My favourite genre of games, and where some of my fondest gaming memories come from, is Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs). I am going to take you down my memory lane as I explore my origins playing MMORPGs from the late 90’s through to today in a multi-part series. In Part 11 I will be exploring Dungeons & Dragons Online.
Catch up on previous entries in this series:
Part 1 – Ultima Online
Part 2 – EverQuest
Part 3 – Asheron’s Call
Part 4 – Anarchy Online
Part 5 – Dark Age of Camelot
Part 6 – Star Wars Galaxies
Part 7 – EverQuest II
Part 8.1 – World of Warcraft
Part 8.2 – World of Warcraft
Part 9 – Wildstar
Part 10 – Guild Wars
Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach was released in February 2006, developed by Turbine Entertainment (now Standing Stone Games) and was published by Wizards of the Coast (now published by Daybreak Games). This is the first MMORPG to truly delve into the core of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), the tabletop pen and paper RPG that any gamer friends older than me used to play in the late 70’s and early 80’s before PC gaming was a thing. Basically, every aspect of RPGs we play today from adventuring, character development, progression, roleplaying, loot and so many other things were first seen in D&D.
D&D dates to 1974 when the first edition was published as three booklets in a box by Gary Gygax and Dave Arnerson. Back then the booklets set cost US$10 and you also had to by a separate pack of multi-sided dice at US$3.50. A group of friends would sit around a table creating their characters on paper using dice rolls to determine their starting stats. The group would form a party and commence adventures in a fantasy setting, with one person acting as the Dungeon Master (DM). Back then there were just three character classes (fighter, magic-user and cleric), four races (human, dwarf, elf and hobbit) and only a few monsters.
The DM would narrate the story and act out the role of the lands and inhabitants such as monsters and based on the actions of players, the DM would then make the story come alive, anticipating their possible next steps. To resolve an action by a player such as attacking a monster, the player rolls the dice and adds modifiers based on the stats of their character and how skilled the character is at combat. The result is compared with the monster’s difficulty class or DC and the action succeeds or fails. This is called the ‘core mechanic’ and together the party of adventurers would explore the lands, solve puzzles, fight monsters and find treasure, with all action outcomes determined by dice rolls. Over the course of successive game sessions, the group’s player characters would gain experience levels and would become more powerful.
Over the next few years, extra ‘supplements’ were produced and could be bought separately by D&D players which added history, lore and playable classes for DM’s to add to their adventures. The 1975 supplement I, titled Greyhawk, specifies the Thief and Paladin classes, then supplement II Blackmoor added the Monk and Assassin classes. In 1976, supplements III and IV were released – Eldritch Wizardry and Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes. In 1978, the 1st edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) was published as larger-format hardcover books (the original Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual), followed in 1989 by the 2nd edition AD&D.
In 1997, Wizards of the Coast had taken ownership of Gygax’s company and started work on PC games, amongst other revisions to core D&D products. My first PC experiences with true D&D lore was in 1999 with Baldur’s Gate which introduced me to the Forgotten Realms from 2nd edition AD&D and the lesser known but equally as good, Planescape Torment. In the year 2000, AD&D shed the word ‘Advanced’ from its title and rebranded itself as the Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons (old D&D players refer to this as ‘3E’). Other single-player games that used D&D rulesets came along such as 2000’s Baldur’s Gate II: Shadow of Amn and Icewind Dale, and 2002’s Icewind Dale II and Neverwinter Nights. These were some of the most immersive PC RPG games I’ve ever played and can still be played today thanks to remakes by Beamdog on Steam. Richard Garriott, the creator of games such as Akalabeth, the Ultima Series and Ultima Online, summarised D&D’s crossover to PC gaming well:
“D&D’s primordial game engine was a perfect match for number-crunching home computers. D&D allowed people to build a numerical representation of themselves, a numerical representation of a monster, a numerical representation of how a character and monsters could interact. If there had never been D&D, computer games would be more like simple arcade games, like Pac-Man and Pong.”
After MMORPG’s had been established in 1997 and became my favourite genre of games to play, despite amazing games such as Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot and World of Warcraft, no one yet had made an MMO based directly on the D&D ruleset. That was until February 2006 when Turbine released Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach. By this time the 3.5 Edition of D&D had been released in 2003 which DDO is loosely based on, utilising the Eberron campaign setting which was introduced to D&D in 2004. There’s a whole heap of history you can read about D&D and Gary Gygax so if nostalgia is your thing then this page is a great summary of how it all started.
