Midnight in the Garden of Blood and Weevils

Aubrey: Quick now, tell me. Which of those two weevils would you choose?
Maturin: I don’t know, that one seems larger…
Aubrey: No you must choose the smaller, because as we know, in service to the Crown one is constantly forced to choose the lesser of two weevils.
Maturin: He who would pun would pick a pocket.

Ok, I made up the part about weevils. I needed a stupid pun, sue me.

The only thing in my life more fabulous than my hair – Lobilya – has not been feeling well the last couple of Mondays, which is when we have our regular DDO night. Since the other two consistent members of the group, Karaya and Phritz, have been playing Vanguard (I blame Karaya!), we’ve been focusing on that.

I’m bringing up a Monk, named Xiaowang Chen (I named him for one of the great Tai Chi masters of our time). Meantime, Karaya has started a goblin necromancer Gruktich. We did some stuff last week with Laddie who is a Vulmane (essentially a gnoll) Shaman. (Yes, he named his dog character Laddie Goodboy. He’s such a plagiarist. That’s completely different from naming your toon after a real life figure. Srsly!) This was on the starting island for goblins, in Kojan.

Over Thanksgiving, Laddie(Phritz) was AFK, so Xiaowang and Gruktich continued. However, our ship foundered somewhat on the rocks of the Garden of Xia’Liu. This is an area (I hesitate to call it a dungeon, since it’s open air, and, like everything in Vanguard, there’s no “zoneline” to get in to it.) that is guarded by clay warriors reminiscent of the terra-cotta warrriors, along with many other strange creatures. It’s densely populated with challenging mobs – Yukionna which are a sort of humanoid spirit and are typically casters, Silvermane Foxes, disembodied energy beings known as Dancers, and ferocious killer dragonflies known as Tomba (the Japanese word for dragonfly is Tonbo, perhaps Tomba is from Chinese? Or maybe just an alternate rendering into romanji?).

The gardens are beautiful, done in a chinese style. Gruktich and Xiaowang worked their way patiently up the hill to the mountaintop garden, killing clay warriors at each Torii gate. When we reached the garden proper, we kind of started wishing that we were playing our crowd control toons, because the mobs definitely tended to swarm.

We died a lot. And so ran back. I managed to eventually remember that I had Feign Death, and thus avoided a few deaths. We didn’t manage to make it to the third pagoda where we could finish gathering the waters and activate a spiriteye medallion. But we did roll in the experience, thanks to the double exp weekend on Vanguard. (I also got Toldain through a major diplomatic arc.)

So this Monday, with Lobilya not logging on, we went at the gardens again, with Laddie. First we ran him through the quests at the Gulgrethor encampment Khenvor. This orc clan is the sworn enemy of the Martok, to whom Gruktich (and all PC orcs and goblins, I believe) belongs. But we infiltrated them, and put on workers jerseys, and discovered a horrible secret about certain undead known as Loamites.

We also discovered that mentoring is implemented in Vanguard! So I switched to Toldain, and mentored Laddie, who was level 14 to start the evening. Mentoring worked out pretty well. The mechanic seems to be that those abilities that you gained after the mentored level are disabled, and those that are upgrades of a higher level are rolled back to the upgrade you would have had at that level. However, I had no visual cue for which abilities are cancelled, so that led to some awkwardness.

Even so, completing the quests at Khenvor was easy with this group. We had healing, tanking (from the pet) and crowd control. So we marched on down to Gulkar’s Encampment and got Laddie (and Toldain) up to speed with the quests for the Gardens of Xia’Liu.

It was much easier with three of us than two. The addition of both healing and crowd control made most of the gardens run pretty smoothly. That is, it was smooth until we ran into the nasty snake people that guard the way to the third pagoda. (Their name eludes me, I think I’ve blocked it out of my mind.) These guys can oneshot any of us. Except the necromancer’s pet, that is.

