Building Up My Companion Roster

I have a long history of struggling with companion affection in SWTOR. Back when companion story progression was tied to affection I made a post about how I still hadn't finished a lot of companion quests long after I'd completed all the respective class stories because I just couldn't be bothered to gain certain people's affection. Companion story progression getting tied to class story progress was a godsend for me.

Fast forward a few years to 2017, and I wrote about the tedium of levelling companion influence with nothing but gifts. As it happens, Bioware made crew skill missions also award companion influence only two months later, much to my delight.

For a while after that, I ran crew skill missions constantly, just to raise various companions' influence levels. It was really just another way of burning credits on influence - probably not the most efficient one at that - but I really loved that feeling of killing two birds with one stone, raising my companions' influence levels while also gathering crafting materials.

Unfortunately I soon ran into a significant limitation: bag space. Having my inventory fill up at unexpected times because crafting mats were constantly pouring into it on top of whatever else I was picking up was not fun, causing me to eventually abandon the whole thing again.

Now the introduction of the materials inventory in Onslaught has unexpectedly served to revive my interest in this particular pastime, as the spoils of each mission can go directly in there without clogging up my regular inventory. Even better, because crafting materials are actually needed in great numbers and somewhat hard to come by, running missions 24/7 is also worthwhile!

With that in mind, the most pressing question on my mind has now become which companions to level on each character. Thanks to Knights of the Fallen Empire and what followed, all of my characters who've gone through that content have more companions than you can shake a stick at, but you can't send more than eight of them out at once anyway, meaning that you have to make choices about whose influence to level first.

Back in 2017 I just tended to pick the lowest level ones first since I didn't like having anyone sit at level one, but these days there's actually some benefit to having max-influence companions for crafting, so that's become a goal for me. (Technically it was a benefit back then too, but with the exorbitant costs associated with crafting in Onslaught, you really want as many of those crits as possible now.)

It's actually been an interesting thought exercise to pick each character's "favourite" companions. Former class-specific companions are usually a no-brainer if they are still around and I didn't utterly loathe them. And as tired as I got of KotFE over time, one or two of the companions acquired during the Fallen Empire/Eternal Throne story usually make sense as well, depending on the character's preferences.

Then it's simply a matter of who else seems suitable. On my trooper I added Sergeant Rusk to her favourites for example, since he's a Republic soldier too and they should get along swimmingly. I also added HK-51 and Treek, simply because those are companions I haven't bothered to acquire on my other characters so they feel unique to her.

My Sage is trying to get to know Kira because a liberated former child of the Emperor is interesting from a consular's perspective. My Marauder is investing in Scourge because she's intrigued by the fact that he was once her predecessor. My smuggler is levelling up Gault because how could she not want to keep someone with this many underworld contacts close? And so on and so forth.

It's very slow going compared to gift-giving, but I do like watching my selected companions slowly climb in levels, and it tickles my inner roleplayer to imagine my characters' relationships with various companions that don't feature much in the official story. It's like a mini game of my own making.


Content Creator Discontent

I'm seeing people talk about SWTOR's Content Creator Program again. People sometimes ask me why I'm not in it... so let me tell you a little story.

First off, I flat out didn't like it much in its original incarnation, back when it was called the "Influencer Program". I'm not a huge fan of the word influencer, and in a gaming context it tends to be associated with streamers and YouTubers. That didn't feel like my kind of jam at all.

Early last year Bioware gave the whole thing a revamp though, changing the name and generally improving it significantly. They actually started giving content creators shout-outs on social media more regularly, and even featured some of them on the game's launcher, which I thought was incredibly cool. The idea of maybe seeing my own character up there one day seemed about equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, and after much umming and ahhing I eventually sent in an application.

I did not get an immediate response, but given the increased exposure of the programme after the big revamp they were a bit swamped with applications, so I patiently bided my time, only sending a reminder email after two weeks, based on some other content creators' advice.

Three weeks after my original application I received confirmation: I was in - on a trial basis, that is. Being a trialist didn't actually give you anything and was clearly just meant to be period for you to prove yourself: showing that you were a good community member (in the sense of not violating the Terms of Service, spreading hate speech online or anything like that) and that you could produce content regularly.

The latter felt a bit silly to me considering that I have a blog right here that shows that I've been writing about the game at a rate of several posts per week for more than eight years, but I get that these rules are likely the same for all types of creators and do make sense for something like a streamer for example. When you're trying to join an exclusive club, you don't start your application by moaning about how they should have different rules for you.

Another thing I was supposed to do was send them a little "report" once a month about things like what I thought about recent happenings in the game and the community. Again, perfectly harmless and sensible... but once I started doing it (I only did it twice), I didn't really like it much either. Again, I think it's because of the format in which I produce my content.

It would be highly unreasonable to expect Bioware to follow every single stream that someone puts out for example, so it makes perfect sense for them to request a simple summary of notable events. But all the content I create is already right here on the blog - if you wanted to know what I thought and did in game last month, all you'd have to do is take a look at the front page at the end of the month and scan the last ten headlines or so. I felt like my reports mostly came down to writing CliffsNotes of my blog posts for them because they couldn't be bothered to actually read the real thing, which felt bad.

As it happens, I also chose the worst possible time to apply to the programme, as all of this happened last summer, shortly before I was hit by a severe funk in regards to my attitude towards the game. My lack of interest at the time caused me to never actually send that final report to finish off my third trial month.

When my excitement for the game returned with Onslaught's release not long afterwards, I thought about whether I should try to pick things up where I had left off. Flunking out of my trial was not a good look, but I wondered whether I could explain it away as having had an awkward month (which was not untrue) and be given some lenience on that front. I suspect that they probably would have been fine with it. But ultimately there was something else that made me hesitate.

You see, I'd also started to experience a certain feeling of discomfort during those two months when I was quietly "on trial". I want to be 100% clear that there had not been the slightest hint of being asked to not be critical of the game or anything like that. Frankly, based on the things I've seen and heard from some official content creatores in the past, I'm pretty sure Bioware doesn't ask people to censor themselves in any way. But I was feeling weird.

