Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Game 241: Neverwinter Nights (1991)

     
Neverwinter Nights
United States
Stormfront Studios (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS. Hosted on AOL from 1991 to 1997.
Date Started: 2 February 2016
Date Ended: 3 February 2016
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5) for single-player offline
Final Rating: 27 (applies only to single-player offline)
Ranking at Time of Posting: 121/239 (51%)

I never stop being amazed at how quickly the world incorporated both the Internet and wireless communications technology. In just over a decade, we went from a tiny portion of the population "online" and mobile (c. 1990) to almost everyone having instant access to the world's information and people. If you had told me in 1990 that within 20 years I'd never be lost again, I'd always be able to reach any of my friends and family members at a moment's notice, that within seconds I'd be able to look up the answer to any question, listen to any song, watch any video, get the latest news and weather, and do thousands of other things, I would have called the men in white coats. Yet here we are. Somehow all that awesome technology, put before us in a decade and a half, seemed "gradual."

It's hard to believe that at one point, I was a functioning adult before I had the Internet or a mobile phone. How did I get places? I worked for a security company from around 1991-1994, while I was in college, and I was a "floater"--they sent me to a different facility practically every day, all over eastern Massachusetts. How in the world did I find where I was going? I can't remember for the life of me. How did I book airline tickets? I remember a period in about 1995 when the alternator on my car was squirrely and I had to call AAA for a tow maybe 5 times in 6 months. How did I do it? Did I walk to a payphone every time? I don't remember.

These types of thoughts came flooding to me as I reviewed the history of Neverwinter Nights, the first graphic online role-playing game, which resided on the servers of America Online from 1991 to 1997. I remember AOL quite clearly: it was my first online experience. For a period in the 1990s, you couldn't walk 10 feet without tripping over one of the disks that they mailed to everyone, everywhere. I was introduced to the service in probably 1993, when I could scarce afford the ridiculous hourly fees, but like everyone else, I paid up, because I was enchanted with e-mail, chat rooms, news, and the various features of the online portal. This wasn't the full Internet yet, you understand--just AOL's proprietary content.

Yet somehow I missed the existence of Neverwinter Nights, thank the gods. If I'd known about it, I would have played it. I was already a CRPG addict by 1991 and I had experience with the Gold Box games, which I loved. I would have played it incessantly, probably during my security shifts. All of my money would have gone to it, and I probably wouldn't have met Irene.
     
You could play for one hour a month for free. Anything else cost money.
     
For those of you not alive at the time, you have to understand that in 1991, you got "online" by using your modem to dial in to one of your ISP's proprietary phone lines, a service for which they charged you by the hour. The AOL materials that came with Neverwinter Nights shows that they were charging $5 per hour for non-peak usage (18:00-06:00) and $10 per hour for peak daytime usage. To save money, those of us who used AOL primarily for e-mail would compose our missives offline, dial in, quickly send and receive, and sign off (AOL eventually created something called a "flash session" for just this purpose). They needed services to keep customers consistently online, paying those hourly rates, and online games were part of the answer. Thus, if you wanted to play Neverwinter Nights for 4 hours between 16:00 and 20:00 some Monday night, you paid $30 (almost $55 in today's money) for the privilege. You could have bought a new game every day for that kind of money. But people happily paid it. When Neverwinter Nights launched, it was capable of supporting 200 online players at a time. Eventually, that number grew to 500. But over 100,000 members had characters. There was a line waiting to get in to the server almost every night. Imagine paying that kind of hourly rate not to play the game but to wait to play the game.

Neverwinter Nights was developed by Stormfront Studios and published by SSI. It uses the same Gold Box engine and graphics that we've seen on this blog a dozen times by now, starting with Pool of Radiance (1988) and most recently in Pools of Darkness (1991). Most of the Gold Box titles were written in-house at SSI, but SSI paid Stormfront to develop the Savage Frontier series, including 1991's Gateway to the Savage Frontier, set in the same basic area as Neverwinter Nights
   
The game shipped on disk with a rulebook and journal, but made it clear you needed an AOL subscription (disk also included) to play.
    
Surprisingly few changes had to be made to adapt the Gold Box engine to online play, and at first glance an experienced Gold Box player might not notice any differences. (I'm relying on online testimonials for the following, of course, not having had the experience of playing online myself.) Character creation is virtually identical, including the by-now antiquated rules on race/class combinations and level caps. There's no "modify" command to jack up your statistics, but that's about all that's different.

Each player controlled only one character. During online gameplay, multiple characters showed up in the window where other Gold Box games showed the multiple characters of the single player's party. Players who wanted to adventure together could choose a command to follow a lead character as he controlled navigation around the 3D maps and decided when to camp. During combat, each player controlled his character independently, but combat options are otherwise unchanged.

The game world consists of 29 maps (all first-person, no overland ones like in the Pools series) of the standard 16 x 16 Gold Box size. The core of the game is the city of Neverwinter and its various districts, but other maps allowed you to explore the surrounding wilderness, and the cities of Luskan, Port Llast, and Vilnask among others. 
    
Exploring a wilderness map.
    
