On Combat Pets

A series of conversations with a colleague over Twitter led to a lot of thoughts on combat pets and pet classes.

Namely, it started with the concept that Frost Mages should have a talent to opt out of having the Water Elemental as a pet, which Technical Game Designer Chadd “@Celestalon” Nervig shot down. For my piece, I agree with Nervig, but wanted to provide more rationale as to why.

1) The reason why Warlocks and Hunters get a talent that lets them go petless is because otherwise, they have no options. Without GoSac and Lone Wolf, if you don’t want to manage a pet, you don’t get to play the class, full stop. So adding in abilities that let you go without deepens the gameplay for each class. And even then, it’s important to note that Lone Wolf only has that function for non-Beastmaster hunters (BM gets something else), and GoSac is being tweaked to behave differently for Demonology warlocks. Conversely, for Frost mages, if you don’t want to manage a pet, Fire and Arcane are just a respec away.

2) Opting out of Water Elemental would over-simplify Frost’s gameplay. When you look at the optimal rotation that Icy Veins suggests for a Frost mage, you might notice that it’s not a long list. Proper usage of Freeze to squeeze out more Fingers of Frost procs and consequently more Ice Lance casts is probably one of the more complicated elements of their casting priority. If you drop Freeze usage, the rotation is excessively simple, and only complicated by whether or not you have FoF procs to spend.

* Now, that’s also an argument for Frost getting something more complicated for a rotation, but then you’re talking about changing up class mechanics and that’s much bigger than the initial request of “please can I play without having Squirt hovering next to me?”

* It’s also important to point out that when you look at Marksmanship and Survival’s rotations, nothing changes for them if you drop the pet. They’re just losing out on passive damage and the pet’s utility. Which brings us to:

3) Hunters and Warlocks rely on pets for unique utility. Frost Mages do not. This is notable in the effects of the pet-sacking talents; namely, in addition to a passive increase in damage potential, Lone Wolf lets the Hunter provide a raid buff reflecting what the pet would have provided, and warlocks get to kidnap a situational ability from whichever demon they sacked. Conversely, Squirt doesn’t really have anything unique to her; she gets a watered-down Frostbolt and a targetable Frost Nova. The thing with Freeze is that because of the synergy it has with Fingers of Frost, mages treat it as a mage ability in order to maximize their procs. And aside from that, Frost still has a method of generating FoF procs even without using Freeze.

* One could make the argument that Squirt ought to have her repertoire increased to be in line with other pets in order to make the Frost Mage pet-play more similar to other pet classes. To that end, if you added something to the W-ele that enhanced the pet play and THEN offered a talent that let Frost mages forgo it for petless play, it would be more in line with Lone Wolf and GoSac. But again, that’s getting into a slippery slope of adding/altering abilities that has repercussions in more than just PVE fights.

The bottom line here is that asking to bench Water Elemental is a taller order than just asking for the Lone Wolf treatment. It’s an apples/oranges comparison, because Frost’s pet play is markedly different from hunter/warlock pet play. And it can’t be overstated that Frost mages can opt out of the pet by not being Frost mages, while hunters and warlocks can’t opt out of pets without dropping the class entirely.

Meanwhile, in Shaman Country…

Another conversation aimed at Nervig’s feed caught me eye, where a player asked about giving shamans an option to make a permanent pet out their Fire/Earth elementals (which Celestalon nuked from orbit). This presents the opposite end of the spectrum on pet play that I think helps to accentuate why Frost can’t lose Squirt.

1) Pet classes/specs are defined by the presence of a permanent pet. The wording on Lone Wolf and GoSac is pretty clear. Lone Wolf increases hunter damage by 30%. GoSac increases single-target spells by anywhere from 15-35% depending on spell and spec. This means out of all the damage hunters and warlocks do, ~30% of it comes from the pet. With Enhancement/Elemental shaman, temporary cooldown pets like Burnie, Rocko, and the spirit puppies account for a noticeable percentage of damage, but that damage is confined to those cooldown windows instead of being passive damage being dealt throughout the fight. So if you’re saying “look, I’d sacrifice the cooldown if it meant I could have the pet out all the time” then what you’re actually saying is “look, I’d willingly give up 30% of my overall DPS in combat in order to outsource it to my pet.”

* I appreciate that some players are going to say “I am perfectly okay with that.”

2) Not all pets are created equal. Feral Spirits are two separate wolves/raptors with separate health bars, with a passive that heals the Enhancement shaman. The Fire Elemental has an AoE attack in addition to dealing damage to attackers. The Earth Elemental has an AoE taunt. Taking the Primal Elementalist talent grants even more abilities to Burnie and Rocko. And this is without doing a comparison to other cooldown pets like the Infernal/Doomguard, or Stampede. So I think it’s fair to say that if you wanted to give the permanent pet treatment to many of these cooldown pets, you’d be looking at changing them dramatically in order to bring them in line with the hunter/warlock pets. And again, maybe that’s an acceptable loss for people who really want to be an Enhancement shaman who always has his puppies out, but it’s possible that plenty of people will miss the damage CD during burn phases or will miss utility that was rightfully stripped off in the process of getting the permanence.

3) Matching the kit is always a concern. Strictly speaking, when you talk about making the totem pets into permanent pets, you’re talking about stripping the “totem” aspects out of them. Given how many abilities come from totems for shaman, and how intrinsic totem-centered abilities are to the class (especially given the directive in MoP to make totems into situational cooldown abilities rather than critical abilities that shaman always needed to drop before they could begin play) it feels strange to specifically take two of the most powerful totem abilities and drop the totems.

