Earlier this month, Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast announced Sword Coast Legends, the first party-based role-playing game set in the beloved Forgotten Realms since 2008’s Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir. That’s nearly an entire generation in the gaming industry.
So, what took so long?
I spent nearly an hour talking with D&D brand director Nathan Stewart and Dan Tudge, the president of Sword Coast Legends studio N-Space, earlier this week about this new effort. In this GamesBeat exclusive video-call interview, I learned how Wizards of the Coast is becoming a video game publisher, how Atari and D&D haven’t mixed well in recent years, the races and classes available at launch, being a dungeon master in multiplayer, and how this game is a sort of “digital boxed set” for future D&D adventures.
Well met, PC role-playing game fans, and welcome back to the Realms.
GamesBeat: Why has it taken so long for us to have a party-based D&D game for the PC? The last real one was in 2008.
Nathan Stewart: The obvious answer is because it took Dan Tudge this long to pitch an awesome game to me. I could blame it on him.
The fact of the matter is that for a long time, we had our video game publishing rights in a long-term agreement with Atari. Its publishing strategy for D&D games didn’t match my strategy exactly, but I’ve only been on the brand for three years. They brought me in at Wizards to run D&D, primarily because of my video game experience in the past. Right before I came on, they had ended their agreement, their relationship with Atari and said, we want to take the rights back. We want to manage this. We want to make the great D&D games we know our fans want. We don’t think that having someone else control our rights is the right way to do it.
We didn’t think Atari was doing the best job, so we were able to end that.
I say that all nice and fuzzy because I wasn’t in the middle of it, but the fact of the matter is there was litigation over the deal. This wasn’t the best ending of a relationship. But we got the rights back because we care about what the consumer experience is. What that means is that you have to be selective. You have to be picky about finding the right company, the right people at that company, the right concept. All those things have to marry together to bring this to fruition.
I hope this is OK to say, Dan — I don’t think this is crazy — but Dan can confirm that when they showed us the project and they were talking about this, Dan was just kind of coming on board with N-Space. I talked to him and said, look, I love this. I think this is awesome. But you’re a big part of it, Dan. I need to know that you’re not just jumping on or partially here. If I’m signing up for this, I’m signing up the full team. It has to be you as part of the equation. He said, yeah, that’s what we’re doing.
Dan Tudge: I agree wholeheartedly. There’s a lot to be said for these ideas brewing for quite a long time. Really, the timing was right for both parties to come together. What we really wanted to make was Sword Coast Legends. What Wizards really wanted to return to came into alignment a couple of years ago. To Nathan’s point, my answer was clear. This is a title that’s very dear to my heart. I definitely want to be part of it all the way through.
GamesBeat: Does this mean that Wizards of the Coast is a video game publisher now?
Stewart: Actually, Wizards of the Coast has been an official video game publisher for years — see our Duels of the Planeswalker and Magic Online games.
A couple years ago, we also became the official publisher on all the digital D&D games Atari was previously publishing. As the brand steward and owner of the D&D [intellectual property], Wizards of the Coast is the licenser for Sword Coast Legends. However, we very excitedly treat Sword Coast Legends as one of our own games and embrace N-Space as part of our family. N-Space approached us about bringing this game to market more than two years ago, and we’ve worked closely ever since, but N-Space and Digital Extremes are handling all of the development and publishing efforts. WotC’s focus is on telling the entire D&D fan base great stories in the Forgotten Realms and finding the best partners to deliver those stories to fans.
GamesBeat: From what I understand, you’ll have five races in the game. Is that elf, dwarf, human, gnome, and halfling?
Tudge: No. It’s elf, half-elf, human, dwarf, and halfling. No gnomes.
GamesBeat: Why not all the other basic races from the Player’s Handbook?
Tudge: We’re a small, nimble team. We’re heavily focused on quality. For us it’s very important to have discipline with that scope. We looked at all the races. We wanted to do all of them. We wanted to do all the classes as well. But we had to be smart with the scope we chose and make sure we did a good job with those. We fully intend to get to all the other races, but we’ll probably do that post-release.
