Shadowlands, A Year in the Land of Death

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands released a year ago today. Can you believe we’ve been adventuring in the after life for a whole year? For only a year? What is time even?

We thought we’d mark the occasion by looking back at our experiences with the expansion so far and talking about what it’s been like to play in WoW‘s eighth expansion.

New systems

Eppu: The new mission table seems hardly to have changed from its previous iterations, but since my playing time has been very limited during this expansion, I can’t say I’ve really understood all of the mechanics of leveling and missions. I can say, however, that accumulating companions is surprisingly speedy. However, the animated-by-default battle at the conclusion annoys me—considering what a minuscule part of the game it is, that’s a waste of processing power and having to always bypass it with a click is a waste of time.

Soulbinds is a more interesting case. Essentially, they’re a version of the old talent trees, with the exception that you can have three separate ones and that switching between them is easy. Accumulating a good smattering of basic conduits via world quests is simple, too.

Anima, unfortunately, is where Blizzard over-corrected in this expansion. The system is clunky and complex and not intuitive. For example, gathering anima for X purpose is added to the quest tally when you complete a quest that grants anima rewards, as opposed to Y purpose it’s counted when you empty the anima rewards from your inventory into the reservoir.

Erik: Anima really seems like a step back. We’re getting a lot of clutter in our bags this expansion after Battle for Azeroth did a much better job of streamlining its power-accumulation systems. Conduits are another piece of bag clutter I could do without, but the overall soulbind system works pretty well. It allows a fair amount of flexibility in customizing your character’s play style with some interesting trade-offs to think about.

Blizzard keeps tweaking the mission table, but it’s never been particularly interesting. I do it because it’s a low-effort way of getting small amounts of anima and reputation, but it’s never been a compelling part of gameplay. After four expansions, I still don’t understand why I am sending other people off to have adventures instead of having them for myself.

I have to say that after a year of playing in this expansion, I still don’t feel like I really know what I’m doing with a lot of my covenant sanctum things. It’s at least partly because anima has been so hard to get that I haven’t activated or upgraded most of what’s offered. I supposed that fits the theme of the “anima drought,” but it also makes anima a really unwieldy game mechanic.

The one new system I like the best is renown. It feels much more accessible and rewarding to build renown levels with a covenant than to grind out reputation.

Eppu: Renown is a nice change from grinding rep, you’re quite right. For such a long time, everything used to be a grind; it’s nice to have some variety.

What do you think about the transport networks within covenant zones?

Erik: I like them, and I also like that they are thematic to the zones they’re in. It’s a good combination of artistic and practical designs. (And we get to hang out with a cheerful old mushroom guy.)

Torghast

Erik: One new system that stands out from the rest is Torghast, the randomized, size-flexible dungeon. I have to say that Torghast is one of the best things in Shadowlands for me. I really like that there is content that is so replayable, with so much flexibility for difficulty level and group size. I’ve done a lot of solo running through Torghast, and we’ve done plenty of it together. For such a long time I have wished that there was content in WoW of a comparable challenge level to running a dungeon but tuned for two players instead of five, so that we could do something challenging but doable together. Torghast is finally that. I hope this is a system they keep developing for future expansions.

I also love how adaptable Torghast is. If I just want to go squish monsters and get fun new powers, I can set it low and crash through; if I want something that pushes me to use my skills an abilities to their fullest, I can set it high and enjoy the tactical challenge.

The one thing I wish were different about Torghast is that I wish there were some reward to running it beyond gathering materials for the legendary system. As fun as Torghast can be, it doesn’t really feel worthwhile to play when I know I won’t get any gear or new transmog appearances at the end, or much else to reward me for my time and effort.

Eppu: You’re right; for me, too, just about the only major flaw in Torghast is the lack of any fun transmog gear. (Otherwise, I still stand by my previous opinion.)

New zones

Eppu: I quite like the design of three new zones: Aldenweald, Bastion, and Revendreth. The really fascinating feature about the Shadowlands landscapes is how aggressively height differences—ledges, ridges, ginormous trees, stupendously tall buildings, levitating platforms—are used to squeeze questing areas side by side in order to keep the whole zone from ballooning out to an uncontrollable size. Blizzard has used the same principle before; in Shadowlands it’s really matured, but I don’t think you could take it any further without land shapes turning ludicrous. (Then again, this is fantasy, perhaps they could do it and make it work!)

