Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Vault is Down. But Vault 2.0 is up!

Edit: And...the Old Vault is back up.  Apparently, this was a false alarm...but it's also a sign of times to come.  The Old Vault is basically done, and chances are that it will not be around much longer.  The future of the Neverwinter Nights modding community lies with and  It's time to migrate and say goodbye to the old vault.  The good news is that this gives the crew at Vault 2 a bit more time.


It finally happened.

Without warning, IGN finally pulled the plug on, shutting down the site around which the entire Neverwinter community revolved.  It really can't be undersold what a blow this is.  The Vault contained a near-complete archive of all content ever created for the two Neverwinter Nights games.

It's not all doom and gloom, however.  Rolo Kipp and his cohort have, over the past year, copied every single file off of the old Vault and onto their hard drives.  They've created a new site,, which will serve as a new place for the community to share files.  The old files aren't yet available, and it seems like there are all kinds of logistics to work out...but still, there's hope!  Kudos to those guys for making this happen, and many thanks to Rolo for also simultaneously maintaining the Vault for the past while.

The new Vault site has potential.  It has all of the old categories, and appears quite flexible in terms of handling new content.  It has project pages for modules, and a 1-10 voting system (I'd prefer 1-5, but this might allow them to import the old votes).  It doesn't seem quite as "slick" as the old vault, at least not yet, but that might get better...and changing skins to "Garland" (register and then choose the skin on the left-hand side) helped a lot, in my opinion.

For the time being, until the old archives reappear, this dramatically reduces my choices in terms of modules to download and play.  There are currently a total of five NWN2 modules available at, plus another 48 over at Neverwinter 2 Nexus.

The Nexus has really been improving a lot lately, and it's much easier now to find ways to sort based on module quality than it used to be.  I do wish there was a bit more nuance to a vote than simply endorsing it.  For example, I rated Shaar Moan as a "7" on the old Vault2 rating system.  So, do I give Shaar Moan an endorsement?  Probably.  But what if it was instead a 6, "qualified recommendation?"

Also, does anyone know what the "Vote" button does at Nexus?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Play by Post RPG's: Reflections after a year of gaming

A little over a year ago, I created an account at a site called dndonlinegames (now called to give play by post a try.  As a friend on that site has put it, my life is full of family, and so it is impossible at this point for me to schedule time for gaming with actual people around a table.  I was craving a gaming outlet pretty badly at the time, so I decided to give it a try.  It has been a fantastic experience, and has dominated my limited hobby time ever since.  Shortly after starting, I posted some first impressions about play by post.  Given that I've passed a year at this point, I thought I'd post some reflections.

What is play by post?

Play by post is the practice of playing RPG's like Dungeons and Dragons on an internet discussion board.  This video does a great job of summarizing what it's like to play at RPG Crossing:

How is it similar to playing around a traditional table?

In terms of the core of the game, play by post is very similar to traditional tabletop gaming.  The DM tells the story, which players can directly influence and shape.  We roll dice (using the forum's custom die-rolling plug-in) to determine outcomes when the DM requests it.  Players control their own characters.  They build their characters, maintain (online) characters sheets, describe their character's actions, and write (rather than speak) dialog.  Using attached images players and DM's wage battles, and if they use Google Docs Drawing, the players and DM's can each move their character tokens.

It's not some distant offshoot of transitional pen and paper gaming.  It *is* gaming.

How is it different?

Despite the similarities, the different medium makes for some particular differences.  Some of these are clear positives, and some are negatives that one has to deal with when playing these games.

Challenges to Play by Post

Play by Post is SLOW

This really is the big one.  I get really excited about gaming.  I want to play and play and play.  There are wonderful game concepts pitched every day at RPG Crossing, and I often want nothing more than to dive right into them.

The problem is that, because you're playing asynchronously with people from around the world, it's rare that one ever is able to post as a player (or even as a DM) more than once per day in a game.  Sometimes, it's more like once per week.  And sometimes, it's even less often than this.  Not only can this be maddening for the impatient--and I am a bit impatient--but it makes it hard to keep a game in your head from one week to the next.  If I don't take notes, I have a hard time remembering the names of the other PC's, much less the NPC's in the campaign (or even the main plot line!).

