LOTRO: The small things matter — and I am a small thing

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One of the big problems with storytelling in MMORPGs is that writers and developers tend to back themselves into a corner with the whole “You’re the Greatest Hero the World Has Ever Seen” bit too early, leaving themselves with nowhere to go. Sure, most games start you out pretty small potatoes, clawing your way up through insignificant quests, but by mid-game you’re already saving whole zones and being hailed the world over for your deeds.

I get why. I mean, that’s every fantasy story ever, and the devs assume that we want to live out that story vicariously through our characters. It’s heady to be told that we’re these wonderful saviors after we face off against world-ending bosses… the first few times, that is. But the problem here is that when you get to that point with an MMO and the game still has to keep making new content, what do you do? You can only escalate the threat so many times, go to a new zone so many times where no one recognizes your pedigree and you must earn their trust, and eventually face off against some six-story horror so many times. It becomes routine and stale, and the meaning of “hero” is eroded into a bland status quo.

I’ve said before that I don’t want to be the big hero. I don’t need that. My ego doesn’t need that. And I think that people play MMOs for many reasons, some to tell their own stories and be a very specific part of the world instead of taking center stage at the Fantasy Kingdom Oscars.

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So thank goodness for LOTRO and its tendency to remind all of us that heroism isn’t punching the rock monster in its stones and having a parade thrown for our honor afterward. Sure, there have been moments of greatness, but they feel fewer and further between than normal, and earned to boot. From start to end, we’re just these people (of all sizes) who lead by example, do the best we can, and often get tossed into situations where everything is way over our head.

My son was watching me play the other day and I was explaining what was going on in Rohan, what with the army of the White Hand starting to sweep in and most of my efforts going to help people with the evacuation. He asked, “Daddy, why don’t you just go fight them all?” which I thought was amusing. In some MMOs, I’m sure I could. I’d be superman, wading through battalions like a child stomping over sandcastles. But here? I’m just one person — albeit well-funded, well-trained, and possessing the ability to not ever die. I can’t wage a war single-handedly.

So I had to tell my son that sometimes heroes help people evacuate, keep people safe, and do what good they can in whatever way they can. That’s what I love about LOTRO, I’m never the main hero. I might participate in heroism, but it’s not about me. It feels more real that way, more nuanced, and more involving.

I’m not going to get up on a soapbox and say that, hey, this is better than your game, because I enjoy a lot of different approaches. It’s just something I’ve always appreciated about LOTRO (and in a weirdly similar way, The Secret World too).

As I’ve been working back through all of the Rohan quests I skipped over, I’m taking the opportunity to enjoy these smaller moments of being a part of the life and struggles of these fictional people. It’s not mundane to me, to board up a house, or search for a lost girl, or to pluck a few weeds. Keeps me humble, even as a hero. And there’s always places to go with such stories, because there are always more people to help. I’ll leave the apocalypse-stopping to someone else for a while.

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4 thoughts on “LOTRO: The small things matter — and I am a small thing

  1. Sylow February 6, 2017 / 10:05 am

    I very much agree with the basic idea of this posting. Unfortunately i disagree on your assessment of LotRO. Mind you, there’s a big disclaimer: i didn’t play since years, and my experience is for the base game. If the story writing for the expansions is better then i simply don’t know and couldn’t tell better, this is all based on the first few zones which i actually played. (Which excludes the above mentioned Rohan, i think that came later. )

    The contrast is strong if you look at the example you also gave: TSW. The characters role is consistent. A Templar character is a field agent, a Dragon character is a tool and an Illuminati character is a wannabe who’s forced to do the dirty work. (So yes, they effectively are the same, except how they are being treated. ) No matter which of the “job descriptions” is used for your character, all the missions in the game fit into the line of work.

    You start out with investigating the mysteries of the fog on Solomon island, but also bring your combat abilities. As you have shown you can handle either part, you get sent to similar activities in other areas. Nowhere are you sent to bake cakes, plant or harvest crop and handle animal-produced “fertilizer”.

