"No grats, no grats," laments Xuuoneeightseven, a Norse Berserker, in the public battlegroup channel.
Sassyirishone, a Frostalf Runemaster and the assistant battlegroup leader, has just announced that people in Xuu’s group have earned new levels after killing the realm’s enemies in combat, and the rest of the battlegroup is congratulating them. The "no grats" litany is familiar to most of its members: Xuu’s group—known as "IRC", named after the venerable Internet Relay Chat service that precluded both Slack and Discord, and the group’s original form of out-of-game communication—all have a slew of high-ranked characters that they have since retired and no longer play.
For IRC, ranks and realm points don't matter nearly as much as the fights themselves, and they have just won a good one: their full group of eight Midgard characters, all drawn from ancient Viking classes such as warriors, berserkers, battle skalds, and seers, have killed the entire Albion horde of Arthurian knights, wizards, and clerics. The main Midgard army arrives on the scene only after the fact, and has to pick its way across a battlefield strewn with the corpses of these unfortunate Albs.
The acid-tinged banter continues for another ten minutes or so, but it is already clear to both IRC and the Midgard army led by Leegen, a Norse Warrior, that the enemy’s back is broken. So it comes as little surprise when Xuu returns in the battlegroup channel a little later:
"Nothing left to fight," he states. "See you in fifteen!"
The battlegroup groans collectively, knowing they will be meeting IRC soon again, but now no longer as allies on the Midgard side, but as fearsome enemies from Albion or Hibernia, the other two realms locked in eternal conflict.
The online multiplayer game Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC) is perhaps one of the most competitive and challenging team-based player-vs-player (PvP) experiences on the internet—and also one of its most closely guarded secrets. Originally launched in 2001, DAoC is ancient by both internet and gaming standards, but it has retained a small and dedicated player base of skilled and loyal (and, at times, toxic) gamers focused on participating in the game’s unique three-faction team-based PvP conflict, called "realm vs. realm", or RvR. In RvR, players take the role of one of some forty-five character classes from one the three realms and engage in PvP combat at various scales: solo, duo or in small groups, in 8-man full groups, or in entire battlegroups (known as "zergs" after the infamous Starcraft faction). Through the years, this unique form of Player versus Player combat has been carefully honed, polished, and calibrated first by Mythic Entertainment, the game’s creators, and later by Broadsword Online Games, the game’s current steward under EA’s ownership. It has reached a point where these varied classes, none of them the same across the three realms, are almost perfectly balanced. Each class has a purpose, a strength, and a weakness; each class is a rock, paper, or scissors in a vast, complex, and seven-dimensional game of chess.
"What makes DAoC unique is its crowd control," says Zyzix, a Midgard DAoC player who recently achieved realm rank (RR) 12 on his Spiritmaster, a pet-based caster class with many utility spells. "In every other MMO on the market, such as World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2, crowd control spells only last for a couple of seconds. In DAoC, it is critical: it can make or break a fight."
This is one factor contributing to what players call the high "skill ceiling" in DAoC: the difference between casual and expert players can be significant. While a newbie player can access the same abilities as an expert one, the key difference is knowing when and where to apply them. And that difference can be huge.
It is the reason why Xuu and his IRC group are so successful and can defeat enemy forces many times their own number: they have years of experience playing the game and working together as a group, and they can use crowd control and interrupts—the game’s spellcasting mechanic which interrupts casters for several seconds if they are damaged or CC:ed—to their fullest advantage.
Healing is another factor in DAoC. More modern massively multiplayer online (MMO) games in the same genre as DAoC tend to design classes to be forgiving for novices and independent of others for groups and leveling. In such games, every class has some form of healing and there is accordingly no dedicated healing class. DAoC is the opposite; the MMO equivalent of a school of hard knocks. In DAoC, classes are designed for specific duties within a group, and will not function well without that group. The Midgard Healer class, which is widely regarded as one of the strongest in the game, has no offensive capabilities and cannot win any fight without a group. But with the group, they become a force multiplier, because they not only keep their enemies under crowd control—mesmerizing (sleep), rooting (immobilizing), and stunning—but they can also mitigate and heal damage against their own group.
"I can keep my group up as long as I have juice," says Panzergren, who at RR13 is one of the top 10 Healers on the server. "But the power consumption for my big heals is huge. Huge."
This force multiplier aspect is true for most DAoC classes; for example, the Void Eldritch, a Hibernian caster, is a brittle magician wearing flimsy cloth armor and has only decent offensive capabilities on their own. But Void Elds can debuff the enemy’s resistances against magic damage and thus double the damage of other casters.
