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Dungeons & Dragons Online
Module 8: Prisoners of Prophecy – Play Session

Though I haven’t played as many tabletop RPGs as I’d have liked, I’ve always been fond of the concept – and have enjoyed the sessions I have had. I’m also a fan of MMOGs of multiple genres, styles, and sizes. Still, while tabletop RPGs and MMORPGs might share a three-letter acronym, they might not necessarily share the same audience – and people who like both might like them both for wholly different reasons. Cramming forty people into a basement and rolling dice to topple a dragon doesn’t sound like my idea of fun, after all. I like ketchup and I like ice cream, but I won’t be putting them together anytime soon.

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Bridging the gap between tabletop gamers and MMO acolytes has been the core difficulty for the Dungeons & Dragons Online team at Turbine since the game launched in 2006. Their goal has been to provide fans of D&D the sort of handcrafted, intimate experience that they’re used to – story-driven, with survival in trap-filled dungeons depending not just on rolls of the dice but on how especially cruel the DM was feeling on that day – while not alienating people who signed up with the game expecting a more traditional MMORPG.

It’s something that they’re still working on, admitted Kate Paiz, the game’s Senior Producer, when she and other members of the DDO team – Ian Currie, Stephen Muray, Jesse Smith, Brent Walton, Ilya Bossov, and Brian Cottle – showed me a preview of the upcoming content in Module 8: Prisoners of Prophecy, the game’s 18th free content update since its launch. As they continue to try and bridge the gap between people wrestling with the MMO aspect and people wrestling with the D&D aspect, one of the ways they’re doing so is by streamlining the introduction – character creation and the tutorial phase of the game.

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Though it was, admittedly, my first time actually sitting down with the game, I was able to see what they were getting at from both points of view. Someone unfamiliar with D&D might not know a Barbarian from a Fighter from a Paladin, but by starting out with the simple choice of, “Do you want to swing a sword, cast a spell, or do something more specialized?” and gradually getting more specific, they cater to people who know what their preferred MMO playstyle is but might not know what the difference between INT and WIS was. For experienced D&Ders, though, there’s the option to look less at playstyles and more at stats, feats, and the like.

After deciding to be boring and generic and roll a Human Fighter, I started off my new character on the shore of a tropical island – in the middle of a rather unseasonal snowstorm – having been shipwrecked thanks to a particularly aggressive white dragon that had been terrorizing the island, preventing any ships from getting in or out. Soon enough, I’d been given a starting set of basic equipment and sent into a nearby dungeon with a party of higher-level NPCs.

While in the company of these NPCs, I had a special buff that would prevent me from dying – a way, explained Paiz, to help ease players into the game (while making them feel like a halfway-competent adventurer instead of a glorified rodent exterminator). The dungeon itself featured some basic puzzles (climb the ladder, open the door for your party, find a hidden key, and so on), and of course introduces players to the game’s combat – though the high-level NPCs do most of the dirty work for you. For tabletop gamers, it’s an easy introduction to a world of full-motion, real-time combat that doesn’t stop while the Cleric grabs another Mountain Dew, and for MMO gamers, it’s an introduction to a world where puzzles and environmental interaction are just as important as who can hold aggro and a world where you just might want to let the rogue go ahead and search for traps before running through a door.

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After the tutorial dungeon, I was awarded with another set of equipment, plus a shiny new weapon of my choice – and then was sent out into the new communal area. Given that snowfall on a tropical island was slightly unusual, characters will be tasked to help out the village in dealing with the dragon Aussircaex – who would occasionally fly overhead – and also uncovering whatever was behind this unusual cold snap. While I had to bid my NPC companions farewell, I was told that they return in the capstone dungeon for Korthos Island, where characters confront the white dragon herself.

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Unfortunately, time was limited, so I didn’t get a chance to actually see that for myself – instead, I hopped on a max-level Dwarf Monk to check out the new content aimed at DDO veterans. The high level NPCs I encountered in the starting area also serve as an introduction to the Hireling system, a new feature in Module 8 for more experienced, more powerful characters. Players will be able to purchase charters from a vendor in one of the communal areas, and can use these to summon NPCs to aid them in their adventures.

The Hirelings count towards the six-man limit in a party, and each player may only have one Hireling at any one time – a group of three players could each have their own NPC henchman, but a group of four could only have two out at any one time. Every Hireling has their own class, name, and personality (Kern Killer-of-All, the Barbarian, would tend to be more aggressive than Isadora the Cleric, for instance), and while players can exercise a decent amount of control over their own companion, the idea is that they can generally be left to their own devices. When killed, they drop Soul Stones just like any player (and will follow the player carrying their stone), and can even pick up the stone of their fallen master.

When Module 8 launches, players will be able to hire Barbarians, Clerics, Fighters, and Paladins as companions – the team intends to add arcane casters (Sorcerers and Wizards) and Rogues to the roster soon enough, but they aren’t quite ready yet. In general, the AI for the Hirelings seems functional enough, though it could use some fine-tuning. Hirelings aren’t meant to be complete replacements for player characters, but they should be “at least half a player,” according to the team – that may be so, but they do have a frustrating tendency to die to Area of Effect damage. Even though the Hireling contract only lasts for an hour, if it expires while in a dungeon or questing zone, the NPC won’t simply pack up and leave mid-battle. As soon as you return to a public area, they’ll bid you farewell and take off, but they will remain by your side for the duration of your current adventure.