Like I was mentioning previously, my wife plays a tabletop campaign with me. She’s enjoying playing this with me as well. She always plays a tiefling, so if my wife wants it, you can be pretty confident that you’re going to get it.
Stewart: That’s one of the reasons — this exemplifies one of the reasons these guys are great partners for us. This process of determining how and what and how much, we have the exact same thing with the Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual and so on. There’s stuff we’ve left out because we’re really focused on quality. Maybe we have more races in our Player’s Handbook than in the base game, but we left stuff out as well, knowing that we can add it on when we have it at the quality level we want. It also makes thematic, story sense. We’ll be talking together and saying, hey, for this story, we’ll be working together on bringing to life this race or class that’s really important. That helps prioritize how they determine their additional classes and races as well.
Tudge: We’re really in lockstep with a lot of what Wizards is doing. We want to make sure that not only do we bring those additional races and classes, but that they’re brought out at a time that makes sense for what’s going on within the overall D&D brand.
GamesBeat: What are the six classes going to be?
Tudge: There’s no druid right off. You have fighter, cleric, rogue, wizard, ranger, and paladin. We’ll absolutely add other classes later on. It boils down, like in the previous question, to focusing on quality and making sure that what we include is very deep and polished. We’re focusing on those. We do obviously want to play, personally, all those other classes as well. We’ll make sure that, as we move on, we add those. Like Nathan mentioned, we’re also making sure that they’re brought in in a way that makes sense. Take barbarian for example. I’m sure you can use your imagination to guess what kind of content would go well with the barbarian class being introduced.
Stewart: You could also take that same thought process and think, ranger, yes, that’s very important for some of our iconic characters. We’d like you to make sure you get ranger in at the beginning, Dan.
GamesBeat: Does the nature of digital publishing these days make it easier to make those adjustments and additions instead of doing something like a blown-out expansion?
Tudge: Absolutely. The fact that we can work directly with Wizards and very closely with the players themselves, with the community, has really empowered us to make wise decisions and competent decisions.
I don’t want to bash the big publishers, but often, when you get a big publisher in the mix there, often their goals don’t necessarily match with what the consumer or the developer wants. By being close to the metal, so to speak, we’re able to work with Wizards and make decisions that are really good for the players.
GamesBeat: The Sword Coast, that’s a huge expanse of territory. Does this also include the Sword Coast North?
Tudge: Oh, you differentiate between the two? Yes, there are portions of the Sword Coast North that we’re visiting.
GamesBeat: Will that include Waterdeep or Neverwinter?
Tudge: Ah … we’re not going into detailed locations right now. I turned over to my PR handler here, and he’s looking at me with the evil eye. We’re not going into too much about the story and locations. But I can tell you this about the Sword Coast. When we looked at all of the Forgotten Realms, the nostalgia and the way we wanted to fit in that legacy of Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter and Icewind Dale — the opportunity to place our adventures in the Sword Coast, not only because it timed out well with what Wizards was doing, but just all the nostalgia, the wash of nostalgia that came over us from being able to set our adventures in that area was way too much to pass up. That’s the main reason. In a way, you certainly visit new locales, but there are some familiar locales you’ll visit as well.
Stewart: I think a theme there is that this is the base game. We have a long tail planned for supporting it. We have a long-term partnership together. We’ll be telling stories together for a long time. It’ll become way more apparent as we roll out each new story theme that we’re telling during this time as to what areas and locations become necessary.
