Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Hell Froze Over...

...because finally, after what seems like endless discussion and countless, fruitless patches, Blizzard has finally relented.

As of the next Beta build, people, Corruption is going to be instant-cast as a base ability.

Oh, and Ruin is going to be accessible for 20 talent points (!!!), switching places with Devastation and going from 1 to 5 talent points. This means that talent specs will be able to revel in Ruinous glee without giving up their 51pt talents.

This is huge. This is more than huge, this is amazing. Sure we give up 5% crit, but every talent tree will have access to Ruin!!

Oh, and Metamorphosis is getting seriously buffed. The warlock love is layered on thick with this patch. Continue reading 'Hell Froze Over...'

Saturday, September 6, 2008

What Fel Dealings This?

So unless you've been living under the proverbial rock, or simply have more sense than 99.99% of the WoW population, you have probably been salivating over the promises of the new expansion. Wrath of the Lich King is like a frightening, undead pinata - vaguely threatening, but loaded with delicious candy. Talent candy! Skill candy! Candy that helps you remember how many murlocs you've killed!

But no self-respecting gamer would be satisfied with the 'Official' list of changes, and this warlock is certainly no exception! While I'm very excited at the prospects of Haunting things and transforming into a Demon, I've got my own little list of 'lock-related changes that I'd love to see in-game.

In no particular order:

Firestone:Physical Effects as Spellstone:Magic Effects

So hear me out, this one takes a bit of logic. Spellstone works by periodically purging all magic effects from your person. It's a great way of dispelling multiple DoTs from rival warlocks, shadow priests, or even Ignite procs from Mages. Now that Fel Armor is a physical buff, warlocks can self-purge with impunity. The added buff to spell crit is always a plus, and helps this otherwise mediocre conjured item get some more traction. But what of Spellstone's neglected step-brother, Firestone?

Oh what a maligned spell that is! All other budding warlocks who were thoroughly confused by Firestone when they first trained it, raise your hand.

::raises hand::

There are two benefits to Firestone presently. First, it boosts your fire spell damage, which is a cute bonus that is somewhat useful as you level because its not till much later that you can find a wand with comparable +spell damage. The melee proc is supposed to make daggers, a staple warlock weapon, a useful means of finishing something off as you level.

But lets be honest, most of the time you'd be much better off with a wand that you could use to blast something mana-free as it's running in Fear-induced hysteria than going toe-to-toe with a mob while wearing CLOTH. Anyone else see the problem?

Firestone is mediocre, but here's a way to buff it that seems to make sense: give it the ability, on use, to purge all physical maladies on the warlock, just like how Spellstone purges magic effects.

Imagine the warlock using the captured flame to cauterize and cleanse his wounds, and you'll get a flavor for the logic behind the change.

This would give locks choice of conjured item for use in pvp, one for use versus magic users, and one that would give us a little more breathing room vs. Mortal Strike, Rogue stuns, Bleed effects, and the like. With a cooldown similar to Spellstone it wouldn't be overpowered, since most melee can re-apply their effects within the next few swings. It would however provide a tactical power that, if used correctly, could give us a better chance against our worst matchups without being a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Oh, and give it the ability to shoot, like a wand. That would be awesome.

EDIT: lol I didn't even notice, they are relics now. Whee!

Health Funnel Friendly Targets

This one is going to be a little more controversial, but what if you could channel Health Funnel onto any friendly unit, not just your demons? I know that lore-wise, warlocks can heal their pets because they are bound to them, so to preserve that, give us a spell that costs a soul shard to mark a friendly target for 30 minutes, making them a viable target for Health Funnel.

ZOMG Feren warlocks can't heal, they is DPS!

I know, I know, which is why, as a heal, this is about as terrible as you can get. It's a channeled spell, meaning it is hugely open to interruption. There's a big laser beam that tips people off to our location. But most importantly, while we're channeling WE CANNOT CAST ANYTHING ELSE. Sure our DoTs are going to be working hard, but no nuke spam is a huge hit to our DPS. What this does do is allow warlocks to do some last-ditch tactical healing, at the cost of their own HP bar and damage potential. Seems like a fair trade to me.

Maybe augment the Demonic Circle spell such that warlocks can Health Funnel any friendly target within the circle? That might be a viable alternative to a whole new spell with such narrow applications.

Danger: Summoning Zone

Demonic Circle has so much potential from a thematic perspective it isn't even funny. Magic like this isn't to be trifled with, and to reflect that, I think Demonic Circle should augment more than just summoning speed and be more than just a teleport anchor. What if, kind of like hunter traps, Demonic Circle had an offensive component as well?

Say, a 30% slow effect on enemy targets that enter the circle? Decreased hit rating due to the babble of demonic voices? Or, ideally, make any enemy target standing within demonic circle succeptible to Banish. There should be a risk in breaching a warlock's rituatlistic field, enough that it acts as a deterrent to stabby melee and pernicious pets.

Of course, if I really could have my way I'd have the circle act as a beacon to some Elder God and watch in glee as my enemies are torn assunder by unspeakable, madness-inducing horrors.
Continue reading 'What Fel Dealings This?'

Reviewing the Trailer

((First posted as a comment on a post over at Player vs Developer))

Having not yet seen the WAR trailer, I can't really do any comparisons, but I can speak to the Wrath trailer.

The biggest issue with the trailer is that you have to have played WC3 for the real gravitas of the video to make sense. If you played through Arthas' campaign, the voice-over by his father is poignant, prescient, and chilling.

Close your eyes (or bring up another window) and listen to the trailer; it's easy to imagine this older King just beaming to his promising son. The juxtaposition with the horror of Northrend makes for good cinema.

You are left wondering if that voice is in Arthas' head, like a memory even the Crown of Nerzhul can't keep away. As the Lich King Arthas exhudes silent menace. Whereas Illidan seemed brooding and smoldering with barely controlled rage, Arthas is cold, aloof, and utterly disinterested in the 'threat' posed by the players.

I loved how the trailer drew a direct parallel with Arthas as the former human king, now ruling over a vast kingdom of undead. Though the forsaken are supposed to have the market cornered when it comes to being Undead with Feelings, those Scourge we see shouting their fealty to Arthas sure mustered up some serious GAR.

All in all, I think the trailer was amazing for a three minute story. It captured the fearful potency of the Lich King, the imminent threat of his VAST army (love the shot with all the tiny blue Scourge flames ignited in the valley below), and the reminder of all the loss that led to Arthas'
present role. I've always thought that Arthas' story was the best part of Warcraft's recent history, and the trailer doesn't disappoint.

It differs from TBC's trailer in that there isn't a direct challenge to the player (no, 'You are NOT prepared!' moment). Instead, the viewer is left with this huge sinking feeling, this sense of being utterly beneath the attention of the Lich King. This seems to contradict Blizzard's voiced intent of making Arthas a bigger part of the individual player's stories.

5 stars if you played WC3. 3 stars if you didn't. The uninitiated will be unmoved by the real driver of this trailer - the tragedy of loss.
Continue reading 'Reviewing the Trailer'

Seasons Change

Well everyone, summer has come and gone, and this one in particular has been absolutely amazing. My son was born late in May, and he's been keeping my wife and I really REALLY busy, so much so that WoW got shelved for a while.

I managed to earn my epic flying mount before the little guy was born, so my last real achievement in TBC was complete (I never really bought into the whole Shattered Sun thing). I have however been keeping a very close eye on the news out of Wrath of the Lich King, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't totally stoked. I'm working on a theoretical Affliction build that has me very excited, which I should have up in the next week or so. I've got a few posts that I've jotted down that I'll be putting up before then, so bear with me.

The air is getting chillier; you can feel the seasons starting to shift. I love the fall (not just because it's marked by two of my favorite holidays, Halloween and Thanksgiving!). Summer is no time to be a warlock. Sunlight isn't exactly our best friend. Nay, bring on the rolling fog, rapid dusks and whirling leaves! Continue reading 'Seasons Change'

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Entry 18: Lean Theory Applied to Leveling - The Grind

Being a hybrid is odd. It seems to me, at least at this stage of the leveling game, that enchancement is about head and shoulders above either restoration or elemental in terms of efficiency. Why? Gear availability, and the stats that go with that.

As a melee dpser there are two stats that interest me the most: strength and agility. Strength makes every melee strike hit for more and agility increase my chances to crit (thus enabling all my talent-related melee buffs). Applying a bit of the logic behind gear I learned on Ferenczys, I am actively pursuing both Str and Agi to the complete exclusion of Stam, Int, and Spi. Why? For the exact same reason warlocks are told to stack as much +dmg as they can: stamina does not matter when your fights only last 15 seconds.

My first run through the game, I clung unquestioningly to the stats of survival and longevity. Stamina and Intellect (and yes, spirit too) were everywhere on my gear because I was under the impression that a longer life/mana bar meant I would survive more. While this is true, it's a paradigm worth investigating a little further. Let me use both Feren and Shatterhoof for comparison.

