Monday, December 21, 2009

Nimwillyn's Yule Dinner

Every tabletop roleplaying campaign has its share of amusing stories and anecdotes. Below is one such story, from the MERP game that spawned many of the members of Heren Lokion. It may serve to bring a smile to certain folks' faces when they remember these days of yore.

Gather about the fire, my friends, and let a tale of mirth drive away the night cold on this grand Vule eve. The tale I tell is true, for I was witness to these events. Nimwillyn, you may find this story of particular interest, for it involves your namesake from ages past.

This tale begins on a Yule Eve much like this one, only long ago and in much less civilized places. My band of adventurers was journeying eastward through the Trollshaws, seeking for the dread fortress of Cameth Brin, which is now known as Garth Agarwen. It was many leagues yet til the city, so we made camp and settled for the night.

Among our company was Hugh of Dunland, Avacar, ranger of Arthedain, my friend and companion Morde, and the burglar Nimwillyn of the Shire. Although the Shire had only recently been settled when we came together in fellowship, Yule traditions were ancient even then and Nimwillyn, aware of the date, had determined to feast that night.

None of the rest of us were in any mood to humor him. The Trollshaws were a savage place even then, and none wished to leave the comfort of the fire. Nimwillyn was insistant and when none strove to go with him, he set off alone into the darkness.

I presumed he would grow bored and return after fetching a coney or some other small animal. Comfort loving hobbits are not generally known for their prowess on the hunt, so I doubted he could down a deer or a boar. But as the darkness of the night deepened, Nimwillyn did not return, so I set out myself to fetch him.

Although hobbit feet are light and easily hidden, I was able to track him without much toil. But I grew leery as I saw another set of tracks amidst his, those of a great sabre-tooth. Surely, Nimwillyn was not so foolish to be tracking such a beast.

Well, let it never be said that one can underestimate the folly of a hobbit. I continued further on, now with some haste, fearing that I might find the beast devouring our burglar. After some minutes of rushing through the trees, I came upon Nimwillyn.

"Hush," he warned me. "It's close."

My eyes grew wide at this one's stupidity, but before I could speak a word a great black beast erupted from the nearby brush. Nimwillyn, who a second before was so proud to have tracked this thing, now nearly wet himself with fear. He dropped his blade and staggered back a step, but the beast was on him.

Quick as lightning, I drew and loosed, feathering the beast just forward of its shoulders. But a single arrow was not enough to fell it, even one so expertly aimed. It turned toward me. Sulring flashed into my hand as it pounced, and sank deep into the sabre-tooth's breast.

Now mortally wounded, the great cat staggered off and collapsed in a heap a few yards away. Nimwillyn was still struck dumb with fear. I moved over to ensure it was dead and then turned to scold the idiotic hobbit.

But Nimwillyn had come to his senses, or so I thought. He looked at the beast now with delight. "How wondrous!" he exclaimed. "Imagine our feast tonight."

By this point, I had given up trying to comprehend the mind of Nimwillyn. This night was some months after another expedition into the woods for blueberries, so he could dye himself and his clothing purple in order to infiltrate a bandit lair. I decided to simply go along, becoming a partner in this madness. With an exasperated breath, I quickly cut some branches for a makeshift sled and we dragged the beast back to camp.

Nimwillyn took great delight in preparing the meat, but no amount of Hobbit cookery could make that monster any less tough and mealy. But Nimwillyn got his Yule dinner, and the only cost was his wits and a pair of soiled trousers.

I have not had a Yule since that day over 15 centuries ago when I haven't thought of Nimwillyn and his Yule feast. Let us hope our evening this day is less eventful but equally joyous.

And let us hope the same to you. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Heren Lokion.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Account of Cainam Sselkcer

Dear Master Salmar,

I apologize it has taken me so many months to write you. I hope that this letter finds you well and that your burns have continued to heal. Regrettably, I have not been able to deliver the letter you bade I bring to Isengard and request that they take me on as an apprentice. Alas I fear that all is not well with Saruman the White. I remember you telling me of the majesty that was Isenguard and the lush grounds surrounding the majestic tower of Orthanc. I arrived to find the grounds decimated. The trees have been ripped from the ground by scores of goblins who in turn have built barrows deep into the surrounding earth. My heart sank to see such beauty torn asunder.