"Caster debuff groups are my favorite," says Rizztal, a prominent RvR player who regularly organizes 8v8 sessions across all three realms. "But they're glass cannons too. One mistake and you're toast."
End-game content is a perpetual challenge for MMOs in order to keep players paying their monthly subscriptions for as long as possible. The way to maintain long-time interest differs across games. World of Warcraft (2004) provides expansions with rising level caps and increasingly sophisticated end-game content. Lord of the Rings Online (2007) keeps players coming back by steadily unlocking new chapters in the magical world crafted by J.R.R. Tolkien. The more recent Elder Scrolls Online (2014) doesn’t charge a monthly fee but instead rolls out paid expansions on a regular basis.
DAoC is relatively unique in the MMO pantheon because its approach to end-game content is Player vs. Player combat. Sure, there is PvE (player versus the environment, i.e. fighting against designer-generated content with AI controlled opponents) in DAoC, and there is even a PvE-only server (Gaheris), but the game's content is mostly designed to support the real end-game: defending your realm in RvR combat.
And why not? After all, AI still remains an open problem even in academic circles, and even if it wasn’t, there is something intrinsically satisfying about defeating another human being as opposed to a mere machine.
Or, as Koxicain, who plays a variety of Midgard classes in RvR, so eloquently puts it: "You just know they are raging when you beat them, and that makes it all the sweeter."
In other words, sheer spite is certainly part of the long-term appeal of a PvP game such as DAoC. DAoC PvP centers around fantasy-style magic combat where the three realms represent ancient Vikings (Midgard), Arthurian knights (Albion), and Celtic mysticism (Hibernia). Rather than fighting alone or in small factions, every player chooses one of these three realms when creating a character. While the player population has shrunk dramatically from its one-time tens of thousands to a few thousand active players, with perhaps five to six hundred players logged in at U.S. and European primetimes, this recipe for the MMO end-game still works and has managed to hold the attention of a generation of gamers since 2001.
The realm of Midgard is based on Norse mythology, complete with warriors, berserkers, and warlocks. The Glacier Giant in the background is a prominent boss in the frontiers.
In the early beginnings of the DAoC, players were restricted to one realm per server and there were strict rules with regards to so-called "cross-realm" communications between the realms on each server. These days, all of the RvR servers have been clustered into a single one—Ywain—and there is no restriction other than a mandatory 15-minute timer when switching realms. This is to prevent players from capitalizing on time-sensitive intelligence from one realm to another, such as ambushing a marauding warband enroute to battle. Still, some players continue to swear allegiance to a specific realm and take special pride in its achievements despite this unfettered access.
One of these is Thjodolfr, a RR12 Dwarven Thane—referred to simply as Thjo, "Theo", throughout the realm—and guildmaster of Asatruar, a Midgard-only realm where "realm pride" is a central part of the guild charter. Asatruar members all play Midgard exclusively and regularly fight together in vast armies regardless of the enemy’s numbers. This "zerg mentality" often gives rise to imbalanced fights where the Mids outnumber its opponents, especially since the Midgard zerg recently has grown to become mostly dominant under Leegen’s long-time and benign leadership.
"Red is dead," says Thjo gruffly, referring to the red-colored name tags that enemy players display when encountered in RvR. "Asatruar harkens back to the old days of DAoC when being part of a realm actually meant something. Not like today, where Discord mercenaries just go where the RPs are good."
Kobtalf, a Kobold Runemaster and guildmaster of Big Tree MT, is one of those "Discord mercenaries." Originally a splinter faction from Asatruar, Kobtalf and his fellow guild founders left and formed Big Tree MT because Asatruar's realm pride philosophy became too stifling.
"We wanted the freedom to play on our own terms," he says. "If you limit yourself to one realm, you basically only see a third of the game."
"We also felt that who you play with is more important than your guild tag," adds his guildmate Rheddrian, who splits his time between a Shaman, which heals and enhances its fellow group members and interrupts the enemy casters, and a Mauler, which focuses on big spell damage. "We're a small guild, but we're all friends here."
"Playing all realms let’s us see the other side," continues Kobtalf, who once founded Big Tree as his own personal guild before inviting his friends to it. "It helps us become better players."
