Meet Destiny’s Sherpas, the high-level players dedicated to getting YOU through the game’s toughest challenges

Hitting Destiny’s level cap is not the end. In many ways, it’s a whole new beginning. With max-powered, 400 Light gear dropping like shimmering, Venusian rain, and the pressure of levelling merely the relic of a suddenly long-lost age, a carnival of creative carnage begins. A cathartic wrap-party of sorts. Previously overlooked weapons, armour, and cleverly crafted combinations rapidly lead to all kinds of new ways to play. The freedom to playfully tinker with excessive new firepower turns Destiny into a giddy, FPS theme park. Level-cap Destiny is a decadent hoot.

But, as every amiable local arachnid-boy knows, with great power comes great responsibility. And a certain element of the Destiny community is well aware of that. Operating from Reddit and collectively known as the Destiny Sherpas, these high-level Guardians have even higher goals. They’re not content to hedonistically kick around the indulgent palace of 400, playing about with blasphemous fireteam god-builds and wrecking Strike bosses in seconds for sport. No, the Sherpas are an organised, resolutely altruistic bunch dedicated to offering their training services to weaker and less experienced players, in order help everyone achieve their full potential. Guardian ronin, if you will, except they wouldn’t dream of charging the village for help, and the village is the entire Destiny playerbase. 

Having trouble cracking the code of the enigmatic Raids, or unsure how best to play a particular strategic role? Aspire to conquer the game’s highest-level content, understand its secrets, and rinse out its hidden challenges, but lack the friends-list (or the time) required to explore? There’s a Sherpa out there for you, ready and waiting to act as guide and mentor. All you need to do is check out the subreddit’s calling cards, pick a Sherpa you like the sound of, and make a booking.

What goes around comes around – why do players volunteer to be Sherpas?

But who does that sort of thing? Who spends three years achieving everything there is to achieve in a vast, complex game like Destiny and then, rather than simply enjoying the spoils, dedicates themselves to paying it forward? I recently spoke to the Sherpa moderators about their work. As irJustineee explains, a large part of the drive comes from an appreciation of the help these players got when they were first starting out themselves.

“I think it differs from person to person. For example, when I was back as a little sherpee [the Guardians who seek a Sherpa’s help], I wanted to learn everything I possibly could, and because of the experience I had with that, and with my own nature of wanting to help others, I decided to become a Sherpa and help other Guardians get a good experience out of Destiny too. 

“Not every Guardian out there has a full fireteam of friends that can help them out, so I like to help and, honestly, it's one of the most rewarding things for me - you can change someone's entire day/week/year by the smallest of things.”

There’s something about Destiny that seems to encourage this sort of positivity and benevolence in its players. Something that seems to attract players like the Sherpas in the first place, in fact. In my three years - and many hundreds of hours - playing Destiny, I’ve met precisely one jerk, made many more friends, and enjoyed countless supportive, encouraging, mutually beneficial fireteam dynamics through on-the-fly match-making. A highly unusual ratio in any online game, made even moreso by such a bulk of play-time. But the cultivation of this sort of attitude feels hardwired into the fabric of the game Bungie has designed. Moderator Ruley9 elaborates:

“I think the key to Destiny's community and social success is its focus on team-based PvE content, and Bungie's design decision to not include match-making for the Raids. With such a strong focus on being able to progress through all aspects of the game with two friends, it turned it into a social online shooter where you can get excited over [loot] drops together, as stronger allies means a better chance at beating the Nightfall [Destiny's toughest weekly Strike].

"As the life cycle of the game went on, Destiny became the local bar for meeting your friends"

“As for the lack of Raid match-making, it forced people with a small friends list to reach out on websites such as r/fireteams or the100.io to build a Raid squad. With the weekly reset came messages to former Raid teammates asking if they had done their runs for the week. It facilitated the forming of friendships through a common love of the game and the desire to progress though some of the most engaging and exciting content again and again.

“You would even go out of your way to help friends who maybe played a bit less than you but still needed to complete certain quests. You already had the sword or the Sleeper Simulant, and they are such fun to use that you want to help your friends experience that fun as well. As the life cycle of the game went on, Destiny became the local bar for meeting your friends. Sure, you had all the loot you needed, but the fine-tuned gameplay and mechanics make for a comfortable place to spend an evening hanging out with your friends.”

There’s a lot of truth in what Ruley says. Many games have a narrative based around a plucky few rising to conquer a greater evil, but Destiny does a particularly excellent job of relating the emotional essence of that theme though its gameplay design. Between the co-operation fuelled ethos of its progress systems and the vast scope for spectacular, last-ditch heroism in the tactical (yet anarchic) immediacy of its team-led combat, it presents a perfect storm of camaraderie. While there’s always good-natured jostling when a lucky friend gets a desirable weapon or armour drop, I find any rivalry more than tempered by celebration of the common good. It’s never a case of ‘Damnit, they got the good thing’, but rather ‘Great, we all got that for them’. And, like Ruley says, what’s good for one member of the fireteam is ultimately good for all. It’s a hell of a positive feedback loop.

But as he points out, the Sherpa service isn’t the only way of finding help. There have long been many online LFG (Looking For Group) resources focused on Destiny. So what makes the Sherpas special? According to Tahryl, it’s the specific intent of the movement. While LFG is often dominated by experienced, high-level players looking for specific help with specific goals, the Sherpas’ MO is very different.  

“The subreddit was created back in December of 2014 - after the LFG sites and subreddits started to become flooded with groups looking for experienced people - with a very special vision. The vision of a free, friendly learning environment, so people can enjoy themselves and learn the Raids.

