Updated Wed, May 22, 2013 by gunky
The journey into the Forgotten Realms continues on in Dungeons & Dragons Online. Update 18: Disciples of Shadow, which launches today, heads deeper into the intrigue taking place between the Netherese Empire and the Kingdom of Cormyr. We took a guided tour of the new content with the folks who made it: Senior Producer Erik Boyer, Lead Designer Rick Liu, and Producer Athena Peters.
Rick Liu started off by giving us some background into the current conflict:
"With Update 16, we introduced a new enemy faction, the Netherese. They're from the empire of Netheril, which borders the kingdom of Cormyr, where Eveningstar is set. The Netherese Empire is this evil, high-magic empire that has had its sights set on Cormyr for a very long time."
Update 18 continues with this conflict between the two neighboring powers, and delves into the shadowy depths of a deeper trouble yet to be revealed. The trouble centers around the prison of Wheloon, where Netherese worshippers and priests of the evil goddess Shar are sent when they are caught in Cormyr. Shar's portfolio includes darkness, caverns, dungeons, the Underdark, forgetfulness, loss, night and secrets, and she created the Shadowfell, a plane of existence forged by the union of the Plane of Shadows and the Plane of Negative Energy. Shar-worship is the state religion in Netheril.
Our first stop on the tour was the foothills of the Stormhorn Mountains - a region that will play a prominent role in the Shadowfell Conspiracy expansion coming this summer - schedule to launch on August 19. Update 18 gives us a hint of things to come with this expansion. According to Rick Liu, "We just get a little bit of a taste of it with the mountainous terrain bordering the forest. It's an exciting new biome for us."
In the first of Update 18's three quests, Cormyrean magistrates seek help capturing some priests of Shar. "The reason that concerns them," Rick explains, "is that Shar is the official religion of the Netherese empire, and Shar worshipers are generally considered to be traitors that are heralding an invasion from Netheril." The priests run around Cormyr trying to convert Cormyreans to their wicked ways, and have a dismayingly-high success rate. Those that are discovered are rounded up and shipped off to the prison-city of Wheloon. Our job, then, is to capture some Shar priests before they manage to convert everybody and create real problems.
In this first mission, Disciples of Shar, we run around as a pair of Bladeforged, beating up Shar worshipers, aided by pseudodragon familiars and an owlbear hireling defender. All of these elements are new to the game, and the Turbine team says that owlbears in particular are something that players have been asking for for a while. The owlbear is an iconic D&D monster, a unique part of the game since the very first books were printed back in the mid-70s, and it's pretty awesome seeing one lumbering along with you and tearing up enemies at your side.
The second dungeon of the update, Escape Plan, involves escorting our captives to Wheloon via an arduous river journey. Along the way, the escort meets up with another new menace.
"In that second dungeon, when you've camped on the riverbank for the night, it gives an opportunity for agents of Netheril, with hired lizardfolk mercenaries, to free the prisoners from your custody. So you have to fight off the lizardmen, which are a new race of enemies we're introducing in Update 18."
Lizardfolk are also a historied D&D enemy, first appearing in the 1975 Greyhawk supplement but quickly expanding to pretty much all other campaign settings as well. They have been featured as staple enemies in a number of other games, but this marks their first appearance in DDO.
After defeating this ambush, you transfer your prisoner to the prison at Wheloon, where he is to be interrogated. This is the third dungeon of Update 18, Shadow of a Doubt, which will be available to players who pre-purchase the Shadowfell Conspiracy expansion.
"People are referring to Wheloon as a prison," Rick explains. "It's
actually a former trading town in Cormyr. Several years ago when the crown
discovered a massive outspread of Shar worship here, it was too much of a
problem to try to prevent them from spreading, so they basically walled it
off and turned it into a prison where they can condemn other Shar worshipers.
The walls, in addition to being a manual barrier - the Cormyrean war
wizards also reinforced it with magic to prevent escape through magical
means. Any sentence to Wheloon is a life sentence. Once you're tossed over
the wall, there's no mechanism to take you back out."
Interrogating the prisoner rewards the first reveal of the Shadowfell, and foreshadows events yet to come. This dungeon effectively serves as a prequel to the expansion, introducing the enemies that will play a larger role in events to come. Shadows - another new type of enemy introduced with this patch - come out and attack, creating chaos which the prisoners outside use to their advantage, seeking escape by means of staging a prison riot.
Shadows are pretty sweet. They phase back and forth between two-dimensional, flat shadows on the ground and three-dimensional, physical creatures of made of darkness. They are not really fully physical, but somewhat incorporeal. That creates a lot of new and different strategies and challenges for fighting them - players with Ghost Touch weapons will have a better chance to hit Shadows while they are in shadow form, while other players will have better luck hitting them when they are in corporeal form. This on-the-fly form-switching is really unique.
"It's something that we thought was absolutely key to presenting Shadowfell," Rick explained. "It's a new tech that we created for the Shadowfell Conspiracy to get them to do that."
We got to witness some more new tech when we met up with one of the bosses of Wheloon, a Shadar-kai assassin who wailed on us with a whirling spiked chain. This is an area-effect melee attack with a sweet animation - the Shadar-kai look like goths from an awesome 80s ninja movie.
Shadar-kai are natives of the Shadowfell. They are a fierce and bitter people, actual flesh and blood unlike the living shadows that also call the Shadowfell home, and they are slowly emigrating out of their home plane and into the Prime Material. They serve as top elite agents of the Netherese empire.
The last stop of our tour was the character generator, where Erik Boyer led us through the creation of a new Bladeforged Iconic Hero prestige-class character.
Iconic Hero characters start at level 15 and come in a few different flavors. The Bladeforged was the only one available on Lamannia, so we rolled one of those. Despite DDO's recent shift toward the Forgotten Realms setting, Bladeforged are very much Eberron creatures. According to Erik:
"Back in update 11, we released a content pack with the Lord of Blades as a raid boss. In that story, the Lord of Blades had siezed a creation forge, a magical artificer machine that was responsible for creating the Warforged in the frst place. He used it to create his own army of Warforged in his own image, called the Bladeforged. They're more powerful than normal Warforged, and have additional abilities. With this iconic type, the players will get to play as one of those Bladeforged that came out from the creation forge."
These guys look pretty snarly, with new cranium models, hairstyles made out of crazy blades and metal spikes, and lethal blades jutting from their cheeks and chins. Erik Boyer joked that these features make them look really dangerous, but also really good at slicing cheese.
Class-wise, Bladeforged are Paladins, but the unique Bladeforged racial abilities and talents give them a much different feel than Paladins of any other race. Compared to regular Warforged, they take less slashing damage, for example, and can be built around this aspect in a way that makes them stand out from similar type builds using other races as a base.
"We're paying attention to that type of thing when introducing these new races," Erik said, "continuing with what DDO is really famous for and has done such an excellent job at over the years: character diversification. When you play one class or one race or a different combination of those, it feels really different in the gameplay and not just a different weapon type."
Other Iconic Hero prestige classes will be made available when the Shadowfell Conspiracy expansion launches. During this session, there were greyed-out options for a Shadar-kai assassin, which would come complete with the same spiked-chain attacks and stealth abilities as the NPCs; another for a Purple Dragon Knight, a bulky human Cormyrean specialist Paladin; and a Sun Elf Morninglord, a specialty cleric devoted to the Netherese god, Amaunator.These Iconic Hero characters will be available to players who pre-order the Shadowfell Conspiracy expansion, or by purchasing unlocks through the DDO Store.
Update 18 launches today, and the Shadowfell Conspiracy expansion
launches on August 19.