I like to take Waterdeep as an example of a great hub of culture and everything. It’s the New York or San Francisco, with all these cultures clashing. You can have people from out in the hinterlands or coming through on ships, a very cosmopolitan port. It works in Waterdeep. If the bigger story we’re telling has those flavor components, then that’s a great choice. Same thing in terms of our Tyranny of Dragons story, with Icewind Dale and that island off of Icewind Dale that was the perfect place for the Cult of the Dragon to be hidden in plain sight. The bigger point is that these guys know and love the Forgotten Realms. They know all these areas. I think we’ll want to play in each and every one of them. But the decisions as far as where and when different locations or cities or places above or below get done are based on the story stuff. Whether we go up into the clouds or down into the ocean, it really depends. These guys aren’t jumping in on Elemental Evil, but certainly the water element and stuff like that, that changes the locations you’re playing in. These guys are telling a fantastic story, and that’s the anchor point for the game and the locations on the Sword Coast. But I fully expect them to expand that, to go back to the roots and do that based on the stories that we’re telling.
GamesBeat: So Sword Coast Legends itself is almost like an old-fashioned Forgotten Realms boxed set? You’ll have other material coming out that builds on that set in the future? Is this right?
Tudge: Yeah, it’s pretty close. We’ve often talked about — we hope that fans love this so much and play this so much that it becomes the Sword Coast saga in a lot of respects. We have a lot of stories to tell and a lot of places we’d like to visit, a lot of people we’d like to meet. I can see this going for as long as people keep playing.
Stewart: I’d definitely like that. My ambition for this title from the beginning is for a new group of D&D players, when they talk about getting together and playing D&D this weekend and whatever campaign they’re doing, they’re talking about Sword Coast Legends. D&D is just the shorthand. It still has the DM and the player interaction and the crazy fun joking. But really capturing that essence and spirit. That kind of base set and then the modules that add on top of it and shape it, I love that analogy, because that’s what I see this game becoming, just a different version of that.
GamesBeat: You’re talking about your home campaign. Is that based in the Realms, or is it a world you created yourself?
Tudge: We’ve played a lot, everything from homebrew to — we played through the entire starter set when it came out. It was actually a well-written adventure. We quite enjoyed that. My 8-year-old boys also play. We’re playing through Hoard of the Dragon Queen right now. A lot of homebrew stuff over the years. I even played the 3.5 edition starter set with my two older children when that first came out. They’re grown up now.
GamesBeat: For the campaign edition of Sword Coast Legends, will it work like the LAN and the multiplayer play you have in the Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, but with an additional person running everything as the dungeon master?
Tudge: You’ll have one to four players in the party. Those players can meet up with other real players or characters you’ve met in the game. You can still play by yourself with three additional A.I. party members. Then the DM joins in as a real-time DM.
Right from the get-go, we wanted to make sure that, having been a DM — there’s a lot of work involved in preparing and having a campaign ready. We wanted to give people the opportunity to immediately jump in and start playing as a DM. We focused heavily on the real-time aspect of that. We have offline campaign tools that allow DMs to create very lengthy, almost limitless campaigns. But we’re not talking a lot about that right now.
We’re focusing more on the real-time interaction. They can change encounters, lay traps, change doors, make secret doors, spawn monsters, control monsters, promote them, demote them, you name it, all in real time to cater the adventure to the players.
GamesBeat: Are these going to be easier to use than the tools from the Neverwinter Nights games?
Tudge: I’m happy to say, absolutely yes. For me, the promise of what Neverwinter Nights offered was really exciting as a fan of D&D and a person who enjoys being a DM. Even before I worked at BioWare, I got in there and started working with those. I was a little disappointed. I come from an art background. I got in there and learned it, but I was a little — I was looking forward to something far more accessible, something that could get me creating adventures much quicker.
Right from the start, we’ve talked and made sure that is the case, that you can get together at 7 on a Friday night with your friends for a session and you can start in the lobby at the same time as the players and be DMing right away. You don’t have to spend a week preparing for the adventure. You certainly don’t have to be writing any complex scripting.
Stewart: Another point, you remember months ago now, you guys came out and we set up stations here at Wizards. We let everybody at Wizards who wanted to come in and play, whether they worked on Magic or Duel Masters or D&D, whether or not they were a DM. People who knew D&D but were not big video game people, definitely not any kind of technical people, jumped on and were DMing and having fun in five minutes. The whole team here was so impressed at how cool it was to be a DM, but also how you could really DM on the fly without having to have all kinds of crazy knowledge from the outside world.