To illustrate the point, the game that I began last June, the New World, has been running continuously for over a year.  We've "recently" reached level 3, and just today I took my first combat turn as a level 3 character (I'm thinking that we've been through three or four combat encounters).  My own game, which is a tad more combat-oriented, has been running for 6 months, and my PC's are level 2 and have been through a total of 5 combat encounters.  And frankly, in both cases, the fact that we are at those levels is the result of a substantial amount of extra XP given for roleplaying.  Otherwise, we'd probably still be level 1!

The solutions I have for the pacing are twofold.  First, join more games.  The more you're in, the less slow each individual game feels.  Second, take lots of notes!  I don't do this as well as I should, and as I result I am sometimes scrolling through pages of old posts trying to find some detail from times past.  But when there is a quest, or there are important NPC, I try to jot them down in the notes section of my iplay4e character sheet.

Players disappear.  Games fizzle.

In large part because the games do run at a snail's pace, players will disappear.  And often times, it's without warning.  You'll be playing with someone for months, and then suddenly something will happen in their lives that leads to either a quick "I hope this is not farewell, but farewell" post, or, even more often, just silence.  In my game, six months old, despite doing a fairly extensive "background check" on each player to try to avoid disappearances, I lost two of my original seven players (and added one replacement).

Obviously, this can derail campaigns.  There's a temptation as a DM to make campaigns character-centric.  In fact, doing so might be rule 1 of DMing, and one of the best ways to engage one's players.  But if you build your campaign around a character, and that character leaves the game without warning, where does that leave you?  It's something that you always have to be prepared to handle in a play by post game.

Players aren't the only ones to disappear.  Just as often, it's the DM.  A lot of would-be DM's vastly underestimate the amount of time, effort, and commitment it will take to run an effective play by post campaign.  Or, they are prepared for it, but then experience a life change that changes their ability to commit time to a game.  I'm currently involved in five games, not including my own.  I've been involved in four other games that have crumbled because the DM disappeared.  In another, one of the two co-DM's disappeared within two weeks of the game getting off the ground, leaving the other to pick up the slack.

Game posts take time

Paradoxically, after you have waited for the game to come back to you, it often takes a substantial time commitment to make a good contribution to the game.  Sometimes, I can just sneak in with a quick post that will allow for a short response to the DM or other players.  When I can, though, I try to do at least two paragraphs.  Somewhere in there, I try to show how my character responds to what the players and the DM have just said, as well as to push something back for either the players or the DM to run with.

I type pretty fast.  But I don't compose quickly, and I'm not always the most creative person.  I'm probably slower than most, but it's not uncommon for me to spend a half-hour or more on a meaningful game post.

During combat, it's often easier to decide what my character will do.  But to do a good job of tracking my encounter powers (I use a "combat array" dashboard of sorts as an in-post character sheet), and to write evocative descriptions of combat, it still takes time.  It's fun, but it takes time.

Organization is critical

With players scattered all over the world, organization is really critical.  Players are responsible for keeping track of their characters' stats, loot, attributes, etc.  In a game like fourth edition, this is pretty critical, as combat can become quite complex.

And as a DM, it's even more important.  You can get away with just relying on player posts, but my own experience is that combat runs much more smoothly if a DM tracks not just the monsters, but also the players during the fight.  I maintain a fairly large page of tables and such during each encounter, and one of the things I have the hardest time remembering to do is to keep them updated.  But the players rely on those tables, as do I, to know what is happening during the combat.

Party coordination can be hard

At a table, the players can have a short conversation to decide what they want to do next in a matter of seconds.  In play by post, such conversations can take days to complete.  Add in a little bit of uncertainty that discourages players from chiming in, and you have a stalled game.

It really helps when a player or two takes the lead to keep the adventure moving.  As a result, I've been writing more and more of my characters to be leader-types of late.  Even my quiet ranger has become more assertive, helping to push the group forward when necessary (by actions if not by words).

