Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Powerteching Ain’t For Everyone

As previously mentioned, I have been playing Star Wars: The Old Republic since around the launch of 3.0. One of my earliest characters was Phaestus, named after the Greek god Hephaestus (god of fire and the forge), a Powertech (specifically a Pyrotech).

Somewhere along the way, Pyrotech has suffered in the performance department. I can’t really figure out where, and I have gone through all the patch notes with a fine tooth comb and found no major nerfs during 3.0 and 4.0 . I can only assume that Pyrotech has simply not kept pace with other classes’ buffs. Certainly the forums and uploaded dummy parse data have indicated a comparative drop in performance.

Mindful of this and the old adage that burst beats DOT for levelling and all single player content, I switched to Advanced Prototype. Despite the improved performance, I found it extremely boring to play and slowly lost interest in poor Phaestus.

Patch 5.3 has changed all that with some very respectable buffs which make Pyrotech a contender once again. I switched Phaestus back to Pyrotech and have once again been having great fun with him! What does it say about me that I thoroughly enjoy the notion of playing a lunatic who just wants to watch the galaxy burn?  Maybe it’s just because my country is currently experiencing one of the coldest winters I can remember. People are complicated.

I remember thinking, when I first created him, that Flaming Fist sounded really cool (not like that! You know what I mean). Engaging the flame thrower and the jetpack simultaneously? That is some twisted brilliance!

I suspect that this taps into our primal fears as a species. There seems to be a psychological correlation between this and the notion of being the one to wield a terrifying power, rather than have it wielded on oneself. Of course, there is a third option, but fear also often prevents us from making use of the high road (“we can’t stop… because what if they don’t?”). This also explains every arms race ever.

Consider this thought process: “our enemies are going to develop these weapons, so we need to develop better versions and pray the threat of us using a superior version prevents them from using their version”. Mutually Assured Destruction, which conveniently acronyms to MAD (in case anyone was wondering what the technical term for an arms race was).

While the basic concept of a flamethrower has been around for centuries, first being deployed by the Chinese in the form of Pen Huo Qi (translated roughly as “spray fire device”). The first modern man-portable flamethrower was invented in 1901 by the German scientist, Richard Fiedler, who named the device “flammenwerfer”, in his native German. This gave us our English loan-word translation of flamethrower. I am not sure how accurate that translation is, although Google Translate supports it. I would enjoy hearing comments from a native German speaker as to its veracity. I am fascinated by language and etymology. The word werf, for example, also exists in Dutch. Although the meaning there is Shipyard or simply Yard, which gave another local language in my country, Afrikaans, the word werf, which refers to yard (as in garden). This version of the word has also been appropriated into the English language as Wharf, which is obviously related to the root meaning of shipyard.

Back to flamethrowers. Fiedler’s invention benefited from some improvement and collaboration from another German, Bernhard Reddeman (who was an officer in the German Army and interestingly a firefighter; also, after the war he wrote a book on the flamethrower’s history).

The flamethrower saw its first modern use in 1915 at Verdun. After having flamethrowers used against them, the Allies quickly developed the technology for their own use, finding extensive use for them in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. They continued to be used until the 1970s in Korea and Vietnam. The US Department of Defense stopped their use in 1978. Then, in 1980, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (signed in Geneva) placed restrictions on their use. They have since mostly fallen out of favor with many armed forces around the world (although other incendiary weapons continue to be used, albeit with more of an awareness of their negative public image).

Contrary to popular belief, however, the use of flamethrowers is not technically banned, except against civilian targets. In many parts of the world they are not even restricted for private use (though some territories require a license).

So, that topic got away from me a little… just further reinforcement, I suppose, of the blog’s title: Jerzy’s Journeys.

In closing, I wanted to apologise to those reading this blog (all three of you ;) ) for my inconsistent posting schedule. I have been struggling with some personal issues lately and I am also wrestling with finding the blog’s direction. These issues are probably related to me being new at this and will hopefully resolve themselves going forward. However, if you are reading this, any feedback would be appreciated. Constructive, thoughtful, criticism is always appreciated!

