Hands on: Sword Coast Legends

Be a Dungeon Master in Sword Coast Legends, no dice required

Sword Coast Legends for the first time captures the responsive and improvisatory nature of the Dungeon Master role from pen-and-paper play.

Modern video games owe an immense amount to Dungeons & Dragons. What started as a fantasy addendum to a traditional, tabletop medieval war game was scaled down by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson to focus not on the movement of battalions, but of lone heroes. D&D gave birth to roleplaying games as we now know them, and its immense cultural footprint is especially apparent in video games, where RPG elements, such as character progression and choice-based narrative, can be found in genres that have nothing to do with the swords and sorcery of the game in which they were codified.

Another major innovation of D&D was the expansion of the referee role from traditional war games into that of the dungeon master—an all-powerful facilitator of story, crafting and guiding the players’ narrative and controlling everyone and everything else in the world. While video games have wholeheartedly embraced the player-side mechanics of D&D, the more complicated role of dungeon master (or “DM” for short) has not translated as well.

Sword Coast Legends, an upcoming cooperative RPG based on the recent fifth edition of D&D, seeks to address this by allowing one player to assume the role of DM to both create original content and run it live for up to four player-controlled adventurers. I was recently able to try out my dungeon-master chops in a demo, which was shared with the public for the first time at E3.

We’ve been here before

Sword Coast Legends is built on a very familiar foundation. Its eponymous location, part of the Forgotten Realms D&D setting, is one of the most popular regions for pen-and-paper modules, D&D-inspired video games (such as Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights), and books like R.A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf Trilogy. Running roughly between the free cities of Waterdeep in the north and Baldur’s Gate in the south, the Sword Coast is an otherwise lawless region at the confluence of multiple kingdoms and cultures, making it an ideal setting for adventures.

The player-side game mechanics will look immediately familiar to fans of PC RPGs. Using a fixed, isometric perspective, battles are fought in real time with the option to pause and queue up commands, directly comparable to classics like Baldur’s Gate and more recent revivals of the form like Pillars of Eternity. Underneath the hood, numbers are being crunched by the newly-minted Fifth Edition ruleset, which is vastly more elegant than the clunky Second Edition rules used in most previous D&D video game adaptations.

Welcome to my nightmare

Where Sword Coast Legends distinguishes itself is with Dungeon Master mode, allowing one player to assume control over the non-player characters and environment. At a minimum the DM can take the helm of pre-made adventures, modifying encounters as the game goes on and taking control over enemies during fights. On the outside of complexity, though, DMs can spend hours and hours crafting their own adventures, using the same tools that the developers created to design the pre-built campaign, building elaborate worlds for players to explore.

This can be as minimal as taking a pre-made or randomly generated dungeon and tweaking the encounters, or as complex as designing multi-part quests that span numerous regions. Non-player characters can be fully customized with a fine degree of detail for both their abilities and their appearance. A degree of scripted dialogue is available, but for truly hands-on DMs that want to capture the freeform play of D&D, VoIP chat is enabled for live conversations.

Like a DM in real life, the role sits somewhere between cooperative and adversarial.

Up until the players actually see a room, the DM is free to continue changing it even as they play live. Is the party breezing through the gauntlet of traps and monsters you set up for them? Place a few more traps on the other side of the door they are about to open, or increase the difficulty of the creatures awaiting them. One particularly nasty trick that the developers pointed out while I tormented a group of fellow journalists-turned-heroes was that you can manually override a creature that has been magically charmed, turning it hostile again.

This liveness is what separates Sword Coast Legends from previous attempts to capture Dungeon Mastering. BioWare provided Neverwinter Nights players with a robust set of tools for creating adventures and a limited capacity for controlling them live, assuming control of NPCs and enemies. The lion’s share of the work happened beforehand, though, framing the DM as more of a developer. SCL gives the DM unprecedented power to make sweeping changes to the game as it is being played, for the first time capturing the responsive and improvisatory nature of the role from pen-and-paper play. Rather than having a separate program for creation and play, the DM’s interface remains essentially the same

Whose side are you on, anyway?

Although ostensibly working against each other, the DM’s role is not strictly that of an enemy. Unlike the board game Descent, which similarly tasks one player with controlling the monsters that try to thwart adventuring fantasy heroes, the DM’s goal in Sword Coast Legends is not to wipe out the party. Everything the DM does during play, such as placing monsters and traps, or assuming direct control over enemies, consumes a resource called Threat. Threat grows slowly over time, putting pressure on the players not to dawdle. It is also generated more rapidly every time that the players are damaged. Threat is lost, however, when player characters die, serving as a strong disincentive against killing off the party.

Sword Coast Legends

In an essay about story, famed American playwright David Mamet said that the ideal plot should be like the ideal baseball game, with the three part structure of “yes – no – but wait!” No one enjoys a shut-out, and the most exciting games are those in which an underdog manages to pull out a victory against all odds in the final act.

Sword Coast Legends aims for this kind of result with the Threat system by encouraging DMs to push the party to the brink of failure, but not quite over the edge. Like a DM in real life, the role sits somewhere between cooperative and adversarial. Linear, conventional video game measures of success of failure such as level progression or dying are secondary to the overall goal of sharing a thrilling story. Just like in real life, the DM ultimately wants the party to succeed, but only if they really work for it.

Conclusion

Sword Coast Legends is the best attempt I’ve ever seen at capturing the DM-player relationship from D&D, which has been sorely missing from the decades of video games based on it. The limited time I had to play around with the tools only gave me a brief taste of what was possible, but I can foresee pouring hours into creating elaborate adventures and devious dungeons for my friends.

Video games have long allowed people who might be intimidated by pen and paper RPGs to get a taste of the heroic fantasies they afford. Sword Coast Legends provides a viable option for those that might want to try their hand at being a DM, but are intimidated by the responsibility of managing the complex game’s systems.

Sword Coast Legends comes to Windows, Mac, and Linux on September 8, 2015, and is planned for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2016.

Highs

  • Powerful creation tools
  • Best attempt yet at capturing the player/dungeon master relationship

Lows

  • Player-side mechanics are nothing we haven’t seen before
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