Saturday, December 30, 2006

Guild Wars Nightfall: Progress Update Two

If you'll recall from last time, I was still having problems with Apocrypha, the shape-changing boss of the second Nightfall mission. My first encounter with him on a trial account was a stalemate - I couldn't kill it because I lacked any sort of hate whatsoever with my very limited skill selection, it couldn't kill me because of my solid Paragon and Monk backline. My next encounter on my main account was a disaster – I loaded up on interrupts and enchantment hate but he nailed me with hexes and AoE.

Now, I'll admit, at the time I was pretty frustrated. I, simply put, hate losing. I'm sure a lot of people are the same but being bettered (When, of course, I think I shouldn't be) really gnaws at me. It's part of why, I think, I'm so competitive but it can be as much of a disadvantage as it can an advantage. I don't throw controllers or curse, but I do switch off the machine and walk away in disgust, so to speak. But, really, Apocrypha is exactly what I want out of PvE – a challenge. And an interesting one. I remember in the test that the developers made a lot of bosses but, for a few of them, they wanted them to be “special” and more memorable. The first boss like this I can remember was Justicar Hablion in the original (Now called Prophesies) campaign. He was the boss of the mission Bloodstone Fen, a great name just dripping with meaning, if you ask me, and a major turning point in the game's storyline. As it goes, Hablion has been helping the player and the player's been helping Hablion but at the end of this mission it's revealed that the players have been helping to lead innocents to the slaughter. They witness Hablion slaughter a group of captives on something called the Bloodstone, a massive magical artifact that traps souls and is linked to the gods and the origin of magic. After that, of course, Hablion has to go. And what follows is an epic battle to the death on top of the Bloodstone itself (Which, in a neat twist has an environmental effect that causes any resurrection skills to take four times as long to cast. Since those skills, as a general rule, take forever to cast it means that you'll be standing there waving your arms for at least half a minute – an eternity in Guild Wars times – should anyone be killed.). The first time I ran that mission as a tester and ran into Hablion he was a beast. A high level Warrior with AoE damage who could decimate a party all on his own who was backed up by several healers and ranged attackers. The difficulty level was tweaked up and down several times but what the developers told us was that they wanted that final encounter in the mission to be a bit different than the normal boss fight, a bit more meaningful. And, well, I've run that mission so many times that Hablion is a joke (The trick is to pull the patroling enemies on either side of him, then kill of his support first, once he's alone Hablion goes down quickly enough. Especially if you have any melee hate – Empathy just ruins him - and interrupts for his healsig.) and there are, of course, much tougher and menacing enemies down the road. But looking at it from the perspective of a first time player who stumbles into that fight for the first time, I think the developers succeeded. Hablion was, for that time, an excellent boss. He was big, he was bad, he had been built up by the storyline, and he was a bear to take down. Combined with the special effect on the area where the fight took place there's a palpable sense that that fight is different.

I'm usually critical of PvE design in general. Simply put, I think the developers cheat a bit too much when they could do better by sticking to the game's rules – which are, normally, the same for everything. The main exception being bosses. They “break” the normal rules for monsters – having built-in health regeneration, for example, making them harder to kill. Most also deal more damage than normal or have attributes that far exceed a player's limit of 16 (Well, 19 on a few if you get lucky with an item proc). And any sort of debuff lasts only half as long on most bosses. They'll also reward the player for killing them by letting them capture skills, gain a health bonus, and dropping rare if not unique items. I understand that they're supposed to be tougher and more rewarding than normal foes - and the standard boss fight is pretty ingrained in RPGs and MMOs - but I think this is a bit of a false path that the developers have gone down. If I had my druthers, PvE would be mirroring PvP and vice versa. The skills and techniques used by better players in PvP would be ghosted onto the AI of monsters. And high-level encounters should be planned out not as a party of players against a single boss but as one group against another – with all the interlocking skills and synergies that implies. In short, my ideal “boss” wouldn't be a boss at all but some sort of NPC guild team. And this can be done within the existing rules a lot better than fitting in overpowered, “elite” enemies that break the overall symmetry of the games ruleset – one point of damage is one point of damage no matter what skill you cast and where you're casting it and all that (There's no exceptions or alterations to skills when going from one playstate to another as there are in, say, City of Heroes that create, essentially, two separate games under one umbrella.).

You might think, then, that I'd be opposed to things like Hablion but you'd be wrong. What I'm opposed to is the casual tossing of the rulebook out the window. I don't mind a sharp twist or exception to the rules when it's serving a purpose. And, of course, if it works. With Hablion it works well and, so too, I think it works with Apocrypha. It, after all, “breaks” the rules much more than Hablion. It violates the idea that all monsters/AI enemies in Guild Wars have to be from a single profession (Which, by the way, is another really unnecessary limiting design constraint. Players don't have to abide by that so I don't see why monsters can be, say Ranger/Warriors, either. With the implementation of Heroes, the first NPCs who can dual class that might just have opened the door – as do some other monsters who use skills from more than one profession – but for the most part everything draws from a single skill list). However, rather than simply having two professions the way players do, Apocrypha is a shape changer who can alter form and, in doing so, switch between skill bars comprised of Mesmer, Dervisher, and Paragon skills. Each one effective in its own way. It's effectively three monsters in one which just flies in the face of the established conventions of the game. But it breaks the rules in a beautiful, exciting, and interesting way that creates a meaningful and memorable encounter. I have absolutely no problem with this – far to the contrary – as long as it's done rarely. Then, it's something special. If not, then it's just another cliché that quickly becomes boring. I reserve the right to change my opinion if, say, ten missions down the road I'm stumbling across pack after pack of shape changing critters but, for now, Apocrypha is an excellent boss and it's really made for some interesting play for me.

It beat me – twice, in fact – but that just meant that I had to get past it. The thing about Apocrypha, though, is that each of its skill sets provide a challenge in its own right. The Paragon has a lot of chants and shouts which are completely untouchable – once they're up they're up until the duration runs out – and those provide for massive healing. The Dervish side is heavy on enchantment-based AoE damage and melee hate so it just chews through teams relying on a lot of close-up fighters, like I am with a Warrior and two Dervishers of my own (And before you ask, no, I wasn't changing. Sure, I could have gone with some henchies but those are the Heroes I have and since I have much better control over them I wanted to stick with them. Plus, I was determined to beat Apocrypha with the team I had – to me, switching would have been admitting defeat. It's weird, I know, but for me sometimes limiting constraints create fun.). And the Mesmer facet is hex heavy, and also has some Warrior hate, as well as effective healing through some minor energy denial which, since my Monks at low level, is a lot more crippling than it would be if Dunk had his full attributes – if he gets tagged with Ether Feast too many times then it really stresses the healing base which I've been skimping on to frontload damage in my other characters and roll over enemies. So, to beat Apocrypha you need to not only overcome his powerful healing, you have to survive his offense, and at the same time clear any number of hexes, enchantments, and conditions that will cripple your team if you let them. That's a pretty tall order in a four person team especially with the limited skills available in the newbielands of Nightfall. I imagine non-melee teams would have a much easier time, especially if they had a Mesmer or a Necro with them because although Apocrypha can remove enchantments – which, by the way, my Dervishers hate – it has problems with hexes.

Fortunately, though, since I have all the skills from Factions on back, I don't have to rely on the limited selection in the early areas – not with my Heroes, anyway. Which helps Carson and Dunk but not so much Mel (since I want to use her to play around with alternate Dervish builds, I'm trying not to get too wacky with alternate skills just yet – everything from other campaigns is something I'll have to get for my Dervish eventually if I want to use them myself. Have I mentioned how much I hate that unlocking is character rather than account based? Being able to draw on 700+ skills for my Heroes and only about 30[1] for myself kinda hammers that home, you know.). Anyhow, I managed to level up during my ill-fated attempt to challenge Apocrypha so here's how I tweaked things to face him.

Oreon Rex (lv11)

Mysticism – 9
Scythe Mastery – 7+1
Earth Prayers – 3
Dead Points - 3

  1. Rending Sweep
  2. Pious Assault
  3. Twin Moon Sweep
  4. Aura of Thorns
  5. Signet of Return
  6. Heart of Holy Flames
  7. Zealous Renewal
  8. Mystic Vigor

Having hit lv11 the attribute points are starting to roll in so I have more to throw around which is nice, of course. I'm eventually going to be going for 12/12 with a focus on Scythes because, well, that's what you do when you're melee. Actually, it's going to be 12+2 Scythes (I don't like Superiors in PvE, especially not with the armor that a Dervish has), and 11+1 Mysticism (As I can't see a point in raising it past the sweet spot of 12 which will give me 4 energy back from every ended enchantment.) and that'll give me enough spare points to splash into another line if I want. As you might have noticed beyond raising my attributes the only change here is to swap out Eremite's Attack for Rending Sweep. They're both 4 second recharge attacks that don't rely on an enchantment – something I want in case I get stripped of enchantments left and right. The damage on Rending is lower but more reliable than Ermite since it doesn't rely on how many foes are nearby. My only reason for avoiding it before was that I didn't have any hexes to trigger the enchantment removal since I have no characters that are hexing but, well, keep reading and you'll see how I solved that little problem.


Strength – 2
Swordsmanship – 8
Tactics – 7
Dead Points - 2

  1. Watch Yourself
  2. Sever Artery
  3. Gash
  4. Final Thrust
  5. Rebirth
  6. Auspicious Parry {E}
  7. Riposte
  8. Distracting Blow

Now, when we last saw Koss he was loaded up heavy on the interrupts while being an offensive force. As I said earlier, I'm cheating on survivability in the hopes of being able to pave anything I run across relatively quickly. In case it's not readily apparent, I'm not such a big fan of the “Warrior as tank” school of thought and I like to go about giving them solid defense in as aggressive a way as possible. Here that's achieved through the twin nastiness of Auspicious Parry and Riposte. Anyone attacking Carson just makes him all the deadlier because they'll either supercharge his adrenaline or they'll take some pretty solid damage – while supercharging his adrenaline (Riposte is a skill, Parry a stance, they stack although I'm not sure what resolves first there). I toyed with the idea of giving Carson Bonetti's, too, but there's almost nothing he's spending energy on and it ends on a skill so unless I want him to be just standing there relying on his standard attack – something I'm not sure the AI will do, by the way – it's about the best non-elite stance (I saw a skill called Steady Stance on obs mode today and I'm drooling) I can see but it's not the best fit. So, having no real idea what to do with that last slot I went with Watch Yourself figuring at that level of Tactics it's not too bad and will help out my Dervishers a bit – and Carson's got the adren to spare for it. I stuck with the whole Sever+Gash+Final combo because, really, it's a classic and I haven't seen a better non-elite sword combo yet. And Distracting Blow's there because not only am I relying on Carson for my interrupts you'll be hard pressed to find a Warrior build of mine that doesn't include some sort of disruption – it drastically increases the threat of a Warrior and is often overlooked in favor of just flat offense, I feel (This, by the way, is why my favorite weapon is the hammer still.) - and Distracting Blow's the best option I can see.