Again, it may just be a side effect of the sort of content I create, but when I write a post criticising something about the game for example, I tend to see it as serving three purposes: personal venting, engagement with/entertainment for my readers, and giving feedback to Bioware. In regards to the last one, I don't necessarily expect anyone from Bioware to read my writings as I put them on the page, but I still feel like I'm giving them feedback by putting things "out there" so to speak. If someone at Bioware went "hm, I wonder what people think of the Veteran's Edge removal" for example, they could do a Google search and find my post about it. If being in the Content Creator Program gave me a direct channel for feedback that I could use as an alternative though... was I then doing anything other than moaning and spreading bad vibes by also making public blog posts about the things I didn't like?

In other words, even without any prompting from Bioware's end, the idea of being closer to them and being able to give direct input made me feel like I shouldn't then turn around and say bad things about them on the blog. Even if they were relatively mild "bad things" anyway.

So I decided to not send that third report after all. Because the feeling of being able to use my blog to talk about anything I want and whenever I fancy it is too important to me, and I don't want to feel like I should be altering my writing for Bioware's sake. I'll say it again though: this is in no way Bioware's fault. "It's not you, it's me" really does apply here.

I hope they keep working with other content creators to maintain the programme and keep up with what's happening in the SWTOR community. I just prefer to retain my independence and not be beholden to anyone, which is something I wouldn't have known if I hadn't at least given it a try.


Battle of Ilum really IS Hammer Station version 2

I am now genuinely convinced that Battle of Ilum is a sort of Hammer Station for more confident players. I haven't timed it, but I'm pretty sure that when everything goes smoothly and you skip as much trash as possible, you can probably finish it even more quickly than Hammer Station. There is a bigger risk of something going wrong though, which I assume is enough to put off a large portion of the audience that isn't interested in anything other than a guaranteed fast and easy run.

Battle of Ilum
I levelled: 66-67

This run was the one that made me reconsider having Battle of Ilum in my rotation as it became clear that it seemed to pop a lot more often than any of the other 50+ flashpoints. It's not quite as bad as Hammer Station, but still...

This run also put me into a philosophical mood after the two Sentinels and the dps Sage who made up the rest of the group hesitantly started trying to drive past the first pull... on the wrong side. It gave me the impression that they'd all been here before, but probably without fully taking in what was happening, just tagging along behind someone else's lead.

So I felt compelled to take over... and guided them through all the stealthy shortcuts I remembered. I'm becoming the very sort of person that always annoys me by skipping everything! To be fair, I wouldn't have minded if anyone had shown any indication or desire to kill more mobs, doing the bonuses or whatever, but finding myself in a leadership position with three innocent pugs looking up at me I took the easy way out. /me hangs head in shame.

When you ding at just the right time... (my health was in trouble before the boss died)

Assault on Tython
I levelled: 67-67

With Ilum removed from my selection, I ended up on Tython once again. By the way, in case you're wondering about my criteria for which boxes to tick now beyond "not Hammer Station", I'm mostly going for ones where I don't have the "run this 25 times on veteran mode" achievement yet and that I rarely get to run on veteran mode since they are fairly high level already and I often find myself going straight for master mode.

Once again I ended up with three level 75s looking for leadership - unfortunately for them, I'm really bad at remembering the skips for Assault on Tython despite of having run it a fair number of times, so we ran around pretty inefficiently, fighting more mobs than required (gasp).

One guy suddenly went AFK without a word, and since he hadn't returned by the time we were getting close to the first boss, someone initiated a vote kick, which seemed fair enough to me at that point - I just wish they hadn't done it just as I initiated a big pull, as this meant that the other two were now busy with vote-kicking over killing mobs (priorities, people) and we almost wiped. One guy (not me) barely survived with a sliver of health.

The replacement we got was a Shadow tank who did know all the skips and quickly took over, though it was kind of funny to me how he immediately ran up to the side where people often climb some boxes to skip a trash pull, while we had already killed said pull and were in fact standing in its usual location, right in front of the boss.

Also, later on there was this bit where we climbed over a rock to skip - I think - a group of mobs that spawns as you run past, but the healer in the group just couldn't get up. Once again I stood there watching him flail helplessly against the rock, thinking about how much quicker it would have been to just deal with the mob spawn. The tank and other dps decided to simply run ahead and abandon the healer. I stayed with him and eventually just directed him back down to the regular path, where no mobs spawned anyway (ahaha). Oh pugs.

Hammer Station
I levelled: 67-68

Starting the new in-game week with another early morning, fully randomised run, I was neither surprised nor unhappy to be given a Hammer Station quickie. I was a little surprised that we couldn't take the elevator shortcut for once, as it seems quite rare not to have a slicer in the group these days.

When we reached the turrets by the bridge, the Scoundrel in our party actually moved us past them and across the bridge using Smuggle, the temporary group stealth ability, which did earn my respect because it's not something I see used well very often.

By the end of the run I realised that Nautalie's scavenging had bumped up against the 600 skill cap and sent her to train Onslaught-level scavenging on the fleet. Fortunately she had earned enough money while levelling to be able to afford it without having to draw from the legacy bank.

Legacy of the Rakata
I levelled: 68-69

Limiting myself to nine flashpoints once again, I nevertheless got an instant pop once more and ended up in Legacy of the Rakata, one Nautalie hadn't done yet. Nice!

During the intro cut scene, someone hit escape and then started running off. I said that you couldn't skip a cut scene by aborting it and he said people should be hitting space bar then. Another person said that their UI had been bugging out and that was why they hadn't been able to skip. The second time around everyone dutifully space-barred through the whole thing.

"Dude, why did you hit escape? That's not helping us go any faster."

