Darkest Dungeon

Been playing this a lot for the past few days. Into the latter half of my first playthrough. Various thoughts:

Overall it’s great. The writing and atmosphere are very cool, and consistently build on the themes of exploring the mental effect of being in a gothic horror setting. Very immersive throughout.

The game systems are well setup to hit all the standard roguelike patterns for people who like XCOM et al. Making the choice not to have a failure state (no game over) is a very significant one. It enables a slightly different direction from a lot of similar games–more drawn-out pacing, and you do all your learning within one playthrough. And the gameplay is carefully set up to reinforce the themes: right as you start out, buildup of stress and other afflictions is too high to deal with efficiently, so you have to give in to treating your adventurers disposably.

Design-y criticisms:

1) It’s missing any sense of intermediate progression targets to keep you motivated. In XCOM, you were always looking forward to the next “new” thing you were getting right after the next mission or two–new guns, new research, new building, etc. A lot of times when a mission popped you didn’t exactly feel like doing it, because you were actually hoping time run on until your next little progression rush from finishing a project. But you’d focus and get into the mission, and would often enjoy playing with whatever your latest new toy was. Then you go back to look forward to the strategy progress aside. DD just doesn’t have those progression beats on the strategy side. You want to farm up deeds etc. so your character upgrades go to higher numbers and are cheaper. Once you get a sense of how it all works, it’s too transparent that you can just say “okay, after I get X hundred deeds I’ll have the strongest characters and can work on the endgame.” XCOM _never_ made me think (even though I theoretically could), “okay, I just need Y scientist-days of total research to fill out the whole tree, so let’s grind out missions until I get there.”

The outcome I predict is that I’m going to plow on enthusiastically with my initial rush of enjoyment of the game’s systems, and curiosity about the final dungeon. But once I start suffering setbacks that cause me to redo any grind, the motivation will evaporate and I’ll stop playing, feeling like I saw all the gameplay it had to offer.

2) There’s a really bad progression snarl based on the rule that high-level soldiers won’t go on low-level missions. I get what they’re trying to do, but it’s not extremely well thought-out. Your adventurers’ strength is based not just on their level, but on their gear and trinkets (in fact, the latter two are a lot more important). So even if you’re trying to build up your party strength by improving your Blacksmith before going into higher-level areas, you might have many adventurers who refuse to go to any areas other than the higher-level ones. At minimum, you wind up leaving lots of adventurers at, say, freshly L3, while you use your L1-2s to farm up materials to upgrade the L3 guys further. In the extreme, this can lead to the bizarre case of wanting to fire mid-level characters to make room for lower-level characters who have the “advantage” of actually being willing to do the missions you want to do. Again, I get they’re trying to prod you to keep pressing on, but this is a very messy and aggravating way of doing it. A simple rule like “the adventurers don’t gain XP from too-low-level missions” would accomplish the goal of making you get into the higher ones to keep progressing.

3) There’s too much fiddly setup before a mission. Here’s my general routine between finishing a dungeon and starting the next:
–Check if I have mats to upgrade any buildings
–Check if anyone on the Stagecoach I want to recruit (can be a complicated decision since I have to fire someone if so)
–Check what missions are available, and which one I want to do
–Pick a party for that mission (also complicated, but no complaint here since it’s the interesting part)
–Go back to the town screen, and drop each of those party members into the Blacksmith to see if they have any gear upgrades I want to get them
–Then the same for the Guild Hall for skill upgrades, and also checking if I want to swap any skills in/out on the characters based on that particular party lineup and mission
–Same at the Survivalist, although at least you really only need it once per character
–Of all the characters that aren’t going, who needs disease treatment, who needs stress relief–put them in those buildings.
–Scroll through all the remaining characters and pick a few negative traits to remove–put those in the Sanatarium.
–Check the trinket shop for anything interesting
–Open the trinket box. Unequip all trinkets, then pick some out for this mission to equip to the planned party.
–Pick provisions (usually formulaic based on mission area and length) and go.

There’s just too much hassle here. You probably didn’t even read all that. Looking again to XCOM, it’s really worth thinking about the ways that it avoids burying you in a nonstop slew of really minor decisions–this is one of its important successes. Most things on the overworld take time, so you really only have to actively make choices in 1 or 2 buildings at any given point. Characters of the same class are the same other than talents, and can’t be respecced. Accessory slots have some more standard basic options so you’re not totally re-picking from a large complex list every mission.

Darkest does have interesting systems around characters/skills and trinkets, that allow for good customization and formation of a plan. But the lesson from XCOM would be to be more parsimonous about the different things that the player can constantly rearrange and juggle, while figuring out how to distill out only the important strategic decisions.

Raid Awareness WeakAuras, Hellfire Citadel

I’ve been busy lately and not as much into theorycraft projects as usual.  But a lot of people have asked me during this first week of Hellfire Citadel whether I was going to reprise my Blackrock Foundry Weakaura project for the new zone.  Since this is something I wanted to do anyway to help my own raid group, I figured I’d try to get a basic version ready for people who were interested.  Note that a lot of these are untested; I’ve only seen about half the fights so far, so give me any feedback on how it works.

Once again, I got Dayani from Healiocentric to go over all these fights and mechanics with me, as she put a huge amount of work into learning them on the beta for the purpose of writing her guides.  If you want any explanation of the encounters/mechanics listed here, I recommend you take a look at those.

For I’m just going to include the WeakAura downloads and the list of abilities I used.  See the BRF post for more explanation of the setup if you need.

WeakAura Downloads

Addon: WeakAuras 2

Awareness Auras (debuff alert and standing-in-fire alert), v 0.9: WA String

Interrupt Bars (target/focus castbar showing important spells), v 0.9: WA String

So far, includes Heroic difficulty mechanics only.  These include all the bosses already, but I haven’t gotten to test the later ones, so please report anything odd on those ones especially.

Last time around, there was a bug, I think on the WA side, where the icon displayed wouldn’t always match up to the current debuff (I have the display set to “Automatic Icon”).  I worked around it by breaking a lot of debuffs into separate auras and setting the icon manually, but that was a pain and made the package a lot bigger.  So far I haven’t done that here; let me know if you see anything wrong (or are a WA expert who might know how to address this).

Ability Lists

Big debuff alert:

  • Howling Axe
  • Artillery
  • Fel Rage
  • Shadow of Death
  • Hunger for Life
  • Touch of Doom
  • Fel Chakram
  • Fel Beam Fixate
  • Phantasmal Fel Bomb
  • Phantasmal Corruption
  • Volatile Fel Orb
  • Gift of the Man’ari
  • Ghastly Fixation
  • Font of Corruption (included for now, might be too long)
  • Edict of Comdemnation
  • Befouled
  • Latent Energy
  • Seed of Destruction
  • Fel Surge
  • Void Surge
  • Chains of Fel
  • Mark of Doom
  • Doomfire Fixate
  • Shackled Torment
  • Wrought Chaos
  • Focused Chaos
  • Devour Life
  • Void Star Fixate
  • Shared Fate (179908 only)
  • Heart Seeker (188929 only)
  • Mark of the Necromancer (only while Reap is casting — needs testing)
  • Digest (only when duration <5s)
  • Shattered Defenses (included for now, might be too long)

Standing in Fire alert w/sound:

Triggered by debuff presence:

  • Reap
  • Fel Fury
  • Doom Well
  • Blood Splatter
  • Fel Flames
  • Fel Fire
  • Felblaze Residue
  • Despoiled Ground
  • Gazing Shadows
  • Nether Tear
  • Blood of Mannoroth
  • Fuel Streak
  • Fiery Pool
  • Foul Pool
  • Shadowy Pool

Triggered by damage event (displays for 2s):

