By now, RPG publishers have the campaign setting guide down pat. Slap together a few gazetteers covering the region, detail some important NPCs, add a few plot hooks and subversive organizations and you’re done. The Neverwinter Campaign Setting takes a different angle. This is so much more than a list places to visit and people to meet.
The book does start with a fairly typical player’s section. It’s quite robust actually, offering a bunch of themes tied to the Neverwinter region, some variant races from the Realms, and a bunch of ways to customize a cleric that worships one of the Realms’ deities. Then there’s a whole new class, the Bladesinger, which looks very powerful and versatile. It’s nice to see a selection of mechanical methods for tying characters into the many plots that will be uncovered later.
The bulk of the book, of course, is devoted to describing the area around the shattered city of Neverwinter. If there’s a major drawback to this campaign setting, it’s Neverwinter (and the Forgotten Realms) itself. Wizards has some kind of weird fetish for magical cataclysms when it comes to the Forgotten Realms, and frankly they get tiresome and silly. I know anecdotal evidence ain’t worth a bucket of spit, but I’ve honestly never heard any gamer, ever, say, “I love what they did with the Realms!” Never.
I’m not sure if it came through in the text, but when I interviewed R.A. Salvatore, he didn’t seem real enamored with the changes either. When he said, “So the Realms…my biggest takeaway from the changes in the Realms has been the sense of danger and darkness that’s come to the world,” there was a big pause and a sigh where those ellipsis points are. I’m not going to put words in the guy’s mouth, but let’s just say I strongly got the impression that he’s not a huge fan of the modern Forgotten Realms either.
Ah well, to paraphrase our former Secretary of Defense, you go to war in the Realms you have, not the Realms you might want.
So to get you all caught up, there was a magical cataclysm and the city of Neverwinter is all wrecked now. A guy from Waterdeep showed up and is working to rebuild the city, but it’s still a mess.
Here’s where things get interesting. This book spends a few pages explaining how a Neverwinter campaign is supposed to work. There are some basic tenets. The world can be affected profoundly by the players. There’s no set goal or endpoint. Everything takes place in the heroic tier, and even the boss bad guys are within that level range. This is a brilliant way to tackle a setting, creating a real sandbox approach that avoids a lot of the pitfalls of story-driven campaigns (such as the end boss always being 15 levels away).
The question then becomes, does this book give a DM the proper tools to pull this off? Because running a sandbox campaign is like ice-skating uphill. Not easy. My verdict: yes, the Neverwinter Campaign Setting works.
It works because it gives you the broad, conceptual stuff needed to fill a world. There isn’t a single dungeon in this book. In fact, there’s not a 1″ square to be found. No encounters. There are plenty of stat blocks for monsters and NPCs, but you won’t find mapped out details on individual locations. Why is this a good thing? Because that’s the easy part of DMing. If the players decide to explore a once-hidden crypt, any DM worth her salt can throw down some map tiles and whip up some level-appropriate monsters on a few minutes’ notice. And if not, there are so many resources available right now that you can’t turn around on the internet without tripping over a dungeon map. It’s a perfect opportunity to use the excellent Dungeon Delves book (oh how I wish they’d make another one). The tools available to make dungeons and encounters on the fly are there.
The hard part? It looks like this: “Ok, we’ll go interrogate the Thayan cult leader. What does she think of the recent werewolf incursions?” Or, “Let’s head down to Helm’s Hold to search for our contact. What do we find there? Who’s in charge of that district? What businesses are still open?” That’s the kind of stuff that’s difficult to come up with on the fly. Or rather, it’s easy to come up with, but impossible to keep consistent in a campaign of any length and complexity.
That’s the beauty of this campaign book. It lays out a complex web of competing factions, treacherous NPCs, questionable motives (and even some pure motives), plots, intrigues, and locations. It tells the DM everything about how a given NPC or faction might react to various circumstances — up to a point. Many things are left open-ended. The framework is there, but a lot of the final decisions can be made to suit the campaign. For instance, the Lord of Waterdeep controlling Neverwinter is working to consolidate his power and improve conditions in the city. What his ultimate motivation is, and how he reacts to PCs is left open. There are enough concrete plot points to give the DM some solid ground, however. The forces at work behind the mayor are laid out quite clearly, for example.
The Neverwinter Campaign Setting pulls off an impressive feat, reinventing the campaign guide to a large extent and finding a good balance as it builds a framework for DMs while leaving plenty of open space for stories to grow in.