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The RPG Scrollbars: A Weapon Of Legend


This week, Blizzard announced the latest World of Warcraft expansion - World Of Warcraft: Legion [official site]. It looks pretty good. Almost as good as my prediction. Almost. I'm not going to rehash the full details here, but I'm up for it. It's a big step forward for Warcraft's arc story, featuring the return of its Big Bad, the Burning Legion, and some long awaited story stuff like Blizzard's promise to redeem themselves for turning Illidan into just a snarling villain. New character class. Ten new levels. New continent. New PvP system. It's nothing too unexpected or world-shattering at this point in the game, but it is a solid looking expansion.

The part of the pitch I liked the most though was Blizzard's plan for Artifact Weapons - not so much for the specifics of what Blizzard has planned, but because it addresses something that's long annoyed me. Weapons, particularly in fantasy games, deserve more respect.

A good weapon is more than just a convenient bit of metal to stick into or smack things. They're extensions and reflections of the hero. What they choose to wield. The story behind a good blade. Sometimes they can become as iconic as the hero themselves. Indiana Jones' bullwhip. James Bond's Walther PPK. In RPGs though, the nature of the loot grind often leads to a frustrating clash, as most recently seen in The Witcher 3. Geralt reunites with old friend Crach an Craite and helps save the Skellige islands from a threat I'll keep non-specific for spoiler purposes. As a reward, he's ceremonially presented with not merely a new sword, but one of an Craite's most treasured possessions. About five minutes later, just about every player has sold it for pennies.

This kind of thing bugs me. I have nothing against gear upgrades per se, but there have to be ways of making moments like this as important as they're intended. It's especially unfortunate when one of The Witcher 3's endings features Geralt going to huge effort and expense to craft Ciri an amazing sword that combines silver and steel to be essentially the ultimate Witcher weapon. Yeah, you have to think, for about three sodding hours. May as well give her the receipt.

Blizzard's plan in Legion is to take the main weapon out of the standard loot curve, and make it special. The names may not mean anything to non-players, but lore-wise we're talking some seriously high end kit. Doomhammer. Ashbringer. Blades forged from shards of Frostmourne itself. These are not just things you find lying around at the bottom of a dungeon somewhere. Their power comes at least as much from the stories wrapped around them as whatever raw stats they might possess. Put in other ways, just being allowed to wield something like Doomhammer should be the defining moment of a Shaman's career. Never mind actually owning it.

Mechanically, the way the system works is that you get your class' legendary weapon at the start of Legion. From there, you level it up by fighting and doing other actions, and slowly unlock a series of traits that give it more abilities as well as more power. A Frost Death Knight for instance can buy a talent that lets them resurrect themselves. Ashbringer will mirror a couple of the Paladin's most powerful attacks a couple of seconds afterwards. The tree variations depend on the weapon, with Ashbringer looking like a very linear path and the Frost Death Knight's two runeblades Icebringer and Soulreaper being more of a tree. It's also possible to customise your specific weapon with alternate looks, earned in various ways, and colour tints. Ashbringer for instance can be a regular sword, a lightning crackling dark version, a glowing purple runeblade, or a blade of pure flame. Icebringer and Soulreaper meanwhile stick to unpleasant dark looks, but with a choice between frosty, Fel, or the traditional Death Knight 'covered in skulls' look. They try so hard.

The main downside of the system is that if you expect to still be using these weapons by Level 150, I have a pile of Aldor and Scryer reputation points to sell you. Blizzard tends to think in terms of individual expansions with its big new features, Pet Battles being a notable exception. The Garrison system in Warriors of Draenor for instance has already been ditched and replaced with a new system called Class Halls, where you get to be the leader of your profession.

Still, I like the idea of artifact weapons a lot, and I hope I'm wrong about them not being a long-term thing. Listening to the pitch, I had the same knee-jerk reaction as many, that it would be boring to have the same weapon all the time. In reality though, this allows for far more meaningful upgrades than simply swapping one sword for another. Far more people will be aware of how badass you are if, say, Flaming Ashbringer has stern requirements to unlock, than they would have been from just wielding another wacky dungeon item. There's plenty of other inventory slots to back it up with different armours and so on. Also, I point to the likes of the dearly-departed City of Heroes as proof that when it's done well, and with sufficient scope for customisation, you can easily get through a whole MMO without so much as changing powers, or even clothes. Though you will stink.

Games have been embracing the idea of signature weapons much more strongly in recent years. Commander Shepard's magic Cut-Scene Pistol. Lara Croft's twin-pistols. Geralt's steel and silver swords. Assassin's Creed's hidden blade. Batman's assorted Batarangs from the Arkham series. Often, it's for other reasons, like cut-scene animators only having to worry about a character wielding one weapon, or to have something punchy for the box, but that doesn't matter. It's again proof that weapons can remain relevant without needing constant upgrades, and also become part of their wielder's character. One of the oldest gaming examples has to be the Master Sword from the Zelda games, which acts as something of a keystone for the whole series. It's not just a cool weapon that often zaps things at full health. Being allowed to hold it marks each incarnation of Link as special, but also the moment he goes from being a plucky kid to becoming a hero.

Still, there's much that can be drawn from fiction to make this effect more powerful. There's something about swords especially that attracts stories, from Bilbo's Sting to King Arthur's Excalibur. (Now, if we want to get more specific, Arthur had multiple swords in the different legends, but sssh.) In games, things are actually easier as the difference between two seemingly similar weapons can be pronounced and work in many ways. The Witcher and Dark Souls for instance both put high premium on player skill rather than simply the numbers on things, with every weapon type having its own feel. Games can also find a good half-way house by allowing for weapons to be reforged and upgraded and slotted with additional abilities, without going all the way to what's referred to as either the Ship of Theseus or Trigger's Broom paradox: the question of whether or not a thing where every part has been swapped out at some point is still the thing.

I'd like to see that effect more often - to spend enough time with a weapon and its eccentricities instead of merely just its power to feel a degree of connection with it, in much the same way as the skills of a Dota 2 hero or a Street Fighter character go far beyond how much damage they deal. Not every weapon needs to be a big deal, but if they are in lore then they need to feel it in practice. If the player's happily flogging their latest one before even chipping the blade, things have gone wrong. Look to myth. Look to fantasy. Make them worthy of their legends and the legends we will craft while wielding them. Epic weapons deserve to be more than just epic loot.

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Richard Cobbett