Fortunately Laddie can raise dead, even if only out of combat. This saved us an immense amount of trouble. He even has rez tokens that he can hand out that allows others to raise him. After a fair time experimenting, we found that if we stayed at maximum spell range from the snake people, they couldn’t hit us with that nasty mojo. (I was killed once by two ranged autoattack hits.) They were nasty, but we made it by them.

And there we found the usual clay guardians and Yukionna guarding the third and final pagoda we sought. Except they all had an extra dot.

In Vanguard, mobs have a level (equivalent to character level) and a number of dots, which rates their difficulty. We’d been tackling three dot mobs for most of the Gardens, these had four. So they were going to have a lot more hit points, and probably hit harder (though not, it seems, harder than those horrible naga-type snake thingies.) Things were a little hairy on the first pull, as we got two, and the one I mezzed leashed for some reason. But we pulled it together, cleared them out, and gathered the water from the pool. I discovered that my Spiriteye Amulet worked in this location, but for some reason it didn’t complete the quest it was associated with. This might have been due to Gruktich starting a combat as my amulet was going, but subsequent attempts failed with me.

Fortunately, since I was higher level than the other two, I didn’t mind not completing that quest all that much. The point was to catch the others up, anyway.

I really enjoyed this run. (I really enjoyed duoing the Gardens with Gruktich and Xiaowang, too) All the classic level designer tricks were in play – there were nooks and crannies with hidden mobs and wanderers. All the skills that the three of us first learned in Everquest were still in play, and in addition, we had voice chat, which is something we never had when we played Everquest. Managing aggro and adds, developing tactics that fit your group, and just generally having to be on makes this for me.

And the use of Asian design motifs and plots set against orcs and goblins is fun, too. But there are no weevils in the Garden of Xia’Liu. None. Not a single one, not even a lesser weevil.

I Came Here To Be Podkilled: Vanguard Spider Cave Edition

I learned a new phrase recently, “rage to master”. I have a feeling that at least some of you have a gut-level understanding of what that is, but I’m going to tell you anyway, and relate it to my current gaming, so there! (He says with a toss of his fabulous red hair!)

I’ve been playing Vanguard again. Karaya suggested it, she said she had run out of things to explore in DDO, so while keeping our regular group time, she was going to go explore the vast world, and challenging gameplay of Vanguard – properly this time.

As it turned out, I had played Vanguard for a while, and was entranced by some parts of the game – the diplomacy system, for example, and the crafting system. The combat gameplay featured classes that by and large followed the Everquest archetypes, with a couple of added twists. And I absolutely hated the models they used for high elves. My face, in Vanguard was positively skeletal.

They replaced those models with something a little more healthy looking, fortunately. So I re-upped and started poking around. Some of the best gear is dropped by quests offered by a group known as the URT – United Races of Thestra. (Thestra being my home continent.) I’m starting to get an impression of URT as a bunch of incompetent nincompoops who keep asking me to do horrific things to cover for their mistakes, but never mind.

One quest in particular, given out at Shoreline Ruins, has us investigating the disappearance of a roughly 10 year old girl while her family was at the medieval equivalent of a beach home. The clues finally lead us to a cave facing the northern ocean. The girl is in a cocoon at the back of the cave. The cave is infested with spiders.

These spiders see through invisibility. So no dice there. I had to fight my way through it. Now, I am a psionicist, which is Vanguards version of an enchanter. So I die very quickly when things go wrong.

I spent probably 10-12 hours last Saturday trying to finish this quest. It would go like this: I approach the cave, buffed. I pull something and start my root-and-rot sequence. Something would wander by and add and I would die. Or, maybe I’d make it a ways into the cave first. And something would respawn on me and I’d die. Or mobs that were around a corner would come when I pulled and I’d die. At first I wasn’t using a charmed pet, but after a while I did. Which added the charming new failure mode of “Charm starts to break just as you pulled”. Along with the failure mode of “Charm starts to break immediately on recharm and since it was in the middle of a fight, you die.”

