I have a long history with the fictional town of Neverwinter. The first MMORPG I ever played was Neverwinter Nights, back on AOL. I adored the first Neverwinter Nights stand-alone PC game, and, whenever I got a Forgotten Realms product, I would smile when I saw Neverwinter mentioned. My city, I would always think.
When the Forgotten Realms campaign guide for 4E came out, the first section I flipped to was the North, waiting to see what changes had occurred in Neverwinter. I was shocked to find that Neverwinter had been destroyed in the years of the Spellplague. My city? Destroyed? A sad fate!
So when I heard that the new campaign setting for 4E in 2011 was going to be Neverwinter, I blinked. How did that work? We already had a Forgotten Realms campaign setting. Why did Neverwinter get its own book? And wasn’t it destroyed?
Having now read the new Neverwinter Campaign Setting, I’m pleased to say that my city is back.
I’m going to try to review this book without giving away too many of the details that make this setting exciting. As many of the Campaign Setting books do, this one begins with an overview of what defines the setting and sets it apart.
Neverwinter is meant to be a low-level campaign. All of the threats presented within are threats that can be tackled within the Heroic tier of play; none of the major villains are unassailable epic powers. The book encourages the DM to begin a new campaign, with characters built at first level, and makes good use of the Character Theme rules that first popped up in Dark Sun to give characters flavor and to tie them immediately to the setting.
The game has a frontier feel. There is law and order, but it’s harsh and rather arbitrary. Like most of 4E Forgotten Realms, one shouldn’t expect Elminster to pop up and save the day; the characters are on their own, and they can make a major difference.
The game has a heavy intrigue feel. Many major NPCs are not what they seem, or serve masters other than the ones they publicly proclaim for. Even the most public and obvious stabilizing force in the region has an agenda and may be someone the PCs decide must be removed.
All in all, the book presents a dangerous place, currently in a very delicate balancing act. Even the slightest push could start events in motion, and, once they begin, it’s likely to be a roller coaster ride.
Let Me Tell You About My Character
There’s a lengthy section on creating a character which gives lots of interesting new options. In the Dark Sun book, 4E introduced the idea of a Character Theme. This has been presented as something just as important as race and class, and it is used to excellent effect here. Each theme provides not only powers and abilities, but also a motivation to be adventuring in Neverwinter, information your character possesses about the setting, and later plot tie-ins. Sidebars in later sections have information about how to tie the various themes into people, events, places, and adventures that the region offers.
This section provides other options, such as rules for playing Gold Dwarves, Shield Dwarves, Moon Elves, Sun Elves, Wild Elves, and Wood Elves by varying racial abilities from the norm (and including plenty of role-playing tips for these variants). It provides special Clerical Domain rules, with Domains based on specific deities, rather than on elements like Sun and Storm. And it introduces a new Wizard build, the Bladesinger, which harkens way back to my 2nd Edition days. The Bladesinger looks like a pretty kick ass class variant, and I may have to create one in the near future to give it a try.
There then follows a length chapter on Factions and Foes. This is the real meat and potatoes of the book, and it’s extremely well developed. The new Neverwinter is a place where various factions are vying to become the power in the city. Some factions are very overt. Lord Neverember, the current open lord of Waterdeep, has come to the city and declared himself Lord Protector. The Sons of Alagondar are a rebel faction who see him as an outsider and want to return to self-governance. The Uthgardt Barbarians are raiders in the wilderness. Other factions are much more secretive, such as the Harpers, a group of devil-worshipping cultists, the necromancers of Thay, the shadow-powered Netherese, and a certain sovereignty of aberrations who shall remain nameless.
Each faction’s section lays out history, goals, the faction’s relationships to the other factions, potential encounters (and where to find those monsters in other sourcebooks), and major NPCs (including stat blocks). Each section is also liberally sprinkled with sidebars offering suggestions theme tie-ins, potential adventure hooks, and choices the DM might wish to make. For example, Lord Neverember could be purely driven by profit, but he might be someone with a legitimate claim to the throne of Neverwinter, and he might be someone who could learn to put the good of the people first. It’s up to the DM to decide if he’s ultimately a villain, a hero, or a mixture of both. This uncertainty means that, even if a player picks up a copy of the book, they aren’t going to know every secret of the campaign, because every DM’s campaign will be different.
