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!

LOTRO is my ‘home’ MMO

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The boon of boosts

This past week was one of my most productive yet in my 2017 return to Lord of the Rings Online. Right now I’m probably spending about 90% of my gaming time on this title, just because it’s really what I want to be playing at any given moment. Plus, I feel very driven to catch up — and I’m starting to see real progress in that regard.

I’ve already finished up with all of the Rohan landscape story quest arcs, netting my character several more trait points, and have moved on to do the four central Gondor arcs (two out of four completed of those so far). Even better, thanks to quests that are finally awarding XP and a weekend XP boost across the servers, I’ve shot up from level 98 to 104 — and I’m not even to Osgiliath yet.

Hitting 100 was a great boon for me, as that meant I could equip my two first age legendary items and get them imbued. I had saved up so many different crystals and scrolls and runes for those that it was actually a relief to get to use them all on weapons I won’t be replacing.

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Challenging content? Perish the thought!

It was an adjustment when I finally started getting into content that was more on-level than I had been playing over the past few weeks. I’d gone from one-shotting mobs in the early parts of Rohan to actually having to watch my aggro in mid-Gondor. I’m still able to take down most anything thanks to my pets (and my “oh crap” button of Sic ‘Em), and I have four heals at my disposal just in case things get dicey. But still, questing has slowed down a tiny bit due to the slightly longer combat sequences.

Let’s just say that at this point, I’m really, really glad I didn’t elect to go through with my plan to grind out virtues. I don’t think I could’ve stood doing it here.

I am trying my hardest to put out of mind some of the big chunks of content that I’ve yet to get through, such as Osgiliath and Minas Tirith. Both are really impressive set pieces — and both are quite annoying to navigate, especially if you’re like me and don’t like sprawling and constricting urban landscapes.

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Welcome home

Back in late 2015, I remember going through a phase where I was seeking out what many of us bloggers were calling a “home” MMO. This was supposed to be a game in which you spent most of your time, got the most invested, and made the most connections. I was seeking one out because I felt untethered and detached from games at the time, bouncing around like a crazy person. In 2016, I spent four months trying in earnest to make FFXIV my home (didn’t work) and subsequently started to settle back into World of Warcraft.

But it was really this recent return to Lord of the Rings Online that reminded me that I have had an online home that’s been here for me since 2007. Even though I was away for the better part of a year and a half, it was all waiting for me when I got back: the feels, the world, the great people, the sense of adventure… the whole package, really. This is where I feel the most comfortable, draping the game around me like a well-worn, nice fitting outfit.

I’m truly excited that there’s a lot to look forward to this year, and that excitement is driving a lot of my continued enthusiasm to log in and get stuff done in preparation.

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Moving day

Speaking of homes, the recent Update 19.3 finally brought my attention back to a feature that I had long abandoned in this game: housing. We all know that LOTRO player housing was subpar even when it first came on the market and hasn’t aged well since then. But this past weekend I got to experience two features that went a long way to making this content a lot more interesting to me than it was in the past.

The first was a purchase of one of the new premium homes. I originally thought that these homes were well priced out of my league, but then someone told me that the smaller basic Gondorian houses were only like 145 mithril coins, and since I had 300 left, I figured why not. It was a purchase well worth making, since even this basic house is far larger than the deluxe houses I was used to and brimming with hooks. The layout was great (although lacking windows on the ground floor, which made it feel more confined than it should be) and the fact that I can also have a regular house on the same account is a plus. Did I mention the two-tiered yard? Or the close location to a host of vendors and services right on the sea shore there?

The second was the big change in 19.3, which allows us to move housing decor on the full axis and well outside of the normal range. It’s still nowhere near full free-form placement, but it’s way, waaaaay better than it used to be. You can do more natural groupings of decor and arrange the rooms to look better. I was just happy to put a fireplace caddycorner in the library instead of flat against one wall.

