Imagine being 11 years old again. The world was a very different place back then. There was still so much to see, to explore, to understand about the world around you. For senior linguistic anthropology major Joseph Wetzel, a moment came at this age where his father entrusted him with “Neverwinter Nights” (BioWare, 2002).
Wetzel told me this was not the best game ever, but it opened his eyes to a whole new type of play in games: “[‘Neverwinter Nights’] is a “Dungeons and Dragons” computer game adaptation. It was a weird game to get because it was rated ‘T’ for Teen. It was very much an older kid’s game.”
“Dungeons and Dragons” (Wizards of the Coast, 1974) and “Neverwinter Nights” share role-playing aspects and character creation pioneered by the former. Character creation in these games involves rolling dice to fill different stats like “strength” and “dexterity” which will be used throughout gameplay.
Wetzel’s father played “Dungeons and Dragons” in his childhood and wanted to share those experiences with his son. The only problem is that times change and so did the rules of “Dungeons and Dragons.” This is where “Neverwinter Nights” entered in for Wetzel: “My dad was the game master for his group.”
A game master is someone who creates the world and the adventure, or adventures, people will be going on throughout the gameplay with their character. “He ran all the games so he never got to create characters,” Wetzel explained. “There was one character that he made, though, that he always told my siblings and me about.”
In “Dungeons and Dragons” there are different races like Orcs, Elves, Paladins, Dwarves and so on. There are also different classes like rogue, warrior, mage and psychic. In the older versions of “Dungeons and Dragons,” your character creation dice rolls would not only determine your skills, but also your race and class options. Wetzel said, “My dad decided he wanted to play a psychic Paladin. For this to work, though, you would need all of your stats insanely high to be a psychic Paladin.” This is where the dice rolling came into play.
“Instead of ‘cheating’ his stats, he brought dice into his basement and kept rolling until he got the stats he wanted.” An average player would take their first rolls as their skills for the rest of the game. Whilst there is technically no rule saying you cannot roll again; it is more so going against the spirit of the game rather than the written decrees about how one is supposed to create a character.
What really made “Neverwinter Nights” so impactful for Wetzel, though, was not this aspect of creating a character, but what the role of that character meant in the world. When it came time for Joseph to create a character in this game, he said, “I liked King Arthur a lot so I chose to be a Paladin. I remember I took pickpocketing as a skill because I had played games in the past. I knew what you were supposed to do in games. You walk up to everyone in the world and you take everything from them.”
This is characteristic of some game environments where you, as the player, are not given consequences for your actions in game. You can see this in games like “The Legend of Zelda” (Nintendo). If you steal from a random market person, your choices will not matter in the larger scope of the game.
In “Neverwinter Nights,” these choices have consequences which is something Wetzel had never encountered in a game: “I start playing and walk up to someone and start doing the thing where I walk around and take everything from people. The game reacted with character’s catching my pickpocketing and then attacking me.”
Wetzel was confused; this had never happened before in a game. When his father arrived home from work later in the evening, Wetzel had asked why he was attacked. “I told him I made a Paladin and given him the pickpocketing skill. My dad’s like, ‘that’s a silly thing to do. Paladins are the good guys, they don’t steal. You lose favor every time you steal something.”
This cemented role-playing as one of Wetzel’s favorite ways to play games. All of a sudden, choices had consequences which made the world of games more meaningful. Wetzel, like his father, began to game master “Dungeons and Dragons” games for others in his neighborhood so they too could enjoy the exciting world of role-playing.