I heard about the game being developed at the time, and some of the gameplay elements had me excited to give it a go. Things such as vaulting and climbing and real-time active combat had not been tried in an MMORPG before. I participated in a public beta test and while the active combat and vaulting were great, the game seemed a bit too hardcore to D&D rules for my liking, compared to the easy-to-play World of Warcraft and Guild Wars. One thing I do remember as part of my decision not to continue playing was the subscription cost. WoW was already costing me AUD$20/month and I couldn’t justify paying for another subscription-based MMO, which is why Guild Wars was so appealing at the time which didn’t have a monthly subscription. Having now gone back to play it again to write this article, it’s another MMORPG that I regret not experiencing at release.
When creating a new character, you first must choose its style and class. Melee classes are fighter, barbarian, paladin or monk*, spell classes are sorcerer, cleric, wizard, favored soul*, druid* and warlock*, specialist classes are ranger, rogue, bard and artificer*. The final style is the iconic characters who are fully kitted level 15 characters. Classed listed with a * are premium so you must be a VIP subscriber to the game or use in-game favor to purchase them individually. Remember at release, the game was subscription based so players had access to all available options at the time. Veteran status players (either by purchasing in-game or unlocking through gameplay) can start their characters at level 3 or 7.
Brand new players to the game like myself are recommended to start from level 1 and play through the tutorial island to learn how their class works. For those following this MMORPG Memory Lane, you would have known that I rolled a human paladin named Ballbaggins Darkness. The game originally capped players at max level 10, however each level has 5 ranks/tiers, so level 10 is equivalent to level 50 in other MMORPG’s. In AD&D 2nd edition, levels went up to level 20 and anything beyond that was termed ‘epic levels’. The level cap was slowly increased with module updates to the game and was capped at 20 when the game went free-to-play in 2009 and renamed Dungeons and Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited. The level cap was increased with epic levels up to level 30 in the Codex War update in 2015.
New characters like Ballbaggins start on the shores of Korthos Island where you learn basic elements of the game. The main story and quest updates are narrated to you by a voice-acted Game Master who helps to set the tone as you begin playing. Various tutorials pop up on the side of the screen explaining gameplay elements such as moving and accepting quests. You pick up your first load of quests in town and then start your first quest. Much like Guild Wars, these quest hub areas are public where you’ll see other players running around. You can form a group here or use the ‘looking for group’ tool to try find a group, though at these early levels you can comfortably solo the quests.
The voices of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were recorded for use in some of DDO’s quests which is a great tribute for the creators of D&D who are both no longer with us. If you would like to hear Gary Gygax as the Dungeon Master you can visit the following quests:
- The Mystery of Delera’s Tomb – In Delera’s Antechamber
- The Missing Party – In Delera’s Reliquary
- Free Delera – In Delera’s Tomb
- Valak’s Mausoleum – In Valak’s Mausoleum
Dave Arneson is the voice of the Dungeon Master in the game’s first live update: Module 1: Dragon’s Vault, featuring Velah: the dreaded Red Dragon.
When you proceed to a quest entrance, you are faced with a difficulty selection screen where you can choose from casual or normal difficulty initially, and it also shows the level requirement and a description of how long it will take to complete the quest. There are also hard, elite and reaper difficulties, but as I’m a free-to-play account, I need to complete the quest on normal before I can unlock hard difficulty. VIP subscribers could choose reaper difficulty straight away if their character or group can handle it. The different difficulties will alter the strength of the monsters within as well as increase loot and quest reward XP. The breakdown of difficulties is as follows:
- Casual: -1 level of difficulty from the suggested level range
- Normal: same level of difficulty from the suggested level range
- Hard: +1 level of difficulty from the suggested level range
- Elite: +2 level of difficulty from the suggested level range
One big difference with DDO compared to other MMORPG’s is that you don’t earn xp for every monster you kill. Like the D&D rules, you only earn xp once all quest objectives have been completed, or if you earn a feat during the quest like killing a named boss. When repeating quests for extra XP and bravery bonuses by completing them on harder difficulties, you will suffer from ‘ransacking’ which reduces the xp earned each time you repeat a quest. This obviously discourages players from running the same dungeon quests over and over to grind xp which comes into play later in the game. Whilst you can still earn better loot repeating quests on higher difficulties, the xp gained is on a decreasing sliding scale.
Once you’re inside a quest instance, combat is real-time requiring you to swing your weapon with left mouse button and for my paladin, right button will block with my shield. This can get monotonous as there’s less reliance on using skills like other MMORPG’s, but this is because skills and spells have limited uses per quest/encounter, again like D&D. You also need to use specific weapons against specific monsters. Crushing weapons like maces and hammers will work better on skeletons, whilst swords and daggers will work better on zombies. The colour of the damage indicators help determine if you’re using the correct weapon type. Yellow hit damage means you’re underpowered, orange is good damage against that enemy type, and purple means extra power. Fire damage hurts ice monsters and vice versa.