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Triage!


I have been playing MMOs for a few years now (+-4 years in SWTOR, plus another 3 or so in WoW before that, along with forays into other MMOs along the way), so I am of course quite familiar with the concept of the trinity of Tank/Heal/DPS, but recent events have got me thinking about the interrelation of the three roles more so than ever before.

 

When I started playing WoW and the trinity was explained to me (I already had some awareness of it before I started, but there’s theory and then there’s reality, which is kind of the point of this post, really), I immediately and unequivocally decided I needed to tank. My very first MMO character was a Paladin tank and I believe I was fairly competent. And, most importantly, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

 

Healing, however, has remained a mystery to me until recently. I had a vague notion that healing was important (the whole keeping everyone alive thing was a dead giveaway, believe it or not!), but I didn’t spare too much thought for the specifics. My impressions were both that it would be too easy / boring to play and also that it was terrifyingly difficult. The pressure to keep everyone alive. And the repercussions should you fail… Moreover, there was the simple fact that, for a healer to be relevant, you ideally need someone to heal. And, my notorious Pug allergy, combined with a lack of friends online meant that healing was off the table for me.

 

Recent developments for me in-game (I have finally recruited some of my friends and family to the SWTOR way of life), meant that healing (and Tanking; but more on that in a later article, I think) was finally a real possibility. So, I created a Bodyguard Bounty Hunter (because all my new online gaming partners are playing Sith, and I couldn’t face levelling another Sorcerer) and we were off.

 

I had my first ever real healing experience with my sister and her husband, with Khem Val tanking on the Black Talon. And, boy was it fun! And challenging, in the best possible way. And, of course, totally different from the other two roles. It was this difference which sparked the thought processes which led to this very article which you are currently reading. I have since healed another flashpoint, Czerka Core Meltdown, which was even more challenging, which also ended up being a Pug, as my sister dropped out due to technical issues. Luckily, her replacement was an extremely competent tank who stopped to explain all the tactics and was very supportive and positive on our few wipes.

 

I have always thought of tanking as being a leadership role, especially as they control the pull and the boss. But healing has shown me that the healer has a huge role to play in this department. While the tank is the pointy end of the stick, the healer is the arm that directs it.

 

Tanking is a very focused role; a front-line general, zoomed in all the way, so to speak. The healer, on the other hand, needs to be aware of every detail and use all this data to perform advanced triage. Triage here refers to the traditional medical definition, verb: triage/triages/triaged/triaging: decide the order of treatment of (patients or casualties), rather than the definition I see used in various healing guides related to this game (which seem to define it as single target healing?).

 

While DPS (and, to a degree, tanks) are mostly reactive, a healer is extremely proactive in terms of observing the battlefield, the health bars of their group, and the actions of the boss and adds, as well as the environment as a whole. From this, the healer then needs to make split second decisions regarding which healing ability to use, or whether to support their damage dealers with DPS should allies not require any healing and there be no reason to suspect imminent incoming damage.

 

The whole experience has certainly increased my respect for healers, especially in light of certain comments made that “we didn’t need a healer after all, we were never in danger of dying!”. Admittedly, these comments may have been in jest, because when the group was not in danger of dying, it was because of the healing, not in spite of it. I am sure long-time healers have had to deal with far more serious commentary than this, though!

 

I definitely enjoy the experience of healing and intend to keep playing my Bodyguard (and a Jedi Sage I recently created).

 

Next up; re-learning to Tank in SWTOR. More on that in a future article.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

An Elegant Weapon, for a More Civilized Age


Lightsabers have always been a contentious issue for me. Like any child of the seventies and eighties, I think, I was obsessed with Luke Skywalker and his lightsaber. Eventually, I sort of “grew out of it”, which sounds condescending (considering the massive popularity of lightsabers and Jedi), although it certainly isn’t meant to be. Remember, this is my opinion, no more valid than anyone else’s.

