I had a moderately busy weekend and, incidentally, managed to complete the last three 5-mans needed for the Northrend Dungeonmaster achievement, one of my New Year's Resolutions. Having been through all of the 5-mans of Northrend at least once, I'm reasonably impressed with the lot of them. Blizzard seems to have done a reasonable job of making some unique dungeons with good scenery and variety of challenges.
Though I am in a great guild, I do play a DPS character, and I'm not reliably on at predictable enough times to participate in scheduled dungeon runs. As a result, many of those dungeon runs are in the dreaded PUG (Pick Up Group).
What people are saying about PUG's
Everyone who joins PUG's has a few good stories. Klep has had a few mixed experiences with the PUG. Rohan has an entire roundup of PUG-related entries from the blogosphere, though he says his own experience hasn't been that horrible (perhaps it helps to be a skilled healer?). Keen got hit with a stat check while looking for heroic groups, probably at the hands of people who were tired of getting burned by PUG's. Larisa looks back at it all and asks if we're getting too picky with the easy content. Overall, it's pretty hard NOT to have an opinion on this topic unless you NEVER join a PUG.
The Good and the Bad
The thing that really strikes me about the PUG is how hit or miss they can be.
On a good day, like yesterday, I can burn through three Heroics, a PuG 25-man Vault run, and that last lingering non-Heroic I needed for the achievement (in hindsight, I could have skipped that run because I wound up finishing the same dungeon later that day on Heroic), and not have to put up with too much idiocy. (The only down spot was the healadin who refused to accept a summon to the instance until he finished "2 more kills" and proceeded to spend start a followup quest with a lengthy scripted event - which wound up taking 20 minutes while the rest of the group waited by the summon stone - but at least he was able to heal reasonably effectively when he finally showed up.)
On a bad day? Let's see, once I took a 100% repair bill in a Heroic Gun Drak run that only managed one boss. Another time we had a healer - in fairness, I think he had just respecced, and I acknowledge that the learning curve is a problem - who could not keep the tank alive for the first trash pull of Heroic UK. (That was actually NOT a worst case scenario, since it became obvious very quickly that this group was not going to make it.) I've been recruited as a replacement to Heroic Violet Hold by people who "forgot" to mention that they'd downed the first boss on a previous attempt until after I'd zoned into the instance and been saved to their raidID - a bit of a double red flag, since it meant being saved to an instance with less than the full number of badges with a group that had already failed the instance once (though we did manage to complete the instance for the remaining two badges).
Overall, I have to admit that things aren't THAT bad if those are my worst stories - two legitimate failures and a few less than courteous groups that still managed to complete the instance, out of maybe a dozen or so attempts. What frustrates me about the state of the PUG is how helpless I feel to influence that outcome.
Helplessness in a PUG - Can you really save the group?
Because the 5-man portions of WoW's level 80 game offer much better rewards than the solo content, I don't really feel like skipping PUG's altogether is really an option. I got more reputation in yesterday's Heroic marathon than I get out of a week of daily quests (actually, more like a month, since the rep in question was Kirin Tor, and they offer so few daily quest options). Even that disasterous Gun Drak group I mentioned still downed a boss for one Heroic Emblem and four Stone Keeper Shards, which are more of each than I could have gotten solo during the same amount of time.
(In fact, Blizzard recently nerfed one of the Wintergrasp daily quests, because three stone keeper shards - as many as a single, non-heroic, level 80 5-man boss - was too much in their view to award from a soloable daily quest that involves a limited number of mobs that do not respawn faster when there are more players around, and that are located in a mandatory PVP flag zone.)
However, once I've resolved to PUG it, it doesn't really feel to me like there's all that much I can do to avoid the questionable groups. Sure, I can decline the invitation if some guy named "IRLEET" sends me a blind invite through the LFG interface (Blizzard obligates you to specify something that you want a group for in order to get listening access to the LFG channel) without even saying hello or mentioning what instance I'm being invited to. I can try to learn the names of all the players on the server (not very feasible) so I can learn to separate the competent from the idiots.
After those rudimentary screens, though, it often comes down to take it or leave it. That mage who is only willing to invite me to his heroic Violet Hold run if I agree not to roll against him for the spell hit trinket may be my only ticket into the instance for the evening. (In that particular case, which has come up more than once, I was sufficiently confident that I would repeat the instance for badges well past the point when I got all the loot that I needed that I was willing to stomach the loot rule - I ultimately proved correct, as I've got everything I'd want from the instance.) There are only going to be so many groups formed in the window between now and when I have to turn in for the night.
I can't tank for the group, heal for the group, or fill the other two DPS/CC slots for the group. All I can do is accept the invitation and hope that I'm going to bed in two hours satisfied that I made some progress instead of frustrated that I wasted the time on a disaster of a PUG.
Now sure, these things all apply to guild 5-mans/raiding as well. However, with a guild, at least you've got the opportunity to kid around with your friends and maybe help people learn a thing or two about playing the game so that you'll all have better luck next time. When you're teaming up with a bunch of total strangers, you're not very likely to benefit from the investment or enjoy the experience. So, all you're left with is the possibility, maybe 10-20%, that the guy in the ice cream truck is going to punch you in the face instead of giving you an ice cream cone. That, more than the failure itself, is what makes PUG's so frustrating.