Thursday, March 10, 2016

What's over the next hill? Bears, that's what.

I've been spending the past week re-acclimating myself to the old school MMO design of LOTRO.*

The concept of item wear during normal use --which typically only happens when you're killed in an MMO-- is still part of LOTRO. I'd made it to roughly about L24 or L25 before my Champion died the first time**, but I had to periodically stop and visit a vendor to repair my worn items.

The old style quest hub concept, which I detailed a few posts ago, was very much in evidence in the Lone Lands and the North Downs. You'd think you were finished with a quest hub, but once you turned everything in another set of 6-10 quests would suddenly pop into being.

I can't say I mind the old quest system so much, but it sure would have been nice if Tolkien had dreamed up a bit more variety in the enemies department. I'm getting tired of killing orcs, bears, wargs, boars, birds, and spiders wherever I go.***

This is the reason why bears are now on the
Middle-earth endangered species list.

The thing that still surprises me, after all this time, is how faithful LOTRO is to the source material. Even the items that they made up for the MMO, such as the refuge of Esteldin, fit in so well that unless you're a Tolkien geek you'd never notice they were made up.

True story: I was goofing around in the North Downs, if you want to call goofing around slaughtering trolls en masse, when someone asked in World Chat just how much of LOTRO is made up****. The asker thought that Archet, Combe, and Staddle were made up (they weren't) and that Esteldin wasn't made up (it was). When someone mentioned that The Forsaken Inn, for example, was referenced in the novels but never fleshed out, the asker exclaimed that he thought that was another made up location.


Naturally, in MMO space you can't afford to have distances as far apart as they really were in Tolkien's Middle-earth.

For example, the distance from The Forsaken Inn to Weathertop was a couple of days of foot travel on a good road, and the distance from Buckleberry to Bree was much a good day's travel by pony, too.

Compressing Middle-earth does have one huge positive, however: that people can remain engaged with the MMO without extraordinary effort.

I know there are people out there who like to explore, and they would love the vastness of Middle-earth as Tolkien envisioned*****, but to be completely honest a real trip from Bree to, say, Weathertop would be 95% boredom coupled with 5% adventure. (Or sheer terror. Your choice.) Eriador in particular is so empty in stretches that it is simply impractical to expect it to hold a player's attention without gobs and gobs of additional "kill ten rats" type of quests. And really, there are far too many of those quests in LOTRO as it is, as that was the quest design structure of the time.

So while it does kind of irk me that some aspects of the game, such as political contact between The Shire and Ered Luin not exactly following the pattern of Hobbits not named Took or Brandybuck, I'm willing to ignore it in favor of playability. Besides, a lot of the political and racial tensions in Tolkien's works do find their way into LOTRO itself. The end of the Elven low level zones in Ered Luin, for example, is predicated upon the traditional misunderstandings between Elves and Dwarves, and the open refusal of the chief constable in Bree to work with the Rangers ends up hampering his ability to handle the brigand and orc incursions into Bree-land.


But there's one item that is definitely NOT in Tolkien's works that I'm glad that Turbine has taken: Tolkien's viewpoint toward women.

Yes, JRR Tolkien was a product of his times, and yes, he patterned the stories surrounding Middle-earth after the Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythic tales he so loved, but both The Hobbit and LotR are a primarily a sausage fest with the few women in the story reduced to a secondary or tertiary role.

As a guy, I never really noticed the lack of women in the novels. Even comparing it with other stories from the early 1920s up through the 1970s, such as Brooks' The Sword of Shannara, Howard's Conan stories, or Moorcock's Elric and other stories surrounding the Eternal Champion, the women in the novels are primarily there to be a) a love interest, b) a plot device to explain/move the story along, or c) for sexy fun times' type of window dressing.

The Peter Jackson adaptations of both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, however, did make an attempt to address the lack of women in the stories by enhancing Arwen's role (by giving her the additional duties fulfilled by another minor character, Glorfindel), providing more screen time for Eowyn to be badass on the battlefield, and emphasizing Galadriel more. And, yes, creating the role of Tauriel for Thranduil's realm.

