Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir Interview: Party Creation, Trade System, and New Classes

Get the latest on this anticipated role-playing expansion.

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Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir is rapidly approaching completion. In your quest to save the Forgotten Realms from Zehir, the god of poison and snakes, you'll have several new gameplay upgrades at your disposal, including a party-creation system, three-dimensional overworld map, and a revamped crafting system. We checked in with lead designer Tony Evans from Obsidian Entertainment for the latest on Storm of Zehir, and he had plenty to say.

Skills such as listen will help you find things on the overworld map.
Skills such as listen will help you find things on the overworld map.

GameSpot: A big new addition that Storm of Zehir will make to Neverwinter Nights 2 is the ability to create your own party. Tell us about that decision.

Tony Evans: We decided to go with full party creation in order to give you ownership over several characters and to offer the tactical and role-playing benefits of controlling a full party. Party creation emphasizes the unique nature of your party and gives you more options to infuse it with your own personality and imagination.

Another consideration for party creation was to design it in such a way that it lets the community create their own party-based campaigns.

A lot of players love creating their own party, and will spend hours in the beginning of the game just fiddling with characters and finding the perfect matchup of different party members. Some players prefer not to spend as much time on creating characters. For them, we have a full variety of premade characters to choose from, as well as the recommend button, which allows you to blitzkrieg through character creation by selecting all the default options for your chosen classes.

However much time you spend on character creation, you can be assured that we are not factoring that time into the average gameplay length of Storm of Zehir, which weighs in at over 30 hours! That is right. At the low, low price of $29.99, you will get more than one hour of mind-blowing entertainment per dollar spent on Storm of Zehir. The only way you could get more bang for your buck is by packing your buck in gunpowder and setting it on fire (not recommended).

GS: Now that we know the expansion will let players create an entire party, what kind of customization options will be available for party members?

TE: In addition to the same detailed character creation of Neverwinter Nights 2 that players have come to either greatly enjoy or skip past with the recommend button, we have a new party-creation interface, programmed by Anthony Davis, who is also responsible for our sexy party-conversation interface, which I'll talk more about later.

In the Party Creation window, you can create new party members and add up to four of them to your party. You can also write your own party name, motto, and description--though there is absolutely nothing wrong with the default party name, motto and description, which I painstakingly wrote myself. But if you think you can write something better, go right ahead. Don't worry about hurting my feelings or anything.

Storm of Zehir includes two new races, the Yuan-ti Pureblood and Gray Orc. Yuan-ti are like gnomes except that they descended from humans and snakes, and aren't like gnomes at all. They tend to be evil and deceptive, but your Yuan-ti characters could be good if you're lame like that. The Yuan-ti Pureblood has a great deal of bonuses, including several new racial spell-like abilities, such as animal trance and cause fear. The Gray Orc has long gait, granting increased movement speed, and scent, which enables the Gray Orc to detect hidden enemies nearby.

There are also three new classes, the swashbuckler, doomguide, and hellfire warlock. These are described in detail below.

After you have created your party, if it turns out that your Yuan-ti Doomguide and Gray Orc Swashbuckler aren't working out too well, you can use the guest book in any tavern to remove the weakest links from your party and replace them with new party members.

GS: We understand that Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 edition rules come into play on the new three-dimensional overworld map, and skills such as search and listen come into play. Why the decision to switch from the two-dimensional map from the previous NWN games, and how does the new 3D map improve the experience?

TE: I don't think you'd find any argument at Obsidian if you came to our headquarters and threw a rock through our window with a note tied to it that reads, "Dear Neverwinter Nights 2 team: Your 2D map sux!" (Although you will probably have to pay for the window.) With the exception of our decision to reveal the Wendersnaven (I swore to protect their secret), there is nothing I have disliked in Neverwinter Nights 2 more than the 2D world map. I have always wanted to add one more D to it, but I had to bide my time--patiently, patiently--until the other lead designers at Obsidian either died off, devolved into producers, or accepted jobs at BioWare. What follows is an actual email to Ferret Baudoin, lead designer of Neverwinter Nights 2:

"Hiya Ferret, I betcha you're freezing your tooshy off in Canada aboot now, eh? Haha, did you notice how I misspelled 'about' because Canadians talk funny? Be sure to bundle up in your Bunny Hug, you Canuck!"

