Category Archives: ddo

True heroism consists in being superior to the ills of life, in whatever shape they may challenge us to combat.

I quite like the combat in Age of Conan. Oh, don’t worry, Moaning Melmoth is still alive and kicking MMO game-play mechanics squarely in the hairy gooseberries, but I’m finding that combat in AoC is an interesting mix of the traditional with the experimental. Of the three MMOs that I’m currently playing on a regular basis AoC’s combat feels like a hybrid of the other two, they being Lord of the Rings Online’s traditional slower combat and Dungeons and Dragons Online’s hectic free-form positional fighting. It’s a strange juxtaposition this slow yet hectic combat, but I do think the contrast of the two styles works well in AoC in the main.

I think the hectic feeling comes from two things, which both DDO and AoC share: no auto attack swings, and a dependence on character positioning to maximise outgoing damage while decreasing incoming damage – when considering combat from a melee point of view, at least. The fact that there are no auto attacks gives a sense of urgency to the player’s actions, this is less pronounced in DDO where one can just keep their finger held down on the attack button, but in Age of Conan if the player isn’t pressing buttons then their character isn’t attacking, and so wandering off to read your RSS feed while your character auto-defeats a mob, possibly with something pinning down the numeric key of your biggest attack or self-heal such that it triggers every time it comes off of its cool-down, is not an option. I think this is what I like about AoC’s system: it’s designed to keep the player invested in the fight; you rarely find your mind wandering on to other subjects. I think it’s a testament to this that among the media-promoted adolescent male gamer population that plays these sort of games, I’ve yet to see anyone running around with a topless female character. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are jiggles of topless females (Oh really? Well you define the collective noun for topless females then) running around in certain areas of the game, treeless open expanses of Serengeti-like grassland, where they bask in the sun and hunt around in packs for unsuspecting prey to devour, while men with cameras venture out on safari and try to capture pictures of them. On Earth we call this place Ibiza. But, at the lower levels at least, I haven’t seen a single one, and I think that this is down to the fact that they are so involved with the combat system that they simply don’t have time to sit, chin in cupped hand, while they press the number 2 button every fifteen to twenty seconds, and wonder whether there’d be more to that side-boob if they unequipped their character’s chest piece.

The second system that keeps a player invested in the combat is the combo system, which is, in a way, a bit like an inverted gambit system as used by the Warden class in LotRO, with AoC’s version being somewhat easier to cope with, which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on your point of view and capacity for memorisation. Where a player of a Warden has to remember a string of sub-moves that will produce a resulting gambit move, Age of Conan provides a number of final moves that the player activates by pressing a button on their hotbar, at which point a UI element pops up informing the player of the sequence of sub-moves that must be performed to achieve the desired final move that they activated in the first place. I like this system, and although I think there is fun and satisfaction to be had from remembering all the various moves in LotRO’s system for the Warden, there’s nothing in AoC’s system that prevents a player from memorising the moves required and thus executing them quicker than someone who has to study the display – a big advantage in a game where combat is a lot less static than more traditional MMOs such as WoW and LotRO – but at the same time the memorisationally challenged such as myself (just ask Zoso: it’s a miracle if I remember to finish a sentence half the time) are not prevented from joining in with the complexities of combat straight from the off, albeit at a slight disadvantage to those with a richer capacity for recall.

The final function that helps to keep each combat exciting and fresh is the dependence on positioning to maximise your damage while minimising that of the enemy, a system which is shared to some extent, as I mentioned earlier, with DDO. It makes for quite a comical experience when you first play such a game, though, especially if you’ve been used to the more traditional ‘stand toe-to-toe and hit each other in turns over the head until one of you collapses’ fight, which sounds as though it would be equally at home at a college fraternity initiation rite, and thus may well explain the popularity of traditional MMOs among that section of the student population. There’s a point when the full comedy (or tragedy, depending on your point of view) of the situation for someone new to this style of combat hits home: generally there’s a point where you’ve got the fingers of your left hand on the movement keys to keep you facing in such a way as to maximise the area of effect of your glancing blows; your right hand is frantically mashing left, right and side buttons while holding on to the mouse for dear life as it flies around the mat like a cat that’s just sat on a hill of fire ants; your nose is pressed across the attack buttons on the keyboard that your left hand can’t quite reach while you desperately tongue the key that you’ve bound to health potions; and it’s usually at the point where you shout profane curses to your deity of choice for not giving you eyelids with enough musculature to be able to depress the F keys that are sitting tantalisingly beneath your eyes that you realise you might not have quite got to grips with this new combat system yet.

The great feature of this more fluid and dynamic flow of combat is that it adds another level of tactical decision making to the fight: as well as picking the right ability based on health bars, number and power level of combatants, and such, you also need to consider how to best position yourself to deal maximum damage while at the same time taking as little as possible, which in turn feeds back into the decision making process as to which ability you might want to use. Sure, fundamentally it’s still MMO combat, so Sun Tzu need hardly plan his undead comeback tour, but it definitely keeps the player more focussed on the task at hand, rather than flicking over to YouTube to watch a video of someone else performing the same fight but in their underwear. No, it isn’t the player’s character in their underwear.

AoC differs from DDO slightly in the fact that, where DDO just needs you to keep the left mouse button held down for your character to begin flailing away, AoC uses the 1, 2 and 3 keys to perform a basic ‘white damage’ swing to the left, centre or right of the target respectively, and while I admire the additional idea of trying to get characters to target a specific location on an enemy it does lead to slightly jarring combat animations where you mash one key in between performing a special move until the enemy switches their shield to that area, at which point you spam away at a different location, it ends up making your character look like a slightly over-exuberant dance or exercise instructor “And lunge. And lunge. And lunge. And lunge. And lunge. And parry. And thrust. And hack their arm off at the shoulder. And relax.” The animations don’t flow entirely naturally when you’re executing them so quickly in succession either, such as when you’re just going for white damage spam (note to search engines – not a bukkake reference) to finish off an enemy, and so it can lead to a little bit of a disconnect at that point, but it’s more comedic in nature than anything.

