Part 35: Act Two Chapter One - Sand & ShandraBusy update today - lotsa things happening. New companions, new questlines, new everything.
But first things first: Act 1 wrap-up.
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Thirty motherfucking updates. Goddamn, son.
Act 1 is a long act, and it feels long. I mean, I'm expecting roughly the same number of updates for Act 2, but the difference is that Act 2 genuinely has a lot of things going on, while Act 1 is just... filler. Note how I managed to summarise thirty-two updates in twelve pictures - and that's being generous.
We started out with a simple goal: find out more about the silver shards. Yet at every turn we were blocked by obstacle after obstacle.
- We need to go to Neverwinter - but the High Road is closed! Detour to Highcliff.
- We need to catch a boat - but the lizardmen are angry! Detour to Castle Ruins.
- We need to see Aldanon - but Blacklake is closed off! Detour to City Watch/Shadow Thieves.
- etc. etc.
No wonder Act 1 has such a huge attrition rate. Many people start playing NWN2 with hopes of finishing it; very few actually do.
The funny thing is, it's not even hard. Nethack is hard. Baldur's Gate 1 is hard. Act 1 of NWN2 is just hugely repetitive. There's no sense of accomplishment in defeating an encounter because a) it was easy and b) there's another one coming along in five minutes.
I do appreciate the gentle curve, though - D&D is really unforgiving at low levels and I wouldn't want to go through any of the Act 1 areas more than once in a playthrough. Starting the main adventure proper at Level 4 and being very generous with resting was a good decision.
Obsidian didn't really have much of a choice when it came to Act 1, to be fair. NWN2 is a big game and it has a lot of different, equally important characters in it. Furthermore, there are twelve companions to be acquired and we've got to meet them all before the game is done.
Act 1 was always going to be big. Obsidian had to introduce all of the major players, plus three-quarters of the chorus, plus various places, quests and plot devices. That is: Luskan, Neverwinter, the githyanki, the demons, the Shadow Thieves/City Watch, Aldanon, nine companions, the Jerro bloodline, the silver sword, West Harbor, the War of Shadows... and we've got to have time to formulate our own character, too. Even tiny bit-part characters like Pentin and Marcus will reappear in Act 2.
As for why it had to be so big... well, that's part of the high fantasy genre, isn't it? It's not really a fantasy epic unless you spend ten hours recounting the minutiae of the genealogy of elven kings 1140-1392.
There's a couple of moments in Act 1 where the sheer size really hits you. Arriving in Neverwinter is a good one, because it's also the game's first har har fuck you moment: you've got to see Aldanon in Blacklake, but not before you perform dozens of mind-numbing tasks for Brelaina or Axle. Hope you weren't interested in the main plot, fucker!
Or Old Owl Well, as you've undoubtedly already realised. Five very large, almost identical areas consisting entirely of big fights with tough enemies with little-to-no variation. Maybe once or twice an Orc Shaman would pop up with the hordes of orcish axemen... otherwise, the entire module was the exact same thing, repeated over and over.
What sticks in my craw is that, contrary to what I said before, these quests are not necessary. We do not need to be a part of the Docks War; we do not need to fight an army of orcs at Old Owl Well. These matters do not return in Act 2. Aside from having the excuse to ally with Axle/Brelaina and pick up Grobnar and Casavir, these areas do not serve a purpose. They could easily have been cut or severely reduced and it would have improved the game immensely.
The way I think of it is: Act 1 has an overabundance of location-based gameplay. The majority of quests are "go to this place and kill everything." That might not be the way it's phrased ("retrieve the emissary" "investigate the ruins") but it's how it plays out. We enter a dungeon, we fight some monsters, we leave - that's Act 1 in a nutshell.
Occasionally we get something more interesting (like patrolling the Docks at the start of the Watch/Thieves questline) and sometimes the dungeons have a lot of thought put into them (Leldon's hideout) but those are exceptions rather than rules.
The good news is that Act 2 is pretty much the opposite: objective-based gameplay. Quests in Act 2 are centred around some kind of goal, and we deal with monsters and enemies as obstacles to achieving those goals rather than being the goals themselves.
