Fine wine gets better with age. Beer doesn’t work that way. It starts off ice-cold and tastes great. After a while, though, it starts to get warm and isn’t as good as it was originally. If you started that beer when it was cold, you might power through and still finish it off. If you take your first drink of a beer and it’s already warm, you’ll surely toss it away and go grab a cold one.
It took a year of the MMO Reroll for me to figure out that most MMOs aren’t fine wine, they are warm beer. But just because a few of the Rerolls ended up leaving a bitter taste in my mouth doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying to find the ice-cold winners. I’m starting year two of the Reroll off the same way I started last year - revisiting one of my all-time favorite MMOs.
Originally developed by Turbine and now a part of the Standing Stone Games stable, Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO) is the closest any MMO comes to giving you a tabletop experience. If you’ve ever played pen and paper D&D, or any d20 ruleset for that matter, you’ll feel right at home in DDO. Sure, some liberties had to be taken to convert a turn-based pen and paper game into an MMORPG, but DDO stayed as close to the source material as it could when it launched.
With the plethora of D&D cRPGs that came before it, one would think DDO would be an automatic success. That wasn’t the case, though, and DDO has had a less than stellar existence. Launching two years after World of Warcraft’s release shook the MMO universe, even the D&D franchise tag couldn’t get the millions of players to abandon Azeroth.
Part of that reluctance to change worlds was probably Turbine’s decision to use the D&D campaign setting of Ebberon - more specifically the city of Stormreach - over the ever-popular Forgotten Realms. Stormreach is an interesting setting in its own right, and would possibly be a fantastic setting for a single player game, but it’s hard to deny it doesn’t hold a candle to the popularity of the Forgotten Realms. It would have been a challenge to pull people away from WoW no matter what setting you used, but Turbine’s choice didn’t help.
WoW isn’t the only reason why DDO had a rough beginning. Although I personally liked the instanced dungeons, many players were put off by the quest structure. In the end, the overall lack of content compared to other MMOs that came before it was the main reason I walked away from DDO a few months after launch.
Fortunately, the switch to free-to-play in June 2009 lured me back to Stormreach. I quickly fell back in love with DDO and resubbed (good marketing ploy). DDO became my main gaming fix for several years. I strayed away from DDO with the launch of Rift in 2011, but that hiatus only lasted for a few months. DDO never really felt the same after my Rift jaunt, but I still continued to play, albeit less frequently, until I finally left for good with the release of Final Fantasy XIV: ARR in 2013.
Over the years, I’ve checked back in on DDO to see how my old guild was doing (shout out to Over Raided on the Orien server). Each time, the active roster was less and less familiar, and most of my visits lasted only a few hours at best. When I decided to give DDO the MMO Reroll treatment, I knew it wouldn’t be fair to start off with my old account. I still couldn’t completely cut the ties with my old stomping grounds, so I created a new free-to-play account on the Orien server to give the early levels the once over.
Of all the classes available, I had never played a Cleric in my DDO past, so it was a no-brainer to finally try out a Dwarven Cleric. Yes, Cleric is a horrible class to play, or so I’ve been told, but I did it anyway. And so began another month of the MMO Reroll.
Dungeons & Dragons, and DDO in turn, is all about character customization. And regardless of whether you subscribe or play for free, you’ll get to go through the full D&D character creation process that offers more customization than any other MMO. In true D&D fashion, picking your gender, race, and class is only a starting point. From there, it’s up to you to choose the type of character you want to be. You get to assign your ability points, select your skills, and pick your feats. Although Min/Maxers will try to build the most powerful character possible, you are free to create whatever type of character suits your fancy. Just remember that the DM in DDO is only there for flavor text and won’t save your butt if you create a dagger-wielding Barbarian with an 8 Strength and Constitution.
Classes are broken into three basic play styles - Melee, Spell, and Specialist. Nine of the fifteen classes are available for free. These nine classes are the traditional archetypes found in D&D, including the Fighter, Paladin, Barbarian, Cleric, Wizard, Sorcerer, Rogue, Bard, and Ranger. The free races available are a little more restrictive. Only Human, Elf, Halfling, and Dwarf are unlocked. The Drow Elf race and the Favored Soul and Artificer classes can be unlocked by earning favor in-game. Still, the remainder of the races and classes must be unlocked by a monthly subscription or purchased a la carte from the DDO Store (more on microtransactions later).