From a narrative standpoint, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense for a shaman to constantly have a fire/earth elemental following them around, even outside of combat. Shaman petition the elemental spirits to grant their powers, and in times of great need they’ll ask an elemental to intervene directly and aid them in combat. But a shaman who’s got Burnie and/or Rocko looming beside him all the time has effectively enslaved the elemental to his will, which is really counter to the shaman credo. (This was a big part of the reason that stomping on all of Garrosh’ Dark Shaman was important.)

There’s also another big unanswered question: do all three shaman specs get the ability to have one of the pets out at once? Fire and Earth are both a part of the Elemental kit, so there’s no question there. Enhancement is a little trickier because the presence of the elementals doesn’t really affect the shaman in an overt way. And with Restoration… well, the earlier statement about sacrificing damage to outsource it to the pet doesn’t work, since Resto is about healing, not DPS, and neither of the elementals have healing abilities (though Primal Elementalist grants some healing augmentation). Conjuring a new elemental for Resto to use is a plausible solution, but then you’re talking about a third elemental, and do Elemental/Enhancement get access to it as well?

Essentially, you’re talking about a LOT of design work going into shaman to grant what’s ultimately a nerf to the shaman’s personal throughput, all for the sake of an aesthetic that doesn’t actually serve the lore of the class. Much like the Water elemental, it’s not as simple as offering the inverse of Lone Wolf or GoSac, because there are a lot of implications in warping something that’s not a pet spec into a pet spec.

* * *

That’s my long-form explanation for why Lone Wolf can’t really be used as a justification for changing up the pet dynamics of other classes. I think there’s a greater discussion to be had about improving Squirt and giving Frost an option between pet play and petless play, and I think there’s a discussion to be had about Enhancement having pet play centered around permanent Feral Spirits, but I also think that those changes aren’t something we’d see before 7.0. Future post ideas, for sure.

The Playbooks of the Gods a.k.a. The Villain Factory

Most of the bigtime villains we’ve come across throughout the course of Warcraft tend to have their origins in either the Burning Legion or the Old Gods. Most of these villains have a tendency to grow past those origins, but that still leaves those two forces still at play, generating threats for the players, as heroes, to contend against. In contrast to the “hero factory” design paradigm of creating powerful but diverse characters for players to engage the game with, you could call this a “villain factory” that generates diverse enemies for players to combat.

However, a lot of those threats tend to follow certain patterns, like they’re coming out of a playbook.

The Burning Legion playbook has a couple patterns to it that bear mentioning.

  • Corrupting the natives of unconquered worlds into being Legion groupies is a great way to cut down on losses during an invasion. (Examples include Azshara and Gul’dan, and in an extreme case, Medivh.)
  • Failure is not always grounds for dismissing an asset. Torturing them into being more obedient and then empowering them is a way to ensure loyalty, at least to accomplish short-term goals. (Examples includes Xavius, Illidan, and Ner’zhul. Given those examples, this play is one of the chief reasons the Legion usually fails.)
  • Power begets your station. If you come across a powerful individual or group, you can make them an asset and possibly improve your own standing in the hierarchy. If an asset proves ineffectual, it reflects poorly on your personal power. (Watch Mannoroth’s personal investment in re-corrupting the orcs in WC3. His blood corrupted them in the first place, and he wanted the Horde as his tools. Watch the Dreadlords working at creating and then attempting to reassert control over the Lich King and the Scourge.)
  • Nothing is more important that countering the works of the Titans. Eliminate the Titans, and Sargeras gets to recreate a universe in his image, and the Legion gets to rule with him.

The Old Gods have their own playbook, though.

  • Chaos for the sake of chaos is a fair play. Since the Titans are all about order, the Old Gods oppose them because there should be no order. In the absence of fighting the Titans, the Old Gods and their servants fought each other, whether using their faceless armies or enslaving the Elemental Lords for the same purpose. It’s not about imposing their own order: it’s about anarchy and an orgy of destruction in opposition to an ordered creation. (This inherent nihilism is part of the reason the Twilight’s Hammer was such a joke of a threat; when players infiltrate their training procedure in Hyjal, they revel so much in their self-destruction that it’s a surprise anyone survives long enough to actually further the Hammer’s agenda.)
  • Corrupting an existing order, or allowing an order to flourish if its goals further the overarching, is also fair play. The mantid are a fiercely ordered society, but they still serve the OGs.  (And to further the earlier point, they’re MUCH more effective than the Twilight’s Hammer as servants, since the only thing that stopped them was the Mogu being super-effective at their task.)
  • Corrupting the tools of the Titans in particular is just a wellspring of opportunity. They turned Neltharion, who had been appointed their jailer. Reversing the Curse of Flesh that they themselves created in order to get the Neferset on their team in Uldum is another prime example.
  • Corrupting the corrupt. Azshara sold out her people for Sargeras and god-like power, but when the Well blew up, it was the OGs who saved her and turned her and the Highborne into the Naga in exchange for their service. Xavius followed the same path as Azshara, but was then empowered by the OGs to infect the Emerald Dream with the Nightmare, which inherently gives them the ability to ruin the Titanic back-up process.
  • Decentralization is the key to success, aside from sticking with the anarchic chic. If you killed Sargeras, you might break the back of the Legion. Kill C’thun and there are still other Old Gods; you may have just neutralized everyone on C’thun’s payroll, but Yogg-Saron and N’zoth are still in play with their own games. Hell, Y’shaarj has been dead for millennia and its corpse is still effective at sowing chaos. It’s not even certain that there are only five Old Gods. There could be hundreds.

This is core to the conflicts of the gods as a backdrop for Warcraft as a franchise: you have the creations of the Titans (not so much the Titans themselves) fighting to maintain order, while Sargeras and the Legion fight to unmake creation in order to impose a new order, while the Old Gods act as the catalysts for an inherently chaotic creation. The players, as mortals, are caught up in the middle of this eternal three-way war.

