Dwarven Outlaw Rogue Transmog

As I mentioned last week, I’m going to spend a lot of time in the barbershop after World of Warcraft Shadowlands drops. I’m likely to change not just some details of my toons’ appearance but also some of their transmogs—I like to rotate some of my characters’ mogs since I don’t have an absolute favorite, and for others I’ve never found anything particularly fitting. So I thought I’d save a few mogs for posterity by posting them online.

Here is my female dwarf outlaw rogue.

BfA F Dwarf Outlaw Rogue Transmog1

BfA F Dwarf Outlaw Rogue Transmog2

I hid her headgear and cloak, and the bracers aren’t visible, but other pieces are all mogged, including the shirt.

BfA F Dwarf Outlaw Rogue Transmog Roar

The roar above looks more like an anguished cry of “Why in the world do I suffer this way!” or something, LOL!

If interested, you can have a look at the set in Wowhead’s Dressing Room.

Images: World of Warcraft screencaps

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

WoW: Shadowlands Character Customization Options

Details of Shadowlands, the next World of Warcraft expansion, have continued to slowly accumulate. Blizzard Watch and Wowhead, among others, have kept track of new character customization info.

Wowhead Shadowlands F Human Screencap

Here is an incomplete list as a note to self:

New options include new skin or fur tones (inclding black skin—finally!) and hair styles, makeup for human women, heterochromia (eyes of different colors), body tats or paint, cataracts, facial scars or markings, vines with leaves (Elven hair), some ear or tail size options, and the separation of beard and moustache sliders.

Wowhead Shadowlands F Dwarf Portrait

Not all options will be available to all races / classes, which might be annoying, but I understand the need for limiting options.

There’ll also be new special armor depending on which covenant you choose.

Shadowlands Night Fae Covenant Armor F Pandaren

We still don’t know all of the, er, detailed details, and of course these customizations may change or simply never be available in the finished game. But what we do know is already enough for me to realize I’ll be spending quite a bit of time in the barber shop after Shadowlands drops! LOL!

Images by Blizzard Entertainment: Female Human faces and hair via Wowhead (screencapped). Female Dwarf portrait via Wowhead. Night Fae covenant armor (cropped).

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

Tolkien, Fantasy, and Race

Wizards of the Coast recently announced that they will be changing how the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game system handles race. These changes include, among others, reimagining the traditionally evil Drow and Orcs as complex and nuanced cultures, revising how a player’s choice of race affects their character’s stats, and removing racially insensitive text from reissues of old content. You can read the company’s statement about these changes here.

Some of these changes are more obviously necessary than others. It’s not hard for most of us to see how having a race of dark-skinned Elves who are almost universally evil in your game is a poor design choice that needs to be rectified, but it’s less obvious to a lot of people why the game should be changed so that your Elf isn’t necessarily clever and dexterous or your Dwarf stout and tough. To understand why rules like these are problematic, it helps to look at how ideas about portraying non-human beings in fantasy have been shaped. Fantasy is as complex and varied as any other genre of literature and no single person is responsible for the development of its tropes and principles, but when we think about race in fantasy, there is one crucial place to start: Tolkien.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium profoundly shaped fantasy literature in the twentieth century and the other media drawing from it, such as role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Tolkien’s versions of Elves and Dwarves, as well as his invention of Hobbits (made lawyer-friendly as “Halflings”), formed the basis for D&D’s early options for players who wanted an alternative to humans. Much of the popular fantasy archetypes for what non-human races are like (ethereal, wise, bow-wielding Elves; stubborn, pugnacious, axe-hefting Dwarves) were either created or codified by Tolkien.

Tolkien’s relationship to race is complicated. On one hand, he was vocally opposed to the antisemitism common in his time and to the Nazis’ attempts to claim his beloved Germanic mythology as a prop to their racist regime. His Middle Earth tales can be read as a counter-argument to white supremacist ideology, as the “lesser” folk of Middle Earth, like the Hobbits and the Wild Men, prove more resistant to the lies of evil than the “higher” races of Men. At the same time, there is no denying that Tolkien’s fiction is suffused with familiar racial assumptions, filled with white characters and portraying dark-skinned people only as strange or threatening others.

But it is Tolkien’s work as a scholar that is most important for understanding his effect on the depiction of race in fantasy. Tolkien’s academic training as an Oxford student in the early twentieth century was grounded in the traditions of the nineteenth century, which defined nations as coherent, natural entities existing across time and marked by inherent characteristics. This academic worldview was linked to the Romantic and nationalist movements at work in Europe in that century, as well as the ongoing imperialist projects of Britain, France, and other nations of Europe. At its core was the belief that culture and biology are equivalent, that people have fundamental national traits inherited from their ancestors which define their culture, character, even moral worth.

