Friday, December 30, 2011

Neverwinter Nights 2: Grimms' Fairy Tales contest mods

There have been several "firsts" surrounding this game, which ended up also being "lasts", such as Mysteries of Westgate, which was described as the first adventure pack for NWN2, with the promise that there would be more to come. Alas, Atari's handling of that program looked about as disastrous as the Premium Module program for NWN1, and the release of Mysteries of Westgate was delayed for a year and a half after it was finished and ready to go (allegedly for some nebulous, asinine DRM-related reasons, but more likely because Atari wanted to release the two official expansion packs first), and it became the first and last adventure pack for NWN2.

Other such "firsts and lasts" were in community projects and contests, such as the excellent but overly optimistically-specified 2008 Halloween community pack reviewed earlier, and Obsidian's own community contest, which I'm reviewing here. Early after the release of NWN2, Obsidian held a contest for modmakers to make a short module with the toolset, with the theme of Grimms' Fairy Tales. As far as I can tell, this was the only contest that was held, and I wish it had been only the first of many, as they had planned it to be.

I would think, since Obsidian specified the versions of the stories as collected by the Brothers Grimm, that they wanted the modules to be the harsh, often undeveloped or half-remembered Germanic oral versions of the stories, rather than the watered-down derivations from modern times, or the older Italian and French stories many of them originated as (Perrault published some of them over a century earlier than the Grimms in Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé, and Basile published some close to two centuries earlier in Il Pentamerone). In practise, the modules ran nearly the full gamut, from dark Germanic, to Disney, to patchwork spoof (which may be redundant when in the same sentence as "Disney" in this case), so the actual theme of some of these modules was more along the lines of fairy tales in general rather than Grimms-specific.

A little note about the Grimms themselves, and how to refer to them. I see many variations in spelling and punctuation whenever the topic arises, many of them wrong. The two brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, can be referred to correctly as "the Grimm brothers", "the brothers Grimm", or simply "the Grimms" (plural because there are two of them). The main confusion arises when referring to the stories they collected and published. The translation of the title they used themselves was "Children's and Household Tales", but the stories were published under many titles over the last 200 years, some of which used incorrect grammar themselves, all relating to where and when to put an "s" at the end of the name or use an apostrophe. Here are a few grammatically correct variations: "Grimms' Fairy Tales" (plural possessive with the apostrophe at the end), or "tales from the Grimms", "tales from the brothers Grimm", "the Grimm brothers' tales", etc., etc.

All right, enough historical and grammatical pedantry -- on to the modules!

The Birthday, by Zach Holbrook

This was the first one I tried, and it was very well-done, despite being a solo adventure. If I had played as a mêlée character I would certainly have had an easier time of it, but I was a ranger, and unprepared for the amount of solo combat this module contained.

I had trouble getting this mod to run properly, but this was entirely my fault, due to a mistake in installing it.

This author went with a stark German feel with the names and overall story themes (aside from the fairy tale source material itself), though it also had a strong French/Celtic/Scottish influence with the unseelie fairies and redcaps (I don't recall the Grimms writing about redcaps, aside from Little Red Riding Hood, who they called "Little Redcap", but I could be forgetting something). Regardless, these elements were highly welcome, and gave a very different feel to this world than usual D&D settings. The overall plot is based largely on The Wolf and Seven Kids, but I can't think of any fairy tale the "village secret" theme might have come from.

There's a side collection quest, though I'm not sure it's necessary to formally take the quest in order to get the rewards, since the items you collect are all pieces of gear that you can use in their own right. These items have names and descriptions which make reference to other well-known tales. They're hidden all over the woods, the trees of which are very large and dense. I played the mod with the fading trees turned off, and it made for a nicely claustrophobic experience.

The module is well-written, and features multiple endings depending on a critical choice you make during the course of the main quest. Recommended.

The Rampion Champion, by Death Quaker

This second module I tried was much shorter, and took a more lighthearted approach. It focuses entirely on the prenatal period of the story Rapunzel, and you play as the husband of the pregnant mother-to-be who craves the rampion growing in the enchantress Gothel's garden. Your house interior, where you begin, and the garden itself are the only two locations in this module.

The house is a typical NWN2 interior, and is rather larger than it needs to be. It also has no lighting at all, and I could only see by the dim ambient light. Having seen this kind of poor lighting in at least one other module from the early times of the game's release, I suspect this is due to people typically having played the game with shadows turned off at that time, since they were a little too processor-intensive for many computers of the time. Anyway, after receiving the quest from your wife and picking up some equipment from the armoire, you end up in the garden.

The garden is very large, and rather pretty. Time doesn't advance here, and it's always night, and as an exterior it's free from the poor lighting of the interior. There are two tilled patches -- one for maize and the other for rampion -- with "garden gnomes" working the land, glowing friendly pixies flying around, and several enemies. One patch has a macabre "scarecrow", and the other has a guardian dire wolf. Reading the descriptions of these various creatures and items is recommended for the full experience.

The task is to collect 3 samples of rampion. One of these is obtained through a quest given by a water nixie, whose character is well-written. She wants you to deal with a "merciless manikin" (which brings Rumpelstiltskin to mind), who asks you a riddle taken from yet another story!

This one also features several endings based on a choice you make near the end. I recommend this module as well for a short bit of fun and interactions.

Happily Never After, by Allyndn the Beggar

This one was quite a disappointment after the other two. It was much longer, but all of that extra time was basically running around the unnecessarily-restricted paths. It also suffered from the nonexistent interior lighting, and whatever scripts were supposed to fire near the climax didn't entirely work.

The writing was uneven, and dialogues were all delivered in cutscene style, with very long pauses that couldn't be advanced past manually. I would have preferred that the dialogues had been delivered in the box-style.

The goblin mine was perhaps the best part of the module, and I can see what the author might have been trying to accomplish with the landscapes in the search for the prince, but it just wasn't quite there.

The graveyard was exceptionally tedious for me as a solo player, and was just filler combat with no plot relevance. There were several crypt buildings with doors that could be partially manipulated, making me think I needed to get inside them, but those turned out to be (probably unintentional) red herrings. The troll who guarded the entrance to the graveyard forced dialogue and re-demanded payment every time I passed the trigger, which I did several times in trying to deal with the creatures in the graveyard.

When I finally found both of the plot-required elements and returned to the house (which I had previously explored first), there was no new dialogue, and no way to go upstairs. Possibly the module expected me not to have spoken to the stepsisters until after finding the prince and the monk. At any rate, I force-attacked them, and one of them dropped the key.

When I got upstairs, I was treated to a mostly-broken cutscene with the camera pointing at nothing because the AI had gone off to do its own thing, and when it was time to fight the final boss, the two "allies" simply ran around the room the whole time, speaking battle lines, but lending no aid.

It was a nice idea, but I can't recommend this, though you could always give it a try if you use a high-level character to bulldoze your way through the fights, and have a permanent haste effect to speed through the very long pathways.

A Walk In the Woods, by Wyrin

This one is very nicely put together. It begins with a brief cutscene to introduce the story, then an interactive conversation between my character, Thumbelina, and Tom Thumb, which establishes us all as friends and co-workers (and party members), and their different personalities. The prince had run off after being turned into a frog by the villainess, and our task was to find him before the spell becomes permanent. Each of the companions had conversations available if I chose to talk to them, including comments on "our current situation", which appeared to change whenever we were inside one of the houses.

The enchanted forest is pretty, colourful, and always night time, and the path leads through a roundabout with locales and characters from different stories, such as Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rumpelstiltskin. I stopped by Snow White's mining operation first, where she told me that the dwarves had failed to return from the mine, but that she couldn't let me in until I had found something to lure them back out with.

Next I stopped at a gazebo where Rumpelstiltskin stood with a loom and a spinning wheel. He offered to spin materials into gold thread for me, and the dialogue suggested I could use that to rescue the dwarves, but first I would have to find a suitable material to spin the thread from.

Next was Grandma's House, where an eloquent woodcutter stood waiting for reinforcements before entering the house to investigate the savage sounds from inside. With him joined as a third party member, we went inside. There were wolves and wolf cubs to fight, loot to be found, and an encounter upstairs that follows the Grimms' version of Little Red Riding Hood straight. The woodcutter said farewell afterward, but didn't actually leave the party.

Next, there was a house on a hilltop where a dryad called "Collector of Stories" stood. She asked for a story, and I was presented with a large list of options for skill checks involving telling a story. As a bard, I chose the "perform" option, and I was given a choice of three possible rewards for my successful check (which also earned comments from my companions).

A witch wearing the appearance of Sydney Natale awaited me at a secluded cottage, marked by a trail of bread crumbs and an unsecluded sign stating "Splendiferous sweets and tasty treats await all good girls and boys!" A Hansel and Gretel section, apparently. Her dialogue indicated what the graphics did not -- that her house was made of sweets. She sent me on a quest to find some apples, which she could make into applesauce for her dinner of "suckling pig", which she invited me to share as the quest reward. Well, obviously it wasn't really pork she was roasting, but her cottage door was locked beyond my party's ability to pick, so there was nothing to do but find apples. I recall Snow White offered a "magic apple" as the reward for her quest, which she wasn't aware was poisoned. I like how these quests all seem to depend on each other.

Next I approached Rapunzel's tower. Ah, that's no doubt where I'd find something to spin into gold -- her hair!

The tower was actually a rather short one. Perhaps there weren't many tower-like assets in the vanilla set. At its base, an NPC called "The Prince" called for Rapunzel to let down her hair. In conversation, Tom Thumb said we shouldn't be wasting our time, since we needed to go rescue "The Prince" without acknowledging that this NPC was also called "The Prince".

This prince joined the party when I offered the scissors I had obtained from the woodcutter to use in clearing the chamber of Rapunzel's hair, which was blocking his entry.

The tower consisted of several hallways full of "hair golems", arranged in a square around a central room, so I think it was meant to give the impression of a kind of winding staircase. At the top, Neeshka played the role of an evil sorceress harvesting hair from Rapunzel to make these golems. After a boss fight yielding plenty of loot, we rescued Rapunzel.

As expected, we received some hair. The prince said he was going to stay with Rapunzel in the tower to finish destroying the sorceress' works, but like the woodcutter, he didn't leave the party either. I manually booted him out.

