Part 9: The Dead Three (Or The Rise, Fall, And Rise Again Of Bane, Myrkul And Bhaal)
Act Two Chapter One - Spirit-Eater Needs Food Badly
Check it out, everyone, it's already Act 2!
Mask is a lot shorter than its mother game, NWN2 - obviously because it's the expansion pack, sure, but also because not a lot of games are longer than NWN2.
Certainly nothing compares to NWN2's Act 1... but you've heard enough about that already.
Kevin Saunders, lead designer on Mask, was very keen in pre-release interviews to state that Mask should be considered a fully-fledged CRPG and judged accordingly, rather than as a "mere" expansion pack. He was right to think that way; I know we've all been burned by promises of "massive" expansions that are practically a sequel all in themselves GABE NEWELL but Mask really does have some length to it. The difference between it and NWN2 though is that the plot is much better balanced.
NWN2 Act 1 should really have ended when arriving in Neverwinter for the first time. By then, Obsidian had introduced the hero, the threat, the focus of the plot, and the eponymous city... but, as you know, half the companions and main cast had yet to be introduced, so Obsidian spun it out another thirty hours or so.
This is where Mask gets it right, though, because Act 1 has ended at the very best moment: we've made friends, enemies, discovered the crisis that makes the plot go, and had a big exciting battle at the end to boot. Furthermore, and this may be hard to believe, we've now met or been introduced to every single significant character in the game. There won't be any surprises from here on out: no Nolaloths or Aldanons suddenly appearing to extend the story's lifespan. Everything proceeds naturally from this point on.
* * *
Act 2 is where Mask opens up considerably. Nobody will tell us where to go or what to do next... it's up to us to find clues and decide on a course of action.
We are alone, without guidance or assistance, in a strange alien land full of xenophobes and witches, ensnared by a vicious curse that threatens to consume our very soul. Our next action will be incredibly important; it could be our last.
So I went shopping.
Calliope's Dexterity and Intelligence are now so high that we actually have a better Armor Class in clothing than we do in studded leather. 36 AC is nothing to sneeze at, you know.
Of course, nobody in Mulsantir sells any decent clothing so I had to import my own from the toolset. Bah.
I thought we'd have a chill update today. No plot advancement, no pressure. Just good friends, hanging out, drinking beer.
And these are our good friends. Don't they look smart?
This is the motley crew of misfits we'll be taking through Mask of the Betrayer. There are a few other companions (well, one really, and a few extras), but we won't be seeing most of them on this playthrough.
For the most part they all get along fine, which is great. Gann's selfishness can clash with Kaelyn's do-gooder urges and Okku's sense of honour but there are only a few choices that raise Influence with one companion at the expense of another. The as-yet unseen fifth companion, however, is another matter...
The party dynamic is well-rounded too. Okku is the best melee fighter, while Safiya excels at support with transformative buffs and debuffs; Kaelyn can heal and aid Okku in close combat (or replace him if needs be) and Gann can help out with any role with the right spells and equipment. And then there's Calliope, who consumes the souls of all that oppose us.
It's a neat set-up. Three spellcasters is excessive but as Okku demonstrates it's hard to make an interesting Epic Fighter without blatantly cheating.
Our party members can also help out in dialogue. Fail a Diplomacy check and Kaelyn steps in to make it a success; the same for Gann and Bluffs, and Okku and Intimidation. Safiya will help with Spellcraft and Lore checks but these occur less often (i.e. never).
The best part is there's no wasted space. Nobody's there just to make up numbers, or to make sure the player has a Bard or Rogue available to them. Everyone's fallen into the party fairly naturally as well: two have outstanding promises to keep, one likes helping others and the last was just plain bored. You don't even have to recruit Gann, Kaelyn or Okku if you don't want to (though most characters will need all the help they can get against the spirit army); Gann and Kaelyn will still be waiting for you in Act 2 should you change your mind and seek help with this new spirit-eater curse you've picked up.
And if you get low enough Influence with a companion, they leave the party!
Influence in Mask takes a different tack to NWN2. The key change here is one of transparency: the character sheet now shows a companion's Influence in both numbers and words. The numbers range from -100 to 100, and this range is divided up into bands of about 25 points each. Observe:
Influence shifts are standardised to changes of +/- 6, 11 or 15 points at a time (with a few notable exceptions). Every time you shift Influence, big yellow letters are branded onto your screen so you can't miss it. The overall effect is to give the player more control over the Influence system, making it easier to 'game'.
