GeekDads Play ‘Sword Coast Legends’ at PAX Prime

Reading Time: 10 minutes

The logo for Sword Coast Legends.

Sword Coast Legends is on its way, and as you can imagine, there are a number of GeekDads quite excited to get their hands on it. While the story portion of the game is expected to be a blast (and can even be played co-operatively), the team at n-Space is putting significant focus on the game’s multiplayer. More than just a co-op mode, Sword Coast Legends has something special in the works with Dungeon Master Mode, a game for four players plus one Dungeon Master (DM).

The experience is not a competitive one – as the DM you have the ability to easily create a total party kill situation if that’s what you’re looking to do. Instead, the mode is viewed much as a tabletop experience: the DM is there to help tell a story that the players participate in, setting the adventure and tweaking it as required to create a satisfying experience for all players. GeekDad received an invitation to try a play-through of a sample dungeon at PAX Prime and we eagerly signed up. Here’s what we saw.

Mike LeSauvage – The Dungeon Master

Tim Schwalk, Design Director, taught me how to use the interface. It didn’t take long; everything was well laid out and intuitive. The first thing I was warned about was that the players can see where my attention is, as my mouse cursor location is shown as a glowing ball on their screen. While this can be turned off, it’s a nice nod to sharing a physical space and substitutes well for players spotting where the DM is physically looking at the map. Additionally, it can be customized; I went with a glowing red d20.

The dungeon master interface for Sword Coast Legends, showing the glowing red 20-sided die.
Image: n-Space. Why would I choose anything other than a red d20?

The players were dropped into a small, one-dungeon campaign. This content can all be hand-crafted beforehand, with the DM generating the dungeon and placing encounters in every room. As the players crept forward they triggered the first room’s encounter, an easy one, just a few spiders. Combat takes place in real-time. If I wasn’t happy with the spiders’ AI, I could order the creatures where to move and who to attack. Even better, if I really wanted to influence the battle, I could right-click a creature to possess it, giving it a slight buff and gaining access to its ability bar to directly command its actions (though the players are aware of the DM’s possession of the creature). In this case, I had the spiders focus on the party’s cleric. Despite my impressive tactical gameplay, the players easily dispatched the spiders. It was time to scout ahead and see what I could manipulate in the dungeon to create a greater challenge for our intrepid heroes.

Each room’s encounter is represented by a d20 in the center, visible to the DM. As long as the players haven’t yet entered the room, the DM can right-click the d20 to access information about the encounter, changing it to a different encounter, alter its difficulty, or turn it off completely. I avoided this for now, as I wanted to come up with something more personal.

Schwalk then showed me that most everything in the game can be adjusted the same way. Right-click a doorway to make it locked, or secret. Right-click a creature to upgrade its strength.

As the DM, my real-time actions were limited by a resource called threat. Threat is gained slowly over time, but is also gained more quickly based on how the players are doing. Players killing creatures, opening locks, and disabling traps all give the DM more threat to use against them. Threat is used in the placing of traps and creatures, as well as when dungeon elements are upgraded in difficulty, and is even returned to the DM’s bank if creatures are removed or downgraded in difficulty. Again, while the game is not meant to be a competitive experience, threat serves as a good pacing mechanism for DMs to help keep the game’s difficulty in line with what should be a fun experience for everyone. However, if you’re out to create a truly punishing experience for your players, this can be accomplished when the dungeon is set up. Threat is spent only during gameplay; creatures and traps are free during dungeon creation.

It was time to set up a larger challenge. Using a simple set of menus on the left side, Schwalk showed me how to create a new creature. I started with a goblin archer, but then customized him greatly: changing his name, creating custom colors, and adding abilities. I named my new monster “Weakeye the Archer”, gave him the “Call Lightning” spell in addition to his archery skills, and upgraded his difficulty to one over the party level. (Creatures aren’t created at a specific level, but rather as an offset relative to the party, so no matter when you drop them in the dungeon they present a consistent challenge.) I had the opportunity to give him custom equipment, but decided he was probably already a sufficient challenge.

