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A D&D player’s analysis of ‘Neverwinter’

Neverwinter is now in open beta, and I spent my weekend with low-level characters, running around one of the Forgotten Realms’ most iconic cities. Throughout this and previous closed betas I’ve hunted bugs, posted feedback, and have gotten a solid feel for the style of game Cryptic Studios has made.

I’ve also had a great time. The graphics are snazzy, the action is snappy and fun, and there’s just enough of a D&D wrapper on the controls and character design to make it feel like a pleasant homage to the tabletop game’s 4th Edition ruleset, which I’m very familiar with. Though there still isn’t an official launch date, they’re using the open beta as a “soft launch” to get all the server bugs ironed out before officially throwing the gates open.

As a DM and player for 15 years, I’ve delved into a lot of dungeons and slain quite a few dragons, both in digital and plastic miniature form. How does Neverwinter, one of VGW’s most anticipated MMO releases, stack up for this hardened D&D player? Read on to find out.

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The Devoted Cleric can both harm and heal, often at the same time.

Rolling Deep

As with any D&D video game, there has to be a line between what makes a good tabletop RPG and what makes a good video game. Different designers will draw said line in different places, either ignoring most of the tabletop conventions (Demon Stone) or embracing them passionately (Baldur’s Gate). Neverwinter sits somewhere in the middle: the flavor and story are very solidly D&D, but the designers have made several significant changes to facilitate smooth gameplay.

Character creation is faithful, with individual races adhering closely to the Player’s Handbook in terms of attributes and special abilities. Your starting ability scores can also be “rolled,” though from my experience it looks like the game cycles through pre-set stat allocations based off the standard arrays found in the tabletop game. Classes are also flavored to feel like their pen-and-paper counterparts, i.e. “control” wizards or “guardian” fighters. Anyone who hasn’t played the tabletop game, however, may not understand that those description are based off specific fighter or wizard builds, at least until Cryptic starts releasing additional builds later in the game’s life.

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“Rolling” stats is actually cycling through a number of standard sets of ability scores.

How the classes play in-game is also an interesting translation of the tabletop mechanics. In the pen-and-paper game, players have two or three abilities they can use “at will,” a few “encounter” abilities they can use once per fight, and show-stopping “daily” powers which require a good night’s rest before they can be used again. In Neverwinter, at will powers can be spammed or channeled and represent your basic attacks. Encounter abilities come with short cooldowns, and you can equip three different ones at a time; some also allow you to cast them multiple times, such as the cleric’s Healing Word, but have a larger cooldown.

Dailies require the character to charge up their “action point” meter, which is shaped like a D20 smack in the middle of your hotbar. Different classes charge theirs different ways, but exactly how wasn’t that clear in the time I had to play. In practice, it’s a pretty good parallel to the tabletop game: encounters and dailies get used less often, spaced out to when it’s situationally appropriate or for balance, while at-wills fill in between larger attacks for reliable damage or other attacks.

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Health doesn’t regenerate out of combat, you have to find a campfire or use healing magic and potions.

Class Warfare

During the betas I spent the most time with the Devoted Cleric and Control Wizard. Both played competently, with the cleric being my personal favorite so far…. at least, until they add Warlords.

The big departure in 4E’s Cleric was its ability to heal others while also making attacks. Neverwinter keeps this design, giving the cleric several double-duty powers. The second at-will players obtain is Astral Seal, which puts a ticking DoT on your target and rewards anyone who attacks it with healing. Your first encounter, Daunting Light, does a close burst of holy power around the cleric while also healing the player. Since healing in Neverwinter is limited to potions and campfires, these are pretty useful and powerful spells to have while soloing.

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Because really, who doesn’t like having a Divine Guardian to curb-stomp bad guys with?

In comparison, the Control Wizard seemed a little lackluster coming out of the gate. It’s designed to hinder enemies, much like its pen-and-paper counterpart is intended to give “battlefield control,” but its early abilities don’t deliver that up-front. Ice Ray can be channeled to slow and eventually freeze an enemy in place, but takes several seconds to achieve full frostiness and doesn’t slow enemies down enough at this point to be effective. I’m sure things will improve as players level up and Cryptic checks feedback from the beta events, especially considering crowd control is usually slowly rolled out for balance reasons (especially PVP balance), but for now the wizard feels underpowered when compared to the cleric.