Where AoC differs greatly from DDO and is more akin to LotRO is in the slowness of combat. When I say slowness I’m talking not about the speed with which you perform actions in combat, but the average amount of time combat takes. I think here AoC marches more in step with the traditional toe-to-toe-head-beating frat party MMOs, where you have time during combat to think about things, to make mistakes and correct for them and to generally get a sense of the thing before it is all over. In DDO you can one-shot and be one-shot, or if not then very close to such, on quite a regular basis. So where AoC keeps the player on their toes by having them make lots of decisions quickly throughout the duration of a long combat, DDO makes players think quickly because otherwise they will either be dead, or the mob they are trying to attack will have been killed so hard that they travelled back in space and time and became their own father.

I think AoC’s combat is a step in the right direction, but they perhaps went a little overboard on the ideas front without perhaps considering the limitations of the human beings who will be trying to perform seventy five different actions at once, whilst at the same time coordinating their efforts with five other players who are all trying to do the same. MMOs are well known for their extensive keyboard layouts for all the various functions of the game, and I’m sure it’s partly to blame for why we haven’t seen many successful MMOs on the console yet:

“Everyone, this is Geoff. Geoff’s job is going to be to fit aaaaaallllll the functionality of our MMO’s UI keybinds onto a controller with six buttons and no alphanumeric input whatsoever.”

<Raucous laughter>

<Geoff sneaks off while nobody is looking, never to return>

and I worry that by extending this theme of “if you design it, they will bind it” to fast-paced combat we’re heading towards a place where N52s will become a requirement for entry into some areas of the MMO genre. The funny thing is, similarities aside, LotRO’s version of the combo combat system is actually perfectly suited to a gamepad, as unwize rightly pointed out a while back in response to my previous thoughts on the gambit system.

In the meantime, however, it’s back to my combaterobics.

“And one. And two. And lift. And stretch. And dismember. And teabag. And rest.”

Smile, breathe and go slowly.

If fighting your way through a dungeon armed with nothing more than a pair of light silk pyjamas and an ability to touch things with your quivering palm sounds like an exciting challenge, or an erotic adventure, then the Monk class in Dungeons and Dragons Online might be the career choice for you. One wonders how a person becomes a Monk in DDO, most likely through a careers fair at school where, based upon the feedback given – like to touch things with my quivering palm; prefer to wear light outfits that leave me exposed; spend a lot of time in a crouching position; able to move limbs rapidly back and forth in quick succession – they were offered the somewhat limited choice of either Monk or Adult Film Fluffer.

The Monk in DDO is an interesting class, I’ve spoken before about how the mechanics for the class are in some ways similar to those of the Warden in Lord of the Rings Online, and that, due to the hectic pace of the combat in DDO and the standard MMO UI, the class doesn’t quite hit the level of harmony that its Middle Earthian compatriot enjoys. It is strange, but for a class that is all about harmonious balance and oneness, the Monk as a class always seems slightly at odds with the rest of the game.

To start with, the Monk relies on Ki to power its special moves and its special special move, or finishing move to properly name it, and although the Monk can store some Ki in between fights, at the lower levels at least, it never seems to be enough. The combat in DDO is so fast paced and frantic that by the time the Monk has built enough Ki to activate three of their special attacks and thus open up the option of the special special ability, the fight is over and the Monk is left with a useful buff or heal that is all ready to go but for a lack of Ki to power it, which is deeply frustrating in itself and doubly so when combined with another element of the class that appears to be there purely to rankle the player.

First a little pondering on front-loaded versus slow-burn abilities. It’s an element of many MMOs: the Mage with their pool of spell points all ready and waiting to be used versus the Warrior or Rogue type who has to build up rage/fervour/combo points/Ki in order to activate their more damaging abilities. It was a frustration for me in LotRO with my Champion and, having played a Runekeeper for a while, was part of the reason that I decided to drop the class and change to something else. For me it’s more fun and of greater utility to be able to let rip with a number of abilities right from the beginning of a fight than have to wait for what seems like an eternity while being wailed on by a bunch of angry pixelated script routines. It also seems that, in a very general case, if you have to wait a while to build-up enough smite juice to perform your class’s abilities, it would probably be fair for those abilities to be of greater power than those of a class that can use them freely right from the onset of conflict; rarely do I see classes of the slow-burn sort with abilities that outstrip the front-loaded abilities of those classes with a fixed pool of power, often they’re lucky if the two are even on a par. Ah, but the classes with a fixed pool have a finite resource, whereas those classes that build-up their power over time technically have a limitless supply! Which is a fair point, but how often do we see concessions to front-loaded classes in an MMO, such that they’re given ways to refill their sapphire scrotums with spell sperm? And how often do fights in an MMO last long enough that these classes are in danger of blowing their load and thus risk standing limp and spent at the back of the battle? Raiding is generally where it balances out, but if you’re not a raider and just enjoy small group dungeons and questing with your friends, it’s hard not to be frustrated by the fellow who can remove two thirds of a mob’s health bar before you’ve had enough time to whip out your weapon, let alone fluff it up enough that you can get some decent penetration with it.

As well as being a slow-burn class in a game where fights are fast and frantic – DDO combat is to WoW as a Vin Diesel film about chess would be to a documentary about Kasparov versus Deep Blue, at least I’m pretty sure Kasparov never played the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit whilst hanging from the bonnet of a speeding car and firing a 9mm at his opponent – the Monk also has a curious phobia of interacting with objects. It’s not a phobia as such, but in my mind that’s how it would appear to others, because if a Monk has their special special move ready to use and they interact with any object before they’ve activated said special special move, the ‘charge’ of the move is removed, or wasted as some might look at it. There’s nothing more frustrating than being in a dungeon and having a much needed healing special special move all lined up, needing one or two Ki more in order to be able to use it, and finding yourself standing at the base of a ladder. Doors also become an enemy to revile, loot chests become bittersweet rewards, levers and switches are spiteful and venomous, anything, anything that requires you to interact with it is anathema. Playing in a group becomes positively embarrassing:

Fighter: “So we’re all set, the Rogue will stealth in to the room right after the Monk opens the door”

Monk: “NO!”

