Just a guy who played D&D

The best and most memorable of RPG campaigns and the rich tradition of fantasy behind them all start in the simplest of ways, with fledgling entrepreneurs who look at the world around them and feel an innate, sometimes imperceptible desire to help shape the kind of world they inhabit.

Whatever collection of skills and talents they are imbued with are recognized, and as they grow in competence through experience, form the core of their identity. Never put to the side and forgotten, the abilities they bring to the table are in fact celebrated. Through them, these folk engage with their world. Although their journeys do not often turn out the way they expected when they first began, they can nevertheless look backward and recall how they arrived, by remaining true to themselves to the best of their ability.

And maps.

Lots and lots of maps help ignite the memory and the imagination.

Hyboria map

An illustration of The Hyborian Age primarily based upon a map hand-drawn by Robert E. Howard in March 1932.

 

“I liked to read Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, and they all have maps,” Stefan Pokorny says of the road that lead him to Dungeons & Dragons in the late ’70s, when he was 12. (note: Paul O’Connor aka Longbox Graveyard considers 12 to be the ‘golden age’).

Middle Earth map

Map of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth

“When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons, I think it even said in the Dungeon Master’s Guide ‘you should be drawing a map of your world,’ so that’s what I did,” he explains. “I immediately thought that one of the most funnest parts of playing the game was to create all your own stuff.

“It’s the creative part that’s fun.”

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Stefan Pokorny, with some of Dwarven Forge’s terrain pieces

These days, when New York City native Stefan isn’t waiting for his Brooklyn building’s laundry maintenance person to arrive, he stays plenty busy with a career as an artist whose start, like the fantasy characters of RPGs and literature, lay in between the pages of a notebook.

Combining his devotion to medieval fantasy and D&D with a talent for sculpting, Stefan launched Dwarven Forge in 1996, offering pre-painted 3-D dungeon terrain to the gaming community, a business that endures today.

“It happened more out of desperation – I was trying to find a way to make money somehow, because I’d been a painter,” he discloses, dispelling the notion that this path was planned from the beginning. “I wasn’t really selling enough paintings to survive in New York City.”

He was working as a model painter for a company that would take his painted pieces, like small lighthouse figurines, and ship them overseas for mass production. At the same time, he was already beginning to build his own dungeon terrain for gaming, just for fun.

“I was thinking I could just take this to the next level (note: innocuous RPG reference there) and actually cast these things in resin and paint them. It dawned on me one day that I should do that – I should make dungeons.

“So that’s what I did.”

A friend from his neighborhood hobby store The Compleat Strategist suggested getting a booth at Gen Con, and with about 300 of his first dungeon terrain box sets, Stefan set up at a 10-by-10 booth at the world’s largest gaming convention.

When the convention doors opened, people ran to the booth and mobbed the place.

Four hours later, he was sold out.

Gathering contact info from would-be customers for the rest of that first convention trip (“there was still four days left!”), he headed home to prepare new stock.

“Now it’s been, what, 18 years? I dunno,” Stefan says humbly, happy if only for the fact that the same talent for art that drew him to fantasy in the first place continues to help him shape the world he lives in.

Stefan learned to sculpt while earning Master’s degree in painting from Hartford Art School, and on Dec. 19 will be celebrating the grand opening of his own, first art gallery, Zaltar’s Gallery of Fantastical Art in Brooklyn. Named after one of his oldest D&D characters, the gallery’s first show is titled ‘Transmutation.’

“It’s my transmutation from a classical artist to a sort of artist of the fantastical,” Stefan describes. “There will be a bit of both in the show.”

Drawing inspiration from classical artists like Michaelangelo and Bernini and contemporary artists, particularly Frank Frazetta, Stefan explains that the gallery is his dream come true – the full circle from fine to fantastical art.

 

frank_frazetta_afightingmanofmars

Frank Frazetta’s “A Fighting Man of Mars” from 1973.

“He was the man,” Stefan says of Frazetta, but he also notes that many of the artists who contributed work to those 1st Edition AD&D books captured his imagination as well.

“They were artists of the fantastic, and they stimulated your creativity,” he continues, noting that artists such as Donald A. Trampier and Clyde Caldwell had a big influence as well.

Trampier

Selection of art from Donald A. Trampier from the 1st Edition AD&D Monster Manual

“I’ve finally accepted myself as being not just a regular artist, but an artist of Dungeons & Dragons and these kinds of things, and seeing that as being art in itself,” he explains, describing not just his body of work but his vision for what Zaltar’s can represent.

“I really believe that Dungeons & Dragons is a kind of art. The way actors in theater are considered artists, and writers are considered artists. I think that dungeon masters are also artists, and should be seen as such.”

Initially featuring his work, Stefan considers calling for other artists’ entries in the future. Later shows may display maps that other dungeon masters have created, or painted miniatures.

Beyond the featured art show, the gallery will host other events throughout the week, like figure drawing classes and other traditional art programs, gaming nights and fantasy movie showings.

“It’s going to be a cauldron of creativity.”

