Tag Archives: ddo

Oh death, where is thy sting?

I had been having some trouble, I can admit that much; I wouldn’t say that my dungeon run in Dungeons & Dragons Online was a nightmare, but I had been struggling through somewhat, with each fight having to be a careful pull and kite in order to maximise my time spent actually playing the game, rather than sitting around licking my wounds.

It’s all part of my holding pattern while I wait for Guild Wars 2 to arrive: I dabble solo in this game and that, not really finding the enthusiasm to play any single game with the traditional idolatrous fervour of the MMO addict. We’re on the taxiway with Air ArenaNet now, and the air of anticipation means that I can’t concentrate on anything – sometimes snapping alert as though from a daze, whereupon I find myself staring blankly at a half-finished inflight magazine which I don’t remember opening, let alone reading. Soon the engines of anticipation will build to full power, the excitement and tension palpable, the thrumming power of that passion, held in check, causing the cabin of the community to vibrate. The allotted take-off window arrives, and with the flip of a switch… release. A roar of exultation follows, our craft swiftly gathering momentum in its eager urgency, then with a swell and a sigh we launch, soaring onward to the peregrine climes of Tyria.

In the meantime, I really am an irascible git with respect to my gaming patience, to the point that I’m actually spending most of my time reading.

Nevertheless, I did, at some point, find myself struggling through a dungeon in DDO. It so happened that I reached a point where I could no longer progress without aid: a lever needed to be operated while another person would run through a series of gates. Having come quite far, I decided to purchase a hireling and complete my otherwise solo sortie with a little help. Being a melee sort, I decided to grab a cleric hireling, and that’s when I was reminded by just how much healing changes the game.

Just like that, my character became an irrepressible and immortal being. Where before I was tentative and circumspect, I was now transformed into a hooligan – there are those who would think themselves hooligans, but they would be compelled to stare agape at my antics and call out ‘Steady on there old chap, have a care!’. I was suddenly pulling whole groups of skeletons, pulling additional groups of skeletons, pulling the sisters of those groups of skeletons. It was carnage, at the end of which I would stand panting in the midst of a bone pile that would make Razorfen Downs blush, and my health bar would still be reading ‘Don’t know what all the fuss is about’. That was just for starters, then… then I got blasĂ©. It’s all a bit of a blur, but I do know that by the end of it I was running back and forth naked through a series of traps, dragging a train of skeletons behind me, while I sang U Can’t Touch This. I do remember riding a clay golem. And trying to goose a fire elemental with a stick of dynamite. If we stopped to rest but briefly, I would imagine I was calmly sitting in the camp fire, stirring the embers with my feet and watching my health bar drop and rise, drop and rise.

I’m curious to see how Guild Wars 2’s healing works — whether support classes and group healing will become the essential crutch that they are in other MMOs, or if ArenaNet will find a way to balance encounters such that they are required only in the direst of situations. That’s what I hope for, not for a removal of healing altogether, but a return to it being a tactical decision, an occasional counter to an enemy’s pressed attack, rather than a vital constant where defeat is ensured if it ever goes away. GW2 certainly seems to have less emphasis on healing, and the downed mechanic makes death less of a certainty once that health bar has dropped to zero.

It’s somewhat sad that abundant healing enables our characters to achieve so much, yet restricts them so much the more if it is then ever absent. With GW2 I’m hoping to find a freer form of gameplay, although never so free as yee-hawing naked on a bucking golem through the impotent defensive lines of the minions of darkness, I grant you.

I never worry about action, but only about inaction.

Oftentimes my thoughts are a sparkling variegated cloud of fractured conceptions and convictions, a myriad array of crystal-shard fish which attempt to coalesce around a central conclusion, but continually billow and implode as sharks of uncertainty dash with writhen voracity through their midst. Contemplating the whole is to draw a conclusion from the ideas reflected in a mirror ball of madness, yet picking out one thought is to isolate it from the rest, where its now-muted rainbow facets are more easily considered, but also more readily exposed to the gape-mawed predations of incertitude.

