LOTRO: There’s a dead pig at the end of this post

Dang LOTRO, where do you get off looking so pretty a decade into your lifespan? I swear, Minas Tirith and it’s many interiors are the best-kept secret of MMO cities right now.

Anyway, before we get to the dead pig at the end of this post (steel yourself, mighty warrior), let me recount to you the crazy ride that I have been on this past weekend. Anticipating the drop of Update 20 this week — whether or not it actually happens — I bent my willpower to trying to finish up North Ithilien so that I could be fully ready to move on.

Of course, I find that whenever I’m focused on finishing up a zone or expansion or what have you (especially for the first time), the game seems to delight in unloading even more quests at me just when I thought I was all done. The good news is that I’m fully caught up in the epic book, but the bad news is that I kept discovering more and more and more quest chains as I scrambled to clear out my log.

And as pretty as North Ithilien is, getting around it is a major pain in the Hobbit butt. There are only two stable masters (three, if you’re being kind and include Osgiliath), it’s hard to ride directly to places when you go off-road (and there’s really just one main north-south road), and that milestone cooldown is still wildly too long. LOTRO devs, could you look at how short WoW’s hearthstone is and maybe consider bringing yours down a smidge?

Another drawback when you’re pressured for time and trying to get everything wrapped up is that there’s a good incentive to stop reading quest text just to get things done faster. I’m trying to absorb the information, but there are too many different chains and I missed a few of the boxes so that everything is jumbled up in my mind.

Hey you know what’s the best thing for you when you have a brain injury and migraines? To have a “nurse” play a shrill flute three feet from your ear. That’s what Middle-earth calls modern medicine.

I did get sucked into a lengthy quest line involving a healer who joins me for a road trip to get some bonus flowers and assemble the pages of a medical book. That was a scavenger hunt and a half, what with retracing steps all of the place and even being forced back into Osgiliath. Could’ve done without that.

Probably my favorite bit was from a quest that I had somehow overlooked early on that took me briefly into Mordor with Gandalf and Aragorn to destroy the bridge to Minas Morgul. It was such a terrific bit of staging, and seeing that city nearer than before gave me chills. Can’t wait to go there!

I love this girl. She might be a total bookworm — and even takes one with her into battle — but as a Lore-master, I approve. Plus, she’s pretty wicked with that sword!

Some of the mobs in the ruins and caves even approached kicking-my-butt levels of difficulty if I wasn’t paying attention. I got too used to my LM steamrolling over everything with my pet. Guess those days are gone?

I promised that there would be a dead pig at the end of this post, and I do not fail my promises. Actually, many dead pigs, here to remind you that LOTRO isn’t always scenic vistas of Rivendell and the Shire. It can be pretty gross too at times.

LOTRO: The North Ithilien tourist

Today I feel like gushing a bit about Lord of the Rings Online’s North Ithilien zone, because I feel like it’s one of the most attractive (definitely in the top five) zones in the game right now.

I wasn’t expecting too much, since other Gondor zones ranged from “adequate” to “battle scarred,” but this one really surprised me. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t really paying attention when it was first added to the game (not having been playing at the time), or perhaps it’s because this zone shares a mountainous border with Mordor, a land not renowned for its pristine beauty.

But North Ithilien? It has been a joy to quest in, just for the uplifting visuals.

The zone is a strip of land that rests between the mountain range and the Great River, so there’s a pretty severe downslope going from east to west. It’s kind of a Swiss Alps meets Mediterranean atmosphere, with great vistas around you most of the time.

Going about this zone, I’m reminded of one thing that LOTRO does really well, which is to create outdoor spaces that feel more wild and natural than what I usually get in MMOs. Lots of varied and leafy undergrowth, interesting trees, and landscape that looks like something that formed over time rather than cooked up in a dev lab to be jigsawed together with other random areas.

My only complaint about North Ithilien (other than the whole flower picking thing, but that’s another post) is that the river gorges and rocky terrain can make it a little more difficult than I’d like going north to south or vice versa, especially when off the road.

Can’t have a LOTRO zone without ruins, even in the “Garden of Gondor!” I always try to envision what these places looked like in the height of their glory.

I love good examples of environmental storytelling, like in this area. There are burned tree trunks and mounds of bones, but all of it is overgrown, suggesting a nasty battle and possible Orc occupation a while ago.

Orc runes carved into one of the trees. Wonder what it says (“GROK WAZ HERE!”).

This troll must’ve been caught unaware in the sunlight and turned into stone. You can see that the moss has started to grow on his chest, suggesting that a good amount of time has passed.

I feel that the zone is hard to capture in screenshots… it just feels much more pretty and alive when you are there.

Meanwhile, Gandalf turns to the north — to the Black Gate and our destiny. It’s a sober reminder that the beauty behind us may be our last for a good long time.