Just like pen and paper D&D, you can multiclass your character in DDO. Are you tired of your Fighter setting off every trap in a dungeon? Splash in a level or two of Rogue. Want to mix up your spellcasting abilities with a Wizard-Cleric hybrid? Go for it. You can blend up to three different classes as you progress in power, allowing for a significant amount of flexibility in character development.
DDO isn’t a pen and paper campaign with your friends, though. It is an MMO, and unless you want to spend all of your time playing solo or with a static group of friends, you will have to partner up with random players. As with any MMO, most players couldn’t care less about you wanting to roleplay a dim-witted Cleric that’s afraid of zombies. You’ll want to keep that in mind as you create and level up your character.
For a beginning player, the F2P selection of classes and races is good enough to get an idea of what DDO has to offer. The 28 points you can allocate to your ability stats is enough to get at least one of them up to 18, ensuring your character will be good at their primary function.
Choose your stats wisely, or forever be gimped.
But what if you don’t know what an Intelligence modifier or weapon specialization is? For the uninitiated, DDO also offers a curated character experience. Each class has three pre-built paths to choose from, like the Wizard’s Sage, Necromancer, and Elementalist. You still get to pick your gender and race, but the rest of the details are all picked for you. Then, as you gain enough experience to level up, all of your choices are once again filled in for you. As you become more comfortable with how your character works, you are free to take over the leveling process if you wish.
Your last task in character creation is customizing your appearance, and this is one area in that DDO falls short of its pen and paper counterpart. Like every other MMO Reroll that has covered an MMO from the early 2000s, DDO doesn’t have many appearance options. I don’t want to, but I have to accept that character creation just wasn’t as good back in the day.
When Dungeons & Dragons Online first launched, MMO worlds were big open-world areas filled with the usual fetch quests that you still see today. Trying to stay faithful to its tabletop heritage, almost all of the quests in DDO are instanced dungeon crawls. There were some larger wilderness areas, but even these were just small maps with paths taking you to more instanced quests.
This style of gameplay was a crowd-splitter and garnered more than its fair share of negative reactions. I, for one, loved what Dungeons & Dragons Online offers. Grouping up with a few other players and taking on all that a dungeon had to offer was amazing. As you set out on your objective, you would have to fight through groups of enemies, disarm (or trigger) deadly traps, and smash crates and barrels on your way to your final objective. Levers had to be located and pulled to unlock doors and gates blocking your progress, and secret doors could hide special encounters and extra treasure for those capable of finding them. And all of this was narrated by a dungeon master.
It’s a trap. Disarm it or make a save vs. poison to advance.
The first time you entered a quest was a blast. With little knowledge of what you would encounter, you slowly progressed through a dungeon. Subsequent runs went much faster, but each quest had multiple difficulty levels to keep things interesting, Characters maxed out at level 10, and powerful weapons were few and far between when DDO first launched, so there was always the chance of death.
That was then. It’s much different now. With fifteen years under its belt, Dungeons & Dragons Online has had a lot of power creep. The Adamantine Full Plate I had to grind hours to get back in the day? I got a better set at level 3 this go around. It’s a full-blown Monty Haul campaign at this point, with weapons getting multiple prefixes and suffixes to pack more and more damage into a single blade.
Characters themselves have received the same treatment. The original level cap has been raised multiple times throughout the years and now stands at level 20 with 10 Epic levels tacked on. If that isn’t enough for you, characters can be rerolled, called True Reincarnation in DDO terms, to gain Past Life feats and small buffs for each time you start over. One or two new lives don’t make you all-powerful, but the additional buffs are cumulative, and someone willing to grind through lives over and over can become quite powerful along the way.
Questing itself hasn’t really changed much over the years. The difficulty has been adjusted, with some quests changed to a Solo only mode, and Casual difficulty has been around for many years. Quests now number in the hundreds, and there are multiple open-world areas. The setting of Ebberon has even been expanded upon and now includes quests in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. I haven’t made it to level 20 with a new character yet, but even with my low-level free-to-play Cleric, I haven’t found a quest that I couldn’t complete by myself on Epic difficulty.
