I perceive these lords at this encounter do so much admire that they devour their reason and scarce think.

Stand at Amon Sûl is a skirmish in Lord of the Rings Online which I generally avoid. Amon Sûl isn’t a terribly lengthy skirmish, and it’s not any more difficult than the other skirmish options available to me; in fact fighting alongside the NPC Ranger Candaith makes the whole affair a walk in the park since he is – as NPCs generally are in MMOs – a hero of far greater power than my character could ever be. Probably a power of two or three greater. So now we know what N really stands for in NPC: PCPC. Thus NPC = PCPCPC or PC3.

Still, there are other NPCs in other skirmishes, and their relative power levels don’t cause me to shy away from heading in and helping them defeat the forces of Sauron on a daily basis; I only help them once per day though, because after that I don’t get the daily quest bonus. No XP, No Fighty-Fighty: the motto of MMO players the world over. In actual fact Candaith’s PC3 power does have something to do with it, but it is the combination of this with the feature mechanic of Amon Sûl that makes for a rather disheartening experience.

The skirmish follows one of the standard templates of events, in this case three stages consisting of multiple waves of enemies each, culminating in a fight with the Big Bad Boss at the end of the third stage. The events take place at the top of Weathertop (Weathertoptop? Weather(top2)?), where the forces of darkness are attacking your camp at the centre of the stone circle at the summit. The mechanic unique to this skirmish is a one hundred percent ‘darkness’ damage debuff to yourself and your allies (Candaith, skirmish soldier) when fighting on Weathertop. To counter this, Candaith has lit a large fire in the centre of the stone circle, and fighting near to this will grant you a fifty percent ‘light’ buff to your damage. In addition to this there is a circle of five smaller bonfires around the outside edge of the stone circle which can be lit by grabbing a torch from next to the central fire and running it over to them. However, the torch quickly runs out and the smaller bonfires are spaced far enough apart that it takes two runs to successfully light them all. The smaller bonfires themselves will eventually go out, and will need to be relit, which is required roughly twice per stage. These smaller bonfires each provide a twenty five percent ‘light’ buff to damage, and also a two and half percent boost to attacks and inductions.

I picture the player turning up to help Candaith defend Weathertop, and he explains that it would be best if the darkness was driven back using the bonfires and that someone needs to light them, and he gives you a significant look. You glance over your shoulder to see who he’s talking to, because clearly it can’t be you, hero of the ages that you are. Your skirmish soldier is the only person standing behind you, but they seem to be intently admiring some invisible piece of architecture above their head whilst whistling to themselves. Looking back to Candaith you point a finger at your chest and mouth ‘me’, making it a question through the exaggerated use of arched-in-astonishment eyebrows. He nods solemnly, and then brushes past you and clasps hands with your skirmish soldier, offers them a puff on his pipe (not a euphemism, although they are indeed terribly friendly), and I imagine one or the other of them directs a firm kick at your behind as you run past to grab a torch and start lighting fires.

And thus the fight goes. Essentially, at the entry level and with all the fires lit, Candaith and your skirmish soldier can happily defeat all the enemy waves without you and – with a bit of luck on critical hits and their choosing to focus on the Big Bad Boss first – the final fight too. The most important role you play in the entire skirmish is to play errand boy (or girl; thanks Stan). It’s a curiously demoralising effect the first time you realise this, as you run off to light fires and watch as a wave of enemies approaches and is summarily slaughtered by the two NPCs. They seem to be having fun, at least.

It’s not a big issue, of course, but one worth contemplating. Making players run mundane tasks is a given in MMOs; I mean, where would we be without the Delivery quest, the Click Ten Widgets quest, the Speak to Five NPCs quest or Harness Seven Critters quest?

Having fun exploring and adventuring like heroes I imagine, ah ha ha ha haaaa… sigh.

