Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Seven Ages of Norrath

I stole the graphic at the top of this post from The EverQuest Show, where there's an excellent post breaking down EverQuest into a sequence of developmental phases. I found myself in broad agreement with most of the commentary there and I thought it might be interesting (to me!) to count down all the expansions from a personal perspective.

Classical Age:

Classic - It's funny how we don't have a proper name for the initial release of any MMORPG. "Vanilla" and "Classic" seem to be the accepted terminology but of course no-one playing at the time would ever have dreamed of calling the game anything of the kind. I only barely scrape in to the true "Classic" period, not having started until November 1999, by which time the game had been running for six months.

To listen to people talk now you'd think it was a prelapsarian paradise but by the time I arrived "Bored 50s" was already a meme. Down in the newbie trenches where I was, "twinking" was considered a major social issue, along with the overcrowding that sometimes made it hard even to find mobs to kill, far less grind. The main reason I moved to the Test server within weeks of starting was because I'd heard it was much quieter there and had double xp. From a safe distance we may romanticize the slow gameplay of the early days but at the time many players were willing to do just about anything to speed things up.

It can't have been that bad, though, because I was hooked. It was the virtual world I'd been imagining for a couple of decades, a place to immerse myself in a new and magical life. Did I know it was going to last for decades? If I had, would I have been delighted or terrified?

Ruins of Kunark - When RoK appeared I'd been playing for almost six months. Mrs. Bhagpuss and I had individual accounts and even a PC each to play on. No more taking turns, looking over each other's shoulders, backseat driving.

I had characters on a bunch of servers but with Kunark I made an Iksar Shadowknight on yet another. I really enjoyed the whole Iksar experience. The race was incredibly well documented compared to anything I'd seen in EverQuest before. They also had four full size zones as starting areas and a vast, confusing, labyrinthine city, Cabilis. Just playing an Iksar was like a whole new game.

I think my Iksar got to about level twelve before it all just got too difficult. Everyone hated him. It was wearing. I was also playing my Druid, who was in the mid-teens, and pretty soon she was my focus character. I spent a lot of time with her in Lake of Ill Omen, where I learned to group properly at last. Fun times at the Sarnak fort. I still miss those Saturday mornings.

Scars of Velious - Velious was an unusual expansion in that it had a clear starting point in the mid levels. Most expansions either begin at the bottom or the top; for SoV you needed to be about level thirty. The six months between Kunark and Velious hadn't quite been enough to get my druid that far. She'd done about a dozen levels by then. A level every couple of weeks was about my average, playing forty-plus hours a week. Different times.

At level twenty-eight she was just about able to get groups in Iceclad Ocean although she wasn't anyone's first pick. I spent many happy hours in pick-up groups outside The Tower of Frozen Shadows but it would be some time before I ventured inside (on an infamous Guild Raid that barely managed to get to the third floor. Come to think of it, we might have wiped on the second...).

Mostly I soloed. I spent a lot of time making runs to the dwarven ice city of Thurgadin, where I bought velium weapons, which I then hawked around South Karana for considerable profit. I also liked to take brand new starting characters on a wanderjahr all the way to Thurgadin just to prove I could do it. Some of them may still be there.

Shadows of Luclin - I wasn't around for the launch of SoL, which may have been just as well. It was rocky, or so I heard. I was off playing Dark Age of Camelot but when the novelty of that wore off (quite fast) I drifted back, followed by Mrs Bhagpuss, and we re-invested ourselves on the moon.

If Kunark was Lake of Ill Omen, Luclin was Paludal Caverns. In those days there always seemed to be a ghetto zone, where the dregs of society gathered to sop up what was believed to be the best xp for the least risk. I'd loved LoIO but I loathed PC. It was dark, dank, ugly and loud. My prevailing memory isn't of the gameplay or even the appaling behavior of the players - it's those endlessly looped, yelping sound samples.

After a while, when we'd levelled some more, Paludal gave way to Dawnshroud Peaks, a wide-open, sunlit savannah where I spent an inordinate amount of time. I hunted rockhoppers and zelniaks and lived in wolf form because that way half the wildlife ignored me.

