Massively multiplayer online games usually involve creating a character, going off on adventures in a persistent world, and beating up monsters to gain treasure and experience levels to make your character more powerful. But what would happen if a game of this sort were powered by the classic tabletop role-playing game system Dungeons & Dragons? Developer Turbine and publisher Atari are hard at work on a game that will do just that. Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach will incorporate the new "3.5 Edition" rules of the tabletop game, as well as the relatively new world of Eberron, a fantasy realm torn by war. Turbine lead designer Ken Troop kicks off the first of a series of designer diaries by discussing this new world and what it has to offer.
By Ken Troop
Lead Designer, Turbine Entertainment
With some trepidation, I opened up the first draft of the Eberron sourcebook, all 300-plus loose-leaf pages, freshly spit out from the printer. All the while, I was thinking, "Please be right."
At the beginning of 2003, we still weren't sure exactly what world we were going to choose for D&D Online. Forgotten Realms, the best known of publisher Wizards of the Coast's three Dungeons & Dragons settings, had been bandied about for awhile, but then there was some discussion about Turbine creating a new fictional setting for D&D Online. Back and forth we went, until our contacts at Wizards told us about a new campaign setting they wanted us to consider for D&D Online. They called it Eberron.
They sent over the materials, and I went to print it out and read it. Would this be another Greyhawk? Or Dark Sun? Or Spelljammer?
I fell in love with Eberron immediately. No joke--it was awesome. I've never sat down to write a campaign setting, but if I ever had to, I would give up because it would be a useless task--my ideal campaign setting has already been written.
Why did I love it? First and foremost, it takes a "kitchen sink" approach towards the world by throwing everything into it: halflings on dinosaurs, death-worshipping elves, secret societies bent on world domination, evil aliens taking over unsuspecting mortals, dragons and demons having warred since near the beginning of time. It had pulp action and heroic fantasy, city noir adventures and epic magic. It had pirates and robots and psionics and lost continents. It had everything.
When you have a setting like that, the risk is that it feels all thrown together--hacked up to fit--but Eberron made sense. It was elegantly constructed. You could tell that the authors had knowledge of most of the significant fantasy and pulp tropes of the last 50 years and they had devised a framework in which it all hung together. Even better, it was all recognizable D&D fantasy. Eberron clearly had a place for everything in the core rulebooks--and anything that was possible in the latest rules was possible in Eberron.
And it also felt...real? Mature? I have the hardest time explaining this facet of Eberron--but as I get older, certain fantasy settings seem less relevant to me. I don't mind the presence of good and evil in fantasy--indeed, they are essential ingredients--but I like things more nuanced, with some texture to them. And Eberron had that in spades--numerous powerful secret organizations and entities, all vying for power--no assumed allies or enemies ("We're both of 'neutral good' moral alignment, right? So that means we should automatically be friends, right?"). All I know is this: It's much easier to create a character in the Eberron milieu that makes sense, that feels right. And though many people will make their campaigns sing in that fashion, regardless of the world setting, it's refreshing for the whole world to be so ripe in purpose and identity that you have a plethora of vibrant character backgrounds and motivations to choose from.
So that was my personal reaction to Eberron. But there was also that whole "Was it a good setting for the game?" question to consider. The Eberron sourcebook listed a number of characteristics of an Eberron adventure. Here is an excerpt of a summary I wrote for the team about two years ago on the tone of Eberron: "Player characters are heroes! Player characters are not slightly better than run-of-the-mill commoners, they are far better. They are heroes, unique and powerful in Eberron. Cliffhanger action! From the book, Eberron is about edge-of-your-seat action. Combats should be fast and furious... The odds will be tight and the stakes should be high. Excitement! Danger! Eberron has a very pulp-action feel to it. This is reflected in the diversity of settings and the long history behind the world."
Let's see. We had a world setting that emphasized exciting, fast-paced combat, dangerous adventuring, and powerful and unique characters... For a computer role-playing game that revolved around exciting, fast-paced combat, dangerous adventuring, and powerful and unique characters.
I bent down on one knee to propose on the spot.
Over that night, I proceeded to read all 300 pages of the sourcebook... My conversion was complete. When the news was first announced some months later that the game was going to take place in Eberron, each existing setting had its own contingent of fans wondering why their favorite setting wouldn't be used instead. The book itself wouldn't be public for almost a year, so all the fans had to go on were the snippets of information about Eberron being released at the time. I can understand how "halflings on dinosaurs," taken out of context, may not have seemed like authentic D&D--but when you saw the whole picture, when you had a sense of the context and scope of the history of Eberron, when you saw how unmistakably D&D it was--it all worked.
I was very gratified a year later when people were able to start getting their hands on the Eberron sourcebooks, and the reaction was very positive. I certainly told everyone I could just how much I love the setting and why I loved it--and why it's perfect for D&D Online.
And now is when it gets really fun--as we turn our attention to the visual polish of our cities and dungeons and see the magic and color and vibrancy of Eberron come to life. We can be over the top because that's how Eberron is--with magic playing such a strong role in the world that it almost approaches technology.
It's really the best of both worlds--in look and feel, D&D Online and Eberron are fresh and unique takes on massively multiplayer and fantasy games, while at the same time, they represent the best of what classic D&D fantasy has to offer.