Dungeons and Dragons Online Impressions

Given that I’ve been spending so much time playing D&D in the real world, I decided it was finally time to give the Dungeons and Dragons MMO — er, not that D&D MMO, the other one — a try.

My Elven paladin in Dungeons and Dragons OnlineDungeons and Dragons Online is one of the few well-known MMORPGs that I had not played up until now. The badly dated graphics coupled with a poorly regarded free to play model left me with the impression of a low-budget, low-effort sort of game, and I was intimidated by its reputation as an unusually complex title. But since D&D has been on my brain so much lately, curiosity won the day.

DDO is a very odd game. Playing it feels like I stepped through a portal into some alternate reality where MMO design evolved along entirely different lines.

In some ways, DDO is a staunchly traditional RPG hewing very closely to classic tabletop mechanics. Character creation involves not just the usual racial, class, and visual options, but also rolling your stats and picking feats. And this commitment to old-school character building and intense mechanical depth continues throughout the game. Some of the item tooltips are practically novel-length, even at low levels.

There’s also a greater richness to quest mechanics that harkens back to older RPGs. In addition to combat, there’s also simple puzzles, as well as hidden rooms to sniff out and traps to dodge.

But then you also have the fact that this is actually an action combat game, or an early ancestor thereof, so in that sense it feels quite modern. There’s no auto-attacking here; moment to moment combat feels more like Diablo than traditional CRPGs.

A skill sheet in Dungeons and Dragons OnlineYou do have an action bar, but there’s not the same reliance on rotations of active abilities you’d expect from an old school MMO. At least as a paladin, my active class abilities were few in number and very limited in their use, with the focus of combat on simply swinging my axe. The action bar is therefore as much devoted to consumables and swapping weapon sets as it is to class abilities.

Most of my time in DDO, my attention was held simply by how unusual the game design is compared to other MMOs. As a student of the genre, it’s fascinating.

I do also admire the commitment to staying true to D&D mechanics. I didn’t have to look up what stats do because I already knew from table-top, and my paladin had much the same abilities as her pen and paper equivalent.

However, for all the ways DDO is unique, I ended up drifting away from it for much the same reasons most MMOs fail to hold my attention.

One is that the game is simply too easy. Going in I was worried such a group-centric game would be too punishing to the solo player, but I spent all my time killing enemies in one or two hits from my axe, while never in the slightest danger of dying. The addition of cheaply available (and seemingly quite overpowered) NPC followers makes the quests even more braindead.

A puzzle in Dungeons and Dragons OnlineDDO does have a variety of difficulty settings for every quest, which is a design I very much admire, but as non-subscriber, I was only ever able to do each quest on “normal” during my first playthrough, and “pay to make the game not suck” is never an enticing business model.

The other issue is that the story is very bland. The dungeon master narration in each quest is a nice touch of ambiance, but it fails to entirely cover the fact that there’s very little plot here. In my time with the game I encountered no memorable NPCs, and ultimately most quests are just of the blandest “kill ten rats” fare.

There are other issues, too. As mentioned, the graphics are painfully dated, and the game is just straight up unpleasant to look at. Leveling is very slow (probably another F2P restriction), and I don’t know the Eberron setting very well, so I felt little connection to the world.

If you’re a fan of MMO game design and the history thereof, DDO is probably worth checking out at least in brief. It’s very unique, and it’s fun to fantasize how MMOs might have evolved differently if DDO had been more successful. Otherwise, though, I’m not sure it’s worth your time.

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Dungeons and Dragons: Altitis, Writing an Adventure, and More

So Dungeons and Dragons has pretty much taken over my life.

The official logo for Dungeons and Dragons, fifth editionWhen last we discussed this, my initial campaign had shut down, but another DM had stepped up to run a new one. This campaign is now our focus. It’s a more sandboxy and episodic affair, as opposed to the linear official campaigns.

I’ve been playing a Tiefling Way of Shadows monk who multi-classed into bard for one level for a little extra flavour and versatility. It’s become a very crowded game, though not everyone shows up every week. We also have another monk (an Aarakocra who moonlights as an exotic dancer), a Halfing fighter, an Aasimar paladin (with glorious hair), a Kenku rogue (who’s delightful), a Grung bard using homebrewed racials, and a human wizard.

