working the land, glowing friendly pixies flying around, and several enemies. One patch has a macabre "scarecrow", and the other has a guardian dire wolf. Reading the descriptions of these various creatures and items is recommended for the full experience.

The task is to collect 3 samples of rampion. One of these is obtained through a quest given by a water nixie, whose character is well-written. She wants you to deal with a "merciless manikin" (which brings Rumpelstiltskin to mind), who asks you a riddle taken from yet another story!

This one also features several endings based on a choice you make near the end. I recommend this module as well for a short bit of fun and interactions.

Happily Never After, by Allyndn the Beggar

This one was quite a disappointment after the other two. It was much longer, but all of that extra time was basically running around the unnecessarily-restricted paths. It also suffered from the nonexistent interior lighting, and whatever scripts were supposed to fire near the climax didn't entirely work.

The writing was uneven, and dialogues were all delivered in cutscene style, with very long pauses that couldn't be advanced past manually. I would have preferred that the dialogues had been delivered in the box-style.

The goblin mine was perhaps the best part of the module, and I can see what the author might have been trying to accomplish with the landscapes in the search for the prince, but it just wasn't quite there.

The graveyard was exceptionally tedious for me as a solo player, and was just filler combat with no plot relevance. There were several crypt buildings with doors that could be partially manipulated, making me think I needed to get inside them, but those turned out to be (probably unintentional) red herrings. The troll who guarded the entrance to the graveyard forced dialogue and re-demanded payment every time I passed the trigger, which I did several times in trying to deal with the creatures in the graveyard.

When I finally found both of the plot-required elements and returned to the house (which I had previously explored first), there was no new dialogue, and no way to go upstairs. Possibly the module expected me not to have spoken to the stepsisters until after finding the prince and the monk. At any rate, I force-attacked them, and one of them dropped the key.

When I got upstairs, I was treated to a mostly-broken cutscene with the camera pointing at nothing because the AI had gone off to do its own thing, and when it was time to fight the final boss, the two "allies" simply ran around the room the whole time, speaking battle lines, but lending no aid.

It was a nice idea, but I can't recommend this, though you could always give it a try if you use a high-level character to bulldoze your way through the fights, and have a permanent haste effect to speed through the very long pathways.

A Walk In the Woods, by Wyrin

This one is very nicely put together. It begins with a brief cutscene to introduce the story, then an interactive conversation between my character, Thumbelina, and Tom Thumb, which establishes us all as friends and co-workers (and party members), and their different personalities. The prince had run off after being turned into a frog by the villainess, and our task was to find him before the spell becomes permanent. Each of the companions had conversations available if I chose to talk to them, including comments on "our current situation", which appeared to change whenever we were inside one of the houses.

The enchanted forest is pretty, colourful, and always night time, and the path leads through a roundabout with locales and characters from different stories, such as Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rumpelstiltskin. I stopped by Snow White's mining operation first, where she told me that the dwarves had failed to return from the mine, but that she couldn't let me in until I had found something to lure them back out with.

Next I stopped at a gazebo where Rumpelstiltskin stood with a loom and a spinning wheel. He offered to spin materials into gold thread for me, and the dialogue suggested I could use that to rescue the dwarves, but first I would have to find a suitable material to spin the thread from.

Next was Grandma's House, where an eloquent woodcutter stood waiting for reinforcements before entering the house to investigate the savage sounds from inside. With him joined as a third party member, we went inside. There were wolves and wolf cubs to fight, loot to be found, and an encounter upstairs that follows the Grimms' version of Little Red Riding Hood straight. The woodcutter said farewell afterward, but didn't actually leave the party.

Next, there was a house on a hilltop where a dryad called "Collector of Stories" stood. She asked for a story, and I was presented with a large list of options for skill checks involving telling a story. As a bard, I chose the "perform" option, and I was given a choice of three possible rewards for my successful check (which also earned comments from my companions).

A witch wearing the appearance of Sydney Natale awaited me at a secluded cottage, marked by a trail of bread crumbs and an unsecluded sign stating "Splendiferous sweets and tasty treats await all good girls and boys!" A Hansel and Gretel section, apparently. Her dialogue indicated what the graphics did not -- that her house was made of sweets. She sent me on a quest to find some apples, which she could make into applesauce for her dinner of "suckling pig", which she invited me to share as the quest reward. Well, obviously it wasn't really pork she was roasting, but her cottage door was locked beyond my party's ability to pick, so there was nothing to do but find apples. I recall Snow White offered a "magic apple" as the reward for her quest, which she wasn't aware was poisoned. I like how these quests all seem to depend on each other.

Next I approached Rapunzel's tower. Ah, that's no doubt where I'd find something to spin into gold -- her hair!

The tower was actually a rather short one. Perhaps there weren't many tower-like assets in the vanilla set. At its base, an NPC called "The Prince" called for Rapunzel to let down her hair. In conversation, Tom Thumb said we shouldn't be wasting our time, since we needed to go rescue "The Prince" without acknowledging that this NPC was also called "The Prince".

