Wot I Think: Sword Coast Legends

The dream: remote D&D for far-flung or time-starved friends. A cackling dungeon master pulling strings, up to four heroes ganging up on monsters and squabbling over loot, amazing adventures which exist only for you.

The reality of Sword Coast Legends [official site]: not that, basically.

The digital D&D dream might just be an impossible one, as the pen ‘n’ paper RPG is built upon imagination and conversation. The second that graphics are thrown into the mix, everything changes. The world becomes known, inflexible, constrained by the comparatively few possibilities of screenspace and of clicking a button rather than conjuring places and people from words alone. Even so, Sword Coast Legends pays mere lip service to D&D, taking up the Forgotten Realms setting and the foundational concepts of fights and rewards, but discarding the vital sense of chance and choice.

At its best, it’s a functional co-op dungeon-runner in a vaguely Diabloesque vein for one to four players. At its worst it’s a dreary trudge through meatless fights in samey environments bordered by a sluggish UI. Part of me thinks I just need to keep fishing for some kernel of do-it-yourself goodness, but a larger part of me thinks that life’s just too short.

In theory, the key to Sword Coast Legends is its dungeon master mode, in which one player can do as much as design an area filled with quests and dungeons from scratch, or as little as teleport additional monsters in on the fly while the others stomp through pre-made challenges. Where Neverwinter Nights, SCL’s great inspiration, came with a fully-fledged and exceedingly complicated modding toolset, this game has a relatively easy, in-game UI into which you can pretty much just plop whatever you like. I was able to knock together a rudimentary dungeon with a couple of functional quests and a boss in around 20 minutes; given a couple of hours I could have gone to town on purple prose and consciously hardcore challenges. It’s hard to argue with DM mode’s ease.

The trade-off for this is flexibility: I don’t doubt that more ingenious modders will find ways to achieve more interesting things, but right now it seems unlikely that we’ll get more than go here > kill or collect that with as much flavour text as the DM can be bothered with. It’s early days of course, but so far every user-made module I’ve tried has seemed pretty damned similar to the last one, primarily depending on how fiendish the creator is in terms of monster and trap placement.

It doesn’t help that, graphically, SCL falls into whatever the exact opposite of a sweet spot is. It’s neither lo-fi enough for imagination to augment simple sights, or fancy-pants enough to make the simple act of wandering around pleasurable or surprising. It’s not actually locked into the notorious greys and browns of 3D games from not so long ago, but it somehow feels like it is. Yeah, the archetypal high fantasy of the Forgotten Realms setting isn’t the most fertile soil for wildness, but neither is it an impediment to it.

Add to that the more nebulous but inescapable issue of combat feeling mechanical and perfunctory, and SCL’s biggest problem isn’t really that it doesn’t feel sufficiently like an AD&D session – it’s that it’s simply an unexciting place in which to kill monsters in unexciting ways. The clicky, weightless combat and the 2000s MMO hotbar UI are just the dull grey icing on the bland, dry cake.

At this point I’m going to open the floor to m’learned colleagues John and Graham, who were on the receiving end of my only slightly confused dungeon-mastering. They’ve only played a fraction of what I have, but I think it’s valuable to hear the perspective of folk who’ve purely had an adventure made for them – the apparent true purpose of Sword Coast Legends.

John:

“I was genuinely surprised by its strange, shoddy appearance. During the promotion for the game I had gotten the impression this was going to be a means to run your own D&D campaigns with chums, online. Something that’s enormously needed. But instead this appears to be a sub-Diablo brawler with incredibly clumsy combat, dreary presentation, and not a dice roll in sight.

Clearly this was only a brief glance, but it wasn’t one that has given me any inclination to dig any deeper. It seems we still desperately need someone to come up with the ultimate AD&D online DMing extravaganza, cos this ain’t it.”