I dared not approach the tower but observed the region from the hills outside the perimeter of the grounds. The goblins continued their scourging of the countryside. They have begun construction of a dam and their need for wood has driven them to Fangorn Forest. The boldness they must have to bring an axe to those trees. I do not know what these creatures have planned, but I fear any plan that could be wrought from such wanton destruction.

After several nights of watching something caught my eye. In the middle of a moonlight night a giant eagle descended from the sky and approached the tower. Initially I thought it was going to land on top of Orthanc itself, but instead it merely flew along side it and I saw what I believed to be a man leap from the top of the tower onto the back of the eagle to be spirited away into the western sky.

I have deduced that if anyone knows what is going on inside that tower it is whoever it was that I saw fly off on that eagle. I have thus traveled west to Breeland. Here I have found my self in the service of some of the dunedain rangers as they seek to conceal the movement of a small band of hobbits. I dare not speak of what they carry, but believe me when I say that with these hobbits travels the fate of all the free peoples of middle earth. I can only hope that the small part I played has aided in their quest.

I now find myself tracking a band of adventurers known as Heren Lokion. Their actions have cost the enemy dearly and they have supposedly been essential to the success of the hobbits and their growing fellowship. I hope to catch up with them some place in the Misty Mountains and offer my services to aid their endeavor.

Please pass along my well wishes to your wife and let my family know I am well. I have enclosed a small sum of money to assist you with the repairs to the library as well as a few tomes to help restock the shelves. I have also included a salve that I was promised would aid in the regrowth of your eyebrows. I will continue to send you these letters as well as any other interesting tomes and tidbits I encounter as time and safety permits. Thank you for all that you have taught me, and please keep a watchful eye out for my family and our village.

Humbly Yours,

Cainam Sselkcer

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Learning to Take in the Big Picture

(Alternate Title: Little Green Bars: They're not just for the healer anymore.)

After spending the last two and half years of my time in WoW raiding, most of which was on progression content in one of the top raiding guilds on my server, I've learned to be extremely focused on my task and trusting my team-mates to do the same. Raid content in WoW, particularly in the Sunwell, was so tightly tuned that there was no room for generalists. You had a job, and you did that job, and while you were aware of the other aspects of the encounter you simply didn't have time to worry about what was going on outside of your assigned role. I played a warlock primarily and in Burning Crusade that meant I killed things because we were overpowered and we were the best at it. In particular I was specced destruction and so I put up my curse and then spammed shadowbolt until my target died. I was vaguely aware of the tank's health because I had a target of target unit frame and kept an eye on it to make sure it was not me, but beyond that I wasn't concerned with the status of everyone else. Minimizing the delay between casts and not standing in the fire were the priorities.

Transitioning back to small group play in a completely different game requires a much different degree of situational awareness. Fewer comrades means gaps in specialist coverage. Flexibility is rewarded to a much greater degree. The loss of a party member goes from "Druid, BR!" to "Crap, here comes the wipe." The presence of fellowship manuevers in LotRO take this to an extreme however. A properly executed FM means your DPS is just as responsible for healing and power regeneration as your healers. It means that your minstrel and tank are just as responsible for killing mobs as your DPS. The options available to you from an FM are incredible and they are very easily capable of turning a wipe into an heroic victory. A botched one can also turn a close battle into a rout and a trip back to the defeat circle. The number of different maneuvers available guarantee there is one for any occasion.

And therein lies the problem. Which one do you pick when there is only a seven second window to select the target of the FM, choose your color, and make sure you press that button in right order with the other five people in your fellowship? A hunter sees a mob that needs to die, so he picks damage. A tank sees that his morale bar is low so he picks healing. A healer is running low on power so he picks power regen. Suddenly an opportunity to make a pivotal shift in the battle decays into an ineffective jumble of random colors. How do we learn to see the whole battle when we've been trained to focus, focus, focus? In my opinion this is what is separating us from being a collection of good individual players to being a well-oiled machine that mows down the minions of Sauron.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The WoW to LotRO transition: A Look Back

Over the summer, the Order of the Serpent World of Warcraft (WoW) Guild transitioned to Lord of the Rings (LotRO, usually pronounced Low Tro) and became the Heren Lokion Kinship.

This post is a message to my old bear-mentor Karthis aka Andrew, author of Of Teeth and Claws gaming blog. I promised him, and his readership a comparative review.

