Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Weird Aside: Names

This post isn't exactly going to be another fountain of joyful geekiness, so if that's all you really want to hear me talk about, you might want to skip this entry. It deals with one of my own guilty little cerebral pleasures, so if that's not your cup of tea, feel free to move on. I will probably mention a couple of geeky things in passing, but that's about as far as I'll go on the geek front. I might do these posts every so often, but don't worry, this blog will always be first and foremost about geeky or unusual media and things!

So, here it is: I have this thing with names. Whether it's thinking about what to call the next character in a story I'm writing or daydreaming about what I'll name any kids I might one day have, I can get a little obsessive about names. I love finding new names to add to the list I currently have going on my computer, divided into potential female characters' names, potential male characters' names, potential names for any future children, and names I've already used. I love it  For me, a name is big part of who a person is, whether they are real or fictional. In this vein, I also have a bit of a fascination for weird, geeky, or just plain horrible names.

I think this fascination stems from my passionate hatred of my own name. When I was born, my mom had to have an emergency C-section, and while she was still conked out from the anesthesia, my dad  was given the task of naming me. They'd picked out names for me in advance, so this should have been relatively straightforward. Unfortunately, as with so many things in my family, it was not. I should have been named Claire (sadly another name I would almost certainly have not liked), but was instead given a name neither of my parents had ever discussed: Ellen. In my opinion, this is even worse than Claire.

Sure, "Ellen" has a nice meaning- it's derived from the name Helen, which means a torch or a light, but that's about it. It may be a respectable name one could picture on a business card, which is nice, but it's a little too respectable. Like someone's great-great aunt respectable. I'm not a great-great aunt- I can't even legally drink yet. I can't even abbreviate my respectable name to something fun and age-appropriate for use with friends. There isn't a whole heck of a lot you can do with just five letters, after all.

I'm not the only Ellen who feels this way about the name. During my brief stint in a food service job my first year of college, I met a coworker with the same name as me. She was not my age. In fact, she was closer in age to my parents. When she found out what my name was, she apologized to me on behalf of my parents for my name. I'm not making this up. Pinky swear.

Was I embarrassed? Was I hurt? Was I angry? No. I was thankful. Even though I didn't know her, I knew that she understood what it was like to be burdened with a name completely inappropriate to one's time period, with a name no self-respecting parent should name any child born after 1892. She understood what it was like to be an Ellen.

I know, I know. You're going to say that I should stop whining and just get my name changed. And guess what: I am. So there. But until this coming spring, I'm stuck as an Ellen. I just think it would be a bit of a weight off of my shoulders, to have a name I could be proud of, one that is both professional and able to be shortened into a variety of forms for more casual use. And my parents and friends support me on this, too, so I'm not ruffling any feathers or hurting any feelings.

But to get to the geekery (if there is any to be found in this post): to me, when I create or am introduced to a character, their name is really important me. Names define us, whether we like it or not, and they can have a profound effect on our lives. I love world building and character creation when I write, and choosing the perfect names for my characters is really important to me. They don't seem like real people until they have that name, like an anchor or a binding point tying all of the information about them into a single, complex package: this is X and everything about him/her.

Often, a character's name and/or their title is one of the first things we know about them. This name can tell us whether this character is a male or a female, what culture they belong to, what time period they're from, perhaps a special attribute or trait they're known for, or even what species they are. Granted, not all names do this, and some characters are never actually named in their stories (the main character from Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca jumps to mind), but many names do answer these questions.

Some authors, like Tolkien, go far enough to weave their character's names and naming traditions and conventions into the mythology and languages of the worlds they create, which is like literary double-chocolate cake to me- not only do these names have meanings, but they have meanings in the context of the world in which they are set.

I also love it when authors go far enough to research the origins and meanings of the names they choose for their characters. It just contributes to that Done Their Research feel, and these small details can make the story even better, especially in cases of historical fiction where an anachronistic spelling or even an entirely anachronistic name can become a niggling annoyance when reading/watching the piece (or at least it can if you're as nit-picky about this as I can be).

Another thing I love (and love to do in my own stuff) is when authors use their character's names to denote familial ties or social class. I feel it gives an extra layer to the characters' backgrounds when you can tell just by their name that they're part of a family of influential bankers, or that they grew up on one of the lower rungs of the social ladder. Why? Because it's not just me who would be noticing this, but the other characters as well, which would likely affect how they would perceive this person and interact with him/her, adding extra depth to their interactions and the story as a whole. Layers!

Unfortunately, this preoccupation with names can sometimes color my enjoyment of a work or a piece of a work if a name is patently ridiculous or ill-fitting, even by the standards of the world in which it's set (cough cough Albus Severus cough cough), no matter how much I love the book/movie/show/whatever. And if a name is particularly anvilicious in its meaning (Her name means pretty! She is the desirable heroine and everyone loves her and her life is going to turn out perfectly! or alternately His name contains something obviously meaning dark or evil! He is a villain! You must hate him on sight!), it can even spoil some of the plot.

Anyway, that's my little rant on names. Back to the glorious, glorious geekery!

Book: The Hobbit

Book time! Books were really my very introduction to the less-than-cool and the geeky, and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit was one of the very first of those introductions.

