How Dungeons & Dragons Online Works

A warrior surveys his surroundings. See more video game system pictures.
Courtesy Turbine

In the world of role-playing games (RPGs), Dungeons & Dragons holds a special place. It was one of the earliest fantasy RPGs on the market. The initial limited run of around 1,000 copies of the pencil-and-paper game sold out in 1974. Whether you're a fan of the game's mechanics and settings or not, there's no denying that Dungeons & Dragons has influenced practically every RPG that followed in some way.

In general, a role-playing game is one in which each player takes on the role of a character in an imaginary world. A game master provides environmental descriptions and handles the game's mechanics as the players attempt to achieve goals in the game through their characters. Each character has abilities and attributes that influence his or her chances to complete tasks. Random number generators -- dice in the case of the classic pencil-and-paper games -- determine if a character's attempts to execute a task are successful.

As personal computers became popular, game designers began to create computer RPGs. It was a natural fit. The computer could handle all the number crunching as the player explored a virtual world. But early computer RPGs had limitations. The biggest limitation was that in most cases, the games only allowed a single player to play. You could participate in fantastical stories and advance your character -- or group of characters -- but there wasn't much role-playing involved.

The Internet helped break that barrier. Game developers began to create RPGs that would allow hundreds or even thousands of players to enter the same world at the same time. We use the term massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) to describe this genre. Games like Ultima Online, EverQuest and World of Warcraft emerged. You can see the influence of Dungeons & Dragons in these games.

It seemed only natural for an official version of Dungeons & Dragons to make its way online. In 2006, Turbine Inc. and publisher Atari unveiled Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach.

The World of Dungeons & Dragons Online

The warforged are a race of constructs given life through powerful magic.
The warforged are a race of constructs given life through powerful magic.
Courtesy Turbine

Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy role-playing game, meaning that the setting is in a magical realm. It draws a great deal of inspiration from a romanticized version of Europe in the Middle Ages. But there are multiple worlds within D&D, each with its own set of races, environments, magic and equipment. The specific setting for Dungeons & Dragons Online is Eberron.

Eberron is a fantasy world that incorporates elements of magic and technology. Dragons have a special significance in Eberron and factor heavily into the world's mythology. The world has several continents. In Dungeons & Dragons Online, players will find themselves on the continent Xen'drik. Most of the players using a free account will participate in adventures that take place in or around the city of Stormreach, which is on the east coast of Xen'drik. Players who pay a subscription to the game gain access to more regions.

Players have several choices when it comes to character classes. There are melee-based classes that use hand-to-hand weapons. These include fighters, barbarians and paladins. If you want to sling spells, you'll need to choose a cleric, sorcerer or wizard. Then there are the specialist classes of rogue, bard and ranger. Players who subscribe to the game gain two additional classes: the monk and the favored soul. You can also choose to multiclass. That means you can choose to advance in skill levels in up to three classes to round out your character's abilities.

The basic races of Dungeons & Dragons also inhabit Eberron. Among these, players can choose humans, elves, dwarves or halflings right away. Players with a subscription or those who spend points to purchase them can also play races called drow (aka dark elves) and warforged. The warforged are artificially-constructed creatures animated by magic and are unique to Eberron.

There are 13 powerful families that control businesses on Eberron. Each family has its own methods and motivations. Families alternate between competing against one another and aligning with other families to achieve goals. In Dungeons & Dragons Online, characters can work for four of them. They are:

  • House Deneith
  • House Jorasco
  • House Kundarak
  • House Phiarlan

There are other organizations that influence politics and trade on Eberron, too. Players can complete tasks assigned by these organizations to gain favor. As players gain more favor, they earn rewards.

The mythology and culture of Eberron is complex. But that's just the surface of the game. Underneath is an equally complex system of rules and statistics.

The Rules of Dungeons & Dragons

With a successful skill roll, some characters can sneak around unseen in the shadows.
With a successful skill roll, some characters can sneak around unseen in the shadows.
Courtesy Turbine

The pencil-and-paper version of Dungeons & Dragons isn't the same today as it was in 1974. The game's publishers have tweaked the rules extensively since D&D's debut. The most current version of the game uses fourth-edition rules. But the basis for the rules governing Dungeons & Dragons Online is version 3.5.

