Learning from Dungeons and Dragons Online Part 2: Story and Presentation

I really wrote a lot of nice things about DDO, and now I’m going to get less nice.

DDO, while an exceptionally good MMORPG, is still somewhat lacking in storyline. I don’t mean this so much in the small scale as in the large scale; Korthos Island, for instance, gives you a short, simple plot, and you wind up liberating the island from the Sahuagin. This is good, but the truth of the matter is that there’s not much in the way of a “You’re an epic hero sent out to save us” thing, unlike, say, Oblivion or Skyrim (though, with Skyrim’s final bossfight *grumble grumble*) where the player is the definite protagonist.

Some of this is a consequence of the medium-if everyone’s the special grand hero, nobody isn’t, and there’s no reason to celebrate personal accomplishment. In addition, there can’t be too much going on besides the main plot (for reference, I had to look up what the main plot was, despite having played all of the launch content and a slight bit more).

For reference, here’s what Wikipedia says right now:

After creating a player character, the player starts the game shipwrecked on the shores of Korthos Island. The character is helped by a band of citizens (Jeets, Cellimas, and Talbron) who want to end the rule of the Sahuagin on Korthos Island and send them back to the sea. The Dragon Aussircaex is plaguing the island; a Mindflayer Creature is controlling it with a Mindsunder Artifact. Once the player character destroys the Mindsunder Artifact, Aussircaex destroys the Mindflayer and returns Korthos Island back to its old ways, ending Sahuagin rule. After achieving fame in Korthos Island, the player is sent to Stormreach to gain fame and clear all threats to the city.

From that point on, events in the game revolve around Stormreach. The player has to save the city from many threats, including:

  • Giants attempts to regain mastery over the city of Stormreach and the continent of Xen’drik.

  • The reopening of the gate to Xoriat.

  • The Black Abbot and his minions of Khyber (Eberron) and other undead attempt to gain power over Xen’drik.

  • Devils from Shavarath attempt to invade and conquer Eberron.

  • Pirates and undead pirates attempt to make a foothold in House Denith before conquering Stormreach.

  • Droaam, an army of Medusas, orcs, kobolds, and gnolls attempt to play war games with the lords of Stormreach. They mine under the Lordsmarch Plaza and attack.

  • Quori from the Plane of Nightmares invades peoples’ minds and uses them as hosts on the material plane.

  • The Lord of Blades takes over a Quori creation forge under Stormreach and tries to use it to wipe out all living races.

  • The Master Artificer Toven tries to destroy the souls of all warforged in Xen’drik.

Now, I was aware of these things; I’ve played DDO plenty and traveled through a good portion of the game, especially for a non-VIP (who is unwilling to buy a ton of adventure packs). The bullet points from Wikipedia sum it up best, though. DDO quickly loses its story focus, which is a shame.

Let’s look at another free-to-play game, Card Hunter. It’s also story-based, but unlike DDO there’s a little more focus on the player as an individual, because it’s not actually a traditional MMORPG. That said, its storytelling model is very similar-present players with an adventure and let them go through with the normal gameplay stuff. DDO lives and dies by the GM; without it it’d be pretty much a “go here, kill that” game like other MMORPG’s, except for being highly instanced and environmentally focused.

There are, however, some core differences between Card Hunter, which makes it better as a storyteller than DDO (personally, I like the more visceral action of DDO, plus the fact that I can play adventures with a buddy, which is a planned post-Beta feature of Card Hunter). Card Hunter doesn’t have its campaign storyline in yet, so I can’t speak for how it will be, but it’s almost better for being handled by the GM. In DDO, the GM (or DM, to use the technically correct term), is responsible for narrating mid-adventure, but plays little role in searching for quests. In Card Hunter, the GM narrates the situations leading up to you taking a quest-admittedly, unlike NPC’s in DDO who give the quests, the adventures are chosen from a map, complete with an old-school cover and synopsis.

Now, some of this is stylistic; DDO sacrifices its tabletop roots to appeal to a wider audience, while still retaining a degree of its former status to make things more interesting. Let’s look at Neverwinter Nights for a better comparison-mechanically, the games are very similar (they’re increasingly divergent as DDO improves its mechanisms for the MMO world, but still mechanically similar). The difference between DDO and NWN is that NWN has full-immersion plots. The player never gets to just go to a hub area; they’re always in the adventure. In DDO, the story suffers from constant speed shifts. One second you’re in the middle of ridding a tomb of baddies, the next you’ve cleared the tomb and now…

Yeah. You’re done! You’re the hero! Delera’s shade has been put to rest. It’s a nice little plot you’ve just completed, but once again you’re done. Don’t get me wrong, single-player games often suffer this too; I’m replaying Oblivion after being “enlightened” by Skyrim (I may write on that later), and every time I complete a guild’s questline (or hit a gap), I totally just stop. Neverwinter Nights has this happen to me sometimes in Storm of Zehir, though not so much in the core games. Some of this is just the fact that I don’t want to do the next bit (clear out Wellspring Cave *again*?), and walk away from the game to do something else, but sometimes there’s a legitimate loss of progression.

In fact, I find that when I play DDO, I’ll run through an adventure pack, then walk away. A month or so later, on an XP weekend, I’ll come back, and either poke at an adventure or try an adventure pack (and the core storyline, by the point I’m at, is disjointed enough that it’s really split up into a ton of little things that resemble adventure packs), then repeat that. I think that this has an impact on my willingness to spend money on DDO, but I’ll touch on that in my next installment.

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