The Black Hound Interview

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Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Interplay Entertainment
Developer:Black Isle Studios
Release Date:Canceled
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
Sometime in 2000 or 2001, Black Isle Studios began development of a new Dungeons & Dragons RPG entitled "The Black Hound", though those of us who visited the Interplay forums on a regular basis knew the game by "Jefferson" or "FR6."  Sporting a made-from-scratch engine, the ill-fated title would eventually be "forced" to inherit the Baldur's Gate III name before finally being cancelled in 2003 when Interplay lost the rights to use the Baldur's Gate brand name. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into the title before its cancellation, though, so lead designer Josh Sawyer has taken it upon himself to resurrect it as a Neverwinter Nights 2 module. To learn more about the original incarnation of The Black Hound, as well as the upcoming module with the same name, we spoke directly to the source.

GB: It is largely believed that "Jefferson" and "FR6" were codenames used by Black Isle Studios to represent Baldur's Gate III: The Black Hound. Now that BIS is no longer in existence, are you able to confirm that BG3 was officially in development and that "The Black Hound" was going to be its subtitle?

Josh: The Black Hound was its working title when we stopped, with the "BG3" added on at the front because Interplay could only make PC D&D games with the names Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale in the title. It actually had nothing to do with the Baldur's Gate series.

GB: When did development of The Black Hound actually begin at Black Isle Studios and how large was the team working on it?

Josh: It's hard to remember exactly when it started, but I believe it was around late 2000 to early 2001. Development was concurrent with Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter, though only a very small team was working on The Black Hound during that period. In truth, TBH did not have a full development team until after the end of Icewind Dale 2.

GB: Why did Interplay ultimately decide to shut down The Black Hound? How much development time was left on the game at the time it was cancelled?

Josh: I'm not sure how much I can say definitively about why they shut down the project, but "coincidentally" Interplay lost the rights to use the Baldur's Gate brand name on PC immediately prior to canceling the project.

GB: Was the third installment going to continue the Child of Bhaal storyline in some manner? How did it pick up after the destruction (or absorption) of Bhaal's essence at the end of Throne of Bhaal?

Josh: For a while, TBH (which was internally called FR6 and externally called Jefferson) was a Baldur's Gate title, though the only things the project had in common with BG titles were a) a D&D ruleset b) the Forgotten Realms setting and c) a party of companions. The Baldur's Gate storyline and characters were never referenced.

GB: You've previously stated that the game was being built with an entirely new engine. Why did you not want to use the Infinity Engine that powered the first two BG installments? What enhancements would we have been treated to in this new engine?

Josh: The Infinity Engine was already being used quite extensively (to put it mildly) at Black Isle. We saw what BioWare was doing with Aurora, and we really wanted to make our own 3D engine that had better static lighting, more modular game rules, and a more extensible equipment system (among other things).

Our engine was over engineered in many ways, occasionally to our detriment. Our static lighting looked fantastic, but the pipeline for getting levels built and lit was very error prone. Our game logic was constructed very carefully to allow for virtually anything that D&D rules allow. On the Icewind Dale series, we were often blocked during implementation by engineering decisions that prevented us from implementing a given item, spell, special ability, etc. We really wanted to avoid that on TBH. But the process for building effect trees could be troublesome due to the sheer number of options.

On the graphics side of things, we had great character and "monster" customization systems. Without going into excessive detail, both systems allowed for a large amount of character variety. The monsters had it particularly good. On one of our mine levels, over 60 goblins populated the level and each one had a unique appearance, though the collective "goblin mesh" took up a relatively small memory footprint. The visual effects system was also powerful. Our artists created some truly spectacular visual effects for spells, weapons, and special attacks.

GB: You've recently decided to develop a Neverwinter Nights 2 module called The Black Hound. Does this new module represent some of the work you had done on Baldur's Gate III? What similarities and differences does it share with Jefferson?

Josh: It bears a lot of similarities in the plot, setting, main characters and overall design goals. Looking back, I don't think all of the decisions I/we were making on TBH were good ones. I have changed some aspects for personal taste and scope issues, but the core of the game should feel very similar. Some of the more significant changes are a reduction of the game area (which was larger than BG2 during core development on TBH), a revision of the story to be less convoluted, and the shifting of some character roles in the story.

GB: What is the premise surrounding The Black Hound? What will the overall objective be for the player and what areas of the Forgotten Realms will we travel through along the way?

Josh: The Black Hound catches the central character in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this case, the wrong place is south of White Ford, Archendale and the wrong time is the night when a woman tracks down and kills a black hound. The protagonist is a witness to this strange event and becomes entangled with the woman, May Farrow, through association. Many people and groups want information on May and they believe that the protagonist can help them get what they want.

The player has a pretty broad long-term goal: find May Farrow and deal with her. This can be accomplished with or without factions in the area and it can be accomplished by helping or hindering May in various ways. There are also numerous side stories and faction plotlines that have nothing to do with May Farrow's plot directly. Over the course of the game, the protagonist is likely to visit many points of interest in Archendale, Deepingdale, and Battledale. For the Realms-impaired, these are three of the southernmost regions of the Dalelands. They sit north of Sembia, southwest of the Moonsea, and northeast of Cormyr.