Even so, there’s a lack of agency from the Titans. We’ve never seen any of the Titans directly in the lore, except for Sargeras after the fall. We’ve seen their constructs, but almost universally, the more independent constructs like the Watchers of Ulduar and Ra-den tend to have been corrupted, and we’ve got to knock them back to their senses. All of the Titans’ creations just want to preserve what the Titans established. (The Thunder King and the mogu are standout examples of uncorrupted constructs that just got their directives mixed up.)

That’s a big part of the reason why it falls to the player characters to champion for the Titans, or at least champion against the enemies of the Titanic order: if the Legion wants domination and the Old Gods want destruction, it’s the mortal races that lose out either way. Even if the Titans don’t really have any personal investment in preserving the mortal races (recall that Algalon’s initial directive was to re-originate Azeroth when his threat assessment showed it as being unrecoverable) it’s better to work for the pantheon that’s not actively trying to destroy you and your way of life.

It’s weird to think of the evil forces of the universe being more transparent in their intentions than the forces for good, but from a creative standpoint, it makes sense: evil demonstrating its power is easiest to understand when that power is threatening to the player. The power of good forces is much harder to demonstrate or expand upon, because if good were capable of expressing power, would you really need heroes to step up and fight for the side of good?

At the end of the day, this is probably why most of the threats are ultimately going to be born out of the Legion OR the Old Gods: domination vs. destruction is simply so pure a mechanism for the villain factory that there really isn’t a way to break away from it, unless you want to build a villain out of a hero who is fighting against those threats.

Which, notably, is exactly what Blizzard did with Garrosh. And Arthas. And Illidan. Meditate on that.

Four Reasons Why Med’An Is Awful And Should Never Return

Whenever Med’an comes up in conversation, I will usually fall back on my joke about him spending time in the Hyperbolic Time Chamber, training in 1000x Azeroth gravity, raising his power level over 9000. For the most part, I think this really communicates how seriously I take the character… which is to say I don’t take him seriously at all, because he’s really an awful character and BOY LET ME TELL YOU WHY:

Reason #1: Origin Story

Med’an’s appearance in the WoW comic series coincides with the reintroduction of Garona Halforcen into the Warcraft narrative, and retracing Garona’s history is a big part of the issue I have with Med’an: Garona was established as a half-orc/half-human in The Last Guardian, intended to be an agent of Gul’dan who ingratiated herself to Medivh, whom Gul’dan had cooperated with to open the Dark Portal but didn’t trust. The book has Garona eventually aiding in the assassination of Medivh, in which she gets cursed and loses her mind. Warcraft 1′s narrative has her go on to kill King Llane Wrynn and later betray Gul’dan after being tortured by Orgrim Doomhammer.

What the WoW comic would sell us is that Garona is half-orc/half-draenei (since the human part doesn’t compute with the retroactively-shortened timeline of the First War period) and that despite Medivh being crazypants, he was able to romance Garona completely off-screen and get a child on her. Then, after the whole litany of stuff I listed before, Garona leaves her newborn child with an undead sorcerer (who predates the Scourge/Forsaken and is just undead because reasons) and then disappears from the narrative for decades. Med’an grows up knowing nothing of his mother or his heritage, learning arcane magic and stick-fighting from Meryl, keeping 100% under the radar from the victorious orcish invasion of the continent, the human reconquest following the Second War, and everything since then. This all presents a huge volume of unanswered questions:

  • How did Sargeras, who was INSIDE MEDIVH, not know of Med’an’s existence?
  • How did the romance go unnoticed and how did it work biologically when there’s no evidence of human/orc pairings aside from pre-retcon Garona?
  • How did Meryl become the only person Garona could trust specifically after she was cursed in a manner that prevents her from acting with any degree of loyalty to anyone?
  • Even if you can accept Med’an’s simple existence and survival on Azeroth, the final question is about where his importance to the Twilight’s Hammer comes into play: how can there be a prophecy about him uniting a bunch of magical paths together to be a weapon for the Old Gods?

The avalanche of logical jumps we have to make in order to buy that Med’an even exists at this point is just part one of why Med’an is an awful character. His story is the same kind of contrived superhero comic book narratives that gave us the Maximum Clonage narrative for Spider-man, or Jean Grey surviving the Dark Phoenix saga. It strains credulity.

Reason #2: Power Scale

Med’an possesses an overwhelming aptitude for magic. This is to the extent where when push comes to shove, Jaina, Aegwynn, and a bucketful of other characters decide to pour their magic into him to make him the new Guardian of Tiris Fal so that he can throw down with the Old God-empowered version of Cho’gall. There’s no character in the entirety of the canon, not even Medivh, who has even the potential for that level of power. The original Guardian was always a champion specifically of Arcane magic, and while Medivh inherited that from Aegwynn instead of being granted it, and while his studies into demonology gave him access to fel magic, he still never expressed anything that employed divine magic, or shamanistic or druidic magic. To say that Med’an is gamebreakingly powerful is really an understatement, because there’s absolutely no one who has the same access to power that he appears to have, and which he appears to have acquired entirely coincidentally without any actual effort on his part.

Introducing Med’an into the narrative invites the Superman problem into Azeroth: if he’s got a full deck of powers he can draw from, what can possibly threaten him? What situation can challenge Med’an when he simply cannot be countered by anything? He’s a walking deus ex machina for any conflict. Quite frankly, within the gameplay of World of Warcraft, that role belongs to the player characters; there is no boss we cannot defeat if we are given an encounter with that boss. If Med’an were implemented as-is, he’d either have to be completely inconsequential to the story (which begs the question of why he’s being included in the first place) or he’d resolve the problem himself, shutting players out of the ability to resolve the problem by bringing the boss to zero HP.

