Archive for the 'MMO' Category

WoW: Quests of the Day

This week (and I think next week as well), Azeroth celebrates its equivalent of Valentine’s Day. It’s also still celebrating the Lunar Festival, with the result that the capital cities have two sets of decorations up at once, but what are you going to do? Overlap seems almost inevitable, because the calendar is lousy with special events of this sort. They bring with them time-limited content, which seems to be an effective way to get people to play more: I’m more likely to neglect a game if I think I can play it any time and get the same experience.

One part of the special content for this holiday is an extremely easy daily quest: a goblin merchant has set up a booth in every capital city, and wants you to share samples of his merchandise. One day it’s perfume, another day it’s chocolates, but the effect seems to be the same regardless: the people you foist it on wind up with a heart-shaped indicator over their heads for a period of time, meaning that they can’t be given another sample until it wears off. In the area immediately around the stall in Orgrimmar, where the player density is at its highest, it’s a veritable sea of hearts, and finding an uninfected subject can take a little doing. I think I prefer to do this quest in the less-populated Thunder Bluff, the Tauren capital. (NPCs are eligible victims, so the lower player count doesn’t make it harder at all.) There, it takes just a minute or so to complete the quest, which makes it the quickest way I know to get a daily under your belt. There’s an Achievement for completing daily quests on five consecutive days, and I’m definitely trying for that while there’s so little effort involved.

While I’m throwing around terms like “daily quest”, I should take a moment to describe the questing mechanics a little. Most quests can only be done once per character; daily quests can be done arbitrarily many times, but each can only be done at most once per day. There are particular NPCs who hand out daily quests every day, but not always the same one — they seem to choose one at random each day. Aside from the holiday folks, the only ones I’ve encountered are related to the Professions. There’s one fellow in Orgrimmar who gives a daily Fishing-related quest, rewarding you with an increase in Fishing skill and a grab-bag of stuff pulled from under a lake, and another who does the same for Cooking (with quests like slaughtering swine and protecting provisions from thieves), rewarding you with increased Cooking skill and tokens redeemable for advanced recipes. Notably, none of the daily quests seem to yield cash or experience, the usual questing rewards. Instead, they give you things difficult or impossible to gain any other way. (Past a certain point, it must be exceedingly difficult to raise your Cooking or Fishing skill through practice alone.)

You can always tell a daily quest by its color. Available non-daily quests that are of an appropriate level for your character are signaled by a yellow exclamation mark, both marked on your mini-map and floating above the quest-giver’s head, just to make sure you notice them. Dailies use a blue exclamation mark. There are also green ones, indicating flightmasters that you haven’t spoken to yet. Flightmasters let you rent flying mounts to take you on pre-set routes, but they can generally only send you to other flightmasters you’ve already spoken to. So, they’re an important enough part of the game infrastructure that the designers want to call special attention to them, but they’re not really quests. Normal quests that are too high-level for you to attempt, but otherwise available, are designated by a grey exclamation mark, which shows up over the giver’s head, but not on the map, presumably because there’s no reason to seek them out.

Quests that are below your level, now: they’re not marked on the map or above the head. But you can still do them if you want, and I’ve been doing enough low-level quests just to see the content that I’ve learned how to find them. Unlike most NPCs, questgivers with available quests have their names in green above their heads even when not selected. Also, anything you can interact with changes the cursor on rollover, and NPCs that you can talk to change it in a manner specific to the kind of conversation you can have with them: one cursor for mere talking, one for vendors you can buy stuff from, another for innkeepers, etc. Questgivers have a cursor containing an image of an exclamation mark — yes, the exclamation mark is more or less officially the ideogram for quest in this game. Even the quest log icon in the toolbar is an exclamation mark. Finding low-level quests thus takes a little more effort than level-appropriate ones, which the game eagerly points out. The game doesn’t really want you wasting your time on them; low-level quests give diminished experience, and usually no experience from combat at all. And yet, the game also rewards you for doing so with additional content, faction reputation, and, eventually, achievements. Just not with challenge. In theory, you could probably play entirely with low-level quests — there are enough of them that if you did them all, the reduced XP might not matter. And you’d have a very easy time of it. And that’s nearly what I’ve been doing myself, just out of a sense of completism.

WoW: Shadow and Substance

Maybe you’ve been thinking “It’s been a while since Baf played a DOS-era game. I miss those posts, with all their descriptions of encountering bugs and looking for ways around them.” If so, you’re in luck! I just encountered my first major, quest-blocking bug in WoW.