Every academic discipline concerned with the human past was engaged in some way with this project. Historians traced the ancestry of their own and other peoples as far back as written sources would allow, at which point archaeologists stepped in to carry the line further back. Scholars of literature and art looked to both nationally famous artists and rural folk traditions to delineate the defining characteristics of a culture. Scholars in different nations concocted their own versions of national culture and interpreted both ancient and recent history in terms of discreet nations wrangling with one another: while English writers explained their early history as the victory of the serious, diligent Anglo-Saxon over the moody, whimsical Celt, French historians conceived of the French Revolution as a primordial Gallic peasantry overthrowing the Germanic overlords who had dominated them since the fifth century CE. Even forgeries and hoaxes followed the same principle, like the collection of Gaelic poetry attributed to the bard Ossian or the fake primordial Englishman buried with a battered cricket bat at Piltdown. While the work of such historians, folklorists, artists, pranksters and others was in itself fairly benign, it was part of a larger politics that justified the exploitation and oppression of some ethnic groups for the benefit of others based on specious claims about national characters and destinies.

Tolkien’s subject, philology, was no exception. Scholars believed that language could be a key to those parts of the past that neither history nor archaeology could reach, perhaps even the most important parts, for what can be more fundamental to our identity than the words we use to describe our world? Linguistic research, starting in the eighteenth century with the realization that the ancient Indian language Sanskrit came from the same source as Greek and Latin, had demonstrated that it was possible to discover regular principles that governed shifts in sound as languages evolved and split into new languages. Applying these principles to the earliest documented fragments of existing languages made it possible to reconstruct, with a high degree of certainty, elements of vocabulary and grammar belonging to languages that had never been written down.

Tolkien, and other philologists of his generation, believed that it was possible to go a step further and apply the same principles to myths, legends, even history. Working backwards from the earliest recorded elements of a culture—its oldest literature and art, archaeological remains, and whatever fragments of ancient knowledge survived in folk tradition—they hoped to reconstruct the primordial beliefs, practices, and character of that culture. Tolkien carried this same spirit into his literary work and with his Middle Earth stories tried to reimagine a history that might have lain behind the scattered remnants of Germanic mythology that come down to us through English, Norse, German, and Icelandic sources.

The result of this labor was a fictional world that incorporates numerous traces of ancient tradition—Smaug, from The Hobbit, has shades of Fafnir from the Volsunga Saga, while the arrival of Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf at Edoras in The Lord of the Rings recreates the Geatish heroes’ arrival at Heorot in Beowulf—but put together in a distinctly nineteenth-century way. The various races of Men in Tolkien’s work reflect contemporary belief in inherent national cultures to the extent that the Dunedain of the north retained their culture for many long generations cut off from Gondor in the south. Other peoples of Tolkien’s world are culturally defined by their ancestry, stretching over thousands of years.

Tolkien’s Elves and Dwarves are a similar combination of ancient Nordic lore and nineteenth-century nationalistic culture-construction. Tolkien took stories about Elves and Dwarves from different times, cultures, and genres, extracted the elements he believed were characteristic, and fused them together to create the kind of singular, coherent cultures that scholars of his day believed could be found among real peoples. The idea of Elves as archers comes from a Scottish tradition of referring to prehistoric arrow points as “Elf-shot.” The intermarriage of Elves and humans comes from Icelandic sagas. The bewildering power of an encounter with Elves derives from medieval German folklore. Tolkien believed that these various fragments were the remains of what had once been a clear, consistent belief in Elves as beings with defined characteristics, much as words in Sanskrit, Greek, and Old Norse were the remains of an older language, and that by putting them together he could reconstruct the nature of Elves in same way philologists reconstructed lost languages. The same applies to Tolkien’s Dwarves.

Tolkien’s assumptions about lost cultural knowledge only make sense in the context of the scholarship he worked in. Modern research has found that the image of Elves in northern European mythology is widely varied. Writers in different times and cultures had vastly different ideas about what Elves were, ranging from benevolent ancestor spirits to malicious swamp creatures that would steal your baby and eat it. There is no evidence that the original Elf Tolkien thought he could reconstruct was ever anything but a mirage. Indeed, it is not just that Elves did not have consistent characteristics in northern mythology, early northern writers don’t even seem to have viewed “Elf” as a stable category that could be defined. Many texts use the term fluidly for many different sorts of supernatural creature, overlapping with Dwarves, demons, angels, and others in ways that do not allow for any clear definition.

