NewbieDM Review: Neverwinter Campaign Setting

Posted on August 20, 2011 by

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I’ll start this review by telling you that I’ve never been a huge Forgotten Realms guy, although I love the older Forgotten Realms products.  I’ve owned the boxed sets, source books and a few novels from the 2e era of the Realms.  I even own the 3e forgotten Realms book, even though I played very little 3e and when I did it was never in Ed Greenwood’s creation.  So with that out of the way, lets get to the subject of this review, WOTC’s latest 4e release, Neverwinter.

This book is just one cog in the wheel that is Neverwinter, which includes novels, a videogame (now delayed) , comics, and more.  And right when you open the book, you’re told that with an ad.  A perforated insert that you can tear off and throw away.  It was a little bizarre to see that as part of the book, but I guess I understand why it’s there.  And honestly, it came right off and I forgot about it.  But I did find it odd and somewhat out-of-place.

But what about the book?  Well, it’s a typical 4e hardcover book, and I found it interesting that in the back it not only mentions the Essentials books, but also the core Player’s Handbooks and DM Books as well.  For a while it seemed as if WOTC wanted to pretend those older books never existed, so it was nice to see them mentioned.  The last book listed as one to use with Neverwinter?  The Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide.

At 223 pages, it is a nice sized hardcover, four chapters long, with both new and recycled art sprinkled throughout the book.  It also includes a double side poster map of both the city of Neverwinter and its counterpart in the Shadowfell, Evernight.  The map is by Mike Schley, whose work I really, really like. The book is written by Matt Sernett, Ari Marmell, and Erik Scott de Bie.

The book begins by describing what a Neverwinter campaign should be like, and at the top of the list is “Low Level”.  Neverwinter is meant for the heroic tier of play, and the book has all challenges and enemies presented as such.  I can’t really complain too much about this, as Heroic is my favorite tier of play, but for many DM’s out there, this may be a concern.  To me this says that Neverwinter is a “wrap up our current game and start over” type book.

So lets look a bit at the chapters:

Chapter 1:  Jewel of the North

The Neverwinter Campaign Setting begins in the year 1479, same year as the Forgotten Realms books released a few years ago, so they have not advanced the timeline at all.  What they did do was cause further damage to Neverwinter following the Spellplague (the event that 4e’d the Realms) by ways of a volcano.  The city now lies in ruin, and is being reconstructed by Lord Neverember, Open Lord of Waterdeep, the self styled Lord Protector of the city.

So the first chapter describes a bit of the territory around the city, and the general northern area.  There’s also a bit of the history of the area, along with hints of what to include in a Neverwinter campaign.  At nine pages, it is a very short chapter, but focused enough to get a good feel for what a Neverwinter game should look like.

Chapter 2: Character Options

This is the player’s part of the book, and one of my favorites.  Character themes for Neverwinter are introduced.  Themes in 4e have become a third component behind race and class in the definition of a character, and these are pretty specific to Neverwinter, but they are filled with plenty of story that both the player and the DM can use in crafting stories outside of the setting with just a bit of work.  In my opinion, themes should have been part of the 4e rule set since the beginning, and as far as I’m concerned they are a welcome addition to the game.  Anything that helps with storytelling is, as far as I’m concerned.

For those not familiar with themes and what they offer, here’s the deal.  They give a character story hooks, like the Neverwinter Noble.  His ultimate goal is to reclaim Neverwinter, as he’s the true heir.  Unfortunately for the Neverwinter Noble, the city has a Lord Protector, and he’s not going away just because a noble decides to show up and cause trouble.  Great story hook from the get-go, and it’s written into the theme.  Then the character also gains powers and features.  So the theme sits like a template on top of a class, and some have prerequisites for race and class.  Also, the powers only go up to level 10, these themes do not provide any Paragon or Epic benefit.  There are 13 themes include, which gives a party plenty of options to choose from, and even if PC’s die during the campaign, a theme need not be repeated.