Similar issues occur during combat.  Because each post tends to make up a turn, you have little opportunity to plan out strategy in advance, or even during combat.  Characters can shout back and forth from turn to turn, or players can make general suggestions to the party in the OOC forum (if the DM allows it).  But it nevertheless can be difficult to devise a coherent strategy in the middle of a fight.

On the other hand, one can see this as a benefit.  You certainly only rarely see players trying to directly influence the actions of other players at the table, which is all too common during pen and paper sessions in my experience.  Furthermore, outright metagaming is also often not a big issue.

Benefits to Play by Post

Roleplaying and Character Exploration

I first heard about play by post on the excellent Exemplary DM Podcast (which recently started releasing new episodes!), where it was described as largely a literary exercise.  While you will meet a lot of aspiring writers on play by post games, I have felt little pressure to try to become one.  And I am not a writer, nor do I have aspirations to become one.

At the same time, the medium of play by post demands that character posts be descriptive and evocative.  Otherwise, there's nothing really there to game with.  And in many ways, writing what your character says in third person (as is usually the custom) is far easier and less awkward for many of us than speaking your character's dialog out loud in a tabletop session.  As a result, very rarely do you see situations in which players are unable or unwilling to roleplay.  It doesn't take much: a paragraph or two, describing what your character does, along with a few lines of dialog, and you've made a useful contribution to the game.

Therefore, given this recent background, it's pretty hard to even relate when you hear tabletop DM complain about a lack of roleplaying at their table.  If there is one thing that the slow rate of the game tends to promote, it's introspection and exploration of one's character.  I think this is where the medium really shines--characters come to life in play by post more consistently than I've ever seen in a tabletop session.


While this might offend the purists, one thing that I really like about play by post gaming is the ability to easily add visuals to your games.  As a DM, including an image of an important building, scene, or NPC is as easy as uploading to photobucket and adding the appropriate tag to your image.  The medium is always going to be dominated by the written word, but visuals can really help bring a game to life.

Doing the same thing at a tabletop game either requires a) print-outs, or b) a laptop at the gaming table, ideally with a secondary, attached monitor.


When you walk away from a tabletop game after a session, the game exists only in your mind.  Some groups will try to take the time to write down what their group does in adventure logs, but this can be a time consuming and ultimately often thankless activity.  It certainly is also not one that lends itself to evocative writing--adventure logs tend to be pretty dry, point-by-point descriptions of what happened at a session.

In contrast, in play by post, every post contributes to the story of the adventure.  And those posts are essentially permanent.  As a result, a year later, you can go back and read an adventure almost as a novel.  And there are some folks who actually do this!  I've had at least one lurker who drops by my game and reads the wonderful stuff that my players have written.

Lessons learned

Play by post gaming has been a wonderful addition to my life over the past year.  It has given me a wonderful creative outlet and brought a lot of fun into my life.  It is not without its challenges, but my experience has been that there are tremendous rewards to getting involved in play by post games.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Book mini-review: Sea of Swords by R.A. Salvadore

I've gotten back into reading over this past year, thanks in large part to my picking up the Path of Darkness book collection on a whim at a public library sale while attending a wedding in Milwaukee last August.  It cost me a buck.  I've read this collection of four novels in fits and starts ever since, and have read three other fantasy novels over that time.  But while I still am not overly fond of Drizzt the character, the supporting cast in Salvadore's books is strong, the pace is fast, and the action is terrific.  I'm sure that they are not fine literature, and there's no question that they are full of cliches and tropes.  But they are fun.  And that, in the end, is really what it's all about for me!

So...I thought I'd try my hand at penning a short book review over at goodreads.  And, since I'm writing it there, I figured that I should post it here as well!