Leveling with Ferenczy was an exercise in patience. I didn't master Drain Tanking until late in my warlock career, and Demonology (at the time) was a grossly underpowered talent tree, so I went the way of Destruction. My fights consisted of blowing the bejeezus out of things, and usually ending fights with 70-60% hp and mana. My threat was through the roof, so I couldn't use my pets to tank like other lock builds. I NEEDED Stam and Int because the more of those I had, the more fights I could go before needing to eat/drink. Or so I thought.

The flipside, which I hadn't learned till much later, was that stacking +dmg made much MORE sense because you could kill the same number of mobs with fewer spells. Fights are much shorter, and consequently your mana pool is taxed much less. There is obviously a tradeoff, as even highly efficient spells are limited by a smaller mana pool, but by and large you are increasing something more useful to a leveling character: SPEED. The faster you kill, the faster you earn xp, and thus the faster you level.

What +dmg is to locks, +agi/+str is to an Enhancement shaman. I usually have to settle for gear options that are one or the other with a stam component, but by and large everything on Shatterhoof is focused on melee damage. The fact that he's in mail armor (well, mostly; I still have a few leather pieces that I'm using because the stats are more in line with the above reasoning) helps considerably, as I'm penalized less for having a smaller health pool. This has allowed me to grind a hell of a lot faster than I would have thought. Last night for instance I cleared out an entire camp of Grimtotem tauren in under ten minutes, drinking/eating once. Shamans have a distinct advantage when it comes to closely spaced mobs in PVE, because it allows us to maximize the use of our totems. If I know I will be able to pull from a single spot for a good while, I will generate my little field of totems and pull with rank 1 Lighting Bolt. The range is ridiculous, and the cost is minimal.

If a full complement of totems is inefficient but I want a good boost, I have found that Grace of Air is by far more useful than Strength of Earth. The totem increases my crit chance by a good amount, and that just makes everything else gel better. Though Strenght of Earth is very powerful when coupled with Windfury, the proc chance of WF makes it an unsure thing. I would rather have the guarantee of more Flurry/Unleashed Rage/Shamanistic Focus uptime more crit brings to the table. This has led me to consider Agi a more important stat for Enhancement shamans than Str. Apart from being a talent enabler through crit %, it enables Dodge too, which only serves to reduce my downtime between pulls even further.

I don't see how Elemental, the other shaman DPS tree, could possibly compare to the sheer killing speed of Enhancement at this point. The availability of +nature/+spell damage on mail pieces at this level seems to be pretty sparse. Sure, I could go into some cloth pieces the same way I now dip into Leather, but shamans lack the ability to CC a mob that other casters enjoy. Pure casters like Mages, Locks and Priests can root, fear, and stun long enough for their spells to cast and kill the target. Druids, like shamans, have more limited ways of keeping something under control, but whereas they can Root a target outside, the best a shaman can do is Frost Shock when the target is in range and kite the target. Running means not casting, and not casting means you aren't killing things, which, to borrow a term from lean manufacturing, is muda.

So here I am, deep into Enhancement and up to my eyeballs in melee stats. What use have I of my other tree abilities? I might use Healing Wave a couple of times, but by and large bandaging is more efficient because it doesn't cut into my mana pool. Lighting bolt is better suited towards poking a target to get it's attention, since the only time I ever do that is when I've got my forest of totems up, and at that point I don't want to waste the mana on the full-rank spell because the almost-guaranteed Shamanistic Focus buff makes shocks so much more efficient.

In the spirit of true lean principle, I will now state what should be common sense to anyone leveling a toon in WoW:

1. Gear to your strengths, and find the most efficient method of killing your target.
2. Stamina/Intellect/Spirit are not imporant while you level. Damage output is.
3. Downtime is bad (lean: Non-value added); travel time is downtime, so the faster you get from A to B (or the less times you have to span the gap), the more time you'll spend doing something productive. See number 4.
4. Install QuestHelper. It modifies your map to show you the location of every one of your quest objectives, letting you work out a logical path from one to the other to maximize your grinding efficiency.
5. Gathering professions are more efficient than crafting professions for two reasons:
5a. You are already out in the wilderness, so you aren't 'wasting time' endlessly crafting in a major city
5b. You don't need to spend gold to increase your proficiency (beyond ranking up that is)
6. As soon as possible, set your Hearthstone to Shattrath City. While you lose the ability to instantly port to the nearby inn while you are leveling, the capability of near-instant travel across continents is huge.

I am now 4 days /played on Shatterhoof and nearing level 50. I'm not sure what a 'good' rate of leveling is, but this seems pretty damn quick compared to all the time I seemed to have spent putzing around with Ferenczys, and a good part of those 4 days was spent pre-30 gearing up for some casual twink PVP. I can only really play in 30-40 minute increments, but each play session I average roughly half a bar of XP if I turn in all the quests I complete. Rested state is awesome. The 'slow' period between 30-40 seems to have gone by pretty quick, and if memory serves, things pick up again once I cross 50 and get access to more centralized quest hubs.

Not sure how much longer I'll be at this though. My family is expecting a new addition soon! It will soon be time for me to hang up the gamer hat and start being a daddy. :) Who knows, I may be back for Wrath of the Lich King, which is looking more and more casual friendly with every tidbit I hear. Thanks Blizz for making even a part-timer like myself feel welcome.
Continue reading 'Entry 18: Lean Theory Applied to Leveling - The Grind'

Entry 17: U heal Mara?

That was the whisper Shatterhoof got as I was unloading his bags at the AH in Ogrimmar last night. For a moment I was overcome by a wave of surrealness (surreality?). Instantly it seemed that every time I'd ever blindly whispered for a healing spot in an instance run flashed across my mind's eye. I recalled the vacant, blind depression associated with a blind tell, with the knowledge that the person will more than likely tell you no. I recalled the terrible sinking feeling as the clock ticks to the ten, twenty, thirty minute mark in LFG. I remembered the increasingly ambivalent party messages from the other group members, the sight of their little map icons shuffling off to the daily quest areas, or worse, to the battlemasters. I was acutely reminded of the sick feeling of knowing a run is dead before it even started.

Then the person whispered me again, 'U heal mara??'

To which I calmly replied, 'I'm spec'd for enhancement, but I can try.'

The party invitation popped up so fast I hardly had time to blink.

Now, I'm no expert at healing, and by this point Shatter is pretty deep into Enhancement, with absolutely zero investment in either elemental or restoration talents. He's a melee dps'er, and his gear is not meant for sustained heals. So, since I had a nice cushion of gold from dual gathering professions (yay!), I hopped on the AH and picked up some cheap 'of the Eagle' gear and a nice +healing staff. Whatever right, if I'm going to heal I'm going to at least make an effort of it.

Alas, my eagerness proved unnecessary. Five minutes later our tank dropped because of work related issues, and then I get another tell from the guy who recruited me.

'U tank in bear form??'


/p Thanks for the invite everyone! Good luck!

/leave party
Continue reading 'Entry 17: U heal Mara?'

Entry 16: How much is your time worth?

I'm crunching along merrily on my shaman, and at the moment I am perfectly content to follow the leveling guide and just sort of cruise through the game in melee mode. Just got into the first few ranks of Unleashed Rage, so now that little shudder of glee I get whenever I crit has evolved into more of a sick cackle. The thing I can't stand about my shaman at this level is the unpredictability of fights, since everything is predicated on getting off a crit. Sometimes I run in, get crits/windfury procs like crazy and the target is dead before I can blink. Other times, I'll stand there for what seems like forever just dual swinging away, getting increasingly frustated as the white numbers continually get broken up by MISS, MISS, DODGE, etc, with nary a crit in sight. I hardly ever drop totems unless I know I can reliably pull multiple mobs in sequence. I've found that using Lighting Bolt Rank 1 is a great way of getting something's attention without having to leave my little bubble of awesomeness.

But that's kind of besides the main point to this article.

See, I think I've finally gotten up enough courage to blow away Ferenczy's Enchanting profession to take up a new one. I've long had an antagonistic view of my enchanting skills because I just don't find it all that useful. I disenchant more than I enchant, and it's getting really old. I've turned to guildmates with more time/less common sense for all my high level enchanting needs, and I haven't missed it at all. I've decided to drop Enchanting (sitting at 301 skill now) for Alchemy.

My reasons for this are manifold. First of all, I love thinking systemically. Having Feren as an alchemist seems to gel really well with his primary-primary profession, Tailoring, because of the high demand for elemental reagents in tailoring recipes. Transmutes could come in really handy, I think. Thinking cross-character, I could have Shatterhoof supply quite a lot of Feren's herb needs once he gets up to speed, further alleviating the costs of leveling a profession from scratch.

A quick Google search will turn up a plethora of various profession power leveling guides that walk you through exactly what you need to make at the various skill levels in order to progress. This sure beats having to figure things out for yourself and potentially wasting valuable resources, the most critical of which is time.

