So we’ve crossed the hostile (and daunting) territory of the Arathi Highlands, home to level 35 raptors and spiders and vultures that are all too happy to hasten their prey’s transformation into dead meat. Why are we doing this? Because Shadowfang Keep lies on the other side (well, through Hillsbrad and Silverpine Forest, too – Hillsbrad being contested territory and Silverpine firmly under the control of the Horde).
We’re interested in Shadowfang because it’s a dungeon, or in the parlance of WoW, an instance. And if you’re looking for the best armor or weapons or trinkets to deck yourself out in, then you want to hit instances. Sure, you can get geared up out in the regular world, but the Sak’s Fifth Avenue of Azeroth will be found in instances (so named because there’s multiple copies of each dungeon to serve all the possible players.) A dungeon only allows five players at a time, not the hundreds who can play in the open world. Dungeons also tend to have more elaborate layouts and unique critters and settings. In short, variety. And variety is something that you begin to crave in any MMO, once the initial novelty wears off (or you think it has.)
As the backstory goes, Shadowfang Keep is the home to the archmage (or bumbling dupe, depending on who you ask) Arugal, who’s been busily unlocking the secrets of lycanthropy and the local ley lines. Part of his bungling of such powerful magic involved turning most of the residents of Shadowfang Keep into worgen (aka werewolves to you and me), as well as cursing the nearby village of Pyrewood to a lycanthropic existence, being human during the day and wolfish at night. The place is haunted as well, presumably by the ghosts of those killed when the worgen curse took hold.
I’ll say that I look back fondly on Shadowfang (and on the Deadmines, but that’s for another time) as being a really engagingly-designed dungeon that feels like it’s actually a lived-in space, and not just a series of arbitrary encounters strung together. That goes a long way to assisting immersion, at least for scenery geeks like myself (who kept being taken out of the game when I saw prickly pear type cactus mixed with saguaro type cactus in Durotar).
The other thing about instances, each encounter is an adventure. Why? Because if the five people in the party aren’t working together and doing what they’re supposed to be doing, it’s likely that at least one of them will be taking a dirtnap. Which means that they won’t be around to do their job, and if a critical member of the party dies, then the whole party can die, and that leads to what we call a “wipe.” A wipe means that the monsters win, everyone’s dead, and they arrive as a ghost in a nearby graveyard. They are to then run from the graveyard back into the dungeon, where they’ll be restored to half-health. If you die, but the rest of the party is alive and still fighting the monsters, then you can’t re-enter the instance, not until either they beat the current monster/target or they all die.
Wipes are no fun. Makes players grumpy when they have to run back and recover from their own mistakes.
Oh, and regarding combat, since I’ll end up talking a little more about that, let’s discuss the three combat roles. Aww, it’ll be fast.
1) The Tank. Arguably the most important member of the party. It is their job to get in the face of whatever monster happens to be in the way and get that monster mad at them and only them. Why? Because the tank is the most defensively-geared member of the party. They can take the most beating, which means that none of the other party members will be taking any damage or dying. Tanks in and of themselves don’t do that much damage to monsters, but they let the rest of the party do their job.
2) The Healer. It is the healer’s job to heal (by magic spell) the damage that the tank is taking (and anyone else who gets hit by secondary damage or random spells or stands in the pit of fire when they’re not supposed to. Healers are the second most important member of the party, but only in that some tanks are durable enough that they can take a frightening amount of punishment before dropping. It’s possible, if the monster is suitably weakened, that a party can survive an early healer death, but it’s generally cause for nail biting. And did I mention that if there’s a wipe, it’s generally regarded as the healer’s fault, barring a reason making itself immediately apparent (ie, someone pulled the monster away from the tank and got eaten). Playing a healer can be stressful and I burned out on it. It’s also not very much fun, given that you’re staring at someone’s life bar/meter and not watching the fight.
3) DPS. Which stands for Damage Per Second (a figure that varies from less than 100 at low levels to more than 10,000 at maximum level, gear and circumstance.) There’s also two kinds of DPS, one being ranged (spell casting and arrow shooting) and melee/physical (characters who stand next to the monster and wail on it with weapons). The DPS’ job is to KILL EVERY DAMN MONSTER IN THE DUNGEON and make sure that they’re doing it in such a way that the monster never peels off of the tank. Every time the DPS character hits a monster, it does a little bit of what’s called “threat”. Threat is something that the monster tracks internally. If the DPS does too much damage too quickly, the monster will leave the tank and run STRAIGHT FOR the DPS character (if lucky; if unlucky, it’ll eat a healer on the way). This sort of disruption will cause a wipe and get you on everyone’s blacklist if you do it enough. Don’t do this.