My story starts in Azshara, the region containing those goblin settlements I was talking about before. There’s a nice little suite of self-contained variety quests there on mountaintops inaccessible by normal means, a wizard’s Trials for testing his apprentices. These are essentially action mini-games. In the Trial of Fire, you have to dash around on a grid, avoiding the tiles that are about to erupt in magical flame. In the Trial of Frost, you have to collect scattered tokens while dodging the icy plumes emanating from rotating spheres. The Trial of Shadow is ringed with portals which emit shadow-creatures that you have to lure onto banishment runes set into the ground. Each of the trials not only gets you closer to completing the quest chain, it also has an Achievement for passing it perfectly, without taking any damage at all. I have two of those Achievements now — they’re not too hard once you spot the tricks. But the Trial of Shadow, I haven’t been able to pass. I haven’t even been able to start it.

The instructions at the beginning of the trial tell you to touch an altar to power up the shadow-emitting portals. There was no altar. I searched the area throughly, including looking down the mountainside. I tried leaving and coming back. Nothing. I spent some time doing dungeons — using the Dungeon Finder lets you teleport to the dungeons and back, so I could do this without leaving the mountaintop. I was kind of hoping that it was a temporary glitch and that if I spent a half an hour in a different zone, it would be fixed when I got back. When I got back, another player was just in the process of finishing the trial, but the altar was nowhere to be found.

When he was done, I asked him where the altar was, and he laughed. He led me to a patch of bare ground and said “This altar?” I protested that there was nothing there. I even tried clicking all around the spot, in the hope that I could interact with it even though I couldn’t see it, but no dice. He then stood on top of the alter and jumped up and down. Or so he says — it didn’t look like it to me. He didn’t even float in the air, like you’d expect if he were standing on an altar I couldn’t see, which has interesting implications for the underlying model.

Hitting up the web for answers, I found a lot of other people with the same problem, and a lot of spurious advice for fixing it. Abandon the quest, log out, log back in again, and start the quest again! No, that simply doesn’t work. The Blizzard support forums produced what I assume is the truth: for some players, the altar is replaced with a placeholder object. I’ve seen these objects around before: they appear as little cubes with a blue-and-white checkerboard pattern. In fact, the tokens I was supposed to collect back in the Trial of Frost appeared as placeholders. I think that the first time I saw them was in Silverpine Forest, where there’s a quest to gather blue-and-white cubical herbs. So you see that merely being placeholders isn’t a problem; you can click on a placeholder object as easily as anything else. But in this particular case, the placeholder, being much smaller than the object it’s replacing, apparently wound up concealed by the ground.

So, why are there placeholders in the released game? When I encountered them for the first time, I assumed that it was a matter of progressive download, like images in a web page: WoW lets you play while you’re still downloading content, and my earliest sessions came with an explicit warning that my experience may not be optimal yet. But apparently that’s not it. The altar object is missing because it’s not even included in the game I bought. It’s a mesh that was only introduced in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. The fact that the core game now relies in some ways on content only found in expansions is obviously a mistake, but it’s the sort of mistake that would easily go unnoticed by the developers, the testers, and the vast majority of the players.

Fortunately, there is a workaround: you can install the WotLK content on your machine even if you don’t have a license to play it. In fact, Blizzard offers a ten-day free trial for it, just like with the main game. Unfortunately, Blizzard doesn’t let you download the Wrath of the Lich King trial unless you’re already a registered owner of the previous expansion, The Burning Crusade. I may need to enlist the help of a more advanced WoW player here.

WoW: Goblins

I’ve been spending some time in goblin lands. I’ve been doing this because goblin NPCs are the most entertaining company of all the playable races. They’re also one of the newest playable races, having come in with Cataclysm. I suspect that these two things are connected — that, now that WoW is such a proven money-maker, the team behind it is granted whatever resources they need to polish the new content to a glossy sheen. (Not that you’ll find a glossy sheen anywhere in goblin territory.) Now, I haven’t bought Cataclysm, and therefore I can’t actually play a goblin character. But the expansion has effects in the core game, probably in part as a way of advertising the expansion.