Fighter: “What’s wrong?!”


Fighter: “Why? OMG, TRAP? Rogue, why didn’t you spot the trap?!”

Rogue: “There isn’t a trap!”


Fighter: “Dischar…? Dude, that’s sick!”

Rogue: “What’s up? What did he say?”

Fighter: “Dude said he was going to ejaculate if he touched the door.”

Rogue: “Ewww, god, what sort of sick fu…”

Monk: “No, no, you’ve got it all wrong. My power will discharge. Yes? I will go karmically limp. My ability to buff you all will be removed until I furiously pound some more kobolds and regenerate my energy.”

Fighter: “Oh god, I think I’m gonna hurl”

Rogue: “What? What did he say now?”

Fighter: “He says he wants to get jiggy with some kobolds so that he can get up the energy to rub our co…”

Rogue: “ALRIGHT. Enough. I’ll open the damn door, sheesh. You could have just ASKED.”

Monk: “Nobody understands me. Let me place my quivering palm on you and buff your co…”

<Fighter has left the party>
<Rogue has left the party>

Monk: “…nstitution. Your constitution. Hello?”

Seriously, I’ve stood at a door having the “I can’t touch the door otherwise I’ll lose my special special power” conversation with my group, and I’m pretty sure it only served to further cement in their minds the impression that I am quite, quite mad. And possibly a pervert.

I’ve no idea why the Monk’s special special ability would need to be discharged like that, maybe there’s a facet of the game that I’m not understanding, but I can’t think of many exploits that would be possible by charging up a special move and having it remain until the Monk next needed it, especially seeing as many of the Monk’s special special moves are simple one-minute duration party buffs, hardly an overpowered thing to have ready at the start of a fight.

Which leads me onto the other curious disharmony of the Monk’s mechanics, the fact that most of their special special moves are one-minute duration party buffs. Most fights as part of a competent party last all of fifteen seconds and, if the Monk is lucky, will provide just enough Ki to power one special special move. Now, the time it takes for the party to find the next group of mobs can be much more than a minute, especially if they’re taking things slowly and not trying the Indiana Jones style of trap avoidance by running pell-mell through the dungeon with their eyes closed while holding on to their hats. So the Monk doesn’t want to fire-off the buff at the end of combat because it is highly likely that it will have expired before the next combat begins. So they hold on to it. Why waste it, they think, I’ll just hold on to it until the next fight. I’ll have it ready for the start of the fight and we’ll all have a nice little buff to get us through it. I’ve worked hard for this buff, it took me time and coordination to build up the combination required to activate it while I was in the middle of that hectic fight. Yes, I will hold on to it and use it later, and the group will be most pleased!

And the Monk, cheered by their sensible approach to the situation, breaks out of their personal reverie and rejoins the conversation just at the point when the Fighter says:

“So we’re all set, the Rogue will stealth in to the room right after the Monk opens the door”


An interface is worth a thousand pictures.

The major observable difference between Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online is with the pace and flow of combat. That and the largely instanced world of Eberron versus the more traditional open world of Middle Earth. And, of course, one is free to play with a Store of Pixelated Delights (Will save DC 30 to resist), where the other is subscription based.

I’ll start again.

The major observable similarity between Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online is that they both have dwarves. And rubbish beard options.

I play a Monk in DDO, and the primary mechanic of the class is a combo system that is very similar to that of the Warden in LotRO, where the player has a number of abilities to choose from that will perform combat manoeuvres, and at the same time the order in which these abilities are performed will also activate a more powerful ‘finishing’ manoeuvre. The Monk has a limited set of finishing manoeuvres compared to the Warden, and where the Warden has numerous effects both personal and group wide, the majority of the Monk’s finishers consist of one minute duration group buffs or targeted debuffs. The interesting difference, however, is the pace at which combat takes place in each game, and I think that it’s because of this that the Warden works as a class where the Monk feels a lot more awkward and, to some extent, frustrating to play.

I use pace to describe the difference in the combat between the two games, but it’s not really the whole story, although DDO definitely feels faster, with mobs dropping quickly – sometimes going down in one almighty burst of a critical attack roll – the flow of the game is also more dynamic, with caster mobs dropping back out of melee range to cast, melee mobs running past the melee front line to get to the PC casters, the combat feels more… fluid.

I was stunned and somewhat frustrated in LotRO the first time I entered the Barrow Downs in a group, coming fresh faced and level capped from World of Warcraft I was used to the power of predictable and consistent aggro generation that the tanks in that MMO provided; compared to WoW, LotRO at that time was a different world entirely. WoW’s tanks were giant electromagnets, so powerful that they could draw mobs to them from half way across the dungeon and hold them there indefinitely, and as long as an enemy caster had a few buttons on their robe that were made out of metal, they too would be drawn inexorably in. So a WoW instance run generally consisted of a giant ball bristling with angry and somewhat compacted mobs, around which several melee PCs would stab periodically while the ranged types stood back and lobbed spells at it. After a minute or so of this regimented attack formation a tank would appear from out of the resultant debris, brush off a few extraneous bits of metal that were still stuck to their armour, then trundle their way into the next pack of mobs until they looked like a hamster in a rollerball made from orcs, before rolling back and bumping to a halt on the skirting board of melee DPS. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that tanking was easy in WoW but, given an accomplished player, the level of control afforded tanks in WoW was an order of magnitude greater than that of LotRO, where every care had to be taken by the DPS not to over-nuke and for the healer to carefully balance their healing output in order not to draw aggro. Even so, mobs in LotRO would run around a fair bit compared to WoW, and most fights were hectic; picture the resultant chaos from releasing a couple of agitated bats into your average teenage girls’ midnight slumber party and sealing the doors, and you have an idea of the high-pitched screaming flailing combat that occurred.