The other defining trope of SoL was The Bazaar. It was supposed to be part of the expansion at launch but it was months before EverQuest's trading post/broker system worked properly. It hadn't even gotten started by the time I came back to the fold. Once it was up and running, though, it all but took over my life. There was a point when I spent almost all my time scouring NPC vendors for things to buy for pennies and resell on my Bazaar trader at huge profit. Mrs Bhagpuss and I both left our PCs on 24/7 for months (years, probably), our traders bringing the money in overnight before we logged on and went out to re-stock them in the day. An odd way to play an MMORPG.

Golden Age

Planes of Power - When the books on their stone pillars began to appear all over Norrath in the run-up to PoP there was widespread speculation on what it might mean. The end of life in Norrath as we'd known it, it turned out. Shadows of Luclin had introduced a form of "fast" travel with the Wizard Spires and The Nexus but there weren't that many of them and they only fired up once every fifteen minutes. There was a PoP book in almost every zone and all you had to do was click it to find yourself transported to the Plane of Knowledge.

Luclin had already changed the way the game was played with the introduction of Shadowhaven and The Bazaar, zones where NPCs were universally racially tolerant, meaning good and evil characters alike could trade and mingle without fear or restriction. PoP took that to the next level, creating an entirely safe, instantly accessible zone where players could find all possible services, along with plenty of space to socialize.

For many years everything began in Plane of Knowledge. Even today it's the game's social center. By this time I was running with both a guild and a custom channel crew and PoK was where we met up and decided what to do before we headed out. Over time it would also become the place we bought KEI and Temp and all the other player-cast buffs without which half the population of EverQuest came to consider combat unthinkable.

For many EQ players, Planes of Power recalls the heyday of raiding. Not for me, although it is where I draw much of my minimal personal knowledge of the raid experience, because it was also the era of pick-up raids. I chain-healed a few of those and it was... well, something I'm glad I can say I've done but would be happy never to have to do again.

No, my overriding memory of Planes of Power is the shopping. The endless round, every blasted day, of all those hundreds of NPC vendors in PoK and Plane of Tranquility, hunting for stock for my Bazaar trader. I made a lot of money but in the end it wore me out.

Legacy of Ykesha - LoY was the first of EQ's mini-expansions. Sony Online Entertainment didn't even call it an "expansion". It was, officially, an "extension", although that nomenclature never caught on.

I liked LoY a lot. I made a froglok on a fresh server even though I was one of the many absolutely outraged by the eviction of the trolls from Grobb. I may even have signed a petition. I hated the way the frogloks blurp and blorp and do backflips so that character never got played much. I can't even remember what class it was, let alone the name. LoY also introduced the first non-horse mount, the peculiar Drogmor, which everyone had to have. I got one for my necromancer but all my other characters stuck with their ponies.

LoY was another mid-level expansion, the new zones beginning at around level thirty and going steadily up to the cap from there. The Wikipedia entry is very negative on that content, saying the new zones "were generally received as very uninspired and added little to the lore of Norrath". I'd strongly dispute that. While it's true that the Gulf of Gunthak and the rest may not have gone down particularly well at the start, over time they became busy, popular levelling zones. I spent a great deal of time there, on the boats, down the tunnels, battling pirates and Lovecraftian fishmen. Some very good times indeed, and pretty darned scary, too.

Lost Dungeons of Norrath - If I had to pick one favorite out of all EQ's expansions I think it would have to be LDoN. It was EQ in concentrated form, possibly the most formalized and directed expansion the game ever had (The Serpent's Spine runs it a close second).

The aptly-named expansion consists entirely of instanced dungeons. It ought to have been one of my least favorite but instead of fighting the concept I went with the flow and found a whole new way of playing. LDoN is famous as the expansion that taught casuals how to group effectively. In some ways it was one vast tutorial. I learned more about playing my class well in a group in six months of LDoN than I learned in all the years before or since.

What's more, I watched many other players develop and change from nervous, hesitant, low-skill performers into confident, competent colleagues anyone would be happy to have in their group. I can't really say why those particular dungeons were so efficient at turning solipsistic soloists into team players but that's what they did.
Discord Age

Gates of Discord - And then it all fell apart. Gates of Discord is quite possibly the most destructive expansion ever unleashed on any MMORPG (although World of Warcraft's Cataclysm might want to dispute that honor).