Tudge: It was interesting, because initially, when you volunteer — when you have a group you’re demoing with and you let them play, nobody volunteers to be DM. Almost every time, one of the dev team ends up DMing. There’s this immediate intimidation. DMing has to be really complex, right? It has to be a lot of work. But I don’t even think the first dungeon run is even done before everyone is fighting over who gets to DM.
GamesBeat: How well does this latest edition of D&D lend itself to a video game?
Tudge: For me it’s been great to work with. I started playing AD&D in 1979, so I’ve played through all the editions. I absolutely love 5E on the tabletop. I like the return to the roots that’s happened with it. At its core, to me, 5E is about getting in and getting those adventures and having a good time very quickly. I think that spirit lends itself very well to the adaptation in Sword Coast Legends.
Stewart: You know we’ve playtested for a very long time. A lot of the tabletop folks really appreciated that process. But we were doing something else in the background, making sure that our idea – that you could experience D&D and have it feel like D&D no matter which play experience you were choosing — we were making sure that was built into the current edition. It works fantastic on the tabletop, but it’s by design that Dan and his team would have an easy time adapting it as well. The choices that we made were to get the spirit of D&D and get the flexibility to the individual game-maker and developer or the individual DM. That’s a part of the core spirit of the current edition, to focus on storytelling over mechanics, to let people layer in complexity as they like. For a video game, they do that naturally. That’s just part of the process.
GamesBeat: You don’t have a Forgotten Realms sourcebook yet in the tabletop game. Is this game going to build on any of the lore that’s been established in the Sundering line of books or the Companions Codex?
Stewart: Kind of? Let me answer that question in reverse. The Sundering and the Codex stuff was laying a lot of groundwork for some of the changes that are happening, but you’re right, we don’t have a good sourcebook on the Realms or the Sword Coast specifically. We’ve been working with Bob, working with Ed Greenwood, working with Chris Perkins and the world-building team here. A lot of the stuff that’s going in the products coming out in the next year or two or three, Dan’s team and Dan’s narrative director are getting early access and ability to go straight to the sources on those. Products we’re releasing two or three years down the road, if it flavors the world these guys are playing in, we’re giving them early access to that.
Tudge: In a lot of respects we’re the bleeding edge on Realms lore as it gets put together.
GamesBeat: Have you read all those books yet?
Tudge: Oh, yeah. I’ve read almost every one of them.
GamesBeat: Which one is your favorite of the recent stuff?
Tudge: I really like The Companions. Candidly, some of the other big Forgotten Realms stuff, the R.A. Salvatore readers and all that, there were some mixed opinions about it. I went in on reading it and felt — the thing for me that I really like about it is that it’s origin stories. I have a soft spot for origin stories. I really enjoy Bruenor’s origin story and Regis’s origin story. That, to me — Catti-brie a little bit less. But those two I absolutely loved. It replaced The Crystal Shard as my favorite Salvatore story.
Stewart: I never think of that as an origin story. It’s funny to hear you say that. It obviously is one, but in kind of a crazy rebirth way.
Stewart: I never thought of it as an origin story until you said that, but it totally makes sense. It’s giving it the — I don’t want to say it’s the spirit of who these people are, but you get to take this viewpoint of, you’ve known who they were before, you know the endpoint they’re going toward, and you’re seeing their rebirth into the world, so of course it’s an origin. That’s a cool concept.
GamesBeat: In the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, you give the DM a lot of leeway in crafting their worlds and in crafting the Realms, even to where you may have dead gods back in your campaigns alive and well. How does that kind of leeway play into Sword Coast Legends?
Stewart: It’s the same spirit. We’re going to give that same freedom to the players in terms of what they want to do. The guys at N-Space are going to give them to tell their own stories at the table. It’s going to embrace that same concept. But because N-Space is, in essence, an extension of us and we’re all part of the same team, what you’re going to see in the official game canon in there is that they’re going to be very true to the stories and canon that we’re telling, in terms of gods and deities and their power and whether Lolth is or is not in the Abyss and stuff.
