With Firelands and 4.2 nearing, I thought it might be a good time to talk about a subject that has bothered me on occasion, and in one case very nearly left me sour on an entire expansion: NPC involvement in major boss encounters.
NPC intervention in bossfights has been executed extremely well, most of the time, effectively making you feel like the pointy end of the stick for a large and epic confrontation – making you feel like your actions matter and have an impact. And at other times, it’s had exactly the opposite effect – making you feel like you were only incidental, and really there to witness the NPC of Awesome in action.
I feel like it’s important to note that I don’t hate NPC involvement in fights, used sparingly. I feel like it’s an effective tool for tying your raid into the larger world, and making you feel like part of the larger struggle, rather than a band of ruffians murdering your way through anyone who’ll give you purples. I don’t feel like NPCs should be involved in a large fraction of fights, but in certain huge and lore-driven encounters, they’re almost required.
There are ways to do this very well – Akama and Maeve’s involvement in the Illidan encounter added gravitas to the fight, while leaving you feeling like you were still getting the work done – Maeve’s traps didn’t kill off Illidan for you, they just helped a bit (sometimes). Akama prevented you from getting overrun with an army while you took down Illidan. They were involved, they made the struggle feel epic, but you still fought and defeated Illidan essentially yourselves.
Sinestra has NPC involvement as well, as an NPC gives you a buff for P3, and protects you from being killed in P2. This is a little bit more direct involvement that I would tend to prefer, but it’s executed very well. You’re still left feeling like you’re getting the job done, but that the Dragonflights actually care about what you’re doing, and that you’re making an impact in the war on Deathwing.
Yogg-Saron had an innovative and brilliant method for NPC involvement – you ask for their help if you need it. If you don’t want it, you just walk on by, striding arrogantly towards the God of Death without backup or support. And for that, you get recognition and notoreity, in the form of one of my favorite titles. Great system – and one that we’ll likely never see again, with the move away from Ulduar-style “RP activated” hardmodes.
And then there’s the counter-example: Arthas. The Lich King. Tirion spends the entire phase of the fight that matters to you, the player, trapped in an iceblock being useless. Arthas kills everyone off with a line to the effect of “I’m tired of toying with you”, and Tirion saves the day and wins the fight for you. You’re left feeling as if the first 90% of the fight didn’t matter at all, Arthas was just testing you to see if you were good enough to command his undead armies, and Tirion is really the important part here. It was terrible, and shameful, and anticlimactic to be made to feel like we were just a footnote in the encounter at the pinnacle of the expansion – despite saving the world from Yogg and Algalon, despite everything – we’re really just Tirion’s footnote.
What if Tirion only barely helped in Hardmode? At 10%, Arthas starts casting Fury of Frostmourne, and Tirion breaks out of his icicle and interrupts it, then gets beaten into a bloody mess. I know he’s a lore figure, he can’t get killed off, but at least prevented from interfering. And then hardmode gives you a burn phase from 10% down, where Arthas really unleashes the pain – siphoning life and all kinds of other cool undead stuff so that you can’t easily “just zerg it” with half a dead raid. That encounter would work. That NPC involvement would feel appropriate.
The lore justification for the ICC zone buff felt similar. It “represents the help you’re getting from your faction”, blah blah blah. The way it was implemented ended up falling really flat for me, and mostly made me feel ancillary. “Don’t worry about it, guys. If you can’t get it this week, we’ll have reinforcements coming in.” It removed any sense of urgency or import from the zone, and just generally took away from the experience for me. I truly hope Blizzard doesn’t play that kind of buff game again.
NPC involvement in WoW Raid encounters is great. It adds something to the game, some level of continuity and involvement. I just want the option to thank the NPC for his time and say “Don’t worry about it, Tirion. I got this.”