Wednesday, December 23, 2015


Hey, I’ve been playing more Lord of the Rings Online! I’ll break with tradition and present a link to my screenshot album at the top of the post instead of the bottom.

This period covers my time in Enedwaith, followed by a backtrack to Eriador to complete the Level 50-51 climax of Volume I of the epic storyline. Along the way are some adventures with Bingo Boffin, a trip to the Yule Festival, and a few other random quests. As usual, there are tons of spoilers and ramblings in the album notes. A few things that felt worthy of more detailed exposition are in this post.

One thing I’ve felt mildly but consistently disappointed in has been the lack of choice in the game. As noted in earlier posts, I’ve been spoiled by BioWare, even their own MMO of Star Wars: The Old Republic, in being able to chart my character’s course. I get why this is the case: to their great credit, Turbine is creating a game steeped in Tolkien’s values, so there’s no option to join the “dark side” or aid Sauron’s forces or any nonsense like that.


Recently, though, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the introduction of a few choices. They’re minor, but significant to me, and presented in a thoughtful way. One came during the early part of the Grey Company’s epic storyline, where you travel throughout Eriador to summon the various Rangers to travel to Rohan. Most of this is completely rote: travel to a spot, talk to a ranger, do a short quest for them, and then move on to the next. The interesting one, though, came with a ranger who was stationed in the Shire. He’s fallen in love with the people there, and wonders aloud whether he should leave. In either case, he wants you to bring the news to a hobbit who has been asking after his plans: one Lotho Sackville-Baggins.

Lotho? That rang a bell… wasn’t he a bad hobbit? I did a quick wiki search, and was confirmed in my suspicion: during the Scouring of the Shire, Lotho (aka Pimple) seizes control of the Shire, and his thugs enforce “Sharkey’s” (aka Saruman’s) malevolent designs.

Now, I don’t expect that my choice here will affect the ultimate outcome of the story - it isn’t like they’ll decide whether to scour the Shire or not based on one decision way back at Level 50. But it’s exactly this type of choice that’s perfect for the game and the story. There isn’t a “good” or a “bad” choice here. In one direction, you urge the Ranger to fulfill his duty, travel to the aid of his liege and kin, and trust that the hobbits can look after themselves. In the other direction, you urge the Ranger to follow the direction of his heart, and lend his sword to the people who need him most. While there may not be a major gameplay consequence, it’s a decision that will resonate as the story continues. Whenever the Grey Company faces obstacles, I’ll wonder if they would fare better with one more talented warrior by their side. Whenever I travel back through Brockenborings, I’ll feel a little happier knowing that at least one Dunedain remains to look after the little folks.

The second choice was even more interesting. The Yule Festival is pretty different from any of the other ones I’ve been to before. The Spring, Summer, and Harvest festivals have all taken place at the standard fairgrounds for the four races. Yule, however, is a bit more like the Treasure Hunt in that it takes place in an entirely new area. This new areas is considerably more developed, though, with a mayor and economy and traditions.

You tour the village on your arrival, and get a sense for its purpose. This is, to put it bluntly, a tourist town. They host festivals to attract out-of-towners like yourself. As you speak with more of the inhabitants and explore off the beaten path, though, you realize that it isn’t nearly as idyllic as it initially appears. The Mayor, in his quest to make a picture-perfect town, has quietly swept the undesirable beggars out to the far reaches of town. He squeezes the workers to work harder for less pay, so he can put on a bigger show for the visiting patrons.

Many of the yule quests have the same structure as the other seasonal festivals. There are quests to collect things (parts to build a snowman!), quests to defeat things (collect branches from ambulatory trees!), and entertaining bits of busy-work (bake bread! clean up dirty trash!). My favorite is a new innovation: the GLOBE theater (Green Lily Orators, Bards, and Entertainers), run by an enterprising troupe of hobbits. Impressively, the game recruits actual players to play roles within the play, while other players watch and show their approval or disdain by tossing rose-petals and rotten fruit respectively. (I gave an exemplary performance in my role as Partygoer!)

