Neverwinter Nights: The Blades of Netheril Interview

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The ending cinematic for the original Neverwinter Nights campaign promises new adventures for our Heroes of Neverwinter, but then the game's expansions completely forget all about them, except for the occasional passing mention.

Enter Luke Scull, who you may know as the lead designer and writer for Ossian Studios, the team responsible for a number of highly-rated Neverwinter Nights and Neverwinter Nights 2 expansions and premium modules, including Mysteries of Westgate and Darkness over Daggerford. Alternatively, you may know him as the author behind The Grim Company series of novels.

And on top of all that, he's now announced The Blades of Netheril, a brand-new Neverwinter Nights campaign that aims to provide a satisfying conclusion for the Hero of Neverwinter over the course of three content-rich chapters.

And if you wouldn't mind knowing more about this unexpected continuation of a 20-year-old story, and the man responsible for it, you should read our interview with Luke Scull below:

GameBanshee: To get things started, please tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.

Luke Scull: I’m a British author and videogame designer clinging on to my 30s by my fingertips. I’ve published three novels in eight languages (The Grim Company trilogy) and a short story set in the same world. I’m currently working on a second short story as well as various novels, the most advanced of which is a standalone book set in the world of the Grim Company. On the videogame front, I’ve been lead designer and writer for Ossian Studios since 2006. Our games include NWN2: Mysteries of Westgate, The Shadow Sun, NWN1EE: Darkness over Daggerford, and NWN1EE: Tyrants of the Moonsea. We’re in the process of developing at least one exciting RPG I can’t talk about. Being both an author and game designer is creatively challenging, but there’s no other job I’d rather do. The Ossian folk are not only colleagues, they’re friends, and after 15 years we’ve formed an incredibly strong core team who understand each other extremely well.

GB: I'm guessing you're one of the very few people who've managed to turn creating custom Neverwinter Nights modules into somewhat of a career. How did that happen?

LS: In 2005, I was fortunate enough to be approached by Neverwinter Nights lead designer Rob Bartel, who had played my Hall of Fame module Crimson Tides of Tethyr. He offered me the opportunity to create a premium module for Bioware. As many people know, Atari cancelled the premium module programme before any of them save Wyvern’s Crown of Cormyr could be released commercially. Ossian and I both released our prospective efforts free to the community. Shortly after, Alan Miranda of Ossian Studios e-mailed me and mentioned Atari had contacted him about Ossian producing a Neverwinter Nights 2 campaign. He asked if I would I like to be lead designer on the project. Fortunately for all who rightly consider Mysteries of Westgate to be the underappreciated gem of the NWN franchise, I said yes.

Even more fortuitously, I managed to leverage the experience I had gained writing for Neverwinter Nights into a novel, which sold in 2012 for several six-figure advances. I haven’t yet quite achieved the literary success of Naomi Novik (who worked on Shadows of Undrentide), and with my penchant for monstrously ambitious side projects that pay little to nothing I might never, but I’ve lived the dream nonetheless.

GB: And now, you're working on The Blades of Netheril - a direct continuation of the original NWN campaign. Can you give us your elevator pitch for this new module?

LS: The Blades of Netheril is an unofficial sequel to the original NWN campaign that tells the untold story of the Hero of Neverwinter and what befell them after the events of the Wailing Death. The story picks up several months after the hero left the City of Skilled Hands on acrimonious terms. You awaken in a dingy cell in Skullport, your equipment and your recent memories gone. You recall heading to Waterdeep to answer the call for adventurers after the drow began pouring forth from the Underdark - but everything after that is a blur. What happened to you? Who could have done this? Your only lead is the rumour of a strange, masked lady and the uncomfortable feeling she has stolen something very valuable from you...

The campaign will be split into three parts, each around 20 hours in the length. The first part will take place in Skullport, a thriving hive of villainy far below Waterdeep. There you will uncover myriad tangled webs of intrigue and a plot to return an ancient evil to the Realms. Familiar faces will return alongside new characters and famous (or infamous) characters from the setting’s vast lore.

The campaign is designed for characters that finished the OC, meaning it is a high-level campaign (16-19). Before anyone asks, yes there is an item strip at the start - but you will get your gear back before the end of the first chapter!

GB: Have you tried contacting some of BioWare's old developers to learn of any scrapped plans they may have had for a campaign like this? And if so, do you plan to use any of those ideas?

LS: I considered contacting Rob Bartel, David Gaider, and Naomi Novik to ask them about scrapped plans for a sequel or possibly even invite them to contribute some writing on the project, but I imagine they are busy with their respective, highly impressive careers. I’m very happy with the story I eventually penned, which was only possible using all the skills and knowledge I’ve picked up over the last two decades.

GB: Is this a predominantly solo project?

LS: As of right now, yes. I may reach out for some help once the skeleton is all there, but the design and writing stage (including all the dialogue, etc) is something I will do alone.

GB: And while I'm still baffled as to why BioWare decided to throw away that particular story after all but telling us to expect new adventures, I have to ask - why undertake such a colossal task, and why now, two decades after the game first launched?

