Neverwinter: It’s Forgotten Realms, but is it D&D?

I'll heal you, but it might hurt a little bit.
I’ll heal you, but it might hurt a little bit.

This is the first beta weekend for Cryptic’s “Neverwinter”, an action-oriented MMO set in one of the more famous of the Forgotten Realm’s cities. We’ve seen Neverwinter brought to life before in “Neverwinter Nights” and its sequel, titles that kept their relevance by offering every player the chance and opportunity to create and run their own dungeons for themselves and their friends.

It’s absolutely the reason that Cryptic chose Neverwinter as the base for their game, as players can create their own adventures through the “Foundry”. Starship captains have been using the Foundry in Star Trek Online to make adventures for well over a year now, but that was just a tech test compared to the tools on offer in Neverwinter.

Foundry wasn’t live, though, so I’ll just focus on the gameplay.

Say hello to my Lance of Faith, Ogre!
Say hello to my Lance of Faith, Ogre!

Neverwinter is loosely based on the fourth edition rules for Dungeons & Dragons. You can choose your race from halfling, dwarf, human, elf, half-elf, drow and the demonic tiefling. The drow race was not available to choose during this beta. Character appearance was as good as I’ve seen anywhere else; you’ll be able to make your character look exactly how you like. Stats were rolled in a simplified manner; there are maybe a half dozen potential rolls that focus on your class’ prime statistic and the two secondary ones. It is not explained in the game how the secondary stats affect gameplay, so I felt it was just best to roll the highest possible number for the prime stat… which is how I play the real D&D, too, so there’s that.

Importing your paper character probably won’t be possible. Especially if it used any classes or races from beyond the Players Handbook (PHB) (and it’s missing dragonborn and eladrin for PHB1 races, too).

In D&D4e, each class has a couple of preferred builds. Neverwinter makes the choice of build for you. For instance, the PHB suggests “Battle Cleric” and “Devoted Cleric” as preferred builds for the cleric. Neverwinter offers only “Devoted Cleric”. Similarly, fighters are restricted to “Guardian Fighter” or “Great Weapon Fighter”, wizards to “Control Wizard”, rogues to “Trickster Rogue”, and nothing is yet known about Ranger, though it looks from the character creation screen that that’s next. No information about the Paladin or the Warlord.

The abilities have all the familiar names from D&D, with their own twists to fit them into an MMO environment. “At Will” powers are bound to the two mouse buttons and can be held down and spammed. “Encounter” powers are on cooldown timers. “Daily” powers work of “Action Points” that are gained in battle when using the other powers. When your character gains enough powers to not fit into the available slots, you can easily change them out in Neverwinter or at a campsite within a dungeon.

There are no mana bars, even for spellcasters. Your abilities are based on timers and action points and nothing more.

Magic Phr3d, a Companion
Magic Phr3d, a Companion

You won’t adventure alone, in Neverwinter. There are queues for certain events (like the Orc Assault on Neverwinter) and dungeons (like the Cloak Tower) that automatically fill in a party and put you where you need to be.

But even when you’re grinding out quests, you don’t need to go it alone. At level 16, you gain the ability to hire “companions” to fill needs. You can choose from fighters, healers, rogues and wizards. I chose the wizard, because D&D clerics stand in the front lines (or would, if Neverwinter allowed them their scale and plate armor. Chain only, for Neverwinter clerics.) Though you can only have one active companion at a time, you can keep several “on deck”.

My companion didn’t come with the name “Magic Phr3d”. I kinda imagined him as a teenage kid from the “real” world who woke up one day in the magical realm of Farune as a wizard, and is really excited about it. He was level 1 when I hired him, and every time he levels, he has to be sent off for training, which takes increasingly more time and takes increasingly more money. At level 8 (vs my character’s level 20), he is fairly good at slowing monsters down so I have plenty of time to debuff them and wear them down before they get close enough to hurt.

Companions don’t take up group slots — they are more like pets — so dungeons crawls in a full five person party can get pretty crowded.

Finishing up Cloak Tower
Finishing up Cloak Tower

The elephant in the room here is Turbine’s Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO). Cryptic shoots across its bow by using the same font for Neverwinter as Turbine does for Lord of the Rings Online. But the games are very different.

DDO tries, as much as possible, to pretend you and your party are experiencing a game played in some other reality by people around a table. A DM sets the scene as you enter a dungeon; levels are slow and hard to come by. Daily powers can only be used a limited number of times between rests. Traps and puzzles are as integral to a dungeon crawl as monster fighting. Combat goes in rounds, and the actual dice rolls scroll by.

Neverwinter is a more standard MMO. Levels come quickly; my DM was shocked when he found he reached level 4 in the tutorial, where in our Adventure Company campaign, he’d regretted us getting to level 4 by the end of the six months we played. I easily got to level 20 after a few hours play, and the top level looks to be 60, a level impossible in actual D&D. Where solo play is discouraged (but not impossible) in DDO, solo play is easy in Neverwinter.

