Sword Coast Legends [official site] was one of my favourite experiences at E3. In a little booth off the main show floor, the developers are demo-ing their D&D game's dungeon master mode. I've only recently dipped a toe into D&D with a tabletop campaign but it's been excellent fun so far and I was curious as to how the mode would measure up.
Sitting at the terminal designated for the fighter character (I like biffing things, what can I say) I watched design director Tim Schwalk craft a demon web terror campaign – a spider-themed cave dungeon complete with custom cultists and a little quest path.
Building seemed a pretty easy-to-fathom affair. For the quest Schwalk was building he opened up the map location for the first NPC you need to visit and set her to provide a quest when you speak to her. You can also use other triggers for that kind of progression – "on action" and "on kill" being mentioned specifically. He also added a vendor with a potion cart in case we needed to stock up on supplies.
The end point for the quest the first NPC handed out was a cabin in the mountains. We were supposed to be seeking out a chap but would always arrive too late to save him. To that end Schwalk added a corpse and various bloodstains to the small room, set an ambush encounter to trigger when we entered and switched the setting from a sunny daytime to a stormy night. Investigating the corpse ends the NPC quest (it's that complete-on-action option) and starts the next bit which takes you to this cavernous spider lair.
You can fiddle with names, descriptions, tilesets, dungeon sizes, difficulties and so on when you're building. There seemed to be pretty extensive object libraries for building out your scenes (lanterns and creepy paraphernalia for the site of a demonic ritual, chairs and tables and other more mundane bits and pieces for the cabin scene).
But you can also customise your own character and creature sets. That's what Schwalk had done with a set of cultists. With aspect of creation you get to set all manner of attributes – abilities, stats, equipment, character background, skin colour, clothing... An incredibly fancy looking cultist with a mask was added to our campaign. His fanciness was such that Schwalk renamed him Mr Fancypants.
In terms of tinkering with the dungeon itself, he added secret rooms by gating them using doors and setting those to "secret". You can do that with objects too, having a DC check so rogues have to go a-searching. Traps were also peppered around the place. I nodded in what I hoped was an approving manner and silently tried to commit as much of the invisible and treacherous business to memory.
While building out the campaign Schwalk explained that some elements were inspired by his own tabletop adventures and suggested we might like to recreate our own. I then missed some trap locations and chat because I was trying to work out whether my own current campaign would fit. So far it has involved a pair of goblins being set on fire while admiring the stitchcraft on a jerkin as they're trying it on and an aggressively patronising magical badge of protection from Oghma who I think started off as a serious knowledge deity in the story but now seems to be the god of crap handicrafts and glitter glue. I also nearly choked on my D20 when I mistook it for a sweet in my handbag at the cinema the following week.
Schwalk finishes building the scene – the guy we're looking for in this campaign is "a little wrapped up" he jokes as he places a cocooned body deep in the dungeon. We begin to play. I'm a fighter and to my right is a rogue. Another journalist has taken the role of dungeon master. The dungeon is hard as balls. Our group clusters around the rogue and sneaks forward, trying to remember where the traps might be and deactivate them or avoid them. It goes appallingly and we keep being hit with more and more trickery. Hostile creatures spawn and I try to tank a lot of the damage, protecting the less hardy members of the team but we seem to be eating through health potions at an alarming pace and I'm called on to revive allies several times.
Our volunteer dungeon master is very good at being a complete jerk, it transpires. It's hard to keep track of what's even happening as he throws threat after threat our way. I don't think the game will be like that – not if you don't want it to be – in the wild. Schwalk's setup was clearly designed with care and I suspect that if we had had four hours, a few beers and him as dungeon master the campaign would have played out more as a story, with him adjusting the experience along the way. We had about 20 minutes and a DM who wanted to explore the limits of the tools at his disposal rather than tell a carefully-crafted story (which was fair enough) so it turned into a power struggle rather than a curated experience.
I could hear people nearer his terminal talking.
"Where'd you get the rats?!"
"He has found so much DM loot!"
Oh god. Rats.
We were never going to find that poor spider kidnap victim guy.
If you're wondering how the DM side of things works, I've put one of the demonstration videos below. Basically you gain threat points to spend customising the experience by interacting with the players then you spend those points in order to keep laying traps, adding monsters and generally entertaining your visitors. There are also DM loot drops which allow you to toss the players some curve balls (rats, for example).
"At the end of a dungeon or a game you'll be able to set a rating for the dungeon master and the idea is we keep track of that," said narrative director Jay Turner. I felt mildly consoled by this. "When you're choosing a dungeon master to play with you'll be able to see is he a 5 star [DM]? Is he an evil dungeon master who wants to kill everyone? Is he co-operative and just wants to give you a good story?"
I ask what exactly the implementation of that system will look like but Turner explains that it's very much a work in progress.
"We're still ironing out some of the details but some people just want a challenge so they'll find the most deadly dungeon master of all. Some people just want to play a story. People might get a reputation for really good modules." He adds that "the rating thing is kind of how the players keep the DM honest!"
The campaigns will be playable with or without the dungeon master present. When not present you'd rely on the DM's organisation of objectives, their difficulty presets and arrangements of foes for the experience. If a dungeon master was playing simultaneously they could adjust the experience depending on how it's going.
""They can fine-tune the fun," says Turner. "If the players are doing really well you can promote monsters and add monsters. If they're not doing so well they can make the encounters easier, demote monsters, take monsters away. Not having the DM is still going to be a fun dungeon crawl but you'll miss that human element."
For added atmosphere (well, depending on the DM) you can also use voice. "You can have it so when you load the dungeons the DM is on voice over IP so he's like, 'You walk into the shadowy dungeon and it's cold…' all that classic dungeon master stuff."
Turner has done the lion's share of the writing for the official Wizards of the Coast bits of the game. He's also worked with the designers on quests and on the main plot as well as all the character dialogue so I'm curious about how he feels when it comes to players making their own campaigns. Is it hard to cede control at all?
"I'm really happy because I like to be able to do that," he says. "I've played with some toolsets for other games - Neverwinter and Skyrim – and I did some level design here and there so I really enjoy game design and I think it's fun to let other people do it … and it takes some of the pressure off [me]. You can make your own stuff!"
Our story is going to be different and it's going to be richer in character dialogue and reasons to go places but the players can make their own and I'm really looking forward to what people come up with. I find that with fanfiction. No matter what I come up with someone will come up with something super awesome and I would love to see what the players come up with."
Sword Coast Legends will be out on September 8th.