                My interests moved to the older, more cynical Han Solo, cracking wise and shooting first. During my adulthood, I have always preferred the anti-hero. When I started playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, my favourite characters have always been the tech users. Eventually, of course, I also played the force classes, and with more enthusiasm when I realised that they could use vibroswords. I thoroughly enjoyed the Sith Warrior and Inquisitor storylines. I may do a post about the class stories at a later date.

But, when watching the movies, although the Jedi types seemed hopelessly naive, those lightsaber battles have always enthralled me. I have always been a fan of swords and swordplay. The Three Musketeers are a great example of this and, I still contend, have a very similar feel to Star Wars, especially the 1993 version, which even has that moment at the end of D’Artangian’s duel with Rochefort where D'Artangian's sword seems to fly into his hand, just as if he had used the force to achieve this.

Lately, more and more, Darth Simmer, my Marauder, has been taking up my play time. The references to Ataru Form, in addition to various other references to form in the skill trees to Forms, got me thinking about whether these were just mechanics of the game or something else.

Some research quickly introduced me to the concept of the Seven Forms of Lightsaber combat. I can only assume this has been codified through the later Expanded Universe material, as I had never found reference to this material before and I have read most of the earlier Expanded Universe novels, read many comics and spent countless hours playing the pen and paper Star Wars roleplaying games (all the versions) and PC games (including the Knights of the Old Republic series).

My research into the forms reminded me of Obi-Wan’s description of lightsabers, quoted in this post’s subject. Because, what’s interesting about the forms is the fact that they aren’t just fighting styles, but philosophies. Which, I suppose, could be applied to many real-world fighting styles. And they tell a story.

For those who don’t know, the seven forms are:

I Shii-Cho (also known as the “Way of the Sarlacc”): This is the most basic of styles, taught to padawans and younglings, as well as Sith supplicants. It is a very sweeping style, great for crowd control and balanced for offense and defense. It grew out of combat styles used in the era before lightsabers and was obviously designed to deal with the threats that Jedi of the time were likely to face. This is the style used by Luke in his early Jedi years, and the form used by Rage Marauders and Juggernauts (Focus Guardian/Concentration Sentinel) in SW:TOR. Considering that a large part of the Rage / Focus / Concentration spec is based around force powers, it makes sense that they fight with the basic form. This in no way implies that this spec is less “advanced” than others; perhaps less specialised is a better way to put it.

II Makashi (aka “Way of the Ysalamiri”): A precise and focused duelling form, this is not directly implemented in SW:TOR, much to the chagrin of many on the game’s official forums. As the Jedi order (and the wider galaxy) evolved, Jedi fell, and armed conflict between Jedi and Sith became more common. The Shii-Cho style, too broad and prone to disarmament by a more skilled opponent was found lacking for duels between two saberists. From this necessity grew the Makashi form, similar to real-world fencing and seen on-screen with the character of Count Dooku. I enjoy the fact that this style is named after the Ysalamiri, a creature evolved to counter a predator with force sensitivity (the vornskr), much like the lightsaber form itself. This fell out of favour with time, especially after Darth Bane and his rule of two made duels between force users significantly less common.

III Soresu (aka “The Way of the Mynock”): A purely defensive style, which we know from SW:TOR as the tanking form used by Immortal Juggernauts and Defence Guardians. With the development of blaster technology and the need for force users to defend themselves, Soresu form was developed. Obi-Wan has been noted as a master of this form, but we have seen it employed by all force users at different times throughout the movies and games, especially its signature move of deflecting blaster bolts.

IV Ataru (aka “the Way of the Hawk-Bat”): An aggressive and acrobatic style most prominently seen used by Yoda in the prequel trilogies, as well as by my aforementioned Carnage Marauder (and Combat Sentinels, of course) in SW:TOR. Extremely aggressive and effective, but also requiring great physical prowess and acrobatic ability.