Mysticism – 6
Scythe Mastery – 9

  1. Rending Sweep
  2. Twin Moon Sweep
  3. Eremite's Attack
  4. Rending Touch
  5. Rebirth
  6. Intimidating Aura
  7. Heart of Holy Flame
  8. Vital Boon

Mel's lower attribute pool (She only has 70 points while my main character has 85 – apparently, the Heroes get the bonus 15 attribute points added in as they level. Oreon has both bonuses but Mel's missing the one still.) means her points work out exactly. She's also, as you might notice, less reliant on enchantments so I'm much more comfortable with her having a less powerful energy engine in favor of doing more damage (Which, I've noticed, she seems to do better at than Oreon even with similar equipment stats and attributes. I'm not sure why that is but it means that I'm giving her the best scythes I find and using them on my main character as hand-me downs. She's currently got a 9~22 scythe while I'm rocking a 9~18 one. Not much difference but since she does something like 150% of my damage, well, it matters. Better skills AND better weapons. This is, like, totally unfair to my newbie's esteem. Still, abuse 'em while you got 'em.). What you'll also notice here is that she's loaded up on the enchantment hate. Previously, I had Dunkoro doing that since his options are more reliable but, well, just wait. I suppose I could have gone crazy and made her a Dervish/Mesmer because with four pips of regen she could conceivable use the Inspired and Revealed enchantments among others. But, well, I'm a lazy, lazy person and I want her to stick as close to what I can actually use as possible (I know, I'm a horrid scrub. But this way she's something of a testbed and I can see how different skills work without having to try them myself.) but I stuck with what's available in the Dervish list. So, since I wasn't sure quite what would work I gave her three skills to remove enchantments. That's Intimidating Aura - which only triggers once and only if the target has lower health which is pretty hefty for a skill that cost 10 energy and takes 20 seconds to recharge but, eh, it doesn't have an attribute link and lasts roughly forever until it triggers so I can see why that was done. Rending Touch which for a low price strips off an enchantment on both you and your target – and since this is a Dervish we're talking about there's plenty of enchantments to get rent (It recharges perfectly in synch with Vital Boon so it's almost always available). And Rending Sweep I've previously talked about. Somewhere between those three I figured that Apocrypha wouldn't be able to keep his enchantments up for long. Heart of Holy Flames is here mostly as enchantment fodder – putting it on is almost as good as removing it so it works great for that, I think, especially at low levels where degen is brutal. Since I didn't expect many enchantments to stick on Mel, I gave her Eremite's Attack – pretty useless against Apocrypha but I could disable it for that fight and there was still a whole dungeon to crawl through before I got there where it would prove useful. Everything else was a bit too costly for my tastes although I probably could have stuck with Mystic Sweep. And Twin Moon Sweep's there mostly as a heal because Mel is still the most likely to die in my party. She just doesn't seem to have the survival instinct that I do (Or, I guess, know how to break agro) and enemies swarm on her like flies on honey.


Divine Favor – 5
Healing Prayers – 8
Inspiration Magic – 5
Dead Points - 3

  1. Healing Touch
  2. Word of Healing {E}
  3. Dwayna's Kiss
  4. Draw Conditions
  5. Rebirth
  6. Inspired Hex
  7. Revealed Hex
  8. Power Drain

Those extra attribute points make a huuuge difference (His attribute layout from last time might have even been from a lv9 version instead of a lv10 like my main – my Heroes are ever so slightly behind my progression in terms of leveling. I don't feel sorry for the bastards because they get all those nice skills to play with.). With low level Monks I prefer to raise their main stat and Divine Favor at roughly equal amounts because the bonus from both is about equal. At a certain point, however, it makes much more sense to crank up that main stat because the DF bonus trails off in efficiency and the points can be better spent elsewhere. As you can see, Dunk just hit that point. Anyhow, as for skills the big change here was to swap out Inspired and Revealed Enchantment for the Hex versions. Not only are they just effective at handling hexes and the others are at handling enchantments, they're actually good in terms of energy – they only net Dunk 1 en per casting but anything that lets him do something as valuable as remove an enchantment at a profit is great – while the inspired/revealed enchantments were costing energy. Since Dunk's blasting out the healing making sure he has the energy to do so is important. And, not only that, but once he captures a hex, Dunk would be tossing it out there giving Mel and I a chance to use our Rending Sweeps, if need be. I love it when a plan comes together. I also swapped Orison of Healing for Healing Touch for a quick 70 point heal. That's not much more than Orison at this point, mind, (Which is...47 plus the 16 points from Divine Favor if they haven't changed the formula any. Let me check. Yep, still got it.) but it casts faster and Dunk seems to know that that's his self heal a lot better than with Orison. The other change is going with Draw Conditions over Mend Ailment. For one thing it's faster than Mend Ailment and although it doesn't help Dunk at all this one was really put in for the fight against Apocrypha since it would clean any conditions from any of my melee fighters in rapid order – and all those conditions like Blind don't really matter that much to Dunk. Like before Word of Healing and Dwayna's Kiss are the workhorses here. Both potentially heal for well above 100 and make short work of most damage – they don't work so well on Carson because he doesn't have any enchantments (Yet. Once I have another Monk in the party I'll make sure one is a Protection based enchanter for sure to make this sort of build that much more effective. I'm just not sure if there'll be a henchie available or if it would be better to switch Dunk to this. Hell, for a solid Monk line, I'll run two Hero monkeys if I can.) but he's got better armor and can take more punishment anyways – making each point of healing go that much further.

Anyhow, this team was primed and ready to take down Apocrypha, in my opinion. There might be better ways of doing it but this was going to be my way. I hit the mission zone and talked to the NPC to enter (It's interesting that instead of having a mission enter button there's now an NPC to talk to. I gather that's to make missions more like quests. That's not a bad idea, I'd just rather it went the other way around and quests were more like missions. But I'm not exactly the core of the PvE market, so to speak.) and, again, breezed through the mission. Saved the Sunspear ghosts to get the bonus and headed into the fight with Apocrypha with full morale bonuses. I carefully cleared out all the wandering enemies in the area before taking on the big boss. As I'm getting better – or at least, trying to – at controlling my Heroes, I sent Carson in first so that he'd absorb the agro and, hopefully, most of the blows. I tried to get him on one side of Apocrypha before chargin in on the opposite with Mel at my side so it's scythe or non-Mexican equivalent attacks while in Dervish mode wouldn't catch all of us. Mel, however, wasn't about to play that game so it didn't work out so well and Apocrypha was soon hammering us. Dunk was spamming the heals, though, and enchantments and hexes were rising and falling in rapid order – on both sides - so we were holding in there. Apocrypha's health was steadily chipped downwards. Lower and lower, and although he could get his Mending Refrain up for the regen (Pretty sure he has the default +3 regen that most bosses have so that was giving him something like 5 or 6 regen or 10 or 12 health a second.) he wasn't able to use must of anything else. Dunk started to run low on energy, though, just as Apocrypha switched back to Dervish and laid into us with the AoE. My Mystic Vigor had dropped and he caught me recasting it and Oreon went down. Apocrypha had about 10% health left at this point – so achingly close to being dead he just needed a bit more attacking to pop – but Carson immediately stopped attacking to cast Rebirth. I scrambled to open his command interface (I don't tend to keep it open as I do with Dunk – I like to monitor his energy – because it gets in the way too much and I haven't figured out a good place for it or how to retweak my interface for the Hero menus yet.) to disable the skill but it was too late. He wasn't using his primed Final – and he was going to lock his skills and burn all that adrenaline away to boot - and I was going to pop up right next to Apocrypha with low health to be caught in the next AoE wave. I was sure that I was about to get my party wiped and was about to order Dunk to move back out of range so he could survive and rez us up for another try. Fortunately, Mel chose right then to hit and hit hard and the boss died before I could even be revived. Mission completed.

I haven't done much more in terms of PvE beyond that since I've been drawn into the fleeting snowball scene (And, you know, writhing in pain from illness and unable to focus on the computer screen for very long which tends to limit my playtime.) except to get the last 10 or so Sunspear points to get my fifth rank. That's 500 beasties killed under a bounty, by the way. Hooray for grinding! Only halfway from being able to wear that title. Still, the one I'm interested in getting right now is the one that says I have skillz. So, if you'll excuse me, there's people who need a snowball or three in the face.

[1] – Huh, I just checked. I've spent 15 of 16 skill points I've earned – I'm saving the rest until I get to the next area where Dervish skills are available – but with the free skills from the beginning I do have exactly 31 skills. The extra one is the Sunspear Rebirth Signet which doesn't count for unlocking things for PvP so, man, that was a scary accurate guess.

Three More Improvements to Guild Wars

If you'll remember way back to here I said there were three things that would have me playing Guild Wars again. Sadly, I should have remembered to include a fourth – some body buying me the latest expansion. Still, even though I'm weak two of my three improvements have actually been implemented – one way or another – since I requested them.

The first, a better way of forming groups, went live with the Wintersday festivities and it's almost note perfect what I had in mind. It even stretches across districts the way I wanted. My way of doing it would have made more in-game sense as I would have made a marker or a board object for people in zone to check the way you need to talk to NPCs to access your storage or the merchants. But having a button to press works just as well (It's just not as immersive – and that's something with its instant travel and zoning instances that Guild Wars is a bit weak on.). I also would have included much more information and various check boxes and sliders to help people match their groups and state their preferences better. But, then, I don't have to worry about things like bandwidth or programming concerns. And that sort of functionality can be added as time goes on. Now, I haven't had much cause to use the party search yet as I'm incredibly antisocial when I'm PvEing. It's not that I don't like people it's that I like to go at my own pace and others don't always enjoy that. But from what I hear it seems to be working as intended. I, in all due humbleness, declare this to be a good change.

The second is a bit more difficult because it's not implemented yet. But, basically, there's going to be a shift in the way guilds and championships are determined by switching to rankings based on tournament play rather than a straight up ladder. A greater focus on tournaments, in other words. Now, if you look through my suggestions you won't see anything like that. What you'll see instead is that I asked for player-driven tournaments. But my thinking behind that was not only would it be nice for people who had no interest in high-end PvP but it would also give top guilds a way of measuring themselves that didn't involve the ladder. You could easily set up invitational only tournaments for a select crop of top flight teams and individuals to attend. If, of course, the right tools were there. They aren't at the moment but if they were then you could have a floating system of tournaments existing separate from the ladder. And by suggesting using player driven content (which I hear is all the rage these days) I was hoping to slip that through along with fun things like Dodgeball which was actually put into game during the Dragon Festival. I was just pretty sure that with everything that had been invested in the ladder that the developers would be very reluctant to give it up. And, in fact, they haven't because it'll still be around, it's just going to be deemphasized. To what extend or what degree is hard to tell at this point. However, the move to a Swiss Tournament based system of measuring teams rather than an ELO one is, I think a smart one. With the ladder there were far too many ways to abuse the ranking. And teams which could play, say, 300 games in a season could be ranked higher than those that played 100 with a better winning record and PPG (That's points per game for the uninitiated which is a good way of telling if someone's at their true ranking or not. The true ranking would be the rank on a ladder that teams would have if they all played enough games, by the way.). Although there's something to be said for experience I don't think many people would take even odds on the first team beating the second. And finding games when your ranking got too high could be challenging – against any level of competition not just fair opposition. And don't get me started on bots or smurf guilds to inflate rankings. But, basically, it rewarded those guilds which could just play match after match after match, not more casual ones that could only squeeze in a few games a night. Non-elimination tournaments will tilt the balance away from the “powerguilds” and towards those guilds who can actually play and win games against damned good opponents. Which, I'd think, is what the game's all about. So, I'm going to consider this as though the developers caught my meme, as well.

