Monday, August 11, 2014

Saleron's Gambit 3

A return to the Copper Coronet of Baldur's Gate 2
Last night, I finished up Saleron's Gambit 3.  This module was one that I reviewed for the old vault review guild.  It was also one of the modules that I think really spurred the Overlooked Modules Project.  It was an early submission to that project by a player who championed it, and I don't think it's an overstatement to say that the Overlooked Modules Project as well as my review were important in helping this series gain enough momentum to really take off.  Of course, it's the quality of the modules that ultimately led to their success.

In any case, since it's no longer available except by, below the fold is my review of Saleron's Gambit 3.  It's glowing.  I think I largely agree with the assessment after this play-through, although this time I thought the dialog was occasionally written a bit over the top.  The character descriptions he provided, however, are still second to none.  

It's Alro's Curiosity Shoppe!
It was a blast to play it again; it's been long enough that I'd pretty much forgotten everything!  This time around, I'm playing as a bard, which is a great fit for the module.  Given that there is such minimal magical equipment, the bard's magical abilities--and especially his song--really gets a chance to shine.  I'm not sure he's my preferred bard design.  This one is a 14 str, 14 dex character, and wears a breastplate that he has to pull off whenever he casts a spell.  As a result, all of his casting is dedicated to buff spells, because he can't be pulling his armor off mid-combat.  I think I'll try a bard at some point that tries to just go with robes (or at least light armor) and ranged combat.  That said, in Saleron's Gambit 3, unless you can open your own locked doors, you're probably taking the rogue NPC.  As a result, you really do need to be your own tank, which makes my character fit pretty well as-is.

It's a trap!
Created by Tiberius209 
Reviewed by Berliad
Review Posted on 2005-11-26

Quick Pros:
low gold, low magic, and low xp game world; superb writing; excellent roleplaying; nonlinear main story and side quests.

Quick Cons:
low gold, low magic, and low xp game world; one minor weakness in plot; henchmen interaction "only" slightly above average.

Summary (No Spoilers)

Number of Players: 1
Hours of Game Play: 6 hrs 
Character: lv 3 fighter, brought in from previous chapters
Start Level: 3
End Level: 5
Hak Size: Small hak (43k) included in module download, plus two music packs (20 mb and 18 mb), as well as two vault hakpacks (3.8 mb and 395k)
Death: no respawn (usually...). Henchmen are knocked out at 1 hp, and must be revived with a potion, healing kit, or spell.
Resting: unrestricted, but potential for ambushes while sleeping (I found that this rarely happened). Very limited health restoration when resting; it seems as though it is primarily available for spellcasters.
Requires: SoU/HotU v.1.65, CEP 1.51
Module Version Played: v.1.01, released 9 July 2005.

Saleron's Gambit, Ch 3, is an absolute gem of a module. It features extraordinarily well-scripted dialogs and quests that emphasize roleplaying, adventure, and nonlinear gameplay. It also contains a great deal of custom content, as well as much novel scripting of fundamental game systems. In a sea of modules that often seem all too familiar, this one is unique. And it's a blast to play.

Author Description (Spoilers for first two chapters):

After your adventures in Silverymoon, Saleron has transported you halfway across Faerun to Athkatla, the City of Coin. There, he tasks you with locating the final member of the trio bound by the blood oath of your parents decades before - a blood oath that binds each of your fates to that of the demonic sword, Hywelbane.

Now you have only her name and a single contact, scant clues that lead you into the slums of Athkatla, an area under the de facto rule of the treacherous Shadow Thieves led by the shadowy figure, Aran Linvail. Yet all is not what it seems at first. The Guild, already staggering from a recent war with a powerful rival guild, now threatens to totally collapse under the weight of internal fighting, a development that threatens the incredibly fragile stability of the slums. What follows is a tale of political intrigue as you struggle to navigate the Guild's politics and locate the one woman who can free you from the curse of your birth. Whom can you trust? Where is the woman you search for? And what is the secret behind the infighting that threatens to engulf the Guild?

A continuation of chapters 1 and 2. For characters level 3, may advance as high as 5th level.

