A little after I joined my first guild, I met Mary. In game, Mary was a blonde female human, but in real life he was an adult male living somewhere in Britain. We met while doing a group quest, or was it while waiting at a camp for more players to join the group- I don’t remember exactly. Mary belonged to the healer class, and since all groups needed a healer, he was popular. He was level 47 and I, level 45.
In a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG for short, players access the game via their own computers on a server which hosts the game itself. This way, thousands of players can interact with each other in the game’s persistent, yet wholly synthetic world at the same time. Game-controlled characters in that world give the players various tasks that follow a main story-line, for which the players receive experience points and money so they can become more powerful and buy better armor and weapons. As the player characters increase in level, they progress along the game’s story-line, move on to other regions in the world that have more powerful enemies, and increase further in level. Reaching maximum level usually takes several weeks, and after that, the players can continue to improve their weapons and armor, albeit in much smaller increments than before, by doing boss fights meant for groups of various sizes.
The others in my guild were still lower level, so I was questing in the max level area by myself, joining groups of strangers whenever I could to get the quests meant for groups. Every quest completed inched me closer to the brutal area meant for level 50s only. There, even regular mobs had their names in purple since they were five levels higher, and I couldn’t hit them with any of my attacks.
When I told my guild mates about Mary (we were always looking for more healer players), they called her Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary in the game’s text chat system, and said they didn’t want to play with others outside the guild.
Want to go up to Angmar? Mary texted me in-game one night after a group quest.
Sure, I replied, but won’t we be too low level?
Yes, Mary said, but that doesn’t matter if we’re just looking around.
I really wanted to go to the max level area and met Mary at the start of the map.
We rode through the swamp in lower Angmar, called Malenhad, past the line of foul black statues you couldn’t cross unless you had done a specific quest in the main storyline. The first person to reach level 50 in my guild had helped me with it before she left and wisely avoided the endgame I was so eager to reach.
Once past the foul black statues we continued north along the forest of Gorothlad in the eastern part of the swamp. Then we crossed the creaky old bridge from where the lower path led to the fog-shrouded tombs of Imlad Balcorth, and the upper trail to the barren, ash-covered knolls of Himbar and its group area, named Nan Gurth. That was much deeper in than I would have gone on my own, but Mary had obviously been there before, knew the way, and navigated us deftly past the elite mobs meant for groups of six players.
As we carefully crept across a hillock high in Nan Gurth, we were given a full view of eight slim towers and their central structure, Barad Gúlaran. The architecture was dark and haughty, looking like obsidian stone inset with rose thorns, and pierced the black clouds in the poisoned green sky which never brightened to day. Below we could see clusters of orcs, trolls, and Numenoreans guarding and patroling the roads and barracks up to the towers. We were very obviously in the land of fantasy game EVIL! I was enchanted and found the building design ridiculous and fascinating at the same time. Then, out of the game’s limited draw distance, a full group of players appeared; tank, healer, sword fighter, archer, mage, stealth-class with two daggers. They looked like the Fellowship of the Ring, only without silly hobbits. The group ran past us, jumped the nearest elite orcs, and started whittling them down one by one, all on the same target. They were clearly experienced players and all of them level 50. Mary joined the fray and started fighting alongside them, adding to the chaos.
You guys need any help? Mary asked when the mobs were fading on the volcanic ash beneath us.
Not from a level 47, one of them replied. The rest of the group pushed past us without a word, throwing themselves at the next cluster of orcs.
They’re clearly doing the group quests here, Mary said as the other players stopped by an AI prisoner with a quest symbol above its head. Oh, they’re starting the escort quest, that’s a hard one, he added.
The freed AI prisoner set off without waiting for the group. A game artificial intelligence is like a mindless robot; it doesn’t see or hear what’s happening around it. It just goes through its scripted actions. All players can do is try to keep up with it, killing the enemies it’s bound to attract as it runs towards its set location. This is why escort quests are particularly difficult and frustrating.
The high level group trotted after the AI. Almost immediately and gleefully, it ran straight into one of the groups of strong orcs the players had skillfully evaded on the way in, which took the players by surprise and made them scramble to control the situation. If the AI character died, the quest would fail, and they would have to start all over again, by which time the groups of orcs they had defeated earlier might have reappeared through the game’s timed enemy respawn system.
A dwarf, clearly the leader and the tank of the party, circled the others, as if he were trying to hem them in and shepherd them away from the orcs’ blows and arrows. The dwarf shouted and bawled, desperately trying to catch all the orcs’ attention so they’d hit him instead of the much more vulnerable AI character. Lights of green magic from the healer player blazed on him continuously to keep him up despite the beating he took. The tank barely made it and the group began to move out of the area to the point where the AI character would leave them and they would be able to return to the towers to do the rest of their quests there.
But then, something dark and very large appeared at the bottom of the slope below the tower, a black dragon with its name spelled out in purple elf language above its head. Like many MMORPG endgame bosses, it was several levels above maximum player level to make it harder to hit and more difficult to evade, even for players with good weapons and armor. I had heard rumors about the dragon from players in other groups, but never seen it myself. Supposedly the dragon wasn’t always there, and once defeated, it would take hours before it reappeared.
For some reason the group didn’t see the dragon; either someone was thrown into its circle of attention before the group could evade it, or the AI character ran too close. Whatever the cause, the dragon activated, reared back, and sent a huge fireball right into the group, instantly killing at least one of the players. The dwarf roared and shepherded and waved his axes around, but the flames had already attracted another group of nearby elite orcs, and the AI character was running amok, rushing into a pair of trolls. It was total and utter chaos and the group was defeated one by one.
Should we give them a hand? I said to Mary. Just for the sake of it?
Nah, Mary said. They’re level 50, they should be able to handle it.
After that I saw Mary less and less, both because he founded his own guild, and because more members of the guild I was already in started coming into the max level areas so we could travel together. The last time I saw Mary in the game, he was surrounded by a large group of his guild members, all dressed in the same blazing red armors and red, wide-brimmed hats as he was.
In all my time in the game, I only saw the dragon twice after that, even though I went back to Nan Gurth with many different groups, persuading them to pass the spot in the slope where the dragon had appeared. But it was always the wrong time or the creature had recently been killed, and no black wings appeared.
The first time I saw the dragon up close, I was in Nan Gurth with a group long after most of the server population had turned 50, more than a year into the game’s life, on the way to the central black tower and the dungeon and fun boss fights there. But another group reached the dragon first and I had to follow the fellowship I was already in, glancing back only as the dragon fell, its wings flapping to the ground like a broken umbrella.
I returned to the area more than a year after that, at level 65. Named mobs had started to drop a valuable item that everyone wanted in order to create stronger armor and weapons, and I had heard that the named dragon possessed the coveted shard. Since Nan Gurth now was far away from the new high level areas of the game, no one went there anymore, and it was empty save for the clusters of computer controlled enemies that could do nothing but stand about in the barren landscape waiting to be defeated or ran past by players who were on their way to somewhere else.
For several nights I searched among the trails and knolls in the blackened hills, did tedious fight after fight against now lower level giant spiders, malevolent moles, and sorcerous Numenoreans, as well as angry elite giants. I did find the black dragon one of those times, and received its little treasure, but defeating it then wasn’t half as rewarding as I had hoped it would be.