The idea of a First Town is a mainstay of roleplaying games.
It has its origins in stories the genre draws inspiration from, as with Frodo’s Hobbiton; and it’s there in the stories the genre’s inspired, too, as with Kirito and the rather obtusely named Town of Beginnings. They are sometimes rustic, sometimes cosmopolitan, often doomed to catastrophe—but always where adventures begin.
Ask any RPG fan about First Towns, and they’d likely rattle them off with little effort: Corneria, Lothering, Fyrestone, Riverwood, and so on. But I’d argue that every fan of the genre, if pressed, could also tell you their real First Town: where they heard the call of the genre, said yes, and turned their back on the mundane forever.
For me, it started in Neverwinter.
I first encountered Neverwinter in the tail-end of my grade school years.
It was a couple of months after I’d caught the local premiere of Return of the King with my family and, having liked that, binge-watched the previous two movies at home.
The movies left me reeling with the fantasy high. For a time, I sublimated it with RTS battles where I imagined my armies as Tower Guards or Rohirrim. But just as that solution was wearing thin, I got to talking Tolkien with a cousin of mine who, hearing of my preoccupation, said he had a game I might like. In it you could be a dwarf, or an elf, or a wizard. The Works. A few weeks and install discs later, I was booting up Neverwinter Nights (NWN) for the first time.
The experience hit me like a heavy flail.
I don’t just mean that it made an impact on my life. I mean it floored me. I sucked at it.
NWN was my first encounter with D&D rules and the third edition (3e), a case study in shitty game balance, was a death trap for newbies. My first character, a dual-wielding dwarf fighter, couldn’t even make it through Act One.
So I went and made a new character.
Through trial and disastrous error, I came to understand the rules: Vancian casting, weapon and skill proficiencies, what got you killed, and what killed things best. Eventually, thanks to the liberal application of Use Magic Device, my half-elf ranger/rogue made it to Act Two—in which she came across a challenge she didn’t have enough scrolls of fireball to beat.
So I went and made another new character.
Frustrated as I got with the cycle of failure, I kept going—because while the convoluted rules may have rebuffed me, the vivid world drew me in. Just as I learned more of the rules with each attempt, I also learned more about the world. I found secret rooms, passages, and prize fighting rings. I discovered a glitch that gave infinite gold. I learned, with some mortification, that killing nurses in the Hall of Justice gave some decent XP. And I realized, thanks to Grimgnaw, that having 6 charisma is a riot.
Neverwinter taught what it was to “read” an RPG’s story.
That the imperfect starts and unsatisfactory first runs were essential to the experience. You worked for your narrative progress. And, when you achieved it, found it that much sweeter because you were looking back on all the alternate universes where you failed.
In other words, as with all great fantasies, I was learning about living in this world. Blacklake showed me the horrors of upper class villainy, like hoarding and price gouging. The youth gangs of Beggar’s Nest showed me that poverty wasn’t just a lack of resources; it was a lack of choices. In the Moonstone Mask’s backrooms, I learned about “courtesans” and just how precarious their lot in life is.
Everywhere, from the Hall of Justice to the riots of the Peninsula’s prison, I saw how fragile the lines between good and evil could get—and how difficult it could be to stick to good.
My daily life might have been confined to shuttling between home and school but by setting foot in Neverwinter, my world was a little broader. It was opened to ideas that wouldn’t have found their way past my village gate or classroom walls. Neverwinter had done a First Town’s job—it had made me a little readier for the road ahead.
The thing about First Towns, though, is that you have to leave them.
After a couple of years of NWN, the PC I’d been using finally reached its limit. By then, however, I was already moving onto other related pursuits. D&D 3e’s difficulties had prepared me for the unforgiving, inscrutable combat of my next RPG obsession, Final Fantasy Tactics, and its world had long drawn me into Forgotten Realms fiction. Perhaps most importantly, the entire experience had set my on my path into pen-and-paper RPGs.
By the time we got another PC good enough for games, I was eager to branch off into new worlds—like that private Singaporean World of Warcraft server where monsters only ever used fireball—and, through high school and into college, a succession of Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and Persona titles.
Neverwinter occasionally crossed my mind, of course, and once I even – ahem – acquired it to try out its expansions.
And while getting into Act Two was easy enough by then, I lacked the desire to keep going. The lure of the unfamiliar simply outweighed the charm of home.
Still, Neverwinter somehow found its way to me. At one point, it might be in a familiar sight—a Valencian bridge-house resembling the Trade of Blades—and at another, it would be in an anecdote from someone else familiar with the city: “Did you know that it’s illegal to make a map of Neverwinter?” Absurd. “No, really. It was to keep it safe from spies.”
So even as I wandered far, I learned more about the city. As with many First Towns, for instance, it had met a catastrophe: a terrible volcanic eruption. The line of its first king had ended. Aboleths had taken up in its bowels while devil-cultists stalked its streets. The Blacklake District was now Blue Lake. Oh, but the Moonstone Mask remained—the oldest profession indeed. It seemed Neverwinter had at least one more thing to teach me: how little I really knew of it.
So I returned. I reinstalled NWN and finished it for the first time just before graduating from university. The in-game narrative seemed a mirror to my own: the Hero of Neverwinter sets out to solve its mysteries; in pursuing her foes, she must travel out into the world; ultimately, however, the final conflict lies at home—in a city that has changed much in her absence.
A few paychecks into my first job, I finally acquired, this time through legitimate means, a copy of the NWN Diamond Edition.
Now, years after the fact, I have yet to even install it. And I don’t feel compelled to. Where Neverwinter’s concerned, I’ve reached that coveted Campbellian mastery of two worlds. Wherever I may roam, I bring its presence with me. And whenever I run into a challenge—as a DM, as a writer, as a wanderer of this world and others—I can draw upon its boons.
In closing, I’d like to invite you all to come visit. The Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition has been announced and is in the good hands of a group of former Bioware developers who, I’m happy to see, are making a homecoming of their own.
What’s your first town? Share your stories with us in the comments!
Girls Got Game would like to thank the wonderful Shelly Soneja for the featured art for this article! You may view her work over here.