Monday, 16 March 2015

Sixteen Candles: Everquest, Neverwinter

Everquest is sixteen years old today. I wish I could say I'd been there from the very beginning but I didn't step out into Norrath until six months later, just after Bloody Kithicor and the opening of the Plane of Hate.

Of course I knew nothing of that. It would be years before any of my characters took a portal to the Planes. For a long while my experience of life on Norrath was very down to earth - literally so in many cases.

There was the first, forgotten half-elf who, just minutes after being born, fell to his death from Kelethin, that health and safety inspector's nightmare the wood elves call a city. Then there was his successor, a dwarven cleric some halfwit with the 1999 equivalent of a blog suggested as an ideal solo class. He fell in the river in Nektulos Forest and was eaten by piranhas before he could even drown. His attempts to recover the meager possessions from his sodden corpse, all dismal failures, introduced me to the concept of the Unrecoverable Corpse and gave me an unforgettable lesson in the Law of Diminishing Returns.

This looks uncannily familiar...

That was about the last we saw of him, at least as an adventurer. He hung around in the background, eventually becoming one of Mrs Bhagpuss's Bazaar traders, following one of the many account swaps that have left our Norrathian dynasties in a state that could only, charitably, be described as confused. Why he was rootling around on the wrong continent near the home of the Dark Elves in the first place I scarcely remember. I think he may have been trying to farm Wisps for Greater Lightstones. He was probably running from a bad pull when he fell in.

Or maybe he just went exploring in Butcherblock mountains, got on the boat, ended up in Freeport and then got lost. Things like that used to happen a lot back then.

He was replaced by another half-elf ranger, who wisely started in Surefall Glade instead of Kelethin, then promptly discarded all that wisdom by falling to another unrecoverable death down the hollow tree-stump in Blackburrow. After that one I rage-quit for almost three whole days.

Falling down things was something of a trope in old EQ. The only player from those far away days we're still in contact with made it something like his signature move, along with /hug and the handing out of muffins. I'm not sure but I think the first time I ever had to go rescue someone from the Well in Befallen, that was him.

It was touch and go which was the more celebrated death-trap: Blackburrow's hollow tree or Befallen's Well. Death at the bottom of the well was certainly faster and more certain. The undead that waited there were plentiful, aggressive, disturbingly powerful and hard to avoid. A fall in Blackburrow, on the other hand, usually left you alive and uneaten with time to contemplate your dire situation.

A caster with the Gate spell, of course, could port out in a hurry with nothing worse than a few bruises and an embarrassing anecdote. A melee character, sans the magic get out of jail free card, would be faced with a very long walk of shame back up to the surface past a few dozen angry gnolls. It was a walk few survived and even fewer survived the train that followed those that did.

In either case a sensible low-level might huddle in a corner out of agro range and hope for rescue. In Befallen that was not an unreasonable hope. Befallen had Nameds, rather a lot of them, and several had drops that were in demand. If you kept your head and didn't agro anything it might not be too long before a Bigger Boy arrived to clear the way. Failing that you could start on a /who trawl for druids or wizards, who might, out of the goodness of their hearts (or, more likely, for a substantial tip) drop down the well, open a portal and whisk you away to safety.

The lower levels of Blackburrow had nothing anyone important was likely to want. The chance of anyone passing by were minimal. A fall down the Well had something of the romantic about it; the headstrong, young explorer testing the limits of his nerve and daring in a tomb of ancient evil. Falling down the hollow tree just inside the entrance of a den of gnolls was generally considered comedy gold by everyone except the hapless victim. In Befallen there was always a fair chance of a rescue, paid or otherwise. In Blackburrow you were generally on your own.

College isn't forever, kid.
These days no-one needs to languish in the depths of either. The teeth of those traps were drawn long ago. From the ease of acquisition, even at the lowest levels, of items that cast Gate, to the "Home" button at Character Select, anyone at any level can rescue themselves. Even if the worst were to happen the days of lost corpses are long gone. Nowadays you respawn with all your possessions and for a small donation a handy NPC in the Guild Lobby will summon your corpse for your Mercenary to rez for the lost xp.

No, to experience the real Befallen today you have to go outside of Norrath altogether.