The games even shipped with roughly the same documentation as the other Gold Box titles, consisting of an adventurer's journal and a rulebook. (There are no "journal entries," though.) The setup of the game world is kept purposefully broad: Neverwinter, where the river never freezes, is ruled by the firm but benevolent hand of Lord Nasher. (Reportedly, when AOL chairman Steve Case would play the game, he played as Nasher.) Lately, monsters and raiding parties have been troubling the city, and many people suspect the five pirate captains of Luskan are behind the troubles. Nasher dispenses various quests to adventurers to quell the threats.

There are a million things I don't know or understand about how the game was played. For instance, I don't know how loot was distributed among characters at the end of combat, or how quest experience was divided. I'm not sure exactly how quests, fixed fights, and special encounters worked. Were the developers constantly creating new scenarios and plugging them in to particular coordinates? I know that there was a chat capability, but I don't know how it worked with the game interface.

Mostly, I don't understand why an offline version of the game existed and how it worked with the online version. What happened when you were offline and you finally connected? Did you appear in your offline square, or did you get transported to the central hub? Was it seamless, or did you have to stop the game offline and resume it online? What happened to your character if you killed the offline version, since there's no "save" feature? These are questions I can't figure out from the web sites and documentation I consulted; I'm sure commenters will have some of the answers.
     
Exploring the docks in the city center.
    
What I can tell you is that offline gameplay is somewhat pointless. It's a shell of a world with no content. You can create a character, visit shops, explore the maps, fight random battles, and train, but you can't get quests or engage in any special encounters or fixed combats. I don't know what those quests or special encounters looked like when the game was live--how complex they were, what resources they required--and I'd love to hear from anyone who played it.

I don't even know if the offline version I'm playing is the same as what was available when Neverwinter Nights was active. A couple of issues give me pause. First, you can't name your character during creation--every character is dubbed "NW Knight." Second, there's a menu that I'll cover in a bit that enables some terrific cheating. Certainly, it wasn't possible to use this menu offline and bring the resulting character online. It makes me wonder if characters could transfer between online and offline play at all.
    
    
I created a half-elf magic-user/cleric, figuring that if I was going to play one character, he'd need some healing ability. The game starts in the plaza of Neverwinter Square, facing Nasher's palace. If you walk in, Lord Nasher welcomes you but doesn't offer you any quests. There's a blank screen after his generic welcome, however, which I assumed was filled with content in the online version.
    
Nasher offers a generic greeting.
    
Neverwinter Square is a safe area, with no random combats, that offers several weapon and armor stores, inns, general stores (mirrors, oil flasks, holy water), stores that sell silver weapons, jewelry stores, temples, and training facilities. There are several of each, and I wonder if you were playing online, could only one character visit at a time? Characters start with about 50 gold pieces, so I used them to purchase some basic equipment. If there's a magic shop anywhere in the game, I didn't find it, making non-cleric gameplay difficult since you can't buy potions.
    
The central area of the city.
    
Most of the tiles in the Square are unvisitable, either behind doors marked "private residence" or in the backs of shops where you get stopped at the front door. Again, I wonder if in the online version those private residences were sometimes repurposed for special encounters. In the southeast corner, a 9-square "indoor gardens" has no special features.

Stairs behind the palace lead down to the sewers, where an iron golem stops you from entering the "sewer guild" unless you have a membership card. Other exits from the map lead to the Warehouse District, the Wharves, and Southwall, and from each of those to outdoor maps. Guards posted at these exits give you a sense of the relative danger level of the maps.
     
Some solid advice.
    
I was curious how the map held up against other maps of Neverwinter. It makes little sense in the context of the 2002 game, where the entrance to Nasher's palace is on the south rather than the east and the outlying neighborhoods have different names. But it is virtually identical to the Neverwinter that appears in Gateway to the Savage Frontier, the only exception being that the structures marked "private residence" in Neverwinter Nights are part of the monster-infested indoor garden areas in Gateway.

Once I started exploring the external areas, I started meeting enemies in random encounters. Combat is identical to the single-player Gold Box games--even all the spells are the same--except that you have a time limit of about 8 seconds before you lose your turn. Both player and enemy actions are excruciatingly slow, and unlike the single-player games, there's no "alter" command to speed them up. Obviously, online everyone had to play at the same speed.

My character does well against some slept thieves..

...and not so well against some undead.
      
The random combats seem to sense the size of the party, and I didn't find them overly difficult for a single character. I might get attacked by three thieves (easily defeatable by "Sleep") or a single crocodile or gnoll. Occasionaly--usually behind doors that I unwisely forced open--I met impossible parties of ghouls or ogres or whatnot, but even when they defeated me, they didn't kill me. I would go unconscious, lose some loot, and wake up next to the gate to Neverwinter Square. I don't know if online "death" was the same. Is it just because they never knocked me below -10 hit points?
    
In real life, you learn something even when you lose a fight. Not in RPGs.
     
Post-combat is much the same: you get experience, money, and sometimes items, although the items are curiously random. A crocodile might leave a shield or a guisarme, for instance. Again, I don't know how parties received loot or divided it up.

There are no fixed encounters or combats in the offline version, but there are frequent atmospheric messages that describe the setting and elaborate on the minimalist graphics. Some of them are "fixed"--they occur every time you step into a square--and others appear randomly from what must be a pool of atmospheric descriptions. Stormfront did this well in Gateway, I recall.

A fixed description of the "Southwall" neighborhood of Neverwinter.
    