This certainly describes my state of mind when contemplating action combat in MMOs, specifically when contrasting the forms of combat found in Dungeons & Dragons Online, Tera and Guild Wars 2. I think I like Tera’s version best, then GW2’s, and finally DDO’s, but when I try to formulate a reason why, I end up chasing a conclusion around my head as a kitten chases a spot of reflected light, where each attempt to grasp it is more frantic and furious than the previous one, until at last I am so confused and demented by my fruitless efforts that I inadvertently attack myself and burst, in carpet-tearing panic, from my place on the floor. And later, Mrs Melmoth has to coax me out from behind the sofa with a scrap of cooked chicken.

It seems to me that what we mean by action combat in MMOs can be pared down into a few constituent forms: targeting, movement and reaction. Sometimes these forms overlap: movement out of an area of danger is often combined with the reaction of responding to an enemy’s telegraphed attack – the archetypal dodge mechanic. My kitten-like flailings around the topic were no closer to reaching illumination, as all three games provide similar combat mechanisms. There’s also the fact that I feel I don’t have enough experience with Guild Wars 2’s combat to compare it fully to Tera or DDO, because I’ve yet to try PvP or dungeon instances in GW2, in which I expect movement and reaction will be required to a much higher standard than in the early levels of the game.

I do think DDO –although still fabulously refreshing compared to traditional rock ’em sock ’em MMOs– loses out somewhat to the other two. It was the first of the three, of course, and thus has the disadvantage of time and technology having moved on, but I think its biggest constraint was that it had to marry action combat with the traditional dice-based system of D&D – more a shotgun wedding than a marriage of common interests.

Thus I’m still not sure why I prefer one style of action combat over another, what with them sharing similar core mechanisms. Perhaps, in the end, it’s ‘the whole package’ which sets one system apart – that it has become more than the sum of its parts in some ineffable way. Still, I’ll take comfort from the fact that I know one thing for certain: I really enjoy action combat in MMOs. I should probably try to experience other fine specimens; I’ve never bothered to play Vindictus, to my shame. Maybe with greater experience will come greater understanding, or maybe it will just be adding more fish to the shoal of my confusion; either way, I’m rather excited to see how this area of the MMO genre develops in the future, because, for me at least, it feels like a step along a new and exciting path.

Every man of ambition has to fight his century with its own weapons.

With the instigation of a stress test for Guild Wars 2 this past Monday, I was able to log-in and refresh my memory with regard to some of the game’s systems. As such it gave me a nice opportunity to compare and contrast some of the ideas realised within that game with those found in TERA, which I’m currently playing.

My first impression is that in the classroom of MMOs, TERA is that kid who was brilliant at one subject; in all else that kid was at best average, but in one subject they grew whiskers and a shock of white hair and positively shone, in the eyes of their peers becoming a cross between a Super Saiyan and Albert Einstein. TERA is really rather good at action combat. Guild Wars 2, however, seems like the kid who was never brilliant, but was pretty good at absolutely everything, irritatingly popular, and likely to become head pupil of the school upon reaching the sixth form.

Do feel free to carry the analogy wildly off on your own tangents. For example, I picture EVE to be the gruff kid who sits at the back of the class jeering at everyone else and occasionally flicking the ears of World of Warcraft, who used to be the popular rich kid until everyone finally tired of him always turning up with more complicated and expensive versions of other kids’ toys, which he’d invariably break by the end of the first day.

One difference between TERA and GW2 which I find Quite Interesting, but others may find somewhat more prosaic, is the role of weapons within the game. For TERA, each class has a single weapon set available to it. The Warrior dual wields swords, but the representation of these swords is one icon; the Lancer’s shield and lance are also represented by a single entity. Therefore there are no cross-class loot issues when it comes to weapons in TERA – every class has its own weapon set, and every set is self-contained, even if it is comprised of more than one functional item. I really like the system; it’s a simple and elegant way to eliminate the issue of dual wielding classes having to keep multiple weapons/shields/handbags upgraded in order to remain viable, compared to their single-weapon counterparts.

Speaking of maintaining multiple weapons brings up one of my minor concerns for Guild Wars 2: good grief if there aren’t a lot of weapons to maintain in that game, at least for certain classes. Take the Warrior in GW2, for example, who can wield a prodigious variety of weapons. The fact that certain skills –and thus certain styles of play– are intrinsically linked to a weapon type means that, in theory, the Warrior will need to keep two swords, two axes, two maces, a warhorn, a shield, a greatsword, a hammer, a longbow and a rifle all upgraded in order to be able to fulfill each and every play style. Now, perhaps this is not the intention, and a player will be encouraged to focus on one or two themes, but it certainly seems a little overwhelming to think that a Warrior might want (but hopefully not need) to maintain an up-to-date version of all these various items.