And they’ve met with some success. The guild is now established across all three realms and has group lineups ready in them all. They have also started transitioning from regularly running with the Midgard battlegroup to striking out on their own as a single group of eight players in the so-called "8-man" or "8v8" scene of DAoC. While taxing and stressful, and sometimes toxic given the competitive player base, it can also be an extremely rewarding experience.
"If you win, you know it is all thanks to you and your group," remarks Zyzix, who is also a Big Tree MT guild member. "There is no space for slacking, so you learn real fast—or you drop out."
Some groups who are more well-established in the 8v8 scene are already intimately familiar with these dynamics. Nekkid Ninjas (styled N3KK1D N1NJ4S in the game), who once ravaged the frontier with an Albion caster group known as The Hung, now runs five nights a week and regularly tops the Ywain server's realm point rankings. The Odd Ballz have lineups in all three realms, often fielding energy debuff groups that rely on a caster—Void Eldritch in Hibernia and Dark Spiritmaster in Midgard—reducing the magic resists of enemy players so that they can virtually be melted out of existence by other casters. And Fake Taxi challenges even Nekkid Ninjas and IRC with an Albion tank group of Paladins and Armsmen as well with a Hibernian caster setup that includes an Animist littering the battlefield with turrets and a Valewalker providing increased spell range for his fellow group members.
Common among all these players in the 8v8 scene is that they tend to care more about the quality of a fight rather than merely winning. Says Kapp, a member of Big Tree MT, who, among other classes, plays a Bonedancer that controls a cadre of pets and can interrupt the enemy from range: "I really couldn't sleep one night after a particularly good fight. I just lay in bed running it through my head." While he admits Fake Taxi won that particular fight, he still rates the fight as one of the best he has ever had, and the grudging comments of respect from the enemy in the DAoC Discord afterwards made the loss easy to bear: "I'm not going to lie, the 'f*ck that Bonedancer' comment really made my night," he adds with no small sense of pride.
Such anecdotes are typical of this tiny clique of players within the already small general DAoC population; players who care more for a good fight than the realm point and rank rewards that go with a win. And at the forefront of this group is IRC.
Iconic "c u in 15" by Xuuradarspeedhack.
Long before Discord and Slack there was IRC; real-time internet chat far advanced beyond the contemporary and clumsy web chat rooms of yore. Instead of a browser, IRC was accessed using an IRC client—mIRC being one of the classic ones—and because of its relative obscurity despite its sophistication, it quickly became a favorite for gamers everywhere. This was particularly true for the budding PvP game population of DAoC when it launched in late 2001 in the United States, and 2002 in Europe. Soon the top PvP guilds across both the US and the European servers were using the chat service to coordinate groups, set up fights, and discuss tactics. Over time, IRC became synonymous with elite PvP guilds that used DAoC chat rooms on IRC for this purpose.
It is now 2021, and IRC as a service has faded into almost complete obscurity and been eclipsed by Slack (for professional work) and Discord (for gamers). In fact, given how much both of these platforms owe to IRC, it is almost surprising to see Slack and Discord pay so little homage to their ideological ancestor.
But in DAoC, the memory of IRC lives on, even if most current players may be forgiven for not knowing the history of the term. Instead, statements like "that’s IRC" and "IRC incoming" have become concepts in themselves, representing the dreaded bogeymen of DAoC who many casual groups will turn tail and run from rather than face with even numbers.
Xuu, one of the more prominent IRC players and an active member of the official DAoC Discord server, often says that the group is no longer concerned with playing the optimal group setups, but rather about artificially handicapping themselves with less-than-optimal setups in order to increase the challenge.
"We play troll setups," he explains. "Most of our guys have RR11s or RR12s of the key classes that they have already retired, so we play new alts instead. Just because we rip with such troll setups doesn’t mean you should try to run them," he adds. "Learn to win in an optimal setup first. Only then you can figure out the less optimal ones."
The numbers certainly don't lie. IRC's Yama, who most prominently plays a RR13 Minstrel—a so-called music class that benefits his group with enhancing songs and interrupts the enemy—is well-known for being an escape artist on the battlefield and has close to 700 million RPs across all of his characters in all three realms, ten of them RR12 or higher. Patar, another IRC player who is famed for his abilities as caster main assist—the person in the group selecting targets that the rest of the group will assist in killing—has 581 million. Xuu himself, although a newer member of IRC, switches freely between classes and has close to 375 million realm points. For comparison, you need 23 million realm points to get RR12, and most DAoC players never get close to that level. In fact, there are only a total of some 1,000 players in the server population who have reached RR12 or above.
