Sunday, August 9, 2015

Letters from Tamriel, Part X - The Templar

It's a sad indictment of my state of mind that even though I am aware that TESO is not a game conducive to alts, I am still levelling up two, perhaps three characters at once. Part of it is a type of rebellion against what is expected of me - common sense dictates that the optimal path is to level one character to VR14 first. By levelling alts I am saying that I will engage the game on my own terms, which is the opposite of what I have always done. In my WoW days, I would always level one character first and completely kit them out in full PvP gear before moving onto another. In TESO I am subverting that habit, and embracing a different play style. Either that, or I'm just not right in the head.


Theodorius in traditional Imperial heavy armour, surveying the rooftops of Sentinel like a Roman legionnaire visiting Egypt in ancient times.

My crafting alt is Theodorius Gaius Aurelius, and as evidenced by the name, he is an Imperial Templar. Theodorius has also wandered through many a virtual world, although his incarnation in TESO is darker than his usual manifestation. He is an artefact of my childhood, and also my WoW main - in WoW the people that play with me know me and address me as Theo. Because most of his skill points are tied up in crafting, Theodorius has had to use a very tightly focused build with no room for experimentation. He uses the archetype of the WoW retribution paladin, or the Warhammer Online warrior-priest - clad in heavy armour and wielding a greatsword he stacks magicka in order to be able to heal while being in the thick of the fray at the same time. In low level dungeons this build allows him to tank and heal himself at the same time. He is only level 42 so I can't speak to the efficacy of this build at veteran level, but I am having great fun at playing multiple roles in lower dungeons, alternatively tanking, healing or dpsing as needed. Because his stamina is low he can't sustain long periods of dps, but can alternate it with healing while his stamina recovers. I also have the option of using offensive magicka abilities, but I have the feeling that I might blow out my magicka pool if I use it for both offence and healing. My current build allows me to alternate between using stamina and magicka based abilities at a constant rate without having too much "dead time" where I am only swinging the greatsword. Having self-heals is also important for a Templar because unlike Nightblades (who can vanish) and Sorcerers (who can blink away rapidly), Templars are committed to a fight once they are out of stealth.

Wandering the desert of Alik'r evokes echoes of Lawrence of Arabia.

Hatakeyama and Theodorius have manifested themselves over and over in many of the worlds I have visited, and their significance varies from minute to minute, from play session to play session. Most of the time they are just extensions of myself, tools which I use to extend my will into the virtual. Other times they take on a life of their own - in much the same way an author finds their characters doing things they never expected, I find myself in situations in which what I want conflicts with what my characters want. Having two avatars means you can make alternative choices during the second playthrough of the game, and to see what would have happened if you had taken the road less travelled by. In my first playthrough Hatakeyama was given the choice of saving a mage, or condemning her to madness in the Shivering Isles in return for power in the form of two skill points. There was no way Hatakeyama would ever have accepted such a Faustian bargain however, and she gave up the skill points in order to save the mage. On the second playthrough Theodorius was offered the same deal, and I was resolved to take it for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to see how the story would pan out on the alternate path, and secondly, Theodorius' skill points were at a premium due his status as a crafting alt. To my astonishment however, I found Theodorius rebelling - there was no way that this avatar, based on a childhood toy that was my constant source of comfort and safety as a little boy, would ever sell someone down the river like that. For the life of me I could not make him take the evil choice, and had to save the mage. Again. A make-believe mage, no less. Although given that Theodorius is a make-believe entity as well it does seem to follow a certain twisted logic.

Theodorius and Lelle in real life. My sister and I  jointly owned these toys as kids, imbued them with distinct personalities, and we would switch roles interchangeably. When we became adults the personalities we had invented as children transitioned into virtual space seamlessly and Theodorius became a demented, mischievous and impudent ret paladin, while Lelle became a happy, content and non-confrontational resto druid. These toys are now the property of my niece, and  hopefully they will provide her with the same level of security they gave me as a little kid.

A similar episode occurred quite a long time ago, eight years or maybe more, when my sister and I were levelling in WoW in Desolace and trying to complete the centaur quests in the zone. This questline called for you to choose sides, and once committed, you basically went on a campaign of genocide to wipe out the other tribe. We started killing, and after a few deaths, we both looked at each other and thought, Lelle and Theodorius wouldn't do this. I don't know why we suddenly had pangs of conscience after killing thousands of mobs up to this point - perhaps the centaurs had a particularly strong emote when they died - but it seemed we drew the line at killing neutral mobs which did not attack us on sight. What makes this entire episode so daft is that Theodorius or Lelle would have no qualms about killing an enemy player in PvP. Between my sister and I we have played thousands of Arenas and Rated BGs combined and accumulated over 200,000 player kills over a decade of WoW. So why the squeamishness?

Theodorius, in TESO on the left; and Theodorius, in WoW on the right. Theodorius considers himself a badass...

The key difference for me is that a human player just gets back up and shakes it off at the graveyard, while an NPC is condemned forever in the halls of Oblivion. Humans are meta creatures that transcend the virtual universe, while NPCs are bound and circumscribed by the boundaries of their creators. Human players are like the Daedra in TESO lore - they cannot be killed, only temporarily banished back to Oblivion. NPCs on the other hand, are trapped in the world states we shape by our choices. So while I can be ruthless to the other Daedra who have come to these worlds by their own volition, I have much more sympathy for the artificial inhabitants of the virtual. At least, Theodorius does. Theodorius and I are separate beings - he would never be wantonly cruel, only mischievous to a certain point, but essentially good-hearted. I, on the other hand, have been known to be cruel, vicious, petty and cowardly, as befits my status as a Daedra. If hell is other people, as Sartre once said in his play No Exit, and as people around here are fond of saying, then we are all demons. Daedra is a more fitting word, because demons conjure up images of hellfire and brimstone and unbridled malevolence. Daedra, on the other hand, can be compassionate, benevolent and good - Azura in particular comes to mind. There are other Daedra who may not be as benevolent as the Lady of Dawn and Dusk, but are nonetheless devoted to ideals which are not necessarily evil - Meridia stands for life, Malacath is the patron of the spurned and ostracised, and Jyggalag upholds logical order and deduction. Even Sanguine just wants to have a good time, and Sheogorath, well, he's just insane through no fault of his own.

...but in reality he's just a goofball. Here he is in WoW, taking a selfie while waiting for an Arena queue to pop.

Of course the analogy fails once we retreat back to reality, where we are subject to all forms of infirmity and weakness, and our mortality holds sway. But when it comes to the virtual I think the comparison holds - we are essentially Daedra travelling between virtual worlds. If we are the Daedra then the developers are the Aedra, who sacrifice their powers - their time, money and effort - to bring these virtual worlds into being. That is the key difference between Aedra and Daedra in TESO lore - through their sacrifice the Aedra can engage in the divine act of creation, while Daedra can only mimic, copy and criticise. Quite apt really.


Reviewing the troops with King Fahara'jad.

What then, does that make our avatars? The best answer I can think of is a negative one, which is simply that I am not my avatar. It's amazing how virtuality empowers and disempowers at the same time. In some ways I am free to re-create my identity online in a manner I see fit - in other ways I don't have the same range of options I would have in the flesh and blood world. Avatars can also take on a life their own, making decisions in much the same way characters in texts begin to do based on their background and internal logic. Finally, avatars are always in a state of flux - they can be hand puppets one day, and then reincarnations of our happiest childhood memories or sad reminders of loved ones lost the next. In a way virtuality mirrors our own search for identity in the real world - the main difference is that there is much more pressure in the real world to maintain a cohesive and continuous idea of who you are from your friends, colleagues and loved ones. If I started acting "out of character" these people would think I was either sick or insane. 

