This is a repost of a review I wrote back in 2011, but didn’t post on my blog.
A long time ago, I was a Forgotten Realms fan. The release of the original Grey Box set was a revelation, and the ongoing series of FR supplements which added detail (and maps) to the setting were fabulous. Admittedly, looking back at them now, the quality could be a bit haphazard, but at least they kept producing the maps – all in the same format, and they’d all join together to create this massive map of the Realms.
Then TSR stumbled, and (a) stopped producing the maps, and (b) started interfering with the core Realms experience too much – with “events” such as Maztica and the Horde. With those releases, a bare three years after I became a fan of the setting, I lost interest quickly. I returned to Greyhawk, and despite fans calling the 3E setting book the greatest ever (and I did buy the book), I remained unconvinced. I remained unconvinced even through the blowing up of the Realms in 4E and the advancement of the timeline by about 100 years.
This year, Wizards returned to the setting with a campaign book for a small portion of it: the Neverwinter Campaign Setting. And it’s impressed me as much as the original release of the setting did. This is a much greater achievement, as I’m two decades older and grumpier, and I’ve got a lot more experience with D&D products. Yes, this is that good.
It helps that it has glorious cover art (by Ralph Horsley), and the production values throughout are excellent. Thirty artists have their work featured in this product, and though not all of it appeals to me, it’s of a pretty good standard. (Not outstanding, but good). I will note that all artists are also credited for their work on the page it appears, something that Wizards does pretty well.
The book is quite interesting in its approach: it’s unashamedly for heroic level adventures. Wizards has gotten a lot of rightful flak recently for ignoring epic level adventures, but for this supplement I think they’ve made the right call. I really enjoy high-level campaigns, but this supplement makes the heroic campaign work really well. It’s worth excerpting their sidebar on Killable Villains for part of why it works:
“Many settings describe their greatest villains as epic threats. Although this might be an adequate representation of these characters’ powers, the effect can often be to make players feel as though their efforts to defeat such villains will never bear fruit until they attain epic levels themselves. Until then, the heroes remain trapped in conflict with a seemingly limitless supply of underlings.
“For this reason, the villains presented in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting can be defeated by characters of the heroic tier. Some will make tough opponents at 10th level, but the heroes always have a chance to win.
“If you see your Neverwinter campaign as continuing into the paragon and epic tiers – or if you prefer that the villains be more true to your vision of them as great powers – feel free to increase the villains’ levels, devise new game statistics for them, or utilize existing high-level statistics that fit the concept.
“Similarly, some villains don’t a have a full statistics block to represent them, instead advising that you use an existing statistics block. When this is the case, feel free to substitute any other statistics more in keeping with your sense of the campaign.”
Neverwinter was a thriving city back in the glory days before the Spellplague, but a volcanic eruption devastated the city. The Neverwinter Campaign setting looks at the efforts to rebuild the city, and the various forces that help or oppose that effort – or have other designs in the vicinity of Neverwinter.
Player Characters in Neverwinter
Neverwinter makes excellent use of the Character Themes mechanics that were introduced in the Dark Sun campaign setting. The concept behind the themes – adding a very slight boost to character power whilst providing a campaign role and background – works exceptionally well in this book, especially as the designers have selected thirteen interesting backgrounds.
It’s not just that the backgrounds are interesting (and a full page is given over to each one), but that the mechanics are mostly well executed as well. They are at their most striking when they subvert your expectations of what to expect in 4e. For instance, the Dead Rat Deserter – a member of a Luskan thief/wererat gang who’s on the run – can turn into a rat from first level as an at-will power!. Sure, being a rat doesn’t give you great combat power (you can’t attack, but you’re really small and inconspicuous), but it’s one of those “Wow, that’s cool!” moments. Certainly we felt that way when we played in the Neverwinter Game Day and discovered one of the PCs had this ability.
The themes each also provide a reason for why you’re an adventurer in Neverwinter. None of them are “stay at home” types. Nor are all their goals completely compatible. Whether you’re a drow spy from the Underdark, or a Devil’s Pawn, confused and scared after a cult ritual went awry, or a Neverwinter Noble who is secretly descended from the old ruling family, you’ll start with purpose and hooks to take you into the Neverwinter campaign.
Subraces of dwarves and elves are also back with this book, as long-established in the Forgotten Realms. The dwarves get the Gold Dwarf and the Shield Dwarf, whilst the elves get the Moon Elf (Eladrin), Sun Elf (Eladrin), Wild Elf and Wood Elf. You get to choose slight variants on your racial abilities, and descriptions and roleplaying tips are given for each subrace.
Rather more exciting are the new domains for the warpriest (and, as a result, new powers for the cleric). These ones are linked specifically to a deity (and suggestions of domains for other deities are also given. The four new domains are linked to Corellon, god of archery and the elves, Oghma, god of knowledge, Selune, goddess of the moon, and Torm, god of duty. It’s always nice seeing new powers, but I want to draw special attention to Corellon’s domain powers: He adds at-will weapon ranged attacks (and encounter powers of the same sort). The cleric archer is suddenly a possibility, and it makes me very happy.