LS: This project has been in development in one form or another since 2006. The original, cancelled Tyrants of the Moonsea left a niggling regret that only went away after the finished premium module was released in 2019. I made several efforts at getting a fourth module off the ground, but with Tyrants truncated and somewhat broken, my heart wasn’t really in it. Also, my financial situation didn’t allow me the luxury of spending time on an unpaid project. Things are different now: I’m earning decent royalties on past games and books and finishing Tyrants of the Moonsea reminded me how much fun I’d had with the Neverwinter Nights toolset. An effort to get another, extremely promising premium module with Ossian off the ground was unfortunately unsuccessful... but that desire to create the ultimate Neverwinter Nights campaign, and justify (at least creatively) the existence of the Enhanced Edition itself, was thoroughly reignited. I never walk away from anything unfinished, though years and decades may pass. I’ve always been motivated by creative desire rather than money. I’m just fortunate to have made a decent living along the way.

GB: This being a continuation of a campaign that took our characters all the way to level 20, does this mean we're in for an epic high-level adventure?

LS: The first chapter is intended for a character around level 17 (a little higher or lower is fine). It’s therefore safe to say the player will be hitting epic levels from the second chapter onward.

GB: And in general, how do you feel about high-level D&D campaigns, and what can game designers do to make them not feel trivial and over the top ridiculous?

LS: Honestly, high-level campaigns are rarely as fun as lower-level campaigns, at least as far combat and character progression are concerned. D&D becomes very difficult to balance after the mid-levels and the thrill of new powers and items fades. It is also very difficult to provide a consistent threat within the understood parameters of the setting: even in the Forgotten Realms, you don’t get armies of liches or hordes of dragons rampaging around to challenge extremely high-level PCs. At least you don’t outside of Warlock’s Crypt or the Year of Rogue Dragons...

One of the biggest challenges of writing a story for a 60-hour high to epic-level campaign is to provide a constant stream of challenges that don’t contradict the spirit of the setting or undermine the larger aspect of the stories. Some will say it is DM wish-fulfilment or a power fantasy. Well yes, it is also those things in addition to an epic story that occasionally gets metaphysical and has, at various points, the player leading a mercenary company, raising an army, and potentially even rewriting history. It’s high-level D&D. Yeah, I’m cool with pleasing myself and the player.

GB: NWN is often criticized for its limited combat engine where instead of having a party, you have to constantly babysit your hirelings without even the proper tools to do so. And so, I have to ask, since you have experience working with both Neverwinter Nights and Neverwinter Nights 2, why not use the sequel as the platform for your new module?

LS: Neverwinter Nights 2 simply takes too long to develop for and lacks the active user base of NWN1. It is also mostly separate from the shared world narrative I’m going for. It is its own thing.

GB: Speaking of combat, can we expect a mostly social campaign with some battles here and there, or will you actively try to murder our characters in the most devious ways imaginable?

LS: I’ll be trying to murder your characters in every way you can conceive of and some you can’t – but all within the confines of the rules and the spirit of the setting.

GB: Do you intend to introduce any mechanical changes to the basic NWN ruleset?

LS: In the first chapter, no. The second and particularly the third chapters may require some nifty scripting, in which case I’ll reach out to one of my celebrated colleagues or else just pester Beamdog. I can’t say more for fear of spoilers.

GB: According to your announcement, The Blades of Netheril will not only continue the original NWN story, but also act as a sequel to the game's two official expansions, and even some of your earlier modules. How exactly are you planning to make all those story threads work together?

LS: This is one aspect of the story I am most excited about. The Blades of Netheril takes place in the middle of 1373 DR, around a year after the original campaign and some months after SoU/HotU and my earlier modules. It pulls all of the plot lines and many of the characters together. If I can pull this off, it will be a feat of storytelling the bards will one day sing of. This approach does require some assumptions about the earlier stories and their characters, but it is a price that needs to be paid to get the narrative I want.

GB: The announcement also mentions that you intend to sell this highly ambitious module of yours at the low, low price of free, provided we own Beamdog's Enhanced Edition. Are you sure? And what about those who don't own the EE?

LS: As of right now, the project is intended to be free for owners of the Enhanced Edition. If someone makes me an offer that doesn’t undermine my creative vision and allows me to add VO and other highly expensive features I couldn’t otherwise afford, I would consider going the commercial route.

Anyone still interested in Neverwinter Nights should own the Enhanced Edition. You can buy it off CD key sites for under $3. If nothing else, buy it together with Tyrants of the Moonsea and you will be directly supporting the development of this project.

GB: You also promise some new portraits. Can you talk a bit about the style you're going for with them? And also, do you have any thoughts on why creating good RPG portraits seems to be such a lost art these days?

LS: As with most art and sound-related stuff, my answer is “do what Alan Miranda would do,” because he’s a genius at this kind of thing. I’ve no idea why good portraits are hard to come by: you’d have thought they would be in ready supply with the explosion of the global workforce and proliferation of talented artists for hire.

GB: And now, for one final question. On top of being a video game writer, you're also a fairly successful novelist. And as such, in your experience, what are the biggest differences between writing a book and a video game? What are your thoughts on using a game's systems to augment its narrative?

LS: “Fairly successful?” Touché! I’ll have you know-

No, actually, “fairly successful” is pretty accurate. The biggest difference when writing a videogame is that you have to account for player agency. Conversations will be different depending on the player’s actions and it takes a skilled writer to ensure the general flow of a conservation goes where it needs to in order to progress the story while remaining reactive. Also, game writing is all about dialogue: books must contain a narrative voice. I used to be a fan of RPGs that presented a narrative voice in dialogue, but these days I consider it indulgent and unnecessary.

Utilising a game’s systems to augment its narrative is one of the great advantages a game possesses. I’m a firm a believer in attaining a perfect synergy of the two. The best games can tell a story simply by the way they have the player interact with the world.