I don’t really know what role goblins played in the game before Cataclysm, but I assume it’s greatly expanded since then. I was kind of wondering how they would be plausibly powerful here: the D&D goblin, after all, is basically just one of the lower steps on the Evil Humanoid ladder, right above kobolds and below orcs. But in fact, Blizzard had established a precedent for goblins back in Warcraft II, where they drew less from D&D and more from Magic: the Gathering, which gave them access to crude explosives and balloons and similar unreliable, prone-to-backfire technologies. WoW takes that further, making them not just figures of slapstick violence with lots of explosions, but also Azeroth’s masters of industrial technology.

Note that WoW already had a diminutive, technologically-oriented race on the Alliance side: gnomes. Adding goblins as a player race is something of a step towards symmetry. Just how much symmetry there should be between Horde and Alliance seems to be something that Blizzard has seesawed about for a long time. (In the original Warcraft, the two sides were exactly equivalent modulo graphics until you reached the point where the more powerful spellcasters were available.) Gnomes and goblins are very different in style, though. Gnomes are portrayed as craftsmen who create marvelous clockwork devices. Goblins are more into fossil fuels, explosions, and despoiling the environment. Gnomish devices tick and whirr; goblin contraptions shudder and belch fumes. Every playable race has a special type of mount that characters of at least level 20 can buy and ride: the humans’ horses, the skeletal steeds of the undead, the wolves of the orcs. Gnomes get gleaming mechanical chocobos. Goblins get little three-wheeled go-karts with exposed engines. One of the first things you see when you exit Orgrimmar in the direction of goblin territory is a bunch of ungainly goblin-piloted mechs with buzzsaws for hands, busily clear-cutting the forest so they can strip mine the hills it’s on. Their disregard for nature is rivaled only by their disregard for personal safety. If you bring a goblin an unknown device as part of a quest, chances are that they’re going to poke and prod it until until it explodes in their face. There’s one quest where a lab accident set a bunch of goblins on fire, and they just run around on fire indefinitely.

The really important thing to understand about goblins, though, is that they speak with New York accents and Pesci-esque verbiage. This underscores the despoiling-of-nature part again — just as New Yorkers are content to live on an island that’s been almost completely paved over, so too would goblins pave the world if there’s a buck in it for them, or if they thought it would look neat. But more importantly, the mode of speech suggests an attitude, even an ethos. Goblins aren’t just ravening maniacs, they’re beings who do what they do because it fits their sense of cool. It’s just that their sense of cool involves heedlessness of consequences. This is probably also why they generally have the most aggressive style of communication, all “Whaddaya want?” and “You want a piece of me?”, even when addressing being three times their height.

As industrialists, the goblins are naturally also the Horde’s masters of commerce, and their various faction names all have words like “company” or “cartel” where other races would have “order” or “kingdom”. Looking over the special features of player-controlled goblins, I see the connection is made even more strongly there: goblins get discounts at stores and can access the bank from anywhere. Taken in combination with the accent, and given the treatment given to Tauren and Trolls, my first reaction is that they’re drawing from Jewish stereotypes. I’m certainly not the first to suggest this, either. But a quick google suggests that not everyone sees it: on forums where someone suggests it, it’s generally followed by vociferous denials and accusations of trolling (which are probably accurate). Let’s just say that nothing in WoW is just a racial stereotype, and that goblins definitely have stereotypical attributes all their own, apart from any real-world inspirations. It does, however, strike me as particularly problematic in this context that the goblins as seen in Warcraft II were suicide bombers. That was all very abstract at the time, but throw in identifiably ethnic attributes, and it retroactively starts smelling political. If I ever design a CRPG, I think I’ll leave out an explicit “race” mechanic just to avoid this kind of thing.

WoW: Types and Names

Azeroth is big. It’s not as big as space, but it’s still pretty big, and needs creatures of various sorts to populate it. There are something like thirty regions per continent, each with a couple dozen named sub-regions, and each of these sub-regions has at least three or four distinct types of native monster. And that’s not even getting into the dungeons.

But, of course, a lot of those monster types aren’t very distinct. Where an old 2D game would do a palette swap, WoW does a texture swap, and frequently a rescale as well, making the more powerful versions of a monster physically larger. (To some extent, it does this for PC races as well. Powerful NPC orc generals tower over the regular player orcs.) Sometimes the level is the only difference between two forms of a creature. Sometimes the different forms display tangibly different behavior, as when a humanoid monster race has members that cast spells. Either way, the game always tacks some sort of modifier onto the name to keep things clear. Thus, you have Quilboar Hunters and Quilboar Thornweavers, Plainstriders and Adult Plainstriders and Elder Plainstriders and Ornery Plainstriders, Swamp Crocolisks and Snapjaw Crocolisks and Frenzied Crocolisks. There doesn’t seem to be any general pattern to the choice of modifier.