It is primarily to Tolkien that we owe the idea, not just that Elves, Dwarves, and other fantastical creatures have consistent characteristics, but that they exist as discreet groups that can be defined. This conception of fantasy folks is a product of a particular cultural and scholarly worldview, one that is increasingly out of date. Aloof archer Elves and beefy brawling Dwarves running around your game world may seem perfectly harmless, but the archetypes that define these as the standard types of Elves and Dwarves are rooted in a history of imperialism and racism.

It is time to leave behind this artifact of the nineteenth century and embrace a world in which Dwarves can be slender bookworms and Elves can be boisterous bruisers, or anything else you want them to be.

Post edited for grammar

Image: Elf and Dwarf cosplay, photograph by Tomasz Stasiuk via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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

WoW Warrior Transmog Loosely Inspired by Ancient Greece

Hanging around World of Warcraft and taking advantage of the Winds of Wisdom buff inevitably leads to new transmogs. Here’s my new female gnome arms warrior mog:

WoW Arms Warrior Ancient Mediterranean Mog1

WoW Arms Warrior Ancient Mediterranean Mog2

I was idly flipping through the various leg slot possibilities when I noticed that one of the plate legguards has this short skirt-like fold at the top. I was able to find a color-matched chestpiece to go with it, and noticed they vaguely reminded me of ancient Mediterranean garb. I then turned off the head, shoulder, cloak, wrist, glove, waist, and boot slots; in the end, the only pieces I mogged were chest, shirt, legs, and the weapon.

WoW Arms Warrior Roar

Awesome roar, right?!? LOL!

If interested, you can have a look at the set in Wowhead’s Dressing Room.

Image: World of Warcraft screencaps

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

Gameplay vs. Lore: Faction Conflict in World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft is a game steeped in lore, with stroylines spanning thousands of years and major expansion themes playing out the emotional lives of lore characters. Nevertheless, it’s a common refrain that gameplay trumps lore (a few discussions of the idea here, here, and here). There are many examples: player characters can come back from the dead, while NPCs (mostly) can’t; heroes who defeated a godlike manifestation of evil at the end of the last expansion may struggle to kill an overgrown crab at the beginning of the next; leveling up from 1 in the game as it stands now is a dizzying exercise in time travel through fifteen years’ worth of story, all of it still happening “now” in the zones of the various expansions. These breaks from lore fidelity make the game more fun and more playable, so even those players who care about the lore in depth generally accept them. The story is there to create background and flavor and give us a reason for going out, killing monsters, and taking their stuff. Whenever the lore threatens to get in the way of the monster-killing, stuff-taking fun, it just steps aside and gets out of our way.

With one big exception: the faction conflict. The conflict between the Alliance and the Horde is the product of lore, not gameplay, but for years it has been allowed to overwhelm gameplay and make players’ experiences worse in a way that no other lore element has.

The faction conflict in WoW is a holdover from the Warcraft real-time strategy games. In the RTS context, a red-vs.-blue battle serves a good gameplay purpose. In the early years of the World of Warcraft massively multiplayer role-playing game, it made sense to carry over the familiar elements of the setting that fans of the RTS franchise would know, but WoW is no longer bound to its RTS roots and it hasn’t been for years. The defining game mode of the Warcraft universe is now an MMORPG. It’s time for the game to reflect that fact.

As a multi-player game, WoW is built around groups of players teaming up to take on difficult challenges. While there is plenty to do in game as a solo player, the endgame content that everything builds towards is all geared toward groups of players banding together. By dividing the player base in half and arbitrarily preventing them from playing together, WoW is working against its own game mechanics.

An argument sometimes made in favor of the faction divide is that, although it is detrimental to the player-vs.-environment aspects of the game, it is essential for the player-vs.-player elements, but this argument is manifestly untrue. One of the accommodations Blizzard has made in recent years to the faction divide is the introduction of “mercenary mode,” which allows players from one faction to temporarily join up with players of the other specifically to play in PvP content. If the faction divide can be wished away in the parts of the game that are specifically designed to pit players against one another, what purpose can it possibly serve in the parts of the game that are supposed to bring players together?

