Neeshka's companion quest
Blacklake is the place where Neeshka's personal quest comes to its resolution. I have to say that it seems like her quest underwent many changes during production, because it's pretty incoherent. It goes something like this. An old rival of hers named Leldon, with whom she once worked, threatens her when she enters the city. Neeshka then decides it would be a good idea to break into his house and steal his lucky coin from him, to show off how much better a thief she is. We do it, and it's easy. The thing that makes me think something was changed during production is that the quest journal says Leldon confronted us at his house, but that never happened.
Later, a street urchin gives us a message from Leldon to meet him in the park. So we do, because the game doesn't give us any sane options like staking the place out and sniping him with arrows or setting up traps for him. Now they're saying that the coin wasn't Leldon's after all, but Neeshka's lucky coin, which he stole from her. Leldon makes more threats, there's a fight, and Leldon runs away. Leldon is painted to have a psychotic hatred of Neeshka, but she just goads him on, which isn't wise (but wisdom is her lowest stat, after all).
Next, an acquaintance of Neeshka's shows up and gives her a tip that Leldon's going to pull off the heist of a lifetime, and Neeshka decides to get there first, steal everything, and taunt him about it later. This is the part where it happens in Blacklake, and it's the strangest quest of the lot. We break into a collector's mansion, and immediately the heist goes to hell, because guards detect Neeshka (even though she's in stealth and I left everyone else in the entrance hall), and they attack, resulting in dead household guards. So now what? This isn't just a burglary anymore, it's a full-on assault on someone's household, and wanton murder for the purpose of theft. Those guards were the good guys! If anything should cause an alignment shift, it's this! And yet after killing the guards, nothing changed, and no party members complained, so I just went on.
I continued having Neeshka sneak around in stealth mode, but this was once again ruined when I snuck into a small servant area, and was suddenly forced into dialogue with a servant when I passed a trigger point. And remember what happens in those instances? The main character is teleported across the house to talk to them, of course. Yay, my cover was blown, and the servants all got a good look at me to describe to my fellow City Watchmen later. I left them in peace, anyway. Obviously, this "theft" quest was not meant to be played stealthily, but it really should have been. There should be no triggered dialogue for stealthed characters, ever, unless the NPC detects them! Nevertheless, I forwent the stealth from that point on, not that I had much choice.
Next, I exchanged a foot massage with the master of the house's mistress for a key upstairs, and also learnt that this collector has become obsessed with a simple painting of a ship at sea, which he found in a refuse heap, and that he treasures it above all his rare valuables, and stares at it for hours on end (and neglecting his mistress). It sounded like there was some plot afoot involving an ensorcelled painting!
However, the rest of the information given doesn't indicate that this was anything other than an ordinary painting, and that his fascination with it was simply due to his unfulfilled wish that he had been a sailor himself. It's an unsatisfying ending, since he is truly fixated just on this one painting, to the point where we had the option to use the painting as a hostage to get the collector's key to the vault. If there was no enchantment involved, then why is it just this one painting? Surely he had seen paintings of the ocean before. Surely he has seen the ocean! Neverwinter is a coastal city! Why isn't his house full of ocean paintings, and why doesn't he collect other nautical items like anchors and ship steering wheels? Why hasn't he remodeled one of his rooms to resemble a ship captain's cabin? Why does he do nothing but stare at this low-quality painting all day? These questions are never answered.
The quest does provide a little puzzle to solve to open the door, but as soon as I accomplished that, Leldon came stomping in to confront Neeshka one last time. More thieves just walking around citizens' homes with impunity! Here, the dialogue once again changes its mind about who this lucky coin originally belonged to. Was it Leldon's or Neeshka's? Why are they so dead-set on provoking each other? Are they suicidal, stupid, or both? More unanswered questions. But with Leldon dead, this convoluted diversion seems to finally be at its end.
As a thief quest, it was terrible. Aside from the blatant breaking and entering, killing of guards, and being seen by everyone, this "grand heist" amounted to less than 1000 gold and some jewels, with a couple of pieces of gear, one of which I couldn't even use. It also doesn't seem to involve any thief skills except for using dexterity to pull a key out of a fireplace, but that was implemented through dialogue, meaning you have to do it using your main character. Pointless, since if you're doing Neeshka's quest, you're probably not a rogue yourself. You also can't pick the lock to the vault, and one of the keys you need can't be pickpocketed, which is why I had to hold that painting hostage earlier -- because the only alternative to that was to kill the man! What a farcical heist.
