Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Musings on Neverwinter
I have a case of incorrect expectations.
I was thinking of this as a sort of super-adventure, similar to Revenge of the Giants or Tomb of Horrors 4E, with some additional setting material. It is not that, and to be fair to WOTC they didn't really say that it was going to be that. Bad on me.
What it is is a regional campaign setting centered around the half-ruined city of Neverwinter. There are maps of the city, the region, and some potential adventuring sites in the area. There are descriptions of various power groups in the area (there are a lot of them) including their leaders and agendas. There's is a lot of crunchy player stuff like Character Traits, deity-specific domains for the Essentials cleric, and mechanical bits for the various Forgotten Realms sub-races that were not a mechanical part of 4E before now. There are quite a few new monsters in the book, usually tied to certain groups or areas where they might be found, and that's cool.
There are no ready-to-run adventures, though. Not one. No gridded maps, no "Encounter 1-A The Dig Site" type pages in the whole book. That's what I was thinking would be included and is not. My linking of this to the earlier Pool of Radiance adventure settings was flawed as those included a ton of small adventures and this book includes none, which is where it falls down for me.
I don't really need a hyper-detailed area to run in - I like to do that kind of thing myself. I thought the 4E FR Campaign Guide handled this kind of thing pretty well, as it gave a write-up of a small town, gave short overviews of a region and the features therein, and then gave a starter adventure and some individual encounters tied to the area and the NPC's in that area. It took up one chapter in the book and was pretty handy IMO. I was expecting something more like that approach. Instead, if you took that chapter and expanded it to fill an entire book, while simultaneously deleting the actual encounters, that's the Neverwinter Campaign Guide. It is very nicely done, and if someone is looking for a detailed region to start up a Realms campaign in then this one will certainly fill that need. It's just not the fit for my needs that I thought it would be.
My problem is that I can write up what lives in the local haunted forest in an hour or so at night or maybe even on a slow day at work. Until my players investigate it I can revise and refine as I choose to make it fit them and the current state of my campaign as needed. What I can't do in between other things is write up the numbers - I have to make time to sit down with monster books to do that. That's where the time or lack of it really comes in. That's why I like having a few pre-made adventures or encounters available and why things like those big adventures and the Dungeon Delve book are so useful. I can easily find a place to put them and a way to connect them to the overal campaign, and in a pinch they save me the time it takes to draw up maps, pick out the right enemies, and choose treasure and magic items. Background and connections are much easier to determine during the course of a grown-up working day, yet that's the majority of the stuff that Neverwinter gives me.
I am also not a huge fan of the "let's work in everything" approach to the setting. It has scheming nobles from Waterdeep. It has old dwarf kingdoms and old elf kingdoms. It has a band of Drow mercenaries (yeah, that same one if you've read any of the mid to later Drizzt books). It has Red Wizards. It has Harpers. It has a bunch of undead.It has aboleths (organized aboleths!). It has Netheril (which I don't really care for in a low-level setting as I think they represent a higher-powered threat that's better addressed in the teen-to-twenty levels). Some might call it "rich" while I might call it "overloaded". It feels like it's straining to work in as many FR groups/threats as possible. It's a matter of taste and I tend to run my Realms games with a lighter sprinkling of that kind of stuff than others do, I suppose. For me it starts with the gods, the races, and the geography at the core and then the rest can be used as lighter or heavier flavor. As I've mentioned, not neccessarily wrong, just not completely to my taste.
I'm also a bit down on the lack of adventures due to the lack of shared experiences it generates. What I'm talking about is the post-game story part of the playing experience. Pretty much anyone who played Basic D&D at some point played through The Keep on the Borderlands. I would guess a big percentage, if not a flat-out majority, of players of AD&D played through Against the Giants. A bunch probably played through White Plume Mountain and Tomb of Horrors too. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was legendary. Other games had this too - Many d6 Star Wars campaigns I have heard of started off with "Tatooine Manhunt". A lot of Runequest games started with "Apple Lane" then died in "Snake Pipe Hollow" or "Griffin Island/Mountain". Shadowrun had "Harlequin" among others. What is the legendary adventure for 4E? Is it "Keep on the Shadowfell"? Revenge of the Giants? I'm not sure, but if Neverwinter had included a set of adventures to use in a regional Heroic campaign it might have been the one. The type of thing where meeting another gamer ofr the first time and the talk turns to AD&D and Tomb of Horros and the four-armed gargoyle - "oh we killed him in one round!" - "Wow our M-U used Charm monster and we took him around as a trap detector the rest of the way" - that kind of thing where you get a little bonding from having played through something that someone else did too, even if you never played it together. It's a part of the RPG scene that I really like and I probably see it as more important than a lot of others do.
