Friday 3 June 2011

He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.

Everything debuffs my character in Lord of the Rings Online or so it seems; I can’t so much as take afternoon tea without wounding myself when picking up a teacup, or poisoning myself on an egg and cress sandwich, and the less said about how one gets a disease from a length of Battenberg the better.

Of the various categories of debuff, however, ‘fear’ is the one that I find most curious. For a start it seems to be the most popular debuff among minions of the dark power, an understandable concept until you consider the fact that after my character has killed their three thousandth warg without loss of their own life, are they really, honestly, going to be intimidated by wargs any longer? Consider a circus lion tamer entering the cage every morning and yelling “HOLY CRAP, A LION! HELP! LIONNNNN! Ahhhhhhhhhhhohhhh wait… ah ha ha, ohhh I’m feeling foolish now”. I suppose it could be the case that my character isn’t afraid of the wargs per se, perhaps the wargs just have a really good propaganda department feeding them slogans to shout during a fight

Hero: “Have at you, wargs!”

Warg 1: “[Growls] Did you know that fluctuating aggregate demand is destabilising the economy?”

Warg 2: “[Barks] Food prices are set to rise exponentially!”

Warg 1: “[Tweets] Interest rates on Rivendell properties will double in the next financial quarter.”

Hero: “Tweets?”

Warg 1: “[Barks] Yeah, I’m broadcasting some of these to my warg friends on the Internet.”

Hero: “Ah.”

Warg 2: “[Howls] Unemployment among Middle Earth heroes is at 4.5%, its highest rate for two ages of man!”

Hero: “Noooooo!” [Bites fingernails]

I checked the fear debuff the other day and it said that my character was ‘unsettled’, which sounds less like a fear of the unknown and more the morning-after result of a dodgy takeaway. I suppose it could be trying to reflect the sudden panicked realisation that if you do suffer a catastrophic takeaway-induced toilet emergency, you’re securely strapped into a highly restrictive human-shaped tin can. Unless you’re a female warrior in plate armour of course, then you just need to drop your knickers, if you’re even allowed to wear knickers. Of course we all know they do wear knickers really, because the first time anyone puts on one of those full-plate schoolgirl skirt things that pass for female armour in an MMO, they always do the ‘are there really knickers up there?’ check. [Cough] I’d better just check the camera is working. Scroll in. Scroll in. Scroll down. Scroll down. Tilt my head a bit to the side… wait that won’t work. Scroll in some more. Ooop, too far, I’ve gone into first person view. Scroll out. Scroll down. Annnnnnnnnnd, I think those are knickers. Are they? It’s a bit dark. [Cough] I’d better test the gamma controls, just to make sure they’re working too…’

In my MMO, any time the player’s camera viewing angle intersected with the Up Skirt plane, an elite monster would jump out from up there and attack. Bonus experience, however, if it jumps out from your character’s skirt and attacks the person ‘innocently’ standing next to them.

Everything seems to debuff, as I mentioned earlier before I went slightly off track; ‘slightly’ as a rollercoaster would be slightly off track if it had left the theme park and was comfortably overtaking traffic in the outside lane of a nearby motorway. While soloing my way through Volume 2 I had stacked debuffs from a variety of mobs to the extent that my character had reduced Might and Agility, drastically reduced Armour and Morale, and close to zero Fate or Willpower. Sometimes I wonder if there wasn’t a miscommunication between development departments:

“What the hell is wrong with the Warden in this instance, it has half the effective power that it normally should have, how the heck is that heroic?!”

“Hey look, we did just what you asked, you said you wanted to see it tank like a pansy so…”



“I wanted it to tank… like a Panzer. As in the tank. Rugged. Robust. Powerful. Death dealing.”

“Ah. Not limp, yellow, slightly fragrant, but ultimately fragile, then?”

“Who on earth would want to play a game where their character spends most of the time like that?!”

“Well we did wonder.”

Debuffs are, of course, also linked to the exciting ‘Did you remember to buy potions?’ mini-game, where you venture fifty yards into an instance and then have a debuff of every colour instantly slapped on your character, at which point you realise that you forgot to stock up on potions; even better when you did stock up on potions but find you’re facing mobs of a slightly higher level than usual, for which you need slightly higher level potions. This leads on to the slightly more morally ambiguous ‘Oh, look, we happen to have potions on the LotRO Store’ mini-game, where the player balances the value of traipsing all the way back to a quest hub to buy potions against the real world cost of summoning a stack immediately and conveniently from out of the microtransactional aether.

Of course even if you win the ‘Did you remember to buy potions?’ mini-game, there’s often little point in using one during a fight:

“I fear you!”
“Hah! I use a potion!”
“Okay. I fear you again!”
“I… can’t use a potion because it’s on cooldown. Bugger.”
“I fear you again!”
“Alright, alright, no need to rub it in.”
“Sorry. [whispers] I fear you again.
“I heard that!”

Even if they don’t restack debuffs, most MMO sessions consist of fighting a succession of similar mobs, thus waiting for the fight to end and clearing the debuff does nothing, because the very next mob will pop it straight back onto your character again. So really the potions are only useful for the feariest of fear debuffs, where your character is in real danger of death, rather than the more minor risk of being intensely irritated at having to auto-attack everything to death: because one of the more annoying fear debuffs (for characters without a dedicated power regeneration ability) reduces Will and Fate –responsible for your character’s power regeneration in and out of combat– meaning that in any lengthy fight your character spends most of their time gasping for power, even when chugging power and fear potions as soon as they’re off cooldown. In addition, it induces downtime by forcing the character to wait while they regenerate power between fights. Papua New Guinea has a more reliable power supply than most of my characters.

Of course there’s a counter to this: the various food items in the game which can be crafted and will grant your character a boost to power regeneration great enough to overcome the worst of these anti-power fear debuffs. Of course I predict that this will simply lead to an arms race where mobs cast more powerful fear effects, and player characters counter this by cooking up richer foods and eating them in greater quantities. Daytime TV shows in Middle Earth will introduce regular cooking segments where Aragorn extols the virtues of cheese pudding and chips in combating a fear of wargs, and Gandalf shows us a cheeky little soufflé which can cancel the unwanted attentions of the undead. Soon we’ll have these comically giant roly poly heroes waddling around the countryside with their mouths full of toad in the hole and jacket spuds. New players, upon encountering a high level player, will suffer an immediate fear debuff as their minds try to comprehend these gargantuan amorphous near-spherical blobs who wave their swords wildly around from their little stump appendages, while biscuit crumbs spill down their fronts as they try to communicate in ‘munmph’s through a mouthful of custard creams. In response to the fact that the players now naturally cause fear and confusion in each other, the minions of The Enemy will be forced to drop their now redundant and petty debuff tactic, and instead focus on other ways to debilitate the players, such as building large flights of stairs and narrow doorways. Thus, in a curious twist of fate, the forces of evil create some of the most beautiful feats of architectural engineering that Middle Earth has ever seen.

Of course ‘stair lift’ tokens will be available on the LotRO Store shortly thereafter.

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