I gave the hair to Rumpelstiltskin and barely passed a skill check on getting him to hand over the golden thread he spun out of it. On my way back to Snow White with the thread, I found the missing frog prince at a pond. He said he needed something to eat in order to break the spell. So it looks like these side quests were actually necessary to the main plot (even though logically, working for the crown as I was, I should have been able to just run back to the castle and get as much food as he needed).

Snow White offered the dwarf Sneezy as a companion for the mines, which were infested with undead, some bat-like creatures, and some cave locusts. It was full of loot as well, to the point where I needed to start leaving some things behind, because my party couldn't carry everything anymore, and lots of traps. There was one little stretch of hallway that somehow pulled the entire population of a room that I couldn't even see to attack my party at once, resulting in a couple of deaths before it was over.

When I encountered a single mummy, it was a prelude to finding what the dwarves had recently excavated -- a tomb that had contained a hibernating necromancer, who was now keeping the dwarves hostage. This was a challenging fight, and I barely survived with a single standing party member. I enjoyed it! The necromancer dropped a large amount of loot, including a special mirror item with special abilities.

Snow White rewarded me with the apple, which I then took to the witch to make into applesauce (though this is another place where I should have been able to go to the prince, since this was "something to eat"). The witch made plenty of veiled references to the true nature of the "piglets" in the basement, and said that I should check on them before she roasted them. Of course it was Hansel and Gretel down there, and I had to fight some hellhounds before going up to confront the witch.

The witch turned invisible, so I used that magic mirror to see invisibility, which seemed like it helped. She dropped a huge amount of loot, and I was rewarded with Hansel & Gretel's leftover bread crumbs, which the quest log told me I could feed to the frog prince as his "something to eat".

The prince accepted the food and turned human again, joining my party to confront the main villain, Maleficent (spelled Melificent in the module). We found her at the bridge to the palace, with Cinderella. There was a showdown, during which Cinderella (a sorceress) joined the party, and we fought one big final boss battle with plenty of dialogue and challenge! Then, alas, the module was over.

What a ride! This was far and away the best module of all contest entries I've tried. It has excellent writing, great characterisation and dialogue, well-designed and interesting quests, and appealing locations. The interactions between Thumbelina and Tom Thumb made it especially entertaining, and the module was extremely satisfying all around. I must look for more modules by this author.

Daark Twins, by E.C.Patterson

This one casts you in the role of a pair of siblings named Daark, an analogue to the Grimms. I used the included character, a wizard, and my bard sister joined automatically, forming a party of two.

The back story is that we travelled from a small town named Anaatnas (no doubt "Santa Ana" spelled backward) to find out about some "wondrous thing" a white wizard was working on in a tower in the middle of a lake. Along the way there was an interesting and somewhat bizarre encounter that resulted in some water-walking after it was done.

I interpret the wizard's exposition to mean that a large and ambitious module, which was under construction, has gotten out of control and was released with a lot of bugs, and he wants us to retrieve it so he can finish it properly.

I'm not happy with the spell selection that was provided with this character...basically no offensive spells at all, and the bard sister makes a poor tank. I was wiped twice by a group of unruly "kids" once I got to the tower. The "kids" appeared to represent yea-sayers and nay-sayers amongst mod downloaders and players.

The next floor had more modding metaphors, this time in the form of some miniature pit-fighting to decide which module was the best. It also ended in some combat. I ended up turning the combat settings all the way down for this module.

The next floor was full of near-dead gnomes at workstations, who the leader explained were working on bugfixes and implementing requested features. In the middle of the room was a familiar colour-changing puzzle. It didn't work as it was supposed to, though, and I ended up beating it in only two moves, which I shouldn't have been able to do. In any case, it rewarded me with a "fix" item to use on the rampant module (called "The Creation").

After a brief encounter with an ominous woman whose purpose seemed to be to provide a safe environment for practising a game mechanic to be used immediately afterward, we advanced to the boss -- fighting the Creation, which was a giant blade golem. This was the only enjoyable combat for the module, since two other characters joined in to help, making it a reasonably-sized party at last. It all wrapped up with the Daarks telling the story in a tavern.

Even though it didn't seem to relate itself to the theme of the contest at first (aside from making the characters analogues to the Grimms), the Grimms' collection does include some allegorical entries, and this module was certainly an allegorical tale. There was some fun and novelty to be had here.

Witch in the Wood, by Lord Niah

This was a good module based around Hansel & Gretel. As was suggested, I played as a ranger (3rd level), though I had only played that class once before (in The Birthday), because the author said there were little extras for that class. I'm not sure what they were, but it could have been notifications about finding bread crumbs, or perhaps finding things when searching placeables. The Grimm brothers themselves make an appearance as vendors near the starting area.

The first half of the module is exploration. The woodcutter wants you to find his kids, and to do that, you have to go off the path into a dense forest. The area is designed with plenty of variation in terrain height, lots of vegetation, and a mix of normal and large-scaled trees. I still played it with "tree fading" turned off, so I used character mode and zoomed in pretty close to the character in order to see around all of the plant life. It gave the exploration a closer, more intimate feel, and sometimes I really did find things by just stumbling over them (like a body).

There were some wolves scattered around, and also a couple of ogres. The ogres were a bit superfluous when looking at the module as a whole.

The gingerbread house was an appropriate approximation, and not so much like a regular wooden house like the same situation in one of the other modules. Once inside, there were some good conversations and interactions, and the kids became full companions! There were special items and some good readables. Some placeables could be searched, others didn't respond. Afterward, there was an obstacle that seemed to have multiple solutions (I got past it using an item I had found earlier in the forest). Definitely worth playing.

The Mount of Evil Counsel, by Nir Idan

This one was the most unique of all I've tried so far. The story doesn't seem to be based on any fairy tale in particular, but it sounds like it could be, being the story of an evil cannibal witch who grants fertility to childless couples in exchange for a yearly payment afterward, "repossessing" and eating the children when the parents inevitably default on their payments. You play as one such child, having been sent by your failed parents to give yourself over to the witch. The file description suggested playing as either a fighter or a rogue, and offered some skill point suggestions. I tried a fighter first.

The scope of the module is small, as expected, but the titular mount is densely packed with NPCs, puzzles, and interactive spots which comprise the uniqueness I mentioned at the beginning. This module has a large number of choices, and I saw many places where my choices could open up or close off alternate paths through the story. Unfortunately, in my first attempt as a fighter, my only useful skill for these encounters was the Intimidate skill, and it wasn't useful for all of the encounters.

Another unique element is that the dialogue and descriptions were all made in the form of a written story. Instead of my dialogue choices saying only the words I would speak, it described the conversation as would be done in a book. For instance:

"Served to the witch?" exclaimed Solveig Siger. "The witch eats people?"

This first time, I tended to fight my way through the servants of the witch, as most of them seemed to be unrepentant in their actions. I obtained a disguise kit and a brooch from these fights. The only trouble with these items was that none of them had descriptions, so I didn't know what I was supposed to do with them. I found that the disguise kit was something desired by the werewolf in the cave, but that dialogue ("I have the disguise kit you wanted") should not have appeared, because I was unable to pass the diplomacy check needed for her to tell me that she wanted it in the first place.

This was the first module that included reactions by the NPCs of certain actions of mine. There was a locked cabin door which I began to bash, but the nearby shepherd ran up to me when I did that and told me to stop! There was another locked door inside the witch's house that had a special event for bashing as well. It's also the first one I've seen that seems to actually let you stealth past a talk trigger if the NPC doesn't notice you!

Of the many interactive items and possibilities, I don't know which ones were done correctly, or what some of them were for. For instance, I was able to obtain some wood pieces from inside the house, and combine them with another item (not sure which...possibly the disguise kit) to fashion a pair of fake hands, but I have no idea why I should have wanted a pair of fake hands. I thought it might have something to do with fooling the blind cook, because I was able to use her oven to cook a poisoned meal with some meat from the hunter's cabin and a particular mushroom, but I couldn't find a way to make use of them.

I ended up trying to fight the witch, but my weapons were useless against her, and I inevitably failed, even when I reloaded and used the mushroom instead on my weapon to make it enchanted against evil. Not really a surprise that a level 1 character should fail against a witch powerful enough to commit these kinds of misdeeds with impunity for years, though.

I started over again, this time as a rogue, with points in bluff and diplomacy, and things went much better that time. New items appeared with my spot skill, which I was able to use elsewhere. I also tried out some of the alternate dialogue options this time around, and found that it changed the tone of the entire conversation in some cases. This time, I found that I was able to make deals with the little man and the fairy, and get an item that caused the cook to conspire with me against the witch. However, I couldn't figure out what to do with the little man's suggestion about tainting the fairy's tree stump. I found the stump, but the only item I had that showed up in the options for it was the mushroom, and when I used it, nothing different happened with the fairy, and I lost the mushroom, so I undid that. This playthrough also revealed something that was a red herring on the other playthrough was actually part of the plot in this one.

I found what was supposed to be done with the well, but it turned out to be an evil action, even though it was against a man who was fattening up two little girls in a pen like livestock, for his mistress the witch. This is a very dark-themed module, considering how long the witch has been doing this.

There were quite a few evil actions that could be taken in this game, and the ending even offers two possible epilogues based on one final choice you make, though I personally achieved the good one. This module is pretty remarkable for all its choices and options, and I know there are things I missed! Also, based on the bits and pieces of possibilities I see, I believe there may be three different ways to defeat the witch, but I only succeeded with one. I never found out how to use the fairy's powers against the witch, or what to use the fake hands for, or what the brooch might be for, and there were at least four different things that could be done with the mushroom. There might possibly have been a way to combine the brooch, hands, and disguise kit to disguise myself as the hunter to fool the blind cook instead of gaining her as an ally by curing her blindness.

In any case, this is an excellent module, and I hope to find more modules with this kind interactivity, flexibility, and puzzle design. This is the only NWN2 module available from this author, I'm sorry to find.

Cry Wolf, by Lorft

This one has a framing narrative, with you playing the part of someone sitting to listen to a story being told by a storyteller to an audience of children. As he tells the story, the scene changes to you participating in the story. It cuts back to the storyteller between what you might call "acts". The description suggested playing as a level 6-8 character, but I noticed that several people in the comments section said that the combat was too hard for that level, so I went with their alternate suggestion of level 12. I'd prefer that over setting the difficulty low, as I prefer to play on "core rules" difficulty.