“It came about as a necessity for people to learn the Raids without the pressure of getting booted for one small mistake. Online gaming communities can be a little vicious and unforgiving towards ‘newbs’, so r/DestinySherpa helped those people that either had no online friends, or were too anxious to try normal LFG. It offers a calmer environment to learn and have fun, without being carried through”.

That emphasis on education and empowerment over simple, in-the-moment assistance is the other big Sherpa difference. And it’s one wonderfully in tune with the specialness of the Destiny experience. Destiny is, after all, a game whose real hook is long-term, personal growth, and the facility to refresh and reinterpret its activities with every new evolution of your character. The Sherpas understand the value of that, and they know that to smother any player’s own journey with one-note, didactic assistance – however good the intention – would be a high crime indeed.

Sherpas enhance the Raid experience

The need for this kind of tutelage is summed up in the Raids that the Sherpas specialise in (though there is also a separate subreddit dedicated to Crucible help). Nowhere in Destiny does the combined magic of discovery, personal growth, and tightly honed, co-operative success come together more potently than in those epic missions. With complex rules and systems - and zero guidance - they’re as much about heady discussion and communal problem solving as they are the merry act of shooting bad things in the head.

The effervescent high of perfecting a newly-understood Raid role is just as thrilling as the bombast of any pre-canned set-piece or traditional boss fight against a standard-issue Great Big Thing. Anyone who’s ever worked through a Raid understands just how powerful the self-contained journey from total, blithering confusion to conquering, all-seeing mastery feels. And every Destiny player deserves a chance to experience that. The Sherpas, through their strict philosophy of empowerment over hand-holding, are ensuring everyone can experience it in the purest sense possible.

As such, there are steadfast rules of conduct for Sherpas. No ‘carries’, for starters. No cheese tactics, either. This is about teaching skills, not easy cheats. No acceptance of material reward is allowed – though the subreddit does announce monthly and annual Sherpa awards for particularly outstanding community members - and there are strict criteria required to achieve the lauded ‘Verified Sherpa’ status. But as for the kind of person who makes a good Sherpa in practice, according to GreatLono, it comes down to traditional teaching skills and a warm understanding of people, just like in any classroom in the world:

“For me, the core priority is to make sure all players have a clear picture of how all the mechanics in each encounter work. A successful encounter begins with a clear explanation of everyone's jobs, and why those jobs are important. A good Sherpa needs to be able to explain things in multiple ways, because people all learn differently. Often times I find that success is just a matter of being able to tailor your message in a manner that allows an individual student to understand it. This requires a Sherpa to be patient, observant and an on-the-fly troubleshooter”

It’s perhaps no surprise then, that the Sherpas seem to frown upon similarly-named, but entirely unrelated, paid services, such as those provided by DestinySherpas.net. Offering all manner of ‘help’ at notably high prices, such sites will carry players through Raids, work through specific gear quests, and even go so far as to take over player’s accounts and play in their place. They’re the antithesis of what the Sherpas are about, both ethically and educationally. As Ruley explains, not only do these services risk breaking Bungie, Sony, and Microsoft’s terms of service, they also miss the fundamental point.

“On a personal note, I realise that there is a demand for the fast and instant reward of loot from end-game Destiny activities, but I prefer to promote the benefits of taking the time to better yourself as a player and earn those achievements for yourself. You get a greater sense of satisfaction from these achievements and you help the wider player-base by becoming a better Raid squadmate on LFG sites, or a more deadly Crucible combatant in PvP”.

That’s the point right there. Because for all the feedback loops of co-operation, empowerment, and reward built into Destiny by its creators, the branching, self-perpetuating human element is certainly the most potent. Power leads to the ability to help and teach, which leads to new power, which leads to new teachers. Destiny encourages this behaviour, and then this behaviour fuels Destiny. That’s why, three years later, the game’s community is only getting bigger, healthier, and friendlier, even with its sequel looming monolithic on the horizon.

Sherpas in the real world: raising $48,000 via charity live streams

And the positive social catalysts don’t stop there. The good-natured growth of that community has spilled through into the real world as well, with the Sherpas front and centre. Two years ago, Ruley leveraged the strength of the Sherpa community – with the help of its mod teams – to launch a “humble” charity live-stream in aid of Child’s Play. Since then, the initiative has ballooned, now taking in two huge events a year, supported by big-name Destiny Twitch personalities and Bungie itself. Gigantic charity funds have been raised along the way.

“Our recent Christmas charity stream was our most successful and ambitious yet”, Ruley tells me. “We put together a bold schedule of hosts and guests, resulting in an outpouring of donations at levels we hadn't seen before! We even attracted donations from TV networks in the UK. To date, we've raised $48,000 for Child's Play! We are truly humbled by the support of the Destiny community and Bungie itself. It was something we did not expect to gain when starting this endeavour. We will continue to host charitable events all the way through the lifetime of Destiny, possibly beyond”.

And speaking of the future – and Bungie – it seems that despite Destiny 2’s September release threatening to pull many of the playerbase away from the original game, certain Sherpas intend to operate a ‘leave no Guardian behind’ policy. irJustineee for one expresses strong intent to stick around to assist those not ready – or perhaps financially unable – to make the jump straight away.

Though at the same time, we can surely look forward to this noble band of space-magic Samaritans stepping out into Destiny 2’s unknown wilderness, in order to make it knowable – and conquerable – for those in need of help. In-keeping with Bungie’s community-minded ethos, several of the mods have been invited to the Destiny 2 reveal event in LA next week.

Knowing what the Sherpas have achieved so far – inside and outside the game - it’s a reassuring thought that, whatever trials, tribulations and changes await in Destiny 2’s new, big wild world, their contingent will be there, casting an eye across the landscape from before day one. Change, after all, can be scary. But it’s exciting as well. And with the Sherpas on hand, that new “world without Light” already looks bright indeed.