It’s an interesting choice to tweak each zone’s color scheme so far, though—it’s not unheard of to have a subtle overall color in zones (e.g. Icecrown, Suramar, or Drustvar)—but this time Blizzard really pushed it. There have been times when I’ve switched zones after a while, because I’ve wanted more variation in the colors around my toon.

Lastly, I’m irritated that moving between covenant zones only can take place via Oribos. (Forced hub-centered travel is one of my pet peeves in the real world, too.)

Erik: I agree about wishing for ways to get between zones that don’t rely on Oribos. I understand the idea of Oribos as a central point, but we’ve seen individuals travel directly between zones in the questing experience, and I see no reason we as players couldn’t have gotten some options for that, too.

The artistic design of the zones is really strong this expansion. Each zone feels very different not just in terms of color palette but landforms and buildings. There are some that I like (Bastion, Ardenweald) and some I don’t (Revendreth, Maldraxxus), but every zone feels like a deeply concentrated expression of an idea. I find that Bastion and Maldraxxus feel small, while Ardenweald and Revendreth feel big. I wonder if that’s intentional, or just an effect of how I experience the zones.

And then there’s the Maw. All I can say is that they did such a good job designing the zone to feel like a bad place to be that I spend as little time there as possible. If the Maw was supposed to be what kept our characters occupied once they got to max level, it missed the mark.

Although my favorite covenant is the Night Fae, I think my favorite zone to spend time in is Bastion. Do you have a favorite?

Eppu: Hm. Ardenweald or Bastion, for both have strong pros and some cons. Although I have to say none of the areas feel quite right for hanging out with my numerous female Dwarves.

WoW Shadowlands Bastion Near Heros Rest

Story

Erik: I’ve enjoyed the story of Shadowlands on the whole. It’s interesting to go to a new place we’ve never known about before and start figuring out just how it all works. We have met a lot of compelling characters and seen some great moments along the way. They’ve done a lot with the characters we interact with to help us understand the nature of the different realms of the Shadowlands, from the earnest soul-searching of the Kyrian aspirants to the gung-ho warmongering in Maldraxxus, the intertwining of despair and hope in Ardenweald, and the crumbling ancien regime in Revendreth.

The parts of the story that haven’t worked for me have been the overarching plot involving the Jailer and the Maw. I know some people really enjoy digging up secrets and spinning tin-foil-hat theories about the nefarious motives of cosmic powers, but I’m not among them. The Jailer is just one more generic villain to me. I am also utterly uninterested in Tyrande’s super-powered vengeance rampage or the emotional life of Sylvanas. As so often in expansions past, I find the little, ground-level stories in Shadowlands much more interesting than the big story of the overarching plot. Give me more Kyrian buddy cops and Night Fae drama nerds, not another giant villain vaguebooking about their plans to conquer reality.

Eppu: I’m trying to figure out just why I felt that playing through the zones differed from previous expansions. The basic progression through all of the covenant zones is surprisingly similar from area to area—until you hit Maldraxxus. There we get an item with runes periodically slapped on along with the story reveal, which felt more drastic to me than reveals elsewhere. The other areas felt more or less like the usual quest grind. Combined with the utterly unique landscape design ethos, Maldraxxus really stands out to me.

Have a take of your own? Do chime in!

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

The Couple that Eats Together Stays Together

This terra cotta Etruscan sarcophagus depicts a couple reclining on a dining couch together. Etruscans adopted a great deal of cultural influences from the Greek world (including, for instance, the style of dining while lying on a couch), but one sharp difference from the Greeks was while in the Greek world dinner parties were exclusively male affairs, Etruscan women and men dined together.

This couple looks particularly happy and loving, smiling and holding one another affectionately. Of course, art is not always a reflection of life; just because a couple wanted to be depicted as a happy family in their funeral portrait doesn’t necessarily mean they were happy together in life, but it’s certainly nice to imagine that they were, and the very fact that they wanted to be perceived as a loving, intimate couple tells us something about the values of their culture.

Image: Sarcophagus of the spouses, photograph by Sailko via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0) (found Caere, currently National Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia, Rome; c. 530-520 BCE; terra cotta)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Visual Inspiration: Traditional Textile Patterns and Colors on Outdoor Stairs

In Lima, Peru, artist Xomatoc and local residents painted a number of stairs with colors and combinations more typically associated with traditional South American blankets and other textiles.

Colossal Jeremy Flores Xomatoc Striped Staircase

This project was a part of the Pinta Lima Bicentenario. Xomatoc’s project was only one of public art installations painted around the municipality to celebrate each participating neighborhood’s history and cultural memory.

