Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Monday 26 July 2010

Maugeter Days, Neverwinter Nights

Welcome to Maugeter, a totalitarian city dominated by twisted lords who rank law and order above all else, where group gatherings and civillian dissent are discouraged by extreme violence and to which you have come, the chosen one, to break its walls and free its peop-

Er, wait. Dreafully sorry but there there's been a clerical error. You're not the chosen one, you're just a schlub who's ended up here. You're not Some Guy capital S, capital G - you're 'some guy', ie. 'some guy who isn't special'. What's your name? Dave? You look like a Dave. Well Dave, you're free to come in here and do whatever it is you Daves do, but take one step out of line and we'll be on you like sharks on a papercut. No loitering, no magic, no bothering the guards, no moving between districts without the proper paperwork and no - absolutely NO parties of four or more adventurers. You want to know what we do to parties of four or more adventurers? You see this greasy red smear on the cobblestones, the one with the clots of hair and fragments of tooth? Yeah, we do that. Got it? Good. Consider yourself warned. Now hop it back to your party of two and don't bother me again.

Maugeter isn't a game you can buy off the shelves of your local Zavvi - in fact it's neither something you can pay for, nor is it a game in the strictest sense. It's a fanmade module for Neverwinter Nights, the RPG Bioware released in 2002 that was supposed to revolutionise the games industry and didn't. The truth was that out of the box Neverwinter Nights wasn't a very good game. I tried it many years ago and gave up somewhere around the point I became bored of pointing and clicking and killing everything as if the game was a Diablo-esque dungeon crawler. Diablo-esque dungeon crawlers are all well and good and have their place in the panthon of gaming but I don't expect this kind of thing from a Bioware RPG. Bioware, who are praised for their storytelling, characters and dialogue had delivered a product that was subpar in each of these categories, and the fanbase built upon the Baldur's Gate games agreed. Neverwinter Nights wasn't a very good game, it didn't take off, it didn't revolutionise the industry, and years down the line after the likes of Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, it's not fondly remembered.

But there is another side to Neverwinter Nights, one the general gameplaying public knows little about but an important one nonetheless. While most Bioware fans were disappointed by the game and moved on to bigger and brighter things, others took to exploring its the inner workings, seeking to understand the toolset that shipped with it so they could craft their own adventures to replace the one the game itself didn't supply.

In 2010 there are hundreds of these adventures stored in IGN's NWNVault, and while I'm sure most of them are terrible the most important thing is not all of them are. Fans have crawled into every crevice of the toolset and stretched the game engine to breaking point. They've crafted new packs of models, character portraits, improved AI routines, music, sound effects - enough content to replace everything that shipped with the game numerous times over. In the vaccum left by in the wake of Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment et al, they've constructed stories that would not and could not be made for today's publishers and sold in today's commercial marketplace, and they've done so because they don't have to. They're not selling their games: They're giving them away for free, making them for the sheer joy it, and for the adulation of the Neverwinter Nights community. They're doing it for fun.

There are enough modules on NWNVault to give Neverwinter Nights an insane lifespan and even in 2010 people are still releasing modules with stories that become more epic and elaborate with every release - not bad for a dead game. While many other games with thriving modification scenes tend to be dominated by mods that offer familiar gameplay in unfamiliar surroundings the NWN mod scene has tried to cater to all tastes. They know that people want diversity from their games and have coded accordingly. Browsing through the NWNVault archives you'll find mods dedicated to pure hack and slash gaming, mods dedicated to a more stealthy gameplay, mods dedicated to roleplaying and storytelling, short mods, mods of epic length, funny mods, sad mods, and mods that do a little of all of the above. Some mods are as open as Deus Ex, allowing players to play their game in any way they choose, as a good guy or an evil villain, as anything they want to be. Others force the player down a certain route, making them play a certain character in a particular way - perhaps a trap-tricking rogue, or a paladin, pure of heart, smiting evil in the name of her chosen deity. Other mods are more occupied with subject matter few games will even hint at, let alone focus on. Free of marketing worries mod-makers deal with gender and sexuality as they see fit. This could be by flinging the player into a wanton orgy or by playing with the more delicate matter of your character's coming out. There are as many ways of making a Neverwinter Nights module as there are of telling a story.

Story's what I want from a game. Atmosphere, character and story, story, story. But an engaging story needn't be a sweeping epic narrative looking to me to save the world, and Maugeter shows that sometimes being a hero isn't all about being a hero; that sometimes it's just about doing the right thing.