But it’s probably quite important that if you’re going to make players perform mundane chores in the name of Entertainment, then you probably shouldn’t have them do this while in the company of a crowd of NPCs who are having fun performing exciting adventurous feats of daring-do. Stand at Amon Sûl is just one minor example that tweaked my nipple of negativity recently, I’ve encountered many quests in many MMOs where I dash around like a subservient butler as an NPC smites the enemy; I fully expect one day to encounter a quest where my character’s job is to literally lick the NPC’s armour clean, then run out and collect rose petals so that they can be thrown at the NPC’s feet as they march into battle. Perhaps the next evolution would be a quest where your character has to crouch on all fours and act as a footstool for some NPC lounging on their throne, with a quest mechanic requiring you to press a key to hold your character’s breath when you see their hair begin to ruffle, otherwise they take the brunt of the NPC’s flatulence full on the nose and have to spend the next five minutes in a quest to clean all of their vomit from the throne room floor or be executed. With suitable improvements in voice recognition, it probably won’t be long before the PC is required to just lie on the floor and allow the NPCs to wipe their feet on them, whereupon it falls to the player to voice their gratitude in an obsequious enough tone that the NPC is appeased, and thus they allow the PC to progress to the next quest, where they attend the secondary ‘royal throne’, and get to wipe the NPC’s bum for XP, and possibly some gold in hand, depending on how thick the toilet paper is.

I think what makes me sad is that in all my adventuring, in all of my smiting of great evils, of all the vanquishings and sunderings and overcomings in the various MMOs I’ve played over the years, I have never had an NPC come up to me and say “Y’know what, you’re a bit of a hero in these lands, and you’ve saved us innumerable times from evil. How about I go out and rummage through that ox dung to find fifteen seeds to give to Farmer Bemybiatch? You put your feet up by the fire and have a rest. Here’s a pint and my eldest daughter, have fun. By golly you’ve earnt it”.

Good Ford! Perhaps we are the children of the Bokanovsky process in these brave new worlds which we inhabit; Alpha Plus developers and Alpha NPCs encourage the Epsilon players that ‘ending is better than mending’ with their infinite supply of experience, gold and goods. Levels and progression keep the players on a soma-like trip, a recursive inculcated belief that fun is to be found in the repetition of doing. It is the conditioning system where players are encouraged to avoid playing alone; where each class is a caste of perfectly uniform equality and led to believe it is more worthwhile than any other class; where the indoctrination teaches players that predictability, homogeneity, and consumption are this gaming generation’s greatest goals. What do those outside our society think as they stare in at us? Do they marvel in half-wonder half-horror when observing the mechanics of our low society, as we toil mundanely at the behest of the leaders of our worlds, our nobles, our heroes: the NPCs?

“My dear young friend,” said Mustapha Mond, “civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended —- there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. But there aren’t any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do.”

11 thoughts on “I perceive these lords at this encounter do so much admire that they devour their reason and scarce think.

  1. spinks

    See, this is actually the one skirmish I prefer because running around with the fires is a bit more interesting than boring old killing waves of mobs (especially when some of them are resistant to crowd control in a deliberate attempt by Turbine to make skimishes less fun for burglars).

    I just don’t really enjoy skirmishes. I can do them but it’s a hassle and Not Fun and Relaxing.

  2. Helistar

    Thanks for this posting :) really nice. It’s interesting that Last Stand at Amon Sul (LSaAS?), is one of my ‘hateds’ as well, but for completely different reasons. Sure, on my warden I can probably manage it with my eyes closed, maybe actually tanking everything for a few milliseconds before Candaith erases them from existence. Lighting fires is also very easy after you learn NOT to light them all at the same time (which invariably causes them to all go out at the same time at the critical moment(tm)).
    My hatred comes from the incredible difference at running it alone or in duo. Alone, I can solo it just fine.
    Actually, as you correctly say, Candaith can solo it just fine with my marginal help.
    But switch to two-player mode and it’s another story completely. I am leveling with a Rune-keeper friend (I am the noob elf hunter) and in duo mode the final encounter is a nightmare. Not that we get killed or anything bad like that, it’s just that Candaith proceeds to open fire full-power on the boss, takes aggro and dies a horrible death. For some reason those NPC heroes don’t understand the concept of “aggro” much (I had the same experience in a solo quest in Moria, where you have to escort a suicidal dwarf in the Cooling Chamber). We’ve tried different approaches: the one where my friend heals and tries to keep Candaith alive while I desperately try to aggro all the adds seems to work best, but it’s unreliable and it’s very annoying to fail the skirmish at the last 5 seconds of it. It’s not even the XP loss (at higher levels the quest XP is irrelevant), it’s just unnerving to get so close and fail.
    It’s also an example of instances/skirmishes/encounters NOT scaling well with number. Solo and it must be easy enough so that even the weakest classes can do it, more and the designer assumed that there’s a tank, if you don’t have one you have a problem…..

  3. Melmoth Post author

    @Spinks: I think Defence of the Prancing Pony works better, because there you have to defeat the brigand with a torch on occasion, albeit one who doesn’t fight back or run for it, admittedly; it does give you something else to do though, and can be a bit hairy if you get one of the nastier lieutenants turn up at the same time, since Second-watcher Heathstraw doesn’t seem quite as resilient as Candaith.

