Saturday, 3 January 2015

Starter Set Sandbox 16 - Neverwinter Wood

If you're reading this and you have Lost Mine of Phandelver but are not familiar with 4E's outstanding Neverwinter Campaign Setting, you might be wondering why the map on the right, while covering the same general area as the regional map in Lost Mine, is otherwise a bit different in terms of including a number of other locations that do not appear on the regional map that you're familiar with.

In the context of a post about the Neverwinter Wood, I would point out the Dread Ring, Sharandar, and Xinlenal as locations that don't appear on the regional map in Lost Mine but which will feature below.

Realmslore

FR5 The Savage Frontier


The first reference I can find to the Neverwinter Wood is in The Savage Frontier, although it refers to the Neverwinter Woods (plural). Besides some references to Uthgardt tribes being present, it has this to say
This forest east of Neverwinter seems to have a magical quality about it, or at least an air of mystical secrecy. The always-warm Neverwinter river, which flows out of the wood, has its source deep beneath Mount Hotenow, a sleepy volcano in the northern wood. Fire elementals are said to live deep within Hotenow. The steep mountains to the north of Hotenow hide griffon lairs.

These woods have never been logged by men (they are feared and shunned by the locals), and even today are largely unknown. The depths are said to harbour dire creatures. Orc hordes always go around the woods, never through them.
That's also the description that is regurgitated in The North boxed set. And Volo's Guide to the North says even less, except noting that some logging does take place. (I would refer you to the earlier entry for Thundertree for information about a ruined logging village.)


Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting


The FRCS took a slightly different tack with its description:
This charmed forest to the east of the city of Neverwinter is perpetually warmed by the Neverwinter River that flows from beneath the dormant volcano Mount Hotenow. Humans, and even orcs, fear the wood and tend to avoid it.

Unlike other forests with dangerous reputations, the Neverwinter seldom disgorges great monsters or evil forces - the unease felt by those who know they do not belong in the Neverwinter Wood stems partly from a terrible anticipation that the wood could do them damage if it chose.
Clearly, the Neverwinter Wood is meant to be a mysterious, fey place.

Champions of Ruin


An elven supremacist group, the Eldreth Veluuthra ("Victorious Blade of the People") was, to the best of my knowledge, first introduced in 2E's Cloak & Dagger. A throwaway reference was included to an Eldreth cell being present in the Neverwinter Wood. This reference was barely expanded in 3.5E's Champions of Ruin to two sentences:
The Eldreth Veluuthra claims that the forbidding reputation owned by this mysterious forest is due in no small part to the activities of one of the oldest and largest cells in the organisation. Several other small cells also operate in the area.
Neverwinter Campaign Setting

Sharandar in the Neverwinter MMORPG
I think it is fair to say that there are more words written about the Neverwinter Wood in 4E than in all the other editions combined.

Firstly, it addresses the appearance of the eladrin from the Feywild within the ruins of Sharandar, formerly the capital of the elven realm of Iliyanbruen:
When the Spellplague shook Toril, the Feywild fell once more into alignment with the mortal realm. Over time, many denizens of that untamed world crept, dashed, or strode across the newly weakened barriers.

Some eladrin from the Feywild kingdom of Iliyanbruen - who had fled when Illefarn fell into ruin long ago-decided to return to their ancestral roots. When the eladrin arrived at the portal connecting their forest to Neverwinter Wood, dark fey were already there. After driving out the evildoers, the band erected a military outpost in the surrounding wreckage on both sides of the portal and named it New Sharandar, after Iliyanbruen's former capital. Now the fey have spread through several of the ancient ruins, which time, nature, and intruders have ravaged.

The eladrin want to restore their ancient city and smash in the heads of the pillagers that defiled it. Even though most of the fey reserve their anger for the thieves and ravagers, others aren't so precise in their wrath. These eladrin are enraged at the desecration of their ancestral homes. They believe the entire region is theirs by right, and they'll happily slaughter anyone who dares gainsay them.
(I would refer you to page 126-127 of the Neverwinter Campaign Setting if you wish to continue reading: this is merely a quote.)