Granted, the only group instance I found so far was Cloak Tower, and the balance could shift toward more group play as the levels rise. But I doubt we’ll see dungeons that take an entire play session to run, as we often did in DDO.

DDO is much better at presenting preferred builds, or allowing you to customize your class, or even multiclass. Neverwinter has the few preferred builds it offers, and never allows you to leave the reservation or multiclass (as far as I have seen).

Even with the compromises DDO had to make in order to turn a pen-and-paper game into an MMO (such as mana bars and wildly inflated health), it gives a better Dungeons & Dragons experience than Neverwinter.

Toover the Were-Rat
Toover the Were-Rat

As a MMO, Neverwinter is fairly standard. You get quests, you go out and kill things. You get frequent solo instances, but also a good mix of open-world adventuring where your character can help out (and be helped by) other characters with loot and experience for all. Because Cryptic limits the builds and classes available, classes remain fairly distinct and each has a role in a group, while having plenty of tools to make soloing a valid play choice.

What sets Neverwinter apart is its missions created with the Foundry. While not available to the beta testers this weekend, they have a wide variety of player-created missions available, and these are heavily leveraged by “job boards”, but also bards and bartenders who will gladly offer up adventures that start nearby.

I played a couple of them, and the ones promoted by Cryptic were of fairly decent quality, with good writing and plot that tied in well with the lore of the game, though the actual adventures were of the standard smash-and-kill variety. I don’t know if the Foundry supports roleplay missions. Won’t know that until the Foundry opens up.

A Well-Informed Bard offers player-created quests
A Well-Informed Bard offers player-created quests

Cryptic’s Neverwinter is a good-looking, polished game offering modern MMO conveniences mixed with a healthy serving of D&D. The pace is fast, the powers iconic, the loot abundant and the grouping easy. While it’s not as faithful an implementation of D&D as Dungeons and Dragons Online supports, it is definitely D&D. The first implementation of the fourth edition rules I’ve seen so far.

If the adventure-crafting tools offered to the players are able to create the quality of adventures created by the Cryptic game designers, then Neverwinter could come out from under the content limitations which hamper other MMOs, especially at the end game and with group content.

If the player tools only really allow for “go here, kill that, grab this, return for reward”, though, it may not be as much of an advantage as it seems. The high quality of the Foundry missions for Neverwinter’s sister game, Star Trek Online, gives hope that we’ll see some truly excellent content here as well.

Neverwinter will be free to download and free to play. Special mounts, armor and other stuff will be available from the cash shops, but (at least in beta) leveling did not feel constrained by my checkbook. There were no “lockboxes” to be seen — these are treasure chests that require real money to open and may contain something very nice but usually contain trash — but I expect they’re on their way. Even a F2P game must make money, after all. As long as they don’t broadcast to the world when someone opens one and gets something good, as they do in STO. That’s really annoying.

DDO: Web of Chaos


What I want to know is, if the Spinner of Shadows could “hold person” everyone in the party instantly, with no saving throw, for as long as she wanted, anytime she wanted — how did we win the fight?

Not to say that it wasn’t a fun fight — it was. The whole Web of Chaos arc was a lot of fun, for all that the last adventure turned into an extended advertisement for the expansion, giving some reason for the sudden merger of the world of Eberron and the world of Forgotten Realms.

The Spinner of Shadows adventure was, in particular, pretty fun. The adventure had a raid-like complexity. We split the party in two, with Gleek and Ulan keeping the Spinner busy while Spode and I raced around killing spiders for shards with which to rebuild the Spinner’s prison.

Spoiler alert, we fail, and Lolth is summoned from the Underdark into the plane of Khyber (if I am remembering this right). Well, we succeeded in the adventure, and failed.

With Lolth freed, we were treated to the trailer for the next expansion, and were then ejected back into Stormreach Harbor to report our failure to the Silver Flame guardians who did not welcome our news.


Fact is, I play a drow, and I’m not sure why I would not welcome Lolth into this plane of existence. We spent the entire night killing Drow, and I felt a little uncomfortable about that. Why couldn’t we have killed something that really deserved it, like gnomes?

Sometimes it’s hard playing a good drow. I guess that’s why my fellow drow and driders usually try to kill me when they see me. Still, I struggle on. Far from Vulkoor’s solace, driven from the Underdark.

At least I can meet my ex-drowfriends as a more skillful rogue. While working through the Web of Chaos arc, I reached level 17 at long last. I got a new rank of sneak attack, and Rogue Sneak Attack Training IV. I just need one more point for Rogue Sneak Attack Accuracy Training IV, and then it’s just a hop, skip and jump to level 18 and Assassin III. Then I get two levels where I can choose levels in some complementary class. Since my last lesser reincarnation, I have become a strength-based rogue, which will allow me a little more leeway in choosing other classes. I’m thinking Fighter (for the weapon skills), Ranger (for ranged skills natch) or Bard (because… just because).