    I quite enjoy skirmishes for what they are, although I admit that I tend to favour Trouble in Tuckborough and Thievery and Mischief because you can pace yourself in those ones, and also try to be a bit more tactical when unleashing a counter-attack. As a ‘daily’ they are certainly good XP for the amount of time invested, and with those two skirmishes in particular, it’s just you and your skirmish soldier, so the feeling of achievement and heroism is just that little bit greater.

    @Helistar: Oh yes, skirmish scaling is quite bizarre sometimes. As you say, notch up the tier or add another player and everything seems disproportionately more difficult, and the having or not having of a tank definitely seems to be one of the main game changers. We’ve had similar issues in Van Hemlock’s Friday night static group, with many skirmishes destroying us because we seemingly didn’t have just the right number of tanks. It doesn’t help that, as Spinks points out, once you’re outside of the solo Tier 1, the Lore-master’s and Burglar’s stuns fail to work on many of the mobs, which reduces their effectiveness in a group dramatically. Siege of Gondamon can be equally bad, especially as sometimes you can get all the way to the end before it throws multiple drakes and a boss at you, which is usually the point at which Mathi decides he’s Captain Moria, slaps on his red, white and blue outfit and shield, and tries to tank everything at the same time…

  4. darkeye

    I avoid Stand at Amon Sul too, I don’t even own it and don’t plan to buy it either, next one to purchase is Ford of Bruinen. Used to play it when subscribed but it gives so little XP, Candaith is the worse for kill-stealing even when I’m trying to tag as much stuff as I can. On the plus side the new skirmishes in Moria are fun, they even have imba buff flags that are a lot better than the ones that drop in normal skirmishes, getting to level 55 and grinding them would be more fun than being at the beck and call of the dwarves in Moria for a second time. Though I wish they would stop locking the higher level skirmishes by the epic quest lines.

    Turbine needs to get some better writers or content designers too, because it’s getting a little too obvious, I swear I saw some in-jokes in the quest text recently, could have been in Enedwaith or the latest books.

  5. Melmoth Post author

    Oh yes, good point! Now that Volume 2 is soloable I’ll be able to have a look at those extra skirmishes, and perhaps grab some tokens for some of the more desirable cosmetic rewards for my Warden. Huzzah!

    Hoom hrum, I feel that there’s a level of subtlety required for in-jokes which is quite hard to balance: too subtle and the joke barely registers, but worse is to have it be terribly obvious and thrust into the faces of players in an unseemly manner.

    I think the best writers will accept that many players will miss their references, and will content themselves with the fact that a few players will ‘get it’ and, hopefully, be amused and delighted by it. WoW especially seems to have devolved into that “HEY LOOK AT THIS GREAT INTERNET MEME THAT I KNOW” sort of flag waving, and it quickly became tiresome to me.

    I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with in-jokes; a bit like someone farting in public, in-jokes are a natural occurrence which need to be handled with care so as not to cause offence, and where being unsubtle and drawing attention to themselves is a bit of a no-no.

  6. Helistar

    Ah yes, Gondamon :) I remember duoing it until the dragon at the end decided he didn’t like us and proceeded to wipe the entire of us group with a flame breath.
    Now that I think about it, it’s the whole “protect the NPC thing” which annoys me, especially since they ALWAYS act like idiots, and you end up saving them from their own stupidity instead of saving them from the fearsome enemy.
    They should add some more deeds to those skirmishes, like “Get Mathi killed by all types of lieutenants”. I would definitely fail it systematically just to go around with the associated title “slayer of the stupid NPC” just for the sake of it…. Getting both the Elrond-breed guys at the ford of Bruinen killed within 15 seconds would make for another nice achievement.

    BTW I also prefer Tuckborough and Thievery. As you say you can set the pacing. Even better, you can do them in rush-zerg-mode by pulling the next lieutenant while defending one point :) I tried them at higher level, and up to +4 they are manageable, beyond that I miss way too much….

  7. Blaq

    I’m not a regular reader or someone who has played LOTRO, so I hope you’ll excuse me if I ignore the first few paragraphs of your post (although the exaggerations in the 8th paragraph feel a bit out of place).

