To all good things, a sequel. Or an add-on pack. We're not fussy.
Following on from the success of last year's Neverwinter Nights 2, Obsidian have been working on their high-tech equivalent of drawing dungeons on graph paper and poreing over obscure passages in the Monster Manual. Mask of the Betrayer should be complete in time for Autumn.
However while promising a hugely increased level-cap, new races and classes as well as a full stand-alone campaign, Obsidian are keeping many details close to their chests. So when offered the chance to exchange e-mails with Obsidian's very own Elite-class level CEO Feargus Urquhart, we clearly grasped it and tried to resist the urge to just descending to a conversation about how much we liked Planescape Torment when he was back at Black Isle.
We fail, rapidly, when we ask him what other game does the 15-20 hour included campaign feels most like, in terms of experience. "This may sound strange, but the other character based RPG that I can think of is Planescape: Torment," Feargus notes, "Both of them are character focused, but in different ways. Torment was about discovering who you were, while Mask of the Betrayer is more about saving yourself. Another difference is the focus on combat with Mask being more about fun combats and Torment more about your relationship with your companions."
It also shares with Planescape an interest in the basic elements of role-playing design - that is, character survival and what that really means when you can just reload. "One of the key things that the design team at Obsidian working on Mask of the Betrayer wanted to focus on was how death worked," Feargus explains.
"Initially, there was talk about having death be more permanent than it was in NWN2, but there were concerns about what would have to change in gameplay and in the engine and whether that was worth it. So, the focus moved to how to make death still matter to the player.
"This turned into an entirely new mechanic that makes time much more critical to the player. Certain areas change as day goes to night and while you can rest in most places, there are going to be other things to consider as you use up that time." Which implies that the days when you just camp every ten feet down a dungeon to stay at full power may be behind us.
While they're currently not revealing the exact prestige classes and new races yet, Feargus is happy to elabortate how they go about choosing them. After all, it's not as if there's a shortage of source material to raid.
"It is pretty hard to go through what is now close to one hundred books on D&D and figure out what is the best race or class to use," he explains, "What makes it a little easier for us is that we are trying to make it so everyone has a Base Class or Prestige Class that lets them play the way they want to play. Prestige Classes are where this is probably the easiest, because what it takes is breaking down the different paths that each of the base classes could take and making sure that there is a Prestige Class for that patch." Things are a little easier when dealing with actual character's origins. "As for races, that is much more of popularity contest than anything else," Feargus adds, "After NWN2 came out, we immediately were barraged with the same one or two requests - so, those races got on the list."
However, just because there's this mass of source material, doesn't mean that Obsidian are merely mining it for useful pieces. They've previously talked about designing their own feats for use in the game. Which does beg the question, with so much around to take, why?
"First off, all of us really respect the D&D rules system and want Wizards of the Coast to be pleased with everything we decide to do," Feargus qualifies, "So, why a new feat usually comes about is because there is a hole in the implementation of a class or race due to a feat that just doesn't work well in the context of the game. Or, there just isn’t a way to make the work in the game's engine. For example, we wanted a powerful epic feat for warlocks, but the Eldritch Sculptor feat created by Wizards of the Coast would be very difficult to accomplish in the NWN engine. So we created a new feat called Eldritch Mastery that has a lot of the same appeal, but not the exact same benefits."
One similarity to the previously mentioned Planescape Torment is that rather than having a mass of companions, there's fewer who are more detailed. "We have come up with a whole new cast of companions that both use some of the new races and classes that we are putting in the expansion and really fit within the setting of Mask of the Betrayer," he says, "But, we have also changed their focus a bit. Instead of much of the story depending on certain companions like in NWN2, in the expansion you have much more freedom to have who you want in the party, or no one in the party." Feargus' personal favourite? "I really like One of Many. I kind of look at him like Morte from Torment's evil step brother and I think it's really cool how you get him into your party."