Most MMO reviews that I've read only take into account the experience of the individual. How was solo play? How easy was it to "find" groups? How easy was it to find a guild to Raid with?

Frankly, if this was all about me, I may not have fallen in love with LotRO the way I have. I'm a member of a group of 8 long-time friends committed to playing together. We have our own private vent server, this blog & a "Kin" page on guildlaunch. We picked LotRO because of a collective love affair for Tolkien's works. All of us have played Lord of the Rings as a table-top RPG at one time or another. Some of us are even playing characters straight out of that history.

While we don't "role play" over vent with one another, our RPG roots seep into all aspects of our activities. We've created elaborate backstories for several of our characters. Kin members have written "in-character" posts on our blog. This is something that never really happened for us on WoW. Sure, WoW has a solidly developed Lore, but it simply can't hold a candle to LotRO.

The Lore of the game, our history with Tolkien (I've read the books 5 or 6 times and re-watched the movies in "extended edition marathons" over the holidays) and the great decisions of the game designers have created this amazing sense of foreboding - unless you play in the Shire* - which has colored our kin's entire experience thus far.

*Hobbits (and other players) who choose to do their starting levels in the Shire are rewarded with a completely different feel than any other MMO encounter I've ever had. The entire zone seems to be about helping bake pies, smoking the perfect weed, and dealing with gossip.

Of course, fostering the imagination can't be the only reason to play.

At a fundamental level LotRO is no different than WoW (and perhaps any other MMO.) LotRO still depends on the "holy trinity" for instances & elite quests. LotRO is still about leveling to unlock new abilities, become more powerful & open up more content. There's lots of "fed-ex" quests and return "but I was just there!" quests. LotRO is also a subscription service, something Andrew has been arguing against for a while.

note: LotRO subscriptions can run as cheap as $10/month if you take a multi-month plan. Having multi-month subscriptions often entitles players to free digital downloads of expansions. We're getting the Merkwood expansion for free. You can also choose a "life-time" plan, but it's $200.

Virtues: Unlike WoW, "Deed" farming is valuable. Complete a certain number of quests, use an ability enough or kill a certain number of a particular mob and you will unlock an equipable "virtue." These abilities are essentially LotRO's answer to Talent Trees. I love it. Players can just play the game and unlock the deed that unlock naturally from playing OR they can take the time to research deeds they want and fight for them. If a Champion never develops his defensive talents, he'll always just be a dps and never be able to be a tank.

Professions: More than WoW ever did, LotRO rewards teamwork on professions. A group of players can plan to have a set number of players designated for each profession & then have others be gatherers. There's no such thing as a "bind on pickup" crafted item. There are no bonuses for having a specific profession. A solo player can thrive on his or her own. But, the design encourages team-work. I have no crafting profession, instead I gather extra mats. I help mine materials for my wife's jewelcrafter, she in turn crafts gear for everyone in the Kin.

Following the Story: There are tons of quests in each zone. You can't really be a "completest" in LotRO. Many quests help show you a vision of life in Middle Earth. Most quests connect directly to the growing evil surrounding the players. LotRO has this massive interlocking chain of quests called "Books." Each book intertwines with the the Fellowship of the Ring. The players become "supporting cast" in the grand story. Stories involve helping to cover the tracks of the ringbearer or killing agents of the enemy that are too close to the ring. Our Kin is just completing Book 5 and there are a lot more books ahead of us.

Value of a Diverse Cast: Just like WoW, every class brings something different to the table, but LotRO really rewards diversity even in low level instances. Bring too many hunters & champions (raw dps classes) and you won't win. You need support classes that can crowd control, back-up heal, do creative support. This isn't just in Raids or in select boss fights. This is a fundamental aspect of all the fellowship quests I've seen thus far.

Fellowship Maneuver: The Fellowship Maneuver is a triggered event that encourages teamwork. When grouping (any size) there's a chance that a maneuver will be triggered. Each player gets a pop-up to select one of 4 colors. Fellowships (groups) that choose good color combinations are rewarded with anything from straight damage to the mob, to fellowship heal over time & instant power regen. The more in sync a fellowship is and the larger the combo, the more powerful the maneuver. Pugs suck at maneuvers. Our group loves the challenge. Some classes (remember my comment about diversity) can trigger fellowships. We have won fights because fellowship maneuvers were triggered. We have also lost fights because of failed maneuvers.