Each class also has a unique ability that can be activated using tab, such as the cleric’s Channel Divinity and the wizard’s Arcane Mastery. These give players new at-will abilities and power up other abilities, adding effects or damage for short-term boosts. The cleric’s Lance of Faith and Astral Seal turn into Punishing Light and Soothing Light, both channeled abilities that can heal or harm depending on which is used. The mechanic is very similar to the actual pen-and-paper Channel Divinity, since you can only use it a handful of times each adventure, and is an interesting resource to have.

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Ye olde job board, the in-game location of Foundry missions.

Choose Your Own Adventure

I also got a chance to play through some player-created Foundry content, checking out the featured “Secrets of the Dweomerkeeper.” It’s the first entry into an eight-part story, according to its in-game description, and takes players to an abandoned wayhouse built to serve the followers of Mystra, the now-deceased deity of magic. Heavy on lore (and drow), the mission deserves high marks for having a ton of Forgotten Realms flavor. While it seems short, once the other modules are added I’m sure it’ll make for a nice string of missions for those looking to enjoy a lot of classic D&D.

Foundry missions and other events are also highlighted throughout the day and change every hour or so. There are three small banners that poke out from your minimap to tease you about upcoming content, reminding you of opportunities to earn extra currency or XP. While players can access this extra content through the UI, you can also stop by job boards in the world or talk to harpers, innkeepers or barmaids. It’s a nice little tool for immersion, and a way to keep reminding players about the extra content that’s out there.

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The game’s Skirmishes are also easy-to-pick-up events which can help break the monotony of questing. These don’t require the same balance of a full dungeon delve, and have so far been mostly gauntlets that require you to mow down groups of bad guys without a lot of coordination, which, let’s be honest, is the best kind of mission you can hope for with some random strangers.

I’ve yet to experience a full delve, but after seeing the work done on the individual mission dungeons, I’m definitely looking forward to them. The mini-dungeons I’ve run on low-level quests have included secret passages, hidden treasures, simple puzzles, and some some very, very lethal traps. There’s a room early on that’s a veritable deathtrap, with blades coming out of the ground and spiders that ambush you after you attempt to open what you think is just a simple chest that turns out to be a trap placed by a cunning tribe of kobolds.

… I’ll admit that made the Dungeon Master in me smile as I picked my way back into the dungeon from the graveyard.

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This is a trap. Do not stand in front of it. Lesson learned.

Final Thoughts

I’m familiar with Star Trek Online, other Cryptic’s other big MMO, so it didn’t come as a surprise to find many free-to-play trappings and elements from that game in Neverwinter. There’s a daily currency, Astral Diamonds, which can be earned by completing in-game events, daily quests, and other special milestones, and players can refine a limited number of diamonds per day (in the tens of thousands), or buy Zen (the cash currency used by all MMOs from publisher Perfect World) to purchase Astral Diamonds and other goodies from the cash shop. There’s also an Astral Diamond exchange where players can turn those diamonds into Zen and vice-versa, meaning it is possible to get items from the cash shop without spending cash if you’re willing to put the time in.

At the end of the day, Neverwinter is a nice, action MMO with enough D&D flavor to keep a d20 jockey like myself coming back for more. The fact that it’s free to play means I’ll be able to put it down and focus on other things without that nagging urge in the back of my head to “get your subscription’s worth,” which is always a bonus. I might even be convinced to create some custom missions to show players how a real Dungeon Master does things.

Trust me. You’ll want to bring someone who’s good at finding traps.

About Russell Jones

By day, Russell works in local TV news. By night, he plays and writes about video games for VGW and his personal blog, The Gentleman Gamer. An avid RPG fan, Russell can also be found plotting the demise of adventurers from behind a Dungeon Master's screen. He can be heard weekly on the "Geek In Review" podcast (GiRPodcast.podomatic.com).

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