Dragon Slaying 101: Understanding The Complexity of Raids

The complexity and intensity of social interaction and collaboration in MMOs is perhaps best illustrated by raids - an activity involving 10-200 players organized to achieve a common goal over a period of typically around 3-6 continuous hours. Oftentimes, raids involve slaying a high-level monster (such as a dragon), conquering a heavily-guarded enemy lair (such as a dungeon), or coordinating an attack against a large group of other human players (such as laying siege to a fortress). Drawing from player narratives, the following article describes how successful raids are the culmination of incredible leadership, management, teamwork and expertise that easily overshadow the complexity and intensity of most of our day-time jobs.


As many players note, getting a raid started is hard in and of itself. Several related problems are intertwined - coordinating schedules, publicizing the event, making sure enough people show up to perform the raid, and dealing with impatience as the group waits for people who are late.

Getting everyone where they need to be, at the right time, is quite possibly the hardest part of a large scale raid. There will always be late comers, and not many on time. Making judgment calls - even when people are saying that they are incoming - on when to leave can be tricky. Leaving too soon will leave some people behind - and not likely give them a good impression of your raids (meaning they'll not likely go on another one of yours, and possibly speak out against raids you do). However, leaving too late will cause frustration to those that were actually on time, and want to get the event going. Most inexperienced raids have a few issues. If the leader isn't well known - a good turnout can be hard to come by, weakening the group even more. Inexperienced raids will often attempt to do things they aren't capable of doing, or go about doing them wrong - leading to their demise. An unsuccessful raid for a relatively unknown leader doesn't do much to help his or her 'status' as a leader. [UO, M, 18]

The main problem with raids is that they never start on time. Would love to attend one that started around when it should instead of an hour later. [EQ, F, 42]

In the mud I played, I was a member of the strongest guild (we were commonly accused of cheating, but we were all very honest). When we did equipment runs through high level areas, the hardest part was arranging a time when everyone could be there and had time devoted to the run. Sometimes there were miscellaneous things that needed to be done beforehand that one or two players could accomplish (retrieving wands of shadow form from another high level zone, for example), but the biggest thing was getting everyone on at the same time. [M, 25]


As late-comers trickle in, the waiting game easily becomes a slippery-slope as one player illustrates:

Hardest part is having everyone there on time, buffed, ammoed up, pets ready etc. Even if you set a meet time 1/2 hour before the raid/battle, people still trickle in, 'Bob is still logging in, let's wait 2 mins for him...ack Bob isn't buffed, lets wait 5 mins for him to get buffed, oh wait now Fred is logging in let's wait for him...' If people know the meet time is 1/2 hour before the event, they see the 1/2 hour as a buffer, able to be ignored, based on the 'real' start time. People will always want to wait for someone late, after all it isn't much fun getting left behind, and we don't want to leave our friends... [SWG, M, 33]

What becomes clear is that efficient mobilization is key to a successful raid:

Set-up and mobilization issues are raid killers. If a raid can be quickly massed, buffed and moved to the target it is usually successful. Raids where it takes hours to set-up are often failures, even against trivial targets as people quickly begin to lose focus when they are just sitting around waiting to start. [EQ, M, 30]

The most successful large raids tend to consists of experienced raiders who are completely focused on the task at hand, know exactly where to find the key information, and follow instructions without question during the active raid times. When I first started leading raids, the hardest things to accomplish were to help new raiders understand the importance of focus. A lot of problems are caused by new raiders that struggle with the quick 'get down to business NOW' that happens when the raid activity starts. [EQ, F, 40]

Management Overhead

But attendance pushes against the opposite problem - the management overhead that increases exponentially with every additional group member.

While player attendance sums to the total number of players, logistics is an exponential curve. Getting people to the meeting point, buffed, grouped properly (every group with a heavy healer, proper damage curve, proper tanking ability for each group), and moving to the action itself becomes harder and harder with each additional person...unless, of course this additional person has the veteran experience, the patience, and the maturity to overcome the additional logistics load. [EQ, M, 29]

We learned very quickly that it was detrimental to take more than 7 groups, and that 6 was optimal, due to lag issues and just for the ability to manage people. Once the groups were formed, the rules of the raid were laid out, the main tanks were announced, the chat lines were sorted out. [EQ, F, 30]


Designating and Balancing Groups

Because most games restrict the size of groups to around 8 players, the raiding party that has gathered must be split up into smaller, self-contained groups that are well-balanced in capabilities. Alternatively, specialized groups are formed to perform specific tasks during the raid. This is another reason why attendance is crucial - because necessary roles need to be filled.

