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: Ardenweald, 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.

Scenes from Among the Trolls

Forbidden Studios is an independent game development studio based in Turku, Finland. Their first game is in development now. Recently the studio shared a few more pictures from Among the Trolls on Twitter:

Among the Trolls Forest w Birch

All of the scenery looks absolutely lovely, very much like home, which I’m not used to seeing in a video game, and they prompted me to go look for more. Below are a few other shots that reflect a location firmly based on traditional Finland:

Among the Trolls Cabin Interior

A traditional cabin with what’s clearly a ryijy wall hanging. Nice.

Among the Trolls Sauna

It’s a sauna! Ha! 🙂

I’m now looking forward to hearing more about the story. At this writing the description only says “Among the Trolls is a first-person survival action adventure where the strange mysteries of Nordic forests are unraveled.”

On the basis of the current demo video, among other things you can pan for gold and have a sauna bath; at least two things that are highly unusual. (In fact, a sauna bath provides more sisu in game, which can save your life when all else fails. How fabulous!) On Twitter, Forbidden Studios also shared a clip of rune singing, which is clearly a reference to the Kalevalaic poetry. More unique Finnish goodness!

There might be one potential problem, unfortunately. If the Forbidden Studios gallery and Twitter stream are anything to go by—and they might not—there is only one woman in the plot. (The protag’s grandmother Elina Kantola, who has disappeared along with her husband Aarne.) It could be a stylistic choice; it’s not at all uncommon for Finnish storytellers to focus on lone men in the woods. If true, however, that’s a problem for me.

As fantastic as it is to see the kinds of environments I grew up with reflected on screen, if there aren’t female characters beyond the obligatory Smurfette / wife / girlfriend / (grand)mother type, I’m not interested. At this point in my life the lack of multiple individual, nuanced women in a story is as hard and immediate a turn-off as horror and dystopia are.

Images by Forbidden Studios: Forest via Twitter. Cabin interior via their website. Sauna scene screencapped from the video demo.

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

WoW: Reminiscing about Past Feature Additions

Our home is finally starting to function and look like a home (instead of a storage area for n+1 boxes) after our transatlantic move. We’ve been even able to play World of Warcraft a little in the midst of cleaning and organizing and bureaucracy and starting work again.

That got us reminiscing about the various expansions, specifically their new features we liked or loved at the time that have since become—begging your pardon for the pun—quite vanilla.

Below are some of my favorite changes, listed in expansion order.

(FYI: I just couldn’t remember and failed to find online the exact timing for some features, so I’ve given my best guess. If you know, please let me know in the comments!)

The Burning Crusade

-Ahh, the amazing, breathtaking sky over Hellfire Peninsula!

-Multiple flight points per zone—what is this awesome magic?

-Expanding the availability of paladins (one of my favorite classes).

WoW BC Hellfire Peninsula Skies

Wrath of the Lich King

-In Northrend the environmental design definitely progressed from lumps of mashed potato. (Overall, though, they really didn’t know what to do with the icy zones, Icecrown and Storm Peaks.)

-Improved music, especially the Grizzly Hills intro music. That’s still one of my all-time favorite WoW themes.

Cataclysm

-Changes to Orgrimmar and Stormwind. It took me time to get used to, but I wouldn’t go back.

-Flying in old world zones.

-Phasing, but only when it doesn’t mess up the rest of the gameplay.

Mists of Pandaria

-Pandaria is where the environment design turns truly good. By this I mean natural-looking shapes in the landscapes, undergrowth with variety (including height), mountains that look like actual mountains, etc. To be sure, Cataclysm tried very hard as well, but graphics just got so much better by MoP that it was more feasible to do better. (Trees still look clunky, though.)

-Area-of-effect looting. The shift-click looting did help, but, man, I NEVER want to go back to picking. Each. Individual. Loot. Item. One. At. A. Time—AOE loot helps so much.

-11th character slot per realm. Obviously it’s changed again since, but at the time it was big.

