Sword Coast Legends is the digital progeny of some of the video game industry’s most experienced designers. The group, sharing more than 100 years’ expertise between them, has come together with the sole purpose of bringing Dungeons and Dragons as faithfully as possible into the realm of the digital.
For most, Dungeons and Dragons is the most stereotypically nerdy thing that comes to mind. The name alone conjures images of poorly-groomed men huddled together over a table in a suburban basement. But the reality is that the game has been one of the biggest forces behind American pop culture today, influencing everything from video games to books and music.
These days, every piece of nerd culture has been repackaged and resold in what seems like a cynical desire to cash in on decades of intricate stories and tales idolized by our social outcasts over the years. Yet while D&D has inspired countless aspects of pop culture, its few direct revivals in movie and game form have been weighed down by compromises—until Sword Coast Legends.
Fans of older computer games might remember Baldur’s Gate, a classic late-90s Dungeons and Dragons-inspired series. Lauded by critics at the time, Baldur’s Gate showcased much of what fans loved about Dungeons and Dragons, including a rich, fantasy world and deep storytelling. But it lacked what many would say is the most important part of any Dungeons and Dragons game—a Dungeon Master.
Where most board games put all of their players on equal footing, Dungeons and Dragons separates them. There is a Dungeon Master, or DM, and there are the players. The Dungeon Master is important because he or she is reactively designing the game as the players play it. As the players make decisions and progress through the game, the DM can change the situations up on the fly, providing an additional layer of creativity that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
To put this in context, in Monopoly, you’re bound to a very simple set of rules. You roll some dice and you move along a track, gathering money and property. If there was a DM for Monopoly, they could interpret the rules more broadly. And if instead of going to jail you thought it’d be a good idea to fight the cops, you could try.
Because of that, Sword Coast Legends project director Dan Tudge says that while Baldur’s Gate was a triumph in its time, it didn’t quite capture the true Dungeons and Dragons experience.
A HUMAN TOUCH
“Dungeons and Dragons isn’t just about the players, it’s about the Dungeon Master working with the players to create a collaborative story,” Tudge told me. “That’s a complex thing, but when it’s done right, players and the DM work together to create something new—sometimes in a silly way, but more often than not in a deep, meaningful way.”
No game, Tudge says, has ever managed to weave in the role of the Dungeon Master in a way that feels natural. That’s partly because being a DM isn’t an easy thing to do, he says.
“I’ve run games with everyone from adults to my own children, and to be a good DM, you have to be able to adapt to things that you could have never seen coming. Computers, and therefore video games,” he adds, “are awful at that kind of thing.”
And he’s dead right. Computers are terrible at understanding people. We speak in weird, unusual ways, and we don’t follow the strict tenets of grammar in everyday speech. We don’t even pronounce the same words consistently.
That’s why, even though we can collect the sum total of human knowledge and make it accessible almost anywhere on Earth, Siri still can’t always understand whatever drunk-ass question you’re trying to belch at her at 3am on a Saturday. And it’s why it’s currently impossible to program a virtual Dungeon Master that can react and improvise the way a human one can. Luckily, Tudge and the rest of the team have a solution: Sword Coast Legends gives an actual human all the tools they need to run a proper game.
But while it might sound like the obvious route from the start, it’s been a difficult task so far. Part of the problem is just how complex Dungeons and Dragons is. The game has dozens of rulebooks. That might lead you to (quite rightly) think playing would be as much of a time-sink as learning the intricacies of the American tax code, but that depth serves a greater purpose: facilitating player freedom.
The intention of the rules isn’t so much to bludgeon people with rules so much as it is to support the creativity of whatever ideas the group can come up with. That means when you’re squaring off with a massive dragon, or a wizard that can summon decaying corpses, you have hundreds, if not thousands of possible solutions.
Sword Coast Legends is built to support that level of depth and openness. For the first time in a video game, Dungeon Masters can create new monsters for their players on-the-fly, set traps, lock doors, create hidden walls, and provide a bevy of interesting, dynamic problems for the group to solve together, in real time.
With that kind of power the potential for abuse by your garden-variety internet troll is high. But Tudge and his team have a few security measures in place to avoid those kinds of problems.
Assuming the role of a DM is a role of responsibility as much as it is of control. DMs are in charge of guiding the flow of play, and making sure that players are pushed to, but not beyond, their abilities. Sword Coast Legends keeps DMs in line by carefully limiting their omnipotence. DMs can’t fill a dungeon with thousands of dragons because even the best players would die in an instant. Instead, as the DM proves their own skill, the game trusts them with more power. If players start dying, however, the game takes all of that away in an instant. It’s a careful balance, but one that Sword Coast deftly manages.
Attention to details like these demonstrate the love and the passion going into Sword Coast Legends. For years other developers have been trusted with the license to make games based on Dungeons and Dragons, and for years those games have been terrible. It’s bad enough that Dungeons and Dragons games have developed a certain reputation. And it’s no surprise that, despite being an official adaptation, Sword Coast Legends dropped the Dungeons and Dragons moniker. In any case, Tudge hopes that Sword Coast bucks the trend.
“Making something memorable is what we’re after. The best Dungeons and Dragons experiences change lives. It becomes part of a shared memory because it’s a story that you weren’t just a part of, but one you made with your friends as you were playing. That’s something that nothing else really offers.”
Sword Coast Legends is playable today for some players who pre-order the game from swordcoast.com. It’s scheduled to launch for everyone else later this month.
Dan Starkey is an American Indian game critic based in the Twin Cities.
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