LOTRO: When good places go ugly

Pictured: LOTRO’s take on the elusive “Blinding Daylight Bat” that took a look at the nocturnal lifestyle and said, “Nah, not for me, mate!”

Right now on both of my Lord of the Rings Online characters, I’m venturing in picturesque countrysides. Both the Shire and North Ithilien are lush and inviting in their own ways, and I am gratified that this MMO has beautiful zones not merely front-loaded in the early game experience but also later on as well.

I’m very much a creature affected by my environment. Messy, dreary, oppressive, or otherwise ugly places put a huge damper on my spirits (and the opposite is quite true, of course). I’d always rather be adventuring around an area that shows off beauty and creativity rather than something that looks like one of Detroit’s more decrepit neighborhoods. Sure, I could see that for some, having that visually oppressive tone would be important for a personal fantasy of a hero entering the den of evil and fighting to its very core, but I’m perfectly fine with evil setting up shop in a garden or a well-groomed park.

Pictured: Not my mount. But I wish that it would be. If it was? Mounted combat in this game would actually be something worth doing.

LOTRO has a huge mix of pretty, ugly, and in-between zones — and to be fair, has a good mix of all and well spread out to boot. Just when I can’t stand another day in, say, Moria’s depths, then I burst out into Lothlorien and fight me some flower-pickin’ elves while admiring the scenery. Ugly zones are the ones I want to blitz through and ignore all of the tourism (picture taking, side detours, etc.). Attractive ones invite me to stay as long as possible.

This is beating around the bush to say that I’m more than a little nervous about Update 20 and beyond. I’ve already watched the videos for the new Wastes zone, and it’s just as visually appealing as it sounds. I mean, it’s even got a place called the “slag hills,” so you know you’re in for a stroll through a fine day. Lots of dark clouds, blasted landscapes, dead bodies, ruins, ghosts, Orc camps, and toxic pools of wastes. And this is BEFORE we’ve even set foot one into Mordor, mind you.

Looking at the map, Mordor is just a huge region, and I’d wager that the expansion won’t even touch half of it upon release. We don’t know a lot about the places outside of where Sam and Frodo visited (which is mostly the northwest corner), so here’s hoping that the devs will find some way to bring out beauty — or barring that, interesting visuals that aren’t just endless fields of ash, rock, and Orcish exterior decorating.

The face of Gollum in LOTRO is way creepier than the movies. Same scraggly comb-over, though.

So I’m dragging my feet on finishing up North Ithilien, because I know that if I do, I won’t have an excuse not to jump right into the Wastes come Update 20. And I am excited about the new quests and epic story, not to mention checking out the massive Black Gate and all. I just don’t want to be spending the next four months looking at the zone equivalent of a scab only to progress into Mordor past that and have it be some sort of outdoors version of Moria — a place filled with mighty wonders, but ultimately is not where we want to stay for months on end.

Post-Mordor is quite on my mind, although that’s bringing us into 2018. There are a lot more amazing vistas yet to discover in Middle-earth, so I’ll hold on to the hope that we’ll see some of those to relieve the time spent in Sauron’s outhouse. And I’m going to trust that the devs aren’t going too far overboard with the whole death metal theme and will find a way to make Mordor more than what we expect.

LOTRO: Concerning Hobbits

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Currently in Lord of the Rings Online, I’m ping-ponging back and forth between my high-level Lore-master, who is going through North Ithilien, and my baby Hobbit Minstrel, who is poking around the Shire in no apparent hurry to leave.

I was running back to Michel Delving the other night to the Bird and Baby Inn to turn in a quest when I saw that the tavern was full of Hobbits enjoying a social gathering of some sort. There were four lasses from one kin playing music in the corner and a circle of assorted Hobbits (including one wearing a chicken on her head) from another. I stopped to listen to the music and was greeted warmly by the crowd. I didn’t want to disturb them, so I just waved back and hung around for a little bit, taking pictures and enjoying the tunes.

I noticed that the kin on the floor was playing some sort of game in /say, and so I took the time to look up their kinship — Concerning Hobbits — on the web. I’d seen them around before, particularly while playing in the Shire, and they seemed friendly enough. The website further cemented this impression by portraying a picture of a kin that was social heavy, RP lite, and generally very friendly.

After wandering around for a little bit, I trotted back to the inn and sent the kin leader a tell asking to chat after they were done (this might be one of the first times that I ever sat in a chair in this game — I didn’t even know you could do that). When they finished, the whole kin surrounded me and we talked for a while about what they were like, my pie preference, and whether I was a doody-head who was sure to open up a faucet of profanities at the first available opportunities.

Long story short, I got a kin invite and joined this Hobbit-only guild. Again, I was kind of bowled over how nice and chummy everyone was, and I accepted their invitation to come join them for the next part of their evening, which was (I kid you not) drunk backwards racing around the race track in the southern Shire. You had to get wasted so that the screen was blurry and then run as a group around the circuit backwards. I didn’t participate but merely watched, chatting with the guild leader and lighting off fireworks as they came around.