Legacy of the Rakata is one of those flashpoints that I've done comparatively rarely in pugs, so observing our self-appointed leader guide us along various trash-skipping lines was educational. I can never remember the tricks for this flashpoint though, because my brain just files them under "climb up this rock by that one group of Rakata" and the pulls in the first half of the instance all look the same to me.

During several of the boss fights I found myself thinking that all the bosses in this flashpoint have way too much health on veteran mode. The mechanics aren't hard; it just takes half an eternity to kill them - or maybe our dps was just low, though we had two level 75 damage dealers in full 306 gear.

We also had someone who was nominally a healer but didn't seem to do much healing, so that we ultimately always relied on the kolto stations on the boss fights.

At one point I noticed that two people in the group had the same legacy name (Stormrider or something like that), so I asked whether they were related. They didn't humour me with an answer.

Battle of Ilum
I levelled: 69-69

Well, in this one there was no doubt that someone wanted to skip as much as possible, as the dps Vanguard set off like a bat out of hell to lead the way past as many things as possible, including the first boss. As we once again also had a second Shadow in the group, we were able to do the extra skips as well.

I do wonder if the second Shadow, who was a tank, didn't like skipping the bosses though, because on the next optional boss he ran right in and pulled before anyone had a chance to try and run past it. It's like the question whether to pull something or not is decided in a weird kind of race to be the first one to either pull or run past certain mobs and then the rest of the group is compelled to follow along with that decision.

Unsurprisingly, XP was once again thin on the ground, and I only gained three bars or so.

I'm getting a lot of variations of this shot.

Battle of Ilum
I levelled: 69-70

Another quick run with a second Shadow in the group. I noticed that this one, being level 75, also had the Tactical that allows you to Mind Maze two targets at the same time, which I think is pretty neat for runs like these.

When it looked like people were going to skip Pork Pie Gark the Indomitable yet again I got a bit too close and pulled him. I swear, it really was an accident; I think I was just too keen. Seriously though, my achievement counter for that one is so behind all the other bosses.

We actually had a wipe on Krel Thak - I'm still not entirely sure what happened, one moment everything seemed fine and the next everyone but me just exploded. Proximity probe or something? I vanished out and ran back to re-unite with the group as they were coming back in. They also pulled the two droid mini-bosses which we had initially walked past, presumably also by accident.

With his two cronies dead, it now would have been possible to simply walk past Krel Thak if we had wanted to and I did find myself wondering, but we did actually go ahead and kill him after all.

In the end our lone dark sider once again won the roll and executed Talsa-ko - this time it was a Jedi doing it no less!

Having hit level 70, Nautalie has now unlocked the remaining four veteran flashpoints and only has five more levels to go. I'll try to use those to actually target the flashpoints I haven't done yet or ones I still need for a story quest. Then it'll be time for a reckoning!


The Veteran's Edge Controversy

Gosh, it's been a long time since I got to write about a genuine controversy surrounding SWTOR's raiding. I mean, I talk about running operations and the challenges involved in that often enough, but it's not usually something that has the community up in arms. In fact, the last time I remember talking about anything even remotely similar was when the subject of Nightmare Power was brought up six years ago.

Looking back at that post, Nightmare Power was ultimately a well-communicated change aimed at throwing the bleeding edge raiders a bone while at the same time making nightmare mode raiding just a little bit more accessible - basically the complete opposite of what's happening right now.

But let's start at the beginning, with an executive summary of the situation for anyone who might be interested in the subject but isn't up to date with what's happening in the SWTOR raid community (I wouldn't blame you).

Back in Knights of the Fallen Empire, when the game introduced level-scaling, all operations were scaled up to be endgame content. This meant that you could run the very first raid that was added to the game back in 2011 for rewards in pretty much the same way you could run the newest one. Like it or not, that's what we got. When the level cap was raised by another five levels with Knights of the Eternal Throne, all endgame content was once again scaled up by another five levels as well.

With Onslaught though, the developers talked about wanting to come up with a different solution going forward, because apparently this constant re-scaling is a lot of work. On the Onslaught PTS, they tried scaling each operation down to its original level at first (so that Eternity Vault was level 50, Scum & Villainy level 55, Temple of Sacrifice level 60 etc.), the idea being that they could then stay there forever regardless of further level cap increases, but apparently that didn't work so well. So what happened instead was that all the old content stayed at its previous level cap of 70, and players are scaled down to that from the new level cap of 75, which felt very much like the devs were just running out of time before the expansion's launch and needed to do something.

The main problem with that has been that downscaling in SWTOR puts a cap on most of your primary stats such as endurance, mastery etc., meaning that downscaled content is essentially set to a fixed difficulty that is largely unaffected by gear. (You can still increase some secondary stats like crit, but that doesn't make that much of a difference.) I'm sure some people love the idea of that, but this is still an MMORPG, and making your character stronger by acquiring better gear is a big part of that - if you're looking for an experience where all players are equal all the time, there are plenty of other genres that provide. Also, fixed difficulty unaffected by gear means that if your guild gets stuck on a boss it's basically game over for you, cause people will only be able to "get better" to a limited degree and without being able to improve your gear there's nothing else you can do.

So, in what felt like a band-aid on top of a band-aid, Bioware introduced a buff called "Veteran's Edge" to downscaled endgame content, which basically increases all your stats once you're past a certain item level and goes up to 30 stacks if you're fully geared in the highest level currently in the game, at which point you're buffed to the point of essentially being vastly overgeared compared to what the content was originally designed for.

This has meant that in terms of survival and dps requirements, even the formerly hardest content in the game has been easier for the past four months than it was before... though that's all relative, and I think anyone claiming that it was easy in absolute terms must live in a very peculiar bubble.

You would think that this shouldn't be a big deal, considering the game as a whole has generally decreased in difficulty over the past few years, that it mostly affected very old content, and that this basically just made something that was previously only done by maybe two percent of players now accessible to (made-up number) four percent.