Reason #3: Character

The problem with Med’an’s personal character is this: the only thing that differentiates him from Anduin as a character is his parentage. Otherwise, he’s exactly the same kind of earnest young hero who abhors violence, wishes for a peaceful resolution, but will reluctantly use force if it ultimately leads to peace. He’s neutral in the Alliance/Horde conflict. He’s got a conflicted and complicated relationship with his one surviving parent, and he’s got a surrogate parent who lately has become a little less than noble as a matter of consequence. Why do we need Med’an when Anduin hits all of the same notes without being gamebreakingly powerful?

There is nothing new or original that Med’an brings to the table compared to the list of existing NPC characters in the game, except for his grossly overpowered access to all paths of magic. Mitigate his superpower and he loses his only unique quality. Keep his superpower and he solves every problem without player engagement. Alter his character too dramatically and he’s not the character comic readers wanted. Maintain his character, and players who didn’t read the comic are going to be sitting there saying “who’s this fucker and why isn’t he letting me kill this boss?”

Reason #4: Completely Unnecessary

Now, could this be mitigated? Could Med’an be introduced in a way where he doesn’t have the same gross power potential and get deployed similarly to how Thrall and Jaina have been used to prop up the power of the PCs? Yeah, sure. But Med’an’s overall complete irrelevance to the Warcraft narrative makes it implausible to do that: why use Med’an when Thrall or Jaina or Khadgar or Maraad or Anduin or Drek’thar are all more recognizable options? The only place where Med’an WOULD have had any relevance would have been in finally killing Cho’gall in Bastion of Twilight, but neither he nor Garona (who swore to end Cho’gall and then did exactly nothing of consequence) showed up for that. Med’an might arguably have a beef with C’thun, but C’thun’s avatar in Cho’gall is already dead, and you can’t kill C’thun AGAIN. Med’an doesn’t have any other relationship with the remaining Old Gods, so deploying him there wouldn’t make any sense.

You’d need to come up with an entire narrative centered on why Med’an is the key to the story, just as Thrall was key to the narrative in Cataclysm as the stand-in for the Aspect of Earth. And the problem with doing that is that players didn’t really dig how Thrall got a whole bunch of screentime being awesome and doing things when the players were the ones keeping Thrall from totally failing his task.  This is then countered pretty strongly in Mists of Pandaria, because the narrative (Wrathion’s legendary questline especially) really turns the PC into the hero of the story; it’s the PC who unleashes the Sha, but then the PC who goes across Pandaria sealing the Sha again. It’s the PC who gets the Vale opened by the August Celestials. It’s the PC who turns the tide in the Darkspear Rebellion and makes it possible to defeat Garrosh. And it’s the PC who defeats Garrosh when Garrosh punks Thrall RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE PC.

So no. Med’an should never come back, because implementing him would only serve to either duplicate or supplant existing characters who resonate more with the players due to their longer history, OR it would be repeating the mistakes that Blizzard made in the past that broke player engagement in the first place by making an NPC more critical to the plot than the players themselves.

Med’an can stay in his hyperbolic chamber for all eternity. The game will be better for his absence.

Quick Update

Happy New Year everyone! Things have been quiet here for a bit, mostly because the holidays ended up getting way out of control (i.e. baby’s first Christmas with like five families, followed by his first birthday, followed by his mother getting sick) but it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day. 

And I’m feeling GOOD. 

Big stuff coming soon, and you can also catch me over at BlizzPro, dropping science rather frequently

Community Blog Topic: Wrath of The Pitch King

Robin Torres wants to know what I’d pitch as a dream expansion. In the words of the Novice Engineer: “Oh, if you’re sure!!”

World of Warcraft: Scarabs of the Black Empire

Opening Event: Messengers from the Ramkahen report that there are strange rumblings south of the Scarab Wall in Silithus. Investigating the Ruins of Ahn’Qiraj, adventurers discover the gateway to a monstrous new hive of the Silithid, the entrance to which is guarded by… wait, Nerubians? And Mantid? And led by a Qiraji prophet? What the hell is going on?

The greatest elders of the Tol’vir, investigating the ruins of the Titan facility with the help of Brann Bronzebeard, discover the truth; the true progenitor of the Aqir, an Old God called Shur-Narqoth, was sealed within the depths of the earth by the Titans. Shur-Narqoth was the last of the Old Gods to be defeated, and the most elusive, which is why the Titans buried it deeper than all the rest. Only now, after millenia of endless work by the dwindling numbers of the Aqir, Shur-Narqoth’s tomb has been located, and the aqir, united once more after their long sundering, are poised to open it once again. The Horde and Alliance are suddenly beset by great worms erupting from underground, acting as gateways for the Aqir to launch their assault upon the factions’ major cities. All surface-dwelling races recognize the threat of this Black Empire; the Zandalari even supplicate themselves to Warchief Vol’jin, stating that fighting the Aqir once united all trolls together and could do so once again.

Raid Tier 1: 

  • The Black Capitol: The command center of the Scarab Army, where the Qiraji Prophet Kassan and his Vizier Council direct the assault on the surface world.
  • The Thousand Cells: The outlying tiers of Shur-Narqoth’s prison, where its manifold body parts were contained separately to diminish the Old God’s power. With the Titanic defenses diminished, the cells are opening…
  • The Mithril Dragonshrine: The Titans placed the most dangerous Old God under the watchful eye of their most terrifying creations yet: a flight of mechanical dragons modeled after Neltharion, but immune to the Curse of Flesh and incorruptible by the Old Gods. With orders to destroy any living thing that comes within range of the Old God’s prison, the Adamantium Dragons do not discriminate when the heroes of the surface world appear.

