Archive for April 6th, 2011

When I was a child and had little to do, I would often pull out the Players Handbook and whip up a few characters. It was fruitless task really, for I never expected to use the characters at all. The truth is I just loved rolling dice and poring over the tables and charts. I also loved naming characters and equipping them from the very limited starting gold they were permitted at first level. It was an especially effective strategy for a sorrowful Sunday afternoon.

This urge to create characters never left me and was later transferred to fiction writing. Come to think of it, I was keenly writing fiction as a child, albeit heavily-derivative genre fantasy and the odd scrap of science fiction. When I tried my hand at genre writing in later years, I found I was often more creative in inventing characters than I was with non-genre fiction, where I tended to model characters on people I knew in real life.

After my first encounter with Baldur’s Gate in 2001, I found myself once again drawn to creating Dungeons & Dragons characters. Baldur’s Gate only allowed for the creation of a single character (though I was later to discover that by starting a game in multi-player mode one could in fact create an entire party) and as a consequence, I didn’t initially have the chance to indulge myself. I did, however, re-start the game several times just for this purpose, bringing back to life such luminaries as Luven Lightfingers, and an Elven Ranger by the name of Yessir Eldith, who may have the good fortune to be commemorated in this series of character portraits.

When I finally got hold of a copy of Icewind Dale, however, which required the creation of an entire party of 1st-level adventurers, I had the opportunity to really go to town. Sadly I have lost the old saved games from that initial burst of character creation and cannot recall the names of my first party, suffice to say that the barbarian, Arnalde Holdfaste, a name I revived from the final campaign I played with my brother back in 1989, featured. There was also a Halfling Fighter/Thief with the name of Whistler Skilift. I do recall having had some fun with the alpine themes.

In 2003, shortly after returning to Cambridge from four months in Rome, I bought Icewind Dale 2 (hereafter IWD2) from the Lion’s Yard Game store. The game was the last of the old Bioware Infinity Engine games and suffered in its reception for having adhered to the old Bioware Infinity Engine. It was considered rather outmoded in time when the FPS was finally coming to full fruition, but as has ever been the case with all Bioware products, the artwork, writing, soundtrack and gameplay were all first class. It was also the first official product to implement the 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules – a welcome advance on the somewhat illogical and impractical 2nd Edition ruleset.

I sat down that afternoon and installed the game on my crappy little laptop. It was the first laptop I ever owned and wasn’t actually all that bad, considering the times. Running Windows XP, it had a 6gig hard-drive, a 499Mhz processor and 196MB RAM. It could just about handle Civilization III and had more than enough to run IWD2. I was living at that time in a small room at the very top of number 12 Madingley Rd, next door to my eccentric American friend Edward. Number 12 was a veritable mansion, built in the mock-tudor style and owned by St John’s College, and my room looked from on high across a large front lawn surrounded by yew trees and redwood cedars towards number 10, where I had lived for my first three years in Cambridge.

It was a strange time in my life. Having submitted my PhD some five months ago and still waiting on a date for my viva voce, I was working part time at the Anchor Pub where I had worked for two and a half years already. I spent my days re-working volume one of my autobiography, Sex With a Sunburnt Penis, applying for jobs, and playing computer games.

Sitting thus beside the small lead glass window with its diamond panes, I fired up the game to discover that, s with it predecessor, IWD2 also required the creation of an entire party. This meant a few hours of undiluted joy for me were on the horizon, though it also meant that role-playing elements in the game would be limited as there would be no scripted interactions between NPCs.

The group I came up with consisted of the following personalities: Milla Sorrow, Amra of Aquilonia, Freya Stark, Laurie Nosgrit, Zorl Bankie and Summer Thingis. Apart from having been a real person, Freya Stark had also been the name of my oldest friend Gus’s first character, which he had the presence of mind to choose at the age of 10. Amra was a blatant Conan ripoff, whilst Laurie Nosgrit was another resurrection from that final 1989 campaign, a Halfling Fighter/Rogue. Zorl Bankie was a name inspired by my South African friend Chris, who had told me that in SA a banky of zorl (sic) was a very large deal of marijuana, usually wrapped up in a sheet of newspaper. Milla Sorrow is a name I find I still rather like, but of course, most important here is the long-delayed subject of this already overlong narrative, Summer Thingis. Her name was the last chosen and it was created in an act of desperation, as I wanted to finish and get started. The name was taken from the English title of a French film that was playing at the Art House Cinema at the time – Summer Things. An extra ‘i’ and I was good to go. I chose a very fetching portrait for her and made her a pure-class cleric. After all, every group needs specialist healers. Thus was Summer Thingis born. Needless to say, she performed admirably well as the party’s principal healer and I developed a real attachment to her, as I did to the others in the group.