However, I'm not convinced this is the right way to go about things. Or at the very least, of implementing it although I'd like to see it in action before I really said for sure one way or the other. But one of the many small changes coming in the wake of this large one is that in order to compete in these tournaments every player on the team needs to have been with the competing guild for at least 30 days. If a week is a long time in politics then a month is, roughly, twice as long as eternity in video games. And it's not only going to reward guilds that can match up well against any number of opponents and shift their tactics and strategy on the fly in between rounds not just come up with one build to pave their way up the ladder – it's also going to reward those guilds who're able to remain cohesive. But at the same time it's going to be punishing more casually organized guilds and, especially, casual players (Like, I'll admit, myself. So, yes, I have a bit of a dog in this fight. I'd like to think I'd still be pissed about this, though, even if I was still a member of a top 10 guild.). Now, I understand this has been done largely because of PuG guilds where people just get together and climb the ladder in rapid fashion. But not only does it mean that smaller guilds who struggle to have 8 people on their roster are going to be left out in the cold it also means that even larger guilds have far less incentive to guest people for a try-out, so to speak. Sure, the ladder will still be around but it's not going to be the same. And to join a competitive guild now means that you have to sit out of the real competitive format for a month – if not more considering how many other roster spots might be filled – while waiting for a chance to show your stuff. That might work well for a tried and tested PvPer but it's an incredible hoop to jump through if you're not even sure about your stuff in the first place. Basically, my concern here is that this is going to completely squeeze out the middle tier of players. You'll still have your high-level play for the elite. And you'll still have your low-level swamps where the majority of people spend their time. But what you won't have is a place for people who know just a bit too much to be inexperience but, for whatever reason, don't have the time or talent or team to make that leap to the next level. What this will do is make it even harder for people who can't devote themselves to the game to even experience high-level play. Of course, not all of them belong there but some of them do – even if it's only a small percentage each one of them makes the higher level of competition better by introducing more chances to play and another perspective that could come up with something innovative to keep the game moving (Now, of course, the average PvPer is thinking “Well, that's good. Keep them out of things. Less competition for me.” The average PvPer is, of course, an idiot. You need fresh players to replace the ones you'll lose along the way and a healthy game is a growing one not one that's become too exclusive to allow new blood inside the inner circle. Try convincing them of that, though, I know I have.). And the only way everyone gets to find out who does is to let them take their shot. And test themselves against real opponents to see just what it will take to get really better. That, though, takes a diverse and inclusive competitive scene and I'm not sure this idea will do that. Maybe for the teams already competing at the top of the ladder. But not for everyone else.

And, if you're going to do that you might as well just stick with the ladder because all you're doing is letting the elite teams that have been playing together for months have some extra practice in the right format in advance of the championships. I don't know, maybe there should be more of a Konrad system in place (which is a variant on the Swiss one) where tournaments last longer and teams can play or not play in as many rounds as they like. Each season, then, would be, say, a month or two long tournament with rounds available in set time periods – say every day or few days. Each guild could only play one game a round and couldn't compete against a team they'd already faced in a previous round. Higher ranked guilds could have scheduled games to make sure that the various regions play each other but otherwise teams could just check to see if there was a match waiting and either enter into one or sit around and wait for someone else to challenge them – enough teams playing and they shouldn't wait too long, especially if there's a bit of a notification for them to gather together when the countdown begins (Say every match begins on the hour or every quarter-hour and you have to sign up for one at least fifteen minutes in advance.). At the end of things the team with the most points – gained by winning with some way of measuring strength of schedule thrown in – wins (And that's probably winning a slot in the round-robin tournament for the top teams to decide who gets the crown.). Obviously, if you want the brass ring you need to be in almost every round but it allows for teams to drop in for a round or two. And that along with, perhaps, some “guest exemptions” that teams could somehow win or gain, perhaps, just might give more casual players the foot in the door they'd need (And also, incidentally, gives the developers a lot shorter seasons in-between which they can make balance adjustments.).

My third suggestion, an auction house (Which read that as a better way of trading), hasn't yet been announced but it's something been promised forever. So it'll probably happen one of these days.

Anyhow, since I'm on such a roll, I thought I'd add a few more suggestions. These aren't drastically game changing ones, mind, but more minor improvements to functionality that would make the game's experience much better for everyone using them. Rather than altering long standing mechanics. So more like party searching than the tournament focus. So, here we go, three more things I'd like to see in Guild Wars.

Buddy List Notes. The Friends List in Guild Wars is, let's face it, awful. It's an extremely clunky relic of past iterations of the game that's no where near the level of ease and accessibility of other features in the game. It could, in so many words, be working a lot harder. For starters it only holds 60 names – and that's, I believe, shared between names on your ignore list and your buddy list. Which, I know, sounds like a lot but, trust me, it gets eaten up real fast. For one thing there shouldn't be a limit on the number of scammers and spammers and just plain assholes that you can ignore – there are legions of them, after all. But a large part of this game is about networking. For a game that doesn't have servers it's incredibly hard to connect with other people so you have to put the work in yourself to keep track of and catch up with the cool people you meet along the way. The Friends List could be a really good tool for doing so and it is invaluable but it could be a lot better. What I'd like to see would be a way of attaching notes to any name I put on the list. I don't know about everyone else but I've got a friends list jammed full of names half of which I can't recognize any more. They're not the names those people go by in real life or on the forums or they're just a throw-away PvP name that they don't use anymore so when they show up under their main character I have no idea who they are. So, if there was a little space for me to write, say, “Sausaletus Rex – writes a lot, kinda nice, tends to flake out if you don't stay after him.” or “Ecuas Boon – aka teh Saus” (I've taken to spelling my PvP names backwards these days, don't ask me why.) I'd have a much easier time of keeping track of who's who. And, sad to say, this is the sort of thing I do myself anyway – I take a lot of notes, mental and otherwise - but I don't always have a notepad handy to jot these things down let alone have the right notes close at hand when I need them. A way of doing so in game would make my life so much easier. Just that space, say 255 characters – store it on my harddrive if you have to like the skill templates, I don't care – would be enough. But, if I could, I'd go further and allow players to make categories and divisions within their friends list. Lots of drop down menus and the like to capture more about what each person on your list is like. If they play Warrior a lot, well, there'll be a little tag to let you know at a glance that's they're preferred class. If they focus on PvP then you can see that right away. If you're trying to recruit them to your guild then it's right there. If they're always down for a raid on an elite mission then you get to pin that to whatever database entry is keeping their name on that list for you. Same thing for if they like Heroes Ascent or if they prefer Alliance Battles. Heck, you could even have things letting you know if someone on that list was looking for a particular item so if it dropped into your lap you could send them a whisper about a trade. There are a lot of possibilities – especially ones I haven't thought of - and that's why I think this is a good tool to have.

Video Controls in Observer Mode. Okay, I've mentioned obs mode before here. And it is, in fact, the greatest thing since instant travel. But it's so good that I want to make it better. Especially for people who have absolutely no clue what's going on. This is what always happens to me when I'm watching a match – someone uses a skill that intrigues me (Or, nowadays, even has a skill used on them) and I mouse over it to see what it does only to have it disappear before I can finish because of the next skill and the next and the next covering it up. Generally if I wait it'll come back up but, for me, seeing what skills are getting used with what is a large reason I watch obs mode – I have no idea what most of the new skills are or even what's been done to a lot of the old ones so this is one way to familiarize myself with them. I might be the only one to do so, however, but my point being that the game in general and PvP in specific move really fast. Too fast, I think, for anyone who doesn't already know enough about it to follow. So what I'd like to see is a “Guild Wars Tivo”. Let me, while I'm watching a match pause things, rewind them, and rewatch them at my leisure and then hop back to the “real time” of where I left off. This probably would involve drastically altering the observer system and divorcing the chat from the actual footage but, simply put, I don't care. People can already do this with any number of video capturing devices – why can't the game itself allow people to record and play back matches? If it's a concern about having too much information out there about what the top teams are using, let me tell you, it gets out there anyways. It just only gets into the hands of those who are willing to put in the time and effort to either record these matches on their own or frequent those places and groups where people talk about such things endlessly. Into the hands, in so many words, of the elite. And anyone who happens to be on during the right time can see that sort of thing on obs mode anyway. What I'd like is to give an even greater audience access to the kind of insight game footage can provide. Imagine what could happen if people could trade clips from battles the way they can trade build templates now. And, of course, easily post them to video sites like YouTube where people who've never seen the game before can be introduced to it.

Get Rid of the Damned Bots. I spent something like three hours playing Snowball Arena today. I earned something like 10k faction in 3~400 installments (That's about my average although I'm sure it was off tonight. So call it maybe 30 or 40 matches – you probably won't be far off because I'm sick and tired and doing everything slower today.). I won about 6 games. The reason isn't that I suck horribly (Which, by the way, is true, it's just not applicable here.) it that in all the matches I played I had roughly 3 where both sides had a full complement of human players who remained for the entire game. Some people left early or late, of course, and that doesn't bother me so much – I'd rather they didn't, of course, or if someone disconnected an NPC could spawn in their place or something but people have the freedom to leave any time without any penalty and I'm fine with that. But what I am bothered by is the people who sit there at the rez pad and do nothing for the entire game. These people could be afk, of course, but the vast majority of them are bots – computer programs (And, by the way, very simple ones. I could probably make one if I had to and I can hardly program at all.) that join these games over and over in the hopes of leeching a few points of faction and occasionally getting lucky and getting some gamer track points. In the meantime they leave their teams effectively down a person and just about cripple their chances of winning – especially if there's more than one of them because I don't care how good you are, you might be able to pull off a 3v4 win but 2v4? No way, you're going down in flames and all you can hope for is to hunt some faction. Which exactly what the leechers are counting on you to do because they get just as much as you do just by sitting there. This isn't a problem restricted to the Snowball Arena, mind, I first encountered this sort of thing last expansion in the so-called Competitive missions like Aspenwood and Jade Quarry which are sort of a cross between PvE and PvP. Like Snowball Arena, very painless to get into, no penalty for dying, and the rewards can be considerable. So people would just join or wrote up programs to do it for them and hope for the best. They don't have to win all the time, after all, they can just leave the program running and play the percentages – they'll get lucky enough times to make it worth their while. But the same sort of things that draw these botters are what encourages new and inexperienced players to try these sorts of playstyles. Both the competitive missions and snowball fighting are excellent introductory PvP. A great way of introducing and enticing new players into the mix. But when these bots are around and throwing the playing field out of whack it's no fun for anyone. You either roll or get rolled and that's a lot of things but challenging competition it's not. It's frustrating, it's discouraging, and it leads to some really obnoxious behavior. I mean, this sort of things gets someone as mild-mannered and calm as I am really fucking mad. I mean, seriously, I would go to these people houses, get a drink – for myself - and not use a coaster, that's how mad I am. I kid, of course, because it's not the end of the world or anything. But when someone playing these sort of things sees people cursing and swearing at these bots it only reinforces the idea that PvP is an unfriendly place where they don't belong if they aren't mean and cruel. That's completely false, of course, but you'd be surprised how many people think that you need to be ruthless to compete (Guild Wars is, above all, a team game. If you can't play well with others you won't do well. At the highest levels anyway. I'm not sure just how seriously people take the “1v1” Hero Battles but I know I don't.). But it just creates a negative atmosphere where experienced players are expected at least one person in their group to be useless and quick to bitch and moan about things going wrong. And inexperienced players won't know exactly why just that for whatever reason they're not getting any help from other players at all.

