D&D lore in MMOs

I’m a long-time fan of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game (RPG) and have spent countless hours playing this with friends over the years. I’ve also enjoyed many of the computer RPGs based on this rule system. D&D like all RPGs is a game of the imagination, so I find that the lore of the fantastical world in which your character adventures is very important to an immersive gameplay experience.

Since coming back to play Neverwinter actively over the holidays, I’ve been surprised and impressed with the presentation of lore in this game. ‘Lore’ is a loaded term meaning different things to different people but for the context of this post I’ll address three specific aspects: the presentation of the Forgotten Realms setting, the ‘meta’ layer of lore related to game rules and the presentation of lore in the user interface. I’ll address each in turn below.

Neverwinter the setting

I have to say that Cryptic have done a bang-up job of presenting the city of Neverwinter and the locations surrounding it from what I’ve seen so far (disclaimer, my main is level 29 so I can’t comment on later zones just yet).

Simril lore

Simril lore

There’s plenty of good flavour text in the quest descriptions but more importantly the game makes heavy use of optional environmental flavour. I suspect many players, attracted to the game’s combination of action combat and random-group content have played to the level cap not reading a single line of this. That’s absolutely fine of course, I know some people like this myself and pass no judgement on their playstyle. But for me, a lore-hound, this added depth to the world is extremely welcome. Guild Wars 2 had hints of this in the items you could randomly find and inspect to see snippets of Tyrian lore, but I find that Neverwinter has made more frequent use of this style of lore presentation.

Additionally the devs have made some good decisions to emphasize early on the changes to the world wrought by recent history, as a player of older computer games set in the Forgotten Realms (e.g. Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale etc) I appreciated this as I’ve not seen or read anything of the most recent incarnation of the setting and a lot has changed. So we are told by an early quest chain of the horrors of the spell-plague and also get to witness it’s perils close up before we’ve moved on from the city proper. There’s texts addressing the latest round of changes to the Realms pantheon of gods, fans of some of the stalwart deities who haven’t played 4th Edition may be surprised to find some are missing (including Mystra and Torm).

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The spell-plague has left its mark on the city

 

Meta lore

Linked to my last point about showcasing the changes to the world, the game also more subtly weaves into the lore narrative some pointers about changes to Dungeons & Dragons. The 4th edition of the game was a radical departure from previous editions, the game is recognisably D&D but only just. Showing again nice attention to detail there are some early references to mechanical changes, in particular magic, and to how things used to be – this is all done through descriptions of the spell-plague or the death of certain gods so it’s lore appropriate to present it in game, but as an afficionado of D&D I appreciate seeing in-game ¬†why suddenly (for instance) my wizard can cast some spells at-will. Note that these meta explanations of mechanical changes are supplied by Wizards of the Coast, but it was Cryptic’s decision to include them nicely in the class quests for control wizards.

Lore in the UI

Lore in the game is presented in two ways: through the quest text and voiced dialogues and through the historical journal. The dialogue trees are similar to those in Bioware games (including SWTOR) although there doesn’t seem to be much weight attached to decisions made in general. There is a lot of question and answer style opportunities to learn more about the people you meet and the challenges you face however. Most of it is optional but I appreciate that so much care has gone into fleshing out the situations and characters you meet. One nice presentational decision is that if you click out a dialogue while the NPC is still talking, like with Diablo 3’s voiced content, the voice will continue as you carry on.

As you adventure you can fill your journal with little notes taken from signs, books, scrolls or other sources as you explore. The journal is a well organised diary of your exploits, giving a lot of backstory to the main protagonists and the areas through which you are adventuring.

nw_journal

The journal more than the dialogues with NPCs is a great resource to go back to, especially when playing in a group. It’ll record any lore entries you come across for later reading at a more leisurely pace – important for an action-oriented game which encourages public grouping. In many games, especially Tera, I’ve always felt horribly rushed when doing new dungeons or other content as everyone else seems to be going at light-speed clicking to skip videos or close dialogues. At least in Neverwinter I can keep up with the zergers and come back to read the lore entries when I’m back at the campfire after it’s the run is complete.

Neverwinter vs DDO

I’ve played several action combat games that contrast strongly with Neverwinter lore-wise. It’s not a very fair comparison given the richness of D&D world settings as material for the developers to mine, but DDO by Turbine as the other major Dungeons & Dragons MMO on the market is a good comparative case. Despite it having my favourite setting (Eberron) and being based on the version of the pen & paper game that I prefer (3rd) I find myself enjoying Neverwinter more as a computer game. DDO I would argue has more depth of combat (despite serious action-bar bloat issues) and I prefer the very flexible character customisation. But I always found myself wanting more lore to be visible in the game. Quest text alone isn’t enough for me and now that I have Neverwinter’s approach for contrast I can see what I was missing. In this aspect at least I think Cryptic’s game is a clear winner.

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