Although Stefan doesn’t have a regular D&D group at this point, he still gets opportunities to game through the convention circuit, where he’s often invited to run game sessions. In addition, several of his ventures are funded through Kickstarters, and some of the rewards for contributing are a chance to go to NYC and play in a game run by Stefan – something a lot of groups chose to donate for.

“It’s a DM’s dream come true, to get paid to play D&D,” he points out. And those who play in Stefan’s games are in for a retro treat, since he still plays 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, having never felt the need to do anything else. Likewise, D&D video games don’t compare to what the pencil-and-paper style offer, “sitting around a table with actual people – taking the game wherever it might go, improvising. It’s ten times better than any kind of video game you could play.”

An upcoming Kickstarter scheduled for March will support Dwarven Forge’s World’s Greatest Modular Castle System. Past Dwarven Forge Kickstarters include things like Caverns and City sets. The latter of those projects made Dwarven Forge the 35th most-funded project of all time, surpassing Stefan’s earlier success with the caverns set (No. 41 or all time) and gaming tiles set (No. 48 of all time).

For the upcoming Kickstarter, Stefan teases that they may explore a new proprietary building material, similar in concept to the custom PVC variant ‘Dwarvenite’ used to make recent products. (note: he’s gonna have to go adamantine or something; Dwarvenite stands up to a lot of punishment without damage to the structure or color).

At the end of the day, it’s a simple thing that keeps Stefan motivated to continue following his passion, despite the lean times he’s experienced when Dwarven Forge’s future was in question (“At least we’re not losing money! So many years we were on the brink of going out of business.”).

“I enjoy it. I enjoy what I do, so everyday isn’t really like work. It’s just like playing, doing your thing. There’s times when it’s tedious, but it’s better than working in a coal mine – there’s lots of worse jobs I could have. There’s stressful times, for sure. But the greatest thing is that I own my own business, so I decide what I want to do and either sink or swim with whatever my decisions are. I’m the master of my own universe. There’s something to be said for that, and not following other people’s orders too much.”

Going back to his roots, Stefan will soon be publishing a book as well, in January 2016, that contains a collection of many of the meticulously drawn maps from his D&D games. Hundreds of his heretofore secret maps will be available for gamers to incorporate into their own campaigns, or just admire as works of art.

For Stefan, 2015 has been a crazy year (in a good way), notably because a camera crew has been following him around.

On top of his continued success with Dwarven Forge, Zaltar’s and the upcoming book, as well as being featured in several D&D-related documentaries, Stefan himself is the subject of a documentary called “Dwarvenaut,” directed by Josh Bishop.

“I was just a guy who played D&D with my friends,” Stefan reflects on the path that led him to where he is today, and bids farewell in classic D&D fashion. “Good gaming!”

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Personality goes a long way

An enjoyable, if grainy, documentary called The Dungeons & Dragons Experience led me down an Internet spiral the other night that included the woefully produced Dragons of Autumn Twilight animated film and settled eventually on a nostalgic blast from the past that is the 1980s Dungeons and Dragons cartoon.

This clip in particular, the intro from season 2 of the show, inspired a new alt creation for DDO as well as a question in my mind: what makes a character stick? Framed in the context of DDO, for me it all comes down to personality. New toons get rolled up all the time, and the vast majority wind up in the scrap heap. The most recent of these, however, carved out a niche for himself in my heart so i think he’ll stick around a while. We’ll get to that in a bit. As prologue, a peek into what makes a DDO character stick around in my stable.

As a rule of thumb, they must be ten times more charming than that Arnold on Green Acres.

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Thinking, feeling, behaving

In DDO, with its static storylines and essentially linear quests, there aren’t any opportunities in-game to shape a character’s personality. You either accept the quests presented by NPCs, or you don’t. And in the course of completing them, your only real option is to follow the path to the end and eliminate a boss monster to finish it out.

For a game based on the preeminent model that the entire genre stems from, this has always struck me as somewhat odd. But, it is what it is and nevertheless i’ve been enjoying it since 2006. Incorporating my ideas of how any of my characters think, feel or behave within the confines of the game system occurs only in my imagination – there’s no way to make any choices that affect the outcome of quests in a measurable way.

To illustrate this point, my two main characters are vastly different. Schir Gold, currently a capped warlock, has many past lives which are all some form of ranged combatant whether magical or mundane. She is always chaotic neutral, sports Free Agent Fuschia hair and loves engaging with the forces of Xoriat or any quests or stories involving madness.

At the other end of the spectrum is Experimenta, a disciplined soldier in any incarnation who cleaves to her sword-and-board roots, these days as a vanguard paladin. Ever-mohawked and adorned with Stormhorn Specs Cosmetic Goggles, she fights to keep some semblance or goodliness and order in her world.

Do either of these characters make any decisions that affect the outcome of their progression? Not really, no.

There are some quests either of them could avoid, based on my perceptions of their individual personalities. Purge the Heretics comes to mind, a longtime sticking point with many players that sees your characters doing some rather nasty work. But i would argue that, if you take the time to read and think about them, there’s an enormous number of quests that paint your characters as not so good and heroic – more like a greedy mercenary who will do anything for coin and loot.