But what makes me really mad is that I have no idea how to fix this without completely screwing over all the casual players who are just trying things out. Not without a complex system of customer support, anyway, and that's not really ANet's or NCSoft's model. It's got to be done through the game's rules if it's going to be done at all and anything you'd do like requiring players to actually use a skill before they earned faction or to move out of the rez shrine could easily be done by even a rudimentary bot script. Anything more complicated and you make the game a chore for people to play which is just counter-productive. But, here's the thing. I'm not a game designer. I don't develop Guild Wars or anything else. I have very little idea how to program things. So, I don't have to come up with the solution here. The people who do make this game and, I'd like to think, have a stake in making sure it survives and even thrives are the ones who have to do that. All I know is that they need to put some serious thought into it. Because, otherwise, they're just continuing to bar the entry of new players. While they hemorrhage older players – and, unlike myself, not all of them will be coming back. Eventually, they'll bled themselves dry. And that's going to suck for me because I won't have anyone left to play with.

The Glory of the Boston Cooler

This might just be because I've been drinking nothing but Ginger Ale for the past few days. But, people, you have not lived until you've had a Boston Cooler.

Which isn't, by the way, named for Boston at all. It's named for Boston Boulevard in Detroit where it was supposedly invented. You wouldn't want to, say, walk into a bar at Harvard and order such a thing. Not that I've, you know, tried such to my frustrated embarrassment or anything.

So, if you're not from the Detroit area you've probably never heard of such things. In fact, even if you are from there you might not have known about it. I know I only stumbled across this delicious treat some time later in my life than in my formative years so it's not like you can go to a movie theater and get one with your popcorn or waltz into a Micky D's and wrap your knuckle on the counter to order one up. No, you have to go to out of the way places, old places, where they try and keep alive regional delicacies like this one to find the thing. Before you start getting too daunted by the prospect, this isn't exactly fancy fare. First, what you do is take a Root Beer Float. Simple, right? You've probably had one of those before, I'm hoping, because they're great in and of themselves. But for a Boston Cooler what you do is take out the Root Beer and replace it with Ginger Ale.

That's it.

That's all it is. A glass of Ginger Ale with some ice cream floating in it.

There are basically a lot of different ways to combine different flavors of carbonated liquids and ice cream together – I love all of them, really, from the fruity Fanta versions in Brazil to the Friendly's slammers – and this is but one of them. And an admittedly obscure one. But, oh the wonderous taste sensation that makes. Like with a brown cow the ice cream interacts with the soda (Which, since I'm from Michigan I should probably be calling “pop” but, meh.) and creates a frothy bubbly mix of ice creamy soda with slowly melting lumps of ice cream in it.

Now, there are a few things you have to do to make a real Boston Cooler. You can't just slap any old ice cream into any old ginger ale and expect culinary magic. The real version is going to melt in your mouth and tingle on your lips – creamy and spicy all at the same time.

The first thing you're going to need is Ginger Ale, of course, and it should be well chilled. Cold actually makes your taste buds work better so not only will it help to leave some of the ice cream unmelted when that chilled liquid hits your tongue it'll be priming it for every taste to follow. But, again, not just any ginger ale will do. You need real golden ginger ale. Like Vernor's (If you pour yourself a glass of it, and reach over to take a good sniff, and suddenly find yourself sputtering, sneezing, and coughing, well, that's how you know you've found the good stuff.). Not dry ginger ale like Canada Dry. That's nice for mixing drinks but it's like seltzer water with a little bit of flavoring compared to just how complex the flavors of golden ginger ale can be. Vernor's, for example, (Which lays claim to being the oldest soda pop ever produced, being made since around the American Civil War.) is aged in a wooden barrel for four years before it ever hits anyone's glass. Of course, as a Detroit institution, I highly recommend Vernor's for this sort of thing but it's not really available everywhere so you'll just have to make due.

The other ingredient is the ice cream. Which is, traditionally, vanilla flavored. Since vanilla shares a lot of flavor profiles with certain compounds which are created with aging in wooden containers, well, it works really well with, say, a ginger ale aged in wooden barrels. Personally, the best ice cream I can find are the ones I make for myself. There's nothing quite like homemade ice cream in a float or a milkshake and I do try to have a ready supply of vanilla on hand because, really, it goes with just about everything from pies to chocolate sauces to any number of such drink concoctions. I understand, though, that churning your own cream is a bit much for most people so store bought ice cream will work just as well. If you're going for the real Detroit experience then you'll want Saunder's brand ice cream (Which, I believe, is actually owned by the same company as Vernor's now but it's also the brand started by the man who came up with a Boston Cooler in the first place and who might very well have invented ice cream floats in the first place, Frank Saunders – shortly after Mr. Vernor began selling his soda pop.) or possibly Stroh's. That's the ice cream not the beer, by the way, and you can thank Prohibition for that one. But your favorite brand will do otherwise – French Vanilla, Vanilla Bean included, just “plain” Vanilla, they all will work. The thing to look for would be something rich and creamy. A smooth texture somewhere between regular New York style ice cream and soft serve would be best because you want it to be drinkable. By the way, don't be afraid of a really flavorful vanilla here because that ginger ale is going to need something strong to stand up to it. A weak and bland ice cream is just going to be overwhelmed. You won't even taste it if you've got a good soda.

If you're going for the whole works you'll want to get a thick glass mug and stick it in the freezer for, say, a half an hour before making things. It'll help keep things nice and cool for you to enjoy. And it looks really nice at a party if everyone has their own frosted cup.

Combine the two. Pour in the soda first and leave some room because when you add the ice cream it's going to bubble up considerably. Add as much or as little as you like. I generally like a ratio of two parts soda to one part ice cream. Resist, if you can, the urge to eat the thing right away and give it a few minutes for the froth to subside and the ice cream to melt a bit. If you do then the creamy vanilla goodness will have seeped into each and every last sip of the soda making it almost like a milkshake you don't have to stir or whip together (A common stomach remedy where I'm from is to drink ginger ale, especially with milk. This, then, is just a really tasty way of doing that although from experience I'm not sure I'd recommend it when your stomach aches.). Done right you should be able to leave your spoon aside and just drink the whole thing straight out of your glass. Using a spoon to scoop out the ginger ale coated lumps of rapidly dissolving ice cream is perfectly acceptable, as well.

Actually, since this is a Detroit thing, you can eat or drink it pretty much any way you want and no one's going to raise much of a fuss. We're very comfortable with the whole “to each their own” thing around there. And a Boston Cooler is just one of the things that's our own. There are lots of others. So, next time, maybe I'll talk about the real way to make an Egg Cream.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Guild Wars as Spectator Sport

One of, in my opinion, the greatest features in Guild Wars is something called observer mode. Or obs mode if you're trying to hard to be in the know. But that's not a big thing because observer mode is all about being in the know. It was implemented around this time last year as a “present” for the ongoing Wintersday festivities (Just like this year they put in an improved party searching feature and reconnects.) and although I wasn't playing at the time I imagine there was much rejoicing (It was, in fact, one of the things that enticed me back into the game for my last go around.). Observer mode lets you watch high end PvP battles (On a bit of a delay so there's no shenanigans, of course.) - you can watch the battle from anyone's perspective or from set vantage points. And you can see what skills people are using and their tactics and a host of other information. While you're doing this you're in a chatroom with other people watching the match along with you. And while it's as mixed a bag as anywhere else people gather online you can still occasionally gain some insight into the game and its players. People from the match you're watching will even stop in from time to time to check out how they did because observer mode is an excellent way to gain an overview of a match. Something it's hard to see when you're in the middle of a battle. Nowadays, I gather, it's not just for the guilds at the top of the ladder but any team can check their own battles in a private observer mode. It's an excellent way to review a game. Or learn about the tactics and techniques that the best teams are using. Or even just to hang around with the PvP crowd and get to know some of them (I'd imagine, I already know most of these people. And to them, I'd just like to say: Sorry.). And all it takes is a little button click and a browse through a list of available games.

So, I found Nightfall underneath my tree, so to speak, because someone thought, and I quote, “You like that Guild Wars game, right? So I know you didn't ask for it but I figured I'd get you the latest expansion.” This person and I are no longer speaking, of course, because there's just no way to explain the mixture of dread and excitement this game still gives me. I did try, though, because if I want nothing else for the game it's for it to succeed and gain player after player[1]. And when I started talking about the game and the matches I've had in my time and they start rolling their eyes and I'm standing there with the game's box in my hands, well, I commandeered the nearest computer. Grabbed the client from the official site, installed the client, ran it and had the game ready to go inside of fifteen minutes (The box comes with CDs to install that sort of thing, I gather, but I've never used them so I wouldn't know.). I could have stopped there and just fired up my account right then and there – any computer, anywhere, that has GW on it, I can play on without needed to spend another dime - but as long as I was at it, I put in my new access key so I could get the Nightfall stuff (And I correctly figured I could get someone to run a character through the tutorial for me – hey, it's not like I haven't done that nearly two dozen times in other versions of Guild Wars by now.). Anyhow, I got in game and fired up the observer mode, let my friends and cousins pick out a few matches and, as we watched, I tried to get them talking and to gauge their reactions.

And their reactions were that it looked like a bunch of people just standing around and not doing much of anything. I mean, I'm sitting there watching a gang of Warriors build up their adren while the caller picks out a target who gets their enchantments rent just as the wars sweep down and begin unloading. But whoever's supposed to be sitting on their Monks is a half-second off because they get a prot spirit up and the spike rams headfirst into that wall, blunting it just enough for healing to arrive. But the people watching it with me see a whole bunch of nothing. And, to be blunt, an unexciting bunch of nothing. Just some people with swords hitting people who standing around making pretty graphics bloom then all switching to the same target who gets some effect and takes some damage. And prot spirit's a big, splashy effect – you can't miss that one – what if it was a degen defeating Heal Party or a spike foiling Infuse Health that had ridden to the rescue?