I really enjoyed the Sea of Swords as the conclusion to the Paths of Darkness collection.  This fourth book in that series is an action packed adventure that sees most of the key story lines that began in the first three come to a satisfying conclusion.  We see Wulfgar, who decides to come to terms with his demons, and ultimately chooses to go on a quest to reunite with the Companions of the Hall.  Furthermore, we see those same companions set off on a quest to recover Wulfgar's enchanted craghammer, Aegis-fang.  We also meet new characters.  Sheila Kree, the pirate captain who purchased the stolen hammer earlier in the series.  Bellany, a powerful sorceress who works for Kree and a former companion of Morik the Rogue.  And we meet Le'lorinel, an elven assassin who has made it a life's mission to hunt down and kill Drizzt.

The book is full of action and adventure, punctuated by excellent character interaction.  There aren't a lot of major surprises, but there are a few--enough to keep you on your toes and turning pages.  The remarkable thing to me is just how satisfying the book, and the Paths of Darkness series as a whole, managed to be.  Between the Servant of the Shard and the Sea of Swords, virtually all of the major plot lines are brought to a close (one way or another!).  Though he obviously did not, Salvadore could have walked away from Drizzt novels at the end of this book, and I don't think anyone would have complained.  It's not that there isn't anywhere for these characters to go or develop.  As someone who has not read much of his subsequent work, I can imagine grand adventures to come for all of the (surviving) characters.  But the immediate concerns have largely been resolved, freeing these characters to venture into new adventure.  It was a fast and very enjoyable read.

While I am doubtful that I will read much of the intervening work, I am greatly looking forward to reading The Companions when released in August.  The sample chapter on Wizards' site, which I assume to be Drizzt's opening reflections, seems to pull heavily from the events in the series that I just completed.  It looks like I chose a great place to sample this vast storyline!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Module comments: Misery Stone by BouncyRock Entertainment

Not that I really do formal reviews anymore, but I did not finish this module so this will be even less formal (and I am not going to vote having probably seen less than half of the mod).  Still, it's interesting enough to talk about...

The mists of Ravenloft roll in!
I downloaded Misery Stone in hopes of continuing the journey of a level 10 warlock that I had, but at the recommendation of the readme I ended up taking along a melee character.  I originally created him for Avendale: a ranger that I geared toward combating undead as I leveled him up to 9 for this module.  I wanted to be prepared!

I ended up not finishing it.  It's not that it's a bad module.  In a lot of ways, it's really exceptional.  But I also found it both frustrating and arduous to play through, and ended up throwing up my hands and archiving the saved game.  

First, the good.  This is one of the two most cinematic modules I've seen (the other being Harp and Chrysanthemum, which was built by Misery Stone contributor Maerduin).  I have passing familiarity with Ravenloft, and the module's depiction of how your character comes to enter the mists in this module is nothing short of brilliant.  The module is very well written, with a trio of wonderful NPC's that accompany you on your journey through the land of hopelessness and darkness.  It is also scary as hell; the pacing, especially early on, is extremely well done.  The tension of exploring dark places where terrible horrors had been committed is allowed to build until it is finally punctuated by a dramatic fight with monsters.  Horror elements are also deftly employed.  A personal favorite was a village of the mostly dead, where people had been turned into doomed, semi-mechanical beings designed to perish as they delivered verbal messages.  There's also just oddness, like the strange gnome merchant who will give you magical items in exchange for random, but sentimental artifacts that you find as you explore.  It was great stuff!

A quiet town...except for the man in the street who
is still twitching from the pitchfork he took to the chest.
So what went wrong?  Well, part of it is just my sensibilities: I'm not a fan of horror, mostly, and I'm not really a fan of Ravenloft for those reasons.  But it's also the case that as the module progressed, it became far more of a hack 'n slashy series of dungeon crawls.  You essentially travel the map, carving up dungeons as you go, fighting off all manner of undead, goblinkin, and other nasties that will invariably ambush you repeatedly both indoors and outdoors.  There were a lot of ambushes: the kind of "Chewie they're behind you!" things where you walk over a floor trigger and a group of monsters spawns right next to the most vulnerable member of your party.  I can deal with this happening occasionally--say once or twice per module.  But it seemed to happen a LOT in this module, and it got old.  Maybe it's because I was playing a ranger (NWN2's "tracking" feature can have some nasty unintended consequences), but I was extremely aware of the monster spawn triggers as I moved through these dungeons, and it really hurt my sense of immersion.  The dungeons could have been a lot better if a bit more history was injected into them, but many of them (as the game went on) were nothing but a place full of monsters and a magic item or two.