You see, most casual players are lack not the want, ambition, or skill to do well in the game, they simply lack time. Between my responsibilities at work and the time I want to spend with my family, my time in-game is significantly less than that of most of the population. This means that I have to plan ahead for what I want to do and prepare as much as possible outside of the game in order to fully utilize the time I do have. This means reading up on boss strategies, searching for the quests or bosses I'll need to overcome for the loot I want, or, in this case, brushing up on a leveling guide so that I can set up the necessary milestones I'll need to hit every play session.

In a roundabout way this has led me to my current situation, and it's given me some insight into how the free market within WoW really works. Every player, casual or not, has to determine for him/herself just how valuable their game time really is. Take the epic crafting recipes for instance. If you don't have a lot of time, it's probably more efficient for you to do dailies in small blocks of time and just buy your mats on the AH. Grinding can yield the materials far more cheaply in terms of gold expenses, but you end up having to rely on the randomized loot of every mob you kill for the stuff you want, whereas completing a daily will ALWAYS give you the monetary reward you set out to acquire.

If you need, like I did, more than 25 Primal Fires for all the Shadoweave I needed for my Frozen Shadoweave Set, you're looking at over 625g in Primal Fires alone. That's the equivalent of 250 Motes of Fire, which, at BEST, would take you 150 Fire Elemental kills to accomplish if every elemental dropped 2 Motes. We all know they do not, that the drop rate is probably closer to 20% for every Mote, so those 250 Motes are more realistically going to take you around 1250 elemental kills to achieve. On my best days I could take three elementals at a time in roughly the duration of a single Corruption spell, or 24 seconds. Add in travel time to and from mobs, global cooldowns and the like and you raise that to roughly one minute per elemental pack. That equates to roughly 7 hours of game time just killing elementals, assuming I can get three pulls per minute and don't have any competition.

Can you say bloody unlikely?

On the flip side, assuming you can earn 40g an hour doing dailies (some people put this as high as 100g, but I'll be conservative, and assume you have a non-epic flying mount), that's about 16 days worth of dailies to purchase all those mats. Sure it might take longer, but if you're strapped for time, a slow, gradual build up towards your final reward is less stressful than the randomness of the loot generation system and open competition on the mobs.

So what am I getting at? Time is valuable. Time is worth gold. Those seven hours spent grinding could just as easily be spent running two or three instances (or at least two heroics), or clearing Karazhan once a week. If you want to maximize your play experience, you need to figure out what kind of returns your likely to see for your time investment and choose the optimal path. How you define 'returns' is entirely up to you. For some people it means improving gear, or earning gold. Others might define it a little more abstractly by simply calling it 'fun'. If grinding on elementals is your idea of fun, more power to you. After all, someone needs to fill in the supply side of supply-demand. I'll be more than happy to reward your hard work with the gold I earn running dailies, if it means I get more time to do what I consider 'fun'.

In case I wasn't clear, that does NOT involve farming.
Continue reading 'Entry 16: How much is your time worth?'

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Entry 15: A Walk on the Shaman Side

Recently, I've toned down the amount of lockage on my account to break things up a little. I've run into something of a wall of Feren. I've purchased my epic flight mount, so money holds no sway over me anymore. I have little to no desire to level enchanting any more, since I'm probably going to lose it in favor of Inscription when Wrath gets released. My guild continues to stumble trying to re-establish a routine Kara group thanks to some painful desertions earlier in the year, so raiding in on hiatus. Magister's Terrace is still mildly entertaining, but everyone seems entirely afraid of heroic mode, so much so that most of my heroic attempts, assuming I even get a full group together, end up falling apart half a dozen pulls into the instance. Most of the time it doesn't even seem like we're doing that badly! We'll run in, start fighting a few groups, down them in (at least, to me) reasonable time, when usually the healer will pipe up that the tank is simply not geared enough for the run. Someone else will nod sagely, and suddenly we're done. Yours truly ends up scratching his head in confusion, but having never tanked/healed a major instance before, I defer to the knowledge and experience of those more familiar with the concepts. It's happened so often that I'm pretty much ambivalent about it.

Though Timbal's Focusing Crystal sure would be sweet.

So, glancing through my character screen, I decided that I'd rather spend my scant WoW hours doing something productive rather than farming Shattered Sun rep. Who needs a title anyway, right? I dusted off Shatterhoof, my trusty Shaman, and set about relearning the basics of shamanism.

It's been a very interesting experience, to be sure. Remember, Feren has been my main for over three years, and I've rarely deviated, if at all. In fact, the last time I started alting it up was about three or four months before Burning Crusade got released...

Hm. This seems to be turning into a trend.

In any case, I've been slowly working on Shatterhoof, plugging my way up the level grind and having a right good time of things. I decided early on that I was going to do this as an enhancement shaman, only because I wasn't all that interested in doing ANOTHER caster, and healers are notoriously bad at leveling. Before shelving him the first time I'd leveled him to 31, a Corpsemaker strapped proudly to his back, so I was in good shape to start things up again.

Leveling as a melee hybrid is worlds away from what it was like leveling Feren. For one, I've learned a lot about general game practices that I just didn't have when I first started playing. He's got two gathering professions as opposed to my original halacious choice of tailoring/enchanting. He's staying on top of his first aid instead of letting it languish. He's selling most of his green drops on the AH.

I've noticed quite a few things about leveling this time around that have changed since my days pre-BC.

For one, the reduced XP requirement is really nice. I breezed through the thirties without too much difficulty at all, at roughly an hour per level. It definitely helps that I grabbed QuestHelper and a coordinate AddOn to guide my travels, but even then, Ghost Wolf is a luxury my warlock never had.

If there's a downside to the faster leveling experience, it's the reduced amount of gold potential characters seem to have now as they level up. Whereas before you could reasonably expect to have enough saved for your first mount by the time you hit 40, even through studious use of the AH and selling all the vendor trash I could get my grubby hooves on, I was barely scratching 50Gs by the time Shatter reached 40. Feren had to subsidize his first mount with a nice gold donation, which I should easily be able to recoup thanks to my awesome awesome Nether Ray.

The counterbalance to this shorter accumulation period however is the massive amount of gold on the open market. Prices for even low level materials like herbs and leather are MUCH higher now than I remember them to be before TBC. Just yesterday I sold off a bags worth of heavy and medium leather for a tidy profit. I was amazed by how high the buyouts were on the AH when I checked for average prices. I really need to update Auctioneer.

So even though I'm raking in more gold per auction, I just don't spend as much time actually gathering in one spot before I've exhausted the leveling potential and moved on. Getting the money for an epic mount is going to be just as much of a headache. Feren won't be retiring his bomber jacket anytime soon, I don't think.

Beyond the 'incidentals' of the WoW experience though, shamans are a blast to play. I readily admit that I am probably the worst shaman you'll ever meet. I'm no good with much outside of my happy little enhancement sphere. Totems confuse me; I can never remember which totems I have access to or when I should be using them. For a while, I was using Strength of Earth routinely to beef up my Two-hander swings, but I was taking heaps of damage. I couldn't go more than two or three mobs at a time before having to eat or bandage. When I switched to Stoneskin and Healing Stream though, my endurance went through the roof. But once I got Dual Wield, I've found that I'm simply moving too much to warrant dropping totems of any kind. Between Stormstrike, Flurry and Windfury procs, I'm just tearing through stuff. I used to think that my warrior was quick!

My noobness as a shaman was painfully apparent when I did my first non-boosted instance run the other day. We hit the Cathedral side of SM, our party consisting of a two-hander warrior, a rogue, a warlock, priest, and myself. Since we were all above 40, everyone was pretty comfortable. Let me tell you, I haven't been in an instance run so chaotic in my life! People were pulling every which way, only mild focusing going on, no one was waiting for drinks between pulls, and even the rogue stopped trying to CC when he noticed the warrior's favorite button seemed to be Whirlwind.

We wiped once, right at the doors to the cathedral, when we simply got overwhelmed by a stream of elites as runners chained groups one after another. Our priest dropped, but we stayed up for quite some time before the warrior went down. It was only then that I realized, to my embarassment, that I have HEALING SPELLS on my toolbar.

Oh yeah. I'm a shaman. Silly me.

So instead of keeping Mr. Fury alive, I kept on blidly whacking away. He died. Warlock died. I soon died. Rogue vanished and the mobs reset. I popped back up (yay Resurrection!), began ressing people, and we were back at it. The whole run was over in about 30 minutes. I dropped all of two totems the entire time, right at Mograine. No one had a DPS meter, but I was definitely smashing face. It was chaotic, but a very welcome change of pace from the ridiculous amount of attention I normall pay to an instance run. MgT has indeed raised the bar for situational awareness.