-100 to -75 Rebellious -75 to -50 Disillusioned -50 to -25 Wavering -25 to 25 Neutral 25 to 50 Supportive 50 to 75 Loyal 75 to 100 Devoted
Which is good because Influence in Mask has a different purpose to NWN2. In Mask Influence has tangible benefits and rewards: special feats and bonuses as well as access to more dialogue. Low Influence, however, only results in abandonment (except for Safiya, the only compulsory companion in the game).
This is more similar to KOTOR2's Influence system and the Jedification process than to NWN2's roleplay-orientated system. It's a change for the better, I think, because investment in companions now receives proper compensation, as opposed to the lacklustre rewards of NWN2.
The bonuses come in two kinds: one for the companion and one for the player. Companions get their first bonus at Supportive, and it's pretty meh: Safiya's Trust of the Red Wizard grants +2 to Concentration.
: You have the drive and integrity that I see in my greatest students. I wish to teach you as we travel.
: What would you like to teach me?
: While my official tenure as an instructor is a new development, I have been teaching the arcane arts since I was... a child, really.
: Spells are a small part of what I teach. My students are often new to the magical arts. Before they learn their first cantrip, they need to have their minds sharpened, so that they can view the world through a scholar's eye.
Loyalty of the Red Wizard comes at Loyal Influence and there's a reward for both Safiya and Calliope.
: Perception, memory, focus - all of these qualities can be heightened if you open yourself to the possibility that any problem can be solved with your mind.
: I would be glad to have you teach me.
Calliope gets +1 Intelligence and +2 to our spell DCs (disappointing, because we only have four spell-like abilities and no actual spells). Safiya does better out of it: +1 Intelligence, +4 Concentration, +2 spell DCs, and Improved Empower Spell, a metamagic feat that increases spell power at greater efficiency than normal.
The second bonus comes at Devoted Influence and is more of the same. It works out better for Safiya because she really needs the boost in Intelligence and spells to make her more effective in combat, but Calliope can still use the Intelligence for more skills and her Unfettered Defense ability.
It's exactly the same structure for the other companions, save for the specifics: Kaelyn grants better Wisdom and Fortitude saves, Okku more Constitution and Will saves, and Gann offers greater Charisma and a more effective Devour Spirit ability.
* * *
A few people noticed the spirit meter at the bottom of the screen last update. "Oh," they said, "does this mean we have to feed Okku spirit energy, like salmon from an Alaskan river?"
No such luck, I'm afraid.
: It's primal... and it feels... old. An old hunger, indeed.
: Do you know anything about this power I have?
: You mean your curse? I know a little about it - spirit legends only.
That's us. A spirit-eater.
God only knows how we ended up as one.
: What happens to these spirit-eaters?
: Hunted down, killed - sometimes, they simply vanish, never to be heard from again.
: They are enemies of the land, of the spirits. As you found with Okku, the spirit world will rise against this curse, trying to kill it or contain it before it does more harm.
NWN2 got a bit of flak for railroading your (Evil) character into a desperate war against the King of Shadows. Mask makes a deliberate attempt to circumvent this by saddling you with a curse that will destroy you utterly unless you find some sort of cure.
As motivations for campaigns go it's a solid one. The curse slowly consumes our soul unless we feed it the spirits of others. Even if you revel in the ability to utterly destroy another being with no chance of resurrection, the lack of control over this power is disconcerting. The rest of the game is spent finding a way to control and suppress this weird hunger of ours - or finding a way to harness it.
The other purpose of the Spirit Meter is as a rationing system to add extra bite to the resting system.
Y'see, you start with 100 Spirit Energy, which slowly decreases over time until it reaches 0. There are six stages to the curse, increasing in severity as your Spirit Energy decreases.
Stage 1, for example, grants -1 to all stats and a 5% additional vulnerability to physical damage.
At Stage 2, the stat penalty becomes -2 and you take a small amount of damage every ten rounds (not a lot, but it adds up when your Constitution is decreased as well).