Sword Coast is going to be very true to the official canon, but we’re going to give the tools for gamers to tell their own stories and go off on their own tangents. They might just be in a different timeline. They might play 100 hours a week, where we can’t make 100 hours a week of content, and far surpass us along the timeline. It’s about giving them the tools, with the PHB and DMG and this game, to tell the stories that make sense to them and give them these great building blocks. We’re going to tell fantastic stories. We’re going to tell those on a pretty regular basis and give people something to be inspired by. But we would never dream of saying, look, our way is the only way. We’re just picking our way as a guiding light. We think it’ll be a tremendous experience, and then whatever way you want to branch off that, that’s the highest sign that people love our world.
GamesBeat: Dan, what’s your favorite class, and what’s your favorite monster?
Tudge: My favorite class, that’s easy. Ranger. I play a ranger on the tabletop more often than not. Particularly, I play an elven ranger who doesn’t really like dwarves. That’s kind of my thing. If there’s any dwarves in the party I’m usually giving them the gears. My favorite monster, I really like giants. I’ve always liked giants. That probably stems from reading those early Conan books, where he fought the frost giants, and that Frank Frazetta painting. That’s burned into some really early youth memories. But I really enjoy the giants. Also, the illithids, the mind flayers, are pretty exciting for me too. Usually, whenever you face one, it’s a tough fight. I quite like that.
GamesBeat: What challenges do you see in bringing something like a giant or an illithid into a video game?
Tudge: Illithids, not that I’m admitting we have any of them in the game, but I can tell you right now, illithids are something that work really well in a video game. You can do some neat stuff with the mind control. Even in story situations, having them invade your mind and speak through your mind, there are all kinds of great stuff you can do with them. Even down to physics with the tentacles off their mouths and everything. They’re a fun creature to put in a video game. I don’t see the challenge there. Giants, obviously, in an isometric game there are some size issues that you’ll face. That’s something the play space will have to be adapted for. But still, they’re pretty cool. Large creatures are always fun to fight in a video game. Especially in our dungeons.
Stewart: We have bigger creatures than that. We have dragons, and that I’d be more worried about. But that’s just me.
GamesBeat: Why do you gravitate toward the combo of elf and ranger?
Tudge: That’s probably from reading The Lord of the Rings in the fifth grade, having a pretty big boyhood crush on Legolas and how cool he was. I thought he was pretty cool. I think that probably started some of it. Playing Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, I often gravitated toward a ranger, because I like to play ranged. I enjoy the ranged combat. I did archery as a kid as well, so for me that’s quite interesting, to play the ranged character. If I’m not playing a ranged character, I’m playing a duelist, which I’ve also favored with the ranger.
GamesBeat: Can we expect to see a couple of really cool magic bows in the game, then?
Tudge: Oh, absolutely. You may actually even end up seeing my ranger character, my tabletop character, in the game somewhere as well.
Stewart: I know for a fact that the R&D team and your design team are really driving deep into magic items right now. You should expect to see lots of cool Forgotten Realms magic stuff in there. They’ve spent some good time. This is just, oh, magic bow, this is hours of figuring out the right thing, how deep to go. I’m really proud of the work you guys are doing. You’re nailing magic items better than a lot of people would do. Back to the first question on why this has taken so long, you want to find that team that’s passionate about it. They’ll go the extra mile on the things that make it really cool for someone who loves the hobby, as opposed to people for whom this stuff is just mechanics. It’s really important for you to have the special, key magic items that really make it D&D.
GamesBeat: Dan, what do the Realms mean to you?
Tudge: Memories. For me, I spent so many years adventuring the Realms. Not only on the tabletop, but in video games. For me it’s memories. There’s a lot of great memories of a lot of great adventures. You don’t just play in the Realms. You kind of live in the Realms, whenever you play one of these great games. That’s what I want to make sure the fans get out of it.