It must be daunting to begin work on a Dungeons & Dragons video game. Though there's a ton of cultural cachet in the property, it has an intense, loyal following, fans that are fiercely protective of their favorite hobby. The tabletop roleplaying game launched a new fifth edition last summer, and is enjoying larger sales numbers than ever before. So when n-Space announced it was creating a new D&D game for PC, Mac, and Linux—with console versions to follow—a lot of nerds got excited and more, myself included, were worried. Would the game feel big enough? Would it feel collaborative enough? In other words, is Sword Coast Legends the D&D game we've been waiting for?
Previous video games spawning from the franchise have run the gamut from clunky early attempts on the Apple II and Intellivision to the much-loved Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights. But none of these ever really did it for me. They felt too small and too confined. I liked some of the characters I came across in these games, but the scope never felt right. 2002's Neverwinter Nights tried to incorporate multiplayer and a way to create your own adventures, but it was limited by the technology of the time. In a tabletop game of D&D, if my character wanted to go south when the Dungeon Master was telling me to go north, well, with the right DM and a bit of quick thinking, my friends and I could break the script and find other adventures. Whereas sitting alone, at home, at a computer, spamming my attack buttons… it's just not the same, clearly.
"Tabletop D&D is about hanging out with your friends," says Dan Tudge, president of n-Space and game director of Sword Coast Legends. "It's about the relationships that you build, the stories that you tell. It's about something funny your friend did, or you how exploded because you absolutely failed that check. That's something that was really important to us, to recreate that experience of people playing together. To make it easy for them to do that."
I try out the game at a press preview event with a table of other players. We sit down at some fancy laptops, slip on our headsets and get to clicking. From the first moment when we strategized over what classes of characters to take (I played a fighter, because I'm basic), to coordinating together at the boss battle at the end of our crypt, I knew this game wasn't like the ones I've previously played. I could plan imminent actions alongside the other players, I could crack jokes as I lay dying in a fire trap, and I could roleplay in conjunction with the human beings in the game with me. I can only imagine how fun this will be to play with actual friends of mine.
The scenario I played through was a familiar one. My cohorts and I headed into a crypt to find out more information about a necromancer who went missing a long time ago. We cut down vampires, zombies, skeletons, and avoided traps as we ran through the ten or so rooms of this little mission. Our characters worked wonderfully together. I got in the faces of the baddies, slashing them in vulnerable places to slow them down or blind them when I couldn't outright smash them. My paladin buddy encouraged my character and healed him. The wizard lobbed spells from a safe distance. We didn't have a rogue, so we stumbled into nearly every trap. This is D&D as I know it, this is the game with which I'm most familiar.
Article continues after the video below
"The team wanted to create something that was, first and foremost, collaborative," explains n-Space CEO Dan O'Leary. "And letting people play the game the way they want to play it. There are options for player pausing, DM pausing—and that wasn't originally in there. DM pausing was added so that a DM could stop the game and interject storytelling, they can roll checks, they can insert more of the tabletop game elements into it."
The DM Mode of this game was really the part that cracked my skeptical shell. I could decide I wanted to be the Dungeon Master and grab some of my friends. Then I go about setting up a storyline, traps, dungeons, monsters… all of which highly customizable. Do I want to send out a giant baby-blue spider against my heroes? Or should I send a horde of weak orcs with daggers to overwhelm them? Should this room have a fucked-up amount of traps in it, or am I going easy on my players?
Read on VICE Sports: The Masters of Miniature Golf
In a game world as unlimited as a tabletop RPG can be, I worried that Sword Coast Legends would spin out of control and become this huge, sub-par Frankenstein's monster. But it all felt very smooth, and played seamlessly. "Dan [O'Leary] and I have had some very heated discussions about scope," Tudge tells me. "The discipline required in making sure you don't spiral into too much game, all at a mediocre level, that's really hard." O'Leary continues: "Our wish-list of things that had to be pushed out past the initial release is always growing, we're always listening to people internally and externally. We've been focused on this initial release but we're looking at this game as a platform to build and share campaigns and adventures. We'll support this game aggressively as long as the community will continue to support it."
'Sword Coast Legends,' PAX Prime trailer
"D&D is more than just a game," O'Leary goes on to explain. "D&D is more of a hobby, it's a platform, and that's something that we realized early on in development. And so what we're releasing here is kind of like the core ruleset. And from there we can go wherever, we can take it through modules or expansions. Whether they're tied in with new storylines or go back to classic D&D storylines."
To answer the question that crossed every D&D fan's mind when Sword Coast Legends was announced, of whether or not this is game we've been waiting for: I think it is. Our connectivity can finally handle smooth cooperative gameplay, and this game's been designed with playing through with friends a priority. The DM Mode allows for a level of customization unheard of in D&D video games up to this point. We've reached a moment in geekdom where tabletop D&D can transfer to the video game world while retaining everything that makes the more-physical alternative so appealing. It's the right time for a good D&D game, and if n-Space support their "platform" the way they say they will, I think we've found it.
Sword Coast Legends is out now for PC and Mac. More information at the game's official website.
Follow Gabe on Twitter.