As the players entered the next room, they engaged the pre-generated threat. At Schwalk’s direction, I plunked down three copies of Weakeye the Archer in a flanking position. The players had generated a full bar of threat for me while I was creating my monster, and this consumed a large amount of it. I soon heard cries of “ooh”, “where’s that lightning coming from?”, and “get the archers!” coming from the players. Had I gone too far? Yes. It was time to help them out. A quick set of right-clicks removed one that they couldn’t see and demoted another.

The dungeon master interface, showing the menus to place in items and creatures on the left side.
Image: n-Space. While not a shot from our game, this does show the DM interface much as I saw it. We never got to see city environments in our playthrough, but there are many more locations than just the dungeons in the full game.

Despite my assistance, the players had taken a lot of damage. Here, Schwalk showed me how easy it was to place non-hostile elements into the dungeon. Not only can you add props (with flavor text), but you can also add NPCs that are neutral or friendly. Feeling like the players needed their spirits bolstered, I dropped in a neutral NPC and made him a merchant so the players could upgrade their gear before continuing.

The players crept down a curved staircase, looking for traps. There were a number there, and easy enough to spot that they were found and removed. As they opened the door to the final encounter, I dropped a zombie horde behind them, declaring to the room “you hear a sound behind you”. The players reacted with various shouts of alarm to each other, then turned and dispatched them easily.

It was time for the boss fight. I dropped in a few more monsters and immediately possessed the giant spider. The players mopped up the smaller minions but were soon crying out, “run away, run away”. Suspecting that I couldn’t follow them through the small doorway, they ran back up the stairs. However, as the DM, I have a lot more flexibility than the monster AI. I moved the spider up the stairs, webbing and biting the players as I moved. One of them then made the mistake of asking another, “hey, you removed all those traps, right?” Schwalk and I immediately agreed that I should put more traps down behind them, cutting off their escape.

The stairwell became a bloodbath of floor spikes, baby spiders, and spider venom. The devs had not seen this happen before and the entire room was laughing as I harvested the players. To keep it fun, I demoted the spider and a somewhat more fair fight ensued, with the “good guys” eventually defeating the boss. After a short celebration, they made a run for the exit. Seeing them move without caution, I put down a few more spike traps to remind them who owns the dungeon, enjoying a final display of impaled PCs before they made their escape.

Phil Bacon – The Wizard

First off, Mike LeSauvage is EVIL. Evil, evil, evil. That spider and all the traps on the stairs killed me multiple times. And I blame him completely.

I chose the wizard for my character. I love to hang back and blast things from a distance and I was well equipped to do so: fire blasts, rays of cold, stinking clouds… I could even summon creatures to defend me and chase after the enemies. All very familiar aspects of Dungeons & Dragons.

The player experience by itself is good but familiar. Anyone who has played Warcraft or some other MMO is used to having a bar of powers that recharge as you use them. Clicking on an enemy sets up non-stop attacking, which is nice, so I could keep firing while figuring out my strategic options.

Which usually involved running away.

A screenshot from Sword Coast Legends showing a Beholder from the player's viewpoint.
Image: n-Space. If Mike LeSauvage had had access to this Beholder in our playthrough, Phil Bacon wouldn’t have just run away, he would have gotten up from his PC and fled the room!

Certain characters could do additional things – I had a search ability that slowed me down, but would also reveal secret doors and traps and such. Which is how I know we FOUND all the traps on the stairs MIKE. We were SAFE. Grumble grumble.

Player/DM griping aside, this is really the strength of the game. Any single player D&D game is going to be similar to any fantasy game on any console – spells, swords and monsters. Blah blah blah. Been there, seen it before.

Every time our DM got involved though, that’s when it shone. Those encounters were markedly different, bearing a flavour that was uniquely Mike’s. They stood out, both in terms of the challenge and how it all ran. We could feel his hand messing with us, making the fights more than just another mob of idiot AI monsters. It felt more real.

And way more fun.

I will be buying this game, but I will be looking for a party to play it with.

Ryan Hiller – The Absentee Rogue

I did not get the opportunity to play with the rest of the GeekDad team, but experienced Sword Coast Legends the following day. I went into the session, knowing that Sword Coast is, because of the multiplayer aspect, necessarily real-time. I have a personal preference for turn-based isometric RPGs as the turn-based mechanic has more of a table-top feel to me, allowing a focus on strategy and time to think rather than button smash your attacks. However, the Dungeon Master mode of Sword Coast Legends intrigued me, and I’ve always loved isometric perspective games as it’s like looking down at some awesomely constructed table-top terrain and you’re moving your miniatures around.