Some of the special rules and mechanics in this module include penalties for resting (counts for some kind of points tally at the end, if I understand correctly), hunting for special items and puzzle pieces, and enemies who have special attacks. In one case, there's a gardening spade that can be used to dig in any location, with a chance to find small amounts of gold and at least one special item. There's also a good amount of effective comic relief.

The story involves a town that has vanished, houses and all (the name of the crater sounds like a reference to a similar missing town from Planescape: Torment), and one of the Grimm brothers (both wizards in this module) disappeared as well. The remaining Grimm and a sturdy dwarf both join you to investigate. Along the way, into a canyon filled with slaadi to fight, a cleric also joins the team (though the dwarf calls her a druidess). Even with a good party like this, and my slightly higher level, the combat was indeed rather lengthy, with the enemies having very high amounts of health. This made the resting penalty rather punishing, considering the supplied party includes two casters (and I myself was also a caster), since resting is necessary to replenish all those spells we burned through to bring down these trash mobs. It was only a final point tally penalty, though, so no harm done.

Most of the mod takes place on an alternate plane, where the ruler of the plane keeps the people in a kind of induced coma, dreaming about different fairy tales, while she drains them of their energy. Several times there were skill checks to determine whether I could find/do something or not. These were all-or-nothing chances, so I missed one entirely, and had to obtain another without the clue the skill check would have provided. I actually wasn't able to complete the puzzle-piece hunt, because I was transported away from the location of one of its pieces unexpectedly, before I had finished exploring.

There weren't many dialogue choices in this module, but the other mechanics and novelties made up for it.

I particularly enjoyed a surprise vendor in a cave -- a genie who appears with his inventory when you rub a lamp. The best part was asking him for 3 wishes, to which he invited me to purchase a "Ring of 3 Wishes". The ring, when I examined it, only gave +1 to three stats, and its description said, "A ring of three wishes, providing those wishes were: I wish I were a little more strong, dexterous, and hardy."

It was also amusing that when I was rescuing my scattered party members, I naturally assumed that the dwarf would be found in the Snow White & the 7 Dwarves set, but in fact it was the elf cleric that was imprisoned there. What was a real laugh was where the dwarf actually was imprisoned!

There was a maze which was rather unfair, with hidden triggers that transport you back to your starting location. I made numerous honest attempts, attempting to make sense of Rumpelstiltskin's clues and signs, but it became rather unpleasant. The module came with a spoiler file, and I read it to find how to escape the maze. The reason this maze was unfair is that the clues and signs are all red herrings, and the actual way out requires less thinking and more noticing something subtle on the floor.

I don't know how he did it, but there's a pretty convincing scene of Rapunzel actually letting down her hair to climb up.

The documentation said there was supposed to be a design document included, for those interested, but I didn't see one in either of the archives, nor on the Vault page. I was interested to read it. I probably should have gone with a level 10 character instead of 12, especially if I picked a more mêlée class. I had planned it that way, but I didn't have a level 10 character in my vault, and 12 was the closest second. But I wasn't playing this one for its combat, so I don't regret my decision. This module is certainly worth a look for its special mechanics and its occasional comedy.

Crossroads of Fate, by Novalis

This one's documentation states that it was inspired by the triple-vignette "Stories About Snakes" in the Grimms' collection. I wasn't familiar with that selection, though judging from its vague content I may have simply forgotten it. That story in the collection looks like one of those which I mentioned above as being a tale barely remembered by its teller, with much missing. This module was inspired not by its plot, characters, or setting, it seems, but by its ambiguity, and the way in which none of the snake stories ended well.

It seemed very open-ended, and perhaps larger than it actually was. I was given a choice fairly early one, to either escape on a ship, attempt to rescue a friend from execution at the hands of Umberlee priestesses in a sacrificial ritual, or try to get an important book from a group of thieves and Red Wizards of Thay who had killed some of my party members before the story began. Escaping on a ship might have ended the game immediately (note: yes, it would have), or it might have led me into complications in attempting to board the ship, and more story there. I chose to rescue the captured friend, and not use her (literal) sacrifice to get the book.

There were numerous other choices here and there, though not usually as extreme as those. There were also a lot of story hooks placed here and there. I could talk to a group of adventurers at the tavern who were planning out an adventure, and ask to join them when they're ready. There was a halfling anxiously waiting by a locked door downstairs, waiting for one of the girls in the brothel. There was a kind of slave market, where the slaves tried to entice me to buy them by offering information on treasures and such, and the dealer told me to get a license from city hall if I wanted any of them other than the grumpy dwarf. A paladin of Kelemvor asked for my assistance with some undead. All of these things seemed to be only hooks, and could not be fulfilled, beyond getting the dwarf and/or a Kelemvor cleric as henchmen (not full party members).

This module included an intro movie and several ending movies, in the form of image slide shows with text. Most of the NPCs here were named and had unique dialogue. A couple of them, however, were inside vendor tents, and the walkmesh didn't allow me to get close enough to speak to them. One of those might have offered ammo for sale, because none of the others did. There were many grammar errors throughout the module, but I reserve my grammar and spelling critiques for native English speakers, and this author is not a native speaker.

There were certain places where party members made useful interjections. For instance, when I tried to open a locked door, but one of the other party members held the key, instead of it just telling me the door was locked, my character said "Who has the key? [Name], come here and open this door!" with [Name] identifying who actually had the key.

The Umberlee temple was very good in design. It looked a lot like its counterpart in Baldur's Gate in the interior. I don't know if it would have been possible to rescue our friend without making a frontal assault, because we didn't have a rogue in the party (the rogue was the one we needed to rescue). I would have preferred to pickpocket a couple of keys rather than make such powerful enemies. I'm guessing it's not possible, though, because the hard-coded ending movie states that it was a violent assault. What also seemed hard-coded was that my character often expressed a kind of worship of "lady luck" and Tymora, despite Tymora not being my chosen deity.

The battles were very tough, but that's because I kept the difficulty on "core rules" instead of the author-suggested "normal". The sorceress party member had a very large collection of spells, though.

I went and replayed it to try out the path leading to the Red Wizards, and found there was actually more content in that area than with the Umberlee temple. The city district is large enough and detailed enough that I think it must be part of another module somewhere, or possibly a prefab. It would be a shame if all this detail weren't used in a larger mod!

In any case, it turns out that the first choice I mentioned above was the "critical path", and the game ends after you accomplish any of those three tasks, whether or not you would have attempted to accomplish others. I went ahead and watched the other two ending movies, and they all end in death or despair/disappointment, which is how it relates to "Stories About Snakes". It was an interesting module, but it left me wishing that some of the other story hooks would be expanded in the future.

Grimm Brigade, by Jclef

This one's documentation advised me to prepare for fights using many consumables, and to take its story in the spirit of "Van Helsing", which I assume refers to the movie by that name in this case. The movie was a swashbuckling mashup of various movie versions of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman, and was enjoyable in that regard, so I'll be expecting something along those lines with fairy tales in place of the monster movies.

The Grimm brothers run a kind of government agency here, set in an attractive library with no actual exits aside from the colour-coded portals that lead to the missions. It looks like there are four missions to go on, with Jacob telling you which to do first, and Wilhelm acting as the quartermaster. The documentation said "mêlée preferred", so I played as a barbarian.

The first mission is Little Red Riding Hood. Upon walking through the portal, LRRH herself (a halfling bard in this incarnation) is fighting two forest goblins, and is near death. She asks for help surviving the trip to Grandma's House, though in actuality she's immortal. I discovered my own mortality was quite permanent, though, as I was taken down by a group of goblins and wolves, and got a "game over" screen. I learned from my mistake, and survived the rest of the module on "normal" difficulty.

The forest makes great use of terrain elevation for aesthetic interest. There were several good approaches to forests amongst the modules in this contest, and it's hard to say which I liked better, since they seemed to have different goals. This one, I think, beats the forest in The Witch In The Woods for being a believable forest (though the other one better accomplishes the feeling of being in a forest). There is, however, only one path, and Jacob Grimm appears to quickly usher you back to HQ once the escort task is complete, and LRRH offers her hood as a reward.

The second mission is The Brave Little Tailor. The design of the mountain is interesting, but it doesn't try to hide the fact that it's a single winding path to the destination. This may have been intentional, but I would have preferred something else for aesthetics, though I have to admit that it does make for some striking screenshots. The tailor is the escorted character this time, going up against a giant and the mountain orcs who stand in the way. The orc shamans are the most dangerous foes here, I think, since they have some kind of vampiric attack that steals your health.

Again, once the main foe is felled, Jacob appears to return you to HQ, and the tailor offers a reward.

Mission 3 is Snow White and the 7 Dwarves. This one leads through mines and Illefarn corridors, with each of the 7 named duergar featuring as minibosses. This one's longer than the others, and is the first one with traps and locked doors and chests, which make up for the less interesting scenery. As a barbarian, I was able to detect, but not disarm the traps, and I'm glad that these traps didn't stretch all the way from one wall to another, so I could walk around them. This one differed from the others, in that Snow White didn't offer a reward like the others did, and Jacob insisted on a quick departure.

Mission 4 is Hansel & Gretel. This features a forest of a different style, set in a blue-green hue. The woodcutter lives with his two children in front of an alarming unfenced cliff dropoff, but this was not the cause of their disappearance.

I like the design of this forest much better. It's lush and varied, with some scenic overlooks and good use of textures (some of the footpath texturing by the witch's house was very nice), has particle effects that make it feel more enchanted, and has a variety of enemies to combat, including treants, which I actually hadn't seen in any NWN content before now. Amusingly, and I don't know if this was intended or not, a nearby ferret and rabbit came to my aid when I started fighting, though they didn't last long.

There were also trolls to fight, and I was worried about that, since I hadn't made any preparations against trolls, but I found that my inventory contained some alchemist's fire anyway. Whether this was a random drop or if it was specifically provided, I'm not sure, but I'd guess it was intentional. I think this mission was the best of the lot.

This module lacked in certain areas such as dialogue options and quest design, and it was a very linear experience, but that is what it advertised itself to be, and the way the module wrapped itself up with a feel-good epilogue made it a satisfying experience overall.

Grimm's PatchWorld, by Patcha

This module draws inspiration from dozens of different stories, according to the documentation. Apparently Patcha had larger plans for this module, but had to scale them down for the contest deadline. The author is not a native English-speaker, so I won't comment on the grammar, except that I was able to comprehend it without problems. This module contains a few novel features, such as chairs the player can sit on, and beds that the player can sleep on.