  • Shadow Globule
  • Fiery Globule
  • Foul Globule
  • [Fel Blade] (not included for now)
  • Phantasmal Nova
  • Fel Crystal (181653 only)
  • Fel Hellfire

Triggered by debuff application (displays for 2s) (currently only first stack):

  • Immolation
  • Felsinged
  • Wasting Void
  • Doomfire

Interruptible Spells:

  • Rending Howl
  • Repair
  • Felfire Volley
  • Bellowing Shout
  • Fel Blaze
  • Fel Conduit
  • Fel Chain Lightning
  • Exert Dominance
  • Shadow Bolt Volley
  • Shadow Word: Agony
  • Harbinger’s Mending
  • Fel Orb
  • Fel Blast
  • Flames of Argus

(Will try to add wowhead links when I have time)

Healer Debuff List

These are not part of the WeakAuras, but are a suggested list of debuffs for healers to highlight on their raid frames, to show targets who need quick healing:

  • Unstable Orb (consider showing only 2 stacks or higher)
  • Fel Rage
  • Heart Seeker
  • Phantasmal Wounds
  • Overwhelming Power
  • Befouled
  • Ablaze

Raid Awareness WeakAuras, Hellfire Citadel

I’ve been busy lately and not as much into theorycraft projects as usual.  But a lot of people have asked me during this first week of Hellfire Citadel whether I was going to reprise my Blackrock Foundry Weakaura project for the new zone.  Since this is something I wanted to do anyway to help my own raid group, I figured I’d try to get a basic version ready for people who were interested.  Note that a lot of these are untested; I’ve only seen about half the fights so far, so give me any feedback on how it works.

Once again, I got Dayani from Healiocentric to go over all these fights and mechanics with me, as she put a huge amount of work into learning them on the beta for the purpose of writing her guides.  If you want any explanation of the encounters/mechanics listed here, I recommend you take a look at those.

For I’m just going to include the WeakAura downloads and the list of abilities I used.  See the BRF post for more explanation of the setup if you need.

WeakAura Downloads

Addon: WeakAuras 2

Awareness Auras (debuff alert and standing-in-fire alert), v 0.9: WA String

Interrupt Bars (target/focus castbar showing important spells), v 0.9: WA String

So far, includes Heroic difficulty mechanics only.  These include all the bosses already, but I haven’t gotten to test the later ones, so please report anything odd on those ones especially.

Last time around, there was a bug, I think on the WA side, where the icon displayed wouldn’t always match up to the current debuff (I have the display set to “Automatic Icon”).  I worked around it by breaking a lot of debuffs into separate auras and setting the icon manually, but that was a pain and made the package a lot bigger.  So far I haven’t done that here; let me know if you see anything wrong (or are a WA expert who might know how to address this).

Ability Lists

Big debuff alert:

  • Howling Axe
  • Artillery
  • Fel Rage
  • Shadow of Death
  • Hunger for Life
  • Touch of Doom
  • Fel Chakram
  • Fel Beam Fixate
  • Phantasmal Fel Bomb
  • Phantasmal Corruption
  • Volatile Fel Orb
  • Gift of the Man’ari
  • Ghastly Fixation
  • Font of Corruption (included for now, might be too long)
  • Edict of Comdemnation
  • Befouled
  • Latent Energy
  • Seed of Destruction
  • Fel Surge
  • Void Surge
  • Chains of Fel
  • Mark of Doom
  • Doomfire Fixate
  • Shackled Torment
  • Wrought Chaos
  • Focused Chaos
  • Devour Life
  • Void Star Fixate
  • Shared Fate (179908 only)
  • Heart Seeker (188929 only)
  • Mark of the Necromancer (only while Reap is casting — needs testing)
  • Digest (only when duration <5s)
  • Shattered Defenses (included for now, might be too long)

Standing in Fire alert w/sound:

Triggered by debuff presence:

  • Reap
  • Fel Fury
  • Doom Well
  • Blood Splatter
  • Fel Flames
  • Fel Fire
  • Felblaze Residue
  • Despoiled Ground
  • Gazing Shadows
  • Nether Tear
  • Blood of Mannoroth
  • Fuel Streak
  • Fiery Pool
  • Foul Pool
  • Shadowy Pool

Triggered by damage event (displays for 2s):

  • Shadow Globule
  • Fiery Globule
  • Foul Globule
  • [Fel Blade] (not included for now)
  • Phantasmal Nova
  • Fel Crystal (181653 only)
  • Fel Hellfire

Triggered by debuff application (displays for 2s) (currently only first stack):

  • Immolation
  • Felsinged
  • Wasting Void
  • Doomfire

Interruptible Spells:

  • Rending Howl
  • Repair
  • Felfire Volley
  • Bellowing Shout
  • Fel Blaze
  • Fel Conduit
  • Fel Chain Lightning
  • Exert Dominance
  • Shadow Bolt Volley
  • Shadow Word: Agony
  • Harbinger’s Mending
  • Fel Orb
  • Fel Blast
  • Flames of Argus

(Will try to add wowhead links when I have time)

Healer Debuff List

These are not part of the WeakAuras, but are a suggested list of debuffs for healers to highlight on their raid frames, to show targets who need quick healing:

  • Unstable Orb (consider showing only 2 stacks or higher)
  • Fel Rage
  • Heart Seeker
  • Phantasmal Wounds
  • Overwhelming Power
  • Befouled
  • Ablaze

Thoughts on the No-Flying Announcement

I was originally asked about my thoughts on ask.fm, and my reply was so long that part of it got cut off. The core of this post came from a reply I made to the Wowhead newspost as well as some Twitter discussions over the weekend.

The devs have a vision they want to implement and I respect that. Communication surrounding the decision could be smoothed out though and that’s not the fault of the devs–PR/community could also be involved. Since it’s a bold choice, blogs on the official site would be good that explain the decision and also help players see that even though the devs may disagree with feedback, they’re engaging with it.

If they want people to explore more, they need to get people out of the Garrison. Right now the Garrison provides a lazy way for me to get gear, gold, and profession materials. I could get more if I went out into the world, but…effort. I’d rather just log onto alts with Garrisons if I need ore, vs take a miner out into the world. You can gear up with Garrison Mission rewards vs treasures in outdoor zones or even heroic dungeons. This caused a problem for me at launch, I fell into a routine where I just checked my Garrison for gear upgrades and didn’t push myself to socialize by doing things like heroic dungeons.

And since I spend so much time in my Garrison, I get complacent and think less about cool stuff I want to collect to show off to others–mounts, pets, toys, transmog. When I go to Stormshield, which is rarely, I’m reminded that I should farm mounts more, or that I should put a cool title on to show off. But inside my Garrison with just followers for company, I’m not reminded to socialize or go out in the world.

There’s also the issue where max-level content could encourage exploration/travel more vs the leveling treasures. I did grind out some WoD reputations, but all I had to do was travel to one area, use group finder, and grind mobs in exactly the same place for a few hours–flying wouldn’t have enhanced that. An exception is Steamwheedle–this felt the most memorable because it emphasized some travel and exploration with the rares and treasures scattered about.

I do think that flying could be added to zones when they’re no longer current (I thought most of Draenor would have flying in 6.2 tbh), but I also need that motivation to want to leave my Garrison in the first place. I can’t really think of a place I’d want to go to, but decided against it because it couldn’t fly. I just think about mainly staying in my Garrison and clicking on the latest Work Order/Mission that’s done. Maybe it would be neat if you could get flying after opening X amount of treasures, or doing Loremaster–demonstrating that you’ve participated in the actual content.

