Community Interview: Carlo (Neverwinter Connections, DMFI and Westgate)

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    Orion

    Image from the Westgate Campaign, a multiplayer campaign Carlo runs as a DM’s every week (source: Neverwinter Connections)

    I had the great privilege to interview Carlo, who has been a longstanding member of the NWN community for over 18 years. Carlo is the site owner for the Neverwinter Connections Website (dedicated to enhancing the multiplayer and DMing experience). This site has a rich history going back to the beginnings of NWN in 2002, before going into inactivity between 2011 and 2019. Carlo achieved the incredible task of resurrecting the site in 2019, assisted by other contributors including Stan who runs the Neverwinter Connections Discord.

    Carlo is also a partner for the Neverwinter Connections Discord. He was a former administrator of the the DM Friendly Initiative, and is the DMFI Coordinator again having already restarted this initiative. DMFI work for this project includes releasing the EE version of the Hall of Fame DMFI 101: So you want to be a DM, amongst other things. He has authored multiple well written guides to playing NWN as a DM and setting up multiplayer groups. He runs regular weekly DM sessions with his Westgate campaign.

    Question:

    Hi Carlo! Thanks for the opportunity to ask you a few questions! I can see you have been involved with NWN for many, many years, at least 15 years? Possibly more. Can you tell me what made you start playing NWN at the beginning, what kept your interest going, and then finally, how you progressed to your interest in aspiring to be the best NWN Dungeon Master (DM) you can be?

    Carlo:

    I was ecstatic to discover in 2002 that Bioware was preparing to release Neverwinter Nights. I was a huge fan of the Infinity Engine games, as complex and rewarding D&D-based CRPGs. I was particularly enthusiastic about the idea of NWN as a game designed for building your own multiplayer adventures, especially being able to use the unique abilities of the DM client to make it interactive. This finally made possible the creation and online running of individual modules, campaigns and gameworlds without the limitations of scripted content. It is this aspect of NWN that has interested me most both as a player and DM.

    While I was active in multiple persistent world (PW) communities as a player, DM and admin in the 2000s, I also regularly enjoyed playing individual modules and participating in several campaigns run by different DMs. These were all organized on the original Neverwinter Connections (NWC) site, which was hosted and run by Rizzen and Gilaun. It was an impressive and welcoming community, with a number of DMs and players that I learned a lot from. I went through a live DM 101 course there, for example, and after that contributed with my own games as a fledgling DM.

    The sum of those experiences led me to conceive my ongoing weekly Westgate Campaign, which was started in February 2004. It represents the kind of open-ended, player-centric gameworld that I value most, and there have been enough interested participants over the years to keep it thriving. In the end, it and the other games I’ve run have all been worth doing because of the richness and variety of the player experience, which as a DM I participate in creating.

    Screenshot from Carlo’s Westgate Campaign (Source: Gateway to Adventure)

    Question:

    With your interest in being a Dungeon Master (DM), I can see you are heavily involved with both the Neverwinter Connections site, which hosts several guides on being a DM, as well as the DM- Friendly Initiative (DMFI). Can you tell me what is the best part of being a DM? What sort of people make good DMs? What sort of experience is it to be a DM for a great adventure or module, and does having Pen and Paper (PnP) experience help?

    Carlo:

    The best part of being a DM is having the players thoroughly enjoy the experience you create. This, however, means you should have a good match between the type of in-game experience that the players are looking for and the one that you want to create. Outside the game, two-way communication with players about expectations is important, especially in terms of the balance between action and role-playing (RP).

    A good DM not only has the skills to stage-manage events in-game, which requires some flexibility and improvisation, but also to craft challenging and interesting scenarios for players. This is important for both combat and non-combat encounters. An ability to fairly regulate the game for everyone’s benefit is also necessary for long-term success.

    There are plenty of lousy PnP DMs, so PnP experience is not necessarily something helpful. My limited PnP experience, though, has made me eternally grateful for NWN as a gaming platform, since the engine handles all the combat resolution and lets you focus on other things. NWN can be just as powerful a medium for story-based adventures as PnP, but I think it may be more common for those with PnP experience to have a more creative approach to both DMing and playing. This is most evident when trying things that may be “out-of-engine” for NWN and require a DM to implement, as opposed to simply killing opponents and taking their treasure. One of the NWC guides, Creative DMing and Playing Techniques in Neverwinter Nights, deals with that.