So a monster encounter goes like this:
The tank attacks the monster, whether by charging in or running up to it and beating on it.
The tank continues to do this, building up threat, which tells the monster “Hey, this character with the shield is the guy who’s hurting me the most, I want to stick to him.”
The healer heals the tank as needed. Sometimes this requires chain casting of a healing spell just to keep the tank’s health up. Sometimes it’s a yawner and little effort is required.
The DPS ratchets up damage slowly and then unleashes a barrage of death and destruction on the monster, who’s still stupidly beating on the tank because the tank has a ton of threat.
Monster dies, collect loots and move on.
What often happens is this:
Tank generates some threat, but not enough.
The DPS gets itchy trigger fingers and unleashes the barrage of death too early.
The monster gets mad at the DPS character and makes a beeline for it.
If the healer is slow, they don’t get out of the way in time and may pull threat away from the monster. (Note, healers themselves are not usually very sturdy and tend to fold like a two-dollar beach chair after a couple of hits.)
DPS character gets eaten if they don’t immediately run towards the tank so that the tank can try to re-establish threat.
Monster eats the party. Or the tank gets things under control again and yells at the DPS for being moronic and not waiting ten goddamn seconds before opening up on the monster. Or they just take note of the event and sulk a bit.
Eventually the tank (or healer) filled with rage and frustration a the boneheaded DPS characters, up and leaves in the middle of the dungeon, free loot or not.
Needless to say, there’s some tension between characters who primarily play tanks and healers and those who play brain-dead DPS characters and can’t keep from wiping the party. Though sometimes this stereotype gets applied to all DPS characters, unearned or not.
Okay, that was a little more of a diversion than I meant to have happen.
In the alpha, I played a paladin, who could tank or DPS (not very well) or heal (pretty well). Of course, back then, everyone was learning the mechanics of the game, so there were a lot of wipes. Every encounter (also referred to as a “pull” as in the act of pulling the monsters to the party) was an adventure.
Some monsters in Shadowfang were immune to magic (which meant that any offensive spellcasters were to run up and hit the monster with their staves, which had all the stopping power of a string of boiled spaghetti). Some monsters cast an area of effect (also reffered to as “AOE”) silence spell, which meant any casters caught in the AOE silence couldn’t cast any spells. This included healers, which lead to a lot of dead tanks, and therefore wipes.
Of course, some of the hazards weren’t monster-oriented. There were some issues with the geometry (which is to say, the fundamental 3D construction) with the dungeon, meaning there were spots where you’d be walking, and then all of a sudden you’d slip through a crack in the floor and you’d fall to your death. Eventually we learned where all those were and how to avoid them. We learned how to trick some of the encounters, to remove guardians from major, named monsters (also referred to as “bosses” – who were prized for the challenge, but mostly the loot they dropped) to make the encounters easier.
Though truthfully, I was never in Shadowfang enough to get tired of things, but I know many people did. Mostly because they’d reached maximum level in the Alpha and were bored, so they’d run instances just to see what kind of different loot dropped from the bosses there.
Myself? I marveled in the exploration of an utterly artificial (yet organic) fantasy space, the likes of which I couldn’t have even dreamed of when I was playing Dungeons and Dragons some twenty-five years before. I mean, yeah, I’d played WIZARDRY, which had you running around flat cubelike dungeons rendered in white vector lines (if you had a color monitor, mostly it was Apple green for the monochrome version), gaps filled in by my fevered imagination as we sucked down Cokes and listened to Black Flag and X. But nothing prepared me for the kind of headspace I could trip into with WoW.
But I can say with authority that we got to kill Arugal and his mammoth servant wolf Fenrir more than once. That fight was actually a lot of fun. Why? Because Arugal would select a luckless member of the party to turn into a werewolf, who’d then attack his former friends. So that guy who’d been bugging you for the last hour and a half? Yeah, he’d grow all furry and you could unload on him without the slightest bit of guilt. That’s always good for a chuckle.