Review (Small Spoilers)

It rarely happens, but every once in a while you play a module that really surprises you. Thus far, the Saleron's Gambit series has generally flown beneath the radar of most vault users. As I write this, none of the three modules has reached 1000 downloads, and the three chapters have received 6, 8, and 6 total votes, respectively, despite the fact that the first chapter was released over a year ago. Regardless of its relative obscurity, this series is among the most original and well-executed module series that I've encountered on NWVault.

The story is solid with some great twists and turns. This review is focused on the third module; nevertheless, because the previous two modules were not reviewed, I will provide a brief account of the backstory leading into chapter 1. You grew up an orphan in a small village under the "care" of your cruel uncle. It's a Harry Potter/Cinderella sort of existence – you are subjected to the worst of the menial labor on your uncle's farm, which invariably involves cleaning up after his livestock. Your life changes, however, when a mysterious wizard, Saleron, appears in the local inn and offers you 50 gp (an enormous sum to a stable boy) to explore a nearby ruined castle and retrieve an artifact.

By the third chapter, my character had already put many adventures behind him, leaving behind his small home town and eventually traveling to Athkatla, the City of Coin. The story has progressed steadily and is becoming more and more interesting with each module. Chapter 3 proceeds in three parts. The first part amounts to a fairly linear, though enjoyable, dungeon crawl/puzzle solving adventure, but the second part opens up the module and returns to the nonlinear style of the previous two chapters. There are multiple paths via which one can proceed in the main plot. Furthermore, there are a wonderful variety of side quests that one can undertake, some of which are quite involved.

The writing is superb. When you meet each major character, you are given a detailed description of their appearance and mannerisms, many of which are extremely vivid and creative (see "Fred" screenshot for an example). Different characters have different styles of speech, each has their own motivations, and most are memorable and well realized. The most impressive thing about the dialog, however, is the associated scripting. The class(es), attributes, and skills that make up a character play a large role in determining what dialog options and other tidbits are available to him or her. For example, my character has reasonably decent intelligence (int 12), and was able to reason out a solution to a relatively easy puzzle, but was not able to get the dialog option to "solve" one of the harder puzzles later in the game (how often do a character's attributes, rather than strictly a player's cleverness, factor into whether or not a character can reason through a puzzle?!). In another case, my character, who has decent lore skill, was granted some dialog options to discuss things that he had read in the past as they apply to situations that arise in the module. Looking in the toolset, the author has checks for sexes, classes, alignment, intelligence, wisdom, charisma, and all three charisma-based skill options. Also, it is worth mentioning that the ability to brew potions or craft equipment could prove useful in this series.

An advantage to setting this module in Athkatla was that the author was able to make numerous references to the happenings of Baldur's Gate II. In fact, some of the areas in this module come directly from that game, including a faithful recreation of the Copper Coronet the sewers beneath it. There are also many references to characters and places from that game, and even a few cameo appearances. These references really serve to enrich the game experience, and mesh beautifully with the many original areas and characters created by this author.

Beyond the overall quality of its execution, this module has a number of interesting design features that make for a unique experience. First and foremost, this is a low xp, low gold, and low magic world. Entering this module, I had already invested roughly 12 hours into this series, and my character was about halfway through level 3 with about 80 gp in his pocket. He was wielding an ordinary, non-magical longsword, a standard tower shield, and wearing simple banded mail (this was actually quite well equipped relative to NPC's you encounter in game). He had no magical items to speak of, save for a ring he inherited from his father. This has made for a whole new economy. Picking up discarded longswords you find on bodies becomes worthwhile, because selling one can net you 12 gp – a decent sum in this game! Gold does pick up a little bit in this module compared to previous chapters; I was finally able to purchase a suit of half-plate mail near the end of the mod, which cost a hefty 450 gp. Nevertheless, I'm still wielding the same old sword and shield I acquired in chapter 2. Fortunately, while magical items are difficult to come by, potions are relatively cheap – a cure medium wounds potion costs only 15 gp. Nevertheless, when you only have 200 gp on you, a pack of 10 of these potions can be difficult to afford. I found the overall balance of the economy to be just about right; I always had enough gold for the potions and other gear I needed, but I was never able to build up any substantial savings.