Individual differences in characteristics

You’ve chosen your class and race, allocated ability and skill points, picked feats and selected starting spells, played around with the much-to-be-desired appearance options and finally, chosen an alignment (which has everything to do with gear choices later on and nothing to do with any sort of in-game paths).

Most of the time, players make these choices based on performance. There are some exceptions though, like building a Swim Cleric/Lifeguard or following a single weapon fighting path on a pure rogue assassin (more on this a bit later). And if you’re me, all of your characters feature a scar across one of their eyes. Even my own swimcleric, Jumponin Watersfine, whose facial detail came from an unfortunate incident at Siber Atoll – the best place for a high dive.

How any of this factors into a character’s personality lies, again, purely in the realm of imagination. As a non-min-maxer, i have no spreadsheets or analyses to reference to eke out every possible point of spell power or DPS. Multiclassing to achieve interesting syngeries is likewise not an activity i engage in, although i do try to build reasonably effective characters.

Whenever i am faced with a choice, which in DDO amounts to things you get to pick when you reach a new level, my first consideration is “what would this character do?”

For Experimenta, that always involves anything with the word “shield” in it, so feats, enhancements and the like are prioritized along those guidelines. At the other end of the spectrum, Schir Gold picks up anything that sounds otherworldly to me. That began way back in her first life, when she started the epic destiny of Magister solely because of the ability to “phase out from reality briefly.” And yes, i still twist that in to this day, every time.

Parts come together as a whole

Talking builds in DDO is probably the most frequent topic of conversation on our guild channel, at least in the odd hours i’m typically on there. Although i consider myself reasonably knowledgeable about game mechanics, i detect once in a while a note of bewilderment from my fellow conversationalists regarding the choices i make.

At the end of the day though, it usually gets mentioned that playstyle is paramount, and finding a build that’s right for you is of utmost importance. Something can make all the sense in the world on paper, but in practice it doesn’t work out the same for everyone.

In this way, DDO always reminds me a lot of Magic: The Gathering (i.e. the greatest game ever invented). The pilot makes the deck, and the right player with a starter deck could conceivably trump a novice playing a tournament-worthy deck because of this.

Likewise in DDO, knowing how to play the collection of pixel and points you’ve constructed is more vital than choosing what to play based on a net build.

A large portion of my playstyle boils down to the imagined character personalities. Experimenta likes to be able to charge to the front, protecting her teammates with a combination of tanking and mild crowd control. Schir Gold prefers to pelt enemies with a dizzying array of effects like DoTs and AOEs while madly jumping and tumbling around.

Sometimes there’s a half-orc

i won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? But sometimes there’s a half-orc.

And i’m talking about my new alt toon here.

Sometimes there’s a half-orc who, well, he’s the half-orc for his time and place – he fits right in there – and that’s Zzarak in Eberron.

zarak 1

Zzarak, as you may have guessed, is a half-orc. Inspired through several avenues, he’s been skulking around Stormreach lately, primarily making repeated forays into the Temple of Elemental Evil.

The seed of Zzarak was planted by Stefan Pokorny, a devoted D&D gamer featured prominently in the documentary mentioned at the start of this post. Pokorny, who incidentally parlayed his love of the tabletop game into a career by starting Dwarven Forge, a company that makes 3-D gaming terrain and accessories, mentioned anecdotally that he’s always liked half-orcs because of their nature as societal outliers.

Further down the Internet rabbit hole were the old D&D cartoon and the line of toys TSR put out. Many excursions were made to KB Toys for these (really dating myself here). The crown jewel of my collection back then was Warduke, one of the coolest and underutilized bad guy creations ever. If any DDO devs are reading this – give us some Warduke!

Another of these figures was, as you’ve probably guessed, this fella:

Zarak 2

Zarak, the evil half-orc assassin

Something about the hood, and the foundation of imagination that had already been built the other evening, plus an overflowing bank vault with rogue assassin-y stuff i might not otherwise use, led to the creation of Zzarak, neutral half-orc assassin of DDO.

ScreenShot00403

Like Experimenta’s first life, Zzarak is far from optimal. He’s doing single weapon fighting with a dagger – Assassin’s Kiss seen here – and the cosmetic indigo hood works nicely to complete the look.

So far, i’ve been enjoying playing this sneaky killer quite a bit. He (and by default, me) have been getting well-versed in the Temple of Elemental Evil. That quest is quite divisive in the DDO community, and personally i love it. Each time i play through parts 1 and 2, i enjoy it more and i hope to see more quests like this in the future.

As for Zzarak, i like to think of him as a fellow with a penchant for evil just like the monsters who keep attacking him, and in my imagination he’s desperately trying to communicate to them that he’s not there to ransack them – he only wants to help!

On a side note, the name “Zarak” was already taken, hence the extra “Z” in his name. Is there another half-orc assassin out there on Sarlona somewhere?

TL;DR

Despite a lack of real opportunities to make story choices in DDO, characters can still act and react to things differently, if you use your imagination.

Do your characters have their own personalities? Do they affect your mechanical choices or playstyle?

Giving your characters their own personalities and stories can make the game much more interesting. Give it a try sometime!

