You bring the chips, I'll bring the vorpal blade, +2 vs. girls.
If you're reading this preview, chances are you've at one point or another been huddled around a table with a few dorky friends rolling a d20. The time, place and faces change, but the plan is always the same: when in doubt, cast a Magic Missile.
You can make a pretty strong argument that modern computer gaming was built upon foundations laid by the masterminds of pen and paper role-playing games. Though hardly a household name, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax rivals Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas as the true father of the current generation of geeks. For every Tribble that gave us Trouble, there were at least 20 orcs, a red dragon and a gelatinous cube that almost killed our wizard, Galstaff the Funky.
Wow. That was the nerdiest sentence I've ever typed. I can just see the jocks lining up to give me a galactic wedgie. Be gentle - I bruise easy.
But since I am among friends and since every single one of you knows exactly what I'm talking about, I can't very well stop now. Allow me to introduce you to what is shaping up to be the most impressive computer translation of pen and paper role-playing ever: Neverwinter Nights.
In a world quickly being dominated by massively multiplayer role-playing chatrooms, ahem, games, NWN drags the very concept of the modern RPG back to its horn-rimmed roots by its magical collar of regeneration, +2 vs. evil. In a nutshell, it's traditional D&D played across the Internet or LAN in small groups.
You've got a Dungeon Master, you've got 3rd edition D&D rules, you've got a party made up of a few friends, you've got user-created modules and weapons and you've got an incredible map editor. Now just get some Tab and some Fritos and WHAMMO! - 1983 all over again. Except this time, you're not forced to imagine everything.
The graphical engine powering NWN (dubbed 'Aurora') is simply amazing. Dynamic lighting leads to torches that cast lifelike shadows. Characters are detailed - when they switch weapons and armor you actually see it on the model. From the plethora of monsters to the gorgeous particle effects, NWN brings D&D to life in untold ways.
The real fun that pen-and-paper gaming offers is found in the close-knit camaraderie between the party members and the Dungeon Master. Somewhere along the way, this got lost in the shuffle of massively multiplayer gaming and enhanced single player games like Baldur's Gate, which allows one person to manage a whole party.
The point of NWN is to bring that living room feeling back into the mix. Of course, it's a little trickier than it sounds, since building a game module and operating it seems like a monstrous chore. However, the folks at Bioware have developed an intricately detailed yet suprisingly intuitive level editor that gives endless creative power to the DM.
Want to build a kick-ass dungeon romp? Then just drag and drop different sized rooms into the handy little window. Want to populate it with monsters? Click away. Even want to drop some treasure in certain spots to reward your buddies for beating a particularly ornery Troglodyte? Go nuts.
Actually, you really can go nuts when you consider the depth. You can actually build magical weapons and armor using a huge variety of skins. You can design a magical bastard sword (+3 vs. zombies), give it a name (Braineater), choose a blade and hilt (including graphical spell effects like frost or flame), then drop it in your map where it can be discovered by the player characters. Just make sure you throw in some zombies so they will actually use the damn thing.
The madcap customization doesn't stop at items - you can even tweak creature AI to help set the tone of the adventure. You can set behaviors, including specific movements and tendencies, or even script dialogue for every creature and NPC. The geekier you get, the better the game.
And to top it off, as a DM you can jump into any creature or player and flex your divinity. You have ultimate power over the entire adventure, from the general difficulty (a nifty difficulty 'slider' will be included to alter the overall challenge on the fly) to specific conversations. If the party is getting too randy for your tastes, then go ahead and spawn in a Storm Giant to lay the smack down for a few minutes. Pesky mortals shouldn't mess with a god.
While the game is really built for small groups of adventurers, one server will be able to support up to 64 players at once, which could open up an adventure to outrageous drama. Just enlist the aid of your high school Thespian society and watch as your little journey takes on Shakespearean proportions (okay, that might be a bit much, but you get the drift).
NWN will also come with a full-fledged single-player game, so you'll have plenty to do while you're trying to gather together the old crew for an organized adventure.
Needless to say, Neverwinter Nights is sitting firmly atop our wish list. With its impressive combination of technological innovations and sheer old-school fun, this could easily be the Next Big Thing. At the very least, it will surely ruin my already failing social life. Now where did I put my Monster Manual?