There are two basic goals in this story: Kill a wolf that has eaten numerous villagers and livestock, and find out what has happened to the missing queen. Most of this is accomplished through exploration and dialogue, and it's possible to complete the story with only one fight, if you choose to form alliances and make plans befitting a fairy tale. That said, taking the more interesting story route involves a bit too much running back and forth between the village and the very dense forest. Points of interest are spread a bit too far apart in general here.

There's a good amount of humour spread throughout, though much of it is very well-hidden. The conversations are enjoyable and have several roleplaying options just about every time, and I appreciated all the references to lesser-known stories (including ones that I may have forgotten).

There were some mysterious things here and there, but most of them were cleared up by reading the text file that the author included for the purpose of reading after finishing playing the module. A particular locked house with a name plate in front was in fact a joke, as the name translates to "Mister Not-At-Home". But the text file was still a little unclear on the purpose of the mysterious graveyard. There was a sign with what looked like a riddle written on it, and items all around the graves that each referred to a single line of that "riddle". I thought that if I activated each item in the same order that it appeared on the sign, it might unlock the locked tomb, but it didn't happen. It seems, based on the explanation, that those items are just referring to a story, and don't actually do anything, and the tomb can be unlocked by any rogue (I played as a ranger).

As implied above, there are numerous pathways through the story, and the ending has minor variations as well. The town crier will update his news based on your actions and ending accomplishments. All in all, it's not a bad module. If Patcha had expanded it after the contest deadline to include all the cut content, I would have played that as well.

Being Good, by Christian Mayr

This is a module with a very unique sense of humour. The premise is that your character is graduating from a "tear-avoider academy" (a school for making people happy, whose unusual name I attribute to the author not being a native speaker of English), to become a fairy godmother. The documentation stated that level and class didn't matter, so I employed my trusty halfling bard.

This module blends The Three Little Pigs, The Wolf and Seven Kids, and Mother Hulda (Frau Holle). The situation you need to solve to prove your worthiness of the title of fairy godmother is that some pigs are feeling sad because they're surrounded by unwanted houses that make them feel as small as a halfling (to which my halfling objected), and they had contracted a professional big bad wolf to come blow them down, but the wolf never showed up to fulfill his contract. You're given two special items to accomplish your tasks, but these items are always used through dialogue. I never had to open my inventory at all during this module.

While the level designs are fairly sparse, the unusual choices of custom music (the blues, I think) and the lively conversations made up for it. It's pretty funny! I especially liked the part where the wolf was on his way back to do his duty with the houses, but the pigs wouldn't let him in, because they believed him to be an impostor, in another link to the Wolf and Seven Kids. He was supposed to have grey fur, but the snow-obsessed weather goddess Mother Hulda was covering everything with snow, including the wolf, making him white. "You don't let me in because of the colour of my fur?" the wolf says. "You're all racists!"

A very short module, and easily completed in 20 minutes or less, due to its linearity, but fun to experience for the conversations and situations. It was also pretty fun and whimsical to take control of the wolf and blow down the houses as the pigs cheered me on.

Once Upon a Time... by Mungo_D

Heavily advised in this one's documentation was to use a level 1 male human or half-elf fighter. I went with the closest I had available -- a male tiefling rogue. That worked fine.

This module begins with a short essay on the significance and importance of stories, and posits a metaphysical component to their nature which guarantees that you, as the youngest of a trio of brothers, have no choice but to succeed in a quest where your brothers failed. Unfortunately, that essay is the most interesting part of the module.

"No choice" is pretty much the whole theme of this module, since you can never choose not to do something, and your only dialogue options are to obey cheerfully or obey begrudgingly. The conversations lack the kind of personality that can make this entertaining.

The area design and texturing is very bland, especially compared to the masterful work exhibited in many of these other modules, and the long hike up the mountain means I had plenty of time to look at it. Once at the top, and inside the mine, my task was simply to walk down through several tiny mine rooms, kill the 2 or 3 goblins in each, and return to the top. The author was at least kind enough to provide a way to teleport back to the top of the mine, but then I had to hike manually back down to the bottom of the mountain, where the module reached its conclusion.

I'm sorry, but I can't recommend this module.

A Prince of Light, or Shadow, by Saorsa

Another one requiring a male level 1 mêlée character. Here comes my tiefling again. Though the documentation says that it should give me enough XP to level up to level 4, so I don't know why I needed to use a level 1 character to start. Why not start with a level 4?

I was relieved to find myself in a beautiful autumn woodsy area. A nearby dwarf related a tale of woe, revealing himself to be the last of the famed seven dwarves. In this version, a trio of witch sisters and their mother murdered the rest of the dwarves and kidnapped Snow White out of a hatred of anyone being happy. The dialogue began with a choice between a good or an evil reply, and once I made that first choice, I was given only a single option for the rest of the conversation. The dwarf then gave me a warhammer to use in my quest against the witches. Unfortunately, as a rogue, I couldn't use warhammers! The documentation didn't say I needed to be a fighter, just a mêlée class. I decided to make the best of it and plow on ahead this way, and used the levels I was granted to take martial weapon training. I was not, however, given enough XP to get to level 4 -- only to level 3.

Things took a turn toward the surreal and symbolic when I set out onto the path to the rocky grasslands. I encountered some kobolds called "nagging doubts", who dropped vials of "a small hope" which acted as health potions. This theme continued throughout, with larger enemies dropping larger "hope" potions. I also started coming across pieces of armour with evil-fighting properties. Unfortunately, I couldn't equip most of them. I should have taken a fighter level instead of just martial weapon training, so I could have gotten those abilities as a batch.

This grassland turned out to be the land of the first witch, named Discord. I lied to her, swearing allegiance, turning me more chaotic, and locking me into the "lie" course of dialogue. She let me pass to the next land to meet the next sister.

This next witch's land was a spooky dark forest with zombies and wraiths, with the witch named Deceit standing in a pond of blood near the centre. This forest was nicely designed as well. I continued my ruse, and was passed on to the last witch sister.

This one's realm was a striking rose-atmosphered place full of flowers, trees, pleasant paths, and a gazebo. Many unhostile succubi were standing around chatting with each other, and the sound of conversation and laughter was all around. The final sister, Decadence, referred me to the tower on the hill behind her, where their mother lived.

Inside, I was treated to multiple twists and surprise revelations! Even the fairy tale kiss brought something completely unexpected, as well (before the end, that is)! Bravo! Unfortunately, there seems to be a bug that required some reloads to get through. When confronting the witch mother, I can choose to either declare true allegiance to her or tell her that I'm actually against her. If I do the former, I'm locked into an evil path, with no way to take it back, and if I choose the latter, she immediately attacks me solo, and nothing further happens after she's dead, whether I check the mirror or Snow White. It becomes a dead end. To get around this, I had to check the mirror before speaking to the witch mother. The journal and her dialogue assumes that I've spoken to her already, and she gives me a choice to join her or oppose her. This time, if I oppose her, she summons her daughters, and after the fight I get a new option with the mirror that allows me to proceed.

This was the only bug I encountered, and it remains an excellently-designed module, both visually and in plot. The paths were linear, but provided visual interest for the journey, and the somewhat surreal, symbolic nature of it kept me guessing.

The Queen of Lies, by Adoniram

I left this one for last because I thought (based on the wording of the documentation) it was going to be longer than it turned out to be. It actually might be the shortest of the whole lot, though due to its variations you'd have to replay it several times to experience it all.

The documentation told me that I'd be playing predefined characters most of the time, and that my own character wouldn't matter, so once again I brought out my level 4 halfling bard. The documentation didn't tell me that it would be expecting a male character, and didn't make any checks for gender, so I was referred to as "brother" (this sort of thing happened in several other contest entry mods, in fact). It begins right away with what turns out to be the theme of the module. "Did you, or did you not drink my ale?" It took me a while to figure out what the purpose of all these questions was, since I was just assuming that it was going for the fairy tale theme of rewarding honesty.

This module tells the story of three brothers on a quest to rescue a princess, each taking a separate path. You play each brother, one at a time. It says there are 12 story variations, so I hope it won't be too much of a spoiler to describe how mine went.

The first brother's story has a timed event, where you have to find some firewood before your torch goes out, or a wolf will attack you. I took a little too long the first time I tried, reaching a tree just as my torch went out. I fought the wolf, and was killed. It looked like it would have been possible to win with a little more luck, though. The story went on to the next brother, but I wasn't content to leave the first brother dead, even though the documentation said it would be incorporated into the story, so I started over. I had to start over from the beginning instead of reloading my last save, because of some problems mentioned in the docs with saving in this module. The second time, I reached the tree in time, and figured out I had to bash it to proceed. The story immediately went on to the second brother's scene when I chopped the tree.

The second brother had just a short path to a cottage, and a curious friendly wolf pup on the way. Inside the cottage, a woman introduced herself as the princess! Something seemed fishy, though. She started asking some questions that sounded contrived and leading, designed to test my honesty rather than my suitability for marriage. I wasn't under the impression that this quest had marriage to a princess as a reward -- I rather assumed it would be a monetary consideration. So, I didn't go along with her prompting to puff up my accomplishments to prove myself worthy to marry her, and the story transitioned to the third brother's scene.

As the third brother, I found myself in a familiar location. This was the same area where I had found the tree as the first brother. I recognised the small stream and the large anthills, but there was no tree. I thought this might be a simple reuse of the scenery. Anyway, there was a woman here, who looked like the same princess in the cottage. She claimed to be the princess, too, but refused to come back home without her "precious" ring, stolen by a frog. So I agreed to guard one exit of its burrow (one of the anthills) while she made noise on the other end to scare it out. She conspicuously warned me to keep my eyes on it at all times, so I was expecting her to do something behind me. What happened was that a bat appeared, and my character automatically turned around and killed it. The princess then asked me if I had kept my eyes on the exit the whole time. Well, no, obviously I hadn't, because of the bloody bat, and I said as much. "Well, did you hear any loud splash, then?" she asked. No, I hadn't. And I said as much, even though the dialogue offered me the option of saying that I had heard a splash, and it must have been the frog. But I didn't hear a splash. She then turned into a "hag" (really a zombie) and accused me of lying, because she had thrown a rock into the water to make a splash! I was then turned into a tree, ironically, for the first brother to have chopped down in the first scene I had played.