Anyhoo, aboot the overland map. I knew from the moment that our veteran area artist Scott Everts finished his first pass on the Sword Coast overland map that I was right all along: 3D is better than 2D. And when I returned from the hospital after recovering from the severe sprain I got from attempting to pat myself on the back, I ordered designers Nathaniel Chapman and Jeff Husges to begin the laborious process of tweaking the overland map until it was just right.

Head to the local merchant wagon for the latest goods.
Head to the local merchant wagon for the latest goods.

There are a lot of awesome things about Tony Evans' Storm of Zehir (What? If Sid Meier and American McGee can do it, why can't I?), which you'll learn about as you read the rest of this interview, but the Overland map really stands out. It enhances the feeling of exploration and adventure. Traveling on the Overland map, you will come across various encounters, hostiles and neutrals alike, and you can choose to evade them, attack them, or parley with them. You can visit numerous different towns and trade goods between them. Also, if your party is brave enough to stray off the beaten path, you can find a wide variety of deep dungeons, deadly crypts, and monster-infested caves, each with unknown treasures waiting for you to, um...know them.

Pretty much all of your characters' skills are useful on the Overland map. Some are more useful than others, such as survival, which increases the speed at which you traverse the varied terrain of the Overland map; search, which increases your chance of finding hidden locations; and hide, which allows you to avoid hostile encounters.

GS: On the overworld map, merchants travel the land, hoping to sell their goods. Tell us about the dynamic economy and how savvy players can earn some serious gold by following the fluctuating prices of valuable items. Can certain event in the game like, say, an oil crisis, raise the value of certain items like, say, a Prius?

TE: First off, I am so glad I bought a Prius. They are especially handy in California, with the carpool sticker that lets me whiz past all the gas-guzzlers stuck in the slow lane.

Now regarding Trade... Unfortunately, some of the big plans we had for a dynamic economy were, well, downsized due to the recent troubles with the Waterdhavian stock market. Storm of Zehir still has many other neat trading features that will earn players some serious gold. One cool thing is the ability to create caravans to travel between nearby cities where you have built trading posts. The caravans travel along the Overland map in real time and can occasionally get waylaid by bandits if you are not there to protect them. When a caravan takes too much damage, it can no longer move and requires repairs. You can bring the materials needed to repair the caravan to get it back on the road again. You can also upgrade your caravans so that they stand a better chance against bandits.

GS: You've added three new classes: the swashbuckler; the doomguide, and the hellfire warlock. What are the strengths and weakness of each, and are these classes included in the party-creation system?

Fire -- including hellfire -- will be featured prominently in Storm of Zehir.
Fire -- including hellfire -- will be featured prominently in Storm of Zehir.

TE: The swashbuckler is a warrior of finesse who shuns the use of bulky armor in exchange for deadly grace in combat. One of the many cool things about the swashbuckler is insightful strike, an ability they gain at level 3 which allows them to do more damage based on their intelligence bonus. The weakness of the swashbuckler is that most of the class abilities only work when wearing light armor or no armor, so they can be vulnerable to enemies who manage to land a lucky blow on them.

The doomguide is a prestige class available to clerics and paladins who are faithful to Kelemvor, god of the dead. The doomguide is the guy you'd want by your side if Dawn of the Dead ever became a reality. He is a holy warrior whose mission is to make the undead...just dead, as well as stomp out necromancers who are responsible for creating the undead. Many doomguide abilities are perfect for smiting undead, such as the bond of fatal touch, which gives the weapon they wield special bonuses such as disruption and undead bane. Doomguides are ideally suited for dealing with the new undead creatures we have added in Storm of Zehir, including the wight and the drowned, that were brought to frightful un-life by artists Roger Chang and Jay Bakke. The disadvantage of the doomguide is that some of their abilities are not so useful against living foes.

