Cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

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Ever had that dream where you’re standing alone in a school corridor which stretches off to infinity, your back to the main door, when the silence that saturates the air around you like a fog is blasted away by the sudden clanging crescendo of the home-time bell. You stand in front of those closed doors, their imposing nature warped and exaggerated through the magnifying lens of the dream, so that they seem to arch overhead like cloaked villains, threatening to swoop down on you, a tidal crest of terror ready to break.

Smaller doors to classrooms, which line that corridor unfathomable, burst open in unison and unleash a savage swarm of students, chittering and clamouring, rolling and washing, down the hall towards you. You search about in desperation for sanctuary from the approaching horde, but the main doors remain resolutely closed, and the corridor is a blank and featureless barren box, save for the uniform doors which pour forth a churning torrent of children.

In an instant of dream-time the stampede is upon you, the doors which restrained you now burst open under the weight of the stomping masses, and you are carried tumbling along at the head of the lowing herd. Glimpses of the world break through the cloud of dust that envelops you, and spin around in nauseating fashion as desperately you claw and grasp and clamber to stay afloat on a flooded river of backpacks and blazers. All too soon you sink and are trampled by this uncaring oblivious force, battered and broken by a surging sea of self-interest.

Finally the deluge dwindles, and as the last trickle of students makes its way erratically down the entrance steps where your broken body lies, a few of them stop to make sure that you don’t have anything of value on or around you, before peeling off in various directions and disappearing into the streets surrounding the school.

It’s funny how I always seem to have that dream when I start playing a new MMO or expansion.

In other unrelated news, I’ve decided to hold off on playing any more of Lord of the Rings Online’s Rise of Isengard expansion for the time being, due to a combination of general MMO weariness, and the fact that the first few weeks of any new MMO seems to be the breeding season for screaming wild-eyed zealous boy-band fans, and locusts. Together. They form some sort of ungodly hybrid pig-tailed insect swarm, and it seems best to simply stay out of their way, especially if you like your MMO with some of its content intact, and your soul with some of its hope for humanity intact.

Release: that magical time in an MMO when a large portion of the player base spends a week or so stamping one another into the mud in order to be first to be bored at the end-game.

Posted by Melmoth at 12:24 pm

Looking good and dressing well is a necessity. Having a purpose in life is not.

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I joked about the size of shoulder pads in LotRO’s raiding armour sets a while ago, but I have to be fair and confess that in general I love the cosmetic options in Lord of the Rings Online.

I’m following a few blogs dedicated to discovering the more delightful clothing designs the game has to offer, and who then turn them into rather magnificent outfits. As always, A Casual Stroll to Mordor tipped me in the right direction via the Cosmetic Roundtable episode of their podcast, and Cosmetic LotRO, LotRO Fashion and LotRO Stylist are the blogs which I primarily follow for fashion tips on how to look dapper in Middle Earth.

I haven’t started into the actual quest content in Rise of Isengard yet because I’m still finishing some reputation grinds on my Warden, which I want to complete before moving on, but I have to say that the evidence from the blogs listed above is that there are many items with deeply lovely cosmetic appearances to be had in the new expansion. Of note for me so far are the Polished Hauberk of the Dunland Shieldman; most of the items in this outfit, but I particularly like the Leather Helm of the Leaping Stag and the Boar-Hide Boots; and the Reputation Armour outfit at the bottom of this post, hidden amongst the Giant Shoulder Pads of +5 LOOK AT ME, I’M A RAIDER!

If you enjoy creating costumes for your characters in LotRO I can’t recommend these sites enough, but be warned: once started it will take you down a dark path of extra bank slot, wardrobe slot and outfit slot purchases, crafting mania, and much time spent hunting around in old content looking for the perfect cravat to go with the rest of your seventeenth cosmetic outfit, which is primarily designed for use when fishing in large lakes – not to be confused with the twelfth outfit for fishing in small ponds and streams, and the sixth outfit for use when fishing for compliments.

Posted by Melmoth at 7:38 am

I came here to drink milk and kick ass.

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Lord of the Rings Online had my character planting marigolds the other day. You might wonder whether these were giant, orc-eating marigolds, marigolds which, when full grown, would uproot themselves and, in bright yellow array, stride determinedly and gaily into battle with the forces of Sauron, like some sort of Mardi Gras edition of the The Last March of the Ents. But alas no, these were basic marigolds. Level one marigolds. Marigold noobs.

Why was I planting these marigolds, then? A good question, but a dangerous one, for one might answer with the question ‘why do I perform any given task in an MMO?’, which in turn prompts the question ‘why do I play MMOs?’ After these then surely ‘why do I play games?’ quickly follows, and then ‘why do I need entertainment?’ More questions develop in ever quicker succession: ‘what is that nature of entertainment?’, ‘what is my nature?’, ‘what is nature?’, ‘what am I?’, ‘why do I exist?’, ‘in what medium do I exist?’, ‘why does the medium in which I exist, exist?’, ‘by what form or power did the medium in which I exist come into existence?’, ‘what existed before the medium in which I currently exist?’, ‘WHAT’S THE POINT OF ANYTHING IN THE CONTEXT OF THE INFINITE COMPLEXITIES OF THE UNIVERSE, TIME AND SPACE?’.

Of course the actual answer to the original question should be a brusque ‘because a lazy hobbit NPC told me to’ (possibly accompanied by a sharp backhand cuffing of the questioner’s head), an answer which is shorter, more accurate, and comes with considerably less existential crisis.