But Feren, if you're so used to watching multiple mobs, fear juggling, seduce macro'ing, DPSing and watching your threat, why in the world are you such a bad shaman? I'll admit, my situational awareness as a shaman is NOTHING like it is on my lock, and I think I know why. I just don't have shaman in my blood yet. I don't know or remember, instinctively, what I can or cannot do in any given situation. That kind of familiarity can only come from years of experience on the same toon. Besides that, though I'm still in the DPS corner of the party triad, the spheres of responsibility my shaman has is far different from that of a warlock.

As a lock, I've got two jobs: CC and DPS intelligently. As a shaman, it's more like: DPS (single target w/ melee or multi target with chain lighting, still not sure when to switch), incidental healing as necessary, party buffs via totems, removing poisons and diseases, and locking down casters and runners with Earth/Frost Shock as necessary.

That's a lot of stuff to stay on top of, and I haven't even hit the point where I should be thinking about totem twisting yet.

In my defense, no single shaman can be expected to do ALL of that. There's still a priority to things. As enhancement, my primary responsibilities seem to be DPS and party buffs, followed closely by caster/runner control. I should only think or worry about healing if our primary healer bites it, or if the party needs a quick boost, and poison/disease cleansing can just as easily be handled by their respective totems than by me spamming spells.

Oh, that's right. Purge. I also keep mobs purged. Add that to the mixing pot.

I've been told that as I specialize further into the Enhancement tree, some of those responsibilities will likely drop off. Without spell damage gear my Chain Lightnings will be underwhelming at best, and the inability to switch out gear besides weapons during combat pretty much ensures I won't be expected to spot heal if a healer drops. Still, I want to be sure I know HOW to do those things, because doing otherwise is like disabling features of your computer just because you never plan on using them.

You may not PLAN on doing so, but it can't hurt to know how, if the situation ever calls for it.

I've also gained newfound respect for self-res abilities. On my warlock, I rarely run with an SS up simply because I'm either in an instance (and thus someone else gets the SS) and I don't play on a PVP server. Still, in hindsight I can see why it is so important for leveling locks to make sure they keep that buff up at all times, especially while running quest chains. The amount of time you save from being able to pop back up instead of doing the old graveyard shuffle is significant. Travel time notwhitstanding, you will also avoid having to deal with respawns. To all you aspiring warlocks out there reading this blog, take heed: ALWAYS have your SS up and ALWAYS have your Healthstone conjured. We warlocks may be close to invincible, but it's always good to be prepared.

Just pretend that you're Dracula. Stake through the heart, exposure to sunlight, head chopped off and body burned....POP, not dead anymore! Vengeance! Blood! Suffering on all mine enemies!

Ahem. Anyway, you get the point. Ahnks are so cheap that I am now shocked when I think about all the instance wipes I've experienced wherein the shaman sheepishly confesses to not having any on hand. WHAT? Any time I'm in a capital city I'm loading up on the damn things. Not that I find myself dying frequently, but I'd feel really dumb if I didn't have one on hand when I needed it. Same goes for the other reagents Shamans tend to go through, like Fish Oil and Shiny Scales. Never know when water breathing or water walking might come in handy. Just don't use water walking if you intend on jumping into a pool from a high elevation.

Do you suppose a water-walking enchanted corpse leaves water-walking blood and gore all over the place after a splat? There's an image for you.

It's also painfully evident that some classes are just better at leveling than others. Even among DPS classes, some are more equal than others. As a lock, you must be sure to spec in such a way that you take advantage of one of two of our most efficient grinding trees. Demonology and Affliction both have a lot to offer warlocks as they level, presenting two different paths that cater to drastically different playstyles. Affliction is more self-sustaining and is (in my opinion) more efficient at farming multiple mobs, but Demonology has more burst potential and is probably better suited to a PVP server.

And while gear dependency is certainly higher on a melee character like a rogue or shaman, having a high level toon that can bankroll periodic gear upgrades makes for very fast, very efficient leveling. It's gotten me wondering about just what the optimal account leveling process might be. That though is material for a later post.

I'm level 44 now, only a scant 14 more till I'm through the Dark Portal. Until then, depending on whether the guild needs my warlocking prowess, it seems as though Shatterhoof is going to be getting the majority of the spotlight, with his undead benefactor dutifully watching his progress. Very gothic, really. I may have to write a more definitive story about how those two interact one of these days.

Lightning Cows FTW.
Continue reading 'Entry 15: A Walk on the Shaman Side'

Friday, April 4, 2008

Entry 13: That's Borne. With an 'E'.

Guilds are an interesting mechanism in MMOs. When I first started playing WoW, I had no idea what a guild was or had any inclination to join one. I was perfectly content and happy to solo myself through the first few zones, oblivious to much else. I think the concept of a guild is rather intimidating to new MMO players because it equally conjures images of intense servitude and enjoyable camaraderie. I know I was hesitant to join at first because I feared the drama that must inevitably come from interacting with players sitting behind avatars. Thankfully my negative experiences have been relatively limited, and my present guild has been a very good fit for me.

But great twisting nether, has there been drama lately.

It all started about a month and a half ago. You see, the Shadows of the Nethrezim was a guild mostly built around a circle of real life friends in WoW. Many of us were 70, with quite a few alts running here and there, but as far as mains go we were pretty well represented.

We had members who frequented the raids of other guilds, at least two who were pretty far along in SSC, and had great relations with a family of other, small guilds. Foremost an RP guild, SotN was getting to the point where guild Kara raids seemed like a real possibility. I had personally organized a half-dozen incursions into that cursed Tower by networking with other guilds and assembling what appeared to be a workable team.

Well, as the Kara raids progressed and we stopped dying to the trash, word spread through the guild and more people wanted in. We had people signing in on raid day expecting invites. The only trouble was that only a few ever bothered to sign up via the guild forums, which is where the roster was. The drama began to kick in when older, established guild members were being turned away from the Raid in favor of brother-guild members because they never bothered to sign up.

People were angry, annoyed that they were being denied their place in a "guild raid", and seemed to forget that without these other players there'd be no Kara raid at all.

Anyway, long story short, the next time Blizzard opened up free server transfers out of Argent Dawn, we lost a good half-dozen of our 70s. Without a word, the whole lot of them just jumped ship, and suddenly the guild was a whole lot smaller. We put the Kara raids on hold while we sorted out the mess.

After lots of discussions between guild officers and the rest of the crew, it was decided that the guild would have to move on. We decided to start fresh, taking what lessons we could from our previous experience and breaking away from the bad. Just as important was the RP side of things; the Shadows were bound to service under Varimathras, and it was becoming difficult for players, both old and new, to gel with the idea of serving a Dreadlord. They're not the nicest people in the world, you understand. To be able to really move on story-wise, we'd needed to adopt a new name.

Well, last night, after logging in with my shaman alt to do some mindless leveling, I got a raid invitation from our mage-king Anstar. He told me they needed my signature on the new guild charter, and that I'd need to /gquit. Surprised (happy circumstance dropped me into the game at just the right moment, it seemed), I did so, and not ten minutes later we had enough signatures to form the new guild:

From the Shadows of the Nethrezim to Netherborne. Seems like a good switch, no?

There was a lot of discussion during the switch whether it should be Netherborne or Netherbourne. Curious, I did a dictionary search for "bourne" and discovered that it is an archaic term for goal or destination. Our guild leader Skold seemed to like that (I believe he phrased it as, "That's sexy."), but the majority didn't like how closely it tied to the whole Bourne Identity series. We settled on borne because we all felt that one more unnecessary vowel would be way too pompous. A few more letters and we might as well be French.

So Netherborne it is! I managed to get my main and my brother's mage switched over as well, which means I'll be all set the next time I log in. This still doesn't resolve the main issue of the guild, a lack of out-of-game communication, but there's a lot to be said about having a fresh start. I personally think it helped clear the air of a lot of the bad feelings from the split, and it will be really interesting to see how many people switch over the next couple of days. At the very least this should weed out the more innactive players of the guild, though our numbers will still be somewhat inflated due to the pressence of alts.

Oh well. Here's to a new chapter in the storied history of the Nethers. If anyone has any suggestions on how to improve player use of the guild forums, I'd appreciate the insight.

Wish us luck!
Continue reading 'Entry 13: That's Borne. With an 'E'.'

Entry 12: Futurecrafting

Minor tangent. I'm presently working on my MBA, grinding away all sorts of hours during the week on reading up for class and writing papers. One of our current books is the business theory Wikinomics. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, but familiar with Wikipedia, the concepts are easy to explain.

Wikinomics proposes that a new world order is emerging, whereby the line separating consumers from producers becomes increasingly vague. The internet has revolutionized communication, allowing people to gather together and network with each other much faster than before. The author believes that the most successful of companies will be the ones who embrace this new open framework of public discourse, forming close alliances with their consumers, suppliers, and even their competition, in order to widen the field and encourage innovation. One of the keys to this is allowing your customers a major hand in the development of your product.

It's a compelling argument, though obviously rife with complicated issues, such as the role of intellectual property in a world of open sourcing, but there are better venues than a Warcraft blog to discuss them. No, this post has to do with applying that concept to that oft-maligned aspect of World of Warcraft - the crafting professions.

