You can draw whatever conclusions you want about my early memories of the game. They're not pretty.
Assuming you've mastered moving, the basics of looking around in your inventory and interacting with NPCs, and so forth, it's not always immediately evident what you're supposed to do, what the best job for a starter character is supposed to be, and so on. Thus, for those of you newly interested in the game, we have a small guide on some of the less immediately transparent elements of the game. (For those of you who already know Sky and Sea inside and out, you can skip ahead to the end. I can promise there's something there.)
The new adventure begins with hand-holding
Back in the days of yore, we started in Vana'diel with an Adventurer Coupon that was good for 50 gil and a pat on the back. Considering how much 50 gil was worth even then, perhaps a kick in the seat of the pants and a summary point-and-laugh session would have been more appropriate. Now, however, the Coupon kicks off a nice little series of mini-quests to help get you up to speed on playing Final Fantasy XI in the most painless fashion possible.
The quests will vary slightly depending on what nation you start with, but they cover all of the basics: fighting, crafting, searching, and running into something you can't possibly kill by mistake followed by running like a maniac toward the zone line. The first several parts of the quest line are fairly self-explanatory, but you'll hit a bit of a snag when you reach the part soon thereafter when the questgiver asks you to head to Konstacht Highlands, Tahronghi Canyon, or La Theine Plateau and kill something there.
Why is that a problem? Because if you go off to kill those enemies when you're at the most recent level you've reached (4-5), you'll be massacred by anything out in those areas. It's best to stay in your starter area and level (with liberal use of Fields of Valor, as noted below) up to 10-11, then head to the area indicated by the quest. (That's Konstacht for Bastokers, Tahronghi for Windurstians, and La Theine for San d'Orians.) At that point, you'll be able to kill an enemy without too much trouble, as well as having the chance to sneak up to the Crag that's noted on your map and touch one of the crystals on the platforms surrounding it.
Following those steps, while it creates a fairly long gap in the process, will let you finish up the remainder of the mini-quest in one fell swoop, which nets you a solid 1000 experience for the process. (Quests in FFXI do not, as a rule, reward experience, which makes this even more beneficial.) You also receive three chocopasses, good for a quick jaunt on a Chocobo to get from place to place before you get your license.
Fields of Valor and how it will save your life
As mentioned above, you're not going to be earning levels via quests. Leveling is only possible by killing the many inhabitants of Vana'diel's wilderness areas, which can sometimes make the process a bit obtuse -- there's no clear rhyme or reason for moving to more dangerous areas, nor any immediate indicator of what level a particular zone is tuned for. The Fields of Valor service, however, both makes leveling a more straightforward experience and removes several of the roadblocks in leveling alone.
Fields of Valor handbooks can be found in most of the larger zones of the game, including starting areas and all of the paths to Jeuno. Each handbook contains several training regimes, which function in a very straightforward "kill ten rats" method; you'll be asked to kill a certain number of enemies, usually between six to ten in total and almost always consisting of just one or two enemy types. Once you've completed the regime, you receive three benefits: experience, gil, and tabs.
Tabs can be exchanged at the handbooks for certain buffs, including food effects and the very-desirable Regen and Refresh. For a player working solo, those two buffs are all but mandatory. Regen allows for passive health regeneration, while Refresh allows passive mana regeneration, both of which vastly increase your active time and make fights much, much easier. A new regime can be taken each Vana'diel day, assuming you've finished the prior one -- which means each day, not each 24-game-hour period. If you take a new regime at 23:00 one day and finish it at 1:00 the next day, you can take a new regime immediately.
There's also the prospect of enhancing your equipment via the Fields of Valor system... but that's a bit outside of the scope of a beginner's guide. Suffice it to say that it involves a battle that becomes fairly simple with a handful of allies for mixed benefits. Below level 20 or so, it's likely not worth it.
Vendors, the auction house, and the virtue of checking carefully
One of the elements of FFXI that might surprise veteran players -- especially veteran players of a certain game -- is that gear isn't necessarily laden with stat boosts, nor is it a continual march upward. You can frequently be wearing items from Level 1 well into Level 25, by way of example. Of course, when you start you have almost nothing, and your first order of business is probably going to be to pick up something shiny and new.
Experienced players will tell you to check the auction house, which is a bit different from normal auctions. Items are listed at a certain minimum price by the seller, and you enter a bid which sells you the lowest-priced item with a matched or lower listing. It's easier to explain with an example, as follows: if you bid 1000 gil for a Friar's Rope, you'll purchase the lowest-priced Friar's Rope with a minimum bid equal to or less than 1000 gil. The price bit is important to note once you start selling things, as selling items for slightly less than the expected bid can net a quicker turnaround.
However, for a new player, there's a far better source of many pieces of equipment, not to mention spells and crafting ingredients: the vendors. Your map helpfully points out several of the vendors throughout the city, and more often than not, they'll sell what you're looking for at a fraction of the auction house prices. Before you buy anything, make sure that you've checked at both the shops and the auction house to ensure that you're not getting ripped off.
Do not, however, try to use this as a quick cash infusion. Much of the low-level armor on the auction house is being sold back and forth between experienced players leveling their lower jobs. Sanitary issues aside, there's not a market for most of these pieces aside from players not wanting to just throw it away or vendor it. You might even want to hang on to out-leveled armor for a while, as many jobs use the same starter pieces and it saves the expense of re-purchasing them.
A loose picture of the early levels
This, obviously, will just get you through the beginning of the game. You don't need to know much more than this to raise your first job to 18 or so, at which point you can undertake the subjob quest and start really getting into the meat of the game. Unfortunately, that quest is a bit beyond the scope of a solo player, and most likely you'll get high-level help to take care of it. With a little luck, we'll address the flow and events past that point in a future article on the topic.
For the players who know Sky and Sea inside and out
Or people who just aren't done reading, whichever.
First of all, I'd like to thank everyone for the positive reception to the column and the large number of links and enthusiasm I've received. FFXI has always had a strong community, and I'm very glad to see both new players interested in the game and old players glad to see Massively focusing upon it. So this is a thank you, and a promise to do the best I can for a game that I've long held close in my mind.
Over the next few columns, I'd like to start making a practice of both spotlighting excellent parts of the community and answering questions, whether they be about the game or the column. While I do my best to keep up with the community, there are doubtlessly going to be things that you see that I miss -- and of course, I can't answer questions that aren't asked. So send in questions, interesting message threads, blog links, and so forth to Eliot at massively dot com, and I'll be keeping my ear to the ground.