For example, in Act 2 we can look forward to:
- Defending a nobleman's home from demonic invasion
- Piecing together clues to uncover a murderous conspiracy
- Playing medieval Rock Star with, well, a medieval rock star
And so much more! Seriously, those aren't even the best bits.
Act 2 is much better than Act 1 in every way. Now that we've finally introduced everyone (and actually killed off one of the major factions as well) we can move on to actually telling the story.
The only drawback is that story still consists of a ton of - I think the official term is "Plot Tumours". We've only really got the one goal - Ammon Jerro's Haven - but it's going to take the entire Act just to get there.
It's so worth it, though.
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And we're off.
There is a disturbance in Castle Never.
Wait... is that Torio? Isn't she one of the bad guys?
: Of course. I meant no disrespect... milord.
: Murderer? And whom has this murderer killed?
: An entire village lies dead, milord.
: Nevalle, have our scouts reported anything about-
: I will do nothing until I confirm this village's destruction. Then, if I see fit, I will act. Do not test me on this.
: Whatever pleases you, milord. But, I would act quickly, lest the murderer slip through your fingers. If that were to happen, I have no doubt there would be serious repercussions.
And she storms off. I have a bad feeling about where this is going.
: By every God and his mother, what a fool I was to ever sign anything bearing Luskan's seal.
: I can have Torio detained, Lord Nasher.
: I think it would be in our interest to find the killer before Luskan does.
: If I may, milord, I have someone well suited to aid in our search - an agent of ours, Sand.
: I think that he can help us find our true murderer, no matter how deep Luskan tries to hide him.
: Sand? I recall that one... I thought he was our eyes, but not by choice.
* * *
: Who are you?
: He is Sir Nevalle, a member of the Nine - Lord Nasher's bodyguards.
: And what does one of the Nine want with me?
I can't get a shot of Nevalle without him making some kind of silly face. Knock it off, Nevalle! This is a serious moment!
Garius has gotten tired of the way in which we always manage to get ourselves underfoot. Sending assassins hasn't worked - after all, we're adventurers - so he's decided to try a more intelligent tactic.
: I've scraped things from my boot that I respect more than Luskan. But unless we find some means of clearing you of these charges, we will have to surrender you to them.
: We've signed a treaty with Luskan - they have the right to dispense low justice for any crime committed on their soil.
Oh yeah, Nevalle doesn't really like us.
It's at this point that the Shadow Thieves plotline gets a little... tortured. With the City Watch, it all makes sense - you're a valued member of the Neverwinter civil service, and besides it's highly unlikely you would just up and randomly slaughter a village full of innocents.
But as Shadow Thieves, we're technically enemies of the state. Not only is ransacking Ember the sort of thing we totally would do (if we had a reason) but Nevalle has a vested interest in sending us off to Luskan to be executed, thus ridding Neverwinter of one of its most potent enemies.
: Then maybe you'd like to suggest an alternative.
I suppose this is why Nevalle is helping us: dogmatic adherence to the rule of law and a desire to stick it to Luskan.
Or maybe he's been reading the script and knows that we're the Hero.
: I may send a... friend of mine... to assist you. He has proven invaluable in such cases in the past.
: Know this... if you cannot prove your innocence in this matter, our only choice will be to deliver you to Luskan - or Neverwinter herself may pay the price.
This is all Nevalle does to help us: an oblique hint and some discreet help from one of his agents. If we were members of the Watch, he'd pull a few more strings for us... as it is, we have to call in a favour or two.
A cut sequence here: Nevalle talking to his 'friend' and 'asking' for 'assistance'.
And who is this 'friend?'
:Ah, I thought I smelled one of the Nine... and Nevalle no less, not an aide. To what do I owe this rare honour, my liege?
: I see your post at the Docks hasn't improved your temperament, Sand.
: Yes, well, it's a step up from the Merchant Quarter, less politics... until now.
: So... is there something you wish to interrogate me on? Or can I go back to wondering where my life made such a sharp turn-
: Something has happened... and I will need your talents to set it right.
