Strategic alt choices

As always happens when I’m deep into a particular MMORPG, the temptation to create “just one more alt” reared its ugly head recently. I was watching my husband make his new vulpera character in World of Warcraft, whilst also switching between my own characters in Everquest 2 to set mount and mercenary training going. I then noticed an alt I’d created over the summer that I hadn’t yet played at all, a ratonga Ranger.

I’ve not played a ratonga anything yet in Everquest 2, but the diminutive rat-folk seem very popular on the blogosphere, and likewise in game – I see a lot of ratonga characters of various classes when doing public events.

I was reminded that this character was created, and more recently insta-dinged to 100, with a specific purpose in mind. To date I’ve played my human Inquisitor as my dominant ‘main’ character. I have had phases of playing an sarnak Shadowknight as well. That gives me a healer and a tank character as my two most played characters. I do love to play a healer, and a self-healing tank can be a joy to game with as well.

Tanking, even on public events, can be stressful

However, I went into 2020 wanting to get some more group play done in this game in particular. I do not make New Year’s resolutions, so I’ll not call it that, exactly. In any case I would like to get some more group experience under the belt. The big concern there is that my two highest characters are a healer and tank, both key roles in any group. Having an inexperienced damage dealer is one thing in a dungeon; having a newbie healer or tank quite another. Since I don’t want to be too much of a drag on any random (or guild) group that I join in future, I had the idea that having a new dps-only class to play would make the most sense. Rather than just create whatever I most fancied playing at the time, I made a more considered, strategic choice of what to pick.

I actually rather like the ranger / hunter archetype, even though it’s not been my traditional go-to class. I’ve been having some fun playing a hunter in WoW Classic for example, as a dps class with a bit of utility on the side (mostly the traps). I’m not done levelling my main in Luclin yet on the tradeskill timeline, but he’s about 85% of the way through, so not far off finishing. I think it’ll be time to switch characters after that, maybe to break out the ratonga for some adventure timeline fun. By all accounts this expansion makes catching those alts up to the cap easier than ever. Perhaps this’ll finally be the expansion where I can get my group-groove on in EQ2?

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Expectations regards difficulty in MMORPGs

Over the last few days we’ve played several sessions of World of Warcraft’s 8.3 patch, Visions of N’Zoth, and in parallel we’ve also played through the early parts of Neverwinter’s Undermountain  content (Module 16).

Playing both games it’s interesting to see differences in how difficulty is, or isn’t, presented. Neverwinter in this module seems pretty standard, the content for our modestly geared characters is easy enough if we’re not careless. An overpull can lead to me having to heal like crazy and for us to use our potions and other buff items to snatch victory from disaster. That’s on normal groups of monsters. Boss fights have a few mechanics to watch out for but are relatively standard fare so far.

Over in WoW you have the Horrific Vision mechanic that kind of turns expectations of difficulty on its head. You will fail some, and might end up failing them regularly. Our first attempt at this instanced challenge content, set in a void-corrupted version of Orgrimmar, was an abject failure. We knew enough from guild discussions to not get distracted by all the harder side content on the map. So, we made a line straight for Thrall and still only managed to get him down to about 40% health before wiping: not even close.

My first reaction was: “screw this, it’s unwinnable”. I’m afraid I’m not the most patient of people when it comes to gaming. My husband was annoyed that we might miss out on some progress by not having won this; for context he’d assumed his first failure on his monk main character was because he got initially distracted by some side content. His monk is much better geared than my main or his alt that we duo together. That is a factor of course, some players reading this might laugh at how easy their first run was, but to us it was mathematically impossible due to our low(ish) gear level.

You are not ready to explore deeper…

That’s not the end of this post though. On handing in, we received enough momentoes currency to unlock a first upgrade on our cloak; this would  make subsequent runs easier. With the three-use Sanity Resoration Orb ability available, we were able to take Thrall down on a second run without much difficulty. The quest chain doesn’t really stress enough, in game, that failure is likely on early runs, perhaps that it should be expected. If we do more of this, and time is always a factor, then I’ll be able to do a follow-up on just how the difficulty curve looks. As a side note, some of the instanced scenario story-content in this patch was also tuned to be unexpectedly difficult, we wiped on a fight late in the chain but when we released we were able to rejoin the same fight without losing progress. In the context of the story its difficulty wasn’t out of place, but it is unexpected to have to fight so hard just to get a quest done.