Even as a lore-dictated design element, the faction divide has never contributed much to the game story. How many expansions have we seen start with “Oh no, the Horde and the Alliance are at it again, and this time they mean it!” and end with “We have learned our lesson and must put aside our petty differences to work together against the greater threat”? Even in Battle for Azeroth, which has taken the faction conflict more seriously than any expansion before, the Horde-Alliance war has ended up being no more than a big speed bump on the way to fighting the big threat of N’Zoth. The core of WoW‘s gameplay has never been about the Horde vs. the Alliance; it has always been about killing monsters and taking their stuff. The important stories in WoW are about where the monsters came from and why we need to kill them, not about why we can’t kill them together.

The faction divide seems to survive largely for the benefit of a small base of fans who like having something to argue about on the internet. So far, Blizzard seems to be calculating that keeping that small base of fans happy (or, rather, continuing to give them things to get angry about, which seems to be their version of happy) is worth more than making a better game for everyone else.

Perhaps someday the faction divide will finally be removed and my Tauren and Eppu’s Dwarves can go kill monsters together. Until then, we live with a game whose gameplay is subject to an out of date, unproductive relic of lore.

Image: Screenshot from World of Warcraft

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

World of Warcraft Views: Northern Lights-esque Sky from Drustvar

My 2020 started less than optimally with a cold / flu (jury’s still out). The good thing, though, about being awake at 5 a.m. and incapable of much else, is that flying around Azeroth at a time you don’t normally see shows a whole different side to things.

BfA Drustvar W Coast Early Morning Sky Lights2

This view is westwards from the northwestern shore of Drustvar. Very Northern Lights-esque and pretty!

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

WoW BfA: Flying Again!

My human mistweaver monk and Erik’s paladin were able to open flying for us early last month, and it’s glorious!

To celebrate, I got myself a Stormsong Coastwatcher mount.

WoW BfA Flying Stormsong Coastwatcher

Now we’re slooowwly working on the Honeyback Harvester mount. There aren’t enough fuzzy bee butts in my life yet!

Speaking of flying: I understand most of the arguments on both sides of the flying vs. no flying discussion. Personally, though, even if I strongly prefer to have flying, I think the current solution (introducing the Flight Master’s Whistle with a short cooldown once you hit level cap) works fine. I’m glad they added and kept it.

Image: World of Warcraft screencap

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

On the Finicky, Fussbudgety Facts of Faction Fighting in WoW

Writing on the patch 8.2.5 story for the World of Warcraft Battle for Azeroth expansion, Robert “Bobby” Davis blogging at Kaylriene puts into words what I’ve long thought: while I understand the need for a company to put the best positive spin into talking about their own products, Blizzard really needs to stop deluding themselves about the quality of their storytelling. Here’s Kaylriene on the topic:

“Saurfang says what I’ve thought about the writing of this story the whole time – the faction conflict is stupid and outdated, because Blizzard tries to pretend there is a depth and nuance to it that doesn’t exist in their writing. The Horde are villains, outright – every time this cycle comes about, the Horde does something awful and atrocious that pushes the world into conflict, the Horde leaders who suddenly have conscience about it reject the action and rebel, we storm up to Orgrimmar to depose whomever the despot is today, and then we move on until the next time it happens. He makes clear in-lore precisely what I’ve felt about the faction conflict the whole time – it was set dressing that no longer serves a meaningful purpose.” [emphasis added]

I’m not inclined to be generous to a story that repeats the same gimmick ad nauseam. Granted, you don’t need to look farther than our own human history—and not very far at that—to find nigh-endless faction conflict. But this is supposed to be fantasy, a genre that can have anything happen.

It’s been years since I logged back to WoW for the story—these days I play for completely different reasons than following the plot du jour. Not being a PvPer the faction conflict never was a big draw to begin with, but it used to have at least somewhat interesting turns.

Now, I also understand the difficulty of a rotating team trying to keep up with past writing, storylines, character arcs, details, all of it. There is, however, a lot to be said for storytelling, continuity, and proactive quality control, especially in case of a billion(!)-dollar tech company, lest you end up looking rather like an incompetent fool.

Flickr Robert WoWScrnShot_091106_234735

Image: World of Warcraft screencap by Robert on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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

Not Flying Yet

The latest patch for World of Warcraft, which makes it possible to fly in the Battle for Azeroth zones, has been out for a while now, but we’re still earthbound. Not because we don’t want to fly—we love flying both for the convenience of getting around and for the visceral pleasure of getting to see the beautiful artwork of the game world from new angles—but because of what it takes to get it.