* * *
A little while later, our friend Wolf shows up with a message from Axle.
: I'll see him right away.
: He will be pleased to see you.
: They attacked Neverwinter once, and even now, they're sending fleets to attack Ruathym. Give them an excuse, and you'll soon find Luskan blades at your gate.
This is Politics with a 'P'. Garius has chosen wisely - we're outclassed here. Killing people isn't going to work here, sadly.
: Oh, really. And what's the price? If it's more than a half-copper, you can see yourself out.
: No, I... seem to have been given an ultimatum, in fact. I have heard of your... troubles with Luskan.
: Know that if you are sent to Luskan, you will be killed.
: There are laws, and there is right and wrong. Although you may choose to live your life somewhere in between, I do not believe you are guilty of this...
: ...and if they should get a hold of you, you will be killed. I believe people should answer for their crimes, but it must be just.
: And when I say "execute," do not think it will be one clean chop of a headman's axe... Luskans have all sorts of inventive ways for executing prisoners that is not best to describe on a full stomach.
: What do the rest of you think?
: Luskan is not ruled by men, it is ruled by magic, by the masters of the towers. And if they have decided that you are to be delivered to them, then-
: So? Let them try!
Cut: Qara's father is actually head of the Academy of Mages here in Neverwinter.
I know, that came out of left field, didn't it?
: And I suspect that what they seek may have consequence beyond you, beyond me - for much of the Realms.
: So what do you suggest?
: Perhaps your new "friend," Axle Devrie, can act where Nevalle's hands are tied.
In case you hadn't got the message already. We need to see Axle right away.
And Sand joins the party.
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Sand is voiced by Fred Berman (Listen here)
Oh, Sand. Sand, Sand, Sand. Where to start?
Of all the companions in the NWN2 OC, Sand probably comes out the best. Most of the other companions are a mixed bag - some people like Neeshka's cheekiness, others despise her rampant kleptomania. Even Khelgar has his detractors.
He's not universally loved, but I'd argue that most of the fanbase finds him amusing. He's intelligent, witty, and viciously sarcastic... he's what most players imagine themselves to be like; he's 95% of the Internet, the ur-nerd. Those that dislike him find him arrogant, slimy and viciously sarcastic... a lot of the time, they also prefer Qara as their arcane caster.
- likes being complimented and appreciated
- likes making light of absurd situations
- dislikes being taken for granted
- dislikes impulsiveness
- dislikes Qara
- dislikes Sir Nevalle, for some reason
Which is weird, because he's Lawful Neutral. But then again, that's what I like about Sand.
Yes, he's brutally sarcastic - but so is Neeshka, and Bishop. Hell, so is Elanee, when she feels like it.
Yes, he's smarter than everyone else in the party and a lot calmer too (except when talking to Qara) - but those are low standards indeed.
I like Sand because he's got some character beyond the D&D archetype. An arrogant elven wizard who looks down his nose at everyone and especially dislikes impetuous sorcerers? How boring. But then you find out he's not just a wizard, but a lawyer as well. A lawyer! God knows how many adventurers have needed a lawyer after accidentally breaking into the house next door to the secret evil cultist headquarters.
And he's Lawful Neutral, but he obviously doesn't give a toss about the Forces of Order or whatever - he just thinks the world works in an orderly fashion, because that's how wizard magic works. Respect for authority or institutions doesn't enter into it. Nuts to Nevalle!
As I implied earlier, Sand's influence is largely opposed with Qara's. They're diametrically opposed in how they approach everything - life, magic, enemies and obstacles... Influence gains with one often precede an Influence loss with the other. Since we've chosen to dislike Qara, I'm assuming that we're buddies with Sand - though if you have any objections, feel free to raise them.
(No objections raised - Ed.)
Wizards are one of the iconic D&D classes. Forget Warlocks and Sorcerers and Favoured Souls - there's only one way to cast spells, and that's by reading them from a book! One Love, One Magic.
Wizards fulfil the same role as Sorcerers (or should that be the other way around?) in that they're both the 'heavy artillery' of the party. The difference is in flexibility-over-time: Sorcerers can cast any spell they know at a moment's notice, but they don't know many spells. Wizards can cast any damn spell they can fit in their spellbook, so long as you give them eight hours in advance.