This prince joined the party when I offered the scissors I had obtained from the woodcutter to use in clearing the chamber of Rapunzel's hair, which was blocking his entry.

The tower consisted of several hallways full of "hair golems", arranged in a square around a central room, so I think it was meant to give the impression of a kind of winding staircase. At the top, Neeshka played the role of an evil sorceress harvesting hair from Rapunzel to make these golems. After a boss fight yielding plenty of loot, we rescued Rapunzel.

As expected, we received some hair. The prince said he was going to stay with Rapunzel in the tower to finish destroying the sorceress' works, but like the woodcutter, he didn't leave the party either. I manually booted him out.

I gave the hair to Rumpelstiltskin and barely passed a skill check on getting him to hand over the golden thread he spun out of it. On my way back to Snow White with the thread, I found the missing frog prince at a pond. He said he needed something to eat in order to break the spell. So it looks like these side quests were actually necessary to the main plot (even though logically, working for the crown as I was, I should have been able to just run back to the castle and get as much food as he needed).

Snow White offered the dwarf Sneezy as a companion for the mines, which were infested with undead, some bat-like creatures, and some cave locusts. It was full of loot as well, to the point where I needed to start leaving some things behind, because my party couldn't carry everything anymore, and lots of traps. There was one little stretch of hallway that somehow pulled the entire population of a room that I couldn't even see to attack my party at once, resulting in a couple of deaths before it was over.

When I encountered a single mummy, it was a prelude to finding what the dwarves had recently excavated -- a tomb that had contained a hibernating necromancer, who was now keeping the dwarves hostage. This was a challenging fight, and I barely survived with a single standing party member. I enjoyed it! The necromancer dropped a large amount of loot, including a special mirror item with special abilities.

Snow White rewarded me with the apple, which I then took to the witch to make into applesauce (though this is another place where I should have been able to go to the prince, since this was "something to eat"). The witch made plenty of veiled references to the true nature of the "piglets" in the basement, and said that I should check on them before she roasted them. Of course it was Hansel and Gretel down there, and I had to fight some hellhounds before going up to confront the witch.

The witch turned invisible, so I used that magic mirror to see invisibility, which seemed like it helped. She dropped a huge amount of loot, and I was rewarded with Hansel & Gretel's leftover bread crumbs, which the quest log told me I could feed to the frog prince as his "something to eat".

The prince accepted the food and turned human again, joining my party to confront the main villain, Maleficent (spelled Melificent in the module). We found her at the bridge to the palace, with Cinderella. There was a showdown, during which Cinderella (a sorceress) joined the party, and we fought one big final boss battle with plenty of dialogue and challenge! Then, alas, the module was over.

What a ride! This was far and away the best module of all contest entries I've tried. It has excellent writing, great characterisation and dialogue, well-designed and interesting quests, and appealing locations. The interactions between Thumbelina and Tom Thumb made it especially entertaining, and the module was extremely satisfying all around. I must look for more modules by this author.

Daark Twins, by E.C.Patterson

This one casts you in the role of a pair of siblings named Daark, an analogue to the Grimms. I used the included character, a wizard, and my bard sister joined automatically, forming a party of two.

The back story is that we travelled from a small town named Anaatnas (no doubt "Santa Ana" spelled backward) to find out about some "wondrous thing" a white wizard was working on in a tower in the middle of a lake. Along the way there was an interesting and somewhat bizarre encounter that resulted in some water-walking after it was done.

I interpret the wizard's exposition to mean that a large and ambitious module, which was under construction, has gotten out of control and was released with a lot of bugs, and he wants us to retrieve it so he can finish it properly.

I'm not happy with the spell selection that was provided with this character...basically no offensive spells at all, and the bard sister makes a poor tank. I was wiped twice by a group of unruly "kids" once I got to the tower. The "kids" appeared to represent yea-sayers and nay-sayers amongst mod downloaders and players.

The next floor had more modding metaphors, this time in the form of some miniature pit-fighting to decide which module was the best. It also ended in some combat. I ended up turning the combat settings all the way down for this module.

The next floor was full of near-dead gnomes at workstations, who the leader explained were working on bugfixes and implementing requested features. In the middle of the room was a familiar colour-changing puzzle. It didn't work as it was supposed to, though, and I ended up beating it in only two moves, which I shouldn't have been able to do. In any case, it rewarded me with a "fix" item to use on the rampant module (called "The Creation").

After a brief encounter with an ominous woman whose purpose seemed to be to provide a safe environment for practising a game mechanic to be used immediately afterward, we advanced to the boss -- fighting the Creation, which was a giant blade golem. This was the only enjoyable combat for the module, since two other characters joined in to help, making it a reasonably-sized party at last. It all wrapped up with the Daarks telling the story in a tavern.

Even though it didn't seem to relate itself to the theme of the contest at first (aside from making the characters analogues to the Grimms), the Grimms' collection does include some allegorical entries, and this module was certainly an allegorical tale. There was some fun and novelty to be had here.