Maugeter opens with small, rapt audience listening to a tale-teller plying his wares in - where else? - a taven. The story itself is a fairytale romance about a star who falls in love with a mortal woman and seeks to spend a day with her, but as the storyteller and his companions bicker over how the story should be told and Sara, the excitable young elf sat opposite my dwarven fighter interjects her own opinions a certain sense of dread creeps into the proceedings. The laws governing the city are so oppressive they seep beyond the city limits, and the storyteller is reluctant to tell the story as it is traditionally told for fear it might give us the idea that lawbreaking is a good thing. This is rarely the way a professional game starts out. Such scene-setting is condensed to cut scenes and CG intros. Common wisdom has it that people want to get into the game as soon as possible, not sit and read banks of allegorical text. All the same, the mood is set. The unease of living in Maugeter's shadow is palpable. We're sat by a fire, telling stories while we weather the storm outside. This is how our story begins.

My first quest is to get into the city. Gate passes are notoriously hard to find, and it's with a little questing and gentle persuasion that I happen across not one but two: one for myself and one for my new companion Sara, who needs to enter the city's sixth district in order to begin training as a wizard, and who I've fallen in with because, being scatty and excitable, she'd probably lose her head without my help. Maugeter is built upon a series of districts, each of which requires a new pass in order to proceed to the next. In order to find these passes and make money I need to take quests. There's a guardhouse in the second district that pays bounties for criminals brought in dead or alive, and a guild of mercenaries in the third that should offer good money to a grizzled fighter such as myself. Since I'm stuck in the first district without the pass necessary to enter the next, the only option left is to check the district noticeboard in search of work.

Some hours later the noticeboard provides me with a seemingly simple quest requiring me to go to the fifth district where the city's nobility live. I've accumulated enough passes to get to the sixth, taken Sara there and had her register for classes at the wizard campus - though classes don't start for a couple months so she's decided to accompany me in the interim. Also accompanying me is Catherey, a friendly private detective whose services I'd first employed to track down villains for the city guard, and later employed as my henchman. The three of us make for a formidable team. Delivering a package for some nob from nob hill shouldn't be a problem.

There are instructions: Here is the package. Deliver it to the red tower in the forest west of the city. Go there directly. Do not open or tamper with the package in any way. Deposit it in the container outside the tower. Do not tarry. Come straight back.

It seemed straightforward enough. Too straightforward, obviously, but I decided not to tempt fate and investigate the parcel further. I just wanted to do my job and get paid, and so we departed from the city and went straight to our destination (or we would have done if we hadn't been waylaid by a poor merchant whose furs and cash had been stolen by a band of barbarian bandits. But having helped him, we moved swiftly on). Once inside the forest I dropped the package in the container and was about to leave when we heard a scream coming from somewhere in the ground beneath us.

I could have ignored it. That's the important thing. I could have ignored the scream, obeyed my instructions, returned to district five and claimed my reward. I don't know what would have happened then. Maybe I would have been given the gold and a pat on the head in payment, or maybe something else would have happened; I don't know. What did happen was this: I chose not to ignore the scream, bashed in the door of the tower, entered it and found myself in a world of adventure.

Wights and evil magicians guarded the interior of the tower; we dispatched them with little fuss and set about exploring the labyrinthan confines of what turned out to be a vast underground complex of tunnels, traps and tricks. We found cages filled with bones, monstrous jailmasters, wells of inky black liquid that radiated evil and had to be purified by pouring healing potions into them, and in the very last room, an enchantress stripped down to her smalls, ready to bathe in blood as part of some arcane ritual our package had been a part of. We killed her and found correspondance between her and the noble house that had sent us on this quest, as well as a key to its front door. With righteous anger burning in my bosom I marched us back there, unlocked the door and slew whoever we found. We met riddling golems that had me answer jokes in my chat bar, crept through a network of freezing fountains, sought out silver keys to place on a magical pillar that opened a door to the cellar, and inadvertantly unleashed a plague of walking corpses that had been walled up behind a pile of boxes. When we reached the end of the dungeon beneath the house it almost felt anticlimactic. While some arcane ritual was clearly in progress as lightning lit the dank air, the mastermind behind this sceme lay unmoving, apparently dead on the floor.

I say 'apparently' because when we attempted to leave the ritual room he was transfigured into a gargantuan demon who roared and rolled towards us. My companions advised that we fled. It sounded like a good idea.