And in the end, I couldn't even give the poor man his painting back.
The original campaign storyline requires certain characters to be in your party at various points in the game. Currently, Shandra Jerro is a "free" party member (not using up one of the available slots), so I have her on tank duty, leaving Kelgar at the inn. The mage Sand was required once I set out for Port Llast, and that's an annoyance. He's a wizard, and I already have more than enough capable magic-users in the party. Also, his personality clashes with my actions, and I'm losing influence with him left and right (once, I lost influence with him just for being polite and diplomatic in Lord Nasher's court).
Act 2 begins with a newly-restricted world map, and a task to gather evidence and friendly witnesses for my testimony in the trial the Luskans set up by slaughtering the town of Ember. The incident in the collector's mansion never comes up.
Duskwood (the area around Ember)
Ember was basically deserted, except for the dead bodies of helpless villagers, who all had text describing how cruelly and unjustly they were killed. A merchant in Port Llast named Nya had given me a bag of some kind of herb that was supposed to sanctify the bodies so they wouldn't rise as undead, and so I set about doing that. Guyven of the Road showed up again (a character I'd met a couple of times in other places) and offered some more expositional text. The only other thing to do was to investigate the well. I thought this would involve pulling something nasty out of it, but it turned out I needed to go down into it.
The bottom of the well turned out to be a spacious cavern, but the most outrageous thing about it was the door in one of the walls. I guess whatever source that's keeping this well full of water never gets it up that high, eh? Fine, I decided to stop standing in the village water supply and see what was behind the door.
A tribe of goblins! Of course! They must be very quiet for the villagers never to have noticed that their town is built on top of a goblin settlement. Well, at least they're peaceful goblins, which I suppose explains why they never poisoned the well, despite their easy access to it. Of course, the villagers were all dead by this point, so it hardly mattered anymore. In any event, I accepted their truce (in exchange for killing some giant spiders) and explored their cave. The only rules I had to follow were to not kill any goblins, and to leave their "glowstone" alone.
I found the room with this "glowstone", and I don't really know what it did, except that the goblins considered it very important, an evil dryad wanted it, and Grobnar was alarmingly drawn toward it, like the pre-Gollum Smeagol's fascination with the One Ring when he first saw it. Knowing we were being watched carefully in this room, I was worried that Grobnar might act outside of my control and turn the whole cave hostile on us, so I left that room quickly.
In another area, I found a giant non-hostile spider, and gained a quest to find it some food.
I found that this cave had a back exit, leading outside the village of Ember. Okay, this explains how the goblins could go out and get food or other supplies without going up the well and being seen by villagers, but I really find it hard to believe that no one in the village ever looked around the area to see if there was anything they needed to be concerned about, especially when they were building the village in the first place!
The door exited into the area called Duskwood, and the trees created a strange magic-dampening field all over this area that caused my spells to fail most of the time. With me, Qara, and the forced Sand in the party, this was a serious handicap, but I decided to go through it as-is, without switching out any party members. The OC is pretty forgiving, even at core rules difficulty. There was no way to avoid or put an end to the magic suppression, but there wasn't much to do in Duskwood anyway -- only two encounters.
An evil dryad was the first Duskwood encounter that I found. She delighted in the slaughter of Ember, and helped the murderers set me up as the patsy by providing them with a magic disguise that made one of them look like me. But they never held up their end of the bargain, which was to take the glowstone from the local goblins and give it to her.
I refused to accept her quest to go do that same thing, and Sand complained that I wasn't taking the opportunity to gather evidence to use in my defense by making a deal with her. I lost 2 influence points with him for that, and I didn't get those influence points back when I obtained the evidence anyway without making any deal. I'll be generous to the game writing and ascribe that to his personality, being not only arrogant, but also unable to admit or acknowledge when he's wrong. I can't understand why some people like this character.
Next, after plowing through a field of wolves, we found two gnome entomologist sisters by a cave, who spoke with interesting complementary speech patterns and flirted suggestively with Grobnar, who seemed more interested in their extensive insect collection than in their scarcely veiled invitations to a ménage à trois.
Something wasn't right, though. Their dialogue left hints about that, and the fact that they didn't want me to look in their cave. I somewhat wish I didn't have to go in and see what was up, because they weren't at fault for what happened to them, but it was the only place left to look for one of the quests I picked up in town, and in retrospect, it was a good thing that I did it. Not only did it satisfy two quests, but it opened up something later in the game.
