Once upon a time I was a young lad of 12 visiting my grandparent’s house for the weekend. Just before I left to return home, my grandmother gave me a book. She had picked it up at a yard sale and thought it might be something I would find interesting. She had heard it was a literary classic by an English author written for children my age. I thanked her, looked at the aged cover of the paperbook, and looked for pictures inside the book. I didn’t see any, so I figured it was some boring story, but there were some interesting maps in the beginning. I put it in my bag thinking I would read it later. Winter gets really boring when you’re a kid out in the country and no one within a couple of miles of you. I had lots of time to read, so I picked up that old book, and opened it up to the first page.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
My life has never been the same since. I can trace my interest in science-fiction and fantasy to that moment in time. My grandmother, bless her, gave me the greatest gift of my life. She fueled my imagination which has never stopped imagining endless possibilities. I don’t think she ever fully realized just how much impact that book had on me, but I do know I told her how much I enjoyed reading it the next time I saw her. I went through that book in a couple of days and wanted more. If there was a sci-fi or fantasy book in our junior high library at Macon, it went through my hands. Unfortunately, there were no more Tolkien books there. Those came in high school.
This was back in the 70s, so there was no Internet. I did not know there was anything called The Lord of the Rings until I was a freshman and found them in the high school library. Well, you know what happened next. J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara, Stephan Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever, Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, Michael Moorcocks’ Elric of Melnibone, and Piers Anthony’s Xanth series all went through my hands along with a bunch of other 70s paperbacks. But when a friend of mine told me about a game he played over the weekend where he was roleplaying a character in a medieval fantasy world fighting orcs and using magic, I found a way to step into my fantasy worlds, albeit via a game known as Dungeons & Dragons.
As you know, I am a pretty hardcore roleplaying fanatic. The official Pathfinder game counts are past 360 games ran as a GM, but I was a DM for years before that building fantasy worlds and encounters. Not only that, but I played a lot too. But I never built a fantasy campaign set in Middle-Earth. I just felt that the story there ended with Sam sailing to the West. The dwarves had dwindled away. The last elves had sailed West. The hobbits died out. The Fourth Age was the Age of Man. With Sauron defeated and destroyed, there was no great evil capable of controlling the orcs and goblins, who died out as man hunted them down. The dragons died and the great creatures of the earlier ages were no more.
There were some roleplaying games based on Middle-Earth, but they always ran into the same problem. They didn’t compare well to D&D as far as I was concerned. The great story had been told and the rpg element just fell short. But as always, time continued and technology developed which changed how we looked at Middle-Earth. In 1999, a video game known as a MMORPG called Everquest came out. Suddenly, it was possible for thousands of gamers to play the same game online together in an immersive world. As we played, I wondered if anyone would ever build a MMO based on The Lord of the Rings. I thought it would run into the same problem as the tabletop RPGs, that the grand story was already told.
This was also when Peter Jackson was working on producing the epic movies The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Sierra On-Line had already started to develop a game based on the series, but didn’t get too far. The wild success of the films inspired Vivendi, Sierra’s parent company, to push ahead with the game’s production. They partnered with Turbine to produce a game, but Turbine would eventually buy out the rights to the books and push on with it on their own. Finally, on April 24th, 2007, Lord of the Rings Online: The Shadows of Angmar was released to the public.
I know you’re wondering why this game got my interest when the other tabletop versions failed to. I think it is due to two things. One, it’s an immersive massive-multiplayer online game. Those are pretty good games to start with and this one was in Middle-Earth. The other thing was that instead of trying to build the game world after Frodo threw the Ring into Mount Doom, the designers set it at the same time as the Fellowship’s quest to Mordor. That and the game world was not completely built upon release. The northern areas were built. Mordor and the rest of the game world would follow in sequels.
Due to the licensing rights situation, Turbine had gotten access to The Hobbit and the three books of The Lord of the Rings. They did not get access to any of the digital rights to The Silmarillion or Christopher Tolkien edited books. But that was fine. This arrangement let the developers dive into the existing Middle-Earth as referenced throughout the four books they did have the rights too. That’s a huge world and much of it was only referenced by J.R.R. Tolkien. To give you an idea, roughly half of what’s in the original LOTRO release was not featured in the books. The devs developed a great story line that supported the Quest of the Heroes, but ventured into these other places. The way they tied these areas into the existing lore from the books works out so well. This is one of the strongest points of the game.