Fine, I said, let's load up another match. And another one. And another. I tried to explain what was going on. These people aren't unused to gaming, after all. One way or another they play a lot. And they're not unintelligent people, either (The scary thing is, I'm pretty much the stupid one in my family. And, well, no offense, but I don't befriend idiots if I can avoid it.) so it's not like they were incapable of grasping things. But, for instance, I was watching a match and saw some people breaking off down the side path. They headed for the enemy's guildhall and I switch the camera to follow them and tried to explain a split to the rest of the audience. But that's when they started doing some interesting things. They were using Shadow of Haste (A skill I've always thought had some potential and I'm intrigued to see has been improved since the last time I played. Although, it's probably a bit too good at this point.) then would sneak in the base and work on the NPCs and when they got into trouble they'd pop off some other stance and warp back to safety. My friends and family couldn't understand why I was so excited about the possibilities there or even why the gank squad was going to run away when they ran into even minor trouble. And trying to explain to them about a stance toggle was just an exercise in futility.

Anyhow, we talked about it and about why they weren't seeing the same game I was watching. One person said that it's like watching NASCAR. If you know the rules of the game and can follow all the subtle things going on each and every game it's a tense, thrilling battle. But if you don't then it's just watching cars go around in a circle. The idea being that without a grounding in the mechanics of the game, they had no clue about what to look for and what was important. There was no visceral feedback letting them know what was important. The animations of the game's engine are too subtle, too vague, to convey these things.

And that, to me, makes a lot of sense. Because, you know, I've watched matches, I've tried to think about them and write about them like sports games and, I'd like to think, although I might not know the latest twists I've been around the game long enough to have a least a slight understanding of what's running under the surface of the game's water. But unless I'm paying attention and swapping between skill bars even the most impressive of battles is just a confusing mess of people doing unclear things. I've considered this a failing of my own – that I wasn't trying hard enough to understand and comprehend what came naturally to others. But from talking to others, I've come to realize that it's not my fault, it's a failing of the game itself.

Which, I think, is a problem. PvP is a big part of the game. And video of the game[2] should be a useful marketing tool. Slap footage from the last championship or even any top tier battle on a website or a commercial or a demo and it should sell the game on its own merits. Because, trust me, I can look at that sort of thing and become enthralled and I'm not the only one. All I should have to do is point to the game itself and let it do the talking. Because that way, it doesn't need selling, people will be drawn to it all by themselves. Whether it's people who've never bought a box or people who've been playing the game for a while and have never set foot in PvP. Show them what they've missing, make them want to take part, and convince them it's going to be a blast. But that sense of action and tension just isn't getting across. Not like it does in, say, footage of WoW where you might not know what everyone's doing but they're leaping around and it looks like what they're doing actually has an impact on the fight. Not so in Guild Wars where the subtle things good teams do to win just aren't apparent to the average observer.

Combined with just how much information a player has to absorb to get up to speed in PvP and just how poorly documented some things are (Like how the Guild Lord can only take so much damage at the start of a GvG battle to prevent people from doing crazy things with Grenth's Balance or otherwise ganking him in five minutes. I had this worked out at one point but he starts out being only able to take a slight percentage of his health as damage and as the match goes on that damage cap gets raised until it's at 100% something like fifteen minutes into the game. The net effect is that you can still win early if you roll someone but it's hard to just reduce the Guild Lord to a puddle. This, by the way, isn't necessarily a bad thing but, to the best of my knowledge, it's never been explained. And certainly not within the game itself) Guild Wars is a very unintuitive game. Playing with it requires someone to struggle against its rules and find its limits rather than experience them on a gut level. I, of course, have no idea about what can be done to correct this at this particular point in time. But what I do know is that, if this game wants to grow and expand beyond what it is, it's probably something to start thinking about. Until someone just walking by an observer mode demo can get that something cool and impressive is going on without having to know each and every corner of the rulebook, the design's not what it could be.

[1] – I hesitate to mention this sort of thing. Not because I'm embarrassed about it but because ArenaNet encourages it. They encourage – or at least did when I was a tester – people to go out and spread the good word about the game and, well, we've had more than one falling out over the years. Don't get me wrong I think they make excellent use of their fanbase. But they, at times, use it like a resource. There's a lot of things they've “outsourced” to the fans and the fansites and the larger community not because those people are going to do a better job but because they'll do it for free. And as someone who's been on both sides of the line, so to speak, it's hard not to feel, well, used. That the developers want to whip me and others into a frenzy so we'll go out and sell their game and write their guides, and otherwise beg for affection by do a lot of other things just for a few scraps, relatively speaking, from their overflowing table. Not that I'm trying to say that they treat people like dogs and are taking advantage of them. At other times they're wonderfully generous. The game's their business, after all, and they're just trying to do everything they can to see it prosper. So, I keep quiet about these sorts of things. Because I don't want, and I don't need to feel like I'm telling people about the game for a T-shirt or anything of the sort. I don't want to be compensated for something I'd go and do anyway, in so many words, because it makes me less likely to go out and do it. And, yeah, I'm weird but I love this game. Still do. And that love gets shared. Giving me something for it means that I'm, in some way, indebted and obligated. When, really, I just want to be a good neighbor.

[2] – If you're interested in finding some matches to watch and you don't feel like installing the game, it's all over the place. There was, at one point, no observer mode so people got into the habit of recording their matches. In the early days, footage of good teams were akin to state secrets – closely held and just as well guarded – because of the advantage they'd confer. But even then people would post them and share them. Now, with observer mode anyone can cap a video of almost any match that matters. So they're all over and the PvP community devours them. As I haven't been playing for a while I'm not exactly sure what's the best place to go at the moment and I'll direct you to an old favorite GW Versus. They've got a large collection and a lot of games draw some commentary, too, and they've set them up to stream in your browser.

Health Update

Well, I'm feeling better but not completely recovered. My stomach's still turning flip flops but he big problem now is that it feels like someone worked me over with a baseball bat - I'm just sore and feeling like I'm "bruised" everywhere. I'm much more...conscious, though. At this point I've basically eaten one bowl of soup in the past two days and even that isn't sitting quite right. I have, however, drunk what feels like several gallons of Coke (supposedly good for you stomach, who knew?), Ginger Ale (Vernor's, of course. Had to have an emergency delivery because every other Ginger Ale tastes funny to me. By the way, that link has made me really thirsty for some Towne Club. I gather the plant was recently demolished so that's probably not going to happen any time soon, though. Also, I really want a Boston Cooler. Basically, I want to eat/drink a lot of things I can't right now.), and, of course, Camomile Tea. My brother's also fallen ill now - and some other relatives aren't sounding too good either.

Guild Wars Nightfall: Snowballing War Stories

Snowball Arena is about as perfect as PvP gets for me. There's no need to worry about levels. No need to worry about equipment. Not a thought to spare on laying out a skill bar. Everyone has the same. The matches are quick and there's no consequences for losing. And the rewards for winning (Seriously, the rate of return on faction is great. This is what people get for big time GvG battles – call it an average of 300~400 faction a game, win or lose – in about 5 minutes. Throw in the candy canes which go for about 50~100g a piece and there's mad profit to be made.) are good enough that you care about winning. When I left my account I'd hit UAX with about 170k faction (I was pleasantly surprised on my return to find out I wasn't capped out because, thanks to the slight rank I have, my cap had been raised by about 6k. Sadly, I don't have any other titles that increase the cap because, when I left, they were all character and not account based and I made extensive use of PvP characters rather than, say, earning Gladiator or Champion status with my RP toons.) and after a few days of fighting I'm up to about 230k earned. And I've managed to unlock all the new runes (With the exception of the Dervish armor inscriptions because I figure I'll stumble across those eventually.) and all the key weapon and inscriptions that I wanted.

What I'm trying to say is that I've spent a lot of time there. Enough to earn my first Gamer track and make good headway on getting my “Pro Skillz”. And I have a lot of stories about my time, as you might imagine. Monumental thing like my consecutive win streaks. 25 or so is my record (The secret, like anything, is having good teammates). I know it sounds cliché but I really don't pay all that much attention to just how many games I'm winning – I know I got five consecutive win bonus and you get those after every fifth win but it's only when someone else points these things out that it registers with me.

Or funny things like the present train. Me and two other teammates each holding a present, walking in a straight line – completely unmolested – to cap and win the game.

Here, though, is one of my favorites. The situation. 4-4 match stretching into its 8th minute (Most games last about 5 or so minutes, longer than that and it's a slugfest, shorter than that and someone's racking up the points. Neither one really indicates the quality of the match, in my opinion – some of the hardest fights I've had were the ones that ended up 5-1 or 5-2.). For whatever reason, I'm off on my own but the rest of my team's just picked up a present and are fighting about half of the opposing team to get it to base. I notice a present spawn and rush towards it but there's an opponent way closer and she manages to scoop it up and start chugging towards base. And I, of course, try and work her over to get her to snowcone her skills out before knocking her over and grabbing the present. But she's a good dodger and she's getting closer and closer – no help's coming as I can see the health bars of the rest of my team roiling up and down as they try desperately to advance their own ball. I'm barely managing to stall the runner myself but I'm not in all that bad a shape. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see another opponent trotting down from the hill towards his base. He's holding another present and I'm suddenly in big trouble. If either of my opponent's get to their base and touch that avatar with a present then the game's over. It's time to change my tactics, so I work in close to the first runner, pop off a hidden rock and grab the present. But rather than trudge towards my base, I stay and fight. I pelt her with snowballs and fort up to put up another rock. And when the second runner comes near enough, I start blasting him. The whole while I'm dodging like mad even with my speed slowed, trying to keep from being knocked down or tagged with a rock – which will pretty much make me useless – and scrambling to pick up the present if I drop it. Already weakened from battling the first runner, I'm in serious trouble and I have to snowcone – getting a quick boost of health but locking out all my skills for a eternity the game tells me is ten seconds. And the deadly present is close, oh so close, to being scored. I'm still alive, though, and with nothing else to do I maneuver in front of the second runner and go for the body block. Just jam my character into his and hope to slow his progress just those few moments. It's a desperation move because it leave me wide open to getting pelted by both of my opponents but, this time, it works. With that present a few feet from the avatar, my team's number changes from 4 to 5 and the match is over. GGs all around and my last ditch stand at the other team's base as our side scrambled to score is quickly forgotten as we're on to the next fight and the one after.

Anyhow, the snowball arena comes highly recommended from me. I missed out on it the last time around because I wasn't playing. But it's a great place for people who are just looking to see what PvP is all about. Or people like me who're looking to improve their skills a bit. Or even people who've been playing a while and are looking for a change of pace. It's the sort of place I wish the game had all year around. Sure, there's Random Arena but, there, you have to worry about equipment and builds and things. By enticing the hardcore PvPers like myself with some rich rewards and, at the same time, eliminating almost any factor beyond player skill (Unfortunately, there's some imbalances thanks to the god and profession specific skills. And some bugs that allow attributes and equipment to matter – nothing so bad as having pets show up like last year, but still things that give an advantage to people in the know.) in a risk-free environment it creates a great “gateway” into PvP for the uninitiated. Personally, I'd like to see Team Snowball because playing with a good group makes all the difference but a pick up game is a lot easier to get into. But the only real criticism I can make of the place is that it's very difficult to figure out exactly what's going on. At first, anyway. Because like a lot of other things in this game it's very poorly documented. And extremely unexplained. There's no tutorial, no explanation about what skills do what or where presents should go or anything of the sort – you're expected to pick it up as you go along. That's all well and good, of course, but it means that some people are going to be intimidated if not discouraged by everything that's going on even in what's the simplest and, to my mind, purest of all PvP.