Theodorius in full Sith mode.

In virtual worlds the pressure is much more diffuse and ephemeral. Some of the pressure comes from the role I have chosen to play - being an Imperial and a Templar comes with a whole series of connotations as to how I'm supposed to play the character, and the world of the Elder Scrolls also applies a gentle ambient pressure as to how the character would act in this setting. I chose to create Theodorius Gaius Aurelius because he has accompanied me all my life, but he's not just a mischievous stuffed bear I once owned. He's also me, with my predilection for min-maxing and PvP. On top of that he's also a two-handed wielding Imperial Templar in a time where the Imperials have been discredited and lumped with the Daedra-worshipping Worm Cult. The way he looks affects the way I play him - he looks like a Sith lord in his current get-up, which makes me want to play him as ruthless and cruel. Apparently there is too much of the childhood bear in him, thought, as I can't get him to sacrifice a make-believe mage for the life of me. When my sister and I stumbled on a cave of bears in TESO we were completely bamboozled, and it took the intervention of my brother-in-law who said, "Guys, we're not really killing them, OK? We're just knocking them unconscious - we're just putting them to sleep for a little bit. Zero health means unconscious, OK?" Even now I still avoid bear NPCs, and will run away rather than killing them. It's ridiculous.

I love Sentinel. Apparently, Theo does, too.

In short, the Templar known as Theodorius Gaius Aurelius is me and also not me. He is free in a way that I am not, but also bound in a way I am not. He is a manifestation of my will in the virtual, but can rebel and do things contrary to what I want. My avatar is me, but also not me, and it is doing my head in thinking about this. I'll just accept it, go with the flow, and let Theodorius wander the world of TESO on his own terms.



Thursday, August 6, 2015

Letters from Tamriel, Part IX - The Redguard

TESO is not a game conducive to alts. For one, the grind to level cap - currently VR14 at the time of writing, and soon to be expanded to VR16 with the arrival of the Imperial City DLC - is a mammoth task akin to scaling the peaks of K2 or Mount Everest, something more suited to younger folk with lots of free time on their hands. Secondly, there is no content a main character is not privy to regardless of what faction they start as. Irrespective of whether you begin your journey as Covenant, Dominion or Pact, you will be able to experience every faction's single player storylines, as well as all the dungeons, raids and PvP the game has to offer. Think of the single player storyline as an stage play with three acts, with the nature of the first act being determined by your faction. The first act allows you to play through the story of your faction, and it culminates with the battle to reclaim your soul and defeat Molag Bag. The second and third acts, however, allow you to experience the tale of the other factions, in essence reliving the march to the final confrontation with Molag Bal, except without the confrontation (because you've already defeated him in Act I) and in full awareness that you are doing so in a lucid dream or fugue state. For all you know you are passed out at a bar somewhere after having too many celebratory drinks because you just saved the world. Hard to muster up heroic gusto in that scenario.


Yuri Hatakeyama my main - on the left, wearing her healing gear; on the right, wearing medium armour and armed with a bow and great sword. 

Alts still play a vital role in providing inventory space and providing a crafting toon who is able to spend valuable skill points on crafting instead of combat abilities. Another incentive for creating alts is to be able to play with different class skills, although this comes with the caveat of a massive levelling requirement. There are four classes in TESO, each with their own unique class skills. These class skills do not preclude any of the classes from fulfilling any of the classical trinity roles however, and all classes have equal access to all the other skills in the game. This means that all classes can be effective tanks, DPS or healers, and largely obviates the need to create specialised trinity alts. I use all eight of my character slots in TESO nonetheless - six of them are banking alts, each tasked with holding a specific category of objects. The other two slots house my main and my crafting alt, and it is through their eyes that I experience the world of Tamriel.



Hatakeyama travelling in Eastmarch, in the lands of the Ebonheart Pact.

Yuri Hatakeyama is my main - this persona has travelled through many virtual worlds, the last of note being Archeage - and she is a Redguard Nightblade. Her home base is in Sentinel, the capital of the Redguard, and this is where I return to between adventures to sell, store, transfer or disenchant items when encumbered. I don't have to use Sentinel as my home base - Shornhelm in Rivenspire is better laid out in my opinion - but it is fitting in terms of lore, and I love the look of Redguard architecture and the lonely ambience of the Alik'r desert. TESO gets full marks from me with the job they did in fleshing out the Redguards and expanding their background in terms of story and environment. Now they are no longer an abstract race of athletic Africans/Egyptians in the character creation screens of Morrowind/Oblivion/Skyrim, but a real people of Tamriel with their own history, their own king (I've met him!), and their own places in the Elder Scrolls world. I loved wandering the zones of Stros M'kai and Alik'r, visiting the Valley of Blades with Sai Sahan in the main quest, and look forward to adventuring in Craglorn when the time comes.


Wearing medium armour and wielding a great sword, Hatakeyama prepares to engage a lesser Daedra blocking her path.

I'm not really sure why I decided to roll a character on the Daggerfall Covenant, especially given that I loved Morrowind, and liked Skyrim very much. Part of it stems from the wish to expand my knowledge of the Elder Scrolls world - I already know much about the Dunmer, the Imperials and the Nords because of their respective stand-alone titles, so much so that any deviations from the pre-conceptions formed within my head are met with much pooh-poohing and indignation. "The Dunmer would never do that - what the hell are the developers thinking?" Nonetheless, it seemed more interesting to see how the less prominent races were depicted in Zenimax's vision of Tamriel. I have to say that I found the Dominion quests very disappointing in this regard - the Altmer, Bosmer and Khajit never emerged as distinct cultures for me, although my experience may have been unfairly coloured by the strident and all-consuming desire to level which overrode all other considerations at that time. Once I relaxed and decided to enjoy the journey I became more open to the experience and started to see the quests, mobs and locales as more than just experience point values.


Deep in a delve Hatakeyama stumbles onto some ancient Ayleid ruins.

Another reason why I chose the Covenant was also due to the fact that I always love playing the underdog, and I could see that the vast majority of players would naturally gravitate towards the Pact. My wish to play the underdog has been granted in full, incidentally - the Covenant was absolutely thrashed by the Dominion in July once again. The only consolation for me was that the Covenant was triumphant in Azura's Star, the other 30 day campaign. I'm happy for my comrades-in-blue, but I have no plans to desert Thornblade as I intend to turn my avatar into a fully fledged ganker in the Imperial City once the DLC drops in late August. The more targets the better.

Hatakeyama's current build and gear.

For now my Redguard Nightblade is running a magicka based build in heavy armour. Her weapons are a two-handed mace and a restoration staff, and her load-out and skill selection are designed primarily for survival and longevity. Her WoW equivalent would be a holy paladin, with perhaps a tad more offensive power plus the ability to escape and evade with the use of Dark Cloak. She is very robust - with food and battle buffs she is rocking almost 30k health in Cyrodiil. She is also wearing five pieces of Whitestrake's Retribution, which means that once her health drops below 30% she gains a 9k shield at VR12, for a total effective health pool of about 40k. This gives me lots of time to react. If you want to PvP in Cyrodiil you need at least 20k health, otherwise a player could eviscerate you in 3-4 seconds when they jump you. The way I think about it is that 4k health represents roughly one second of life against a single player. So if I'm fighting someone one on one I can use four abilities before I have to heal up or vanish, and less if I'm facing more opponents. It's not a perfect guide, but it has served me well so far.


Metal is bad when you're freezing to death in one of Skyrim's enchanted caverns.

