Interview: Daniel ‘Irongron’ from Arelith roleplay

Time for something completely different! Thanks to Funkyduck, a member of the community, I got tipped about Arelith. After doing some research I was blown away by the project! Arelith is a volunteer run, and contributor made online RPG environment with a history stretching back over 15 years. They have attracted over 15.000 players and continue to remain a popular destination for D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) enthusiasts to this day. Drawing from a pool of skilled writers, game developers and artists this is truly a unique environment. If you have to explain Arelith within one sentence it would be: “Arelith, a free to play persistent world with its roots in pen & paper roleplaying games”.

Recently, they launched a new server named Arelith PGCC. I managed to have a chat with Daniel ‘Irongron’, head of the Arelith project. I was eager to hear how his adventure is going and their plans for the future.

Greetings Daniel, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this interview! First things first, how are things?

Well I’m from the UK, and to answer that question with anything other than “Fine, thank you.” would be a definite social faux pas… Honestly though? I guess things are good. For some reason I often feel I’m procrastinating from proper ‘development work’, but this seems like a decent use of my time.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the Arelith project?

Well I can talk about the project, for sure (For myself I’m just one small part of a much larger community). Arelith is basically an online ‘RPG’ fantasy environment, online and running 24 hours a day, it’s basically a never ending game of D&D.

Talk about a passion project! You guys have been going at it for over 15 years now. Can you take us back all those years and give us a short history lesson?

Well there is the history of Arelith, of course, but to understand requires talking about the history of Neverwinter Nights, the game that our server runs on. Though getting on in years it remains a somewhat revolutionary concept; here was a game, released and left open for players to developers and run their own worlds and campaigns, all entirely without any ongoing cost. The best way to understand that, is to think of it as a digital D&D sourcebook – a toolkit to run whatever adventure one wished to make. The difference is, that with this, people didn’t just make personalised adventures and campaigns, they made what became some of first generation of truly persistent online RPG worlds.

Unfortunately, I’m not very familiar with the world of (digital) D&D. Are there any other projects like this? If so, what makes Arelith stand out?

Well as I said above, Neverwinter Nights was a toolkit (though also a single player ‘official’ campaign) that spawned a large amount of online D&D worlds. The title continued with  NWN2, and more recently ‘Neverwinter’ but both of them couldn’t match what the original offered; the sequel just didn’t offer as vast and adaptable toolkit, while the latter is very much a commercial FTP MMO that has very little in common with tabletop RPG.

Beyond that, D&D exists in countless RPG emulator sites, complete with dice, sourcebooks and video links to get a regular DM & players round a digital table. Arelith, and with it Neverwinter Nights, sits somewhere between that, and games like Neverwinter – You get the prettily rendered environment but it still very much an intimate RPG ‘tabletop’ experience.

I have to stress here that while Arelith is by far the most popular of the NWN servers out there, it is far from being the only quality option. The larger community is fantastic, and have produced some real gems. I don’t think anyone should pick Arelith without first checking out the others. When choosing an online RPG like this, yeah; it’s important to find the right one for your gaming style.

Are you guys still getting new players on a daily basis?

Very much so. Even before Beamdog launched an ‘Enhanced Edition of NWN Arelith was growing. There are always plenty of new players on Arelith.

Speaking of new players, how does one get started within the world of Arelith?

I would say you just log in and feel your way. Personally I’m a great fan of games that allow people to ‘dive right in’ and I hope that’s something we do a decent job of here at Arelith.

You guys recently launched a new server named Arelith PGCC (Pretty Good Character Creator) . What can you tell us about this new server?

The truth is that ‘diving right in’ isn’t for everyone. When a player makes a character they might find that they’re playing it for years, even decades, to come. So the PGCC exists for people to experiment. There they can make and level their character as they choose, testing its strengths and limitations against any number of enemies or in group PvP.

We had a different player made PGCC for a while, some years ago, but given the rate of development it can be hard for them to keep up if they wish to keep the mechanics ‘official’. This one is official, and we plan to evolve it into a full blown NWN ‘Arena’ environment, complete with various contests, events and its own unique system for earning ranks.

