This week I'm going to step back and take a high-altitude look at one of the game's mechanical aspects, that being the alternate advancement system that shipped with 2010's Rise of the Godslayer expansion. I say high-altitude because many of the AA tricks you'll learn over the course of your AoC career will be class-specific, and though I'll eventually get to those in my series of class guides, today I'll start with an overview of the system as well as a bit of commentary relating to why you should care about it.
For you free-to-play folk, yeah, Funcom did lock your AAs behind the paywall for the time being, and yeah there is quite a difference between a "fresh" level 80 and a level 80 who has had even a little bit of AA training. Join me past the cut to see if upgrading is worth it.
Technically, though, Age of Conan's alternate advancement system unlocks at level 20 (at least the general tree portion of it). The system adds three AA trees to your character's repertoire, and you can view them by opening your feats tab and clicking on the alternate advancement button at the bottom of the right-hand window.
It's easy to get confused when looking at the AA interface for the first time, so I'll break it down here and you can follow along with the images I've included. The three trees correspond to the three rows of three abilities arrayed horizontally (and color-coded with blue, red, and grey backgrounds when viewed from top to bottom). The first three rows are the general tree, which unlocks at 20 and is available to all classes. The next three rows make up the archetype tree, which unlocks at 80 and is specific to soldiers, mages, priests, and those rascally rogues. The third set of rows is the class-specific tree, and it also unlocks at level 80.
So how do you acquire all these points? That's the easy part: Just play the game. You'll get a bit of mastery XP for all of your PvE kills and quests, and you'll get a bit of prowess XP for your PvP kills. Occasionally you'll also get item drops that reward chunks of XP at a time.
Filling up your mastery bar (arranged vertically along the left-hand side of the window) earns you three mastery points and an expertise point. Filling up your prowess bar (along the right-hand side) earns you three prowess points and an expertise point.
EVE Online, you'll be familiar with the concept here. Time-training your AAs functions very much like the offline/time-based skill training made famous by CCP, and in Age of Conan the system serves as a complement to the offline leveling component and provides casual players with a way to advance without spending 12 hours a day in game.
If you're level 80 and you're not time-training an AA, you're doing it wrong, as you should always have something training in the background even if you're actively playing and accruing mastery and prowess points all day long. You, yes you! Are you time-training an AA ability right now? No? By Crom, go log in and click a button. I'll wait.
Time-training takes a very long time, but when it's coupled with modest amounts of gameplay, you'll eventually unlock all of the abilities in your AA window and have the makings of a very powerful character. That said, Funcom has designed the system to require a certain amount of choice, and you won't be marching off to battle with every single AA ability at your disposal. AAs are subdivided into feats and perks, with the former being passive abilities that are "always on" once you've trained them. The latter are more like hotbar specials that you can activate, albeit with their own hotbar (the perk bar, naturally) and a rather large caveat.
The caveat is that you must decide -- prior to going into combat -- which perks you'd like to have available. Think Guild Wars here. Once you've slotted a perk on your perk bar, it will manifest itself as an ability on your ability page, which you can then activate from your hotbar. There are major perks, and there are minor perks, and as you might expect, the major ones take up more spaces on the perk bar (two) due to their game-changing nature.
One final thing to note is that you cannot reset your AAs.
As you might imagine, this has been a point of some contention on the official boards since Rise of the Godslayer's launch, but thus far Funcom hasn't budged. Since it's been well over a year now, it's safe to assume that AA respecs aren't in the cards, so you'll need to be careful when spending your points. Also, there is currently no "are you sure?" functionality built into the system, so if you're hovering your mouse over an ability to read the description and your cat decides that it's a fine time to headbutt your hand, well, you might just have yourself a new AA whether you want it or not. Don't say I didn't warn you.
And that wraps up today's introductory course in Age of Conan's alternate advancement mechanics. Hopefully this clears up a few of the questions that new 80s (and 20s) typically have, and of course I'll be expounding on AAs in future class guides and whatnot. Until next time, I leave you with my favorite concept art.