Long-time readers may recall that I am old. Gran’pappy Ardwulf has been playing RPGs as long as most of you punks and whipper-snappers have been alive. So get off my lawn, and while you’re at it take a step back in time with me for a little history lesson…
To 1982. This was shortly after I got into RPGs (which I can date precisely.) A little Virginia company called Iron Crown Enterprises launched a system-agnostic (at first) line of sourcebooks for adapting Tolkien’s Middle-Earth to the gaming table. This occurred somewhat under the table to the D&D player I was at the time, but I was aware of it, because I. C. E., as they became known, advertised prodigiously in Dragon, the top tabletop RPG magazine until its end in 2007 at the hands of Wizards of the Coast.
In 1984 I. C. E. launched Middle-Earth Role Playing, a whole new game system designed around adventuring in Middle-Earth, with rules based somewhat on their line of addons for D&D, such as Arms Law and Spell Law, which themselves would eventually evolve into the stand-alone Rolemaster system.
Now, MERP (as we called it,) was something of a mixed bag. The general consensus these days is that the game rules were a bad fit to Middle-Earth, at best. You had D&D-style magicians casting D&D-style spell effects, albeit in a different (and much grittier,) system. But folks loved the game anyway, and many retain very fond memories of it, because the attention paid to the details of the setting, despite the ill-fitting rules, was remarkable. Year after year, until MERP’s final demise in 1999, I. C. E. churned out lovingly detailed sourcebooks on Angmar, Gondor, Rohan, Isengard, Moria, a two-volume treatise on Mirkwood, a huge hardcover on Minas Tirith, a massive tome on Arnor, a plethora of adventure modules… it was glorious stuff. But not because the “physics” (if you will) of the game world matched the internal workings of Tolkien’s work – it didn’t remotely. It worked as well as it did because it was, in most arenas, rigorously true to the spirit of Tolkien and crafted by people with an obvious love for the source material.
The first MERP stuff was released before I had actually read The Lord of the Rings myself, but in after years, I would develop an immense fondness for old Tollers and his stuff. These days I have most of a bookcase dedicated to Tolkien and Tolkien-related works, and that doesn’t count the old MERP books themselves, of which I still have a few. So I am, as you may infer, a Big Fan. It would be easy for me to get lost in the discrepancies between Tolkien’s works and, say, The Lord of the Rings Online. For the first couple of years of its existence, I did, and I actually think it’s easy to do if you start in the wrong place.
I like Dwarves. I play Dwarves, in every game that has them, and in a Tolkien-inspired way, with big beards and Tolkienesque names, going so far as to fish new ones out of the Völuspá, whence Tolkien derived them, where necessary. This has even held true in games where the Dwarves are presented in a non-Tolkienesque way. Naturally, when I had my first crack at LotRO back in beta, I started with a Dwarf.
This was a little bit of a mistake, as it turns out. The Dwarf (and Elf – and my second character, created after launch, was an Elf,) starter area, Ered Luin, is disconnected from the narrative of The Lord of the Rings. It’s an area mentioned but that we don’t know much about from Tolkien’s work, and Turbine had to make it up on the fly. The aforementioned discrepancies are nowhere more obvious in the game than there. This is inevitable and unfortunate.
The Ered Luin content take you to about level 15 or so, at which point one hies oneself off to Bree-land where the Men have been adventuring since level 2. In my first three cracks at LotRO I never made it that far, which is also unfortunate, because it’s in Bree-land and in the Shire where the Middle-Earth of the game starts to sing. And I never made a Hobbit character until recently. It’s in these areas, where Tolkien’s story did go, that the attention to detail paid in LotRO’s creation really shines through. Hobbiton, the Old Forest and the Barrow-Downs are dead on… and Bree itself is the same.
One can pick nits about the scaling of the place, or about the fact that LotRO characters can toss fireballs and call on runic powers, and gripe that Tolkien’s magic was more subtle and less flashy, less in the D&D mold of magic as an arsenal. To Tolkien, much of what was magical lay in the making of things, whether those be swords of power, or the race of Orcs, or the One Ring itself. All this is true, but not all that relevant, since the world that Turbine has created based on Middle-Earth feels, much of the time, like the setting Tolkien’s artistry brought us.
This is why LotRO works. There are some mis-steps in the early game, brought about by Turbine’s very adhesion to the story of the novel that serves it so well elsewhere in the game. And some of the areas, like the Trollshaws, which invoke Tolkien very strongly, aren’t the best parts of the game from an MMO content design standpoint. But it works in the very same way, and for the very same reasons, that MERP did back in the day. Once I got my Dwarf to Bree-Land and began to explore the content there, I saw what seems obvious now, but which I’d missed in three previous cracks at the game. This is a world I know and am at home in, in a way that Norrath and Azeroth – and even Telon, which otherwise came closest – never were.
I have free-to-play to thank for that. If that hadn’t happened, I’d have continued along the course I was on, intending to have another look at it someday, a resolution that has turned out badly in some other cases. LotRO is a game with plenty of faults, but in the end it just works.