Of course my Captain had a little trouble mastering the quest at first, being that she’d spent sixty five levels primarily slaying monsters and undomesticated livestock:

Hobbit: “So, first we need to dig a small hole in the ground…”
[WHUMP]
Hobbit: “Okay, well, that is quite the hole. Quite the hole, indeed. But, well, I think the greathammer is perhaps a little too destructive, shall we maybe perhaps try a trowel?”
Captain: “Ah, right, sorry.”
Hobbit: “Lovely! Now, we need to break the plant out of its pot.”
Captain: “I could hit it with my greathammer!”
Hobbit: “I… think it would be best if we just gently eased around the edges with this palette knife, and then carefully lifted the plant out by the stem.”
Captain: “Oh, okay.”
Hobbit: “Then we place it gently in the hole we made earlier, and fill-”
Captain: “-ed with righteous fury, we hit it with our greathammer?!”
Hobbit: “-it with earth. Fill it with earth.”
Captain: “Right! Riiiiight. Sorry.”
Hobbit: “There, all done.”
Captain: “And now I hit it with my greathammer?”
Hobbit: “No! No. You just leave it. Water it once in a while.”
Captain: “I… see. When…”
Hobbit: “Yes?”
Captain: “When you say ‘water’, do you mean ‘hit it with a greathammer’?”
Hobbit: “Noooo, when I say ‘water’ I do in fact mean ‘*water*’. Say it with me: waaaaa-”
Captain: “Hiiiiii-”
Hobbit: “-terrrrrrrrr”
Captain: “-titwithagreathammer.”

The maddening part of this quest, however, was the countdown bar. Each planted marigold required a bar to count down for three years. Or maybe seven seconds. Time dilates when you’re watching a countdown bar in an MMO, it’s much like waiting for a kettle to boil only the steam is coming out of your ears instead. You can’t fool a countdown bar like you can a kettle either: pointedly ignore a kettle and it boils over instantly, mad to be made into tea, but ignore a countdown bar and when you return you find that it’s sat there waiting for you in that evil ‘you were going to miss it so I held on for you’ way, the same way your partner keeps tiresome Uncle Prodger talking on the phone until you get back from your desperate dash to ‘the toilet’, a dash which just happened to coincide with your glancing at the Caller ID on the phone as it rang.

I can’t remember how many marigolds I had to plant, five, ten, Graham’s Number, it was plenty enough, of that I’m certain. I came to hate that countdown bar. I cursed it. I railed at it. I found a whiteboard marker and drew graffiti on it: moustaches, devil horns, rude messages regarding a good time if you call this number and ask for Countdown Bar. I did have to stop and hurriedly wipe it all off when Mrs Melmoth caught me putting the finishing touches to a magnificent phallus that emptied along it’s length as the countdown bar ticked away, however.

And the upshot of this is that I’m now unable to walk past a barometer without wanting to grab it off the wall and dash it angrily to the floor.

The problem doesn’t stem from the inherent nature of the countdown, but in the way it is used. Deus Ex: Human Revolution also has a countdown when you play its hacking mini-game, and yet it is an entirely different experience. The countdown in the LotRO quest is there to make you wait, wait for no reason, and do nothing else while you wait. It makes you wait, that’s what it does (you may want to play Leftfield’s Phat Planet as you read that sentence), it’s a negative form of countdown, which achieves nothing other than to drive the player’s attention out of the game. The countdown in Deus Ex is a positive countdown because it is counting down to the point when the task you are performing will fail. What this countdown does is increase the pressure on the player, and thus it makes the game-play more intense, while also drawing the player’s concentration further into the game as they focus harder in an attempt to complete the mini-game in time. There are many design considerations to study here, not least of which is the fact that MMOs seem to have an aversion to letting players fail outside of the end-game, and therefore challenges such as the Deus Ex hacking mini-game are few and far between. Yet these sorts of challenges are the very thing that makes a game a game, rather than a grind. Super Mario wouldn’t be half as popular if the levels were five times as long but it was guaranteed that the player would be able to reach the end every time.

The countdown in LotRO stops you playing the game; the countdown in Deus Ex influences how you continue to play the game.

It also didn’t help that the animation for planting a marigold looked more like an attempt to call down the Dove From Above, something which stands out all the more starkly when you have nothing else to do but stare at it for seven seconds. Be mindful of the Dove From Above though, after catching me drawing a big willy on my computer screen, I think it almost broke Mrs Melmoth when she later walked in and this time found me cooing at the screen like a dove.

The final annoyance is that you cannot stop calling the dove/planting marigolds once you’ve started, otherwise you have to start all over again. This further enhances the feeling that this isn’t a progress countdown, but a pointless delay countdown, a bureaucracy countdown. “Please Wait. Please Wait. Please Wait. Your subscription time has now reduced by an acceptable amount, please continue”. It’s frankly bizarre that planting a marigold should involve no movement whatsoever (FREEZE! Raise your hands slowly, and step away from the keyboard!), and that if you break that condition then you have to start all over again.

“Excuse me, Marjorie, I just need to squeeze past so I can start on the pumpkins.”
“No, I cannot move, you know this Pruscilla, I’m quite clearly in the midst of planting.”
“Oh come now, just shuffle over a little, and you can carry on with what you’re doing while I get on with the pumpkins.”
“No! I must not stop, otherwise all is lost! I’m risking everything just by talking to you. Just by breeeaaaaathing!”
“Marjorie, really, just move out of the way a little-”
“No DON’T! Oh you! Well I hope you’re happy!”
“Goodness me, dearest, I barely brushed you.”
“Nevertheless, I have been interrupted. I shall have to abandon these plants and start all over again.

Now, did you see where I put my greathammer?”

Posted by Melmoth at 2:12 pm

It is infectious and, though intermittent, incurable.

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KiaSA’s Ministry for Abstract Diseases released a statement today warning of a virulent form of Warcraft Inter-scapula Disorder Extension spreading throughout the MMO population. Indicators for the potential epidemic became evident when samples taken from Turbine’s Isengard expansion were released to KiaSA’s top scientists. As is evident from the example shown, the disease manifests itself in massive shoulder pads forming on the body, extending in an exaggerated fashion in all directions. W.I.D.E. has been evident within the MMO space for many years, but up until now it has been predominantly confined to the World of Warcraft domain, with minor outbreaks occurring in derivative MMOs from time to time. This latest development is of particular concern to top scientists, however, because it shows spread of the contagion to Lord of the Rings Online, an MMO which has proven remarkably resistant to the strain until now.