I was first introduced to The Hobbit by my father when I was very small (as in when I was somewhere in the vicinity of three years old). Now, I know that The Hobbit is a kids' book, but most people wouldn't expect it to be read to a child as young as three! Nevertheless, The Hobbit was one of two somewhat-advanced stories I fell in love with and ended up repeatedly requesting. The other one was Beowulf, translated into English, of course, and edited slightly for the consumption of a small child, but still remarkably close to the original text. in case you're wondering, yes, my father was an English major, and he felt it was important that the stories he and my mom read to me were not just simple picture books, but real books with complex ideas and plots. While some might think this a little crazy, I think that it was an excellent idea, as it got me reading and deeply interested in books at a very early age, and ended up exposing me to an incredible variety of literature, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Dickens and Tolkien.

Being a small child, I had no idea that these stories were anything but wildly interesting, completely engrossing tales that could transport my mind to far-off worlds filled with magic and monsters. I begged my dad to read The Hobbit so often that he ended up with vast chunks of the book committed to memory through the sheer force of my repetitive requests. When I was in middle school, I was delighted to acquire my own copy of the book and give my father's battered paperback a well-deserved rest. It's a copy I still have today, and one of the all-too-few books I squeezed into the car with me when I left for college in a distant state.

I'm in my twenties now, but I still enjoy occasionally curling up with this book. The language is simple enough for children to understand (which makes sense, since it was written as a children's book), and the violence isn't graphic, but the story is still deeply engaging and entertaining for all ages.

The Hobbit is the story of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit, who had been just fine living a quiet, unobtrusive life until Gandalf the wizard saw fit to give him a little nudge into adventure by getting him involved with a party of dwarves on a quest to reclaim their lost treasure from the dragon Smaug. Bilbo, quite against hobbit social norms and what he would have thought to be his own better judgment, ends up going on this quest to the Lonely Mountain as a burglar, tasked with helping to steal back the dwarven riches. Along the way, he and his dwarven companions get into and out of various scrapes with a wide variety of beasties, including trolls, goblins, wolves, spiders, and elves.

Although he starts out as a bit of a bungling burglar, the discovery of a certain magical ring in the heart of the Misty Mountains that makes him turn invisible is a turning point both in Bilbo's career as a burglar and in his confidence in his abilities as a member of the quest. Eventually, the dwarves come to rely on Bilbo's expertise, his magical ring, and his ability to come up with plans to get them out of trouble, and he repays them by saving their lives and getting them on their way again multiple times.

I won't spoil the ending (though if you're familiar with The Lord of the Rings you probably already know), but suffice to say that the ending is a satisfying one, and you'll turn the last page with a smile on your face.

Although many people shy from reading The Hobbit because it's a kids' book and/or they think it will be boring, I would definitely encourage anyone to at least give it a whirl. I know that not everything is everybody's cup of tea, but I love this book, and I know that some people will love it too. Heck, some people loved it enough to turn it into a currently-in-production major motion picture. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they loved it enough to stick as close to the original story as is feasible (and keep the original characters to a minimum, please!). After all, if someone put in a lot of time and money into putting it on the big screen, why change what was good enough to get it there?

Anyway, I'm going to head off the rant right now before it goes anywhere and just suggest that you pick up The Hobbit from your local library and give it a whirl. If you're a fan of fantasy adventures with engaging characters and an attention-keeping plot, you might end up liking The Hobbit just as much as I do.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Movie: The Gamers

For today's post, I thought I'd stick with the basic topic of gaming, but break it up by talking about a gaming-related movie rather than moving on to talk about another online game. And this time, its tabletop games rather than online games. Woo!

The 2002 movie The Gamers, produced by Dead Gentlemen Productions, is a movie about a group of college guys and the characters they play in a looks-like-Dungeons-and-Dragons-but-it-isn't tabletop role playing game. Despite not exactly being a major motion picture, the movie is very well-done.

As I said, the movie follows a bunch of guys and the characters they play in their game. While this may sound odd, it actually works quite well, and the transitions between 'worlds' are quick and seamless. If you're confused about why this was done, think about it- how interesting would a bunch of guys describing the actions of unseen characters actually be? By following both sets of characters, the movie gives the audience a visual connection with them both, one that is often played for hilarity.

The in-game characters are played by the same actors who play their real-life counter-parts, making it easy to follow which guy controls which character. The actor playing the game master in the college-world does not make a physical appearance in the game-world, but he does serve as a voice-over/narrator.

The game-world cast includes Rogar the Barbarian, Newmoon the elf, Nimble the thief, Ambrose the magician, Magellan the other magician, and Mark the Red, a Bloodfire Berserker.

The college-world cast includes the DM and the players, only one of which (Mark, who plays Mark the Red in the game-world) is actually named, and who only pops in once in the entire movie.

Both sets of characters have quite a bit of dialogue, which, on the whole, tends toward the funny. The college-world characters' dialogue often continues into scenes depicting their game-world counterparts as a background voice-over. This includes an extremely funny scene in a bar early in the movie wherein the group's thief player steals several items from an NPC next to him at the bar, up to and including the man's trousers. In the game world, the characters do not speak- the action is narrated entirely by the college-world characters. This mix of miming and voice-over makes the scene much funnier and more interesting than if the thief had merely repeatedly stolen various items from the NPC or if the action had been described entirely in the college-world.

