“Get out of the fire !” cries the raid leader in frustration. The healers try to save them, but it’s too late for the melee group—kersplat! Now the raid is down two of its highest-damage characters and the tanks are floating low because the healers’ attention was split. Vent is alive with high-strung chatter; the raid leader is desperately trying to figure out whether the attempt can be saved or whether to just call the wipe. With the boss still over 50%, though, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion. So after a somewhat drawn-out death scene in which everybody blows their cooldowns and tries to last a few more seconds, the last person dies, and the group begins the long, slow process of recovery and setup for the next attempt.

A lot of raids at this point devolve into a lot of confused talk. The raid leader is lecturing people about not standing in fire, and kvetching about situational awareness and slow response times. A few people are giving excuses. There’s the usual contingent who are trying to suggest a strategy-change. Some are bandying superstitious beliefs about positioning. Everybody’s pretty bummed. People start going AFK for a snack, there’s confusion about who’s resurrecting whom, half the raid’s missing buffs of some kind or another, and even the quiet players who sit in the back and do their best are starting to get tired of what appear to be the same mistakes happening again and again.

This is the kind of stuff that eventually breaks raid groups in Wow.

Breaking the Cycle

So how can we stop the cycle of making mistakes, feeling awful about them, arguing about what to do, and halfheartedly trying again? For some groups, I guess, the solution is to just put their heads down and keep trudging away, and eventually they get past the rough spot and things feel better. I think maybe that’s one of the things that distinguishes what we might call a “hardcore” raiding team from a more casual one. I don’t think it’s such a great approach for those of us who are more casual, for whom the fun of winning may not compensate as much for the misery of losing.

Whether in game or out, I take it as an axiom that we all learn best by doing. So naturally, when we’re trying to get better at an encounter in game, the best thing we can be doing with our time is working on the encounter. Reading up on strategies, knowing the subtleties of your class, and taking the time to be prepared with gear, gems, enchants, and consumables are all useful and important, but what really makes it come together is actually working on the encounter.

Keeping that in mind, therefore, I offer the following proposition: The greatest enemy of fun and progress is slow recovery. What I mean is, the longer it takes the group to pick itself back up off the floor after a wipe, buff up, get into position, and go, the more detrimental the wipe will be to group morale and progress. Why? Well, on the practical side, slow recoveries mean you get fewer attempts in the time you have available to play together—clearly that cuts into the learning-by-doing! And, from a more emotional viewpoint, slow recoveries give people too much time to discuss, internalize, and agonize over small and easily-corrected mistakes, and that saps morale. So, perhaps the most important first step to take to maintain fun and momentum in a progression raid is to trim down that recovery time. So, when a wipe is called, die quickly. Cast or accept resurrection promptly. Get your buffs up, get into position, and get ready to go. Don’t lecture each other too much, or spend a lot of time apologizing over things. Death is a better lecturer than you are, and doing better the next time is a far better apology than you can possibly make in words. Get back in there and try it again.

Of course, even if your team recovers briskly from mistakes, you’ll still have to cope with issues of knowledge, awareness, and skill. Knowledge of encounter mechanics comes partly from research and partly from experience. Awareness and skill, however, come almost entirely from practice. Oh, sure, some people have better reflexes than others, and that can be a factor, but in most casual raid groups, native finger dexterity isn’t that big an effect. Much more important is the time each of us spends simply doing the things we need to do well.

Unfortunately, a raid night is a pretty high-pressure time for people to be practicing. For folks who are struggling with how to get out of fire, or learning how to see dangerous debuffs, or things like that, learning in raid is like trying to become an actor by jumping up on stage in the middle of Les Miserables and trying to sight-sing the leading role. It’s stressful and confusing, and when we make a mistake, we feel as if we’ve let our friends down, and that adds more stress, and let me assure you, that’s a quick spiral road to Hell.

Thinking Outside the Raid

So, if the best way to learn is by doing, and doing requires raiding, and raiding produces stress that inhibits learning, how can we possibly make anything better? Is there, perhaps, some way we can get the practice we need to improve our skills, without having to burden ourselves with guilt over all our minor mistakes?

I’m going to propose that there is.

Suppose we had a place in which players could practice moving, getting out of fire, interrupting casters, cleansing important debuffs, and keeping track of cooldowns, without dying a lot and paying expensive repair bills. Sound far-fetched? Well, you need not merely suppose, because several such places already exist within the game: The Ring of Trials in Nagrand and the Circle of Blood in the Blade’s Edge Mountains are two examples of open PvP arenas. Anybody who enters these arenas will be flagged for “free-for-all” PvP, which means, they can fight against any other player who is also flagged, even players of their same faction.

If you’re the kind of person who hates PvP, this may sound like a terrible idea to you, but bear with me for a moment. The beautiful thing about the free-for-all PvP arenas is that they permit you to stage controlled combat exercises against your own teammates. In short, the arenas give you a way to stage your own military-style “live fire” exercises.

Imagine for a moment that you split your raid team up into groups, like Cops & Robbers. The Robbers will set up a combat challenge which the Cops have to overcome. Unlike regular PvP, where everybody tries to kill whomever they can, the point of these arena challenges is to let people practice using their abilities in a fun and low-stress environment. For example, here are some games you could play with your teammates in the free-for-all arena:

  • Run the Gauntlet. The Robbers fill a defined area with various AoE spells, perhaps cast at random, perhaps in defined patterns. The Cops have to pass through the danger zone from one side to the other without taking too much damage. Learning objectives: Movement, awareness of spell ranges, debuff awareness, health-bar awareness.
  • Obstacle Course. A variation of the Gauntlet, the Cops start out in a group and the Robbers use various damage and crowd-control spells to impede them as they try to escape. Each Robber might have a fixed location and task, so the Cops can find a way out if they try hard enough. Learning objectives: As for the Gauntlet.
  • Tag! One player is “it” and has to try to “tag” someone else who hasn’t been tagged before by hitting them with a spell. If you kill your target, you lose the game. The last person to get tagged “wins” the round. Learning objectives: Movement, avoiding spell effects, positioning.
  • Kickball. The Robbers (a spellcaster group) stand in a wide circle with a one or more Cops in the middle. Each Robber takes a turn trying to cast something with a cast-time at the Cops. If she succeeds, she wins a point and leaves the circle; if a Cop manages to interrupt her cast, she stays in and the Cops win a point. After each Robber has cast, the round is over. Learning objectives : Positioning, cooldown management, interruption, enemy cast-bar awareness.

These are just a few ideas, and you could easily come up with more. Games like this can be fun, and are low-cost, because even if you die, your death is due to player damage and does not apply durability damage to your gear. You could even arrange to give prizes for people who do especially well—a minipet or some kind of item upgrade (e.g., a belt buckle) or even cash if you happen to like that sort of thing. More importantly, games like this are less stressful than practicing in the raid, because there’s less at stake. Everybody can get a taste of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and you can chatter in Vent all you want about silly or funny or crazy things.

To keep the spirit, games like this shouldn’t become mandatory guild or raid-group events. Just like trust exercises at day camp, though, they can really help build some skill and cohesion among the members of a raid group. That in turn can help make the raid nights themselves run more smoothly and be more pleasant. And hey, you want to bring an alt? No problem! Bring them all and switch at will! Even if you’re playing with a character besides your main, most of the basic movement and awareness skills are completely transferable.

There’s always some chance you might run into another group at the arena, who aren’t perhaps quite as friendly as your own team may be…but in that case, it’s easy enough to band together against a common enemy. And even if you hate PvP, an arena exercise like this can be a real blast. In more ways than one.

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