Updated Fri, Feb 13, 2009 by Ethec
by Jeff 'Ethec' Woleslagle
Turbine cleared out Dragon Bar, a fine establishment in San Francisco's North Beach district, and brought all the necessary hardware to provide core community members, pen-and-paper (PnP) gamers, and fansite reps a "hands on" tour of Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach (or DDO, for short) . The atmosphere was charged with excitement as the alcohol and gourmet vittles flowed freely, and I'd be remiss not to thank the Turbine crew for pulling off a fitting introduction for this party-intensive game.
Perhaps you were thinking you've seen something like DDO; that it's just another variation on the played out EQ-clone fantasy theme. I'm very happy to tell you that this isn't the case. Let's start with what we do know about the game. Turbine is working very closely with Wizards of the Coast (WotC, "governing body" for the official PnP Dungeons and Dragons or DnD- that's the last acronym, promise!- game) to build a Massively Multiplayer game (MMOG - I lied!) based on the DnD version 3.5 ruleset. I'm not really a DnD player, but it's important to grasp the scale of information contained in such a PnP ruleset- between the player's handbook, dungeon master's guide, monster manual, and campaign setting book, it's literally thousands of pages of relevant information. So, garnering those rules into a modern, fast-paced MMOG -at least, enough of the rules to capture the DnD experience and make the branding stick- it's no picnic. And believe me, there's plenty of DnD high-rollers out there that want the game just right; a quick read-through of the official forums will prove folks are putting down their dice and coming out of their basements to announce their opinions on DDO.
DDO is set in Eberron, a controversial choice given that many players really wanted to see a remake of Forgotten Realms-style games like Neverwinter Nights. Lead Designer Ken Tripp, in his opening comments, rehashed the reason for Turbine choosing Eberron: "We really wanted a world where magic is so highly developed, it's almost like technology." You'll see plenty of that around Stormreach, the player city, as residences are built on magical levitating stilts, and plants hover over placid pools. The effect isn't purely visual; Eberron allows for the Warforged: magical, mechanized remnants of a race created to fight the wars of others. Warforged fighters were one of 4 classes we played, the remaining three were cleric, rogue, and sorceror.
I sat at a computer featuring an elven Sorceror- the much forum-maligned brethren of the flexible, jack-of-all-spells Wizard- and moused through my spell hotbar. Most of the spells were typical of what you might find in a nasty nuker's cookbook: Magic Arrow, Fire Ball, Cone of Frost. All except for one: "Glitterdust." I did what any red-blooded American would do upon finding a mysterious button, I pushed it. Immediately the group was bathed in blazing white and yellow light, inducing cries of alarm... and it didn't go away. Glitterdust is apparently an area-of-effect blind spell that 1) won't follow you if you simply move away, and 2) seems to work better on players rather than mobs and could easily be the favorite tool of the neighborhood griefer. What fun, though, to have spells that can backfire, doing more harm than good? Cone of Frost was another example; it does area-of-effect damage but if you're own players are caught in the radius of effect, they have to take a knockdown save throw too.
The group breezed through the garden-variety enemies in whirlwind fashion. I asked John Foster, Turbine's new DDO Community Manager, if combat at all levels was so fast paced... we're talking an average of less than 5 seconds from awareness of the mob to victory, folks. "Sometimes it's, like, mad, " Foster said. "But we're really trying to avoid sandwich combat... you know, where you hit 'auto-attack' and go make yourself a sandwich. There really is a strategy element: magic missile is an awesome spell, but it's a pain to use against spiders, with them skittering everywhere." Magic Missile, you see, is a set of three magic... missiles that must all hit the target for maximal damage. Oh, did I mention that you have to be within striking range to hit a mob (your club has to touch the mob, imagine that!) or in line of sight for spellcasting? It's a brave new take on combat.