WoW Pandaria Jade Forest Arboretum

Warlords of Draenor

-The toons’ new and improved looks. I didn’t like losing some of my favorite female Dwarf faces, but overall the change was good.

-The little gold coin marker for vendor trash in your bags. Hated it first, grew to love it.

-No fighting over gathering nodes anymore, since more than one player can get the same one. (If it was WoD? Or was it Legion?)

WoW Arms Warrior Roar

Legion

-The new transmogging system that automatically saves all applicable reward looks into your wardrobe. Oh, and being able to hide certain gear slots in your mog.

-Trees look so. Much. Better!

-Worldquests.

Flight Master’s Whistle.

WoW Legion Druid Classhall Xmas Gear Dec 2018

Battle for Azeroth

-Allied races.

-This is slightly esoteric, and definitely not a gameplay feature, but I love the penguin sledding world quests!

-Overall my favorite expansion, by the way.

Shadowlands

New customizations for the core races (skin, hair, jewellery).

-After opening Shadowlands with your first character, being able to choose whether you do the storyline or not on subsequent toons.

Torghast, of course.

I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting a lot. Love to share your favorite tweaks to the game? Comments are open!

Images: screencaps from World of Warcraft.

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

A Farewell to Cards

Back in the 1990s, in my high school and college days, I used to be into Magic: The Gathering, the granddaddy of trading card games. I’ve dabbled a little since then, but it’s twenty years since I played the game with any seriousness. I really enjoyed the game, especially the challenge of coming up with interesting decks (I was what they used to call a “Johnny” player), but it isn’t part of my life any more, so I’ve decided its time to get rid of my collection.

After doing a little research on ways of selling Magic cards (and thinking about which ones are viable in the midst of a pandemic), I decided to list my cards on Cardsphere, a website created by and for Magic fans.

So far, I’ve only sold a handful of cards, but I keep my eye on the offers and little by little I’m working the collection down. I was never much into the collecting aspect of the game, so I don’t have many of the high-value cards (although I do have a couple of old dual lands that I’m hoping to sell for a few hundred dollars apiece). Most of what I’ve sold so far has gone for pocket change, and I know I’m losing money on postage on some transactions. Still, it is a pleasure to know that these cards I no longer have any use for are going to make someone else happy.

The process of sorting, organizing, listing, and sending off my cards has meant I’ve spent more time looking at my collection in the past few months than I did in the previous couple of decades, and in a way that has been good for me. It’s nice to be reminded of happy days long ago and to say a proper goodbye to the old dears.

My card inventory is visible here, if anyone wants to check out what I have to offer.

Image by Erik Jensen

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

Blood Elf Subtlety Rogue Mogged to Hide in Shadows

I don’t typically role-play in WoW, but for some of my characters I have a broad outline or concept figured out. My Blood Elf rogue is one, and the new Shadowlands prepatch character customizations really allow me to make the most of it.

She’s a pragmatist and bit of a girly-girl subtlety rogue who is, however, not too fussy about her looks. She’s more concerned about her outfit being practical, but if it can also be pretty, yay. Her name has the element shadow in it, which I wasn’t able to do much with previously.

However, now that we’re able to tweak our toons’ skin colors so extensively, I was able to make her skin the blackest black (like the shadows), with dark grey hair, one green eye (a carryover from her previous look) and one blind one, and some silvery jewellery to go with the gray hair and eye.

WoW BfA BE Rogue in Barber Shop

I’ve hidden most of the gear slots (head, shoulder, cloak, bracers, gloves, and boots), but otherwise I’m carrying over the green scheme from her earlier look (but with different pieces for a change). If interested, you can have a look at the set in Wowhead’s Dressing Room.

And even though the dressing room now gives you the new physical toon characteristics, here they are separately for posterity:

  • Face: 4
  • Skin Color: 14
  • Hair Style: Full
  • Hair Color: 14
  • Eye Color: 13
  • Ears: Long
  • Earrings: Dangles
  • Necklace: None
  • Armbands: Phoenix
  • Jewelry Color: 2
  • Bracelets: Silver Chains

The 1-hand weapons are both mogged, one to a dagger and the other to a sword model (Starshard Edge and Ethereum Phase Blade). Although, I’m considering re-mogging the Starshard Edge. I might turn both into the Ethereum Phase Blade because it’s so beautiful, but I’m not sure if that’s too much repetition. Any suggestions are welcome!