And a random description from just walking down the street.
   
There's no way to save offline, unless you get a DOSBox version that allows save states, but there was little point in playing a game that only allows random combats anyway. I would have had to fight around 50 easy combats in the Southwall area before I had enough experience to level up, and I lost interest well before then. In the live version, characters could achieve up to Level 12 (unless capped below that by race restrictions) and then gracefully "retire."
    
I retired at Level 3, and only got there by cheating.
   
I did have some fun experimenting with the offline cheat menu, labeled "GM," which gives you options to teleport anywhere in the game, walk through walls, avoid encounters, edit the statistics of your equipment, and enable combat menu option called "zap" that instantly kills all enemies and gives you the experience. It was how I determined there were 29 maps, among other things.
    
Some options on the cheat menu.
     
I was hoping to find some video of online gameplay, but no one seems to have preserved any. There are some still images of battles (does anyone know why so many of them say "Charactername is stupid"?), but I can't find anything showing the exploration interface, which might answer some of my questions.

I know from online testimonials that a community of dedicated players loved the game. There were dozens of guilds, online parties, trivia contests, PvP matches and leaderboards, and all kinds of community content. Veteran players volunteered to mentor new ones and even to manage aspects of the game's development. The community must have been disappointed when the server went offline in 1997. I've read several explanations for why this happened. The most plausible scenario seems to be that by then, AOL had switched to a flat-rate monthly fee (I think I paid $20 for 20 hours for about a year, and then it was $20 for unlimited access) to compete with other ISPs and they no longer had any incentive to keep people online--in fact, it was now the opposite. AOL wanted to expand the game and charge an additional fee to play it, which SSI and Stormfront were against. The contract between the three companies came to an end in 1997 without a resolution and the server was simply shut off at that point.
     
This remains a bit of a mystery. I wonder how you joined the "sewer guild."
     
By 1997, the Gold Box engine must have seemed pretty stale anyway. I've loved the games that it produced, but I certainly wouldn't have liked to spend the rest of my RPG career starting at its bland corridors, unable to see enemies in the environment, straightjacketed by the AD&D1 character system. In six years, the game had only been upgraded twice, and the primary thing it must have offered was that it was the only online graphical RPG. This changed in 1997 with the release of Ultima Online, and titles like Asheron's Call and EverQuest soon followed, probably killing any serious incentive to resurrect Neverwinter Nights.

The name lives on, of course, in the 2002 Bioware title. It's amazing that only 5 years separate the end of Neverwinter Nights online and the beginning of the Aurora Engine namesake; judging by graphics, sound, and size, you'd think they were eons apart. The 2002 title is more of a "remake" of the original than I ever realized, with Neverwinter facing the same sort of threat and the player exploring pretty much the same geographic territory. I understand that some dedicated fans literally re-created the original game maps using the Aurora toolset and hosted a limited online community until 2012. That same year, a dedicated fan released a Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures version of the original game. 
   
The Bioware version, only 5 years after the original went offline, feels like a completely different era.
     
With only the ability to experience the offline shell of the game, it really should never have been on my list. From now on, I'll only play online RPGs if they have a purposeful offline mode, not just a possible one. Because I didn't get to experience the "real" game, a GIMLET is meaningless. I filled in some scores anyway in the spreadsheet, totaling 27 (the lack of quests, NPCs, and non-combat encounters hurt offline play), but making it clear that the score refers to single-player, offline gameplay. If you had no other RPG to play, you'd probably still enjoy the combat system (although it lacks something with only one player), the variety of enemies, and character development. The greater problem is that as you play the offline version, you have a palpable sense of what's missing. You realize the large courtyard is supposed to be swarming with other characters. Lord Nasher literally stares at you mutely instead of giving you a quest. Well-described buildings are clearly meant to have some kind of encounter rather than empty spaces behind their doors. It's like walking through a ballroom after the party's over.
    
Nasher tries and fails to find a quest to give me in his online files.
   
The process of learning about the game was more fun than playing it, and it gives me a foundation to understand other MMORPGs as I come across them. For now, let's get back to a proper single-player title.

Further reading: For the material in this posting, I'm heavily indebted to the resources on the "unofficial classic Neverwinter Nights archive." I also got a lot out of a May 2015 posting from "The Game Archaeologist."

*****

The Screamer, a Japanese RPG that has an English fan patch, just disappeared from my "upcoming" list because I apparently long-passed its correct year of 1984. I'll re-engage it in a "mop up" of a few lingering 1980s titles later.

The Quest for Tanda (1991) also disappeared because I can't find an active download. I'll put it back on the list if someone can send me the game.

72 comments:

  1. Oh, the memories!

    I played a good bit of NWN in my ill-spent youth, though I remember surprisingly little about the in-game content. I remember the community, to be certain--the various guilds, the rivalries, folks I'd adventure with--but not much in the way of actual quests. My impressions are very fond, overall.

    Some random thoughts:

    I don't remember any offline client at all from the time I played. Perhaps it was a later addition (I played fairly early in the game's life cycle, I think), or maybe it's just a hack. We'll see a proper offline / online client division for a later proto-MMORPG, Shadow of Yserbius.

    As Chet mentions, other players in the same square would appear in the standard Gold Box party list. But... there was also a maximum for players allowed in a square (around twelve, I think), and once reached you'd be bounced backward if you tried to enter the square. A long corridor only one space wide could be entirely blocked by a party stuck in a protracted combat!