The Guild I was in was at War with someone new everyday, it never mattered who, it just mattered that we were enjoying a good fight. Team 3 was my squad.. 8 mages , 1 scout and myself, the Barbarian. Our objective was simple, Support support support. Follow team 1 and 2 and make sure no one made it near them. We travelled in box formation with myself in the center so that my run and damage modifiers would affect all my men/women. As we approached our destination I dispatched the scout to get me a head count and check their organization. Stealthers can cause a nice bit of chaos. Our summoners from team 4 were doing their job swiftly by calling out names in order of the people who are to be summoned to war, their secondary job was to summon the dead back to the fight, so they had their hands full and were not to be asked any favors at this time. [SB, M, 26]

Chain of Command and Communication

Due to the constrained channel of typed chat, and more importantly the limited amount of screen space devoted to the chat panel, communication has to be highly coordinated. Typically, this is resolved by instituting a strict chain of command that uses restricted chat channels to relay orders from the top.

In DAoC i led a few relic raid - the hardest part was to get everyone to do their part. We solved that by making a leader in each group, 8 commanders had a officer. I then made a chat group with the officers, who made separate chat groups with group leaders, who was in the group chat with their individual group. positive: important msg's didn't get lost in spam, so everyone knew what to do Negative: i had 3 officers - they had to relay commands to 8 group leaders each, and the group leaders should then tell their group what to do - a LONG chain of command that could slow down time from giving an order until it was carried out. the first raid i was leader of was a big disappointment since i tried to tell everyone what to do. and everyone was yelling their ideas of how it should be done. so my commands was lost in spam which got us all killed (stopper groups weren't in place when we started the assault) [Lineage2, M, 29]

The problem with a complex raid is always the same.. Communication. That is the one key factor in an effective. Not only the ability to communicate with others but having others listen to and understand what they are supposed to do. The most important lesson I have learned in running large scale raids is to get other player to be quiet and follow orders. Once this is established then the raid goes smoothly. I was able to stop the raid at any point and get players to listen to specific instruction before continuing. One raid in particular was well orchestrated using a Comamnd Chat which had only the group leaders participating. They then relayed the information to their respective groups and followed orders. Anyone who went rogue on the raid was immediately removed from the command chat and left to die. It was a harsh punishment but only rarely happened more than once. [M, 30]

More resourceful players use third-party tools to facilitate communication, but even in those situations, the communication channels must be highly stratified to avoid flooding a channel, and oftentimes, those third-party tools are difficult to set up.

One difficult attribute of a guild raid is communication, especially in games that limit the number of players in a group or team. My friends and i have been able to bridge that a couple different ways. The first is having 3 or 4 of us in the same room (LAN party!) and using each of is separate groups typing the concerns of the other groups to stay communicating (very tiresome). The other way is to use a third party program like (TeamSpeak) that allows people to talk to each other via microphones, handy but setting up and getting everyone involved in that it's tedious (some people don't want to, don't have the gear, ect) [Eve Online, M, 24]


Laying out Ground Rules

Once the raiding party has been set up appropriately, the raid leader discusses ground rules for the raid - a variety of overall strategies, contingency plans, and rules that all team members should obey. For example, most raids have key goals that are tricky or hidden dangers that can be easily avoided, but these can only be learned from experience. Of course, this all hinges on whether the raid members can remember these instructions and follow them in the panic of the moment.

The hardest part is definitely to get people to listen to instructions from the raid leader. I'll take the most recent dragon raid I was at as an example. While running there after assembling the needed amount of players, the raid leader explained the rules of engagement on the way. And other participants commented on in other channels that he knew what he was talking about. One of the rules was to stay very very close to the dragon, as it would otherwise be able to 'single you out' if you ran a certain distance away from it, and would breathe fire on you, killing you and the people within a small radius of you. We get to the dragon and people seemed to forget quickly about that rule, especially 'support classes' who apparently preferred to heal from a distance, thus getting killed first. [DAOC, M, 31]

Sometimes people just get too caught up in the fight to remember specific timing or a specific plan, after more experience people are able to strategize better because the novelty will have worn off. A perfect example of both these cases is one particular raid in EverQuest: Online Adventures my guild teamed up with another guild to take down one of the dragons. Pre-raid instructions were given on the strategy we'd use and tells to look for to avoid AOE's and other attacks. We had about 40 people show up to take down a relatively easy high end mob but because of people not listening and dieing our healers would need to waste mana and time healing/raising these people who didn't listen. After several tries we finally took him down and even with the problems it was still a blast. [EQOA, M, 22]

