On the Klingon Front

My latest Klingon captain is moving up in the ranks: Qohn is now a Lieutenant Commander aboard the K’Tanko class battlecruiser IKS Toranga. He got there almost exclusively with solo content, mostly fighting in the Kahless Expanse.

That’s been slow going compared to my previous Klingon characters; they leveled mostly by FvK PVP a few months ago.  Back then, a new match started every few minutes in prime time.  In two full nights of playing, Qohn only faced other captains twice, both KvK, and had a dozen attempted matches end in “not in queue” or “not enough captains accepted” messages. It’s hard to say if the queues are empty because they’re bugged or because there aren’t enough new subscribers or old ones rolling new characters. We’ll know when Cryptic fixes the queues–hopefully very soon.

The bright spot tonight was “Bringing Down the House”, the first Klingon PVE content I’ve played.  Chasing down a Romulan assassin across several worlds allowed for a good mix of ground and space combat. The story’s interesting if a little linear (most MMO content I’ve played so far is) and surpasses anything at equivalent levels on the Federation side.  More, please.

But first, Cryptic, please fix the queues.  Although I avoid PvMP like the Black Breath in LOTRO, I couldn’t get enough KvF after launch, and it’s going to be a long climb to Commander and (gasp) my beloved K’t’inga without it. And I promise to tear myself away from disintegrating Star Fleet captains long enough to enjoy any new Klingon PVE at or near level this time.

Revisiting Star Trek Online

I started playing Star Trek Online again last week after months away from the game. Has Cryptic addressed enough of STO’s shortcomings with Season 2 for a second look? Yes and no.

STO wasn’t a horrible game at launch, but it suffered from a rush to release after a bumpy development cycle. Being Star Trek, expectations were probably unreasonable from the start; the previous developer hadn’t helped matters by promising the sun, the moon, and another 100 million stars.

The game still suffers from bugs (some from launch) and a wonky interface 6 months after going live. Mini-games and a new diplomatic mission track don’t address some of the most egregious shortcomings at launch, but there is a sense that STO’s moving in the right direction. It’s hard to say if this is a course change because of STO’s new executive producer or if Cryptic is just getting its bearings after the chaos of launch. Regardless, STO is still a few parsecs away from being satisfying as a game instead of a Star Trek environment.

With LOTRO fighting for my attention (even better now that I’ve unlocked skirmishes), STO feels like a labor of love.  I’ve worked my way back up to Lt. Commander, and it’s felt like real work at that. PVP was a big part of what made STO fun: It brought people together and paid out where missions skimped.  Now, the lower-tier PVP queues are deserted–a lack of new subscribers perhaps–and the join mechanism failed the few times a match actually came up.

Although PVP gives Star Fleet some nice extras, it’s a Klingon’s bread and butter. Is there enough Klingon PVE content at the lower tiers to level without PVP? I’m eager to get a new Klingon rolled, but it may be quite some time before I plant my Klingon butt where it belongs, in the Captain’s chair of a K’t’inga class battlecruiser. Sigh.

I’m not as excited about becoming a Star Fleet Commander; the science ships are the ugliest in the fleet, the four-nacelle cruisers look as natural as two-headed snakes, and the otherwise-gorgeous Akira class escort is my least favorite type of ship to fly. STO’s August calendar of upcoming events brings hope with the addition of the Excelsior class as a tier 3 cruiser. Otherwise, I dread looking at the aft of any of today’s tier 3 vessels. I won’t be able to claw my way out of Commander fast enough.

That’s my problem in a nutshell: I keep seeing the STO I want to play in the next release. Season 2 is arguably better–probably more for end gamers than those starting up or starting over–but it’s only a step towards a fully-realized STO. I want to experience a consistent game throughout my character’s lifetime. This kind of incremental improvement will have me rebooting every six months and resenting it. Maybe this is just a point of friction between me the solo computer RPG gamer and the constantly-evolving-to-stay-marketable world of MMOs.  Sigh, again.

Carcerariphobia — Fear of Wardens

I rolled an elven warden, Aelondwe, and leveled him to 10 tonight. This isn’t my first warden: There was a failed experiment with a hobbit who never made it out of Archet. The gambit system was interesting but looked too mechanically alien compared to the other classes. I feared that one could not master the warden without complete devotion and religious zealotry–the kind EMACS requires.