The trial (or, "Good morning, Worm Your Honour!")
When it came time to present the evidence at the trial, I ended up having to play through that section 3 or 4 times, because the dialogue was often unclear in regard to what I would be skipping or otherwise choosing to do with the available options, and I actually lost the trial every time until the last one. I never got to see the actual evidence presented in any of the runs -- that was handled offscreen. But several times I chose options that seemed normal enough, but somehow forfeited my right to question witnesses or speak up in my defense. Other times, the options given to me all seemed bad and out of character. In one instance, I was unable to fully use a witness to my advantage. I could either use an argument from ethos by pointing out the good character of one of my traveling companions, who was known to the witness, or I could discredit the witness by reminding her that in a previous conversation she had admitted the possibility (without any evidence to support it) that she had actually seen someone disguised as me. But I had that evidence now! I had recovered a magic disguising powder from that evil dryad earlier, so I could show exactly how such a thing was possible. But the option never came up. Once she had admitted the very flimsy claim that "maybe it was someone else", she was taken off the stand.
Sand advised me not to try any diplomacy, bluffing, taunting, or intimidation on the prosecutor, since she was an expert in those techniques, unless I was certain I would win. I don't know how many skill points I would have needed for those things, but I tried anyway on a couple of the runs to check, and even though my diplomacy skill is rather high, it did indeed fail, even though the arguments offered in those skill checks were good ones.
Sand also mentioned the possibility of using the prevailing ethnic hatred of Luskan (a city-state hostile to Neverwinter, and the origin of these accusations) to my advantage in gaining the support of the jury, but this never seemed to work, and simply made me look like an arrogant hothead.
I also had the option of simply letting the super-intelligent Sand handle all the arguments himself (he does have a very high intelligence stat). When I chose that option, it cut to a conclusion implying that Sand had argued for several hours, and yet that was one of the cases where I lost.
It turns out that it doesn't really matter whether you win or lose, because one way or another you have to fight in an appeal-by-combat, whether it's you or the Luskans who demand it. I don't see what this is supposed to prove, considering both sides can select anyone to be their champions, and don't have to fight themselves. So it's not me against the diplomat Torio Claven, but against the giant Harbourman named Lorne, whose name had been popping up throughout the story, and who was the actual perpetrator that was disguised as me during the slaughter of Ember.
One suggestion: Do not accept Qara's offer to fight as your champion in the trial by combat. She may indeed be a very powerful sorceress, but her claim that she can incinerate the opponent before he reaches her proved several times to be an overestimation of her abilities. Lorne is a berserker who immediately attempts to close the distance between to melee range, and this gives enough time for only one spell. The instant-death and incapacitation spells I tried all failed (he ran right through the web and tanglefoot bag).
The fireball did a fair amount of damage when it successfully landed, but it would have taken 3 or 4 to bring him down, and I never got that far with Qara. Once he got in range and started chopping into her with that huge sword, she could either attempt one more spell (likely to fail from the assault), drink a healing potion (only postponing the inevitable by one turn), or try to get out of range (he runs just as fast as Qara, so this only works the one time he pauses to buff himself, which didn't help in my case.
So I picked Khelgar as my champion instead, who was furious about the injustice of the situation. Khelgar, by contrast to Qara, kicked Lorne's arse. But I saw in that fight how futile Qara's attempts had been. The berserker becomes unkillable during his rages, so she would have had to survive or avoid that, which I think would have been impossible. His HP was at 0, and yet he wouldn't die, despite Khelgar beating at least three times his original HP out of him over the several rounds of this berserk rage. Finally, it ended, and Khelgar was able to land the killing blow.
As the main character, I had been getting jerked around and manipulated quite a bit during this story, especially during this whole setup, trial, and being forced to join Lord Nasher's house as a squire to avoid being tried and executed in Luskan. But it became a bit worse at the end of this whole trial chapter when Nasher introduced me to a Luskan ambassador, because it introduced a meta element. I know this ambassador is evil and responsible for certain deeds, even though my character has never met her before, because it was shown to me in cutscenes. But my character doesn't know, and this essentially reduces me to the watcher of a horror movie helplessly telling the character onscreen "Don't go down into that basement!"
Granted, my character has reason to distrust Luskan officials in general after that trial, and Qara did mention that she sensed that the ambassador was hiding a lot of power, and the ambassador was quick to repeatedly silence her more friendly and straightforward assistant, so perhaps it wouldn't be entirely unreasonably nationalistic to be wary of this ambassador.