There are also a great many types of equipment. A large proportion of the quests offer as a reward a special item that you can’t get any other way, or even a choice of two or three such items. These always have names that reflect the quest in some way: if you have a quest to find and kill a traitor, say, you might wind up with something like a Hammer of Treason, or Disloyal Greaves, or a Turn Coat. (Yes, they use these names as an opportunity for jokes.) Obviously there’s no pattern to these names either, but there do seem to be modifiers with consistent meaning among the items you find at random. For example, I’ve found several items named “Bard’s [something] of [something]”, like “Bard’s Gloves of the Monkey”. Apparently these are all leather items with a required character level somewhere between 11 and 15, providing a minor stat enhancement encoded by the “of” clause. It’s not surprising that Blizzard uses this sort of scheme, because the randomly-generated magic items in Diablo followed a similar pattern.

There’s a modifier “Fel” that I’ve seen a lot while playing as a warlock. I assume it’s a fantasy-world-spellingification of the English adjective “fell”, but it has a more specific meaning: it’s the WoW word for demonic energy. I suppose they didn’t want to actually use the word “demonic” lest it worry the parents, although I don’t really know why they’d bother, considering that this is a game that actually lets players summon imps and succubi. And, for that matter, “felguards” (demonic warriors available to warlocks specializing in demonology) and “felsteeds” (the coal-black demon horse with flaming hooves I mentioned once before). “Fel” is also used in the names of equipment I’m not powerful enough to use yet, as well as one region: the Felwood. It’s the one most wide-ranging made-up linguistic element I’ve noticed so far, although it’s possible that there are others.

In Mulgore, there’s a type of bird of prey called a Swoop. There are Wiry Swoops, Dread Swoops, and Defiant Swoops. I wonder if there are any swoops characterized by demonic energy? I suppose that if there is, I’d be unlikely to see it. There’s bound to be only one of them.

WoW: More Dungeons

I’m writing this a day late. Saturday, I pretty much spent all day taking Oleari through quests and dungeons. I respecced her a bit, changing her Shaman specialization from Enhancement to Restoration, for the specific purpose of making her more party-oriented — I had chosen Enhancement for the same reason initially, thinking that specializing in buffs would be similarly useful to others, but it turns out that Enhancement mainly means enhancing yourself. Self-buffs are always a troubling bit of design. If a spellcaster can spell himself up into a more powerful fighter than a warrior-type, why bother having warrior-types? And if he can’t, why not just roll up a warrior instead of bothering with the self-buffs? There has to be some kind of tradeoff for it to make sense. Well, the WoW Enhancement Shaman has at least the disadvantage that you have to take the time to cast your enhancement spells, and most likely drop a totem or two as well, which I suppose means a dedicated warrior would be able to respond to a sneak attack better. But this is all speculation from someone who hasn’t even hit level 30 yet.

I’ve been through all of the dungeons that were initially available in the Dungeon Finder (more are added as you level up), and while the experience has been mostly more pleasant than my first stupid dungeon, there’s one aspect of that first attempt that I haven’t been able to shake: doing a dungeon properly usually takes me two tries. Usually there’s some in-dungeon quest goal that I miss the first time through — some gathering-quest that I don’t pursue adequately until it’s too late, or some quest-giver who I didn’t notice until after the boss he wants me to beat is already beaten. Everyone else seems to already know the basic dungeons by heart, which means that they’re off and away before I get a chance to read the quest descriptions fully — particularly when the tank (who takes point, and thus sets the pace) is a Warrior, because they have a motivation to rush from one encounter to the next before their Rage meter empties. Maybe next time I should research the dungeons in advance.

The only dungeon that I completed in only one sally was the Wailing Caverns. There was some kind of dream-god in the form of a giant snake in there, or something like that. I couldn’t tell you the details. I’m sure it was all very important to the quest-givers, but again, I was too busy trying to keep up with the party. It went pretty smoothly: I managed to keep people healed, and everyone agreed in the end that it had been a good team. But after the last boss, when people started leaving, I still needed to pick flowers. That was a side-quest within the dungeon: some herbalist or something wants samples of a rare flower called Serpentblossom that only grows in that dungeon. For most of the run, I kept seeing it reported in the message window that various other people had found them, but I wasn’t seeing any myself, mainly because I didn’t know what to look for. So after the end, I was faced with the task of scouring the dungeon for flowers alone. Except that I wasn’t alone: one other member of the party was in the same situation, and we helped each other search, chatting a bit as we did so — he gave me some help with the less-obvious parts of the interface. This was a lot more like the kind of party experience I had come to Azeroth expecting than the frantic slaughter-race that’s turning out to be the norm.