The dialogue is also realistic for who the characters are (college guys and characters in a role-playing game), which is a nice touch. Please note, there is some strong language, so if that's really going to put a thorn in your side, you may want to skip this movie. It's not used just to throw in some swear words, though- this is how many college students speak, and it doesn't sound out of place.

The plot revolves around the game-world characters attempting to rescue a princess and defeat an evil being called "The Shadow," any mention of which always earns three repetitions of his name from various members of the group, with varying emotions. Along the way, they encounter old acquaintances, deal with strange phobias and accidental death, fight bandits, and forget that they're supposed to be asleep. Trust me, it's way funnier than that sentence makes it sound. There are so many ways that this movie could have turned into an embarrassing disaster, but the filmmakers took the little they had to work with and spun, if not gold, then something very close. The battle with The Shadow provides an amusing use of spell and weapon, and the ending has a nice little twist.

One thing that's really nice about this movie is that you don't have to know anything at all about tabletop games to enjoy it. I was completely clueless about every aspect of gaming when a friend of mine first sat me down and showed it to me, and I still understood what was going on and found it hilarious. Of course, if you're more familiar with gaming, you will probably find the movie even more entertaining, but as I said, knowledge of tabletop games isn't necessary to find The Gamers extremely funny.

The Gamers is a highly entertaining movie based in geekery but not requiring any knowledge of it for enjoyable viewing. If you like funny, cleverly done movies and don't mind low-budget films, you might enjoy The Gamers.

The movie may be found directly on the Dead Gentleman Productions website, here: <>.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Online Game: Guild Wars

So last time I talked about MMO RPGs, I talked about DDO and my first experiences with online gaming. Today I'm going to talk about the game I currently play. It's called Guild Wars, and to be honest, I do prefer it to DDO. That's not to say that this is a perfect game- it isn't. But the game itself rises past the imperfections it does have and makes for a really fun game.

One thing I should mention right off the bat is that Guild Wars isn't free. However, it doesn't require a subscription- one low, flat fee unlocks everything the game has to offer. There are currently three main campaigns in Guild Wars. The first three, Prophecies, Factions, and Nightfall, can be purchased individually or all at once in a package for around forty dollars. There is also a full expansion, Eye of the North, and a bonus expansion with four new missions.

Prophecies is the original campaign, and is set in an area very similar in both the landscapes and the appearance of its people to Western Europe. Factions is set in an area similar to Southeast Asia and Nightfall is set in an area similar to Egypt and Northern Africa. The available appearances of the player characters reflect these settings. While players can choose from a variety of hair styles and hair and skin colors, the basic face shapes generally conform to the setting of the campaign.

Each campaign has its own setting and its own list of professions. These professions are like what DDO calls classes- they determine your character's fighting style and role in a group. You can choose a secondary profession, similar to multi-classing in DDO, but unlike DDO, you will always be better at your primary profession than you will at your secondary, and you are able to change your secondary profession at a certain point toward the end of your character's leveling.

The base professions that are available in every campaign are the Warrior, the Ranger, the Necromancer, the Elementalist, the Mesmer, and the Monk. In Prophecies, these are the only professions available to play. In Factions, there are the base professions plus two additional professions, the Ritualist and the Assassin. Nightfall has a base + 2 choice of professions similar to Factions, but instead of the Ritualist and Assassin professions, Nightfall has the Paragon and the Dervish.

Fortunately, as in DDO, you have room to experiment. If you purchase all three campaigns, you get eight character slots to start in whatever campaign you wish. Feel free to play around to see what fighting style and which combinations of professions you prefer.

Guild Wars has a few features that DDO does not or requires you to pay to use. In Guild Wars, once you've entered an outpost or town, it becomes visible on your large area map. By clicking on the town's icon, you can instantly travel there from anywhere in the game, at any time. If you become able to visit other areas of the world in other campaigns, you can also use map travel to get to these places, too. Map travel can really come in handy, especially at the end of long quests when you really just want to go get your reward and take a break.

One thing I really like about Guild Wars is the interchangeability of your character's many skills. You have room for just nine skills on your skillbar, including one elite skill when your character advances that far. In DDO, there aren't terribly many special skills except for casters' spells, and learning new ones can be expensive and annoying to do, and may cost you the use of some of your old ones. However, in Guild Wars, your character can learn as many skills as exist in his or her profession, and have any combination you choose on your skillbar. If you don't like a skill, you can quickly and easily replace it from your list of existing skills in your character window (hit "K").

Also, instead of allocating skill points to certain skills (which are then annoying and expensive to rearrange) and then only at your class trainer as in DDO, Guild Wars allows you to put the skill points you gain when leveling into certain categories, which affect how skills in that category work. You can do this whenever and wherever you are when you level. Not happy with how you allocated your points? Pop back to an outpost or town and adjust your point totals as much as you want and completely for free in your character window. Problem solved! I love this feature because the areas you choose to put your points in may change as you gain new skills that correspond to different categories. This allows you to quickly and easily maximize your currently chosen set of skills. If you know you're going to need a certain skill quite a bit and another one from a different category far less, you can tailor your point allocation to make your most used skill more powerful and effective, maximizing your character's abilities.

