I’ve taken up a new MMO – new for me, anyway – Dungeons and Dragons Online. Dungeons and Dragons isn’t new to me. For some reason, my wife and younger child both started playing this a few weeks ago. It’s free to download and start playing, and they just couldn’t stop talking about it. So I thought I’d get some firsthand experience with the “free to play” model, and see how my old friend translated to a MMORPG.
I’m loving it.
The “free to play” model doesn’t seem terribly intrusive. Especially on the newbie island, you get reminded a lot that there is stuff to buy, but that tails off in Stormreach. Since I’m a cheapskate and a purist, I resist buying things to make adventuring easier. About the only things I’d consider paying for are new adventure packs and races/classes. Except the only race you have to pay for are drow and well, gosh. That’s not really my style. Why be a drow when you can be a high elf? Yes, yes, I know, Drizzt and all that. But tortured, angsty, complicated
vampires dark elves yearning to be good? Not really my thing.
But classes, on the other hand…You need to pay extra to play monk or favored soul, a variant of cleric. These have my interest. As alts of course.
Toldain, in DDO, is a wizard (now 4th level) specializing in enchantment magics.
There are some things in DDO that I find highly refreshing, and counter to trends. There are traps, and locked doors and chests. There are secret doors. The skills that you have matter. The game brings back a whole category of gameplay that was a staple of tabletop D&D – traps and secret doors. First you have to have someone out there who can notice danger – the Spot skill. Then you need someone who can search to find exactly where the trap is, or where that secret door is. Finally, once you can see the trap, you have a question as to what to do about it.
Some traps can be jumped over, or timed. They might have the “dropping blade” variety, and so you can try and time it to run through without being hit. Or you can bring someone along who can disable the trap, provided they’ve brought thieves tools. Or maybe you just avoid the whole thing. Meaningful strategic options, yum!
Speaking of meaningful strategic options, the wizard gameplay definitely highlights strategy as well. But let’s talk about how the wizard/sorceror split plays out in the online version first. In tabletop D&D, wizards had a big book of all the spells they knew, out of which a few were prepared for the day. Each prepared spell was cast exactly once, if you wanted to cast Magic Missle more than once, you had to prepare it more than once. And at first level, you were likely to have no more than three prepared spells. The rest of the time you threw darts at the monsters from behind the fighter. Sorcerors, on the other hand, had no spell book. They could cast maybe four spells a day, but each casting could be any of the limited number of spells that they had in their head. This differentiation was introduced in D&D’s 3rd edition, and provided a neat solution for accommodating different playstyles. For players and campaigns with more of a “we don’t know what’s coming next” feel, sorcerors worked better, but if you had the sort of campaign where you had a rough idea of what might be coming, and liked planning ahead, wizard filled the bill.
In DDO, casting 3 spells before resting would be severely limiting. Combats go much faster than they do on the tabletop, so the game needs to be tweaked appropriately. Thus there are spell points, and old and familiar idea. Wizards prepare spells in taverns or at rest shrines, and may cast each prepared spell as many times as their spell points permit. Spell points, along with hit points are refreshed in town and in taverns, and at rest shrines in dungeons.
Sorcerors, on the other hand, may cast any spell they know, provided they have spell points. But they can’t scribe new spells from scrolls, like wizards can. However, they have probably twice as many spell points. So, they tend to use the same tactics in every dungeon.
In experimenting, I first tried making Toldain as a sorceror. After all, they use Charisma as their best ability score, and charm is my middle name. Toldain Charm Darkwater, right there on the birth certificate. Really! However, the first village features battles with Sahuagin, who, as monstrous humanoids, are not subject to Charm Person. Oops, one of my two first-level spells just became useless. This has something to do with why the game calls this path for the sorceror “extremely difficult” to solo.
So I’m a wizard. I get to think about what the dungeon I’m about to run in might/does contain, and which spells to use, and which tactics. Actual strategic thinking!
Gameplay for other classes also features some strategic thinking, as to choice of gear and supplies. Clerics and Paladins must also prepare spells.
DDO seems to embrace the idea of tactics in a way that few MMO’s do. For example, terrain. Once upon a time, in Everquest, there was path-kiting. Miniscule wrinkles in terrain would make mobs take strange detours, while you could plug them. Mobs would also walk through walls to come and eat you, which seems unfair, since we couldn’t walk though the walls. Finally, in DDO, mobs will block players as well as other mobs. And the pathing is much better.
The typical thing that you would see in an MMO is that a mob that is at range with no path to you would teleport to you, or even be able to hit you despite a large difference in altitude. Not so in DDO. If you want to stand the fighter in the doorway, and throw daggers from behind him, go for it! But be warned, taunt mechanics are somewhat weaker, though not completely gone. Use terrain and movement more, and taunt less.
But the mobs are using terrain, too. They will place ranged attackers on high inaccessible points, and force you to engage them in ranged combat, or have someone climb up to them. Climbing and jumping seem to have increased value, and points spent on the Jump skill will make you jump higher and farther. The game has a bit of a Legends of Zelda feel in many dungeons, where you need to find the right lever to pull in order to open the next door. And it has a bit of the qualities of a platform rpg, a la Prince of Persia, with the jumping around.
And there’s a very different attitude toward sneaking. Sneaking is not seen as bypassing content, but as part of the fun. In the first part of Stormreach, there’s even one dungeon in which the point is to steal something without killing more than 6 of the lookouts. You do not get experience for killing random mobs, but for accomplishing objectives. Which makes sneaking past things make a whole lot of sense.
There are other dungeons with a focus on traps, and at least a few with some genuine puzzles to solve. They don’t seem to worry about the fact that one can look online to solve them. (So far I haven’t, why spoil the fun?)
As you can tell, I’m really liking the game. I like the art choices, and the gameplay choices. I think it’s an evolutionary step forward, even as it tries to bring what’s fun about D&D into the MMO sphere. But the best part of all, the thing that makes it precious to me above all others (at least for now) is that my youngest child will actually play D&D Online with me.