Now take that same scenario and replace the bats with a pack of terminally-rabid Fox Terriers, and you have combat in DDO.

As such you can’t rely on standing still for a moment in DDO and just punching the abilities on your hotbar, you need to be on the go all the time. There is also no auto-attack, you either have to constantly mash, or simply hold down, the left mouse button to attack, and this ‘basic’ attack in DDO constitutes the majority of damage for most classes. For those of us with only two hands, this makes hotbar activation a little trickier. Even with my key-binds set up to place the abilities I need within easy reach of my ESDF-movement hand, it’s somewhat tricky to be on the move almost non-stop and at the same time activate other abilities. I may have to look into making more use of my extra mouse buttons perhaps, but even so there’s also another limiting factor which causes a clash in combat, an area where I feel a lot of MMO developers fail to innovate when they have evolved some core part of the MMO design – the UI.

DDO sticks to the traditional ‘hotbars with cool downs’ UI design, where ability icons are greyed-out if they can’t be used, be it because they are on cool-down, the target is out of range for the ability, the PC doesn’t have enough spellpower/endurance/ki to activate the ability, or any number of other reasons. The problem I find is that, given that the combat in DDO has been changed from the traditional electromagnetic-hamster-rollerball of WoW to a more rabid-Fox-Terrier-in-a-room-full-of-hysterical-teenagers design, it seems that the traditional UI design of WoW, with its hotbars and party frames and various elements that require your concentration to be away from your character for split seconds at a time, should have been eschewed for a more Head-Up Display sort of design.

Being that my primary area of work is the software for Head-Up Displays of various types, I can quite happily relate to the need for information to be available at all times in an unobtrusive manner, so that split-second decisions can be made without having to rely on the human body’s ponderously slow response to changing focus between various display items. I’m not saying the timing requirements in DDO are nearly so stringent or critical as those we have to deal with in aviation, but at the same time it seems obvious that in a game where a mob can have moved out of attack range in the time it takes you to check to see if an ability is off of cool-down, the need for a change in the fundamental philosophy behind the UI and why it exists is evident. This problem is exacerbated when playing the Monk because they have numerous moves, all with independent cool-downs, the order of activation for which is important to get a valid combination to trigger a finishing move, and on top of which they have to have generated enough Ki to power each of these moves. That’s a lot of looking at hotbars and not looking at your character.

An instant solution to the problem would be to drag the hotbars up towards my character on the screen so that they are always within my field of view, but who wants to play a game through a viewport of hotbars and party frames? Well, some people it seems: just look at the many raid UIs in evidence on various WoW AddOn websites, where the actual game world is hidden beneath what essentially amounts to a dynamically updating Excel spreadsheet with heavy Visual Basic graph scripting. Yet on the same sites we can also find some of the neatest innovations in MMO UI design; indeed, there are even popular Head-Up Display-a-likes, with health bars, mana bars and other information presented around the character in a way that is designed to interfere as little as possible with the player’s view of the game world, after all, what’s the point in having these three dimensional DirectX 11 marvels of graphical splendour if all we’re going to do is cover them up with bar graphs and slide rules?

I think Heavy Rain has recently shown the way that UI design can be taken. It’s a splendid example of thought and attention to the user interface experience because it does the basic thing right and doesn’t get in the way, and it may be that many players will hardly even notice the clever nuanced feedback that it provides to them as they play, which is as it should be. The very best user interfaces are like the steady and dependable butler from Jeeves and Wooster: never fully appreciated by the user, they’re the ones that don’t frustrate or confuse or obstruct, while at the same time providing more information than the user might have otherwise expected to receive. They’re also the ones most likely to slip under the radar of others, because nobody notices the silent stalwart butler subtly guiding his master to victory from out of the shadows of servitude.

Despite the frustration, however, I’m not going to stop playing DDO any time soon, there’s something compelling about running around a room, leaping on to furniture and heaving ineffectually at locked windows along with a bunch of other screaming teenagers in their pyjamas, while small frothing yappy-type dogs with blood-shot eyes try to bite your ankles off.

What a senseless waste of human life

While Dungeons and Dragons Online continues most splendidly, one mildly irritating feature is the collection of weapons I’ve accumulated which are brutally effective in quite specific circumstances, leading to pauses in combat while rooting through the inventory to try and find the most appropriate implement for the current fight…

The Scene: a dungeon which carries the sign ‘Ye Olde Tombe of Peril’. MOUSEBENDER, an adventurer, enters and confronts an AXIOMATIC HORROR.

    Good morning, foul spirit.
    Good morning, sir. Welcome to the Tomb of Peril. What can I do for you?
    Well, I was rather hoping to purge the dungeon of the foul spirits that infest it, and perhaps perform a spot of light ransacking for a little financial renumeration in the process.
    Oh, I see. I suppose you’ll be wanting to kill me to death, then?
    I’m afraid so. Nothing personal!

MOUSEBENDER stabs the abomination with a rapier.

    I’m afraid you won’t get very far with that, sir, I have damage reduction from piercing weapons.
    Oh never mind, how about a +2 mace?
    I’m afraid it’ll need more than +2, sir.
    Tish tish. No matter. Well, fiendish creature, I have an acidic greatsword here!
    Ah. Acid immunity, sir.
    It’s not my lucky day, is it? Er, Gwylan’s Blade with sonic damage?
    Sorry, sir.
    +1 Light Hammer of Pure Good?
    Normally, sir, yes. Today I’ve got a special resistance.
    Ah. Giant Stalker’s Knife?
    Weapons of Kobold Bane, Muck Bane, Goblinoid Bane, Elf Bane?

MOUSEBENDER throws another four useless swords from his backpack to the growing pile on the floor

    +1 Ghost Touch short sword, per chance?
    You can be harmed, can’t you?
    Of course, sir. If you …
    No, no, don’t tell me. No spoilers, I haven’t looked this up on the wiki.
    Fair enough.
    Er, something Axiomatic?
    Ah, splendid, good job I found this in an earlier chest!