KiaSA’s top researcher, Clifford Prodger, explained that Turbine have so far managed to contain the spread of infection by locking the infected pieces of armour behind painfully tedious raid content grinds, but nevertheless KiaSA’s Ministry for Abstract Diseases did release an advisory to its members to be vigilant and search for signs of infection in fellow players in the coming months: massively impractical shoulder pads being a primary indicator, but players should also be on the lookout for ludicrously oversized weapons, and any sign of exaggerated auras on armour (possibly in combination with weird orbiting magical artefacts) within the general population.

KiaSA’s Ministry for Abstract Diseases has raised its priority warning system from ‘Xanadu Egg Whisk’ to ‘Magenta Brazilian Wax’ as a precautionary measure.

Posted by Melmoth at 10:22 am

Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life.

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There’s a carousel looping around inside my head, and as it passes each ear on its circumnavigation of the interior of my skull the faint looping echo of It’s a Small World can be heard. The carousel reflects the madness in my mind of this musical memory, sometimes LOUD, sometimes quiet, sometimes near, sometimes far, often times fast, then slow; the tune has been with me for such a time that I’m no longer sure that it’s driving me mad, but instead the extended captivity it has endured within my brain is slowly driving the song itself insane. Every now and then it makes a bid for freedom, I feel it travel downwards and catch, trying to burst forth from the back of my throat, but I hold it fast in the fear that releasing its week-long pent up energy will result in more than just my gentle vocalisation of its harmonies. The nightmare begins with a gentle humming which quickly progresses into a jaunty whistle, which is when my work colleagues start performing harmonies, and before I know it I’m in the midst of a full-on Mary Poppins-esque musical number, with people leaning out of offices to deliver lines and choruses, and yet others dancing down the aisles swishing frilly skirts and rolling top hats down their arms. It quickly degenerates from there, mimicking the pink elephants on parade from Dumbo, at which point I snap back to reality and find the song has returned to the carousel in my mind, quietly echoing its way between my ears once more – Disney’s precursor to the Rickroll.

Other than that, I returned from Disneyland relatively unscathed.

I’m on holiday in Lord of the Rings Online at the moment too. Having achieved the last of my own end-game goals –legendary weapons, mounts, relevant reputations and virtues, and crafting all now at their maximums– I’m loath to login and try to force new tasks upon myself, especially with the gnarled fingers of Mirkwood parting and the lands surrounding Isengard quickly coming into view. The new expansion is sure to offer ten more levels of boars to kill, and I wouldn’t want to burn out on the game beforehand. For the moment, then, I’m happy to perform a few daily skirmishes to keep my 1-2-3-4 keys warm, and because you can never have too many skirmish marks, especially with this season’s fabulous range of Isengardian cosmetic hats just around the corner.

The Monday static group continues on regardless, probably. The timing of the expansion is possibly a fortuitous one, with the ever starker realisation that our casual one-per-week gaggle of castaways is not really suited to much of the end game’s content, which is where the crest of the levelling wave beached us many months ago. Unfortunately, as with any group, become stranded on the end-game island without really having the tools or willingness to tackle the challenges it provides, and things inevitably start to go a bit Lord of the Flies after a while. I started painting faces on, and talking to, horse bums, and by his own report it seems as though Van Hemlock had a brief brush with conch smashing, although the only thing killed was perhaps the momentarily elevated level of hope and enthusiasm for raid content within the group. Certainly my enthusiasm has not waned for bumming around on the beach of end-game and dipping my toes in the waters surrounding it. Perhaps, as with real life castaways, such unwillingness to be productive as a group would eventually be the death of it all, but thankfully Turbine seem to turn up and build a lengthy bridge to the next desert island shortly before we all perform the MMO equivalent of putting on face paint and turning feral. Looking on the bright side, there are plenty of wild pig heads to be had in MMOs, should we want to make a sacrifice to the Beast of Raiding that haunts and torments all casual groups in MMOs. It’s still all about the companionship of others as far as I’m concerned, and I would be happy inventing new and interesting ways to make running the otherwise ‘on farm’ Grand Stair instance a challenge, as long as people were still merrily joking, discussing, gossiping, quipping, or gently mocking the group’s Captain, over Mumble.

In the meantime, outside of Monday night, I’m going to briefly slow my MMO playing in anticipation of the glut of grindy gaming goodness that will come with LotRO’s Isengard expansion. As such I’ve reignited my XBox Live account, warmed up the console, and ordered myself copies of Space Marine and Gears of War 3, because firing-up fast, furious and frantic co-op shooters always seems a suitable antipode on the gaming globe to the more plodding, ponderous and prosaic nature of the games currently found on the MMO continent.

Posted by Melmoth at 10:39 am

Goonies never say die! They always bring a healer.

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I’ll start by saying that I think the Inn of the Forsaken dungeon instance in Lords of the Rings Online is fantastic. I will be mentioning spoilers, so if you’re like me and take an age to get around to running dungeons (I ran it for the first time the other night), and you haven’t run through Inn of the Forsaken but intend to, then LOOK AWAY NOW!

I wonder how long it will be before they all realise that there’s no way to know when to look back…

There are numerous design details that I appreciate in Turbine’s scalable three-man dungeon instance, but I think chief among them is the fact that the experience feels like an authentic dungeon crawl. Inspiration has clearly been taken from the Indiana Jones films, and the references to The Goonies are about as subtle as Lotney “Sloth” Fratelli bellowing “Hey you guys!” from the top of a mast, all of which instils a sense of adventure about the place, rather than the slightly sterile and clinical nature of many dungeon instances I’ve encountered. But more than that, the experience is tight; on the KiaSA standardised Toned Buttock Scale of Tightness we’re looking at a J.Lo or Justin Timberlake, at the very least.