The glowy weapons I am wielding in the picture above come from the Web of Chaos arc. I didn’t get all the ones I wanted, but if we run the arc twice more, I’ll be able to select from all the options available, which is rather cool. That’s something just added with the most recent update.

Exciting times. Spode and Gleek have already maxed out their experience. Ulan and I are the laggers-behind, both now at 17. I really do want to get to 20 before we leave for Diablo 3, but levels come so slowly that I am not sure that’s realistic.

I’ve said it many times — I would enjoy DDO more if I didn’t have to spend real money to form a group to play on non-group nights. On the other hand, I like playing a MMO which was intended for group play. It doesn’t make any sense, I know. I guess I could join pickup-groups, but then there’s the fear that I am a terrible player and would enrage the members of any group I joined, since I care little for having the best armor, weapons or enhancements.

Back in EverQuest, the designers had this concept of camps. When you first came to a new dungeon (or even outdoor zone), there would be the “easy” camps for people with lesser equipment, levels, or ability. As you gained confidence, you’d move through the zone to harder camps, and as you gained a reputation, increasingly you’d be asked to come to a camp. That social web thing.

Now it’s all whirlwind speeding through a dungeon with people you will never see again. WoW, EQ2, Rift, DDO — all the same.

I treasure my static group :)

DDO: Doomsphere the Dull

I have a bad feeling about that floor

After last week’s mass dragon death in Gianthold Tor, we were back in the Cornfields of Catastrophe Greenhouse of Gore Tidepools of Terror Orchard of the Macabre. These civic leaders really need to work on coming up with better names for their neighborhoods or nobody’s gonna want to move there.

The module failed to impress last time we went and this time was no different. We had our choice of beholders or vampires. Spode really wanted to get his vorpal freak on with vampires because, the problem with beholders is you can’t really cut off their heads! But after dispatching some nameds in the Orchard, it was at Doomsphere’s doors we found ourselves.

I think I remember the instance clearly. We go in, kill trash, fall through a floor, split the party to kill two guys at the same time, fall through a floor, find the boss, fall through a floor several times each time fighting a more difficult version of the boss and waves of trash.

The beholder, Doomsphere, eventually started walloping people with anti-magic rays. We wiped three times. Each wipe meant all but one of us had to release, heal, then fight back to the instance. The second time I didn’t even get a chance to get rezzed before the party wiped again.

No loot to speak of, experience was crappy, no traps, monsters for the entire module are thick with incorporeal spooky types, only got three kills in the entire instance (really??? how is that possible?). I spent most of the night dead. I should have brought a book.

I’ll be glad when we’re done with this module. Ruins of Gianthold and Harbinger of Madness were way more fun.

I dinged a rank, I’m on the last rank before level 16. Ulan dinged sometime during the week, so I’m the last one… I should probably buy some hirelings and farm some xp this week.

DDO: Unfinished business in Gianthold Tor

Go ask Alice, when the white dragons fall

None of us was happy about the way we left Gianthold Tor; expert at getting through the dungeon and killing the Gatekeeper, unable to kill the three dragons at the end. We’d all gained a level since we left the Tor, though, and the Harbingers of Madness gear was a literal game changer for most of us.

The rewards for grinding Gianthold Tor for rare dragon scales are not that great, given the effort involved. I estimate it would take killing a dragon thirty times in order to get enough scales to make a piece of armor. We were never going to spend half a year farming this instance.

But the dragons had to die. Last night we returned to Gianthold Tor and we killed the dragons.

The Death of the Black Dragon

All the dragons have a giant protector, and both dragon and giant have to die within seconds of each other. For this, we split the group. Spode tanked the dragon, Ulan the giant, and Gleek and I would switch from one to the other to keep their health balanced as we took them down.

We’d all acquired special cold resist gear when we were here before. We suited up, potioned up and buffed up, went in, and died pretty fast. Came back, changed our positioning a little — dead dragon. Between the four of us, no dragon scales.

Next up: the blue dragon, whose power was lightning. Since this was said to be the easiest of the three dragons, we’d tried this one a few times before. The room gradually becomes more electrified as the fight drags on. If you can’t kill everything in two minutes, the room itself will kill you.

Again, first time failure. Second time we kept the clerics near to the wall, outside the worst of the electricity, and won. One blue dragon scale between the four of us.

Gleek challenged us to kill the black dragon in his room full of acid pools the first time. This trick requires keeping the clerics and everyone else on one of the islands floating in the acid pools. And we did it — first try. Two black dragon scales among the four of us.

Three dragon scales out of twelve chances = 25% chance at a scale. If I’d need 20 black dragon scales for some decent light armor, I could expect to kill the dragon 80 times (on normal mode). I’d get some scales from other people in the group in trade for the ones I wouldn’t need, of course, but that’s still going to be a significant number of kills required.

We’re happy we killed the dragons, but I don’t think any of us see any reason to go back.