I have to say that I, personally, have no huge interest in a PGCC, or even an arena; In games like Arelith one generally has players who focus more upon the story and actual role-play, and those who are more attracted to the game mechanics. I’m definitely in the former of those groups, but I do think Arelith should cater to both, hence the new server.

The Arelith project depends on its writers, developers and writers. Something that’s being done on a voluntary basis. What can you tell us about the team?

Well there’s a lot of them, but they fall into two distinct groups. We have a around 20 ‘DMs’ there to be in game, either answering questions from player, resolving disputes, or more commonly running the actual adventures. The DMS are essential for keeping Arelith enjoyable, and running for all players. Then we have the developers; those making the actual world and its systems. Some developers, like myself, are more ‘creatives’ – making the actual areas and doing the writing, while others are developing (and improving) the many scripted systems that make the world what it is.

As you said they’re all volunteers, and from all walks of life, from zoo keeper (that’s not a euphemism for policing the server, we literally have one on staff) to professional game developers, network administrators or stay at home parents. However different, they’ve all fell in love with Arelith at some time in their past, and now give some of their time to help others do the same.

Are people able to contribute? Be it financially or gameplay/design/story related?

The story of Arelith is very much player focused, and it’s one of our founding principles that the narrative is ‘player-driven’ far more than it is guided by our DMs (Who tend to run isolated events), and really that is the single best contribution any player can make. It is their storytelling and commitment to the world that gives Arelith its sense of vibrancy and life. As for the actual development? Well all of our staff began as players, and so yes, people really can get involved.

For the ones who are new to (D&D) roleplay, can you pitch us some example campaigns?

While a lot of people may be new to classic D&D, very few are new to their notion of adventures and campaigns. These have really been the inspiration behind countless video games, and I think one can draw a direct line from the RPGs of the 70s and 80s to much of the modern world of gaming. Forty years ago one had to explain just was meant by an ‘interactive story’, whereas now I don’t think there is anyone that doesn’t understand the concept.

D&D though, like many RPGs is two different things – a rule set, and a world setting, for D&D the most popular setting is the Forgotten Realms. This is a ‘high fantasy/high magic’ environment that isn’t shy about appropriating its content from elsewhere. It’s a world where one can just as easily be plunged into a chthonic nightmare as cavorting with Tolkienesque elves in the Greenwood. Campaigns on Arelith are just as diverse, it could be anything from slowly building up a trade alliance with a dubious foreign power to crossing the Planes to battle a Lord of the Abyss.

I find the best campaigns are those that revolve around the players themselves, taking inspiration from their own writing and roleplay to create something far larger. If players are going to feel a connection to Arelith, they need to feel they have real agency to shape it – Arelith is still small enough to embrace that.

What are the rules on PVP? I imagine in a world like Arelith players spend weeks, months or even years on the development of their characters.

Well thankfully in the Forgotten Realms death is not the end. In addition to all the ressurection magic, the dead merely cross to another plane of existence ‘The Fugue Plane’, and can relatively easily return.

We don’t punish people TOO heavily for dying in  player combat, (that really only encourages a PvP based environment), but we do have rules to keep it as friendly as we can. You can only enter PvP with the same player once in 24 hours, and it must be preceded with some amount of roleplay. We also have the somewhat vaguely worded ‘Be Nice’ rule, so a player who routinely grieves others will soon be confronted by the staff. Once again this is something that we’re still (just about) small enough to do.

Does Arelith host any community events? Be it in-game or on the forums for instance.

We don’t do offline events, either on our forums or elsewhere, and we try to keep the game very much ‘in-game’. Events are indeed quite common, but as I mentioned in a previous answer most of what happens on Arelith is ‘player driven’ meaning that when events do happen, they are more often organised by the community rather than the staff.

That being said the larger DM Quests can become Server-wide events, particularly at their climax. We’ve also been known to mark dates like Halloween and April Fools Day with one-off ‘silly’ features. There was a zombie plague some years ago where once bitten players would transform and find themselves subject to bloodlust when confronted with the non-infected. A nice touch was that whenever the player tried to speak (which is done exclusively in text) whatever they typed came out as some form of the word of the “brains..’”

