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,


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What’s holding you back? Hunter's and their Stances

So I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the various hunter stances. There are a number of Hunter’s in Heren Lokion and we all seem to have a different approach. So I thought I’d share a few thoughts on my stance selection.

Stances are all about what is holding you back or limiting your DPS. So to answer what stance to choose I ask myself “What is limiting my DPS in this fight?”

Strength Stance: If there’s nothing holding you back, then let loose with everything you got. Strength stance is the best DPS especially if you get a few traits in the bow master line. But remember there are a lot of things that can hold you back. Threat and power are the obvious issues here with threat being the half ton gorilla. So the times to use strength stance are when you are soloing, or playing like you are soloing. What I mean by playing like you are soloing is when you are ina group fighting normal mobs of equal or lower level. Things that the party is just going to mow down. In this situation, might as well use Strength stance, the mob isn’t going to live long enough to get to you anyway.

Precision Stance: It’s a good middle of the road stance. It does not have the threat magnifier of strength stance but still offers some benefit in the form of reduced miss chance and increased crit chance on quick shot. This is the stance I’ll typically use against higher level mobs where misses are more common place.

Endurance Stance: This is the bread and butter stance for grouping vs bosses and many elite mobs. In longer fights the typical limiting factor is going to be threat. You can’t do more damage than the tank and dish out hate. Endurance gives you an extra 10% (20% traited) damage that you can do before the mob comes to eat you. It also has the added benefit of costing you less power, which gives you more staying power. It’s not as sexy as Strength or Precision stance, but over the long haul, assuming you are in a situation where your Tank is not doing THAT much more threat than you can dish out, it’s going to end up putting the most hurt on the mob.

So to sum up… in simplified terms…

Strength: Burst Damage
Precision: Middle of the Road
Endurance: Sustained Damage

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Into Garth Agarwen

Authors notes: The first thing to keep in mind is that these will be written in-character. Seeing as I consider my LOTRO Ellote to be one and the same as my MERP Ellote, this will mean several things. For one, she will on occasion make references to prior adventures, companions, or to her dilemma with Elrond. Secondly, Ellote is a storyteller and bard out to enhance her own fame first and foremost. From one who has claimed descent from nearly every elven hero in the Silmarrilion, you can expect a bit of embellishment on her part in these tales, and always done to make Ellote look better.

My Lord Elrond,

I trust this missive finds you well. You requested of me, as you no doubt recall, that I provide a detailed account of my journeys in Middle Earth in these last days. I am no fool and am fully aware of your lack of faith in me. However, as other accounts will no doubt confirm, you will find nothing but truth in this letter.

Two days prior, with my companions from the Heren Lokeon, we stole into the ruins of Garth Agarwen. We of long memory remember that this place had another name once, and thus this was not the first time I had ventured within these walls. But this letter is not about past glories, but rather present events. So I will dwell no longer on such things.

My companions were named such. Anatariel, a captain of Gondor, Shyiel the bard, Relan the warrior, Calendriel, and the hobbit Nimwillyn. These last two bear particular interest to me, for I hold many fond memories of other companions long ago who bore these names. But I am straying into the distant past again.

But perhaps that is not so great a fault, for what once was does indeed have bearing on what is now, as you shall see. It was no accident that we came to this place, sent here by Radagast on an errand of some urgency. For Ivar, the Blood-lord, servant of the Witch-king had found a terrible power sleeping within these ruins, one once worshipped by cultists in Rhudaur long ago. He had found Naruhel, the Red Maid, and corrupted her to serve the Dark Lord.

So we ventured within to stop this abomination from being unleashed upon the free peoples. But we were dogged at every step. As I said many a year had passed since I last set foot here and my knowledge of this place escaped me. So many years had passed that I could no longer find my way. Shyiel, however, brought knowledge of this place from more recent days and unerringly guided us through the maze of ruins that this once great Mannish city had become.

The maze was not the only difficulty. This place was well guarded by Dunnish tribesmen, cultists and worshippers of the Red Maid. We fought through patrol after patrol, seeking Ivar and his charge.

But navigating the maze and overcoming its guardians was as yet not enough to steal into the ruins’ darker portions. A series of gates, with wood too strong to batter down and locks too complex for Nimwillyn to pick, denied us further progress. Their keys, therefore, must be found.

We divided rightly that these keys were held by Ivar’s lieutenants among the Hillmen. The first of these, one named Temair, proved little challenge. But Ivar’s strongest allies were not all among the living. We challenged and overcame two others, Edan and Eslyd, to gain entry to Ivar’s own lair.

But the Blood-lord was not alone. Mighty as he was, he strove against us with horrid undead. Twice we assailed his lair and twice we were driven back in retreat. Frustrated and wounded, we decided upon a new strategy.

Our third foray into Ivar’s lair began. Relan changed the Blood-lord while Anatariel focused on his allies. The rest of us, myself included, fought down two banner-bearing wights at the fringes of the lair. These minions made use of some foul magic that sapped our strength. Once defeated, Ivar and his minions no longer held so great an advantage. But he remained a mighty foe, nigh impervious to the strength of our arms. Yet in the end, we prevailed and struck him down.

But although loosed from her leash, the Red Maid was no less dangerous. Taking the keys to her chamber from Ivar’s stinking corpse, we ventured yet further into his accursed lair. Like Ivar, the Red Maid sent forth her bodyguards to thwart us. After besting hordes of undead, we came upon her accursed pool.

It became clear to us that the Witch-King’s evil ran deep within her. After boasting of our demise, she summoned forth demonic spirits from the very waters. Once we defeated these foul minions, she turned to her cultists. Although outnumbered, we drove these off as well. Frustrated by our apparent unwillingness to die by her slaves’ hands, she came forth herself at last.

Her power was mighty, using the very water of her lair against us. Her water magic could throw us about or pin us in place as she wished. Relan and Anatariel would charge in, naked steel in hand, only to be thrown back. Shyiel kept our spirits up with her songs of valour, but often could not move. But neither spell was of effect against Calendriel’s runes or my bow. As we battered down her defenses, I saw my opening and loosed. The shaft struck the Maid and cast her down into darkness at last.

Our quest successful, we returned to Radagast to claim the rewards of our success. Our next endeavors will take us north, to another fallen city. I will keep you abreast of our successes there in my next correspondence.

My name will be vindicated, Lord Elrond.

Your humble servant,