Like I said. Crowded.

Our general strategy tends to be for my Tiefling and his Aasimar BFF to charge into the middle of things, start smashing everything in sight, and hope for the best. It mostly works, most of the time. There was that one time I got swallowed whole by a giant worm and our other monk had to cut me out of its stomach…

Meanwhile, another member of our social circle has started DMing some games of his own, using Adventurer’s League rules. He has a very tight schedule, so it’s more of a once in a blue moon thing than a regular campaign. We’ve only played one session so far.

In that, I’ve been playing as a Drow sorcerer, who is loosely based on my ranger from Neverwinter. I wanted to play a pure spellcaster for a while, and I’ve always liked the wild magic angle of sorcerers.

My ranger and her sellsword companion in NeverwinterWhereas my other characters so far have tended to be hybrid/supports, this time I’m just going for a maximum “burn the world down” damage build.

It’s a nice opportunity to explore another new character. While I feel that there is a lot of difference between tabletop RPGs and video games, one common thread I have found is that I’m still a hopeless altoholic. I’m constantly coming up with new character concepts, and there’s not enough time to play them all.

In addition to the three characters I’ve played so far, I have fairly fleshed out concepts for two more. One is a ranger that I intend to play in a one-off session using the Eberron setting next week, and the other is a Shadar-kai druid. I discovered the Circle of Twilight specialization, which uses dark magic to hunt undead, and fell in love, and given the anti-undead attitudes of the Shadar-kai and their master the Raven Queen, it all just sort of fell together.

The end result is what I’ll call a “death druid” sent to enforce the cycle of nature, similar to Diablo’s necromancers. I’m very passionate about the idea. Unfortunately, Circle of Twilight is from Unearthed Arcana, and therefore not legal for Adventurer’s League; otherwise I would have used it for the new campaign.

I’ve also found myself missing my original character (the High Elf paladin), so I brought her back for a cameo in the current campaign, with the possibility of maybe switching to her full time.

Art from the Dungeons and Dragons game Neverwinter depicting an Elf very much like my own paladinOur DM wanted me to write an adventure for the campaign for a while, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone and wrote an adventure around the paladin.¬†Because I’m still not a total expert on D&D mechanics and didn’t want to have too great an advantage over other players, I only wrote the story for this adventure. Our DM handled the mechanical design.

It’s a bit of a vanity project, but the others seem to be enjoying the story so far, and it’s giving me the opportunity for some great roleplay moments.

Since this campaign isn’t quite as high-power as the old one I wasn’t able to just be a paladin who’s also an arcane archer. Instead, I tweaked paladin mechanics a bit to make them work from range.

Instead of Divine Smite, I now have Divine Arrow, which is pretty much the same thing, except it works from range and rolls D6s instead of D8s for damage, to compensate for the advantage of being ranged.

I also rewrote Channel Divinity. It still gives me one of two utility effects per short rest, but instead of the usual Oath of the Ancients powers, I picked two of the arcane archer spells: Seeking Arrow and Beguiling Arrow.

I’m still weighing whether to switch to the paladin or stick with my monk. For the most part, I do think I prefer the paladin, especially when it comes to game mechanics. I’m glad I tried melee, but I think I prefer ranged when it comes to D&D, and I like having so much healing and support abilities.

Now all we need is a dungeon...However, I do really like how the monk fits into the party and the relationships he’s formed within it, like his roguish history with our Kenku and his buddy cop bromance with the Aasimar.

Also, D&D races don’t seem to be very well-balanced, and Tieflings seem to be just plain better than Elves. Hellish Rebuke in particular is an amazingly strong racial ability, at least at current levels.

Ugh. Decisions are hard.

My indecisiveness aside, I’m really enjoying diving into Dungeons and Dragons. I love building characters and exploring the stories, and getting to share it with my friends is a really positive experience. Our D&D sessions are becoming the highlight of my week.