Cool Shop Mounts and reward mounts should be geared more towards ground areas–don’t have the fancy details shine in flying-only areas if we’ll be mostly showing them off in current no-flying zones. I liked the Runesaber’s wings, but you could really appreciate them only in flying zones. The new Apexis Crystal mount has awesome wings, but it’s a bit bulky on the ground as well. In contrast, the Infernal Direwolf is a ground mount from Hellfire Citadel with lots of awesome fel effects–that’s an example of a ground mount done well. In addition, many of my old mounts I’m proud of are flying mounts, and they just don’t translate well in Draenor, like a waddling Mimiron’s Head.

I’ve seen some criticism that recent interviews have been done on general gaming sites vs fansites. It’s good to have a mix and Blizzard can reach new audiences via general sites. It can also help them get new feedback–a Polygon audience may latch onto something unexpected in an interview, and that’s useful for Blizzard to see. However, the recent interview trend on top of the dev Twitter consolidation/Warcraft Devs transition does leave players hungry for more detail-focused conversations. It would be good if could move towards the 2014 twitter setup where that section of the playerbase felt like they had questions answered more. For example, a long-time player may ask specific follow-up questions about flying, such as what the devs thought were successful areas that worked without flying in WoD, the Garrison’s thorny content role in WoD, or potential no-flying improvements to make the travel experience smoother.

Warlords Spirit, 6.2 Update

Continuing my discussion on projecting Spirit and mana growth in Warlords

The last time we checked on Warlords mana and projecting how far it would go was after the general raid trinket buffs and the reveal of the BRF raid loot (including two high-Spirit trinkets).  Those two changes had severely accelerated potential Spirit growth from what I initially projected.  Because of that, I went from saying that Spirit was looking to be fine (at launch) to saying that the growth had to be arrested, and that an easy and effective approach would be to simply put less Spirit on trinkets.

Since all that, there have been two more developments:

  • Blizzard, going directly counter to my opinion, further increased the Spirit on BRF trinkets.  Not only through the global 5-ilvl buff, but through a significant Spirit-only buff to the two trinkets I linked above.  The reasons for that have to do with the trinket itemization dilemma I touched on here; I won’t go into them now.
  • Completely reversing course, the datamined 6.2 healer trinkets now have low amounts of Spirit again.  379 at ilvl 695 (or equivalent) on all of them, far less than Autoclave and Talisman.  This is now in line with exactly what I recommended.

So of course the question is, after all this, where did we land?

A Somewhat Convenient Truth

By now you’re probably familiar with the bar graphs from the previous versions of this analysis.  If you’re not, the framework I use is to compute how much total mana a healer will have available to spend, in an encounter of fixed length (I use 6 minutes).  This is to give a more practical and in-context comparison than simply looking at Spirit numbers, although in the Warlords system, Spirit on gear is the only part that varies.  Without further ado:

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 1.50.41 AM

To explain the different columns:

  • 695 (expected): This was my projection, before any of the post-launch changes, of where we’d be at ilvl 695.  More on this below.
  • 695 (BRF 6.0): Where we were in the last version of this post, after the first round of trinket buffs, when I started to be a lot more concerned about this.
  • 706 (BRF 6.1): The most Spirit you could get from BRF, wearing the two highest-Spirit trinkets after all the buffs.
  • 731 (projected): where we’d be after another tier if nothing more was changed.  Take note of the number–about 950 (i.e. 950,000 mana in a 6 minute fight).  We’ll put that in context later.
  • 695 (HFC): how things look at ilvl 695 wearing one of the new Spirit trinkets and a 0-spirit class trinket.
  • 731 (HFC): how the previous setup scales up to the best gear we know of in the next tier.

Notes:

  • The final two columns conservatively assume one Spirit trinket.  If you use two Spirit trinkets instead of your special Archimonde class trinket, the final bar would wind up at 818.  Both setups will likely be seen in practice, although hopefully the class trinkets wind up appealing.  Because they’re unique and interesting, and also because it helps keep this problem in check.
  • This total ignores set bonuses, and in certain cases like Shaman, a big part of the current problem is the tremendous mana value of their set bonuses.  The currently datamined set bonuses, though incomplete, don’t seem to be focused on mana, which is hopefully intentional (all of them are linked here).  So the difference between BRF and HFC is likely to be larger than it looks.

Putting it all together, the graph should speak for itself.  Spirit growth has not only slowed down, but been given a huge one-time step backwards, so that it has room to comfortably grow again.  This outcome isn’t perfect, but it’s probably is the best that could have been done after BRF.

Historical Context

Let’s look back at the first of these graphs I posted, a few weeks before Warlords launch:

Remember all those different sources of mana we had in Mists?

Note that the WoD 695 projection is the first bar in the graph at the start of this post.  That should help put these together in context.

One important bar to note is the L90 6.0 bar–showing the weird month in between 6.0 and Warlords launch, when people probably a remember a very silly mana game where you simply couldn’t spend it down.  In fact, the main point of this chart, which I posted during that time period, was that it wouldn’t be that way once we got to actual Warlords.

Well, the repeated trinket buffs almost did make a liar of me.  The L90 bar topped out at about 1,050 (1.05 million mana to spend in 6 minutes, adjusted for inflation to be in terms of L100 mana).  And you can actually get to 868 in BRF trinkets (with the potential of going to 950 next tier if nothing was changed).  While not quite at L90 levels, it is uncomfortably close.  Close enough that many people are definitely at the “can’t find a use for more mana” level, which is exactly what we wanted to avoid.  To have the feel of early Warlords, you have to be down closer to 600.

It’s still unideal that you can get to around 818 with (known) BIS Hellfire trinkets.  That is just about what a lot of people are probably playing with right now.  People generally aren’t running around with M WF Autoclave and Talisman, because it’s simply too much.  So “current mana” is probably something less than 868–something around 800 is a lot more realistic (Mythic Autoclave and Chew Toy is pretty close to this).  Despite the big cut to Spirit happening in HFC, natural ilvl growth will get us back to current levels by the end of the next tier.

Conclusion

The devs did take significant action on this issue.  After 30 more ilvls of growth, we’ll at most be back to where we are now.  That’s saying a lot.  And I said “at most”–if the class trinkets are attractive (which is reasonably likely, especially if Spirit has questionable value), then the highest possible “mana score” you can reach in HFC is around 740.  That’s around what you can reach in current BRF normal (ilvl 670) gear.

The biggest takeaway is that you’ll likely never have as much mana as you do now for the rest of this expansion.  Unless there is in fact another tier, in which case this will definitely have to be revisited.  While in some cases you might get close, the presence of a 0-Spirit trinket option is a significant factor that helps avoid even that.

It’s been more of a fight to keep mana in check than anyone wanted.  Unforeseen changes or no, it turned out to be wrong to think this wouldn’t be an issue.  And a good point for future discussion would be how to avoid this sort of instability.  Whereby, even though things were set up fine at the start, minor changes to items completely blew up the mana projections (in brief: Spirit on items should probably not go exponentially with ilvl).  For now, the growth has been reined in substantially, which is what we wanted to see going into a new tier.

Warlords Spirit, 6.2 Update

Continuing my discussion on projecting Spirit and mana growth in Warlords

The last time we checked on Warlords mana and projecting how far it would go was after the general raid trinket buffs and the reveal of the BRF raid loot (including two high-Spirit trinkets).  Those two changes had severely accelerated potential Spirit growth from what I initially projected.  Because of that, I went from saying that Spirit was looking to be fine (at launch) to saying that the growth had to be arrested, and that an easy and effective approach would be to simply put less Spirit on trinkets.

Since all that, there have been two more developments:

  • Blizzard, going directly counter to my opinion, further increased the Spirit on BRF trinkets.  Not only through the global 5-ilvl buff, but through a significant Spirit-only buff to the two trinkets I linked above.  The reasons for that have to do with the trinket itemization dilemma I touched on here; I won’t go into them now.
  • Completely reversing course, the datamined 6.2 healer trinkets now have low amounts of Spirit again.  379 at ilvl 695 (or equivalent) on all of them, far less than Autoclave and Talisman.  This is now in line with exactly what I recommended.