The first step toward flying came with the initial release of Battle for Azeroth, with the Pathfinder Part 1 achievement, and involved playing through the expansion’s content, exploring its new zones, and gaining reputation with its various factions. All of this we did quite happily. We enjoyed questing through the new expansion and seeing the sights. Reaching revered level with six factions was a little tedious at times, but watching for world quests made it quite doable.

Once that was done, it was a long wait for the latest patch with Pathfinder Part 2, which requires more of the same: questing, exploration, and gaining rep. This time around, though, we’re not enjoying the process at all.

The difference in our response to part 1 and part 2 largely comes down to the design of the two new zones: Nazjatar and Mechagon. Nazjatar is complex, confusing, and hard to navigate. Significant parts of it are full of tough elites that make riding through looking for quests annoying. The daily quests are often vague and unhelpful about what exactly we are supposed to do, and the mobs drop tons of non-trash loot that clutters up our bags without clearly telling us what it’s actually for and whether we should be keeping it or not. The companion we have to take out adventuring with us in order to get all the quests has the annoying habit of pulling more mobs than we want, getting in the way of the things we’re trying to click on, and standing right on top of our loot when we’re done with a fight. For us, Nazjatar is pure aggravation.

We haven’t looked into Mechagon much yet, but the very little time we have spent there has similarly loaded up our bags with things we don’t know what to do with but don’t dare get rid of in case we need them later. At least it is somewhat less annoying to find our way around there and doesn’t seem to saddle us with an irritating companion. We’re saving Mechagon for after we’re done with Nazjatar in the hopes that it will be something of a relief.

I can certainly see how the things that annoy us about Nazjatar could be great for someone else with a different play style. I’m sure that what for us is confusing and hard to navigate is, for someone else, an exciting new area to explore and learn about. What we see as useless crap filling up our bags is someone else’s intriguing new inventory management challenge. The companion who is always getting in our way must make it possible for other people to tackle content that would otherwise be out of their reach.

Nazjatar is like a lot of things this expansion (island expeditions, warfronts, mythic+ dungeons, war mode): well done for what it is, but not the content we want to play. The good thing about all those other things is that we can completely ignore them and just play the parts of the game that appeal to us. If we want to fly, though, we’re going to have to drag our way through Nazjatar and Mechagon. That’s why we’re not flying yet.

How are your adventures going? Are you soaring over Kul Tiras and Zandalar already? Are Nazjatar and Mechagon exactly what you wanted? Or are you still stuck in the slog with us?

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

WoW Classic “Not a Bug” List

On their forums, Blizzard shared a list of features that aren’t bugs in the recently re-released Classic version of World of Warcraft. The list has been out since May this year, but not being a special friend of the vanilla rendition I only came across it now.

PC Invasion WoW Classic Logo

Browsing through promptly hurtled me back to reminisce over things we’ve since lost. Oh, boy—some things on the list I couldn’t even remember!

Here are some of the things, not all mentioned on the list, that I absolutely wouldn’t take back:

  • The abysmal creature respawn rates. Sometimes in the later expansions it seems mobs just spawn way too quickly, but I’d rather not go back to the Classic speed, either.
  • Gold accumulation. It was just. So. Slow! (I don’t enjoy the current rate of inflation either, for the record.) And, in connection to that, how difficult it occasionally was to get your armor repaired. Remember the little armor image that was superimposed in the (right?) corner of your screen when you took enough damage? The one that first turned yellow and then red as the damage on each area increased? I actually remember at times having to pick and choose which armor piece to repair, even occasionally taking spare pieces with me to a dungeon to switch to when the pieces I wore got too damaged. At the time I was still new to the game, though, and playing a clothie with another clothie. Not very smart, perhaps, but it did teach me a lot. 🙂
  • Frequent bugging during escort quests. Aaarrgh! Nopety nope!
  • Limited bag space. Need I say more.
  • No tracking available on the minimap, either of quest areas or points of interest. As a visually oriented person and a map lover, I give minimap tracking my highest seal of approval!
  • Non-shared gathering nodes. Remember when ore nodes were only available for whoever got there first? In multi-faction areas it was sometimes impossible to mine on a lower-level toon. (I hate pvp, so I’m so out of luck in some places.)

I’ve come to enjoy the increased player character animation when looting or interacting with quest objects, so that’s nice. The graphical upgrades are also lovely, even if it took me time to get used to some of the new face designs. The new terrain and environmental design I’ve already talked about elsewhere. Finally, a few pragmatic details I love to bits in modern WoW include mass looting and the Flight Master’s Whistle. Wouldn’t change them for the world!

What about you? Chime in with your favorites, features you love to hate, or both.

Image via PC Invasion.

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