Guild Wars: Restarting Again

So I sampled the latest Guild Wars expansion with a trial key only to have some black hearted person give me the actual game. We are, of course, no longer speaking.

Still, that means I've had to start all over again with yet another new character. Although during the trial I played a Paragon, I decided against playing one with my main account. Not that I think the Paragon is a bad class, mind, but it's just not very well suited to me. Just too much micromanagement and a little too indirect. So, instead, I rolled up a Dervish (Again, feel free to buddy me. “Sausaletus Rex” is my main character but this one's known as “Oreon Rex” which, I think, pretty much gives the game away.). Which is working out for me so far.

Currently, I'm through everything I did in the trial – knowing where everything was and what to do made progress much faster. The Dervish, as I expected, is pretty easy to play. Very effective in melee and being able to strike multiple enemies is awesome. The first thing I did, once I was able, was to head out to an EA, grab a bounty, and just pave creatures until I had enough Sunspear points to rank up. Only heading back into town when my inventory was full (I generally salvage everything, if I can, I know I'd probably get more money now by selling it off but, for me, the important thing is to spend as little time heading back to town as possible.). Killing off pretty much everything in sight while working on some quests gave me enough points to unlock the second mission – and get my extra 30AP which help immensely. And enough XP to get my secondary profession. As you might expect, I went with a Dervish/Paragon. Purely for the unlocks, you understand. So far, Paragon is proving almost as useless to my Dervisher as Dervish was to my Paragon. All the shouts and such I'd want to use take time away from attacking and my skill bar is pretty well packed. By this point, I've bought up all the Dervish skills available in the newbielands but the only Paragon skill I've bought has been their rez – pretty much for the same reason the only Ritualist skill my Assassin/Ritualist made use of was the rez. The Sunspear rezsig is nice but it's single use only and, in PvE, what I'm really worried about is a wipe where I'm the only one left standing and there's nothing I can do because I'm fresh out of rez. So, something multiple use is what I want even if it's strictly speaking an inferior rez because, although there are a few situations where combat rezzing is important, for the most part rezzing in PvE happens when there aren't any enemies around so it doesn't matter how much health or energy get restored or how quickly it happens.

The build for my Dervish looks like this currently:

Oreon Rex (lv10)

Mysticism – 9
Scythe Mastery – 6+1

  1. Ermite's Attack
  2. Pious Assault
  3. Twin Moon Sweep
  4. Signet of Return
  5. Aura of Thorns
  6. Heart of Holy Flames
  7. Zealous Renewal
  8. Mystic Vigor

And, yes, if you're counting that's a whopping four enchantments. And I use them all. The high Mysticism really helps – I'm planning on eventually running at 12/12 Mysticism and Scythes. The idea here is pretty much an AoE/degen bomb. Precasting Mystic Vigor – which gives me health every time I attack and I much prefer to Vital Boon. I get up in a cluster of enemies and pop off Zealous Renewal, Heart of Holy Flames, and Aura of Thorns (Which is in an off-attribute but I don't really care about the duration on things so much as I do care about adding a bit more degen to things while having another cheap enchantment to fuel things). That's a quick burst of 80+ AoE damage. If anything's still standing, then it's time to start attacking. Pious Assault is my default attack and it lets me churn through my enchantments in rapid fashion while dealing some pretty good damage – and as my enchantments get lost my targets start bleeding and burning which is really lethal at low levels. Twin Moon Sweep is there for the healing because not only does it have a built in heal it swings twice to trigger Mystic Vigor twice. I'm not too happy with Ermite's Attack – although the ¾ second casting time is great it's just hard to get the bonus damage to trigger because by the time I'm using it the field's pretty clear - and I'd like to find an alternative but my idea there was to have an attack that wasn't dependent on being enchanted in case I run into some hate. I'm seriously considering Rending Sweep but haven't made the switch because my party isn't using any hexes yet. The fact that Dervishers remove enchantments on themselves to attack is an interesting mechanic. I like it, for now, but I'm not sure how viable they'll be if there's any serious enchantment hate around (Like, I don't know, Nature's Renewal or something.). It's pretty fun to play with this sort of build because there are numbers flying everywhere. Each sweep of the scythe there's healing and damage and energy.

Just like in the trial, I've picked up a trio of Henchmen so far (I've also unlocked another with a PvP character) who I'm still going to call by their nicknames – Carson, Dunk, and Mel. And I was again sailing through things until I hit the second mission, Jokannur Diggings, and the end boss, Apocrypha. Again, I went down to ignominious defeat. Heading into my first try, I had Carson as a disruptive sword guy – W/Mo for Rebirth, again. Mel pretty much copied my build except I had her using Vital Boon in favor of Zealous Vigor and the one skill she has that I don't, Mystic Sweep, in favor of Pious Assault (I don't want her churning through her enchantments willy-nilly the way she seems to when I give her too many enchantment removing skills). And Dunk as a power healer with a Mesmer secondary for energy management.


Str – 2
Sword – 6
Tactics – 5

  1. Savage Slash
  2. Sever Artery
  3. Gash
  4. Final Thrust
  5. Rebirth
  6. Auspicious Parry {E}
  7. Distracting Blow
  8. Healing Signet

I'm a big fan of Auspicious Parry, by the way. Extremely effective and just cranks up any adrenal build especially in PvE when you'll actually be targeted in melee. Combined with Dunk's sweet, sweet, healing it lets Carson survive pretty easily – monsters go after me and Mel more, anyway, because of our lower armor – and still be effective offensively. There's the standard Sever+Gash+Final combo of bleeding, deep wound, and massive damage. Carson's still rocking a sword because I haven't found anything better for him yet – I'm a bit hesitant to give him a Victo's Blade or something because he'll probably kill himself with it. Or drain Dunk's energy dry. What, I think, is a bit unusual is that I have two disrupting skills in Savage Slash and Distracting Blow. I like my Warriors to be packing some interrupts and since we were going to be facing Apocrypha my plan was for Carson to nail it casting and relieve some pressure. Mel and I had no interrupts so I wanted to load up on it.


Mysticism – 6
Scythe Mastery – 5
Earth Prayers – 2

  1. Mystic Sweep
  2. Twin Moon Sweep
  3. Ermite's Attack
  4. Rebirth
  5. Aura of Thorns
  6. Heart of Holy Flames
  7. Vital Boon
  8. Mystic Vigor

Pretty much a copy of my build (The attributes are lower because the Heroes apparently don't get the extra AP that I've earned.) except with a bit more healing because Mel tends to get hammered. But I figured that two AoE bombs going off would be a load to handle, even if Apocrypha wouldn't suffer much from the degen. I knew he was going to be a tough nut to crack but I didn't want to get too crazy about planning solely to beat him - there were plenty of other enemies and the less time I spend changing things around for low-level critters, the better.


Divine Favor – 4
Healing Prayers – 5
Inspiration – 5

  1. Orison of Healing
  2. Word of Healing {E}
  3. Dwayna's Kiss
  4. Mend Ailment
  5. Rebirth
  6. Inspired Enchantment
  7. Revealed Enchantment
  8. Power Drain

Originally, I had Dunk as a prot-bot but without more AP to make his energy management work overtime he wasn't doing so hot. If and when I can get another Monk in the group one of them will be going Protection because that'll mean just more enchantments around for any Dervishers to make use of. Here, though, I went with straight power healing. Word of Healing's great, of course, (And I love having access to elites for my Heroes while I'm still struggling with a very limited skill set, by the way) and Orison's there for self-healing, mostly. The big heal, though, is Dwayna's Kiss which although it doesn't help Carson much, works really well on me and Mel. So that's a few heals that can recover around 100+ even at those attribute levels. And I threw in Mend Ailment for condition removal. The Inspired/Revealed Enchantment pair is there for Apocrypha because while Carson was handling the interrupts, I figured I'd have Dunk handling the enchantment removal. Power Drain's great for energy management with NPC AI – although it won't really shine until Inspiration can be raised higher. There are a few glaring weaknesses here, however. First, Dunk's ability to heal himself is extremely weak. If he gets targeted he's usually in trouble – I should probably have Healing Touch instead of Orison. The other is where Apocrypha nailed me – no hex removal.

He nailed my team with his hexes in Mesmer form and we had no way of dealing with it. Combined with some nasty AoE of his own which just chewed up all three of my melee fighters we didn't last very long. After a bit of retooling I've since beaten the mission but the siren song of PvP has called out to me and I've spent most of my time lately in the Snowball Arena. I'll get to all that later, though.

Guild Wars: Third Impression

So, it's taken me a while to get this up but I played again Christmas Eve. Things were going fine. Reached lv8, got my next Sunspear rank to open up the next mission. Acquired a new Hero along the way. Meloni (I call her...”Meloni”, actually.) who's a Dervish and, thus, fits in perfectly with my little group. I set Koss to Wa/Mo so he'd have Resurrection. And Dunk to Mo/W so he could pop off a weak Watch Yourself! to extend the duration of my Mending Refrains, if need be. Same thing with Meloni though I gave her a few more choice Warrior skills – and by choice I mean, I have like five skills for Warrior so, here, we're going to fill out your bar with things that don't completely suck. Haven't done any tweaking to my build because I'm out of skills to buy that look interesting. I suppose I could load up on things for Meloni to use but I haven't yet. Also, I discovered how to open the Hero's skill bars. Not quite ready to start telling them what to use and when yet but they let me keep track of their health and what's affecting them at any given moment – really helps me to keep my shouts up.

Then, tried the mission. I was breezing through it (Carefully avoiding the Sunspear Ghosts for the bonus, figuring out they were nicking the stone tablets and having to stash one out of the way until I grabbed the other, but not very difficult beyond that) until I got to the end and the boss, the Apocrypha, kicked my butt up and down the hallway. He's lv13 and my party's only lv8 so that was bad news right there but nothing too difficult. He is, however, a construct which means no bleeding and, I believe, no burning which pretty much threw my whole game plan out the window. Also, he had this one skill in Dervish mode that just hammered Carson and Meloni. Wiped them out more than a few times. And when they got combat rezzed up then they'd just go down in seconds. I managed to chip his health steadily downwards but he'd switch to Mesmer while my offense was pushing up daisies and Ether Feast his way back up. Just a stalemate as he couldn't finish off my party and our mounting DP meant we'd never stay up long enough to finish him off. I logged out of the game once it became apparent we would be fighting all night until one of us slipped up. Incredibly frustrating, in other words.