Death: Instead of "health" players have moral. Being "defeated" means you've run out of moral and must retreat. A player who dies out in the world can choose to revive in place once an hour, but beyond that defeat is painful and has consequences. The results can be devastating for a fellowship. A lot of activities take place is densely populated open elite zones OR public instances. If your fellowship wipes, a hour of work can go down the drain. Defeat also creates dread. Dread greatly reduces a player effectiveness. Many bosses cause even more dread. Too much dread saps a player to the point where they can do nothing but simply run away and cower. Jewelcrafters can create hope tokens which counter-act dread. The best choice is to avoid wipes by playing smart.

Note: I know Andrew is a fan of the undying style game. It's possible to play in LotRO as well. The game rewards players for avoiding death by cool new titles every 5 levels. But beware bad connectivity! I had an alt moving along quite nicely, she died to a DC. Sigh!

Housing & Banking: A Love/Hate Relationship: Players start with a lot of bag space. We get access to a modest sized bank really early. This seems really great until you realize that bag space is fixed, your bank is small, extra bank bags are smaller & exorbitantly priced. The solution? Get a house. You & your Kin can get houses. Your house is located in a homestead in the human, elf, hobbit or dwarf zones. Houses are cool places to display trophies. They also have trunks.

I LOVE this feature because my house reflects my main's taste and attitude (role-playing opportunity) and our Kinship house is a great place for us to display the trophies from our successful instance runs. I can "pop in" to a friend's house to drop of crafting mats or see their personal trophies.

I absolutely HATE this feature because my house, the Kin House, my friends' houses & my bank are scattered about. The trunk space is small and finite. Actually, the bank/bags/mail/auction system is by far my biggest - and only real - complaint about the game. It's clunky to the point where I realize that Blizzard has a really well-designed system in place. (I take back every bad thing I've ever said about Blizzard's mail/bank/auction system.)

Some Concluding Thoughts: There's a lot more to say about this game. I am really enjoying it. There's so much to talk about, I've failed to get into the individual classes I've tried. It's good for solo-play, but great for groups. If you are a small group of 6+ looking for a new home, I recommend you play LotRO. You will be rewarded with tons of fellowship quests, opportunity for collaborative work, and a game rich in story.

At this time, the wife and I are avoiding the "life-time" membership. It pays for itself in under 2 years, but with the variety of new games on the horizon we wonder if our group will look elsewhere in a year. After the holidays when we've paid for the Christmas, we'll reconsider it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Report from the North

Lord Denethor,

I hope this missive finds you well and our city safe from the Enemy. It has been over a month since my arrival in Rivendell with Captain Boromir. Many other mighty lords and captains have come here lately too and they have held a great council to discuss the war that all can see coming now. I do not know what was said, but clearly a decision of great importance was made as your son has decided to lend his aid to a mission of much secrecy. Mithrandir is involved in this, as is a Ranger of the North who bears a mighty heirloom. The Enemy is watching this place closely and they dare not set out until the area can be cleansed of his agents. The Nine were abroad here and though they were defeated when they attempted to enter Rivendell, at least one is still at large and organizing the remnants of Angmar to great evil. Already I have seen first hand evidence of this in the North Downs where a great force of orcs and trolls was gathering in the fallen capital of Arnor. With foul sorcery they have even called up evil spirits in the bodies of fallen soldiers to do the work of the Enemy. With the aid of several companions and the blessing of Captain Boromir we entered Fornost and slew the Orc chieftain Zanthrug who lead them, but I fear he was just the beginning. Rumors abound that a great evil has arisen in Angmar again and if it is not stopped it will sweep away what little defense there is in the North and come at Gondor. I feel it is my duty to aid the people of this land in the defense of their homes else our own land will have no safe borders. I would have gladly accompanied Captain Boromir but he has assured me that what hope exists in the success of his quest relies on secrecy and a small company.

I will send reports as I am able but with the treachery of Saruman and the closure of the High Pass through the winter I fear they will be long in reaching you.

