I play Dungeons & Dragons. I’m not really afraid to say it anymore. D&D has always been seen as the last bastion of nerdom – the nerdiest thing you could ever do. It could act as a safety net for anything: “I play video games, but at least I don’t play Dungeons & Dragons!”
Thankfully, we now live in an era where LARPing is a thing, so I don’t feel so self-conscious about announcing that fact.
With that knowledge firmly tucked away, you can maybe understand why I set aside some time from the glitz and glamour of the main show floor, to seek out a small grey booth. A booth, nestled amongst a sea of similarly sized, similarly coloured booths, in a part of the convention centre that saw little foot-traffic.
Inside, I had the opportunity to check out Sword Coast Legends – the latest licensed D&D game. Utilising parts of the 5th Edition ruleset (the latest rules made available for tabletop), it feels like a love letter to the old Infinity Engine games (Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale), with a modern bent on some of the creative tools seen in the Aurora engine games (Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2).
The demo was built around team play. Three other journalists and I played a party of adventurers, filling your typical D&D roles. I was a cleric (a healer, with some offensive holy magic), joined by a wizard, rogue, and fighter. The moment-to-moment gameplay is fairly simple: it’s a mouse-driven, isometric RPG, where you have an action bar full of spells or abilities, and you use them to either help your allies, or harm your foes.
The specific quest that we were on was actually made by another player in the room – the Dungeon Master (DM). The developers went into a lot of detail about the game’s Campaign Creation Tools, and how they wanted to recreate the real-world, tabletop feeling of crafting your own adventures and encounters for a group of friends to enjoy. What that meant for the dev team was implementing a breadth of robust tools, to suit specific needs.
DM’s have the ability to create custom maps, choosing from a range of tilesets, prefab structures, objects, weather patterns, and times of day. Traps can be peppered throughout, and other environmental triggers can be laid down (say, to have enemies ambush the players at a particular location, have a boss spawn, or have someone initiate dialogue). Additionally, DMs can create secret rooms, filled with caches of loot.
Within these maps (be they open fields, cities, or dungeons) the DM can populate them with NPCs.
Like the terrain, there’s a large array of premade creatures and humanoids – but you have the ability to tweak their stats, armour, class, and abilities. Further, you can alter the physical characteristics of any NPC, including skin tone, race, name, and background (a text field with information about the character, that players can read in world). You can add your favourite creations to lists, which can be pulled out and modified quickly for ease of access.
What makes Sword Coast Legends really interesting though, is that the DM is an active participant. She can drop monsters or traps into the next room to surprise the party, modify an encounter’s difficulty, and even take direct control of enemies – giving her their respective set of abilities to use against the party.
The developers said the game would come with a matchmaking system, so you can play in a random DM’s game. Given that a DM’s role is to tell a story (and not kill her party for the thrill of it), they’ve put in two systems to encourage nice play – a rating system, and a rewards system. The second sounds the most interesting, but the devs didn’t go into too much detail. They made it sounds like successfully completing a campaign would reward players with gear, but also reward the DM in some capacity – hidden tilesets or monsters, are probably my best guess.
Concessions have been made to port tabletop mechanics to the PC. Typically in D&D, players have a set amount of spells that they can cast per day, before having to rest. Older games like Baldur’s Gate stuck to this system, but it saw a lot of abuse – quite often you’d finish a fight, quick save, and then rest, hoping threats wouldn’t creep up on you, so you could get all your spells back. If they did, you’d just reload and try again.
Sword Coast Legends operates on a cooldown system. It still requires prudent use of those skills though, as some have lengths ranging from thirty seconds, to two minutes. What this means is more time spent playing the game, and less abusing it. I have the feeling that some purists will be up in arms about this detail, but I think it’s a smart change.
I’ve probably missed multiple features in this preview – but that’s a good thing. The wealth of options I saw in my limited time with the game seemed aimed at spurring the creative process – the main thing that I personally come to D&D for. While past licensed games have managed to tell sweeping stories, or have tight combat, very few have touched on that purer, more abstract concept.