Now: I tend to say that you don’t have a choice in quests in LOTRO, but there really is one choice in every quest: whether to take it or not. For the most part, that isn’t really a choice at all; or, if the answer is “no”, it’s for mechanical rather than story reasons (it would take you too far out of your way, or take too much time, for too small of rewards). In the Yule festival, though, there are some quests that you’ll think twice before accepting. One quest, offered by the striking workers, asks you to give your hard-earned tokens to the unemployed. There aren’t any rewards to speak of for this; it effectively undos the rewards you would get from one of the other “real” quests. The only benefit is you feeling good about yourself. Conversely, there’s also a quest to shoo the undesirables off of the street. This is an easy job, with good rewards, and no negative consequences, other than possibly thinking less of yourself.

After the first day, I returned to the town, to find that the game had now progressed to presenting an actual mutually-exclusive choice. The Mayor asks you to infiltrate the workers and find information that would embarrass them into ending their strike. The workers, in turn, ask you to help uncover malfeasance in the Mayor’s administration and ultimately convince him to re-hire the proletariat at their original wages.

This was FASCINATING. For starters, it’s an asymmetric choice. The rewards you get from siding with the Mayor are MUCH better than siding with the workers; the poor only offer you shabby clothing and a unique title. This dynamic reminded me much more of the choices that Failbetter Games offers, where you feel compelled to take the “good” choice despite knowing that it offers fewer rewards; and the fact that it offers fewer rewards, curiously, makes you feel even better about taking it, as if it’s saying something positive about you as a human being rather than as a character in a game.

It was also surprising for its on-the-nose portrayal of inequality. I’m curious to see what year this was added to the game, but it must have been sometime after the 2008 financial crisis. LOTRO is a fantasy game, but in this one scene it feels a little like a small metaphor for the very real problems that people in the real world are facing.

It’s a delicate thing to present, and I’m a bit surprised that they attempted it at all. Tolkien isn’t particularly interested in poverty in his books, and in real life he was fairly anti-socialist (particularly later in life). But he was even more irritated at the factory-owners and industry titans, and you can sense that deep-rooted antipathy in (e.g.) his descriptions of Saruman overseeing the “factories” of Isengard or the Shire. Tolkien would have preferred that the factories be shut down entirely rather than turned over to the workers, but it isn’t necessarily out of character to offer this kind of story in Middle-earth.

Okay! So, yeah. That’s a grand total of two interesting choices in, uh, about ten months of gameplay. I’m curious to see if this pace continues in the future.


As I noted before, one of the difficult things about playing this game as an MMORPG is how fragmented the storytelling can be. I think the epic storyline is probably good, but since I only experience it in short chunks separated by long periods of time spent doing other things, it’s hard to keep it all straight.

I’m a bit happier with how the conclusion of Volume I went. Part of this might be that it was just more memorable: you spend a lot of time with a handful of characters, rather than the constantly-changing cast that was featured earlier. But I think a big part is also because I was overleveled enough to just blow through it all. By this point I was level 67, far above the level 50-51 it was originally created for, so I didn’t have to waste any time discovering new fast travel points or while moving from point A to point B, and wasn’t distracted by on-level quests along the way. I could just do story after story and see how it all ended.

And there is a LOT of story! I was a little surprised by that. Because there’s so much STUFF in an MMO, I’ve tended to assume that it was filling out and covering up an anemic central plot. It’s complex enough to be the central thread of a single-player RPG, though.

I’ll probably go into this in more detail in the album, so I’ll refrain from the blow-by-blow recap here. But here are some musings on how well it worked for me big-picture:

The final conclusion to Volume I was very affecting. I was a little gun-shy at first after the Lorniel episode; I worried that Amarthiel was getting more development just to get shot down. That was… kind of true, I guess, but I ended up sort of loving how it was handled.