MOUSEBENDER sets about the abomination with a +1 Axiomatic Bastard Sword of Backstabbing, despite lacking the weapon proficiency.

    Oh, I thought you were talking to me, sir. I’m an Axiomatic Horror, that’s my name, and if you’d succeeded in doing any damage up to this point that would have healed me.


    +2 Metalline scimitar?
    Ah, not as such.
    Er, Flametouched cudgel?
    That figures. Predictable really, I suppose. It was an act of purest optimism to have tried the weapon in the first place. Tell me:
    Yes, sir?
    Have you in fact got any weakness at all?
    Yes, sir.
    Now I’m going to ask you that question once more, and if you say ‘no’ I’m going to shoot you through the head. Now, do you have any weakness all?
    (shoots him through the head)
    You’ll need to use Holy Bolts for that to work, sir.
    (logs out)

Ia ia Ctharsis fhtagn!

I posted a while back about a particular quest series that drove me away from DDO not long after launch (about four years ago, Happy Birthday DDO!) I’d blotted out the precise details, just remembered it was in one of the Houses off the marketplace, and that it involved running through an outdoor area to get to a dungeon, then going in and out of that dungeon six or seven times, delving slightly further in with each iteration.

In the now-Unlimited DDO I’ve been keeping an eye on “Today’s Deals” in the DDO store, and bought several discounted adventure packs of roughly the right level when they popped up. One of these was Tangleroot Gorge, which experienced DDOists will instantly recognise as the aforementioned hokey-cokey-esque in-and-out dungeon, but it hadn’t sounded any alarm bells when I bought it, so when Melmoth and I were looking for a bit of an adventure I casually said “oh, I’ve got this pack called Tangleroot Gorge I haven’t tried yet…” Turned out he’d run it a few times but was game for another, so we trotted along, got out of the Inn into the jungle, and…

… when I came back around I was lying in the hotel room, hands bleeding, the mirror was smashed, I could just remember something about napalm and “The End” by The Doors playing. Serious flashback, man. I almost hit the “unsubscribe” button as a reflex action, though not being subscribed in the first place made that a bit tricky. I needn’t have worried, though, the Return to Tangleroot Gorge was a textbook example of several areas of DDO’s improvements over the years.

It wasn’t *just* repeated runs through Tangleroot that made me give up back at launch, that was just the final frying pan that made the plastic donkey buck. A more significant problem was the need for a group to do anything, with the attendant overhead of forming or finding a group, then constructing an elaborate single transferable voting system with weighted alternatives to decide what to do. With variable difficulty levels in the dungeons now and hirelings to pad out your party it’s now far more flexible; being DPS types, Melmoth and I packed a couple of Cleric contracts for mobile Cure Serious Wounds dispensers and set out.

The first part of the adventure is a fairly large (for DDO) open jungle zone, big enough that a couple of wrong turns could land a laggard in a big enough pile of hobgoblins to cause trouble, and with sufficient canyons and ravines for people to poke their noses over the edge exclaiming “I wonder what’s down thaaaaaaAAAAARGH”. On the plus side, an excellent opportunity to exclaim “He’s fallen in the water!” in the river below, but a trifle annoying, especially if you land on a pointy rock at the bottom without the benefit of feather fall. So far as I can make out this bit hasn’t changed at all, but having a guide with uncanny navigational memory (to the point of being able to talk a guildmate through entirely by memory on voice chat: “you should be seeing a ruined temple coming up on the right, you’ll want to hang a left just before reaching it or the hobgoblins will get cross; if you get to the petrol station on the roundabout you’ve gone too far”) saved a good half hour or more of blundering that dragged things out the first time around, especially on top of the half hour of forming a group up.

At one point inside the dungeon itself, my Spot Sense tingled, indicating a nearby trap, and I got another flashback. The traps around launch seemed to be geared towards a pure rogue of the level of the adventure (if not higher) who hadn’t skimped on Int, put all available skill points into Spot, Search and Disable Traps, taken feats and enhancements to further boost those skills, was wearing Goggles Of Searching and Gloves Of Trap Disabling, had drunk a potion of trap detecting, and never rolled less than 15 on a 20 sided dice. The first run through the place back around launch was carnage, blades flying everywhere, flames shooting down corridors, an occasional cry in party chat of…
“Wait! I sense a…”
*CLICK* *fwooooooosh* STABSTABBURN
“… trap”

One of the advantages of revisiting the same dungeon seven times in a row was that the traps were in the same place each time. You would’ve thought that would make things easier for the rogue, as everyone halted, remembering previous spiky death, expectantly waiting for the trap to be disarmed. I’d boldly stride up to take my place in the spotlight, put on a deerstalker, pull out a magnifying glass and begin the elaborate pantomime triggered by activating the Search skill, to discover… nothing. Strange. Maybe there wasn’t a trap there on this iteration after…
*CLICK* *fwooooooosh* STABSTABBURN
… all. Or maybe I’d just missed it. Oops. Take three, and after the initial search didn’t turn anything up, I activated my limited use Skill Boost ability to perform a more thorough search, and eureka! I managed to find the control panel for the trap! Out with the thieves tools, I’d soon have this thing disarmed and made…
*CLICK* Critical disarm failure *fwoooooosh* STABSTABBURN
… safe. Oh dear.

I swear I only managed to disarm about one trap per twenty attempts, the others resulting in a fairly even mix of plain old failure and pointy-death critical failure. I’ve only got a couple of levels of Rogue this time around (though I’ve been dutifully keeping up Spot, Search, Open Lock and Disable Traps on the Ranger levels as well), and Turbine seem to have ratcheted things back to a rather more sensible level so there’s a very occasional critical failure, but by and large I’ve been able to detect and remove traps without divine intervention.