We also get a new class: the Bladesinger. How this is handled is very unusual: it’s a wizard variant. The Bladesinger is mostly a melee character, using Intelligence as their attack score, but they can cast spells through their blade. Primarily they use basic attacks and special at-will attacks that are added to the basic attack known as bladespells. So, a Bladesinger might hit with his longsword and deal additional radiant damage and inflict a penalty to hit on the creature.
However, the Bladesinger also gains a selection of daily powers which are wizard encounter powers. To say this is unusual understates the case, but looking over the class it seems to work – and the Bladesinger seems to be a very competent character in its own right. It’s an arcane controller, but a very unusual one. I’d love to play one to see how it works.
Factions and Foes
The DM side of things is primarily looking at the various conflicts and intrigues occurring in Neverwinter, and the personalities and factions who are behind that. It’s worth providing the summary from the book to give you an idea of what’s available:
New Neverwinter: Lord Dagult Neverember is laboring to secure and rebuild Neverwinter.
Abolethic Sovereignty: A sect of the powerful aberrant dynasty is devoted to manipulating a pocket of Spellplague beneath the city.
Ashmadai: A cult of Asmodeus worshippers is bent on dominion in the region.
Thayans: Servants of Szass Tam seek to use the region’s magic to raise an undead army.
Netherese: The Shadovar intend to raise an important fallen enclave hidden in Neverwinter Wood.
Other Neverwinter Factions: A fractured band of rebels is fighting Neverember’s rule, and a war party of orcs is occupying part of the city. Meanwhile, many other groups of note are also scheming in Neverwinter.
Other Factions in the Wood: A tribe of Uthgardt barbarians is splintering violently. Angry eladrin have returned from the Feywild to a ruined world. And Cult of the Dragon members are unwittingly aiding the Thayan cause.
Denizens of Gauntlgrym: Monsters haunt the lost dwarven city, while duergar dig deep beneath it and drow plot to dominate it. Meanwhile, illithids are reclaiming their holdings in the depts, and elemental beings flock to the buried primodial that burns at Gauntlgrym’s heart.
One could hardly accuse Wizards of not providing adventure opportunities in Neverwinter! However, the strength of this section of the book isn’t just the description of the various factions, but it’s how they’re detailed: each faction has a number of monsters from the Monster Manuals (and Vaults) that are associated with it. These are listed in handy tables. Goals are given for each faction, along with the stat blocks of important individuals. There are also discussions of what happens if certain important individuals die and also suggestions for what each group might do. Also, quite usefully, the factions relationships with each other are considered.
It’s very much worth emphasizing that this book doesn’t dictate which portions of it you use. To use all the factions at once is likely to be extremely difficult. Instead, you’re encouraged to use what interests your players. If they’re using the themes for their characters, they’re going to have hooks into some of the current conflicts.
The Neverwinter Campaign Setting doesn’t do the work of creating adventures for you: but it certainly does help with inspiring adventures, and then giving you tools to create those adventures.
Locations of the Setting
Apart from the descriptions of options available to the heroes and for their allies and opponents, the other third of the book is devoted to looking at locations in Neverwinter and the surrounding wilderness. The book doesn’t go exhaustively into detailing each location, but instead picks out a few highlights and keeps on giving help for adventures: special tricks, treasures, NPCs and the like.
About half of the chapter is devoted to the city, but there also sections on Neverwinter Wood, Gauntlgrym, the lost city of the dwarves. There’s also a section on the Shadowfell, and this is particularly noteworthy.
In the Shadowfell, the volcanic unrest that devastated Neverwinter never stopped: the town of Evernight, a dark twin of Neverwinter, set in the Burning Woods and with a river of lava running through its centre, is home to maddened necromancers, dark cultists, and more than a few undead. I’m not sure of what would motivate the PCs to visit Evernight – most likely something dire – but it’s going to be a memorable visit.
This section also touches on the nation of Thay, whose intrigues have such an impact on Neverwinter. It’s not a long section, but it does touch on a few areas of interest.
If this setting had been published in 2008, a lot of the complainers about 4E being only for roll-players and not role-players would have been satisfied. I find this an inspirational setting, which aids the DM and players in creating a campaign with all the elements of a superior RPG experience.
Of course, it wasn’t, and part of that reason is because the book benefits greatly from the experience of the past three years. It displays D&D 4E as a mature system: with the lessons of the past having been taken note of and used to fashion a superior product. The mechanics benefit greatly from the overhaul given to the system in D&D Essentials, and other such innovative products.
The fact is that if you don’t like the 4E system, the mechanics in this book aren’t likely to change your mind. However, the book is relatively mechanics light. Most of the game rules are in the character section of the book, and even that has a lot of roleplaying information for characters. So, if you’re playing in a fantasy RPG, it might be worth picking up this book just for inspiration.
The most frustrating thing about this book for me is that it’s not a book about the Free City of Greyhawk. I’d love to see my favourite campaign setting get such a product. However, at least I’m getting the chance to run some Neverwinter action with the D&D Encounters and the D&D Lair Assault programs.
If you’re looking for a campaign setting with plenty of material to inspire you, the Neverwinter Campaign Setting is a good place to look. Matt Sernett, Erik Scott de Bie and Ari “Mouseferatu” Marmell have done a superlative job here. If you get this book, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have.