What interested me is the starting point of difficulty here. There’s such a contrast between Horrific Visions and Neverwinter’s current content. It’s more noticable to me because the difficulty for both of the previous two Neverwinter modules, set in Chult and Ravenloft respectively, was set so much higher from the offset. I was very pleasantly surprised with the starting difficulty in Undermountain. Then in World of Warcraft with this latest patch we have new content, one of the pillars of this patch, that starts out feeling nigh-impossible. I’m not sure if there’s any comparable trends to be identified here, as I’m talking about a late expansion patch for WoW and a standalone patch for Neverwinter. In both cases I am talking about what I consider general content – this isn’t about top-end group or raid content. It does feel like the Neverwinter and World of Warcraft devs have quite different design philosophies where difficulty curves are concerned.

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Visions of N’Zoth, patch 8.3

Yesterday saw the European launch of patch 8.3, Visions of N’Zoth, for World of Warcraft (retail).

In about two hours we played as a duo through the first sections of the new story-line, with NPC dialogues and a host of activities unlocked in Uldum, one of the two feature zones of the patch.

Although it’s early days for this content I imagine it might be somewhat ‘Marmite’ (UK English for a love or hate thing) to many players. Our retail guild was hopping compared to the last few weeks, but one player did log over to a low-level alt to “get away from all the purple and tentacles” (they’d been playing it most of the day, whereas I only had the evening after work).

I’m rather partial to anything Titan or Old-God related story-wise, so I’m happy so far to be diving into this new content. Reusing old zones is a sensible thing from a dev resource perspective, and it happens that the two main zones that are being reused are two of my favourites aesthetically. I love Egyptian history/mythology, so anything with great pyramids and animal-headed creatures is fine with me. Our characters finished up with the quest to go on to the Vale of Eternal Blossoms for the continuation of the storyline, I knew this was coming though and am looking forward to it as that is a rather iconic location as well.

So far, from a gameplay perspective, it’s just been standard Battle for Azeroth open world activities: daily quests and bars to fill in a given area. The quest chain is enjoyable though, I won’t have a problem repeating it on a few alts. We haven’t got to the step of doing our first Horrific Visions yet, a challenge mode instance that has been likened to the Mage Tower of the Legion expansion. I would thought on paper that I would have next to no interest in these instances: I hated the Mage Tower. But these can be played with 1-5 players, and I am a lot more interested in difficult content for a group than I am in soloing it. I’m not sure how long this content will keep me engaged, but my first impressions for the patch are positive…

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Neverwinter in 2020

Well, it seems it doesn’t take much to get me to go back to a MMORPG that I enjoy playing. Especially if my husband or friends are interested in playing it. So I mentioned Neverwinter recently, and one thing led to another.

Sadly the game we were looking forward to most from Cryptic was the newly (re)surfaced Magic: Legends, but a coop action rpg (a la Diablo) is the last thing I want to add to my gaming stable at the moment. Despite this it was actually a relatively smooth return to this game, one that we haven’t played regularly together since October 2018. We started out back in Barovia wanting to test out our wildly changed class abilities and builds on some familiar content. That went ok, though the zone is one of the tougher ones, apparently requiring 14,000 gear score – my cleric’s score was sitting at 11,000 – lower than I remembered it being but then a lot has changed.

Looking for an easier contract

We managed a few quests but it was very dicey at first as our characters playstyles were radically different and seemed a lot less effective (again the change in gear score probably explains this in part). Then, as a change of pace I decided we should head into the Undermountain expansion (Module 16). The intro quests to this netted us some instant gear upgrades, although we’d done enough of the Ravenloft campaign that not all slots were better. It also took us to the Catacombs zone within Undermountain, which is noticeably easier content I feel.

I went Healer naturally

Since playing a few sessions in the Undermountain starter zone, I feel I’ve gotten a grasp of the changes to Cleric (just Cleric now, all the class names were simplified/made more like 5E D&D). My character feels more spammy with his abilities, some encounters have no cooldown for instance. He actually has more direct healing than in the old system, before healing always felt like something you did as part of damage dealing (Rift Chloromancer-style almost): from first impressions it seems more possible to be a more dedicated healer. I’d noted the changes to Cleric gameplay according to Shintar’s blog post before going back to the game, maybe things have been re-balanced since July last year as I’m not feeling particularly limited on my divinity resource at the moment.

The campaign seems interesting enough, hunting for rare-spawn monsters was a fun side-activity after we’d done a round of quests and wanted a change of pace. This infamous mega-dungeon seems like a pretty clever background for MMORPG zones as it makes perfect sense for the content to be weaved in and out of them, with follow up quests taking you back through the same areas. It fits the idea of repeated expeditions down into the depths rather well.