So of course the question is, after all this, where did we land?

A Somewhat Convenient Truth

By now you’re probably familiar with the bar graphs from the previous versions of this analysis.  If you’re not, the framework I use is to compute how much total mana a healer will have available to spend, in an encounter of fixed length (I use 6 minutes).  This is to give a more practical and in-context comparison than simply looking at Spirit numbers, although in the Warlords system, Spirit on gear is the only part that varies.  Without further ado:

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 1.50.41 AM

To explain the different columns:

  • 695 (expected): This was my projection, before any of the post-launch changes, of where we’d be at ilvl 695.  More on this below.
  • 695 (BRF 6.0): Where we were in the last version of this post, after the first round of trinket buffs, when I started to be a lot more concerned about this.
  • 706 (BRF 6.1): The most Spirit you could get from BRF, wearing the two highest-Spirit trinkets after all the buffs.
  • 731 (projected): where we’d be after another tier if nothing more was changed.  Take note of the number–about 950 (i.e. 950,000 mana in a 6 minute fight).  We’ll put that in context later.
  • 695 (HFC): how things look at ilvl 695 wearing one of the new Spirit trinkets and a 0-spirit class trinket.
  • 731 (HFC): how the previous setup scales up to the best gear we know of in the next tier.

Notes:

  • The final two columns conservatively assume one Spirit trinket.  If you use two Spirit trinkets instead of your special Archimonde class trinket, the final bar would wind up at 818.  Both setups will likely be seen in practice, although hopefully the class trinkets wind up appealing.  Because they’re unique and interesting, and also because it helps keep this problem in check.
  • This total ignores set bonuses, and in certain cases like Shaman, a big part of the current problem is the tremendous mana value of their set bonuses.  The currently datamined set bonuses, though incomplete, don’t seem to be focused on mana, which is hopefully intentional (all of them are linked here).  So the difference between BRF and HFC is likely to be larger than it looks.

Putting it all together, the graph should speak for itself.  Spirit growth has not only slowed down, but been given a huge one-time step backwards, so that it has room to comfortably grow again.  This outcome isn’t perfect, but it’s probably is the best that could have been done after BRF.

Historical Context

Let’s look back at the first of these graphs I posted, a few weeks before Warlords launch:

Remember all those different sources of mana we had in Mists?

Note that the WoD 695 projection is the first bar in the graph at the start of this post.  That should help put these together in context.

One important bar to note is the L90 6.0 bar–showing the weird month in between 6.0 and Warlords launch, when people probably a remember a very silly mana game where you simply couldn’t spend it down.  In fact, the main point of this chart, which I posted during that time period, was that it wouldn’t be that way once we got to actual Warlords.

Well, the repeated trinket buffs almost did make a liar of me.  The L90 bar topped out at about 1,050 (1.05 million mana to spend in 6 minutes, adjusted for inflation to be in terms of L100 mana).  And you can actually get to 868 in BRF trinkets (with the potential of going to 950 next tier if nothing was changed).  While not quite at L90 levels, it is uncomfortably close.  Close enough that many people are definitely at the “can’t find a use for more mana” level, which is exactly what we wanted to avoid.  To have the feel of early Warlords, you have to be down closer to 600.

It’s still unideal that you can get to around 818 with (known) BIS Hellfire trinkets.  That is just about what a lot of people are probably playing with right now.  People generally aren’t running around with M WF Autoclave and Talisman, because it’s simply too much.  So “current mana” is probably something less than 868–something around 800 is a lot more realistic (Mythic Autoclave and Chew Toy is pretty close to this).  Despite the big cut to Spirit happening in HFC, natural ilvl growth will get us back to current levels by the end of the next tier.

Conclusion

The devs did take significant action on this issue.  After 30 more ilvls of growth, we’ll at most be back to where we are now.  That’s saying a lot.  And I said “at most”–if the class trinkets are attractive (which is reasonably likely, especially if Spirit has questionable value), then the highest possible “mana score” you can reach in HFC is around 740.  That’s around what you can reach in current BRF normal (ilvl 670) gear.

The biggest takeaway is that you’ll likely never have as much mana as you do now for the rest of this expansion.  Unless there is in fact another tier, in which case this will definitely have to be revisited.  While in some cases you might get close, the presence of a 0-Spirit trinket option is a significant factor that helps avoid even that.

It’s been more of a fight to keep mana in check than anyone wanted.  Unforeseen changes or no, it turned out to be wrong to think this wouldn’t be an issue.  And a good point for future discussion would be how to avoid this sort of instability.  Whereby, even though things were set up fine at the start, minor changes to items completely blew up the mana projections (in brief: Spirit on items should probably not go exponentially with ilvl).  For now, the growth has been reined in substantially, which is what we wanted to see going into a new tier.

Quick Notes on Blackrock Mountain Wing 4: Blackwing Lair

I’ve been noting down my experience with, and strategy for, the Hearthstone Adventure encounters each week on the EJ forum.  I just realized there’s no reason not to put them here for people working on the fights now.  I know they’re mostly over, but I’ll put in this week’s anyway, and maybe paste in the old ones sometime for people trying to do them later.

Descriptions of the bosses and their decks can be found here.

————————————-

Razorgore: Probably lots of easy ways to do this.  I went with typical Freeze Mage-ish board clears.  His only value advantage over you is creating 4-5 HP worth of stuff to beat down every turn, which is not hard to overcome just by establishing board control in conventional ways.  An early Doomsayer and a late Flamestrike help you lock it down though.  He Corruptions big threats, so typical midrange creatures to own the board work great.

Vael: Lots of ways to deal with the fact that he aggressively mills you.  I went with Rogue both for being able to spam out cheap cards right from the start (especially with Prep and Shadowstep), and being able to counter-mill him with Gang Up.  In my game, he milled out ahead of me–I guess he must have burned one of his Gang Ups–which made it easy.  If you ever get one good Blade Flurry off for a big reset, you should be fine.  He doesn’t have a huge number of minions in his deck.

BGH is handy for Giant spam near the end, and can be good with Shadowstep or Gang Up.  Other than that, you might not want much costing more than 2.  He will Naturalize creatures, so be careful trying to set up a huge threat like a Van Cleef.  But that can be great if you draw out the Naturalize (or see them burned).  Also, be very careful about lethal range, since he has 0-cost burn he can spam at you.

Chromaggus: Really fun encounter.  I think there’s a probably a great plan around using Warlock cards to discard from your hand, but I went with Priest.  Chromaggus has no hard removal, so a huge Divine Spirit-Inner Fire combo can win uncontested.  No matter what your deck, bias towards being very cheap again, since you have to spend a lot of mana clearing out his trash (the only exception for me was Thaurissan for obvious reasons).  I bet Cho is amusing if you have him.

You have to put with some of his curses for a while, and know when to get rid of them.  The initial Green will probably sit for a long time, so you have to first take control and then start damaging him.  I tried to use Lightwardens to abuse his auto-heal every turn (and to worth with my own Lightwell which was very good here).  You may have to live with the Red you get on turn 3 for a while also–you probably need to make a turn 3 play (especially since the turn 4 and 5 Blue/Bronze are really important to drop immediately).  Getting some semblance of control in turns 1-2-3 is huge.  You need some way of removing a growing Drakonid on your turn 3 (SW:P is good).

Bronze and Black should always go immediately (exception: consider leaving Bronze if you’re about to follow up with a good board clear).  Blue is ideal to let go of early on, since he can spam out 0-cost Flamehearts–but you can leave it if he’s already played a bunch of spells from his hand.  Drop Red when you can, and Green once you’re in control and ready to win.