In PvE she is perfectly capable of soloing all veteran content designed for multiple players (excluding instanced dungeons and raids) because of her survivability, healing output and Dark Cloak. This makes it easier for me to complete dolmens, world bosses, delves, and public dungeons without the aid of other people, because let's face it, in the instanced versions of Dominion and Pact lands, people are in short supply. In instanced dungeons my DPS is sub-par because her build is not optimised for doing damage, but she can play support and off-heal, and provided that there are no burn timer mechanics in play, we will eventually win because the boss won't be able to kill us.

Solving a puzzle deep within a Dwemer ruin.

In this fashion Hatakeyama has been slowly and methodically clearing all the content in Pact lands, and she is now halfway through VR12 as she makes her way through the Rift, the final zone in Ebonheart. Once she completes the Rift she will have done all the single player content in the original game, which is actually quite a staggering amount. I just don't like the central conceit of the Caldwell quests - the idea that we are in a dream facilitated by Meridia's magic seems like such a cop-out, and it diminishes the experience. After the Rift she will either have to complete quests in Cyrodiil, run dungeons repeatedly for the Undaunted faction, or enter Craglorn, the first expansion for TESO. She won't be wanting for content, which is a good thing and probably makes TESO good value for money as a buy-to-play title. The ultimate goal, of course, is to hit VR14 before the DLC drops - for all my talk on lore and enjoying the experience I am still a min-maxer at heart, and I want to enter the Imperial City to as close as an even footing as possible before the fun starts.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Letters from Tamriel, Part VIII - A Return to Morrowind

OK, I'm having fun again.

At the foot of Ash Mountain. In a different time, in a different era, (and on a different platform) my younger self stood before a similar volcano and dreamed of heroic deeds.

Funnily enough a large part of this is because the Daggerfall Covenant is getting so badly trounced in my current campaign of Thornblade that power levelling to VR14 wouldn't achieve anything anyway. Even if I was the baddest TESO player alive with the best gear, pro skills, superhuman twitch reflexes and zero latency sitting on the level cap - and I'm none of those things - it wouldn't make a whit of difference. There are not enough Covenant left in this campaign to stop the yellow juggernaut. I've also noticed that I am climbing the Emperor leaderboard while NOT playing, which means that the people ahead of me are abandoning the campaign for greener pastures and thereby increasing my rank. I was wrong about all the other campaigns being dead, incidentally - the other 30 day Azura's Star campaign is fiercely contested with each faction making a spirited showing. I just picked a dud, apparently. Still, it seems universally acknowledged that DC is the weakest of the three factions across all the campaigns, and the pitiful state of DC is best illustrated by the fact that <Vehemence>,  a prominent EP guild, is re-rerolling DC in order to stop the rot and restore balance to the Force.

A comparison of activity within the five North American campaigns during US peak time. This sample was taken Friday evening US time (26 June 2015), and it shows that all the campaigns with the exception of Thornblade are still active and well-populated.


Another comparison, this time this sample was taken on Saturday evening US time (27 June 2015).

With the pressure to level off my shoulders I can stop fixating on attaining VR14, and stop to smell the roses. Questing has become bearable, even fun again, thanks largely in part to the fact that I've finally completed the Altmeri Dominion and opened up the Ebonheart quest hubs. Morrowind is my favourite Elders Scrolls title followed closely by Skyrim, and so the opportunity to explore the lands which I had become intimately familiar with in single player titles was something that appealed to me greatly. I could have wept with joy when I first entered the Stonefalls zone and saw the netches floating amongst the giant mushrooms and the guar grazing peacefully in the fields of Morrowind. I paused to take a selfie with an unimpressed Ordinator guard near the Temple of the Tribunal, delved deep into a kwama mine amongst the kwama warriors and the scribs, battled some nix-hounds and alit, and stood stock still in an ash storm beneath the shadow of a great volcano. Ash Mountain dominates the geography of Stonefalls, and its brooding presence took me back (or forward?) to another time, where a younger man with an X-Box walked the footsteps of the Nerevarine, united a people, and set them free from the false worship of the Tribunal.

Who would have thought that I'd be so happy to see a floating jellyfish?

I played Morrowind over a decade ago, and it was my entry point into the world of the Elder Scrolls. I spent hours in that game, with just me and my controller, wandering the island of Vvardenfell, learning its history and culture and listening to the beautifully atmospheric ambient music composed by Jeremy Soule. I have played the subsequent titles of Oblivion and Skyrim, and even though they represented advances in technology and virtual storytelling, Morrowind will always still be my first love. It didn't have voice overs or Radiant AI, but it did its world-building the old-fashioned way - through reams and reams of written text, and through exploration of the world around me. I don't know exactly when the lore of the game "took" with me - when I first started the game all I was interested in was building my character's power. Back in the day jumping improved your Athletics skill, which meant that everywhere I went I was doing my best Mario impersonation, leaping, skipping and bounding with every step. It paid off in the end - once my Athletics was 100 I was dashing across the roof tops of Balmora like Batman, clearing alleys and streets in a single bound. Then I found out about flying, and that culminated with my avatar learning, crafting, and finally imbibing a stack of flight potions and taking wing a la Superman. Do you know that there is cloud cover in Morrowind, and once you break through you will find yourself floating above a fluffy sea of white, with the sun your only companion in the skies? Then there are potions of underwater breathing, and the expeditions into the coastal waters around Vvanderfell. I would use the Aquaman reference, except for the fact that I think he is the laughing stock of the DC Universe. Nice power, Aquaman. I wish I could breath underwater and talk to fish. Not.

Guar roam and play in the fields of Morrowind.

The lore did get to me, in the end. Reading was a great inconvenience at first, but gradually as I explored the story seeped into my consciousness. Environment has a language all of its own, as does music and ambience, and my initial reluctance soon gave way to a yielding acceptance of the virtual world around me. I knew I was hooked when I found myself hoarding books and stashing them in my avatar's home in Balmora. I still remember my home in Morrowind - an unassuming dwelling stuffed to the rafters with books, weapons and armour of all shapes, makes, and sizes. There were repositories for gems, food and potions, and the various alcoholic beverages of the game were stacked in order on one of the shelves. My library eventually encompassed all the tomes within the game - I can recall ransacking the Great Library in Vivec City for a particularly obscure and rare work to complete the collection.

Riding through am ash storm takes me back to the hours I spent in Vvardenfell.

The depth of the lore in Morrowind is demonstrated by two things. The first is the inclusion by the game makers of an obscure and terrible disease called porphyric haemophilia, otherwise known as vampirism. The early stages of this affliction is easily remedied by a simple cantrip or a common potion, but the cure for the fully developed version of this malady can only be found through diligent research and study. Pursuing this course will open up a hidden world of nightwalkers, with their own societies, safe houses and lore, all of which is completely optional and unrelated to the main game. The second is the fact that the texts within the game are not unified and cohesive, but are contradictory, conflicting and divergent, thus opening up the possibilities for subversive readings and alternative interpretations of traditional texts. In fact the search for truth is the game's leitmotif - the received wisdom of Tribunal doctrine is gradually, inexorably and irrevocably revealed as a lie, and you are instrumental in unravelling the central mystery behind the façade.

Swapping stories with an Ordinator. They don't appear impressed.

Morrowind would seem terribly dated now by today's standards, and the magic which captivated me would leave the current generation cold and unmoved. That is the job of the newer versions of the story, and that is why Oblivion and Skyrim follow the same tropes, albeit with better graphics, better AI and voice acting. The Hero of Kvatch and the dovakhiin are cut from the same mold, but for me Morrowind was my personal doorway to the world of the Elder Scrolls. If it worked for me with Morrowind, then it can also work for thousands of Elder Scroll neophytes stepping into this universe for the first time with subsequent titles bearing the Elder Scrolls brand. This is also the source of much of the anger directed at TESO - the fear that the MMO would fail in what some have come to see as the series' sacred duty to induct new believers into the Elder Scrolls universe.

