It didn’t take long for Sword Coast Legends to kick me back to the early 2000s, back to a time when I spent countless evenings wrapped up in Neverwinter Nights’ incredibly robust Aurora Toolset, crafting modules, a campaign, and even an overly-ambitious persistent world.
N-Space’s D&D RPG comes at you with nostalgia from all sides, whether you’ve got fond memories of top-down, party-based RPGs, or creating worlds and stories on PC or tabletops.
With its launch imminent, Jeremy and I decided to go on a wee adventure – one of my own creation, built using the game’s robust dungeon and campaign maker, which can then be shared and played with by parties and Dungeon Masters. I put my DM cloak on and prepared myself to make a man out of him.
Fraser: Before I can ensnare my poor, unsuspecting colleague in some sort of twisted labyrinth full of bloodthirsty monsters and deadly traps, I actually have to make one. Sword Coast Legends lets you make dungeons, short modules or massive, Sword Coast-spanning campaigns right from the get go. Not wanting to bite off more than I could chew, I opt not to craft a campaign full of city adventures, trips into haunted forests and jaunts down into the dreaded Underdark. I make one dungeon.
Okay, it’s serviceable. I select a catacomb tileset, then pick out the different enemies – cultists and Goblins – and let the game conjure up something from there, giving me a skeleton of a dungeon. Dungeons, and indeed any area, can be populated with monsters, NPCs, different types of encounters, traps, window dressing, loads and loads of blood – whatever you want, really.
I’m a bit conservative in its construction, wanting to leave myself room to add more once Jeremy enters the dungeon. I make a quest giver for him to meet at the entrance and, of course, a quest for him to receive. He’ll have to kill the boss of THE HALL OF JOURNOS PAST, where tired videogame journalists end up when they’re all outta words.
With the dungeon ready, Jeremy enters.
Jeremy: I awake, as I have on so many digital adventures prior, on a dank basement floor lit by torches an unseen designer has picked out seemingly for decoration rather than warmth. Before me stands, or slouches, a dishevelled-looking representative of the undead, who a quick mouse-over informs me is Freelancer Frank. He doesn’t immediately attack, which makes his corridor a more attractive option than the three skull-stuffed catacomb walls in every other direction. Besides, you learn to put a certain amount of trust in any NPC given a name, don’t you?
I hail Frank, and the game fails to display the witty welcome my host has drafted for the occasion, though he assures me it’s as droll and dry as his dungeon isn’t. So without context, I’m offered the option to accept or deny Frank’s unspoken request. I blindly agree, and a goal appears in my journal: ‘Defeat the Priest of Forgotten Deadlines’.
Fraser: The very first encounter in the dungeon, and I’m already proving to be a cowboy DM. Poor Frank, he thought he was to have a starring role in our D&D adventure, but for some reason his dialogue vanished and he was left a blank noticeboard. Mortifying!
DMs need to work with the unexpected, however, and thanks to the magic of Skype, I’m able to explain the very simple quest to Jeremy, which is basically summed up in the title anyway. There’s a crazy cultist – n-Space call him the ‘Ashen Priest’; I prefer the ‘Priest of Forgotten Deadlines’ – running this horror show, and dear old Jeremy is the only hero available to kill him.
And so he sets off again.
Jeremy: As I leave Frank staring coldly down his corridor and step into a stone antechamber, I notice a white orb flitting about the place. It looks like a lost soul or will o’ the wisp, ready to lead me to my doom. Which is about right, since it stands in for Fraser’s cursor. I can see more or less where he’s looking, but I can’t know what he’s doing. So I stab at a number key to activate ‘search’. A little D&D experience leads me to hope that’ll prevent me from stumbling into too many wires.
My human rogue slows to a cautious walk, befitting of an area our DM has just implored us to “explore, see if anything tickles your fancy”. And everything goes well at first: I clear out a chest in the corner, and have just knelt to disarm a floor trap when I feel a jab in my back, courtesy of the Goblin who’s just materialised directly behind me.