They're also emblematic of the nature of D&D, as a cooperative game of monster-slaying. At the start of the campaign, Wizards are like caterpillars - fat little grubs that wriggle around, cast Magic Missile then hide behind a rock for the rest of the battle. These caterpillars must be defended by strong Fighters and tough Clerics if they stand any hope of surviving. But if they do, they turn into beautiful butterflies that can, uh, breathe fire and teleport, far outstripping their allies in power and ability.
4th Edition has done a lot to redress the imbalance between potentially-powerful Wizards and consistently-mediocre Fighters - perhaps even too much. However, inter-class dynamics don't feature much in NWN2 - resting is so frequent that Wizards and other casters are always at full strength; conversely, if an enemy wishes to run past your Fighter blockade and stab your Wizard a few times, there's not a lot you can do to stop him.
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Shandra is voiced by Rachael York (Listen here)
Shandra has also joined the party this update. Well, actually she joined at the end of Act 1, but this is the first update she's actually on the roster.
In Act 1, Shandra was a kind-of comic relief, the unwilling damsel in distress who (fairly accurately) blames her rescuer for landing her in hot water in the first place. She was a 'normal person' who highlighted the absurdity of typical fantasy scenarios by refusing to play along. First her barn, then her house...
In Act 2, she takes on a different role. No longer the farmer, she's an adventurer - our adventurer, to be precise. We're her mentor and teacher, passing on what we've learned about the world so far.
More accurately, she's also a little Calliope. She's an echo of who we are... our homes destroyed by raiders, our lives haunted by connections to a mysterious past; the only difference is that she's thirty updates behind us. If Sand is representative of the player behind the screen, then Shandra is the character inside it.
- likes being treated decently
- likes helping people, especially the common folk
- likes being close to the player
- dislikes being insulted or treated as a tool
- dislikes cruelty and callousness
Shandra is very easy to gain Influence with. Being considerate of her feelings and taking the time to talk to her will gain you points with her. If you ignore her and make it obvious that you're only interested in her for unlocking the Haven, then she'll take notice of it.
Tell me: what do you think? Shall we be nice or shall we be honest? For those of you thinking of a certain sequence in Act 3, don't worry: alterations will be made as and when the time comes. There's some good dialogue for low-Influence Shandra that most people never see, so bear that in mind as well.
(It turns out Something Awful is full of big softies: the thread chose to take Shandra under our wing and be nice to her - Ed.)
Not a lot of time has passed between Act 1 and Act 2, but somehow Shandra has joined us on Level 11. Perhaps we went XP-farming at Fort Locke between title cards.
Shandra is a Fighter - the second one we get. Unlike Khelgar, there's no option to change classes to something more exotic later on. Shandra's stuck as a Fighter - and one specialising in short swords, too.
In fact, I'll tell you this now (since I've already talked about Fighters): there are twelve companions and twelve base classes in the NWN2 OC. It's more or less one for one - each class has a representative companion. The exception comes with the Fighters: there are three Fighter companions, but no Monks or Barbarians. Now, Khelgar can be changed to a Monk, but that still leaves two Fighters, and we won't be getting a Barbarian companion until the Mask of the Betrayer expansion pack - maybe.
For the record, we're still waiting on a Cleric, a Warlock and the third Fighter companion.
Shandra doesn't exactly have the best build for a Fighter - the short sword specialisation is fluffy, but lacks damage potential, and her Strength is appalling. The good news is that Shandra is a 'free' companion - she doesn't take up a slot in the party, but will still follow us around anyway. In essence, our party size has gone up from four to five, but one of those slots is always Shandra. This is not a bad thing; an extra tank is always handy to have.
That said, I will be taking suggestions on how to best outfit Shandra. Shall I stick with the short sword or move on to something bigger? Use a shield or stick another weapon in there? Maybe a halberd or a scythe? Who knows?!
(Shandra ended up dual-wielding short swords, as it happens - Ed.)