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.

LOTRO: 300 wolves stood against I, and 300 wolves fell

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To borrow the words of Gob from Arrested Development, I’ve made a huge mistake.

Ever since switching back to my Lore-master, I have been more or less laser-focused on getting her to the same spot where my Captain was so that she’d be ready for Update 20 and then the expansion. As I blogged about before, I figured that I could just focus on the epic, power level up using every trick at my disposal, and be there in a week or two. But because I was fairly fresh back to the game, I wasn’t thinking about a couple of other factors when I dusted my LM off — namely, her virtues and class traits.

The other night our kin was talking about the current cap for virtues (19), which made me remember that, oh yeah, they exist, and maybe I should see what my Lore-master has. Now, to my credit, I hadn’t fully neglected her on her journey up through the levels. I think that for an early Rohan character, she was pretty on track, with 13s and 14s across the board (and one lovely 19). But when I came back and pushed her through the epics (ignoring all of the zone quests), I had neglected the advancement that rounded her out, statwise.

Even worse, I had totally forgotten that there are all of these side objectives to gain extra class trait points, which are definitely much more important in increasing power and potential. And if I was going to make this character my main — which I do want — then I knew it was going to drive me mad to not see her at least close to her full potential.

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I’m also kicking myself a little that I blew through a 6,000 or so Turbine Point pool from all of my time off that I could’ve used for boosts or straight-up virtue points. So with a sigh, I put a bookmark in the epic, and turned my attention and energy to fleshing out my character. Back to Rohan we go!

I made up a list of everything that I need to do to get her near 19s in virtues and grab as many of those extra class trait points (and no, I am NOT doing tons of epic battles for those two points). It’s a lot, maybe a month’s worth at my pace. Maybe more, it’s hard to tell. Lots of backtracking, lots of slayer deeds, and two zones or so of make-up quests.

There is a bright spot to all of this. Several, actually. The first is that part of me doesn’t mind some grinding and farming when the end result is a stronger character. Having that goal is, well, a goal, and that’s a powerful motivator. The second is that when these virtues start pushing me into Gondor, then I’ll start picking up much-needed XP from them. I could use about four levels right now, levels I could’ve gotten before if I had been thinking, but oh well. I’m also especially eager to hit level 100 so that I can equip my two first-agers, which will be a major boost in power.

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The third is that it’s giving me a chance to really traverse and explore these lands once more. It’s kind of fun when you’ve outleveled a mob and can get in its face to check out the art and animation without aggroing it.

Right now I’m in Wildermore, killing 300 wolves and wondering why slayer deeds are still so brutal, even after nerfs. I guess it really does depend on whether or not you can find a good farming spot with lots of mobs and respawns. I gave up on the one that had me killing mounted foes, because I could’ve been doing that for months to come. And that is time I don’t have.

At the current schedule of rollout, I figure that I should be fine with getting all of this done well before Mordor. Update 20 and 10th anniversary are heading our way soon, but if I’m a little late to that party, it’s not the end of the world. As long as I’m there for day one of Mordor, I’ll be happy. I just want to be as prepared for it as can be.

LOTRO: The breathtaking beauty of Gondor

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Through the Paths of the Dead

The standard format of MMOs goes that the higher up in levels you go, the uglier and more visually oppressive zones get. Naturally, there are exceptions to this, and this trope does seem to be changing these days, but that’s the rule of thumb. Happily, LOTRO seems to go back and forth between attractive and dismal settings, and being able to explore the beauty of Gondor makes getting up to these high levels worth it.

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Even though this is my second time going up through the levels, I’m still incredibly impressed with what the devs did with Gondor. Rohan was admittedly gorgeous and got a lot of press, while Gondor seems to be an expansion that was chopped up into smaller parcels and never given its full due. But it really is a terrific region, with its own music, architecture, and narrative. It even worked in some Elves, if you go for that sort of thing. I don’t, but hey, it’s a break from wall-to-wall Man stuff we’ve had ever since Dunland.

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Behind in levels, ahead in spirit

My Lore-master has been racing behind the level curve of these new areas and quests. I could only just get into the new volume of the epic quest at level 91 (it starts at 95 and quickly ramps up to 100). I decided to slow down for a bit in the first area of Gondor to do a bunch of side quests and knock out a few more levels. I think it’s paid off: I’m level 94 and I figure that if I can at least get to 96, I’ll be able to go through the next few books of the epic with no worries (books 2-4 are all level 100 content; book 5 starts going from 101 to 105).

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Ugh. So, so pretty. I loved this brook, especially when the daylight hit it. I am still bowled over by the sense of world that LOTRO gives. It’s not just wall-to-wall mobs and quests, but there’s a lot of wilderness and places to explore. It feels big, but not in an “I’m totally lost” sort of way.

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I’m not as big of a fan of the Gondor interiors as I was of Rohan, but both are lightyears ahead of the younger region of Bree and those houses.

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The Elven cave city is one of the more interesting locales of the game, I have to admit. Seems like a lot of work was done in it for a relatively small payoff. I do have a lot of questions about those Christmas lights and how the Elves put them up there and keep them lit.

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A new look

I have hundreds of mithril coins (thanks, lifetime sub for all of those TP), so I splurged at the market and equipped myself with a snazzy new outfit for my Lore-master. Some black die made it look sharp, and I really like the hood design that sort-of covers one eye. I also used a low-level ash staff as a cosmetic weapon, since I prefer that natural look to those weird, funky LI staves.