I did take Oleari through Shadowfang Keep, even though I had already conquered it with Pleasance. I didn’t finish it this time. The end boss, one Lord Godfrey, seems to be particularly tough. Pleasance’s team had difficulties with him as well, I recall. Every once in a while, he performs an attack called Pistol Barrage that can easily take out most of the party, if they haven’t taken cover. Fortunately, you get warning when he’s about to use it, but as the party healer, taking cover means losing my line of sight on the tank, and thus, for a little while, my ability to cast healing spells on him. Perhaps the tank should have sought cover as well? Does Godfrey stand still or something when he’s preparing a Pistol Barrage to give you that opportunity? Regardless, I was blamed. Keeping the tank alive is the healer’s job, so if the tank dies, it’s the healer’s fault. There were exasperated cries of “wtf shammy” and intelligence-belittling exhortations to just stand there and heal him, as if I had been doing anything else. Before quitting the party, the tank instructed me to delete the character and start over with a new one. So, yeah, not as pleasant an experience as Wailing Caverns. I wonder how much this is due to the party, and how much due to Shadowfang Keep being a morale-breaker?

One thing about the Godfrey debacle worthy of special note: at one point, someone asked something about the healbot I was using, and /facepalmed when I revealed that I wasn’t using one. Are bots simply expected in WoW? It would explain a thing or two about everyone else’s behavior. It probably doesn’t seem like you’re taking things particularly fast when the computer is performing most of your actions for you. But if this is the case, it’s a big change from my Everquest days. Bots were considered a form of cheating back then; they might even have been a bannable offense. Cheating or not, I can’t say I see much point in playing a game without, y’know, playing it. But then, a lot of people clearly feel otherwise — otherwise, the infamous Chinese gold farms would never see a profit.

WoW: Revisitation

The Lunar Festival has begun in Azeroth. Apparently this is an annual thing, and lasts for at least a week. You really can’t escape noticing it: in all the capital cities, people are setting off fireworks, because doing so starts a quest chain and a suite of Achievements involving a special festival-only zone, a hidden elfin glade where Horde and Alliance alike mix peacefully. There, you can turn in festival coins for special goodies. The festival coins, in turn, are obtained from guides who appeared in the various cities and towns, each guide giving one coin per customer. So ultimately the festival is a way to encourage people to travel around Azeroth, revisiting all the places you’ve been to already.

The thing is, I’ve already been doing a fair amount of that lately. Completist that I am, I decided a few days ago that Pleasance really should be availing herself of all the opportunities that the greater Undercity metro area affords, particularly those that help with achievements down the road. There are “exploration” achievements, for visiting every named area in a region. 1I’m probably getting the terms wrong here. Continents are divided into what I’m calling “regions”, which are generally what you see when you pull up the world map. There are achievements for sampling the different kinds of food and drink, and for interacting with the non-hostile wildlife. Just from following the quest tree, Pleasance was essentially on her third region, but I sent her back to deal with the previous two more thoroughly. I wish I had waited until the Festival to do this.

Then there’s the deal with Oleari. At a certain point, the quests in Mulgore (the Tauren starting region) dry up, and you get assigned quests to go to other places — specifically, Orgrimmar and Silverpine Forest. Up to this point, I had been thinking of quests as divided up by race: there’s the Orc quest chain and the Undead quest chain and the Tauren quest chain. This is true at very low levels: each race’s starting area has its own set of starting quests. But after that, it’s more like there’s a quest chain for each of the two main continents. Pleasance and Crumbcake started on different continents, so I didn’t notice this from leveling them up. But the moment Oleari landed in Orgrimmar, she started getting offered quests that I had already done with Crumbcake. My fault for trying to run three characters simultaneously, I suppose. I should just pick one and run with it.