The tightness in the design works –like the dungeon itself– on several levels. First and foremost it makes for a more engaging experience, where every twist and turn involves something to do outside of the ritual wait for mana to regenerate, before pulling the next Standard Trash Pack A from Generic Trash Pack Containment Area B. It also translates into a claustrophobic feeling due to the relentless nature of events, with every seeming step involving a challenge to face, be it traps, puzzles, riddles, or the inevitable but not overused fight sequences. Most importantly, I think this compressed nature of the game design feeds into the narrow nature of the map design, making it swell, such that the tunnel walls seem to close in even further on the players.

Clearly the developers of Inn of the Forsaken have studied the work of the DDO dungeon designers, but they have also improved on the systems they found there. Inn of the Forsaken opts for blatant and lethal traps, rather than DDO’s (in the main) hidden but merely irritating ones. It’s only fair to have the players able to see the danger coming when it has the potential to kill their character, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all: the players’ sense of anticipation and dread is heightened by being able to see how far they have to travel down a confined corridor lined with enormous human-threshing machines, each player picturing in their mind the flaming eye of Sauron gazing down and asking ‘Do You Blend?’ The fact that these traps can be turned upon the enemy mobs through careful play is surprising, an encouraging example of honouring the idea of ‘fair play’ between developer and player. Riddles also feature in DDO dungeons, but Inn of the Forsaken takes the idea and again tries to improve upon it by including some eighty or so riddles to solve, where DDO generally only had the one per quest. Obviously there’s still a wiki which spoils it all, useful for those trying to be ‘optimal’ in their dungeon grinding, but for normal players there’s quite a good chance of getting one or two new riddles per run, even over the course of quite a few attempts. And the riddles aren’t bad either, perhaps verging ever so slightly towards the ‘what is this I don’t even’ end of the obscuration scale, but understandably so, given that they had to come up with eighty or more ways to cryptically describe a handful of the game’s emotes.

The class mechanic is one of those areas that will divide opinion, you’ll either love it or hate, primarily based on whether your party of three has the right combination of classes. The various game-play elements within the dungeon can be manipulated only by certain classes in the following fashion:

  • Lore-master, Minstrel, Rune-keeper — a “lore” class — uses incantation stones and strange runes
  • Captain, Hunter, Burglar — an “aware” class — triggers trap mechanisms
  • Guardian, Warden, Champion — a “brawn” class — smashes through broken walls

Not having a balanced party consisting of one member from each group makes the dungeon potentially more difficult (certainly if you have nobody who can disable the traps), and will not allow you to complete the dungeon’s ‘perfect run’ challenge mode, but otherwise does not interfere with the experience. I like the design, although I know many see it as ‘enforcing the trinity’, which is certainly a fair point to argue. The groups are based around reasonably believable demarcations, although I was surprised to find out that my Captain was a designated trap monkey, presumably standing with one hand on her hip, pointing accusingly at the trap and commanding it at the top of her voice to ‘stop that nonsense right now’. I mean it’s either that or Captains were the last to be picked in the dungeon run group formation in the playground at lunchtime, and so they were shoved into the group with the least members, the trappists. But even the monks didn’t want them, so they ended up with the Hunters and Burglars by default. I imagine the design was meant as a soft enforcement of the Holy Trinity, but it doesn’t really work, and simply results in frustrating any group that doesn’t have the right class balance. This is a path that is sad to see LotRO take, as it was once a game I admired for allowing madcap groups with, say, Hunters or Burglars tanking and Guardians doing DPS, but now seems to be going a bit grey and clerical, slowly filing classes away in well worn slots, each to its ‘proper’ role.

If it weren’t for the flavour of the groupings, I would suggest that a slightly more flexible mechanic would have been to allow each player to pick a role at the start of the instance, thus enabling completion by any group make-up, and indeed giving players who don’t have numerous alts the chance to try each of the different roles; in fact, in this case I’m really not sure that the benefit of immersion gained by restricting classes to believable roles outweighs the flexibility of letting players get on and try things out. And if the developers were to flinch sharply at the thought of giving the players such freedoms, well, perhaps they could content themselves with the logistical nightmare and bitter recriminations resulting from a pickup group trying to come to some sort of resolution over who will be doing precisely what.

Lastly there’s the big reveal. This is the major spoiler, so probably best to skip on in your RSS reader now if you don’t want to know. Really, I’m almost done here, and I can see that following this there’s a fascinating post in your reader concerning marmoset farming in Fitton. Off you go.

Darth Vader is Luke’s dad!

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Sorry, wrong reveal. So by some SECRET means you are dumped down a splendid rapids ride and into… World of Warcraft’s Deadmines! Okay, fine, I imagine the WoW fans are raging that it’s nowhere near as impressive as the Deadmines, but nevertheless it is a large cavern, filled with water, in which a boat is improbably placed. It’s fun. It’s ta da! It just needed Cyndi Lauper’s The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough to start when you hit the water and it would have been perfect. The final boss fight is here, and it’s one of those fights over which I’m conflicted. It’s a sort of Mario 64/Sonic Adventure mechanic, where an invulnerable dundering giant wallows his way after the tank for a while before performing a ‘special’ move which causes him to become stuck, at which point performing the correct action makes him vulnerable, opens a tiny window of opportunity to whittle away at his health, after which he becomes invulnerable again and Yakety Sax kicks out of the speakers once more. Arcade-like boss mechanics are fine, I suppose, but I’m just not sure if it works in the context of current MMO combat. In this case, the healer can easily stand out of range of the boss, and with even modest healing on the tank there’s no real danger of the boss killing them. Essentially the fight is reduced to a sort of combat orientated jamming, where the tank and boss dance around for a while, then the DPS runs in and takes a turn, before quickly swapping out again. Or you might look at it as a sort of very basic ‘Simon says you may now stab the boss’ game for the DPS, while the tank and healer merely run through the motions.

