Tearing Down Sword Coast Legends' Muted DM Mode – Gameplay & Review

By Published October 24, 2015 at 4:00 pm
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Sword Coast Legends is a newly-released D&D cRPG that has entrenched itself deeply within Wizards of the Coast territory, all the way down to adoption of the 5th edition core ruleset. For those of us who haven't yet dug our way out of the insurmountable pile of 3.5 books, the ruleset may be unfamiliar, but it's still D&D.

We've previously covered Sword Coast Legends, with our first round of coverage from GDC – near the game's unveil – and the most recent at PAX Prime. Until recently, our only hands-on sessions with the game were as players, with one limited on-the-fly DM session. This DM session dropped me in to a premade dungeon crawl with my staff (“with,” not “against,” because we're playing co-operatively to enable a good experience); my role here was limited to staying one step ahead of the players, trying to plant mobs and traps according to current challenge. I did not get to look at the actual DM toolkit – the utilities used for making longer campaigns and custom modules – until the last two weeks.

This time, I spent about eight hours building a fully fleshed-out module, complete with back-story, multiple levels, and custom quests. The objective was to give my old D&D group a run that'd remind us of the tabletop days.

Below is a 25-minute video review version of this article. The video shows a start-to-finish construction of my module's first two levels, concluding with two players (my D&D group) progressing through the campaign. The video was scripted, so what you read below will be largely (but not entirely) the same content as I'm saying in the video. The Sword Coast Legends DM gameplay footage will give the best idea of how the editor works. There's also some player POV footage.

What is Sword Coast Legends?

The game looks similar in some regard to older D&D cRPG titles, like Baldur's Gate, but strays in a few critical ways that we'll discuss here. Notably, though, we're still on the Sword Coast within Forgotten Realms' continent of Faerun. Forgotten Realms is a fantasy universe with an extensive population of real books and authors, perhaps most famous is R. A. Salvatore's Drizzt series, and features iconic cities like Waterdeep, Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter. Other known regions, like Icewind Dale and Amn, have also had their own games or expansions.

SCL allows up to four players cooperatively playing in a party, with an optional fifth player as the DM – or Dungeon Master – who plays non-competitively with the players. There are two primary modes of play – Dungeon crawls and campaign modes, the latter of which would include the game's built-in story, player-made modules and campaigns, and developer-made modules – all available for free download through the in-game menus. There is also a DM toolkit that allows players to build their own campaigns, complete with dialogue, stories, quests, and mob placement. That's what we're focusing on in this tear-down.

All the basics aside, let's jump right in to the review content. Today, we're tearing-down Sword Coast Legends' Dungeon Master mode, showing all objects available, map tools, and talking about the muted potential of the toolset.

DM Mode & Tabletop Parallels

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(Above: Preparing for the onslaught)

First of all, I've got around a 9-year history playing tabletop 3.5, 4th, and Savage Worlds, with hundreds of those hours spent DMing. Sword Coast, in this respect, has been a deep interest of mine since its announcement.

A good D&D campaign requires unique locations, colorful NPC party members, loot, and story. Let's go through SCL's ability to enable these items.

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The Locations screen -- Underdark & Faerun are our main options, with 16 total locales.

DM mode allows players to create locations within Faerun and the Underdark, each using a set of prepackaged thematic “tiles” for the map's generation. We can create bandit caves, cavernous Underdark passages, cities for the dark dwarves, human cities, and similar environments. Upon creating a location, the game rolls the dice to randomly generate rooms and passages within a DM spec limited to just size and complexity of dungeon layout.

This approach allows for rapid deployment of dungeons and leaves some room for the DM to manually position prefab objects with custom text, quests, or discoverability. Sadly, the DM has no means to manually carve dungeon pathing or rooms out of solid bedrock, so we're contained within the confines of the game's random generator. Maps can be managed to a very limited extent by blocking off undesired rooms with impossible-to-find secret doors, but that's about the extent of dungeon layout management.

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(Almost) all objects available in Sword Coast Legends' DM Mode.

There's no way to place free-form buildings in cities and no way to add or remove dungeon rooms – you're bound to your abilities to utilize prefab objects, like vendor carts, statues, chests, tents, and so forth. These can get us pretty far, assuming your player group actually likes inspecting things and reading flavor text, but it's no replacement for actual customization or design.

