[Guest Post] Raid Leading in Wrath, One Tree’s story

(Thron is known in other parts of the Internet as Natural20.  You can
find him on Livejournal here –
http://natural20.livejournal.com/ or on
Twitter here –
http://twitter.com/natural20 He tends to talk a lot
about Irish politics as well as gaming and conventions, you have been
warned.)

thron poses in front of the frozen throne

It's a long way from Zul Gurub ...

A short introduction, I’m Thron, a Resto-Druid and raidleader of Cobra, the raiding community that Spinks mentions here.

I’ve been raiding with Cobra since the community started up in Zul’Gurub and I’ve been a leader since Karazhan.  As Spinks mentioned we’ve recently killed the Lich King and I wanted to share some thoughts on leading the Cobra community through eighteen months of raiding in Wrath, from the first boss in Naxx to our final victory atop the Frozen Throne.

Cobra was set up with the express intention of getting members of three guilds (Ashen Rose Conspiracy, Oathforged and The Red Branch) into content they would never see if they didn’t band together.  In Wrath we wanted to progress more than we had in TBC, but also try, as hard as possible, to bring as many people with us on our journey.  The goal was, of course, to have Arthas lying at our feet, but we knew it was going to be a very long road.

Thron and Cobra killing the lich king

Spot the tree

We benefited hugely from the company of some raiders from outside the three guilds who were looking for a more casual group than they’d been with in TBC, or those whose groups disbanded at some point during Wrath.  Integration has been hard on occasion, making sure that we held true to our guiding aims, while trying to make sure people didn’t get bored.  As all raidleaders will know, this is far from an easy task.  It’s also something I’ll come back to later.

The raid pool has always hovered around fifty toons, but the composition and balance has varied greatly.  There were times we thought we’d never want for healers and other times we’ve wondered if the hunters had a secret breeding programme going which would eventually overwhelm the group!  To be fair, druids have always made up the biggest single class, but that has always seemed right and proper to me.

This has meant we’ve struggled at times and mostly we’ve been saved by folk who were willing to play more than one spec, but we’ve held fast to our rule of only allowing one toon per player, it’s kept things much more straightforward.

So, we started out in Naxx in January 2009, speeding our way through the bosses as most groups did, running up against our first roadblocks with the Four Horsemen and feeling very accomplished when Kel’Thuzad gave up his first Journey’s End, although that’s all we ever seemed to get from him.  But clearly Naxx, easy as it was, showed us we could do it, at the appropriate gear level.  According to the realm forums we were in or around the seventh Horde-side raid to clear the instance, a position we were to occupy most of the way through the expansion, with a few notable exceptions.  This gave the raid group a lot of confidence, knowing that we wouldn’t be at the forefront of progression, but we’d be keeping up, managing to get through the content on an average of six hours raiding a week.

death of malygos, with the raid all mounted on red drakes

The Cobra synchronised red drake flying team never won any marks for style ...

And onwards we went.  While we never managed Sartharion + 3,  we killed Flame Leviathan the day Ulduar went live and pushed on until Yogg-Saron was defeated.  Trial of the Champions had already opened at that point, so we did outgear the god of death in the end, but we were happy to take the kill.  TotC was almost the death of Cobra.  Like many raid groups the instance bored us very quickly, but the heroic versions were just too difficult for us and wiping repeatedly without any sense of progress gets very boring, very quickly.  This lack of progress (and mindless repetition), combined with a number of situations where one mistake could wipe the raid didn’t please anyone.

Cobra has improved in leaps and bounds since we started, but that kind of situation has never suited us and the awful instance design and bad tuning didn’t help.

cobra eyes up rotface

We were incredibly lucky that Ice Crown opened when it did.  The raid is almost as much fun as Ulduar and the increasing buff seemed to be designed for a group like Cobra.  It was far from all plain sailing, but up we climbed, sticking with our six hours a week schedule and even getting a Horde-side first kill along the way (Princes).  And then finally, with patience and the 30% buff, we managed to kill Arthas.  What an amazing night that was.  I cracked open the very expensive whiskey and got to sit back and bask.