Anyway; over the course of a couple of nights, with various Waifs coming and going (quite easily, thanks to the flexibility of party composition and guest passes) we looped through Tangleroot Gorge two or three times, and rather than the hideous slog of years back it was a crazy romp. A couple of more experienced players have been bringing a dangerous hint of competency to the Friday night group; most of us can now hold the blunt wooden end of a weapon and stab the enemy with the pointy metal end with only gentle reminders, and we wound up clearing the entire chain on Elite.

Ctharsis: it’s like catharsis, but with more tentacles. (c) Melmoth

It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.

Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons Online had a bonus XP event this weekend past in celebration of the fact that Turbine failed to close the game down after less than stellar subscription numbers, and where NCSoft would have flipped the kill switch on the servers a few days after release, Turbine decided to experiment with the solid game and intellectual property which they had in their possession, and now DDO is marching steadily ever forward on the MMO battlefield under the banner of the Earl of Free To Play.

See that NCSoft? That there is what you do with a solid game that hasn’t quite had the fortune to capture the hearts and minds of gamers yet. Let’s all take a small moment to mourn the fact that we don’t have a free-to-play Tabula Rasa, shall we?

So yes, it’s DDO’s birthday, and the weekends of the 26th – 28th of February and 5th – 7th of March have been dubbed an MMORPGasmic XPalooza by… um, me, and as such it was a prime time to roll a new character and get a few levels under their +2 Belt of Grinding.

And of course no such adventure would be complete if I didn’t spend money in the DDO Store. Happy Birthday DDO! Here, I bought you an adventure pack! Well ok, technically I bought me an adventure pack, but it’s the thought that counts. You got some money, I got hours of entertainment, which is very much like the time that I gave my brother some money for his birthday and then I got hours of entertainment watching him get yelled at by our parents when he blew the cat’s litter tray to smithereens with the bangers that he’d bought with said money. Thankfully the cat wasn’t in (on?) the litter tray at the time, but only because my brother got the fuse length wrong; still, if ever there is a right place for a cat to be when it is surprised by a modest incendiary device being detonated from underneath it, the litter tray is probably that place.

I happened to have Veteran Status on my account, which I purchased a while ago (Happy pre-Birthday DDO!), and so I was able to create a level four character and skip a chunk of content that I had already run several times on other alts, thus allowing me to play through some new content straight away, with the secondary aim of getting as close to level seven as possible with a mind to joining m’colleague, Van Hemlock and the Tuesday Noob Club That Now Also Gathers On A Friday Club for further hot lathered DDO action.

So levelling was my aim, possibly extreme levelling, the sort of levelling that has a capital ‘X’ in the middle of the word extreme, and has its own station on satellite TV where the men are all bronzed beefcakes who say things like ‘dude’ and ‘whoa’ through a fringe of hair so long that it’s sometimes hard to tell whether you’re looking at them from the front or the rear, made all the more difficult because they seem to wear half of their baggy shapeless clothing backwards. If you want to learn to be extreme, you have to be willing to brave the dangers of the field in which you’re trying to do so: surfers eventually have to face that bloody big breaker, snowboarders have to make that off-piste jump into nothingness, BASE jumpers have to throw themselves off of that building, and MMO players have to visit the game’s forums. I wasn’t ready to be quite that eXtreme, though, so I made good use of the Google safety wheels and just searched around until I found a link to a thread on the DDO forums where someone posted a brief unapologetic list of the adventures that they found to be best for XP; having run the first few adventures in the list already, and having known them to be good sources of XP, I found the next item on the list was Tangleroot Gorge, an adventure area that I hadn’t played before. Good XP and new content? Sign me up!

Right after I pay you some money. Happy Birthday DDO!

So yes, I had to buy Tangleroot Gorge, which is probably why I hadn’t played it before, but I was deep into the spirit of celebration. And I’d just been paid for the month; my credit card was once again a shiny golden passport to possibility, rather than a singularity of infinite financial density within my wallet that threatens to suck me and my whole life into its black oblivion. A matter not helped by the fact that I keep spending indiscriminate amounts of money on impulse purchases, I might add.

So with my impulse purchase adventure pack unwrapped and installed into the game, I was ready to begin my levelling run. Right after I purchased a potion that I noticed in the store which gave an additional hefty boost to XP gain and which, a brief search revealed, stacked with the existing XP boost that Turbine were giving players over the weekend.

Oh dear.

My credit card started to pulse and thrum a little at that point, and it was fairly easy to see that time and space were beginning to be warped by the debt horizon that was building, so I popped it into my wallet, encased the wallet in lead and concrete, threw it into the nearby river, and got on with actually playing the game. My twice XP boosted game. I could feel my fringe growing rapidly, but there was going to be much work needed on the beefcake look; so, while I waited for the game to load, I put my trousers on backwards and pulled a beanie hat on to my head instead.

Next time: Tangleroot Gorge, and the joys of motile armoured organisms that can heal.

When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.

“Well you could do that, but nobody will want to group with you.” A phrase wrapped in wilful condescension so thick that if you spread some patronization between a couple of slices of it you’d have the world’s most bitter doorstop sandwich. Welcome to DDO’s General chat channel, a land where the nose evolved only as an extension of the face to be looked down, and the horses are so very high. I try to picture meeting some of the more vocal personages who frequent this place and I can only really come up with a sort of hybrid creature formed from the unnatural union of Medusa and Charybdis – giant mouths that spit a whirling torrent of venomous snakes.

Let’s face it, DDO is hardly unique in having chat channels filled with bilious supremacist outpourings; whether it concerns how to spec. a character, how to make gold, or any other number of arbitrary numeral demarcations, where the supremacist can put data into a spreadsheet and show categorically that they are better than those who don’t do it their way, that they do 0.1% more DPS, that they make 5% more gold per hour, every MMO has their class of players who think that they are above and beyond the plebeians who don’t play the game the way that they do.

It’s just that DDO has had thirty five or so years and four editions of the pen and paper game to really hone their hive of supercilious bees, who swarm out and attack with stinging words anything that doesn’t belong to their colony. People who commit the heinous cardinal sin of attempting to multiclass a healer, for example.