And Graham:

I like user-created content and I like collaboratively authored experiences of the kind Sword Coast Legend proposes, and I am willing to put in hours in order to learn strange systems and awkward toolkits to make those situations happen. If – if – there is a core experience there that seems worthwhile, that is. Sword Coast Legend feels to me like dull hotbar combat from fifteen years ago. When you’re making a D&D game which focuses on the combat side of the experience, making those fire balls and magic missiles feel great is essential, and without that I feel little motivation to put up with everything else. Not the lagging quest givers or the slow load times or the plain, grey environments or the enemies who steamrolled over my new character in single hits.

That last is worth picking up on. While SCL’s DM tools are designed to be easy, and introducing or removing monsters is straightforward, by default there’s no fine control with which to truly tailor a module to your mates’ characters and capabilities. It’s broad-strokes easy/medium/hard, with options to slightly buff or debuff enemies once the session’s begun. (More interestingly, the DM can set any creature as friendly in order to help out with harder encounters and there’s even the option to possess a creature and take direct control, Dungeon Keeper style – be it to help or hinder the adventurers. However, if you want to go wade into the Custom Creature Set option, you can assemble a more bespoke set of menaces, with hand-picked powers and levels, as well as appearance. Fear my Purple Mastiff Of Ultimate Purplosity:

It can release a smelly cloud, summon skellingtons and make people feeble, y’know. Even then, there are huge limitations on how many points you can add, plus you can’t create a Creature Set that mixes from different types of enemy: an undead set is an undead set, though at least you can change colours and powers. You can even change allegiance, making it possible to build a friendly army to assist your adventurers against a tougher enemy gang if you so wished.

The possibilities seem to run out rather quickly, however. You can’t custom-build locations as such, but instead pick from prefab sizes and decorations, and a combination of scripting and random generation handles the rest. Easy, yes, but it means nothing feels special – each new dungeon is just one more from the dungeon machine. You can festoon it with text notes and incidental scenery – from furniture to corpses – but I’ve yet to find anything, either official, self-made or from the slowly-populating ranks of player-made modules, which feels especially distinctive.

That said, this is a game that will live and die on the long-term narrative enthusiasm of module-makers, both in written text and in the on-the-fly narration from the DM. I suspect the best is yet to come there, presuming people stick around. In our case, the session involved an inexperienced DM trying to corral two fellow critics who were too dismayed by the lacklustre presentation, humdrum combat and laggy dialogue boxes to give themselves over to RP. Approach it as nothing more than a place to hang out and bash monsters with friends, one of whom is embellishing every sight and every fight with sibilant delight, and it might just about do the job. There are some playful modules to be found in the in-game download menus, and while they couldn’t escape the essential sameiness, there is something to be said for setpiece fights (like the one pictured above) and enthusiastic flavour text everywhere.

Some fairly rapid patching is needed, however. For instance, all three RPSers who played suffered from the game trying to play in a window, which necessitated a manual alt-enter intervention as the Fullscreen button in settings does nothing, but even that wouldn’t work all the time. The Invite button in multiplayer was similarly non-functional: we got around by joining each other’s games via the Steam interface.

Meanwhile, alt-tab does bad things, it’s taxing my system more than a game which looks like this could possibly justify, and spiking lag laid multiplayer sessions low, with NPCs not offering up their dialogue boxes until several seconds after repeated clicking. Even playing solo, I had dialogue boxes act up all over the place. SCL certainly isn’t in a disastrous state, but it does feel rickety right now. On the plus side, drop in/drop out multiplayer worked well, and no-one needed to do any further fiddling to jump into a game. Same’s true of playing with randoms. Clearly it’s a very different experience from playing with your mates, but finding and joining sessions was perfectly straightforward.

It’s definitely best to think of Sword Coast Legends not as Dungeons & Dragons (let alone AD&D) and more as a sort of low-key DIY Diablo. Even then, the core combat is too forgettable, and the DM mode too limited, to make a solid case for playing this instead of co-op Diablo or Torchlight or Titan Quest or Path of Exile if monster-bothering with chums is what you’re after. It’s not impossible that later updates will make fighting feel less underwhelming or expand the potential of dungeon-building, but I wouldn’t want to bet on it.

It’s absolutely true to say that you get out of Sword Coast Legends what you put in, but right now there just aren’t enough reasons to put much in.