And reflect, with articles like this, on the journey.  We started off in Wrath with four raidleaders and we’ve ended with three.  Between us we have encouraged, explained, dragged and occasionally bullied Cobra through the expansion.  We have been amazed by just how good the group is and how individual brilliance has saved a wipe, while at the same time wondering if sometimes players just ignore everything we say before a pull.

death of halion

We’ve dealt with emo, both explicable and inexplicable, and despite Spinks’ request I’m not going to reveal which group generated the most!  We’ve managed to compromise between the hardcore raiders who want to push on to hardmodes and the more casual players who sometimes forget just why standing in fire is a bad thing.  I’m not entirely sure how we’ve managed this, mind, probably because the people in question trust us, at least that’s the assumption I’ve got to make.  We’ve nearly kicked people from raids and we’ve nearly had people quit mid fight.  Toons have come and gone, some will be missed, others less so.

Over eighteen months there have been nights when I just didn’t want to log in.  I didn’t want to have to guide the twenty-five brave souls on the list for that raid through the content and there have been times when the ten minute break couldn’t come fast enough.  But these times have been far outweighed by the moments of brilliance and fun.  And this is what sets Cobra aside.  This is why I think we’re one of only four Horde-side (25 man) raiding groups on Argent Dawn (EU) to kill Arthas.

We’ve been through things that would kill other groups dead and there have been moments when I’ve thought I was going to get zero sign-ups for the next raid, but the actual sense of community and friendship has carried us through.

map of the world

We come from all over the world

Our raiders come from as far north as Finland and as far south as South Africa.  We have raiders from Donegal (in the extreme northwest of Ireland) and others from far more easterly climes in Europe, it’s a varied bunch.  But it’s a bunch that have grown to know each other, to take humour from the strangest things, to laugh when the only other option is to cry and, ultimately, to support Phoenixaras, Elelereth and I while we, in turn, try to support them. I don’t know of any other raid group who would react to repeated wipes by riding mammoths around Deathbringer Rise and then jumping off, one by one, while voice chat is filled with gales of laughter. Cobra is a true community and it has, when we look back, managed to fulfill the mission and it’s made me proud.  It’s probably also shaved about ten years off my life, but thems the breaks.

We’re looking at Cataclysm now, staring down the barrel of a complete change in how raiding works in WoW, and I don’t know what Cobra will look like once everything changes.  My hope is that we’ll keep on raiding, but we really won’t know until decisions have to be made.

Either way Wrath raiding will always be a special, wonderful, frustrating, maddening and ultimately rewarding experience and I’d probably do it all again, even knowing what I know now.  That said, I do a few things differently, increase the number of raidleaders from day one and refuse a few applicants who turned out to be more hassle than they were worth, but these are the things you learn and nobody ever said learning was painless.

For now we’ll get the rest of the raidgroup Kingslayer, then relax for a little while and see if there’s a bunch of raiders who still want to be given orders by a loud Irishman (me) and a soft spoken Englishman (Elelereth), while a rogue picks their pockets (Phoenixaras).  I hope there will be, there are still stories left to create.

*** (Blame Spinks for the lack of good kill shots and general lack of any screenshots of Ulduar (!) )

Tanking weapon woes, and the challenges of tanking at the end of an expansion

thelastword

I wonder sometimes if there’s any player out there who feels that they are actually always lucky with weapon drops. If so, I’d bet good money that they aren’t primarily a tank.

Because one thing that every tank I’ve known personally has always complained about was their poor luck with tanking weapon drops. I have a theory about this. (Yes, it is a conspiracy theory!). I suspect that tank weapons do actually drop less often than the loot tables would imply, to make sure there are always a good supply of tanks with which to run heroics and raids because they’re desperate to get their paws on a weapon upgrade.