Fraser: It’s an experiment, really. Can I be a right bastard? A DM determined to kill their players will invariably succeed, because they have all the toys. Sword Coast attempts to sidestep this, encouraging cooperation between DM and players, through the threat resource. Every DM action costs threat, and while it’s automatically generated over time, you get a lot more if players are making real progress, completing quests and killing beasties.
Obviously there’s still room to be a dick, though, as I’m able to summon a Goblin right next to Jeremy while he’s in the middle of disarming a trap. It’s all a bit unfair, though I can imagine scenarios where Goblins appearing out of nowhere might be part of the narrative. In this instance, however, it is not.
I quickly realise that, as much as I delight in seeing Jeremy running for his life, I’m actually rooting for him. The worse and more punishing the adventure is for him, the less opportunities I have for shenanigans. And I have a lot of shenanigans planned.
Jeremy: I swiftly add the gobbo to the dungeon’s dead, but it’s no breeze for my level 1 sneakery specialist. I’m forced to glug a health potion, and when I push open the grand double doors into the next corridor, I find I’m ill-prepared for my first encounter. As I’m sticking both of my blades in one Goblin, another is stuffing me with arrows, though I’m down before I realise it.
Dana the rogue is respawned back at the catacomb entrance. I don’t know where the emotes are, so can’t offer Frank an apologetic nod as I jog past him to retrace my steps. This time I’m prepared: slipping into stealth mode until I’ve neared the nasties, then casting a spell that sends them both to sleep. I overcome the bowman just as he comes round, and creep on down the passage, ready for anything.
Ready for anything, that is, but the sudden appearance of a gasping fish near my right foot. Fraser’s playing silly buggers, I realise, and my determination to ignore it does no good. With every step the floundering creatures multiply, fins flapping in unison against the cobbles.
Fraser: Momentous discovery time: you can fill dungeons with fish. And not just fish! Dogs, pigs, horses, spiders – everything on four or eight legs, living, dead and sometimes just napping. These don’t count as NPCs; they’re window dressing, like a statue, a pile of bones or a lighting tweak, and thus don’t cost any threat to use.
Eventually I’ll make use of this feature to build tension, but for now I’m just content to baffle poor Jeremy. It’s great, though, being able to add to dungeons on the fly like this, transforming a mostly static set into something alive and constantly changing, growing.
I’ve surrounded Jeremy with horses. I’m having a lovely time.
Jeremy: The horses are dead. They’re all dead, but I’m alive, and that’s what I’m trying to focus on as I slip about in pools of equine blood. I bloody the robes of a couple of cultists and make a beeline for the next chamber, praying there won’t be any bees spawning in. But the DM interjects - perhaps there’s something in this room I haven’t spotted yet?
As my ‘search’ radius drifts over a conspicuously blank wall, a secret is revealed. A hidden door! Truly, we are in John Romero’s realm of level design now. And so it proves as I dispatch a Goblinoid creature with a name that’s almost-but-not-quite Quinoa, and two monsters jump out of unseen closets in an attempted ambush. Fortunately, the noise has frightened me into enabling stealth mode, and I fire off a sleep spell.
Slinking through another hidden door, I come across a treasure room - where a familiar lopsided face awaits. Via some private route he’s chosen not to share with me, Frank now appears in his den. Piled high with coin, it also houses a few chests, which I empty of fruit, cheese and a rapier.
A little better armed than before, I feel ready to brave the crazies in the next room. But, scoping the place out in stealth mode, I spy three, four, five cultists. Sword Coast Legends multiplayer can be played with four adventurers, and Fraser’s balanced it with the expectation that I’ll be able to pull in a full party. I haven’t. Invisibility wearing off, I scuttle still further into the dungeon - and wind up at the feet of the dread Deadline Priest. His disciples give chase, and even an activated dash ability doesn’t give me enough speed to outrun the ashen lich’s fireball.