    I can’t sum up the rewards of DMing any better than was done by Arawen Silverstar, the first DMFI (DM-Friendly Initiative) Coordinator. The original Neverwinter Connections site had a feedback/comments section on DMs and my top comments are still captured there by the Wayback Machine. Below is what she said about participating in a run of my module Desperate Measures, which is set in a Forgotten Realms death row prison.

    “Desperate Measures was the best and most intense NWN roleplaying experience I have ever experienced. Carlo One set up a unique scenario in which PCs dealt with love, despair, hope, moral dilemmas, PC relationships, and a high level of game challenge that accorded perfectly with the story. A brilliant one shot game, with vivid, wonderfully played NPCs, great customization around the PCs bios, and high drama.”

    Screenshot from Necropolis of the Wyrm, a regular DM run campaign supported by Neverwinter Connections (source: Neverwinter Connections)

    Question:

    I’d like to ask you a bit more about the Neverwinter Connections (NWC) site. Firstly I can see it is designed to assist NWN players matchmake with player groups so they can run multi-player parties. Secondly as mentioned there are guides on being an effective DM, but also guides on how to run things in multiplayer. I guess I am keen to know about the history of NWC, and how it was all running many years ago, and then I noted there was a period of downtime, until last year where I believe, yourself and a number of other players relaunched it all. There is a rich history and story to tell there!

    Carlo:

    I would heartily agree about the rich history. A while back I asked Lazybones, another campaign DM currently active on the new NWC site who was also on the original one, if he would be interested in writing one; he was even more of a stalwart of the DMing community, from my perspective. However, it seems we both have had too much on our plates in that respect. I’ll try nonetheless to provide a summary version.

    When it launched in 2002, NeverwinterConnections.com (note that the current site is .org) was the central matchmaking site for NWN games. Some PWs advertised and scheduled game sessions there, but the majority of games available were either single-adventure modules or longer-term campaigns run by independent DMs. There were over 20,000 registered users, to give some idea of the scale.

    As a platform, it was unparalleled in what it offered for user support. At its core was the game scheduling calendar, with each game having individual forums and chat associated with it for organizing play. Sitewide forums and chat were used extensively by the community, along with campaign forums set up for individual DMs on request. Built into it was a feedback/comments system linked to the scheduled games, which generally worked well in providing a track record and credibility for DMs and players.

    To provide some context, this link is to an Internet Archive homepage capture from the site’s heyday in 2004, randomly picked on a day in July. One of my Desperate Measures sessions happens to be on the list of upcoming games.

    The decline of the original site was linked to several factors, in my opinion. One was the aging of both NWN and NWN2 as games, including the cannibalization to some extent of the NWN community by NWN2 after its release in 2006 by Obsidian. It was something of a disaster at the start for builders and DMs, due to technical flaws – the toolset shipped without an undo function, for example, and the DM client was literally an afterthought – and left a bad taste in many people’s mouths. The NWN2 toolset was more advanced in many respects, but its area creation required a lot more work, so the bar was raised considerably for individuals looking to build their own modules. A core group of DMs and players remained active with both games, however, because they still offered a uniquely creative gaming experience.

    The technical challenges of hosting and running the Neverwinter Connections site – essentially a giant custom database with a complex web interface – had risen over the years as well, along with significant internet security vulnerabilities. Rizzen finally retired from hosting NWC in 2012 and passed the domain name and site data over to a long-time site member from the PW community, who promised to re-launch a new version. As occurs with many things on the internet, this never actually happened. A publicly available summation of the final phase can be found in this archived Bioware Social Forum topic.

    Screenshot from “The Light Reborn”, a limited-run campaign hosted at Neverwinter Connections and completed in May 2005. Bruce Nielson’s campaign modules can be found at the Neverwinter Vault. (Image source: Gateway to Adventure)

    Question:

    Was it hard work to get the new Neverwinter Connections site launched? Were there any difficulties that you had getting the site running again?

    Carlo:

    Web hosting technology commercially available in 2019 – when NeverwinterConnections.org was launched – meant that the core features (events calendar, forums, site news, pages, PMs, etc.) were relatively easy to set up and economical to run. The original NWC required donations to stay alive – I was a fairly significant contributor every year – but that is not the case now. I ended up spending about two weeks to research hosting solutions, format and launch the site with its starting content.

    Discord has of course replaced the chat function and by happenstance there was already a Neverwinter Connections Discord existing, set up by Stan. He was not a member of the original NWC community, but after the launch of NWN:EE he believed that the idea of NWC as a meeting place for DMs and players seeking games was a good one, and supported the idea of integrating the new NWC site and existing Discord server. He DMs two (!) weekly campaigns, using the NWC Discord to organize things.