And if I pick one, it’ll probably be Oleari, because she’s got more potential to be useful in a group than Crumbcake, and because she still has the opportunity to not make some of the mistakes I made with Pleasance. (Oleari is trying out the fishing holes and sampling the local cheeses as she goes.) But I’m growing weary of treading old ground, and that’s a good sign that it’s time to stop this obsessive daily play. I’m not done exploring this game, and still have things to say about it, but I’m not married to it, and I think it’s time I started seeing other games again. We’ll be revisiting it by and by.

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1. I’m probably getting the terms wrong here. Continents are divided into what I’m calling “regions”, which are generally what you see when you pull up the world map.

WoW: My First Stupid Dungeon

The quest tree in World of Warcraft eventually starts pushing the player towards multi-player activity. There are “elite” monsters that are best tackled in teams — I’ve managed one such alone (Chet the Slime-Breeder), if a warlock accompanied by a familiar can truly be said to be alone, but the only other elite I’ve beaten (Yetimus the Yeti Lord) was accomplished the help of two strangers, an ad-hoc group of people who were in the area and of the appropriate level, assembled specifically for that purpose.

Then there are the dungeon instances. This is an area where Blizzard has gone to some length to facilitate such ad-hoc groupings. There’s a special “dungeon finder” interface, which is not an interface for finding dungeons, but for finding people to accompany you into them (and then teleporting you in as a group). Playing primarily solo, I didn’t use this until I actually had a quest in a dungeon. In fact, I didn’t use it until long afterward — because of my lack of experience with dungeons, I had no idea what the quest-givers were getting at. All I knew was that they were asking me to go to places that, unlike most quests, didn’t get marked on my map. I figured they’d show up once I entered the right zone or something. This is the first of many misunderstandings that characterized my first dungeon experience.

The first dungeon I actually attempted was Shadowfang Keep, a haunted castle where some rebels against the Undead had fled. The game recommends this for levels 15-26. I was level 26. I had a particular blockage for starting on the quest that sends you there: the NPC who assigns it is in Orgrimmar, and Pleasance wasn’t even on the same continent as Orgrimmar. The only way to reach it is by zeppelin. As a newcomer to Azeroth, I didn’t know this; when I was first told to go to Orgrimmar, I wasted some time trying to follow the quest arrow which pointed towards the other continent, then gave up and pursued other quests, figuring I’d wander into Orgrimmar eventually if I kept exploring. I have a better grasp of how to locate stuff on the world maps now, but there are still aspects of the UI that I’m shaky on.

Once I had the quest, I opened the Dungeon Finder and got in the queue for Shadowfang, registering Pleasance as a damage dealer. The Dungeon Finder asks you to choose a specific party role, you see, so that it can put people together into balanced groups. Three roles are recognized: damage dealer, healer, and tank (the guy who tries to make the monsters attack him so that they don’t attack the more fragile teammates). It strikes me as peculiar that these roles are openly acknowledged in the UI. I mean, the concepts been part of RPGs for a while, but usually there’s some pretense that they’re emergent properties of the class abilities. Putting those three roles up front is essentially admitting that these are basically the only things you can do, and that all the multifarious character classes and specializations just funnel into these three points.

Anyway, I got into a group, with a couple of damage dealers and a healer and a tank. But the tank wasn’t a very good one, apparently, and the group voted to kick him out and recruit another tank after several of us got killed by monsters he was supposed to be keeping off us. And this is where the next bit of stupidity on my part starts. Apparently the healer was willing and able to resurrect me in place, but since I’ve never adventured in the company of a healer before, I acted on habit and “released my spirit” to run back to where my corpse lay. And that was a problem: dungeons change the death mechanics a bit. You respawn as a ghost at the dungeon entrance, but you turn back into flesh as soon as you enter the dungeon proper. In order to reach the rest of the party, I would have to get past all the monsters that had respawned in the way, and which I was incapable of defeating alone.

Well, no problem, I figured. The team will know what happened and come to get me. Also, I wasn’t the only one who died, so there would be other people showing up soon. Neither of these things happened. I put out some plaintive cries for help on the party chat channel, but no one seemed to be replying. I tried making a solo run to where the rest of the party was anyway, but just got killed a couple more times. Eventually someone else left the party and another guy wordlessly showed up, and I followed him around for a while, but then he just vanished. Meanwhile, the rest of the party was conquering the dungeon without me, while I wandered forlorn and confused in the few hallways available to me.