First Content Patch: The Old God’s great gambit is revealed! The Aqir lured the heroes of the surface world to the prison in order to force a battle with the Adamantium Dragons, and as such, the Old God’s final jailors are dead! Shur-Narqoth begins to gather strength, and while the Horde and the Alliance gear for the fight of their lives, they are suddenly betrayed; the Zandalari, having struck a deal with the Aqir, launch a surprise attack on the surface world, aided by Queen Azshara’s naga!

Raid Tier 2: 

  • Zandalar, Jewel of the South: Having aided the Aqir in their manipulations, the Zandalari trolls must be stopped. But is the God-King Rastakhan a friend or a foe?

Second Content Patch: Brann Bronzebeard and the Tol’vir have an idea that might defeat Shur-Narqoth: if the Titans’ Re-Origination device can be turned into a weapon, it could be used to destroy the Old God without destroying the rest of the world in the process. A server-wide event to collect materials for and defend the Originator Cannon from an assault by the Aqir is the only way!

Raid Tier 3: 

  • Heart of the Black Emperor: The Black Empire’s most powerful creations launch an all-out attack on the Originator Cannon, but Wrathion appears at the head of a repaired and reprogrammed Adamantium Flight, clearing the path for the heroes of the surface world to breach Shur-Narqoth’s prison, contend with a horde of mantid Paragons and corrupted anubisaths, and present a clear shot for the Cannon to do its work.

Damn, I’m kinda proud of myself.

Instrumentality

As of this week, I’ll be contributing news on WoW and other Blizzard games with the fine cats over on BlizzPro. I’m pretty excited about this opportunity and I’m really happy to be working with a bunch of dedicated and cheerful gamers!

So what does this mean for PW:R? My coverage on Connected Realms will probably transition over, since that’s much more of a current news-like event, while most of my lore observations, hypothetical scenarios like the Infinite Sadness, and systems remixing will stay here. Depending on how things go, the coverage I hope to do on the Warcraft movie starting production soon may either end up here or on BlizzPro, but aside from the recent casting news, there hasn’t been a lot to talk about.

These are exciting times, and I’m happy to be able to share them with you all. ^_^

Zul’jin: An Overview, Part 2

Picking up from where we left off, Zul’jin joined Doomhammer’s Horde for glory and vengeance but came out of it short an arm, short an eye, and without the favor of the loa or the God-king. What’s next for the Warlord of the Amani?

*******************

When the Scourge stormed into Eversong and began to break through the elves’ defenses, he was tempted to offer his services, but refused. He never trusted the death knights Gul’dan had created, and he had no reason to think that these new death knights were any different. Besides, they paid no attention to any trolls. Why interfere?

By the end of it, when the army of the dead had left Quel’thalas in ruins, Zul’jin’s scouts told him that hardly any elves were left, save mewling children and frail women. The warriors were all dead. There was no one worth fighting.

Zul’jin was one the one hand relieved but on the other annoyed. He would never have his vengeance in a meaningful way, but his people had no need to destroy the elves any longer. He took little comfort in having outlasted his enemy, and sat in Zul’Aman to brood on his “victory.”

Years passed. The Scourge rose and fell without ever troubling the Amani. Well, they may have troubled Zul’Mashar, but Zul’jin didn’t care, and the shadow hunters who had abandoned him never asked for help anyway. Satellite settlements in what became called the Ghostlands eventually started reporting that the elves were beginning to build some strength again, bolstered by dead soldiers. The irony that the elves would be saved by the same kind of power that had destroyed them in the first place gave Zul’jin no end of amusement. But even with their new (old?) allies, Zul’jin felt the elves were no longer worth his attention. He let the months and years flit past, bored but complacent.

Malacrass, it turned out, had ingratiated himself to Zul’jin by always speaking simply. He never talked about the chief’s arm, or the war, or promises of glory, or anything in the future or the past. Malacrass was focused on the moment, as it were. So when Malacrass came, telling Zul’jin about something he’d meticulously tortured out of some elven whelp, Zul’jin found he was interested simply because it was so outlandish.

The elves had captured some kind of divine being from the shattered homeworld of the orcs, and had learned how to siphon its power to strengthen their warriors, grant them abilities they never had before. At first Zul’jin was willing to ignore this, because the elves were just trying to survive, and now they might actually be worth fighting again. But then Zul’jin thought of divine beings, and thought of all the times that the loa had been invoked as though they had some great power over the lives of trolls, and how the loa had never done anything.

Now he saw a way to put the strength of the loa to work. Something tangible. Something he could SEE.

Maybe he had been too ambitious before. Bringing truth to the world? Maybe that was too much. Could he use this power Malacrass had discovered to crush the elves at last? Now that they might actually be a threat once again, he’d get some grim satisfaction from it. He heard the elves weren’t alone, that they had allies, but since when had that ever stopped the trolls from fighting them?

There were allies aside from the dead, though. They are orcs, his scouts told him, and Sen’jin’s whelp of a son from the Darkspear. Zul’jin spat at the mention of the orcs. Maybe he couldn’t put the blame for his losses entirely at their feet, but they’d proven to be less than reliable friends, and they deserved to die just as much as anyone else who’d stepped on the Amani before. And Sen’jin’s leavings? Jungle trolls were nothing more than blood-guzzling nihilists who’d sacrificed their best to an abomination, and anyone who could be cast out of what remained of the Gurubashi couldn’t be much of a threat.

