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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.”

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I’m not 100 percent confident that all of this will add up to an experience that will mirror my weekly tabletop D&D game, but at least there are some familiar trappings. Another big part of D&D is the ability to hire henchmen, or otherwise convince non-player characters to join your party and fill out your ranks. This is especially important in an online game. Say you love playing with only 2 or 3 friends, but the content difficulty is geared more for groups of 5 or 6. By hiring henchmen, you will be able to tackle quests or dungeons that otherwise might be outside your grasp. “[Henchmen] have got character classes just like players do. Obviously they are controlled by an AI, but you’ll have some control over what they do. Essentially they are players in the computer’s clothing, so to speak,” said Emmert. There is no announcement on exactly how henchmen will get hired, whether it will only be gold or if you can unlock henchmen through conversation options.

Technologically, the game will work and look very much the same way that Cryptic’s MMOs do. “It’s the same engine for Champions Online, Star Trek, Neverwinter and every other product that we do,” Emmert said.

For the first time though, players will be able to create their own stories and quests in a fully-realized 3D world that uses that engine. As I said before, the tools available might rival the Aurora toolset and the huge amount of player-made content that was made using the Neverwinter Nights engine. But Cryptic is allowing players and modders to jump a few technical hurdles from the onset. “The biggest evolution is that Neverwinter is going to be an online game from the very start. You don’t have to set up your own servers or anything like that. You won’t need to worry about any of the technical complications at all,” Emmert said.

By providing the tools and the game engine, Emmert hopes that budding dungeon masters will use Neverwinter to play their own campaigns with their friends. “They will have the ability to link into our game world and their adventures will branch off from there.”

It’s undecided whether players will be able to create new NPCs (it could quickly become a dangerously over-populated world after all) but Neverwinter will allow you to hook into the game world using the exact same tools that Cryptic does. Using this system, it’s possible that creators will use to create stories that do not take place in a typical fantasy setting.

“We’ll probably come up with some interesting stuff for people that want to be creating content that uses D&D rules but is perhaps in a setting that is far different than ours,” Emmert said. “Eventually, we want to open it up for people to expand [the game] outside of just seeing Neverwinter.” I can’t say for sure whether there will be spaceships or WWII veterans, but knowing the crowdsource out there, I’m fairly certain that weird anachronisms will show up if the ability is there.

After hearing Emmert talk about Neverwinter, I’m cautiously optimistic that Cryptic will be able to create a videogame that can adequately translate the tabletop experience you get from playing D&D. Many games have tried, but pretty much all they’ve accomplished is to create a subgenre. Computer Roleplaying Games are very different than the tabletop games that inspired them. Neverwinter is aiming to bridge that gap by allowing you to play with your friends from the start, and allowing dungeon masters and modders to sculpt their own play experience from a shared palette. Neverwinter doesn’t drop on PCs until Q4 2011, and I’m sure that we’ll learn a lot more as we get closer to launch. For now, I’ll roll some dice on physical table with my friends, but perhaps in 2011 I’ll be able to roll digital dice on a table consisting of 1s and 0s.

Greg Tito might just want to throw some digital dice in 2011.

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