The late ‘90s were a good time to play PC RPGs, especially if you had affection for the grandfather of role-playing systems, Dungeons & Dragons. Games like Baldur’s Gate (1998), Planescape: Torment (1999), and Icewind Dale (2000) were benchmarks for storytelling and epic role-playing, and set the stage for later blockbusters like Dragon Age: Origins.

After a long drought, recent years have seen a resurgence of the isometric party-based RPG, with crowdfunding campaigns for titles like Divinity: Original Sin, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Shadowrun Returns, and Pillars of Eternity racking up fan enthusiasm and financial support. However, the D&D role-playing system has been absent from the festivities. Developer n-Space aims to change that. Sword Coast Legends is an ambitious project that offers a clear homage to the great D&D video games of the past, while using modern technology and connectivity to bring players closer than ever before to the experience of laughing, fighting, and creating a communal fantasy story around the table.

The heart of Sword Coast Legends is a campaign set in the Forgotten Realms fantasy world, which aims to follow in the footsteps of Baldur’s Gate, but update characters, gameplay, and technology to current expectations. “I definitely think with all those great classic D&D RPGs, there has been a longing for people to go back to that,” says n-Space president Dan Tudge. For years, role-playing games moved to larger scale blockbusters; n-Space wants to return to the style presented in earlier games, but with a modern twist. “We all grew up on those games, and we all love those games, and we want to continue to make those games.”

The Forgotten Realms continent of Faerûn is a massive fantasy setting that has been fl eshed out and expanded for decades, but the team at n-Space is embracing a return to the same corner of the world that houses previous games. “The Sword Coast has been the center point for so many great games, for Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights,” Tudge says. “The opportunity to bring an adventure back there ourselves was just too much to pass up.” 

The plot focuses on an adventuring guild called the Order of the Burning Dawn. Prior to the events of the game, Burning Dawn is akin to many similar groups that tackle monsters threatening a community, or hunt down longlost treasure. While accompanying a caravan to the city of Luskan, your guild member suffers a horrific nightmare regarding a demonic threat intent on destroying the world. The next day, your caravan is attacked by mercenaries, and the few survivors learn that the entire Order of the Burning Dawn has been targeted and destroyed. The party sets out for Luskan and becomes embroiled in a plot that extends far beyond your guild’s devastation. “Your order is being hunted down and slaughtered, and you have been told that you are evil and you have to figure out why,” Tudge says. “It takes you all over the Sword Coast, including down into the Underdark.”

The storyline can be tackled alone, where you craft a character from scratch and launch into the adventure, or played cooperatively with up to four players. Your crafted character can be a male or female dwarf, elf, half-elf, halfling, or human. The standard character classes of cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard are joined by ranger and paladin in the initial release. Character stats are gleaned from a point-buy system.

Companion characters join over time, each with their own goals, talents, personalities, and foibles. N-Space promises a rich system of friendships and relationships, between individual companions, as well as the option to infl uence and shape your main character’s connection to each party member. It’s a style of investing players in story that has served BioWare well in game after game. Director Dan Tudge and writer Jay Turner are both veterans of the studio, and bring their expertise to bear at n-Space. “At BioWare, I learned that strong characters go a long way towards making an RPG memorable,”  Turner  says.

If A.I. companions aren’t what you’re looking for, the entirety of Sword Coast Legends’ campaign can also be played cooperatively with up to four players. Everyone brings their own created character into the mix from the beginning of the story, and combat, leveling, and storytelling are revealed to the group as the plot unfolds.

An early glimpse of the game in action gives a good sense of Sword Coast Legends’ trajectory. Our demo begins in a dungeon beneath Luskan, as the party surreptitiously makes its way towards the famous Cutlass Inn to uncover the whereabouts of the Ashen Priest, a terrifying being implicated in the attack on the Order of the Burning Dawn. Dungeon areas like this are an amalgamation of procedurally generated and developer-crafted experiences. The team can manipu late cer tain rooms and encounters to specific parameters, but otherwise the twists and turns of the tunnels are different for each playthrough. As the party explores, a zooming and panning camera shows off the illustrative 3D game world, which is awash with detail, especially on character equipment and weapons.

Spoken banter between the party members adds personality and humor to the dungeon exploration. “It’s high stakes, but light mood,” Turner says. “If we were to film the adventures of anyone’s D&D group, that’s what it would be. The meteor’s about to hit the Earth, but they’re cracking jokes about Mountain Dew in the tavern. We’re not that goofy, but the mood is trying to be like a group of people at the table, and what would their characters sound like?”