Nefarian: Nothing about this fight seems to shout for one particular strategy–it’s mostly a normal Hearthstone game with him having a huge value advantage over you (starting at 9 mana/turn on turn 2, and getting 2 cards a turn).

You can probably use anything if you have a plan for the early game (just survive his 9-mana turns on your 3/4/5 mana turns), the mid game (probably need one really good board clear), and the late game (actually killing him and dealing with occasional damage).  I used Paladin with Humility/Chow/Doomsayer/Aldor for the early turns, an Equality-Consecrate whenever things got bad, and Lay on Hands/Guardian to take over at the end.  As with all the encounters where you’re overcoming a huge value disadvantage every turn, if you don’t have the typical good legendaries for that, a good endgame is to stick a Kel’Thuzad.  Nefarian also has no hard removal, but he does have Flamestrikes and various direct damage.

The random card you get from Rag on turn 3 matters a lot.  All you care about is living so the 6/6 Taunt seems best, especially if you can protect it for a bit and/or having him waste tempo removing it.  Mind Control Tech is huge, and Emperor Cobra can trade way up.  A Doomsayer can delay him a turn at worst.  Anything to get to the Equality-Consecrate or whatever you’re using to turn the corner.  Some luck with him doing comparatively weak things with his mana on turns 2-3-4 (such as using inefficient spells from your class) can also go a long way.

Quick Notes on Blackrock Mountain Wing 4: Blackwing Lair

I’ve been noting down my experience with, and strategy for, the Hearthstone Adventure encounters each week on the EJ forum.  I just realized there’s no reason not to put them here for people working on the fights now.  I know they’re mostly over, but I’ll put in this week’s anyway, and maybe paste in the old ones sometime for people trying to do them later.

Descriptions of the bosses and their decks can be found here.

————————————-

Razorgore: Probably lots of easy ways to do this.  I went with typical Freeze Mage-ish board clears.  His only value advantage over you is creating 4-5 HP worth of stuff to beat down every turn, which is not hard to overcome just by establishing board control in conventional ways.  An early Doomsayer and a late Flamestrike help you lock it down though.  He Corruptions big threats, so typical midrange creatures to own the board work great.

Vael: Lots of ways to deal with the fact that he aggressively mills you.  I went with Rogue both for being able to spam out cheap cards right from the start (especially with Prep and Shadowstep), and being able to counter-mill him with Gang Up.  In my game, he milled out ahead of me–I guess he must have burned one of his Gang Ups–which made it easy.  If you ever get one good Blade Flurry off for a big reset, you should be fine.  He doesn’t have a huge number of minions in his deck.

BGH is handy for Giant spam near the end, and can be good with Shadowstep or Gang Up.  Other than that, you might not want much costing more than 2.  He will Naturalize creatures, so be careful trying to set up a huge threat like a Van Cleef.  But that can be great if you draw out the Naturalize (or see them burned).  Also, be very careful about lethal range, since he has 0-cost burn he can spam at you.

Chromaggus: Really fun encounter.  I think there’s a probably a great plan around using Warlock cards to discard from your hand, but I went with Priest.  Chromaggus has no hard removal, so a huge Divine Spirit-Inner Fire combo can win uncontested.  No matter what your deck, bias towards being very cheap again, since you have to spend a lot of mana clearing out his trash (the only exception for me was Thaurissan for obvious reasons).  I bet Cho is amusing if you have him.

You have to put with some of his curses for a while, and know when to get rid of them.  The initial Green will probably sit for a long time, so you have to first take control and then start damaging him.  I tried to use Lightwardens to abuse his auto-heal every turn (and to worth with my own Lightwell which was very good here).  You may have to live with the Red you get on turn 3 for a while also–you probably need to make a turn 3 play (especially since the turn 4 and 5 Blue/Bronze are really important to drop immediately).  Getting some semblance of control in turns 1-2-3 is huge.  You need some way of removing a growing Drakonid on your turn 3 (SW:P is good).

Bronze and Black should always go immediately (exception: consider leaving Bronze if you’re about to follow up with a good board clear).  Blue is ideal to let go of early on, since he can spam out 0-cost Flamehearts–but you can leave it if he’s already played a bunch of spells from his hand.  Drop Red when you can, and Green once you’re in control and ready to win.

Nefarian: Nothing about this fight seems to shout for one particular strategy–it’s mostly a normal Hearthstone game with him having a huge value advantage over you (starting at 9 mana/turn on turn 2, and getting 2 cards a turn).

You can probably use anything if you have a plan for the early game (just survive his 9-mana turns on your 3/4/5 mana turns), the mid game (probably need one really good board clear), and the late game (actually killing him and dealing with occasional damage).  I used Paladin with Humility/Chow/Doomsayer/Aldor for the early turns, an Equality-Consecrate whenever things got bad, and Lay on Hands/Guardian to take over at the end.  As with all the encounters where you’re overcoming a huge value disadvantage every turn, if you don’t have the typical good legendaries for that, a good endgame is to stick a Kel’Thuzad.  Nefarian also has no hard removal, but he does have Flamestrikes and various direct damage.

The random card you get from Rag on turn 3 matters a lot.  All you care about is living so the 6/6 Taunt seems best, especially if you can protect it for a bit and/or having him waste tempo removing it.  Mind Control Tech is huge, and Emperor Cobra can trade way up.  A Doomsayer can delay him a turn at worst.  Anything to get to the Equality-Consecrate or whatever you’re using to turn the corner.  Some luck with him doing comparatively weak things with his mana on turns 2-3-4 (such as using inefficient spells from your class) can also go a long way.

The Guiding Hand of Dark Souls

The Guiding Hand of Dark Souls

Posted on  by Hamlet

Dark Souls is widely regarded as an outstanding game for a variety of reasons, such as the “hard but fair” ethos in which its only demand is that you prove your growth as a player at each step.  The world is similarly praised for its clever interconnectedness.  I want to illustrate the level of thought that went into the level design, using a series of highlights progressing through the game.  This is somewhat inspired by this analysis of Super Metroid, a game which itself is clearly an element of the Dark Souls pedigree.  Many of the concepts described in that article apply to this game as well, but Souls has to maintain a special focus on one particular element: quietly helping the player endure the intense difficulty that the game itself created.

One of my goals is to refine the image that both fans and non-fans have of Dark Souls, as being defined solely by difficulty.  Perhaps its best-hidden secret is that it does not actually leave the player lost in the wilderness with no direction and death awaiting at every turn, but rather guides and supports them in subtle ways.  The game fulfills two roles at once: presenting a seemingly crushing challenge, but also, behind the scenes, doing what it can to make it more likely that each player finds a way through.  The defining emotion of Dark Souls is the thrill of both facing the challenge and then eventually surpassing it, and the game succeeds because it does everything it can to provide both of those experiences.

This post will take us through ringing the Bells of Awakening.  Many of the themes of the level design are shown most strongly in this first segment, when it’s critical to give a player an understanding of how this game works, and most importantly, to give them the tools to succeed in what comes after it.

Undead Asylum

The game opens with one of the very few moments that I’m going to question.  Before its threadbare tutorial is even complete, it throws the player into a boss fight, the Asylum Demon, where the solution is not to fight, but to escape through an open door elsewhere in the room.  I’m not sure what this is intended to teach, since nowhere else in the game is there a boss fight that you can run away from; you’re always sealed in (there are occasional large non-boss enemies you can run from, such as the Bridge Hellkite or the Hydra, but they’re in open outdoor spaces that make it obvious anyway).  These opening minutes are precious for hooking the player and starting to teach them, and adding a potential sticking point with no teaching utility is not parsimonious.  Arguably, one hint is that the boss fight is completely unfair (you don’t have a real weapon yet, so no non-expert player has a chance), but it’s too early to rely on the player’s trust that Dark Souls is never unfair.  Building that trust is a key goal of the early levels.