Ever your humble servant,


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Nimbwillyn's Guide to Farming

Farming can be one of the most expensive professions to advance. If you're a farmer, you're most likely churning out ingredients for a cook. These quickly become food which you and your kin devour. Simply put, money goes in, no money comes out. Other professions generally have to make large numbers junk items that if made wisely vend at or above production costs. They gather resources in the wilderness, where experience and loot can be gained from the foes that must be defeated to reach said resources. Farmers do their best work in Hobbiton, where cups of tea must be defeated to overcome drowsiness. Other professions can "make all" on a large stack of mats and step away to do other things. A farmer tries to make all on a "stack" of fields and finds he can harvest three before the rest despawn.
But it's not all bad. You and your kin need new weapons and armor every few levels, often more if you like to hold out for shard gear. You and your kin need food every few minutes (often more if you've been holding out too long for that shard armor). And while a cook might be able to gather resources in the field, it's frustrating and time consuming to do so. Cooks need farmers. So, what can you do to make farming a little less painful.
Rotate your crops. Or rather rotate yourself as you plant fields. If you face one direction while planting, each field spawns right atop the previous. When you try to harvest, you're starting from the newest and must wait for the harvested field to despawn before moving on to the next. As I said before, you'll only going to get 3 (maybe 4 with really good tools) before the older ones despawn. By rotating as you plant, you leave a side of the older fields sticking out where it can be clicked on and harvested in the order it was planted and without having to wait for harvested fields to despawn (which seems to take slightly longer than the time to harvest a field). I can easily plant and harvest four fields at a time (with some margin for error if I screw up). I suspect as many as six fields might be possible, but I find four to be easiest. Just make a 90 degree turn after each field completes. I rotate clockwise, by doing this and keeping my inventory closed, I have my mouse in position to click the first field as soon as I've finish planting the fourth. If you enjoy generating positive torque, I'd select the "close while crafting" box or you'll have trouble clicking that first field without moving.
Take time to sell the roses. Or any other flower. Flowers vend nicely, the flowers from one fair crop will generally pay for the field you planted to get it. They also have a chance to proc the crit spice of their tier and/or components for scholar dyes. If you're not actively supplying a cook, flowers are a great way to grind out farming skill.
Buy seed. When you start out farming, collecting the seed from poor crops is great for saving money and generating skill. But the saving erodes quickly, seed costs 4c each regardless of type, poor crops vend for 1c times the tier of the crop, factor in the wear on your tools and seed is cheaper to buy if you don't mind passing up the skill--if I had a do-over I might not buy seed recipes past t3.
Fertilize it. Once you've mastered a tier, don't ever plant a field without making sure your using fertilizer--double check that box is ticked before you start planting. Well-tended fields yield far more fair crops than poor and will be more likely to proc special items like spices and dyes.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

3 High Road in Bronsworth

A letter home...

Dearest Mother,

As father advised, I purchased a little home in the Bree Homesteads. It is not the farm, but it is home. My service to the army and dedication to our people more than covers my costs. My new assignment for Captain Anatariel goes well. We have traveled near and far defending the lands from dark forces. Forgive me if I am not permitted to share more.

Before you ask, I do not think my meager dwelling will be enough to sway the heart of the beautiful elf-maid, Calendriel. In the many months since I saved her from the spiders, we have become friends and comrades. She has repaid me ten-fold. Yet, I do not she will even think of me the way I do her. Perhaps it is as Aunt Gertie says, "All love is unrequited." I have little doubt she will eventually join her people in their journey across the sea.

Oh yes, the rumors are true. I have seen them on their pilgrimage. The elves are leaving. It saddens me that I joined this company, filled mostly with elves, only to know that they will be leaving us when our task is done.

Perhaps that's the reason I bought this home. Life must go on when the elves leave. I must go on. I must have hope that I will survive this struggle and that there is a future for us all. Thus, the home. A place I may find a fine round women to share with and children of my own to raise.

I know that father thought me foolish for running off after my elf-maid. But that fool's errand has lead me to a purpose.

Please forgive the sad tone of this letter. I assure you things are well. My new friend, Nimbwillyn brings me cheer and food. I thought so little of hobbits when I first left home. But, the little fellow has shown me that their love of food and comfort is really a zest for life and peace. He works just as hard as any of us. I have invited him to join me on my next visit home so you two may share some recipes. Just hide the silver before we arrive.

Enclosed, you will find a little money to help make up for my absence at harvest time. Use it to heir an extra hand.

With Love,