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Sword Coast Legends preview: Putting the DM in CRPG

Hayden Dingman | March 12, 2015
I've played RPGs for a long time now. I'd be hard-pressed to name my first--maybe Shadowrun for the SNES--but either way they've been a presence in my life for a long time. Tabletop RPGs haven't been part of my life for quite as long, but I dabbled as a teen (I owned a set of Dungeons & Dragons books that I pretty much tried to hide in high school) and then started role-playing fairly regularly a few years back.

We've had quite a few of those recently, though! The isometric CRPG is back. I think we can stop hemming and hawing about that fact now and just state it flat out. Somehow the genre, with the help of Kickstarter, has crawled its way out from the ashes of Black Isle and Interplay V1.0 and emerged reborn. Wasteland 2, Divinity: Original Sin, Pillars of Eternity, Shadowrun — it's like the glory days of 1997-2001 have come again.

The human element

What makes Sword Coast Legends special is something I barely — barely — got a glimpse of: DM Mode.

DM Mode accommodates four players and one dungeon master, though it can also be played with as little as one player and one DM.

On the player side, nothing really changes from a standard isometric CRPG. You're placed in a dungeon, you've got your party of four characters, and you're trying to make it to the end and defeat the boss. Easy enough.

But what separates DM Mode from a normal dungeon is that a player is coordinating all of the defenses. The DM has an eye-in-the-sky look at the procedurally-generated map and can spend points to affect all sorts of things, be it hiding the entrance to a secret treasure room, placing monsters into a room, adding an ambush to a monster encounter, setting traps on the ground, or just locking doors to prevent players from rushing.

And what I found even more interesting is that the DM isn't supposed to win necessarily. I asked the developers at n-Space specifically, because it seemed like the DM could just throw a bunch of high-level monsters into an early room, kill all the players, and call it a day.

While that's a possibility, the developers told me the DM's goal isn't winning — it's to maximize fun for the players. The DM will be rated at the end of every match, and the goal is for players to feel like they had a good time even if they lose. They should feel like the DM was challenging, not cheating.

In other words, it works like a real DM. The dungeon master in a tabletop game isn't trying to win, but tell a story or guide the players through an encounter. To this end, Sword Coast Legends actually lets you demote or even delete enemies from a battle if it feels like the players are getting overwhelmed.

It doesn't have the same flexibility as actual tabletop role-playing. There's still not a ton of room for improvisation. You won't somehow manage to make it over the spike trap as a player by using your ten-foot pole as a pole vault, governed by a dexterity role, for instance.


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