Witch in the Wood, by Lord Niah

This was a good module based around Hansel & Gretel. As was suggested, I played as a ranger (3rd level), though I had only played that class once before (in The Birthday), because the author said there were little extras for that class. I'm not sure what they were, but it could have been notifications about finding bread crumbs, or perhaps finding things when searching placeables. The Grimm brothers themselves make an appearance as vendors near the starting area.

The first half of the module is exploration. The woodcutter wants you to find his kids, and to do that, you have to go off the path into a dense forest. The area is designed with plenty of variation in terrain height, lots of vegetation, and a mix of normal and large-scaled trees. I still played it with "tree fading" turned off, so I used character mode and zoomed in pretty close to the character in order to see around all of the plant life. It gave the exploration a closer, more intimate feel, and sometimes I really did find things by just stumbling over them (like a body).

There were some wolves scattered around, and also a couple of ogres. The ogres were a bit superfluous when looking at the module as a whole.

The gingerbread house was an appropriate approximation, and not so much like a regular wooden house like the same situation in one of the other modules. Once inside, there were some good conversations and interactions, and the kids became full companions! There were special items and some good readables. Some placeables could be searched, others didn't respond. Afterward, there was an obstacle that seemed to have multiple solutions (I got past it using an item I had found earlier in the forest). Definitely worth playing.

The Mount of Evil Counsel, by Nir Idan

This one was the most unique of all I've tried so far. The story doesn't seem to be based on any fairy tale in particular, but it sounds like it could be, being the story of an evil cannibal witch who grants fertility to childless couples in exchange for a yearly payment afterward, "repossessing" and eating the children when the parents inevitably default on their payments. You play as one such child, having been sent by your failed parents to give yourself over to the witch. The file description suggested playing as either a fighter or a rogue, and offered some skill point suggestions. I tried a fighter first.

The scope of the module is small, as expected, but the titular mount is densely packed with NPCs, puzzles, and interactive spots which comprise the uniqueness I mentioned at the beginning. This module has a large number of choices, and I saw many places where my choices could open up or close off alternate paths through the story. Unfortunately, in my first attempt as a fighter, my only useful skill for these encounters was the Intimidate skill, and it wasn't useful for all of the encounters.

Another unique element is that the dialogue and descriptions were all made in the form of a written story. Instead of my dialogue choices saying only the words I would speak, it described the conversation as would be done in a book. For instance:

"Served to the witch?" exclaimed Solveig Siger. "The witch eats people?"

This first time, I tended to fight my way through the servants of the witch, as most of them seemed to be unrepentant in their actions. I obtained a disguise kit and a brooch from these fights. The only trouble with these items was that none of them had descriptions, so I didn't know what I was supposed to do with them. I found that the disguise kit was something desired by the werewolf in the cave, but that dialogue ("I have the disguise kit you wanted") should not have appeared, because I was unable to pass the diplomacy check needed for her to tell me that she wanted it in the first place.

This was the first module that included reactions by the NPCs of certain actions of mine. There was a locked cabin door which I began to bash, but the nearby shepherd ran up to me when I did that and told me to stop! There was another locked door inside the witch's house that had a special event for bashing as well. It's also the first one I've seen that seems to actually let you stealth past a talk trigger if the NPC doesn't notice you!

Of the many interactive items and possibilities, I don't know which ones were done correctly, or what some of them were for. For instance, I was able to obtain some wood pieces from inside the house, and combine them with another item (not sure which...possibly the disguise kit) to fashion a pair of fake hands, but I have no idea why I should have wanted a pair of fake hands. I thought it might have something to do with fooling the blind cook, because I was able to use her oven to cook a poisoned meal with some meat from the hunter's cabin and a particular mushroom, but I couldn't find a way to make use of them.

I ended up trying to fight the witch, but my weapons were useless against her, and I inevitably failed, even when I reloaded and used the mushroom instead on my weapon to make it enchanted against evil. Not really a surprise that a level 1 character should fail against a witch powerful enough to commit these kinds of misdeeds with impunity for years, though.

I started over again, this time as a rogue, with points in bluff and diplomacy, and things went much better that time. New items appeared with my spot skill, which I was able to use elsewhere. I also tried out some of the alternate dialogue options this time around, and found that it changed the tone of the entire conversation in some cases. This time, I found that I was able to make deals with the little man and the fairy, and get an item that caused the cook to conspire with me against the witch. However, I couldn't figure out what to do with the little man's suggestion about tainting the fairy's tree stump. I found the stump, but the only item I had that showed up in the options for it was the mushroom, and when I used it, nothing different happened with the fairy, and I lost the mushroom, so I undid that. This playthrough also revealed something that was a red herring on the other playthrough was actually part of the plot in this one.

I found what was supposed to be done with the well, but it turned out to be an evil action, even though it was against a man who was fattening up two little girls in a pen like livestock, for his mistress the witch. This is a very dark-themed module, considering how long the witch has been doing this.