Malacrass made all the preparations. On the northernmost ziggurat, they started the ceremony with Akil’zon, summoning the loa into the material world and then siphoning his essence into a mortal champion, who arose bristling with power. Zul’jin looked into the distance, and saw among the trees an Eye of Rastakhan looking balefully on as the Amani cheered the rise of their new weapon.

Zul’jin laughed again, for the first time in a long while.

“Tell de God-king, if ya like,” he said to the wind, wondering if the Eye could hear him, “tell ‘im ev’ryt’ing ya see. I don’ care. Ya can tell de whole world what ya be seein’, and it won’ change a t’ing.”

“No one gonna threaten da Amani. Come and try. We’ll put ya in da ground, where ya belong.”

*****************

Probably the biggest thing I wanted to accomplish with this is juxtapose Zul’jin against Vol’jin. Where the former was revered by virtually all the forest troll tribes for being the baddest, meanest, most accomplished Forest Troll of all time, Vol’jin was mostly spat upon (by most trolls aside from the Zandalari) because the Darkspear got their asses kicked by murlocs. The Amani and the Darkspear had something in common when it came to allying with the Horde, but when Zul’jin did it the reason was destruction and vengeance, while the Darkspear did it for survival.

And where the Amani lacked any love or value for Doomhammer’s orcs aside from their value as cannon fodder in a bid for conquest, the Darkspear came to love Thrall’s Horde as brothers.

Maybe the biggest difference is that Zul’jin is never painted as being anything other than a warlord, while Vol’jin is a shadow hunter. Shadow hunters are as much shaman as they are warriors, when it comes to their role in the tribe; they guide the tribe, they protect it, sometimes by doing stuff the tribe itself might not really dig. Zul’jin doesn’t really seem to have anything going on aside from sheer strength and greater-than-average tenacity, but Vol’jin demonstrates not only his combat ability but his devotion to shepherding his people.

I think it’s actually fairly easy to draw a line comparing Zul’jin and Vol’jin with Garrosh Hellscream and Thrall. The former is only interested in leading through strength, while the latter is interested in guiding through a blend of battle competence and spiritual conviction. While this strengthens the rationale for why Vol’jin is a great warchief in potentia, it also reinforces why Garrosh was a bad idea: if the orcs (or in Zul’jin’s case, the trolls) focus only on strength as a tactic, with weapons escalation as their trump cards and domination as the only victory condition, they’re doomed to failure.

One of the other major elements I was aiming at, though, was this: Zul’jin and Vol’jin are both confronted by crippling physical injury, and experience a crisis of faith in the loa. While Vol’jin is able to converse directly with Bwonsamdi and is clever enough to figure out the death loa’s game, Zul’jin evidently doesn’t have that connection. The idea that he’d be willing to weaponize the loa shows a level of disregard that I think can only be born out of bitterness, and losing an arm and an eye permanently (when trolls are used to coming back from that kind of damage) would certainly engender that bitterness. So the idea that Zul’jin bulls forward, ignorant of the huge affront he’s committing against the loa because he’s just deaf to them is a good contrast against Vol’jin, who even in the eyes of the Zandalari is begrudgingly respected as someone who has an exceptional insight to the loa.

Therein lies what I feel is the critical difference between Vol’jin and Zul’jin: because Vol’jin is able to come to the realization that Bwonsamdi revoked his regeneration because he’d “forgotten what it meant to be a troll” he’s able to correct himself, become a troll again, and regain his regeneration. Zul’jin can’t come to that realization, not only because he’s not getting told that by the loa but also because he’s too proud to admit it, even after all the trauma he’s suffered.

This ties into a bigger discussion about the Zandalari, though: Vol’jin eventually gets more personal assistance from the loa than the Zandalari themselves, when the Zandalari’s entire role in troll society is being the center of culture, the high priests, the servitors of the God-king, who himself is supposed to be the MOST favored of the loa. One shadow hunter from a disgraced tribe that couldn’t survive without relying on aliens for aid shouldn’t have been such a challenge to them, and yet at the end of the Pandaria Campaign, the Zandalari are still adrift, their offensive crippled, with Vol’jin being a non-trivial part of the reason why.

So where does this leave Zul’jin? Dead and buried. Maybe he’s even vilified or just plain forgotten by whatever remains of the Amani, because he dared to abuse the loa and wasn’t clever enough to win even with those weapons. His downfall is a great contrast against the rise of Vol’jin’s star, not only as an exceptional shadow hunter, but as Warchief of the Horde. But if Zul’jin represents the stubborness of the Amani, and the inability for the Amani to adapt to a world that hurtles inexorably towards the future, it serves as a prologue to the similar stagnation of the Zandalari; they dare not abuse the loa as the Amani and the Drakkari did, and they dare not offend them as the Gurubashi did, or ignore them as the Farraki did, but neither can they simply carry on assuming that they are still the favored servitors of the loa.

The Zandalari must adapt or die. Zul’jin failed to do that. Vol’jin has demonstrated that he is exceedingly adaptable. So the question is whether the Zandalari will figure out how to do the math.

Zul’jin: An Overview, Part 1

Something different this time; I wanted to go over Zul’jin’s history, because most of the people who play the WoW game and don’t have a background with WC2 aren’t really going to know what he’s about. And since we’re coming up on Warlords of Draenor, an expansion poised to bring a lot of WC1/2 heroes back into the limelight, I thought it might be nice to remind people about Zul’jin and what he was about.

Do note that this will have some shades of my account on the Zandalari, though hopefully, nothing here will contradict official lore in an overt manner. Oh, and also; some analysis at the end, which may contain spoilers for Mike Stackpole’s Vol’jin: Shadows of the Horde, if you haven’t read that yet.

********

Zul’jin was not a shadow hunter. He was not a witch doctor. There came a point in his life where if he smelled the loa on you, he’s put an axe in your skull just for fouling his presence with them. But Zul’jin’s relationship with the loa was complicated.

