Here be dragons. And one pissed-off cult.
The new edition of the tabletop role-playing game that spawned them all isn’t just launching as a pen-and-paper product. It’s also coming to Neverwinter, the massively multiplayer online-RPG set in the Forgotten Realms, the biggest world in D&D.
D&D wellspring for the billions of dollars RPGs have made over the past 30 years, be they on tabletops, PCs, consoles, online, or mobile. Some even credit D&D for video games.
The big hook as this new edition of D&D launches is the Cult of the Dragon. For centuries, this group of deranged men and women believed in a crazy prophecy that foretold the world would one day bend to the rule of … undead dragons, the mighty creatures known as dracoliches.
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Until now. Similar to how publisher Wizards of the Coast is rebooting D&D with its so-called “fifth edition,” so, too, has the Cult changed its mission. No longer seeking to animate dead dragons, the shadowy group is now promoting an even more dangerous agenda: making the evil god of wyrms supreme.
Yep, we’re talking Tiamat, the five-headed dragon god that’s also one of the most iconic creatures in D&D‘s long history. In the first of a two-part interview, Neverwinter lead producer Rob Overmeyer and D&D brand manger Nathan Stewart tell us how the cult’s mission has changed, how it fits into the MMO, and what the iconic game means to them.
GamesBeat: I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons and the Forgotten Realms since the ’80s, and I don’t recall ever seeing the Cult of the Dragon in Neverwinter before. How does the Cult fit into Neverwinter?
Nathan Stewart: You haven’t seen them in Neverwinter per se, but one of the things we’re doing in this story is elevating not only the Cult of the Dragon, but also this concept that maybe they’ve been getting it wrong for all these years. A big story premise to our Tyranny of Dragons is that the Cult of the Dragon has basically been operating under this misconception that they were supposed to be raising this undead dragon army for all of this time.
I’m not going to tell you the exact inner workings of how it’s been brought up, but they’re not supposed to be raising an undead dragon army. They’re supposed to be raising an undead dragon empire. They’ve realized that they’re supposed to bring Tiamat back to the Realms, after she’s been languishing in the Nine Hells for thousands of years. They got their description wrong, if you will.
That is the shortest answer to what they’re doing in Neverwinter. The Cult of the Dragon is on this vehement mission now, to bring Tiamat back. I don’t think there’s any place on the Sword Coast or in Faerun that’s safe from their reach now, because to bring the queen of evil dragons back, you need a horde worthy of Tiamat. They’re going to go across any stretches of Faerun to amass this horde worthy of bringing her. That’s the big, overarching answer to the role of the Cult of the Dragon.
Rob Overmeyer: Specifically, in the modules coming up, there’s an interesting relationship between the old cult and the new. The old cult still exists to some degree. The new Cult of the Dragon and new mission doesn’t demand that the old cult convert, though they’re definitely open to that. There’s an interesting story and interplay between the old group and the new group. Not all of the Cult of the Dragon is on board [with this change]. Players are going to see a bit of that in the story.
But as Nathan said, the Cult is all over the place along the Sword Coast. They’re going to go to great lengths to get what they want, and what they want has pretty dire ramifications to basically everybody living.
GamesBeat: A more obscure follow-up to this — adventurers in the Forgotten Realms defeated Tiamat in the Throne of Bloodstone adventure, back in the First Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Does that previous defeat factor into Tiamat’s return in any way?
Stewart: I’m going to challenge that statement there. Did they defeat Tiamat, or was it an avatar of Tiamat? I think that’s a question mark, first of all. Just throwing that out there. Tiamat’s a god.
But I think what you’re talking about plays into a bigger issue with Dungeons & Dragons as we move forward into the new millennium. A lot of stories have been told on the tabletop, a lot of adventures. How those adventures end — there could be countless endings. It’s the same with Neverwinter. They have this main storyline, but there’s thousands of side quests that go on as well. There’s this idea of what adventurers might do between their personal game and the MMO or the tabletop and what the larger story is.
What we’re driving is this big story arc. How that story plays out and continues to affect all of the stories and adventures, no matter what format they use, that’s the new way to ring in — I don’t want to use the word “transmedia,” because that’s such an unfriendly-to-consumers word, but if you think about this experience that’s platform-agnostic, I’m going to face Tiamat and the Cult of the Dragon, but it doesn’t matter where I do it. We have to have this idea that there might be different experiences in the way that this group ends their adventure and this group ends theirs. We’re going to be careful not to have any conflict, to try and steer clear of something like that in the future.
GamesBeat: I don’t remember the Cult of the Dragon ever being in a video game. Is this a first in that respect as well?
Overmeyer: I don’t recall the Cult being in any other D&D games, but the Cult of the Dragon have been present in Neverwinter since we launched. This new faction of the Cult of the Dragon is obviously brand new, with their new mission. But we definitely had the old Cult hanging out in Neverdeath and trying to raise dragons.
Stewart: That’s a big part of the support for the dracolich and Valindra in the baseline story for the Neverwinter MMO. But again, the Cult of the Dragon — wrongly according to the new head honcho — thinking that their mission was to raise an undead dragon army.
GamesBeat: Now that the new rules are set, are you going to be changing any of the mechanics for the MMO in any way?
Overmeyer: I’ll have to give you a softball answer, but it’s a real answer. Any time things change in the D&D rule set, if there’s anything that makes sense for the MMO — some mechanics for the tabletop just seem to fit and work in the MMO. But we’re probably not going to make a bunch of changes that might not fit in the MMO. It’s always something to consider. But in the grand scheme, it’s a partnership. If there are mechanics that need to change based on changes to the rules, we look into those on an individual basis.