This time around, the mechanics don’t seem as disruptive. Gambits feel more intuitive; they allow for flexibility that I don’t associate with meat shields like guardians. My attempt at a dwarf guardian was almost as big a failure as the hobbit warden: It took too long to kill things! Wardens don’t seem to have that problem. They also feel more forgiving than champions at lower levels by having a ranged attack for pulling and self-healing for the aftermath of an overly-ambitious impulse. I’m still worried about memorizing all those gambits since I plan to give at least equal time to the latest reroll of my elven runekeeper, Banhorn, but I think I’ve conquered my carcerariphobia–for now.

It’s probably no coincidence that I’m settling down with the two Moria classes. In the early levels at least, they feel more flexible, inventive, fun to play than the original LOTRO classes. Both classes appear to be a good compromise between versatility for grouping and solo viability; I’d like to fellowship more but not become stranded on a leveling plateau if I can’t find groups. In fact, I joined a runekeeper in Limael’s Vinyard tonight. The runekeeper wasn’t particularly aggressive about healing or DPS, but we meshed well enough that Aelondwe brazenly waded into the midst of the goblins. The classes complemented each other, and I wouldn’t mind a regular pairing with a runekeeper. It’s ironic that Aelondwe and Banhorn would make a great duo.

Some of the web chatter about wardens that got me curious  …

The most important thing from Blogmoot

LOTRO bloggers met for the 3rd time last night, and for the first time I was counted among them. After introductions, our lovely host Linett started the lively discussion with the most important thing I took away from the Blogmoot:

http://my.lotro.com/_tags/feed

This RSS feed is like the new “Player News” widget on the my.lotro homepage but much more powerful. Finding great blogs–especially new ones not yet featured by Turbine–isn’t just luck anymore. Making it easy to discover blogs is a huge missing piece to making my.lotro a vital online community, and that just got easier.

Not sure what RSS is or how to use it? It’s a way for websites to publish a list of what’s new, and it allows special programs called RSS readers to bring what’s new directly to you. Some browsers and email programs support it, but the Google Reader website is my favorite tool by far. It works everywhere, including on my iStone iPhone.  Check out this video for the best jargon-free explanation on the web:

RSS in Plain English

I wouldn’t know about this feed if not for the Blogmoot–despite being an RSS junkie and vocal advocate of the technology. That’s why our Blogger Manifesto includes publicizing and enhancing features like this. Want to help shape the my.lotro blogging community? Blog about it: I’ll be watching the feed for you!

For more on the Blogmoot:

Sometimes a Hit Point Is Just a Hit Point

Adarel started a Google Wave about LOTRO’s morale metaphor for hit points last month and paraphrased her resulting academic paper in a blog post on LOTRO Reporter. I’ve been thinking about the larger problem of what hit points really are for a long time as well, and I give Turbine credit for trying to address it head-on. Although I like the morale metaphor and think it’s less immersion-breaking than health–especially around death and defeat, both metaphors fail to completely cover the often-exposed mechanics of hit points.

The Nuts-and-Bolts Problem

The real problem is level-based systems define hit points as a function of level. The underlying mechanics simply don’t mesh with real-life experience: A 60th level character can’t actually survive being stabbed with a dagger 60 more times than a 1st level character nor survive a fall from 60 times as high. No metaphor is going to be able to rationalize such things.

In tabletop games like Call of Cthulhu that aren’t level-based, hit points are a funtion of attributes. That means the character’s maximum hit points don’t change significantly through gameplay. The consequence is that every combat includes a high risk of death; a critical hit could kill a character with a single hit. This works in CoC because combat is infrequent.

Computer RPGs (MMOs particularly) depend on combat much more than table-top games. I kill more mobs in an average LOTRO session than any of my tabletop characters did in a year of gameplay. The statistical consequence of all that combat is defeat goes from a probability (< 1) on the tabletop to a frequency (> 1) in MMOs over a character’s lifetime. Since LOTR lore does not allow any kind of resurrection, the health metaphor ends up being immersion-breaking in a much more fundamental, undeniable way. Hit points cannot be health because defeat cannot be death; the result is more arcade game than role-playing game.

The Hearts-and-Minds Problem

Most computer games use the health metaphor, so most gamers are more comfortable with it by introduction and repetition. Health gets grandfathered under the collective “willing suspension of disbelief” needed to start playing these games in the first place. Morale conflicts with the internally-consistent model everybody’s already accepted. It’s natural on purely cognitive grounds for morale to break immersion for people who have been habituated to health.

Unfortunately Turbine applied the metaphor inconsistently as pointed out in the Wave and blog comments. The developers and writers are products of earlier games too; they are working at odds with their own habituated internal models. Beyond text and labels, the combat animations themselves conspire against the morale metaphor. They show attacks connecting every time, not just for the (ahem) killing blow. In the morale metaphor, all attacks except the last should be near hits, blocks, parries, etc.