Something happened - and we can only speculate about the reasoning, but the common theory is that people from a couple of hardcore guilds prompted this change by abusing their direct channel to certain devs established during things like play-testing - and Bioware decided to remove Veteran's Edge from master mode operations in patch 6.1. Without any sort of prior communication, warning or even mentioning it in the patch notes. Even community manager Eric Musco was initially confused when questioned about it and had to check with the devs first before confirming that it was actually intended and not a bug.

This means that any guild that had previously been progressing through a nightmare mode operation of some sort was in for a rude awakening on patch day. My own ops group had been working on the last boss in Terror from Beyond before the reset - yet after the patch we struggled to kill the first boss. While we did kill her in the end, we also decided that the change was so inane that we'd rather go and do something else for a while. Specifically, Ravagers and Temple of Sacrifice with their "hardmares" still offer a similar level of challenge in terms of gameplay, but with the Veteran's Edge buff intact.

This is actually a really old screenshot of hardmode, dated January 2013. But our experience on master mode the other night was very similar.

Now, whatever level of difficulty you think is "right" for any given content is always going to be up for debate, as it's clearly deeply personal for a lot of players. I have previously written about the challenge of not being bored to tears by combat in the levelling game these days for example. However, I hate it when people argue about the subject with their sole argument basically being that people who prefer a different difficulty are clearly morally degenerate in some way (either lazy and entitled or cruel and elitist, take your pick).

Here are some facts about this particular player nerf though:

- Players are used to difficulty resets in existing content at the start of a new expansion, but not in patches between expansions. This came completely out of the blue, wasn't communicated at all and has been seriously disruptive for many guilds working on this content.

- Bioware has gone on record saying that they find it a challenge to encourage players to transition from one type of content (difficulty) to another as the gaps between them are often too big. How does it help to increase the difficulty between veteran and master mode even further?

- Progression content where better gear doesn't help you at all goes against a core tenet of MMORPGs.

I do hope that Bioware will reconsider their decision in regards to Veteran's Edge for master modes. There are a variety of paths that they could go down to amend the situation while still keeping the super hardcore raiders sweet:

- Level everything up to 75 after all. I'm sure it would take some work, but regardless of what the final difficulty for master mode ended up being in such a scenario, it would feel cleaner and fairer as we'll at least know where we are in terms of gear and can e.g. try rejigging some stats instead of being stuck at an arbitrary ceiling.

- Turn Veteran's Edge back on, but make it a toggle and give people who complete the content without it a special title or something.

- Turn it back on but only let it stack to fifteen or something. Admittedly that would be a pretty weak solution, but probably the easiest to implement.

Ultimately I don't really want to argue about the exact difficulty level the content should be set at; that's definitely up to Bioware to decide, though I won't deny that personally the fights felt more fun to me with Veteran's Edge than without. But I don't think they should go around making such massive changes four months into an expansion. If instead of nerfing player power by 20% they'd stealthily nerfed bosses' health and damage output by 20%, it wouldn't have been as much of an issue for me personally but I still would have agreed that this kind of thing is a bad move to make at a time like this and and in that manner.


Harder Better Stronger?

When I first tried this whole flashpoint levelling thing four years ago, it took my Mercenary one day and a bit less than nine hours of /played time to hit the then-level cap of 65. My newest Shadow has now passed this milestone, though with this being 2020, she has another ten levels left to go of course.

Still, I was curious how my levelling speed so far would compare, considering that things had felt considerably slower to me this time around... so I did a /played after hitting level 65, and was shocked to find that despite of the levelling feeling slower to me, Nautalie had actually hit 65 in seven hours less (or 20% faster) than it took my Merc back in the day. I'm curious what my final stats at the end of this whole experiment will look like.

In the meantime...

Assault on Tython
I levelled: 63-63

Having trimmed down my list of desirable targets to only five flashpoints for the time being, I still got an almost instant pop, this time for Assault on Tython. I got all excited because this actually happened to be the instance I needed to continue the Forged Alliances storyline.

However, after I walked up to the first pull in stealth, one guy ran away, apparently expecting me to handle it stealthily or something? I said that I didn't know how to do that here, and me and the two others killed it the old-fashioned way, after which the first guy just left without a word.

We queued for a replacement and walked up to the next pull, but then another player left without saying anything. Me and the one remaining person eventually realised that this had bugged the group finder (I had this happen before when someone leaves while the system's already trying to replace a previous quitter). Whenever I was group leader it claimed that we were already in the queue (but with no option to leave), and with the other person as leader it said that we were not in the queue and they weren't able to queue us either. Somewhat disappointed, we both left. I had to relog entirely before my group finder unbugged and I was able to queue again.

Assault on Tython
I levelled: 63-64

As it happened I got put right back into Assault on Tython though, just with three different people this time. I was a bit worried when someone died on the very first pull, considering that the previous group has fallen apart over less (just slowness with the pulls as far as I could tell?), but the defeated person simply dusted themselves off and got back up, and after that everything proceeded normally and we finished the flashpoint just fine.

Czerka Corporate Labs
I levelled: 64-64

This run featured a healer, a female Miraluka Guardian in a bikini, and a Nautolan Sentinel. I don't know why I still get so excited every time I see another Nautolan. I guess with them being the newest species, not free for everyone and quite alien-looking, I still view them as somewhat rare. Sadly my fellow squidhead left the group after only a few pulls and without ever having said a word.

That aside, the run was perfectly smooth once again, and I was pleased to once again complete the weekly mission to run five veteran flashpoints. It may sound silly, but I think that having unlocked that quest has also helped to motivate me somewhat, because having that extra incentive of wanting to complete it each week really works for me.

Unfortunately the extra XP wasn't enough to actually get Nautalie to level up after this run.

Hammer Station
I levelled: 64-65

Once again I started a new week with a stab at the full random selection, and once again I didn't actually mind ending up in Hammer Station for this particular run as I was playing early in the morning before work and only had limited time to spare anyway. I got grouped with three competent level 75 damage dealers and everything went very smoothly.