This balance also translated well in the combat. While not a hack and slash module, there is a fair bit of combat in this module, some of which you'll have to face without the aide of a henchman. Monsters are rarely numerous; in fact, this module demonstrates how effective quiet, empty spaces can be in building suspense for the player. However, many foes you'll encounter pack a significant wallop, requiring caution on the part of the player. The henchmen that are available (there are three, though you can only get up to two of them during any one play through) are effective and helpful in combat, and at times contribute to conversations or provide hints on puzzles.

Many of the side quests are uncovered using a novel "gather information" skill check. When you enter a public area, like a pub or a marketplace, your character has the opportunity to gather information, and his/her success is based on a d20 + (bluff + intimidate + persuade)/3 check. If you are successful, you'll be treated to a rumor, which can lead to a side-quest. I played a somewhat nontraditional fighter in that I used decent intelligence, charisma, and feats to boost my persuade skill, which did result in my character hearing most, though not all, of the available rumors. The themes of the side quests are fairly standard fare: there are assassination quests, item retrieval quests, or explore mysterious area quests. But their execution is terrific; all have surprising twists, and they always feel original and creative. Like the main quest, many of these side quests can unfold in multiple ways depending on the character's decisions or even rolls of the dice.

Another innovative system used in this module is its alignment shift system. Briefly, the module stores many of your decisions over the course of the module. At the end of the module, these are compiled and the alignment shift is applied to your character. Good deeds tend to move you towards good, however the magnitude of this shift depends on your current alignment; good characters do not receive much (if any) boost towards good when they act in character, but can receive a dramatic shift toward evil if they start acting as such. The lawful/chaotic axis is treated in a similar manner. It's a really cool system that will require a paladin or a monk, for example, to act in character, as it will be difficult to atone for evil or chaotic alignment shifts. However, it has some drawbacks. I began my character as true neutral, but I've generally played him as a neutral good character and the module has indicated that my decisions are causing a shift in that direction. Nevertheless, over all three modules, I've netted 1 pt towards good and 1 pt towards lawful (both in the second module). It seems that this system's primary effect, therefore, is to cause characters to move toward neutrality. This is offers tremendous freedom to a druid, it makes roleplaying a monk or paladin bit more difficult.

My critiques are very minor. There is one part of the module in which I felt the plot was a little bit weak. Aside from that point, however, the story is engaging, full of twists, and is believable. I noticed two very small bugs related to one of my henchman, and only one typo…which is pretty remarkable, given that the author has stated that this module contains roughly 70,000 words of dialog. I also thought that, while the henchman interaction that is present is good, there could have been more times when the henchmen would speak up. Furthermore, nothing really happens to the henchmen in this module. It would be nice if they had their own quests and character development. I'm relaying all of these quibbles to the author.

Visuals : 8

This module is quite visually engaging. The module makes use of the DOA City Rural Gloomy Reskin and the NWAlleys hakpack to make a very convincing slums district. It's cramped, dreary, full of shady people, and never quite felt comfortable. Overall area design is good. Areas are all of appropriate size and show creative design. I was particularly fond of the dungeon areas early in the module. CEP placeables are used appropriately throughout the module, and several CEP creatures make appearances (see Alro's Curiosity Shop screenshot). Standard HotU skyboxes are present in exterior areas.

Sound : 8

The author includes a custom soundtrack of 21 songs in the module, all of which are used to great effect in the more important areas in the game. This music really sets the tone in some of the more tense areas in the game, and the author effectively shifts music during dramatic scenes. Great attention is also paid to placeable sounds throughout the module, though I sometimes did find the ambient noises in the slums district to be a bit loud (I won't miss listening to the gentlemen say "Yes it has, yes it has...she's up and about...Mmm, glad to hear it" every time I enter the slums district).
Gameplay : 9

The gameplay is unique and very well executed. The setting draws upon the rich background of the Baldur's Gate II series, as well as more general Forgotten Realms lore. The module has a solid story with well-written and heavily scripted dialog, colorful NPC's, and nonlinear gameplay. The module includes several custom game systems (resting, alignment shifts, gather information checks), which, along with its low xp, low gold, and low magic economy, result in the module having a very distinctive feel.