Full Plate +5, circa 2006. Still my favorite armor skin ever.
To offset the power creep that makes regular quests a tad trivial, you can also run dungeons on Reaper difficulty. Rated from 1 to 10 Skulls, Reaper difficulty adds some significant buffs to enemies and reduces the character’s effectiveness by reducing their damage output and self-heal ability, among other things. The first time I unknowingly entered a dungeon in Reaper mode, I quickly realized it was meant for a group of players, giving me a reason to find some new friends.
It’s Not All Roses
There have been a lot of changes to DDO over the years - new quests and zones, an increase to the max character level to 20 plus 10 Epic levels, new loot, crafting, and much, much more - but nothing has ever fixed what many find to be the biggest issue with the MMO. I’m talking about the game engine itself.
For me, DDO has always been a bit of a hot mess. Back in the day, lag was horrendous. Raids would literally become a freeze-frame, and players would have to stop attacking to allow the engine to catch up. Even in regular dungeons with a small group, 2 to 3-second lag spikes and rubber-banding were common. I haven’t had the chance to run any raids this month, but I still encountered plenty of issues in regular dungeons. It may not be as bad as it once was, but I still experienced frequent lag spikes.
I’m not sure if it’s just me, but the combat itself often feels like it is out of sync. I will make a melee attack or cast a spell, only to have the hit register well after the attack. Creatures also continued to make attack animations after receiving a killing blow, only to drop well after their death audio played. Add poor AI pathing and movement on top of the sync issues, and what you have is a discombobulated mess. It’s a shame because when everything is in sync, the action combat can be a lot of fun.
Lag isn’t the only technical issue, either. I had multiple times each session where the audio would cut out or, even worse, the background music and noises would play for a few seconds, go out for a second or two, and then restart like a skipping record (some of you may even know what a record is). It was all inconsistent, and although I tried to identify a setting that was causing it, I could never nail down the cause of the problem.
When it comes to microtransactions, DDO offers everything and the kitchen sink to its players. XP boosts, health and mana pots, races, classes, stat boosts, and who knows what else is available for those willing to pay. Call it pay-to-win if you wish, but DDO is a cooperative romp, so the worst thing someone paying hundreds of dollars to pump up their character can do to you is ruin a dungeon run.
Can you play DDO for free? Yes, it is possible. You can even have fun playing without ever spending a dime. The base classes and races cover the entire gamut of play styles, and the nearly 150 quests can keep you busy for quite a while.
Be prepared for gated content unless you open up your wallet.
Sooner or later, though, you’re going to come up against the restrictions of a free account. The free quests are only a fraction of the total quests available, and some of the pay-to-play quests, raids, adventure packs, and expansions are much better than the free offerings. You can buy these piecemeal or pay for a monthly VIP subscription that gives access to most of DDO’s content and other bonuses. Or, if you are patient, maybe Standing Stone Games will provide a free code for all of the Adventure Packs like it did last year. They just did it for Lord of the Rings Online, so you never know.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg on things you’ll need to buy if you catch the DDO bug and start playing more often. I already mentioned that there are classes and races for sale, and of course, you will want quality of life enhancements like a shared bank and more character inventory slots to hold all of your loot. There are also various inventory items that will help consolidate ammunition, gems, and other collectibles for purchase.
There’s no doubt that I approach MMOs in a more casual way than I did fifteen years ago. Back then, I would play DDO nightly, with sessions lasting well into the night. I would religiously attend raids and grind hour upon hour for gold and gear. Nowadays, I probably get to play as much in a week as I used to play in a day or two. The shorter, instanced quests that DDO is so well known (and sometimes hated) for fit nicely into my limited gaming schedule. It’s almost like I was playing it wrong all along.
I’m glad that I went back and gave DDO another try this month, and I hope that the rest of year two of the MMO Reroll is just as much fun. Yes, the graphics are dated, the combat can be laggy, and the free-to-play options are limited, but I still enjoy Dungeons & Dragons Online even with all of its faults. And I know that if Standing Stone Games somehow decided to give DDO an overhaul, I would be chomping at the bit to give a new DDO a try.