Yep...that's a dead woman taking a bath in blood.
On top of that, the combat seemed inconsistent in difficulty.  Some fights were pretty easy.  But others, despite being a fairly minor skirmish, were very difficult.  The final straw, for me, was facing down an undead caster who summoned an elder water elemental as his first action.  The thing carved up my party (my ranger was a decent tank--I pumped his AC as high as I could, and added all kinds of buffing spells to boost it further), and I couldn't figure out a good counter for it.  It was far too high of a level to be susceptible to hold monster, it had no unsummoning spells.  I probably could have come up with something if I kept at it, but I was already pretty frustrated with the module.

Area design is really beautiful.  But with that beauty came a cost: the camera was annoying and very frustratingly obstructed as I worked through the module.  The forest, in particular, was full of these amazing trees...but as a result, I often couldn't see anything on my screen!  It was maddening.  Even some of the dungeons, which are typically cleaner in NWN2, were sometimes full of pillars and such that made it hard to keep an eye on my characters.  

The opening is incredibly cinematic.
So, for now at least, I'm moving on to something else.  I'm glad that I played it and experienced its beginning.  Reading the comments page, it does sound as though the end of the module was a bit rushed anyway, and so I might well have seen the best parts of it.  It's an extremely impressive module...but in the end, it probably was just not for me.

More screenshots below the jump.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Baldur's Gate Reloaded is out!

Guessing, but I think I'm right: Fighting two ogres as the party
approaches the Gnoll Stronghold
Earlier this week, Drew Rechner and Shallina released Baldur's Gate Reloaded.  This NWN2 conversion of the original game has been a recurrent feature on this blog, and I've been following their progress off and on since 2007.  It's amazing to me that 6 years later, the module has finally been released!

They're off to an amazing start, too.  They've gotten just shy of 45,000 downloads since the release, which is nothing short of incredible.  By way of comparison, Trinity, which I just finished and is a very well-regarded module and has been out since 2010, has received 6,199 downloads.  The Maimed God Saga has received over 4,000 downloads.  My own little utility module, the FRW Character Creator, which was released in 2007, and thus available during the height of the NWN2 player community and made the hall of fame, has received a bit over 23,000 downloads.  So...45,000 downloads in a week?  Wow!

A tremendous congratulations to the BG Reloaded team for releasing their game.  Given that I just finished the original a couple of days ago, I'm probably not going to jump right into the game again.  But it might be something that I do as BG2: Enhanced Edition inches toward release. :)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Review: Shaar Moan

My character: level 10 warlock, got about half way to level 11.
Time Played: 2 hrs

Shaar Moan is a pretty fun little module.  It is a basic, unapologetic dungeon delve.  You encounter a man fleeing from authorities along the road, and volunteer to help clear his name by eliminating the undead threat that he inadvertently caused.  There is one outdoor area, and your are instructed upon entering the dungeon that there would likely be three levels.  In fact, you are even told what kinds of enemies (all undead) one should expect to find on each floor.  There is a minor mystery and story underlying the dungeon, and some humorous elements scattered throughout (especially near the end).  It was enough to make it fun.

Combat was generally challenging and fun, if a bit inconsistent.  Perhaps it was due to the specific guard I took along (I took Bruiser), or the fact that I was playing a warlock, but the first floor's combat was the most challenging for my group.  Subsequent floors were far less of a problem.  Every floor featured custom monsters, however, which were varied and interesting.  There were also a lot of loot drops.  In fact, it is something of a monty haul, although I will say that at least all of the equipment is level-appropriate.  There's just a lot of it!

Overall, it was a fun little romp.  My score: 7 - Very good, deserves a look.