It’s definitely a good feeling to have a kin home for my lowbie, and while my LM remains in Lonely Mountain Band, it’s nice to branch out and meet some other folks. I never have a problem being in multiple guilds, and if a guild in particular has issues with that, oh well. MMOs are social games and we should be allowed to be part of several social circles if so desired.

Otherwise, my minnie is coming along very nicely. Almost too nicely, in fact. I’m not even halfway done with the Shire (doing all of the quests, as is my goal) and I’m already level 17. I’ll definitely be outpacing content sooner or later, but even if that happens, it’s not going to stop me from doing the quests. Keeping an eye out for rewards or drops that can be used cosmetically is a big motivator, as is simply immersing myself in the stories.

I did buy a small house — for now — and stocked it with the few items I had. At some point the game gave me a lockbox and a key (level 15? a deed? I don’t remember), and inside I got five slayer and skill deed boosters. This was actually a godsend, because those boosters last for 90 minutes each and can be used to level up skills without worry of a cap.

So instead of continuing on with the Shire, I took a break to head to the Barrow-downs for some serious skilling. I’ve been running around, going through as many of my skills as possible in each fight, and watching my counters climb up. I even managed to complete four slayer deeds without intentionally trying, which is nice. Again, I’m not worrying about virtues, but unlocking those skill deeds gives me access to better skill effects, so that’s obviously important. I figure it’ll be better to get a chunk of them done now than having to wait over a long period of time.

LOTRO: I finally caught up with myself

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Looking back over my LOTRO blog posts, I made my return to the game in mid-December 2016 after a lengthy absence. I spent the first couple of weeks playing my Captain and going through the first part of the post-Battle of Pelennor Fields content before deciding that I would much rather have my Lore-master be my main endgame character instead.

In early January, I made the switch to my long-abandoned (two-plus years) Lore-master and began the process of catching her up. She started out at level 76 and was at the very beginning of the Riders of Rohan, so I figured that I could plow her through the epic story without much else on the side (which I think I had been doing with her way back when anyway).

I got up to level 96 before realizing that I probably was doing myself a disservice by ignoring the Rohan and Gondor quests, since I probably would want the class trait points that can be gained from doing those (in my defense, it HAD been a very long time since I’d been in this game and fully aware of all of its ins and outs). So in early February, I stopped the epic and went back to do all of the Rohan and Gondor quest chains that gave out those points. At about one chain a night, that didn’t take as long as I thought.

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By last weekend, I was already back up to the Battle of Pelennor Fields. My son had become very interested in the game and its story and made me promise that I wouldn’t play through the whole battle story without him there. So I did slow down a bit to stretch the battle over three days so that he could witness it all.

And with that complete, I found my Lore-master finally to the point that I was two months ago with my Captain: fresh off of the big battle and going into the new zone and epic book. She has 76 class trait points (out of 82 I think?), two first age imbued legendary items, and high enough virtues that I’m not fretting. It’s a good place to be in.

By my reckoning, we have about a month to go before the anniversary and Update 20 start rolling out, so that gives me a few weeks to work my way through the new (to me!) content so that I can get caught up. I know that to get the two additional class trait points I’m going to need to complete some meta deeds for this zone, so I expect some grinding ahead. Not really interested in more flower picking, however. The devs and flowers, man, where to even begin. It’s beyond a joke at this point yet they still won’t let it go.

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I do appreciate that North Ithilien, the “Garden of Gondor,” is a visually attractive zone. I think we very much need that before starting our journey into the hellish landscape that is sure to be Mordor.

I think that most of us in LOTRO are waiting breathlessly for two pieces of information: the special activity coming in the 10th anniversary and the remainder of the details for the Mordor expansion (including the name, the High Elf class roster, the number of zones, and the pre-order details).

As for now, I’m shifting out of high gear and back into a somewhat more measured pace with my Lore-master. No sense rushing to the end but no reason to dawdle, either. The Wastes await!

LOTRO: Hero for Shire

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Over the past weekend, I finally had time to give my fledgling Hobbit Minstrel some time. With my daughter at my side, I ventured back into the Shire for the first time in many years.

And let me tell you that when they say you can’t go back again, they don’t have MMORPGs in mind, because jumping back into early level zones can often be like a time machine or time capsule. It’s even better, in a way, because it triggers a flood of long-dormant memories that you may have thought were completely forgotten.

As I downshifted from the crazy huge conflict of Gondor and Rohan vs. Mordor back to the pastoral hills of the Shire, it was as if I had stepped into another game entirely. This is the LOTRO I fell in love with back in 2007, a slower paced intro zone that was more concerned with running mail, retrieving pies, and uncovering squirrel ghosts than it was fighting through armies of foes.