Municipalidad de Lima Bicentenario Painting
Colossal Jeremy Flores Xomatoc Diamond-Pattern Staircase

The length of the stairs, the vibrant colors, and the large enough scale of these patterns make them really eyecatching. And, good grief, the degree of the slopes! (I grew up essentially on a flood plain, which is why mountains look so drastic to me.) The stairs definitely will be visible a long way.

Found via Colossal.

Images: Striped and diamond-patterned stairs by Jeremy Flores via Colossal. Painting in progress via Municipalidad de Lima.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Earliest Singular They According to the OED

I’ve long been seeing mentions that the use of the plural pronoun they to refer to a singular antecedent is older than the present attempt to introduce it as a gender-neutral option. Here’s a little history I ran across.

Dennis Baron, Professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, blogs about singular they for The Oxford English Dictionary. According to him, the oldest recorded use within the OED is from 1375, in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf.

BrLib Digital Catalogue Illuminated MSS Royal 10 E IV f12 Detail

Continues Baron:

“Here’s the Middle English version: ‘Hastely hiȝed eche . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh . . . þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.’ In modern English, that’s: ‘Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.’ [original emphasis]

“Since forms may exist in speech long before they’re written down, it’s likely that singular they was common even before the late fourteenth century. That makes an old form even older.”

Since I’m a Finn and we don’t have grammatical gender in our language, singular they seems natural to me. In fact, I fail to see a reason to choose to kick up a major kerfuffle over it; after all, (normative) English already mixes up the numbers with singular and plural you.

I’m pretty sure that within the past decade or so I have spotted multiple examples from non-woke modern English sources, both television series and novels, that do use singular they seemingly unconsciously, very naturally, and entirely unambiguously. I wish I had realized to write them down for my own interest.

Image: Group of men, detail of illuminated manuscript Royal 10 E IV, f. 12, via The British Library Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (France, S. [Toulouse?]; last quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century; illuminated manuscript)

On, of, and about languages.

Fantasy Religions: Divinity and the World

It’s been a while since I last wrote about ways of making religious elements of a secondary world feel more authentic, but here’s another thought worth considering when you’re writing: how people feel about the gods tends to reflect how they feel about the world.

Traditional religions tend to see the world differently and posit that divinity exists within the world, that the physical world around us and the social world we inhabit as humans is also inhabited by sacred forces. Interacting with the world means necessarily interacting with divine entities. Some modern religions preserve this view of the divine, notably Hinduism and Shinto. In traditions like these, divine forces are located within the world, whether they are gods associated with natural features such as mountaintops or rivers, or divinities connected to human relationships, such as blessed ancestors or household spirits.

For many of the major modern religions, by contrast, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and some versions of Judaism, the divine exists outside the world. The physical world we live in and the social world we inhabit as human beings is a barrier between ourselves and divinity, and the function of religion is to help us transcend that barrier. Attachments to worldly goods or to social relationships are seen as impediments that must be resisted or shed in order to achieve harmony with the divine.

This distinction is not an absolute one. Traditional religions can also understand divine forces as abstractions or seek ways of achieving a closer communion with the divine through asceticism, and modern religions can see sacredness connected to specific places and people. Still, one of the defining characteristics of any religious tradition is whether it encourages people to seek harmony with the divine by inhabiting the ordinary world in meaningful ways or by escaping from its distractions and temptations.

The point for writers is not that one or the other of these religious approaches is right or wrong for an imagined world, but that each one responds to the needs of societies under different circumstances. People are inclined to see the divine in the world around them when they feel at home in that world. Well-established cultures with a strong sense of identity and long history moored in place are likely to see the world itself as sacred. Shinto in Japan and Hinduism in India both arise out of this kind of long history. Religions that see the world as a barrier to be overcome tend to arise in times when people are unsettled and feel powerless within the world they live in. Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam all arose among peoples who lived with chaos, violence, and a lack of control over their own destinies, while Judaism has been deeply shaped by a history of diaspora and oppression.

What kind of religions exist in your invented worlds depend on what the people in them have experienced. If your characters feel connected to and safe within the world they inhabit, they are likely to perceive divine forces all around them; if their world feels dangerous and alien, they are likely to feel equally alienated from the divine.