Warning: Major spoiler screenshot below the jump!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Review: Trinity

Welcome to class!
My character: Chellise Patson, level 8 human warlock
My score: 10 - A Masterpiece, Genuinely Groundbreaking

Lord Falconhand of Shadowdale has put out a call for help: a madman bent on putting all of the Dalelands underfoot is seeking untold power in Soloria, the great, abandoned school of wizardry.  You have been chosen, along with four others, to adventure to these lost ruins, put a stop to his ambitions, and secure any artifacts that you find for the greater good of the Dalelands.

So begins a fantastic adventure by E.C. Patterson.  Trinity is, in many ways, a shining example of what the NWN2 toolset can do.  It is a relatively short, but nevertheless extremely satisfying adventure that combines overland adventure and grand combat with a fascinating dungeon delve (or two!).  Throughout the adventure, Patterson combines spectacular visuals and music with excellent pacing to deliver gripping atmosphere. 

Dining hall.  Love the statue work in the background.
The heart of this module is the primary dungeon, which is designed as an abandoned school of wizardry.  It is flat out one of the best dungeons I've ever experienced.  As Tiberius has often said (and in some ways has been echoed by Benoit), the best dungeons have a story of their own.  They're about more than just a death trap for heroes.  They should have their own reason for being.  Abandoned public buildings, or in this case, a school, makes for a really interesting place to adventure.  As you explore, you encounter dining halls, classrooms, libraries, and more.  A real highlight was when one of the undead living there mistakes you for a student.

On top of all of this, the author gives you a lot of meaningful choices throughout the module.  Some of these involve providing different paths to a given destination.  This is done via some wonderful scripting, and sometimes these non-combat challenges are as scary and dangerous as the actual fighting.  In other cases, you get to make meaningful choices that not only can dramatically impact how you experience the module, but they can ultimately lead to very different outcomes to the story.  That several of these choices do not have black and white, "good" or "bad" (or even "lawful" vs. "chaotic") sides makes them all the more enjoyable.

(minor spoiler) Fantastic bit of flavor with the rogue
character as he looks through the abandoned
wine collection
The companions also deserve a mention.  They are each distinctive, and in some ways all of them are both likable and detestable.  With the possible exception of the cleric (who might have been a bit underdeveloped), I really enjoyed that each had his or her own motivation for going on this adventure, all of which play prominently in in the module by the end.  I also liked that, mechanically, none were really outstanding characters.  The fighter for example, brings a 15 natural strength into the module.  This can be boosted by items and leveling, but she's definitely not going to mow down enemies for you--you'll need to provide support.

The combat was fun, and you as the player have a lot of control in how challenging it was.  I opted to play through most of it in "Normal" mode, which allowed for unlimited rest and (of course) no friendly fire on spells.  This didn't make the encounters cake-walks, exactly, but I am sure that it did make them dramatically easier.  I ended up resting 7 times, which I'd guess is more than twice as often as I would have.  Furthermore, I brought an 8th level warlock into the game with me, which was definitely at the high end of what is suggested.  That said, while she was an asset, especially against individual monsters, she did not feel massively overpowered.  Despite all of that, I still had characters knocked unconscious during the game, and combat was exciting enough to get me perked up in my seat on multiple occasions.

Beautifully rendered outdoor environments
Overall, this is a really outstanding module.  It's really a shining example of a beautifully crafted dungeon delve.  It doesn't try to do too much or be too much.  Instead, it focuses on telling a good story and providing an interesting environment in which characters can adventure.  In a lot of ways, if I were to try to write a real NWN2 module, this is exactly the type of module that I would hope to be able to create (and no doubt would fall far short of).  So for that, I'm giving it full marks: 10/10 - A Masterpiece, Genuinely Groundbreaking.

More screenies after the jump...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Review: Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition

I purchased the original Baldur's Gate shortly after it was published in 1998.  I was in college at the time, and I ended up spending a substantial portion of the following semester battling all manner of denizens along the Sword Coast.  It was my first real exposure to Dungeons and Dragons, and I loved tromping across the countryside, exploring, completing quests, and making enemies explode on critical hits.