A rare spawn. BURN IT WITH FIRE!

The changes to companions are radical if you’ve not been following the game’s development more recently, but so far they seem positive enough. Divorcing benefits from the active companion is a great design decision as it means I can have whichever companion I wish actively helping me, while still benefiting from the “must have” benefits of certain very popular companions. I imagine this has freed up many players to experiment more with which companions they use. The companion collection mini-game was always a strong draw for both of us and it remains a compelling aspect to the game.

My Alchemist Experimenter companion (right)

The last two times I’ve come back to the game, it has been to face under-geared characters and a potentially steep gear grind. I managed, somehow, to get my Ranger to Chult but found it tough going to make any progress. As a duo we faired better in Ravenloft but still found the going tough, especially during the zone’s night phases. This time around, in Undermountain, the devs seem to have gotten the catch-up mechanisms better tuned. It’s been the easiest return to the game in some time, despite the volume of system change that came with this module. Now if only I can get my characters bags sorted, I might feel settled in for a stint of dungeon-delving!

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Back in the text chat era #WoWClassic

It’s a little strange when playing World of Warcraft Classic just how much slower some aspects of the game are. Yes, the combat is fundamentally similar to World of Warcraft (retail), but the pace is noticeably slower. Characters have fewer abilities and develop a rotation fixed around end-game at level 60; for much of levelling some classes/specs are missing key abilities. Others have a community theory-crafting recommended spec that is beyond simplistic (e.g. Frost Mage or Balance Druid).

Frost bolt, frost bolt, frost bolt…

As we level, end-game ability concerns seem rather distant; we’re still only just into the 30s presently on this static group. That’s the levelling pace we can manage time-wise at least at the moment. It’s nice though as I’m not that interested in pulling all-day sessions ‘to get to 60 already’ – some guildies for context have several level 60s already. We also have allowed time for alts to mix up a different group. As I predicted some time ago some classes lack appeal as you level, so we have switched a few classes around in this time, and have a ‘B’ team around level 24 as a more flexible group for 3 or 4 person dungeon runs.

That’s the broader levelling arc perspective. The inspiration for this post though is just how the moment to moment gameplay is rather slower-paced. To the point where your character auto-attacking can be a valid choice. I can’t remember the last time in retail that my Balance Druid needed to hit things with his staff, or my Holy Priest got to sit and wand attack something.

Wand away

Mana management and regen is such a big issue for levelling characters in WoW Classic, not least because different classes get their mana recovery mechanisms at different points. Mages get Evocation at level 20, my Holy Paladin gets Seal of Wisdom at level 58! With the ‘5 second rule’ in this version of the game, it’s normal to stop doing anything other than a basic melee attack (or standing inactive for some casters) to get the standard mana regen to kick in for a bit.

It’s such a different experience from retail where mana regen is rarely an issue outside of boss fights if poorly geared. In the modern game rotations keep you actively pressing ability buttons every global cooldown more or less. My casters never lack something to be doing, the only character I feel a more ‘Classic moment’ now and then with is my Beastmaster Hunter who inevitably runs out of energy at some point in longer fights and is stuck with auto-attacking with his bow and directing his pet.

Take in the surroundings

The good side of the Classic pace of combat is evident. You can take in the surroundings: both from a touristic perspective (oh nice screenshot angle!) and from the alertness (oh, watch out for that patrol coming!). It’s easier for healers to not just be ‘turrets’ in the Classic game, unless we are really pushing content near to our max level of challenge, I can usually get some seal+judge combos in to buff or debuff the group or our enemies and the odd melee hit if I’m regening mana.

Up close and personal

The downside is that dungeon runs can feel like a slog. If we’re trying to push content but lack the damage output then progress will be slow, yet my healer will lack any time for dps or utility game-play. On my Hunter this kind of challenge should be a chance to shine but she lacks the abilities that would make her more of an asset. With no trap launcher in Classic, and traps only being usable out of combat, there’s not much she can do to help control a pull that is going out of control. Perhaps Feign Death will help with this when she gets to level 30. The traps she does have are too short-duration to be useful, and can only be deployed in advance.