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Jesse Smith, the game’s Content Designer, took over to explain how they were advancing the story in Prisoners of Prophecy. The story continues from Gianthold in Module 4, where a giant named the Stormreaver was tricked by a Draco-Lich named the Truthful One into almost setting off a magical bomb to destroy all of Xen’drik. Upon player intervention, the Stormreaver realizes the error of his ways and goes on a sabbatical of sorts to mull on what role he is to properly play in the prophecy.

In Module 8, the Stormreaver has returned on the side of good now, contacting agents of Argonessen, an organization of dragons, to help him on the proper path. Unfortunately, another giant from past encounters has returned as well – Sor’Jek, whom players fought (and killed), has been resurrected as a giant Lich, and is attempting to raise an army of Draco-Liches to fight alongside the Truthful One. Which is where the players come in. The agents of Argonessen task players to track down the essences of these deceased dragons to try and find out where Sor’Jek is performing the ritual – and to stop him.

There are four new questing landscapes for players to scour in search of the dragon essences, and we went to check out the sort of swamp-esque garden surrounding the Scorpion Monastery, one of the new dungeons in Module 8. This ancient monastery has long since been taken over by Drow (the usual evil kind, not the chaotic good Drizzt kind), which means that players have plenty of enemies to kill. Since the puzzles are a good part of the DDO dungeon-running experience, dungeons like this one in Module 8 will be partially randomized to try and keep it fresh – or at least to keep players on their toes.

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It certainly did keep me on my toes – botching one particular puzzle resulted in the floor crumbling out from under me, and the resulting plummet had me landing safely on the quintessentially absurd D&D monster, the Gelatinous Cube. I hate to admit it, but puzzles just aren’t my thing. Thankfully, virtually every puzzle in these dungeons can be solved by just one member of the party, so the logically-impaired like myself aren’t at too much of a disadvantage.

The element of randomness in the Module 8 dungeons is more important than it might have otherwise been, because the DDO team intends for players to come back multiple times. Completing dungeons will award characters with Runes that can be used via an Eldritch Device in Reaver’s Reach to create player-customized equipment. This particular mechanic isn’t new to Module 8, but it is the first time players will be able to create customized armor, not just weapons and other accessories.

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One particularly fun stretch of the Scorpion Monastery was a section the team lovingly refers to as the “roller coaster,” a hallway with a series of powerful jets of air that send characters flying. Players can turn different jets on and off in order to successfully navigate the area. It’s a very fun mechanic (and can also be seen in one of the new public areas for players to mess around with and grow accustomed to how they work) that was inspired by the positive feedback the team heard from players about the fight against the Stormreaver, which featured the giant casting Fly on the entire raid.

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With time against us, we used admin powers to skip straight to Sor’Jek’s sanctum, where the Giant-Lich is busy preparing his nefarious ritual. There are four mini-dungeons here, the standard fantasy staples of earth, ice, fire, and air – and each one unlocks when the one before it is cleared. Sor’Jek has enlisted the aid of his fellow giants, and certain types that correspond to their respective dungeons (Frost Giants, Cloud Giants, and so on) will be the most common enemies for players to face here.

Players are given a quest with a time limit: they must successfully clear all four sub-dungeons to fully uncover the source of power behind Sor’Jek’s ritual, and once they have done that will have the option to fight the big guy himself. Like the Scorpion Monastery, all of the subdungeons have their own little quirks and traps. For example, the Ice dungeon has players activate switches that temporarily deactivate air jets, allowing the party to quickly cross a narrow bridge.

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By far, my favorite of the four was the Air sub-dungeon, which was also the last. Unlike the other three, which were all in different types of caverns, the Air realm is essentially one big semi-spiral path that stretches high into the sky. To make things worse (or better, depending on your point of view), there aren’t any railings, and wandering tornado-like elementals have a tendency to knock you high into the air. It’s possible to land back on the platform, but it’s also possible to fall off – which thankfully only brings you back to Sor’Jek’s main chamber, so it’s more of a nuisance than a fatal catastrophe.

All four were certainly entertaining, but the Air realm in particular had a great sense of “platformer” about it. The team intended the Sor’Jek timed quest to be completed by a coordinated, skilled group of players, said Paiz – it was meant to be challenging. Groups would have to split up, especially in the Air subdungeon, with players having to push buttons and pull levers to clear a path for their teammates. Though the team joked that they were “sadistic,” Paiz explained that the DDO community was very, very resourceful. One of the biggest challenges for the developers was keeping up with their players and finding new ways to make them work for their rewards.

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After we’d disrupted Sor’Jek’s ritual, the angry undead Giant attacked us on sight. After all, he’d enjoyed being alive, and was now very reluctantly undead due to player intervention – and had just had his plans stymied yet another time. Being a storm giant, the fight naturally incorporates elements like thick, obscuring fog … though the team didn’t want to show me too much, lest I give it all away.

Of course, the release date of Module 8 is right around the corner, so players will soon get the chance to match wits with the developers’ fiendish creations themselves! Some of them might even succeed – as long as they watch out for bouncing Gelatinous Cubes, that is.

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