Largely on account of my being so fond of her portrait, I later made use of her name in a variety of other games, though she had to wait until 2006/07, after my return to Cambridge. Firstly in Neverwinter Nights 2 (Hereafter, NWN2), then again in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I had a different vision of her by the time NWN 2 came around and remodelled her as a multi-class Ranger / Rogue / Wizard. I had a rather bad habit of making unwieldy multi-class builds in NWN2, simply because I could and Summer was no exception.

It was really, however, with Oblivion that Summer came into her own. With its far more customisable character creation system, allowing for much greater versatility in builds, I made a custom class called a Rainsinger. The name bore no relationship to her role, but rather celebrated my love of both rain and bards. She was a rogue-based blade, light armour and caster class, born under the Sign of the Lady.

I first played with her whilst I was in England, then, in 2008, when I returned to Sydney, I began to mod Oblivion. This became something of an obsessive process wherein I spent weeks completely customising the game. I replaced nearly all the textures and meshes, tweaked the game mechanics, added hundreds of user-created mods including new quests, quest and gameplay overhauls, a new user-interface, new equipment, locations, NPCs, including companions who could be recruited as party members.

I expanded the sound-track, slowed the levelling speed to one-tenth its original, slowed down time so that it was merely half that of the real world, added weather effects, transformed the shape of all the cities and towns, installed new cities and towns, removed the borders of the massive world and exploited the unused land out there and added many other new features to the game. I say that I did this, but it was all the work of the amazing modding community wherever they might be in the world. From websites such as TESNexus and Planet Elder Scrolls, I downloaded these at times quite extraordinary modifications and improved the game dramatically.

It was a lot of very hard work, but the results were astonishing to say the least. When you consider that the original skin textures on characters were 128×128 pixels, and these were upgraded to 4096×4096, you can get some idea of just how much more detailed the features of the characters in the game were. In most cases, however, the textures were merely four times the original size, yet this still gave the game a dramatic facelift. Some notable mods were Quarl’s Texture pack III, Exnem’s EyeCandy Body, Ren’s Mystic Elf Remake, the CM Companion mod, Growlf’s Hot Clothes, Improved Trees and Flora 1 & 2, Animated Window and Lighting System, Let the People Drink, Better Cities, Enhanced Magic Effects, Natural Environments, and the essential Oblivian Script Extender and Oblivion Mod Manager, to name a few. Two particular favourites on the quest front were the incomparable Lost Spires and the very engaging and useful Origins of the Mages Guild.

The sheer number and size of mods did cause some problems. The game was not entirely stable and crashed when minimised, and occasionally, but rarely, just plain crashed. It also tended to cause some quite heavy lag in populated areas and I did at times, particularly in cities, suffer a significant drop in FPS (Frames per second). This was not such a problem, even when the FPS dropped to a nadir of 12, compared with the standard 60, as I tended to walk through towns for the sake of role-play, thus improving reducing load pressures, and without combat, spell-casting or action sequences taking place in towns, it in no way hampered game-play.

The original Oblivion folder was four gigs in size, but the additions took it out to a total of nineteen gigs. Ouch.

I played this modified version of the game intermittently, but over a two-year period. I’d fire it up here and there and immerse myself in the province of Cyrodiil, with its lush, swaying foliage, long grass, rolling hills, high mountains and quaint medieval towns. It looked so good and the new mechanics made it play so well, that I was especially inspired to take the game as slowly as possible. I made Summer and her three companions walk or ride horses everywhere, only occasionally using the modded transport network to take a ship from say, Leyawiin to Bravil or on to the Imperial City. I was so enamoured of the new look of the game and the sheer vastness of the world that I nicknamed it The Beautiful Game. And it was, indeed, beautiful. Especially when under the influence of a certain cannibinoid, I found I could sit amongst the trees and watch them thrash around during a heavy thunderstorm for a very long time. I often did nothing other than wander around in the forest, pitch my portable tent in a clearing and sit beside it.

One of the great advantages of having installed so many mods, especially new lands, buildings, forts, castles, houses, estates, villages and what have you, was that I often stumbled upon things I had no recollection of installing at all. This made the game doubly enjoyable as having already played the game thoroughly and become very familiar with the landscape and quests,  it had become almost entirely novel again.

Sadly all this work came unstuck when my operating system developed some fatal errors and I was forced to do a complete overhaul, including finally making the switch to Windows 7. I rescued all the files, but the game would require a complete rebuild. A hobby I have only recently, one year on, found the time to pursue. It’s a work in progress.

Meanwhile, Summer continued to see action in the MMO Dungeons & Dragons Online.

Using the 3.5 edition rules, DDO again gave me licence to make her a multi-class build. I recreated Summer as an Arcane Archer – a Ranger / Wizard / Rogue – levels 9/3/1 respectively at last count. The final build, bearing in mind the game cap of level 20, was to be 14/5/1. I doubt this shall ever come about as I have since deleted the game in accordance with my new years resolution to stop wasting time and start doing more productive things with my spare time. I’m pleased to say, this has achieved the desired result.

Long live Summer Thingis!

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