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Anyone that’s ever played Dungeons & Dragons, the tabletop fantasy game that basically inspired every video game in existence, more than a few times has a Bad Dungeon Master story. We’ve all been there.
The table is surrounded by a mixture of people: some friends, some strangers, and some acquaintances occupying a space between the two. The DM, who essentially manages the game, is a man with a deep voice that has almost as much facial hair as he does overly dramatic tendencies. “Greetings, adventures!” he probably bellows. “The time for fame, fortune, and perilous journeys awaits us all!” Some people have grins of excitement, a few people roll their eyes: it’s a typical night of D&D so far.
Fast forward an hour or so and you and the rest of the party are knee-deep in a dark and decrepit dungeon. As a halfling rogue, you’ve got the great idea of trying to ride the spider that’s attacking your group and seeing if you can make it attack the hobgoblin instead of your party. “That’s not in the rulebook,” the DM spits back at you. “Well, not exactly, but I could roll a skill check of some kind to try and do it, can’t I? Like Acrobatics or something?” you retort. “No,” he snorts, “If it’s not in the rulebook, you can’t do it.”
The Dungeon Master is supposed to enhance your game, but a bad one just limits it. And that’s exactly what playing Sword Coast Legends feels like. It has a relatively fancy coat of authentic D&D paint, wrapped up in a package of seemingly dense customization, with a promise of adventure and glory unlike any D&D game that’s come before it. The reality, however, is a different story.
ROLL FOR INITIATIVE
Sword Coast Legends is a strange hybrid experience that features not only a fully-realized single-player campaign a la the reveredcomputer roleplaying games of old such as Neverwinter Nights or Baldur’s Gate, but it also sports a touted Dungeon Master mode that aims to capture the feeling of playing a real game of D&D with friends. A real player takes on the role of Dungeon Master and real players take on the role of the party members to play pre-built or custom created dungeons and quests in an entirely separate game mode. The single player game is fairly standard stuff with a generic plot and average gameplay, but the multiplayer was supposed to be the big selling point of the game.
The beauty of what makes actual Dungeons & Dragons such a magical game that remains popular and engaging to this day is how truly limitless the possibilities are. The folks at Wizards of the Coast, the company in charge of D&D these days, lay out a framework from which players around the world can take, adapt, iterate, and adlib upon as they play without “breaking” the game.
In the exchange I described above, a good DM would never respond that way. A good DM would allow the player to attempt acts such as riding spiders, even if they don’t have skills or abilities that technically allow them to. Even if the DM doesn’t think the player can do that, a good DM will let them at least try, fail, and create roleplaying opportunities as a result of the situation. As a result, playing Sword Coast Legends is like playing D&D with a very boring and unimaginative DM.
The biggest problem with attempting to translate the loose and entirely subjective gameplay of a tabletop roleplaying game like D&D to a video game is that the new medium has much stricter boundaries by design. Game developers cannot allow players to do things that are not factored into the code, so unless it’s a baked-in feature, chances are you can’t do it.
When you open up the campaign editor to start crafting your own story, the options can at first seem a bit overwhelming. There are lots of areas available for you to tweak and customize such as the goals of the quest, the different types of NPCs in towns, monsters, the layout of the dungeon, etc. Once you have an adventure actually created and ready to go, that’s where things start to lose a bit of their luster. Up to five people can play the game at a time—one DM, and up to four player characters. But you can do other variations of that as well. For example, a single person can be in a party with 3 AI companions, or any combination like that.
The Dungeon Master can have a bit of fun. The game allows you to manipulate items in the world, such as locking a door or creating a new trap, allowing you to constantly keep players on their toes. All of these actions are performed by using a DM-specific currency called “threat” which is earned by players completing content in the campaign. Things are rarely as they seem in the evolving dungeons of Sword Coast Legends.
However, since the developers chose to utilize an entirely real-time combat system, it never completely feels like you’re playing a real game of D&D. The tabletop version is turn-based, which allows for more strategy and consequence for every action. During combat in Sword Coast Legends, it’s so hard to keep up with what’s going on, it doesn’t feel like D&D at all.
I’m not sure if the failures of Sword Coast Legends mean it’s impossible to create a truly authentic D&D experience in the form of a video game, but a better effort has to be made towards actually staying true to the gameplay and rulesets of the tabletop game. Players need more freedom and opportunity for true roleplaying. I never felt like I was actually roleplaying as a character that I could call my own, even when I created one from scratch.
It was much more akin to sitting down at the table, filling in for a friend that was absent that day at your weekly D&D session, being forced to take over duties for someone else. The DM is a boring stranger, you have no connection to your character, and the world lacks personality. You’d be much better off either playing actual D&D with friends either in-person or online, or playing a better-crafted D&D-like game video game such as Pillars of Eternity or Divinity: Original Sin.
Sword Coast Legends can still be a nifty RPG with a handy dungeon and quest creator on the side from time to time. There is a seemingly endless supply of content since you can share and download other’s campaigns and even load them up to play with AI companions sans-DM, but that’s not what it’s supposed to be at all. Ultimately playing Sword Coast Legends, even if you enjoy it for some time, will make you want one thing: to go full RPG nerd and just play D&D for real.
David is a freelance writer and full-time nerd. His favorite game franchise is ‘The Legend of Zelda.’ He also has an unhealthy obsession with buying games during Steam sales that he never actually plays. It’s dangerous to go alone, so follow him on Twitter @David_Jagneaux.
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