Location, Location, Location
There then follows a lengthy gazetteer section. Naturally enough, this includes a very detailed look at Neverwinter itself, with break-downs of the different districts, and descriptions of important locations, such as the Moonstone Mask, an intrigue-laden inn build on a floating chunk of rock, anchored to the city by heavy chains, Castle Never, which has become a monster-filled dungeon in the middle of the city, the Shard of Night, a floating tower hanging over the city that casts no shadow, and the Beached Leviathan, a tavern run by an ex-pirate out of a building fashioned from his ship. This section also includes a very lengthy chunk about the areas under Neverwinter. We do love our urban dungeons, after all.
It also looks at locations nearby, such as the town of Helm’s Hold, which is acting as a sanctuary for those afflicted with the Spellplague, Neverwinter Wood, where the powers of Thay and Netheril pursue their own dangerous agendas, the lost dwarven city of Gauntlgrym, which is ready to be the Moria of your campaign, Evernight, the Shadowfell version of Neverwinter, and, of course, much much more.
Like the rest of the book, this section has great ideas on adventures, encounters, and ways to tie-in the various character themes. A DM could run a dozen campaigns from this material, let alone a single Heroic tier one.
This book is fantastic, but one thing it really doesn’t help with is to think about what happens beyond Heroic tier play. A clever DM can see where certain threads (the Thayans, the Netherese) could lead away from Neverwinter and keep a story going, but there’s not a lot of advice on how to do so. Given that the book’s goal is to present a complete setting for the Heroic tier, I can understand this, but it seems like something of a flaw to me.
I also have one big complaint about this book, or, more specifically, about the setting. I’ve heard it before. At the core of the story is the destruction of Neverwinter, which was ruined when lava flowed through it. The cause of this? Well, the most immediate cause was a fiery primordial imprisoned under the ruins of Gauntlgrym.
Fiery demon-god under a lost dwarven city that’s become over-run with monsters? Yeah. It’s a little *too* Moria for my tastes.
I suspect Gauntlgrym and the even-more painfully named Mount Hotenow (enow is an older English term for enough, so the mountain’s name is literally Hot Enough) are creations of R. A. Salvatore. He may be a best-selling author, but he sure comes up with some memorable but groan-worthy names for things. A sword called Twinkle? Kind of hard to be scared of. A white dragon named Icingdeath? I remember a reviewer saying that he thought that sounded like a diabetic’s worst nightmare.
But I digress.
Do I Recommend This Book?
Now, even with my long history of affection for the city, I’ve never set an adventure there, principally because I prefer making my own home-brewed campaigns to running stories in someone else’s setting. But this book might be the one that makes me change my mind.
Even if I never run a Neverwinter campaign, this book is insanely valuable to me. It’s full of story ideas, monster stat blocks (including lower-level versions of many classic monsters), a new class, new themes, memorable locations (I might very well pluck the Beached Leviathan out of the setting and put it in the game), and even has a few new magic-items.
I would, without a doubt, recommend this book to DMs who want to run a Heroic campaign in a dynamic setting. It could be run as a rollicking series of dungeons, a campaign of urban intrigue, and more. I would also recommend it, in general, as an excellent handbook for how to craft a limited-focus campaign setting. And it certainly has enough material for DMs not planning on running such a game to plumb for ideas and challenges.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
My copy of this book was graciously provided to me by Gator Games of San Mateo, CA. They can be found online at http://www.gatorgames.com. While the book was provided for free, all opinions on it are my own. I very much appreciate Gator Games sponsoring this article. Thanks!
Do you have history with Neverwinter? Have you read a copy of this campaign setting and wildly disagree with me? Are you going to be running a game in the setting soon? Let us all know.
CONTEST BONUS: If you’ve gotten to the end of this review, you are clearly serious about Neverwinter. Leave a comment below about why you’re excited about Neverwinter and you’ll earn an extra entry into the contest. But shhhh, it’s our little secret, only for folks who read to the bottom of this review! Contest entries close on 9/2/11 at 11:59 pm EST. A winner will be drawn at random and announced on Monday 9/5/11.