From page 174 onwards, the Neverwinter Campaign Setting begins addressing the Neverwinter Wood more directly:
Leagues beyond Neverwinter, a thick press of trees shrouds a foreign world in shadows and fear. In places, the land's brush grows into dense walls, and trespassers must hew through it branch by branch to gain access to the land's private places. Where the thickets are lighter and natural pathways allow for easier travel, the land's aura is no less menacing. Overhead, the canopy's branches and leaves intertwine into wooden fists, blotting out the sun and transforming the idea of" day" into a memory of brighter, safer domains. Travellers who risk entering this looming forest feel baleful eyes tracking their movements. Despite the warm temperature, a coldness creeps inside their clothing, sending shivers down their spines.

This is Neverwinter Wood. Dark and brutal outsiders journey here to steal power, magic, and lives. Monstrous denizens of this world and others dwell here in shadows, glaring in hatred at ignorant mortals who think to tame the wilds. Here, the bones of ancient civilizations that believed their magic a match for the woods reside as testaments of their folly. And here, the ghosts of such mistakes haunt the edges of this foreign reality, never escaping the winter of their lives.
A sidebar entitled Looming Woods then gives this flavour text some in-game effects:
A dark, ominous forest is enough to make anyone nervous. But in Neverwinter Wood, even the unease is unnatural. In areas of the woodland, travellers' disquiet thickens into a supernatural fear, becoming fantastic terrain.

Effect: Living creatures in affected squares must make a saving throw before rolling initiative. Those who fail are surprised during the first round of combat. Living creatures who fail a Perception check while in affected squares are convinced they heard or saw something moving nearby. Finally, living creatures take a -1 penalty to Will and saving throws against fear powers and effects.


Special: Creatures that live in these woods for more than a few weeks grow immune to this effect.
Beyond those general comments, I want to include quotes about three of the locations in the Neverwinter Wood - Sharandar, Dread Ring, Xinlenal - that appear on the map at the beginning of this post.

Sharandar

The ruins are described as follows:
Sharandar's structures were built high in trees, blending harmoniously with the forest's natural growth and forming a crown upon the canopy's brow. The thickest boles supported rounded platforms upon which peak-roofed homes and arching halls were erected. Skilled glassworkers crafted amber-tinted windows that sealed out the weather and gleaming lanterns from which mystical lights danced. Great bridges, both crafted and grown, linked one structure or tree with the next. Intricate knots, carved in wood and tied in branches, adorned ceilings, framed doors, and served as banisters to help keep occupants from toppling off platforms.

So it was. Since then, rot has been feasting, opening soft wounds in walls, ceilings, and floors for intruders to stumble through - likely to their deaths. Handrails sag dangerously, and entire sections of them are gone. Windows and lanterns are missing or shattered. Vines, lichens, mosses, and moulds snake along every surface. Small beasts, birds, and insects have reclaimed the trees, at times sharing the structures' remains with the more dangerous creatures that claimed them as lairs or with skulking invaders intent upon looting.
The descriptions continue beyond this quote and the impression the reader is left with is decayed magnificence. There is also a section further describing further the efforts to reclaim the ruins as New Sharandar but that's not a direction my only comments are heading in.

Dread Ring

My PCs will soon be tackling the Dread Ring as part of their Bones of the Thunderbeast major quest so I am rather biased when it comes to potential of including the Dread Ring as a part of a campaign. I have already covered off a lot of the ideas I have for the Dread Ring <here> (or you can follow this <tag>) but I will include a fairly long quote from the Neverwinter Campaign Setting just to explain the location with a little bit of detail:
In Neverwinter Wood's deepest region, where shadows weigh on travellers like wet wool, something malign lurks. The thick forest ends abruptly, its border abutting a circular field of ash. Animals give wide berth to the site, and the surrounding forest land is blanketed in a chilling, breathless silence. Heavy, stale air - redolent with the tang of disease - resists any breeze, stubbornly squatting over the clearing.
 