Battle of Ilum
I levelled: 65-65

That evening I decided to queue for ten selected flashpoints and got Battle of Ilum again. Once again we had a total of three stealthers and killed almost nothing, which made for a very fast run but also gave me very little XP (and no level-up).

An evil Gunslinger called Facey McFaceshot or something lived up to her name and shot Talsa-ko in the face at the end, which was shocking as it almost never happens.

Directive 7
I levelled: 65-66

The first thing I noticed about this run was that it had two Togruta in it, which is not something I see often. We had a tank and three dps, ranging from levels 53 to 75, but only one 75 and she wasn't geared.

We started off by having a near-wipe on the very first trash pull, with only one person surviving and just finishing off the last mob before they would have died too. Then our tank declared that she wasn't really a tank. Not that it matters in vet mode, but it was still good to know. This declaration and the near-wipe struck me as one of those inflection points where the impatient usually leave, but in this group nobody seemed particularly fazed by anything that had happened.

That was a good thing - however, what was less good was the general level of fail we displayed as we continued. I didn't even think about bonuses this time around, because it was obvious that it was going to be enough of a challenge to get this group through the flashpoint as it was, what with people focusing on the single gold mob in each pull while a whole pack of weak ones was shooting them and similar shenanigans.

We did the most common bits of trash skipping, and there is this one section where you run/ride along a pipe where I've seen people get stuck in the terrain before, so of course that happened to someone in this group as well. This didn't prevent another person from pulling a big group of trash while we were a man down though, resulting in a wipe. Then while we were running back, another person got stuck on the same pipe!

I don't know if they did a /stuck or died from aggro, but either way they pulled another group of mobs that then came running for the rest of us after that person had died. Fortunately we managed to dispatch them without another wipe.

It's worth noting though that we wasted so much time on people getting stuck and wiping for the sake of skipping one trash pull, we probably could have killed every single mob in the instance up to that point in the same amount of time. I couldn't make this sort of stuff up if I tried.

When people made a beeline for the infamous tents I commented to Mr Commando "I wonder how we're going to fail on this one" and someone did indeed fall off.

We continued to bumble our way through the various boss fights. On the assassin droids I was the only one to switch targets as the shields rotated. On the Replicator only me and the Sage killed adds, while the other two kept hitting the boss throughout his immunity for the entire fight. On Bulwark it was once again down to just me and the Sage to kill adds as they spawned - one of them nearly got a repair off too.

On Mentor himself I actually did see one of the overheated cores get repaired before we could blow it up, something I hadn't seen happen in literal years. But eventually he died and we were done, after what had felt like an eternity to me but had apparently only been forty minutes or so. But hey, at least I could go and tell Director Rigel that we'd saved the galaxy from the droid apocalypse.


The Task At Hand

This week's patch brought with it another small story update that was previously advertised as similar in scope to Hearts and Minds, and in my opinion it more than lived up to expectations. I'm really starting to like these smaller non-combat updates between the larger, more action-packed ones. It makes for excellent pacing and reminds me of how in the base game each planetary mission tends to be proceeded and wrapped up by some kind of briefing, plus you often end up spending time on your ship to chat with various companions.

6.1's story focuses first and foremost on the Alliance sorting out its new relationship with the Republic or Empire. (Consider this your spoiler warning... more details to follow!) Republic players get visited by Master Gnost-Dural and General Daeruun again, while Imperials get to meet a new character by the name of Darth Rivix. I appreciated that both visits include a little bonus mission that you can skip if you want to snub your guest(s) a bit and/or just don't feel like doing it again while replaying the thing on your umpteenth alt.

For Republic players the focus is on your visitors having arrived with a refugee ship in tow that they rescued from pirates and the Alliance offering to render some aid. I liked how on my trooper one of the people I helped said that she remembered me from Tatooine. Now that's a throwback right there!

Imperials meanwhile get to show Darth Rivix around Odessen base if they are so inclined, and Rivix sure is an interesting character. At a glance he reinforces something I've stated before, namely that all the newer Sith characters seem almost too nice compared to the many insane types we had to put up with in the base game, but Rivix's behaviour is so over the top that it's pretty much in a league of its own. From the get-go he assures you that his success is based on your success, he's not like other Sith, and if you do take the option to give him a personal tour he'll keep piping up with comments that are hard to describe as anything but sucking up to your character big time.

I enjoyed taking him at face value on my Marauder (she's a bit vain and only finds it natural that she should be admired, plus she's so convinced of her own superiority that she's not too worried about anyone trying to betray her), but I considered it equally fun to rebuff him at every turn on my agent (who has every reason to be suspicious of Sith at all times).

I saw Intisar propose on Twitter that Rivix might be a Zeltron, which would align with his looks and would provide an interesting explanation for his behaviour beyond "he's really just nice" or "he's hamming it up in order to manipulate you".

Anyway, on either faction (once again speaking purely from a loyalist point of view as I still don't have a saboteur), I found it interesting how there were differences in dialogue based on whether you had decided to fully rejoin your old faction at the end of Onslaught or opted to remain separate. If you're back in the fold there'll be comments about bringing in more troops and establishing supply lines, while independence results in much more careful inquiries along those lines.

On both factions your talks conclude with your character wondering whatever happened to Darth Malgus, followed by a brief scene in the style of "meanwhile elsewhere" that gives us as players (if not our characters) a hint on the subject matter.

On Imperial side you see Malgus waking from a proper nightmare about Empress Acina torturing him as he tries to resist her conditioning, and the medical droid he travels with telling him that this is something it can't help with. Malgus suddenly seems to have an idea though and sets course for Dantooine.

On Republic side we get a view of a peaceful farm on Dantooine where a man is repairing some droids when a woman who is revealed to be a Force user runs up to him and tells him that she can feel Malgus coming.

