LOTRO Legendarium: Playing second fiddle to the Fellowship

Back when Lord of the Rings Online was being developed as Middle-earth Online in the late 1990s, the original concept was to plop players into the Fourth Age after the fall of Sauron and the destruction of the One Ring. The idea was that this would allow for a lot more flexibility and world manipulation once the game escaped the direct influence of Tolkien’s narrative.

LOTRO, on the other hand, went a different way. The devs obviously felt that more players would want to adventure during the events of the books, especially since the story offered more details, characters, and conflicts. But that left the team with a different problem, which was how to insert player characters into a narrative that was rigidly defined by the trilogy. The solution, as we all well know, was to have the player be “a” hero, just not “the” heroes of the books. And this hero would go off on a story of his or her own that would in many ways parallel the Fellowship’s struggles but not slavishly stick by Frodo’s side as the invisible 13th member.

So how has LOTRO handled this concept of the player as a “second fiddle” over the years? I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, particularly as we turn the bend into Mordor.

In the beginning

When you take a step back and look at the MMORPG over the past decade, you can see that the dev team has experimented greatly with the role of the player in the overarching story’s narrative. I’ve always seen it as a tug-o-war between two ends: Giving the player more freedom and mystery to chart his or her own path in the story (but veering far away from the Fellowship’s tale), and bringing the players into close contact with the Fellowship’s journey (while limiting the questing options and potential surprises).

At launch with Volume 1, players initially began by rubbing shoulders with many well-known characters from the book, but soon enough Frodo, Legolas, and Aragorn were off doing their own thing while we were sent on what I like to deem a “Middle-earth scavenger hunt” that explored other incidences and events going on in Eriador during the first book.

While Volume 1 certainly has its fans, I think the general consensus among both players and the devs by the time the first expansion rolled around was that the game was too far removed from the fanservice that Tolkien aficionados had shown up to see. Gradually over the next few expansions, players were brought back into more and more contact with the various members of the Fellowship and other key figures and events from the books.

Occasionally, the epic story (and even some side missions) would bring us into first-hand contact with the main cast of the books through quests that literally put us into the shoes of one of these characters to experience an important moment that our own player character was not there to witness. (This was usually told as a “flashback” of sorts.) Seeing the breaking of the Fellowship or even the recent vignette of Gollum betraying his master are total geek-out moments that help keep us tethered to the main narrative no matter what we are doing.

By the time we ended up in Rohan, the devs came up with another clever idea, which was to create a surrogate Fellowship that would offer players their own dedicated group that would foster a similar feel to what the main Fellowship was like. I particularly enjoyed having Horn, Nona, and Corudan join me on my adventures, and I have been a little dismayed when our Fellowship dissolved over the course of the epic.

Nowadays, players are pretty much right in the shirt pocket of the Return of the King (and have been for some time). The major story beats are happening, like the Battle of Pelennor Fields or the march to the Black Gate, and we have very little time and wiggle room for anything else. However, this is likely to change soon when the Mordor expansion releases later this year, since we’ll finally be in the post-One Ring era and stop being Frodo’s eternal shadow.

Heroes in training

While the format and structure of the quest line gets the most attention when we examine Standing Stone’s struggle to place us into the narrative, I think it’s equally important to look inside the quest text and objectives to see an added layer to our second-fiddleness. One theme that I’ve picked up in this game is that there is no one central hero, either NPC or player. Frodo is important, sure, but so is Sam, Aragorn, Eowyn, Faramir, and Sara Oakheart. Just kidding on that last one, of course. Lord of the Rings is a grand epic that looks at how this fictional history was shaped by the actions of many and how forging bonds of friendship and loyalty made all of the difference.

In other words, it’s not about just us. It never was. It’s about all of us.

That may be a strange concept coming from, oh, every other MMORPG out there that loves to pin you as the Chosen One (Neville Longbottom for life, yo!) and bend over backward at every opportunity to make you feel like the special and essential hero that the devs assume you fantasize about being. But who says that’s what we want? Sure, some might need the ego boost of being the central character of a personal narrative, but LOTRO is a great game for the rest of us who value friendship, fellowship, and selflessness more.

I’ve pontificated on this in the past, but I’ve greatly respected how LOTRO so often makes the point that tasks both great and small can be noble and heroic. I love that there are events greater than I, and that my character cannot (despite what my children think) single-handedly invade and destroy Mordor. We play in a world of heroes and cross paths with other heroes (and villains) quite often, and being part of an effort greater than yourself is both humbling and exhilarating.