A number of bloggers I follow remember Everquest vividly and with great affection. Some of those bloggers still play EQ and have high level characters. Others can be tempted back by nostalgia for limited runs. Mostly, though, they stand on the sidelines and kibitz, complaining that things aren't like they were in their day.

Of them all, the only one that I know of, who has actually taken the trouble to create her own version, is Tipa of West Karana. She has lovingly re-created Befallen using the player-made dungeon facility in Neverwinter, The Foundry. Syp plugged it at Massively OP and now it's a Featured Foundry, eligible for the Daily. Last night I patched up Neverwinter and ran Tipa's The Crypt of Befallen v2.


I like Neverwinter although I don't often make time to go there. The setting and the content are attractive and appealing but what keeps me from playing more are the ActionRPG controls and combat, which, like all such systems, make the whole thing feel far more awkward and artificial than I'd prefer. Still, I have a level 13 Devoted Cleric who's had a few adventures and who I have a vague idea how to play. Very vague. I woke her up and after the usual kerfuffle trying to find the Noticeboard off to Befallen she went.

Tipa's introductory blurb suggests the mission can be knocked off in twenty minutes and most of the combat can be avoided. The average play-time posted on the board from almost 800 play-throughs is 37 minutes. It took me about an hour and a half and I died something like six or seven times. I lost count.

It was great! At the end, when you get the chance to review and rate the Foundry you've just completed, I gave it five stars. For an old-time EQ player the nostalgia factor is through the roof. The physical reconstruction of Befallen is exemplary. Everything is in the right place and everything looks just right. From the checkerboard tiled floors to the piles of rubble it feels like you could lift the map from one game and place it down on the other with flawless precision. About the only difference is in the decor, which is lusher and more detailed than the older game was able to allow.

That painting's new.

The original lore is neatly referenced and highlighted: from the succession of powerful megalomaniacs who sought to control Befallen's hidden evil for their own ends, to the grim story of Opalla and her much sought after and fought over Paw, it's all there. In addition there's a strong, original plot that comes to a satisfying conclusion (well, it would have been satisfying if I'd made better choices right at the end).

Best of all there's the detailed and lovingly-crafted metastructure, under which Tipa resurrects the very essence of what it felt like to play Everquest back in its glory days. I've seen the humorous asides and references to camping spawns and kill-stealing done elsewhere (there were some examples in EQ2's dungeon-maker for a start - quite possibly also by Tipa) but I have never seen anything quite like the group of adventurers I met, who invited me to join them and for whom I ended up pulling, in what has to be the most convincing evocation of that lost art I've had the delight of experiencing for many years.

That's me in the middle, standing there, doing nothing. Puller's prerogative.

In the end I never did jump down the Well. Even though I found the potion of Invisibility to Undead I decided to heed the warnings and play it safe. I wonder, though. If I had thrown caution to the wind, would there have been any High Levels passing by to rez me and clear a path back to the top? I may just have to go back and find out.

When I finally re-emerged I found I'd made almost two levels. Unbeknownst to me there was a double-xp weekend running and I reaped the benefit. My cleric hit 15 which means I'm now eligible to make Foundries of my own; having seen the standard Tipa sets I don't think I'm about to start on that any time soon.

Happy sixteenth birthday Everquest and thanks, Tipa, for adding yet another layer to the palimpsest. The lore and the legend live on.

4 comments:

  1. I think making a wood elf and falling to your death is par for the course for the newbie. I did the same thing. Couldn't find my body. I went dead wood elf to gnome mage in beta, to troll warrior on test when it went live and didn't look back from there. Except for now, that is. I look back often now =) This was a fun post to read and remember EQ with. =)

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    1. If I get time this week, which I should, I'm going to log in ALL my EQ characters and make a note of their birth dates and /played hours. I frequently refer to having made certain characters in a particular order but I'm almost sure I am remembering it wrong.

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    2. Good call! I think I'll do that too =)

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  2. Thanks for the headsup on these EQ-with-different-controls dungeons :) I always loved those NeverWinter Nights conversions of classic AD&D Dungeon Modules (like Cult of the Reptile God), and these sound like fun. A big /hattip to Tipa for all the effort as well.

    Now to find the time (and hoping my computer can run NeverWinter to begin with :/ )

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