I have to admit that as someone who doesn't have subtitles on, the latter scene confused me initially - who was this woman and what was her connection to Malgus? But on my second run it suddenly occurred to me to check the dialogue log to see how the characters were listed there, and as it turned out they were Aryn Leneer and Zeerid Korr, two of the main characters from the Deceived novel! (I assume the third woman present must be Zeerid's daughter then.)

I read and reviewed that one back in 2012, but to be honest I've retained little of what it was about. (Skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers for the book.) Mainly I just remember Malgus stopping a shuttle from getting away with the Force (yes, eight years before Rise of Skywalker) and rescuing his Twi'lek love interest just to kill her. And Aryn falling from a great height... for some reason... and using the Force to slow herself? Really need to add that one to my list of books to re-read.

Anyway, in game we wrap things up with a bit of conversation that is sadly exactly the same for both factions, as Kira and Scourge give an update on their mission: the transport with Satele and her students hasn't responded to the signal and its location is unknown, so they want to send out T7 and some probe droids to look for it. Your character is okay with this.

You also learn that Scourge is really having a hard time with being among the living again as he gets super angry and struggles to control his feelings. I think there is also a romantic interaction with him for Jedi knights at the end, which I haven't seen though and don't actually want to spoil for myself.

All of this doesn't take very long to play through at all, but there are enough differences between different characters that it's actually fun to go through all of your alts to see the different variations. It's great to see SWTOR going back to its roots in that regard, even if we don't have completely different class stories any more.


Reading Crew Skill Mission Text

Bhagpuss has been writing about being fascinated by EQ2's new Overseer system. As far as I can tell from his descriptions of how it works, it's very similar to the "waiting" mini-games that many MMOs have added to their optional gameplay over the last decade or so, and which often involve directing minions or hirelings of some sort. When I asked Bhag in a comment what he found the most interesting about it, he responded that he was surprised by how well the whole system was narratively integrated into the rest of the game.

SWTOR has of course had its own version of this sort of thing since launch, in the form of crew skill missions, even if they are very much on the simple end of the scale: You're always dealing with the same small number of missions, they don't tend to take a lot of time, and the only real way to influence the outcome has been to raise your companions' affection/influence level. I guess nowadays we also have guild perks and amplifiers to improve success rates and crit chance, but those are universal, passive buffs that don't really change the way you look at any given mission.

Bhag's comments about story integration made me pause and think though, mainly because they made me realise just how long it's been since I actually read any of my crew skill missions. These days I only really look at what they're supposed to reward, and maybe the duration/cost - but the actual "story" is something I skim right over.

So of course the next thing I did was to sit down and actually read the text for some of the missions that I've been spamming day in, day out - which just ended up reminding me of something that annoyed me whenever I had read them in the past:

You see, my main has diplomacy as her mission skill, the one mission skill that can award both light and dark side points. What has annoyed me in the past is that in recent years the text has rarely matched the alignment gain (as far as I'm concerned anyway)!

An Alderaanian noble who shares lineage with a renowned smuggler would like to see this particular relation quietly escorted into exile and "forgotten". - So you're basically asking me to abduct/potentially murder someone... and it awards light side points!?

Yet here's the counterpart of the same level: An allied smuggler was recently arrested for customs violations. Send a companion to ensure the smuggler is free to continue assisting the cause. Surely helping an ally is not a bad thing? But no, this one gives dark side points. And so on and so forth.

But okay, that's just diplomacy - let's look at some other profession that isn't tied to the alignment system in the same way. How about some slicing missions?

Taerab Starship Manufacturing is rumored to have a hyperdrive prototype that will cut fuel costs in half. If your companion slices into their files, you could reap the benefits of their research.

Ruthless financier Herron Morvis VII claims to have "confidential personal information" on dozens of corporate heads across the galaxy. Have your companion slice into his secure servers to find out what he knows.

Okay, none of these may be officially tied to the alignment system, but they do all sound a bit dodgy to be honest! Maybe that's another thing that's subconsciously been discouraging me: that I don't much like the thought of my character being tied up in these situations, so I just want to get the rewards without considering potential in-world consequences.

More seriously though, I think in practice it's just down to how basic, repetitive and inconsequential crew skill missions are. Most of the time their duration can be counted in minutes instead of hours, and you might well end up running some of them hundreds of times without anything coming of it other than you slowly growing your stash of crafting mats. How invested can you really get in that on a narrative level?

Then again, you never know when something will suddenly turn into an Easter Egg. For example there is an old diplomacy mission that has been in the game since launch and goes like this: The Sith Lords Anathel and Xarion are battling in the Stygian Caldera, disrupting Imperial trade. Your companion could persuade them to take their feud elsewhere. For years and years, these were just two random names... but then Onslaught came around and suddenly Anathel and Xarion were part of the story and on the Dark Council. So you never know!


Finding My Fun

I won't lie: For a while there, I wasn't having the best of times with this whole flashpoint levelling thing. I'm not someone to keep engaging in in-game activities that I don't enjoy, but after my initial enthusiasm had worn off, I only really kept going because of my interest in the project as a whole, with the moment-to-moment experience of being put into Hammer Station over and over again not being the height of fun to me.

This has changed dramatically since I unlocked more flashpoints and decided to take charge of my little Shadow's fate by simply unticking all the ones that I didn't want to deal with anymore.

Korriban Incursion
I levelled: 58-58

While I was pleased to see this flashpoint pop, especially as I also had the Forged Alliances story quest that required me to run it, this was the first run Nautalie completed that didn't level her up even once, and it wasn't a close thing either. I suppose it didn't help that I'd run out of restedness for the first time in a while, but still. I suspect those last 17 levels are going to feel quite long.

Funnily enough the group composition was the exact same one as in the Battle of Ilum from the day before: a Vanguard tank and three Shadows. Why is it that everyone always complains when Mandos/Mercs are even a little bit "flavour of the month" but one of the Jedi or Sith classes filling 75% of all group finder slots barely raises an eyebrow? People are hugely biased in favour of Force users I say.