Then everything came together, with all three brothers in the same scene, except one was burnt up in a fire pit. So the second brother demanded to know why the first brother had used brother 3 as firewood, and to explain the blood on his hands. I was presented with two options, neither of which were true. He had been mistaken in the dark, or the blood was from cutting himself? He clearly wasn't mistaken, because brother 3 was a tree at the time. It would have been a lie to choose that one. And I was never told that the tree bled while being chopped, so I chose the other option. Surprise lie! The hag appeared again and used this lie to turn brother 1 into an axe. Then I had to fight her alone, and died. The story ended with a little epilogue.

So now that I knew which of the dialogue the game thought was a lie, I played those parts again so I wouldn't accidentally lie this time. This time with brother 2, I listened carefully when that bat attacked me. Still no splash! I picked the "yes, I heard the splash" option anyway, and this time the "princess" turned into a tree! Now, when it cut back to brother 1, he found himself chopping into a princess, and as she "died" she asked him if he would promise to tell the king that he had killed his daughter by mistaking her for a tree. I chose to truthfully promise, and she got angry, turned into the hag, and decided to kill me, even though it wouldn't benefit her at all to do so. The other two surviving brothers showed up to help me fight her, and we beat her, though she did kill one of the brothers, and the dead stay dead in this module.

The story didn't end, and there was no indication of what to do. I checked the loot from the hag's body, and found a "necklace of lies". It didn't seem cursed, but it was hard to tell with a custom mod. It had a "remove curse" ability, though. I put it on, to see if that would end the module, but nothing happened. I looked around and tried examining the small brook again, which I had checked before, but didn't do anything. This time, it said that I could hear a voice in the brook! So I used the necklace to remove a curse on the brook, and voilà! There was the princess, and it all ended happily, except for the dead brother.

I'd say it's interesting enough to run through a couple of times for variations.

Afterthoughts

As with the Halloween compilation, this contest presented me with quite a wide variety of styles and approaches to a single theme. It confirms to me what I had speculated before, that this toolset and engine combination is indeed a flexible platform for games of many types and genres beyond the RPG style of the original campaign. I'm a bit sad that I wasn't around to see this wealth of content as it was in the process of being made, but I'm also glad that such a wealth exists now for me to enjoy, and that people continue to add to that significant body of work.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

BouncyRock's Neverwinter Nights 2 Halloween module compilation

BouncyRock's Halloween module perfectly embodies community spirit. It begins with a Halloween TV special-like introductory credits cutscene, and then a friendly rhyming beholder disguised as a pumpkin explains to you the framing setting. It's Halloween night, and you are in a gazebo in the middle of a breezy, well-designed neighbourhood, with grinning, glowing jack-o'-lanterns in front of the houses of the more than two dozen modders who contributed their own segments to this module. The focus is on the individual houses, but the exterior neighbourhood is also really top notch and deserves high praise.

With glowstick in hand (which acts as a stone of recall/hearthstone to bring you back if you happen to get stuck), you're free to trick or treat in this large neighbourhood (strangely bereft of other trick-or-treaters) in any order you choose.

My enjoyment of holiday-themed entertainment is not contingent on the actual calendar date, so it doesn't matter that I'm playing this mod somewhat later than the Halloween time window. The content of the houses runs the full gamut from whimsical and wacky to true no-nonsense horror, which suits the "trick or treat" theme well. Each house is a unique experience, with content inside that so far has been of the length most contest seem to go for -- about an hour or two per house, on average. If that time frame holds, then this module as a whole must contain anywhere from 25-50 hours of content. Impressive!

I started this with a new character, because I didn't notice the field on the module's page that said "level 5 minimum" -- I usually look for that kind of information in the general description text or the readme file, and haven't yet gotten used to looking in that spot on the Vault pages. Nonetheless, the initial dialogue gave me the option to give me enough XP to level me up to 5, so I did. I decided to try playing as a bard for a change, since they seem like they could be more than just a support character, which is how I usually saw them in Baldur's Gate, and how I had used Grobnar in the NWN2 OC.

I was hoping, however, that I wouldn't need to do much combat in this module, since I really do hate solo adventures in NWN2. I'm sure they're perfectly fine for those who prefer to play mêlée classes, but I don't. So far, there hasn't been much combat, though.

So, as I play through this mod, I'll describe the different houses I visit, in the order I visit them.

Small shop

This is just what it says on the tin. Starting as a new character, this is the first place I went, because I had no equipment, and I didn't know what I might be facing in the houses.

This is actually one of the best-designed shops I've visited in NWN2, either in the OC, the expansions, or any of the modules I've played so far. Shops in most of these games, including the professionally-designed ones, tend to be far too large for what they're supposed to be, and have a remarkable lack of inventory on display. Sometimes, the only way you can tell that you're in a shop at all is that there's an NPC standing there with a "vendor" tag on them, or who has an appropriate dialogue option.

This place was different, and should serve as a model for other in-game shops to emulate. It was of a much more believable and appropriate size for its function, it was lit atmospherically, and it had shelves upon shelves crowded with items and curios. It even had a whimsical little coin-operated mechanical fortune-telling device, for a bit of comedy! The shopkeeper was a grumpy monstrous humanoid of some kind, which I'm not yet experienced enough in this game to be able to recognise by sight. Perhaps a goblin.

After outfitting myself to the best of my limited budget, I went out to explore the town some more before choosing a house to try out first.

Jonny Ree & Liso's house

When I spoke of the TARDIS in NWN2 before, I didn't mean literally!I chose this house to start with mainly because it was so far outside the rest of the neighbourhood, past the walls and in the unpaved hilly area in the countryside beyond. Basically, I had walked that far, and didn't want to walk back to look around more (though it didn't occur to me until now that I could have used the glowstick to teleport back to the gazebo).

This one seemed like it was going for a survival horror theme, with a television filled with distortion being the sole light source in this cramped room, with no one sitting on the solitary sofa. It recalled to mind a similar scene in the earlier Silent Hill games.

However, upon interacting with the television, this house took a turn for the wacky, as I was sucked into a world combining Teletubbies with Dr Who. Not entirely wacky, though, since I found two of the Teletubbies lying dead under the mound where I found the Doctor imprisoned. The goal of this module was very short and simple, and involved freeing the Doctor and getting past some Dalek-possessed periscopes to reach his TARDIS, where we could be trasported back to the real world. The showcase was really the world, which reproduced the bright colours, music, sound effects, and the baby-in-the-sun that I know to be from Teletubbies despite never having watched an episode.

Actual game footage

Fighting the periscopes turned out to be the longest part of the module, for the aforementioned reason -- that I'm not a mêlée fighter.

At the end, I was given a sonic screwdriver as a reward, which appears to function as a low-powered long-range weapon, dealing sonic damage, appropriately enough.

The Grumpy Strumpet Tavern

Like the small shop above, this tavern should serve as a model for all game taverns. How many times have I seen "taverns" in games that are colossal meeting halls with almost no furnishings, and more importantly -- no tables?! Too many times, that's how many.

By contrast, the Grumpy Strumpet Tavern is exactly what I would expect or hope a tavern to look like. A short entrance hall, a central fireplace with chairs around it, walls lined with booth tables, and several free tables in the intervening spaces. Moreover, customers filled the place, sitting at seats, eating, drinking, playing cards, or standing and talking animatedly with each other. A waitress walked around, as well, but not aimlessly wandering. She went from table to table, welcoming customers, taking their orders, and asking if they needed anything else.

Behind the bar was a bartender, and behind him was a door into a large, well-decorated kitchen, complete with a cook, a boy stomping grapes in a vat for winemaking, and a freezer room with an ice mephit supplying the chill. The only thing missing in this kitchen, from what I could see, was fire for cooking. There were several ovens along the wall, but none of them were lit. The kitchen also had a door to the basement -- another well-designed and believable storage basement for a tavern. It, predictably, had a rat problem, but here that trope was played for laughs, and supplied the more interesting of the two quests I found in this tavern. I won't say what happens, but that it's fun and unique, and it starts by drinking from a bottle in the basement.

To the side was a door to upstairs, where there were three rooms -- a large, well-furnished one where the owner of the tavern (Mokah) lived, and two other, smaller rooms, presumably for guests to rent. Mokah's journal mentions the rat troubles in the basement, and also that she's been experimenting with using kobolds alchemically for her drinks (probably to point the player to the experimental still in the kitchen, where you can mix potions that temporarily transform you into various monsters). It also mentions a reason for her absence, being some kind of moonstone expedition. The reference, if it is one, is lost on me.

The other activity in this place, aside from the rat one, is to hunt for a total of 20 letters to the Grumpy Strumpet, which are hidden all over the place. I could only find 18 of them, missing #10 and #15. None of them are readable, even though they're supposed to be. Activating them brings up a book-like interface, but the pages are blank. On the forum, the author explained that they use an interface that's supposed to be include with the mod, (Readable Books), but even after installing that mod separately, the letters cannot be read. A nice idea, but I would rather the letters be made into the same kind of readables the rest of the game uses, so I could actually read them. [Addendum: it might have worked if I had tried this version of Readable Books instead.]

Actor of Veil's house

This house is actually a large castle on the inside, and is almost completely unfurnished, with unnecessarily long empty spaces to run through to get from one point of interest to another. It started out well, as a rather comical take on a theme park-style haunted house guided tour, with a ghost-host explaining the tragic story of each room, before disappearing and letting me speak to each spectral inhabitant with wacky dialogue. Each of these encounters ended with a sudden "boo!"-type moment, with a hand-drawn illustration of the ghost's terrible secret, accompanied by frantic organ music.

If it had continued on along those lines, I would have enjoyed it, but the "tour" elements stopped as it went on, and the rooms and hallways got bigger and emptier with nothing happening between them, and ultimately what had at first been a benign exploration mod took a sharp turn toward difficult and unfairly balanced combat for my level.

The ending was abrupt, with only a note saying "The end" on the way to the exit, where the rest of the mod had been full of hand-drawn cutscenes and dialogues. It all came across as rushed and unfinished, and could have been greatly improved by reducing its scale by at least 80%.

Chaos Wielder's house

The town wall was broken in one area, and a little path led down into a nicely-designed swampy area with the houses of Chaos Wielder and Skunkeen. I visited Chaos Wielder's house, noting the sign in front that suggested putting away any light-emitting items, like torches, for the best effect.

