There is a writing technique that is commonly used when writing about a physical thing. The author starts from a very high level view, sketching a brief picture of the broader context, then steadily zooms in on the scene until focus is at the level of whatever’s being written about. Lots of novels start out this way, zoomed out to the empire or nation then slowly narrowing in on our farmboy protagonist or the like.
It’s also the default mode for many setting books, and I gotta say, the Neverwinter Campaign Setting book has really left me wondering about it’s use as a technique in setting books, because it very nearly poisoned my impression of what is otherwise a pretty solid book.
The rub is that NWCS is a Forgotten Realms book. It’s presented as more of a free-standing thing, but there’s some smoke and mirrors going on there. The first ten pages of the book are basically a summary of everything I dislike about the Forgotten Realms, a mix of contextless proper nouns and uninteresting background elements given special focus because there was clearly a novel or other tie-in related to them. It’s pretty bad, and I was willing to press on because so many people had so many good things to say about this book.
I’m glad I did. Not to say what follows is flawless, but people are right to be excited because NWCS has done some things very well indeed. Every time it steps away from the Forgotten Realms at large and focuses on play in its own context it becomes a stronger product.
Now, it’s worth noting that this is basically a city book. There’s more stuff in it, but it’s really all the material for a heroic tier, city based campaign. Cities are one of my favorite things in games, and I had been wary. The previous city from WOTC – Gloomwrought in the Shadowfell boxed set – had erred too far on the side of gamey-ness for my tastes. It was interesting, but the city felt like an excuse for colorful encounters.
That may seem like enough, but I admit I kind of feel that this is what dungeon’s are for. Cities (or, more broadly, campaign elements that players keep coming back to) need more of an internal dynamic, a sense of how they self-sustain and behave when the adventurers aren’t looking. Gloomwrought lacked that, but Neverwinter seems to have hit the right balance for 4e. It still streamline’s some details, but there’s a sense that the mundane considerations of a city (like where food comes from and how trade happens) are actually in play.
More tellingly, I think I could happily run Neverwinter without ever using any of the adventure material in it. I wouldn’t, because they’re good (sometimes great) because of the amount of time and effort put into laying out the factions in play and making them playable. If anything, I could have happily taken more material like that, but I think there’s enough.
(Also, the factions benefit from the explicit Heroic level range of the setting. It means you don’t have to come up with strange logic to explain how one faction has a bunch of level 5 guys and another has a level 25 patron, but both of them are players in the context of the city.)
Still, all this pales next to 4e finally doing something that has been lacking from many games – tying chargen directly into the adventure. This is accomplished by introducing character themes which are a) mechanically more potent than themes we’ve seen before and b) explicitly hooked into the campaign book.
For example, if you take the Noble theme, the adventure in the book dealing with intrigue among the nobility has a special sidebar about tying this adventure into that character. Basically, this is the closest thing a published adventure can do to writing things for specific players, and it’s an idea that’s been a long time coming. The rest of the book could be crap, and I’d still celebrate it for this addition to the technology.
It makes me a little sad as a writer, though. This is one of those ideas that you could really go crazy with in a third party product, but since third party themes won’t have character builder support, there’s no real point to it. Still, that sadness is the refrain of 4e – not much to be done about it.
Anyway, the book is worth a read, and it’s good enough that it could probably be used for something other than 4e. Just be prepared to just sort of blah blah blah over some stuff if you’re not already steeped in Forgotten Realms lore.