No other MMO does ambience like TESO. The rumble of thunder, the patter of rain and the crackling of lightning along with the stunning vistas can transport you to another world. Where the hell is everyone else though?

In a way TESO was put in a no win quandary - they were forced to create a game whose central trope was to make the player believe that they were the hero of the age in a setting inimical to that convention. Massive multiplayer games are notoriously good at reminding us that we are not special - there is always someone better geared or more skilled, or has more time and money to devote to the game. Such an environment is anathema to the fundamental tenet of the Elder Scrolls. In trying to reconcile this dichotomy Zenimax has created one of best single player MMOs in the market - a megashard world in which the player quests mostly on their own. The problem with single player MMOs is that they are competing with sleeker, specialised single player titles like The Witcher, Dragon Age and single player Elder Scrolls titles who can devote their whole budget to customising their experience without having to worry about pesky things like server load, lag spikes and other players.

Arriving at the Temple of the Tribunal in Mournhold, the capital of Morrowind.

None of that matters to me anymore. Freed from the strident demands of levelling I can ease my foot off the accelerator, and let the environment of TESO take me back to one of the seminal computer role-playing game experiences of my life. For me it is a chance to see the lands of the Dunmer again - to meet the various members of the great houses of Hlaalu, Redoran, Telvanni, Indoril and Dres once more. To meet the Ashlanders again, who hold faith to their older and more primal Daedric gods and whose stalwart stoicism will be vindicated in the future. To see the Ordinators maintain the faith, and to see the Temple perform good works in the name of a religion which ultimately proved to be misbegotten. And most importantly, to see the Almsivi - the Tribunal itself, the living gods of the Dunmer - to see them once more, in happier times before the onset of hubris, apathy, ennui, indifference and madness. In TESO the Tribunal are still at the height of their power - Dagoth Ur, previously thought slain at the hands of Nerevar, will not reappear to challenge Vivec, Sotha Sil and Almalexia for another 300 years (2E 882). The events of Morrowind do not take place until the end of the Third Age (3E 427) seven centuries after the period in which TESO is set (2E 582). Given the meditations on the paradox of time in Elder Scrolls lore, it seems fitting that the older me is experiencing the younger era of Morrowind now, while the younger me walked the footsteps of the Nerevarine 700 years later in the future over a decade ago. Arriving at the capital of Mournhold again after visiting this city 13 years ago in Tribunal, I felt the thrill of coming home to a place familiar but different. I know that nothing the developers have wrought here will ever compare to the wild flights of fancy engendered in my mind by the simple words used to such great world-building effect in Morrowind. But it is a real place to me, as real as any I have walked on with my own two feet, and it makes me happy to visit it one more time outside the halls of my own memory.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Letters from Tamriel, Part VII - The Gaming Dilemma

I am well and truly back in TESO, having logged in now basically every night for the last two to three weeks for varying durations of time. At the bare minimum I train my mount, update my crafting queues, collect the materials harvested by my NPC hirelings and then log off. If I have more time to spare I either resume questing or try to find some PvP in Cyrodiil. Questing is done either in Cyrodiil in the daily quest hubs, or in the quest hubs located in the PvE zones. Doing dailies is the most efficient way of earning experience for me, because I know the quests and locations by heart. The city of Bruma is a particularly bountiful source of Veteran points - the quests objectives are all close by and can be ground out in an hour or less for about 100,000 points of experience. It takes 1 million Veteran points to advance each rank, so a one hour session in Bruma earns me about a tenth of what I need to level up.

Yuri Hatakeyama back in her homeland, in the Redguard capital of Sentinel in the Alik'r Desert.

Ten hours for one rank, which means 60 more hours before I hit the level cap. I must be insane. The downside of doing dailies is that I am acutely aware that I am grinding, and I have to adjust my environment accordingly. I put on some music, or play a video in the background to try and mollify the nagging voice in my head saying that I AM WASTING MY LIFE. To what end? To get to the level cap of a game that is dying by inches around me. Albion Online is in alpha - I could be playing that instead. Or finishing Dragon Age: Inquisition. Or hitting the gym. Or studying Japanese. I'm thinking of starting a Japanese blog so I can practice my written kanji and kana. Games have a non-trivial cost associated with them. The 30 hours I sunk into Wasteland 2 represent six weeks of training three times a week, enough time to make palpable gains in weight reduction, muscle tone, improving resting heart rate and lowering blood pressure. 30 hours of Japanese study is 1/10th of the time required to pass the intermediate stage of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, which estimates the time required at 300 hours. 30 hours is a DIY garage or shed, or the time required to completely repave the surrounds of your house, and perhaps build a balcony or an extension. 30 more hours spent with family or loved ones could be the difference between being at peace when someone passes, or harbouring regrets to your dying day.

Fortunately I'm older now and hopefully more mature, which means gaming comes last in the list of priorities. I don't game unless I've ticked off my must-do items - work, training, study, and relationships all come first before I can sit down and enter the virtual. Guilt-free play is the goal - being able to enjoy something unproductive and unrelated to work without feeling like you should have been doing something else. I feel that I achieve that most days now, but the wretched question that inevitably pops up is deciding in what kind of play I will indulge in. Is all play equal? I've already decided that these next two hours will be a write-off in terms of productivity. Since it's a write-off anyway, does it matter if you spend these two hours making the Sisyphusian climb to the level cap in a dying game, or use it to try out something new?

It comes down to fun then, perhaps the most amorphous and singularly useless term in the lexicon of gaming. Fun for some is a pejorative - Gevlon uses it to describes the aimlessness of "socials", and their failure to set concrete objectives and goals. For others, fun sometimes seem to represent a failure of language - when prompted as to why they do what they do in games some people's mouths gape open like fish out of water and they shrug helplessly, then meekly say, "Because it's fun?" And then there are others for which fun is a mantra, a self-explaining and self-contained word of POWER which requires no further unpacking or elaboration. You ask these types of people why they do what they do, and they look at you as if you were some kind of half-wit and reply, "Because it's fun (you bloody idiot)."

This party ain't no fun at all.

When you say something is fun I have no idea what you are talking about, unless I happen to find the same thing fun, too. I might have a general idea of what you mean, but there are times when I am completely baffled by what people consider "fun". I'm sure it applies the other way, too.

So I've decided that I will only spend time in TESO in activities which are "fun". But for someone like me, earning that little bit of experience towards the level cap can be "fun" - it tells me that within the context of the game I have achieved something, even if it is unproductive by the standards of the world outside the virtual. In other words I take time off from work in order to play in order to work in play because I find it "fun". Circles within circles, metas within metas. The Russian doll, the recurring image in a hall of mirrors, the self-referential observing eye that springs from the universe and becomes aware of its own existence.

"What the hell do you mean you're not having fun?"

For me the answer to the gaming dilemma - the question of whether or not games are worth the opportunity cost they bear - has always been to share the experience with others. No time spent in the company of those you care about is wasted. But beyond this simple truth I must also admit to a certain kinship with the hundreds and thousands of strangers who play the same types of games that I do. We all like making sand castles and kicking them over, and in the process we weave narratives for ourselves portraying ourselves as heroes or villains in a way we could never do within the strictures of our real life personas. We can be cruel and vicious and petty - but we are all kindred souls, even if this fact is lost in the scramble for standing. We share a common vocabulary. It might be at each other's expense, but we understand each other's concept of "fun". 