It’s not long before a fight against giant spiders offers a glimpse of combat. When playing solo, battles can be played out in real-time or tackled with a more tactical eye through a pause-and-play option. When playing cooperatively, the adventure always plays out in real-time, since most players will be controlling fewer characters.

The flow of combat is familiar for anyone with a background in isometric RPGs. Simple mouse commands send your party charging off toward a target, while a selection of hotbar skills and spells provide buffs to the party, damage to enemies, and manipulation of the battlefield. Familiar D&D staples like magic missile and fireball are in abundance. Unlike the standard six-second D&D round, Sword Coast Legends opts for speedier interactions, with a standard exchange of blows and spells playing out in about two seconds, lending each fight a more frenetic quality of motion.

After the fight, some new weapon pick-ups take us into the menu. A shared party inventory houses all your treasure and pick-ups, while each character has a fully customizable character sheet. Newly equipped items change the character’s appearance. The inventory seems simple and easy to access and make changes, which is just what you want in a game like this. With new weapons in hand, we get a glimpse of the skill system at work. The giant spider room has no apparent exits. It’s not until the rogue goes into an active search mode that the party can escape through a secret door. The action slows down his speed, but a circle extends out from the character (matching his skill level) that can detect hidden features within its radius.

With the exit uncovered, the party emerges onto the streets of Luskan as a light dusting of snow begins to fall from the sky and coat the ground. Townspeople go about their tasks; their presence and activities in any given location will change if we return again later. The system of town life, like the dungeons, is procedurally generated in some locations and set by designers in others. Extensive incidental voice acting is everywhere, lending life to the city.

The information obtained at the Cutlass Inn sends the party off to the slums of Luskan, where they meet up with Sir Banagar. The knight’s presence is dependent upon a previous event, in which the player chose to spare his life despite a grave injustice. The mercy has led the knight here, and now we have the option to see him aid the group in upcoming fights; the extra manpower is a big help in a subsequent encounter with a hulking undead ogre.

At this point, the search for the Ashen Priest takes a turn, as the demo flips from standard campaign play over into dungeon-crawl mode. A new player joins the game in the role of the dungeon master, and within seconds is able to set up a full dungeon of his own specifications, and then manipulate it on the fly as the player continues forward. “We wanted to make sure that people could get in very quickly and start playing as a DM right away and enjoy that experience,” Tudge says.

Dungeon crawls start out from a DM’s menu screen, where he or she sets up several options from a pull-down menu that establish the starting features of a dungeon. Each floor of your dungeon can have its own independent setup. A selection of general size is further refined by your choice of complexity, which sets how linear or branching the rooms are. Each dungeon floor can include two distinct creature sets, like drow, goblin, or undead, as well as an overall difficulty for the encounters found there. The dungeon master also selects a tile set like catacombs, sewers, or bandit caves along with a mood, which alters lighting, fog, and music. Finally, the DM selects quests for the dungeon; these overall objectives give the party a task in your ad hoc creation. “You can meet with your friends at 7:00 on Friday night and say: ‘Hey guys, what do you want to play? Do you want to play a gauntlet of death that is just full of zombies? Or do you want to play a very sneaky dungeon that is full of secrets and traps?’. And the DM can set that up very quickly, he can set the quests up, he can drop in his NPCs, do whatever he wants to make that experience, and five minutes later everybody is playing,” Tudge describes.

A dungeon master’s job doesn’t end when he opens his creation for business. Instead, n-Space has crafted a system built to encourage an appropriate challenge for player characters, as well as regular interactions for the DM. While some recent games have explored the idea of four-versus-one play, Sword Coast Legends looks more to the roots of D&D, and aims for a four-with-one style of interaction. DMs are encouraged to challenge players with deadly traps and monsters, but hopefully not repeatedly kill them off. The DM doesn’t win by killing the players; like a true tabletop RPG session, the DM wins by encouraging a good time had by all. “That doesn’t mean that you can’t play adversarial and some players might agree that they want to play an adversarial match with a DM and you can do that, but the whole system has been based around that cooperative vibe of providing a challenge and a great experience,” Tudge says.

Any longtime RPG player will tell you just how hard that is to do well, but n-Space has some innovative ideas to make it work. Dungeon masters build a resource called DM threat by challenging players with interest ing encounters, which in turn can be used to alter or create other encounters later in the dungeon. “DM threat is earned by providing a challenge for the players and interacting with the players and then he can spend that threat to spawn monsters, to change encounters, to drop traps and lock doors and make secret areas, and really balancing to provide more challenge for the players,” Tudge says.