The game's mechanics rely on statistics and chance. Characters have attributes like strength, dexterity, wisdom and intelligence. You quantify each attribute with a number. In the traditional paper game of D&D, players do this by rolling dice and assigning the outcomes to attributes. In general, these attributes can range from three (very poor) to 18 (superior). Other factors such as the character's race or equipment can influence these attributes.

When a player wishes his or her character to complete a task, the game master must take into consideration both the character's skills and the difficulty of the task. The player then rolls a die (or several dice) to insert an element of chance in the attempt. If the die roll falls within the range of success, the character completes the task. In some cases, such as if the character is searching for a secret door, the game master might roll the die behind a screen so that the players can't see the result. The game master explains what happens next -- the character fails to find a door. The players don't know for sure whether they couldn't find the secret door, or whether there was ever a secret door to begin with.

Dungeons & Dragons Online follows the same model. As your character attempts to perform tasks such as hitting a monster with a weapon or disarming a trap, the game randomly generates a number and compares that to the difficulty of the task. With some tasks, you can make multiple attempts to succeed. Other tasks have a skill level or attribute threshold your character must meet to complete them. If your character's abilities fall below that threshold, you won't succeed no matter how many times you try.

Turbine didn't create a slavishly-accurate computer representation of the pencil-and-paper version of the game. Throughout the development process, the programmers and game architects decided that some aspects of the paper version of the game wouldn't translate well in an MMORPG setting. The most obvious departure is in how the game handles combat.

Combat in Dungeons & Dragons Online

There are only a few areas in Dungeons & Dragons Online where you can combat other players.
There are only a few areas in Dungeons & Dragons Online where you can combat other players.
Courtesy Turbine

In the traditional paper version of Dungeons & Dragons, combat encounters take place over a series of rounds. During each round, characters are allowed to take a certain number of actions (the number and nature of which depend upon the character's skills and statistics). Some actions may require multiple rounds. At the beginning of each round, players roll for initiative to determine the order of events. The game master asks each player what he or she wants to do. Then the game master determines the difficulty of that task, the players roll some dice, and the game master describes what happens next.

While this rule structure works well for a tabletop game, it's not as satisfying when translated into a computer game. For that reason, Turbine decided to make combat more interactive. Rather than using a turn-based system, combat happens in real time. Players use a computer mouse to target and attack opponents. The game system still determines whether or not the player's strike will hit the target.

Each time you attempt to hit a target, the game takes several factors into consideration. It looks at your character's combat abilities. Your character's strength and equipment help determine how skilled you are at clobbering skulls. Then the game examines your opponent's abilities. Every character and creature in the game has an armor class. Your armor class is a numeric representation of how hard it is to hit you. The type of armor you wear, the skills you possess and your character's dexterity determine your armor class.

When you attack an opponent, the game randomly generates a number for each strike. If the number is high enough, your strike makes its way home and the target takes damage. If the number is too low, you miss. Even if you have dead-eye aim on your opponent with your mouse, a swing may not make contact.

Players who prefer twitch-based games (games that rely on the player's physical skills) may find this system frustrating. But for players who aren't as adept at aiming with a mouse, the system works well. As long as the character is facing in the general direction of the opponent, the player has a chance to defeat his or her enemy.

Dungeons & Dragons Online Subscriptions

Characters can band together to fight tough enemies.
Characters can band together to fight tough enemies.
Courtesy Turbine

Originally, Dungeons & Dragons Online was a subscription service game. That meant players had to pay a monthly fee to create a character and play the game. In June 2009, Turbine changed the business model for the game. Now any player can download the game client and log in for free. Players with free accounts have access to basic character races, classes and content.

But a player with a free account won't have access to everything in the game. The game locks away certain races, classes, regions and adventures. To unlock these features, players have two options: Subscribe to the game for $14.99 per month or purchase each feature individually using Turbine points. Players can earn Turbine points through in-game achievements or by purchasing them in the DDO Store. It's possible to earn enough points in the game to purchase items in the store but it's a slow and sometimes arduous process.