As is true of all good conspiracy theories, I do not have a shred of proof for this. Only the anecdotal evidence of having run Utgarde Pinnacle at least 12 times for my Red Sword of Courage, and I forget how many times I had run Kharazan when the King’s Defender finally dropped. And spare a thought for our poor feral druids, hoping desperately to get their premier tanking weapon of TBC as a random drop from Serpentshrine trash mobs. Of course, the time I got  Titanguard from one of our first Ulduar runs doesn’t count. Or in other words, we just remember the unlucky runs more than the lucky ones.

Still, I do think that the distribution of tanking weapons has been an issue in Wrath. They haven’t been evenly distributed between 10 and 25 man, which is why I was using my trusty Titanguard well into ICC. I have been running 25 man raids continuously through Wrath, but I haven’t always had a 10 man group (or fancied PUGging it.)  This at least is one thing that will get fixed in Cataclysm when both sizes of raids use the same loot tables.

In any case, as you can imagine I was quite pleased when I did finally pick up a tanking weapon from ICC 25. Unfortunately it was The Last Word, which is a notoriously poor tanking weapon compared to the alternative which (naturally) only drops in 10 man. I took it anyway – an upgrade is an upgrade, however dubious – but recently I’ve really started to warm to the poor old thing.

It may be a fugly mace with dubious stats and a dodgy proc but it hits like a truck.

The eternal tanking balance of threat and survivability

This is not going to be a proper theorycrafting post which describes how to carefully balance all the stats on your gear. However, as a tank, you have two main jobs:

  • Grab threat/ keep threat
  • Don’t die

These two functions generally require different stats. In the cases where one stat will help with both, it’s still not always the most efficient way to gear. So really, as a conscientious tank (with too much time on your hands), you could be looking at every single fight to try and decide if you want to tweak your gear appropriately.

In general terms, as the raid moves through an instance and everyone gears up, dps classes generate much more threat. Healers also put out more healing, and tanks get more survivable.  Now that the ICC buff is up to 30%, everyone has 30% more damage and 30% more health. DPS threat has increased massively. Tanking threat … hasn’t quite kept pace.

This means that you have some options to swap out tanking gear in favour of high dps/threat gear. It’s fun to see how high your stamina can go if you try to stack it, but high stamina is not the only function of tank gearing. Putting out more threat while still staying alive will make you even more popular with your dps players. And deciding how to balance those functions in your gear is part of the art of tanking. I remember tanking Patchwerk with two dps trinkets, for example. (And so did most of the other well geared tanks at the time – we all recognised that we didn’t really need the extra survivability because we weren’t in much danger of dying.)

If your raid is threat capped, then looking for ways to put out more tanking threat will improve everyone’s performance. And suddenly, The Last Word has become rather a decent option for a tanking weapon. The stats may be so-so, but it still carries a fair whack of stamina whilst the high dps contributes directly to better tank threat.

Giant Skeletons as Art

bonesentinel

You might think to look at this screenshot that you were looking at a simple, everyday, giant skeleton of the sort you might find anywhere in a MMO.

Here it stands in its natural habitat, on eternal watch, waiting for an adventurer to come past and pull it to its inevitable death animation.

But there is something different about this particular type of mob in WoW. It’s a new breed.

Placed in Icecrown, one of the end zones in Wrath where it is assumed that the player will have a flying mount, this mob is designed to be flown over rather than killed.

It’s true. There is no quest in the game that requires anyone to kill one of these giant skeletons, yet they are common mobs in Icecrown. They patrol battlements. They stand on guard at strategic locations. They look tough and they are (relatively) tough, being elites. Not only is there no quest for them, but the drop tables don’t attract people, they aren’t part of anyone’s optimal xp gathering schemes, they don’t give rep. There isn’t even any xp for them (that’s quite damning in a MMO!)

The very first comment in the Bone Sentinel entry in wowhead says, forlornly:

I killed one and it didn’t drop anything and it also did not provide any experience.

Ladies and Gentlement, I present to you … the decorative mob. Be nice to it, it may be the herald of a new (aka old) immersive era of zone design, in which mobs are placed because they look right or they should logically be there, and not just to drive quests.

