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Hobbit Forming

June 25, 2013

It probably isn’t much of a surprise that a prolonged gap in me putting new posts up here usually means that I’ve discovered a new MMO or rediscovered an old one.

In this case, it was rediscovered. Well, more like I was dared to rediscover.

My wife – because ONE MMO addict in a household would be weird – has had a long-term relationship with The Lord of the Rings Online, henceforth LOTRO, a game I invariably pronounce “lott-row” in an attempt to get punched square in the mouth, and she has been trying to get me to try it again ever since I put a month in with the game back in 2008 or so.

Anyway, I finally gave in and dug out my old account information. It turned out that my level 31 Minstrel was still around, and my wife logged in some tradeskillers and kitted me out for leveling.

I lasted a solid month, made it to level 65, and had a good time along the way. I’ve been doing some other MMOs since, but I wanted to put those aside for the moment and do a bit of a retrospective on that month.

LOTRO is an awfully ambitious game. It’s an attempt to make a digital version of middle earth that you can run around and adventure in, and it tries to make something that appeals to both typical MMO players and to die-hard Tolkien fans.

Who are all insane.

I deliberately left the question of which group was insane ambiguous there.

Being that it’s an Officially Licensed Product, it actually gets to have hobbits. After decades of playing games where the weird short smelly guys were called “halflings”, this was actually a little jarring, albeit in a good way. Pretty much every RPG I’ve played since I bought my first copy of the Player’s Handbook has been trying to gamify a “borrowed” version of the Tolkien universe, and getting to see how the Official gamification worked was good for serious nerd points in my book.

One of the more interesting bits is how the game has to dance around the idea of having a healing class. There were no clerics in the Lord of the Rings books, obviously – I’m not sure where Gygax and Arneson cribbed them from – and as far as I can remember the characters mostly tried very hard not to get hit. Frodo has to get dragged off to the elves for healing, of course, but this is treated as something pretty miraculous.

Curiously, I seem to recall that the Dragonlance setting tried the whole no-clerics thing too, and even tried to create a new (and trademarkable) short smelly race to get away from the whole halfling thing.

This works great in narrative. It doesn’t work well when you’re trying to make a game out of things, because “oops, the tank got shot with a couple dozen arrows, guess we’d best get a new tank” is a pretty poor way to design an MMO and also poor Borrrromirrrr gets dropped from the group.

LOTRO’s solution: “Morale”, as in “Boy, I bet having that orc stab you in the guts with 2 feet of jagged rusty steel has you feeling down. Let me sing you a song to pick your spirits up again!”

It’s clever, at the very least, to have the bard class also be the healing class.

They do a similar silly dance to justify having a magic-using DPS class, because there’s no room for more wizards in Tolkien’s world.

But, you know, once you remap your ideas of what classes do what, it is a marvelously fun world to run around in. I defy any nerd worth his stripes to not geek out just a LITTLE bit at the thought of fighting orcs and goblins in the shadow of freakin’ Weathertop, and questing my way through Moria, followed immediately by Mirkwood, was like a 24-hour binge at an all-you-can-eat fan service buffet.

…and that is more or less where I burned out and decided to give the game a rest for a bit, because the cracks in the system were starting to get a little harder to ignore.

LOTRO is, by MMO standards, pretty old, and it’s gone through a lot of expansions and level cap raises. The current level cap – so the place you need to get to, if you want to actually group with anyone – is 85, with an expansion coming soon to raise it to 95. It’s a LONG road to catch up to the herd, and you’ll be doing it alone – there’s an “instance finder” tool similar to Rift’s or TERA’s dungeon finder tool, but it’s largely unused for the same reason that, say, Everquest II’s dungeon finder fizzled – the content is simply not suited for the “one tank, one healer, x DPS” model that is about the best you can hope for from a random matching tool.

This is magnified by the character customization system. LOTRO has an amazingly robust customization system, so your minstrel – as an example – can either be a soloing AE killing MONSTER or they can be a fabulous party buffing healing MACHINE… but not both at the same time. So, like Rift, you have different sets of abilities that you equip to change modes.

Unlike Rift, however, you can’t change modes on the fly. You have to run back to town, find a trainer, and pay money to switch from your soloing spec to your grouping spec… then, after the group, which has probably failed to get anything done because the dungeon finder has failed to give you a viable group, you have to pay money to switch back and also repair all of your damaged equipment.

It’s simply more practical to solo and stay in the soloing spec.

One other side effect of all the expansions and level cap raises is that the game has had a ton of new mechanics introduced along the way, which is normal enough for any MMO, but makes for an incredibly steep learning curve if you’re trying to take everything in at once.

The developers, to their credit, have done a couple of Big Damn Revamps to try to simplify some of this. They’ve consolidated a bunch of different currency types, gotten rid of something called “Radiance”, which as far as I can tell served as the gating stat for doing raid content, and in general streamlined the game quite a bit.

…Which has resulted in a case of there being a ton of information out there on the web that is now out of date as it hasn’t been updated to the New Order. Quite a bit of this is actually in the “guides” section of the LOTRO site itself.

Short version: It’s a mess. It’s a beautiful mess and one that pushes all the right buttons in a geek’s heart, but it’s just not a viable game to get in to if you want to actually play an MMO with, you know, other people. You’re looking at a couple of months of grinding up to level cap, after which you’ll need to learn a ton of different systems that the veteran players have picked up as they went along, filtering out the information on the web that’s no longer applicable to today’s game.

It’s still worth playing, and there’s a lot of fun to be had if you don’t mind treating it as a single player game, but it’s definitely a game in its decline.

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