Enough navel gazing - it's time to grind some more levels and perhaps try to find some PvP. I think I will try Albion Online when it comes out on alpha next week, because it sounds like "fun" to me. Open world PvP and full loot rules will ensure that this game will only appeal to a niche market. But I like these types of games - I like playing around in mock wars and being surrounded by folk who feel the same way. Perhaps now though, should I come across someone in this game there might be a short pause as I behold this stranger from the far corners of the Internet, and reflect on the fact that despite our differences, it is our shared conception of "fun" that has brought us together in this virtual space. I will look into the eyes of my enemy and contemplate the distant kinship which binds us together, before finally kicking them in the groin, stabbing them in the back and stealing their stuff.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Letters from Tamriel, Part VI - All Quiet on the Western Front

One year ago the Imperial province of Cyrodiil was home to three massive factions engaged in a titanic clash of arms. The Altmeri Dominion, the Daggerfall Covenant and the Ebonheart Pact battled each other in the best rendition of virtual fantasy warfare I have ever had the good fortune of being part of. The Wabbajack campaign was waged over three months, and involved hundreds of players on each faction. Nothing I have ever played has come close to emulating the ebb and flow of that fantasy war - at one point or another each of the combatants held the overall lead, and the final victory by the Pact was almost undone by a desperate, last ditch gambit by the Covenant which ultimately fell short. EVE Online has the record for the biggest number of players in a single battle, but the battles which characterised Wabbajack were the biggest fantasy land battles of their kind I have seen. While TESO can never claim to always have been a smooth, lag free experience, I still clearly remember the massive encirclements, the desperate last stands, and bloody arm wrestles that characterized those early days of TESO PvP. Zenimax made good on their promise of having 2,000 people in Cyrodiil at any one time, and their pre-release boast of being able to render 200 people on screen at anytime was fulfilled on my computer at least half a dozen times during that campaign. I remember the names of all the prominent guilds in my faction, and had the good fortune of fighting with most of them. I learned the names of our bitter enemies through repeated clashes, and grew to respect the most intransigent of them. Together we created a narrative, an emergent story of us written by hundreds of player-authors, which ranks up there with my best memories of gaming.


Yuri Hatakeyama, back in the lands of Tamriel.

That was Cyrodiil then. If you go back to Cyrodiil now, all you will find are a handful of players roaming the empty expanse of this massive battlefield. The province, once full of armies clashing by day and night, is now eerily deserted, and the keeps stand still, manned by automata following the rote instructions of their creators. Now that the lifeblood of the game has deserted it, the very size of Cyrodiil - the attribute which gave it heft and status - now works against it. Nothing is sadder than a space bereft of the thing which gives it purpose. Like empty schools without the laughter of children, Cyrodiil without players bickering, fighting or cooperating takes on a haunted hue. Where guilds once stood together back to back, where armies once stood on opposing sides of a breached wall, and where dozens of siege engines once thundered together in unison, all that is left is silence, and the ghosts of those who once passed through these spaces.


Current scoreboard of the campaign in Thornblade at the top. The history of the Thornblade campaign since its inception in August 2014 at the bottom. The blue line represents the Daggerfall Covenant, and as evidenced by the graph, DC have come so close to winning on a number of occasions, and there have been some very close campaigns. Nonetheless DC has never won the campaign in Thornblade, which is something the graph doesn't make clear.

My Redguard is back in TESO as of two weeks ago, brought back by a massive influx of hits on a post I wrote almost a year ago. My recollections on Wabbajack are being used by DC diehards to rally support to the Covenant cause, and I as a loyalist feel compelled to pick up my bow and healing staff and return to the fray to help my faction. My avatar is still only VR6 out of a possible 14 - I still have eight more Veteran ranks to grind. This is not WoW, or Archeage - in both these games it is possible to grind out 2-3 levels an evening, even more with bloody minded determination. TESO is an altogether different beast - since I've returned I have been able to advance to VR8 after two weeks of on and off gaming, at about an hour or two per night. I believe the VR system is one of TESO's most notable failures - the grind to endgame is an onerous one at best, but TESO takes an archaic system and makes it even more taxing and time-consuming. I am chiefly interested in the war in Cyrodiil, which means I grind for the sole purpose of gaining access to VR14 weapons and armour just to put me on par with the opposition. At this rate it will take me a further six weeks of on and off playing to attain this goal. I will not devote any more time than that, and it is still undetermined whether I will see this through to the bitter end, or just throw my hands up in disgust and walk away.

If I fixate on the VR14 goal I am going to go insane, but luckily TESO has thrown me a few bones to help ease the pain. You can earn veteran points via the staple tropes of MMO gameplay - questing, dungeons, raids and also PvP. Questing in TESO is horribly tedious - the quests themselves are better than your standard MMO fare, but what stuck in my craw was the realisation that once I completed the main quest I would be required to complete the Altmeri and Ebonheart quests in linear sequence in order to progress further along the questing track. It didn't have to be this way. They could have just opened the world to me, and let me go wherever I wanted. As it stands, I must complete all the Altmeri quests before I am given access to the Ebonheart ones. Furthermore, the Altmeri and Ebonheart zones are instanced zones which are shared only by members of my own faction. How bizarre and counter-intuitive it is to travel in the lands of my enemy, yet never see a single human player of that faction. In Archeage I knew where I was by the number of reds and greens and purples around me, and it gave meaning to the world, rendering it safe and dangerous in equal parts. Even in their absence I could see their presence in the fields and houses they made, in the trees and crops they left in the wild, in the juvenile and occasionally amusing sparring on chat, and in the corpses and bloodstains they left in the wake of battles, skirmishes and ambushes. In TESO we stumble along in an illusion of a world, whose hollow beauty is stripped bare as people outlevel and abandon these zones. It is other people that give MMOs life - no amount of artifice can change this fact.


The status of Thornblade as of 23 June 2015 - completely dominated by the Dominion. The Covenant don't have a single keep to their name, save for the starter keeps which cannot be taken.

Levelling up in PvP would be ideal - I would be doing something I like anyway. Despite my concerns about not being at the VR cap, you can PvP without being at max level at a fairly high degree of effectiveness. You will still be handicapped by the inferiority of your gear in one on one encounters, but you are far from useless - one avatar can still man two siege engines at the same time, freeing others to fight or heal or support. One avatar can still repair the damage done to a wall. One avatar can still act as the eyes and ears of a larger force, relaying enemy troop movements on Teamspeak and on general chat. One avatar can still heal or play support away from the front lines, acting as force multipliers for your team mates by healing or placing siege shields over trebuchets and ballista. And if nothing else, one avatar can act as cannon fodder, acting as a meat shield while your higher level brethren do all the heavy lifting. That's the good thing and bad thing about open world PvP - quantity has a quality all of its own.

These are the roles I took for myself when my avatar fought in the war in Wabbajack last year, and I came back to TESO hoping to join the great guilds of the Covenant in helping them win the new war in Thornblade. Wabbajack is gone now, consigned to the dustbin of gaming history. Ninety day campaigns no longer exist - the longest campaigns only last thirty days now, a change which was wrought from player feedback no doubt, but something which is not to my own tastes. I like my virtual wars long and epic, and with consequences. Upon reviewing the history of Thornblade on ESOStats one thing struck me which appealed to my underdog inclinations - despite having come painfully close on many occasions, the Covenant has never won the campaign since its inception in August 2014. This month a Covenant victory appeared on the cards, but these hopes were dashed last week when the Dominion, led by their Emperor Mojican, seized the whole of the province and maintained control up to the time of writing. Only a late rush by the Covenant can salvage the campaign now, but it appears unlikely. Everytime I log on in the evenings (Oceanic time) there have been a handful of DC online at any given time, barely enough to fill a dungeon group. Every time I entered Cyrodiil I would ask "Any groups?", and in 7 out of 10 occasions my question would be met with resounding silence. Last night I logged on and saw Fort Rayles under attack. Eager to join a Covenant pushback I rode to the keep and found the attacking force - a single Dragonknight with a lonely siege engine slowly and painfully chipping away at the walls. In the spirit of factional brotherhood I set up two trebuchets and helped him bring down the wall - he clearly didn't know how to man two siege engines at once, a standard trick learned by all of us who fought together back in the day. Together we were able to bring down the outer and inner wall against no resistance, but that would be the extent of our fightback. The NPCs guarding the castle would require more than the two of us could hope to overcome.