Lighting was the showcase in this mod, as well as atmospheric sound effects and a creepy manor-type décor. One of the creepier painted portraits was a repeated motif here, often lit up with an eerie glow. The Silent Hill feel was very strong here. Most areas were very low-lit, with coloured lights in interesting combinations, with rooms that seemed very realistic for a family manor. There was even a bathroom with bath and toilet.

Certain rooms had extremely harsh red lighting with stark black shadows and scary ambient sounds, with solitary elements like a shiny rocking chair, or grim statues.

When I got into the basement, the whole place had that kind of lighting, and moreover the walls and floors were crawling around. Creatures moved behind barred doors, and there was a strange cutscene when I went through a door down there, which transported me to a plant-filled room, with a friendly lizardman. He broke character and addressed me as the author of the mod, and basically told me that his part of the module was finished. The door, however, led nowhere, and I would have been stuck down there if not for the hearthstone glowstick provided by the module's framework. Overall a good house for atmosphere, but ended very abruptly.

Skunkeen's house

This was the other house in the little swamp area. I feel like I'm missing something in that one. Skunkeen himself was standing in the middle of the room, dressed like a fancy bard. In his conversation, he offered me a musical instrument, which I accepted. I'm a bard myself in this game. I don't know if he offers other items to different classes, or if it's just my luck. There was nothing more to the conversation, and no explanation for the ghost child, the dead body by the table, or the levitating hag by the upstairs door. Neither of them spoke, and the only other door was locked. Perhaps if I get the lockpicking skill or a knock spell I can see if there's something in there, but otherwise, there's nothing special about this house, unless it's broken.

Addendum: After obtaining lockpicking skills, I returned to this house and tried the door, only to be told a specific key was required to open it. If there are some hidden activities in this house, they're hidden too well. I can only conclude that the house is unfinished and that the unexplained elements are red herrings.

Tiberius' house

Now this one's shaping up to be good! The house is modestly sized and well-furnished, and right away I could see there was something going on. A portal glimmered in another room, with the sound effect of a jacob's ladder, evoking old Frankenstein movies. Well, it wasn't Frankenstein, it was Dracula! The author of the module (Tiberius, whose name is misspelled as "Tiberious" in one place in the module) was trapped in a glowing sphere by a gnome who lay dead on the floor, apparently killed by Dracula, who was brought to life out of fiction by the module author. So, to combat Dracula, the author told me to go read some of his books and pick a character or three for him to bring to life to accompany me (all apparently from his previous modules).

This is the first segment in the module that actually provided me with a party! And since I had no idea if there would be any others, my immediate reaction was to leave the house and go to some other ones, because the dialogue stated that Tiberius would send the characters back to their own worlds once Dracula was dead, and I didn't want to lose them. I just wish one of them had lockpicking skills, so I could try out that locked door in Skunkeen's house, and the locked cabinet at the Grumpy Strumpet, where maybe those two last letters are hidden! (Addendum: No, both were key-locked.)

JClef's house

This one is a much more normal Halloween trick or treating house. The author's avatar JClef and a woman named Ms Macabre wear masks in the central room of their house, which is set with small tables of Halloween goodies, like bowls of candy, grab bags, cups of "pumpkin cider", and a plate of fruit for comic effect. "Lame!" says the character. The candy can be munched, the cider gulped, and the grab bags each give you a potion or some other item, which may be random. There are also two books, one of which only has a description, and refers to the Misery Stone, which I assume is a reference to the module by that name set in the Ravenloft world, which I plan to play in due course. The other book tells, in a dialogue window, an abridged version of the story of the origin of the jack-o'-lantern. A simple but enjoyable Halloween house to visit.

Vendalus' house

Very interesting. This one is a classic murder mystery! As an outsider, my task was to interview the party guests, most of whom had motives to kill the victim, and determine the killer. I did wonder if it was a normal sort of party murder mystery, where it's just a big game, but the host actually had an answer for that question, and assured me it was real.

There was no combat in this game, as it was entirely a 1-room affair consisting of the suspect interviews. Vendalus wrote some very detailed backgrounds for all of the characters involved, and how they were involved with each other. Information was doled out piecemeal as I spoke to each person and learned small bits of info that I could use either to barter for more information or to elicit minor confessions and interesting revelations. Some of these led to bonus rewards! In the end, it was all tied up neatly and satisfactorily. I recommend it.

Shaughn's house

This one starts out alarmingly, as I began in a single, cobwebbed, dimly-lit room with the exit missing. A note in the middle of the floor described the "game notes". A couple of blue-flame braziers and a sealed door with a talking knocker was the only other element.

Upon opening the door, I was led down a hallway, interrupted every few steps by things like signs appearing and ghostly children running by. At the fork in the hallway, I ignored the direction the sign was pointing and went the other way, further ignoring the "stop!" sign and voice that appeared to warn me away. It ended in a little alcove designed to satirically extol the necessities of planning out your mods and to decry the perils of tinkering aimlessly with the toolset.

The rest of the mod went in a similar fashion -- half serious narrative and puzzles, and half modding in-jokes. Like Tiberius' house, it made reference to what appears to be other characters created in another mod by the same author. The serious parts of the mod were well enough designed to stand on their own, without the jokes (especially the vampire puzzle), but it was nevertheless interesting to read the author's thoughts and experiences in modding.

It ended with what I assume to be a representation of the author's actual house, with as modern furnishings as could be approximated with NWN2 assets from the looks of it. There were many locked doors, however, which would have been better if they had been non-interactive, because they made me think there might be something behind them to experience. And maybe there is, because I managed to catch a glimpse of a mind-flayer through the wall behind one of them! I got enough experience points by this time to level up and add some points into lockpicking, but all the locks are set to 99 difficulty, so I'm guessing I'm not supposed to be able to open them. The module is designed for level 5 players, after all, or is supposed to be, and you can't have that much skill in lockpicking at that level.

Adam Miller's tomb of discomfort

There are three buildings in this nicely designed graveyard, and this is the first I entered.

Adam Miller's avatar is rude, and cast a shrinking spell on me, and the dialogue even includes the option "I thought you'd be less of a jerk," as a farewell. I had trouble with this one at first, but I believe it was due to the scripts not expecting me to have companions. I tried it again without the companions, and it worked fine. The first time, he simply shrank me, and I remained in the same spot, with his servant Grunto making comments behind a locked door. The second time, I was shrunk and teleported to a small cage in the room on the other side of that door, and my task was to escape from the cage and figure out how to use the items and situation to bathe myself in water, as a nearby book helpfully advised me to do, to reverse the shrinking spell.

It was a pretty straightforward but enjoyable task, though for some reason I had to repeat it three times, since I was not returned to normal size on the first few showers, no matter where I stood in the flowing water. I thought I might have to find a way to move the empty washtub under the faucet, but it was not an interactive item. The shower eventually worked, though, and I was released from the room.

A book in Adam's bedroom makes some remark about stealing ideas from other modders and covering it up with sex and comedy, which can be taken as either cynical or bitter. Adam also gave me a strange-looking piece of candy, that appears to do random things when used.

House of BlackRain

The sign out in front mentioned the Umbrella Corporation, so I expected zombies, because that's the company in the Resident Evil games, which I know mainly from references to it that I've seen here and there over the years, and a brief time playing one of the games on a friend's console years ago.

In fact, this segment is a giant tribute to the Resident Evil games. Right from the beginning on entering the house, I could tell that that's what the author was going for, as it began with a cutscene of my character entering the room and looking around, as tense custom music played (presumably from the Resident Evil games). The camera controls suddenly became awkwardly set in two of the modes, as well. I think this mod was trying to take control of it in the same way the Resident Evil games would often use dramatic camera angles whenever you entered new rooms or certain areas of a room.

In the other room was a representation of a Playstation console, and when I activated it, the real tribute began. What seemed to be the original audio taken directly from one of the RE games formed the soundtrack to a recreation of its opening cinematic. My characters were nowhere to be seen, and the usual user interface was gone. When I was given control again, I was controlling Jill Valentine, following the orders of Albert Wesker and Barry Burton in exploring a mansion in which we took refuge from zombies. This whole thing was heavily scripted and included many cinematics while exploring. All the while, Wesker, Burton, and Valentine spoke lines that clearly came from that game. In between rooms, loading screens displayed trivia about the Resident Evil series.

Eventually, the screen shattered, the Playstation broke, and I was returned to the normal controls and world, where, as expected, I was attacked by zombies before given a final reward.

An interesting idea, and a well-executed tribute, and it didn't wear out its welcome by being too long.

Church of Dave Eat2Surf

Dave himself greeted me in the entrance hall of this room. He was standing near a desk with a computer, with references to modding with the toolset. He welcomed me to his house and invited me to look around, maybe try some thunder bowling upstairs, but warned me not to pull the level in the bell tower.

Several rooms surrounded the central room, which led upstairs. I explored the downstairs rooms first. Dave's wife tasked me with killing bugs and spiders and cleaning out the junk in the corners, and picking up stray toys. Many objects spawned these bugs and spiders when activated. Various containers had loot. The "toys" were little living action figures, whose desciptions said they'd summon a creature if I used them.

One room was the "tiki room", which had tiki statues and a little waterfall and some plants, and played a tiki room song every so often.

I tried the bowling upstairs. The "pins" were big mushrooms. A container held the balls, and activating it started an automated scene where my character threw it at the pins. Both times I tried, it destroyed all the pins, so I figured there was no point to keep at it. Various windows showed descriptions claiming that the night outside was a bit too dark and quiet.

I went up to the bell tower, and looked around. There were more ominous windows, and the lever. I decided not to pull the lever yet, and instead go back downstairs and see if Dave's wife had any reward for all the cleanup I had done, but when I tried to use the ladder, it said "You almost fell down the ladder!" and I stayed in the same spot. I tried again, and it did it again, but this time the game crashed.

I reloaded, and this time I went straight up and pulled the lever. Zombies spawned, and during the fight, the game crashed again. I decided this house was not to be, reloaded, and just did the downstairs stuff and left. I don't know if there was supposed to be any resolution to the activities there or not.

Wylonus' house

This house had "under construction" appended to its name on the world map, and it does indeed look unfinished. I won't say much about it in its existing form, but it probably would have been an interesting house if it had been finished. I don't think it should have been included in the compilation as-is.