Every character can specialize in two major professions, beyond the secondary ones like First Aid, Cooking and Fishing. The primary professions are further broken down into two subsets, the gathering professions (Mining, Skinning and Herbalism) and the crafting professions (Tailoring, Blacksmithing, Leatherworking, Enchanting, Alchemy, Engineering, and Jewel Crafting). Alchemy, Enchanting and Engineering are kind of the odd ones out of this post, for reasons I'll get into towards the end. Let's begin by analyzing just how the crafting professions work right now, and identity some of the problems that plague most crafters.

Crafters start out by learning predetermined patterns from their profession trainers. As they make items, their skill level goes up incrementally, proportionate to the difficulty of the pattern relative to their skill level. This just means that a pattern that is green to you will yield far fewer skill-ups than one that is orange, regardless of the quantity of materials required for either pattern.

Enter the world of endless material grinds. Crafters end up consuming vast quantities of raw materials to reach the skill levels necessary to make the truly useful items. Burning Crusade set the tone by allowing crafters access to some truly epic armor/weapons, many of which are Bind on Pickup and serve as the primary driver for maxing out a crafting skill. Because, let's face it, hardly anyone expects to get rich off of crafting items. Tailors can make decent coin by selling their cloth transmute cooldowns, but leatherworkers and blacksmiths are often better served by just putting their raw materials up for sale in lieu of any of their finished products. Jewel Crafting is perhaps one of the few crafting professions that can bring in reliable gold because their goods can be freely traded on the auction house, and the barrier for entry (the relative high-cost of their pattern drops) helps keep competition down. For the most part, however, crafters aren't in the market to make money. If you want to do that, take up two gathering professions and sell everything else.

Why is this so? There are many reasons, but the primary one is that so terribly few of the crafting patterns are worth buying. Apart from some quest-specific items, or the ridiculous top-tier patterns requiring Primal Nethers, crafters rarely get to offer truly unique items with which to carve out niche markets for themselves. Blizzard has done this for numerous reasons, but for the most part, any item you can craft during the normal progression of the game (read: sans powerleveling the skill) will be worse than any quest drop or random green found from killing mobs of your level. Until you get to the last point bracket, your are sinking cash into a deficient system.

It doesn't help that, for the most part, a tailor is a tailor is a tailor. There are serious blocks to some of the epic BOE items (basically in the form of highly expensive pattern drops), but if you meet one tailor at 375, it's almost certain that he'll have 95% of the patterns that any other tailor at 375 will have. There is no diversity, no room for innovation, and thus the market levels out. Using data-mining sites like wowhead or thottbot will tell you which profession can craft the items that tend to sell best on the AH.

This is the watermark for any and all profits you can expect to make over the course of your crafting career, should you choose that profession. Generally speaking, the margins are razor thin.

I once did an estimate, comparing the required levels of production necessary to hit 5000 gold using two relatively well-selling tailoring items: Netherweave Bags and Imbued Netherweave Bags. Taking the mean cost of production for each bag, based off of the price averages pulled from the aforementioned websites, I was shocked to discover that the Netherweave Bag actually had a much higher contribution margin than the more costly Imbued Netherweave Bag, almost by a margin of 2 to 1. In theory, one Netherweave Bag had a margin of 42% of my investment, while the Imbued Netherweave Bag only has a return of 17%. I can make Netherweave Bags for about half what I can make selling them, assuming a perfect world where I'm the only person selling them on the AH.

This is not bloody likely.

The Imbued bags have a better chance of selling, if only because of their comparative scarcity, but the margin is much worse, and that was with me grinding all of the Netherweb Spidersilk; otherwise, the Imbued bags cost more to make than they sell for. Because of the way the crafting recipes are designed, I have no ability to apply personal innovation to any of my products with which to distinguish them from the competition. I cannot expect to sell anything I make for more than the average price for any long period of time; another tailor will just come along and undercut me, stealing my customers and costing me time. Crafters are basically stuck in a world where every other crafter can produce all of their products at exactly the same cost. Even availing of unique "advantages" such as a guild bank will only work for so long. You can grossly undercut the competition by using the resources of the guild, but unless you are selling the items at cost (meaning, at exactly the aggregate cost of its component materials), you are costing your guild money. Your are a cash deficit, and you should lose your Gbank privileges.

Now would be a good time to note that this post will in no way tackle the sticky practice of market monolopies, whereby a huge bankroll is used to corner a section of the AH that constitutes a commodity item. There's a lot more theory to that than I'd care to get into. I'm still of the mind that this practice takes real skill and foresight to ensure the would-be monopolizer doesn't get stuck with a ton of immovable inventory.

In the world of competition by scale, the only way to break the pattern is to allow crafters to innovate.

I may be alone in this sentiment, but when I first embarked down the path of tailoring, I had glorious visions of being able to subsist entirely on my crafted gear. I thought I'd be able to make stuff that would be really useful to me, to give me some kind of competitive advantage over the hostile world. I was rather let down when I realized the only useful things I could really make were bags, and the Robe of the Void I crafted when I got to skill level 300. I love my Frozen Shadoweave Set, but now I hardly ever use tailoring at all.

What would really get the markets cooking, in my opinion, would be to really let players go nuts with the item creation engine. This is what I envision:

At each of the skill bracket caps, crafters would unlock the ability to create a new tier of their own items by playing around with the item budget limits built into the game. The interface would require the crafter to select the item slot they are creating an item for, and select the ilevel they want to work with. The ilevel would be restricted by your overall skill, to a max of, say, an instance drop green for BoE items, and a Normal instance drop blue for BoP.

After the item slot and item budget have been determined, the crafter can then play around with the various point allotments for each stat, from the more basic character stats to the more exotic ones, such as resilience, spell damage, and spell hit. It seems as though there's already inherent limits on how each of these stats interact on the normal item randomizer, so allowing players to engage actively in the same activity doesn't appear to be a difficult feat.

The key aspect to this system would have to be in the realm of dynamic cost scaling. The material requirements for this customized item would have to depend on the types, not just the quantities, of the stat enhancements on the item. For instance, a cloth bracer with nothing but +stam and +res on it might require Motes of Earth, while another with nothing but +spell damage would require lots of Arcane Dust. Allow players to 'save' item configurations for use later would turn it into a sort of mini-game, something players could spend as much or as little time on as possible.

Players would be limited to creating green-equivalent items for trade this way, but they would have the unique ability to tailor their wares to suit specific niche needs. Allowing players to create items with unique properties such as copious amounts of +mp5 and +spi, or +spell damage and +res, to give their peers a chance at filling in awkward gear slots would be really cool.

In addition, the game could use something akin to token drops off of bosses in order to craft personalized BoP items, comparable to the item drops off of similar bosses in the game. It may take an appropriately large number of "tokens" to ensure that gear doesn't become too commonplace, but the system wouldn't be too different from how heroic badges work now. This would also give the 5mans a little more mileage, as no boss kill would be totally useless, or relegated to DE fodder. Higher ilevel blues would require more tokens, similar to how the new BT/Hyjal-level badge rewards can cost a staggering 100 badges.

If you REALLY wanted to spice things up, you would integrate some kind of item design system into the game, very similar to the character design screen. You could select from a slew of item designs, and tweak things like colors, patterns, and various glows to create truly unique gear looks. I can almost hear the RP'ers swooning.

The catch, of course, is that the most exotic designs would require really exotic items not usually related to the profession. Feathers, eyes, crystal fragments, dyes, or even blood could all be requirements for your unique look. It would give new value to gray drops beyond simple vendor trash. Perhaps it would be helpful if the item generator could manufacture a bill of materials, kind of like those quest scrolls we all experienced that listed down the requirements for a gathering spree. Heck, you could mail the things to people and tell them exactly what they need to get in order for you to build their item.

Imagine the potential requirements of an item with good stats AND a catchy look. The possibilities are endless.

Mixing and matching stats like this would take crafting from the grind it is currently into a dynamic and, more importantly, fun system. Further rewarding the truly dedicated, perhaps some stats or stat combinations (or even the limits you can raise those stats to) should be linked to quest chains and profession tasks. In addition to the canned pattern drops, bosses could drop patterns to unlock really esoteric abilities like Stun Resist or the various Chance On modifiers.

Crafted items like this would have a different color to them, like Bronze, and would have either a randomized name, or one designated by the crafter (obviously with some attention paid to propriety). Perhaps the relation of the item stats would help determine the name of the item, much like the present stam/int properties are all Of the Eagle, while anything with str/agi is Of the Tiger. Any crafter BoP should be open for custom naming though. Naturally, everything would have the brand of the crafter on the item (e.g. made by such-and-such).

Some items might be of sufficient complexity that they would require a specific location to be crafted. We see this implemented already with the need for Anvils, Forges, the Altar of Shadow, or even the unpredictable magic energies of Netherstorm. How cool would it be to have to trek out to four different volcanoes in order to craft a unique weapon?