Anyway, with three stealthers we did a whole bunch of trash skipping again, though Korriban Incursion doesn't really have that much optional trash to begin with. On the bit with the four overseers, I figured that since we were doing well we could split up to get things done faster, but was then surprised to find - after soloing two of them - that the rest of the group had stuck together and only just killed the third one with the three of them. (Gosh, I'm so awesome etc.)

On the last boss I saw Nautalie's first ever shared endgame drop, a tactical item for Vanguard tanks. One of my eyes may have twitched a little when I saw one of the other Shadows roll need on it, but fortunately the Vanguard won the roll anyway.

Battle of Ilum
I levelled: 58-59

This was my third Battle of Ilum in four runs... could this be the level 50+ version of Hammer Station? Though as commenter Diana pointed out in a comment on my last post in this series, pops can also be driven by Conquest events, and it was Relics of the Gree that week, which included running BoI as one of its objectives.

Our group composition consisted once again of three Jedi damage dealers and a Vanguard tank, though one of the dps was a Sentinel this time. Also, I recognised the Vanguard's name from my last run... yay for same-server group finders!

At the very beginning, one of the dps tried to climb out of the trench instead of taking the speeder and died. I asked if it was their first time and they said no, they'd only confused the flashpoint for False Emperor. I'm not sure how that explained anything...

We did a moderate amount of trash skipping again (though also again, not as much as we could have done with two stealthers) and killed all the bosses. Also, someone put a star marker over my head for some reason.

Completing the flashpoint also completed Nautalie's very first Conquest, what with BoI having been an objective that week.

Red Reaper
I levelled: 59-60

Another one Nautalie hadn't done before! Red Reaper is one of those flashpoints that can be super smooth and fast, especially if you have a stealther, but there is also lots of potential for things to go wrong.

There was no better demonstration of this duality than this all-dps pug, where a clearly experienced level 75 Gunslinger took the lead and tried to coax us past trash we could skip and made sure to round up otherwise annoying pulls in the most efficient manner, while our level 75 Guardian was the very incarnation of a bumbling oaf, stumbling right into every mob the rest of the group had carefully avoided.

To her credit, the Gunslinger didn't have a go at him beyond a single "oh, come on!" in party chat, but at some point she seemed to make the decision to simply not care about our clumsy laggard anymore, so when the Guardian got so confused that he got himself stuck behind some crates she and the third group member, a level 40 Commando, simply moved on.

I felt bad for the guy though, and after he'd died by aggroing yet another bunch of mobs, I revived him and slowly tried to guide him back to the others. I thought we were back in business once we reached the Eradicator droid, but once again the Guardian managed to run off and pull the nearby turrets instead. We ended up fighting them with the two of us while the other two actually killed the boss. At that point the Gunslinger decided that she'd had enough and left.

We queued for a replacement and got another, slightly lower-level Gunslinger with whom we finished the rest of the flashpoint just fine, even if the last boss took a while as several people didn't seem to know the mechanics, meaning that it took some time to get Darth Ikoral to zap his chosen Sith.

Depths of Manaan
I levelled: 60-61

At the start of a new (in-game) week, I re-ticked everything for that random bonus, braced myself for Hammer Station... and got another flashpoint I hadn't done yet, Depths of Manaan - yay! I was grouped with three level 75s, two of them dps, one a tank. All of us were melee Jedi.

They were quiet except for a brief "hi" at the start of the run, but everything went very smoothly, with people executing tactics correctly, clicking kolto stations when needed and so on. Happy days!

False Emperor
I levelled: 61-62

Not wanting to push my luck, I limited my selection for this evening to only seven of the higher level flashpoints that I actually felt like doing that night. My queue time wasn't affected and I got into a False Emperor run almost immediately.

The group composition was similar to the run I had before that, with three other saber-swinging Jedi, one of whom was a tank and the others dps. One of them was also a female Nautolan Shadow who was only two levels below me, which tickled my fancy.

And it was another beautiful run! The only small stain marring the perfection was that I was the only one who cared about the minor bonus and since I missed a console at the start we failed to complete it. We did do the bonus boss however, and the group was generally rolling along in a highly fun way. Even Jindo Krey with his perpetually bugged turrets posed no challenge to us as we managed to interrupt nearly every one of his casts so that he barely had a chance to do any damage.

Blood Hunt
I levelled: 62-63

Encouraged by my last run, I took False Emperor off the list too so that I was only queuing for the six highest level flashpoints that I hadn't done yet. Again I didn't have to wait long and got into Blood Hunt! I never thought that I'd feel delighted to end up there, but I genuinely was. The rest of the group seemed in surprisingly good spirits as well, with one guy leading with: "Hoping for a nice and quick run!"

For the first time in a while (for me), we even had a healer too. I'd almost forgotten how nice it was to have someone watching your health and not having to worry about dying all the time. Since we didn't have a proper tank, I did my best to taunt things off her whenever she got aggro on anything.

Once again, everything went smoothly, even Jos and Valk (mostly thanks to the healer). After having done this flashpoint a few times since 6.0, I have to say that I'm not sure they're the hardest fight in there anymore - it feels to me like Torch actually hurts more now.


We'll see if it holds up, but I'm definitely getting the impression that with the rewards for queuing for the full random selection being pretty meaningless these days, there's a certain self-selection going on inside the group finder population. There definitely seems to be a number of people who don't necessarily care much for flashpoints and just want to do the easiest ones as quickly and with as little fuss as possible to maximise their gear drops per hour or however these things are measured these days.

However, this doesn't match my own approach to flashpoints at all. Sure, every now and then a quick and easy Hammer Station can feel like a treat, but repeating the same flashpoint multiple times gets boring to me really quickly. I'd rather face more of a challenge, be slowed down and maybe wipe a couple of times for the sake of variety, as well as killing extra mobs for bonuses and such.

Ironically though, queuing with a preference for the longer/harder flashpoints has only resulted in increased enjoyment and smoother runs for me so far, maybe because people with similar preferences are more likely to know their stuff and also queue for the higher-level flashpoints with confidence. It'll be interesting to tally up the numbers for comparison once Nautalie hits 75.