The whole arc with Laerdan and Amarthiel/Narmeleth is such a wonderfully Tolkienesque story. Its tragedy feels very much like something out of The Silmarillion: most of the tales in that book are stories of things getting worse and worse, of hopes being betrayed, of pride destroying chances of happiness. And yet, its conclusion rests on some of the values that Tolkien held most dear. It’s a story of confession, of redemption, of mercy, of sacrifice. Amariel can’t undo the deeds that she’s done, but her soul is saved, thanks to the hard work of others and her humility in accepting her own limits. (I hadn’t thought of it in these terms while playing, but it’s a very Catholic story as well.) Part of me wishes that Amariel had lived and could do more cool things, but as it stands she’s the most memorable original character in this game, and I’m happy with the emphatic conclusion to her story.

That kind of devotion to Tolkien’s themes is even more important to me than their admirable respect towards Tolkien’s lore. They bend over backwards, for example, to explain that Narchuil is NOT one of the Nine, or even one of the Seven (which I personally would have been tempted to do), but still manage to connect it to Sauron via the oblique passages describing the various other rings he crafted. And his appearance as the Gift-Lord is chilling and subtle, all the more ominous for how innocuous it appears.


As usual, the thing I love most about LOTRO is the feeling of physically inhabiting the space of Middle-earth. I’m glad that I’m now able to engage even more with the feeling of actually living there, making choices and inhabiting the emotional universe Tolkien created.

That sense of identification is strong, so much so that every once in a while I’m pulled up short by some quest I’m doing. I’m currently traveling through Enedwaith preparing the way through the Grey Company. Much of this is agreeable work - gathering allies, scouting roads, gathering supplies - but every once in a while there’s a quest like “Collect 8 Dunlending Cloaks”. Which must be done by killing Dunlendings. Which then plunges me into a miniature crisis - Dunlendings are people, too. These PARTICULAR Dunlendings are part of an army that seeks to overthrow the Free Peoples and plunge Arda into darkness, but does that mean that they can’t be reasoned with?

While the details sometimes make me question the game I’m playing, the larger picture stays clear. This is a game that presents the nuance and complexity in tribal societies, the mixture of good and bad people everywhere, or even in the same person. I was briefly annoyed recently by the revelation that a particular character wasn’t just a dwarf, but a Dourhand Dwarf. In the shorthand of this game, Longbeards = Good Dwarfs, Dourhands = Bad Dwarves. Every time you see a Dourhand, you kill it.

Except, this time, you don’t. Dourhands are rational, thinking, social creatures, just like you or me. This particular person was unhappy with the actions of several of his comrades, and works with you to undo the damage done. That really touched me - it’s just a single character out of the thousands of faceless foes, granted, but one is all it takes to show that genetics aren’t destiny, that you can’t dismiss a tribe or a race as being evil because of their ancestry.

And then I remembered that, of course, this isn’t some amazing new insight that Turbine has injected into the game. One of my favorite moments in the theatrical version of Lord of the Rings is probably when Faramir comments on the Easterling slain by his forces. Up until this point, we’ve known the Easterlings as members of a faceless evil “other”, the “evil men” who are supporting Sauron and so much be stopped. But in the midst of very real suffering, he ponders this man. He had a family, and people who loved him. He didn’t think of what he was doing as evil. He had accepted the call to raise arms, just as the brave Gondorians on the western side had done.

I can’t watch this scene without thinking of Tolkien’s time as a soldier at the Battle of the Somme, when he witnessed first-hand the awful waste of war. He saw bravery and sacrifice, and made those virtues in his books; but he avoids glorifying killing and battle. After the victory of the Battle of Morannon and the destruction of the Ring, Aragorn focuses on rebuilding, and creates a stable peace that endures beyond the end of his reign.

That’s the endgame. Not total victory and raising your side to supremacy, but removing the essential threat facing you, and then using the gifts of wisdom and diplomacy to raise everyone around you. That’s the moral universe that Tolkien created, and it’s one that I love inhabiting.

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