Personally I’ve wanted to organize an official Festival in one of our larger cities, to run over a 3 day weekend. Complete with jousting, performances and perhaps even some special appearances from some of the Forgotten Realms writers playing one of their creations. Time will tell with that though, I’ve quite enough on my plate as it is.

Looking back over all these years, what are some of the highlights/milestones?

While Arelith has a very large community, for most players I suspect the milestones and highlights are really quite personal. Something specific to their character, some moment of high adventure deep within a distant, forgotten dungeon.

For the server itself, I think the milestone was surviving the end of Gamespy. Before this, all NWN servers were listed and accessible to anyone with a copy of the game, once it shut down the only option was to search online for a list of servers, and direct connect to the address listed on their site. Needless to say this largely cripplied the community, and  sent most servers into a steady decline. Arelith didn’t just weather that crisis but eventually overcame it; returning to growth in numbers beyond what it had in the heyday of NwN.

More recently, of course, came the release of Beamdog’s NWN EE, which totally revitalised the community, and provided the multiplayer support lost when Gamespy went defunct. That this game is even in active development again is something I don’t think any of us ever thought possible…

What are you guys currently working?

This is perhaps the most interesting question in this interview, but it’ll take some explaining as to why…

Arelith was historically ‘Mod Free’ despite the fact that the Neverwinter Nights community has been producing modded content over the last decade and a half. Needless to say in terms of visual quality this is often far, far in excess of the original game. In some cases these resources bring the game forward a full decade from 2003.

We chose never to use it purely due to an awareness of how cautious players were to download external content, something that was especially true 15 years ago.

Times have really changed though, in 2019 gamers are entirely used and comfortable with attaching mods to their game, and now that Beamdog have introduced an automated downloader that launches when one connects to a server requiring mods, there is nothing to stop us.

This is a massive undertaking, as we not only pour over literally tens of thousands of player made resources so as to decide what to include, but also produce our own.

In the end we’re going to come out looking very different to today, and it’s taking a lot of our focus right now. I’m also engaged on a still under-wraps ‘official’ project for Ossian Studios, which I’d love to talk about but can’t!

I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that you guys have been going at it for 15 years now. Great stuff! Looking at your crystal ball, where do you see Arelith in let’s say, 5 years?

I don’t see us being so different in 5 years, in terms of Arelith that’s not so long at all. Many of the same people will still be with us (We tend to retain players for a VERY long time) and I’ll still have a list of projects I’m behind on or hoping to get to. I realised quite quickly with Arelith that it is something that will never be finished; in 5 years, 10, or even 15, there’ll still be a lot left to do.

Very important, how can players start playing on Arelith?

One needs a copy of the Neverwinter Nights Enhanced Edition from Beamdog, (something I must absolutely stress we have no official connection to, and do not in any way profit from the sales of the game) Then one simply finds Arelith in the list of servers and hits ‘connect’. As long as one is prepared to stay in-character while playing here then we’re open to just about anyone. And at the end of the day if we don’t suit your tastes then there are dozens of other community-made servers that might.

We always end our interviews with some tips for other (starting) communities out there. Do you feel like sharing some from your own experience?

There is so much I could say to this question, but one thing strikes me as by far the most critical for any community-based/indie-development of this kind – Make absolutely sure it is ALWAYS fun!

If staff aren’t having fun, then players certainly won’t. Picking up the keyboard to work on these things should be something to look forward to, and get excited about. It may sound odd that I’m even saying this, but I think anyone working on development of this kind will recognise that a project can become stressful, frustrating and time-consuming if you let it. I let all the staff know that they are not obliged to work or give their time to Arelith. That development is something to be done when one is inspired.

Also try to be professional as you can, but don’t feel you have to be perfectionist with it. A lot of projects die in development because they never leave it. Once a game has the momentum of an active player base behind it then development becomes a lot more rewarding.