It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t really live up to the rest of the instance either, which possibly makes it more disappointing than it otherwise would be. It does seem to have the usual anti-melee design, however, since the boss hits anyone in melee range with irritating stuns on a frequent basis, usually right in the midst of the tiny window of opportunity to do any damage, where I imagine a ranged class could just stand well outside the Circle of Yakety Sax and not be troubled by it at all; I wouldn’t know, I still like to play melee characters, but you’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now.

Then again, if I were one for learning from lessons of punishment, I’m not entirely sure I’d be playing MMOs in the first place.

Posted by Melmoth at 4:47 am

In the future, everyone will be on YouTube for fifteen minutes.

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There must be an equivalent of YouTube in Middle Earth, that’s the only way I can explain it. Pray allow me to indulge in a little light exposition.

I’m working on improving my reputation with the various elf factions in Middle Earth. After vadering the goblins of Goblin Town, I quickly achieved kindred with the elves of Rivendell, Elrond transformed from a cold and aloof dignitary into my last homely homie, and where once I faced arrows and barked challenges, I now received fist-bumps and offers to share a spliff.

Next on the checklist of surprisingly hostile elves were the Galadhrim. Ensconced deep within the leafy boughs of Lothlórien, the Galadhrim are the last defenders of snooty, holier-than-thou, tree-hugging elfdom; they’re the sort of people who personally invite you to come and help them fight the forces of darkness, and then on your arrival threaten to pincushion you with arrows unless you prove your worth by running errands for them. It was a couple of these errands which caused me to settle on the YouTube theory stated at the beginning of the post, but although the quests were bizarre in nature, they were also a reliable source of generous (for elves) reputation, and as such I did what any self-respecting MMO player would do: put on a suitable podcast and zoned-out in an attempt to ignore the whole sorry business, even as I repeatedly performed it.

The first quest had me collecting orc poo. That was the first thing they had me do. They did that just to show me what they COULD get me to do, and to instil in me a suitable level of apprehension. So I ran around and gathered five piles of steaming orc dung, brought it back in my inventory because they didn’t provide me with a suitable receptacle (I suspected this was on purpose), and emptied it on the floor at their feet. Degrading enough, I hope you would agree, for one who had battled the Witch King, and turned the orc bastion of The Grand Stair into a frolicking sight-seeing tour. But they weren’t finished yet. Oh no.

“Now we’d like you to take the poo and throw into a fire at one of the orc camps bordering our forest.”
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“We think it will send them a suitable message.”

No (orc)shit, it will send them a message! It will send them the ‘message’ that we’re madder than a bag full of rabid badgers. I won’t do it! Of course they nonchalantly wafted a big fat roll of repuation in front of me, and off I ran, Captain of Gondor, hero of Eriador, with a bag full of faeces and a heart full of self-loathing. Over the course of my grind I performed this quest many times, and I could only begin to wonder what the conversation was like at the orc camp each time I turned up.

“Oh god, it’s the mad poo-flinging woman again.”
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“Oh not again! Where? I don’t see…”
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“No, don’t look! She’ll come over here. Just ignore her, Henry, maybe she’ll go away.”
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“I’m sorry, it’s no good Kenneth, I’m going to have to say something. This is totally unacceptable. We’re civilised orcs, this is outrageous!”
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“Oh no no no, don’t antagonise her, Henry! Please… don’t make a scene.”
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“Oh *really* Kenneth, you are such wet blanket. I’m just going to go over there and have a calm conversation, that’s all. You’ll see, I’m sure she’ll listen to reason.”
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“Fine, you trot over to her, but I’m staying here.”
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[…]
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“Excuse me! E–excuse me? Madam? I said ‘excuse me’. Look, if you’d just stop throwing the poo for a second! Thank you. Now, I just wanted to have a calm discussion abou-aaaHHHHhOWWWWWW! SHE STABBED ME KENNETH. HELP! OH OW ARRRGGGGGGGGHHHH!”
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“I’M COMING HENRY! I’M-A COMING! Unhand my boyfriend at once, madam! Desist I say, you heathen!”

They always bring a friend when they aggro, don’t they? Still, yet again an MMO causes me to ponder whether the NPCs were, in fact, the good guys.

Next up was fetching arrows. Not such a terrible task, I think you’ll agree. Simply run around collecting five arrows from the corpses of orcs, and bring them back to the other half of the Evil Quest Twins: the two quests were handed out by a pair of NPCs who stood resolutely next to one another, and I couldn’t help but begin to view them as a sort of Mr Wint and Mr Kidd, trying to come up with highly creative ways to bump me off, or at the very least publicly humiliate me.

“The Captain claims that our missions stink, Mr Wint.”
.
“I do believe it is the Captain that is most malodorous, Mr Kidd. Perhaps the Captain would like to collect some arrows instead?”
.
“A flight of fancy, Mr Wint?”
.
“Indubitably, Mr Kidd!”

Where was I? Oh yes, crying into my keyboard. No, wait! Collecting arrows. Right. Having collected the arrows I was then tasked with taking them to an encampment of elves a reasonable distance away. Fair enough: your standard bland MMO quest fare. I hadn’t taken into account the Mr Wint and Mr Kidd factor, however.

