2014 is a landmark year for Dungeons & Dragons. It was 40 years ago that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson published the very first edition of the game through Tactical Studies Rules, in a 3-volume set that cost $10. That initial set of low-budget booklets, cobbling together a hash of literary influences like JRR Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fritz Lieber and many other pulp fantasy novelists, has spawned a major industry, and the game concocted by a group of hobbyists in Wisconsin has a continuing influence that spans several generations.
Dungeons & Dragons Online is a part of that industry, and they are celebrating the 40th birthday of D&D with a big new update. According to Turbine's Digital Communications Manager, Leo Tan, "I feel like this is a special one for us, in that we're doing stuff with D&D that we haven't done before, working with creators of important Dungeons & Dragons content in a way that is new to me."
The creator in question is none other than Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms, and the important content is one of his classic adventure modules, Haunted Halls of Eveningstar, originally created for TSR's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition rules. And while this is not the only content offered with this update, it's a definite nod and affectionate tribute to the anniversary of the game's beloved IP. The staff at Turbine led us through a guided tour of Update 21: the Legendary Halls.
We started the tour with the Haunted Halls of Eveningstar. According to Senior Designer Ben Schneider, "We had a chance to work very closely with Ed on the re-imagining of this module for DDO. He told us that the original version of this module, which he played with his home campaign group, was actually a lot longer than the version that ended up getting published for second edition. So one thing led to another, and this module, in addition to having a version that corresponds to the published module, actually has a separate play-mode - we call it the 'Extended Length Mode' - that has the full content of Ed's original, personal version."
The Haunted Halls is huge. According to Ben Schneider, it's the size of three normal-sized DDO dungeons, all rolled into one. It features a number of "iconic" rooms, including this doorway, which is modeled off the cover of the original published module.
The extended version will feature a room called Whisper's Crypt, a space built based entirely on Ed Greenwood's description.
"Whisper is a member of the Zhentarim," Ben Schneider explained, "one of the original bosses of the original version of the Haunted Halls. He has a little bit of a backstory that Ed conveyed to us. This is one of the few places where we get to see a boss try to make a deal with the players, so the player, each time they play through the Haunted Halls, has a choice. They could work with Whisper, or they could directly fight him."
For our play-through, we elected to fight him. That's easier said than done.
"Ed described Whisper to us as a mage that carries around an array of wands," Schneider said. "In a fight, he'll basically pick a wand and rapid-fire it at you. And when you get too close, he'll reposition and relocate himself."
As the fight progresses, some of Whisper's back-story is revealed. "He's a mage with a number of apprentices. The apprentices are all scheming to become a replacement for Whisper, and, in fact, the current Whisper is a former apprentice that killed the previous Whisper. It's a little bit of a survival-of-the-fittest thing that is represented with the Zhentarim."
In practical terms, this means that at a later stage of the fight, a number of duplicate apprentices show up, and the group has to fight through the duplicates to get at the "real" Whisper. This is a very challenging fight - the dungeon is CR28, and Whisper is "one of the hardest non-raid bosses that our players will see to date."
From there, the tour moved on to Thunderholme, another classic Forgotten Realms setting.
"Thunderholme is a Dwarven city in a mountain near the nation of Cormyr, where all of our Forgotten Realms content is set," explained Ricardo Liu, Lead Designer. "It's a city that several hundred years ago was wiped out, so it's sort of a ghost town. What our content is getting to explore is how that happened, and it is to sort of complement the Haunted Halls. It has the classic sort of dungeon delve feel to it."
Thunderholme includes two raids and the landscape content, which is 7 layers of the Dwarven city sandwiched between the two raids - one at the top and one at the bottom.
"The beginning of the story of Thunderholme is in classic Dwarven fashion," said Ricardo Liu. "This was a city of dwarves that expanded and dug until they accidentally woke up a sleeping Shadow Dragon named Aurgoloroasa. Unlike some dragons, she is notoriously a plotter and a schemer, so she didn't just jump up and start devouring Dwarves - she slowly began the process of infiltrating and, eventually, spitefully wiping out the city. And part of that spite included animating every Dwarf she killed as a skeletal servant. So when you come into Thunderholme now, you find her army of undead Dwarves. You also find the cult that worships her, called the Cult of the Dragon - which, for anybody who's a classic D&D nerd will recognize as classic enemies out of D&D lore. The Cult of the Dragon worship dracoliches, and Aurgoloroasa has over the centuries turned herself into a dracolich. She's extremely powerful and one of the important players in that cult."
Taking down a super-powered dracolich is never an easy task, and the fight against Aurgoloroasa is no exception. It was designed to be one of the most challenging fights in the game, one which will put powerful character builds and player skills to the test.
Getting to the raids involves passing through a maze of smaller puzzle dungeons - jumping puzzles, riddle-locked portals, red-light-green-light rooms and other challenges that will test players' wits, reflexes and character builds.
The lair of the undead dracolich is at the bottom of Thunderholme, so what might be at the top? Easy: live dragons. Two of them, to be precise - a mated pair of red dragons.
"This is the summit of the Thunder Peaks, and there's an ancient Dwarven artifact that the Netherese are bringing back to Aurgoloroasa as an offering for her as part of their negotiations with the pact. So these red dragons are guarding it, and in your attempt to defeat Aurgoloroasa, you're showing up to destroy that."
Much of the strategy of this raid involves keeping the two dragons separated, and also keeping them away from the Dwarven artifact in the middle of the battlefield. If the dragons are in close proximity to one another, they can be very difficult or even impossible to kill. This fight is "Gianthold 2.0" - the dragons must be killed within a short window of time.
As if multiple dragon battles and classic Ed Greenwood adventures weren't enough of an anniversary celebration, DDO is also introducing in-game collectible cards. These will be like baseball cards that feature classic D&D artwork, and they can be collected and traded in for rewards. Additionally, Update 21 will introduce a new Divine Epic Destiny, which will give divine magic users - clerics, paladins, etc. - a little more punch.
Update 21: the Legendary Halls will be free to VIPs. Premium and free players will be able to purchase the new content as two separate packs. Thunderholme will be sold as an Adventure Pack, and the Haunted Halls of Eveningstar is being sold as a "Module" because of its sheer size. No official word yet on a release date, but we are assured that it will be "soon-ish."