DDO New player advice

Observations for newer players

As a follow-up to a recent post that offered with any luck some food for thought on DDO play experience for veterans of the game, i would be remiss if there wasn’t a companion piece aimed at gamers new to this well-established MMO.

ddo_logo

If i’m honest, this one is a little trickier for me since i’ve been playing DDO since 2006, so it’s far from new to me. Back then, Smuggler’s Rest was the starting zone, you could only have four enhancements, the level cap was 10, Threnal was endgame and ransacking the Giants’ Lair for a vorpal sword was considered a worthwhile investment of time – especially if someone used diplomacy on the chest first.

Perhaps my favorite gameplay aspect from this era, though, was the “go kart bug.” In order to proc this bug, you had to equip a throwing weapon, enter stealth mode, toggle auto-run and then /sit. Doing so allowed characters to slide around in the sitting position so it looked, not surprisingly, like you were driving an invisible go kart.

Ahh, those were the days.

“But I just started playing last week,” a new player might think. “What does any of that have to do with me?”

Touche, new player. Let me counter with a couple of things to justify my admittedly indulgent nostalgia moment.

First, consider this: every veteran you see wearing a Founder’s Helm or sporting a forum join date in the aughts was once in your Sage’s Shoes. They didn’t create an account, roll a toon and log in with complete knowledge of game systems and all the quests and puzzles. So take it with a grain of salt if you find yourself in a PUG and get surprised comments directed your way about your lack of knowledge on any particular thing. There’s still vast swaths of DDO that i have yet to experience, too. Heck, there’s a guy in my guild who just started playing about a month ago and already accomplished a few things i never have.

Founder's Helm: missed it by a couple of months. Drat.

Founder’s Helm: missed it by a couple of months. Drat.

Be willing to PUG and group with others

This is perhaps the best piece of general advice i can offer to a new player. Or any player for that matter. For many years, i played DDO primarily solo, to the point of exclusivity almost. There’s several reasons why that came about but i’ve since cottoned to grouping more and the difference is extraordinary.

First and foremost, quests will generally go much smoother, easier and quicker in a group. While it’s true that dungeon scaling will increase the number of mobs and so forth, a group of up to six toons is going to roll ahead much more effectively than a lone adventurer.

Beyond that, whether it’s a group of vets, newbs or a mix of the two, the opportunities to learn something are increased by the number of people in a group. A new player might even have something to teach a vet, as a few of my guild mates discovered recently regarding the viability of the toughness feat that i mentioned in the veteran companion piece to this post.

Likewise, it’s not uncommon for veteran players to have a leveling plan so there are quests they might not have run in years, or optionals they always skip by in the xp/min grindfest. Unless you find yourself in a zerg-at-all-costs group, you very well may end up (re)introducing these folks to parts of the game they largely forgot. And everyone may wind up sidetracked by a little something called “fun.”

Grouping is a great way to meet other players, get (and give!) advice, and accomplish more together than you could on your own. Check the social panel next time you’re on by clicking “O” or using the menu and see what groups are doing. It’s also worth noting that the grouping panel has a bit of a glitch right now. In order to make the most of it, you need to click the “Who” panel, wait a moment until it refreshes (you’ll see the list of names refresh) then go back to “Grouping.”

If you don’t see any groups in your level range, try posting a LFM yourself, and don’t be shy about putting in descriptions like “first time running” or whatever – that not only lets people know where you’re coming from but also might make it more inviting to other new players, who sometimes feel intimidated by joining a group of experienced players.

And if all else fails, leave the group public when you enter a dungeon. If you’re comfortable playing solo, great. And if someone wants to jump in while you’re in-progress then you’ve got yourself a party.

Listening is different than obeying

When it comes to quest mechanics, like puzzle-solving and so forth, this piece of advice doesn’t exactly apply. Likewise, in raid situations for example that require more tactics and coordination, it’s wise to heed what experienced players have to say. This kind of advice comes not only from their personal desire to avoid quest failure, but also serves you well going forward, so in the future if you run a particular raid again for example, you’ll be more aware of how things are handled by the player population.

What i’m suggesting here is the myriad comments and banter regarding things like character builds, gear, what quests to run and things of that nature.

i’ve played a lot of MMOs, and almost all of them lend themselves to minutiae analysis. A stat point here, a gear bonus there can make a big difference and DDO is no different – perhaps even more so because of the deep customization options the game is known for.

My advice here is very similar to how one ought to approach reading and/or watching the news. If you take the first thing you hear as the absolute truth, you’re going to end up with a very one-sided viewpoint. Better to get your information from several sources and make your own informed decisions. The DDO Wiki is a fantastic resource, and the official forums can also provide invaluable information as well. An Internet search for “ddo (whatever you want to know about)” typically steers towards the forums and a wealth of answers. Watch the date on posts though – an older one may be outdated now because of updates or changes to the game.

Player advice, even that which is thought out and has been researched by the advice-giver, can’t help but be filtered through the lens of their individual experience. The mechanics and math might very well make perfect sense on paper and even in practice, but despite all of that it still comes down to a person’s playstyle and what works for them.

i like to use the example of my pure fighter, Experimenta, who perhaps could squeeze out more DPS or defenses by selecting different feats or enhancements, twisting in different destiny abilities, or splashing another class. But so far, i haven’t encountered any insurmountable obstacles and in fact have received quite a few compliments on her survivability, damage-dealing and utility in healing, buffing and raising from the dead other party members.