Another handy thing about Guild Wars is that enemies are shown on your small area map as tiny red dots in contrast to you and your party's tiny green dots or your allies' tiny green triangles. This makes avoiding or finding enemies in explorable areas much easier than in DDO. Resurrection shrines and collectors also appear on your small area map. There are no rest shrines because you automatically regenerate hit points no matter what area you are in.

Speaking of your party, like many areas of DDO, Guild Wars is a party-based game. But fear not, solo gamers! Guild Wars makes it easy for you to succeed. If you're like me and don't often have other people to game with and don't want to party up with complete strangers, you can just use Henchmen and Heroes.

At almost any point in any campaign, you can use Henchmen. The number of them you can have in your party at any one time varies depend on where your character is, just as it would if you had Heroes or other players in your party. The Henchmen available in the areas you're in will be level-appropriate for the area, so if you're in the starting area for your campaign (with the exception of Prophecies), your henchmen will be around level 3. If you keep them with you when you move to other areas of the game, they will increase in level correspondingly. Not all Henchmen are available in all areas of the campaign, so you may need to rebuild your party as you progress through the campaign.

Heroes are similar to Henchmen in that they are NPCs that you can add to your party to help you work your way through the campaign. Unlike Henchmen, however, they are much more versatile. Heroes level up like player characters do, though they don't start at level 1 and can occasionally start at level 20 right off the bat. Once you acquire a Hero, you can use them anywhere in any campaign at any time. Also unlike Henchmen, you can choose a secondary profession for them, and adjust their stats and skills however you want. Aside from their name, general appearance, and primary profession, you can control practically everything about your Heroes.

Such awesomeness, unfortunately, does not just magically happen right away. Heroes are a bit more difficult to get than Henchmen. The only campaign that gives you a Hero right off the bat is Nightfall. You'll almost certainly be level 20 before you acquire your first Hero in Factions, but given the speed of leveling possible in that campaign, it really isn't so long to wait, and when you get to the point where you can acquire that first Hero, you'll quickly be able to acquire enough Heroes to build a full party. Prophecies is different, however- the highest character I have in the Prophecies campaign is level 14, and she still doesn't have any Heroes.

Heroes can be controlled, down to what skills they use and where you want to send your party. You can tell a Hero to go to a particular place and stay there by putting a flag up on your little round map. You can tell a Hero what skill to use by opening their control panel from their number in the Party panel. While not very intelligent, Heroes are far smarter than the hirelings of DDO, and they and Henchmen are both far more useful than hirelings.

Each campaign has its own storyline, though the stories of each of the three campaigns all take place roughly around the same time relative to each other. If you purchase multiple campaigns, you will be able to play some quests from other campaigns' storylines on a character from a different campaign.

If you purchase all three campaigns, you have a lot of options. At a certain point in each campaign, your character will become able to access the areas used by the other three campaigns, so you will eventually be able to travel anywhere in the game. If you have all three campaigns and would like to level up quickly and get to this point in a relatively short amount of time, I would recommend starting in Factions (unless you want to play a Dervish or a Paragon, then you're stuck with starting in Nightfall). Quests in Factions give out a ton of XP compared to the other two campaigns, so you can level up comparatively quickly. The starting area in Factions also gives you the option to earn your insignia in your chosen profession. This doesn't give you any special status, but it's a great way to get some quick XP and learn how to maximize your profession's abilities and minimize its weaknesses. You'll also gain some pretty helpful skills along the way.

Like DDO, Guild Wars isn't all quests and storyline all the time. Through the year the people in charge of the game set up several special events to coordinate with the various holiday seasons. These events bring limited time quests with special rewards, cool costumes, fun side stories, and games within the game (now I feel compelled to make an Inception joke...). At the end of these events comes the finale, which often gives those who participate in it a fun festival hat. The finale events happen simultaneously in Lion's Arch in Prophecies and in Kamadan in Nightfall. The designs of the hat you get in Kamadan and the hat you get in Lion's Arch are different, so if you're able to, you can get one or both, whichever you'd like. If you have access to both campaigns, you can attend finale events at both locations and get both hats The Halloween festival ended at the end of October, and you better believe I got myself both hats.

While some people may not like to have to pay anything to play an online game, I think that for Guild Wars it is money well spent. This is a game that I play frequently and enjoy. Although I know that Guild Wars 2 will be rather expensive when it is first released and I am willing to wait for the price to drop, it is definitely something I'll eventually want to purchase. If you're looking for an interesting game with lots of story and a central plot, but has plenty of room for you to play around on your own terms and that won't cost you an arm and a leg or get you to keep paying to play, then you'll probably like Guild Wars.

Monday, November 21, 2011

General: Online Gaming

Instead of talking about a specific game in this post, I'm going to talk about why I got into online gaming. I was intending to cover this in my post on DDO, but it got kind of long and I forgot. So you get it in a separate post. Yay!