There were quite a few evil actions that could be taken in this game, and the ending even offers two possible epilogues based on one final choice you make, though I personally achieved the good one. This module is pretty remarkable for all its choices and options, and I know there are things I missed! Also, based on the bits and pieces of possibilities I see, I believe there may be three different ways to defeat the witch, but I only succeeded with one. I never found out how to use the fairy's powers against the witch, or what to use the fake hands for, or what the brooch might be for, and there were at least four different things that could be done with the mushroom. There might possibly have been a way to combine the brooch, hands, and disguise kit to disguise myself as the hunter to fool the blind cook instead of gaining her as an ally by curing her blindness.

In any case, this is an excellent module, and I hope to find more modules with this kind interactivity, flexibility, and puzzle design. This is the only NWN2 module available from this author, I'm sorry to find.

Cry Wolf, by Lorft

This one has a framing narrative, with you playing the part of someone sitting to listen to a story being told by a storyteller to an audience of children. As he tells the story, the scene changes to you participating in the story. It cuts back to the storyteller between what you might call "acts". The description suggested playing as a level 6-8 character, but I noticed that several people in the comments section said that the combat was too hard for that level, so I went with their alternate suggestion of level 12. I'd prefer that over setting the difficulty low, as I prefer to play on "core rules" difficulty.

Some of the special rules and mechanics in this module include penalties for resting (counts for some kind of points tally at the end, if I understand correctly), hunting for special items and puzzle pieces, and enemies who have special attacks. In one case, there's a gardening spade that can be used to dig in any location, with a chance to find small amounts of gold and at least one special item. There's also a good amount of effective comic relief.

The story involves a town that has vanished, houses and all (the name of the crater sounds like a reference to a similar missing town from Planescape: Torment), and one of the Grimm brothers (both wizards in this module) disappeared as well. The remaining Grimm and a sturdy dwarf both join you to investigate. Along the way, into a canyon filled with slaadi to fight, a cleric also joins the team (though the dwarf calls her a druidess). Even with a good party like this, and my slightly higher level, the combat was indeed rather lengthy, with the enemies having very high amounts of health. This made the resting penalty rather punishing, considering the supplied party includes two casters (and I myself was also a caster), since resting is necessary to replenish all those spells we burned through to bring down these trash mobs. It was only a final point tally penalty, though, so no harm done.

Most of the mod takes place on an alternate plane, where the ruler of the plane keeps the people in a kind of induced coma, dreaming about different fairy tales, while she drains them of their energy. Several times there were skill checks to determine whether I could find/do something or not. These were all-or-nothing chances, so I missed one entirely, and had to obtain another without the clue the skill check would have provided. I actually wasn't able to complete the puzzle-piece hunt, because I was transported away from the location of one of its pieces unexpectedly, before I had finished exploring.

There weren't many dialogue choices in this module, but the other mechanics and novelties made up for it.

I particularly enjoyed a surprise vendor in a cave -- a genie who appears with his inventory when you rub a lamp. The best part was asking him for 3 wishes, to which he invited me to purchase a "Ring of 3 Wishes". The ring, when I examined it, only gave +1 to three stats, and its description said, "A ring of three wishes, providing those wishes were: I wish I were a little more strong, dexterous, and hardy."

It was also amusing that when I was rescuing my scattered party members, I naturally assumed that the dwarf would be found in the Snow White & the 7 Dwarves set, but in fact it was the elf cleric that was imprisoned there. What was a real laugh was where the dwarf actually was imprisoned!

There was a maze which was rather unfair, with hidden triggers that transport you back to your starting location. I made numerous honest attempts, attempting to make sense of Rumpelstiltskin's clues and signs, but it became rather unpleasant. The module came with a spoiler file, and I read it to find how to escape the maze. The reason this maze was unfair is that the clues and signs are all red herrings, and the actual way out requires less thinking and more noticing something subtle on the floor.

I don't know how he did it, but there's a pretty convincing scene of Rapunzel actually letting down her hair to climb up.

The documentation said there was supposed to be a design document included, for those interested, but I didn't see one in either of the archives, nor on the Vault page. I was interested to read it. I probably should have gone with a level 10 character instead of 12, especially if I picked a more mêlée class. I had planned it that way, but I didn't have a level 10 character in my vault, and 12 was the closest second. But I wasn't playing this one for its combat, so I don't regret my decision. This module is certainly worth a look for its special mechanics and its occasional comedy.

Crossroads of Fate, by Novalis

This one's documentation states that it was inspired by the triple-vignette "Stories About Snakes" in the Grimms' collection. I wasn't familiar with that selection, though judging from its vague content I may have simply forgotten it. That story in the collection looks like one of those which I mentioned above as being a tale barely remembered by its teller, with much missing. This module was inspired not by its plot, characters, or setting, it seems, but by its ambiguity, and the way in which none of the snake stories ended well.