In addition to unlocking content, players can use Turbine points to purchase equipment for their characters. Rather than adventuring high and low to find that perfect sword, you can whip out your credit card, purchase some Turbine points and go on a shopping spree. That's called a microtransaction -- the player spends a small amount of money once to purchase a particular item or feature.

Turbine refers to players who subscribe to the game as VIP players. A VIP player not only has access to all the classes, races and regions in the game, but also receives an allowance of 500 Turbine points per month. Since VIP players don't need to use points to unlock features, they can dedicate their points to items and equipment. Turbine uses this as an incentive to encourage players to subscribe to the game.

Turbine points are nontransferable and any item you purchase becomes locked to that character. This helps prevent people from selling equipment to other characters for real cash.

Next, we'll look at what's under the hood at Dungeons & Dragons Online.

DDO Clients and System Requirements

Like many MMORGPs, Dungeons & Dragons Online relies upon resources from two different machines: your computer and a remote server. Let's start with your computer. Currently, Dungeons & Dragons Online is only available for computers running the Windows operating system. The minimum system requirements state that you need a 1.6 gigahertz processor or better. You'll also need 512 megabytes of RAM and 3 gigabytes of hard drive space (or 5 gigabytes if you plan to download the high resolution version of the game). That's just the minimum -- the game will run better on a system with more power. You'll also need a high-speed Internet connection.

To play the game, you must first download what's called a client. The client acts as a decoder and liaison between the information stored on your computer's hard drive and the information it receives from the remote server. When you download the client, you also download the information about the game world to your hard drive. As you play the game, the client sends information to the appropriate server. This tells the game everything it needs to know about your character in relation to the game world. In return, the server sends information back to the client.

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In the United States, Turbine has five game servers. Each server has a copy of the game world on it. If you were to visit each of the different servers, you would notice that the geography and all computer-controlled characters and monsters remain the same. But player behavior can vary from one server to another. For instance, players on some servers may value role playing more than others.

When you log in to the game, the client pulls information from your hard drive to determine your location and surroundings. Your graphics card and processor work to render the graphics and present you with an image of where you are. As you move and interact with your environment, the client sends information to the server. Let's consider a common situation: Your character is attacking a monster.

As you use your mouse to click on a monster, the client sends information to the server alerting it of your actions. The server determines the results of your action and sends it back to the client. If other players are also attacking the same monster, the server must keep track of the results of each individual action. While your computer is doing some of the work, the server does most of the heavy lifting.

The online version of Dungeons & Dragons captures much of the spirit of the original game. If you explore every nook and cranny, you'll come across areas with special narration. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the two developers of the original Dungeons & Dragons game, lend their voices to guide you through the adventures. Both of these visionary game designers have passed away, but their work lives on in every tabletop game of D&D and in the online version of Eberron, too.

Learn more about MMORPGs by following the links on the next page.

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More Great Links


  • DDO Compendium. "Server Information." (Nov. 2, 2009)
  • DDO Wiki. (Nov. 2, 2009)
  • Dungeons & Dragons Online. "About D&D 3.5." (Oct. 29, 2009)
  • Dungeons & Dragons Online. "FAQ." (Oct. 29, 2009)
  • Dungeons & Dragons Online. "Game Info." (Oct. 29, 2009)
  • Dungeons & Dragons Online. "Game Manual." (Oct. 29, 2009)
  • Dungeons & Dragons Online. "Quickstart Manual." (Oct. 30, 2009)
  • "Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited: Solo Content." June 14, 2006. (Oct. 30, 2009)
  • "Dungeons and Dragons Online." (Nov. 2, 2009)
  • Turbine, Inc. "DDO Goes Free to Play." (Oct. 30, 2009)
  • Wizards of the Coast. "Dungeons & Dragons." (Nov. 2, 2009)
  • Wizards of the Coast. "The History of TSR." (Oct. 30, 2009)