Sword Coast Legends is out now for Windows, Max and Linux.

53 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    Disappointing, I guess I’ll just stick with Divinity Original Sin w/ 4 Player Mod for co-op dungeoning.

  2. LogicalDash says:

    This game sounds similar to Fight the Dragon. How does it compare?

  3. thekelvingreen says:

    It seems we still desperately need someone to come up with the ultimate AD&D online DMing extravaganza

    Google Hangouts plus Roll20. Sorted.

    • malkav11 says:

      Pretty much. There’s also a long line of similar endeavours, like Fantasy Grounds, WebRPG, etc. Really what’s more lacking is that kind of support for games that aren’t D&D. (Roll20 is pretty flexible and does okay, but you can tell D&D was still the central impetus.)

      All of these provide far, far more support and flexibility for your creative collaborative storytelling at dramatically less overhead than a “DM mode” for a CRPG ever will. The selling point for CRPGs is that they let you play this sort of game -without- anyone having to run it. (I mean, there are also GM-less tabletop games, but that’s a different animal.)

    • DrollRemark says:

      My first thought on reading this was “what’s wrong with using a video chat software?” D&D doesn’t really require anything more than communication, after all.

  4. Myrdinn says:

    If you do decide to play the game some more, you can trigger full screen mode by using alt+enter, I’m not sure why they botched the thing in the options menu. But yeah, it doesn’t seem like there’s much point in playing as the gameplay fundamentals aren’t interesting at all. A pity.

    Maybe we’ll get a new D&D game in 4 years that doesn’t suck? Ha, who am I kidding.

  5. mechabuddha says:

    I’ve been using Fantasy Grounds for my D&Ding. Not as ideal as in person, but serviceable enough. The graphics are barely just good enough so the players can see positioning of things, and still bad enough that they must use their imaginations for everything else. This is a good thing.

  6. LogicalDash says:

    I’m still waiting on someone to come up with a tabletop-ish roleplaying system, in the sense that it has a game master arbitrating everything and telling a story that the players can respond to how they like, but one that’s properly adapted to the computer platform. Never mind the dice, but don’t give me Attack and Block buttons either. Just give me an app where I type in the character sheets, and then I get a big damn list of things characters can do, and I pick who does what — maybe specify the environment conditions — and the game just tells me how it turns out, keeping every roll, stat, and calculation out of sight.

    • Assirra says:

      I am pretty sure you can just google “online table top rpg” and find numerous sites for this exact purpose.

      • neotribe says:

        I’ve looked at the offering in that area before, though not recently. Curious: is there any consensus as to which of them are the most usable? Which is most established?

      • ffordesoon says:

        Really? I’ve used a couple of virtual tabletops,and you still have to do all the math by hand or make macros or whatever. Which is an improvement over PnP DMing in many ways, don’t get me wrong, and great for hardcore DMs who houserule shit and adjust values and fudge rolls and all that on the fly. Indeed, for flexibility, there is no computer-controlled substitute for a great DM who knows the system inside and out. I’m not disputing that.

        Here’s the thing, though – I have run a total of one brief Pathfinder session on Roll20, and it was a mess, because I’m not a “math guy.” I got equations and rules wrong, I mixed up statblocks, I couldn’t figure out how to light the maps correctly and consequently just asked the players to pretend they couldn’t spot the obvious monster closets, and so on. Now, I’m not going to pretend any of this was Roll20’s fault rather than my own. My point is that I’m a guy with an interest in the storytelling aspect of DMing who mainly knows players who are fans of rules-heavy systems like Pathfinder. I want to DM for my chums, and I want to DM the games they’re interested in playing. I’m just more interested in doing a spooky voice than having to deal with grappling rules or whatever. VTTs are awesome and amazing, but they still don’t make it easy enough for people like me to run rules-heavy games like D&D or Pathfinder. The theoretical appeal of SCL’s DM mode and stuff like it for me was the idea of being able to make up a fun story on the fly and trust the game to take care of the busy work. I set a monster down and it knows what it can and can’t do already, which means playing the monster requires no more moment-to-moment effort than playing a character. And if I need to go do something else, the monster has fairly robust AI scripting to keep my players busy in the meantime. In other words, I want Super Mario Maker, but for D&D.