It seemed very open-ended, and perhaps larger than it actually was. I was given a choice fairly early one, to either escape on a ship, attempt to rescue a friend from execution at the hands of Umberlee priestesses in a sacrificial ritual, or try to get an important book from a group of thieves and Red Wizards of Thay who had killed some of my party members before the story began. Escaping on a ship might have ended the game immediately (note: yes, it would have), or it might have led me into complications in attempting to board the ship, and more story there. I chose to rescue the captured friend, and not use her (literal) sacrifice to get the book.

There were numerous other choices here and there, though not usually as extreme as those. There were also a lot of story hooks placed here and there. I could talk to a group of adventurers at the tavern who were planning out an adventure, and ask to join them when they're ready. There was a halfling anxiously waiting by a locked door downstairs, waiting for one of the girls in the brothel. There was a kind of slave market, where the slaves tried to entice me to buy them by offering information on treasures and such, and the dealer told me to get a license from city hall if I wanted any of them other than the grumpy dwarf. A paladin of Kelemvor asked for my assistance with some undead. All of these things seemed to be only hooks, and could not be fulfilled, beyond getting the dwarf and/or a Kelemvor cleric as henchmen (not full party members).

This module included an intro movie and several ending movies, in the form of image slide shows with text. Most of the NPCs here were named and had unique dialogue. A couple of them, however, were inside vendor tents, and the walkmesh didn't allow me to get close enough to speak to them. One of those might have offered ammo for sale, because none of the others did. There were many grammar errors throughout the module, but I reserve my grammar and spelling critiques for native English speakers, and this author is not a native speaker.

There were certain places where party members made useful interjections. For instance, when I tried to open a locked door, but one of the other party members held the key, instead of it just telling me the door was locked, my character said "Who has the key? [Name], come here and open this door!" with [Name] identifying who actually had the key.

The Umberlee temple was very good in design. It looked a lot like its counterpart in Baldur's Gate in the interior. I don't know if it would have been possible to rescue our friend without making a frontal assault, because we didn't have a rogue in the party (the rogue was the one we needed to rescue). I would have preferred to pickpocket a couple of keys rather than make such powerful enemies. I'm guessing it's not possible, though, because the hard-coded ending movie states that it was a violent assault. What also seemed hard-coded was that my character often expressed a kind of worship of "lady luck" and Tymora, despite Tymora not being my chosen deity.

The battles were very tough, but that's because I kept the difficulty on "core rules" instead of the author-suggested "normal". The sorceress party member had a very large collection of spells, though.

I went and replayed it to try out the path leading to the Red Wizards, and found there was actually more content in that area than with the Umberlee temple. The city district is large enough and detailed enough that I think it must be part of another module somewhere, or possibly a prefab. It would be a shame if all this detail weren't used in a larger mod!

In any case, it turns out that the first choice I mentioned above was the "critical path", and the game ends after you accomplish any of those three tasks, whether or not you would have attempted to accomplish others. I went ahead and watched the other two ending movies, and they all end in death or despair/disappointment, which is how it relates to "Stories About Snakes". It was an interesting module, but it left me wishing that some of the other story hooks would be expanded in the future.

Grimm Brigade, by Jclef

This one's documentation advised me to prepare for fights using many consumables, and to take its story in the spirit of "Van Helsing", which I assume refers to the movie by that name in this case. The movie was a swashbuckling mashup of various movie versions of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman, and was enjoyable in that regard, so I'll be expecting something along those lines with fairy tales in place of the monster movies.

The Grimm brothers run a kind of government agency here, set in an attractive library with no actual exits aside from the colour-coded portals that lead to the missions. It looks like there are four missions to go on, with Jacob telling you which to do first, and Wilhelm acting as the quartermaster. The documentation said "mêlée preferred", so I played as a barbarian.

The first mission is Little Red Riding Hood. Upon walking through the portal, LRRH herself (a halfling bard in this incarnation) is fighting two forest goblins, and is near death. She asks for help surviving the trip to Grandma's House, though in actuality she's immortal. I discovered my own mortality was quite permanent, though, as I was taken down by a group of goblins and wolves, and got a "game over" screen. I learned from my mistake, and survived the rest of the module on "normal" difficulty.

The forest makes great use of terrain elevation for aesthetic interest. There were several good approaches to forests amongst the modules in this contest, and it's hard to say which I liked better, since they seemed to have different goals. This one, I think, beats the forest in The Witch In The Woods for being a believable forest (though the other one better accomplishes the feeling of being in a forest). There is, however, only one path, and Jacob Grimm appears to quickly usher you back to HQ once the escort task is complete, and LRRH offers her hood as a reward.

The second mission is The Brave Little Tailor. The design of the mountain is interesting, but it doesn't try to hide the fact that it's a single winding path to the destination. This may have been intentional, but I would have preferred something else for aesthetics, though I have to admit that it does make for some striking screenshots. The tailor is the escorted character this time, going up against a giant and the mountain orcs who stand in the way. The orc shamans are the most dangerous foes here, I think, since they have some kind of vampiric attack that steals your health.