    Because of the technical issues involved and the lack of a contemporary requirement for it, there is no feedback/comments database on the current site, although DM ranks are obtainable for those who schedule and run games on it. The site’s primary purpose has shifted from scheduling games – although that is still a feature – to more broadly supporting multiplayer NWN gaming. Relevant information and resources are made available for use by independent DMs, PW projects, or really any gaming group. Site registration is not necessary to access any of the community NWN Multiplayer Resources.

    Screenshot from the Westgate Campaign (Source: Neverwinter Connections)

    Question:

    Can you go through the process of how does one register for the site, then arrange getting a group together? One thing that is tricky for me at least, is managing Time Zones if I am playing with say players from the Americas and Europe – does your site manage this well?

    Carlo:

    Site registration is pretty simple, all that is required is choosing a user name and an email confirmation. That lets the user post content to any of the forums, request their own campaign/group forum if they want one, use site PMs, and adjust their personal time zone setting for the calendar. This last feature is quite helpful in organizing play, since any games scheduled on the events calendar will then automatically appear at the correct time for you. I have found it very useful when organizing my weekly campaign, which currently has six participants spread across the world in five different time zones (US, Europe and Asia). Periodic daylight savings time changes also keep it relevant.

    Getting any new gaming group together takes a good amount of effort and some organizational skills, regardless of where you are trying to do it. This was the case even when there was a single, very large central NWN multiplayer community on the 2000s-era NWC site. Nowadays, as with anything on the internet, it’s usually necessary to go to multiple places and advertise your interest. NWC is an excellent place to start and as a platform offers gaming groups various resources for organizing play. That said, people can also easily throw up a personal Discord or Steam chat group if they want. The technical barrier for setting up your own private group resources is pretty low, which is a good thing, but it also contributes to making the NWN playerbase much more fragmented.

    PWs also have a role to play in forming groups. They are encouraged to post information about themselves in the Persistent Worlds Announcements forum – so far nine have done so – and are welcome to use the NWC events calendar to schedule and advertise DM’d sessions and events on their gameworlds. This of course can be beneficial for both PW DMs and for new players seeking groups to adventure with. As a historical note, there was a fair amount of tension on the original NWC between PWs and independent DMs, but that is not the case now. I have personally gone back and forth between PW and personal projects and see them as complementary. In any case, Neverwinter Connections is set up to support the entire NWN multiplayer community.

    I do think more awareness is needed about the possibility of DMing and hosting your own module or campaign, with games regularly scheduled on a weekly or whatever basis. That was the prime reason I put together the NWN Campaign DM and Builder Bundle, available for download on Neverwinter Vault. The vast majority of people’s CRPG multiplayer experience is now the MMO/PW model, which normally requires huge amounts of work and dedicated staff and infrastructure to do properly on a 24/7 basis, although you can still find singleton or very small group NWN PW projects as well.

    Screenshot from The Frozen North PW, supported by the Neverwinter Connections site (Source: Neverwinter Connections)

    Screenshot from “HOUSE of the MAGUS PW”, supported by the Neverwinter Connections site (Source: Neverwinter Connections)

    Question:

    Can you tell me more about the DM-Friendly Initiative (DMFI)? How it all started, what its goals are, are there any future plans or projects?

    Carlo:

    I was a bit late to the party with the DMFI, since it got going as a Bioware Guild in 2002 while I was still just learning how to build and DM. Essentially it had three purposes: 1) create new in-game tools for DMs to use; 2) provide DM training and other out-of-game resources; and 3) certify modules as DM-Friendly. Arawen Silverstar, one of the top NWC DMs, was the guild coordinator and prime motivator on DM training and module certification efforts. She eventually retired from the NWN  community and by 2005 had passed the guild coordinator role over to me. I had been active in the guild by supporting DM training and module certification, most notably with the Hall of Fame tutorial module DMFI 101: So You Want To Be a DM.

    The DMFI’s Design Team membership changed over the years, with hahnsoo and Demetrious being the primary leads, with a number of other initial contributors to the Wands and Widgets script package. Tsunami282 was the last team lead and I am grateful to him for producing the 1.09 Wands and Widgets package after Bioware’s last patch for NWN (1.69). It is still the currently available version and works with NWN:EE. The package adds a huge amount of capability for DMs and some key in-game functions for players that allow more creative PnP-style play. Although it can be installed separately into a module, for ease of builder use I included them as part of the DMFI Multiplayer Starter Mod for NWN:EE, which is in the DM and builder bundle linked above.