    The human Magic-User / Ranger dual class was, of course, extremely popular.

    A player who died respawned--there was no perma-death, as I recall--but perhaps lost gold? I seem to recall some penalty.

    Chat was, I believe confined to other players in the same square. (There may have been options to shout, channels, and direct messages as well.) Chat appeared in a text box that dropped down from the top of the screen (in the same Gold Box style as everything else).

    Anyway, I'm glad it got a mention on the blog here--it's a curiosity, maybe, but it's one worth talking about now and again.

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    1. This game was my JAM. I was probably ten or eleven while playing it; I only stopped because 1) My dad got a bill for over $100 one month, 2) MUDs, and 3) I discovered "cybering" in AOL chatrooms ;)

      Re: inability to name a character; if I remember right, your character was named after your AOL username.

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    2. I really appreciate your recollections (both of you). Thanks for filling in some of the gaps.

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    3. Also a player. As DD metioned, your name was your screen name. You can have several in AOL back in the day, and I use guildie types had (and I still have) the email address/screen names representing my guild.

      Luskan wasn't in the game. There was a "Luskan outpost".

      Some memories:

      The penalty for dying was losing unreadied (unequipped) gear.

      There was an active PVP scene, but you couldn't melee. One of the most popular builds was a dual-class human Cleric 10/Mage 11 for the full roster and the ability to wear armor.

      The game couldn't handle multiple invisible players in a map. If a random encounter triggered and multiple invisible players were around (which was typical going from town to town), the enemies could still go after you.

      The NW Offline is not the same as the last build of the game. It was missing at least one town, and some of the zones (including Neverwinter itself) were slightly bigger by the end of the game that the Offline version. There is a slightly more complete (but still not fully accurate) NWN Offline available for FRUA created by GoldBoxFan.

      Griefing other players involved dropping feeblemind on them (to ruin their spellcasting) and holding players so they would be killed in one strike by bad guys. Bestow curse was another popular griefing spell. It was bad form to feeblemind each other because it was so crippling.

      The place for the "cool" kids to hang out was Neverwinter Woods for wild PvP and monster encounters, including the ever popular "Dracs" (Dracoliches).

      Powerlevelling was done in longsaddle (stables?) where typically nuking griffons with fireballs could build a character to the level cap in an hour or two.

      +3 weapons were the best you could legitimately get, were rare, and were highly prized.

      I can go on and on, so many wonderful memories.

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    4. Another fun quirk was that in those days AOL would log you off after a period of inactivity (about 45 minutes). Playing NWN did not count as activity. This was a problem in that the game could only hold, as I recall, around 500 players simultaneously. You could not get into the game until a slot opened, and getting kicked out during peak hours was a huge bummer.

      There was a trick, however, that launching NWN while downloading something somehow hung the download, and AOL would be tricked into maintaining you online indefinitely. Hence it was popular at the time to go to Sierra's portal and download one of their products, and launch NWN. That helped keep you in without fear of getting logged for inactivity.

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  2. Interesting read. I recently told my twenty year old nephew that if he would be time warped to the year 2001, he'd get along fine. Using Windows XP, having internet at home; Google, Ebay, Amazon are available already, playing Morrowind instead of Skyrim, using ICQ instead of Whatsapp, mobile phones are already afforable, etc.
    But if he gets warped to 1991 or even earlier...

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  3. On the topic of filling in GIMLETs I notice that Tera: La Cite des Cranes is not on your upcoming games list even though I would have thought it comes before the two "w" 1986 games you have upcoming, are you not going to visit it? It's always somewhat bothered me that you have left it, Alien Fires and Le Maitre des Ames gimletless in your spreadsheet.

    P.S. can't wait for the Fate rating post! It's quite possibly the post I have been most anticipating on your blog, I'm so intrigued as to how you will approach rating a game like that.

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    1. I agree; it's always bothered me, too. I'll revisit them all for that reason. I'm not sure how I got out of alphabetical order, but don't worry.

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  4. Chet, thanks again for the fascinating post. I love these glimpses into history. Never having used any 'online service' myself (went from BBSes straight to college internet in the mid-90s) I missed out on the content (and exorbitant fees!) that AOL charged.

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  5. Shadow of Yserbius also started as an online-only graphical MUD, but later Sierra made it playable offline.

    I'm actually not sure if it can be finished offline without cheating, as as much as you grind, some of the later fights were made to be tackled by a party of 6, not by a single character.

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    1. I spent so much time on INN playing Shadow of Yserbius and Fates of Twinion. I vaguely remember joining a guild and becoming a 'Knight', right before AT&T bought the whole thing and my parents canceled my subscription. A sad day, but Sierra's 'The Realm' made up for the loss.

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    2. Wasn't there a fairly restrictive level cap on offline characters in those INN games?

      I know I played Yserbius offline only as there was no way I could convince my parents to pay for Internet access back then.

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    3. Yserbius offline lets you make a party.

      I unfortunately never finished due to crash / save corruption (which I believe Chet has already notated in his spreadsheet to be careful about).

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  6. For some reason I thought this was more akin to a MUD, and not a gold box game. Still find it quite hard to imagine how this engine is appropriate for online multiplayer.

