This past month, the Bael'Zharon storyline wrapped up in AC, providing a resolution to the major story that had built throughout the entire year since AC's initial public release. Computer gaming publications have praised AC's approach as innovative with its monthly events, year-long saga, and unfolding grandiose mythos.

Some adventurers bow down before Bael'Zharon.

Asheron battling beside adventurers against Bael'Zharon in the blood-red river at the fallen Shadow Spire of Cragstone.

Bael'Zharon and Asheron battling atop the Plateau.

Personally, I did not participate in much of this epic story. I did not quest to Frore to fight the Gelidites and shatter the Great Work; did not enter the Shadow Spires to fight the emissaries of Bael'Zharon; did not quest to preserve the crystals that held Bael'Zharon captive, nor oppose the evil adventurers who sought to shatter the crystals and thus free their master; did not see Bael'Zharon walk Dereth; did not see Asheron himself emerge from seclusion to confront his old foe; did not quest to gather magic artifacts that helped Asheron weaken Bael'Zharon enough for heroic adventurers to defeat the fiend and once more banish Bael'Zharon from Dereth.

Why didn't I? Mostly because my character wasn't developed enough to go on these quests. Plus, I didn't pursue them in terms of finding the latest information or associating with powerful allies.

Mostly, the grand quests are for the most developed characters. Low- or middle-level characters can't pass through some of the portals that are required for quests and almost assuredly can't survive the monster combats. The character who struck the final blow to Bael'Zharon (on Leafcull) was Ghede, whose level is more than double my most developed character. I read about his assault on Bael'Zharon's stronghold from a link on AC Vault. It was a big team effort with many high-level characters including Aeria and Skystreak Cloudrider, monarchs of large allegiances on Leafcull. Starrbolt Wanderer need not apply to be part of that team.

Still, I and other Grey Company members who adventured in AC discovered pieces of the Bael'Zharon story. As recorded in our Tales of Adventure, we found ancient Empyrean history books and volumes that told part of the story. Thus, everyone who played the game could become involved somewhat in the epic storyline. For the truly dedicated players (i.e., fanatical), there was the opportunity to quest for legendary glory.

AC's makers took the approach of creating epic fantasy, similar to Tolkien in the sense of focusing on world-changing events and a conflict of cosmic proportions. It's a very different approach from UO, which provides much more in terms of simulating a day-to-day fantasy world.

In Britannia, you can practice craft skills, hire a vendor to sell your goods, buy a house, sail a ship, ride a horse, play musical instruments, play chess, etc. Players can enjoy the game as townspeople or merchants without fighting monsters. In AC, fighting monsters, questing, and exploring the vast terrain is practically all there is to do. The only craft skills are cooking, alchemy, and fletching, and they are used mostly to create items for fighting monsters.

Most of the Grey Company members who explored Dereth seemed to lose interest. Why? Probably because the game experience involves too much objective-oriented behavior and not enough roleplaying stuff.

There really isn't much roleplaying going on in AC. There are some player-run events, such as marriages and festivals. But, part of the problem is people don't know much about the roles that they are supposed to play. In the AC backstory, humans from a world called Ispar were summoned by magical portals to an island called Dereth on another world, which was ruled by a race called the Empyrean, now departed save for a mage named Asheron. The humans are of three heritage groups: Aluvian, Gharu'ndim, and Sho (which sort of correspond to Medieval European, Middle Eastern, and Asian). Thus, people are supposed to play the role of a transplanted Isparan, but not much is known about Ispar. It's not like in Neverwinter Nights, where many players already knew alot about Dungeons & Dragons and the Forgotten Realms from materials published by TSR and WotC.

In Dereth, it's rare to meet players who speak in-character. There's lots of dewd-speak about game mechanics. Recently, I sold some magic items in-game (at Fort Tethana, a gathering place for advanced characters in the Direlands) by issuing public emotes with a description of the items. I didn't use acronyms or abbreviations, like everyone else did, because describing the magic items in full words seemed better roleplaying. One fellow asked me, "r u new to this game?" presumably because I didn't speak the language of the land.

The objective of the game seems to be to develop your character as much as possible. There is no skill cap, like in Britannia. In AC, character development is limitless albeit with an ever-steepening scale. The official AC web site has published lists of the characters with the highest developed skills and the allegiances with the most members. Hence, there's a lot of focus on numbers and statistics moreso than roleplaying.

In Neverwinter Nights, there was the level limit, and in UO there's the skill cap. Once players reached those plateaus, everyone was pretty much equal and then people tended to delve more into roleplaying. (Er, at least, in NWN some did. In UO, the quest for accumulating hundreds and thousands of items seems to keep the kewl dewds going.) In AC, the quest for power never ends, which tends to feed in to objective-oriented players moreso than roleplayers.

One problem with AC's character development system is that you really must be an expert in it when you start. If you make less than optimal choices at the beginning for your attributes and skills (e.g., if you selected one of the default templates instead of choosing to customize), you might develop your character for several levels and then discover that you seem hampered. The bad news is there's no good way of changing your character or correcting mistakes -- you're stuck with it. This is tough for new players, who often end up wanting to start over.

Unfortunately for me, I became a bit disenchanted with Starrbolt Wanderer's progress at level 32. Turns out, I had used the default Sorcerer template at the start and customized it extensively but still left in some of the default skill credits, which I now view as less than optimal. Additionally, after playing AC for over a year, I've gotten wise to the concept that it's a skills-based system and the higher your skills are, the more successful you'll be. Now, it seems my rather moderate point distribution for Starr's initial attributes was not optimal for pumping up his skills. AC's system seems to reward an all-or-nothing approach as opposed to a balanced, jack-of-all-trades approach.

Still, Starr is okay. He can blast an Olthoi Worker with Shock Wave IV spells.

One problem Starr has is I messed up the input to his SplitPea spell database (SplitPea is a third-party software utility used to calculate random tapers in spell formulae), and so he hasn't been able to learn level VI spells even though his skills are high enough. Level VI spells use 3 of the 12 available tapers in any combination (that's 12x12x12 possible combinations). He learned Piercing Protection Self VI, which helps against Olthoi, but no other level VI spells yet. (Impenetrability VI, Acid Bane VI, Piercing Bane VI, Acid Protection Self VI, and Armor Self VI would help a lot against Olthoi Soldiers and Olthoi Nobles.) But, I haven't felt compelled to do the hard work of finding the error in his SplitPea input data.

Instead, I have tried creating new mage characters with different attributes and skills. One character I developed to level 20 with all four schools of magic and Melee Defense (Option 4 as shown in my "Starting Out as a Magic User" essay). More recently, I created Calistar, who will be more of an optimal mage, I believe. With Cal, I used an all-or-nothing approach for attributes (maximized Endurance, Focus, and Self and minimized all others) and specialized three skills: Mana Conversion, Arcane Lore, and Run. He will eschew Melee Defense in favor of developing his magic skills as highly as possible. So far, at level 17, he seems to be working out well. And, carefully creating a new SplitPea database for Calistar should help to calculate my account's random tapers for level VI spells. Starr will be able to use the formulae, too.

There is still much left to explore in Asheron's Call. It will be interesting to see what new epic story unfolds during the coming year.