Until my knowledge of the game has matured, it’s hard to know how this will resolve itself – weapon level could be irrelevant when compared to the power of the skills which the weapon enables, for example. Suffice it to say that I remain as yet unconvinced where this linkage between skill system and weapon requirement is concerned, but I keep an open mind as always. However, I think that thematically it’s a fabulous idea, where each weapon offers its own distinct flavour of combat, rather than just a mechanical flip of a damage type stat.

And in our contemplation of damage-type-weapon-swapping shenanigans, let us bow our heads and take a moment to reflect upon the current king of weapon stockpiling: Dungeons & Dragons Online. For no DDO session can be complete without the party emptying out their backpacks into the middle of the dungeon floor, rummaging through the subsequent pile of weapons as though they were Lego, and trying to find the exact right piece to fit their current build requirements.

“Dang. If anyone finds a dark blue four-er, can they let me have it?”

“Is that a two-by-two four-er, or a four-by-one? And do you need it in piercing, bludgeoning, slashing, adamantine, byeshk, cold iron, crystal, mithral or alchemical silver?”


No pleasure endures unseasoned by variety.

My current plate of play is piled high with equal portions of Dungeons & Dragons Online and Rift, as I gorge myself once more on morsels from the ‘all you can eat’ MMO buffet. Update 6 for Lord of the Rings Online approaches as swiftly as the flow of The Great River it brings with it, but I find myself utterly uninterested in returning to my mature MMO mistress. For the first time I find that I don’t like the direction in which Turbine are taking their interpretation of the free-to-play model and, combined with yet more of what I see as complications to the design of the warden class, it seems as though I’m gently drifting away from LotRO, the current of its ambitions finally flowing in a divergent direction to the current of my interests. As it is with others, I find the Premium Barter Wallet to be an unnecessary device: a solution to a problem that needn’t have existed in the first place. To sell players inventory space, fill that inventory with barter currency which monopolises that space in an entirely unnecessary fashion, and then offer to sell players yet another form of inventory to solve this issue, should be viewed as a worrisome development at best; I see it as invidiousness.

Curiously, I ended up giving Turbine some of my money anyway, but this time I’ve decided to invest a little in DDO. The new expansion has piqued my curiosity, and by ordering early there is the usual array of bonus trinkets and knickknacks offered along with the expansion content itself. Having lost my mind momentarily and plumped for the Libertine Edition, I found myself with an abundance of niceties, amongst which were included 2000 Turbine Points. With some time yet until the expansion, but with an already renewed enthusiasm for DDO, expansion notwithstanding, I decided to invest some of the Tubine Points into the relatively recently released Artificer class. The fact that the class happened to be on sale at the time only spurred me into divesting myself of my newfound digital wealth as quickly as I had obtained it. The Artificer class is bonkers-powerful in that way which only ‘expansion’ classes can be; as with the Death Knight in World of Warcraft, the Runekeeper and Warden in LotRO, the Beastlord in EverQuest 2, and many others, the Artificer is a new class which seems to thrust through the canopy of classes, before unfurling the tremendous branches of its power and leaving all else somewhat in its shade. The Artificer uses a repeating crossbow, a weapon which has received a revamp to its mechanics coinciding with the release of the Artificer, transforming the weapon from the ranged equivalent of lightly slapping the target repeatedly about the face with a herring, into something more akin to dropping a quick succession of blue whales from a sub-orbital platform onto the head of the unsuspecting villain . That alone, for me, would make the class interesting, but in this Swiss Army knife of classes, that’s just the weird tool tucked behind the tool which hooks the stones out of horse hooves. The Artificer can also detect and disarm traps and locks, much like the rogue class. They also have a pet, which levels-up with the character, can be equipped with various items, and has its own line of enhancements including two prestige lines – in this I believe the pet is better developed than some of the existing classes in the game.

So you can see that the Artificer is pretty powerful, really; unfairly so, some might suggest.