The hellfire warlock, a prestige class for Warlocks, is my personal favorite of the new classes in Storm of Zehir! How cool is it to be able to play around with fire and hurt yourself to slay your foes? One of the things I like most about the hellfire warlock is summon baatezu, a new ability that Wizards of the Coast let us add in to replace another ability, hellfire infusion, that works better in PnP D&D than in a computer game. Summon baatezu, which was deviously implemented by Justin Reynard, allows you to summon a powerful devil from the Nine Hells to wreak havoc for a limited time. The specific devil you get is randomized, so casting this spell is like reaching into a box of chocolates, only the box is on fire! Those who played Neverwinter Nights 2 may recognize some of the devils who come forth to do your bidding. Just be sure to put that thing back where it came from, or so help you, they may get loose and slaughter your entire party. The main disadvantage of the hellfire warlock is that the prestige class is so powerful that it is only available to higher-level warlocks who meet certain prerequisites. But trust me, the Hellfire Warlock is worth the wait.

GS: We understand the expansion will have a new party-conversation system. Tell us how this works. Can you give us an example?

TE: The party-conversation system allows for much more varied interaction in conversations than you have experienced in a computer role-playing game (with the possible exception of LARPs). Conversations in Storm of Zehir were written to take advantage of party conversations by providing a lot of customized response options based on various attributes of the characters in your party, including skills, race, class, gender, alignment, feats, and ability scores.

In a party conversation, you can change the speaker of the conversation to any member of your party. If a party member that is not currently the speaker has something different to say, then a speech bubble will appear on their portrait. This prompts you to see what that character has to say.

One good example is a conversation with the renowned author Volo that occurs near the beginning of the game, after the party survives a shipwreck only to be endangered again by a tribe of cannibalistic Batiri. If your party includes a character with high intelligence, you will be able to suggest fashioning equipment you need to survive from the surrounding wreckage. Another party member who has a weapon-focus feat in the weapons being wielded by the other shipwreck survivors will be able to convince them to give over their weapon to someone who knows which is the pointy end. A party member with a lot of wisdom will be able to command survivors to head to nearby defensible positions. This is but a few of over a dozen options in this conversation alone, and most of our hundreds of conversations in Storm of Zehir have even more than that.

Party conversations encourage and reward you for creating a balanced and diverse party of characters, and is one of the many ways in Storm of Zehir that we are making your choices more meaningful than ever before.

GS: Rather than heal all dead party members after a battle, you've implemented a new death system. How does it work, and why do you think it's better than the old system?

TE: In previous games, when one of your party members falls in battle, they pop right back up again after the battle is over. Players could also rest pretty much wherever and whenever they wanted to in order to restore their spells, hit points, and abilities. This encouraged players to just throw all their party members into the fray and let the AI cast the most devastating spells with wild abandon, because all that matters is [that] one of your party remains standing at the end. The end result of this is that a lot of players gave little thought to combat in Neverwinter Nights 2, seeing it as mainly a bothersome distraction to the story and collecting loot.

I have long been inspired by how fun it was to fight baddies in the old-school role-playing games that I played when I was younger, such as Pool of Radiance and the other gold-box games, Wizardry, Might and Magic, and Ultima, just to name a few. The choices you made in combat in those games had serious ramifications, and required more strategy than any modern RPGs I can think of. The only problem with those games is that, by modern standards, their interface and combat systems are lacking a lot of the cool new bells and whistles that gamers have come to expect. Well, this may come as a surprise to some, but combat in Neverwinter Nights 2 actually has all the depth and strategy of those old-school games I just mentioned, as well as a wide assortment of cool bells and whistles that have gone unnoticed and underappreciated...until now.

Death and dying in Storm of Zehir is closer to the original 3.5 rules, with some 4.0 augmentations. When a party member falls below zero hit points, they begin dying, bleeding out until they are stabilized with healing. If a dying party member's hit points fall to negative half their total hit points, then they will die (if they have 40 hit points, they die at -20). Once dead, they can be brought back to life with a raise dead or resurrect spell, or with a coin of life, a special item purchased from temples of Waukeen, goddess of wealth. If you don't have any of these handy, then you can take your fallen party member to a temple to have their life restored.