The hardest part of a raid is getting everyone to cooperate and work together, especially if it isn't a guild raid. One raid that I remember is a raid of The Deep in EverQuest. We had come to this invisible bridge, with a fake visible one next to it. A few people ran ahead and just ran across the fake bridge and feel off before the raid leader explained what we needed to do. After everyone started following the beast lord pets across the invisible bridge people did not follow correctly and fell off. It is mistakes like this that slow down the raid and make it less fun for all the people doing this correctly. [EQ, M, 16]


The Game Plan

After the basic goals and dangers of the raid have been laid out, the raid leader usually goes over the overall or specific strategy that will be used at different points during the raid. Again, this is because there is no time to communicate instructions during the crisis itself. The strategy typically changes according to the composition of the raid members, and must also take into account the expertise of key members.

I was the GM in a large guild in the realm of Midgard, Midgard have the smallest population on the server Excalibur and we have to plan our raids and relic Raids very good. And we have good experienced players that are natural leaders we assign different GM's and officers from various guilds on specific posts. We plan and scout the enemy realms alot to find weaknesses in there defenses. We use all the stealth capable races to scout and get info. We divide our force to certain tasks and assign them to attack specific targets. And we place stealthed players on the roads to intercept the forces from the enemy realms. To weaken the strength of the defenders. And we have assigned players that are masters on the usage of siege equipment. And assigned players to carry the siege machines to the places were we need them. Logistics are a large issue, and to synchronize 180-230 players in an attack is the hardest thing. [DAoC, M, 33]

We were attempting to get a relic back from the Mids (this is in DAoC) and the raid was going to be very, very complex. There were about 100 people involved. The mechanics of DAoC are such that if you take down smaller keeps, it reduces the power of the main keep you are assulting. However, if you take down the smaller keeps slowly, the other side will have more time to get wind of something being amiss and mount a defense. So, the plan was for about 30 people to branch out to 3 different keeps and take them down in a matter of minutes. Then make sail for the main keep before the baddies could get there. [DAOC, M, 27]

Also important, but oftentimes left unplanned are contingency actions. The following player articulates many of the potential crises that a raid leader often has to deal with.

Then there are the contingency plans: what happens when things go south? Who is expendable (I played a wizard...trust me, it's wizards first [burn all you can before you go down to try to save the raid])? What happens when the primary tank goes linkdead? When do you suspend the raid and when do you charge on? And you have to deal with rewards: who gets the loot and why? What if half your damage dealers will 'brb...dinner' and, 20 minutes later, is still not back? ... [EQ, M, 29]


People Don't Listen

The problem of course is that for a variety of reasons, people do not do what they are told to do. Typically, the wrong actions by one individual can set back the entire raid. As the following narratives illustrate, there are many reasons why this occurs. This is why it is particularly important that ground rules are laid out as clearly as possible.

A common reason for raids to have trouble is players not listening. When you get to a raid, sit down and shut up for a while. Listen to the raid leader. If your running around in circles, or killing the near by mobs or in general doing things that cause spam in other players channels/windows then your not going to get all the info you need to do your job in the raid. Its always the same, when I do a raid of 30+ people, 5-10 of them chat with each other, duel each other, and 5 minutes into the raid ask how we are going to handle something I just covered 5 minutes before the raid began. If you think you run raids better, or know more about the game then the Raid leader does, Disband and run your own raid another time. DO NOT tell the Raid Leader how he/she should run their raid. When a Raid Leader says do this or don't do that, then do as he/she says, there is a reason even if you can not think of one. [SWG, M, 30]

I have led many raids myself. What makes the raid difficult is people who don't listen to the raid leader. It's important to listen to directions. The raid leader (if they are a good one) has done research on the zone and knows the in's and out's of it. Also it's important for every one to know their job during a raid. One person doing the wrong thing can cause the whole raid to wipe out. Also, it's very annoying for people to show up late for a raid and expect the whole party to wait for them. The best raid I ever went on was one that I was not leading. [EQ, F, 49]

The hardest part of organizing a strong raid is getting everyone on the same page.. Getting everyone to follow the orders of the raid leader and not to chatter in team speak about other things. Sometimes players wander off by themselves and then that makes the group more vulnerable. Sometimes people don't pay attention and go to the wrong city and that makes the group more vulnerable. I remember one time this guy on teamspeak wasn't paying attention to the raid leader and he kept wandering off... dueling people and going to the wrong cities.. We ended up kicking him from the guild because he wasn't a team player. It kind of sucks but the guild I'm in is a player versus player oriented guild.. It wasn't anything personal. It is just hard to get everyone to cooperate with the raid leader (especially if I am leading the raid - I am a girl and I notice that people don't pay attention or follow my orders as much as other raid leaders). [SWG, F, 21]


Players Have Personalities

Working together in stressful situations with a large group of people tends to draw out personality differences and different work styles. Oftentimes, the tensions resulting from personality conflicts have large consequences for the raid.