Other entries in Fantasy Religions:

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Rating: Babylon 5, Season 4

It’s an action-packed, emotional roller coaster of a season for Babylon 5. The previous three seasons of development and growth come to a head in some unexpected ways. Here’s how we rated this season’s episodes:

Babylon 5 season 4 DVD cover
  1. “The Hour of the Wolf” – 6
  2. “Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi” – 3.5
  3. “The Summoning” – 6.5
  4. “Falling Towards Apotheosis” – 5
  5. “The Long Night” – 7
  6. “Into the Fire” – 9.5
  7. “Epiphanies” – 4
  8. “The Illusion of Truth” – 2.5
  9. “Atonement” – 3
  10. “Racing Mars” – 3.5
  11. “Lines of Communication” – 4
  12. “Conflicts of Interest” – 2.5
  13. “Rumors, Bargains, and Lies” – 5.5
  14. “Moments of Transition” – 3.5
  15. “No Surrender, No Retreat” – 6
  16. “The Exercise of Vital Powers” – 1.5
  17. “The Face of the Enemy” – 1.5
  18. “Intersections in Real Time” – 0
  19. “Between the Darkness and the Light” – 7.5
  20. “Endgame” – 6.5
  21. “Rising Star” – 6
  22. “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars” – 4

Various shenanigans with the networks broadcasting Babylon 5 led to the originally planned seasons 4 and 5 being squished down into a single season, and the results are visible. In some ways, the results were good, as the pace of the action noticeably picks up and gives an urgency to important episodes dealing with the Vorlon-Shadow war and the Earth civil war. In other ways, the effects were less positive, though, as the story often feels cramped and rushed. In the end, we have an average rating for this season of 4.5, down from season 3 but on par with season 2.

Given how much story had to be condensed into this season, it is particularly jarring when the season pauses for a number of self-contained (and sometimes self-indulgent) episodes such as “The Illusion of Truth,” a demonstration of how propaganda works, “Intersections in Real Time,” in which Sheridan is tortured, and “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars,” a meditation on how history is transformed into legend. None of these episodes scored very well with us. “Intersections in Real Time” is our lowest rated episode of the season, at a complete 0, for being both unpleasant to watch and unnecessary to the larger story. The season also spends an inordinate amount of time watching Garibaldi make bad life choices, which we could also do without.

But when this season works it really works. At the top of the ratings we have “Into the Fire,” at 9.5, which pays off years of development as the younger races of the galaxy stand up to the ancient Vorlons and Shadows and tell them to get the hell out. This episode fully delivers on the promise of the series, being both exciting and thoughtful, and deftly transforming our entire perspective on the two mysterious races at the heart of the series’ central story. The last few episodes of the season proper, “Between the Darkness and the Light” (7.5), “Endgame” (6.5), and “Rising Star” (6), are less spectacular, but they bring the long-simmering Earth storyline to a satisfying close.

A lot of what makes Babylon 5 great is on screen in season 4. It may not be exactly what was planned at the outset, but it lives up to the promise of the earlier seasons.

Season 1

Season 2

Season 3

Image: Babylon 5 Season 4 DVD cover via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Mashup of Themes from Avengers and The Lord of the Rings

Perfection can be improved on occasion. Bearing witness is this inventive mashup of various themes from The Lord of the Rings by Howard Shore and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Avengers by Alan Silvestri:

The Lord of The Rings X Avengers EPIC ORCHESTRAL MASHUP by Samuel Kim Music on YouTube

The mashup was arranged and orchestrated by Samuel Kim. I don’t have enough formal musical education to tell you why it works—both movie scores certainly are epic enough—I just know it does. 🙂 Kudos!

An occasional feature on music and sound-related notions.

A Drink with Star Trek Characters

Red Headed Trekkie posed a question on Twitter:

I thought of a quick, throw-away answer and moved on. For some reason, however, the question didn’t leave me alone, so we’re bringing it back to discuss here.

Eppu: It would depend a lot on my mood and energy levels. Hm. In the end, I think for me it may be easier to weed out some of the more difficult choices first.

Even though she seems fun, not Dax; I don’t have the stamina to keep up with her. As much as I admire Kira’s frankness and relentlessness, a drink with her might be too strained if we don’t hit it off. Janeway seems too active and tireless for me to sit back with.

Erik: Agreed. There are some iconic Star Trek characters and drinks that come to mind right away: Janeway and coffee, Picard and tea (Early Gray, hot), anybody from Deep Space Nine and raktajino. I don’t think any of those would work for me, though. I hate coffee and don’t care for Earl Gray, and whatever is in a raktajino would probably not be good for me.

Eppu: It would be nice to have a cup of tea with Captain Picard, but I’m not sure of how informal the conversation would be. He seems such a consummate commander and politician, and I’d like a tea break to be more personal, relaxing, and homey than I imagine possible with him. Ditto for Worf and prune juice.

