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Neverwinter Campaign Setting
Design & Development
Matt Sernett

I  was delighted when I received the assignment to work on the Neverwinter Campaign Setting—delighted and a bit confused.


Didn't the FORGOTTEN REALMS Campaign Guide say something about Neverwinter being ruined?

Oh, and by the way, Matt, R. A. Salvatore has written a novel set in the area, and there's going to be a new Neverwinter computer game—which has already begun design. Oh, and there's another novel by Erin Evans that is soon to be written that is also set in the area. And there might be some ties to a novel being written by Erik Scott de Bie. Add to that the fact that you'll be working with freelancers, and all three of you will be writing material at the same time. Oh, and because of scheduling issues, you officially started two weeks ago.

Right. So, not much of a challenge, then. . . .

When I started the design of the Neverwinter Campaign Setting, a lot was already in motion. Continuity—or canon—for the setting was already written, being written at that moment, and in the process of being cut or rewritten. That process continued throughout the project. Indeed, as I write this article, the computer game is still being designed, and for all I know there are novels still in process as well.

On the upside, a lot of cool ideas already existed that I could seize upon as inspiration for the setting, and I got to work hand in glove with some really brilliant people from all the different disciplines involved. On the downside, keeping everything in synch led to innumerable moments of confusion; uncounted desperate, desk-side conversations; and several instances of stunned, exasperated silence.

Continuity was the project's great challenge, but the Neverwinter Campaign Setting presented an awesome opportunity: To present a campaign setting in a wholly new way.

Campaign settings, and even supplements that cover individual areas in a campaign world, are depicted in broad strokes. With the full level span of D&D and an unpredictable mix of player characters at every table, campaign material tends to be about sweeping, surface details. A wide net is thrown out in the hope of catching players from the full spectrum of D&D. These products are like tourist's guides to whole planets.

With the Neverwinter Campaign Setting, I wanted to instead experiment by going deep with a tight focus. The goal was to make a campaign setting that was compelling, immersive, and inspiring because of that focus. If the typical campaign supplement is like a tourism TV show about Baltimore, I wanted the Neverwinter Campaign Setting to be like The Wire. (Incidentally, if you haven't watched HBO's The Wire, you should.)

To achieve this goal, I devised a number of tactics and maxims to guide the design:

Tight Focus: The book should delve only into the Neverwinter region, areas associated with it due to the computer game and novels, and the groups in those areas, so that it can arm the DM and players with as much inspiration as possible.

Inspiration, Not Information: The book should not tell DMs or players exactly how plot events play out or dip into the miscellany of FORGOTTEN REALMS canon just for the sake of doing so. The book should provide DMs with information they'll be itching to use during play. And it should create in players the desire to deeply explore the setting and the plots the DM weaves.

You know the adage "Show, not tell." I want the motto for this book to be "Inspire, not tell."

Active NPCs: The nonplayer characters—whether villains, foils, or potential allies—aren't simply waiting around for the heroes to run into them. They are actively pursuing goals in the area whether or not the adventurers are involved. The book should be a sandbox for the DM and the players, and the sand is the plots and plans of the NPCs. No matter where the players turn, they're going to run into people, creatures, and plots that draw them deeper into the setting.

Intrinsically Linked Characters: The book will advise the DM to have each player choose a specific character theme. These themes are going to tell the player what his or her character knows about the setting and give that player a point of view and a background. Most important, each theme will link the player to plots, locations, and NPC groups in the setting. Such links might not be immediately obvious to the player, but the book should be littered with them.

Player-Focused Sandbox: The book should advise the DM to design Neverwinter adventures around the players' theme choices. There should be callouts for various character themes in the text for NPCs and areas, and the plots and groups of the setting should be so interconnected that it won't be long before players run across those links. This interconnectedness should encourage the players to interact with the setting and make links of their own.

The players can, in turn, influence the events of the campaign. There's no assumption of an end state that the players must achieve or a specific way that they "win" a Neverwinter campaign. The campaign will go in the direction the characters take it, or in the direction their action or inaction allows it to go. They might depose Lord Neverember, or they might ensure the stability of his rule. They might save the city a dozen different ways, or they might be party to its ultimate destruction.

A Campaign for Levels 1 to 10: Campaigns start over. Game groups break up. Or, players just prefer the feel of a low-level game. It turns out that most people play D&D at low level. Although any DM can easily use this material in an existing campaign or with higher-level characters, the Neverwinter Campaign Setting will assume that people make new characters to play in its setting.

Therefore, in this book low-level PCs are going to be able to fight the Big Names of this setting—and kill them. Not their flunkies or lieutenants—the Big Names.

That means that we present statistics for NPCs that in another product we would automatically assume were high level due to the contents of novels and so on. But in this book, the archlich might be an 8th-level foe, the leader of the city can be a 4th-level enemy, and the highly trained assassin a 1st-level monster. Game statistics are for game play, not to represent the "reality" of the rules.

The freelancers, Ari Marmell and Erik Scott de Bie, were instrumental in helping me fulfill the promise of those ideals, but whether they succeeded in making a truly compelling setting is your call. I hope you check it out, and I'm excited to see how it goes in people's games.

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