Reduced to a handful of siege engines, two lonely Covenant lay siege to a keep defended by AI and are unable to take it. This is what TESO PvP has been reduced to on Thornblade.

This description may not be typical of the TESO experience. I can only speak for the campaign I am currently part of - Thornblade - and the status of the rest may be polar opposites of the desolation of Cyrodiil I am currently experiencing. I know that it was luck that made me join Wabbajack and let me take part of that great inaugural war. There were so many campaigns to choose from in the early days of TESO, and most of them were so one-sided that the losers eventually left, leaving an empty husk behind. This phenomenon is not new and is a recurring problem for games such as these - perhaps I am just seeing the other side of the coin for the first time. But it's not in my nature to abandon things at the first sight of trouble, and if Hatakeyama is going to stay and fight she will do it here in Thornblade, even if it condemns her to a furtive existence beneath the heels of the Dominion. I am envious of the console players entering the Alliance War for the first time - for them the experience will be shiny and new and all the more memorable for it. For the remainder of us on our PCs and Macs the world has moved on, and Zenimax's attempt at simulating fantasy world conflict will soon be made obsolete by the next generation of open world PvP games such as Albion Online, Camelot Unchained and Crowfall. Nonetheless it doesn't invalidate the early glory days of TESO PvP, and for a brief period in its inception it had its day in the sun. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Diaries of a Ganker, Part XIII - The Battle for Twin Peaks

This will be my last WoW-related post for some time, as I have decided to hang up my WoW boots for the immediate future and return to TESO. I had already stopped playing WoW and am now just a subscriber in name only, albeit one financed by the piles of virtual gold I had amassed over a decade of playing the game. Prior to this my only form of regular activity was playing Rated BGs with my current PvP guild <Jim's Mowing> - I used to play Rated BGs regularly every Monday night with this guild, and it might be fair to say that I was one of their more regular members, with the rest of the roster being extremely volatile. The guild has become victim of the attrition that comes with long PvP seasons - generally speaking people usually stop playing once they hit a rating they are happy with, and they sit on their achievements until the next season begins. Week by week more and more people lapsed into inactivity, until in late May many of the weekly Rated BGs were cancelled. I am writing this post in mid-June, and nowadays there is only one event running per week where once there had been four to five back in March and April. This post is an account of a Rated BG in early May, just prior to the lapse into inactivity which characterises the guild at the moment.

In my last post I talked about a few of the characters in the guild - Pallypwnftw, Chubbydruid, and the GM himself, Jim - but on this night none of them were present. Jim the GM had ragequit one evening the week prior over some trivial crap, and he has basically taken a sabbatical from the game. I can't say that I miss him, as all he seems to contribute to the team is strife - his refusal to use a microphone, and his inability to stop meddling with the people he designates as raid leaders only serves to undermine and undercut the poor bastards saddled with the job. Pally finally stepped down as raid leader, and I can't say I blame the guy, especially after all the crap he was forced to endure with Jim lurking in the wings. Chubby, the 13 year old WoW prodigy and probably the best healer in the guild, was unable to play because his Mum had grounded him. Poor Chubby. He's a PvP monster in the virtual world, but just a kid in the real one. We had an interim raid leader step in for a couple of weeks (Pallyroll), but he was also stymied by real life shackles, and he was involved in an embarrassing episode which destroyed all his credibility as a raid leader. During the middle of the game in the midst of "chewing" out the team, his mother came into his room and went on a tirade to which the whole raid was unfortunately privy to on Skype. Gathering from her outburst Pallyroll is an university undergraduate living at home who neglects his chores, has a WoW addiction, and is in immediate danger of being evicted by an irate mother "who is sick of this obsession." There's no coming back after that, and the following week Pallyroll stepped down from the raid leading position. We then had an air force officer come in and claim that he was qualified to lead the team due to his real life background, only to have him degenerate into a whinging loser who blamed everyone but himself when we went on a losing run. He transferred from the Horde to the Alliance thinking it would be easier to get 2k on this side of the factional divide, went on a losing run, and has now since returned back Horde-side after complaining loudly and longly that the Alliance "suck".

I've finally cottoned onto Jim the GM's recruiting strategy. He spams Trade chat with recruitments advertisements, takes anyone with no questions asked, thrust responsibility on them, and hopes for the best. My inclusion into the core team now seems like a trivial achievement - it's hard to feel pride when the only criteria for inclusion is having a pulse. I'm also somewhat disenchanted by all these "elite" players around me - sure, they all have nice PvP achievements but there's no team here as far as I can see, just a gaggle of individuals who were once pretty good at WoW PvP. So once again I find myself questioning why the hell I am still playing this game, and why I bother playing with this group of misfits, and the answer I get back from myself is that I still like the core PvP game, and I want to continually push rating. I'm past my tipping point though, in which my like for the game and my desire to push rating is outweighed by the sheer inanity I have to put up with. The best era of WoW PvP for me was when my friends and family were heavily into WoW, and although we could be fractious at times, we were held together by deeper bonds than just a desire to climb the ladder, and thus losses became minor setbacks and wins were cherished shared experiences. I have to face up to the idea that that era is over, and it might be time to move on - not just from WoW, but from gaming in general.


So with the regular "leadership" out for the evening, it fell upon Asheboyswag and Mpsmash to lead the group. I like both players - Mpsmash has proven to be sensible and level headed, and there's no denying that Ash is a great player despite being very annoying on chat. The game I recorded took place in Twin Peaks, which is a classic capture the flag (CTF) map. For the benefit of non-WoW PvPers, the object of this game is to grab the flag in the enemy's base and bring it back to yours. Teams are unable to cap the flag unless their flag is also at their home base - in other words, you can only cap the flag and score if the enemy isn't in possession of yours. The battle takes place in a valley bisected by a river, with the opposing bases located at the top of the hills on either side. There is a nice summary located here for those interested learning more.


The strategy employed by Ash in this map was to send the rogue to sneak into the enemy base, grab the enemy flag, and then bring it back to middle and reunify with the rest of the team who would be attempting to wrest control of the field. I was given the duty of peeling out once the rogue had the flag, and escorting him back to the middle. Once our team was all together we would wipe the enemy team - the whole point of fighting together as a group in the middle is that we would have a numerical advantage if the enemy team had already split into offensive and defensive teams. Ideally the enemy team had already gone into a 7/3 split - 7 on offence, and 3 (the enemy flag carrier and two healers) heading back to their base. If this was indeed the case their 7 on offence would be facing our combined 10 in midfield. We would wipe them and then split, with the rogue FC, myself and one more healer dropping back to our base while the remainder of the team pushed forward to kill the enemy flag carrier. Our 7 would engage their remaining 3 (plus whatever rezzers straggled in), kill the FC, and allow our rogue to get the cap.