Again, once the main foe is felled, Jacob appears to return you to HQ, and the tailor offers a reward.

Mission 3 is Snow White and the 7 Dwarves. This one leads through mines and Illefarn corridors, with each of the 7 named duergar featuring as minibosses. This one's longer than the others, and is the first one with traps and locked doors and chests, which make up for the less interesting scenery. As a barbarian, I was able to detect, but not disarm the traps, and I'm glad that these traps didn't stretch all the way from one wall to another, so I could walk around them. This one differed from the others, in that Snow White didn't offer a reward like the others did, and Jacob insisted on a quick departure.

Mission 4 is Hansel & Gretel. This features a forest of a different style, set in a blue-green hue. The woodcutter lives with his two children in front of an alarming unfenced cliff dropoff, but this was not the cause of their disappearance.

I like the design of this forest much better. It's lush and varied, with some scenic overlooks and good use of textures (some of the footpath texturing by the witch's house was very nice), has particle effects that make it feel more enchanted, and has a variety of enemies to combat, including treants, which I actually hadn't seen in any NWN content before now. Amusingly, and I don't know if this was intended or not, a nearby ferret and rabbit came to my aid when I started fighting, though they didn't last long.

There were also trolls to fight, and I was worried about that, since I hadn't made any preparations against trolls, but I found that my inventory contained some alchemist's fire anyway. Whether this was a random drop or if it was specifically provided, I'm not sure, but I'd guess it was intentional. I think this mission was the best of the lot.

This module lacked in certain areas such as dialogue options and quest design, and it was a very linear experience, but that is what it advertised itself to be, and the way the module wrapped itself up with a feel-good epilogue made it a satisfying experience overall.

Grimm's PatchWorld, by Patcha

This module draws inspiration from dozens of different stories, according to the documentation. Apparently Patcha had larger plans for this module, but had to scale them down for the contest deadline. The author is not a native English-speaker, so I won't comment on the grammar, except that I was able to comprehend it without problems. This module contains a few novel features, such as chairs the player can sit on, and beds that the player can sleep on.

There are two basic goals in this story: Kill a wolf that has eaten numerous villagers and livestock, and find out what has happened to the missing queen. Most of this is accomplished through exploration and dialogue, and it's possible to complete the story with only one fight, if you choose to form alliances and make plans befitting a fairy tale. That said, taking the more interesting story route involves a bit too much running back and forth between the village and the very dense forest. Points of interest are spread a bit too far apart in general here.

There's a good amount of humour spread throughout, though much of it is very well-hidden. The conversations are enjoyable and have several roleplaying options just about every time, and I appreciated all the references to lesser-known stories (including ones that I may have forgotten).

There were some mysterious things here and there, but most of them were cleared up by reading the text file that the author included for the purpose of reading after finishing playing the module. A particular locked house with a name plate in front was in fact a joke, as the name translates to "Mister Not-At-Home". But the text file was still a little unclear on the purpose of the mysterious graveyard. There was a sign with what looked like a riddle written on it, and items all around the graves that each referred to a single line of that "riddle". I thought that if I activated each item in the same order that it appeared on the sign, it might unlock the locked tomb, but it didn't happen. It seems, based on the explanation, that those items are just referring to a story, and don't actually do anything, and the tomb can be unlocked by any rogue (I played as a ranger).

As implied above, there are numerous pathways through the story, and the ending has minor variations as well. The town crier will update his news based on your actions and ending accomplishments. All in all, it's not a bad module. If Patcha had expanded it after the contest deadline to include all the cut content, I would have played that as well.

Being Good, by Christian Mayr

This is a module with a very unique sense of humour. The premise is that your character is graduating from a "tear-avoider academy" (a school for making people happy, whose unusual name I attribute to the author not being a native speaker of English), to become a fairy godmother. The documentation stated that level and class didn't matter, so I employed my trusty halfling bard.

This module blends The Three Little Pigs, The Wolf and Seven Kids, and Mother Hulda (Frau Holle). The situation you need to solve to prove your worthiness of the title of fairy godmother is that some pigs are feeling sad because they're surrounded by unwanted houses that make them feel as small as a halfling (to which my halfling objected), and they had contracted a professional big bad wolf to come blow them down, but the wolf never showed up to fulfill his contract. You're given two special items to accomplish your tasks, but these items are always used through dialogue. I never had to open my inventory at all during this module.

While the level designs are fairly sparse, the unusual choices of custom music (the blues, I think) and the lively conversations made up for it. It's pretty funny! I especially liked the part where the wolf was on his way back to do his duty with the houses, but the pigs wouldn't let him in, because they believed him to be an impostor, in another link to the Wolf and Seven Kids. He was supposed to have grey fur, but the snow-obsessed weather goddess Mother Hulda was covering everything with snow, including the wolf, making him white. "You don't let me in because of the colour of my fur?" the wolf says. "You're all racists!"