2004 was always going to be a tough year for EverQuest, what with the upcoming EverQuest II scheduled to split the playerbase and Blizzard's as-yet untested competitor waiting in the wings, but there was no need to worry about any of that; the EQ team was perfectly capable of shooting itself in the foot without any outside help. In fact, all the "help" needed was very much coming from the inside as various factions wrestled for control, all at the expense of the game and its players.

The version of Gates of Discord we got was horrifically difficult. It was years before we found out why; it was originally meant to come with a ten level cap increase. Without those extra ten levels much of the content verged on the impossible and almost none of it was fun. Guilds broke themselves against it and broke up with many top-tier raiding guilds leaving the game altogether for the more fruitful fields of WoW's beta.

Strangely, I quite liked GoD. Yes, it was terrifyingly difficult but for a while I was one of the handful of people trying to cajole friends and guildies into making a push into the lower foothills. We all died. A lot. Many of us just trying to get there. I still quite enjoyed it.

Omens of War - By the time the delayed OOW arrived in mid-September it was too late for me and many of my in-game friends. Most were considerably less committed to EQ than they had been; some had given up and weren't logging in at all.

A few, myself and Mrs Bhagpuss among them, had received invites to the EQII beta by then. When Omens of War launched I don't believe I even bought it. EQII beta was buggy, the gameplay was grindy and slow, my PC struggled to run it. It was still ten times more fun than Gates of Discord so we stayed.

I didn't get to see Omens of War until a year or so later, when EQII had proved itself to be no kind of substitute for the real thing and absolutely every single person, without exception, we'd known or met there had given up and gone elsewhere in search of a game that might actually be fun to play.

I don't really have any very clear memories of OOW from that time. I vaguely recall spending quite a few hours in the first zone, Dranik's Scar and the next, Nobles' Causeway. That was probably all I saw until much later, when Mrs Bhagpuss and I came back to Norrath yet again and spent several months going around all the places we'd missed the first time, gleefully trashing them with our higher-level characters and their mercenaries.


All the above barely even qualifies as jotted notes towards an introductory essay. The moment I start to write about EverQuest the memories just come flooding back. I could write a series of posts on each and every expansion I've mentioned so far.

And, looking ahead, there are at least five more expansions where I could do the same. I did think that by the time I got to the Lost Age I'd be able to speed up but maybe not quite yet.

Let's reconvene for part two in a while.


  1. It is ever true that any meta or overarching view of the history of anything fails to align with the observations and situations of many individuals on the ground at the time. I am sure there is somebody out there willing to argue that the Gates of Discord was the best EQ expansion ever, the heart of their golden age in Norrath.

    1. I have actually heard that argument made in general chat. I wasn't swayed. I might have made the best of GoD but it was a terrible expansion that nearly killed the game.

  2. Honestly, I'd read an in depth 'memoir' of your EQ days. Progression servers might preserve the gameplay, but they don't preserve the feeling of playing back when it was live.

    1. The problem is that none of it really fits together. I'm sure I have a lot of things totally out of order for a start. I might try writing it all down, though, so I could at least try and get it into some kind of chronological sequence. It would be a long term project though...

    2. Going to have to disagree here. It's not identical, but it is similar -- I played in Vanilla; my first character was created in May 1999, and my second, and the one I still occasionally play, was born near the start of June. I've started a new character on one of the TLP servers recently, and I was surprised how social it all was, finding groups and chatting casually in the channels and running slowly everywhere, overburdened with rusty weapons. I'm starting again on Aradune Wednesday, and while I know it won't exactly be like 21 years ago, it's more like that than any other MMO around today.

  3. Great read, I still play with the hubby a lot now, makes me miss the old days. Gates really was terrible, I took a long break after it, the game just changed so much after it. There's a lot of good stuff afterwards but up to LDoN those were the golden years. I really should play the PoP locked server more.

    We moved to Brekt and that just merged with our old server, FV, so many people playing still. We play through the newer content mostly and I find myself missing the old zones a lot. Good nostalgia read! I didn't know that about gates and the ten level stuff. The more you know, lol!

  4. Makes you wonder if these ages are specific to EQ or simply a contextual view from the outside as compared to the market.

    I mean if someone played for 21 years would they see the same ages? Or only those with a drop in/out view can see this? Of all the golden age posts ove seen, it often comes from people who aren't actually playing, and tempered with more nostalgia than fact.


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