Images: screenshots from World of Warcraft

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

More Silly WoW Battle Pet Names

A while ago Eppu shared some of her best silly names for her battle pets in World of Warcraft. In that same spirit, here are a few of mine. (Be warned: some terrible puns ahead.)

First, let’s start with my Erudite Manafiend, which is name Garkthyn. “What’s so silly about that?” you might be wondering. Well, Grakthyn accompanies my warlock, whose voidwalker is called Grak’thyk. You could say they’ve been through thyk and thyn together. (Don’t worry—it gets worse.)

Male Turkeys (which are the ones who display their fan of tail feathers like this) are called toms, which is all I’m going to say about why mine is named Bombadil.

My Fossilized Hatchling is named Boneyparts. (Yes, that’s a Napoleon reference.)

When there’s something strange in the old barn yard, who ya gonna call? Goatbuster! (Ghastly Kid)

My Lurking Owl Kitten is called Hootenanny, because why not?

The Anubisath Idol stands with its hands poised ready to strike. Why else would I call mine Idol Hands?

Some of my pets are named in Finnish. My Sinister Squashling is named Kauhea Kurpitsa, which is Finnish for “horrible pumpkin.”

Another one is Lentokone, my Ancient Nest Guardian. This pet is a mechanical type that can temporarily turn into a flying type. “Lentokone” is the Finnish word for airplane, but litterally it means “flying machine,” which felt appropriate.

Maybe someday Dark Whelpling will grow up to be another Smaug, but for now it’s just a Smig.

Got any good pet names you want to share?

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

A Helsinki Location in The Last of Us Part II Cover Version

Game Music Collective is a Finland-based orchestra, band, and studio production company lead by cellist Lukas Stasevskij. As the name implies, they produce and perform game and other soundtracks.

Their latest project is a cover version of Ellie’s song “Through the Valley” from the PlayStation4 game The Last of Us Part II. The music video for the cover was filmed in Helsinki, Finland.

THE LAST OF US 2 OST – Through the Valley REAL LIFE ELLIE’S SONG [4K] Shawn James Guitar Cover(2020) by Game Music Collective on YouTube

The original song was written by Shawn James; the Game Music Collective version features Mokka Laitinen (vocals and guitar), Sujari Britt (cello), Leonardo Carrillo (oboe), and Eeti Nieminen (drums).

Pretty neat, isn’t it? (Although strictly speaking I would’ve been happier to see outdoor locations, too.) #FinlandNerd 🙂

Found via Helsingin uutiset (NB. Finnish only).

An occasional feature on music and sound-related notions.

Dwarven Fire Mage Transmog

I mentioned in the past that my fire mage got a hidden artifact appearance as a random drop back in Legion. I also mentioned that I’d made a new mog for her, but never posted a better screencap of it. Tut tut, bad librarian!

Turns out I liked her mog so much I kept it even after we moved on from Legion artifacts. Since it’s likely I’m going to change it after World of Warcraft Shadowlands drops, here, finally, is the mog saved for posterity.

BfA Dwarven Fire Mage Transmog

The wand and legs aren’t mogged, and I’ve hidden the head, shoulder, and belt slots. Like with my surv hunter mog, I used the wrist armor to add another stripe of turquoise into the set.

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

Image: screenshot from World of Warcraft

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

Night Elf Survival Hunter Transmog

As I mentioned earlier, 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 night elf survival hunter.

BfA F NElf Survical Hunter Transmog1

I go back and forth with a headpiece I like and a hidden head slot like here; the polearm is also unmogged. Other armor slots, however, are mogged, including the the bracers, which I usually skip; this time I found a way to add a slight chevron line just above the glove edge with the bracers.

BfA F NElf Survical Hunter Transmog2

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.