Even if you only have a passing interest in Dungeons & Dragons or computer roleplaying games, you've probably heard of Neverwinter Nights. Set in the Forgotten Realms, where R. A. Salvatore made Drizz't Do'Urden famous, the party-based RPG Neverwinter Nights was simultaneously reminiscent of classic videogames like Baldur's Gate and rolling dice with your friends. Cryptic aims to tap into both of those phenomena with its upcoming online multiplayer game, Neverwinter, by introducing tabletop staples like henchmen and user-generated content. Just don't call it an MMO.
"It's not an MMO, it's an online multiplayer game," said Cryptic Chief Operating Officer, Jack Emmert. "It's probably closer to a cooperative RPG. So imagine if you could play Dragon Age or Oblivion with your buddies. You will run into people in certain areas - other people with their friends - so, in that respect, it's a persistent universe similar to an MMO."
The game sounds like it might be like an official extension to the many shards and worlds that were created using the Aurora toolset that was provided with BioWare's Neverwinter Nights 1 and Obsidian's Neverwinter Nights 2. Although Emmert said that the Cryptic team hasn't been in contact with Feargus Urquhart and the rest of the Obsidian guys, he admitted that he is trying to capture the spirit of those games with Neverwinter.
"What we're trying to do is recreate the magic that we felt in [Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2]," Emmert said. "We're putting a lot of Easter Eggs from those games so that people will be like 'Oh yeah, I remember that guy.'"
That doesn't mean the world of the Forgotten Realms - and the Sword Coast region where the city of Neverwinter resides - will be instantly recognizable. Neverwinter is in ruins after its Lord was killed, and is being rebuilt. As part of the edition change between 3.5 and the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the Forgotten Realms history advanced about 100 years. During that time, an event known as the Spellplague ravaged the world of Faerun, rendered arcane magic unusable, and somehow the city of Neverwinter was nearly destroyed. Through the story of the game, the details of what happened to the city and its inhabitants will be revealed.
Emmert has worked closely with Wizards of the Coast in utilizing the 4th edition rules that were released in 2008 in Neverwinter. To my knowledge, it will be the first game to use these new rules; both Dungeons & Dragons Online and Neverwinter Nights were firmly ensconced in edition 3.5 of D&D. "[4th Edition] was set up to be very miniatures-friendly," Emmert said, so it works perfectly in translating the combat mechanics into a 3D world like a videogame. "There are roles that are strikingly similar to MMO roles. You've got the striker, for instance, you've got support classes. Terminology which is somewhat familiar makes the crossover pretty darn easy."
Part of what makes playing D&D around a table with your friends fun is the crazy things that you imagine you can do. I was worried that that magic would get lost in a game like Neverwinter, where the streamlined MMO story can feel really impersonal. Emmert addressed that concern for Neverwinter: "There's a lot of choices that you make depending upon the things that you learn along the way, that affects how you progress through the main storyline. Interacting with people, finding out about them. Really, it's a matter of exploring the world of Neverwinter. There are tons of things which you'll find out that are applicable to the main narrative storyline."
That idea of exploring the world and slowly learning the story is key to many a D&D campaign, but I was still worried that the focus might be more on combat in this type of game. "With Neverwinter, we're going to put puzzles in. We're going to put in things that you need to figure out. We're going to put in clues. Most certainly, Neverwinter is going to involve more than just combat," Emmert said. When I asked about how diplomacy and interaction with NPCs might work, he said that branching dialogue trees is the direction they are currently headed but that it may change. "You'll have to wait and see."