A very short module, and easily completed in 20 minutes or less, due to its linearity, but fun to experience for the conversations and situations. It was also pretty fun and whimsical to take control of the wolf and blow down the houses as the pigs cheered me on.

Once Upon a Time... by Mungo_D

Heavily advised in this one's documentation was to use a level 1 male human or half-elf fighter. I went with the closest I had available -- a male tiefling rogue. That worked fine.

This module begins with a short essay on the significance and importance of stories, and posits a metaphysical component to their nature which guarantees that you, as the youngest of a trio of brothers, have no choice but to succeed in a quest where your brothers failed. Unfortunately, that essay is the most interesting part of the module.

"No choice" is pretty much the whole theme of this module, since you can never choose not to do something, and your only dialogue options are to obey cheerfully or obey begrudgingly. The conversations lack the kind of personality that can make this entertaining.

The area design and texturing is very bland, especially compared to the masterful work exhibited in many of these other modules, and the long hike up the mountain means I had plenty of time to look at it. Once at the top, and inside the mine, my task was simply to walk down through several tiny mine rooms, kill the 2 or 3 goblins in each, and return to the top. The author was at least kind enough to provide a way to teleport back to the top of the mine, but then I had to hike manually back down to the bottom of the mountain, where the module reached its conclusion.

I'm sorry, but I can't recommend this module.

A Prince of Light, or Shadow, by Saorsa

Another one requiring a male level 1 mêlée character. Here comes my tiefling again. Though the documentation says that it should give me enough XP to level up to level 4, so I don't know why I needed to use a level 1 character to start. Why not start with a level 4?

I was relieved to find myself in a beautiful autumn woodsy area. A nearby dwarf related a tale of woe, revealing himself to be the last of the famed seven dwarves. In this version, a trio of witch sisters and their mother murdered the rest of the dwarves and kidnapped Snow White out of a hatred of anyone being happy. The dialogue began with a choice between a good or an evil reply, and once I made that first choice, I was given only a single option for the rest of the conversation. The dwarf then gave me a warhammer to use in my quest against the witches. Unfortunately, as a rogue, I couldn't use warhammers! The documentation didn't say I needed to be a fighter, just a mêlée class. I decided to make the best of it and plow on ahead this way, and used the levels I was granted to take martial weapon training. I was not, however, given enough XP to get to level 4 -- only to level 3.

Things took a turn toward the surreal and symbolic when I set out onto the path to the rocky grasslands. I encountered some kobolds called "nagging doubts", who dropped vials of "a small hope" which acted as health potions. This theme continued throughout, with larger enemies dropping larger "hope" potions. I also started coming across pieces of armour with evil-fighting properties. Unfortunately, I couldn't equip most of them. I should have taken a fighter level instead of just martial weapon training, so I could have gotten those abilities as a batch.

This grassland turned out to be the land of the first witch, named Discord. I lied to her, swearing allegiance, turning me more chaotic, and locking me into the "lie" course of dialogue. She let me pass to the next land to meet the next sister.

This next witch's land was a spooky dark forest with zombies and wraiths, with the witch named Deceit standing in a pond of blood near the centre. This forest was nicely designed as well. I continued my ruse, and was passed on to the last witch sister.

This one's realm was a striking rose-atmosphered place full of flowers, trees, pleasant paths, and a gazebo. Many unhostile succubi were standing around chatting with each other, and the sound of conversation and laughter was all around. The final sister, Decadence, referred me to the tower on the hill behind her, where their mother lived.

Inside, I was treated to multiple twists and surprise revelations! Even the fairy tale kiss brought something completely unexpected, as well (before the end, that is)! Bravo! Unfortunately, there seems to be a bug that required some reloads to get through. When confronting the witch mother, I can choose to either declare true allegiance to her or tell her that I'm actually against her. If I do the former, I'm locked into an evil path, with no way to take it back, and if I choose the latter, she immediately attacks me solo, and nothing further happens after she's dead, whether I check the mirror or Snow White. It becomes a dead end. To get around this, I had to check the mirror before speaking to the witch mother. The journal and her dialogue assumes that I've spoken to her already, and she gives me a choice to join her or oppose her. This time, if I oppose her, she summons her daughters, and after the fight I get a new option with the mirror that allows me to proceed.

This was the only bug I encountered, and it remains an excellently-designed module, both visually and in plot. The paths were linear, but provided visual interest for the journey, and the somewhat surreal, symbolic nature of it kept me guessing.

The Queen of Lies, by Adoniram

I left this one for last because I thought (based on the wording of the documentation) it was going to be longer than it turned out to be. It actually might be the shortest of the whole lot, though due to its variations you'd have to replay it several times to experience it all.

The documentation told me that I'd be playing predefined characters most of the time, and that my own character wouldn't matter, so once again I brought out my level 4 halfling bard. The documentation didn't tell me that it would be expecting a male character, and didn't make any checks for gender, so I was referred to as "brother" (this sort of thing happened in several other contest entry mods, in fact). It begins right away with what turns out to be the theme of the module. "Did you, or did you not drink my ale?" It took me a while to figure out what the purpose of all these questions was, since I was just assuming that it was going for the fairy tale theme of rewarding honesty.