        That, as the first paragraph of the article notes, is the dream. I’m not stupid enough to think there aren’t significant challenges in making that dream a reality, and the end result would inevitably fall short of the dream, but it is absolutely possible, and VTTs prove it.

        • gunny1993 says:

          The most honest advice I can give you is to not DM a game that doesn’t help you have fun, DnD is not the only solution to roleplaying, there are thousands of games out there each which do things their own way. People who only play DnD or one single RPG are fools limited by their narrow veiw.

          For example if you want a rules light system that focuses on combat in a narrative way you have Dungeon world or apocolypse world, if you want a rules heavy game that focuses on narrative you want Burning wheel, if you want burning wheel but with less rules you want mousegaurd or torchbearer.

          Also from what you’ve writen here i’d guess that you’d love Dungeon World, but I warn against playing it with people who usually only play DnD, they tend to have fixed minds when it comes to RPG and they wont understand the game, most people I lay with take a few seesions to understand that there is no combat order..

          • ffordesoon says:

            To be clear, I know about all of those games, and I think I would like to DM them, in addition to things like the Cypher System. I actually played an Apocalypse World Engine game for the first time just a couple of days ago, and everyone in the group had a blast.

            I didn’t mention any of that because it’s beside the point I was making. I realize I probably muddied the rhetorical waters a little by making my comments more system-agnostic than they were intended to be, but that’s down to clumsy/unfocused writing on my part. My real point was to explain to the commenter above me that an accessible tool for people who want to DM D&D but feel intimidated by taking on the system unassisted – what SCL promised to provide in theory – would be different from virtual tabletops in the same way Super Mario Maker is different from Unity, and would consequently serve a purpose VTTs don’t and by their nature can’t.

            I do thank you for the recommendations, though.

        • Hedgeclipper says:

          Have you tried the first NWN? Its old but its the only game I’ve seen that really got it (NWN 2 looks better but made the whole building side much more complicated and time consuming) and there’s a ton of mods and scripts and adventures and tools. Granted you probably need some programming to do the more tricky things but for what you described I think it’d mostly fit.

          • ffordesoon says:

            NWN is definitely the closest anybody’s come to the ideal I described, but it’s a “so close, yet so far” situation for me. It’s great, but it’s not the “Super D&D Maker” tool I really want.

  7. trashmyego says:

    It’s almost impressive how truly mediocre this game is. There’s a lot offered, but all of it is so dull and shallow and awkward. Even the single player story telling, there’s something underneath the clunky pacing, puzzling characterization and strained framing. I wasn’t expecting a lot from this game, but it’s the definition of disappointing. I’d argue that it should have entered steam Early Access at this point, it’s not like there isn’t something to build on here.

    • Lobotomist says:

      Exactly. And I pointed this for them on their forums after they postponed the release for 3rd time.

      Release it as early acess. People that want to buy it will buy it. But you will give the game a chance to change to something players really want.

      When I seen it will not happen, i cancelled my preorder.

      I didnt regret it.

  8. raiders says:

    May we have more Space Engineer reads?

  9. Sarkhan Lol says:

    It initially blew my mind that the original Neverwinter Nights, that ancient, polygonal husk, had more visual impact and far more campaign flexibility than this does. But then I was reminded that this was actually a console game with a PC port, and it all started to make sense.

    • neotribe says:

      {insert fit about original NWN being a per-minute AOL door game}

  10. neotribe says:

    How sad. What a shame.

  11. newc0253 says:

    Okay, so the multiplayer sucks.

    But didn’t I read about this thing having a single-player campaign or was that my imagination? If so, it’d be interesting to hear more about that.

    • MattMk1 says:

      They had an article about it a day or two ago. Sounds like it’s just as perfunctory.

  12. spelk says:

    Fantasy Grounds is the best way to currently acheive what this game claims.