Turbine have created templates for classes in DDO, initially I viewed these as a sensible aid to new players unfamiliar with the game’s D20 hybrid rule set, to prevent them creating a properly broken character while they get to grips with the game. What I then suspected was that these templates were actually an attempt to give new players at least a modicum of a sane character build in order to prevent DDO’s most special community members from driving away these potential customers, such that the new players would merely be looked down upon as pitiable peasants by the DDO Maxminati. My current theory, however, is that the templates actually act as a warning, they say “Look, even these templates, created by the developers of the game, are open to scorn and derision by our community. And don’t even bother to see what the forum dwellers think of them, lest you have to poke out your own eyes to stop the searing spite of their words from branding itself on your mind.” and so new players realise in short order that the prejudice, dullness, and spite is not directed solely at them, but at all beings who don’t fit with the supremacist’s ideals.

So, another MMO, another General channel quickly partitioned off into its own tab titled “Wrath”, along with the Trade channel under “Greed” and the LFG channel under “Sloth”. And yet people still ponder on the ‘mystery’ of the prevalence of the soloer in MMOs.

I do wonder if the community of Darkfall is any better; my natural instinct tells me that it would be at least as bad – it seems that only rarely can you have an MMO and not have a general community full of hate and spite, for they are formed of humans, and this is what humans do better than any other creature on Earth – yet there is the glimmer of hope in me that some level of formal politeness exists in a game where anyone you offend can join with his friends to hunt you down and put an axe through your skull.

It goes without saying that I’ve now created my experimental Cleric in DDO: with maxed Intellect and using Wisdom as the dump stat, they are armed with a crossbow and have the very best in the Search, Pick Lock and Disarm Trap cross-class skills. The experiment is not as to whether the character will work, but whether it is repellent enough to DDO’s master race to act much as a holy symbol acts upon a vampire; my theory is that I will hold up this symbol of singular silliness before them and they will shrink away at the horror that it represents and, if they fail their Will save, burst into flames and be purged.

Time Cures Moderate Wounds

I’ve really been enjoying Dungeons and Dragons Online since going back to the free-to-play Unlimited version, it’s a far better game than when I played for a month or so at launch. The fundamentals are the same (run around and hit stuff with swords), I always liked the way it captures the old pen and paper feeling of going on a dungeon crawl, but many little tweaks have improved the overall experience. Starting at the beginning, with character creation, templates make life much easier for anyone who hasn’t memorised the comparative benefits of all the D&D feats. Emerging from character creation into the game the tutorial is a distinct improvement on the original, which forced you to solo a few dungeons culminating in a bunch of kobolds and a cultist under a pub as I recall. Trivial for a fighter or barbarian, who’d merrily splatter their way through, tougher for a rogue, especially if specced more for dealing with traps than fighting, and potentially impossible for a wizard if they got their spell selection wrong (though who wouldn’t take magic missile?)

A major problem for me at launch was the way solo/duo content dried up almost immediately after finishing the tutorial. Not an entirely illogical design, in keeping with trying to preserve the ethos of group adventures, but led to much frustration in attempts to get groups together, find quests that everybody had etc., and there wasn’t much to do while pottering around waiting for some action to start. I believe one of the very early updates was the addition of some solo adventures, or “solo mode” for some existing adventures, so it was obviously an issue they were working on, and now there are plenty of options without having to form up a big old group. As well as the wider range of available quests that you’d expect, gradually added over time, the hireling system allows you to pad your group out with an NPC rather than spamming “LF healer” on all available chat channels for hours at a time.

The other main problem I had was grind. DDO is unique (or at least very unusual) in that it doesn’t give out XP for individual mob kills, I haven’t yet been sent to collect a random assortment of animal body parts that only a small fraction of beasts seem to possess, and it’s completely free of “kill ONE MEEEEELEON monster” type quests. Actually, that’s not strictly true: there is one quest where the only objective is to kill 200 kobolds, but that’s not so much a grind as comic relief; you decide to have a crack at it solo, just for a laugh, and you’re butchering kobolds with a single blow, laughing maniacally as you do, thinking you might have a good chance, but they just keep attacking, wave after wave, and you can’t kill them quick enough, and even though they’re only doing a couple of points of damage here and there it’s chipping away, and you’re trying to back off and use a healing potion but there’s so many of them, and… that’s when you realise you’re a rare giant monster spawn in an open world MMO. If you could somehow add the kobold “General” channel to your chat tab, I swear you’d see something like:
“Where’s the ruined castle?”
“Centre of the map, noob”
“Let’s take it down!”
“ZOMGZ it just one-shotted me WTF?”
“Need more shaman, come on!”
“LFM Giant Mob team”
“It’s self healing, no way”
“Need to wear down its spell points”
“It’s going down!”
“What did it drop, what did it drop?”
“Who got the lewt?”
“There’s nothing on the body!! NOTHING!”
“OMFG, I’m so writing a blog post about this…”

Anyway. Everything’s quests off in their own instances (dungeons and outdoor areas), which avoids the “kill ONE MEEEEEELEON monsters” grind, but potentially replaces it with doing the same instances over and over again. First of all there was the Waterworks; originally to go from the Harbour to the Marketplace you had to complete the Waterworks quest(s), a fairly tough and long series. Not so bad if you were a static group and all blasted through it at the same time, but if you were in a casual guild it was a right pain with everyone at different stages, and some people got thoroughly sick of going through the Waterworks several times to help out others as they reached it (and then again with an alt or re-rolled character). Having made it through to the Marketplace, there was another series that finally did for me. I can’t remember the precise details, but I think it was off from one of the Houses; a guild group formed up and we toddled off for a quest, through an outdoor area, which was a bit pointless as I recall, but did offer some opportunities for people to wander off on their own and get lost if they weren’t paying attention then run into big groups of mobs, or plummet down a cliff to certain doom, just to make sure it took about half an hour just to get everybody assembled at the start of the actual quest. In we went to this dungeon, I forget what the exact objective was, rescue some prisoners or find a key or something, and it was pretty neat; I was sneaking around searching for traps, we dispensed steely justice to whatever kobolds, gnolls or other beasties were hanging around, secured our objective, hurrah! That led to chapter two of the quest, which involved… going back into the exact same dungeon, with the exact same traps, and the same spawns, but winding up in a slightly different bit, or going slightly further than the first time. OK, fine, completed that objective, and chapter three of the quest was… to go back into the same dungeon! Again! And that still wasn’t the end of the quest series, but I had to head off after finishing that chapter.