    And that 2002 nwn...i still remember Baldur's Gate 2 loading screens mentioning that we could export our heroes to that game eventually, and then when I got it, being disappointed like never was.

    I got to play some cool player made scenarios, but 2002 NWN official campaign was one of the dullest RPG's i've ever played.

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    1. Yeah the official campaign was boring (although Hordes of the Underdark was great), but it was really the toolset and the fan-made maps/servers that made it worth it.

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    2. Act 1 of the original campaign was a slog, and took me several tries to get through it. Later acts were quite a lot better.

      Shadows of Undrentide wasn't very good - the best location may have been the interlude - but as Pedro says, HotU was great. They'd realised that trash mobs and trash chests weren't the experience people were looking for.

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    3. All the expansions were necessary if you want access to all the fanmade modules, though.

      The cooler ones, that is. I remember one extremely enterprising modder named Stefan Gagne who made really impressive campaigns and custom scripts that makes the original look bad.

      Also, an Ultima 4 module. It was really fun to see the old beast in 3D.

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  7. As someone who's interesting in bringing back multiplayer to gold box style gaming, I'm VERY curious about just how did they handle treasure shares, and trade between characters, and quests? Like if one PC gets a quest, and later joins a party who have already completed it, what happens?

    And how did they handle time for different players? Like when you rest to regain spells, are you allowed to re-enter the world immediately? Does every PC have his own personal time state? And if so, how did that work for the party - the gold box games had the idea of night/day, with stores opening at certain times and other effects.

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  8. I'd assume that XP was based on power of monsters killed and later divided equally to all characters who where in combat, otherwise it would be nearly impossible for e.g. clerics, who mainly heal and cast buffing spells to gain any experience.

    Dividing items would be performed by party leader, since Chet said that there was one.

    Trading items is always interesting, you either simply give something to other person in the same square (someone wrote earlier that there could be up to 12 characters in single square) or even drop it and assume that s/he will give back what was promised, or you get separate screen in which you select items to trade and 'commit' trade only when other party gave satisfying gratification (which can be none if you simply trade items).

    XP for quests can be tricky if there were quests not requiring you to kill specific creature, for example fetch quests. But 'assassination quests' are pretty easy - again, you completed the quests if you took part in combat during which target fell.

    Time most probably passes constantly in fixed periods (judging from what Chet wrote, each took 8 seconds), and those real time periods were mapped directly to some virtual clock, so 8 seconds would be e.g. ten minutes or so - probably more, since sleeping 8 hours to regain all spells (not to mention sleeping weeks if healing works similarly to what happened in Icewind Dale, where me and my friend, playing mage and warrior, regularly slept for *WEEKS* to regain hitpoints) would take 6m24s, which is quite long for a multiplayer game.

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  9. Regarding changes caused by internet and related thoughts in this entry - some time ago I've been thinking about it and I realised that my grand-grandmother, who lived 104 years (she were born in 1908 and died few years ago) lived longer without electricity than with it - their village was connected to the electricity grid quite late even for polish standards, in 1968 if I remember correctly, so even after her children had children, and only few years before I was born. And she used water well till 1980s! From what she told me, they were using horses to plow fields well after first World War.

    I've seen pictures and this story was corroborated by other people from her village, but I still have problems believing in it.

    And no, I can't recall what it was like before cell phones and internet, though I *think* that me and my friends were simply usually hanging in well known spots and were calling each other sometimes, but it's all hazy.

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    1. Wonder what she'd say when one of the biggest names in CRPG industry today is from Poland.

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    2. She were a *very* down to earth person, I suppose she wouldn't believe it makes more sense to play or produce games than do some "honest" job or even lie in a bed whole day.

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    3. Did your grand-grandmother had a pony?


      Sorry...Seinfeld joke. Couldn't resist.

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    4. I never saw it, but just read this quote: "When I was a little girl in Poland, we all had ponies. My sister had pony, my cousin had pony".

      Well, I don't know about pony, but she (they) certainly had a horse :)

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    5. Maybe your great-grandma was so badass, she treats horses like ponies?

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    6. Ahahah, that's such a great quote that I'm going to memorize it for future use. And claim it's mine:)

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  10. I recall playing NWN on AOL a few times. I didn't have a lot of money back then, and remember waiting and waiting to get into the online game. Because of the cost I didn't play it much. I ran into a gaming guild during that time that I later joined when I started playing Ultima Online; The Sacred Silver Blades.

    My memories on that early NWN game are limited. I remember it was a lot of fun and amazing... but again the money factor kept me away from enjoying it more.

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  11. In addition to playing the offline version, the NWN game was rebuilt for "Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures" (FRUA) a few years after the shutdown and you can play a differently-incomplete version that way.

    My experience of the game largely matches yours except that in the FRUA version you get to take a full party along. At least the early combats are ridiculous because you have a full party in combats scaled for one player but I got bored of it long before I made it far enough to have a challenge.

    You can download that FRUA module here: http://frua.rosedragon.org/pc/modules/n/neverwin.zip

    For an idea what real play was like, here's the clue book that outlines a number of the fixed encounters and plot elements, especially the bits that you had to find and return to Nasher for reward: http://frua.rosedragon.org/pc/misc/nwno-cb.zip

    Reading over message boards, there are fans that are excited that they could finally play this game to conclusion... so someone was happy they did this.