The restriction feels survivable, but demands more preconfigured locations to adequately sate DM creativity. At present, only eight dungeons and eight open areas are present, with several dungeons feeling overly similar. I'd be more forgiving of the lack of location customization were more locales available, but it just feels like something we won't see until DLC at this point.

Lacking the Basics

Overlooking this restriction, we then turn to party members. The backbone of a good campaign – in video games or on the tabletop – is a strong cast of supporting NPCs. Sometimes they're needed to level the difficulty, sometimes for comic relief, and most the time for story.

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Creating an NPC ... only to find that it can't officially join the party as a player-controlled NPC.

In SCL, there's no DM mode option to add new party members – you're stuck with the same five NPCs from story mode, all with their progression saved from previous games. The best we can do is add a friendly character who's controlled by the DM – certainly not ideal – and won't automatically spawn on level loads unless pre-placed, won't follow the party unless DM controlled, and won't gain experience and levels.

This seems like a tremendous oversight for a game that offers custom modules and a campaign mode, but it feeds into our forthcoming conclusion – that Sword Coast Legends is unnecessarily obsessed with game balance.

This is best represented by the restrictions placed on party loot. DMs can't create custom items or plant specific items in chests or as quest rewards; all quest rewards are restricted to “Random Weapon,” “Random Armor,” and “Random Trinket,” with an immutable option to quote “Reward Gold.” Chest loot is random without control. This severely challenges creative minds to figure out means of narrative conveyance that would otherwise require interesting and fun items. The best solution my group found was a lot of shoehorned narration by the DM – and that's fine, but at that point, you really might as well just play tabletop or with a tabletop simulator, like Roll 20.

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Above: Rewards are "Random Armor," "Random Weapon," "Random Trinket," & untold gold.

Trading Freedom for Balance

Sword Coast Legends is so grossly concerned with keeping the party balanced that it hamstrings itself, removing its own ability to offer a design toolkit for online DMs. The game has to appeal to an online audience that may want random drop-in play, of course, but it's just good practice to sacrifice some control in exchange for more fun.

Even if someone wanted to challenge me on this, non-mechanical restrictions are equally heavy; for instance, we can't just add on-click speech to idle city-dwellers to provide some background and flavor to the setting. If I wanted townsfolk to talk about The Big Bad Evil Guy when clicked-on, to build suspense before the adventure, the only way to do that is through a haphazard work-around that I discovered: Create a custom quest, name it “Dialogue,” assign no rewards, and assign it to all relevant NPCs, then type their text. Very cumbersome and it immediately flags all NPCs with quest icons just for basic dialogue. Oh, and dialogue is limited in length, too – so that's another creative cage.

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Gotta throw in my MTG reference for the tabletop group.

Action text can be assigned to objects, though, so that's some help. I often opted for the “talking statues” trope rather than navigating through menus and work-arounds just to get an NPC talking.

Triggers would have been a phenomenal addition to the SCL editor. There was a period about fourteen years ago when I avidly built complex RPG maps in Age of Empires II – an RTS, of all things – and that was possible because of the trigger, cause, and effect editors. I was tremendously disappointed to see that SCL doesn't afford DMs the option to add triggered events, like effect-instantiated dialogue or threshold triggers. Here's an easy and stereotypical example that I could create in AoE 2's editor in about 5 minutes: Our heroes step into an empty, foreboding room, filled with nothing but prefab spider webs and eggs. The door closes behind them once past the threshold (to ensure no player is locked-out, make sure the door can be re-opened with a pick lock action). A thirty second timer begins once the threshold is crossed and the door is closed. During this time, players can interact with in-room objects with foreshadowing text, then ready themselves appropriately. The timer expires and an encounter spawns on the perimeter of the room.

In order to do this in the current system, you'd have to manually place the enemies in-game. Sure, that's fine, but it's clunky and won't have quite the same impact. It also means that a DM is required to play the encounter properly – something that further mitigates the game's viability as a singleplayer or co-op, unguided adventure platform.

Oh, and as a totally non-sequitur throw-in, it'd be fantastic to have keys. There's no way to plant keys in the game and associate them with objects like doors and chests – another weird absence for an RPG.

