Friday, September 2, 2011

Neverwinter Review: The Gem of the North Still Shines

I was really more of a Dragonlance fan back in my high school years, when I was first discovering Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. All of my friends were the ones fawning over Drizzt and Elminster and the rest. I never saw the appeal. I played games they ran set in Faerun, but I’ve still never read any of the novels, despite an earnest attempt. Really, it wasn’t until the third edition of D&D and the Neverwinter Nights PC game arrived that I discovered an interest in the Forgotten Realms. I collected many of the books, and played through all three Nights campaigns, multiple times. So when the Neverwinter Campaign Setting was announced, despite my skepticism about an entire campaign contained within a single city, my curiosity was nevertheless piqued.

It’s made clear from the first page that there is a focused premise to this setting. The city is in chaos. Or doing some teetering very close to it, at least. It’s being torn apart from the inside out, and there are hands on the outside helping it along as well. With the conflict necessary to move any story forward established, the stage is set for the PCs to move in and make their mark. Oh, and that’s been well thought of, too. But I’m getting ahead of myself and the book.

Because this is a somewhat unique beast, the book starts out by giving you a framework to build on. The authors are straightforward in telling you how this campaign setting is different from others, what they believe its strengths are, and how all of that applies to being a Dungeon Master or a player. This is a smart move. While the ideas are not necessarily new, putting them up front to help guide a new player (or someone like me who’s not immediately sure about how to approach a campaign in a city) is a great idea.

Even if you don’t want to spend every game session within the confines of the walls of Neverwinter, there is plenty of room to stretch your PCs legs. Much of what is covered in the Neverwinter Nights video games is covered and updated, here: from Port Llast south to the Mere of Dead Men, from Helm’s Hold east to Old Owl Well. Each of 20 locations apart from Neverwinter proper are given just enough attention to whet the appetite for adventure. The history of the region (especially important to a couple of the factions presented), and specific advice for Dungeon Masters on ways to approach the campaign is included as well.

Some of the juiciest bits in the book, though, are the new options presented for players. Thirteen new themes begin the PC chapter, and I think there’s something to appeal to almost every player here. Each theme is tailored to the setting, giving the characters immediate buy-in to the intrigue and strife going on in and around Neverwinter. The Harpers are finally given some love with their own theme (and a Harper pin!), the Red Wizards make an appearance, and we are given more options for players who wish to play spellscarred PCs. For those who wish some more direct ties to the city, there is a Neverwinter Noble theme, and one for the drow of Bregan D’aerthe. Many of these can fairly easily be re-skinned for use in non-Realms campaigns.

For extra added Realms flavor, the dwarves and elves of Faerun get six variant racial rules to distinguish them from their core rules cousins. Shield dwarves, moon elves, and wood elves are all here. I have to admit here that I’m not really familiar with the Essentials classes, and as such I’m not terribly familiar with warpriest domains but there are four new options in the book: Corellon, Oghma (seems an odd choice, but the god figures prominently in the campaign), Sune, and Torm.

Finally, there is the infamous Bladesinger, making its debut in 4e. It bears a striking similarity to the Swordmage, but some interesting twists distinguish this class. The Bladesinger is a Controller, and has access to typical wizard implements (and can use melee weapons as implements, too). Perhaps my favorite part of the class is its homage to previous editions. There are... tables! Spells learned and prepared! The details from here get a bit tricky, but the short version is that Bladesingers get three At-Will powers, and prepare a selection of Encounter powers as Daily powers. There are also additional class abilities gained as you level up, and both Paragon Path and Epic Destiny features but I’ll let you discover those. Overall, I like it and would love a chance to play one.

The rest of the book from here on is dedicated to running the campaign. There is a full chapter detailing over a dozen factions, their goals, relationships with other groups, and new monsters for each as well. Devils, wererats, and shades, oh my! And that’s just scraping the surface. Aboleths, anyone? Cult of the Dragon? Eladrin reclaimers? Yep, and more.

Oh, and then there’s the Gazetteer. Otherwise known as Chapter 4. Almost 100 pages long, the Gazetteer goes into great detail exploring “present day” Neverwinter. For those who have played the video games, there are some familiar locales: The Moonstone Mask is here, as is Castle Never, and the River and Blacklake Districts. But Neverwinter is a changed city. There are floating islands along the shoreline, now. One of which includes the aforementioned Mask. A huge chasm has torn through a quarter of the city. Two of the three bridges crossing the Neverwinter River have collapsed. Several establishments and locations of interest are given attention here, as well as countless sidebars with adventure hooks and suggested ties to PC themes.

Outside of Neverwinter itself, Helm’s Hold, Neverwinter Wood, and the lost dwarven city of Gauntlgrym await the PCs attention. The Hold harbors plaguechanged victims, while werewolves lurk outside its walls, and dangerous things roam the tunnels and crypts beneath the surface. In the Wood, eladrin work at restoring an ancient empire, Thayans work at nefarious purposes, and a remnant of once-mighty Netheril stirs. Those who find their way to the doors of the legendary dwarf city will find its interior populated by dark creatures, remnants of a once-great civilization, and more. Plenty of things to keep brave PCs busy!

Finally, there is Evernight. If the politics, threats, and pervasive, persistent peril of everyday Neverwinter isn’t enough to sate you, a quick trip to the Shadowfell should fix that problem right quick. Almost a caricature of evil, Evernight is Neverwinter’s reflection in the plane of shadow and death. And it has both in spades. The entire city is populated by undead, some intelligent and others mindless, and many willing and able to bring “food” over from Neverwinter.

I know I said “finally”, but that was before you make the connection between the Red Wizards and Neverwinter. Ten pages are given over to expanding the campaign to include Thay and the conflict between Szass Tam and the Netherese shades. A fine way to grow the game beyond the Heroic tier, which is the primary focus of the campaign.

All in all, it’s very impressive. The focus is tight but leaves room to breathe, the details lay a great foundation, and the new crunchy bits presented look like they’ll be fun to see in use. Oh, and I would be remiss if I did not mention the lovely dual-sided poster-map included at the back! Although I acquired my copy as a benefit of running D&D at Gen Con, the $39.95 MSRP is worth it. While I do have my quibbles (which are more qualitative than quantitative), this is a great book. And, yes, this is just one part of a marketing drive from Wizards of the Coast that includes the Neverwinter video game and novels by R.A. Salvatore, but I’ve already seen some popular D&D bloggers saying they want to start a Neverwinter campaign, and I can’t say that same bug hasn’t bitten me!

Note: All images are owned by Wizards of the Coast and are featured in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting book.

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