I played the session as a melee rogue, effectively able to find all the traps by entering search mode where my avatar moves at half speed, but traps are highlighted. Traps have associated difficulties to find, but the ones in this adventure were easily spotted. I asked one of the n-Space staff if the other players also saw the traps as they were revealed and I was informed that anything any character sees is revealed on all the other players’ screens.

My Dungeon Master was extremely brutal early on, and unlike the GeekDad group, our biggest challenges came early. I died in the first encounter with the spiders due to a combination of my casual-gamer skills, and the DM spamming us with death. Cooperation is the name of the game as fellow players can revive you when you’re down, and you need to be working together to focus your energies on the various baddies to quickly cut down their numbers. The group communication started before we even entered the dungeon as we were picking characters, ensuring we had a well-balanced group including melee, healing, and other useful skills. Throughout the rest of the crawl we hollered out for help, or to let others know of an obstacle or additional evil coming our way. Sword Coast is definitely a fun facsimile of tabletop D&D with players working together, and a Dungeon Master not working against us so much as adjusting the game for our heightened enjoyment. Many games become monotonous as you discover various tricks that work against the AI, or are so difficult they become frustrating. Sword Coast, on the other hand, with a human actively balancing the encounters, can keep the game challenging without frustrating the players.

Image: Ryan Hiller. You know this wasn't Mike LeSauvage controlling the spider, because it isn't chasing the players up the stairs into their spikey-trapped doom!
Image: Ryan Hiller. You know this wasn’t Mike LeSauvage controlling the spider, because it isn’t chasing the players up the stairs into their spikey-trapped doom!

Again, I am a casual-gamer and it takes me a while to really figure out a game, so for the most part in combat, I would approach the monster and my character would auto-swing, with me adding special attacks as often as my recharge allowed. There was very little strategy to my combat. I imagine the casters had a great deal more decision-making to do. I am curious how much non-combat activity and role-playing the Dungeon Master will be able to add to the non-story mode play. Certainly, if the DM can prevent creatures from attacking, any amount of out-of-game role-playing could happen, but I wonder how much the game will support.

While I look forward to story mode, the Dungeon Master mode is where this game seems to shine, offering countless hours of replayability. I was curious how much control the Dungeon Master has over the created dungeons. Currently, dungeons are created procedurally based off of various settings the DM can control. So the DM cannot create any layout desired but is limited to the randomly created layout. Our n-Space facilitators stated though that customizable dungeons are a common request that would be considered in the future. I fully intend to buy this game when it’s available as I believe it will provide my boys and I many hours of enjoyment.

Wrap-Up

Sword Coast Legends was built on top of D&D 5th edition rules, and that probably helps it with its faster pace and focus on combat. The shared experience feels more like an old-school dungeon crawl than an environment to create a finely tuned story. The biggest limitation in this regard is that dungeon maps are randomly generated, with the encounters placed by the map’s creator. However, those players that want to use it to create a detailed campaign have a lot to work with here. For example, the text chat includes the ability to generate dice rolls. With built-in voice chat, the DM can still present detailed backstories, conversations with NPCs, and can include elements like puzzles by manually controlling doors in the dungeon, opening the exit when the players have found the solution. All of the areas unlocked from the campaign can be used by the DM when creating adventures, and you can place them on a map of the Sword Coast to create a full campaign.

The devs were listening closely to our experience as well, taking notes on features we were looking to see, and the game is expected to grow based on player feedback. Adding the ability to manually create a map is on their list.

Overall, the GeekDad team had a fantastic time playing and we’re highly looking forward to the game’s release. In fact, I just watched the new trailer as part of this write-up and, maybe it was because I’ve now experienced it’s potential, but it actually gave me chills! Sword Coast Legends is coming out towards the end of 2015 and will be available on Steam for PC, Mac, and Linux (one code gets you access to all three platforms), PS4, and XBox One as a cross-play experience. If we’ve piqued your curiosity, check out the new trailer or go to the official website for more info and screen shots.

 

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