ENoa4's house

This house is another in the very popular genre showing the modders talking about the experience of modding the game. Ernie Noa takes a self-effacing view of his projects, as represented by a basement workshop full of junk, broken 2DA files, and half-written dialogue. The monsters are manifestations of these modding problems, including spirits of dissatisfied players.

The environment was well-designed and interesting, and the themes were fairly amusing as well, though it suffered a bit from being used by so many others in this module. Several NPCs from this author's other modules show up here to talk about their roles in those other projects (even unreleased ones), which was actually a pretty clever way to inspire some interest in playing them.

However, one very bad thing in here was a "Demon of autosave corruption." It appears that when this demon dies, it releases a fireburst that does 100 points of damage to the whole party (or rather to the player, since the only reason I have a party at all is because of Tiberius' house.) At level 5, none of my party has that many HP, so it's an instant wipe with no respawning. Was this supposed to be funny? A statement that autosave corruption ruins everything? It was not funny, since I had to reload and retreat a lot of steps.

I left the basement soon after that. I think I saw everything there was to see in there anyway. But then I found that this was another house whose front door didn't work from the inside, so I tried to use the glow stick again to teleport back into town. The glow stick didn't work either! So I had to reload a save from before I entered that house at all, which was a ways back. Good thing I keep so many saves, even for a casual module like this!

AmstradHero's house

This one seemed to focus not so much on area design, but other kinds of content. There were several books with synopses of spooky tales, and various items and set pieces that could be examined for some spooky flavour text. The host offered a "treat" to be found somewhere in the house, and it turned out to be a mini-game of a kind of tower defense variety, where you have to use some statues to banish good and evil souls to upper and lower planes, as they come in heavier and heavier swarms, until it's impossible to banish them all because of the time it takes between one activation and another. As a reward I received an item that would let me cast Bless or Bane.

Eguintir Eligard's house

This author made his in-game avatar look like the same red-hooded elder gentleman in his forum avatar. Strangely enough, the author chose to portray himself as rude and unpleasant, as had one or two of the other authors in this compilation. Well, it seemed strange at first, but after more dialogue, it seemed that this was just a colourful character portrayal designed to fluster him when he had to make accomodations in the face of possible disruptions to his dinner party plans.

First I was given a guided tour of the house, with dialogue and NPC interactions with the maid (conspicuously brewing a gigantic stew) and the butler. I was warned not to touch anything (and to step only where Eguintir stepped, as Gandalf had once said), but there didn't seem to be anything touchable anyway. One such exhibit was an aquarium which was supposed to have fish in it, but did not. Possibly something was missing from the compilation, similar to the Grumpy Strumpet unreadable letters.

Then there was the dinner party, with amusing conversation (albeit one which used the word "despot" nonsensically). Near the end of the conversation, I noticed the pattern to the names of the visiting dinner guests...notably the inclusion of a "Colonel" and a "Baroness". Those, along with the maid and butler, and the fact that the module didn't end with the dinner party, but had me going off to join the others in the guest rooms for the night, indicated to me that this was going to be a longer module, modeled after either the board game or movie version of Cluedo/Clue. Fun!

Well, after playing it through, it was an amusing story, but it was almost all made of cutscenes, with almost no interaction on my part aside from a token spot or two where I just had to walk from one end of the hall to the other to trigger the next bit, or click the only dialogue option given. Occasionally there were more dialogue choices than that, but it was more of a little movie than a game. I'm glad there wasn't any combat in it, anyway, since it really didn't warrant any.

Elysian Manor

This may have been my favourite house of all, at least so far. A man with a smooth Spanish-sounding accent welcomed me to the deceptively bright and clean house, and explained a few things before leaving with ominous parting words. This segment was primarily puzzles, almost in adventure game style, where you pick up everything, combine items in useful ways, and use the resulting items to progress through the game.

It used brief cutscenes and changes of scenery to great effect, and succeeded in being both atmospherically scary as well as providing a good puzzle framework that required some thought, but never made things so obscure that they couldn't be solved.

Of course, using an item to reveal a doorway was made much easier by the fact that I could see the doorway sticking up halfway through the ceiling on the other side of one of the walls. I've been meaning to talk about the upstairs doorways in the OC tilesets, and I'll do it at the end of this post, since it has nothing to do with Elysian's excellent mod.

JasonNH's home

This was a small house which started out sinister with the host, but changed to a more eerie/sad ghost story feeling shortly afterward. There was a lot of scripting involved, it seemed, and I think my having a party interfered with some of the scripts, because there were numerous times that things froze up, failed to advance, or party members were reduced to zero health during cutscenes. I ended up removing the party members for my last time through, and that worked without problems. A gnome girl (I think) was creatively used in this mod to represent a human child, which got around the problem of the standard human children always wearing rags and having very little customisation.

It was a poignant story overall, and I enjoyed it, though I ended up not being sure of who was a ghost and who wasn't (Were the hags? Was the girl?), and what exactly the hags had in mind with their plans, given those considerations. I might have taken things the wrong way due to certain similarities between this mod and the movie The Others.

BouncyRock HQ

Having finished the houses in the central area of the neighbourhood and the southwestern and western sections of the area beyond the walls, I went the the northeast where BouncyRock HQ was portrayed as a castle on a hill. I admired the pathways and design of the approach, but when I got there, the door was marked "closed for Halloween". The door was not key-locked, but had a difficulty of 118, which was far beyond my abilities. I really hate not knowing if certain doors are not meant to be opened, with nothing behind them, or if they're worth trying to get open later. Isn't there any way to make static doors in this toolset, which won't imply interactivity?

Anduraga's home

This was a nice tower on a smaller hill near BouncyRock HQ, and the design of the area was lovely. It made me wish I had assets like that for my Trouble in Rainesfere mod for Dragon Age.

Once opening the door, I found myself to be still outside, but dead, and with some stranger weeping over my body. A ghost greeted my ghost, and became a party member. Since this module provided me with a party member, I removed my others until this one was complete.

The forest area was convincingly designed, but the path to our destination was not clearly marked, and there was no marker on the map, so I wandered off in the wrong direction until I hit a barrier, and circled around it until I found the new tower. This was a very different tower than the one back on the world map -- much larger and more sinister with a giant skeleton as part of its design, and another dead body lying near its door.

Inside, it was spooky and interestingly lit. Large golems stood watch at every corner of this hall, and fountains and waterfalls flowed with red liquid that was no doubt blood. The interior did not look like a tower's interior, but a castle of some kind. The tileset was much better than anything I've seen in the OC, and fixes the things I mentioned as shortcomings before -- those mainly being the over-wrought normal maps and poor specular mapping, making everything look like excessively rough but clay-like stone. These walls, instead, were only as rough as they needed to be, and there was a gloss to parts of them that looked good in the low lighting.

In the middle of this room was the focus of this module -- a chest containing stones with single words on them, like life, laugh, truth, blood, etc., surrounded by four pedestals, and a book of instructions at the head. The pedestals each had separate bits of verse with missing words, and the task was to figure out which of the words on the stones fit the poems. They had to be added in order, the book said. I failed on the first pedestal, but I didn't know it yet, because I chose a different word that seemed to fit with the poem in a similar way, but there was actually a more appropriate word. When the second pedestal lit up after I added the stones, I knew the first one must be wrong, so I retrieved the stones from that one and went on to do the 3rd and 4th before seeing which stones were left for the first one.

Once all the pedestals lit up, the door opened, and I ended up free of the tower, and no longer dead. The module's host greeted me and told me it was all an illusion and that my treat awaited in the next room. That was a surprise. I was expecting more, considering I was given a companion. He never said anything after joining me, and there was no combat in the module. Perhaps there was more content planned.

I enjoyed this one, for the design, and the puzzle.

Amraphael's house

Another pretty small mod, but a beautifully designed interior. I loved the lighting and colours. Some of the décor was rather familiar by now, though, such as the levitating hags with their arms crossed, which I've seen in 3 or 4 mods now. This must be something from Mask of the Betrayer, I'm guessing, since I know it involves at least a hagspawn.

Here, the host offered riddles, ghost stories, and candy, though he played a trick on me with the candy, claiming it was poison, and I needed to quickly pick the antidote. At least I assume it was a trick. At any rate, I followed advice and didn't die. Then I went and explored the rest of his house, found a secret passage that led to a little fight, and then spoke to his wife, who asked me another riddle. A short, but fun house.

Mooncalf's Carnival of Souls

This house supplied 4 party members -- a pair of star-crossed lovers, an undead sorcerer, and Bishop from NWN2 OC. Irenicus from Baldur's Gate 2 made a cameo appearance as well. The main carnival area has a merchant and several NPCs that offer flavour dialogue. The merchant offers a book of hints for this module, which was useful. There are also some coincidental Skyrim parallels (couldn't have been intentional, since this was released in 2008, 3 years before Skyrim's release): one of the companions is named Lydia, and the host says (almost exactly), "I used to be an adventurer like you..."

The idea here is that on one night a year, damned souls can attempt to complete some challenges in exchange for a chance at being returned to life. Somehow, even though I'm still alive, I also get to participate in this challenge. Those who lose are eaten by some kind of hellhound.

There are 5 or 6 challenges to choose from, with interesting names like "Witchfinder General" and "Puzzle of the Imps". Some are easier than others, and their length varies, but they're all pretty short. Some rely on dialogue, some on skill checks, and some on having a party member present. I'd recommend saving before each challenge, though, because one wrong move can cause you to lose a companion or two permanently.

One problem in this mod is that the sorcerer Professor Bones can't cast any of his spells, even after resting. I can't see any reason for this. I was unable to use him for this reason.

Another problem is that there are portals that take you back to the carnival after each challenge, but they're destructible. Three times, in challenges that included combat, errant AoE spells destroyed the portals, and made it impossible to go back, except by using the glowstick to return to the town centre and walking back up to the house. This also seemed to be the cause of the game not recognising that I had all three of the necessary gem fragments -- it didn't give me any acknowledgement of it until I had completed another challenge that didn't destroy the portal.

Still, it was a fun and varied mod, with plenty of interesting dialogue. I went through all the challenges for the fun of it, even though only three were necessary.

Gaming Parents Studio

This was a very good house as far as design and horror elements go (nice exterior too). Sound effects, voices, and spooky evidence (a severed hand, a cleaver, and a doll's head) create an excellent atmosphere, with horrific imagery in one place, à la The Shining.

It ends very abruptly, though, and I get the impression there was going to be more, since the three items mentioned above served no purpose, and the hosts only mentioned them as a side note (we'll just take those back from you when you leave). Definitely worth visiting for the atmosphere.