    I simply had to comment on the penultimate paragraph though, because I find your comparison of a highly cynical fictional world with another fictional world that is supposed to be optimistic in it’s fantasy setting and aim (fun), but so often fails to be, extremely interesting. You remind players of what the inital intent of the fictional worlds in MMOs is and that it’s slowly turning into something that it’s not supposed to be. Fun and playfulness turning into drudgery, weariness and bleakness. I want to be a hero of the universe, not one of the thousands of clones, droning away and simply melting with the surroundings. I can do that in the real life.

    It’s something I’ve been considering a lot lately. MMORPGs morphing into something that auguments not their primary function of providing fun and entertainment but their secondary function (as percived by the developers or at least publishers) of being a product intended for consumption.

    That one well written paragraph is full of food for thought. Thanks. :)

  8. darkeye

    I forgot all about Elrond’s sons in the Fords of Bruinen, it’s always at the worse time that the melee one decides to pull the defilers, wish both of them just stood back and used bows. I still don’t get why we can’t control and direct the soldiers more, I think the reason was because these are raw recruits so they do stupid stuff, but shouldn’t we be able to give them more direction so they learn and get better instead of keeping on doing dumb things. The same excuses however can’t be made for the sons of Elrond.

    I wasn’t refering to pop culture references before, but when I read quest text and the NPCs are making fun at the player’s expense as general dogsbody. Some of the quest givers say things along the line of ‘by we, I mean you’, or players aren’t given much say or the NPC make assumptions and talk for the player. Getting told off by Celeborn about sparing Mazog, only then the player gets to relive the story and choose between killing or sparing Mazog only to be over-ruled by Broin (I did book 9 before, so I knew better, but really it was a stupid scheme to begin with). I think Bioware might be on to something if they give a player a bit more control/say in that regard, or Arenanet letting players be ferocious and getting some revenge on NPCs. Then again maybe Turbine just wrote elves and dwarves to be rude, I was doing the epic books and one of them told me ‘no offense , but you are no Mithrandir’, well fuck you then go and kill your own ancient evils.

  9. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    I think the Stand at Amon Sûl skirmish is better in a group. When you have even one more person there, you can trade off torch duty, so you don’t feel like all you’re doing is keeping the fires lit. I think that perhaps in the beginning there was no solo option for that skirmish, probably for this very reason.

    As a developer, I have to wonder if it would have been better to not allow this one to be soloed for the reason you state.

  10. Zubon

    I have run many skirmishes on my Hunter. When your unique mechanic encourages you to stand in one spot and build Focus, Amon Sul and Gondamon are just problems.

  11. Melmoth Post author

    @Blaq: Glad you enjoyed it, thank you for the comment!

    There’s always the risk that the increasing trend in MMOs will be to churn out games which focus on keeping people occupied at the expense of being entertained. Clearly if something is entertaining then people will be happy to be occupied by it (and thus continue their subscriptions), but it’s much harder to make things genuinely entertaining as opposed to just making busy work. The curious thing is that there then seems to be a lot of effort expended on making players believe that the busy work is fun, effort that could have been spent on making it genuinely entertaining in the first place.

    @darkeye: Silly NPCs are certainly an issue in a lot of MMOs, but it’s something that Guild Wars does get right; heck, for an amateur to the game such as myself, the NPC henchmen play better than I do half the time.

    Ah yes, the sly wink in quest text that says ‘we know you’re being treated like crap, so we thought we’d rub it in a bit’. Nothing makes you feel more heroic than being spoken to like a peasant and not being able to cleave their skull in twain with your axe as a counterpoint to the discussion.

    @Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green: Indeed! I was going to mention the fact that it’s probably better in a group, and possibly also at higher tiers of difficulty when solo, where the bonfires become essential but Candaith and the skirmish soldier will struggle to hold off the enemy on their own, because it then adds a level of tactical choice, but the post was a bit rambly already, alas.

    However, I still think the mechanic is a bit weak, even for a group; perhaps if it were more of a puzzle mini-game, something which gave the player who wasn’t fighting something engaging to do, I could see it as being a slightly more compelling task.

    @Zubon: It’s funny how we’re trained while levelling to generally stand still and fight (if you move around you’ll get a snare debuff, or a flanking debuff, etc), and where in LotRO there’s even a class that has a mechanic based on standing still while fighting (as you point out), yet the first thing any MMO developer does at the end game is invent a raid where you have to scurry around like a bunch of mice on methamphetamines.

    Still, at least Hunters can just press their I WIN button and end the skirmish. Ahhh, overpowered Hunter jokes, always relevant no matter the MMO.

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