Part 6: Act One Chapter Three - Swamp Ruins Are Just Another Kind Of Sewer LevelWest Harbor has been saved from the dwarven menace, but our problems are only just beginning. Our father, Daeghun, hid something important and/or dangerous in the nearby swamp ruins, and it's up to us to retrieve it.
: There's probably more than lizardlings ahead. So - uh - lead on, I guess.
Oh, Bevil. How wrong you are. It's lizardlings all the way down.
Okay, so up until now I've been pretty busy just explaining the game and following what's going on. Time for some commentary.
Perhaps it's just me (and everybody else I've asked on the subject) but beginnings in RPGs always seem to be the worst part. They're slow and boring and tedious... I've never seen a Baldur's Gate thread go by without someone complaining about wanting to play through BG2 again but not being able to stomach facing the starting dungeon for the eleventh time.
In most games, they seem to fit one of two scenarios:
1) The Cloistered Village. The player is free to run around in a safe, secure and boring environment, performing banal tasks for measly rewards which are nonetheless required to ensure your character is strong enough to survive the game proper. Candlekeep in Baldur's Gate is the quintessential example.
2) Fischer-Price Dungeon. The player must run through several !exciting! and !dangerous! hostile areas, learning the mechanics of the game through trying them out on hapless minions. Of course, because it's the first dungeon, everything is padded with no sharp corners so the player doesn't kill himself.
Although the second scenario sounds a lot better, remember that some of the most hated sequences in RPG history - the Temple of Trials in Fallout 2, Torment's Mortuary, the aforementioned Irenicus sewer dungeon - fall into this category.
"Gee, that's helpful," you're thinking. Well, there are games that do it right. Icewind Dale 2's Targos is a mixture of the two - a 'safe' town under attack by a 'dangerous' goblin horde. As soon as you get tired of mindless fetch-quests, bam! you discover a band of goblins holed up in a warehouse. The gameplay avoids becoming stale while still handholding you through learning the game's mechanics.
The other good thing about Targos is that at the end of the sequence, you've accomplished something: the goblin horde is beaten back and Targos is secured permanently, all thanks to you. Compare to any other game, where beginnings are losses - you can no longer return to the destroyed Eden Prime/Easthaven/Taris, you have been exiled permanently from Candlekeep/Vault 101. No wonder RPG beginnings are so disappointing.
NWN2 is reasonably good about this - again, the mixture of safe 'free play' in the Harvest Fair and the dangerous objective-based gameplay of defending the village - but I'll say now that the expansion pack Mask of the Betrayer has the best introductory sequence in any game I've played to date. I can't explain it here without spoiling the plot of both NWN2 and MotB, but I will get back to it.
Now, this is the entrance to the ruins that Daeghun mentioned. Inside we'll find whatever it is that he thinks the dwarves are after.
Hrm... a bunch of dwarves and a wizard show up unannounced on our countryside paradise's doorstep, forcing us into an adventure to recover something of great worth. This is sort of like the beginning to The Hobbit.
Oh, and who's this? Someone tailing us through the swamp?
* * *
The other problem with RPG beginnings is D20, of course.
(Naturally this doesn't quite apply so much to other gaming systems but sometimes there are shared principles.)
Your basic adventurer could have anywhere from four to twelve starting hitpoints, not including special constitution bonuses. Now, this is depending on which class you are, so let's say it averages out at about, oh, I don't know, eight.
Your basic longsword does up to eight points in damage.
Do you see where this is going?
Low-level combat in D&D is incredibly lethal. Any character that isn't a warrior type - Wizards, Sorcerers, Rogues, Bards, etc. - can potentially be killed in a single strike by a simple short sword. Worse, most of these classes are restricted from wearing armor, making them very easy to hit and kill.
Now, when you're playing the board game, this is fine. You've got three other buddies ready to take hits for you. But when you're playing on the computer, on your own or in a two, especially with dodgy model collision like NWN2, your life is in the dice's hands. Uh, I mean... well, you get the drift.
So every RPG beginning has to be incredibly easy because otherwise you're just not going to make it past the first encounter. I call this 'Dire Wolf Syndrome', after losing dozens of characters to the Dire Wolf (a tough low/mid-level monster) that lurks by the road out of Candlekeep in BG1.
NWN2 kind of cheats past this (although the dwarves we fought were all terrible hits anyway) by giving your character lots of experience before you ever have to fight anyone. Level 3 characters are literally three times as tough as Level 1 characters!
That said... currently we're Level 4. NWN2 has a level cap of 20. By all rights we should be a fifth- to a quarter-through the whole game. I'd be reluctant to say we're even 1% done at this point.
We've battled through the lizardling-infested ruins and finally come to this... the deepest, darkest, swampiest room in the whole starting dungeon.
True to narrative form, the biggest and baddest lizardlings have congregated here to give us a suitably-climactic Final Encounter.
: And before we fight them for our ancestral hatching grounds, we ask for your blessings!
Except these lizardlings are different, because they can talk. Those lizardlings before, they were just dumb animals... but these ones can think, and killing sentient beings is wrong.
Because it's much more fun to lie to them instead.
: [Bluff] I am the incarnation of the stone god - you would do well to fear me!
: Take our offerings with you to the stone god. Tell him we are his humble servants.
Oh yeah. We successfully outwitted a tribe of coldblooded outcast loser lizardmen.
What was this place? I don't think this was originally intended to be the First Church of Our Savior The Stone God.
This must be what Daeghun was talking about.
It doesn't. Daeghun and I are definitely going to have a little talk about this.
: Daeghun can do his own blasted quests from now on. When you're done searching around, let's get out of here.