I never finished the game, though.  I played it hard and fast, and pushed myself to keep playing as I approached the endgame despite feeling some fatigue with the game.  Just a few short encounters before the final fight with Serevok, I entered The Maze below the Thieves' Guild and ran into a tough encounter with a couple of skeleton warriors.  They were pretty jazzed up skeleton warriors in this case, shooting lighting arrows or somesuch, and were protected by three traps that pulverized me if I tried to rush them (and the arrows killed Imoen when I asked her to disable them!).  The fight was so frustrating that I decided to take a break from the game.  I moved on to Fallout 2 (IIRC), and I never came back to it.** 

**As an aside, and perhaps as a fine demonstration of my relative lack of skill with games and thinking, it didn't occur to me until years later to get those skeletons to chase me back up the hallway.  And yeah, that worked rather well this time around!

Fast forward to 2012, and Beamdog released Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition.  Updated to run well on modern computers, including a very welcome ability to zoom out and see more than the default 640x480 view (I heart this!), I dove back into this adventure when it was released with great zeal.  Now, here it is June, and I finally finished.  Games requiring 100+ hours of time don't fit as well into my schedule as they used to!

My playthrough this time around largely reinforced my opinions of the original game.  It's a great game, and it really shines during the first half to two-thirds of the game when you can spend your time exploring each little area of the sword coast.  It's very free-form, and every area has at least a few simple little quests, mini-dungeons, etc.  I often could work through one area per evening, and it was just a delightful way to spend some gaming time.  The plot is quite good, too--a political and economic scheme that takes on ever deeper, and ever more personal meaning.  I don't remember thinking much of it during my first go-around, but I found it really compelling this time.

I think the game works very well until you finally are able to enter the great city of Baldur's Gate.  ... and at that point, both during this playthrough, as well as in my first time, that's where the game's magic sort of faded.  The city is quite large, but as I explored the city it ended up feeling kind of empty.  There were sidequests all over the place, but somehow they weren't enough to make it all seem to fit together.  The fact that pretty much all of the shops just sold junk didn't help.  Neither did the large wall that ran through the city, which was authentic but nevertheless was extremely frustrating when the area loaded with you on the wrong side of the wall.  Maybe there just wasn't enough fighting, and the XP given for quests just wasn't enough to keep my characters progressing.  I don't know--it's hard to put my finger on what went wrong, but something clearly didn't work for me.

Part of the problem was that by that point, I really just wanted to get on with the story.  As a result, I tried to be pretty direct about my actions at this point. Nevertheless, the story jumps around a bit in this stage in the game, and there were some minor consistency issues which broke the immersion for me (e.g. the fact that there was a huge Iron Circle Headquarters building in the middle of town was awfully surprising--prior to arriving in the city, it was depicted as a secretive organization).

Metagaming!  Don't want to trigger Sarevok's
conversation too soon!
The combat throughout was pretty fun, mostly.  The game is generally pretty easy, but is punctuated by pretty extreme difficulty that seemed to jump up at me unexpectedly in places (see the random skeleton battle mentioned above).  Part of this is the nature of low-level 2nd edition D&D--you get missed a lot, but when you finally get hit it HURTS!  I do think that the final battle to end the game also deserves some mention.  There, in order to make it possible to succeed, I found that I had to do a lot of metagaming: exploring the room step by step, trying to lure enemies one by one, toying with the A.I. to the extent that is possible, etc.  Still, in scouring the #1 piece of information that helped me is this: Sarevok may resist most spells, but he is still susceptible to magic missile.  My fighter/wizard and Imoen provided all of the damage, while Minsc and Ajantis ran around distracting him, engaging and disengaging to keep Serevok busy.  It wasn't very artful or heroic, but it worked.  I don't need the game to reward me for just charging in guns blazing.  Nevertheless, no matter what your strategy, I honestly don't think it's possible to win that fight by engaging in all of the enemies simultaneously as the story would intend.

All in all, though, it was a fun experience to play through BG again.  I don't miss second edition D&D in the least, and I really do think that the game becomes something of a slog from the moment you enter Baldur's Gate.  But the free and open, yet still organized exploration possible in the first half of the game, along with the surprisingly fulfilling plot make this game well worth the play.  I give it a 4/5.