Then I noticed that my chat window was switched to the “combat log” tab. That’s why I hadn’t seen anyone talking. Presumably I had clicked it accidentally while trying to target the monster that had killed me. I’ve had problems with this tabbed interface before; at one point, I managed to detach it into a separate window that overlapped with the general chat and prevented me from reading either, and it took me a while to figure out how to dock it back in — mainly because I wasn’t looking for ways to dock it, I was looking for ways to get rid of it entirely. I’d still like to figure that out. None of the screenshots I see online have a “combat log” tab, so there must be a way.

Once I had normal chat back, the first thing I noticed was a bunch of “where is ple?” and “i think shes afk” and other such complaints. But even once communication had been reestablished, it was difficult to communicate my problems to the team, because they were things that for them wouldn’t be problems. I was told to “port to lab”. Presumably “port” was short for “teleport”, but Pleasance didn’t have any kind of teleportation capability, and wouldn’t know where “lab” is if she did. Then someone said “talk to the guy”, which in retrospect I recognize as instruction, but which at the time I didn’t even realize was addressed to me. I’m guessing that things become clearer when you’re used to the way WoW players talk in dungeons. “The guy”, it turned out, was an NPC standing near the entrance who I had spoken to once on initially entering it and ignored afterward, because he seemed useless. He wasn’t. His use was that he could teleport you to parts of the dungeon that the party had already visited. Perhaps someone explained this at some point while I was on “combat log”.

Eventually, I sat down in the entrance and said that I’d join them when at least two people came back to help me fight the monsters between my position and theirs, because if only one person came back, they’d just vanish without explanation like everyone else had done. One person came back, and patiently motioned toward “the guy” until I got the message. We did beat the boss, but not with the party we started with, because there had been some quitting from frustration by that point.

So, that’s my first dungeon experience. If it had happened in a single-player game, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but as it was, I humiliated myself and wasted other people’s time. Worse, I was robbed of the experience. I missed out entirely on the middle section, including a couple of sub-quests to take out secondary bosses. I had to backtrack through already-conquered areas just to get the quest tokens I needed.

So after I was done I gave it another try with a different group, and it’s amazing how quickly things go when everyone knows what they’re doing.

WoW: Choosing the Horde

You may have noticed that all the characters I’ve made so far are Horde. I suppose I should try out a character or two on the Alliance side at some point, but I feel like I’ve got enough different characters going concurrently already right now. The main reason I favor Horde is that it seems more interesting. The base Alliance races are the traditional Fellowship of the Ring assortment, with Gnomes standing in for Hobbits. The base Horde races are monsters. The Cataclysm expansion has confused this somewhat by putting Worgen (essentially, werewolves) on the Alliance side, presumably so they can fight Undead in an approximation of Vamps vs Lycans or Team Edward vs Team Jacob. But since I haven’t bought Cataclysm, I don’t feel like that affects me much.

At any rate, monsters are definitely the more interesting choice here. The CRPGs where you can play a human, elf, or dwarf greatly outnumber the ones where you can play an orc, troll, or undead, and even more greatly outnumber the ones where you can play an anthropomorphic cow. Monsters are expected to be more extreme than normal people in one way or another, and can have weird special abilities. I’m not sure either of these points really applies in WoW, though — yes, Undead get to replenish their health through cannibalism, but every race gets something, and I’ve already expressed disappointment in how a player character’s undeadness isn’t reflected in the game mechanics in most ways (such as what happens when you die).

Also, the traditional hero races seem like they make for a simpler story, and thus less thoughtful one. Telling the tale of a Horde hero requires some ingenuity. How do you sell the role, make the player sympathize? In the case of Tauren (and possibly Trolls), they do it by making the so-called monsters into a misunderstood and oppressed minority with valid grievances against the self-proclaimed heroes. In the case of Orcs and Goblins, they do it by playing them for laughs and basically turning them into muppets, amusingly stupid creatures capable of slapstick antics. In the case of Undead, they go for broke and just make them fascinatingly loathsome.

WoW: Getting Twinked

Joining World of Warcraft at this late date means having friends who are far more advanced than you, and, unlike in single-player games, that means more than just tips and spoilers. One associate, skilled in the Leathercrafting profession, has gifted Crumbcake a full set of leather armor (some bits of which she was too low-level to wear at the time of gifting), and another gave Oleari thirty gold pieces — more money than all my characters put together had ever seen. In both cases, I think these were trifles for the givers, easily parted-with. (I certainly know firsthand that practicing a craft involves making more items than you have any use for.)