So I probably shouldn’t mention the Rune Arm weapon: a device which has various uses, but starts off as a basic close-range flame thrower which can be charged up to various levels of power, and doesn’t even require the player to swap out their +5 Blue Whale Launching Turret of Mass Extinction in order to use it.

Yes indeed, the Artificer is pretty crazily powerful, I think you’ll agree.

So I probably shouldn’t mention the fact that they can cast spells from a selection which rivals that of Wizards, including, but not limited to, the uberlevelling munchkin caster’s damage spell of choice – Blade Barrier, as well as the ability to conjure crossbow bolts like an Arcane Archer. There’s also the newly added line of curative admixtures, which allow the Artificer to turn health and resistance potions into grenades, which they can then lob into a crowd for an AoE version of that potion’s benefits.

Pretty powerful. Overpowered, some might say.

So I probably shouldn’t mention the fact that – nah, just kidding, that’s about it. I mean, apart from the fact that they’re able to transform into Godzilla at fourth level, but I don’t suppose you’re interested in that. It leaves me wondering what Turbine will have to do to make the druid class –which is being launched with the new expansion in June– appealing to players. Obviously it’s something that players in DDO have been clamouring for with equal voracious verve as players of EQ2 were for the Beastlord, but I can’t help but think that Turbine have to go even further with this class in order to make it stand out against that solitary device of dungeon destruction and devastation encompassed in the Artificer. As such, I imagine that the player of a freshly created level one Druid will look down upon their hotbar and see a single button, with a tooltip that reads:

Lunar Transformation: The druid transforms into a fully operation battle station and becomes the ultimate power in the universe.
‘That’s no moon.’

Despite professing to the contrary, I found myself drawn into raiding in Rift over the weekend. And what incomprehensible minatory threat to reality was it which caused me to throw reticence to the wind and join the noble cause of a pick-up raid of valiant Ascended?


Extra-dimensional death balloons of death and greater death, that cause death with their deathly death rays of much death and deathness?!

No, no – party balloons. Tied to the floor outside of a carnival tent.

Rift’s one year anniversary event is in full swing, and the phase of progress (read: stage of the grind) that has currently been reached allows for players to participate in various carnival games staged around the tented encampment of NPCs, who have set up shop in the capital cities of the two factions, as well as in the Shimmersand region. It’s the standard MMO event, with mini-games rewarding a currency –in this case, prize tickets– which can be used to barter for various event-only items, such as cosmetics and trinkets and the like. The balloon game requires the player character to jump around a small pen bursting balloons (the event is themed around a carnival, and thus balloons play a large part in various aspects) until they have dispatched thirty of the villainous rubbery entrappers of helium. The keys to the ‘exploitation’ of this game are:

a) It is instantly repeatable, rather than being daily.
b) In a group, or raid, any burst balloon counts towards the total for all members of the group or raid.

So, MMO players being, well, MMO players, have optimised this game by forming raids of players who all jump up and down on the spot, only stopping to hand-in the quest to the vendor (standing right beside the balloon pen) and pick-up the quest once again. For a single player the quest would probably take somewhere in the carefully-balanced-by-developers region of a minute; in a raid you can get in about two jumps before you need to hand-in the quest again.

Thus, there I was, for ten or fifteen minutes, in a raid consisting primarily of level-capped heroes, with their giant raider’s shoulder pads; epic weapons encrusted with jewels; trailed by a small choir of angels chanting the player’s great deeds for all the world to bear witness to; as the twenty of us jumped up and down like loons, popping balloons. A grinding platoon, marching to the theme park’s tune.

Are we entirely sure we’re not in Azeroth any more?

For us, there is no spring. Just the wind that smells fresh before the storm.

Speaking of character creation and customisation, here’s my female dwarf in DDO.

Beauty, as they say, is often in the eye of the beholder.

Thankfully Beauty carries a big axe, so she should be able to cut her way out again.

Dwarf Barbarian/Bard. Sing loudly, and carry a big axe.

Now we just have to see how long it takes before the re-roll.

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.

1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

1:28 And yay did God visit the forums to see if his creation was good. But lo did the forums say ‘No, God’ and ‘God no!’, and they did explain unto God why only a newb would create man in a such a way. And the forums did then show God how to create a man who would have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

1:29 Then God became confused. For though one post on the forums did say ‘Create unto ye a man in this fashion, and your man shall be the greatest upon the earth’ verily did another spring forth which declaimed the first and spoke unto God ‘nay, create man in this way or let him forever crawl upon his belly and suck dust for all the days of his life’.