Wyreen's house

The entrance hall to this house was amusing. There were two grand fountains, with a heavy flow of water issuing forth from the groins of the imp statues on top. Wandering around the floor was a cat, who said things like "OH HAI" and "I can haz cheezburger?" when I clicked on it.

There were two sections to this house: the trick and the treat. I picked the treat first. It turned out to be an homage to the movie Army of Darkness (Evil Dead 3). Lines from the movie were quoted verbatim, similar situations and creatures were set up, and weapons were reproduced. Not bad. I had actually watched this movie again right around Halloween of this year, so it was fresh in my mind. Also, a lich version of H.P. Lovecraft showed up to say a few words about the Necronominon, since he was the one who had invented it before it was used as the MacGuffin in the Evil Dead movies.

The "trick" was a story that involved a possessed baby, a birthday party, a vengeful ghost, and a choice about who to believe and what actions to take. I made what appears to have been the correct choice, given the followup, but there appears to be no "good" ending to it. Enjoyable house.

Dark Cave (Lair of the Beast)

Nothing happened in this cave, and I didn't find anything to do in the two "rooms" There was no scenery, nothing to activate, and no creatures. A shame, since it was so nicely designed on the outside. [Note: more on this later.]

Dirtywick's house

Tavern music played, and people in colourful clothes mingled in this large room, amongst tables set with food and drink. The partiers' lines had a slightly questionable ring to them, saying how they have these parties every year, that they expect I'll be back next year, too, and that this is the only night out for most of them. There was also a strangely unused kitchen, which I thought at first might have been an oversight, but I think it was more likely intentional here.

Upstairs, Herbert West greeted me and invited me to drink large quantities of alcoholic beverages. Well, I recognise the name Herbert West from Lovecraft's short story "Herbert West: Reanimator", and the loosely adapted movie, so I guessed that all these party guests are reanimated dead. I was not disappointed. Everything changed, and led to some moments that would surely be horrific in retrospect to anyone who didn't see the change coming. ("Mmm! Tastes like chicken!" "Well, it's not chicken. Maybe next year you can help us prepare it.") An effective, well-scripted house with an interesting backstory.

Berra's estate of horrors

Entering this house, I was greeted by another rude and condescending reception, except that it wasn't the host himself who was rude this time, but his apprentice. The hall was set up with mannequins, a couple of exhibits, and some NPCs offering some conversation. It seems that the author chose to use this exhibit room as an advertisement for his other works.

Talking to the host is what starts a conflict event, and the NPCs recommend saving it until last. Berra, the host, sits in one of the corners, and comically stands up and sits down frequently during his conversation, even when the apprentice goes crazy and decides to destroy Halloween.

The special effects are pretty nice when that happens, and going into the transformed "basement" is an interesting experience. The land is different than I've seen in other mods, though navigating the terrain was a bit counterintuitive. I thought I was doing something wrong by climbing up impossible slopes until I got to the enemy at the top.

After fighting the very easy demigod, I was sent to a new room, presumably part of the original building I was in before, where I was given my reward and some more advertisements for the author's other work.

Hallows' End

A cosy little tavern was occupied only by a barkeep, who started to tell me about why his tavern was empty of customers, and then broke the fourth wall by telling me that JClef ran out of time and rushed his quest (I guess he did two houses, since I already went through a house marked "JClef's home"), giving me a very laconic journal entry that said, "You've heard the story of the urban legend which haunts the local area. Destory!!! [sic]" And then nothing. Where was I supposed to go? There were no doors or other interactive items in this tavern, and the barkeep had nothing further to say. Was this all?

I reviewed the chat log for any further details to make up for what wasn't written in the journal entry, and noticed it mentioned a "beast". Perhaps that was referring to the empty "Lair of the Beast" cave I explored earlier.

That's what it was, all right. The barkeep really should have been a little more informative, because I could have missed that. It's pretty much the opposite extreme as Berra's estate, which told me repeatedly what I could do and what I could expect to happen before I did it, which was a bit too informative.

Anyway, the Beast was just a large imp, and when I killed it, the journal was updated, ending the quest. The barkeep had nothing further to say. JClef wasn't kidding about being rushed.

Raith Veldrin's home

The last of the houses! This one was very dark, and I needed to use a torch to see anything. Then I saw it was using the monochromatic black-and-white filter. Yuck. Raith was standing around the corner, made a reference to some tragedy a year ago, and offered me a potion, which was done in an amusingly surprising way.

Raith's dialogue was rhymed, and one of the responses was "I hope you knows, you speak in prose." It's verse, not prose. Prose is what I'm writing here: text without any metrical or poetic structure.

Tiberius' house, part 2: Back to Drac

Having finished with the rest of the houses, the time was right to return to Tiberius' house and put these companions to the use for which they were intended!

When I stepped through the portal, the howls of wolves rang in the distance as my companions began to speak. Charissa, a paladin of Tyr, predictably demanded to know the alignments of the rest of the party. Tancred the ranger (neutral good) reacted with exasperation at this typical paladin behaviour, and she immediately judged him to be evil, to which Saleron the wizard (lawful good, just like the paladin) pointed out the logical fallacy she employed. I laughed along with him until I saw that my only dialogue option was to say, essentially, "Huh?" Then the ranger of all things went into a detailed lecture about denying the antecedant, and Saleron lumped me in with the paladin in his estimation of ignorance. I checked the character sheets afterward, and my INT is 2 points higher than the ranger's, so what the hell?

The approach to Dracula's castle had a couple of encounters. The music, sound effects, and décor were all pretty straight, but the dialogue was often flippant, so I'm not sure really what the tone was supposed to be here. Even the encounter with Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde (who spoke of the Headless Horseman) was more or less straightforward classic horror all the way. Hanged men and bodies impaled on spikes also announced the cruelty of the new noble in the castle, while a ghost warned us away, and a statue spoke of riddles to come.

Inside the castle, I found the first puzzle, and it was to determine which painting hid a key to open the door to advance. I have to admit, although I enjoy puzzles, I found this one to be too obtuse. The paintings were all said to look toward the one that had the key, and I checked all of them, until they sent me into a loop, with one pointing to another that had already been checked. Then I checked the one that was never betrayed by the others, and found that the painting stared straight ahead with confidence. Surely that was the one that held the key! But no. It was actually the daughter-in-law's portrait that held it, even though she pointed to another painting.

On the other side of the locked door was the laboratory of Dr Frankenstein, with his "modern Prometheus" on the slab! This module has been a real tour of classic horror literature! The puzzle in here is to figure out which of a chest full of different power crystals is the correct one to bring the creature to life. The wrong one will still bring it to life and make it open the door so I can advance, but I would have to fight it afterward. The statue claims that I need "the smallest", and a book on the table gives more cryptic words that may or may not be hints. Are these descriptions of crystals that were tried and failed, or the correct one(s)? It mentions "one with crack", and the only cracked crystal is a large one, not "the smallest" as the statue suggested. At any rate, I tried three of the smallest crystals, one at a time, and all failed, so I don't know what's going on with these puzzles.

There were two more puzzles, though both of their doors led to the same room, so only solving one was necessary. I tried both of them anyway.

Again, I regret that the puzzles eluded me. One was a room of eight statues, one of which was "fake", whose destruction would open the door. A book offered clues, but it didn't rule anything out. "Some say it was this one, others say this, or maybe this." A sundial was in one corner, and a gong in another. The statue in the direction of the gong (probably alluding to the "thunder" in the clue book) was the correct choice, but I destroyed several other statues first.

The other room had several puzzles. There were red and yellow vases by the door, one mounted animal head with missing eyes and another head with ill-fitting eyes, a painting that pointed toward a secret scroll, and a yellow and red stone. The statue said that colours were the key, so I did the obvious and put the yellow stone in the yellow vase and the red stone in the red vase. Nothing happened. I put the eyes from one head into the other head, and it spawned a bear to kill. I read the scroll that I found and it summoned the Invisible Man, who dropped a red jewel and a yellow stone just like the one I had already put in the vase. I tried putting these new red and yellow stones into the vases, and still nothing happened. Finally, I gave up and used the other door that led into the same place.

Dracula himself lay beyond his herald gnome, who declined to stay. Before I spoke to Dracula, I examined both of the wooden stakes I had found, but neither of them could be equipped or activated. After some dialogue, we fought Dracula, and he returned to his coffin. There is where the stakes came into play, because when I activated the coffin, I was given the option to impale his regenerating body with a stake, and did so.

This won the game, and I was treated to some final farewells from the companions and the host. This made a fine ending to the Halloween module compilation, and I'm glad I saved it for last.

Afterthoughts

I think this review may set my record for most screenshots in a single post.

I wish there had been a trash can container in the central area, or in the small shop, or perhaps the tavern. Many of these mini-mods left me with several unsellable items when I was finished with them, and very few houses had any containers at all. Just dropping items to get rid of them is slow, because you have to drop them one at a time, and each one leaves a separate bag on the ground. Chaos Wielder's house had a few chests in it, so I ended up dumping several mods' worth of items in there. There is a box container at the Grumpy Strumpet, too, but I was already using that to store all the letters I had found, and didn't want to clutter it up with junk. I never found the last two letters in the Grumpy Strumpet.

Regarding stairs in NWN2 in general, it's a surprise to me that I haven't seen any fixes for these upstairs/downstairs doorways that only go halfway up or down, oftentimes with a room on the other side of that wall, which that doorway would open up into if it weren't just a fake black passage behind it, and which often texture-clips into that room's wall anyway. Dragon Age: Origins handled stairways much better -- it had a tile where you would just see a doorway with a little stairwell in it, leading up or down to the side, not straight on, and you just click on the doorway to transition to the next level. That worked very well. Alternatively, just a simple closed door on ground level with a label saying "upstairs" would be enough. Let the player assume there's a staircase behind that door. No need to go up to floor 2.5.

I wish there were a good readme included with spoilers for all the houses, so I could go through and see if I'd missed anything, especially in those houses that seemed unfinished. Perhaps some authors will find this review and add their comments or explanations.

It took several days to get through all the content in this module. As a showcase of the variety of mods and range of talents out there on the Vault, I think it makes an excellent sampler.

Next, I'll go through the shorter list of minimods which were entered in Obsidian's module contest with the theme of Grimms' fairy tales.