In addition to this, we've also done a lot of other things to make combat more enjoyable in Storm of Zehir. With the incorporation of community member Tony K's AI scripts, along with our own special touches, we have greatly improved our artificial intelligence, so that your party members and monsters alike will be...well, less artificial, more intelligent. Resting is more meaningful, because now you must either pay to rent a room at an inn, or brave making camp on the Overland map, where you are likely to be ambushed while you sleep. Finally, we have put a lot of forethought into the individual combat encounters themselves--something that will become abundantly clear from the beginning of the game, where you face off with that tribe of menacing Batiri I mentioned earlier.

With the additions of "real" death, less artificial and more intelligent AI, realistic restrictions on resting, and meticulously designed encounters, battling monsters in Storm of Zehir is the most fun you will have yet in a Dungeons and Dragons game.

Customize your own party and then go dinosaur hunting.
Customize your own party and then go dinosaur hunting.

GS: How does crafting work? We're told you can create new items straight from the inventory screen rather than visit a specialist in town.

TE: We have taken the depth of crafting in Neverwinter Nights 2, combined it with the ease of use of Mask of the Betrayer to create our best crafting system yet. Crafting in Storm of Zehir is based on the PnP rules of D&D with a few major differences. The PnP game uses experience points (XP) as one of the key ingredients of crafting magical items. For Storm of Zehir, we decided that we did not want to take XP away from a player for crafting. Just about all of the items in Storm of Zehir are crafted from tangible ingredients that you either find in your adventures, collect from exploring the Overland map, or acquire by trading with towns. These range from standard trade goods such as timber and ore to rare resources like darksteel and adamantine that most towns don't have access to until you uncover a source for them by exploring adventure areas near towns. Many items also require ingredients that you collect from monsters. For example, you can craft a wondrous item called a gem of seeing: a magic gem that can cast the spell true seeing. The key ingredient for this item is a hag's eye that can be obtained from...killing a hag. The lower-end crafting professions are based on skills. These include nonmagical weapons and armor, traps, and alchemical throwing weapons. The higher-end items require feats to use. These include magical weapons and armor, wands, potions, scrolls, and wondrous items. Crafting is really flexible, allowing you to create the exact gear that is best for your characters. For example, you can make a +3 Adamantine Flaming Undeadbane Dwarven Waraxe if you are so inclined.

The crafting recipes you will find in Storm of Zehir were created and balanced by Bobby Null, who really went above and beyond the call of duty to give fans literally several hundred recipes! (Actual conversation--Tony: "Bobby, what the fudge?! I asked for a couple dozen crafting recipes, and you put in the entire contents of the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide?" Bobby: "Yeah, sorry. I'll do my best to go below and within the call of duty next time.") Recipes for most items can be purchased through vendors, while some of the more powerful ones need to be found while adventuring. Crafting recipes are stored in different crafting books in your inventory for easy access. When you have the necessary ingredients, and any of the characters in your party meet the skill and feat requirements, you can click on the recipe of choice in your book and BAM...you just crafted some stuff! (Disclaimer: It doesn't actually go "BAM"--our game is actually very stable, unlike some of the people who created it.)

One final thing worth mentioning is that our ace system designer Nathaniel Chapman (or "Champ Man," as we call him) designed Storm of Zehir's Crafting system from the ground up to be open and extendible by the community with their own recipes, crafted items, ingredients, etc.

GS: Will rideable horses be included?

TE: The following answer can be sung to the tune of the William Tell overture:

N-n-nope, n-n-nope, n-n-nope nope nope
N-n-nope, n-n-nope, n-n-nope nope nope
N-n-nope, n-n-nope, n-n-nope nope nope
N-N-NOPE, n-n-n-nope Nope NOPE!

GS: Finally, when will we start talking Neverwinter Nights 3? Because we can't wait.

TE: Obsidian Entertainment would love to work on Neverwinter Nights 3, or any other possible Dungeons & Dragons game. We're particularly eager to delve into the new 4.0 rules for Dungeons and Dragons, which includes a lot of exciting changes for the Forgotten Realms. As people may have read in the 4.0 Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide, Neverwinter was destroyed in the Spellplague. I think a Neverwinter Nights 3 where you explore the ruins of the city, or help to rebuild it, could be an awesome sandbox to play in.

But whether the next great D&D adventure will be Neverwinter Nights 3 or something else entirely is still a closely guarded secret

GS: Thanks for the time.

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