There are definitely a lot of cool changes that are giving us opportunities to make cooler gameplay. There’s also some stuff coming out that gives us more interplay with factions. There’s a broad arena of directions that we can go that we hadn’t explored before. As far as content and stories, it opens us up. We can take some of the stuff that’s coming out in the new campaigns and get that right in.
Stewart: In the broader video game realm, the role for us is to put the rules under the hood, if you will. Guys like Rob and his team, they should never be focused on, “Is this 5th Edition or 4th Edition?” They should be answering questions like, “Is this true to D&D or not? Does it deliver the right essence?”
One example: if you played Baldur’s Gate, that’s very much based on 2nd Edition rules. If you’ve played both, that’s right in your face. When you play Neverwinter, there’s a lot of 4th Edition components in there — encounters, spells daily, actions — but as we move forward and solidify the future in this evolving storyline we’re doing, our goal is to put as much of that under the hood as possible, and leave those decisions to the individual game developer and publisher based on the fun of the game. Rob says it’s a case by case basis, but on the business side of that, he’s not getting any pressure from us saying, “Put 5E in there!”
We want to make sure that when you’re playing Neverwinter, it feels as much like D&D as if you’re playing another video game or playing the tabletop game or even playing a board game, which is a very light D&D experience. Is Magic Missile or Fireball involved? When you talk about a Cleric, does that have the same meaning?
The trick on this, especially with the new rules coming out, is that we’ve made these distinctions within them. When I say “Warlock,” I don’t mean a Wizard or a Magic-User. That type of magic and where that magic comes from and how a Warlock feels like a Warlock, that’s what’s important for Neverwinter and any of our partners to get right based on the new rules. Not whether the damage is a d12 for this or a d10 for that. That should be under the hood. But warlocks should feel like warlocks.
Overmeyer: Absolutely. When we were putting together the Warlock for Neverwinter, we went back and forth and went over the overviews. Things were changing in 5th Edition, definitely, and we said, “Well, these changes we could make. They don’t change the essence of the warlock.” But had some good conversations about what a Warlock is and the role they fill in the party and how they should feel, even down to the details of who they should pact with and what pacts they should pick and how it would make sense for that to work going forward.
Although I cautiously say it’s a case-by-case basis, it’s all about having a fun D&D experience, having it be true to that feel, whether it’s in Neverwinter or on the tabletop.
GamesBeat: What new terminology, if anything, from 5th Edition is going to carry over to Neverwinter? Or is that not going to be much of a problem for you?
Overmeyer: I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. I’m not completely fluent in all the new terms for 5th Edition, but from what I’ve seen it won’t be that different.
Stewart: Yeah, I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. I’m looking into my crystal ball here, but I don’t think there’s going to be much in the way of terminology changes so much as which things in the game world are most important — which factions, which groups. You talked about how we haven’t seen the Cult of the Dragon play a major role in Neverwinter. The Harpers are a big part of Neverwinter now, but what other factions and groups within the Realms are going to be playing larger roles? That’s going to be more of what changes. Who are the important groups and how do they affect the story?
GamesBeat: How is the MMO going to promote the new edition, beyond the Cult of the Dragon expansion? Will there be regular events as stuff rolls out from Wizards?
Overmeyer: We’re definitely excited about being able to have that partnership, to have the new modules and content that come out for the tabletop and get as much of that as we can. We’re working on some stuff now that’s very close to what’s been released. We want Neverwinter to be the place to go experience the latest from D&D in the digital space, to get that D&D feel, to get those modules that you play with your friends on the tabletop in the multiplayer online environment.
As more comes out, we’re always working together and looking for a way into the future. I have to be a bit cagey here, but I know a lot of what’s out there. All I can say is that we’re really excited about continued growth and being the place to have the D&D experience.
Stewart: First and foremost, we keep referencing the new rules, fifth edition and so forth, but that discussion almost goes away soon. When you talk about promoting the new edition, really, they’re not going to do anything to promote it. What’s going to happen is that we’re just working tighter than ever on a consistent story roll-out. We have a great partner that’s built this fantastic world for digital players. When we’re rolling out our major new story arcs, Perfect World and Cryptic will work with us to continue to bring those stories to life.
Those adventures are going to be crafted on the tabletop side to work with the new edition of the rules, but as we’re telling these big stories, it’s not going to be like, “This is a 5th Edition adventure and this isn’t.” We’re going to be telling these connected stories in the Forgotten Realms. For the foreseeable future, Rob and his team are connected at the hip with my team when it comes to crafting those future stories.
We’re talking about the next three, four, five stories together. We have great confidence that some of them are going to come out when we think they’re going to come out, and with some of them we’re going to be fluid and say, “Oh, maybe we can change this.” But we’re going to be doing all of that in lockstep with each other.
GamesBeat: When did Wizards and Cryptic first start working on 5th Edition material for Neverwinter?
Stewart: On the adventures coming out that are going to fuel a lot of the new-edition play, we’ve been talking in earnest about the new story and a lot of those components for a year or a year and a half. We meet a couple of times a year in person as a bigger group and talk about the big story stuff, but Rob and his team have a weekly conversation with the story folks and with the lorekeepers on our side. We’ve been partnered very tightly for a long time.
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