“You are hardcore, you make me hard. You name the drama and I’ll play the part.” – Pulp, This is Hardcore
So it was that the bug got me. I fell into my computer screen like a man tumbling into his own soul. When I sat down with a steaming bowl of coffee, slipped on the wireless headset and logged in, I was gone for all money. There was no television show, social occasion, book, magazine, song, meal or girl that was capable of luring me away from the widescreen world of Xen’drik. Apart from standing up every half hour to rearrange the pillows and stretch, there was little incentive to leave my ergonomic chair.
This business of stretching became an important part of staying in top gaming shape. If I wanted to be on the ball, if I wanted to be at my sharpest, I needed to be comfortable and alert, with good mouse and keyboard position and a comfortable, supportive posture. Sitting in a chair for a very long time can have some debilitating effects on one’s body, and I began to develop a syndrome which I called “Chair-leg.” It was the continuous pressure on the back of my thighs which caused them to stiffen and take against me and I was forced to institute a regime of exercises, rather like those advised on long flights. Often I would lean against the window sill and work the hamstrings and thighs, all the while conversing with other players or watching the social panel for an appropriate group to appear.
Yet, even with these exercises, the cumulative effect of staying up all night and pushing myself to new heights of effort, whilst remaining professional throughout, caused my body a great deal of distress. When I went running, in the real world, my legs would take twice as long to loosen, my chest heaved with fatigue and my joints seemed without suspension. I would struggle through the first fifteen minutes before my muscles finally reached a more fluid state, after which I felt as though I had cleaned the slate to some degree. My body still worked, it was just a good deal slower to start.
The good news was that, in game, I was becoming better by the minute. Hallifax Bender might not have been the best character build, but I knew his capabilities so well from so much solo play, that it was often Hallifax left picking up the soul-stones and bringing the party back to life from a near wipe.
Hallifax was Mr Versatile; he was the classic jack of all trades and master of none and his inventory was full of fixes for difficult situations; potions, wands, scrolls, elixirs. Hallifax could outsprint just about anything; he could hide, sneak, heal, and buff, or fight, charm, hold, disorient, blind, mesmerise and confuse his enemies. He was relatively durable and die-hard to boot, which meant, if knocked unconscious, rather than bleeding to death he would automatically stabilise and eventually come around with 1 remaining hit-point. How often Hallifax picked himself up off the floor of a battle and crept away to live another day, I cannot say, but he certainly came to be appreciated on many occasions, much to my pleasure.
When I sat down each night at my computer, it was usually with a great sense of expectation. In the first phase of my addiction to group play, I was happy to run any quests at all on account of their being largely new to me. After about a month, however, I began to lead my own groups, encouraged to some degree by having regular team-mates like Holz Amboss, Hallifax’s bard buddy. Being in charge of the group was a real buzz, especially as I’d like to think I was a good boss. I tried to be as democratic as possible and to show consideration to new players; just as I was happy to take advice from other players who knew the quests better than me, often, in effect, putting them in charge. The fact was that people out there needed my help and I needed theirs. Total strangers, though they did not know it, were depending on me, just as I was depending on them. Without each other, we couldn’t complete most of the game, so it was, in effect, necessary not only to put a party together, but to find good people and work with them as much as possible.
Before continuing the narrative of my fall into runaway addiction, I should like to digress a while to examine the pleasures and the mechanics of group play in Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO). The game is not especially different to other MMOs in its basic structural elements, so the system will no doubt seem very familiar.
It is difficult, across many time zones and, with differing social and work obligations, to organise a solid, regular group to play with in an MMO. This means that most players wind up in PuGs (Pick-up Groups) which have come together through an LFM (Looking for men). This means, in effect, that one player puts up an advertisement on the game’s social panel designating the task at hand, be it a quest, series of quests, wilderness exploration, or a raid. The player specifies the level range for the characters, the types of classes they are looking for – tanks, healer, casters, ranged etc – the difficulty level and, ideally, some further information either to entice or discourage particular players.