At the end of the day though, when confronted with strict advice, the best thing to ask yourself is “am i having fun?” If you find yourself performing competently in quests, surviving boss fights and getting ahead, then congratulations – whatever you’re doing is working for you. Is there room for improvement? Sure there is, there always is. Finding those ways through your own efforts though is going to be much more rewarding and will sync up better with your own playstyle.

Don’t get discouraged

Listen, i’ve been there. We all have. Total party wipes, bad PUGS and not-so-friendly players happen.

But for every player that gets mad at the player who dies in a quest, there’s countless more like me who feel more like it’s our failure as a party member when someone else dies. Say what you will about the xp loss, and believe me on a multi-TR every bit of xp is precious, to me it’s really not that big of a deal.

Of course, i want to get ahead, level up and all that jazz. But speaking for myself, i’ve never quite understood the extreme hurry. What i enjoy most about MMOs is that there’s a bunch of other real people logged in, running around the shared environment, chatting and forming groups to tackle game content. Sharing ideas and tips, as well as joking around and meeting new people, is what sets online games apart and with that, you’re going to have both positive and negative experiences.

The trick is to take away something useful from all of them.

Just the other night, i experienced a discouraging situation running some quests for the first time. At first, for a moment i’ll admit i was pretty ticked off by the turn of events. But only for a moment. The next night, we tried again with some different people and tactics and found success. It certainly wasn’t worth ragequitting, causing drama or giving up. i didn’t feel the need to reroll my toon or make sweeping changes to the build. We just approached it a bit differently and that made all the difference.

Really? Worst quest you ever ran. Well, my next one will be better. Hello.

Really? Worst quest you ever ran. Well, my next one will be better. Hello.

The right game for you

This one’s pretty simple. Is DDO the right game for you?

As i mentioned earlier, i’ve played a lot of MMOs over the years. Right now on my taskbar, there are shortcuts to Star Wars: The Old Republic, Guild Wars, Guild Wars 2, Star Trek Online, Marvel Heroes, The Secret World, The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot, Rift, Neverwinter Online, Final Fantasy XI, Final Fantasy XIV, World of Warcraft and Champions Online. Many others have come and gone from that taskbar over the years.

None of them i’ve invested as much time in, or enjoyed as much as, DDO. Maybe it’s just the D&D-ness of it, or the mechanics, or who knows what but i keep coming back to it because i enjoy it above all the others.

Even with that being said, i still take breaks from it here and there. A few weeks, a few months, but i always come back around. Which isn’t to say any of those other games aren’t great, too. At the same time, there’s more than a couple of those that i haven’t played in years, and some that i tried out for a few weeks and simply didn’t enjoy. Neverwinter is a prime example – i played that for about two days and just thought it was crap. In fact, i’m removing it from the taskbar right after i finish this sentence.

If you’ve delved into DDO, played for a bit and find yourself feeling unsatisfied consistently, there’s no shame in moving on. Any of these games will reward investments of time (and, often, money) and even some long-time DDO players seem to approach the game more as a chore or work than for what it is – a game meant to provide fun entertainment.

One of the coolest things about MMOs is that, even if you quit and uninstall the client, you could return years later and find your character still intact. If you’re reading this and played DDO many years ago, you will be happy to discover more than a few special items in your characters’ inventory were you to log back in today.

If you are a newer player, and wound up here after trying the game a bit and maybe having less-than-the-best experiences, i hope some of these observations might improve that.

TL;DR

For the DDO player who zergs through reading like they do through quests, here’s a few pointers to summarize what new players can do to make their play experience more positive, acclimate to the game, improve the community and with any luck have more fun.

  • Group up
    • Don’t be afraid to join PUGs
    • Post your own LFM
    • Leave quests open to public
  • Don’t feel obligated to obey
    • Listen to advice but make your own decisions
    • Find the playstyle that works for you
    • Learn to differentiate between mechanical advice and personal opinions
  • Don’t get discouraged
    • Character deaths happen
    • Quests and XP will always be there
    • Learn something new from every experience
  • Take a break
    • If you’re not having fun, don’t punish yourself
    • Try another game, maybe it’s not the right time and place for DDO and you
    • Been away? Log back in and see if changes make it better for you

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DDO Devilish new updates

Putting the follow-up my observations for veteran DDO players meant as a companion piece aimed towards newer players, i’m taking a moment as always to examine what’s coming up as shared in the most recent Producer’s Letter.

Current DDO Executive Producer Severlin posted on the forums today what the team at Turbine has been up to as well as what players can expect in the next few months.

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First up, and something that is perhaps the most frequent topic of discussion and concern for players, is tacking the chronic lag problems in DDO. For me personally, lag hasn’t been a major issue at the level throngs of others have experienced, which frankly sound exceedingly frustrating. Once in a while, i’ll lag out, freeze up or go through some jaggy movement, but not to the extent of 30 minute or more lockdowns and TPK situations.