The beast chased us the house over until we found ourselves at a dead end in the master bedroom. "Trapped!" the demon boomed, and stepped towards us, moving in for the kill. But in a font at the back of the room I'd found a strange metallic device, the function of which wasn't entire clear, but as the item's description informed me, it had a trigger, and if it had a trigger, that trigger was meant to be pulled. I pointed the device at the approaching demon, pulled the trigger and shot a searing beam of energy into its chest. It screamed and clutched for support, but fell, crashing to the ground, weak and mewling but not yet dead. Then I took its head off with my axe.

The house's doors had locked behind us, but in the corner of the ground floor were three pillars: one with a lever, two with square indentations on them, as if in true Resident Evil tradition they awaited some kind of crest or seal. I'd already found one family crest; the second was on the demon's body, and pressing them both into the columns unlocked the lever which in turn unlocked the front door and allowed us to escape.

And that was it: Adventure over. But as the blurb for Maugeter goes, the city is bigger than you are, and though the adventure was over the game was not.

In truth I don't know how much game I have left. It could be two hours; it could be ten. At the moment I'm working with the mercenaries guild. We've left the city in order to find out what keeps happening to city merchants heading along the eastern trade route. An army of us are accompanying a dignitary eager to study the land (but absent-minded enough to forget his study papers in his home, where I had to return to to retrieve them from his disgruntled wife while the mercenary band made camp far out beyond the city's limits). We were attacked by forest folk and many of us were killed, but the guild captain loosed a glass bird into the air to send for reinforcements and tomorrow we plan on taking the fight to the enemy. Tonight however, I dream. When I sleep in Maugeter, I dream of strange things. Some things resonate with my current predicament - when I dreamt about leaving home and leaving my childhood friend behind, when I dreamt about searching for the one fire elemental who'd disguised himself as a dwarf in a city full of them, the one I needed to track down to act as witness in a courtroom trial of one of his brethren who'd been accused of race betrayal by taking position in Maugeter as a ferryman working with the water. Some of these dreams are nonsensical. Some are scary. One was so disturbing even now I shudder to think of it. While searching for the red tower I dreamt of another tower, coiled and dominating the landscape, at the top of which was a minotaur who would exclaim "Sexy, sexy!" whenever I approached him. In gaming terms these are brief interludes, interactive distractions that take place while you're healing the day's wear and tear, vignettes that reflect your situation, your state of mind, or are just out-and-out odd in the way only dreams can be. But as silly as they sometimes seem, they reflect the mission statement of the game perfectly. Every other game that features dreams does so in a way that adds something to the story. Maugeter has the sense to know that not ever dream has to be portentous; sometimes a dream is only a dream, and as such it adds a surprising amount of believability to your character. When you sleep you don't loose track of your mind, you stay with your state of consciousness, just as you do in the real world. It seems such a simple, throwaway idea, but so many hours into the game the dreams have yet to repeat themselves so the module's creator must realise how important they are to Maugeter.

Maugeter is a place of adventures and mysteries, but it's also a place that endures beyond your own interactions. It's something like Sigil from Planescape: Torment in that way. The are parts of the Sigil the game only briefly touches upon. Though there is a grand, overarcing story in which, yes, you are the chosen one, but there are also deities beyond your imagining. The Lady of Pain, Sigil's strange ruler doesn't acknowledge you unless you deliberately catch her attention, upon which she flicks your tiresome soul into a dimension she's crafted to imprison gnats such as yourself. There's a certain elegance to games that can send you on adventures in which you're not be-all and end-all. For all its bells, whistles and sophistication, Maugeter is a humble game, where you can choose to do great good and have it go unnoticed by the people around you. Ending up back on the streets after my tower adventure, I was back where I'd started, a little wiser, a little more experienced, and with a cracker of a tale under my belt, but there was no fanfare or procession that greeted me. As in life, if I wanted a pat on my back I'd have to do it myself. Much of Maugeter follows such an approach. Storming the thieves guild with my own netted me cash, not fame. Life goes on in Maugeter. New things happen in districts you think you're done with. If watching a group of four adventurers get creamed by the city guard for gathering in too large a party didn't drive the message home for you, playing the game further will: You're a hero, but you're not the hero. There's a certain kind of honesty to that.

It's all the more amazing that this game is not a game, that I didn't pay a penny for it, that it's a bolt-on module for an old game that costs pennies, that it's one of hundreds of its kind, and that while it's very, very good it's by no means the best reviewed of all the Neverwinter Nights modules out there. But I'm guessing that while it mightn't be the best module of all time, it's certainly one of the most unique. A high fantasy adventure where you don't have a destiny? There can't be many of those.

Download Maugeter for Neverwinter Nights

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