Zul’jin was fairly simple to understand: he was the Chieftain of the Amani, a forest troll bred for strength, for cunning, who had survived the predations of quel’dorei Farstriders and Stromgarde’s arrogant nobility his whole life. Under him the Amani were almost strong enough to threaten the elves in their shiny towers… almost. His people had waited a long time for their vengeance, and they could wait a bit longer.

When he had first heard tell of the orcs, it was from a Zandalari emissary. The tale the emissary told went something like this:

Apparently, some Gurubashi fools had been wandering about in the forbidden swamps around the Temple of Atal’Hakkar. Their loa had whispered of a disturbance, and what they found made “disturbance” into an understatement. The southern reaches of the swamp had been taken over by a horde of warriors who were coming and going through a massive portal. Heavily armed and armored, with green skin and wicked steel, they were clearly establishing themselves for an invasion. When the Gurubashi returned to their witch doctors for advice, the loa whispered “these invaders are no different from the humans, or the elves. They are not-trolls, and they do not know the loa. They are of no concern.”

Still, the empty-headed jungle trolls had enough sense to send someone to Zandalar to inform the God-king. And the God-king, after confirming this by sending his Hands and Eyes to bear witness (and also to ensure that the Blood God’s temple remained untouched), was kind enough to send his straight-backed Zandalari to every corner of the world, telling the troll chieftains of the news.

How kind of the God-king.

So the loa said to ignore the orcs, since they were not-trolls, even if the Gurubashi reported that the orcs had made straight for the humans’ southermost castle. Zul’jin had thought, “they fight our enemies, maybe there’s something to be had in fighting with them.” But the witch doctors said no. And the Zandalari said that the God-king said no. And Zul’jin knew that trolls who defied the loa, or defied the God-king, well… they had a bad time.

Even when the orc warchief, Blackhand, sent an emissary to Zul’jin and asked for his aid in fighting the humans, Zul’jin declined, because it’s what the witch doctors said to do.

But then something happened that changed Zul’jin’s mind.

He got captured by some Farstriders. He’d gotten out of scrapes like this before, but these Farstriders knew him for who he was. They took precautions. Zul’jin knew he had no way out. And as they started to torture the other trolls who’d been caught with him, he started to wonder what would happen next.

It turns out that what happened next surprised him. The orcs came to his rescue, butchering the elves who held him captive. They said that they had a new leader, Doomhammer, who promised not just glorious battle but aid in destroying the elves if the trolls joined their Horde. And Zul’jin said yes without hesitation.

When he returned to Zul’Aman to gather his forces, the witch doctors were upset. They said the loa wanted nothing to do with the orcs. They said the God-king would not take kindly to Amani defiance.

Zul’jin reminded them, rather harshly, that it had not been the God-king who had rescued Zul’jin from torture and death. It had not been the loa, whom he had served his whole life. He’d made the sacrifices. He’d said the words. He’d done everything the loa had asked him to do, but he’d never seen them, never heard their voices, never witnessed their strength. And they could not deign to even afford the precious little effort it would have taken to free him from his bonds.

“De loa t’ink dey can leave me to die? De loa t’ink dey know what it means ta be a troll? Dey know not’ing.”

The orcs promised victory at last over their enemies. They promised the Amani an empire like none they had ever known. In the darkest recesses of his heart, Zul’jin believed that he could overthrow the God-king himself, and bring trolls the world over back to what was really important: strength, and the willingness to exercise that strength against one’s enemies. That was something the Zandalari had forgotten in their archaic preaching, their stagnating role as “preservers of troll culture.” If only Zul’jin had enough strength to show them all the truth… and maybe with the help of the orcs, and their ogres, their death knights, the goblins they had somehow employed, Zul’jin would be able to do what no troll had ever done with the blessings of the loa, or the auspices of the God-king.

He would bring truth to the world. Truth on the sharpened edge of an axe.

When it all came crashing down, Zul’jin could not help but laugh. The orcs failed because the Doomhammer had put his trust in someone who was obviously untrustworthy. And when Doomhammer took the bulk of his troops to correct what Gul’dan’s multiple errors had created, Zul’jin saw his dreams of empire and truth crumble before him. And when the Farstriders surrounded him once again, and called him by his name in their nasal, pompous voices, and he bore witness to the bitter humor of fate, he laughed long and loud.

Their torturer took his eye, and still Zul’jin laughed. Matis promised to make the suffering last as long as possible, to try and exact vengeance for every elven life Zul’jin had taken, and Zul’jin squinted his empty-socket to squirt blood on the elf’s pretty face. Days or weeks later, when some random hunting party of trolls bungled into the camp and caused a ruckus, Zul’jin cut off his arm and escaped, careless about who had died for him. He returned to Zul’Aman, a smile on his face, having cheated death and the loa from their prize. He waited for his arm to grow back.

It didn’t.

He swallowed his pride and asked what few witch doctors were left for help. One had the temerity to say he’d offended the loa with his defiance, and they had taken his regeneration away. Zul’jin put a hatchet in that one’s chest. While other witch doctors were more careful with their words, none had better answers, and none could make his arm grow back. Or his eye. Every shadow hunter who came back from the war told him of his mistake, and he killed most of them for the insult. Those who held their tongues quietly left, until no shadow hunters remained. At some point he was told that they’d built a new settlement on the other side of the mountains, called Zul’Mashar, and he found that he cared very little.