Now, in my mind this system, or a similar system, would be applicable to almost all of the crafting professions, with some tweaking here and there to account for the variables in use. Engineering would be a very interesting profession to apply a "workshop" environment to, but I'm no engineer (and am only a mediocre enchanter), so I'll leave that to the more experienced to figure out.

Enchanting is an odd duck because of the way the system seems to restrict certain stats from being placed on certain pieces, not to mention the lack of player enchantments for the head, waist, leg and shoulder slots. Though TBC introduced enchanter-specific bonuses to rings, the system of enchanting is inherently flawed because of one glaring issue: the inability of selling enchantments outside of direct meetings.

As an enchanter, I know full well the terrible agony of spamming the trade channel with a list of your enchantments, hoping for potential buyers. Then, even if you did find a buyer, you had to hope that they were in the same capital city you were, or at least be willing to travel. Margins on enchantments may have changed since I hawked my wares, but in my day you hoped for just a few gold over the cost of materials, or just tip money.

It's an awful way to make a living, to be sure.

Lots of players have advocated using scrolls or some other medium to allow enchantments to be sold or traded on the AH. I support the concept, but Blizzard seems very hesitant to allow this to happen. The only reason I can think of is that it would allow enchanters to modify gear on their alts as well as the main, effectively giving each of their other characters a fully leveled enchanting profession on top of the other two.

If you ask me though, any enchanter who has spent the gold to max out the profession deserves SOME perk over and above a happy spell/stat bonus to rings. Come on people, throw them a bone or something.

The workshop concept could theoretically help out the situation by allowing enchanters to sell generic bonuses applicable to selected slots. For instance, a Wanderer's Blessing might allow a player to apply a set number of bonus points divided up between stamina, agility or spirit to their boots. Allowing the player to allocate the points would be even better, as you'd be moving the whole workshop concept one further tier down. Some of the more powerful enchantment scrolls might need to be Unique, such that an enchanter could only have one for sale at any given time, or have a cooldown before they could craft another.

Let's be clear though, whatever solution presents itself (if at all) in Wrath of the Lich King: the only money enchanters will ever be able to count on is the income they generate from selling their enchanting mats. They do not have a listing fee on the AH, and thus are far more readily tradeable than other commodities. In fact, enchanting mats are about the only reason I'd ever want to keep enchanting as one of my main professions. Being able to disenchant BOP quest blues or greens for significant profit over what I'd get selling the item to an NPC is a huge plus. Until Blizzard lets disenchanting work in the Non-tradeable window like picking lockboxes does, being able to DE is still a huge plus.

In any case, he benefits of the workshop system to Blizzard, in my opinion, would be numerous. First, it would put more of the itemization in the hands of the players, freeing the developers from having to build and design every single drop in the game (randomizer notwithstanding). You would kick start a huge change in the economy, allowing player innovation to propel market forces and eliminating stagnation of prices. It would help get rid of the complaints that all items look alike, and that the gear skins are endlessly recycled. If people are complaining about something, give them the ability to fix it themselves, I say. The system would complement the gearing system inherent to the game already, not by competing with normal drops, but by providing an alternative to them. Let's be honest here, the majority of green drops in the game either get disenchanted or sold. The percentage of them that go up on the AH and are actually sold that way are probably less than 50%.

Most importantly, it would make crafting fun, and give players a chance at exercising some real creativity. That, in my opinion, could never be a bad thing.
Continue reading 'Entry 12: Futurecrafting'

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Crawlers of the Void 01

In the pursuit of knowledge, great care must be taken to ensure that the eye does not catch sight of the unreadable, the ear word of the unspeakable, the mind thought of the unknowable; for while wounds earned in battle may be healed, the mind is a devious thing: that which is learned may never be unlearned. ~ A Hymn of Shade and Sorrow


The Depths of the Undercity shimmered with the sickly green glow of its noxious river. In the larger chambers vaulted ceilings, though cloaked forever in oppressive dim, helped alleviate some of the closeness and claustrophobia the catacombs inspired. Here though, in the bowels of the Undead citadel, there was no such comfort. The rough-cut tunnel walls dripped with something foul and glistened with far worse than deep rock niter in the sputtering, oily torchlight. The tunnels were an afterthought, carved hastily into the very walls after the main causeways were excavated above, and were resoundly ignored by most of the Forsaken. It was in these prime estates that the most reviled of Undercity's prisoners found residence; the final resting places of things that death had long forsworn. The cells were reserved for traitors, deserters, and conspirators of the Scourge, and for any such prisoner to have a visitor was nigh unheard of.

That's what made Lucius Morgov, keeper of these jails, so uneasy: the man that stood beside him in the harsh torchlight had made not one, but several trips into this very cell, and with each departure left behind a fog of palpable malaise in the already sullen corridors.

The brief silence was broken an instant later as the screaming resumed. It reverberated off the walls, piercing in its intensity and completely incomprehensible in meaning, but Lucius knew it well; the screams had begun three days ago, barely ceasing, and always repeating the same blasphemous, unintelligible gibberish in a screeching, gnawing rhythm. When the stranger had returned with yet another sealed parchment granting him access to this prisoner, Lucius was almost relieved. The screaming was starting to get to him; just that morning he had been rudely interrupted from his daily chores when, to his complete shock, he had found himself standing in the mouth of this very tunnel, swaying to that accursed screaming, with no recollection of how or when he had gotten there. All he could remember was that maddening voice, and the overwhelming fury that gnawed at his senses. Lucius had stood at the mouth of that tunnel, shaking with rage at the intolerable screaming, as thoughts of murderous intent had danced on the red-hazed surface of his minds eye. Rage had turned to sudden dread when he had noticed the set of keys clutched firmly in his mottled hand, at which point Lucius had swiftly drawn as far away from the mad keening as he could manage. An hour or so later, the stranger had returned.

A cloak was drawn across his emaciated, unnaturally lean frame, clasped at his breastbone with an insignia that seemed to shift if one gazed too long at it. A wide-brimmed hat was perched low on his pale head, leaving most of his face in shadow. What little was left to be seen lay hidden beneath the ebony sash of cloth that was blindfolded across the undead's eyes. Like many of the Forsaken, this one sported signs of extended, though halted, decay; most pronounced was the lack of flesh about his lower face, where nothing so much as an unyielding, skeletal grin was left.

At their first meeting, Lucius had been unnerved to learn that, despite the blindfold, the stranger was inexplicably capable of moving about the darkened catacombs with nary a stumble, and with next to no hesitation. The faintly glowing staff he held in his right hand did not sweep the ground searchingly ahead of him, but tapped resolutely with each stride. How the undead navigated, Lucius had no idea...but if the rumors he'd heard about this one were true, it was the work of a particularly dark kind of magic.

"You say he's been screaming like this for the last three days?" the stranger asked upon their arrival at the heavy, chained prison door.

Lucius nodded in assent. "Aye," he muttered, "almost non-stop. I were about ready to go in there myself and shut him up permanently just before you arrived."

At this, the stranger seemed to regard Lucius with a strange tilt of his head, and the jailer felt his undead flesh prickle. "Been a little eager with your keys lately, Morgov?"

To this, Lucius grunted vaguely, swallowed hard, and led the stranger to the cell door. His hands rolled back the keys with practiced efficiency, and with a swift turn the massive lock on the door was snapped open. The portal opened with groaning protest, and all at once the screaming was piercingly louder. Before he could enter, the stranger grabbed Lucius's shoulder with surprising force and pulled him aside.

"Today you will stay outside," the stranger said, to which Lucius felt his anger rising, only to be quelled a second later by the sudden change from within the cell; all at once, the screaming stopped, and was followed moments later as low, insane laughter gurgled forth from the darkness. Then, words Lucius finally could understand crawled across his skin.

"You would deny him the wrath I have so lovingly stoked in his dead heart, would you, warlock?" the thing in the cell cackled, "Had you taken a moment or two longer, I could have been free of your loathsome questioning!"

Lucius made to spit a curse at the wretch in the cell, but his companion rapped him hard on the shoulder with the head of his staff. "Leave him to me," Ferenzys rasped, "I will require some isolation with the prisoner this time."

"Can't do that!" Lucius snapped, shifting his anger at the grinning visage of his strange charge, "Against the rules, can't leave prisoners alone with visitors, not s'posed to HAVE visitors, just who do you think ye're--"

Lucius was cut short as Ferenczys muttered something incomprehensible in the dark that made his jaw suddenly snap shut, his limbs seizing. Torrents of old, shunned memories cascaded uncontrollably from Lucius' fevered mind. Fear, concentrated and gibbering, bubbled up from his quaking throat in a halting scream. The last thing Lucius Morgov saw before his feet carried him blindly back into the depths of Undercity was the memory of seeing his father torn apart by the spider-thing that had destroyed their home.