I used up most of the decor I had on my Lore-master (which turned out to be quite a lot — I guess I was busy back in the day!) but my house still has a lot of empty hooks and needs some more love. I’m going to pay attention to the festivals this year and start looking around for other vendors (reputation?) to fill things out more. Anyway, I probably spent two or three hours working on my house and it was so much fun, which is not something I’ve ever been able to say about housing in this game before.

LOTRO: Hobbit-forming

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Even as I blitz through high-level content in an imagined race to get my Lore-master ready for Mordor before Update 20 arrives, I’ve had the yearning for an alternate experience at times. The thought started to bubble up in my head about a “vacation” character, one that I could dip into on the side without an urgent agenda. And since I’m almost level 100 and should be done with Rohan story quests (for trait points) by the end of the week, I am giving myself permission to go ahead with it.

For years now I’ve had a bucket list item that I wanted to level up a Hobbit in LOTRO. I’ve always felt kind of bad that I haven’t had one (for the most part) due to my favorite classes — LM and Captain — not being compatible with the Hobbit race. So while I love Hobbits, the class selection has always felt rather blah to me. Hunter? Ha, no. Guardian? Not interested. Burglar? Tried it, didn’t like the sound effects and the constant stealthing. So really all that leaves is Minstrel, which fortunately has always sparked my interest. I’ve had a few minnies over the years, none that made it into the first expansion, but enough to tell me that I like the combination of the musical theme and the long range spell-like damage effects (plus healing!).

Thus, a couple of nights ago Syperia the Hobbit was born. Before I even entered the character creation screen, I wanted to set out a gameplan for what she would be and how I would play her. Here’s my five-point roadmap:

  1. This character exists only to be a slow, relaxed character that is going through the game’s story at a leisurely pace, one that I visit every now and then.
  2. She won’t be a main nor aspiring to be one. I’m not trying to rush to get her up to the level cap to do the new content this year. I won’t be using XP bonus items (not really worried about leveling if I’m going through all of the quests).
  3. I won’t be doing virtues with her or stressing out too much about most deeds apart from racials and class skills. Instead, my focus will be on exploration, screenshotting, and questing. I will be going through the full epic story (including Volume 1), the Bingo Boffin stories, and all of the zone quests apart from the other two starting zones (not going to backtrack to do Ered Luin or Combe/Staddle).
  4. I will fully read the quest text (where have we heard that before?) and make a deeper attempt to immerse myself in the zone, setting, and narrative. She will participate in some of the festivals, depending on what cosmetics and housing decor I want to get.
  5. She will be the character to get my house and build up a new home using what she finds and buys in her travels, as a way to show that she’s more of an inhabitant in the world.

I’ve gotten her through the tutorial (which always feels like it takes so long, especially the more you do it) and started to clean out her bags and set up a few outfits before starting to quest in earnest. The combat so far is pretty fun (so much yelling and music) and it’s always a nice homecoming to return to the Shire.

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My Minstrel isn’t starting out empty-handed, however. I sent her 30 gold for pocket money (and seed money for a house) and abandoned my house that was decorated by another character so the field is clear. Plus, there’s always the piles of starting gifts that I’ve accumulated from various promotions and pre-orders. Some of those are much nicer than others, of course. I especially am happy to have that new VIP pony, since its stats (+68% mount speed, 250 morale) are great and quite helpful for roaming around.

I have no idea how far any of this will go or how fast, and I’m not that worried about it. As I said, it’s a side character, a side experiment, and that’s just fine with me. I took her around Michel Delving to poke around buildings and take some pictures of Hobbit paintings, and said hi to Bingo Boffin for the first time. I think that listening to the new Tolkien Professor lecture series on the books and the field trips around the Shire were part of the inspiration for doing this.

It’s a huge game, after all, and at this point it’s a lot more freeing to just throw one’s hands up and not care about getting through it all quickly, catching up with the perceived pack, or stressing out about everything that needs to be done to make a well-rounded character. Vacations can be planned and can have boundaries, but they should also be enjoyed in a more care-free fashion. So I dub this a vacation character and will do my best to play her in that spirit.

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.