These additional statements can often be rather abrupt, ranging from the negative “No noobs,” to the positive, “all welcome!” I perennially used the line “Team Players” and often included my own SNZ – “Strictly No Zergs.” Zergs, of course, being those who rush ahead, either spoiling everyone’s fun by killing everything first, or getting killed themselves and costing the rest of the group in experience points and the need for a rescue mission. Requests for players might also be very specific, such as: “Need Wizard with Ooze Puppet”, “Monk with high wisdom” or “Must have boots.” Some players prefer native speakers of a particular language, usually English or Chinese in my experience, whilst others prefer only to have players with microphones. Either way, a well-written advertisement can make a big difference in avoiding ambiguity and bringing in players quickly.
Any player who sees the advertisement can simply click on it to join the party, at which point a request will be sent to the group leader. It is then up to the party leader to decide whether or not they wish to have the person on board. The ideal party is one with a balance of classes, though the best balance may vary considerably with the nature of the quest. Most groups, however, require a healer and a couple of melee builds to take the heat, and many quests can be done without the added bonus of a rogue, caster or buffer.
Once a few players have joined, particularly if a healer has joined already, the ranks can fill very quickly. More experienced players will simply make directly for the location of the task, but some will require directions or even escort. A good group leader should always ask the new recruits a) if they can hear, read and understand his or her communications and b) whether or not they know where they need to go.
Often groups will undertake missions without a full party or will start before everyone is present. Depending on the difficulty of the mission, it might be possible even to solo it – if you know you can take the heat, head on in with a hireling. Yet most higher level quests on, for example, Elite difficulty level, will require a solid group with a dedicated healer, trap monkey, caster and some hardcore DPS.
Putting a good group together should be a simple enough task, but it often proves very difficult to get good help. All too often, despite several thousand people being logged in on the server, there are simply no healers available within the level range of the group. This shortage of healers was almost always the largest obstacle, though it could also be difficult to find a good wizard or sorcerer. Even rogues, who are usually plentiful, could be difficult to come by. This despite the fact that multi-class characters with a rogue “splash” – ie. one or more levels of rogue with trap skills maxed through cross-class skill allocation at levelling – could more often than not, if built correctly, handle all the traps anyway. Many quest runs can be significantly delayed whilst the group waits to fill, or waits for that important missing element. This is much less of a problem at low levels, where hirelings will suffice, but at high levels, the failure to attract a healer can lead to abandonment of the plan altogether.
One problem for me being in Australia was time-zoning. The quietest time on the servers, when marketplace instances could drop from 5 to 2 (a system for regulating overcrowding with large simultaneous server populations) were between 1800 and midnight. If I played between the hours of midnight and the middle of the afternoon, however, when America was awake, I had far less trouble. It was a commonplace to have people join the group who had just woken up. “Mornin’ y’all.”
Some players would begin playing very early. “It’s five thirty. Another cold morning here in Philly. Just got the wife off to work. Got a pot of steaming coffee and ready to roll.” Often the more friendly and talkative players would speak about where they were; the weather, the view, the temperature, the politics. It was always fascinating to hear amusing local anecdotes or to imagine the spaces these people inhabited. Players would also often have to vacate their seats in emergencies, such as when their dog did something crazy or a knock came at the door. This could be either amusing and team-building or highly annoying, depending on the nature and length of the interruption. Most of the time, fortunately, grouping was a positive experience; especially when players were professional, positive and relatively relaxed about things.
The above image shows Yardley “the Scissors” Bruce in a random group of not especially well-dressed adventurers, being buffed by the healer and bard. Buffs are, of course, positive spell effects, skill bonuses and the like, which can either effect individuals or the entire group. A well-buffed group, particularly where specific magic defences are required, can make for a far more polished run. Being faster and stronger, having increased immunity and durability, being harder to hit and hitting a hell of a lot harder usually makes life considerably easier. Yet, beyond this, it also brings the group together and creates camaraderie. Just as everyone loves a good healer, so everyone loves to be well-buffed just prior to commencing the run. It instils the players with confidence, provokes thanks all round, and has an effect not entirely unlike sharing a meal together.
Group play is what makes MMOs, but grouping is a real mixed bag and raid groups, where up to twelve people need to coordinate their actions, are ripe for catastrophe. Raids can be rather intimidating as they have an air of exclusivity about them. More experienced players are especially keen not to see a raid go pear-shaped, and the LFMs are often brutally honest about what is expected. Inevitably, there is a first time for everything, but carrying noobs is not the average raid-runner’s favourite hobby. With so many players in the same team and such potential for miscommunication and confusion, the main principle is to stay together; if you don’t know where to go, follow someone who looks like they do.