In EQ, major raids are usually controlled by a monk; The monk specifically leads the pull team, and the raid itself follows his/her lead in general. The single largest obstacle in a large raid is, in my experience, the same as in a small group: People who would rather burn themselves alive than take orders. An attitude I've frequently encountered is 'How DARE he tell me what to do!?! He's not my boss! I'll do the opposite to prove it!' That attitude is very common (in my experience, about 80% of the people who I've encountered with that attitude were apparently female) and one person with that attitude can get 40 characters killed almost effortlessly. When I'm leading a group or raid, I have a tendency to be a bit terse; As things go wrong, I get more and more terse, which makes the conflict with the rabid individualists worse. Some people will do absolutely anything to 'punish' me for giving them orders; If it means their death and the deaths of all their friends, so be it. The most extreme example of this attitude even went so far as to blame ME for the wipeout...after all, if I hadn't given her an order (in my capacity as raid leader) she wouldn't have been compelled to disobey it and cause a total wipeout. Managing a raid is much like managing a group, except you're managing up to nine of them at once; You have to make sure each group is properly balanced, and that each group member knows their role both within the group and in the overall raid force. Experienced raiders don't have to have these roles explained, you just tell them the name of the role (puller, main assist, second assist, main tank, cleric mommy, main healer, etc) and they simply do it. [EQ, M, 29]

Raids can be entertaining whether you succeed or fail, but if you spend more time waiting to go it soon mars the experience. You have so many random factors to deal with, and the larger the raid of course the worse it gets, the random factors are of course the other players... Unpredictable, impatient, chaotic, abusive, disruptive. These are traits exhibited by the worse players in such situations, and characteristics we are all capable of lowering ourselves to if suitably bored... [SWG, M, 29]



The coordination required in a raid oftentimes becomes the most time-consuming thing. The problem is that as the raid leader is busy hashing out strategies with the group leaders, the rest of the raid is left in inaction. As raids progress, they typically become a great test of patience.

The hardest part of a large raid is the patience factor. A large raid will require alot of waiting. The actual traveling and fighting are very short compared to how long you may need to wait during certain steps. The initial step of gathering all the groups together for the raid takes the longest. The sorting of loot afterwards takes just as long- these are the two parts that require the most patience, and the parts where there will be the most complaining. Another part of a raid that can be difficult is communicating the leader's directions to the entire raid. There can be a tendency to 'horse around' in the chat group while the leader is really trying to communicate important directions to everyone. Again, this is the patience factor, as people will relieve the stress of having to wait by joking or making snide comments. Unfortunately, as each person does this they only compound the problem. People on raids should realize that what may seem very funny and clever to one person at the spur of the moment may not go over as well to an audience of sixty or seventy other players that are patiently waiting quietly for further instructions. [DAOC, M, 34]

Sometimes the hardest parts of pulling off a raid is getting the more impatient players to hold back prior to the actual invasion, so that the enemy does not gain knowledge of the attack and prepare defenses, and then controlling the players amassed so that the invasion does not falter, due to the forces spreading too far apart, or not being able to react quickly enough to new threats. One memorable raid that failed for the exact reasons I mentioned happened a few months ago between the Terran Republic and the Vanu Sovereignty over the continent of Oshur, a very small desert landmass. The Terran commanders were very interested in pulling this raid off smoothly and quickly, to give the Vanu forces as little time as possible to prepare and counterattack before a 'beachhead' could be secured. A very, very large force of about 100 players was rallying in the Terran Sanctuary, but were told to hold until the order was given. Unfortunately, some 10-20 players would not listen to the commanders and headed into the warpgate leading to the continent. By the time the raid was ready and arrived at the first base, Dahaka, a valuable Technology Plant that would give the Terran forces access to tanks, a large force of Vanu defenders had already entrenched themselves and were attacking the players who had attacked before the order was given. While the Terrans were able to capture Dahaka, the Vanu were able to stall the Terran offensive long enough to call in reinforcements. The reinforcements were able to keep the Terran troops confined in Dahaka and, after assembling a large amount of tanks, finally pushed them out of the continent. [M, 22]


Loot Rules

Typically, high level enemies will drop very valuable items. The division of those items is usually settled on at the beginning of the raid. This is because of the inherent tension in divvying up a small number of very valuable items among a large group of people. This is complicated by arguments of whether loyalty or merit should be rewarded more, and made even more difficult when members of different guilds raid together.