There are also hidden areas that can be discovered with a ‘search’ skill. These hidden areas can find treasure rooms or switches that will open areas further into the instance. You can climb ladders and vault up crates which is a first for MMORPGs. There are traps spread through most areas and rogue characters can disarm them. Magical runes also block the way in parts, so a mage or cleric with enough intelligence will be able to get past them. Other times there may be doors or walls that look crumbly and warrior classes with enough strength can bash them down. You cannot make a jack-of-all-trades character like in other games and DDO certainly promotes diversity in your group. If you don’t have one of those classes in your group, you can just bypass those areas. It just means you may miss some additional loot, but it won’t halt the progress of your overall quest.
There are rest and resurrection shrines within each instance and depending on the difficulty level will determine how often you can use them. On casual you can use them once every 5 minutes, once every 15 minutes on normal and in hard or above difficulties, you can only use them once per mission. If you do die and you’re on your own, you can use shards to resurrect you which costs turbine coins or real money in the in-game DDO store, or release your character. If you release, you are taken back to your last bind point, your equipment is damaged and the dungeon resets. If you wipe on the last boss in a long dungeon, it can be quite unforgiving.
To aid you and your group, you can pay for the services of a hireling. Basic hirelings for your level cost in-game coins and only last for one hour of gameplay. The timer will pause when you complete an instance so you can use it for multiple quest instances within that hour. The cost of hiring hirelings can add up but it’s a way for you to solo instances if no other players are around, like the henchmen and heroes in Guild Wars. For hirelings bought with coins, you can only summon them at the entrance to instances. You can also order them to guard you, be aggressive to monsters and even get them to disarm a trap if they are a rogue hireling. I generally took a cleric with me for heals which was great.
There are instanced wilderness areas in the game and sometimes you’ll need to traverse these to complete some dungeon quests. Wilderness areas are like Guild Wars, requiring you to form a group or hire hirelings prior to entering the area. A good idea here is to have the looking for group option turned on. That way, other players can choose to join your group as you’re going along. This does have its downsides though if they don’t do the same dungeon you’re doing as some of the final steps of some quests require all the group to be present. In this case you can just leave the group to complete that quest.
Once you complete all of the quests on Korthos Island, you should have a good grasp of your character’s abilities and can board a ship to the city of Stormreach which is what the game was originally named after. Here at level 3 (equivalent to level 15) the game started to get a lot more immersive and I really enjoyed the quest chains including the Waterworks which took me a couple of hours to complete all sections. There are some special bags you can obtain in your first quests that will collect all your crafting resources and fame items so that they don’t take up precious inventory space (more games should do this!).
In many MMORPG’s, guilds around the world are very welcoming to new players. It’s rare in some of these games to see a player that isn’t part of a guild, so as I started to run around Stormreach, I started getting multiple guild invites. I normally ignore them and make my own, but I decided to join one called Trolls Over the Bridge. The guild leader was very helpful giving me newbie tips, and one big aspect of guilds is the guild airships. They are like the guild halls in Guild Wars. Here you can talk to the ship captain who will give you all the 3-hour buffs the guild has unlocked. This was extremely helpful for my character as I took on increasingly difficult quests and raised my level. I’m now a level 5 paladin (equivalent to level 20) after around 20 hours of playtime which is reasonable. At this point though I was starting to come across a lot of premium content which was unavailable to me given I was a free-to-play player.
Towards the end of 2008, subscriptions were reported to be around 100,000 players. Compared to World of Warcraft at this time that had over 10 million subscribers, Turbine decided to convert the game to free-to-play and in 2009 renamed the game to Dungeons and Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited. After just one month, VIP subscriptions to the game had increased by 40%. You would have thought it would have the reverse effect, however now players could choose to pay for the content they wanted to access. In some instances, players were spending more than the US$15/month subscription to unlock content packs or purchase cosmetic items for their characters.
DDO went on to create 8 content modules, like the module concept from D&D before it went f2p. DDO dropped the wording ‘Eberron Unlimited’ when it released its first paid expansion pack ‘Menace of the Underdark’ in June 2012. Two other expansions have been released since – Shadowfell Conspiracy and Mists of Ravenloft. In December 2016 it was announced that Turbine would no longer develop the game, A new studio was formed under the name Standing Stone Games made up of ex-Turbine staff. The publishing of the game would transfer from Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment to Daybreak Game Company. A new expansion has been announced for release in 2019 titled Masterminds of Sharn.
Turbine released Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) in 2007. When DDO went f2p in 2009, the question was asked of them, would this f2p model be used in LotRO? “We have no plans to do this (introduce f2p model) to LotRO because it’s a different kind of game. Quite frankly, LotRO’s doing really well in its current situation.” Little did they know that in a few years’ time, the move from subscriptions to a free-to-play model would become almost the industry standard for MMORPG’s.
If you have memories of playing Dungeons & Dragons Online, I’d love to hear about them! Join the Game on AUS – God Mode closed Facebook group where you’ll be welcomed, and we can reminisce the old days.