GB: Just how ambitious is The Black Hound in terms of length and depth? Could it potentially become a premium module for Neverwinter Nights 2 or would you prefer to see it free for any NWN2 fan interested in it?

Josh: It's pretty ambitious because of its sheer size and the scope of some of the character interaction mechanics. That said, I think most of the things I'm trying to do are pretty straightforward from a technical perspective. To be blunt, there's just a lot of stuff to do.

I'd rather not make it a premium module. I'm going to make a significant number of rule changes for the campaign and the tone I'm taking with many of the characters pushes the boundaries of what's acceptable for a T-rated product. I don't want to compromise on either of those things, even if it means the perceived quality of the campaign suffers.

GB: Have you hammered down any of the module's specifics, such as which NWN2 classes/prestige classes will be allowed, the introduction of any new items or spells, a potential level cap, or the number of companions available to join the player's party?

Josh: All standard base classes will be allowed (which excludes the warlock) and no prestige classes will be allowed. Characters will be allowed to reach 8th level, though 1st level characters will start out with a boost to their starting hit points. Many spells will probably be cut to sharpen the focus of the game, though I will almost certainly add a few personal favorites. There will also be a large number of unique items, including art objects and other items with purely monetary value.

There are currently eight companions on the list, though a few float on and off of that list as my opinion changes on their roles in the story.

GB: Who are the primary NPCs we'll be dealing with in the module and what is their agenda in regard to the protagonist? Any chance we might see a cameo or two from previous BIS/Obsidian games?

Josh: The main antagonist of the story (though she is herself the object of a massive hunt) is a human woman named May Farrow. May is the leader of a group of bandits that has been selectively attacking merchant routes across the southern Dalelands. The Archenriders and other groups have had a great deal of difficulty tracking her. Even the elves of Deepingdale can't follow her far into the Darkwatch. In the months prior to the beginning of the game, May has become reckless. The Archenriders have almost captured her on several occasions due to her apparent obsession with hunting down a black hound. Her success in this endeavor is the event that draws the protagonist into her nasty world.

The other major NPCs tend to be faction leaders that will try to either woo or hinder the protagonist. Stellaga Brightstar, high priestess of the church of Lathander, has a special interest in May. The Red Wizards of Thay, the Sembian Silver Ravens, and even the Malarite People of the Black Blood are also watching her movements very closely. The relationship of each group to May should hopefully surprise a lot of players.

GB: Tell us about the different factions in The Black Hound and how the player will become involved with and/or manipulated by them.

Josh: There are about eight different factions that have prominent roles in the game, with varying levels of interest in the central plot. Two that emerge very quickly are the Silver Ravens of Sembia and the Red Wizards of Thay. The former are ostensibly in Archenbridge to oppose the foundation of an enclave by the latter.

The Silver Ravens are a tricky group to deal with for a few reasons. Almost without exception, they have an insufferable level of nationalistic pride. They also run a wide gamut of moral and ethical boundaries. Some Silver Ravens are noble and forthright, others are incredibly despicable, and the rest fall somewhere in the middle. To use their own phrase, the Silver Ravens are a "tangled basket" -- often operating in an intricate and dizzying fashion, with various sub-groups being completely unaware of the goals and actions being taken by the others.

In contrast, the Red Wizards of Thay are sharply divided on their goals in the Dales. Beyond their interest in May Farrow, the enclave regularly quarrels about their political policy, trade agreements, and even how they present themselves in public. The official leader of the group is a reasonable young enchanter named Caed Marr. He is regularly opposed by an older invoker of the old "kill 'em all; let Kelemvor sort 'em out" school named Feul Zaddechar. Beneath these two figures are an array of wizards and slaves that have varying allegiances and levels of political concern. At least two of the wizards seem more interested in testing the insulating properties of rubber from a shocking grasp on a cat.

As for manipulation... if I told you how the protagonist was going to be manipulated by factions, that wouldn't be very much fun, would it?

GB: How much of a factor does good and evil play into the module? Will the player be free to play exactly what type of character he wants, regardless of how law-abiding or ruthless he wishes to be?

Josh: I doubt I can imagine exactly what type of character everyone wants to play, but there should be a pretty broad range between the saintliest of the goody two-shoes and the blood-soaked town murderer. If you want to lay low the population of Archenbridge, you will be allowed to do it and continue on with the main story. There are very few plot critical characters and none of the companions are required. Of course, many people will hate you if you're a scumbag, so be prepared.

GB: You're the only one working on The Black Hound at the moment, but given the fact that you work at Obsidian Entertainment there's obviously a lot of other talent you could potentially tap into. Have any other Obsidian developers offered to contribute to the project?

Josh: I regularly ask other people questions on how to do things, but no one has outright offered to leap onto the project.

GB: Out of curiosity, who currently owns the rights to develop Baldur's Gate III? What would it take for a developer to continue the franchise and do you personally think it will ever happen?

Josh: I am guessing, but I think that Atari has the rights to make an "actual" Baldur's Gate 3. If Atari wants to make it happen, I'm sure they can find someone to do it.

Thanks Josh!