The second hardest part is dealing with the loot distribution. I've been to very few raids, even guild raids, where there were no disputes over loot. Some people want a point system, some prefer randomness, while others seem to feel cheated if anyone else gets anything. There are always disputes about whether it is legal to bid for an item for an alt, whether higher level players get first pick, etc. Even when the rules are explained in advance or are guild policy, some people will argue about it. [AO, M, 29]

Distribution of loot is another big point. EQ is a very loot-centric game, so it was quite important for us to hand out goods fairly and without bias. The way we handled it was pretty simple. The same few people (myself included) attended most raids and knew what items were given out to what people, as well as the level of attendance guildmates had. So if a nice item dropped, it would go to the person with the best attendance who hadn't received anything lately. When they have the best attendance, we knew it would benefit the guild because the item would be used more often in subsequent raids. [EQ, M, 22]

In addition, loot is always an issue. If it's not a guild raid, loot arrangements must be clearly stated and agreed to in advance. So many players argue that 'it shouldn't be about loot', but they tend to overlook one very important point: Loot is not just for the player in question. As a healer, my mana pool does not impact me personally to anywhere near the extent that is does the guild's raids. Therefore, any 'loot' I earn that increases my mana pool (or various other attributes) is really contributing more towards the guild's efforts than to my personal ability. [EQ, F, 40]



Of course, what becomes clear is that raid leaders are given a monumental task of coordinating the actions of a large number of people in performing an intricate, stressful and well-coordinated task over a period of several hours. Also clear is that expertise and experience in leading raids becomes highly valued by the community because it is so hard to be successful in raids.

I've been on some medium raids. Never as leader. I'm most impressed the with organizational skills of the raid leaders. They form balanced sub-groups and assign primary and secondary tasks to groups. They also give structure to what the objectives are for the raids. When they occasionally have to ask for sacrifices from the raid members it is done by volunteer (and I'm proud to say I'm frequently the sacrificial lamb to make sure the raid is successful). [EQ, M, 35]

The most difficult part of a large raid, in my opinion, is the ability of a raid leader to exercise patience. Good raid leaders are a rare thing these days. However, a good leader will exhibit positive traits such as reporting often to the raid of his intentions, waiting for those that have gone linkdead, listening to suggestions from others, treating the players in the raid with respect and not losing his/her temper, etc. The person leading the raid must understand that the other players participating in his raid are there for their own enjoyment and it is his/her responsibility to accentuate the experience as much as possible and still accomplish the objective. I have been on many large scale raids have failed and/or players leaving with a disgruntled feeling about the way it was run simply because the raid leader was either rude, dishonest or acted in some other unsavory manor toward his/her raid companions. [DAOC, M, 47]

The most successful raids that I have been on (in DAoC) have been led by well known and knowledgeable people. People who had built up a reputation on the server. This one particular person was very strong minded and commanded respect. It was easy to follow him since he had 'paid his dues' and was always certain of what he was doing and what he needed everyone else to do. The worst raids I have been on , have been led by people who technically knew what they were doing but lacked the charisma to lead a large number of people. You always know when it's going to turn out bad when people start questioning the raid leaders judgment and he starts defending himself/herself. IMO, it is always better on a big raid to show them how to disband if they create too much discord. Seasoned raid leaders know this and practice it. New raid leaders don't....usually. [DAOC, F, 32]

Successful raids are the culmination of many different skills: leadership, team management, logistical management, crisis management, conflict resolution, strategy planning, delegation, and good communication. Moreover, the problems that often arise during raids are not trivial problems with simple solutions. Factor in random problems like lag, disconnections and power outages and these raids begin to appear to be impossible to accomplish. And yet, every day, these large raids occur in every MMO.

Many provocative questions come to mind. Have our virtual jobs become more complex and intense than our everyday jobs? If so, are they still games? Do leadership and management skills from MMOs transfer to the real world? How close are we to a time when leading an MMO raid is something you can put on the resume for a management job? Could we imagine a time when businesses screen MMO players for management or leadership talent for recruitment?

For in-depth stories about raids in a variety of current MMOs, refer to the companion article - Dragon Slaying 102: Unsung Heroes.