The escape door is behind the pillars on the left.

After finishing the brief tutorial and getting their starting weapons, the player returns to fight the Asylum Demon for real, which is where they prove they’re ready to begin Dark Souls proper.  Making the player do this before they can begin exploring the world is a technique that will be used throughout the game: the gatekeeper encounter.  Asylum Demon is harder than the basic enemies you’ll fight for a little while (many new players will take some time to reach the next boss, Taurus Demon), so this seems like an atypical placement of a boss fight.  This is done to ensure that you’re not struggling to learn combat against the basic Hollows while you’re also starting to explore the world.  This is hallmark Souls pacing: move some of the struggle to the front to make sure the player’s skills are at least somewhat shipshape for the upcoming area.  This ensures they can explore the area without being hamstrung by an inability to kill basic enemies along the paths.  Asylum Demon is a special use of this technique because the “area” here is the entire game.

Asylum’s huge windups introduce the basic concepts of combat.

Firelink Shrine

Firelink will be your only home for the entire game, and the first hub in the complex network of the game’s central levels.  Once you arrive at Firelink by bird, you will not take any mode of transport again for a long time, not until the end of Sen’s Fortress (other than revisiting the Asylum if you want).  This is the first impressive feature of Dark Souls, that everyone probably notices quickly.  The entire first half of the game is one continuous “level”.  It has different named areas with different looks and feels, but there are no breaks.  This is used for more than merely the immersive effect of avoiding loading screens, but allows (most of) the game to be one large 3D space you can explore.  Most dramatically, it allows for impressive reveals where the game takes you back to a place you’ve been, along a new route, without your realizing it until you get there.  That effect would have no power if you hadn’t been traveling along an unbroken path the whole time.  I won’t repeat this point every time it comes up throughout the game, but the discussion wouldn’t be complete without mentioning it.

Giving you a home as the first stop as a way out of the tutorial area is not a trivial gesture.  Places where you can feel safe will be a rarity, and one that you can always come back to is an important comfort.  We’ll see how the game pushes you away from Firelink and then returns you to it a few times across the early acts.  On a smaller scale, each bonfire serves a similar role as a root for your exploration of the local area.

Nope.

For purposes of our discussion, the most important features of Firelink are the paths out: up the hill into Undead Burg, into the Cemetery right next to the Shrine, and down the elevator into New Londo Ruins.  The Burg is the right one for a first-time player, and the other two demonstrate two different approaches to the important design goal of silently but firmly turning you away.  New Londo is the harsher and more obvious approach: you cannot fight the ghosts there because your weapons pass through them, immediately causing all but the most stubborn players to try something else.  The Cemetery is more deceptive: nothing is obviously wrong with fighting the skeletons, but they outmatch you numerically for now.  Unlike New Londo, players might vary in how long they take to give up here before trying the Burg.  The game and the player haven’t yet had a chance to come to a meeting of the minds on the right level of stubbornness to cultivate.  The difference between the Cemetary and the Burg paths are the first two data points: the former is more punishment than even Dark Souls desires to inflict on you, and the latter is business as usual.  Calibrating the player’s sense of what to expect, in much more detail than “I heard Dark Souls is hard” will be important going forward.

Seems worth a shot.

A formidable-looking set piece involving 6 Hollows guards the stairway to the Burg. Only trial and error will reveal this as the easiest path.

There is a fourth path: down the elevator and through the locked door into the Valley of Drakes, provided you took the Master Key as your starting gift.  This will be discussed below.

Undead Burg

The gatekeeper encounter uses mob placements to create a tricky spot where you’re “tanked” by the incoming melee Hollow on the stairs, right where the other one starts throwing firebombs at you.

Once you do make your way into the Burg, things are mostly linear for a bit.  Simple exploration will find the first Undead Merchant and a bonfire.  The only major diversion is a Black Knight at the end, but that doesn’t open new routes.  There are no explicit shortcuts that loop back yet, because the path to Taurus Demon from the bonfire is quite short anyway (the area’s length is probably calibrated to still account for frequent deaths to Hollow packs).  Even with no shortcut, it exhibits a standard property of Dark Souls levels: once you know the enemy placements, the path from the bonfire to the boss can be sprinted with no fighting and comparatively few complications.  Bosses are designed to take many attempts, and there’s no question that this can produce a pacing problem—newcomers frequently cite the frustration of reclearing to the boss after every death.  The fact that this can mostly be avoided simply by trying is a lesson that’s good to start early, in the hope that players will pick up on it sooner rather than later.

Undead Burg Bonfire in a room that will quickly be familiar. The broken stairway looks like a generic scenery element, and nothing particularly entices you to look up.

Soon after Taurus is the Hellkite bridge, which the player will start to walk down and then be slaughtered by fire from an unseen dragon, who only after this will take up his visible perch at the end of the bridge.  A near-unavoidable (without prior knowledge) death, especially immediately after giving the player a lot of souls from a boss, seens oddly harsh at first.  They may wonder what the lesson is here.  Still, the player is now adept at getting back to Taurus’s room, and retrieving souls from the bridge is likely.  The firm suggestion that the bridge may not be the right path will at least ensure the player meets Solaire on a nearby platform.  Eventually though, they must brave the bridge—it is the only path, and the church is visible behind it—with the notion of either killing the dragon or somehow getting past it.  It turns out that either of those options is possible, but a third will present itself: a route from the midpoint of the bridge, under the dragon, and into the Parish.  The purpose of the initial fiery death was to increase the tension surrounding the decision to attempt this.

A leap of faith: all you have to do to advance is prove that you’re willing to charge headlong onto this bridge. Once you do, the game is satisfied and doesn’t even require you to fight the dragon.  Anything other than a sprint to the the midpoint will usually get you  incinerated.

A huge reveal, showing the player what the Dark Souls level design is all about.  Just before entering Parish, a new connection opens to the room with the broken stairway, and the same Bonfire the player has been using ever since heading out of Firelink.

Undead Parish

Once again, at the start of a new area, the path is laid clearly ahead for a while, with the biggest change being some new enemy types.  There is a formidable gatekeeper encounter involving a number of Hollows and a Fang Boar, an advanced enough enemy that it’s more like a miniboss at this point.  The room contains a lot of geometry that can be exploited to remain safe from it.

Literal “gatekeeper” in that the portcullis at the back will close when you enter. Experienced players can charge past everything and get under it before it closes, shortcutting much of the area.

After some mostly-linear rooms, the player arrives at the chapel, which contains a large number of interesting things:

  • Across a short, quiet bridge from the hall, a safe area with another bonfire.  Only the second that’s been seen since leaving Firelink.
  • An elevator that provides a shortcut all the way back to Firelink, the second reveal that shows off the connectedness of the world.
  • Near the bonfire, Andre the blacksmith, likely the first one found.
  • Two more paths: the gate (currently closed) into Sen’s Fortress, and past an imposing Titanite Demon into Darkroot Garden.
  • The first Fire Keeper Soul, a very rare item.  Its dramatic placement on the altar indicates that it is something special.
  • The stairway up to the bell tower, with the boss and ultimate goal of this area.
  • Two more non-respawning enemies in the chapel hall (the large Berenike Knight near the altar, and the Channeler shooting from the balcony).

The Knight also has a Titanite Shard as a guaranteed drop, possibly the first one found. This is given immediately before encountering the blacksmith, as a nudge to try the weapon upgrading system.

In addition to the usual role of non-respawning enemies, providing tangible progress through the zone, these two have an added function.  Killing them makes the chapel hall into a safe place.  Since it’s directly connected to Firelink (a fact which already brings a huge sense of relief and comfort), it is now an extension of your home, stretching all the way to the blacksmith’s area.  Making you conquer your new space is much more rewarding than simply presenting it empty.