Now, I think with a few more levels I could take him. Right now I'd need some kind of interrupts and probably some hexing. The only problem is there's nothing like that in the Paragon's skill list – all my good stuff gets nerfed against this guy. And the skill selection for my Heroes is so limited that I can't do much with them. So, it's either grind out some levels or rebuild myself into a more damaging character that focuses on the spear (Right now I deal pitiful damage but my Mending Refrain and Sig of Synergy kept us in that fight, really). So, I'd have to go Spearmanship/Motivation/Leadership or something and probably including another heal wouldn't be a bad idea. Spend a hero point or two and grab distracting blow for Carson and Meloni, maybe an interrupt for Dunk (I figure as an AI, he'd be mad good at getting it off. Switch him to Mo/Mes, give him Power Drain or something and watch him screw over casters and kept his energy up while still healing the party at the same time.) but since those skills would actually be useful, I don't think they'll be available.

If this was my main account, this wouldn't be a problem as I'd have all these skills already. And, as I understand it, what I've unlocked my Heroes have too. So, Dunk could be an active prot MoMes with Mantra of Recall and a few interrupts. Koss could be a stance tank with Distracting Blow and Disrupting Chop. And Meloni, well, I'm not sure what I'd want Meloni to be. Probably a D/A with a hex or two and a shadow step – she seems to get targeted the most and die the easiest so just something to help her survive. These Heroes are cool but, sometimes, I think it's going to be a pain because I'll have to figure out their builds and equipment and everything. With henchmen it's just pick up and go. I'd rather there was some middle ground so that, for example, you had a Mesmer henchmen you could tell them “use Interrupts” and they'd shift their attributes and skill slots accordingly. Give each one a package of a few related skills so that people like me who have no clue what's a good skill (anymore) or how to put a build together can have some help.

Anyhow, I'm probably close to the 10 hour limit by now so I'm not really all that enthusiastic at the prospect of leveling or trying to run that mission again. With those characters, anyway, because someone left a little something underneath my tree.

Mostly, I've just been playing in the Snowball Arena – which is a blast – so I haven't made much progress yet. One of these days I'll have to go back to my trial account and figure out a way to give away my stuff – I have a few candy cane shards and some black dye that I wouldn't want to see disappear into the ether. I should also mention that with the new Guild Wars box came still more trial keys if anyone's interested.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Too Sick to Blog

I'm not sure if it's the steady diet of leftover turkey and turkey related products or if one of my cousins managed to bring back some kind of killer bug from the bowels Africa but I definitely have something wrong with my stomach. It's been a while since I've been sick so I suppose it was overdue. So much for a nice, relaxing vacation this week, though, as I've been aching and moaning all day long. And so much for getting much polished up and ready to post here. As I can hardly see well enough to read the screen, doing much of anything is a struggle.

On the plus side, I did get to see Wordplay which is something that I've been meaning to for a while. Definitely a crossword puzzle addict when I can find the time – although no where near competition level.

Anyhow, I'm just going to be drinking lots of Camomile tea - it was a gift (As a good cup of tea is another thing I'm wild for) and it's supposedly very nice but, honestly, at this point I can't taste a thing - and concentrating on not dying from some sort of hideous stomach flu. Hopefully, this is a one day thing and I'll be right back at it tomorrow. If not, well, don't expect much out of me for a while.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Novel Two: Design Test One - Introduction

Although I don’t do it myself I know a few people involved in designing video games. One of the things they’ve told me about is a “design test” where when you apply for a job making these games they test your ability to come up with things for a game. Say, a few quests or items or whatever and the more detail you can come up with the better. That’s a fantastic idea for me because it helps me think about the design of my fictional game (well, one of them) – Clans of the Highborn. I wrote my NaNo novel about a group who played that game and I’m currently trying to write another book using that same setting. This time, though, I’m concentrating not on the PvP side of things but the PvE side. It’s an important distinction because in PvP players compete against other players so developing those foes is a matter of characterization. But in PvE – in my game at least – it’s a matter of going on quests or raids against computer controlled monsters. If I want to be describing what the players are going through doing so, well, I need to have some idea of what those quests are like. To a writer it’s a matter of setting, then. But to a game maker it’s a matter of design. So, since I’m going to be focusing on the PvE side of things I’m doing much more planning of just how things on that side of the game work – I’m designing a lot quests and dungeons and NPCs and the like. And the “design test” is a good way for me to focus on coming up with what’s important for each quest. So, because five is an important number in my game here are five quests that might or might not make it into either novel but have definitely made it into the game I’m making in my head:

Clans of the Highborn - Sample Quests (Background)

Since I've decided arbitrarily on five as the number of quests I'll be designing, that seems like a good number for a cycle or a series of interconnected quests – one of which leads into the other. This is the sort of thing that will happen a lot in ClotH. Absent any sort of mission structure, players are driven through the story line by ongoing quests. Small quests seem like a good way of rewarding players for following those paths. Especially since the other design goal I have with the quests in regards to the storyline is that throughout the game players are going to be given the choice about what to do or where to go next – the storyline will be a branching structure filled with several forks along the way (Better yet each path is not mutually exclusive to the other paths – players are free to explore one branch and then go back to do another). So small, optional quests that open up further questing opportunities seems particularly well suited to creating that effect.

These quests, then, will lead a player from one city – a safe place where there is no nonconsentual combat to a nearby dungeon – an instance zone where powerful monsters and valuable loot can be found and the larger storyline can be advanced. But, first, a little background on the general area these quests will take place in (Something, I presume, in a design test would already be understood. fortunately, I've got about 60,000 words worth of a design document not to mention my novels in this game to call upon in establishing the world. History, characters, mechanics, maps, you name it and I've probably got at least the rudiments of it sitting on one harddrive or another. All so I could write a book about people playing such a game and wanted to get the details right. I'm sick, I know.). The game is divided into islands (which are further subdivided into zones) of which there are five (The fifth is hidden at the onset of the game but by following these quests the player will gain access to it. These islands are large and not very well charted allowing me a modular design into which I can plug new islands – perhaps smaller perhaps over the horizon – for any possible expansion). These quests take place on the third or fourth island (depending on which path the player's follow) in sequences known as the Twilight Isle because it's the closest to where the sun sets. It's a harsh place being constantly wracked by storms from the larger Trackless Ocean beyond the island chain and one filled with lush jungles and sharp mountain peaks (It's a BIG island, remember) but also a vast plain in the northwest where these quests will be given and completed (Other quests, obviously, will lead players to the area) which is known as the Land of Horses. Traditionally, this is held as the first area where the Kaltans – the nation/race of all player characters in my game (There are other kingdoms to which they can pledge themselves during the course of the game's story – if they want to, of course - and the possibility of playing as other races is another thing that can be added in future expansions but limiting them to one kingdom means they'll all start in one area on one of the islands – creating an in-game rationalization for the tutorial-filled newbielands.) - first encountered horses which were unknown on the Isle of the High from which they came (This gives me an in-game rationalization for deny players mounts at least at first – riding animals are found only in this small place and aren't really suited to being raised in other areas. If they want a horse to ride they'll have to get to the Land of Horses and jump through some other hoops which isn't easy. If I even implement mounts at all which is something I tend to go back and forth on.).

The aboriginal natives of the Twilight Isle and, indeed, the the whole island chain – which is called Iona - are known as Purans. These are a diverse people with several cultures based on Ameri-Indian civilizations while the Kaltans are much more European/Celtic. As the backstory of my game goes, several hundred of years prior to the game's start the Kaltans learned how to construct seaworthy vessels capable of hauling lots of cargo – or troops – and set sail from the Isle of the High to eventually conquer all the various Puran tribes on the other islands. They set up a loose confederation and basically allowed the much more populous Purans to govern themselves as long as they acknowledged the Kaltan throne as their rightful overlord. Eventually the Kaltans began to decline (And, yes, I know exactly how that happened I'll just save you the boredom of retelling it.) and could no longer control their empire. Tribe after tribe of Purans starting at the edges of the empire began to rebel and create their own independent kingdoms. After a few disastrous attempts to hold onto their crumbling empire the Kaltans admitted defeat and granted independence to all of the Puran tribes they'd formally ruled. Although it was a bloody and terrible fight at the time it didn't leave very much in the way of hard feelings. The Kaltans were never harsh overlords and had treated the Purans with respect during their rule by pulling back their depleted forces to their home island they were able to ensure their security. While the Puran tribes were content solely to gain sovereignty over their respective homelands and lacked the unity or cohesion for anyone group to establish anything like the Kaltan's previous hegemony. The two races came to live side by side – if perhaps a bit uneasily at times – leaving that conflict in the past.

Now, traditionally, the first group to rebel against the Kaltan Kingdom were the Windrunners. A tribe of Kaltans who live within the Land of Horses and are said to be the group that taught the Kaltans themselves how to ride and gave them the secret of the saddle and the stirrups. They're a nomadic people who live by hunting the various herds of animals that roam through the Land of Horses. It's a wide, vast, open plain underneath a hanging piercing blue sky that resembles nothing so much as the “Old West” that can be seen in various Westerns. It's divided into three areas which encircle one another. The outermost, the Bad Lands, which borders on other areas is a sea of red and orange tones dotted with the occasional green of sparse vegetation. It's a rocky almost desert where little has a chance to survive. Once passing through that, though, players encounter the Grazing Lands which feature a lush carpet of grass and much more animal life. The other area is called the Wide Spaces and its grass has dried out and become yellow and brittle thanks to the heat and constant drought. In the Grazing Lands players will find the city known as Warrior's Call. This is a town of tents and wagons which moves in a wide, circular patrol throughout the Grazing Lands so that it's never in any one place for very long (I have no idea just if this is an idea which would actually be possible in any sort of video game. But since this is imaginary I don't have to worry about processing power and memory utilization and all the rest so I can have a mobile city which traces a set route day in and day out just because I think it sounds cool.). Warrior's Call, as the name might suggest is a place where the warriors of the Windrunner Tribe gather but one that only happens in times of trouble when the massive herds of the plains themselves are threatened. And the plains are threatened by the advancement of the third race to be found on the Twilight Isle (And in larger Iona) – the recently arrived Mimnon.

Now, the Mimnon are from across the Trackless Ocean and just as the Kaltans in days past were a technological step or two past the rest of the islands so are the Mimnon. They're much closer to the traditional RPG “Midevil European” that features in many games – albeit one with, I hope, their own little wrinkles. But they're the ones you'll find clanking around in heavy armor and the like. Anyway, they've colonized the Twilight Isle (and the nearby Ivory Isle) as an outpost of a much larger Mimnon nation on the mainland on the other side of the Trackless Ocean (And since they're finding the Ionan islands much larger and harder to colonize and travel back to the mainland much more difficult than they first expected when the landed on the Twilight Isles some seventy-five years ago there's more than a little debate amongst the Mimnon about whether they are, in fact, part of the nation or their own separate kingdom. I'm pretty sure it's the old wannabe DM in me that makes me dangle plot hooks like this all over the place but, yeah, they're everywhere and not all of them are developed. This one, though, is a major point in the greater storyline. So, spoiler warnings for a tale that's only told in my head at the moment, I guess.) using their technological advantage to cultivate areas the Kaltans and the Purans had previously held to be uninhabitable. They live mostly in the south of the Twilight Isle but, recently, in search of more farmland they've been encroaching on the Windrunner's traditional homelands. The Windrunners themselves are far from blameless as their raiders have been attacking and pillaging the Mimnon farmers along the coastline south of the Land of Horses for a generation now and clashing with the Mimnon troops who are supposed to protect them.