Such inconsistencies exacerbate a perception problem around the semantics of morale. Adarel and others liken the effects of defeat to “being sad”, something game mechanics like hope and dread reinforce. My war-gaming history frames (breaking) morale differently; it’s the point where a unit loses cohesion, routs, and flees the battle. After all, few historical battles resulted in the complete destruction of one side. Unfortunately for Turbine, metaphors are creatures of context. They may have chosen one that their audience won’t accept outside of old-timers like me who know if from other contexts.

What Would Yoda Do?

Putting Turbine’s continuity issues aside, I find the morale metaphor much more satisfying because it better explains the vast difference between 1st and 60th level characters without violating my common sense understanding of the real world. It’s not the best one, however. Consider the hybrid route many class/level tabletop games took when moving from the fantasy setting to something more modern (and fatal) like this quote from WotC’s Star Wars RPG core rulebook:

Hit points […] represent two things in the game world: the ability to take physical punishment and keep going, and the ability to turn a serious blow into a graze or near miss. As you become more experienced, you become more adept at parrying strikes, dodging attacks, and rolling with blows […] but all this effort slowly wears you down. Rather than try to keep track of the difference between attacks and how much phsyical injury you take, hit points are an abstract measure of your total ability to survive damage.

This and other d20-based games are the literal descendants of the game where hit points first evolved: Dungeons and Dragons. Tabletop games have struggled with the metaphorical mismatch of health and hit points for years, preferring to hybridize it with combat abstraction. If LOTRO represents a similar evolution in the MMO space, I suspect future ludologists will only study it through the fossil record. Leaving hit points as an abstraction and concentrating more on playing or creating content for games seems a better survival strategy than working to make it really stick.

Links:

LotrO & Tolkien: Morale and the Absence of Death – Good or Bad? — Google Wave

Morale in LOTRO — Anti-immersive? by Adarel on LOTRO Reporter

Haerandir

Banhorn inspected his handiwork. The entire stone was uneven–thicker at the top, more curved along the bottom. Sharp edges yearned to snag fabric or slice flesh. Wobbly strokes and failed attempts to conceal chips distorted the tengwar cut into its face. No amount of polishing and plastering could hide the crack running half the stone’s length.

“Let me see how you have done.” Haerandir reached out for it.

Banhorn cringed before offering up the misshapen thing to his instructor. They had become close friends in his short time at Edhelion; just talking to another with Sight was a comfort. Many here mirrored the severity and timelessness of the vast snow-covered mountains encircling the refuge, but not Haerandir. He was only a few years older than Banhorn. Centuries of suffering and loss hadn’t the time to write themselves across his heart, nor would they.

Now Banhorn’s first test was at hand, and surrendering this physical incarnation of failure sent the icy north wind racing right up his spine. Haerandir turned the stone over a few times, then gently traced the runes while murmuring softy; tiny blue sparks played across the stone’s surface and licked at his finger. He nodded approvingly, then mimicked Master Talagan’s imperious tone: “I suppose it is adequate, my young apprentice. Let us review the improvements I expect to see finished before tomorrow’s sunrise.”

The joke was lost on Banhorn who failed anything more eloquent than choking and gasping in response. Haerandir couldn’t conceal a smile at catching his student off guard any longer. Crimson burned across Banhorn’s face as the choking and gasping sounds escalated.

“No, mellon, it is fine. Truly. It is a masterpiece compared to my first attempt. My teacher said he’d seen more legible marks on trees clawed by rabid bears! Then it blew up in his hand. From my bad crafting or the sheer spite that possessed the stone? I cannot say. Your next will be better, but this one will not …”

Haerandir words trailed off as the vision took him. The far-away look, the gasp of surprise and pain, the overwhelming sadness afterwards–it came more often lately. He refused to discuss it. Banhorn reached out to steady him, grasping Haerandir’s shoulder. Sparks erupted from the rune stone and clawed across Haerandir’s arm to ground themselves in Banhorn’s hand.

He cried out as his arm went numb and his knees buckled. For a moment Banhorn saw the workshop in ruins. Years of ice covered the rotten remains of workbenches. Soot caked crumbling walls. Snow swirled in through the collapsed half of the ceiling. He struggled to soak up details before the vision passed. There was also a sound–maybe picks clanging against stone in the distance–before reality reasserted itself. The smoking stone fell to the floor with a sickening organic thud.

A watcher’s horn sounded from the courtyard.