The best groups are those that communicate and the best means of communication is a headset and microphone. Many players don’t use them and many players have very limited or no English, so it isn’t always possible to communicate via speech, or even text. Some players will abuse the mike to converse continually and often rather tiresomely about whatever is on their mind or the minutiae of the game, which can be terribly immersion-breaking. Having said that, there was nothing quite like the amusing banter that could take place. I’ve had some uproariously funny conversations with people who were drunk, stoned or high on coke; people who were cool, intellectual, nerdy, hip; people from Spain, Israel, the UK, Brazil, China, Singapore, France, Canada, Korea… I ran several times with a comically stereotypical scotch-swilling Scotsman, who had the decency to play a dwarf barbarian and spoke with a gruff and bantering brogue, with US soldiers at their base at Guam, with bored English housewives, with pot-smoking US college students, with Greek travel agents, a female Turkish IT student. The game could be quite fantastically social.
On the whole, however, people having and using microphones is a positive thing, especially where the other players are intelligent and know what they are doing.
A good leader will take control of the group and ensure that everyone works together; giving directions, delegating tasks, ensuring all players are accounted for and, occasionally disciplining those who are causing problems. A good leader will see new players as an opportunity to teach, and not as a burden on the group, especially where they are playing a trickier class, such as a rogue, healer or caster. Ideally, however, most people will know their role and how to make the most of their abilities. There is nothing quite like seeing how effectively a completely random group of people can perform together.
Take a look at the above picture. Each of these individuals is a human player, sitting in front of a computer, somewhere in the world. If I remember correctly, this group contained players from Korea, the US, China, Brazil and myself, from Australia. I’m the chap with the long fringe, white moustache and beard on the far right of the group – Hallifax Bender, after his custom hairdo. We are in the Vale of Twilight, a high-level wilderness area with a bunch of high-level quests scattered around its geography. To enter the area, players must be at least level 12, though entering at that level, without back-up or some serious equipment would be suicide.
This group consists of players between level 15 and 18, which, because of the relatively slow levelling in DDO, means all have put in a considerable amount of playing time to get here. Each of these players will be very attached to their “toon”. They have played this character for potentially hundreds of hours, not only developing their build, so far as path of advancement is concerned, but also choosing equipment they felt was in some way characteristic of their personality. Some players can be very vain about the armour they wear and the weapons they wield, along with other, more permanent details such as hair style and colour, facial features, skin tone and, at a most fundamental level, chosen sex or race.
One of the joys of grouping is simply seeing who turns up. Often players will make their presence known from the start; talking or typing a lot. Often players will become apparent through their actions; be it hammering away in the front line, healing or casting to great effect. Occasionally a player can remain relatively unnoticed in a group before suddenly coming to the fore in a moment of need, or after the departure of another character of similar class who was so good as to leave them in the shadow. It can also take some players time to warm up and get into their role. It can take players time to get comfortable with the group, to know that they can voice their questions or opinions in comfort. Often when a party leader quits and logs out, the remnants of the group will stay together; making decisions in a practical, democratic fashion, electing a leader, and getting new personnel. I often had the pleasure of stepping into the role of leader; coming from the backline to the front, taking the star and calling the shots. As in real life, people appreciate good leadership, especially where one leads by example.
Most non-English speaking players will have sufficient English to type and can give or follow instructions without too much trouble, but there are always those who are unable to communicate in the language at all. One can only hope that they know what to do, or at least have the good sense to follow others. I have run often in completely Chinese groups, with the players speaking Mandarin to each other. It was always very interesting and presented an extra level of challenge, wherein the pressure was on to perform well and stay with the group. Often I found myself playing more sharply than ever in such situations, channelling the panic into a whirlwind performance.
Having teamed up with a bunch of strangers, having gathered together for a common purpose, having greeted each other, having shared a little conversation, there is the moment when the avatars come together for the first time. This is always interesting – to see the style, dress and build of each group member. Often players spend a little while admiring each other. “Hey man, nice armour”; “What’s that helmet, it’s cool?”; “Is that Sparkstriker you’re wielding? Nice.” When waiting, the more expressive players will use emotes to show their frame of mind throught their avatar: Dance, sit, sleep, laugh, cry, taunt, flex, threaten, wave and the like. As surnames are only displayed above the avatar itself and thus visible when characters are within sight or in the viewing window when selected, on coming together, players will also admire each other’s names where applicable.