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  12. >SSI paid Stormfront

    WhawhaWHAT?

    Oh... different Stormfront, I guess.

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    1. The amount of cognitive dissonance because of that in this post is near unbearable for me.

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    2. What, you never played their unreleased game, White Pride of the Savage Frontier? It's revealed that all the Zhentarim are actually Jewish and Elminster is actually Pepe the Frog. See, the Krakens are all 'cucks' who are worshipping a Jewish kraken and letting orcs take advantage of their women, but your party sets them all straight.

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  13. Were the developers constantly creating new scenarios and plugging them in to particular coordinates?

    Not just the Stormfront developers -- if memory serves correct, the DM tools you were looking at were intended for groups of friends to use, with one acting as host of a game session and filling in the blanks for the rest to play through.

    This program may make more sense as a "graphical terminal program" that only achieves full functionality when hooked up online to the mothership. There were some BBS door games (most notably The Pit as at http://www.mobygames.com/game/dos/pit_ , but also LORD through RIPterm and even your neglected Operation Overkill 2 8) which could be played online using coloured text commands and ASCII art maps, but gave the option of being played with sounds and graphics through a dedicated terminal program. The game session wouldn't pass the sounds and graphics up and down the phone line, just the same regular textual output and input -- but the terminal program would interpret them to serve up locally-stored assets that were quite a bit more impressive.

    Without the mothership to tap into there simply isn't much game here, which you will also find down the line with Dark Sun Online and virtually all early MMOs.

    One quality that makes the first NWN exceptional is that I believe it was the origin of the MMORPG Guild system, and players in much later games like UO, EQ and WOW sometimes are continuing to play with friends and using characters that they used all the way back in these primordial times.

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  14. I don't remember there being any way to play offline, that seems like a debug mode or third party hack.

    What I do remember is that my family's subscription to AOL allowed us to be online for five hours per month. And I was grounded for spending four and a half of them on NWN on the first day of the month. My mother could scarcely believe that I had even been "attached" to the computer for that long at once.

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    1. As for death penalty, I don't remember for sure how it worked in this game, but in many online games of the era, the penalty for dying was that all of your gear dropped in the location where you died, so you'd have to make a "corpse run" to go get it or just find new gear. Which could be nearly impossible if you died to a tough encounter deep in a dungeon. But potentially cool for other people, because it would organically generate the sort of "remains of previous expeditions" scene that's such a trope.

      I remember playing MUDs in those days, if a party wiped in a tough dungeon, it would almost become a server-wide event trying to band other players together to help recover the lost gear before a server crash/reset would obliterate it permanently.

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  15. This is the type of posting that causes me to love the blog! I do really enjoy reading about these historically significant games. Thank-you, Chet!

    I am old enough to remember the heyday of AOL, but I never actually used it (since I was a Canadian University student without a credit card).

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  16. I did a fair amount of research on NWN nights when I played it for my own blog. I believe this "offline" version was hacked/created by a fan after the online version had shut down so people could still play the game. There were hopes to re-use it online, that came to fruition in a separate game called Forgotten World. For more in depth information, check my blog here on blogspot.

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    1. As far as "(character) is stupid": If I recall, for some strange reason, melee was not implemented in PvP, only magic was. So, PvP would involve players throwing "feeblemind" spells until one of them stuck and the other was "stupid", and thus unable to cast spells. Hopefully someone who actually played it can confirm or elaborate on my statements.

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    2. I can't speak to the name change part, but as I recall there was a tremendous amount of griefing going on. If you joined random battles as you walked around, the non-consensual nature of the PvP allowed veteran players to feeblemind you over and over. The spell was permanent, cost thousands of gold to cure at a healer, and it STACKED. So one jerk dumping his entire payload of feebleminds on you could permanently cripple new players and there was nothing you could do about it since you were too poor to get it healed. It was a foreshadowing of how evil won in the Ultima Online world. Half the people online are toxic to any kind of community because there is no fear of someone stomping their ass for bad behavior.

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    3. Yep, exactly. PvP was magic-only, everyone was rolling up dualclassed cleric-mages for maximum magic output. And feeb was the ultimate "fuck you" spell dropping your Int and Wis to 3, which was worse than death. Not only it effectively knocked the victim from PvP combat - healing it cost tons of gold, while dying merely dropped you back at level entrance.

      It did not "stack" though, either you were feebed and unable to cast, or you were not. Besides, spending all your 5th level mage spell slots on feebs would be rather unwise, leaving you vulnerable to someone better prepared for a proper PvP.

      ...good times :(

      As for offline version, I believe it's an old debug release, preceding the final NWN release by a couple of years (the game was updated once or twice, adding a few areas the offline build lacks). "NW" was a name prefix for official staff players and volunteers, so "NW Knight" was apparently one of staff guys who was given an offline debug version to test.

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    4. +1 Skarl. MMORP was a true education in what's really going on behind the smiling eyes of at least 10% of the people you live and work with every day.

      Learning that lesson well removed the Pollyanna glasses and prepared you for the real world.

      What made it so crystal clear were those cases in which high level characters derived absolutely no benefit for messing with low level characters (the XP was meaningless and long ago they had found much better loot), so it seemed pretty obvious that the only payoff was the sheer joy of knowing there was a human being on the other end of the angst being delivered.