The boss encounters themselves are not the focus of this discussion, but the Gargoyle pair guarding the bell tower is by far the hardest yet.  The nearby connections to Firelink and a blacksmith provide easy opportunities for improvement and preparation if the fight poses a problem.  A thorough exploration of the area also will allow for two NPC helpers to summon if needed, which is unusual.  After defeating the Gargoyles, the ringing of the first Bell provides the first major success of the game.

The way forward will be into the Depths.  This requires going through Lower Undead Burg, whose entrance is a bit out of the way, but the Basement Key that was found in the Parish spells out the location in the item description.  I won’t say too much about Lower Undead Burg.  It’s a small and generally linear area whose most notable feature is a hard boss fight (Capra Demon) which is often a sticking point for new players.  It reinforces the themes seen so far by including shortcuts back to the Undead Burg bonfire and back to Firelink.  Killing Capra Demon gives the key to the nearby entrance to the Depths.

The Depths and the Curse

Descending into the Depths presents nothing unusual for short while, merely a few new enemy types.  The layout of the level is still interesting in that you have to either encounter the giant rat, or drop into the sewers (probably accidentally), but not necessarily both, to get to the end.  It does add a new twist with a bonfire behind a locked door, but the key is only separated from you by a few ordinary rats.

The key to Depths bonfire can be grabbed through the bars, before having to find your way to the end of the area.

A preview of an eventual shortcut from the bonfire. The immediate exit to this room is much less obvious (a downward ladder hidden behind crates), ensuring that the player tries the door.  This is important because the shortcut will be necessary for reasonable attempts at early Blighttown.

The big drama of the Depths is what will happen to most people shortly after their fall into the sewers:

The sudden appearance of a debuff that persists through death is shocking. It pulls the rug out from under the player by breaking the sanctity of the bonfire respawn for the first time.

They’re comfortable enough with you now to try a harsh presentation of a side quest: suddenly you have a big problem to solve before you can continue any further.  Of course, if you either never drop, or never get hit twice (probably) by the Basilisks’ breath attack, your reward is skipping this quest.  This is a case where there doesn’t have to be a backup plan to get the player to a certain path: never getting Cursed and simply continuing on is perfectly acceptable.

The reason I call decursing a side quest is that it will play as one for many players.  If you have a Purging Stone already, this won’t happen, but they are costed to make it unlikely that you will.  You could have bought one for 3,000 Souls from Oswald, whom you met after Gargoyles (when that was likely to be an entire level’s worth), or for 6,000 from the Undead Merchant near the Depths entrance (same).  Prudent types who made the investment regardless are rewarded by removing the Curse immediately, but this is set up so that a lot of players will have to make the trek out of the Depths with reduced HP, which is a significant task.  The player will also have 0 Souls after having been Cursed (safe retrieval from the sewer is unlikely), so they’ll have to farm up 6,000 and/or burn any soul items they saved.  After all this is done, the reward is having to go back to the Depths and make it through safely this time, with an intense fear of Basilisks, the only enemy so far that can inflict a fate worse than death.  Getting Cursed again would be crushing, but it’s unlikely as Basilisks are not too difficult to fight.  The fear of the Curse, more than the reality, is used to give tension to the level.  Notably, the eventual shortcut from the Depths bonfire (pictured above) bypasses the Basilisk tunnels.  The game is not mean enough to make you risk another Curse during your repeated runs to attempt Gaping Dragon or progress in early Blighttown.

The torch-wielding Hollows may not have seemed like much on the way in, but they can likely kill you in one combo if you’re trying to exit the Depths with half HP in search of a Curse solution.

The merchant is positioned so that you can’t miss her as you run back towards the Depths. This is important as Oswald and Ingward are more obscurely located, and the player could be stuck if they don’t find one of the three people who can help them with the Curse.

One concern about this otherwise well-executed diversion (and to be sure, a side quest whose only purpose is to instill fear with a painful lesson is not easy to pull off well) is that the reference to New Londo seems like a trap.  In theory the player could trek all the way to Ingward to be decursed for free, but that would require fighting through one of the hardest combat rooms in New Londo (a set piece where ghosts trap you in a room), at low level, with half HP.  Especially to a player who doesn’t remember on what merchant they saw a Purging Stone, finding the healer may well look like the intended path.  They know where New Londo is, and the curse lets them kill ghosts, reinforcing that this is the right idea.  The signals lead you this way, by far the least practical way of getting decursed, which is a misstep.

That the Curse allows you to damage ghosts is a clever interaction, but it doesn’t flow neatly into the game at this point.

Blighttown

Blighttown opens with another gatekeeper encounter that introduces important enemies—not the two club-wielding giants, but the bridge with two Infested Ghouls on it and a Blowdart Sniper firing on you from the darkness.  As always, this is designed to ensure you probably don’t advance without 1) seeing the Ghouls’ attacks, including a dangerous grab, and 2) figuring out what in the world keeps debuffing you with Toxin out of nowhere.  The game is being gentle by showing this to you in close range of the entrance.  The later and more devious placements of Snipers on difficult-to-reach ledges is fair because the possibility was demonstrated up front.  Springing that on you deep into a segment is the sort of “difficulty” you wouldn’t find here.

Once you notice that the tiny white darts are debuffing you with Toxin, you can locate the direction of the source. The first one isn’t too far off the main path.

As with any non-respawning enemy, the Snipers are also used to mediate progression throughout the difficult segments between bonfires in Blighttown.  Finally, players who both diligently explored the Depths and also read their item descriptions will have the poison-blocking Spider Shield as a nice reward to give them a leg up along the way.

The Snipers are fragile when you hunt them down, but enemy placements are designed to result in Ghoul ambushes just as you move in for the kill.

The bottom of Blighttown is a large area with a generally simple layout.  It’s a large swamp, but easy to get lost in due to the darkness.  Exploring well reveals a variety of items and potentially a well-hidden entrance to an optional side area (The Great Hollow).  Hopefully at some point the player happens to look up and realize that they can see all way back to the surface, and furthermore, that the giant stone pillars in the swamp are in fact the bases of the huge buttresses supporting the city they have been exploring.

The angled buttresses supporting the city, and the wooden structure you climbed down to descend into Blighttown.  It’s a little hard to recognize Firelink at the surface.

The same Blighttown swamp and pillars, as seen from Firelink Shrine.

It’s possible that, in exploring, the player will find the waterwheel and the exit route back to Firelink before finding the boss.  This is generally fine if those two things are done in reverse order.  If they leave Blighttown without ringing the second Bell, they know they’re not done and have to go back, and discovering the path out will still be useful.  The fact that the boss’s area is named as a new zone when you enter it (“Quelaag’s Domain”) may be minorly confusing for someone specifically hunting for the Bell, as an NPC back in town said that it was in “Blighttown”.

Return to Firelink and the Key to New Londo Ruins

The waterwheel climb is a difficult but generally linear path to the Valley of Drakes, which is a new area.  But right next to you is an entrance back to Firelink, in yet another major shortcut reveal (see below regarding what happens if the player tries heading along the Valley instead).

The arrival back at Firelink is a rare use of plot drama:

The triumphant return home is cut off when you arrive and find that the place was burglarized.

The Fire Keeper has been murdered.  Furthermore, this is a serious practical problem, since you need to touch a bonfire to consummate your escape from Blighttown.  After calming down a moment, you remember that the practical problem is fine.  Your home has a second bonfire now—you can take the elevator to the Parish bonfire and rest there, without having to fight a single enemy.  On the way, a bizarre new NPC, Kingseeker Frampt, tells you some of the plot, one of the few times that happens in the whole game.