  13. Holderist says:

    I wanted to like this game so much. A couple of my friends did pre-purchase the game, so I got to see them play in early access. It was very meh. Maybe after it ages for a year with regular developments it’ll improve – the expansion’s trailer was well done, after all.

  14. klops says:

    Shame. I haven’t actually read much about this since there is already so much good CRPGs that I need to play. I sort of expected this to be a under-my-radar supergoodie again.

    But now I don’t have to add this to the big to-do list with Grimrocks and Pillars and Shadowruns and Divinities, so in a way this is good news for me.

  15. 0positivo says:

    “Orso Evocato”?

    Did you get a screenshot in italian?

  16. racccoon says:

    Its those highlighted rings n things you know, no one wants highlights, it just does not leave anything to the imagination in gaming.

  17. Infinitron says:

    Fun fact: Just three days before this game was originally announced, Obsidian’s Feargus Urquhart was quoted on Polygon ranting about how D&D had lost its way.

    At the time, it seemed like it might be sour grapes. Heh.

  18. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    Looking at the leftover abilities on the monster-creation screen, I can’t help but think you missed a few opportunities. Now, I admit it’s a little hard to read at this resolution, but Barkness would be a perfect fit for your Mastiff, and down at the bottom, Fat Prison sounds…like something I don’t want to see rendered onscreen, no pun intended, so never mind.

  19. Pkloop says:

    Cooldowns and skilltrees FFS..What book has Magic Missle II & III in it..oh wait.

    A thief that can pickpocket? Not here..

  20. Big Murray says:

    I’m disappointed that they’ve missed the point. RPGs are about story, story, story. Divinity: Original Sin committed the same, well … sin of forgetting that story is key. You’re never going to create pen and paper in CRPG form, so stop trying and just make a good story with good characters.

    • PoulWrist says:

      Disagree. RPGs are about choices, actions and reactions and letting the players tell their own story. The story is just a backdrop for those things to happen in.
      One of the most fun D&D campaigns I’ve ever run had a story and background that was more perfunctury than the one in Doom. But what the players and I did with that blank slate was so much chaotic fun.

      • Big Murray says:

        We’re not talking about RPGs though. We’re talking about cRPGs. And when you’re playing by yourself in single-player, what you want is a good story.

    • Myrdinn says:

      Dvinity Original Sin is the best cRPG in years even though the story and characters were extremely forgettable. A good cRPG (imho) is deep (character/combat) mechanics, choices & reactivity. A good story is just the lining on the cake. Exceptions do happen (PS:T).

  21. harcalion says:

    I remember my friends dismissing Arcanum because it was grey and brown. What a game they missed!

    • Myrdinn says:

      good thing people aren’t dismissing this game because of it’s color palette ;)

  22. UncleLou says:

    I don’t think story is the point of RPGs at all – stories in RPGS are almost universally terrible, that includes classics like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape Torment. Mind, I do appreciate good writing, but that’s a different thing.

    Divinity is an excellent tatctical combat game, that’s what they focused on, and there was nothing wrong with that.

    And there’s also absolutely nothing wrong with a dungeon crawler RPG as long as it’s done well.

    • UncleLou says:

      Well, that was supposed to be a reply to Bil…, er, Big Murray.

    • Zekiel says:

      Really? What do you find lacking about the Torment and BG stories? I think the BG2 story is lacking, but never really heard that criticism of BG1 of PST before.

      • Premium User Badge

        syllopsium says:

        Seriously? There’s a lot wrong with BG’s story – it’s very generic, there are several moments where it’s damned obvious what is going on but there’s no opportunity to change things, and aspects such as the iron shortage don’t tend to affect the game.

        BG and BG2 score for their scale and flexibility. They are unexceptional in every other regard. However, they are of a consistently high standard and replayability is considerably better than PS:T, where once the stunning story has been completed, there’s little motivation to try again. The modding community helps a lot, too.

        BG does stand out for containing a lot of countryside filled with enemies out for your blood, and a number of hidden encounters.

    • Big Murray says:

      I’m sorry, but BG and BG2 are the best cRPGs of all time precisely because of their story. Irenicus is one of the best written villains in video-game history.