* * *
So it's 'the shard' now, is it?
: If I did not believe you could handle the task, I would have sent another.
: Yeah, well, you weren't out there in the swamp getting attacked by lizardfolk.
: Our talk is for our ears alone. Bevil has served his purpose, and does not need to be troubled any further.
: Bevil has his uses, but it is not wise to depend on someone of Starling blood for too long.
: Also, his complaining tires me and will not serve you where you are bound.
: What were those ruins in the swamp?
Urgh. Dwarves and elves, elves and dwarves. Where are my ancient godlike halfling empires that made the Realms tremble long ago?
: All that remains are ruins, and little else, and their empire lives on only in history books and stories.
: Tell me about the shard.
: My half-brother, Duncan, and I asked a mage in Neverwinter to examine the shards for enchantments, but he found nothing except a faint magical aura, a residue of the battle.
: And so I kept one shard, and the other I gave to Duncan. Not long after I returned to West Harbor I sealed it away in the ruins.
Oh God, so many questions. Why did you not tell us any of this before Daeghun
Our family sucks. Daeghun is a prick and our only other relative is a delinquint.
: How long ago was this battle in West Harbor fought?
: We knew little about what had sparked the conflict. Demons were involved, led by a warlock of great power - we only knew him as the King of Shadows.
: The forces of Neverwinter attempted to drive the demons back.
: Many villagers fled, some taking the road, others wading into the swamp, anything to escape the battle. There was an explosion - pure and white - then nothing more.
: Are you sure those creatures were looking for the shard?
Daeghun, some advice... never take to the stage.
: I could not bring myself to cast it away. Yet at the same time I did not wish to keep it close.
: You are too young to remember what occurred, I know - but the battle was a terrible one. And that shard, it reminds me too much of that night.
: Duncan owns an inn in the Docks District of the city, the Sunken Flagon. Not the most... reputable place, but safe enough.
: Why don't we dump this shard, or give it up?
: We only found two. It is possible there were others, scattered into the swamp, or taken away - or have met other ends.
Yes, finally! Our character calls Daeghun on his bullshit.
: There are many things I have chosen not to tell you, and this is because they are not relevant.
Ooh, shut down.
: I've heard enough. How do I get to Neverwinter?
: Head to the small port town of Highcliff when you are free of the swamp. There, seek passage on a ship to Neverwinter.
: The beasts that attacked us will leave West Harbor alone once they realize their quarry has fled. If all goes well, you should be in Neverwinter before they find your trail.
We'll make a quick tour of the village before we leave. Almost everyone is waiting outside.
: You might want to ask around the village - if you're going to leave, some folks might be able to offer some help.
: Can you give me anything to help on the journey?
We don't use shields - like Daeghun, we're an archer at heart. But maybe Georg has a good story for us instead.
: You see, an elf never stops growing, and usually they head to Evermeet before they get much bigger than human-sized.
: But one of the eldest lives in our own swamp. Huge, he is, tall as a tree-
: It's the truth, I say. This giant elf has been known to hurl rocks great distances. And it has the evil eye.
: And just by looking at them you can't tell if it's just an ordinary rock - or whether it used to be a man. If you listen quietly... late at night... you can even hear them.
Someone at Obsidian is severely messed up in the head.
Other villagers give us some other items too. Orlen has a nice healing potion for us, while Bevil gives us his share of the loot from the ruins and a bit of his militia pay too. Thanks, guys!
Tarmas has something more intriguing:
: You've probably heard it mentioned from time to time. And no doubt you've also heard the same vague accounts I have. Assuming you could pry even that much from the other villagers.
You know, in a lot of other games, big battles against terrible evils that took place long ago are always hugely celebrated affairs. Then at some point in the game (occuring on some anniversary of the original event) there's a bit plot twist, like the evil demons were the good guys all along or the great big memorial to the battle is actually the capstone that keeps the evil sealed away.
But finding stuff out about this big mysterious battle is like pulling teeth.
: Do you know anything else about the war?
: There were few battles in the war and all of them were fought in the Mere of Dead Men. An evil wizard was behind the whole thing.
: Why don't the other Harbormen talk about the war?
: The battle that was fought here didn't involve heralds and flowery declarations. It involved the wholesale slaughter of two forces, with your village in the middle.
: The entire village was nearly destroyed - and almost no one who stayed in West Harbor survived the night.
Finally, Bevil's mum has a favour to ask:
: He's never come back. I don't know if he's dead or alive.
: A lot of soldiers died during the war with Luskan. I just pray he wasn't one of them. Brother Merring says never give up hope, but it's been such a long time.
That's it, we're done. Let's go.
: To get to Neverwinter, take the road that borders the Starling farm out of town. It is the only road through the Mere of Dead Men - so following it will be easy.
: I've made it known that you travel directly for the city - in the hopes that the enemy will pursue you along the High Road.
: Instead, you will head to the small port of Highcliff once you are clear of the swamp. From there, you will seek passage on a ship to Neverwinter.
: Your trip to Neverwinter will be quicker by water, and my attempt at misdirection may allow you to reach Highcliff before the enemy becomes aware of your true route.
Well, here it begins. The adventure finally kicks off - and about time, too. We've hit all of the epic high fantasy cliches:
- Childhood home attacked and burned to the ground
- Beloved friend murdered by evil forces
- An ancient artifact that must be protected
- Callow orphan youth sent off alone into the world
So what shall we be? A mighty warrior with sinews of steel? A daring rogue that can merge with the shadows? A powerful arcanist that commands the fundamental forces of the universe itself?