      I've always felt that MMORPGs povided a fairly pure and controlled basis for psychological studies, from observation alone (no need to encourage them to shock anyone). The constrained environment, with all elements accessible within the data, makes this seem like a natural. But for the observant player, the lessons were already very clear.

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    5. PvP wasnt just magic-only, there was no direct way to PvP *at all*. There were areas where it was allowed, but it wasnt a matter of a player attacking a player. You'd run around, run into random battles, and fight whatever PCs were in the battle with you. It worked well enough but it was a real klooge.

      A lot of the routes from Neverwinter to other major towns/cities had stretches of PvP area to go through.

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    6. The ultimate PVP player was a dual class cleric/mage. They would barge into your combats and cast hold person on you. You then would get killed by whatever you were fighting. There was a guild of them who all wore the same green/purple color scheme. PC color choices were the same as in the Goldbox games.

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  17. It occurred to me that it was possible that the original server software had been open sourced or reimplemented at some point, so I decided to do a little searching. I didn't find anything allowing the original client, but I did find a community that had reimplemented the server *and* client for their own use at http://forgottenworld.com/Default.aspx.

    It looks to be somewhat defunct now, and I'm not sure how much (if any) of the original content they replicated, but if someone is feeling adventurous, you can try downloading it and see if it connects and whether it matches expectations.

    It's interesting that the original server source hasn't found a home or at least a community calling for it's release. At this point, if it runs on modern hardware (or could be ported by fans), I imagine not-very expensive virtual servers would be able to service quite a few concurrent users, if it isn't somehow inextricably linked to the AOL software (although I imagine that wouldn't be hard to disentangle. People are willing to convert IPX/SPX games like the original Doom...)

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    1. Most likely the server was reformatted to do something else when they decided to shut it down and nobody kept any backups. That was a common happenstance in that era and a lot of classic programs from the beginnings of the Internet are simply gone forever.

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    2. I found Forgotten World 3-4 years ago. Apparently it was pretty active at one point, but its pretty dead now, despite still running when I checked it out. I didnt spend long on there, maybe a couple hours total, but I never saw another player. Though as I recall, their forums had some semi-regular events where old timers would come together for a bit of a run.

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  18. I think you can remove Roadwar 2000 from your list based on your qualifications for an RPG.

    Basically in the game you search for vehicles, personnel, and supplies (food, guns, ammo, tires, medicine, fuel) in a menu on a map. There is no real equipment for a party of characters.

    You may get into a battle with another group of people which automatically plays out on the screen.

    The meat of the game is the tactical vehicle combat. However, you can also turn that on auto.

    You do not really have a unique party of characters. There are several different types (such as armsmaster, bodyguard, dragoon, escort). Some of your people might get promoted to the next category after a combat. That is about it for "character development".

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    1. It's one of those unusual ones, as it has a lot of the rpg tropes: encounters with options, loot, leveling, exploration, equipment, turn-based combat - but it's presented slightly differently. The character development is spread across your army and your vehicles and while you can level up from a successful combat or encounter, you can, in essence 'level down' from poor outcomes.

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    2. I know all this going in, but I wanted to play it anyway because I remembered it from my youth. I've already written the posting, in any event. It'll just occupy one.

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    3. It's one of those on which the PC is the group of people, and the individual parts that you find (equipment, new allies...) are the attributes and inventory.
      For a clear example of CRPG of this style, see Starflight, where you can consider the whole spaceship as your character

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  19. I read this about online playing, and I think that beside one a fun and awkward evening playing Diablo 1 in early 1997, I never played an online game!

    But having played all the rest of Gold Box series, I was kinda marveling at Neverwinter (and Shadow of Yserbius)

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  20. Honestly when you get to the places where non-playable MMOs come up, it would be nice to have a quick post about them even if you can't play them, throwing up a few screens and whatever you can gather from Wikipedia, by way of setting context for the stuff you actually can play. And then commenters can fill out their anecdotes of playing them in the comments.

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  21. I think this post was important from a historical perspective even if the attempt to personally evaluate the experience was unsuccessful.

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    1. Agreed. NWN was way ahead of its time and is sadly somewhat forgotten today. It deserves to be remembered up there with MUDs and Ultima Online as some of the granddaddies of todays MMOs.

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  22. Don't know if anyone knows this, but there was a NWN remake a few years back called "Forgotten World" that was basically NWN that you could play online for free. The forums still exist, but I don't know if the servers are still online.

    Anyway, here's some footage from that game of someone playing online (sadly, I couldn't find any footage of them playing with someone else in their party):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmNhEqBd1as

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  23. Regarding "Quest for Tanda", it seems it could only be found in the HangLoose archives, but all the servers appear to be down. Was the copy you were sent no good? (http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com.es/2015/06/game-191-elvira-ii-jaws-of-cerebrus-1991.html?showComment=1434875583336#c5271189530974045667)

    I guess your best bet would be to post in the "Games - Request" section of the atari forum:
    http://www.atari-forum.com/viewforum.php?f=4

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    1. I completely forgot about that. I need to remember to search my archives before declaring a game unfindable.

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  24. And to answer other questions: XP was divided equally among participants, so the common practice to gear up newbs was to start a battle, kill everyone but one enemy, stun it with hold person and flee the battle, leaving the kill and all the xp for the other guy.