V Shien or its variant Djem So (aka “The Way of the Krayt Dragon”): Shien is a more defensive duelling style with strong counters utilising the user’s natural strength to dominate an opponent. Shien form developed out of the weaknesses of older forms (Makashi was great for duelling one-on-one, but weaker against multiple opponents; Soresu form is almost completely defensive). While Soresu allows deflection of blaster bolts, Shien (and its variant Djem So) allowed the user to redirect a blaster bolt to a specific target. Shien form was favoured by Anakin Skywalker as well as Vengeance Juggernauts and Vigilance Guardians. The development of Shien also reflects the evolving paradigm of lightsaber combat and the Jedi order, emphasising the need for a strong defense which still allows for powerful offensive moves when needed.

VI Niman (aka “The Way of the Rancor”): Niman, known as the Consular’s style evolved from a synthesis of forms I-V, and is a “jack of all trades, master of none” style which is designed to be easy to master and combines the use of force powers with the grab-bag of saber attacks. This evolved from the Jedi Consular’s de-emphasis on saber mastery in favour of adaptability and use of violence as a last resort.

VII Juyo (aka “The Way of the Vornskr”): This is considered one of the deadliest and most dangerous of the forms, both to opponents and to the user themselves. Juyo form involves the channeling of negative emotion into vicious, chaotic and unpredictable attacks and, lore-wise at least, is considered a Sith form, and its use was frowned upon and outright forbidden by the Jedi. A variant, Vaapad, was developed by Mace Windu who also, for the convenience of the audience, uses a purple lightsaber (purple being a blend of red and blue, the traditional saber crystal colours of dark and light side, respectively). Vaapad was designed to channel the negative emotions of force users back at them, in much the same way as the Shien variant, Djem So. Even this was considered dangerous by the Jedi, as a conduit to the Dark Side, making it extremely odd that Juyo is the form used by both the Annihilation Marauder and the Watchman Sentinel in SW:TOR. Damn you, game mechanics balance! Also, notably, this is the "Way of the Vornskr", named after that force-sensitive predator which the Ysalamiri evolved to defend itself from (and it can certainly be argued that Vuyo fits well with the mindset of a force-sensitive predator!).

In closing, I just have a few honourable mentions. While not technically forms, these (among numerous other techniques) also exist within the frankly far-more-detailed-than-I-expected subject of lightsaber combat.

  1. Trakata was the art of tactically deactivating and reactivating one’s lightsaber for combat advantage. This can be seen in action in the “Return” trailer for SW:TOR where Kao Cen Darach (Satele Shan’s master) turns off the second blade of Satele’s saberstaff while duelling Vindican (Malgus’ master), then reactivates it after it is behind Vindican’s guard and uses that end to strike a disabling blow. Trakata would also allow a user to deactivate their saber when locked with an opponent, to throw them off balance, as well as to bypass a block/parry by quickly deactivating and reactivating the blade and going right through the space where the defender’s blade is. Needless to say, this technique would require an almost inhuman level of timing and would probably be considered to be unsporting by some, although in a battle to the death, these considerations are often forgotten!
  2. Dun moch, which involved taunts and jests, was used by unscrupulous force users to distract and manipulate their opponent and, it could be argued, is honored in SW:TOR via the taunt abilities of force using tanks.

Thanks for sticking with this rather long post. I wasn’t expecting it to go on this long. I welcome your thoughts and comments in the comments section.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Beginnings

A beginning is a time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. Yes, I totally just stole that quote. Points for correctly guessing the reference (not many points because if you found your way here then you are totally a sci-fi and fantasy geek just like me; otherwise, you are very lost...).


Know then that it is the year... ok, stopping now.


The quote is apt, though, as I think we have all struggled with beginnings. They are so pregnant with possibility. Yet also fraught with danger. What if this new thing is not what I expect? And, let's be honest, this is the internet. What if this new thing is not what others expect? The last thing anyone wants is to be exposed to the full brunt of the internet's collective bile on a maiden voyage. What's that you say? There are nice people out there, too? I'll reserve judgment on that one for now.


It is important, when talking of beginnings, to understand just how things actually began to begin. That sentence got away from me a little. This, then, is the story of how I discovered MMOs in general; and Star Wars: The Old Republic in particular.