A few hundred feet in from the perimeter, black stones rise from cracked, lifeless soil. Walls, pillars, spindly towers, and gaping gates form an uneven circle of nefarious import. This structure, a combination of ritual focus and functional fortress, is one of Thay's Dread Rings. Szass Tam, the lich regent of Thay, created the rings for use in a fell ritual in his quest to attain godhood. His efforts were thwarted, however, and this ring is now the centre of Valindra Shadowmantle's regional efforts. Despite its stones having been broken, its walls hanging open, and its initial purpose going unfulfilled, the structure still holds more power than any sane person would want Thay to possess.
 

Adventurers who approach the ring do so without their mounts, since typical beasts step into the circle of ash only if they are forced. Familiars, beast companions, and the like are apt to proceed, snarling or whimpering, if their masters do.
 

Even within the unnatural oppression of Neverwinter Wood, the ring's malignity stands out against the surrounding landscape's. Characters who have training in Arcana automatically sense the magic in the broken walls of the Dread Ring (though they cannot tell its purpose). As their teeth chatter, their palms sweat, and their souls clench, even the most unobservant adventurers can tell this is a warped place.
Suffice to say, that's the sort of place that almost any DM could turn into a truly horrifying adventuring  environment.

Xinlenal

Some 20-25 miles away from the Red Wizards of Thay with their Dread Ring, you have the other ubiquitous power group of the 4E Realms, The Netherese or Shadovar, seeking to recover one of their flying cities that crashed during the whole Karsus debacle a couple of thousand years ago:
In the woodland's eastern reaches, the forest floor smacks into an earthen wall that rises about 60 feet before stretching into a plateau. Although the rise is not especially great, the topside's thick canopy and heavy overgrowth shroud it in secrecy. Beneath this wooded cloak, cracked and scattered structures and winding avenues intertwine with the forest's vines, grasses, and branches.

This plateau holds the wreckage of Xinlenal, the First Enclave of Netheril. The earliest of the Netherese flying cities, Xinlenal plummeted to the earth when magic briefly ceased to function during the empire's fall. Here it has lain for nearly two millennia. However, if Prince Clariburnus has his way, the First Enclave might soon soar again.
While not as horrifying as the Dread Ring, there's a lot to be said for a megadungeon environment which, if you don't defeat the BBEG, turns into a flying megadungeon. Now why didn't I make this a more important part of my current campaign...?

Putting it Together

Old School

If you're a old school DM, you want to be able to run a hexcrawl as well as have at least one megadungeon in the midst of those hexes that the PCs can explore. The Neverwinter Wood is that hexcrawl. PCs can fight their way through evil fey, including elf/eladrin-supermacists, while encountering the corrupt necromantic creations of the Dread Ring and the soldiers of the Netherese. And then the Dread Ring, Sharandar, and Xinlenal are all megadungeon environments. (Dread Ring, to me, seems an almost perfect place to set Barrowmaze, for example.)

And when the PCs screw up in Xinlenal, it turns into a flying city and now they have to deal with the threat that this poses and the potential that it offers. I am sure any player would remember the time their DM gave them a flying city for years to come!

Not Old School

The critical issue in the Neverwinter Wood is the presence of the Red Wizards of Thay and their Dread Ring. It corrupts the entire forest. Such is the threat that it poses that even the most xenophobic of the Eldreth would consider allying with a group of PCs in order to end the Thayan threat.

And the threat posed by the Netherese is negligible. Even if they raise Xinlenal, their interests are elsewhere. (Also, if you're setting your campaign after the events of The Sundering, the Netherese are all but wiped out. As such, I would expect that a group of Netherese who managed to escape from the fate of most of their fellows would use a repaired flying city to start life anew in a place that posed less of a threat. On that note, it might be interesting to have the Netherese of Xinlenal, regardless of when your campaign is taking place, actually be those who simply want to live a peaceful life and not a life of empire and conquest. As such, the PCs may end up deciding to help them....)