Ferenczys waited until the man's screams had faded into the gloom before turning to his quarry, who sat cross-legged and cackling in the dark. The only illumination came from the sewer grate in the low, domed ceiling. The bands of green light revealed that the prisoner had recently been gnawing at his wrists, just below the thick shackles holding him to the ground. Stepping inside, Ferenczys shut the door to the cell, and gazed at the prisoner in what might have been pity, had any remained in his still heart.

The creature had been human, and if the tattered remains of its clothing were any indication, it had once belonged to the order of the Scarlet Crusade. Ferenczys did not know his name, and did not care to. Provisioned to him by an old friend in the Apothecarium, the human was little more than an experimental tool. The experiment had proceeded quickly though, and now scant little humanity remained in the creature's visage. Taking a heavy tome out of his satchel, Ferenczys withdrew a long quill and began taking preliminary notes.

'The flesh has taken on a mottled, sickly appearance, spattered with boils, growths, and tufts of thin hair; bone protrusions along the spine and arms have grown at least another half-inch. The stench...more pronounced, but at least the leprosy seems to have halted its progression. The eyes remain cloudy, faintly luminous, and appear to have developed an infection of sorts. Limbs continue to twist and gnarl.'

Having completed the note, Ferenczys placed the book on a small wooden pedestal in the corner of the room. Then, ignoring the curses and insults the creature spat in his direction, Ferenczys stepped behind the shackled prisoner and unceremoniously drove the end of his staff into the thing's back. It snarled in pain, but submitted and bent forward. Ferenczys waited expectantly, head cocked curiously to one side. At first nothing seemed to be amiss, but a moment later, something stirred beneath the parchment-thin skin.

'A closer look if you'd please, Grim,' Ferenczys said, more forcefully pushing the staff between the struggling thing's shoulder blades to still a new surge of struggling. The air beside the warlock's left leg suddenly began to shimmer as if in a heat-haze just before a single, disembodied flame flickered into existence. Suddenly illuminated by the otherworldly fire smoldering on the tip of its tail, Ferenczy's imp, Grimdoom, scampered across the grimy floor to leap up and grab hold of the warlock's staff. Spinning itself about the runed rod, the fel creature lowered its toothy face to the squirming mass. Its luminous eyes stared intently, wide and white, and through the dark magic binding the creature to his will, Ferenczys watched through the imp's eyes the unnatural gyrations occurring just beneath the thing's skin with cold, clinical intensity.

Had Lucius been capable, Ferenczys would have had him secure the prisoner while he conducted the examination, leaving him free to record his observations, but the jailer's behavior had been most troubling. It confirmed that the parasite, as Ferenczys had come to perceive the entity even now undulating along the prisoner's spine, was steadily growing stronger, and in more ways than expected. The physical deformities, the rapid onset of mutative decay, these were more common 'symptoms', but in recent visits the warlock had made discoveries of a more disturbing nature.

Even now, in the imp's peripheral vision, Ferenczys could make out the charred corpses of bloated, malformed sewer rats the thing had somehow incited into frenzy. During his last visit, while Ferenczys and Lucius had been occupied with the prisoner's flailings, three of the twisted things had come surging out of a drain pipe, clawing and biting rabidly at their legs. Though fierce, whatever influence of the parasite's that had granted them their unnatural size and vitriol had also made them frail of form. One had split open like an overripe fruit as Lucius kicked it away, and the other two had quite literally exploded at the first ignition of the warlock's fire magic.

And Ferenczys was certain, after examining the corpses, that the same magic twisting the prisoner into the monstrosity he was becoming had also perverted the rats, but apparently with a recklessness beyond the seemingly careful prodding of its host's body. The way the prisoner had cackled during the attack only emphasized the point; they were created out of pure spite, an expression of its growing rancor for its captors. This latest episode with Lucius, however, went beyond mere nuisance. It belied the cunning intellect that was even now burgeoning in the gibbering shell of the prisoner, an intellect Ferenczys now felt confident had thoroughly consumed what little remained of the Scarlet Acolyte's mind.

Whatever magics at this creatures disposal, Ferenczys had immediately recognized the influence on Lucius as being very similar to that generated by a Curse of Recklessness, but one administered not by sight, but by some other, unknown medium. A mental command sent Grimdoom climbing up the warlock's staff to perch expectantly on his left shoulder. Releasing the pressure of the staff, Ferenczys bent forward and hauled the man to his gangrenous feet. "It took three days for your spell to find its mark, which tells me you were not focusing on the jailer specifically. Why?"

The abomination grinned. "An evil word always finds an ear, warlock. Someone was bound to hear Us."

Ferenczys snarled the words to a spell, and the prisoner's laugh was immediately broken by a renewed scream as the flesh of his neck started to blister and smoke. It was the screaming, then, Ferenczys noted, that had delivered the spell, and all at once the wretched scenario unveiled itself in his mind. The seemingly random gibberish would somehow incrementally weave the curse upon anyone within earshot, gradually forming into the supernatural rage not unlike that seen in the rats. Lucius, as the only one of Undercity's jailers charged with this wing, would have been the one most frequently exposed. The enraged victim would then have followed the maddening screams into the bowels of Undercity, to this very do what? The only thing the spell seemed to induce was violence towards the spellcaster, which suggested...

"You wish to die," Ferenczys spat, smoke still coiling away from where his hand gripped the prisoner's neck. The cloudy eyes swiveled onto him, and slowly the pain-wracked rictus twisted back into that empty smile.

"We wished for freedom," it responded, "but if that was not possible, We wished to hasten your return." The grin widened, splitting the skin at the edges of the froth-caked maw, "And return you did!"

"You knew I would be back," Ferenczys responded dryly, unimpressed, "My studies require periodic observations. Why so impatient?"

Though the warlock did not bear the physical strength of Undercity's more militant denizens, the wretched prisoner was so emaciatedly thin that he had no trouble hoisting him yet higher, until it seemed that the man's neck might snap from the angle. Came the strangled response, "W-we wish to deliver a message."

"Speak quickly," Ferenczys replied, "For I am of the mind to rip out your tongue and see how well you shriek your spells then."

Suddenly, from beneath the tattered garments clinging to the withered frame there came a sickening ripping sound, followed by a shriek as a long, toothy tendril erupted from the man's abdomen and lashed out at the warlock's face. Hurling the prisoner away, Ferenczys barely snapped his head back in time to dodge the whipping appendage as it tried to latch a lamprey-like mouth to his skull.

On his shoulder, Grimdoom began chattering in a panic, spouting off demonic curses at the vile thing that had almost knocked him from his perch. Ferenczys backpedaled, quickly distancing himself from the thrashing corpse and the three-foot long worm that rose like a stalk from its flower bed. The vertical slit along its belly was filled with razor-sharp teeth, and its skin bore a diseased, mottled look to it. In contrast to the dessicated husk of the man it inhabited, this creature appeared bloated, ripe with the fluids of decay, and gleaming with foul secretions. Ferenczys was snapped out of his disgust when the prisoner spoke again, only this time, Ferenczys saw that the worm's mouth undulated in time to the agonized words.

"Heed Us, lest your soul be defiled by the maggots of the void," it hissed, "You who carved the hollow and invited Us in, the eyes of the infinite are upon you! Go now and gnash your teeth in despair, for quickly We come to cover the land in Our tread!

"You who carved the hollow, you are known to Us, and no temple will give you shelter, no sacrifice will appease Us, save the last dregs of sorrow We will wring from your bones! You who--"

But the creature never finished its sentence; Ferenczys, no longer interested in mere interrogation, unleashed the full strength of a shadow bolt into the prisoner's corpse, immediately engulfing it in spiraling black fire. Noxious gasses began to billow from the burning flesh, and now the voice of the thing was intermixed with the feral screams of the prisoner's body, mindless, but still capable of expressing pain. Grimdoom lashed his tail about in warning, barring his fangs at the dying thing as it twisted in its death throes.

The tendril's maw gaped as it lashed blindly about, its tether, its lifeline now severed. It screamed and hissed, reaching spitefully for the warlock as he silently stormed to his heavy ledger and stuffed it in his backpack. Wordlessly, Ferenczys threw the cell door wide and stepped out, before turning to regard the smoking thing in the center of the floor.

The fire had found the thing's bloated body, which began to blister and crackle, blood boiling. Death, Ferenczys noted with some finality, was certain. He would find someone from the Apothecarium to dispose of the remains. Jaw clenched in disgust, the fel-sighted spellcaster began striding away from the chamber. He had gotten less than ten feet away when he heard the thing hiss something that made his still blood turn to ice.

