Thursday 13 May 2010

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.

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