This module tells the story of three brothers on a quest to rescue a princess, each taking a separate path. You play each brother, one at a time. It says there are 12 story variations, so I hope it won't be too much of a spoiler to describe how mine went.

The first brother's story has a timed event, where you have to find some firewood before your torch goes out, or a wolf will attack you. I took a little too long the first time I tried, reaching a tree just as my torch went out. I fought the wolf, and was killed. It looked like it would have been possible to win with a little more luck, though. The story went on to the next brother, but I wasn't content to leave the first brother dead, even though the documentation said it would be incorporated into the story, so I started over. I had to start over from the beginning instead of reloading my last save, because of some problems mentioned in the docs with saving in this module. The second time, I reached the tree in time, and figured out I had to bash it to proceed. The story immediately went on to the second brother's scene when I chopped the tree.

The second brother had just a short path to a cottage, and a curious friendly wolf pup on the way. Inside the cottage, a woman introduced herself as the princess! Something seemed fishy, though. She started asking some questions that sounded contrived and leading, designed to test my honesty rather than my suitability for marriage. I wasn't under the impression that this quest had marriage to a princess as a reward -- I rather assumed it would be a monetary consideration. So, I didn't go along with her prompting to puff up my accomplishments to prove myself worthy to marry her, and the story transitioned to the third brother's scene.

As the third brother, I found myself in a familiar location. This was the same area where I had found the tree as the first brother. I recognised the small stream and the large anthills, but there was no tree. I thought this might be a simple reuse of the scenery. Anyway, there was a woman here, who looked like the same princess in the cottage. She claimed to be the princess, too, but refused to come back home without her "precious" ring, stolen by a frog. So I agreed to guard one exit of its burrow (one of the anthills) while she made noise on the other end to scare it out. She conspicuously warned me to keep my eyes on it at all times, so I was expecting her to do something behind me. What happened was that a bat appeared, and my character automatically turned around and killed it. The princess then asked me if I had kept my eyes on the exit the whole time. Well, no, obviously I hadn't, because of the bloody bat, and I said as much. "Well, did you hear any loud splash, then?" she asked. No, I hadn't. And I said as much, even though the dialogue offered me the option of saying that I had heard a splash, and it must have been the frog. But I didn't hear a splash. She then turned into a "hag" (really a zombie) and accused me of lying, because she had thrown a rock into the water to make a splash! I was then turned into a tree, ironically, for the first brother to have chopped down in the first scene I had played.

Then everything came together, with all three brothers in the same scene, except one was burnt up in a fire pit. So the second brother demanded to know why the first brother had used brother 3 as firewood, and to explain the blood on his hands. I was presented with two options, neither of which were true. He had been mistaken in the dark, or the blood was from cutting himself? He clearly wasn't mistaken, because brother 3 was a tree at the time. It would have been a lie to choose that one. And I was never told that the tree bled while being chopped, so I chose the other option. Surprise lie! The hag appeared again and used this lie to turn brother 1 into an axe. Then I had to fight her alone, and died. The story ended with a little epilogue.

So now that I knew which of the dialogue the game thought was a lie, I played those parts again so I wouldn't accidentally lie this time. This time with brother 2, I listened carefully when that bat attacked me. Still no splash! I picked the "yes, I heard the splash" option anyway, and this time the "princess" turned into a tree! Now, when it cut back to brother 1, he found himself chopping into a princess, and as she "died" she asked him if he would promise to tell the king that he had killed his daughter by mistaking her for a tree. I chose to truthfully promise, and she got angry, turned into the hag, and decided to kill me, even though it wouldn't benefit her at all to do so. The other two surviving brothers showed up to help me fight her, and we beat her, though she did kill one of the brothers, and the dead stay dead in this module.

The story didn't end, and there was no indication of what to do. I checked the loot from the hag's body, and found a "necklace of lies". It didn't seem cursed, but it was hard to tell with a custom mod. It had a "remove curse" ability, though. I put it on, to see if that would end the module, but nothing happened. I looked around and tried examining the small brook again, which I had checked before, but didn't do anything. This time, it said that I could hear a voice in the brook! So I used the necklace to remove a curse on the brook, and voilà! There was the princess, and it all ended happily, except for the dead brother.

I'd say it's interesting enough to run through a couple of times for variations.


As with the Halloween compilation, this contest presented me with quite a wide variety of styles and approaches to a single theme. It confirms to me what I had speculated before, that this toolset and engine combination is indeed a flexible platform for games of many types and genres beyond the RPG style of the original campaign. I'm a bit sad that I wasn't around to see this wealth of content as it was in the process of being made, but I'm also glad that such a wealth exists now for me to enjoy, and that people continue to add to that significant body of work.

No comments:

Post a Comment