      And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with dungeon crawlers, but … come on. We’re crying out for someone to revisit the days of awesome cRPG storytelling, while all these companies are putting out games that simply replicate the combat and graphical style of late 90s cRPGs and thinking that’s enough, that that’s what made them amazing. Some people will undoubtedly be satisfied with that (and obviously are), but not me. I want memorable stories and characters. That’s what keeps you engaged in a SP cRPG.

  23. scruball says:

    This game feels abandoned mid development. There are even little things like fonts that look rough and unfinished.

    What this ought have been is adventure framework and it falls extremely short. There just aren’t enough resources in-game to be anything but concept demonstrator.

  24. donpaulo says:

    This was an accurate article and the following thread is rather apt of the current situation. I find it to be more of a glass half full kind of problem. We have quite a lot of options, just none that scratch the right itch.

    I have the ultimate license for Fantasy Grounds 2 and have also played Roll20 too. FG2 has an ever improving database that continues to automate the grinding details of data. Just roll a saving throw, the mods are automated. Its come a long way from its beginnings. Its my preferred choice for D&D. But there is no explosion, no moving `sprite` or animated graphic.
    Roll20 has a much lower barrier to entry, but its graphics leave me wanting more. Its kind of like watching a low res image when HD is available. Its the reason I think we all love Diablo and hoped for that with Sword Coast. Its not a fatal flaw, just somewhat disheartening however if you are in need of a D&D fix Roll20 has a very active community and its relatively easy to find a game that fits your schedule. Actually getting into the group is another matter entirely. So I guess its a mixed blessing, but no doubt that Roll20 is more user friendly.
    So to beat an already dead horse, I view Roll20 as beer and pretzels, FG2 as fine wine, Diablo as tried and true and Sword Coast needing some serious improvements.

    • suibhne says:

      I’m curious about the fact that Roll20 seems to have much better accessibility on different devices. Do you find that to be an advantage over Fantasy Grounds in actual practice, or is it more of a marketing bullet point?

      • donpaulo says:

        Its an interesting point, I am not accessing sites from anywhere but my desktop so I tend to discount this issue. It certainly makes sense why R20 has a larger community.

        I think it boils down to price point. As Roll20 can be used for free, while FG2 requires money if you want to be a DM. Once you have a full license then we can host others for free.

  25. Stormbow says:

    Sounds to me like someone was playing SCL on their toaster.

  26. plugav says:

    The opposite of a sweet spot would be a bitter… blotch, maybe?

  27. J. Eel says:

    Every decision surrounding this seems bizarre. I get that Hasbro has really cut back on the tabletop D&D stuff to the point that it seems to just want to keep the RPG around so that it can credibly license the brand, but this product still makes no sense. Is there anyone that’s into the Forgotten Realms in particular (as opposed to any other standard fantasy setting) and the DM/player split but is indifferent to how the mechanics feel? Will people don’t care about how D&D plays be wild about the setting and DM thing? Are they hoping aging fans of the Infinity Engine games will have some kind of Pavlovian reaction to the term “Sword Coast” and buy the thing without looking into it? I’m not like, invested in D&D as a thing, but just as a casual observer I can’t see who this is for or why it is the way it is.

  28. PSiKoTiC says:

    I’m here laughing my ass off because this link to this thread is actually ‘Highlighted’ along with a link to this article on their game (from steam itself) with lines like “It seems we still desperately need someone to come up with the ultimate AD&D online DMing extravaganza, cos this ain’t it.” and the authors link this article as you’ve been probably the kindest on saying; it was a good idea, but they missed it and this might of been competition with Neverwinter nights had this title been released in 2002, however back to 2015. It’s a supreme disappointment and a large waste of money on my part getting excited for a title that either isn’t ready for release (the game play is dry and boring) and the d20 aspect of the game is hidden and so fast paced that the Diablo series has more strategy to it.

  29. RegisteredUser says:

    It is worth mentioning “Sleep is death” in this review, given that people seem to want one doing storytelling and one doing the experiencing games.