Nevertheless, working to make improvements in stability and performance is never time wasted. Part of this work, which Severlin shared, is a project to transfer game servers and hardware to a new data center. Sounds scary – i have trouble keeping track of the cords coming out of my desktop now – but overall a genuine goal geared towards making the game run smoother for everyone, which is something i can stand behind.

There’s already a few comments portending DOOOOOooooooom! based on this announcement, and there’s certainly the possibility of a few snags during the process, but upgrading hardware is ultimately a good thing. More power to you, Turbine.

Last week, the forums got a new category that already shows a healthy amount of engagement: the Warlock forum. This new class has been talked about for quite some time, and the official news from today’s producer letter is that it will arrive in-game in June’s Update 26.

A new class to discover is always exciting. The monk, artificer, favored soul and druid were all post-launch added classes and remain popular so i’m sure the warlock will also find its place in players’ hearts. Another spellcaster class, the warlock brings a sixth class to that category, leaving four in each of the other two (melee and specialist). This is something i do find somewhat odd. Even though warlock is distinct enough in flavor and mix of abilities, it is in the end another spellcasting class. And still no psionics, something i’ve been advocating for years and years, often dismissed as just another spellcaster with different spell names. Perhaps the warlock will provide a new framework for approaching class design that will usher in the age of psions in the future. Fingers crossed.

A star pact warlock. Hey, maybe we're get tieflings as a playable race (if so, the cool-looking ones please, not the humans with weird horns)

A star pact warlock. Hey, maybe we’re get tieflings as a playable race (if so, the cool-looking ones please, not the humans with weird horns)

In the meantime, i will most certainly be creating a warlock myself, and there’s no question on which pact i’ll choose – the Great Old Ones. From what is already shared on the forums, these otherworldly warlocks will have a focus on acid spells and crowd control with a little insta-kill mixed in. i would like to have seen radiance as their focus instead of acid, since it represents the light of the stars from which they draw their power. Maybe that will be implemented by the time they release? If my own contribution to the official feedback thread had any impact (or this post right here – please forward to developer Vargouille!). As for that crowd control part, Evard’s Black Tentacles would be a much-appreciated new spell.

The standout news from the letter is that, following Update 26 in June is another one, Update 27 in July. Just one month apart! Severlin reveals much more about this update, which will include a new adventure pack that focuses on the very popular and well-liked Shavarath storyline. Eberron content ftw.

Ready to head back to the Plane of Battle?

Ready to head back to the Plane of Battle?

This time around, players will discover more about the Archon’s battle with the armies of Shavarath and take an active role in the drama. Mysterious Remnants are involved (maybe they’ll start dropping in greater numbers. Please!) and it turns out they come from the Plane of Battle, which is where the action from three new dungeons and a new raid takes place.

Aside from these two updates, Sev addresses player feedback about problems with the DDO Store, with an announcement that it’s getting an overhaul for an improved experience. Later this summer, players will find a streamlined DDO Store which i’m sure means among other things it would be unavailable as often. Although, if i’m honest, sometimes i like when the DDO Store is down because it saves me from impulse shopping.

Finally, there is more news about the long-awaited increase in level cap from 28 to 30. The plan has been to make 30 a hard cap, and i haven’t heard any different in this regard. That being said, it’s entirely possible that a year from now it’ll get raised to 40 for all i know. That’s pretty much what MMOs do. On the other hand…

…the other thing MMOs do at endgame is provide difficult crafting systems for top end gear. To that end, one of the things in the works is an epic and extended version of the ever popular Thirteenth Eclipse raid. Yes, that’s what it’s actually called but it’s more widely known and affectionately referred to as The Shroud. Along with it is an updated and epic version of green steel crafting, probably the most popular crafting system in the game. The stuff you can make from green steel is tremendous, and an epic version should keep players busy and happy for quite some time.

Along with the epic Shroud is another new adventure pack related to the Vale of Twilight, too. MOAR new content is never a bad thing.

Overall, a pretty tidy new producer’s letter that seems to include a little something across the board. Performance-enhancing maintenance benefits everyone, and a new class will give builders something to tinker with, and slapdash players like me something to fumble through life with, too. Quote a bit of new content is on the horizon, all of it taking place in Eberron which gets two thumbs up in my book.

One thing i am curious about is Update 26. Other than the warlock, what else is there to this upcoming update? Severlin doesn’t mention anything, so i wonder if it’s just the new class and maybe some tweaks to enhancement trees and stuff? Perhaps there will be a new general tree or a third tree for the classes who have only had two for an overly long time. Or maybe a refinement pass on Cannith Crafting?

At least we won’t have long to wait to find out – June is just around the corner!

DDO Please play responsibly

Observations for veteran players

My time spent having fun playing DDO lately has improved considerably since joining The Unrepentant guild, and not just because it’s a very active guild that regularly runs a variety of content at all hours of the day.

The best aspect of running with these folks has been the terrific guild chat through the Mumble app, and all the engaging conversations that arise both in and out of game. Frequent topics include character builds, gear, playstyles and approach to the game, as well as a vigorous amount of banter and humor.