    Treasures were generated individually for every winner of the battle. The rich spots (such as a few spots triggering an attack of a bunch of dracoliches) were always crowded with people waiting for their turn to grind some in hope of finding a +3 item.

    Preset encounters respawned every few steps. With said dracoliches, when a battle was over, people kept bumping against a wall on the spot until the encounter triggered again.

    Oh, and battles or fully stuffed cells did not block the movement, there was an option to hop across them and end up on the other side.

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    1. "Treasures were generated individually for every winner of the battle." That's interesting. So the looted items didn't necessarily correspond with what the enemies were wielding? If you were fighting a Drow with a long sword +3, you might not find it at the end of the combat, but rather a miscellany of other magic weapons?

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    2. Eh, can't remember that - dracs were the only encounters with a loot worth getting anyway :) And it was completely random.

      I *think* you weren't showered with common grade loot from human and humanoid enemies' inventories like you were in SP goldbox games; there were only bonus valuables. But memory might be playing tricks on me, it has been 20 years...

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  25. I used AOL for a short time in 1996 before starting college. I hate talking on the phone but got a phone line anyway so I could go online. I usually got a call every couple of weeks from the phone company trying to get me to buy extra services like call waiting so I wouldn't miss any important calls. I'd explain that I only use the phone to go online and they'd counter with "but you can turn it off!" to which I'd reply, "then it will always be off and I'll be paying for something I never use".
    I started college in 1997 and luckily AOL hadn't begun aggressively refusing to let people cancel their service. When I explained I'd be getting free internet access at school they let me cancel without a fight.
    I never played Neverwinter Knights. I did play the hell out of Doom.

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    1. It was after a two-hour call in which I'd finally gotten them agree to shut off my service, but then I still got a monthly bill. Only when I emailed them a legit-sounding legal threat did they finally cancel my service. I shed no tears when I heard that their internet business ended.

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  26. I remember playing this game once or twice. I never got into it that much for whatever reason. I think it was because I was much more into Dragonrealms, a text-based MUD on AOL, which apparently is still running to this day.

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  27. I'm almost certain I have a Unlimited Adventures module that allows you to play this game as a single-player experience, sitting in a folder with another 100 of them I will probably never touch.

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  28. "straightjacketed by the AD&D1 character system." Why should anyone trust your blog if you can't even get basic facts right?

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    1. You mean a guy that have played *all* the existent CRPGs up to the current year? yeah, what trust deserves that...
      Of course, "Anonymous" is way more credible.

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    2. I'm a little mystified by this comment. I was pretty sure I was on solid ground here. My understanding is that the Gold Box series is based almost entirely on AD&D1 rules, with maybe a few concessions to AD&D2. In the comment, I was referring specifically to the level caps for non-human races, which I understand were relaxed in AD&D2, but this relaxation is not reflected in the GB series, including Neverwinter Nights.

      Your rudeness aside, anonymous, please tell me what I have wrong in those statements because I'd like to correct my assumptions if they are, in fact, wrong.

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    3. I'm confused what "basic facts" he got wrong. To my knowledge, NWN used AD&D 1e like the other Gold Box D&D games. And as for his thoughts on it being straightjacketed by the "character system" that's an opinion. Maybe his referring to it as the "AD&D1 character system" is a bit unfamiliar, but it isn't really inaccurate.

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    4. I don't think they were relaxed in AD&D2--not the Player's Handbook, anyway. I think they added optional rules elsewhere taking away some of the parts that were just too stupid (like the way most races had specific gods who took a strong interest in time in most settings, but, for some reason, only the humans could have actual clerics), but for the most part they stuck with: If you ever want to see high levels, play a human or a thief.

      I suspect Anonymous of being a pure troll.

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    5. What the Internet needs is a discussion about the differences between the various AD&D editions.

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    6. TBF, a half-elf can advance indefinitely as the best class: the bard. I'm sure there's plenty of discussions on the difference between editions (half on Dragonsfoot), but Kish is right: RAW, level limits for non-humans remained, though they were relaxed a bit more, and optional rules allowed you to extend the cap.

      I suspect that Chet may be referring to Baldur's Gate, which got rid of the level caps altogether and uses a modified AD&D 2e system. But, altogether, it probably was a troll because as far as I can tell, Chet didn't say anything technically untrue.

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  29. 2nd ed was generally more generous with its racial level caps, a 1st ed elf could only reach 7th as a fighter and 11th as a mage while a 2nd ed elf could reach 12th and 15th level respectively, as well as allowing them to be rangers which the could be before. Thievery takes a hit though, while 1st ed had no limits for any race as a thief, 2nd ed introduces limits for all demi-humans (12 for elf). The real change though was philosophical, by moving the rules for racial limits from the Player's Handbook to the Dungeon Master's Guide they made the rules easily ignorable ("Ask your DM for the level limits imposed on nonhuman characters" is what the PHB has to say about the matter) and I don't know of a single group that ever imposed them on their players, even TSR's own publications would frequently feature NPCs that broke their own rules.

    The Infinity Engine games would not adhere to racial limits, nor do I believe did the Ravenloft/Menzoberanzen branch of titles, does anyone recall if the EoB series implemented racial caps?

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