1:30 And God did consider bringing floodwaters on the forums to destroy all life under the various topics and every creature that has the breath of life in it. But quickly did God realise that there were no living creatures on the forums, only phosphorous manifestations of vitriol and invective.

1:31 So God destroyed man and made him again. And again. And again. Until eventually God thought ‘sod it’ and hit the random button and hoped for the best.

1:32 And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, he wasn’t sure about it any of it any more.

2:1 And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he went and twiddled with Jupiter for a bit, because it was without form, and void, and he could play around with it without suffering the truculent criticism and dissent of alternating prepossessions.

And so, some six or seven thousand years hence, man is still a complete and utter shambles today, even after the great re-roll around Genesis 6:9.

In other news, I spent a few hours on the DDO forums last night trying to determine a sensible build for a new character, because stat choice can have a large impact on the viability of a character and is largely set in stone once the character is created. After searching around for absolutely ages, I concluded that there definitely wasn’t a Flood Forum button anywhere to be found. So I picked a path which looked about right (and which the forums will tell you is tantamount to deciding to eat the serviettes at a Michelin-starred restaurant rather than anything from the menu), and got on with trying to play the game under the pressure of several fathoms of guilt and inadequacy which had built up over the course of my browsing.

After such an evening of reading the forums, I can’t help but expect that I’ll login with a new character one day only to be confronted by a huge ‘NO! WRONG!’ sign, whereupon I find myself summarily ejected from the game, my account deleted, and the game in the process of uninstalling itself from my hard disk drive.

I really wouldn’t mind an MMO where I could customise a character’s abilities based upon the alien concept of them sounding fun, while still being able to fulfil a role within the game. Or, if ‘learning to play (in a very specific way determined outside of the game by spreadsheets and data mining)’ is still to be a requirement, then perhaps it would be sensible to postpone those decisions which require learning until after I’ve had a chance to play.

The greatest obstacle to being heroic is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one’s self a fool.

There’s an excellent puzzle in Dungeons and Dragons Online that made me chuckle quite a lot when I first encountered it. When I say the puzzle is excellent, I do of course mean that it isn’t. At all. And when I say puzzle, I do of course use the word in its loosest sense, more along the lines of ‘curious nuisance’ than anything else. It is an excellent puzzle, however, because it shows just how difficult it can be for an MMO developer to try to implement game mechanics such as puzzles, whilst catering to every combination of race, class, equipment and skill that a player, or indeed party of players, might bring to the adventuring table.

The puzzle in question, and I do want to emphasise again that I use puzzle in the same way that I would still call a two piece jigsaw puzzle a puzzle, is found in the depths of the Tangleroot Gorge quest line concerning the Splinterskull orcs, specifically starting with the quest Agent of the Darguul which is activated once you’ve obtained access to the inner stronghold of the Splinterskull fortress. Upon entering the inner sanctum and having killed a few orcs guarding the entrance, the player is presented with a raised drawbridge spanning a chasm which appears to be infinitely deep and is bounded, as only D&D chasms can be, by sheer walls of rock at either end. The immediate message is ‘the bridge is the only way across’. Now if this were a pen and paper game, say, then the players would be able to come up with all manner of crazy strategies to ruin the DM’s carefully planned puzzle, they would form a human ladder; one of the more engineering minded types would build a hang glider; the tomb raider types would lasso their way across; the mage would cast one of Levitate Party, Chasm-Spanning Phantasmal Bridge of Convenient Expedience, or Polycell’s Quick-Drying Chasm Filler; and the dwarf Barbarian would just move his character on to the next part of the map with an angry mutter about how he hadn’t munchkined this character into an orc threshing machine to spend his time dallying around with stupid bridges that had developed far too great a sense of their own self worth.