Because of the active nature of the guild, both in terms of questing and recruitment, there’s a fairly steady flow of applicants both veteran and fresh to DDO, and i’ve made a few observations to share that with any luck will provide a nice takeaway for both ends of the player spectrum. And since brevity is not my strong suit, i’ll cover vets here and new players in another post.

ddo_logo

All we need is just a little patience

To an old timey forum dweller like me, the topic of veteran attitudes towards new players is nothing new. It’s not my intention to admonish any long time players if i inadvertently describe traits that apply to anyone in particular. Based on what i’ve read over the years and my in-game experience in PUGs and guilds, the two extremes of vet player attitudes towards new players is either one of helpfulness or disregard.

The fulcrum upon which those two extremes rest is patience.

A patient vet, grouped up with a new player or even through the /advice channel in-game, takes the time to answer questions and offer tips and suggestions, realizing that the knowledge they’ve acquired is valuable and takes time to accumulate.

The impatient vet may very well take new player questions with disdain, feeling that they ought to take the time to find out the answers on their own through trial-and-error, the forum of the critically important wiki.

Whatever the approach though – either of these extremes or somewhere in the middle – the most important thing to keep in mind is the perspective of the new player. There’s a few recruits in the guild who are new to DDO in general, and i get the sense sometimes that even helpful advice can be overwhelming.

For example, one of the people i tend to play a lot with is new to DDO, but not games or specifically MMOs in general. So for him, learning the ropes is primarily just understanding the finer points of the game. A couple of times, i’ve detected a hint of frustration in his voice from vet players’ comments and tips regarding things like gear.

You need this!

After so many tips on suggested gear item (utility things like particular purpose named items for instance) i sensed that he maybe felt a bit stymied, noting that he only has so much bank space and has no room for all the things he “needs.” What helped more was that, in addition to tossing out suggestions for chase items, explanations were provided as to what/why/how these things could help. Most vet players have at least one toon that we’ve made some investment in, for practical things like increased bank and vault space. Even despite that, item management can get frustrating at times with all the loot that accumulates.

i’m not alone in having thrown out or sold more named items that a new player probably has in random lootgen clogging up their inventory space. Unless some random treasure is exceptionally amazing, more than likely it’s destined for the vendor. When it comes to gear i’m a snob and almost completely disregard stuff with less than a dark blue item border color.

By comparison, and especially until a new player understands just how much gear affects character performance, they might rarely ever swap anything out (Korthos gear in Gianthold?!) or hoard things that seem really useful and maybe not realize they’re doubling up on things or stacking unstackable bonuses and the like.

To sum up, it goes a long way to offer new players advice on useful gear that will benefit them at every level, or makes for great TR twink gear or would increase their build effectiveness. A motivated player might take time out of game to read up on things or research ways to improve. What a vet can do in-game though is invaluable, by explaining the reasoning behind their advice so that the new player doesn’t get overwhelmed or frustrated.

For the vet player there’s an upside, too. Helping new players acquire some of that useful, must-have gear provides an opportunity to maybe run some quests you might skip over or haven’t played in a long time. A lot of people skip over Tangleroot, which can net you a useful Visor of the Flesh Render Guards in addition to some pretty nice XP for the chain. Running it slower with a new player might be tedious, true, and that leads into the next topic.

Repetition is the mother of all learning

Another area where patience is a virtue is quest content. What i always try to keep in mind is that someone may be experiencing a quest for the first time. More than once, i’ve shared a laugh about how something like Water Works or STK used to be a huge undertaking back when we were new. To get through the entire WW chain in one session was a triumph.

Now, i rush through there by myself, under level, in about 30 minutes. Same with STK, Tangleroot, The Catacombs (hate you Crypt of Gerald Dryden) and several others. These can be tricky to run with new players, at least for me, because i certainly hope they get that sense of wonder and danger. When i first started playing DDO, we crept so cautiously along corridors, unsure of what lay ahead.

These days, with past lives and ship buffs that didn’t even exist then, plus knowledge from having run through these quests countless times, the fun comes more from seeing how the build responds to the content. Also, getting the drop on static mobs is a blast, often literally. In PnP it’s not uncommon to open a door, see a bunch of hobgoblins, roll for initiative and let the wizard toss a fireball and then clean up the mess; when you already know about the ambush around the corner you can fireball those sneaky monsters before they even know you’re there.

Thanks to patient vets, Experimenta went from unrefined first-lifer to contributing member of EE parties

Thanks to patient vets, Experimenta went from unrefined first-lifer to contributing member of EE parties

But imagine you’re playing that quest with someone on their very first run. More than likely, keeping up is their challenge and learning the layout or solving puzzles is going right over their heads. There’s still a lot of content i’ve rarely or never touched, and when i get the opportunity to with a group, i often find myself wondering what the heck is going on. But i have been fortunate to play a lot lately with very helpful folks who take the time to explain things to me. A big part of DDO that’s different from other MMOs in my experience is repeating content. So i know, the next time i’m in a quest i’m not familiar with, i’ll be that much more on the ball. This is a potential hurdle for a new player, who might not yet have grasped that they’ll likely find themselves running a particular quest again. And again. And again…

Take it easy, man!