Frost trap rank 1 is pretty useless

Both versions of the game are pretty relaxed compared to a more action-oriented MMORPG like Neverwinter or Tera. But even in the tab-target sub-genre there are differences in pace and WoW Classic is noticably slower. Trying to coordinate pugs in Neverwinter by text chat was always an added layer of stress. The auto-attack as filler also makes communication by text chat within combat doable – something that is easy to forget about in the era of omni-present and reliable voice chat. For years we only coordinated group play in World of Warcraft by text chat. That seems inefficient and slow nowadays as we’re inevitably on voice chat with guild mates if we group, even in Classic.

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Keeping a balance between MMORPGs

As my current WoW Token (World of Warcraft’s virtual item for a month of game time) comes close to its expiry, I’ve become aware of just how much WoW (Retail & Classic) has been dominating my free time since returning from the holidays. Three evenings a week and significant sessions on the weekend is too much for any one game I feel. When my Classic character is running out of rested at the start of an evening’s play then the game is (subtly) trying to tell me something. And no, that thing isn’t to go create another alt…

The timing is a little off to be taking a break completely, though I am tempted, because 8.3 is about to launch over on Retail and I’ve been happily ambling around with my husband on various characters ticking off quest completion and achievements. The downside is that I’ve been “double-dipping” on World of Warcraft, hardly ideal when I have so much else I could be doing or playing.

In Classic I’ve mostly been levelling two characters in static dungeon groups about ten levels apart. The issue, as it always was, is that there are only so many dungeons within a sensible level range at a time. Most Classic dungeons seem extremely long by modern standards and are chock full of non-trivial trash mobs. The patrols and the groups that are difficult to safely pull are numerous; it’s almost as though Vanilla WoW’s designers were trying to punish levelling characters for daring to run dungeons.

There’s a heavy dose of nostalgia in running these dungeons, of course, though some in reality are more pain than pleasure (e.g. Stockades, Wailing Caverns) or flat out boring (Scarlet Monastery: Graveyard). The biggest issues is the time investment, it requires hours to run these dungeons, especially if you run them as we often do with 4 or even only 3 party members. Reading about life in Azeroth at level 60, I foresee far too many timesyncs, many of which would be things that I’ve done before anyway.

I’m reading a lot on Wilhelm and Bhagpuss‘ blogs about their Everquest 2 experiences and I’m jealous, as I want to be playing that game too, but of late WoW has absorbed all my gaming time. That has to change. Rather than go cold turkey and regret it, I’ll try limiting the number of sessions of WoW that I play per week, both to play more Everquest 2, and also for the tabletop rpg writing projects that I have planned. Everything in moderation!

Posted in EQ2, MMORPG, World of Warcraft | 2 Comments

Gaming connections

A few random thoughts that have happened this last week: I was reading an article over at PCGamerN about gaming’s rising popularity amongst older people (the article states this as 50+). The reference that smart-phone gaming is behind this may make a lot of sense, but it’s not been my anecdotal experience as yet – in my family older relatives are playing on PC or console, not on phones. Perhaps my presence as a PC tech and the overwhelming popularity of consoles among my nieces and nephews, might skew this very small sample size.

Regardless of how we are all playing, we do game together a good amount. I foresee that MMORPGs, coop RPGs and virtual tabletop RPGs will continue to play an important role in allowing us to stay connected individually and collectively. When we met over Christmas there was plenty of time spent together offline; chatting, watching TV or playing board games. But, there was also time spent playing World of Warcraft, on Playstation 4 and running local Fantasy Grounds D&D sessions using three laptops all connected (1 host and 2 clients). Outside of festive family gatherings gaming offers numerous opportunities to keep in contact with family members and friends and I’m thankful for that.

I’ve lived in a different part of my home country from all my family for over half my life now, so this has more of an impact that it might for many other online gamers. In my Everquest 2 guild, when it was still active, members of the same guild would casually drop in guild chat an invitation for the others to come around for dinner or whatever. That’d never work in my family at least from my side.

Family dungeon run

Early January is traditionally a time to contemplate resolutions and changes to one’s life. As I contemplate the possibility of a big life change: my husband and I are looking into a move to Toronto, Canada. So, I’m very aware that gaming will take on an even more important role in maintaining these connections. Yes, it is just as possible to talk via Messenger chat or Skype with someone far away as it is in a MMORPG. Gaming implies, more often than not, setting aside some quality time. So online games like WoW represent to me not just a hobby but, specifically, a shared hobby.

Playing Starfinder via virtual ttrpg

Posted in D&D, Fantasy Grounds, MMORPG, Starfinder, TTRPG, World of Warcraft | 1 Comment