All out warfare hasn't been declared yet (The islands have been more or less at peace since the collapse of the Kaltan Kingdoms some three hundred years prior to this. Not very likely, I know, but, hey, it's my game so I can bend the rules of logic if I want to – it's a major part of the lore I've developed so I'm rather stuck with it by this point. I rationalize it by figuring that no tribe/nation's declared war on another but there have been sporadic instances of hostilities just none that have required out and out warfare which, at this point in the historiography, are basically of the “slaughter your enemies, raze their cities, and salt their ground” type so people tend to be a bit nervous about starting them.) but with frequent raids and clashes on both sides of the nebulous border it's definitely on the horizon. The Windrunner chiefs have sounded the ancient horns and called all their warriors from the plains to plan their war council. Along with merchants, cooks, and everything else that a large group of soldiers – because although there's no official and professional military amongst the Windrunners that's basically what calling upon the various militias that protect their wagon trains as they hunt comprise – attract those young men and women (Again, it's my game so I get to bend things a bit. Historically speaking, these would probably only be men but at some point I have to bend to modern tastes so everything in my game is more or less tolerant of either gender having a role in it.) who've yet to prove themselves and earn their warrior's feathers (It's a Windrunner thing) have also made their way to Warrior's Call. There they can undergo the tests needed to prove their worth and stand in the coming fight.

That's where the players come in. Not only do I plan to make it so they can pick one side or the other (or play both against the other) in the brewing war – a decision which will alter the landscape of the Twilight Isle considerably (I like the idea of instancing and plan to make plenty of use of it to customize the playing experience for my players while still allowing them to adventure with anyone who's made a different choice. I'll get into exactly how I'm going to let them walk back such things in a little bit) as the players will help one side drive the other out of the Land of the Horses, basically (The Mimnon would fall back to their strongholds in the mountains and valleys in the south. The Windrunners would head east to the jungles another tribe of Purans, the Stargazers and their Aztec-esque pyramids, call home.). But since many Kaltans earn their living throughout the islands as mercenaries (Another in-game rationalization for why the players get to go out and adventure – they're Kaltan mercenaries trying to earn their fame and riches. At first, anyway, but I'd have to get deep into the lore to explain just what the “Highborn” really means.) and the Windrunners respect anyone with the strength and bravery to complete the tests, the players can also prove their worth and become warriors fighting for the Windrunner tribe. And that's what the first of these quests is about. They're part of the trials that Windrunner youths go through to earn their feathers (I imagine that there'll be a few quests along those lines. Not too many because I'd want players to get on with things quickly enough. But I figure there'd be a few quests from each of the various Windrunner warchiefs in Warrior's Call and they'd have to complete either all the quests from a specific chief or a certain number of all the quests available before they could become hired by the Windrunners as mercenaries and continue along the path that leads to the War of the Horses – a path where they'd be able to switch sides at a few opportune moments, of course, but would if followed from the things available in Warrior's Call result in a crushing defeat of the Mimnon army and the players being very unwelcome in what I call “Lesser Mimnos”.).

But, as players earn a higher reputation with the Windrunners they'll began to hear rumors and stories about the strange happenings in the Open Spaces. So, this cycle isn't necessarily about earning their Windrunner feathers (Each Puran tribe has their own feather to earn, in case it's not clear by now, that lets the players have special access within that tribe. These get collected on a “key ring” like object in the player's inventory – a headdress they can wear which becomes more powerful the more feathers they add to it. There'll be other helmets that are just as powerful, of course, and many easier to obtain but the difficulty of getting a full headdress should make it a prestige item that players will strive for – causing them to explore each of the many Puran tribes I'll design. Earning the feathers also lets them use a special title such as “Windrunner Champion” which they'll be able to display to anyone looking at them in any sort of social setting. I plan to make use of such titles as a way of giving players special access and individuality – just give them a little something to brag about, so to speak.) it's about If they choose to follow this cycle they'll be drawn into the secretive beliefs of the hermits, the Puran spiritualists and mystics living in and around the Open Spaces. Unraveling the clues and mysteries (In the religious sense, not the Agatha Christie sense) will lead them to the dungeon known as Tornsky Mesa and introduce them to the Dreamtime – the fifth and final island (Again, there are a few ways of getting there – one on every island but the starting one, really – but this is going to be the most challenging one because of the insanely difficult dungeon crawl standing in the player's way. But, well, that dungeon is also going to prove a popular one for raiding because it will have some choice drops from the difficult enemies.). Warrior's Call is the starting point for most of these quests but they'll lead the players deeper and deeper into the Open Spaces.

So, there's going to be a religious spiritual slant to these quests because it will also be the introduction of the players to the deep waters of the particularly Windrunner-esque slant on the larger Puran mystic tradition (And, oh boy, I've developed the religious tradition of the islands, too, because it forms a large part of the lore and history and such. It's incredibly complicated but, basically, what's known as Puran mysticism is the remnants of the religious beliefs of the proto-Puran civilizations that were conquered by Kaltos and managed to survive when the Purans en masse began to adopt the more sophisticated Katlan religious tradition – which is centered around worship of gods tied to each of the elements that's also proving very popular amongst the Mimnon. So it's a mix of those beliefs – Kaltan and proto-Puran - filtered through the lens of each particular Puran tribe so it gets complex very fast, as you can imagine. The Windrunner's tradition holds that those who live as hermits in the Open Spaces are somehow sacred, being exposed to and guarding knowledge that normal mortals aren't really meant to know. As with every religious belief, there's a grain of truth in there because thanks to its connection to the Dreamtime the Open Spaces are a little unhinged from normal reality especially around Tornsky Mesa, the most holy of holies to the Windrunner tribe. These hermits, then, function as the witches and shamans that other tribes have – mysterious magic users who wield powers the average, superstitious Puran can't hope to understand. The other races have their own magical traditions, of course, and approach things differently but the Windrunners only speak of such things in whispers among the trusted.) so they're deeply connected to the lore and Windrunner culture (for those players who like such things).

But, also, I personally would have to slit my wrists if I was going to design quests in such detail and make them nothing more than the “kill 5 sewer rats” variety so I'm going to try and play around with the quests and include some things that other types of players will enjoy (Lack of ambition has never been my problem, it's been focusing it that I have difficulty with. Nothing against that type of quest, mind, because there's definitely a need for them – they'll be in my imaginary game, have no doubt. It's just they're not particularly challenging for me to come up with – the dilemma there is in what kind of monsters and rewards and I'm playing fast and loose with the numbers and specifics because I don't want to get too tied down to any one statistic in my writings – it's the concept I'm after not the concrete and I'll flex that concept depending on what my story needs so it's better to be flexible at the start. And since I'd rather take a risk and having a spectacular failure than be cautious and make a boring success, I've stretched myself here. Perhaps past the breaking point, perhaps beyond what any game designer would ever consider in real life, but those are things that I can't really judge for myself. I'd need some feedback on that and, since this is all in my head with a little bit on paper, so to speak, that's a bit difficult to come by. I've no doubt there are holes and inadequacies here but those are the things that would and could be fixed by the rest of the development team as these things were implemented in game. All I care about is that they make enough sense to me, personally, that I can mention them in the setting for my game world – and I'm happy enough with them in that regard to post them here.) As the quests will go on they'll become more serious and, of course, challenging, but to start out with they'll seem light and “in-jokey”.

You see, on the starting island – the Isle of the High – I'll be using quests to help train players in exactly how this game will be played. And by that I mean not just how to open chests or attack and such but more complicated lessons that players will be applying throughout their game play. I want them learning the basics about how to pull and tank and target and such from the very start so that when they get into a party with other players or even to the end-game and the various raiding opportunities there they won't be completely lost – they'll have been training in such things all along. I, of course, have very little idea of exactly how to craft such a well-made tutorial (Although, you know, I've put some thought into it while developing the Isle of the High. I'm just not sure if it works or exactly what lessons I'll need to be teaching – just that I want them to be taught early and often through the quest system.) but since Twilight Isle is an area for higher level players and the Land of Horses is a hard-to-get-to zone within that island for those rapidly approaching the storyline's end in the fifth island, well, that's not much of a problem. I intend to use some of these quests to poke fun at the tutorial aspects that players will no doubt be familiar with by this point – as well as to point out some of the crazy things that other players will (and no doubt have) do when grouped with them. In-jokes, basically, about the over-confident tank or the hapless pull. I mean, I'm doing this because I'm writing a book about people playing a made-up game you think I'm afraid of getting all kinds of meta? That's going to require a bit of fiddling with the mechanics of my imaginary game as some of the monsters and NPCs will break some of the rules (Like having skills and powers that normal players will never be able to use and at power levels I'd never allow a player to touch.) I've established but, well, they'll be breaking them for effect and I don't have a problem with that.

Anyhow, I rambled on much more than I meant to in setting the scene for these quests (4k+. Oh well, at least I can consider all of this writing as going towards my daily goal of writing a few thousand or so for the novel.) – I haven't even gotten into where the quests will be, the terrain, or the types of monsters that will be encountered wandering in this zone let alone the actual details of the quests themselves all things I'd want to at least hint at in detailing these things – so I'm going to detail each quest in a post of its own (hopefully). When they go live I'll try and include a link to those quests below here so there's some central place where they'll all be collected for easy reading (Experimenting with such things on my blog as well as I'm exploring the aspects of my fictional game, I do so love to tinker with formats) as well as show the general flow between each segment of the quest cycle :

Gathering the Silveroak Dreamcatcher: (The initial cycle, these quests can be performed in any order and, indeed, obtained and done all at the same time before being turned in. They lead to a reward quest – just a “go and talk to this person for your prize” thing – which will be given out when the last one is turned in and one of the leading mystics in Warrior's Call will give the players a special magical item – the Oaken Dreamcatcher – which is critical for reaching the Dreamtime (But can be found through several different quests on the various islands, this is just one way of getting it on Twilight) and that powerful mystic will direct them to even more powerful hermits within the Open Spaces.)

The Foolhardy Brave

Vengeance for the Fallen Crone

A Temporary Fellowship

Reaching the Exiles and Onwards to Tornsky Mesa: (The mystic in Warrior's Call will direct the players to seek out a small gathering of mystics exiled or shunned from normal Windrunner society – they're the true masters of the arcane for the Windrunners – but reaching them takes the following quest the second half of which will direct them to the ancient not-quite human mystics who guard Tornsky Mesa.)

Hunting Visions

Through the Gap between Worlds: (Once they've reached Tornsky Mesa players will have one last quest to undertake before they can access the portal that leads them to the dungeon's instance – Tornsky is the spot where the dungeon's accessed, the actual dungeon is called the Dreamtime Path – from the demi-god like guardians of the place where the barrier between this world and the outside is weakened.).

Tasked by the Sightless Ones