In DDO the characters are limited to one option, which is: what the developer intended. As such, a brief examination of the situation reveals a lever on the other side of the chasm that the players need to hit to lower the bridge. Well, it’s not so much a lever as a giant flat board with a target painted on it on top of a stick, the sort of thing you see at funfairs attached to a chair suspended above a pool of water which tips up and dunks some poor fellow when it’s hit with a projectile of some sort. To its credit the DDO version isn’t surrounded by flashing neon with a big arrow suspended from the ceiling pointing down at it, but it’s pretty obvious after the most cursory of inspections, and it wouldn’t be entirely out of place for it to have an orc in a top hat and cane standing beside it shouting “Roll up, roll up! Hit the lever, win a prize! How about you sir? You look handy with a projectile weapon, fancy trying to lower the draw bridge for your lady friend there? No sir, that’s not a euphemism! Roll up! Roll up!”

Of course the designer, being a conscientious type, was concerned that there was an outside chance of a player turning up without a projectile weapon of any sort. It could happen, especially if they were a purely melee class and running the dungeon solo, although nowadays I imagine most players are veteran enough to realise that even if you have -20 to all projectile weapon proficiency rolls it’s still worth taking some sort of ranged weapon with you, just in case you stumble upon the side of a barn that needs hitting from a distance, say. Or a big painted target on the other side of a chasm. It might take a few attempts, with the first few probably ending up with you embedding sharp projectiles into the buttocks of any fellow adventurers who didn’t have the common sense to leave the instance and wait for you to finish before coming back in, but eventually you’ll twang something across the chasm that bounces off three walls, catches an orc a glancing blow to the back of the head and then flops against the lever as it falls to the floor. So what was the solution to the problem of a player turning up without a projectile weapon to their name (other than perhaps that weapon which one doesn’t whip out in public and try to shoot across chasms as it’s considered bad form and rather unhygienic)? I think the designer might have got a little bored at this point, because directly opposite the lever, on your side of the chasm, is a modest looking crate. Inside which is a bow and a set of arrows.

I can imagine some of the party conversations that have taken place at that bridge:

“Damn, the bridge is up and there’s no other way across this conveniently inconvenient chasm!”

“There’s a lever on the other side!”

“Are you sure? It’s not a torch holder or weapon rack or something?”

“No, quite sure. There’s a big orc over there in a top hat shouting about it. And the neon sign saying ‘Hit here to lower bridge’ is a bit of a giveaway too.”

“Well that’s no use, I don’t have any projectile weapons with me. Do you?”

“No. Well, yes…”


“Argghhhh, put it away! I told you before! Remember? At the Queen’s ball…”


“Sorry. Ok… Ok! I have a plan! I could use my tumble skill to roll up to the edge of the bridge on this side of the chasm and then throw a loop of rope over to the pillar on the other part of the bridge. Now, the rope isn’t long enough to reach all the way, so I’ll use my jump skill to leap out to the rope and the momentum of my swing as I hit it should carry me most of the way to the other side. Then, when I reach the zenith of my swing I’ll let go, at which point you can cast Harold’s Handy Hand of Helping to give me a push which should allow me to reach the chasm wall on the other side. Then I’ll use my climbing skill and my +4 Claws of Chasm Climbing to scale the wall, leap over the top, kill the orc in the top hat, and then bypass the lever mechanism with my disable device skill!”

“Or we could just use the bow and arrows in this crate here.”


“Your idea was splendid. Really it was. We’ll do that next time, eh?”

“*sigh* I suppose so. Do you even know how to use that bow?”

“Oh yes, it’s quite simple really. You just slot the arrow here, like so. Then you pull back li…”


“Arrrgh! Oh God, my buttocks!”

“Oh my. Terribly sorry! Let’s try that again.”


“Owwww! Ah ha heee, ooooo, ow.”

“Oh dear. One more go…”

<Sixteen arrows later>

“A hit! A most palpable hit! And the bridge is down. Come on my friend, let us continue on… are… are you ok?”

“I’ll… be fine. Just… need… to run…. bent over. And… mustn’t sit down.”

“Y’know, with your diminutive halfling size, a little tin foil and some chunks of pineapple and cheese, we could hire you out as a delightful presentation piece at parties…”

“Am… hffff…. going to stab you with… hssss… an arrow. Just as soon… ahhhnggg… as I find a doctor with good strong grip and some… ooohoohooo…. pliers.”

Next week: World of Warcraft’s incredible grind to get the key for Karazhan when it was first released, and the curious question as to why no player ever found the spare key hidden under the mat outside the front door.

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”