By Stage 5, you're facing -10 to all stats, 90% additional vulnerability to physical damage and 5% of your hit points plus 1d3 points of damage every single round.
Stage 6 is death, by the way.
Spirit Energy consumption is determined by your Craving (the small horizontal bar below the main meter). Initially you use up 2 units of Spirit Energy every hour. Devouring lots of spirits, especially when you don't need to, increases your Craving, which then increases the amount of Energy you use every hour. Suppressing your hunger decreases the Craving bar and causes you to use Energy more slowly.
Devouring Spirits is the horrible jerk way to replenish your Spirit Meter.
Here we spy a peaceful Telthor Boar, foraging for food outside Mulsantir.
We use an ability called Provoke Spirits to turn him hostile. This is because Mask doesn't let you target friendly creatures with offensive actions, so you don't break the game by killing plot characters accidentally. Obviously you don't need to use Provoke Spirits when encountering hostile spirits in the wild.
Once in combat, we can cast Devour Spirit to do fully one-quarter of the spirit's total health in damage. This use of Devour Spirit replenished our meter by 10 points.
Devour Spirit can be cast ten times a day, but there's a five minute cooldown period so it's effectively once-every-encounter.
Note that if you kill something using Devour Spirit, you get bonus Spirit Energy equal to however many hitpoints the spirit had remaining. Devouring the boar like this took us from 52 points to 82 (thrice as much as normal) - and we got a free Spirit Essence thrown in as well! What a bargain!
Suppression is the love-and-cuddles way to replenish your Spirit Meter.
It's a lot less fiddly than Devouring Spirits. Devouring requires you find a suitable candidate - a telthor, an elemental or an incorporeal undead - and, well, devour it. Suppressing your hunger can be done anytime, anywhere, although you can only do it once a day and not if you've Devoured a spirit (and vice versa).
Unfortunately the spell effect is the best thing about it. 5 lousy units?!
Let's do some quick arithmetic: we cast Suppress once a day, which translates to regaining 5 units every eight hours. Every eight hours we lose 2 * 8 = 16 units of Spirit Energy.
There is a problem here.
Luckily Suppression improves when performed close to spirit creatures. Okku here inspires us to gain an extra 2 units of Energy!
Summoned elementals can bump it up another notch too.
Suppression isn't a sustainable strategy for dealing with the Meter (except when it is, as we'll see later) but interspersed with the occasional Devour Spirit and it's perfectly fine. The main point of Suppressing is to decrease your Craving, reducing your need to eat spirits in the first place.
Of course, as with any suitably complex mechanic, it's entirely possible to fuck yourself over. You may find yourself with low Spirit Energy and no way to bring it back up (maybe you ate all the spirits around, you greedy bastard).
Satiate is the last-ditch option for spirit-eaters who eat themselves into a corner: the sacrifice of a level of XP for a full Spirit Meter. This represents letting the curse feed on a small part of your soul, as opposed to all of it, and is a potentially life-saving manoeuvre. For a power-gamer it's also a fate worse than death, so try to avoid getting into such situations in the first place.
There are additional spirit-eating powers we'll acquire as we proceed through the game, for both horrible-jerk and love-and-cuddles playstyles.
(Originally Devour Spirit and Suppress had alignment shifts associated with them - Chaotic Evil and Lawful Good respectively. Thankfully these have been patched out since they were wholly inappropriate... it's no stretch of the imagination to see how a Chaotic Evil coward might want to Suppress his hunger instead of risking his soul. And if you think devouring spirits is an inherently immoral act, then unless you've never eaten anything ever I have some bad news for you...)
* * *
Spirit-eating came under fire when Mask came out, largely because it was such a massive change from the slow pace of NWN2 and its free-resting system. Suddenly you can no longer trundle through the game with a party of Wizards, setting up camp after every other fight to re-memorise your spells. Some players felt pressured by the meter mechanic to rush through the game, ignoring side-quests and interesting dialogues because of the ever-present threat of death. Others felt uneasy about having to 'manage' their food supply, as devouring too many spirits, too fast, could leave players without a source of Spirit Energy to last them until the next wave of creature respawning.
'Some players' are wimps, of course. Real men love spirit-eating! Plus it's a doddle once you learn how to use it properly (since the manual doesn't explain it very well).