"...know the"

Ferenczys spun about, another shadow bolt at the ready, but the thing was dead. The flames had died to a smoldering crackle, and the corpse of the prisoner and his vile parasite were already falling to ash. The catacombs echoed faintly with the sounds of the Undercity above, but from the prison cell, nothing further was heard. Very soon, Ferenczys would be stepping through a mage portal to return to Shattrath city, but it would be several hours before those last words would fade from his memory, and the chill would leave his undead veins.
Continue reading 'Crawlers of the Void 01'

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Entry 11: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Well fellow players, with Patch 2.4 imminent we can happily cross off another milestone between TBC and Wrath of the Lich King. I have no idea when the expansion is coming out, but as always, expectations are running high. While the prospects of assailing Northrend and battling Arthas' minions is certainly intriguing (alas, my inability to fit into any kind of raid schedule all but guarantees that I will be merely a foot soldier in the campaign against the Scourge), I know that many people are much more curious about WoW's first Hero Class, the Death Knight.

Rather than waste my breath championing or denouncing the new class, I'm going to go into full RP-geek mode. What follows, my friends, is my personal list of favorite, Death Knight-inspiring characters from fiction! I don't know about you all, but when I go to create a character, I usually have an image in my head of what his/her personality is going to be, and how I'd RP if ever given the opportunity. Frequently, I'll draw on some favorite character from popular culture and hope that the Blizzard name system doesn't smack me with the infringement stick.

Since I'm probably not going to get away with the more recognizable Death Knight references (good luck, for instance, getting very far named Nazghul), I decided to go really far into left field.

Let's see the name police catch these!

Cadet 1: Guts (or GATSU, for you kanji maniacs)

The lead character from Berserk is practically the poster boy for the Death Knight class. First of all, he walks around carrying a seven foot long, demon-slaying sword, goes by the ominous title of "Black Swordsman", and wears a cursed set of armor that shoves metal spines into him to force broken bones back together and ignore pain.

He is, how do you say, badass?

At the risk of spoiling the excellent series for those of my readers who haven't seen it, Guts didn't start out this way. Once upon a time, he was just a highly talented swordsman fighting alongside his ambitious and charismatic friend Griffith, in love with a strong woman, and happily kicking ass. But when said buddy decided that personal ambition superseded everything else and sacrificed his entire battalion (Guts and girl included) to ascend to demon-god status, he and Guts had a 'falling out'.

Oh, and he raped Guts' girl. Right in front of him. While Guts' arm was being chewed on by some outer-worldly demon thing. That, my friends, makes it personal.

At the end of it all, Guts' girl is comatose, he's lost a hand and an eye, they've both been branded for life in a way that makes them living targets for every spirit or demon in the vicinity, AND the bastard Griffith got away. Them's what you call 'life changing events'.

Now he's the Black Swordsman, all he wants is revenge, and heaven help anyone/anything that gets in his way. Did I mention the cursed armor?


Cadet 2: Wodan Ymir

The self-proclaimed Sword of Magus, Wodan is the alternate-universe version of Super Robot Taisen protagonist Zengar Zombolt, and gets the nod over his alter-ego by virtue of his blacker persona. Wodan is the guardian of the Earth Cradle, the sword of Magus, and will cleave whoever or whatever challenges the safety of the Cradle. Created from the reconstituted corpse of Zengar by the Shadow-Mirror, Wodan is a killing machine with little regard for anyone or any thing. When he is confronted by his double in a conflict at the Earth Cradle, Wodan declares that he, and only he, will be the one to defeat Zengar, and the two engage in a bitter rivalry till the very end.

Wodan's tale bears similarities to the fate of many who fall to the Scourge. Their ruined bodies are reanimated and instilled with sinister new purpose, often pitting them against their former friends and loved ones. Those that break free join the Forsaken, but are still plagued by the memories of their former lives and the horrors they may have wrought while under the control of the Lich King.

Imagine for a moment that you, one of the Forsaken, are suddenly confronted by your former, living self. Suddenly, the shroud of death you have grown accustomed to is ripped away, and in comparison to the vibrant figure of your alternate you are nothing but a rotting, dessicated husk. You are hollow, while he pulses with life. Every moment you are in his presence brings back countless memories of your former life, each cutting with the sting of glass shards and salt. He is a testament to all you have lost. You are a mockery, a caricature, a shadow, a blight on nature.

Compared to him you will never be more than a corpse.

You know what? I'd probably want to kill him too.


Cadet 3: Battousai (aka Kenshin Himura, when he's not slaughtering things)

This I'm afraid falls under the "what if a belf became a DK?" category. Or a gnome with red hair. Kenshin might look a little (*cough*) effeminate, but we're not so much interested in his looks than his personality. Specifically, Battousai's personality.

You see, Kenshin was a poor orphaned child who was
traveling with some total strangers who had taken pity on him. Their party was ambushed by bandits, and poor Kenshin (then called Shinta) had to watch as all his new friends were slaughtered right in front of him. Before he himself could be introduced to the working end of a katana, Hiko Seijuro shows up and turns the bandits into a Meiji-era version of a Jackson Pollock painting.

Hiko tells the young boy that he should be grateful to be alive, swigs some sake, and moves on. That would have been the end of the story, had Hiko not happened back through the area the next morning.

To his shock, Shinta had dragged and buried every one of the bodies, including those of the bandits. The three girls who had taken care of him he found headstones for; old rocks, decorated with handfuls of wild flowers.

Hiko was touched by the boy's resolve and compassion and decided to take him as his successor, to school him in the ancient sword art of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu. Finding his name 'Shinta' too soft, he renamed him 'Kenshin'.

Years passed. Kenshin grew up, learned the art of sword fighting from the master, and was set to become Hiko's true successor when civil war broke out. The Meiji restoration was at hand, and Kenshin felt the need to help. Hiko disapproved, saying that the sword was purely a killing weapon no matter how it was used. When Kenshin insisted, Hiko disowned his pupil, and Kenshin left to help the revolution.

Kenshin's skill was unmatched, and with his help the revolution was successful. The endless fighting and killing extracted a heavy toll on the young Kenshin, and he became cold, heartless, and merciless in his efficiency. He became a legend, the feared Battousai, and the bodies he piled up numbered in the hundreds.

If there's any way of illustrating how good intentions can lead to damnation, Kenshin's story is as good as any. His youth and naiveté quickly gave way to the harsh reality of war. His master was right; the sword always would be a weapon for killing. If a Death Knight is to represent the moral degradation of a hero, Kenshin is a great fit. What's more, the DK aspect of redemption is here as well, because after the turmoil ended, Kenshin vowed to pay penance for his sins. Taking up a reverse-edged sword, he set out to wander the country and do as much good as he could -- swearing never again to take a human life.

And yet, in his darker moments, in those moments of desperation, the Battousai would rear his head. The blade would reverse, people would again be put at risk because of his sword, and Kenshin would be left struggling in the aftermath. What must it be like to know that there's a bloodthirsty monster lurking inside you? Kenshin certainly does, and for that reason he'd make an excellent Death Knight.


Cadet 4: Kenshiro

YOU wa SHOCK! Kenshiro is a master of Hokuto Shin Ken (God Fist of the North Star), that iconic assassination technique from Hokuto no Ken (translation: Fist of the North Star). It involves striking an opponent's pressure points in such a way as to cause lethal damage, usually involving exploding body parts. One particularly large individual was in fact struck such that his entire upper half exploded in a geyser of blood. Ah the 80s.

Ok. This one, I will admit, is just a bit of a stretch, for two reasons:

The concept of the Death Knight seems to revolve around damnation and redemption; it's about the climb after the fall. Kenshiro doesn't so much fall as simply gets defeated. He loses his girl to Shin, an erstwhile friend who is also in love with Yuria, and for his troubles gets seven scars drilled into his chest care of the same a-hole. So Kenshiro picks himself up, having survived the attack, and decides he's going to find Shin and make his head explode, in true Hokuto Shin Ken fashion. I suppose you could call this a 'fall', but there was no real moral degredation here. Ken just lost, and now he's after revenge. Unlike Guts whose entire outlook began revolving around killing Griffith, Kenshiro retains his sense of honor, and even shows his enemies mercy.

That is, if you define mercy as killing someone in a such a way that they experience no pain.

Second, Kenshiro doesn't use a sword. Who needs a freakin' sword when you can punch someone and make them explode? I'm banking on the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Death Knights will be able to use some kind of fist weapon. As I said, it's a stretch.

So why did I pick Kenshiro? I'll admit, here I'm leaning on sheer badass factor. I'd name my Death Knight Kenshiro just to be able to taunt, 'You're already dead,', right before a duel. There's something about his total disregard for his opponents that makes it clear he's a master of an ASSASSINATION technique, not some pretty self-defense nonsense. If you fight Kenshiro, you'd better be ready to die, because he's not letting you off. At all. That's kind of how I imagine Death Knights entering into combat.

If you don't like it, say so in the comments. And be ready to eat Hyakkuretsu Ken.


And there you have it. Just a handful of Death Knight concepts to play around with. I'm sure my readers can think of many more, so lets here them! I may do a continuation of this series at some point in the future, as we get closer to Wrath. Get those runeblades ready!
Continue reading 'Entry 11: Something Wicked This Way Comes'