Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2011/08/15/tabletop-review-dungeons-dragons-neverwinter-campaign-setting/
Although Ravenloft is my favorite campaign setting from Dungeons & Dragons, the City of Neverwinter and the Sword Coast nearby it are where I’ve spent most of my D&D days. Whether it was playing in the first ever MMORPG in the early 1990s, creating adventures with the Aurora tool kit in 2002, or playing in a tabletop Forgotten Realms campaign, everything always comes back to Neverwinter. So when Wizards of the Coast decided to focus on a specific region of Toril, I wasn’t surprised Neverwinter was the chosen land (although part of me did think it might be Waterdeep). With the campaign setting hitting tomorrow, it’s time to see if Neverwinter is worth picking up, or if it’s just a supplement to the 2008 Forgotten Realms campaign setting.
First of all, Neverwinter clocks in at 223 pages with a full color glossy pages, a full fold-out map (that you do have to tear out of the book) and a very striking cover of a black dracolich squatting on the reminants of an old keep, now mostly washed away by the tide. It’s probably my favorite 4th Edition cover to date, but a good campaign setting needs more substance than style, so let’s crack the pages open.
Neverwinter consists of four chapters and an introduction. The first chapter, Jewel of the North is only about ten pages and it tries to cover the entire history of the Neverwinter region in that span. Don’t think that the book tries to flesh out every detail from first to third edition – it doesn’t. Instead it gives you a paragraph or two on twenty-one different important locations in the area, such as Neverwinter itself, Helm’s Hold, the Sword Mountains, Waterdeep and more. The chapter then completes itself with a “History of Conflict,” which gives a running timeline for the area, starting with -22,900DR up to the current year. This time line only takes up two pages, so again – there’s not a lot of detail there and longtime D&D players might be a bit miffed at the lack of history in this opening. It’s very truncated, but if you’ve been playing in the Forgotten Realms setting prior to this, you probably know most of the history by heart (or have old gaming books to fill in the blanks) and if you are new to Dungeons & Dragons with 4th Edition, you likely don’t care. Still, it would have been nice to have a more in-depth piece on what happened from the start of the Spellplague on other than a few novel series.
Chapter Two, Character Options is far meatier and it runs nearly seventy pages. The chapter can be divided into four sections: Character Themes, Racial Backgrounds, Warpriest Domains, and finally, a brand new character class known as the Bladesinger. We’ll take a VERY in-depth look at the character themes tomorrow in their own special feature, but the book gives you thirteen: Bregan D’aerthe Spy, Dead Rat Deserter (Wererat!), Devil’s Pawn, Harper Agent, Heir of Delzoun, Iliyanbruen Guardian, Neverwinter Noble, Oghma’s Faithful, Pack Outcast (Werewolf! ), Renegade Red Wizard, Scion of Shadow, Spellscarred Harbinger and Uthgardt Barbarian. I have mixed feeling on the themes ranging from “Holy hell, that’s awesome” for the lycanthropes and “Wow, that is pretty underwhelming” for the Red Wizard. For the former, I was really pleased to see Lycanthropes get their biggest “player character” push ever, while as a long time fan of Thay, I was disappointed to see how well, weak Red Wizards are in 4th Edition. I’m by no means a power gamer or stat min/max’er, but still, the Red Wizards seemed…far less impressive that I would have expected.
Choosing one of these themes (which the book all but insists that you do) gives you a new starting feature to lay on top of everything else your character would have, along with some additional features and optional powers you can pick up as you level up. Each Character Theme has specific class and race prerequisite, although many are merely suggestions instead of hard and fast rules ala AD&D (No halfing wizards!) When you choose a Character Theme as your specific background, you also get to add a +2 bonus to a specific skill related to said theme OR you can pick one of those background skills and add it to your class’s skill list and even become trained in it. Themes were something completely missing from the original 4th Edition books, and it’s interesting to see players getting some new stat and power bonuses. My only complaint is that several themes are unbalanced and it would have been nice to have more than thirteen. Perhaps twenty or so, Because of the imbalance, you’ll quickly see certain ones become prevalent over others.
Racial Variants provides two new Dwarf types to play as, along with four new Elf types. Of course, longtime D&D fans will recognize all of these and it’s nice to have these specific sub-races back with distinctions on how they differ from their generic counterparts. Say welcome back to Shield Dwarves, Gold Dwarves, Moon Elves, Sun Elves, Wild Elves and Wood Elves. Choosing any of these races instead of the standard dwarves, elves and Eladrin yet you change the languages, skills and benefits you would otherwise get. For example, a Gold Dwarf gets +5 to any saving throw involving psychic damage or psionics instead of Cast Iron Stomach while a Sun Elf gets +2 to Bluff and Insight instead of the standard bonuses to Arcana and History an Eladrin would otherwise have.
The four new Warpriest Domains are: Corellon, Oghma, Selene and Torm. While Torm and Corellon make sense to me, a Warpriest of Knowledge is a bit…odd to me. Same with a Warpriest of Selene. The book does try to justify these, but I still think someone like Bane, Cyric or even Kelemvor would be better suited to having a specific Warpriest theme after theme. Still, the book does give a slight guide on what Warpriest set from other D&D supplements can be used for a dozen or so other FR gods.
Chapter Two finishes off with the Bladesinger, which is very similar to the 2nd Edition AD&D Fighter/Mage dual class elf. This character class is only supposed to be used by Elves or Eladrin, but with some tweaking, it could make for a good swashbuckler human as well. We’ll cover the Bladesinger in detail on Wednesday but for now, I’ll say it is a pretty interesting class that lets you be both mage and warrior at once and some of their spells are old Gygaxian favorites.