Dark Souls’s characteristic storytelling is through items, not through plot that happens to your character. Anastacia’s set, found on her corpse, tells you her history.

There are three ways to know that the next leg of the game will be to head into Sen’s Fortress.  The cutscene after ringing the second bell shows you, if you remember what the gate looks like.  Frampt tells you if you talk to him.  But most importantly, the game has ensured that the only place you feel safe now is the Parish bonfire, which is directly in view of the Fortress gate.

A door whose key costs 20,000 souls is a message that exploring most of Darkroot Garden is probably not required, or even expected, yet.

With Firelink out of commission, the only candidate for a temporary home base is the Parish bonfire, which happens to look directly into the now-open mouth of Sen’s Fortress.

One item acquired on the way from Blighttown back to Firelink, whose significance cannot be overemphasized, is the Key to New Londo Ruins.  It opens the gate from Valley of Drakes (right near the Blighttown exit) to New Londo (right near the Firelink elevator).  Your home base is now expanded to not just the Firelink and Parish bonfire areas, but the Valley of Drakes, itself a small secondary hub that gives direct access to Blighttown and Darkroot Basin.  It shrinks the world by putting all currently important areas within a few minutes’ run from each other.  Later on the game, Dark Souls will give in and provide a form of fast travel, but only at an appropriate time, after there has been ample time to master the known areas.  For the first half of the game, the goal of maintaining practical travel between all the areas while growing the world, without offering any transportation, is accomplished solely through ingenuity in the level design.

The Key to New Londo becomes even more interesting when you ask: why does it exist? That is, why is it a key instead of a one-way shortcut door (an example of which was recently seen in the Depths)?  The key is in plain sight on the path back to the door, producing the same result as the standard shortcut mechanic.  The reason is that there is another way to open it, the Master Key.  The significance of this one junction that connects so much of the world together is that an advanced player using the Master Key can have access to all those areas from the very start (for example, starting the game and going directly to fight the Gargoyles and Quelaag without ever passing through the Burg, most of Parish, the Lower Burg, the Depths, or most of Blighttown).  The Master Key opens a few other doors, but this is the one that matters.  This one door is keyed so that the Master Key can exist as an option which, true to its name, unlocks the whole game.

The key chest is in plain view at the back right of this small platform, but a player who’s not looking might miss it as they turn left to the Blighttown exit.

The only loose end that must be tied up, given the choice to use a key here, is what happens if the player misses it.  Creating a sticking point just before the triumphant return to Firelink would be a problem.  But look at how cleverly this is handled: a player who arrives at the New Londo gate and finds it locked has only one new way to go, down the Valley of Drakes.  With lower New Londo still flooded, that exit from Valley is blocked, and the only exit is an elevator up to Darkroot Basin.  Basin has a few exits, but coming from this route you will arrive right next to the exit to Parish.  The other exits are much less accessible, being guarded by the Hydra and by Havel the Rock.  There is even a bonfire along the way so that, if you probe at other parts of the Basin first, your death doesn’t send you to back Blighttown.  There is only one path with little resistance along it (the biggest problems are a Black Knight and a Drake or two that you can simply run past), and it leads directly to the Parish bonfire, exactly where you’re meant to wind up.

The path from the Blighttown exit all the way to Basin and Parish has conveniently few significant combat obstacles.

Conclusion

The Key to New Londo example is a perfect demonstration of how Dark Souls‘s exploration-oriented gameplay works far more subtly than simply letting you roam randomly in a large, unfriendly world.  It carefully considers where the typical player is most likely to go next, and how to carefully cue them to (unaware of the game’s thumb on the scale) go in the direction that will be best.  The player is absolutely free to choose, and can choose differently, a sacrosanct axiom of Souls.  But this world was created by people with the staunch hope that your choices will always see you through to the way forward.

Everything about Dark Souls, from its reputation, to its cold use of player deaths/failures as a teaching tool, to the pervasive swagger of its fans, suggests hostility at every turn.  But make no mistake.  Underneath the facade, like a devoted parent, this game desires one thing above all: to see you succeed.

Quick notes on Int/Spirit trinket changes

Quick notes for now since I’m at PAX East. I’m I’ll give this more discussion going forward, probably on the next podcast (hopefully soon) especially.

As many healers have noticed, in Patch 6.1, all non-Spirit items were removed from the healer classes’ lootspecs.  So healers can’t get them from any source that respects lootspec (bonus rolls, personal loot in dungeons or raids, LFR, mission tokens, challenge mode rewards, and so on).  This seems like an odd choice since Int vs. Spirit, especially on trinkets, was generally considered an interesting loot choice and there was a lot of variation in people’s views on it.

To briefly summarize why it happened: tanks have a similar situation with Bonus Armor, and for them there isn’t as much choice.  Bonus Armor is unequivocally better for tanks, and so this change was needed in their case–it prevent them from getting non-Armor items they’d never use.  But for healers, Spirit is not always unequivocally far better than Int; in fact many healers have situations where they choose Int on trinkets.  So this change has the odd effect of removing an interesting loot choice.  Blizzard’s stated reason is that they want “healer” and “DPS” trinkets to be clearly delineated, so there aren’t items with overly broad competition in a raid, which is frustrating.  That makes sense, but overall I don’t think the 6.1 solution is a good way of addressing it.

There are some mana balance issues unrelated to all this.  Disc has a super undercosted spell so they have excess mana (separate class toolkit issue). Paladin doesn’t have heals with enough marginal gain over Holy Light casts (separate class toolkit issue).  For now, let’s take a class with a very well-working mana game, and a good spellcasting options which are influenced by mana constraints (Shaman or Druid).  Right now, the weird thing is, things should be totally fine for these classes.  Int and Spirit (on trinkets) are reasonably well-balanced options.  That’s a hard thing to do and it’s done surprisingly well.  There are good cases for both stats and it can vary with content/encounter.  Furthermore, they removed the choice from most slots (4 where you always want Spirit and many where you never do) to prevent being able to swing it too much, but left the choice in 2 important slots (trinkets).

Everything about this, so far, is so good and healthy that it’s a little bizarre that they feel a need to stamp it out.  We’re talking about removing actual, good, gameplay in the form of meaningful stat choices (one of the most prominent places such a thing remains).  The biggest problem with the solution is that it seems to ignore that the class/stat design doesn’t support this notion of Spirit being unequivocally far better in every situation.  That’s not even close to true, even for a class like Druid (even if Spirit is often slightly better in many situations).  That might take an expansion-level change, again.

And furthermore, they’d have to massively buff Spirit in a way that didn’t accelerate mana flooding (which is okay in Warlords, but touchy, as I got into here: Healing Theory: Warlords Spirit Update | It’s Dangerous to Go Alone ).  That’s okay–for example, the recent Monk change was careful about this.  Watcher’s suggestion in a recent interview of making Spirit also give SP to healers would do it for all healers.  But totally reworking the function of the stat seems like next-expansion territory.

If they do make an big fundamental change, wouldn’t it better to still have the option of regen stat vs. throughput stat–an option that is already designed, implemented, and well-balanced (rather than mashing them into one stat)?  It would be perfectly fine to have Spirit and Heal Power trinkets, both of which were not shared with DPS.  Or simply go the Mists route of having some trinkets that only proc on damaging events and some that only proc on heal events.  There are various potential ways to have clearly-defined “DPS trinkets”, “Healer Spirit trinkets” and “Healer throughput trinkets.”

In short, this change feels a little reactionary in response to players exercising a choice of stats (which is of course a good thing).  Not only does it sacrifice a solid, if minor, bit of decisionmaking, but it doesn’t even solve the problem.  Healers will still want exactly the same items they wanted before, but now, in certain cases, it will be much more annoying to get them.