They say that no plan survives contact with the enemy, and the truth of this adage was about to be amply demonstrated. Usually it's because of something the enemy does that disrupts our plans. Tonight though, we decided to disrupt ourselves instead. Prior to the game starting the two warriors on our team - Mpsmash and Thisisagirl (who was not) - decided to get into an argument. Mpsmash called Thisisagirl out on his overall damage, which he felt was on the low side. Thisisagirl countered by saying that he hated that particular statistic because it detracted from his positional play and his team focus (and I agreed with him). Mpsmash kept at him and at him, and suitably provoked Thisisagirl challenged Mpsmash to a duel and won. This should have settled the matter, but Thisisagirl also vowed to "forget tactics if damage is all you guys want" and lapsed into a sullen silence which boded ill for future team play. When the game started someone other than our designated lock snatched the berserker buff as we all charged into midfield. The berserker buff is usually reserved for DoT classes to maximize their spread pressure, but tonight some idiot decided to grab it to pad their stats without having the gumption to own up to it on Skype. Because of their recent spat I suspected Thisisagirl, but video review completely exonerates him, as he rides ahead of me the whole way.

Still it was just a minor hiccup, and our plans proceeded apace. We had just made contact with the enemy and I was healing in the middle, still waiting for the signal from the rogue to peel out when disaster struck. The enemy had two shadow priests and a destruction lock, and they were about to give us an awesome demonstration of what was possible with disciplined focus fire and combined burst. In mid-heal I was globalled - full to zero health in one global cooldown (or approximately 1.5 seconds). I saw the chaos bolts coming, but I was confident that I had HoTs, shields and health enough to survive the incoming damage. Erm, nope. One second I was a happy panda, waiting for the call from the rogue to peel out and assist. One second later I was a sad DEAD panda, wondering what the hell just happened. Being globalled isn't so strange in Rated BGs - there is so much damage flying around that if a team gets in sync and bursts at the same time the combined damage can be devastating. What made this display by the enemy so awesome is that one of our other healers died at the same time. So they didn't just global me - they globalled two healers at once. The lone surviving healer, Ash, who is no slouch, could only splutter in disbelief. Three seconds after the both healers went down, a third, Thisisagirl also died.

Three men down in three seconds. We had been well and truly rocked. Check out 2:20 in the video if you don't believe me.

With two healers down and the enemy possessing incredible burst damage there was no way that we were going to be able to hold the middle. We wiped in short order. All was not lost - our rogue still had the flag, so an enemy cap was still preventable if we could rez in time and if we could rally around him. Unfortunately at this point in the game I turned into a wet noodle - that chaos bolt was so devastating that it must have reached through the monitor and rang my meatbag brain, too. That's the only excuse I can think of to explain how badly I was about to play for the next ten minutes or so. On the replay I can clearly see our rogue FC valiantly running past our graveyard - in real time, however, I must have failed to see him, and when I rezzed I started galloping towards the enemy FC thinking that he was our rogue. When I realized my mistake I turned back, just in time to see the whole enemy team descend on our lonely rogue and eat him alive.

1-0.

This wasn't the end by any means, but we were in disarray. Someone piped up that it was only 1-0 and we were still in it - in the event of a draw the team that caps last wins the game, so capping second would effectively put us out in front. He was right, but he was interrupted by one naysayer who started saying that we were outclassed and it was only a matter of time. Ignoring him we kept plugging away. The flag was picked up by Thisisagirl, and we started to form around him in an attempt to regroup into a semblance of a formation. We were in midfield on the enemy's side, but our route forward was blocked by the enemy, who held the bridge in the centre of the map. I think Thisisagirl was still seething at the criticism of his damage, because rather than staying at the back of the team fight he decided to plunge headlong into the massive melee swirling around the bridge rather than staying behind with the healers. He was immediately targeted and killed, and with our flag down the enemy was able to cap.

2-0.

At this point Ash lost his rag, and started tearing into the warrior for piling into the middle of the enemy team. I wanted to blame the warrior too, but on watching the replay I believe that the healers all could have done a better job at keeping him up. I saw the warrior go out of range on my heals but I foolishly assumed that the other two had him covered. This is a common mistake with healers who haven't healed together for a long time - back when Rykester and Lelle were still playing we would be yelling on Skype, saying "I don't have range on FC!", "Do you have him? Do you have him?" or "I got him, I got him." More importantly, we would have been communicating with our FC who was was usually Hazeraxe, and telling him "I don't have range! Come back to me!" and he would Heroic Leap back or charge backwards at a convenient enemy. There was no such communication between any of the three healers or the FC, and so we must all shoulder the blame for Thisisagirl's demise.

Courtesy of WoW-Battlegrounds. Shows the locations of buffs on the map which do not change in this particular BG. 1 and 6 are speed buffs, which are handy for FCs either going in or escaping; 2 and 5 restore health and mana, and are better for healers and take less time than having to sit down and drink; and 3 and 4 are damage buffs which are generally reserved for DoT classes like locks and boomkins in order to maximise their spread damage.

With the second cap Ash went into shutdown and stopped talking on Skype, leaving the raid leaderless and adrift. The same went for me - with our FC dead I went into "fuck you" mode, and started trying to live just to spite the enemy. All teamwork went out the window - I found myself alone and surrounded by enemies in midfield, and with my pride still stung after being globalled, resolved that I would not go down easy. I ran around the massive tree stump lining (using obstacles to block LoS) the lock and the shadow priests, using CCs to break up their damage, and then diving back around the stump to make them chase me. I ran around the stump a few times, then broke for the bridge to try to link up with the rezzers coming from our graveyard, all the while being pursued by the bulk of their team. On the bridge I started eating some major damage and so I put my portal on the bridge, then jumped off and swam underneath it. The enemy jumped into the water also, intent on the kill, and as soon as they were under the bridge with me, I ported back up, leaving them stuck in the water below. Take that, scum buckets.

Luckily for our team our rogue was still doing his job, grabbing the flag and running it, and his Quixotic dedication to his duty shook me out of my funk. Realising that the rogue was still chugging away I abandoned my self-serving antics in the middle, and peeled to him. The team had ceased talking, and all was quiet on Skype, but to their credit most of us were starting to come to our senses and were resolving to play this game out to the bitter end, even if team communication had broken down and a humiliating loss was on the cards. Ashe was still sulking, and Mpsmash had also ceased talking, but the rogue, bless his heart, was asking for back-up in a non-petulant way which galvanized most of our team to do the right thing and rally around him. I also started CCing much more, wary of the enemy's damage, as well as calling my CCs and talking to fill the void on Skype. I also began communicating with the rogue FC, telling him to line the lock and the shadow priests, and to keep moving at all costs.

The rogue's running had not been in vain - suddenly on Skype came the call "Cap cap cap!" Despite the deficit our offence was still gamely plugging away at the enemy FC, and had put themselves into a position to land a kill. Unfortunately at this point the rogue was miles away from the cap point. Individually we had a team filled with good players, and it was their individual skills in small group fighting that was keeping us in the game, despite the fact that as a unit we had broken down completely. Defence and offence were both trying to do their jobs without actually talking to each other at all, and so when the offence had gotten their act together to land a kill our FC team were busy running rings around the enemy trying to buy time and avoid being cornered and killed. A simple message such as "We're going in the enemy flag room now" would have sufficed for us to turn around, and get into a position to cap. Alas, such a step appeared to be beyond our team tonight, and so when offence was about to effect a return the defensive team was out of position. This was a fumbled chance, and it was compounded soon afterwards by our rogue being surrounded and killed at the top of the ramp.