Every possible wrinkle or complication that can make this difficult was used. The level designer of this cave used every trick that he or she could muster. Hidden mobs, wanderers, fast respawn, and a few mobs that are tougher than the rest and respawn randomly. Psionicists have a snare, and so can kite, but it’s not really possible in a restricted space, such as that cave. By the time you’ve killed your way to the back, the mobs in the front have respawned.

My youngest child, taking a break from playing Skyrim, wandered past and watched me playing for a bit. “Why do you play this game?” she exclaimed, somewhat bemused by the uncharacteristically foul language gracing my lips. It was hard to explain.

All I could manage was a vehement, “I can do this!”

There were lots of little internal metrics that told me that I was getting better at it, and that’s something I enjoy. For example, the number of kills I could do between deaths was getting bigger. I revised my damage sequence and the mobs were dropping faster. Sometimes now, I could throw up my fast root when things had gone bad and run away and survive. My experience bar was moving forward even though it was three steps forward, and two steps back when I died.

And I was learning every spawn point, every hidden mob and every aggro range in that cave. I knew what to do in each situation.

At about midnight, I reached the back of the cave, freed the girl and started to fight my way out. This has an extra dangerous aspect to it. Respawn is roughly timed to take place after death. Since I’d killed the mobs from the front of the cave to the back, they would respawn in that order. Which means that when I first hit the edge of the respawned mobs on the way out, I would be standing in the spot where the next respawn would take place – at any time now.

My first attempt failed. So did my second. Part way out, lose it, lose the girl. I had to go all the way back to the back of the cave to get out. My second attempt failed as well. As it turns out, Psionicists have an evac ability. So I started to wonder, “Will the girl come with me when I evac?” If it didn’t work, she’d be stuck in the cave and I’d have to fight my way in again.

I decided to chance it. It worked. I took her back to the quest-giver, logged out and collapsed into my bed, happy as a clam. (Ok, I chatted with Phritz a bit first, getting him started on the diplomacy system, for which the tutorial is more than a bit lacking.)

I was describing my Saturday to a friend and she said, “Rage to Master”. I blinked. She said that the phrase was coined by someone who studies gifted children. Apparently that someone is Ellen Winner

I found a quote from the book on this wikipedia page (it seems a bit dodgy, but the quote seems good enough).

Gifted children have three telltale characteristics, Winner says. First, they begin to master an area of knowledge, or domain, such as math, drawing or chess, at an extremely early age, before starting school. Second, they need little help from adults in that domain, solving problems in often-novel ways, with each discovery fueling the next step. And third, they have what she describes as a rage to master their domain, working at it intensively and obsessively, often isolating themselves from others in order to pursue it. These children push themselves, achieve “flow states” in their work, and beg their parents for the books, musical instruments or art supplies they need to feed their passion. They need stimulating environments to develop their talents, Winner says of these children, but the demand comes from them, not the parents.”

Winner may be describing the extreme cases, but I’ve seen this phenomenon play out a lot in significantly less rarified air. I often feel cheated if I am with a group that has a known, set strategy for a dungeon or an instance and just want to grind through it quickly.

All the deaths I had meant little to me. They were data points, not judgements. My blood was up, and so there were exclamations and expletives, but the deaths were quickly forgotten. Getting to a flow state includes a lot of failure. And that flow state is like a drug, really.

I don’t really think this fits into the Bartle personality type of Achiever, by the way. I am not highly motivated by extrinsic rewards such as in-game “achievements”. Leveling is good, but not the point. Standing in one place grinding away for hours with basically no variation and no risk isn’t terribly interesting. I’m not a bot, don’t make me play like one.

I’m pretty sure Karaya is like this, too. That’s probably how she got good enough at videogames that her parents say, “She made a deal with the devil” There was no mention of any crossroads, though. I mentioned the spider cave to her and she said, “stupid spiders”.

Phritz also has his moments. When we take the Bartle test, we all come out as some degree of Explorer/Socializer. And right now, we’re exploring Vanguard. Normal people think we’re kind of crazy, but if you’re someone who reads this and thinks, “Yeah, right on!” drop me a line in-game.