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Last night, I was growing bored again with World of Warcraft. I’d signed up for one of their new free-to-play accounts to keep myself entertained on nights when Eileene is out of the house, and enjoyed the nostalgia. But I’ve reached the level 20 cap imposed on free accounts with a warrior, priest, and mage (okay, only 18 with the priest, but it won’t take long, and I’ve seen those quests twice already now…) and that was about all there was to see.

Then, just as I was ready to shrug and hang up on WoW again, I got a whisper from someone seeking to put together a pickup group (PUG) for “random dungeons,” a new (for me) feature that lets people put out their shingle as willing to endure the perils of a PUG for the benefits of dungeons. Up Side: better loot than you get off the ordinary mobs found outside dungeons and the potential thrill of team play, especially a chance to show off your class’s particular talents. Down Side: possibly getting saddled with one or more jackasses for an hour or so.

On this occasion, things went pretty well. Having reached level 20, picking up some blue-grade dungeon gear is the only way to improve my stats now, and I got some. More importantly, it was my first chance to tank ever—that is, deliberately draw all the fire of the bad guys to my heavily-armored self in order to free more offensively-aligned teammates to concentrate on killing. My first try at tanking was not an epic display of mad skillz, but I did all right, despite a slightly overagressive shaman occasionally messing up what should be an orderly management of enemy aggression. When I asked, after the first dungeon, whether I’d made an ass of myself on my first job, one teammate just laughed, and another said “No, you did great.” Hard to judge how seriously to take these responses, but I did get invited to tank a second dungeon, so I must have done okay. The second dungeon went rougher: I died once alone—not my failure, since I’m supposed to take all the damage; either the healer slipped up or some squishy teammate got too aggressive and distracted the healer. We also had a team wipe, for which blame is to be shared. Our leader didn’t lay out the plan, so we engaged the wrong guys; an overeager teammate dove in too soon and drew too many mobs in the wrong place; I didn’t hold all the aggro…a genuine snafu.

But I had a great time, and look forward to exploring the random dungeon system further. At a minimum, it’s added a little life to a game that I’d otherwise exhausted, having gone as far as I can without spending money…or grouping without a guild. At best, it might make for a fun weekly activity, almost capturing the spirit of the Kneecappers back when I was a fully-paid WoW player and a dedicated party of five gnomes and dwarves took on the world. Playing alone is too repetitive, and defeats the purpose of “multiplayer” in MMOs; playing in large raids (20 or more) makes your individual performance almost meaniningless; but in a five-man group everyone is important, and working in coordination is a thrill.

Interestingly, this experience ties in closely with the recent “Extra Credits” article on the free-to-play model in electronic games. My reactions to that tomorrow.

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