When I was in middle and high school, online gaming was something other people did. These other people were, in my youthful imagination, all overweight, pasty, pimply young males who lived on cold pizza and beer and only ventured out of their mothers' basements and into the harsh, unforgiving light of day when absolutely necessary, like when their snack supply ran low or their mothers had "forgotten" to pay the internet bill again. I had heard of WoW only because everyone had heard of WoW. I had no concept of any other games or of the people who actually played them. The closest I got to online gaming was those little flash games on iGoogle pages. While I enjoyed them, there were plenty of things I liked doing more, so I didn't think much of them.

As with almost everything related to geekdom, this really only changed once I got to college. The first real friend I made, A, played DDO with her long-distance boyfriend (now fiance), D. Neither of them were basement-dwelling weirdos and they both seemed to have fun with gaming.

One day, A offered me the opportunity to run a quest on her secondary character one day. I accepted out of curiosity and spent an enjoyable twenty minutes destroying every monster and breakable crate that crossed my path. A and D were surprised that I did so well without any experience with gaming and told me so, which was very flattering, considering their experience levels.

I liked the graphics and had had fun messing around on A's secondary character, so A suggested I download DDO myself. Since the game was free, I thought why not? I could always delete it later if I didn't like it, and since A had downloaded and played it without any problems, it probably wouldn't come attached to a virus that would eat my hard drive. So I spent half a day waiting for the thing to download and headed over to A's dorm room to get started.

It took a lot longer than anticipated to build my first character. This had nothing to do with the game itself being slow or anything- I just wanted to know all the mechanics of character building, what skills and feats would be most important to my character's race and class, where this came from, why, and a million other questions. A patiently answered all of my questions, getting D's opinion when she wasn't sure about something. Finally, after over an hour of stat building and messing around with my appearance and picking a name, my first character came into being and I started playing.

Within an hour, I was hooked. There was just something so satisfying about controlling a super-athletic, completely customized avatar that could run around and beat the snot out of various nasty beasties without breaking a sweat. Even today, that's one of my favorite things about online gaming: being able to take out your anger and aggravation on a bunch of completely virtual beasties in a satisfyingly flashy and risk-free manner. It makes for some excellent stress relief without risking the health or well-being of any person, animal, plant, object, or whatever in the real world. I didn't really care about plot or stories when I first started gaming, and while they're a bit more important to me now as far as giving structure and purpose to the quests my character does, I still love just being able to take out my frustration on a bunch of randomly generated monsters.

At first, I just did quests to kill stuff and level up. I wasn't too fussed with doing things the "right way" or obtaining extra-special equipment. If I happened across something cool, then great. If I didn't, I didn't. I spent a couple happy months messing around on this character before finally deleting in favor of experimenting with several different races and classes. This lasted a long while before I settled on a Halfling Rogue as my primary character and an Elf Wizard/Rogue as my secondary, with a wide variety of far-less-often-played characters on different servers.

I spent the majority of my time gaming playing alone, which was fine with me- I gamed at all hours of the night and day working around schoolwork, and I couldn't exactly expect A to drop everything and get online because I had been suddenly struck by a mad urge to game. When quests started getting too hard for me to complete without help, I would get a Hireling, usually a Cleric, or in extreme cases ask A if we could pencil in some time to get through a particularly sticky quest. Fortunately, she was always happy to help.

Eventually, I decided that I wanted to try to earn a Drow character on my primary character. A encouraged me and helped me figure out how I could do it. After a few months, I earned enough favor to unlock the Drow race on that particular server and deleted my Elf Wizard/Rogue in favor of a Drow Rogue. Around this time, D had gotten into Guild Wars and was encouraging A to join him in that game. Eventually, he got it for her, and it quickly became the game they spent the most time playing. I was content with DDO, and didn't pay much attention to this new game of A's.

By that winter, A suggested that I get Guild Wars too. I wasn't particularly interested, considering that it cost money I didn't want to spend and wasn't the game I was used to. A was rather persistent, and eventually gave me a gift copy of all three Guild Wars campaigns. I was surprised and grateful and promptly downloaded the game. As she had with DDO, A helped me build my first characters and helped me make sense of the strange new game. The mechanics of Guild Wars were quite different from DDO's, however, and I didn't deal well with change. I wasn't initially impressed, and quietly retreated back into the familiar world of DDO.

Eventually, though, after running a few quests with A, another period of wild experimentation with professions (aided by the rather larger number of available character slots in Guild Wars), and some time on my own to become accustomed to the game, I quickly warmed to Guild Wars. While I missed being able to sneak up on people and disable traps, it was nice to be able to play with other professions and not have to worry about not having the special abilities necessary to maximize XP and treasure in quests and be able to play around with different styles of virtual combat.

I started visiting DDO less and less often in favor of Guild Wars, and when I created the characters that would become my primaries, I stopped playing DDO at all. I went so long without even thinking of the game that the client I had been running it on expired, and I couldn't play it at all. I was a little disappointed when I discovered this, but by that time a few months had elapsed, and I was firmly and enjoyably involved in Guild Wars, so it didn't bother me much. I really only decided to re-download DDO when I started up this blog.

