How LotRO Works

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.

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13 responses to “How LotRO Works

  1. Glad you’re enjoying it! I think this is a great example of where your starting race and/or class really makes a big difference in the first impression you get. If you’d been a hobbit fan and started in the Shire, for example, I bet you’d have stayed with it longer the first time.

  2. I bought MERP when it was first published. Our D&D group was beginning to break out into other RPGs by then and we had a “step-up” policy for GMs; if there was a ruleset you wanted to run then the group would let you run it. I ran a short campaign from MERP and it went well, including one of the best sessions I ever ran, where everything went completely off-message and I extemporised for several hours. I still have the book in the picture, somewhere, though I’ve not used it for a quarter of a century.

    As for Tolkein, although I first read Lord of the Rings in the early 1970s and have read it, I think, three and a half times since then, I’ve never been much convinced by it as a novel. There are some very lengthy passages that I outright dislike and I don’t think it’s particularly well-constructed. Of all the fantasy worlds I’ve read or virtually inhabited over the last four or five decades, I don’t think anything comes close to Norrath. Telon probably would be second.

    I’m also back dabbling in LotRO thanks to the F2P. I was running round Bree last night and enjoying it very much. So kind of Turbine to make that possible, because I certainly would never have paid them any more money to do it.

    • @Bhagpuss If you want to be impressed by Tolkein, you need to look at the whole of his work rather than just the literary style of the trilogy, I think. Personally, I loved the trilogy and The Hobbit, but the true genius of Tolkein lies in understanding the epic span of his creations. The Silmarillion makes painfully dry reading in places, but brings to understanding when placed with his other works that this one man created millenia of history, vast bloodlines, and multiple languages with systems reflecting their origins over the millenia that his history spans. It’s how rich the *background* of his work is that is truly amazing.

      @Ardwulf Very well said, and I think you’re spot on about the “feel” of LOTRO’s world. It really hit me in the f2p beta, sitting on Brandywine Bridge and fishing. There are so many little things that make the world feel real, and it generally captures very well the Tolkein style. There are missteps here and there, but most of them don’t really break your immersion. Although killing oversized flys, chopping up swarms of gnats with my sword, and killing giant slugs do threaten my suspension of disbelief a bit. :> But you’ll find that sort of thing in any game, so I can forgive it. I am also ashamed to admit that they have thoroughly sucked me into the wardrobe system, which I blame squarely on the last fall festival for giving me such a cool cloak. But what keeps me coming back is those times that I just feel like I’m living in Tolkein’s world, even from so simple a thing as fishing off a bridge. I love that hobbits in the Shire are only dimly aware of rumors of trouble on the borders, and still mostly consumed with worries over crops, pie, ale, internal politics, what to wear to the next party, and where they lost their lucky slingstone.

      • ” I love that hobbits in the Shire are only dimly aware of rumors of trouble on the borders, and still mostly consumed with worries over crops, pie, ale, internal politics, what to wear to the next party, and where they lost their lucky slingstone.”

        That is so true! I’ve heard podcasters and bloggers complain at times of the pie eating and mail delivery quests in Hobbiton, but that is exactly what I like about that setting in the game.

  3. There are some places in LotRo that really are breathtaking. The Old Forest is incredible, Hobbiton is pretty amazing, and Weathertop is just friggin’ cool. I’m looking forward to Moria, Mirkood, and eventually Isengard. I’ve re-subbed for 3 months and plan on being here at least until the Isengard content comes.

    The PvMP content is also kind of fun for a change of pace…conditions just have to be right.

  4. Ardwulf,

    I am right with you. I too found the Dwarf and Elf initial areas to be lacking in that Tolkien feel. While I found the Shire and Bree to be very much in the sweet spot. Have tried the F2P and started an elf. I like the revamp they did to the starter area but its still lacking.

    Will perhaps try a human and see Bree again. Will try to get all the way to Moria this time .. hehe.

    Thanks too for the I.C.E memories. Their ads in Dragon were iconic, sticking in my memory. The other old Dragon ads I loved were for Harn. Never did buy the stuff but wow it looked cool.

    • Heh. I still have all of my large Harn collection. I parted with the MERP stuff years ago, which I regret (and re-bought a few things as I’ve seen them for reasonable prices,) but you’ll have my Harn stuff only from my cold, dead fingers.

  5. Like the others here, you refreshed great memories of I.C.E. and MERPs from my childhood. Though a good deal younger, my group of youthful gamers found the system in the late ’90s and enjoyed them very much while we could. Heck, I’m even partially enticed to check out LotRO now that it’s F2P thanks to your sparking of nostalgic memory.

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  8. People have complained before to me that Moria is confusing and like running through a maze, and Mirkwood is too dark and glum. But I will say, as I said to them, that those two places are supposed to be like that. Turbine did such an excellent job of making Moria so dreadful and gloomy that you literally breathed deep when you finally saw the end of it and headed to Lothlorien. Dimrill Dale was very, very welcome! Mirkwood is absolutely creepy at night, and you can’t see that far, so you are constantly running into mobs. But that is very true to the story as well. I applaud Turbine for the wonderful job they did in recreating Tolkien’s world!

    And the Trollshaws. The first time I found a certain glade with a certain set of stone trolls, I just about died! It was a gem, for which I didn’t have a quest, just sitting quietly waiting to be discovered.