Back in the entranceway, I fix my only ally in this world with an equally cold glare. I’m gonna need some help, Frank.
Fraser: I didn’t expect Jeremy to sneak past all those cultists and then, moments later, aggro all of them and the boss. Things were looking grim. It’s at times like these that every adventurer needs a trusty undead friend. I remind Jeremy, then, that Frank is just up the hall, and might be able to lend a hand. I know this, because I’m able to possess both friendly and hostile NPCs, and I’m going to try to halt yet another death.
The relationship between DM and player is now a cooperative one, even if it started off with me trying to kill Jeremy. I want him to kill the Priest and get the gold and feel like he’s overcome this, frankly, tricky challenge I’ve laid out. So he draws this chain of foes up to Frank’s den, at which moment I borrow the zombie’s body and I start to hit things.
With a bit of teamwork and, if I’m being honest, a wee bit of DM cheating, we manage to defeat all of the cultists and Goblins that have chased him. It was a close call, and I think we both deserve a well-earned rest before going back to face the boss.
As Jeremy rests up, I spawn a barrel. I tell him to look inside. It’s a special barrel. What’s inside the barrel, Jeremy?
Jeremy: Bums. Or rather, the word ‘BUMS’, in all-caps text, triggers when I open the barrel. Fraser titters away over Skype, but I’m grateful for the change of tack. Whenever a DM alters something significant, Sword Coast players can hear the clunk of a distant mechanism in motion - and lately Fraser’s dungeon has started ticking like a big clock.
Fraser: Despite manipulating the dungeon in Jeremy’s favour, before we can finally dispatch the boss, he’s died again, leaving Frank to face him alone, if only for a moment. I briefly consider letting Frank be the hero of this tale, but I know I’d feel bad for Jeremy, so I reduce the zombie’s damage and give the Priest a wee buff, just to keep him around for long enough.
I may have buffed him too much.
Jeremy: As I round a corner to face the first secret doorway, I see Freelancer Frank in close combat with the Deadline Priest. Beginning with a backstab I join the fray, and though I can’t say for sure, I think Fraser does too - lopping off chunks of the creature’s health alongside us...
Fraser: He’s not wrong! Really, the DM is the true hero of this story, not Jeremy or Frank.
Jeremy: The sleep spell, the only weapon up my first-level sleeve, has no effect on a skeleton lord who’s been slumbering for centuries. But the three of us fell the bane creature anyway, and what began in opposition is celebrated in partnership.
We’ve had fun, and crucial to that has been Fraser’s ability to alter the adventure on the fly. That’s what distinguishes Sword Coast Legends’ dungeons from Neverwinter Nights’ hands-off modules. With every clunk in the darkness, I’ve felt the challenge changing around me, Frank’s quest remoulded to fit Dana’s abilities.
And where asymmetrical multiplayer is so often combative by default, Sword Coast Legends feels fundamentally friendly. Its DMs are given plenty of tools and encouragement to guide their wards through a game, rather than pick them off. An expert, I expect, will leave a party always teetering on the edge of disaster while never letting them fall.
Fraser: This is really what I want from a D&D game – the tabletop game crammed into my PC, not an RPG inspired by, based on or set in a D&D realm. The build we’ve been playing with, which is not the launch build, feels like it’s missing some user friendliness when it comes to designing dungeons, and there are a few things I still can’t figure out, or am unsure if they’re either bugs or I’m missing something. But despite all of that, God it’s fun.
My dungeon is crap, however you measure it. It’s messy and chaotic and not at all balanced, but it is absolutely my dungeon, and what a delight it was to watch someone work their way through it and enjoy it despite how obviously terrible it was. And now my brain is fat with ideas, for campaigns and modules and single dungeons. I’m itching to experiment, like a man sitting on top of a D&D ant hill.
Sword Coast Legends launches today.