As is common in the Forgotten Realms, there are different types of Elves and Dwarves, and in this book we get Gold and Shield Dwarves, along with Moon, Wild, and Wood Elves.  These subraces allow you to swap out standard racial traits with some of these new benefits, like the Gold Dwarf’s +5 vs. Psychic damage.  All the subraces also come with roleplay descriptions as well.

The chapter is rounded out with four new domains for the Essentials Cleric, or the Warpriest, and with a new class build, the Wizard Bladesinger.  The Bladesinger is an Int and Dex based Arcane Controller.  To be honest, I thought about the Swordmage when I read this.  What’s the deal with sword-using mages in the Realms?  Is the class good?  I don’t know, I’m not really reading this book for classes.

In this chapter my favorite thing were the themes.  Themes provide you, the DM, with ready-made story hooks for each of your party members, so what’s not to like?  I would definitely try to squeeze as much out of them if I were running a Neverwinter game here at home.  Themes would certainly be a part of my game.

Chapter 3:  Factions and Foes

Neverwinter is highly sought after, and this chapter details all of the forces seeking to claim it as theirs.  For each faction we get goals, relationships with other factions, and encounters.  The encounters are not fully fleshed out though, instead we get a chart with a list of creatures from previous monster books, and are told that any of those creatures are suitable to use when dealing with that particular faction.  Now we do get plenty of stat blocks for certain creatures though, so it’s not all charts and referencing other books, but I would have liked to have seen fully fleshed out encounters with maps using the newer tiles sets.  Instead we get none of that.  We get 33 new monster stat blocks, with quite a few of those actually being named NPC’s that could serve as final boss encounters for whatever direction you’d like to take your campaign in.

If the book had a Monster Manual equivalent, this chapter is it.  There are also themes include for monsters, which are basically templates with powers and traits to add to a stat block, and would convert a monster into a suitable representation of the faction whose theme you are using.

Chapter 4: Gazeteer

This is the book’s longest chapter, where different locations and personalities are described, along with ways to include the PC’s in the action through their themes.  This is why I like the themes so much, because they aren’t just introduced and then forgotten, but rather are referenced throughout the book for story ideas and inspiration.

Another surprising inclusion in the book is a reference to the DMG 2′s Grandmaster Training.  I’ve been a fairly vocal critic of WOTC pretty much forgetting that they introduced boons in the DMG2, and I’m glad to see them here.  The only downside is that they are linked to Drizzt, which may or may not play well at your table if introduced.  I know my players would find it cheesy, but the boons can be reskinned easily enough to be taught to the PC”s by anyone else.

While there are some small pieces of crunch in this chapter, like diseases and Skill Challenges, this chapter is all about fluff.  Nobody can claim that WOTC skimped out on story telling and role-play opportunities with this book, and if they tell you otherwise, they are lying.   That’s why I like the book so much, because it strikes a perfect combination of mechanics and story, to create a living campaign setting.

Up until now, my favorite 4e source book was Underdark.  You can read my review of that book here.  While I still maintain that Underdark is a great campaign book, I like this one more, and it has replaced it as my favorite 4e sourcebook.  It hits all the right notes for me:

  • Heroic Tier
  • Story hooks
  • Classic D&D locale
  • Poster Map

Sure, there are some things I don’t care for, like the included ad in the front, the charts referencing encounters instead of including them with some cartography, and yet another mage with a sword, but overall the book is solid.  For DM’s that have trouble crafting stories or campaigns, this is a good entry point to the Forgotten Realms.  The way that I would use it, for example, is to create an episodic campaign, with a definite ending.  So for example, if one of the players is using the Neverwinter Noble theme, I know that the party will end up confronting Lord Neverember for the throne, and while that’ll be the focus, the other players will get their theme goals taken care of as well.

I’d probably outline a 15-20 session campaign, plan it out with some detail, and jump in.  It definitely feels as a campaign that would have a set ending leading into Paragon, when the heroes would (presumably) leave Neverwinter anyway towards bigger and badder adventures.

Do I recommend it then?  Yes, I do.  I liked it more than the Forgotten Realms 4e books, and it’s up there for me with Underdark as my top sourcebook for a 4e campaign.


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Neverwinter Campaign Guide

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Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale

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Posted in: 4e D&D, Gaming