Replayability : 8.5

There are multiple paths by which one can proceed through this module. The path your character experiences will depend not only on your decisions, but also on your character's class, attributes, skills, feats...and a few rolls of the dice on the part of the author. It's rare for a module to provide this many options that enhance replayability. Reading through the walkthrough, I learned that there were several areas and quests that I missed out on the first time through because of the approaches I took in this module. I will almost certainly play through this entire series again with a different character. Given the low magic world, I'd be interested to see how a druid or cleric would fare – though I'm also curious to see how an arcane magic user would stack up against the challenges

Documentation : 8

Excellent readme with detailed installation instructions (important given the multiple *.hak and *.bmu files), backstory, detailed acknowledgements, and some interesting discussion of the source material the author used – it is clear that a great deal of research went into the creation of this module. Also included is a very detailed walkthrough. While it will probably not be necessary to refer to the walkthrough while playing, it is a fascinating read once you've completed the module – I was surprised to learn how many rolls and checks happened behind the scenes that altered the course of the module. Journal entries are well used and provide useful hints to the player at certain points in the module, and map pins are present when appropriate.

Roleplaying quality : 8.5

High marks here. You could play this module as a rough 'em up-type, or you could play it as a noble do-gooder, and you'd always have a legitimate motivation for pursuing the main quest. Your character's class, skills, and feats will all affect how the module plays out, even if it doesn't change the ultimate end result. One point I'm particularly happy about is that while your character does (finally) achieve some measure of power in this chapter (you've reached level 5 after all), it is very clear by the end of the module that your character is still weak compared to other key players in the story. In fact, one might argue that you're a liability! It's very refreshing to not be the most powerful person in the story for once!

Action quality : 7

You will encounter a variety of foes, including humanoid monsters, undead, and a variety of human enemies. Fighter-types and rogues dominate, but you will encounter ranged attackers and enemy spell casters with increasing frequency. Fights were well balanced for my fighter. My character died about 5 times, usually due to a single blow that took out more than half of my hit points—several enemies wield large weapons or can cast powerful spells. While melee fighters may be best suited for this module, the freedom to rest whenever needed makes it approachable for a spell caster. A cleric or druid would also do well, especially because of their ability to enhance their offensive capabilities with spells. Nevertheless, arcane spell caster-types may struggle a bit, as there are no pure fighter-type henchmen available (a monk and a cleric can be had, as well as a rogue). At this level, however, summoned monsters are quite effective, particularly since enemies are not overly numerous and their equipment is not magical.

Fun Factor : 8

I had a great time playing this module, and was consistently impressed with its many innovations. This entire series has been a breath of fresh air, and has been a blast to play. I eagerly anticipate the release of chapter 4 in this five-part series.

Solo : 8

If you enjoy single player modules that are set in the Forgotten Realms and feature solid stories, nonlinear gameplay, and innovative scripting, you will almost certainly enjoy this module series. The only group of players I anticipate disliking this series are those who do not like the idea of a low xp, low gold, and low magic game world. My character is still wielding a run-of-the-mill longsword at level 5, although I have finally begun to see some magical items in my loot. To me, this approach is refreshing and fun, but I'm sure there will be some who find it too limiting.

Multiplayer : N/A

This module is designed for solo play only.

My Score : 8.5

While this series is relatively unknown, its quality approaches, and in some ways even surpasses some of the other more heralded module series on the vault. Chapter 3 is the best in the series thus far, featuring nonlinear gameplay, superb roleplaying, and innovative scripting systems, all bound tightly together in a highly replayable, well-polished package. This bodes very well for the remaining two chapters in this ongoing series; at the time this review was written, the author was just beginning initial playtesting on chapter 4. If you are looking for a classic low-level D&D experience that harkens back to the pen and paper sessions of yesteryear, look no further than this series.

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