Spoiler alert: This is a blog post about spoilers.

It goes without saying that this era of social media is unprecedented. When I was in junior high in the mid 90's, only the “cool kids” had cell phones. Now kids are practically born with an iPhone in their hand. The way we communicate has changed permanently, for better or worse, but there is one thing that hasn't changed: you never, never talk about a new movie, video game, or the latest episode of Game of Thrones without spoiler tags. Here's your only warning: this blog will break that rule. There will be spoilers, and they will not be tagged. I know, I'm a hero.

[MOD EDIT: SPOILER WARNING! Mass Effect 2 & Game of Thrones spoilers below. Sorry if this compromises the integrity of your message a bit, but it has to be done to prevent people from filling my inbox with complaints about having something spoiled.]

Wait, don't stop reading yet! I used to be just like you. In 2009, at the height of Mass Effect 2's marketing push, I went to painstaking measures to avoid all of it. I skipped entire Bombcasts. I covered my eyes as I scrolled past thumbnails of trailers. I stopped reading my RSS feeds for two whole months. When I slipped up and found out that Shepard dies, I was fucking pissed. So, was it worth it?

Mass Effect 2 is one of my favorite games of all time. I've probably played through it close to a dozen times, but none was as good the first. I knew that Shepard would die, but I didn't know the circumstances of it. Watching the Normandy get blown to bits was incredible, and I was still shocked when she died right there at the beginning.

From there it was all new. I didn't know the turian vigilante known as Archangel whose ass I had to save on Omega was actually Garrus, and when he pulled off his helmet I screamed with joy. I didn't know that the biotic convict referred to only as Jack would turn out to be a badass half-naked tattoo lady with a foul mouth and a dark past. I treasured these moments, and at the time it felt completely worth it to avoid all those spoilers — but looking back on it now, those “reveals” aren't what I remember most fondly. I don't even consider them. I think about Pragia, learning the truth about Jack's history with Cerberus and helping her move past it. I think about Sidonis, about helping Garrus remember who he really was: a good person who strove to do what was right, not a shameless outlaw who indulged in petty vengeance. The things that would have been “spoiled” for me in advance had I watched the trailers... they don't even rate. So no, I don't think it was worth it.

I'm beginning to turn the corner on spoilers, and so can you. Think about the end of the first season of Game of Thrones when Ned is executed. It's a shocking scene to be sure, and definitely comes as a surprise after the pleas of Cersei and Sansa for Joffrey to show him mercy, but it's not the most interesting part of the show. The interesting part is what happens around that moment: the events that lead to it, and the character development that results from it. That is how it is with all spoilers. If two or three sentences describing a single moment is enough to make what happens around that moment unsatisfying, then none of it is worth your time.

So go, my friends. Cast off your shackles of spoiler tags, and live without regret!

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Leading a casual raid team in World of Warcraft

If you take the middle road, World of Warcraft can be both a fun game and a great social experience. In the past month I've found myself in the position of an "8 hour WoW week." I have a great group of 10 players progressing through end-game raid content on Friday & Saturday nights from 8pm-midnight. I emphasize progressing; nearly every week we've killed a new boss. At the time of this writing we've killed five of the current twelve raid bosses, with two more on notice.

Of course, getting to this position required some "work." The first few weeks after Cataclysm's release I was playing much more than 8 hours a week. I got to level 85 (from 80) within the first week, after which I was running normal mode and heroic 5-mans – a lot of them – to gear up. However, this is because I'm a freak. Getting to the point of being "raid ready" is easily obtainable over a longer term. It's just a matter of judging whether or not getting to that point is worth the subscription fee. If it's not, WoW is not the game for you. As far as enjoyable [read: balanced (read: not PvP)] game play is concerned, raiding is the game. 

Besides gearing there is obviously a social component to attaining the “8 hour WoW week.” You have two ways to get into a good raid group that fits with your schedule and play style: you get lucky, or you do it yourself. I chose the latter for Cataclysm, but to be fair I had a few advantages. First off, I'm playing a tank, and already had a second tank before starting, which are arguably the hardest roles to find for a "pick-up" raid group. I also have the benefit of experience. I've been playing since the original beta, and was a raid leader for a good portion of Wrath of the Lich King. However, I believe the steps I took to create my raid group can be performed by anyone with patience and a bare minimum of social skills.