    Screenshots from the DMFI 101 Hall of Fame Module: So you want to be a DM. (Source: NW Vault)

    With Bioware no longer supporting the original NWN and the closing of the Bioware Social Network in 2014, where the DMFI forum had moved once the Bioware guilds were closed, the DMFI officially ceased to exist. I had passed the torch as guild coordinator to Katarina Dragonstar by 2009, with all of the main projects wrapped up by then. She had some real-life issues get in the way of being active with it, however, and I still occasionally fielded various community questions that came up about DMFI resources.

    After Beamdog released NWN:EE in 2018, I kept an eye on it to see if it would get the developer support needed to make it worth upgrading my ongoing campaign from NWN-1.69. The new features and fixes to old issues have made it very worthwhile. The ongoing development of the game, including major new updates in content and functionality, also means it should stay viable and fresh for years to come.

    With the NWN:EE community thriving, I felt that reviving the DMFI in late 2018 would be a worthwhile contribution to it, since there was nothing like it. A similar thought process eventually led to the re-launch of Neverwinter Connections in early 2019 after the NWN Campaigns forum site had to close. It had been created by Venture as a NWC backup forum during a major site outage and became a refuge for DM Lazybones and myself after the original NWC shut down.

    In terms of contemporary projects, to support DM training I released a revised DM client tutorial module for NWN:EE with additional content, and have been periodically publishing new DMing guides on Neverwinter Connections, also available at Neverwinter Vault. As can be seen on the DMFI Forum, its mission continues in all areas. Submissions of new multiplayer modules are welcome, by authors who would like DMFI certification; this includes a supportive private constructive feedback process. I would also very much welcome an interested volunteer capable of taking the role of DMFI Design Team lead. An updated version of the public Wands and Widgets script package I think would be a great thing for the community, especially if it could take advantage of some of the new NWN:EE content and features.

    I think the secret to enabling player imagination and involvement is to reward it. – Carlo

    The trip back to the Laughing Boar was made in silence, and Rosten stared back at the flames of the burning village. If he shut his eyes, he saw the headsman. He felt a hand upon his shoulder and turned, finding Cerhoff the Dog’s unblinking eyes locked with his. Dimly, Rosten remembered that at the beginning of this voyage Cerhoff had been a fat and jovial sailor, formerly an innkeeper, who boasted that he could make any man laugh until he split his sides. Could that be true? Could the gaunt and sunken-eyed horror looking down at him now have ever been anything other than this? Cerhoff passed over a bottle of something. He spoke, the first two words that Rosten had heard from him in months. “It helps.” Rosten took the bottle and drank, the liquor burning his throat. He was grateful. It did help. – The Fishing Village, by Face

    Question:

    Finally, I had the opportunity to review a few posts from the Westgate Campaign sessions you run, and there is an incredible richness to the story and RP involved. I think I recently read a short story from one of your players, Face, about his halfling character Rosten’s origins. Do you have any tips on how to foster the imagination, both as a DM and to help your players to become so imaginative and involved? Also if you have any other final comments regarding projects/plans, feel free to mention them here.

    Carlo:

    I think the secret to enabling player imagination and involvement is to reward it. Not in the sense of showering PCs with loot at every turn, but by crafting a reactive gameworld that can be both challenging and surprising at times. Players want to feel like their actions matter, so DMs should make sure they do. Out-of-game elements like campaign chronicles, PC’s stories like those of Rosten the piratical hin, and IC (in-character) threads or chats can further deepen the experience, by providing additional creative outlets.

    Whether it is for a single-adventure module like Desperate Measures or for one of my longer campaigns, I always make sure to incorporate elements of player-created PC backgrounds into the gameworld. This ranges from small things like custom items to entire towns which otherwise would not exist. As an example, one of my early players built his PC’s home village in the toolset, which I then incorporated into the campaign module; it has periodically played a central role in subsequent events.

    My main NWN commitment is to my weekly campaign and its players, including an ongoing serialization of their adventures as part of an ENWorld Story Hour. Beyond that, I expect to keep making periodic contributions to the community in the form of guides and other resources. I also have a multiplayer kingdom management module currently on ice, but may resume developing that, given enough motivation.

    I have to say that it’s been a pleasure going over all these past and present projects with you, Orion. I’m also very glad to see such a professional-looking community site like the Neverwinter Nights Workshop come online. The more community service sites committed to supporting the NWN playerbase, the better!

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