Wipe the party, and you lose all your threat. There’s a balancing act around clever trap placement and ambush locations. Spend threat to turn a normal door into a secret one that appears like a normal wall. Lock a chest, or spend additional threat to increase the complexity of the locking mechanism. Promote enemies that need a bigger punch, or demote ones that are too hard, and get a refund of DM threat. DM threat is meant to hold back over-zealous or simply inexperienced dungeon masters from creating impossible set-ups. For instance, there’s a limit on how much threat can be spent in a given room, so you can’t simply save everything up until a big boss and then devastate the team. At the end of encounters, DMs also get loot to spend elsewhere one-time surprises to throw at your players, like dropping a small horde of zombies into an already tricky fight.

DMs have access to the full map of the dungeon, as well as suggested spawn locations for enemies, which can also be changed on the fl y, represented in each room by a large fl oating d20 at the center of each chamber. A cooperative party of four players is playing in real-time, so a good DM needs to become proficient with working ahead to reshape the dungeon on the fl y, and recognize when to push up the challenge, and when to scale things back because the party is about to die. When the game releases, players will be able to rate and describe the style of any given DM, so that players who like more or less traps, puzzles, fights, or other stylistic choices can find the right connections.

More experienced DMs may enjoy the option for a quick dungeon crawl, but be eager for something more robust and creative. N-Space plans to integrate a full suite of campaign creation options that take the experience a step beyond simple ad hoc experiences. While the toolset isn’t quite ready for demoing, the idea is to foster a community of players who are crafting entire adventures and storylines of their own, complete with their own quests and encounter designs.  “Campaign creation is much more about allowing for homebrew campaign creation like a tabletop DM would do,” Tudge says. “We want to empower players to create their favorite homebrew campaign, their favorite new campaign, or even recreate their favorite module, and still in a very easy to use way that is also deep and robust as well. “

Several hours spent with Sword Coast Legends leads to a strange impression of simultaneous nostalgia and newness. It’s clear that the team at n-Space has a deep affection for the D&D video games that have come before, but stylish art and smooth game mechanics show that Sword Coast Legends is anything but rooted in the past. And while another campaign through the Forgotten Realms has immense appeal, the possibility of a growing body of fan-crafted and curated fantasy campaigns and adventures is hard to resist.

First Companions
N-Space plans for a large cast of characters that join the adventure as it unfolds, and players can choose who to have tag along for each step of the journey. Experience points are shared across all your characters, so no one gets left behind in the  leveling  process.

“When designing a character with a race and a class, I try and steer left when other people might steer right,” says writer Jay Turner. “For example, our dwarf fighter is not a bearded, scarfaced veteran. She’s a sweet lady who happens to be an ass kicker when she needs to be. We want to throw some curveballs.” These four individuals offer a glimpse of what to expect.

Your created character won’t start the game with many allies on his or her side, but Jarhild is a stalwart warrior to be relied upon. The shield dwarf makes her living as a fighter in the employ of the Order of the Burning Dawn, and is one of its few survivors after a devastating assault. She is strong-willed and cares little what others think of her, and her experience in battle tactics make her an ideal warrior for the front lines, even while her personality outside of combat is endearing.

The moon-elf cleric is an adherent of the elven goddess of the moon and hunt, Sehanine Moonbow. At 140 years old, she’s still in her prime as an elf, but her wisdom and experience set her apart from her companions. A talented archer in her own right, Illydia travels with the dwarf Larethar, and the two come to the player’s aid during the initial mercenary caravan attack that might have wiped them out. Illydia chooses to aid the party in the name of redemption; past mistakes haunt her, and there’s little doubt her dark history will unfold as the story continues.

The rough-and-tumble Larethar has two personalities at war with themselves. Prior to meeting Illydia, the gold-dwarf rogue was a debaucherous brawler and cutpurse, and evidence of his snide and disagreeable side is regularly on display. However, his recent travels with Illydia have tempered his experience, and made him want to be a better man. His wisecracking and greedy ways are at odds with a desire to be a hero.

The human wizard Hommet is an unusual twist on a fantasy staple; he’s a necromancer with good intentions. His strange choice of specialty has made it nearly impossible to find a mentor and master who isn’t out to unleash an undead plague on the world.  Hommet falls in with the survivors of the Burning Dawn massacre for a chance to prove himself.