There's also an issue with challenge rating which, as I understand it, has been largely done away with in more recent D&D editions. That's fine for the tabletop, but it's still difficult to gauge encounter difficulty without manually testing every encounter in a self-created module. That probably should be done anyway, but being that testing all encounters is effectively required for a good build, it'd make sense to at least give DMs access to a drop-in playtest button. Instead, in order to playtest, we've got to back-out to the main menu, enter “Player Mode,” and load our own module... then battle through the entire thing. To me, it'd make more sense to create a droppable player character object, then hit a “play” button to begin testing at the location dropped. Serious oversight that places DMs in a hard position: Spend hours playtesting every encounter or cut corners, in which case they may be adjusting encounter difficulty on the fly.

Not All Bad - A Strong Foundation

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On-the-fly controls are pretty good, actually. Though a bug has everyone's portrait showing up as Smeagol...

That is one thing done very well with Sword Coast Legends, though: On-the-fly DM tools, though still lacking, are powerful enough to “fudge” die rolls and ease-up or strengthen encounters. We can place objects and monsters on-the-fly – or remove them if it's too hard – and we've even got the ability to plant last-minute vendors, neutral parties with quests, and friendlies who'll temporarily aid in fights. The toolkit also makes the provision of some high-quality prefab objects for placement in levels, each with assignable action text and discoverability to reward players for search checks.

Creatures and encounters are limited to just two creature types per dungeon, but the wide range of interesting enemy types and high-quality models means this is generally an ample allowance. Our means to differentiate and amp-up encounters is augmented by a monster creator tool for hand-crafted boss mob generation.

My group also liked that DMs can ask players to use an RNG to roll dice in the chat window, though we thought it felt a little bit limited right now. The logic isn't present to add relevant modifiers to die rolls, so if you wanted to do a knowledge check with a Wisdom modifier, that has to be sort of hamfisted or done manually. It's still a net positive, but lacking in basic logic – like /roll 1d20+2 or, even better, /roll 1d20+[wis], where [wis] fetches the PC's Wisdom modifier.

It's Easy to Want More

Look, there's an endless amount of stuff you could ask for in a game. I can sit here and write a huge list, and there's an extremely high chance that 90% of it was discussed in design meetings. There is a reason some of these things didn't make it in, and that reason is normally described with either “time” or “money” in the world of game development. Some of these decisions, though, were actively made to ensure balance and accommodation of pick-up-and-play parties, which kills the DM toolkit's potential. Without custom party members, triggers, and more fine-tuned map management or tilesets, we're left with a glorified dungeon-crawler using the D&D ruleset, with an optional add of someone else to drop more monsters in as challenge level dictates. That's ultimately what the toolkit comes down to – trying to build challenging encounters for your play group, but without the full potential to build interesting and story-driven encounters. It's good to have fun mechanically, but that only gets you so far before burn-out. There has to be some way to make new and interesting modules, otherwise players grow accustomed to the reality of the game's minimized toolset and move on.

Sword Coast Legends has huge potential, but now that the game's released, it's a matter of whether that's tapped in to through DLC and expansion packs. As it stands, the game feels like a $30 crawler that's got about 20 hours of gameplay in it. We're having a lot of fun playing as a group – this is made easier by a 9-year tabletop history with plenty of inside jokes – but I can sense a shelf-life of about 20 hours. I know we're going to get bored fairly quickly, and that's because we're going to exhaust all the options in the toolkit. The party will eventually hit a point of “we've seen everything, let's move on” – and that's true of any game, but it's especially true here. SCL has a lot of potential that's being lost on restrictive tools.

I'd still recommend the game, but it needs about a $10 price hit. You shouldn't jump into this without a group of some sort -- even a group of two -- because it'll just feel like a dungeon crawler without that "inside jokes" feel of friends. The DM toolkit will not -- and probably wasn't meant to -- replace your tabletop game, nor will it replace tabletop simulators. It's almost powerful, but is hamstrung in all the wrong ways to really make for a cumbersome editor. A good campaign can be made, but it requires a disproportionate amount of DM effort and narration to adequately execute. This could be made a lot easier with some of our above 'wants.'

- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.

Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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