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One of the reasons why the Shire works so very well — more so than the other two starting zones of LOTRO — is that it paid careful attention to all of its parts, not just one or the other. The Shire feels BIG and diverse, which is not exactly something we usually associate with newbie areas. It’s much more focused on the life and times of its inhabitants than being a carefully designed battleground. It has just as many non-combat quests as combat. And the sound and music design is simply sublime. For however many nights it takes you to get through all of this content, you feel as though you’re an inhabitant.

I think then-Turbine could’ve made an interesting niche MMO that existed fully in the Shire, with new and rotating quests to keep occupants interested. I remember there used to be a kinship (still might be) where all of the members never left the zone. They did the quests, roleplayed, and simply enjoyed Shire life.

I’m not going that far, of course. It’s quite liberating to ignore virtues, but I am still paying rapt attention to class and racial deeds. Also the quests — my goal with this character is to just do them all, even if (when) she outlevels the content. I was enjoying being a tour guide to the Shire to my daughter, who was negative three years old when this game first launched. We were “ewwing” about how the swamp slugs turned into green goo when killed, cheering when I defeated a stone troll, and laughing about all of the weird Hobbity bits. I found myself taking a lot of the same screenshots I’ve probably taken years before, because you simply can’t be in this zone and not want to fully document everything.

To keep things interesting with this character, I’m concentrating more on being a clothes horse. I made her vault as large as possible and will be saving some of my favorite outfits that she gets from questing and drops to pull together her own outfits (for this character, I’m ignoring my wardrobe to simulate starting from scratch). I also have a few housing items already, but I don’t think I can get my house until level 15 anyway, so no rush there. I’m hoping to get enough rep to get into the Mathom House and pick up some other cosmetics by the end of the zone, so we’ll see.

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For all of my intense familiarity with this zone, at least there was something new: the Bingo Boffin quests. I’ve never played these and went through the first two missions as I puttered about Michel Delving and Tuckborough. The character seems a complete doof, especially with that hairstyle, but I’m on board with the light-hearted world-crossing antics of a Hobbit adventurer in training. Even if the quests don’t amuse me, there are barter items to get, and I’ve got my sight set on a hatrack for my future abode. Oh yes, it will be mine.

LOTRO: The size and shaping of Middle-earth

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The other day I was poking through all of the additions and changes to LOTRO from the past couple of years and found this map lurking, for some reason, on the collections page.

Why isn’t this the real game map?

This is a complete side tangent to what I want to talk about today, but can I say that it’s utterly baffling that THIS isn’t the default stable and game world map? It’s so clear to understand, it shows all of the stables, and it gives a whole-world overview in one fell swoop. Why oh WHY is this shoved inside a tab inside another UI window? Why are we still using the really antiquated stable interface to get anywhere? Probably because LOTRO wants you to spend real money on buying ports to these through the maps.

Another side tangent: I only noticed last night that now that I was in Gondor, the regional maps went from a hand-drawn style of the rest of the game to a more Google Earth-style top-down photo. Aesthetics aside, I actually like this style a lot more. It certainly makes the trickier parts of the map easier to navigate.

How big you’ve grown, LOTRO

OK, let’s get back on course with the discussion at hand, which is to boggle at how big this game has grown over the past decade — and yet still see that it only covers just a small swath of the full Middle-earth.

You can see how the map has been gradually filled in by the expansions and zone additions over the years, going roughly in a diagonal slant from north-west to south-east. And all of it is continuous, save for Ered Luin which is removed from the rest of Eriador by a loading screen and a so-far unfilled-in map. You can visit as far west as the Thorin’s Hall, as far north as the icy bay of Forochel, as far west as Gondor and Mirkwood, and as far south as the ocean that laps up against Gondor’s borders.

A few other observations:

  • Looking at all of the map segments, it’s very apparent how much actual space was given to the plains of Rohan to accommodate mounted riding and combat.
  • The core of the launch game wasn’t insignificant, but look at that map and subtract all of the expansions, plus the post-launch zones of Evendim, Forochel, and Eregion. That means there were only eight zones (by my count) in 2007. Right now there are about 40 zones, if you count both PvMP regions, the Beorning starting area, and all of Moria’s maps separately.
  • And we haven’t even gotten to this spring’s Wastes nor this summer’s Mordor expansion, which will continue to enlarge the map.
  • The gaps and unfilled-in areas of the map fascinate me. Probably there’s a lot of nothing in those areas, but look at all of the unclaimed and unexplored regions in the west. HUGE amounts of land there, all just possibilities.
  • Mirkwood is massive in total, and the bit we got for the expansion a while back is only just a small chunk of the southern forest.
  • Prior to playing LOTRO, I never really thought of Gondor as being both a mountainous and coastal country, even with the book maps.
  • Coming in 2022: The overseas expansion!