Joking aside, that’s quite an old school approach. Older MMOs often placed mobs without any intention that players would kill them. But it’s uncommon in WoW.

Would you rather be Frodo or Aragorn?

In the next Wrath patch, Blizzard announced that players will have the opportunity to face down The Lich King himself in a 5 man instance.

On cue, the outraged complaints began. How can the end boss of a whole expansion possibly be epic if you can fight him in a (casual friendly) 5 man instance? Surely he should be a raid boss? But I don’t see that myself.

Going back to Lord of the Rings, who has the more epic adventure? Frodo and Sam sneaking into Mordor on their own to destroy the ring, or the rest of the Fellowship who get to ride with the great armies, participate in world changing battles, and do valorous deeds? They are both epic and exciting adventures which turn the course of the story.

It’s been commented before that Icecrown bears a strong resemblance to illustrations of Mordor. Is it so hard to imagine that the parallel goes deeper? After all, why mess with a winning formula? (And not messing with winning formulas is one of the things that Blizzard does best.) And using important lore characters in group instances was one of the ways in which LOTRO really brought their epic storyline to life. I don’t remember players in that game complaining that it wasn’t ‘fair’ or ‘epic’ that they got to fight trolls alongside Legolas, or talk to Frodo in Rivendell before the fellowship departed.

I think Blizzard will take the easier route and although the 5 man encounter will be meaningful in terms of story, it won’t actually allow the 5 man group to defeat Arthas. But I can’t help wishing that they could. It wouldn’t stop the raid instance from being epic and exciting if we knew that some brave adventurers were also sneaking into Icecrown on a bold but uncertain mission to weaken our foe so that our strike would be successful.

Preparing for a patch

I wrote earlier this week about one of the Icecrown quests in WoW. I decided to complete more of those quests on an alt to remind myself of the storylines that had gripped me when I first ran them on my main, many months ago.

After all, patch 3.3 may well pick up those loose ends; loose ends that haven’t really been touched since Wrath went live, which is not one of Blizzard’s best storytelling decisions. As Rohan noted, usual screenwriting rules would require that the bad guy be in the ascendent when the last act of a three-act play begins. Instead we’ve beaten the Lich King on every encounter and taken time out to destroy an Old God and do some jousting en route.

Despite that, I’m excited to see what lies in store in patch 3.3. I’m looking forwards to venturing into the new 5 man instances with my friends and fighting a variety of scourge baddies alongside my NPC faction leader. I’m looking forwards to the new raid and to finding out how the Lich King storylines draw to a close, or at least to a new start.

So my current goal is to redo all of the Icecrown quests on an alt before the patch hits so as to refresh my memory.

Is there anything you particularly like to do to prepare for a patch, either in WoW or in another MMO? (It is after all that that patching time of year.)

Religion and quests that make you go hmmh

naaruangels

Icecrown features some of the smartest and most advanced storytelling in WoW, or any MMO I’ve seen. The storylines are personal, they’re epic, and they interact with both the greats and the big bads in Warcraft. There is phasing, flashback sequences, insights and revelations – yes it’s all wrapped up in kill 10 rats but it represents an extraordinary effort to stretch that quest paradigm as far as it will go.

But there’s one quest in particular that draws out a response from me.

The storyline begins when the head of the Argent Crusade (an organisation influenced heavily by paladins) sends you to find out what happened to one of his men. And when you do find him, the man is grieviously wounded and sick with the scourge plague – which will turn him into a scourge zombie after he dies.

When you report this, the Argent Crusade take a ‘no man left behind’ approach. The guy is a noble fighter who risked his own life to save others, surely some power in Azeroth can save him! And so you head off on a quest to speak with the most powerful good-aligned beings in the game world to see if any of them can help. And in between you take their messages and aid back to the fallen hero, and every time he thanks you and asks you to leave him where he fell so he at least can’t infect anyone else.