Still, LOTRO goes a step further by integrating women into all facets of life in Middle-earth. Women are guards, warriors, craftspeople, farmers, nobles, etc. And more than that, they are also important NPCs in each region.

Who is the hero whose quick actions saved Trestlebridge from attack by orcs? Aggy Digweed.

Who is the hero who stormed the Red Maid's territory in the Lone Lands to stop the nightmares of Hana the Young? Her sister, Elsa the Bold.

But the best part? Some of the enemy NPCs and bosses are women, too.

Not my video, but Andraste's ability to hang out 
in the Barrow Downs alone merits my respect.


Perhaps because of the old school feel of LOTRO, I've got a fondness for the game. I can go back in time and relive the design that was current when I started playing WoW, without having to worry about any story continuity issues that Cataclysm inflicted on Azeroth.

But more than that, I can enjoy the Middle-earth that I used to read****** come to life in an MMO, without it looking too hokey or snarky concerning the events in LOTR. Bree itself fascinates me in a way that I never expected, since it was just a metaphorical bump on the road in the novels, but seeing it truly come to life like this gives you a much greater appreciation of Tolkien's vision.

Besides, they've got a good band that plays on Friday afternoons on the Gladden server.

*The mini-reds have informed me that I've been playing LOTRO waaaay too much. Go figure.

**As is usually the case, I tried taking on more and more enemies at once until it finally caught up with me.

***And the Dead. You'd think I dropped in on The Walking Dead: The MMO from all the wights I've been killing.

****Yes, I know how silly it is to be arguing such a thing in a fictional world. At the same time, staying true to the source material is always important for immersion.

*****The late Karen Wynn Fonstad's work, The Atlas of Middle-earth Revised Edition (Amazon and B&N), is well worth the price for people who love maps and created fictional worlds. While she references Christopher Tolkien's History of Middle-earth series, she doesn't allow it to overwhelm the original material from the primary sources (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales).

******And play in, courtesy of Iron Crown Enterprise's Middle-earth Role Playing (MERP). It was a competitor to D&D back in the 80s and 90s, and I loved the skill based system. Their sourcebooks had a default setting of the mid-Third Age, about 1500 years before the events in LOTR, so there was still a Dunedain kingdom in the North and a Dwarf kingdom in Moria. And those sourcebooks were fantastically written and detailed. Even though I haven't played the game since the early 90s, I still have all of my sourcebooks; they're that good.


  1. I'm back in LOTRO as well, hardcore. I'm not sure if it's just that KOTFE got me bored in-between (my alliance is nearing completion and I never was one for grind), but somehow I'm totally immersed with LOTRO again for the points you wrote about. I found myself thinking the same things about the creativity of the devs and how well executed places are, and about gender and race equality (the latter inspired by the addition of half-troll Haradrim to the Osgiliath region, very annoying - it's a misinterpretation of what was just a racist description by Tolkien of people of colour). The same is the case of children (wrote a blog post about how surprisingly well LOTRO does that:

    Anyway, I'm rambling. Just wanted to say I'm agreeing with you. Will publish my own LOTRO post soon, it's already done!

    1. Yes, I noticed that LOTRO has a lot of kids around, something that seems to be limited to a few specific places --at best-- in most other MMOs. (Although the kid and parent talking with the Republic soldier in Corellia was classic.)

      I'm not taking a break from SWTOR by any means, its more like tempering my expectations. I learned the hard way from reading Robert Jordan back to not read books through in one sitting and then have to wait for a year or two before he got another book out. I finally got over Jordan after A Crown of Swords, when he said "only a few more books" for the umpteenth time and kept adding new characters and plotlines into the story. "A few more books like hell" I said and got off the merry-go-round.

      That said, I can work on LOTRO without worrying about not finding out the end of the story, as I know the story very well. When I've got items such as The Atlas of Middle-earth, The Tolkien Companion, and The Languages of Middle-earth on my bookshelf, yeah, I kind of know how this is going to pan out. (Never could get into the History of Middle-earth books, however. I was fine with Unfinished Tales, tho.)

  2. *** Fun fact: while we're talking about movies, did you know about this possible Land of the Dead movie reference in LOTRO?
    Not that I've seen that movie, it's really not my genre!