Chapter 3, Factions and Foes is about fifty pages long and the title kind of says it all here. This is where you’ll find a lot of plot hooks around countries or organizations that will make up the majority of your antagonists in a Neverwinter setting. You’ve got Lord Neverember, The Abolethic Sovereignty, a cult of Asmodeus worshippers known as the Ashmadai, Thay, the Netherese, the Cult of the Dragon, the Harpers, Mind Flayers and more. Each section tells you about a faction’s goals, allies, enemies, relationships and more. You’ll also get stats for some monsters and NPCs here along with suggestions for possible encounters in each area. Neverwinter is pretty much populated by very low level characters and monsters – almost shockingly low in some areas. For example, Neverember is only a Level 7 Soldier while Valindra Shadowmantle, a lich and Thayan higher-up is only Level 9. Maybe it’s because I grew up with 1st-3rd Edition, but that really low to me and she’s the highest level NPC in the book. IF you have characters that have been playing for a while that you just want to move into Neverwinter for a change of pace, you’ll have to make up some new enemies or expect your players to steamroll through the region.
Examples of some of the cast and creatures you’ll find in Chapter 3 are: two aboleths, a grell(!), two kinds of Nothic, some devils, Unhallowed Wight, stats for undead members of the Neverwinter Nine (!), stats for Clariburnus Tanthal, Werewolf Stormcallers and more. Unfortunately, you’re not going to get any real Harper information which is really odd since neither the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting nor its Player’s Guide had any real information aside from “They broke up and the band is getting back together.” It would have been nice to see this FINALLY fleshed out. Aside from that minor quibble, Foes and Factions give both players and the DM a lot of story hooks and new enemies (maybe even allies?) to encounter in Neverwinter. It’s very well done and contains the kind of depth a lot of people were hoping to find in 4th Edition.
The final chapter of the book, Gazetteer takes up half the pages contained therein and it pretty much answers all the complaints people had about earlier 4th Edition Forgotten Realms publications. However the section doesn’t spend much, if any, time talking about the past – everything is in the present. So again, for those of you looking to bridge between third and fourth edition’s Neverwinter, there won’t be much here for you. For everyone else, CONTENT CONTENT CONTENT. You want legends about why Neverwinter stays warm even in a region where it should be freezing? You get TWO (not just the fire elementals heating the water one). Do you want to learn about all sorts of important locations and buildings within the city of Neverwinter? It’s here? Interested in the stats around the Lost Crown of Neverwinter, which the D&D Encounters are currently revolving around? They’re in here! Want your characters to learn secret special moves from Drizzt Do’Urden himself? You can! There is more detail about the area of Neverwinter in this book than previous 4th Edition campaign settings have given to entire WORLDS. For someone like myself who likes to read sourcebooks as much as play in them, this is wonderful.
There are a few minor annoyances I have with this chapter, like the Kraken and the obvious Clash of the Titans remake joke inserted into here a year or so too late. I also didn’t like how both chapters three and four spent emphasized the presence of Chartilifax the dragon…but then never give its stats. However, compared o in-depth information on things like The Dread Ring, the ecology of the Illithids in Gauntlgrym and more, the good really outweights the bad here.
The last thing to talk about is the art. It’s pretty hit or miss. I’ll admit I am one of those that preferred the art from the 2nd Edition AD&D error to what we currently get, but as I seem to be in the majority on that one, I wish Wizards would push the current D&D artists toward the level of quality we had “when I was a kid.” You whippersnappers today don’t know how good we had it! Seriously though, some of the art in the book is really good. I adore the cover of the campaign setting and there’s a piece where a Mind Flayer is eating a humanoid that is just disturbing. Most of the art in Neverwinter is amongst the best I’ve seen come out of 4th Edition, but all that comes to a grinding halt when you hit the end of the book. Specifically I’m talking about Evernight. Wow is the art here almost comically bad. Honestly I think that’s what they were going for, or at least I hope so. I look at things like the art for the Corpse Market and think either, “This is Evil Ernie awful!” or, “They honestly paid someone for this?” Again, the negatives I had with this campaign setting are very minor, and to be honest, Neverwinter is easily the best fourth edition book I’ve gotten my hands on so far, but when the art is bad, wow, it’s really bad. I’ve purposely tried to include what I found the best pieces to accompany this review.
Overall, while the Neverwinter Campaign Setting has a few minor issues, the overall book is a wonderful one from beginning to end. It’s honestly the best product I’ve seen Wizards of the Coast put out for 4th Edition so far and I honestly think if this version of Dungeons & Dragons had started out with products this strong, the backlash against leaving the d20 system wouldn’t have been so severe. If you’re playing 4th Edition at all, this is well worth picking up. If you’ve been putting off 4th Edition for a myriad of reasons, this is the campaign setting to start with. If the rest of the Nerverwinter theme products coming out are just as good as this one, than Wizards has a sure fire success on its hands. If you’ve picked it up, by all means, let’s talk about it.
Join us back here at Diehard GameFAN each day this week as we take a more in-depth look at some of the specific sections in Neverwinter. Tuesday we tackle the Character Themes, Wednesday is the Bladesinger, Thursday are actual stats of monsters and NPCs and Friday we’ll finish things off with the Warpriests. To learn more about Neverwinter and all the products surrounding it, visit ExploreNeverwinter.com. To learn more about Dungeons & Dragons, visit the official home page. Finally to buy a video game based on Neverwinter using 3rd Edition rules, you can buy Neverwinter Nights: Diamond Edition from GOG.com for only $9.99.