In MMO lingo, this is called “twinking”, derived from “twinkie”, a derisive term from the pen-and-paper RPG community for the worse sorts of powergamer — particularly the sort who brings to the table a character decked out in magic items that they claim to have obtained from another DM who isn’t available for comment. In this context, the word may be a corruption of “tweak”, as in tweaking stats for min-maxing, but this is one of those words whose etymology is long on surmise and short on evidence. I’ve seen the term cause some confusion; role-players aren’t the only subculture that’s assigned a distinct meaning to it. The one constant seems to be that it’s always an insult. A twinkie is something you don’t want to be.

Obviously the MMO has shifted the term in meaning somewhat, and consequently, getting twinked is no bad thing — there’s little suspicion of cheating when the rules are enforced by server code, and there’s nothing shameful about being the recipient of a friend’s generosity. Even using one of your own more-advanced characters to give a new one a leg up seems to be considered okay — even if the character didn’t earn that sweet armor, you, the player, did. Still, Blizzard considers it disruptive enough to the intended experience that there are mechanisms in place to limit it — the most obvious being that most items require a minimum experience level for use (including, a little bizarrely, food items).

Even as a recipient of this kind of help, I’m a little leery of the effect it’ll have on my experience of the game. Sure, I like dying less. But I also like meeting challenges, and the whole point of this is to make things less challenging. On the gripping hand, this game is really calibrated on the assumption that you’re going to have help from other players, if only through grouping. (Pleasance has even gotten up to a quest where the game specifically advises this.) One definite downside is that it robs some of the quest rewards of their impact. So Oleari completes a quest and gets a whole silver piece — so what? It’s even worse for Cumbcake: a lot of the quest rewards are armor. Advancing through the quest tree normally means a steady sequence of small improvements in your armor rating, but Crumbcake has jumped the queue, with the result that all of the armor rewards she’s been offered lately are worse than what she already has.

WoW: Grouping it

Last night, for the first time, I spent a little while in a group. Not a large group — it was just me and one guy from work. (I’m still reluctant to quest with anonymous strangers, although I suppose my WoW experience won’t be complete until I’ve tried it at least once.) I was using a newer and less-experienced character, an Orc rogue named Crumbcake. I may wind up using Crumbcake exclusively for social play, because I don’t want her to level faster than my friends on that server, but she doesn’t really seem like an ideal sort of character for that sort of thing. The real social roles are healing and enhancement — abilities that become more effective when you have someone to share them with. Rogues are experts at sneaking, which seems like it would be more effective when you’re alone, because non-stealthy companions are liable to get into fights that you’ll have to either break stealth to participate in, or ignore and be a bad teammate. But even without force multipliers, playing with someone else will tend to increase both participants’ survival rate. Quests tend to become available when you’re at the experience level that can just barely pull them off without dying if you’re lucky. You can overcome this by only attempting quests that are a level or two below you, and indeed I think you’re likely to do this automatically after a while just because of all the quest XP there is lying around, but with a partner, it’s much less of a worry.

Nonetheless, there are some obvious and immediate downsides to adventuring with a group, and I don’t just mean the mechanical aspects, like splitting loot. It requires coordination, particularly schedule coordination. I remember a “test” in A Tale in the Desert that involved putting together a group of seven people for a time-consuming pilgrimage to a number of remote shrines. It was probably the most challenging thing I ever attempted in the game, even though there was no obstacle beyond keeping the group together. WoW groups are of course more flexible than that — if someone has to log off, everyone else involved can keep going. But even with just two people, we spent a substantial amount of time discussing what we were going to do, rather than just going out and doing stuff like a solo player. Coordination of this sort is necessary because grouping implicitly asks you to be attentive to other people’s needs. Not only is it experienced as a bad thing when you’re kept waiting, it’s also experienced as a bad thing when you know you’re keeping other people waiting. I kept my partner waiting for an embarrassingly long time at one point while I tried to find my way to the Windrider Master in Orgrimmar — it was my first visit there, and, like all the capital cities, it’s laid out in a confusingly three-dimensional way. (It turns out that the only way to get up there was by an elevator which I hadn’t recognized as an elevator.) That’s an extreme case, but it’s a symptom of the larger disadvantage that group play isn’t self-paced. When I’m soloing, I can stop in the middle of a quest to try out a fishing hole I noticed. When I’m not, I feel like I’m wasting other people’s time if I stop to read the quest descriptions thoroughly instead of just skimming them.

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