Grinding for XP and loot is the way of the MMO, and in DDO that translates into repeating quests. Some players have a plan they follow, and some (like me) play catch-as-catch-can and jump into anything without regard to bravery streaks, XP per minute, sagas or prepping wilderness areas. In the end, the results are the same: you reach the level cap and either hang out there or TR and start a new life…and do it all over again.

By that point your TR toon (or brand new first-lifer in some cases) has past lives, epic past lives, twink gear and most importantly quest knowledge that makes the trip that much easier.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of a new player who may not be aware of all those mechanics yet. They’re in your group, thinking that since everyone is the same level, they’re going to be about equally effective.

Next thing they know, they see characters one-shotting mobs, tanking toe-to-toe with bosses, watching a character with a wizard icon bust out a greatsword and dish out more DPS than their barbarian. What’s happening?

Statsinger is a first-life bard spellsinger in a static group. Neglible DPS but keeps the party buffed

Statsinger is a first-life bard spellsinger in a static group. Neglible DPS but keeps the party buffed. Several suggestions to go swashbuckler route but i’m sticking with support – you guys will thank me later!

Left standing there watching in awe or dismay, a new player might get discouraged and think they’re doing something wrong. This isn’t to say the vet player is to blame – after all, we’re playing our best just as they are. But here again, i think a little explanation goes a long way for a new player. Sometimes, all it takes is a simple tidbit that can make a huge difference. For example, i mentioned stacking bonuses earlier. Sometimes this gets overlooked or goes unnoticed by new players who probably turned off the hints feature and missed load screen tip #179

Between quests, they switch out a few items and all of a sudden performance increases dramatically. The same can be said of feats and enhancements, the bread and butter of any build. You thought Skill Focus: Swim would come in handy? Maybe if you’re a swim cleric but other than that…sorry mate. Better go talk to Lockania and then hit up Fred to change that out. Oh, you didn’t know about Lockania?

DDO, widely touted for its deep character customization, can yield some amazing creations as well as gimp builds, and a little constructive criticism can go a long way to help a newer player. Personally, i’m a bit more open-minded when it comes to builds as far as deeming something gimp or not, but regardless of the gulf of opinions, it is always more beneficial to explain your reasoning more than “that sucks” or “it’s a gimp build – reroll.” Character success in DDO boils down a lot to playstyle and finding what works for the individual, so offering build advice to a new player with the thought behind it not only helps them, it can help you too.

Here’s an example: in guild the other night we discussed the toughness feat, once considered auto-include for every character. It provides additional HP and unlocked the toughness enhancements for even MOAR HP. Since the enhancement revamp that introduced trees, it’s fallen off in popularity, but there’s still people who squeeze it in their build for various reasons. One of our newer members shared his perspective on it, pointing out that as a paladin he got more benefit from the feat. A couple of vets questioned how this was, themselves learning about Tenacious Defense that grants a 20% bonus to maximum hit points. As regards toughness, i think that’s only 6 extra HP at cap from the feat (very likely i could be wrong) so to me, not really worth it. The point is, people took the time to explain and discuss the pros and cons in a constructive way, and everyone learned something.

TL;DR

For the veteran DDO player who zergs through reading like they do through quests, here’s a few pointers to summarize what you can do to help new players acclimate to the game, improve the community and with any luck make your own experiences more fun.

  • Exercise patience
    • Respond to the /advice channel
    • Steer people to the forums and the wiki
    • Give reasoned responses to questions
  • Explain yourself
    • What your suggestions mean
    • Why is this or that piece of equipment useful/necessary
    • Be willing to run quests outside of your leveling plan to help players snag that loot
  • Let players experience a sense of wonder
    • Let them take the lead
    • Give advice through hints but let them participate in puzzle-solving, quest mechanics, etc.
    • Death isn’t the end of the quest (10% base XP loss isn’t the end of the world) and can make memorable stories
  • Maintain perspective
    • DDO grind is a somewhat different animal than other MMOs
    • Constructive criticism can lead to a little tweak that makes a big difference
    • Keep an open mind and remember what it was like when you were new

Play responsibly

If there’s any takeaway from these observations, it’s only that i hope players across the spectrum play DDO responsibly. It shouldn’t be a chore, or a frustrating task and that’s certainly not what i mean to say. Above all else, it’s a game and the primary purpose is to have fun. But being an MMO imparts a social aspect of real people interacting with each other. All of us who love the game hope it continues for years to come, and a big part of that is building and maintaining a healthy community and robust playerbase. If a new player repeatedly has negative experiences in-game, and therefore less fun, they’re just going to move on and the playerbase will dwindle.

That isn’t to say DDO’s future relies on the players alone. Marketing and advertising, and providing a great game experience, is the duty of Turbine and the development team. But what veteran players can do is leverage the experience and knowledge they’ve gained to help a newer player have a better game experience, too.

As a side bonus, patience and a willingness to guide new players means you’ll get to be a part of their characters’ milestones. Everyone remembers their first time facing Velah, or stepping inside epic quests or a raid and total party wipes. It happens. What you can do as a vet is be a positive part of new players’ stories that they’ll carry with them on their own journey to becoming a vet for someone else.

Check back soon for some observations aimed at a newer player, and what they can do to make for a more enjoyable and successful game experience.

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