I read somewhere (don't worry, I have original thoughts, too... I promise!) that the key with starting a new story, or other literary endeavor, is to start with the saddest story you know. Then you will have your audience's sympathy and can go from there. While that sounds very poetical (and who can argue with the literary brilliance that is Alan Moore?), it is also a little depressing.


So, let's start with a moderately sad thing, mix in a little self-deprecating humor, and go from there? All in favor?


An MMO is a strange beast. I have always been a gamer. For many years, however, World of Warcraft was the only MMO I was aware of. And, my gamer buddies and I were clear that we did not like such things. So, I avoided a worldwide phenomenon out of ignorance.


Somewhere in 2008 or 2009, I discovered an awesome web series called The Guild. And the brilliant Felicia Day. While watching this, it gradually dawned on me that these awkward, dysfunctional MMO-playing geeks were my people. And, then... very little proceeded to happen at an absolutely glacial pace.


It is relevant to this story that my younger sister is possibly the most awesome person in the world. We are very close and I like to believe that the whole being in awe of my big brother thing was a contributing factor in her dawning geekdom. Can I take partial credit for that, sister?


Despite our closeness in an emotional sense, my sister lives very far away. Like, in a galaxy... So, we rarely get to see each other as much as either of us would like. Then, she got married and had a kid. So, I had to make a plan to see her and her new family. I made a plan. Seriously, don't ask. Technically, some of the actions I took to get to her quadrant of the galaxy may technically be illegal on some planets.


So, I hitched a ride on the TIE interceptor as it flew through that Stargate, engaged in a slingshot maneuver around Jupiter, and finally arrived at their home. My sister's new husband was a huge geek. I, of course, immediately loved my new brother in law. Then, I discovered he played WoW (and my sister had also started playing), and I was momentarily skeptical. In my usual, calculating way, I examined this MMO thing with great care and from many different angles during my vacation. And always, in the back of my mind, I remembered Felicia Day and her guild of misfits. And, as an added bonus, it would allow me to spend more time with my sister.


So, I bought and played World of Warcraft from early in the Cataclysm expansion (from early 2011) until shortly after the release of Warlords of Draenor (early 2015). Sadly, as these things tend to go, our little family guild slowly eroded over this time. We were still wanting to spend the time together, but the financial realities of life and gulp the demands of raising a family (seriously, gratz on the unlocked achievement there, sis!) took priority over our shared gaming time.


I therefore launched myself onto a quest to find a free-to-play MMO that was worth a damn (to at least alleviate the financial crisis). There was some overlap here, so we need to jump back to mid-2014. I found this post, about Star Wars: The Old Republic going free-to-play. Then, I proceeded to get sidetracked by reading the blog.


As previously mentioned, I tend to be very methodical and slow to adopt new things. I do my research. Eventually, it was a combination of Shintar's awesome blog, Going Commando, everything I learned about the game online (while raking through the usual stream of hateful "this game are ded" comments; oh, internet... we love you) and the simple, glorious fact that it is Star Wars! won me over.


Reading Shintar's blog also reminded me of something I think I had forgotten. My love of reading and writing. I am the great unpublished novelist. I have hundreds of the things lying about which have never seen the light of day. Did I mention I have a crippling fear of rejection? This post (and numerous others... and indeed Shintar's blog, and the others in her blog roll - especially Calphaya and Ravanel) made me think: Maybe I should try my hand at this? Perhaps the rejection isn't guaranteed?


The rest, as they say, is history. Or, since this is the beginning, the rest is the future!


This blog will be primarily about my lifelong love affair with Star Wars, the SW:TOR MMO, literature and the occasional deviation into other #geeklife. Thank you to my sister, Blizzard, Felicia Day and Shintar (seriously, check out her blog; it's awesome) for their contributions to my journey thus far. And to the ongoing Jerzy's Journeys.


- Jerzy 12th May 2017

Powerteching Ain’t For Everyone

As previously mentioned, I have been playing Star Wars: The Old Republic since around the launch of 3.0. One of my earliest characters ...