Still, we had shown that we were more than capable of scoring, and despite a round of acrimony following the fumble we pushed again. Thisisagirl grabbed flag and our team rallied around him, moving together as a group through the middle. We managed to blast a path through the middle, and once clear our team split into offence and defence. Thisisagirl made it safely into the flag room, and there the FC, our resto druid and I waited. Once you're in the flag room you can't see a bloody thing, and you are dependent on your team outside to feed you information as to the enemy's movements. Given the state of comms that night no info was forthcoming, but the job was simple really - it was now a race to see which offence would kill the enemy FC first. It didn't take long for the enemy to appear at the gates, and soon we were fighting for our lives. My monk was whirling around like a furry pinball, stunning and paralysing every target he could see to break up the incoming damage, and blowing all his escapes to counter the fears and stuns being thrown out by the enemy. We held out long enough for our offence to kill the enemy FC - however, Thisisagirl was not standing on the cap point and we failed to score. He missed the cap by literally a second - he heard the call and began to Bladestorm towards the cap, but was beaten to the punch by the enemy DK who reacted just a smidgin faster. Two seconds later he ate another massive chaos bolt from the enemy lock which dropped him. Watch his health drop from 3/4 to zero at 12:44 of the video.

2-0 down and two flag returns fluffed -  things were looking grim for us. After Thisisagirl went down I peeled out of the flag room and ran for my life, all the while being pursued by the enemy. Once outside I hurled myself over the precipitous drop - Pandaren have the bouncy trait, which means we take less falling damage, and I exploit this in BGs to escape bad situations. In this case I fell right into a pitched battle occurring at the base of our base, and I started healing people around me. Once again it was Twinkytoes the rogue who kept the team together. After Thisisagirl fell he had gone back, grabbed the flag and had made it all the way back to midfield. In midfield a confused fight was taking place, as we were trying to clear a path for our FC while simultaneously trying to run down the enemy FC. By some miracle Twinkytoes made it into the base through the front door unmolested and unescorted - I'd peeled back to support, but I was too late to offer any meaningless assistance. It was all Twinkytoes, and by some amazing stroke of luck the enemy FC died just as he trundled into the inner room of the keep.

2-1.

I was incredibly chuffed, and stated on Skype, "Six minutes! We can do this!" In soccer as in Rated BGs the most dangerous score to lead by is 2-0, because it is a big enough lead to make the frontrunners relax, yet not such a high enough differential to put the game out of reach of the team behind. The enemy had relaxed and lost their cohesion, and by some miracle we were back in the game. As I said earlier, the team that caps last in the event of a draw wins the game, and so all we needed was one more cap to win. The flag cap was a shot in the arm - suddenly Skype was alive, and people were starting to communicate again. Ash was also back in the game - good old dependable Twinkytoes had grabbed the flag, and Ash was running escort and was talking to his FC this time, telling him to come back into healing range. Ash doesn't ask for help or organize ahead of time - instead he looks around, expects people to be there, and complains if no one is around. I heard him on chat say "Fuck it I'll take these two by myself" which I translated to as "Can I get another healer back here as soon as possible?" I belatedly peeled out to assist, but they were in good shape despite having a warrior and a DK in pursuit. Ash and Twinky were way out ahead of me out of my healing range, but I could still render assistance by peeling, and this is what I did, paralysing the warrior and trying to stun the DK. Unfortunately the DK had seen me closing in for the stun and had popped Icebound Fortitude to give himself stun immunity, and thus my stun was wasted. Still my presence at close range and my Chi wave bouncing around kept the trio of us in combat, which meant no mounting and more time for Ash and Twinkytoes to get clear. I shadowed the DK and the warrior all the way into the flag room, and was able to paralyse the DK inside once my Paralysis came off CD. Our efforts had not been in vain - offence had run down the enemy FC and landed the kill. Twinkytoes capped the equaliser, and we were effectively ahead.

2-2.

Jubilant exclamations filled Skype, but we weren't done yet. The opposition had fallen apart - at the start of the game they had been grouping together and blasting us in the team fights with their coordinated bursts, but now for whatever reason they were fighting in scattered groups with varying degrees of effect. The warlock was always dangerous wherever he was, but we were onto him now, and he ate CC after CC everywhere he went. I reckon I paralysed him at least 5-6 times during the whole game. We had them by the jugular, and we resolved to get the final cap to capstone the win for us. Thisisagirl grabbed the flag and made it out of the enemy base, but without healer support he was in dire jeopardy, so much so that people in the flag room were saying to let him die and let another grab it. I managed to get to him in time, and managed to top him up, ignoring the calls to let him die. We started moving back towards our base, trying to push past the scattered remnants of the enemy in our path. We ran into the bloody warlock again and I CCed him immediately, only to have Thisisagirl charge him and break it. The lock tried to cast a chaos bolt but I was in melee range and interrupted the cast. I told Thisisagirl to keep going, and he complied, breaking off and heading towards our base. The lock, once out of the interrupt silence, hurled a chaos bolt at Thisisagirl's back which smashed him for half his health. I immediately cast Cocoon on him, and watched as he ate another incoming chaos bolt. The cocoon held, but now we had a shadow priest putting damage on Thisisagirl and snaring him. It was no problem - these guys were amazingly dangerous when grouped together and coordinating their burst, but in singles and pairs I can maintain against their damage all day long. I cleared the snare on Thisisagirl with Tiger's Lust, and he was finally in the clear, Heroic Leaping into the base just as our hunter came out to provide cover. Offence dispatched the enemy FC once again, and Thisisagirl scored the final winning cap.

3-2.

We had won. What an incredibly glorious and downright frustrating comeback, in which our team once again shows how our amazing potential is hamstrung by our inability to work together. Many of the individuals are proven players, and the team can be so much more than this gaggle of individuals all hooting and hollering in different directions - but all of it is scuppered by their inability to set their egos aside to work towards a common goal. This team, if it had a tad more stability and stronger leadership would hit 2k easily - even in our current fractious state we have enough individual skills to hover between 1700-1800 without even really trying. As for me, I can see that I have quite a ways to improve (especially with battlefield situational awareness and strategic focus), but I know that I can hang with these guys as I am now, and I can get a lot better. I regularly top overall heals, overall dispels, and my CC count is consistently high and on par with the DPS. I'm also one of the more mentally stable members of the team - I complain excessively on my blog, but in game I usually shut my mouth, do my job, and work as a team player. That's the good thing about recording your games - you can objectively see your mistakes from third person, even if it makes you wince at some of your own ineptitude. I made quite a few clangers in this game which made me embarrassed about posting the video, but ah well, it's all a learning experience. If we can win with the vast majority of our team (myself included) playing as poorly as we did, then this team would absolute crush most opposition if we ever got our act together.

To spend a WoW token or not to spend - that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of terribad RBG teams / Or to unsub in the face of a sea of troubles / And by logging end them. To fly or to sleep / Perchance to dream of other virtual worlds.

As I've said, however, I'm past my tipping point - for now I'm going to say goodbye to WoW again, hoard the WoW tokens I have remaining, and return if and when WoW becomes interesting again. Tientzo has always been one of my more humble avatars - the persona he is based on is an old, peaceful and unassuming bear, happy to stay away from the limelight and quite content in his own skin. I can see him in my mind's eye shouldering his pack and grabbing his staff, and wandering away back to the mists of Pandaria, whistling an ancient tune and following the road to wherever it may take him. I'm sure Tientzo is quite happier sitting on the banks of a river somewhere, or dozing sleepily beneath the shade of a tree than going into battle with a bunch of angry strangers with no sense of camaraderie or team spirit. Thus I have no qualms about leaving him to his business wandering the wilds of Azeroth - he never really liked the stuffy confines of the garrison, and flying scares the crap out of him anyway.