When a good group comes together, across different nations, continents and time-zones and every player is free to stay a while, it’s possible to run with the same team for positively hours on end. I made many strong in-game friendships with players with whom I’d been to hell and back. Six, seven, eight, nine hour sessions through long quest chains, raids, wilderness runs etc. It can be very sad when someone leaves after being in the party for several hours. So immersed can one become in the group dynamic that the absence of a character is as recognisable as the absence of a person. Of course, the only response is immediately to recruit someone else and hope that whoever answers the advertisement, wherever they might be, will also be a good player and a decent person.
The greatest pleasure of grouping, however, is actually performing well as a group and as an individual. Good players will appear, in the game, quite literally as heroes. In tough fights, good tanks will take and handle the aggro, good healers will be quick with their remedial spells, DPS characters will slay their enemies in lightning swift, often astonishing fashion, and casters and crowd-controllers will slay, disable, disorient, stun, freeze, charm, fascinate, burn and disintegrate their enemies.
Saving the lives of other characters through quick and skilful action is one of the great joys of the game. The camaraderie that comes from a timely rescue is a wonderful thing: save someone’s skin and they will warm to you; heal someone well and they will love you; crush your enemies and see them driven before you and you will earn immense respect. I’ve often been in both situations, standing over incapacitated companions, swinging like crazy and slaying everything that came at me, or lying on the ground, my avatar unconscious, watching the blinding skill of a party member as they took the heat and dispatched our opponents.
Dungeons and Dragons Online has a dynamic combat system, where each weapon has a reach and one strikes by clicking mouse-buttons, aiming at one’s opponents. This is far superior to combat in many other MMOs where a target is selected and the attack is automatically directed at them, often repeatedly, within the timeframe of cooldowns, so that a player is not required to steer their weapons into their enemies.
Thus, DDO is hard work – combat is exhausting as one is forced constantly to manoeuvre in battle, select opponents, and actually swing one’s weapon into them. The speed with which a player does this is paramount, as is the effectiveness of the attacks that they direct. With so many hours of practice, having rather deft fingers from 20 years of speed touch typing, and being something of a maestro on a mouse, I was often able to move and attack quite considerably faster than other players. Yet, of course, there were countless other players with both awesome skill and superior equipment and running with them was a pleasurable challenge. Good players will recognise other good players and often strong bonds can develop through this mutual respect. From the point of view of the game, it is the avatar, the embodiment of the player, one sees and respects.
It is always nice to receive compliments. The best compliment I ever received in game was simply “wow”. It was Jasparr Krait of Luskan, Fighter / Ranger / Rogue, my favourite hit-man, a dual-wielding heavy pick kensai, whose speciality was making straight for the casters, stunning them with a blow and taking them down with devastating critical hits as they stood immobilised with their heads ringing.
Whenever I played Jasparr, I felt immensely capable and regularly proved my worth by massively outstripping the rest of the group on the kill count. After having played the game for as long as I had, I grew very bored with the rather unimpressive soundtrack provided by the game, and so I created my own. I put together a lengthy playlist on iTunes called Fantasy Backdrop, which I piped through my headphones in place of the in-game music. Mostly the soundtrack consisted of classical music, film soundtracks, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers, or other fantasy games such as Baldur’s Gate, Morrowind, and Oblivion, but I also threw in a few songs which seemed appropriate to certain characters, such as Hells Bells by ACDC and The Hitman, by Queen. It was this song that was to become the signature tune of Jasparr Krait:
Grouping was by no means always a satisfying experience, and proved, on many occasions, to be more frustrating than it was worth. As with all internet forums and MMOs there are always trolls out there who seek to cause annoyance to other people or pick fights at the drop of a hat – just read the comments under any Youtube video. Fortunately there are not that many trolls in DDO, but they come in many shapes and sizes. Some simply step inside quests, do nothing and sit in the entrance to leech experience points. Others actively sabotage groups because they have developed some impossible to determine grudge against one of the other players for no apparent reason. Some take exception to every simple error or slight by another player and make life difficult for everyone by being unnecessarily rude about it. Others completely fail to follow instructions, can’t wait to open chests and kill half the party by setting off traps, despite clear warnings. Sure, people make mistakes, but all too often players are just plain stupid and either overestimate their ability or simply ignore advice and directions.