Mr Kidd: “Now I’d like you to take these arrows to the encampment far north of here. It is a long perilous journey I’m afraid, and will take you some time.”
.
Hero: “No problem, I’ll just grab the bundle and throw it over the back of my horse here.”
.
Mr Kidd: “Horse?”
.
Hero: “Yes, my horse – Hawthorn. He’s swift and can easily manage the arrows as well as myself.”
.
Mr Kidd: “Ah, no, you must carry the arrows on foot. You see, it’s an, uh, ancient elven ritual. *snort* Isn’t that right Mr Kidd?”
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Mr Wint: “It is the noble nature of sacrifice that we demand, Mr Wint. *chortle*”
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Hero: “Fine, I’ll do it.”
.
Mr Wint: “Y-you will?”
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Hero: “Sure. As long as I get the rep, I’m on it like Gandalf riding a Balrog. I’m a hero, don’t you know? Mundane chores are *what we do*.”
.
Mr Kidd: “Okay, but…”
.
Hero: “But?”
.
Mr Kidd: “But… you must also, uhm… run! Yes, run. You need to get there quickly!”
.
Hero: “So I’m not allowed to use my horse, but it’s a matter of urgency?”
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Mr Wint: “Yes, the arrows will melt in the sunlight if you take too long.”
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Hero: “Riiiiiight. Are you guys taking the pis–“
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Mr Kidd: “Yes. Yes we are.”
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Mr Wint: “It’s what *we* do. Now off you go.”
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Mr Kidd: “Actually, hold on.”
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Hero: “What *now*?!”
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Mr Kidd: “D’you mind if we ride alongside and film you? It’s just that we have a popular channel on EruTube.”
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Mr Wint: “And Mr Kidd has posted this excellent video of some mad bint throwing orc poo into a fire, then screaming and stabbing some orcs.”
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Mr Kidd: “It’s quite spectacular.”
.
Mr Wint: “Over two and a half a million hits.”
.
Mr Kidd: “And now, you see, we’re trying to top it.”
.
Mr Wint: “With something even more stupid.”

Posted by Melmoth at 10:43 am

Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation.

lament, lotro, melmoth, mmo 6 Comments »

Channel KiaSA, in association with LotRO, now returns you to the continuing adventures of Captain Completionist in Grindland.

I recently completed levelling my Captain’s crafting profession by grinding materials while listening to various podcasts, with the aptly named How to Murder Time, as well as A Casual Stroll to Mordor, Massively Speaking and Claims of the Normal all helping to distract me away from the ‘game’ that I’m ‘enjoying’. In addition I’ve nearly finished the reputation grind with the crafting guild to become kindred with them, thus opening up a raft of high level recipes that can make some potentially useful items; all of which will become obsolete in the next month or so when the Rise of Isengard expansion arrives and new crafting tiers are introduced. I think I’m doing it wrong.

I also spent time grinding virtue deeds to get the last few that I need to the cap of ten, just before Isengard raises the cap to twelve. Oh dear. Anyway, the last virtue required the killing of two hundred and forty worms anywhere in the depths of Moria, and I was joined on the venture by OG of the Hobbington Cresent massive, Van Hemlock, who is also on a bit of a character completion bender at the moment. It started off simply enough, with the worms conning grey to our level-capped characters, such that my Captain with her dwarf archer herald in tow, and Van Hemlock’s overpowering Guardian, were able to tear through the mobs like cats in a box of catnip-laced tissue paper. I generally turn the ‘gore’ setting off in Bioware’s Dragon Age games because it never seems quite right to have my character sitting down for afternoon tea with the Countess de Snootyknickers, she dressed in immaculate white lace, my character dressed from head to toe in the blood of a hundred orcs, possibly with a piece of severed ogre flesh slowly peeling embarrassingly away from her top lip, eventually landing with a plop in the countess’s best china. Grinding virtues as we were at the time, however, I would have paid for a ‘persistent gore’ setting which I could switch on. There would have been mayhem! Any orcs chasing us would have been in danger of impaling themselves on their own weapons as they slipped and slid their way towards us across a field of gore and entrails, eventually having to invent a new type of skate for use on the blood rink we had created. Other adventurers, possibly looking to muscle in on our territory, would have stepped slowly away in horror as they were drenched in a torrent of blood, while clumps of flesh fell from the ceiling where they had been thrown by our frenetic efforts, slapping down upon the poor adventurers’ heads. It would have been glorious! As it was, the worms fell down dead in the best ham actor tradition, and we looted their perfectly clean and sterile corpses before moving on.

As such we came up with our own form of entertainment, seeing as MMOs remain so obstinate about not providing any themselves. Alternately we launched into tirades about all the well-trod issues with today’s MMOs as we encountered them on our ‘adventures’, like geriatrics complaining about the snow while stubbornly refusing to leave their rocking chairs on the front porch and go inside where it’s warm and hot cocoa awaits. I think it slowly progressed into a sort of grumpy old man’s pranking game, each of us trying to put the other off MMOs altogether by questioning the reasons why we were doing it, what productive ventures we could be otherwise undertaking, and so forth; you know, all those perfectly valid questions which are just not mentioned in polite MMO society, like bringing up third world debt at a banker’s bonus award ceremony.

My virtues complete, the epic quest content was the final major item on my checklist of 100 Things To Do Before The Expansion Comes Along And Makes Them All Obsolete. As such I’ve been staring at virtual horse bums once again, while occasionally performing errands that street urchins would take offence to, even if you offered them a shilling and a sharp clip around the ear. However, I did make good use of the time by performing drive-by buffings on unsuspecting lower level characters who were otherwise minding their own business in the area. I’d forgotten how good a drive-by buffing feels, and I’m not entirely sure why I haven’t done it in recent memory. I usually play buffing/support characters where I can find them (something which Telwyn points out is perhaps more difficult than it should be in these cooperative games of ours); I have fond memories of sitting on the entrance at Perez Park in City of Heroes and doing nothing for an hour but cast Speed Boost on the low level characters there, giving them a short duration run speed and attack speed buff, and transforming them into levelling machines; I like being able to give other players a taste of a more powerful character for a while, a glimpse into the future, if you will. So I’m not sure why I haven’t been doing my drive-by buffings, and I do worry that it’s because I’m letting myself be carried along by the decline in co-operation which the genre seems to be experiencing. Thus it may be that the epic content –which used to be for groups but that I’m now progressing through solo– has reminded me about some of the things that we used to do back in the days when we were young and MMOs were younger. A time when we weren’t quite as jaded as we have become, what with the slow decline in MMO society as huge numbers of people from diverse walks of Real Society ‘invaded’ our world.