He’d been taught his lesson, though he would never admit it to anyone, even himself. Maybe defying the loa had been a mistake. The emissaries from the God-king never returned, though the Eyes of Rastakhan, the spies, did nothing to conceal themselves on the borders of Zul’Aman. While he still had a tribe behind him that was a force to be reckoned with, he had gambled on Doomhammer and lost much. So he sat in Zul’Aman, content to wait once again. He had plenty of time to waste.

********************

Part Two will cover the rest of Zul’jin’s fate, as well as some analysis on why he’s a pertinent figure to call to mind right now. Stay tuned. ^_^

Realm Remixes: Mysterious Ways

So some diligent work by some of the other cats paying close attention to the connection process has revealed an interesting detail, but first, a bit of set-up.

The current state of WoW’s realm structure going into this process involved four datacenters where the realm hardware is housed, which are located in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Phoenix. Realms in the same datacenter are the pool of realms that players are usually drawn from for all the cross-realm shenanigans like CRZ, LFD, Battlegrounds, and LFR, but of course if you’re doing premade cross-realm stuff like BattleTag/RealID groups, it doesn’t matter what datacenter your realm is in. Also, all of the datacenters have realms that are in all different time zones, so the location of the datacenter isn’t an indicator of what time zones or regions are served there.

What Weekender and Urashima on the official forums have determined is that the connections being made have certain patterns:

1. Realms in Phoenix are only being connected with realms in LA, while realms in New York are only being connected with realms in Chicago. (There are some connections that are exclusively between LA realms, and some exclusively between Chicago realms, but that’s not the case for Phoenix or New York.)

2. Consequently, once a connection is made in, say, a Phoenix realm, players who log into that realm have their traffic directed to a new address in the LA datacenter. Same goes for New York realms, with their traffic going to Chicago.

3.  As a result, there are some players reporting increased ping times to access their realms, but since there hasn’t been a really dramatic outcry about it on the forums, it doesn’t appear to be something most players have noticed.

The major thing this revelation does is help to narrow down the possibilities for which realms get connected to which, especially once you get into discussing the RP/RP-PVP realms or the non-North American regions served by these datacenters. And while it doesn’t create a universal rule (for example, the Boulderfist/Bloodscalp/Dunemaul/Stonemaul/Maiev CR draws four realms from the same battlegroup, and only draws one realm from the opposing datacenter, and some other connections don’t draw from the opposing datacenter at all) it does create something that can help predict how the rest of this is going to shake out.

It also explains one little mystery: Anvilmar and Undermine were originally announced to get connected to each other back in Round 7. That was put on hold before Round 7 was implemented, and later on, the pairing disappeared completely; not pushed to a subsequent round, but dropped entirely from the list. After comparing all of the existing and proposed connections together, it turns out that Anvilmar/Undermine was the only connection that drew two realms from New York, without connecting first to one in Chicago.

I think it’s still likely that those two realms will ultimately be connected together, but they will likely get connected to a Chicago-side realm first.

So, that being said, what are the rules that seem to govern connections going forward?

    1. Realms in PHX will be connected to realms in LA, and realms in NY will be connected to realms in CHI. Connections may happen in CHI or LA that don’t involve realms in NY or PHX, respectively, but the inverse is not true.
    2. Realms will always be connected along server types (PVE/PVP/RP/RP-PVP).
    3. Only one realm is added to a connection at a time.
    4. Realms will always be connected along region/language barriers. (There’s no evidence to support this aside from the fact that no Oceanic, Brazilian or Latin American realms have been connected yet.)

As for targets, it seems that the existing CRs are topping off between 5-6000 raid-capable characters across both factions. From this, we can infer the following:

    1. Realms that have more characters than the existing CRs will likely not be connected.
    2. Realms that can’t be connected with another eligible realm without going over the limit (and thus threatening to become a high-pop queued realm) will likely not be connected.
    3. Realms that cannot be connected because no eligible realm is available may be left unconnected.

If we look particularly at the three non-North American zones serviced by the NA datacenters, we can actually draw some conclusions:

1. EDITED: Out of the three Latin American realms (Ragnaros, Drakkari, and Quel’thalas), the former two are PVP, while Quel’thalas is PVE.  realms. However, only Drakkari is under the 5-6k threshold, at 3.7k characters. While that’s not an unhealthy population it could certainly be better, but there’s nowhere to go for Drakkari, unless Blizzard opens up some FCMs from Ragnaros. (Thanks to the anon commenter Me for pointing this out.)

2. There are five realms for Brazil, with two PVP and three PVE. Azralon, Goldrinn, and Nemesis are all above the threshold, while Tol Barad (PVP) and Gallywix (PVE) are well below the threshold, and might potentially hit it if they were combined. However, they’re opposing server types, meaning they can’t be combined… which is distressing, given that those are the two worst-progressed Brazilian servers, and are in the middle of many of the other realms that are being connected currently. As with the Latin American realms, FCMs could fix this, but it clearly not a priority.

3. There are twelve Oceanic realms, six PVE and six PVP. Almost all of them are in the 3-4k character range, meaning they can’t be combined with each other without going over the threshold. Out of the whole set, the only viable connections possible involve Gundrak and Dreadmaul, both PVP servers with relatively low populations and middling progression. While they could be combined with each other to possibly compete with the rest of the Oceanic set, they could also be used individually to buff the next two smallest realms (Thaurissan and Jubei’thos). The other two PVP realms are Barthilas, which is already over the threshold, and Frostmourne, which is the #3 server in the NA and DOUBLES the threshold as a super-high-pop realm.

As for the RP/RP-PVP realms and the remaining North American realms, that’ll have to wait for next time.

Quick Fix

Sorry for the big delay in posts… I’ve been laid up with a bum foot and an increasingly attention-seeking baby boy, so I haven’t been able to really compose anything the last few days. More coming, hopefully before the holiday!

Thanks everyone!