Finally  you speak to the Naaru who are the personifications of light in the game. And you are told that they can’t cure the plague but they will guide his soul after death so that he won’t be remade as a zombie. So the hero dies and the Naaru appear, as in this screenshot. His spirit drifts upwards towards them in a pillar of light.

I was impressed, but coldly furious. Why do they only do this for the best of the paladins and after a personal intervention and plea? The whole of Icecrown is full of brave soldiers who died for the light and got reborn as zombies, maybe the Naaru could pull their collective fingers out just a little bit more and do something for them also. I was moved by it also, but still … the sense of outrage at the unfairness lingers. Especially since my character is a forsaken warrior and no naaru ever came to save her from undeath! (Admittedly there would not be much of a game if they had.) In a sense  this questline is probably the most noble thing Spinks has ever done in her entire unlife — running all round the world to try to save a complete stranger from the fate that she befell herself.

If nothing else, it makes you think. And I believe it was key to the design here that when you act for the Argent Crusade, your character shows some nobility of spirit (until you get to the tournament at least.) It’s intended to shine a light in the moral greyness of Northrend.

I’m inclined to  immerse myself in the gameworld anyway, given half a chance, but I was surprised  by how strong a reaction I had to that storyline. It is perhaps the most overtly religiously influenced experience in the game, but it doesn’t really reflect  my religion. I suspect  that I balked at some of the assumptions without really noticing what was going on. The Light is a sort of Christianity with the numbers filed off (standard paladin fare, really) and I wonder whether people would react differently to that questline depending on RL beliefs and culture.

What’s a good size for a raid instance?

Larisa issues a plea for longer instances on the same day that Ghostcrawler ‘lets slip’ that Icecrown is going to have 31(!) bosses. Now that’s customer service for you :) (Also if anyone was wondering how long it would take Blizzard to start pimping the next patch now that 3.2 is live, you now have your answer.)

This will easily make Icecrown the largest raid instance in WoW. By comparison, Naxxramas has 13 bosses and when it first came out in vanilla WoW, the raid lockout was set to 14 days rather than the usual 7 in order to give raid guilds a chance to beat the last boss before the expansion came out. Ulduar has 14 bosses, of which three are optional and one is only accessible once you have beaten all the keepers on hard mode.

Now I find that the ideal size for a raid instance is one that can keep our raids happily occupied for a whole number of nights raiding. So I don’t want to spend a full night raiding and kill everything except the last boss which we have to leave for another day because we didn’t have time. I also don’t want to feel pressed to run more than two raids a week. But, the time it takes to clear a raid instance depends where you are in the cycle. You get quicker as raiders get geared up and  learn the instance.

Based on that criteria, both Naxxramas and Ulduar are just a little bit too long as they are now. We always struggled to get Naxx down within three hours — by the time we had a team that could clear it in that time, most of them were overgeared so people preferred to bring alts. At weekends, when we could plan slightly longer raids, we could do it (and did). And currently we’re struggling to get Ulduar down in one session at the moment. (Props to our 10 man team who killed Yogg-Saron for the first time last weekend!) One less boss in Ulduar would have made the scheduling a lot easier for us, is the truth. Maybe if they’d cut Kologarn and his trash. Or Auriaya.

Or else they’re not long enough. With a few more bosses, we’d have enough content to fill two nights of raiding. And that would present another problem, because we run the 10 mans as a sideshow to the 25 man runs. And not everyone wants to run two nights of 10 man raiding as well as the larger raids.

So every raid group probably has its own views on how long a raid instance should be. They’d like enough content to fill their current schedule comfortably — no more, no less. Adding in hard modes and optional bosses definitely does give the raid leaders more options and I hope that Icecrown will go this route too. We may even see more flexibility on the raid lockouts, and more wings and locks inside the instance. I know I’m intrigued as to how Blizzard can make an instance that large and still keep it accessible to more casual raid groups.

What’s your ideal raid size, if you raid? Do you find that Ulduar is just one boss too long?