Not only that, they expanded on areas that the heroes went to. The barrow-downs and Old Forest are areas that the game brings to life. The village of Bree becomes an adventuring hub. The Shire has plenty of adventures as humans keep coming to the place and interfering with the pastoral lives of the hobbits as detailed at the end of The Return of the King. Reaching the summit of Weathertop is a grand adventure of its own. The Last Inn is really that because not too long after leaving it you reach the Last Bridge. Every time I cross that bridge, I still get the feeling that I’m crossing the limits of known civilization and am entering the great unknown.
Rivendell exists in the game and it too gives that feeling of meeting Tolkien’s vision. The artwork is exquisite in that city. The elves feel like elves all the way through the game. The dwarves are dwarves too. The devs captured the feeling of the races quite well. This is also one of the weaknesses of the game though. As we know from reading Tolkien, there are only a few playable races; elves, dwarves, humans, and hobbits. The game did put in subraces of these four main forms, and even put in Beornings later, but there is no way to add many races like so many other MMOs do. Tolkien fans don’t care, but many of the MMO players out there prefer their games to have 12 to 20 ancestries to pick from.
The classes are fairly standard but tailored to meet the themes of the books too. Originally there were only seven; the Burglar, Captain, Champion, Guardian, Hunter, Lore-master and Minstrel. The Rune-Keeper and Warden were added with the Mines of Moria expansion. The expansions have really helped out in this area too with skill trees that revitalized the game and gave a lot of depth to the class system. Speaking of expansions, there are several of those. The game reached the end of the main quest in 2017 with the Mordor expansion, but has released two more expansions since then which continue to flesh out the game and explore the aftermath of Sauron’s defeat. I enjoyed exploring the depths of the Mines of Moria!
There are two elements to the game which I think really stand out more than in any other game. One is the Player vs. Monster Player gameplay which is separate from the main gameplay. Players just love this part of the game which is not surprising when you look at other MMOs and see how all of them seem to have a similar concept or dedicated PVP zones or even combat arenas. A lot of players still log into the game just to play in this format.
However, the biggest and most unique element of LOTRO that sets it apart from any other MMO is the music system. This is the one MMO where players can have their characters play musical instruments. Not just look it, but I mean PLAY them. Enterprising players can download vast libraries of MIDI files that are constructed to play all kinds of music. You can play Bagpipes, Clarinet, Cowbell, Drum, Harp, Horn, Lute, Pibgorn, and Theorbo in the game either solo or as part of an ensemble. I have spent hours playing music at the Prancing Pony in Bree with an audience of other players. There are still entire guilds of players out there that only log into the game to play music. There’s even semi-annual events on Weathertop called Weatherstock where hundreds of players gather and hold concerts that go on for days. It’s like a real life Lollapaloozza at times. I love it!
LOTRO ran into financial difficulties in 2010 as the World of Warcraft juggernaut continued to dominate the MMO worlds, but pulled off one of the biggest recoveries in MMO history by taking a leap into the unknown. They had originally launched like all the other MMOs by using a monthly subscription service. They even had a lifetime sub available. By the middle of 2010 the subs were dropping even after the release of the first expansion The Mines of Moria with its addition of leveling up selected items and weapons, and the second expansion, The Siege of Mirkwood in December of 2009. This expansion added skirmishes, another popular LOTRO development.
In June of 2010, Turbine announced that LOTRO would move to a Free-to-Play model (FTP). This was seen as extremely risky as no others were doing it other than Turbine’s other MMO, Dungeons & Dragons Online. Indeed, rumors of LOTRO‘s demise began to make the rounds but Turbine was pretty solid about it since D&D Online has seen revenues jump 500% when it made the switch in 2009. They were proven correct when LOTRO’s revenues tripled in under six months. The move to FTP breathed new life into both games which are still using that model and going strong in 2022. Not only that, but five more expansions have been added to the game! Not too shabby, eh?
I’ve played LOTRO a few times and enjoyed it every time. I am currently playing it once again on the Landrovel server. I am running a Dwarven Guardian named. If anyone wants to join me, let me know.
See you in the game!