Playing LOTRO for Tolkien Fans

In a few weeks, the course that initially got me playing LOTRO (Lord of the Rings Online) comes back for a second run.  Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative is taught through Coursera by Jay Clayton, a literature professor and rather charming Tolkien geek, and focuses on narrative by comparing LOTRO, The Lord of the Rings, and the Peter Jackson films of the same name. When I first took the course last year, I was a big Tolkien fan but a newbie to LOTRO and to MMORPGs in general, and I imagine I’m not the only one. So I thought this would be a good time, as promised, to cover LOTRO from the perspective of a Tolkien fan–what’s cool about it, and what to avoid. If you’re new to MMORPGs, check out my review of the LOTRO experience before the course starts.

Exploring Middle Earth

Far and away my favorite thing about the game, and what keeps me coming back as someone who is often driven by world-building and curiosity about the “background” to a fantasy narrative, is the way LOTRO builds out the world of Middle Earth. Beyond the gameplay elements that actually drive play, to me LOTRO is a lot about having the unique opportunity to actually run around the world as it exists around the main narrative line of The Lord of the Rings. While the game does make reference to the path of the Fellowship, which I’ll get to below, it’s really about the broader world around that journey. It’s accessible to non-fans, but it’s a real treat for those who love Tolkien and especially love that sense of all the things that were happening in the Third Age in parallel to the storyline to make the journey of the Ring a success.

As you play through the quests and level your character up, you get to explore parts of the map that are frankly stunning. This is an area where modern graphics really shine. The terrain is realistic–you often spend time navigating hills and trying to figure out how to get through caves–but not so realistic as to put you off ever wanting to play the damn thing.

This part of the Lone Lands, between Bree and Rivendell, is controlled by Radagast, who actually gets to play a pretty major role here.
This part of the Lone Lands, between Bree and Rivendell, is controlled by Radagast, who actually gets to play a pretty major role here.
You get some tools to navigate, such as a quest tracker and a map and a compass, but you also can just poke around a lot. While a lot of early play centers on Bree, you also have an opportunity to explore the lands west of the Shire (roughly near Cirdan’s ships) where Elves and Dwarves set up camp in the game, or the lands to the North of the Shire where Rangers were battling strange creatures prior to Frodo’s journey. You can explore strongholds of the Enemy, such as Angmar, as well. And don’t neglect your Deed Log–you can actually get Turbine points just from running around, as the Exploration Deeds challenge you to find points of interest and reward you for doing so.

I like the way many of the quests, including those in the epic quest line, focus on support for the Fellowship or on helping out the Free Folk that are dealing with the consequences of Sauron’s (and Sauraman’s) rise all around the map. You meet side characters and OCs (original characters) who have some clear role, and learn about how community members have betrayed their own friends and family, how wargs and wolves are starting to attack Shire crops, and how Rangers and Elves work in the background to restore good. I also love, visually, how the game preserves some of the beauty of the films and the books, especially the ruins that you see throughout the countryside, hinting at Man’s golden era after Isildur’s reign. The influence of the Dunedain and the Elves, as well as the Dwarves, can be felt all over the map, and this is one of the things I most love about Tolkien–subtle references to past events that give the reader a strong sense of history and gravitas. (In fact, I plan to write another post in the future about the significance of these ruins and their ties to actual colonial history–there’s a lot to say).

Differences Between LOTRO and Lord of the Rings

All of that said, there are some challenges to consider when approaching the game as a Tolkien fan. Since I’m not used to MMOs, one thing I didn’t really consider was how much gameplay mechanics would matter in terms of my interest. I shelled out a bunch of precious Turbine Points on Rivendell, because I needed to see Rivendell (even running there ahead at first before I understood the importance of leveling slowly), only to find that the game’s Rivendell is small, not that much more impressive than other areas, and only has a handful of quests. Don’t make this mistake.

The geography of the game is cool, but the coolness factor does not necessarily track with the books. You may find that you love areas that weren’t really covered or weren’t that interesting in the books. Ironically, I got out of Ered Luin as quickly as I could seeking Rivendell, only to realize that I actually like Ered Luin (another Elf-heavy area) a lot more! Google is your friend to find out what areas are good for what sort of player, and what’s worth spending Turbine Points purchasing once you get past the free areas. Remember that since your quests are only tangential to the Lord of the Rings plot, some of the most interesting quest lines may not actually relate to the most interesting parts of the Fellowship’s journey.

This advice also applies to scariness factor. For a while I avoided the Barrow Downs like the plague. You couldn’t catch me within a mile of there!

Glorfindel stands between wights in a barrow, who are ignoring him entirely.
I ain’t afraid of no barrow-wights.

Turns out, the wights aren’t actually any scarier than any other enemy at their level, and there are quite a lot of advantages to playing there, from reputation-boosting items dropped by the baddies to tons of goodies for Scholars to a lot of quests and deeds. Pay attention to the enemy’s level, not to your Tolkien-based wisdom that says “avoid the hell out of innocuous looking birds!”

Lord of the Rings Main Characters

Finally, what about characters? Well, since it’s an MMO, obviously all the real people playing in the world are invented characters, despite my cheeky decision to name my first character GlorfindelofGondolin.

Glorfindel stands on a stage with other characters in a play.
In an interesting device, one Winter Festival included a quest where you participate in a play about Bilbo’s birthday party. Glorfindel was not very convincingly playing Bilbo here.

During your quests, most of the NPCs you encounter are either original or very minor characters in the books, with their roles being more important. You will meet some familiar hobbits early on, and I’m sure many of you will be excited to encounter Tom Bombadil. This focus on minor characters is smart, since the game isn’t linear. You can take however much time you want, or turn around, and so it would be hard to track the Fellowship very precisely.

That said, there are places to run into familiar friends, and even Fellowship members.

Glorfindel stands next to his actual in-game counterpart.
Bros for life.
Some major characters are static, such as Elrond who pretty much just hangs out in his library in Rivendell and has tasks to give you from time to time. Other characters move occasionally. I’m pretty sure I met Elladan and Elrohir both in Ered Luin and then later in the Trollshaws. You’ll see Nazgul from time to time during Instances, though you don’t actually face them until later. I got really excited when I finally met Glorfindel in the game and had to do a “bros shot” of my Glorfindel and the real one together.

The Fellowship members show up at various points along the epic quest line, if you’re following it. For example, you can find Strider and Gandalf in Bree, and then later in Rivendell with everyone else.

Retreating backs of the nine Fellowship members, each labelled by name.
Mandatory Hallmark shot. Glorfindel watches the Fellowship leave Imladris.
There are occasionally movie-like “quests” where you just sit there and watch them happening, such as Galadriel coming to you in a dream or watching the Fellowship leave Imladris. These are terribly boring. I’d rather run errands for Bilbo.

Overall, I think the key to enjoying the game as a Tolkien fan is just to relax, explore, learn a little bit about gameplay so that you can follow the rewards system of the game and not be working against it, and just enjoy!

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