The list of IRC luminaries is short but illustrious: Dwale, who prefers turning into a mushroom on his Animist and is capable of rooting entire armies in place. Kasperkar, a teenager with both lightning reflexes and a steady hand, who specializes in support and is a veritable wizard on his kobold Shaman. And Farmacist, whose beloved Bonedancer pets can lock down an entire group while the rest of his crew dispatches the enemy.
But with skill and reputation also comes expectation. Xuu claims to have lost only once or twice against an enemy group in a clean 8v8 with their core IRC setup in the last year. However, this is very difficult to verify given the fluid nature of the group—they are all spread across mostly defunct guilds and there is no real "official" roster of IRC players. Only IRC knows, and IRC does not tell.
Given this reportedly high skill ceiling, what's it like to start out in Dark Age of Camelot in 2021? The newbie viewpoint is certainly quite different from that of IRC and its ilk, but it is not insurmountable. Perhaps the most off-putting barrier for newbies is that, given that DAoC is now a two decades-old game, its graphics are significantly below the standard of current MMOs. Furthermore, as already stated, DAoC's fundamental class design requires players to turn to groups to be successful, at least in RvR. The new player experience is also rocky at best. While there has been a substantial revision to the PvE leveling process away from merely grinding experience by killing monsters to running a long series of quests, the user interface is clunky, directions are scarce, and the in-game broadcast communication channels can often be snarky, unhelpful, or downright toxic.
However, those newbies that make their way to the game's official Discord server will find a welcoming and tight-knit community that goes out of their way to help new and returning players find their feet and get started in the game.
Broadsword, the games company maintaining and developing the game after Mythic Entertainment was disbanded in 2014, are doing their part to attract and retain new players. While the game was never widely marketed, Broadsword is reasonably active promoting the game on various gaming platforms, including a weekly broadcast on the game's official Twitch channel. There are also persistent rumors of DAoC being published on Steam sometime in the future, which should help with its exposure. Furthermore, the company has long since announced an upcoming release of a new "classic" server that, despite being significantly delayed, may attract a large number of returning players longing for the older and slower playstyle prior to the game's expansions.
Perhaps most significantly, Broadsword recently rolled out a new combined leveling and PvP event in the so-called Caledonia battleground where players were allowed to roll new characters and advance them five levels per day by exclusively fighting other players from the other realms. This Caledonia event, which took place over ten feverish days in February 2021 and again in May, was wildly popular, and saw thousands of players log in and try out new classes across the realms.
Fighting the Midgard zerg in the Caledonia event.
Leveling is far less of a concern in DAoC than it used to be. But once a new player reaches the level 50 cap, successfully getting started in RvR poses a significant challenge. This is also where encounters with elite IRC and 8v8 groups can be particularly devastating. Few players appreciate feeling entirely powerless when fighting the enemy, but this is precisely what the high skill ceiling of DAoC gives rise to when a new or casual group of players face a dedicated 8v8 group. Since large numbers of newbie players can direct enough magic and melee to kill even the most well-protected player—veteran or no—in a straight up fight, the key tactic to surviving such encounters for the elite 8v8 groups tends to be a technique called "pulling" or "extending." This entails drawing the enemy's tanks and casters away from their healers and then killing them one by one when they are out of range. This approach allows even a small group of players to kill a large zerg by defeating them piecemeal.
But there is safety in numbers, and thus one of the easiest gateways to successful RvR for new players tends to be participating in one of the nightly battlegroups. These battlegroups have more or less stable leadership: Leegen for Midgard, Herorius—a Minotaur Hero—for Hibernia, and Rescu—a Briton Friar—for Albion. In a battlegroup, a new player can easily get a group and learn their class without the fear of making critical mistakes or facing the pressure of fitting into an optimal group setup. They are also guaranteed to make realm points in a relatively safe and dependable manner while seeing the frontiers and improving their skills. Best of all, the battlegroup is a way for new players to make friends and join guilds; relationships that will carry them forward in the game.
"I really like what the Midgard BG has become in the last few months," says Leegen, clearly proud of the effects of his long-time leadership of the realm. "Our strength as a realm is our tanks, and the Midgard BG now is filled with enough tanks that we can push the most heavily defended keeps. We've done that together. The BG takes care of its own."
Leegen's Midgard BG taking the field for a major battle against the Hibernian army.