While it's been fun revisiting my old characters and creating new ones, I still prefer Guild Wars over DDO for serious gaming. DDO is fun to mess around on, but because of the free-mium nature of the game and my lack of interest in paying a subscription fee I can't really afford for a game I play only sporadically, I prefer Guild Wars for gaming that gets my characters somewhere in 'verse. I love being able to access all the content of Guild Wars, and the special events are just as fun as DDO's. While some features like the ability to jump and a death penalty that goes away by itself are more fun in DDO, being able to switch skills around in any town, being able to have a full and complete party without spending any money or partnering up with strangers, map travel, and being able to share all items between characters for only a small fee are all features I find make Guild Wars a bit more fun to play than DDO. If I'm in the mood to randomly kill stuff, I am content with either, but if I'm interested in advancing the overall story of a game, I stick with Guild Wars.

Gaming these days is mostly a way for me to relax and de-stress, despite the sometimes difficult challenges presented in quests. I like being able to check out from my boring, hum-drum life every once in a while and become a brave and skilled adventuress with a bunch of shiny weapons and an extremely enviable physique. It can be fun to be someone else for a while, no matter how unrealistic that life actually is. Gaming isn't for dorks and losers- so-called "normal" people can enjoy gaming too. Everyone needs an escape from their own life sometimes, and gaming can be a satisfying and fun way to do that for some people. I've certainly enjoyed my own experiences with online games, and as long as I have internet, I will continue to do so.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Online Game: DDO

Today I'm going to talk about online gaming. More specifically, I'll be talking about MMO RPGs, or massively multi-player online role-playing games.

I'll be honest with you- I'm not a hard-core gamer. I also don't play anything that requires an ongoing subscription fee, so you're not going to see me talk about World of Warcraft or any other subscription game. I'm a college student struggling to divide my paychecks and scholarship stipends between rent, utilities, school fees, unexpected expenses, and food. I don't have enough money set aside to get a haircut, let alone pay monthly fees for something like online games. I've also only spent time playing two different games: Dungeons and Dragons Online and Guild Wars. In this post, I'm going to talk about the first game I got into, Dungeons and Dragons Online, or DDO.

If you want to get the game, you go to the website (, create a Turbine account, and download the game. Unless you've got a really high end computer with a ton of memory, I'd recommend going with the standard download. It has all the features, it just doesn't have the ultra-super-duper-extra-special-nice graphics that a casual gamer won't really need or care about. The graphics that come with the standard download are more than good enough for the casual gamer. Even the lighter download is pretty heavy, though- the game is over 4500 MB, and as such will take a while to download. Once it's been downloaded, however, running the game is fast and easy and only requires a good internet connection (sorry, no dial-up).

DDO is a good introduction to the world of online gaming and to the concept of "free-mium" gaming. In "free-mium" gaming, much of the introductory content of a game is free to play, but as one's character advances, the number of level-appropriate things they are able to do for free decreases. Eventually, the only option to further advance the character is to pay for more exclusive content. DDO is a "free-mium" game where the free content maxes out at about level 10 or so. Practically everything after that point requires a subscription to play. For this review, I'll be focusing pretty much exclusively on the free to play aspects of the game, since I've never wanted to pay a subscription for a product I'd only use intermittently.

While the "free-mium" cap is rather disappointing, the game itself is interesting and fun, and players have many different options to suit their personal preferences. When building a character, there are several different races to choose from, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. The free to play races are humans, halflings, elves, and dwarves. Once you've played the game for a while and build up enough favor with the various organizations in the game, you earn the ability to play a drow elf character for free. The other races (half-elf, half-orc, and warforged) are not free to play and must be purchased with a subscription or in the game store. The different stats each race starts with can make them a better fit with some particular professions, or classes, but with the right attribute scores, practically any race can play any class.

The classes are split into three main categories: Melee, Spell, and Specialist. Melee classes fight with weapons, though they may have some magical attacks. Spell classes fight with magic, though they may have some melee attacks, and are often penalized for wearing heavy armor or wielding certain weapons. The Specialist classes have more wild card characteristics- while they use melee attacks, casting spells is also an integral part of some of these classes.

The free to play Melee classes are Barbarian, Fighter, and Paladin. There is also the Monk class, but this must be purchased for players to use it, so I won't talk about it here.

The Spell classes are Cleric, Sorcerer, and Wizard. There is a fourth Spell class called the Favored Soul, which is a more melee-ified Cleric, but it isn't free to play, so, like the Monk, I won't discuss it much here.

The Specialist classes are Bard, Ranger, and Rogue. There's also a brand new Specialist class called the Artificer, but apart from being brand-new, it is another class that needs to be purchased, so it won't get much discussion time.

All of the classes in the game are fun to play, however, and picking one is really a matter of personal preference. If you like to get up close and personal with your enemies or swing enormous weaponry about, you'll probably enjoy Melee classes. If you prefer standing back and blasting your enemies into oblivion with a variety of interesting spells, a Spell class would probably be best for you. If you prefer a smaller, more defined role within a party, you'll probably like the Specialist classes.

If you're confident in your abilities to give your character optimum scores, skills, and feats, you even have the option to build your character's abilities from scratch. If you're not so confident, however, you can always pick one of the preset paths for your class. These paths will automatically choose your characters stats, skills, and feats, and will adjust them accordingly as your character levels up. If you choose to build your character from scratch, you will be able to adjust these things however you wish.