    In contrast LotRO doesn’t really know where it stands. I mean, right from the start my character survived an encounter with a Nazgul. Then he showed his combat abilities, up to and including to almost single-handedly defending some fortification. (Don’t ask for details, it’s years since i played that game. ) And after being recognized in one zone of the game to be a hero and have prevented a catastrophic outcome, you are sent to the next zone, where you are a nobody again, so one of the farmers there tells you to go to his field and collect cowdung. After all the cows dropped that there instead of at some other place, which needs fertilisation more and the farmer himself is way too busy smoking his pipe to do that himself…

    I know, game mechanics and everything, but i actually sadly see more consistancy in those games where you end up very early to be “the one and only” and then are stuck in the corner of boring for the rest of the game. The problem is obvious and just as noted here, the writers put themselves into a corner and eliminated all the good options by making the player the big hero much too fast.

    Unfortunatly LotRO doesn’t avoid the “you single-handedly saved hundreds of people” scenes where you end up as a big hero. They are there, and as far as i remember (with the distance of several years since i played giving a degree of uncertainty) they usually are at the end of a zones story. Instead, they just “reset” whenever you get into the next zone with a new story.

    So while the character travels, news do not. (At all!) Considering that gossip is the very only thing in our world which makes scientists sometimes wonder if it’s really true that nothing can move faster than the speed of light, the utter absence of information travel in LotRO is a bit irritating for me. For sure it’s much better than all the “we all have heard of your heroic deeds, but for some reasons we still want you to do trivial stuff and to prove yourself once again” which happens in many other games where the authors wrote themselves into a corner much too early, but it’s still far from perfection.

    But as said: maybe the newer zones are written better and i just don’t know. My writeup is based on old times of the game, and actually for the time it was written, in comparison to other games of that time, it was rather good, despite the logical flaws.

  2. Pasduil February 6, 2017 / 12:24 pm

    When I have a problem with chore type quests it’s not so much because they’re inappropriate to give to a renowned warrior as that they are often very tedious and annoying gameplay. I guess that is fundamentally because all your skills are combat related, so in a non-combat situation, there is pretty much nothing you can do besides find something, and click on it.

    It’s true that the quests are sometimes incongruous though. Played some LOTRO yesterday after a long while, and for my next quest in the Epic I’ve been told to kill a few corsairs (I think it was) and collect their sashes(?) to show Aragorn what a good sort I am when I meet him in Pelargir. Since Aragorn’s known me since The Prancing Pony this seems a bit silly.

    Overall, yes I would love to have content that doesn’t involve me being a big hero or killing stuff, but it has to actually be enjoyable and stimulating content.

  3. bhagpuss February 6, 2017 / 12:58 pm

    I’d love an entire MMO where ALL you ever got to do was the trivial, everyday chores. I have always felt that way, from when I first discovered fantasy role playing games with AD&D back in the early 80s. I retired my first AD&D character at level 8 because by then we were already expected to do things and fight monsters in a way that I found completely unconvincing. Dragons and demons and demigods threatening whole cities are orders of magnitude less interesting, exciting or involving as opponents than bandits or goblins raiding villages and farms, or they are for me.

    In MMOs I deal with the problem by starting over and over and over again, playing through the lower levels where the quests and threats are of a scale i can empathize with and understand. One of the reason I like SOE/DBG’s MMOs so much is that no matter how many insanely convoluted god vs god storylines there might be, even my highest level characters always end up looking for someone’s missing son or teaching a goblin how to make a lobster pot.

  4. Sylow February 7, 2017 / 6:44 am

    “I’d love an entire MMO where ALL you ever got to do was the trivial, everyday chores.”

    You would’ve loved old SWG, if you didn’t play that one. After all good crafters were in high demand and very renowned, while the toughest combat action they saw was that once a while they required an armed escort when they had their harvesting machinery in areas with hostile wildlife.

    So while a career in combat was also available and required (my character made a lot of money by collecting and selling high quality leather), it was just one of many paths. Unfortunately i am also quite sure that we won’t ever see a game like that again. People by now are too much used to playing a combat veteran who’s at the same time a master of several crafting professions. SWG only worked on the basis that you had one character per account and you had to interact with others, so it was impossible to be self-sufficient.

    Just imagine how people would react to this “weird” idea in todays MMOs: a multiplayer game where you actually have to cooperate with other people to be successful. It would get terrible reviews and would never sell…

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