The very worst character I ever had the misfortune of grouping with had the awful and alarm-ringing name of Aussiegem Downunder. I shuddered to think what sort of fool would produce such a character, yet, in need of a cleric to furnish the group with heals, I accepted her request to join my group. We were running the second series of Necropolis quests and this character joined as we were entering a flooded tomb. The quest involves a lot of swimming, and some form of Underwater Action item, a Waterbreathing spell or skilful swimming between air pockets is required. I made sure that everyone in the group knew what was required through both text and spoken word.
Despite this loud and clear message, as we swam through the first stretch of water, Aussiegem suddenly began to lose hit points, and then, as from nowhere, “Ping!” she was dead.
“What happened?” I asked, surprised and disappointed as her death had just cost us 10% of the experience reward. I got no response and typed the message. “What happened?” Other players simply placed “?”s in the party chat.
Aussiegem took a while to respond, but when she did, it wasn’t especially helpful. “I think I drowned.”
By this time I had already swum back and collected her soul-stone. We had no means of raising her from the dead, as she was, after all, the cleric, so I carried the stone along with me, en-route to the shrine, which was some way off. In the meantime, I asked if she had some form of Waterbreathing item or spell. I also encouraged her, as a cleric, to take the spell if she needed it when she rested at the next shrine.
Sadly, however, she didn’t seem willing to take any of this advice, and after having used the resurrection shrine and come back to life, she promptly drowned again in the next stretch of water. I couldn’t quite believe it, and was annoyed already, because in truth I could have solo’ed the quest with Jasparr and only brought other people for the rest of the series.
I took her back to the shrine once more.
“What happened?” I asked. This time she replied more promptly.
“I’m only playing with one arm. I got stuck.”
Oh dear, I thought, an amputee! Poor girl, must have an impossible time navigating with just the keyboard. How does she do it? I’d best go easy on her then.
The next time we swam, I stuck with her and led her to the next chamber. This time she made it, and, after the fight, there was a chest to loot. Aussiegem, to whom I now felt some slightly restored sense of sympathy, got her loot and, hey presto – she found a Ring of Underwater Action! This was quite a rare drop and, as the rest of the group can see what drops for other players from a chest, I suggested, both in speaking and in text, that she put it on immediately as it would enable her to stay underwater as long as she liked. There was no response in the party chat and I feared the worst. I retyped the message and re-iterated it over the mike, but still got no response.
Off we went again, into the next stretch of water, when suddenly, “Ping!” she drowned again.
This time I was really pissed off. No one, however much of a noob, who was a native English speaker and perfectly capable of receiving my written and spoken commands, should be capable of such a total and utter balls up.
“What the hell happened?”
“I think I drowned again,” she typed.
No shit Sherlock. “But why didn’t you put the ring on?”
“The underwater action ring. You looted it from the chest two minutes ago. I told you about it. We all told you about it. Check the text.”
There was another long pause, then, after two minutes she wrote:
“I’m playing with one hand, I’ve got me baby on me lap.”
I believe I deserve some credit for the restraint I showed at this point. I was not only hugely annoyed, but also disappointed because female gamers were few and far between and most of them were excellent. Aussiegem was giving them a bad name.
“OK,” I typed in response. “Stay dead, I don’t need you. If you can’t be bothered playing the game properly, especially when playing a class that requires you to be on the ball, don’t burden groups with your half-arsed, non-existent efforts. I’m booting you as soon as this quest is done, and if you can’t work out why, it’s your own problem.”
Sure enough, I left her for dead and didn’t bother taking her back to the shrine. She still got the end reward at completion, but I wasn’t about to escort her to the chests. I booted her after completion and swore never to group with her again. When, some weeks later, I was running Jasparr out in Gianthold in another chap’s group, she joined and my heart sank. I hoped to goodness that in the weeks that had passed something might have changed, but when she died twice reaching the quest entrance, I knew we were in for a similar ride. I panicked, made an excuse, apologised to the group leader without saying a word and quit the party.