When you've decided what class and race you'd like to play and either chosen a path or picked your character's stats, it's time for you to customize the appearance of your avatar. You can do pretty much anything to your character's face, right down to adjusting their eye shape, lip color, and facial piercings. Feel free to play around with this- the possibilities can be endless! There is an appearance randomizer at the bottom of the appearance pane, which will produce random combinations of colors and styles when you click on it. If you find a particular hair style or eye shape that you really like, you can click on the tiny padlock icon next to this characteristic to "lock" it into place and make changing it impossible without first unlocking it.

The final step in creating your character is choosing your alignment and your name. Your alignment is where you fall between Lawful and Chaotic and whether you are Good or Neutral. This gives you six choices: Lawful Good (the default and unchangeable alignment for Paladins), Neutral Good, Chaotic Good, Lawful Neutral, True Neutral (because Neutral Neutral sounds redundant, even though it really isn't), and Chaotic Neutral. These alignments will only affect you as far as being able to wield special kinds of expensive weapons that, as a free-mium player, you almost certainly won't have any real use for in the game unless you decide to start paying for additional in-game access.

Picking a name can be a bit trickier, because you're not allowed to use a name someone else is already using. This means that you might have to get creative with spellings and spaces if you've got your heart set on a particular name. You might even have to pick an entirely different name if the one you want is particularly popular. You are given the option of choosing a last name, but this isn't necessary.

When you finally enter a name that doesn't already exist in the system, your character will be created. You will be taken back to the main menu, where your character will appear dressed in rags. Do not worry: this is normal. When you're ready to begin playing, select the large Enter button on the right side of the screen.

At any other time when playing a character, the game will load your character in as close to the spot where you logged out as it can. If you were in a quest or an explorable area when you logged off, the game will deposit you outside the doorway in the town or area you entered it from. The first time you play a character, though, you will begin the game as the sole survivor of a dragon-induced shipwreck on the beaches of Korthos Island. If this is your first time creating a character in this world, you will have to complete the introductory quest before you can move on the village of Korthos. If you've created a character on this world before, you are given the option of skipping the quest and going directly to the village, though you may still take the quest if you'd prefer.

The introductory quest is pretty straight-forward and will allow you to practice using your character's skills and abilities. It also introduces you to the Korthos storyline. Whether or not you take the quest, you will finish with a ring that allows you to breathe underwater for a limited period of time (this will come in handy in quests later), starter armor appropriate to your class, any special miscellaneous equipment you may need for your character's skills to work (lock picks or spell components, for example), and your choice of a special weapon. In this quest, you may become incapacitated, but you will have a spell cast on your character at the beginning that will prevent you from dying. This only works during this particular quest- once it's over, you can still die.

You'll also encounter your first rest and resurrection shrines in this quest. When you use a rest shrine, you regain some of your hit points (you may regain all of them if you haven't lost very many) and all of your spell points (if you have them to begin with). Resurrection shrines will bring you back to life if you die and are able to reach a shrine. If you are in a quest and you die, your soul is able to run a limited distance away from your soul stone. If you happen upon a resurrection shrine within this distance, you can click on it to come back from the dead right where your spirit stands. You can also get a hireling or a party member to pick up your soul stone and carry it close enough to a resurrection shrine for you to use it.

You will resurrect in-quest with a limited number of hit points. You will also suffer a brief penalty as a result of having died, but it will go away on its own within a couple of minutes. Usually there will be a handy rest shrine nearby to restock your point totals. If there isn't, if you cannot use it again (Hard and Elite difficulty level quests only allow you to use each rest shrine once, while shrines in Normal and explorable areas and Solo or Casual quests will make you wait fifteen and five minutes respectively before you can use the shrine again), or if you need to regain even more points than the rest shrine gave back to you, you can drink a healing potion or two to get back the rest of your hit points.

Usually, you'll die during the course of a quest, but you can still die in a town if you fall from too great a height, stay too long underwater, or just do something stupid that lowers your hit points. You regenerate hit points automatically in a town, but if you manage to get down to negative ten or fewer hit points, you will still die. In a town, if you get down to negative nine hit points, you are only incapacitated, and you will automatically regenerate points until you get to at least one hit point and become mobile again, at which time you can seek out a handy tavern, down a few healing potions, or simply wait until the city regeneration has finished replenishing your hit point total.

If you become incapacitated in a quest, you will automatically "roll" to see if you start regenerating hit points (as if you were playing the tabletop Dungeons and Dragons). If you fail a roll, you lose another hit point. If you fail too many times, you will die. This is random, and there is nothing you can do to alter it. If you roll successfully, you will start regaining hit points and will get up to one hit point (the point at which you are able to move again) before the regeneration stops. Hopefully whatever almost killed you is no longer in the vicinity, or you may have to face death again.

If you do die, whether you are in a quest or in a town, you are able to release your soul to your bind spot. When you first start the game, this is the place where you emerge from the introductory quest in Korthos village. You can easily change your bind point by going into a tavern and talking with the Spirit Binder (don't worry, he's labeled) in the tavern and asking them to make that your bind point. When you die, you will then resurrect at that tavern instead.