As such, I won’t be grinding any content tonight; if you want to find me, look for the level sixty five Captain standing in some random starter area, dropping buffs on the new characters they find there. Behind that character will be sitting a smiling fool, reminiscing happily about friendlier times, trying to work out what he needs to do to return to them.

Posted by Melmoth at 3:13 pm

Do you experience feelings of dread in your basement or attic?

lotro, melmoth, mmo 2 Comments »

With all the shenannigans going on here in England, I’ve been glad for the opportunity to take respite from all the violence, destruction, and thick-skulled orcish types, and ensconce myself somewhere comparatively pleasant, such as the Valley of Death, Doom and Darkness deep within the fiery trenches of inner Mordor. There I sat down with Gandalf and discussed the situation over in Actual Earth as compared to that in the Middle one. Gandalf listened patiently, nodded sagely, and then asked whether we had a Rohirrim that might be used to charge the ne’er-do-wells, proffering his own successes with such a tactic as evidence for its merit. It certainly warranted further consideration. Then, conversation over, he asked me if I’d clear out an infestation of orcs in the basement of Moria.

That’s often the lot of adventurers in Lord of the Rings Online: generally considered by most NPCs to be executors of extreme pest control. You can imagine NPCs putting their feet up at night in front of the television

This week on Extreme Pest Control…

.
Geoff the Lore-master clears a termite infestation from this front porch using the flame of Anor [Cut to bloke in a dress running away from a house and diving over a hedgerow as the entire front of the house explodes outwards in a fireball]

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Frank demonstrates his technique for clearing moles [Cut to mole. Cut to mole’s point of view which sees a maniacially grinning dwarf swinging a huge two-handed hammer overhand towards the camera. Cut to horrified old lady standing next to a cratered lawn]

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And Colin the Runekeeper shows us how to remove a wasp infestation from your loft [An elf fires lightning from his hands up into the loft. There’s a short pause, whereupon thousands of wasps tumble out of the loft hatch, along with several bats, a large charred bird and a singed and smoking cat. A child cries ‘Mr Tiddles!’ at which point the elf makes a run for it]

Middle Earth gets all the best television shows.

Sometimes though I do have to wonder whether this isn’t all some sort of Walter Mitty fantasy on the part of my character, and they are in fact an everyday pest controller who likes to pass the time by imagining they’re an adventuring hero.

[A lady in modern attire stands at the door to a basement in a city apartment. Suddenly a fully armoured knight pops his head up from the basement with a look of sympathy on his face]

It’s orcs I’m afraid. Big ol’ nest down there; I’ll need to gather a band of stalwart adventurers, then spend a year and a day slaughtering the invading forces using weapons forged in the Heart of Fire.

I… see. And when you say ‘orcs’ you mean…

Rats.

Rats. Good. And when you say ‘I’ll need to gather a band of stalwart adventurers’…

I’ll need to go and grab Kev from the van.

Hmmm. And ‘spend a year and a day slaughtering the invading forces using weapons forged in the Heart of Fire’..?

Put some traps down with a bit of cheese, and come back in a week.

Okay then.

I will need to collect their entrails, eyes and the like, and store them in my bank vault in case a random stranger wants them in exchange for gold.

And by that you mean?

That I will need to collect their entrails, eyes and the like, and store them in my bank vault in case a random stranger wants them in exchange for gold.

Get out of my house.

There’s no doubt that the pests of Middle Earth are relentless, and this is no more blatant to a player than when running around grinding deeds in low level areas, where no sooner have you cleared out an infestation than you turn around and find they’re back again, scratching at the walls and chewing on the mithril power lines. Perhaps Middle Earth just needs better sanitation, a theory which is only strengthened by the fact that so many of these pests transmit disease on contact with claw or fang.

And why can’t we have an infestation of koalas or sloths for once?

It all seems a bit Ghostbusters in MMOs these days, with your merry band of heroes trying to hide –behind flashy gear and winning smiles– the fact that it’s not much more than a supernatural-pest control unit. Only with less of the ‘girlfriends turning into dogs’ thing.

Meanwhile I’m back to work on the Captain; having got the Warden as far as I felt necessary, I suddenly found myself with the completionist urge on my original level sixty five. Seeing as the Captain is the character I’ve played in the Monday night static group for the past two or more years, you’d think she’d be pretty complete already, but alas the Warden has always had my favour outside of our once-per-week group gatherings. So there’s much to do, but most of it is a grind, and this reminded me why I usually end up creating a new character rather than slogging away at incremental upgrades at the level cap. Still, because there’s so much to do, I can at least work on different things each night and keep it slightly fresher than it might otherwise be. Setting small goals rather than focussing on the large final achievement gives the equivalent of that trickled sense of progress that so appeals to me when levelling a character. Primarily though, much to my shame, the main reason I found new enjoyment in playing my Captain was that I created a new outfit for her. Having seen someone wearing the Robe of Leisure I was reminded of my beloved Warrior Priest in Warhammer Online. The Captain is analogous to the Warrior Priest, both being melee-based hybrid healer sorts, and so I switched to my Jasper Conran spec. and created an ensemble that tips the hat of fashion towards my old Warhammer Online character. The first stage involved purchasing a Robe of Leisure and having my Warden craft a splendid Second Age two-handed hammer. Everything after that was simply detailing. It’s nice to have goals again, and with Isengard around the corner, LotRO looks set to remain the game I turn to when all else quiet for some time to come.