Next time I logged in I shouted around to see if anybody fancied finishing off that quest series, and we ended up with a group with me on chapter four, somebody who’d finished the whole thing the previous night, someone else who’d had to bail out after chapter five, and a couple who hadn’t done it at all. So it was back to chapter one; into the dungeon, out of the dungeon, back into the dungeon, out of the dungeon, back into the dungeon (sixth time in pretty much the same instance now…) Things improved very slightly, as later in the quest chain either the early part of the dungeon was free from traps and mobs, or we went straight in to a later point in the dungeon, but I think it was a seven chapter quest that basically involved going back in to the same dungeon seven times, finally completing the thing hours later.

Next time I logged in I joined a guild group of similar level and we chatted about what quests to do. “Anything but (House Wherever)!” said I, cheerily. And of course once we worked out what level characters we had, what prerequisite quests were needed, what everyone else was thoroughly bored of etc, there remained only one possible choice for us: House Wherever. So I went back into that dungeon another seven times (would’ve been bad form to leave them rogue-less after all), and didn’t log in to the game for another three and a half years.

I’m hoping they’ve sorted that out now, certainly there seems to be a wider array of quest choices (albeit some of them requiring a purchase, but they have to make their money somehow); I don’t mind doing a dungeon a couple of times, or leaving it a couple of weeks between attempts, but 15+ runs of more-or-less the same dungeon within three sessions is taking the piss.

Trouble is, of course, MMOGs need content, and to satisfy voracious players they need lots of it. It takes far longer to create the content than to play it (reasons not to work on MMOGs part MMCIXV: spending days or weeks as a team perfecting a dungeon, adding quests and flavour text, placing the traps and spawns, testing it carefully and adjusting accordingly, then watching a bunch of munchkins steam through it in seven minutes flat shouting “LAWL!” and “PEWPEW!” as they go), so obviously it’s a temptation: if a dungeon’s good for one chapter, it’s good for seven! It’s something Champions Online seem to be suffering at the moment, with their Blood Moon event. Part of the event, the PvE side, is pure, unvarnished grind (though in fairness, apparently each crypt isn’t exactly the same, there are some minor changes in layout, but one run through of one crypt was quite enough for me.) One the plus side, the PvP side of the event is much better, I really enjoyed the zombie-survival mode (a team of five or six have to fight off waves of NPC zombie attackers plus one zombie-fied player, as each hero dies they get zombie-nated and join the undead; sort of British Zombie Bulldog), and I haven’t had a chance to try the hunters vs werewolves yet, but it sounds fun too. Let’s hope Champions can keep going for three years or so and keep improving like DDO.

Two things you always wanted to know about DDO Unlimited but were afraid to ask

With Dungeons and Dragons Online now free-to-play in its Unlimited guise there’s no reason not to take a look (unless the 3Gb+ client download is a problem), and Massively have a splendid post with some common questions for new DDO Unlimited players that’s well worth a browse. Your intrepid KiaSA team have also been investigating, and discovered a couple of things.

Firstly, free players only start with two character slots, fine for having a poke around in the game but maybe slightly restrictive for alt-o-holics. You can buy more in the store, but when Melmoth bought some points to unlock the Monk class he found he had two extra character slots; it turns out that purchasing points upgrades you from “free player” to “premium player” with a few extra perks (though obviously not as many as a “VIP” subscriber), including the extra character slots, which is nice.

Secondly, the European DDO site seems to be a bit quiet about this whole “free to play” business (though I confess I haven’t looked too deeply), but not to worry, the sign-up with Turbine seems to work absolutely fine from here as does buying points with a UK credit card. Turbine have even been kind enough to set up an unofficial UK server. See, if you’re a keen student of Eberron lore, you may think of Khyber as the Dragon Below. If you’re a Brit (or at least a Brit of a certain age, I dunno about the kids and their newfangled wheely trainers and hippity-hoppity music), Khyber can only mean one thing, so when there’s a server called “Khyber” in the list I’d be most surprised if the majority of British players didn’t pitch up there. To make us feel more at home, Khyber even has specific NPC voicing; on the other servers when you first meet an NPC rogue on the beach he has some generic accent. On Khyber, he’s voiced by Dick Van Dyke: “Gor bloimey luv a duck do what gert yerself up the apples and pears me ol’ china” he says, “stone the crows it’s all gone a bit Pete Tong we’re in right Barney and you’re borassic, but I’m a diamond so I’ll let you ‘ave a Mick[1], Council[2], House of[3], John[4], Aardman[5] or bus[6] for nuffink, knees up Mother Brown doin’ the Lambeth Walk oi!”

[1] Mick Jagger – dagger
[2] Council Tax – great axe
[3] House of Lords – longsword
[4] John Napier (inventor of logarithms) – rapier
[5] Aardman Animation – falchion
[6] bus nun weave-weave-cheese arm-rave of glider mane – plus one guive-guive-guisarme-glaive of spider bane

OK, that’s a lie, he’s the same on all servers and just has a slightly dodgy Lahndahn accent, but the tutorial does offer ample “lovely pair of melons, miss” opportunities.

Thought for the day.

Unlike the humorous-then-tedious accidental sword swishes that are regularly heard in DDO as people forget that left-mouse defaults to attack and not camera movement, the advantage to Lord of the Rings Online is that nobody will realise how many times you have tried to tumble your character away from an enemy when you get the two games confused for the umpteenth time.