Peaceful Exploration on Taris

Has it really been four months since my last post about my pacifist Jedi? I guess I was too busy with the expansion to worry too much about that particular project. So she's been spending all her time lurking next to a bench on Coruscant to retrieve Luran Gonthor's deed every so often whenever I felt like it.

The other week however, I decided that it was finally time to get back to "regular" questing (as far as that term applies to a character who refuses to do any missions that require killing or even attacking anything or anyone) by getting started on the storyline on Taris.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the first area, as I could literally do all the things (bar the heroic, as I already established last time that none of them are pacifist-friendly): I threw stuff into a bunch of pipes, met up with some settlers, and retrieved a load of junk from an abandoned settlement - all without a fight, even if everyone in the dialogue of one of the quests kept talking about me destroying some droids, which I totally hadn't done.

Mostly this good luck continued in the second area, as I retrieved a rakghoul vaccine, some medical data, and exposed a thief. I did have to decline the follow-up mission to the latter as it would have also required me to kill some rakghouls. And yes, I know nobody likes them, but if I'm refusing to attack droids and animals, then rakghouls are out too. Mind you, I did accept one quest that required me to get beaten up by rakghouls, but there was nothing in Pacis' personal code of honour to prohibit that. She just ran away once her health got low.

There was this one quest that I took somewhat hesitantly, to look for a missing team, since I thought I recalled it requiring some fighting, but I wasn't 100% sure. It turned out that I was correct, and after I'd found the NPCs and they nearly fell over themselves with joy upon seeing me, the next step would have required me to fight some scavengers, which I of course wasn't going to do, so I noped right out of there and abandoned the whole thing. I did feel pretty bad leaving the lost team behind after how excited they'd got by the idea of being rescued by me, mind you.

Finally I did some sneaking around among rakghouls in an abandoned factory and some tunnels - in both places Mind Maze came in handy as it allowed me to manipulate items next to packs of rakghouls without drawing their attention.

By the end of my tour I'd made it from level 33 to 35, which I thought was pretty good for pure quest XP with some exploration sprinkled in. The bonus series wasn't available to me yet by the way - I guess they never did fix the bug that locked most of these to level 60 for some reason. I guess I'll be moving on to Nar Shaddaa next.

After all the time that I've already spent levelling by doing repetitive content like the Dantooine peace time dailies and that one heroic on Coruscant, I kind of like the idea of seeing how far I can get at this point before I run out of one-time content to do again. I can visit at least four more planets at my current level, and I'm sure that the XP gained on those will in turn unlock even more. That should be interesting.


Guild Ding 200!

I made a post about it when my guild hit guild level 100 back in July, so I thought I might as well make another one to commemorate us reaching level 200.

I hadn't really kept an eye out for this particular milestone the way I had anticipated us hitting level 100; I just logged in on Thursday evening and saw that we were almost there, so I stayed online a bit longer than intended and did some dailies to help push us over the line. In fact, while it was not as quiet as it had been on the night we hit level 100, I did get to tick us over personally again as it happened just as I completed one of the Onderon dailies.

Everything I said about guild levelling last time still applies: The system is still somewhat confusing and buggy, and additional levels have no real benefit at this point - but it's still fun to watch the numbers go up. I thought it was interesting that our second hundred levels actually took us slightly less time than the first hundred, presumably because all the interest in the new expansion gave our guild activity levels a healthy boost.

Like last time, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the various guild ding shots that I managed to take along the way.

First off, here's us hitting level 101 from killing adds during the Warlord Kephess fight in the Explosive Conflict operation.

Here we are hitting level 103 while working on the Dread Council fight on master mode. I think I mentioned before that after Bioware started to award Conquest points for kills, we found that progression on this fight was a bizarre, unending faucet of points as every tentacle appearing and disappearing again during the ghost phase awarded 650 points per person, and we saw a lot of those over the course of a night of wiping.

... which is why you can see the same thing in this ding shot for level 106 on a different night. That fight alone is probably responsible for several of our guild levels.

Here we hit level 107 during the Dread Master Tyrans fight. He isn't quite as good for points, but there are still some adds that award them on death.

Level 111 while doing Dantooine heroics with Mr Commando.

Level 112 while killing trash on the way to Gate Commander Draxus.

Level 117 while working on Dread Master Brontes in Dread Fortress. This one's also good for points from tentacles (which makes sense since she's the same character as in Dread Palace).

Level 121 while fighting Gate Commander Draxus, another fight with a lot of adds.

Here we were actually running back to Brontes after a wipe so it wasn't our contribution that ticked us over to level 126, but the tentacle spam probably helped again.

Aaand level 138 was another one we achieved while wiping on Brontes.

There's a bit of a gap here as I played very little in the month leading up to Onslaught and therefore wasn't around to witness our guild's level-up dings, but here we are hitting level 152 after Onslaught's launch, doing master mode Nathema Conspiracy as part of running random flashpoints to gear up.

Level 153 on our way to the first boss in Nature of Progress on story mode. Note that killing the trash here doesn't actually help with Conquest, as very little of it awards any Conquest or Renown points.

Level 155 while taking my Guardian through the Onslaught story.

Level 157 while I was personally just sorting out gear in my stronghold.

Level 164 while doing a round of Dantooine on my Sage.

Level 169 from completing master mode Battle of Rishi with some guildies.

Level 177 while playing Huttball (and losing, as usual).

Level 186 while I was doing some profession stuff on my dps Shadow.

Level 193 while wiping to the bonus boss in master mode Cademimu with guildies (/hangs head in shame).

Finally, level 197 just after I had just logged in on my Sage. I noticed that there's a weird bug recently that keeps showing me the latest guild level as a pop-up after logging in, even if the actual ding happened ages ago. I'm pretty sure this one was legit though, mostly because the commendation cap message appeared at the same time.