Thursday, February 24, 2022

Kael Drakkel: A Legend Is Born.


It was only when Wilhelm posted to say the new EverQuest II Lore and Legend server, Kael Drakkel, was up and running that I remembered yesterday was the day it was due to go live. There was a short beta that I never even considered but it had been my intention to make a new character when the real thing arrived, just to see if I could work out what the deal was with this new and - to me, at least - somewhat unintuitive ruleset.

Experimental servers employing idiosyncratic rulesets are nothing new to Norrath, of course. Very much the opposite. I think that having EverQuest as your discovery mmorpg sets you up with different expectations for the genre in a number of ways and one of those is the idea that servers exist to have different modes of gameplay.

When I logged into EQ for the first time in late 1999, I was already looking at a choice of several rulesets. As well as the regular PvE servers there were three PvP servers, Rallos Zek, Vallon Zek and Tallon Zek, each with slightly different rules. The PvP three became four with the addition of Sullon Zek and finally, briefly, five, when Sony Online Entertainment added the first limited duration "event" server, Discord.

Over the course of a few years, servers appeared offering a variety of different play experiences from "roleplay" on Firiona Vie to the high-maintenance Stormhammer, where a subscription cost several times the going rate. When Fippy Darkpaw, the first Progression server, arrived in 2011 the floodgates crashed open and since then virtually every server that's opened, progression or not, has had a ruleset at least slightly different from what came before.

EverQuest II hasn't had quite so many flavors but it still has far more than most mmorpgs. I'm so used to different rulesets from decades of SOE and Daybreak games, I find it strange that other companies seem so set in their ways. If you have the infrastructure to provide that kind of variety for your customers, why wouldn't you?

Well, for several reasons, I guess, not least the danger of splitting an existing audience into smaller and smaller groups. If new servers with new rulesets bring back lapsed players or better yet attract new ones, that's great; if the main result is disruption and turmoil among the players you already have, that's not such a favorable outcome. 

Presumably every new server and each new ruleset comes with development costs, although given that no new developers ever seem to be needed and most of the hardware is almost certainly repurposed from what's already there, perhaps those costs are more manageable than you might imagine. Similarly, so long as existing customers don't actually leave the game it probably doesn't matter, commercially, if they jump around from server to server like sheep seeking greener pastures. It annoys guild leaders but then what doesn't?

Disruptions aside, all new rulesets are not created equal. Some are successful, pulling in the crowds and keeping the numbers up for months or years. Others enjoy a brief flurry of attention before withering away, usually without controversy or complaint. EQ players from both games are more than used to servers that don't last and rulesets that don't take by now. It's no big deal if one fails, just a shrug and on to the next.

So, what exactly is the supposed unique selling point of Kael Drakkel and its "Lore and Legend" ruleset? The F.A.Q. (Which, I'm curious to note, has for once been correctly punctuated.) explains everything in some detail but the elevator pitch appears to be an easy-mode, casual-friendly, server where most of the barriers that prevent former players from coming back or new players from getting started have been swept away.

Clearly, that's a potentially commercial proposition. All aging mmorpgs struggle with the problem of too much content and too many levels blocking the path to the current endgame. Some, like Elder Scrolls Online, have simply done away with the leveling process altogether, opting for a flat playing ground, where everyone is the same level all the time. Others, like World of Warcraft, have opted for an increasingly convoluted and arcane series of workarounds, squishing levels, adding leveling tracks and generally making sure no-one really knows where they are or what they're doing.

Kael Drakkel has a relatively simple premise: no leveling at all and only content from a much simpler era of game design. EQII took a right-angled turn about a decade ago, changing not just leveling and experience but progression as a whole in a number of significant ways. 

In my estimation, that change didn't really take hold until 2015's Terrors of Thalumbra, so Darkpaw have given themselves some room to expand should they need it, with another three potential expansions they could probably bring online without too much trouble. I suspect they stopped where they did because immediately after Velious we all went to the ethereal plans and the haunts of the dead, which is a bit of a metaphysical and thematic leap from the first nine very physical locations. 

It also marks the point at which the kind of nostalgia they're presumably hoping to play into begins to dissipate. You'd pretty much have to be a current, Live player to have much nostalgic feeling for anything after Velious.

I always planned on giving the server a try, although I definitely don't have either the time or the inclination to start over yet again just now. But of course the whole point of the Lore and Legend ruleset is that you don't have to "start over". 

You begin at Level 90 and that's where you stay. There is no leveling, not even for AAs, You start with everything.  You even get your choice of tradeskill boosted to ninety. You're given a full set of gear and a flying mount. You even come into the world fully buffed and with all the spells you're likely to need right away slotted onto your hotbars for you.

Every zone is the same level - your level. And since you also have to be a member to play, you automatically have access to the Instant Travel system. You can go wherever you want and wherever you go will be right for you to start playing immediately.

It does sound appealing. That much freedom could be overwhelming but nowhere near as intimidating as the usual late-mmo deluge of content. Looked at a certain way, it's like they turned the entire game into a starting zone.

After I read Wilhelm's post, I logged in straight away to make a character and see what all that freedom felt like. I didn't have any free character slots but I had a pile of DBG cash so I bought another. Nice to have something to spend it on.

I have a whole different post to write about making characters in EQII so I'll save most of what happened next for another time. Suffice it to say, I ended up making a human necromancer. Then I logged her in and got myself settled.

The onboarding process for Kael Drakkel is very good. Darkpaw appear to have learned lessons from earlier iterations, where you begin at high level. I've done it plenty of times and this was by far the neatest, tidiest, quickest and easiest version I've seen.