Quests will also give you experience points, or XP. Gaining XP will allow you to advance your level and earn action points, which are used to increase your character's skills or give them new ones. If you want to change what you've spent your action points on, you are able to do so, but only once every so often, and you have to pay for it. You can choose to level up in your own class, or pick another class (a maximum of two classes other than your original class) to level up in. This is called multi-classing. When you multi-class, you gain level one-type skills of your new class, while your original class stays at the last level you took of it.

For example, if you would like your character to be a wizard who can also detect and disable traps and find secret doors like a rogue (a good combination, since both classes are heavily dependent on a good Intelligence score), you would start the game as a rogue (to take advantage of a class bonus to skill points and possessing almost every skill in the game as a class skill), but when you go to gain a level, you would talk to the wizard trainer instead of the rogue trainer, and take your new level in the wizard class. From there, you would continue leveling up as a wizard, with the occasional level in rogue to make sure that your rogue skills would be able to keep up with the increasingly difficult traps you would face during quests. Both classes' skills will work just fine for your character- you won't have a penalty to your new class' skills.

More on XP: you earn it from completing quests. To get a quest, you simply talk with a non-player character (NPC) who has a glowing golden chalice floating over their head. You can find the location of these people by opening your map and looking for chalices on the map. Blue chalices denote the location of NPCs whose quests you have completed. Gray chalices show the location of NPCs whose quests are still in progress, and yellow chalices show NPCs whose quests you have not yet taken.

Quests can be done more than once, and usually on multiple difficulty levels. There are a few quests that only allow you to solo them (you have to do the quest alone, without a party), but most have difficulty levels ranging from Normal (normal difficulty) to Epic (extremely hard, only for balanced parties where everyone has reached level 20). Running a quest for the first time on a specific difficulty earns you more XP than it will again. You also have to work your way up through the difficulties- you can't run a quest on "Hard" until you've successfully completed "Normal."

Doing this is an excellent way to build favor with various groups of people in the game. Checking the list of available quests (not the quests you have taken, but the list of all the quests available at all in the game) will show you how much favor completing the quest at each level will get you. Once you get four hundred total favor points, you are able to speak to an NPC in Stormreach harbor to unlock the ability to play a drow elf character on that server. You can either create your second free character as a drow, or delete your existing character and create a new character. The new character will have to start at the very beginning in Korthos, but since you've already gone through all of this once before, it will be easier. You won't be able to access the drow race in other servers (for example, if you've gotten four hundred favor in a character on the Sarlona server, you will only be able to access the drow race in Sarlona- you wouldn't be able to in any of the other servers).

If you need a little bit of help on a quest, but don't know anyone to game with and don't want to party up with strangers, you can purchase a hireling in the game. Hirelings are available in most classes, and you can purchase any hireling your level or lower. This gives you an hour of questing time with an NPC of whichever class you pick that you can order around however you need to. Keep in mind, there is not another person playing these characters, so they can sometimes do some pretty stupid things if you don't keep an eye on them.

Back to XP again: you can also earn it in explorable areas (combat zones filled with enemies outside the safety of towns and outposts) by exploring the environment, killing certain numbers of creatures, and finding and killing a certain number of "boss" enemies. Bosses typically have more hit points and are more powerful and more difficult to kill than other nearby enemies of their species and class. In quests, you often have to face a boss at some point. While they may be more difficult to kill, doing so gets you extra XP and they often leave a treasure chest behind when they die.

Once you're in Korthos village itself, you're free to explore. You can't leave the village until you complete a few quests, but they're relatively simple and straightforward as well, and are also good practice for using your skills and abilities. Once you're able to leave the village, you can explore the island itself (an explorable area) and do quests that start out in Korthos Island.

Once you finish up all the Korthos Island quests, you are able to do the final Korthos quest: Misery's Peak. This quest is more difficult than anything you will have faced so far, but it is by no means impossible. Feel free to take your time and pace yourself according to your character's abilities and any injuries they may sustain. The quest will have plenty of rest shrines, but it is long, so spellcasters may want to budget their spell points and any character who cannot self-heal will want to bring plenty of healing potions or find a friend or hireling cleric to do the quest with them.

Once you finish Misery's Peak, you will be able to leave Korthos and travel to the city of Stormreach. From here, you can choose from an abundance of quests, explore the Harbor, and venture into the Marketplace and the enclaves for the main Houses in Stormreach. From here, you're on your own- you can choose which quests you want to do, when you want to do them, and where you want to go and explore. Each area has its own distinctive look especially within the House enclaves, and the graphics are beautiful.

If you run into trouble or want a little bit of help, you can check out the online wiki at It's not affiliated with the company that owns the game, but it still very helpful with almost every aspect of the game. You can also ask other players in the DDO forums or in the advice section of the in game chat (just click the "Advice" tab in the chat pane in the lower left hand corner of your screen and type away). You may get some smart-alecky answers, but the majority of players won't mind giving honest help or direct you somewhere where your question can be better answered. Just try not to overwhelm the chat with questions!

I played DDO exclusively for about a year before my best friend bought me a subscription to Guild Wars, which I'll talk about later. I really enjoyed it, and I still like to play occasionally, even if I'm currently more invested in my Guild Wars characters. If you want an easy-to-play introduction to the world of MMO RPGs and don't mind a free-mium level cap, you might like to give Dungeons and Dragons Online a try.