In fact, the player community itself is perhaps Broadsword's most valuable asset in promoting the game and retaining its players. Ramik Oaken, a long-term and well-known DAoC player on all realms, has regularly been streaming Dark Age of Camelot on Twitch since Spring 2020. "After nearly 20 years of playing DAoC I figured it was time to give back to the community," he says. "Starting the Twitch channel was, from the start, a vehicle to show people that our beloved game was still very much alive and well. I started running giveaways and then ads for the stream which, I think as a byproduct, increased visibility for the game as well."
"I wouldn't have returned without Ramik," agrees Loezer, a RR12 Valkyrie and a legendary battle healer in Leegen's Midgard battlegroup. "One day I was bored and looked up DAoC on Twitch, and lo and behold, there it was, still alive and kicking. And so I came back to play my Valkyrie once again after a three-year hiatus." That was more than half a year ago.
Ramik's stream attracts an average of more than fifty nightly viewers, and sometimes that number goes past a hundred. "In Twitch terms, it’s a relatively small stream… But for the game, it’s consistently ranked #1 or #2, which is mindblowing," Ramik says.
His play style has evolved with the stream. "I was running in large-scale battlegroups when I started the stream," he notes. "But connecting with the community while streaming has led me to embrace other playstyles. These days I’m really enjoying the atmosphere of smaller 8v8 fights."
In addition to streaming both zerg, 8v8, and smallman action, Ramik also runs a popular weekly show/podcast called DAoC State of the Game where he invites audience questions and prominent community members to discuss pressing issues with regards to the game. The show/podcast has quickly risen in the gaming rankings and is downloaded or viewed thousands of times each week. "This community I built with the help of our supporters has really evolved," Ramik states. "It was pointed out to me that DAoC didn’t really have any kind of interactive medium run by players—so we started it."
But you can't speak about an online gaming community in 2021 without addressing toxicity. Given its competitive nature, Dark Age of Camelot certainly has its fair share, and the level rises as the stakes go higher. In some of the dedicated 8v8 Discord servers, the sparks virtually fly as players take turns insulting each other over perceived or actual slights.
"You won't believe how much some of those guys rage when they lose," says Homefry, a RR12 Spiritmaster who has seen his share of high-maintenance 8v8 players. "It's not even fun playing with those guys in your group. You just worry about screwing up all the time."
Another player with a story to tell is Woke, who plays a RR12 Cleric and sometimes a Healer in IRC groups: "I've taken a few self-imposed breaks from the exclusive 8v8 community," he says. "I won't learn if all I get is insulted. I'd rather be self-taught and watch myself improve silently than strive to be better for someone else."
Even Ramik himself has not been spared from flames. In his role as battlegroup leader, community organizer, and at times shot-by-shot commentator, he regularly puts himself in the line of fire whenever he offers his opinions. "It’s been a bit of a wild ride navigating my way through different parts of the game community. Respect is earned, not given. It’s taught me a lot of humility at the cost of being humiliated on several occasions."
The topic of toxicity is also a common theme of Ramik's weekly State of the Game podcast. "Yeah, I’ll admit it’s a topic we covered quite a bit in the beginning," remarks Ramik. "I think you can watch old episodes and see my understanding of the community evolve over time. I thought I knew it all after 19+ years, but the show guests (and our viewers) teach me something new every week."
That has included a better understanding of the entire range of solo, smallman, 8v8, and BG action, something which Leegen, the Midgard BG leader, agrees with. "For one thing, I try to respect smaller-scale fights with my BG," he says. "Also, I don't run my BG on Mondays and Tuesdays, and I am encouraging the BG leaders from other realms to keep those days zerg-free."
Unfortunately, not all players conform to this unofficial policy. On this particular Monday in April, the Hibernian army is out in full force steamrolling the scattered Mid and Alb groups roaming the frontiers. Or as Xuu, who is famed for his temper after losing a fight, puts it: "It's Monday and the Hibs are zerging. What else is new?"
The fifteen minutes are up and IRC is back on the field in an Albion tank group. Fortunately for the Mids, Leegen is an old hand at this game and he knows precisely how to make his numbers work for him. "Ignore them," he barks in the voice comms for the battlegroup. "Stay inside the keep and just defend the breach. They'll pick off a few of us, but they can't touch you if you stay inside."
And in the end, that's what happens. IRC lures out a few brave souls from the besieged keep, and they die promptly and obediently, but most of the Midgard army stays buttoned up inside and eventually captures the keep. By the time Leegen rallies his forces to the front door, the IRC group has already disappeared like mist. Until next time, that is, on another realm, with a new group setup, but with the same acid banter and deadly efficiency.
See you in fifteen, bros.