Posted by Melmoth at 12:29 pm

Stuck Inside of Annúminas with the Evendim Blues Again

games, lotro, mmo, zoso 3 Comments »

The zone of Evendim in Lord of the Rings Online is a fantastic place to adventure between levels 30 and 40 with plenty of quests and some excellent rewards to be had. The natural flow of the zone takes you around the great lake in the centre (with boatmasters offering rapid transport between three points on the lake so you no longer have a lengthy swim to quest objectives, uphill, both ways) culminating in the ruins of the city of Annúminas.

Rather than being the cherry on top of the trifle of Evendim, Annúminas is more of a spiky death fruit lurking beneath the custard and sponge fingers. The rest of the zone is nice and open with mobs generally having the decency to be alone and reasonably spaced out; perfect for picking off one by one when solo, and not much of a hindrance when riding around. Some ruins attract a more dense population of goblins or tomb robbers, but there are few places where a bad pull can’t be mitigated with a hasty retreat (the MMOG equivalent of quick save/quick load; a cry of “run away, run away”, a bit of the Benny Hill theme as a couple of other nearby mobs join the chase, then everyone goes back to their original positions; “OK, places people, that wasn’t bad but this time let’s use the slow *before* melee range, right, from the top and… action!”). The narrow streets of Annúminas, though, lead to many of the frustrations Melmoth experiences in Moria. The outskirts aren’t so bad with scattering of tomb robbers, but wandering through an archway it turns out the Angmarim read an article in a travel supplement about Annúminas being the fashionable choice for a holiday this summer and promptly despatched a massive invasion force who are clogging up all the bars, reserving the sun loungers and generally making a nuisance of themselves. The Angmarim hang out in groups of two and three, respawn alarmingly quickly, and the narrow streets make them impossible to avoid.

The Wardens of Annúminas haven’t taken this invasion lying down, though, oh no. They’ve established a secure base from which to fight back, slap bang in the middle of the city. Completely surrounded by Angmarim. Taking a tactical lead from the German army’s “Stalingrad 1942″ manual doesn’t seem like the best of ideas but heck, they’ve got quests to hand out so you might as well pop along. One way of reaching the Warden camp would be to carefully fight your way through the Angmarim mobstacles, killing tens if not hundreds on the way in, at which point the very first quest offered to you is “Kill 40 Angmarim”. To avoid nugatory genocide, then, it’s generally better to frantically ride through the surrounding hordes (half of whom have crossbows, just to make it even trickier). Once you’re inside the camp you unlock a travel point at a stablemaster; the “stable” part suggests the mechanism for travel is a horse, but being the route in and out is carpeted with mobs then either it’s an F117A Stealth Horse with added invisibility cloak, or my personal suspicion (especially as it’s fast travel), the Wardens actually load you onto a massive trebuchet pointed at Tinnudur and you have to hope you don’t bounce out of the net set up to catch you.

Recognising that the Angmarim-infested ruins aren’t the easiest of places to solo, for once in the history of MMOGs the quest-giver doesn’t stand there, nailed to the floor, while you go out and risk life and limb; you’re given a smoke signal and within the city it summons Orchalwe, an NPC who is a unique combination of Tank, Healer and Mobile Location-Sensitive Reward Dispenser. As Darkeye says, he’s the best quest-giver ever. With his help the packs of Angmarim aren’t as much of a problem, though it’s still slow going fighting your way around the place, and at various points around the city a ring appears over his head and he gives a short tour guide speech: “Coming up on your right a lovely set canals, and if you’d like to swim up and down them a bit and click on some glowies I’ll give you XP. Cha-ching!”

One of Orchalwe’s main quests is to hang flags off six key monuments that the evil invaders have set up around the city (presumably the flags say “Angmarim eunt domus”), and pottering into a courtyard containing one of these monuments I noticed the mass of Angmarim were a bit tougher, signature mobs with substantially more hitpoints, all in groups, with wandering signature ogre-type-troll-creature-beasts just to make life even more difficult. Even with Orchalwe’s help a single group was a tricky proposition, and a badly timed patrol or respawn would easily send you to the graveyard, incredibly inconveniently placed outside the city. After a couple of attempts I gave it up as a bad job solo, and popped back later with Melmoth; the two of us (plus a pair of Orchalwes, I guess he has an identical twin brother) managed to carefully pick our way through the courtyard to the monument itself, in front of which was a named boss along with the usual crowd of signature mobs. Setting up for the fight we opened up by pulling an isolated archer on one side, and there was a “bing!” as the aggro symbol flashed over the head of about seven billion mobs (well, at least seven, but a bunch of them summoned stuff as well), an absolutely horrific linked group around the boss, leading to the conclusion: “bugger that for a game of soldiers”.

It was a bit of a shame as the reward for that quest was the head piece of the rather nice Evendim armour set, and it slightly spoiled the end of the zone; rather than moving on to books 5 and 6 in the Misty Mountains and Angmar as The Heroic Liberator Of Annúminas (In As Much As Anyone Can Ever Be Said To Liberate Anything In A Never-Changing World) I mumbled something about a terribly urgent appointment elsewhere and slunk away.

I kept the quest in my log, though, like an itch that couldn’t be scratched, until last Friday. The weekly outing of Hobbington Crescent had wrapped up another few chapters of book questing, and as people drifted away for the night four of us were left, an awkward number for skirmishing or instances. About the right number for dishing out a beating to Angmarim invaders, though! Heading down to Annúminas we stormed through the city hanging up banners, seizing key control points and giving an 18,000hp boss a slap for good measure. Even four of us, in the mid level 40s, with a veritable platoon of summoned Orchalwes suffered a death or two (though our Loremaster wasn’t always given the opportunity to apply optimal crowd-control measures due to engagements generally starting with a shout of “CHARG!”); I think the classification of Monuments of Angmar as a level 38 solo quest is a bit optimistic…

Posted by Zoso at 4:53 am
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