How Neverwinter Nights Cultivated My Inner Gamemaster

I first got into the hobby of tabletop roleplaying games in college. My roommate was preparing to play Mutants and Masterminds with a group he’d met and – seeing that I was interested but also that I was a little awkward and had trouble vocalizing my desire to play because I’m an antisocial dork – he invited me to join in. I dove in with both feet and instantly fell in love with the hobby in a big way. The rest, as they say, is history. I’ve played tabletops ever since and within the year I was running a game of my own. While there are other skilled GMs in my group, I tend to volunteer to run games the most because I love the unique role of gamemaster even more than I love the role of player. But while Mutants and Masterminds might have been my first legitimate experience at the gaming table, there’s another game that takes credit for getting me interested in roleplaying in the first place. That game is Neverwinter Nights.

Neverwinter Nights was a PC roleplaying game that came out when I was a young teenager. It told the story of an aspiring adventurer training at Neverwinter Academy who became involved in a major political conflict after an attack on the Academy took the lives of many students and faculty. Using the game mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons edition 3.5, the game allowed for a single player to enjoy the fun of D&D despite the lack of a group of other players. Of course, you could play as a team as well, and occasionally I’d play with my stepfather and one or two of his friends. However, while Neverwinter Nights had decent gameplay and an interesting story to tell, my time was spent primarily in a different game mode entirely: the Aurora Toolset.

Neverwinter Nights Toolset
Ah, sweet memories.

The toolset gave you an ability that, for myself as a young gamer, was totally unprecedented – you could create your own levels and challenges for the game. From building your own map from the ground up to designing NPCs to creating special weapons, the game put the tools of creation in the hands of the players and allowed those players to share their creations with their friends. And while I didn’t really have friends to play with in the traditional sense, it didn’t stop me from getting my creative juices flowing.

My favorite tools to interact with were the monster creation, the map editor, and the item design. These were the easiest tools for my young mind to understand as they required almost no knowledge of programming. It began as appropriation of my other favorite things; I’d spend my time figuring out how to create the Master Sword or Sting, or how to make a character that looked like Mario. I was focused less on the game’s mechanisms and more on retelling my favorite stories through this new medium. It didn’t take long, though, for me to begin exploring the game in a more technical fashion.

I specifically remember experimenting a lot with the monster designs to try and create enemies who were very easy to defeat, but yielded a lot of experience points. By populating a world with these enemies and then running one of my characters through it, I could very quickly gain a lot of levels and then transfer that character to the main game. I then started doing similar things with equipment, carefully crafting items to be as strong as possible while still keeping it to a reasonable level so my character could still wield it.

Neverwinter Nights Vampire
Mmm, the sweet taste of cheating.

As I got older and learned the mechanisms more, I began to realize that I could use Neverwinter Nights not just to make an overpowered character but to tell stories. I moved my focus away from carefully crafting easy monsters with high CR and instead tried to learn how to create dialogue trees and to populate the journal with quests. By this time I was a lot older and my younger brother was to the age where he could play Neverwinter Nights with me, so I used him as the guinea pig for the special levels I created. We’d boot one up, figure out where the dialogue trees didn’t work or find bugs in the quest progression and then I’d go back to the drawing board for awhile. I loved thinking about the game in this way, and I really think this is where the beginnings of my eventual GM role lie.

Perhaps, though, that statement is unfair. Yes, this is the time when I started to create what the typical person might look at as “my own stories,” but even in my childhood when I simply slapped the word¬†goomba¬†on a goblin model I was learning to GM in a way. At the very least, I was building the skillset that would later enable me to design effective encounters and interesting inventory items. What mattered in those early days was not my skill, but my passion, and Neverwinter Nights allowed me to explore that passion before I ever encountered tabletop roleplaying in its natural form.

What got me thinking about all of this is that apparently Neverwinter Nights will soon be coming to the Steam store. As soon as I read that news, all the memories of my time with the toolset came flooding back. I had a ton of fun with this game, sinking countless hours into building monsters and magic swords, and remembering that fun made me think about possibly purchasing it again. The main barrier for me now is time – as a busy guy I need to manage my free time wisely, and it wouldn’t be super practical to spend a lot of time in the toolset when there are plenty of new games to experience and I have a very real group of tabletop players who count on me to plan sessions of the game we’re actually playing. And while the magic of creating levels in my youth was something special, I doubt it would be very much like I remember it now.

What about you, adventurers? Did you ever play Neverwinter Nights or mess around with its creative mode? Did the game inspire you to join the world of tabletop gaming? Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to hear about your memories with this game!

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