The factional stuff is a big chunk of the book and is pretty heavily tied in to the regional discussions so that you really have to read the whole thing through to get a good picture of what;s going on. It's...goood... but I think it's where the book goes particularly overboard. There are 10-15 factions in play, depending on how you want to count them, and some are under another's control, some are unaware of others, some are opposed to each other, and some have their own sub-factions. The core of it is the noble from Waterdeep who has come to the city with his mercenaries and an agenda and the local citizens who oppose his rule and have formed a resistance movement. That movement has been split into two factions, both groups have been infiltrated by devil-worshippers, some of them have been mind-controlled by aboleths, all are watched by the red wizards and the shades from Netheril, and there are other groups outside of the city proper who have ties to and opinions about many of the others. They are all webbed together to the point that I wonder if any of them could be easily removed from play without revamping a bunch of the connections. The two human factions are pretty critical to the setting as written, as are the aboleths beneath it, and some of the others keep each other in check so that if you have one you need several to maintain the balance The full spread of groups though is pretty wide, and in my experience wider than most groups are likely to need. In fact, trying to work in all of the potential plotlines and connections is likely to render players confused to the point of frustration as they try to puzzle out which group of evil magical types is infiltrating the guard AND kidnaping citizens AND ambushing patrols AND running the graveyard AND smuggling things in through the old docks etc. Shadowrun is good for that sort of thing but I'm not sure a DnD game really needs so much of it. A DM could ignore it, but considering how much of the book it makes up that seems like a waste. I expect that I would throw a few things out to a new party. see what catches their interest, and then focus on those, leaving the rest to another campaign or another party.
One thing I do see as poitentially rewarding with this book is sandboxing: There is a great deal of stuff here that could serve as the bedrock for a classic pure sandbox campaign, similar to the West Marches campaign (the sandbox part, not neccesarily the open table part). There is a "safe" part of the city, then a whole lot of "unsafe" parts like the chasm, the graveyards, and the ruined areas. Then there are the areas outside the city, various forests, mountains, ruins, and of course the dungeons. If a DM could sit down, put a hexgrid over the regional map (if you like the old school approach) and then stock and populate the areas of interest, one could have a very nice heroic tier sandbox with a strong grounding in the Realms. A lot of the factional stuff would have to be handled outside of the safe area rather than in the city itself (remember, the city is NOT where the adventure happens in a classic sandbox) but a lot of it is there already anyway. The Waterdeep noble would have to be repositioned as having his hands full just maintaining the city walls and needing help from adventurers to push outwards. The local resistance would probably have to be scaled back as well, but all of those other factions could be a lot of fun. There could even be some Fistful of Dollars type scenarios that come into play if the players handle things the right way.
My last bit of concern comes from the timing: This version of the game has been out for over 3 years now, yet one of 2011's big supplements* for DM's is another product designed to support low-level play. What about Paragon? What about Epic? Between the early adventures, three campaign settings, campaign adventures, and some of the other supplements like Vor Rukoth, we have a lot of Heroic tier material. Did we really need another book of that type rather than dedicated support of hgher levels of play? I'm not so sure. I think what this points to is that the 2010 Essentials releases effectively reset the clock just as if a new edition had been released. It was not a new edition mechanically, as characters were not made obsolete, but it was a new edition marketing-wise and so rolled things back to zero and shifted the product emphasis to lower-level starting play. I'm seeing that now and while it makes some sense I'm hoping that 2012 takes the focus to Paragon, not least because by the end of the year that's where my main game will be going.
All of that jabbering above could be taken as me being down on WOTC's shiny new book and I feel a little bad about that. It's a good thing for new players especially and there really hasn't been a book like it for 4E, although it was a fairly common type for 1E and 2E. I think there's a place for this kind of thing in the game - it can't all be powers and monster stats. It's a lot like the old Gazeteers for the D&D Known World - maps, NPC's plots, and creatures for a set region. Those were a lot of fun (I have 4 or 5 of them) and I imagine there will be some people, especially new DM's, who get all kinds of excited over this book and I expect it will be a lot of fun for them.
I'm just not really sure how to fit it into my plans just yet but I'm working on it. It's not what I expected, but working through my sandboxing idea above has caused me to re-think my plans for the Apprentices campaign at least, so I may end up liking this book more than I thought - more on that later. For now, it's a very good book if you want a regional sourcebook with a fair amount of player crunch and limited DM crunch but tons of DM fluff. It is very strongly tied to the Forgotten Realms, so for good or ill that should factor into your decision. I think it's mainly aimed at newer DM's, but it's not without value for anyone running a game in the Realms. If it fits with what you need than it's very good. If not, then it still may be good enough but that's something each DM would have to decide for themselves.
*Yeah there's Gloomwrought, the city in the Shadowfell, which I haven't read yet but it does appear to be more inline with my expectations - Paragon emphasis and actual encounters. I'm just not super-excited about an extended focus on the Shadowfell. Visits, sure, but it's not where we're going to live for the campaign. It also makes me wonder if Neverwinter would not have fared better as a boxed set - more maps, including encounter maps, some tokens, and an adventure book would have added a lot to it. Some of the Netheril stuff ties in to the Shadowfell making the Gloomwrought set a feasible next step for Paragon usage.