Erik: For good company, I might enjoy sharing a glass of whiskey with Dr. McCoy. That man probably has some interesting stories to tell. He could probably also drink me under the table, though, so maybe not. I could have a root beer with Rom, since I love root beer and Rom is a sweetheart, he’d probably be too nervous to enjoy it, and that wouldn’t be a nice thing to do to him.

Eppu: Garak would be an in-te-res-ting drinks partner—never mind your beverage choice!—but I suspect I’d feel too dumb half the time and would question the whole conversation the other half.

Erik: I suppose it isn’t really a fair answer to say a glass of wine with Kai Winn, with iocaine powder in it!

Eppu: In the end, I think it’s a tie between Chakotay and Guinan. Both are curious and considerate, have excellent listening skills but are not withdrawn, and show a combination of both humor and tact, so they seem excellent partners for unwinding with. And since it’s fall, I’d pick a sweet, alcoholic, toffee-flavored cider, preferably a low-alcohol version. (Note to Europeans: In North America, cider refers to freshly-pressed apple juice, which I only learnt after living there.)

Erik: I like both those options, but I guess I would settle on cocoa with Kira. One of the things I love about the character is that, as tough as she is and as much awful stuff as she’s seen in her life, she still has warmth and an appreciation for simple pleasures. I think she’d enjoy cocoa, and I’d enjoy getting to talk with her about everything and nothing.

Memory Alpha Guinan Chakotay Mashup

What about you? Any clear favorites one way or another? (Bonus points for type of drink!)

Images: Guinan via Memory Alpha. Chakotay via Memory Alpha. Kira via Memory Alpha

Q&A is an occasional feature in which we share our responses to quizzes, questions, and quirky ideas for your entertainment.

Bringing Color Back to Ancient Statues with Light

Here are a few interesting pictures from the Pergamon Panorama in Berlin where colored lights are used to show a few different variations on what marble ancient statues might have looked like in their original colors. A very neat idea and some great photography from Twitterer @BelovedOfOizys!

An ancient Greek marble statue of a draped woman
An ancient Greek marble statue of a draped woman with blue light showing on the clothing
An ancient Greek marble statue of a draped woman with magenta light showing on the clothing

Images: Statuary from Pergamon with colored lights, photographs by @BelovedOfOizys via Twitter

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Worldbuilding in a Sentence

This fall I am finally teaching a course I have long dreamt of: History for Fantasy Writers. The course is built around the same ideas that I often blog about here, that studying history is a good way of exploring the possibilities of human societies and is our best resource when we want to imagine a world that is not like the one we live in.

As an early exercise to examine this idea, I asked my students to consider the following sentence: “The knight in shining armor rode his trusty steed toward the queen’s castle.” What can we tell about the world of this story just from this one sentence? They came up with some good answers:

  • The existence of knights and queens implies a stratified social structure. If we’re hearing about the people at the top, there must also be a lot of people at the bottom.
  • For instance, the knight must have dozens of people supporting them: someone to take care of the horse, someone to polish the shining armor, lots of people working the farms so they all have something to eat. The same and much more goes for the queen. Someone had to build that castle and keep it running. The lifestyle of a queen involves both politics and pageantry, for which she needs advisers and staff. All those people have to be clothed and fed.
  • Castles and knights in armor only make sense with certain kinds of warfare. In particular, this world must not have effective gunpowder weapons, which made both castles and mounted knights obsolete in our history.
  • If the queen lives in a castle, that means there must be a lot of fighting in this world. A castle is designed for defense, and it’s not a particularly convenient kind of place to live in peacetime. A queen wouldn’t be likely to live in one if she didn’t need to defend herself on a regular basis.
  • The fact that it’s the queen’s castle means that at least in some cases women in this world can wield power.
  • Castles and armor tell us something about the level of their technology. Building a castle takes a lot of quarrying, cutting, transport, and fitting of stones; armor requires mining and smelting ore to create metal, then working that metal into some complex shapes to make effective armor.

Of course, any of these observations could be undone in fiction. Maybe in this world horses magically take care of themselves. Maybe everyone is a knight or a queen and they’re all equal. Maybe the castle is carved out of a mountain of crystal, and the armor is made of enchanted tree bark. You can do that sort of thing in fantasy if you want to, but that’s where history helps you understand the “rules” so that you can break them in a way that is thoughtful and interesting.

I’m impressed by my students’ work so far and looking forward to more conversations like this one.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.