The Spirit Meter gives new life to certain underused aspects of D&D, like, for example, Warlocks: with infinite uses of their invocations, Warlocks only need to rest when severely injured, which reduces the amount of Energy spent sleeping (??) and reduces the need to find spirits to consume. Or Persistent Spell metamagic, which makes spells last for 24 hours: unnecessary in NWN2, a godsend in Mask.
It is a little fiddly to use, but it's also the main thing separating Mask's gameplay from every other (D&D) CRPG that exists, ever. Now, that can't be a bad thing.
* * *
I suppose we'll finish off with some character development.
: While I will honor my oath to help you, do not forget that other spirits may resent you for the pain you caused them.
: But your conviction shows me that you will not be pushed about. Maybe there's hope for you yet...
It was a little hard to see against Okku's fur, but: we lost Influence, then made it back up (and more) with a successful skill check.
This is the other good thing about the Influence system. There's quite a few of these scattered about in the dialogues. Suddenly you're no longer on tiptoes trying to decide what the best option is because you've got that much more freedom to choose what's true to your character.
We don't need to worry so much about who to take where as well. Yes, certain companions have more content in certain areas, but nearly everyone will have something to say, and there's more than enough Influence in the game to max everyone out well before the end. In fact, there's enough Influence to get everyone except Okku up to Loyal by the end of Act 1, if you're clever (though this causes a bug where Gann talks about spirit-eating before you actually become one).
Okku doesn't have a whole lot of dialogue (he's a bear, what do you expect?) and we're going to run through most of it today. Compare and contrast to Kaelyn, whose dialogue tree is massive and will probably take two playthroughs to cover completely.
(So much for almost being cut...)
Don't underestimate the bear, though. He doesn't have a lot to say but he's just as central to the story as any other companion.
: In life, I was a bear of flesh and bone. In death, my bond with the land has called me back.
: So you were just an ordinary bear before you died?
: I was no ordinary bear. I was a descendent of the most ancient beasts - those that ran wild with the gods Bhalla, Mielikki, and Lurue!
: My clan was the strongest in these lands - we were lords of the hunt. We spoke the tongues of men and beast alike...
: Is your life much different than it was before you died?
: I am an echo of my former self. If you think I am strong now, you should have seen me in life!
: Now I wake but need no food. I dream but do not truly sleep... My hide does not itch, my legs never tire.
: The sensations of life are gone - replaced by the hum of unseen forces.
: Bah! Your view of divinity is narrow, little one. The Rashemi people and the beasts of this land find all spirits sacred. They do not point at just one creature and call it their god.
: They respect all great spirits as worthy of worship - and their devotion strengthens us - gives us power so that we may better guard the land.
: When we fought, did you not notice that I was unstoppable until you slew my followers?
This is the usual paradigm you find in fantasy lands with pantheons of gods - it's certainly how things work in the Forgotten Realms. Prayer and faith aren't desperate acts of pleading to an unknowable omnipotent Creator, but a transactional relationship of faith for miracles. Gods, all gods (save Ao the Overgod) require prayer like, I don't know, some kind of "spirit food" or "energy"... if they ever run out, they lose their powers and fade away, replaced by a competitor god.
It takes a little of the magic out of normal faith: that God is God, almighty and eternal, entirely beyond the needs of mortal people. In the Forgotten Realms, gods are jumped-up versions of Ed Greenwood's old characters (literally so). In the Forgotten Realms, gods are, bizarrely, mortal.
They're also pretty shit at forgiveness. Thanks much Jesus
: I wanted to apologize for her death.
: Apologize? Your words won't bring her back...
: I can not forget your actions, but in time, I can forgive.
: If you are truly remorseful for your actions, you will strive to control your hunger and never again let it feed upon the spirits of the land.
Okku likes it every time you display resistance to the spirit-eater curse, as does Kaelyn. The fifth companion prefers that you indulge your hunger at every opportunity, while Gann and Safiya don't really care either way.
Because resisting is what we're going to do. The good/neutral path in Mask is closest to the core themes and concepts that I want to draw out of the game (if you can believe it has themes and concepts). The evil path is more cutthroat and brutal, even more fun, but like I always say, you gotta know what you're destroying before you can really enjoy it.