So, that leaves us with the Dread Ring as the focus of any adventuring in the Neverwinter Wood. And breaking the Dread Ring's power should require something along the lines of what is needed to destroy an old school artefact. In my campaign, the power to destroy the Dread Ring and remove its blight is contained within three Tears of
Selûne - inspired by the DDi adventure Shards of Selûne - for which my PCs quested from levels 3-8.


As the Dread Ring is, for all intents and purposes, an insult (and anathema) to nature, any artefact connected to druids, primal forces, nature deities etc... could fill the same macguffin-like role that the Tears of Selûne have filled in my own game. (If you own 2E's Prayers from the Faithful, I would recommend the Eldathyn relic the Crystrum of Tranquillity.) 

Otherwise, the Dread Ring is an opportunity to go wild with dungeon design. It doesn't need to make logical sense - the Neverwinter Campaign Setting makes this plain - because reality breaks down in parts of the structure. Break out the old school random dungeon generation tables....

As already mentioned, the elves and eladrin of the Eldreth Veluuthra represent a cleart and present danger to those who enter the Neverwinter Wood. While that can mean, in simple terms, unexpected battles with "good" elves, it could be interesting to play up "the enemy of my enemy is my friend"-angle only for the Eldreth to betray the PCs once the Thayans are dealt with.

Summing Up

I'll keep this brief: evil elves and three megadungeons each with their own unique flavour, including the possibility that one could be made to fly? Yeah, I think most DMs would see the potential of running adventures in such a location.

7 comments:

  1. This is obviously the wrong spot to post this, but I couldn't find a more appropriate place to ask this question:
    What are your opinions of the D&D "Encounters" adventures:
    - Lost Crown of Neverwinter (and the "Dungeon #195 sequel: "that which never sleeps")?
    - Storm over Neverwinter?

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  2. Wrong spot? Nahhh, I am not that pedantic. :)

    I have never run those adventures but have stolen bits of out Lost Crown - the flushed-into-the-sewers scene is excellent - and expect to use bits of That Which Never Sleeps in my next Neverwinter campaign. Of the three, I think Storm is the weakest but that's also because I am not a fan of Ashmadai who play a significant role in the adventure.

    In short, there are good ideas in each but I would personally never run any of them as written in my own game... but that's true about adventures I consider really good as well! :)

    What are your thoughts?

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  3. I have never played/read any of them, but Lost Crown is available on dndclassics, so I wanted an opinion before I purchased....

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  4. Sorry for another out-of-context question (no other place to post this):
    What is your opinion of the 3e adventure: Red Hand of Doom?

    That adventure is going to be the basis of my next "5e Starter Set" adventure, for several reasons:
    - the opening 2-3 encounters are almost identical to those in the starter set.
    - easily adapt the Tiamat theme of Red Hand to the 5e Tyranny of Dragons theme (as well as tie in Thayian interests).

    I would love any expert (yes, you are the most knowledgeable person - who is approachable - I know on the subject) advice you could provide.

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  5. Funny you mention Red Hand of Doom, +Banesfinger! :)

    We're three sessions into my Phandalin-based campaign and the PCs have wiped out the Redbrands who were pawns of the Zhentarim. In the course of doing so, they discovered that the Zhentarim are going to be attacking the town using a goblin horde in the next month or so. My inspiration for this is going to be - drum roll, please - Red Hand of Doom although I won't be using Tiamat because she doesn't really have a central place in my Realms (plus I want to use her in Eberron at some point with some of these same players).

    Anyway, as I need to work this out in my own head for my own game, I will add a post by tomorrow covering how to fit Red Hand of Doom into a Phandalin-based campaign. After all, I now have a vested interest! :)

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  6. I'm, about halfway through a Red Hand of Doom post, +Banesfinger, but it really does take time. That said, I'm definitely convinced that it's going to be the direction my own game takes.

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  7. Any progress on your Red Hand of Doom post? I would love to see your notes!

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