To start with, I did some research on where to start as far as progression. Baradin Hold, which is available when your faction controls Tol Barad, doesn't require much coordination and is easy enough to get your taste for leading a PuG (at this point most people already know how the boss goes). You can get a group together for BH at pretty much any point in the week, making it easy to fit into any schedule. Besides BH, the order of bosses my group ended up progressing through at the time of this writing was as follows: Omnotron Defense System and Magmaw (the first two bosses in Blackwing Descent), Halfus Wyrmbreaker and Valiona/Theralion (first two in Bastion of Twilight), and the Conclave of Wind. The best thing about this progression route is that the first four bosses are relatively easy once downed for the first time (our first-kill wipes for each of these bosses averaged to about ten each) and brimming with loot for every role. This means that even if you get stuck on a later boss, you will eventually have enough gear to brute-force your way through it.

    
 My co-tank Boondoggle (left) and I (right) after downing Omnotron Defense System in Blackwing Descent.  

After doing the research, I started building my team. The first time I stepped into Blackwing Descent and killed Omnotron was Saturday, January 1, 2011. The week prior I spent about 1-2 hours a day spamming trade chat looking for players to sign up. I think this is the key to building your team, and the reason many PuGs are unsuccessful. You should not start looking for people to join your raid an hour before you plan on starting. WoW has had a built-in calendar for scheduling raids for awhile now, and you should take advantage. I would log on during prime time (6pm-8pm) and spam a macro every 10-15 minutes that went something like this: “Looking for skilled DPS/healers for Blackwing Descent this Saturday at 8pm! PST for more info.” Make sure you're not over-using caps lock, that everything is spelled correctly and makes sense. When leading a raid, charisma and eloquence is much more important than game knowledge. Who would you trust more to lead, someone who writes intelligently or someone who uses “text speak”?

Each person who whispered I would look up on the Armory website and check out their gear and spec. I'm not looking for full epics, I'm looking for the bare minimum gear from regular and heroic level 85 dungeons (item level 333/346, a green or two is fine if they're slots that are hard to fill, such as relics), and that every piece of gear is gemmed and enchanted properly. This shows me that the person is at least dedicated to making the most of the gear they have. The Armory makes this easy: when viewing a character in “Advanced” mode, it shows you a character audit below the person's gear, pointing out missing enchants or unfilled gem slots. However this feature is not fool-proof; make sure your hunters aren't gemming for dodge or something silly like that!

This brings me to the next most important factor in being a great raid leader: Diplomacy. If you have someone whisper you whose gear isn't up to par, or is missing gems or enchants, don't dismiss them out of hand. If it's someone of your own class, or a class you're familiar with, reply with suggestions on how they can improve. If you're not comfortable doing that, point them somewhere such as the forums on ElitistJerks.com which can provide detailed information on matters such as talent specs and gear choices. If they take your advice, you're adding to the pool of potentially valuable players. If they don't, at least you tried. You may think it's not your job to help other players improve, but if you go into raiding with that mindset your chances at being successful drop significantly. Even when you've built your team there is always a way for someone to improve, and as the raid leader you should be constantly vigilant about helping out your team.

So, to get back on track, once you've identified a good candidate for your team, send them a calendar invite, and instruct them to watch videos and read strats for the boss(es) you'll be attempting that night. I prefer to direct them to the movies section at TankSpot.com since the videos are easy to find and are generally well-narrated. This is another point I think causes many PuGs to fail: Everyone expects the raid leader to explain every fight over Ventrilo. As someone who has tried this, trust me, it doesn't work out so well. The most obvious problem is that it cuts into raid time. Even a relatively simple fight can take a good 5-10 minutes to explain. People get restless or bored, stop paying attention, and everyone forgets what the hell is going on as soon as you pull. Giving the instruction to watch the video also lets you weed out the less dedicated players. The benefit of watching these videos is that you can see what is going on while it's being explained by someone who has actually killed the boss. Going into raiding with my team, the only fight I or anyone else had any personal experience with was Omnotron, and by having everyone do the research on other bosses individually before the raid, we had more time for attempts, and I wholeheartedly believe we wiped less than we would have had it just been myself explaining fights I've never done.

Having 11 invitees paid off this day, as Comcast decided to Comcast it up and prevent me from attending. 

Once you've gotten a group of ten players accepted on the calendar, you're done, right? You can just sit back and relax until raid time rolls around... Until invariably one of the people you've invited can't make it, or doesn't show. Another great feature of the in-game calendar is you can set invitees as “standby.” By continuing to look for players to invite, you improve your chances of starting on time, and minimize the amount of time spent waiting around if someone has to drop halfway through the raid. Just make sure the players you invite after the initial ten know they'll be on standby!

If you've taken heed of my tips, your initial raid group will likely follow you into the next week and beyond. Note that out of the ten people in my raid, only two of them have decided to join my guild. That's perfectly fine with me. You don't need to be in a hard-core raid guild to succeed in WoW's end game. You just need patience and diplomacy, before, during, and after every raid.

Good luck, and lok'tar ogar!

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