My bags, all six twenty-four slotters, were completely empty. No cruft whatsoever. That in itself deserves to win someone a bonus. I chose to import the UI settings from one of my previous necros and set up all the hot keys just as I like them but had I wanted to start adventuring right away, I could have been killing mobs just seconds after the new character loaded in.

The immediacy of the new ruleset was hard to miss. When I decided I wanted to test out the auto-mentoring that underpins the whole thing, there was no checking zone levels or travel routes. I just opened the Instant Travel map, clicked on Commonlands, pointed my winged horse at the sky and swooped down on the nearest overland Named. 

I may go into the whole gear upgrade process that's central to Kael Drakkel's ruleset in some future post. It's all set out fairly clearly in the F.A.Q. linked above, if anyone's itching to know right now how it works. The gist is that all mobs still drop whatever it was they used to drop but named mobs also drop a guaranteed "Lore and Legend Gear Crate" containing something you can use. 

I found it familiar in an unexpected way. It reminded me of the early iterations of "Fabled" creatures in EverQuest, seasonally up-leveled versions of Named bosses that drop items suitable for much higher level characters. I always liked that system, until the bosses that were being upgraded for the event started to be the same ones I couldn't solo even in their regular editions.

It also helps that EQII has a lot of overland Names. And I do mean a lot. There must be a couple of dozen or more just in Commonlands alone. And most of them seemed to be up. There were a couple of other people around and one or two Nameds weren't where they usually would be but as I flew around I was able to pick off several in a few minutes.

The difficulty seemed better tuned than regular mentoring but not by all that much so I thought I'd give it a proper test. There's an open-world raid target in Commonlands, a drake by the name of Ladon. Mentored down from 90 on a live server, Ladon would be an easy solo for a necromancer. On Kael Drakkel the "fight" lasted about two seconds. 

Ladon didn't quite one-shot me. He took two bites to kill my pet and one to finish me off. Point taken. No soloing raids here.

That was my first death in the Commonlands. My second came when I took on one of the named orc Generals and his entourage, a Heroic encounter originally intended for groups, although not a particularly tough one. 

The orcs didn't kill me. It was reasonably challenging fight but my necro was never in much danger. What killed her was picking up the loot. 

EQII has a trap mechanic on all dropped chests. There's a skill you can raise to counter it and certain
classes have innate abilities to deal with the traps. There was a time when getting poisoned or blown up as you opened the box was a regular occurence but it's been utterly trivial for every character I play for so long I'd forgotten all about it.

If I play much more on Kael Drakkel, I'm going to have to re-learn some old habits, it seems, not to mention some old skills. When I went to open the chest it exploded and killed me faster than Ladon had. Whether that's intentional or whether someone just missed chests in the scaling calculations I can't say for certain. That is how it used to work, though, so it could go either way. 

Up until then it had just been my necro and her pet but Mercenaries are, somewhat contentiously, available on Kael Drakkel, despite not having been added to the game until a few expansions later. Before I left the area I decided to pop into the East Freeport inn and hire good old Stamper Jeralf, the ratonga Inquisitor. He's not as powerful or reliable as later mercs but he gets the job done.

With Stamper in tow I felt a little more confident. At least he'd rez me if I blew myself up again. Off we went to test the scaling by zone rather than by mob tier. 

We tried Steamfont first, where we killed a few solo Nameds that would, on a Live server, be in the thirties and forties. The fights varied in difficulty but they seemed pretty well-balanced. Nothing fell over in a light breeze but I finished everything I started comfortably enough.

From there it was on to Loping Plains, a zone where I've always found the hunting good. That was where my first session on Kael Drakkel came to an end. It's a level sixty zone on Live, with a mixed ecology of solo and heroic content. I was planing on starting on the solo bosses and moving up to some Heroics but it didn't pan out that way. 

I did kill several solo Nameds but the fights were noticeably tougher than in Steamfont. Finally, I pulled a Named from an awkward position, got several adds along with him, somehow contrived to lose line of sight with both my pet and my merc, didn't notice they were both having a poor time of it and ended up face down in the dirt with no-one left to pick me up. 

All of that was entirely avoidable if I'd been paying the kind of attention a solo player ought to be paying, when attempting an at-level boss in an at-level zone. It was getting late when I revived in Somborne Cemetery so I called it for the night. Based on what I've seen so far, I'd say Darkpaw have got the scaling just about right.

They've probably also got the fun roughly where it needs to be, too. I was thinking about it a lot as I was playing. I was very curious to find out what the game would feel like with the leveling process completely stripped out, especially since I'm a leveler by preference rather than necessity. 

I'm going to need to play a few more sessions to get a real feel for whether or not I think this is a ruleset I could enjoy as anything more than a novelty. I can see there are still a number of progression ladders - spell and combat art quality tiers and gear tiers, for a start, not to mention the eighteen hundred new Achievements that come with their own leaderboard - but at the moment I'm not quite clear on what good getting more powerful actually does you. 

Rather than jump the gun and speculate, I might need to play until I see the effect of upgrading in action. At the moment, with two new mmorpgs on my slate and an expansion for a third dropping in less than a week, I can't see me finding the time to give Kael Drakkel the attention it deserves.

It won't be going anywhere for a while, though. I'm sure I'll find time to get back to it eventually. On the face of it, it looks like an interesting ruleset and a solid implementation. I just hope there are enough people around with fewer gaming commitments than I have to make the most of it.

5 comments:

  1. Hey. Have they turned on the blue questmarkers on this server?

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    1. Hmm. Interesting question. I didn't notice any but then I didn't do any quests! I'll check next time I'm on.

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  2. This sounds super intriguing!

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    1. Well, I'm about to log in again for another go so it seems to have something going for it...

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  3. I have to agree with Tipa, this sounds really, really good.

    Not that I have the time to try it out or anything, but still...

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