It does make me a little concerned for Mordor, however. I truly hope that once the dev team gains more freedom of direction now that the books are almost over that it doesn’t go nuts with trying to “gift” us with a massive hero fantasy. Some of the interviews a couple of months back made it sound exactly like that, that getting away from the Fellowship’s adventures would allow us to be the starring hero of our own imaginary book. Again, I truly hope this won’t be the case. I would love to see our characters still be a part of something instead of that something being all about us. It’s not the game I’ve been playing and appreciating for 10 years.

Every two weeks, the LOTRO Legendarium goes on an adventure (horrid things, those) through the wondrous, terrifying, inspiring, and, well, legendary online world of Middle-earth. Justin has been playing LOTRO since its launch in 2007! If you have a topic for the column, send it to him at justin@massivelyop.com.
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11 Comments on "LOTRO Legendarium: Playing second fiddle to the Fellowship"

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Suikoden

As always great article. Question: If I have a sub to one of Daybreak’s games, then I’ll have a sub to Lotro too, right? Isn’t it like one sub to play all their games? Also, I don’t even see Lotro on their website, is that official yet, or still Turbine for a certain amount of time?

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Viktor Budusov

Great article, thank you!

styopa
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styopa

Curiously, I didn’t feel meaningless despite knowing I wasn’t the main character in what was going on.

This would be in contrast to GW2, where I *constantly* felt like it was being rubbed in our faces that were second-fiddle to the Mary Sue main characters (it probably didn’t help that they were all easily-despised milquetoasts, I suppose).

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SmugglerSteel

I think the following in the footsteps of the fellowship has some pit falls. One the times I felt like WHY am I doing this was…after coming through the darkness of Moria, being graced with invitation to the golden wood…I am helping people with picking up mud balls or planting something. (I don’t remember exactly, but it was something very mundane. ) I was just struck with what cruddy filler quest it was, and how much it took me out of my journey it was so clearly a filler quest. At times the game was pitch perfect on keeping a fine balance between keeping us feeling like we were making a difference and supporting the greater cause. At other times I did feel not second fiddle more like the nameless red shirt sure to amount to whole lot nothing, and dead. The second feeling there was not so good a feeling.

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Paragon Lost

I’ve long held a lot of respect for Turbine on this aspect of their development of LotRO. I loved how they did it honestly, it was a well balanced act in my opinion. They’ve had failures and things I’ve not liked (talking about the Legendary Items implementation as one major failing) but overall they have done an excellent job.

If only they’d update their server tech, I’d come back. Lag/latency due to bad server optimization and a lack of good hardware was the breaking point for me. I’ve always been lucky to have had great connections with low pings, solid connections, good data flow etc. I tend to buy higher end systems often custom built and well tested, so I know the issues aren’t on me and since they’re well recorded by many…

Anyhow great write up Justin, honestly I wouldn’t be worried. They’ve repeatedly proven that they handle the whole legendary story arc well and how our characters interact with it.

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Melissa McDonald

The genius of offering you an anonymous path using World Quests, plus a chance to experience play amongst ‘iconic’ characters, i.e., make your own legend, or play with your heroes in the Epic Chapter/Book quests, is just one of the details that makes LOTRO one of the 3 Great MMOs of All Time. (WoW and EverQuest being the others)

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Legend Of Vinny T

In the “Two Towers” timeframe, SSG did a great job of picking up on places the main stories of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings either left behind (Moria, Dol Guldur) or avoided (Dunland and the Gap of Rohan).

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Stephen Montalvo

I was very involved with the desktop RPG Middle Earth Roll-Playing from Iron Crown Enterprises from the mid 80’s until the film’s came out when they lost the IP.
It was set in T.A. 1100. Arnor had just split into Arthedain,Cardolan, and Rhudaur. The Hobbits had just come to the Shire. The elf kingdoms were still very powerful. The Nazgul were still humanish and living in their home kingdoms. There was a whole module on the Kinstrife. Everywhere was covered except Harlindon.
When the MMO came out I was disappointed that they didn’t use any of the info from it. It was very doable.

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Paragon Lost

They went out of business as well. ICE, GDW a lot of them suffered by the end of the 1990s. :( I loved ICE’s Shadow World stuff and also owned all of the MERP stuff as well. I seem to recall the time being set to the T.A. 1600’s right after the nasty plague, but I could be miss-recalling. :(

I thought that ICE handled the time setting quite well, it gave you a troubled, busy time to set the game in. :)

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Melissa McDonald

You have to pick an epoch. Comparing it to dice, figurines, graph paper and imagination alone isn’t fair. You can imagine worlds in a few minutes. It takes them years to create it with computer graphics. 3rd Age / War of the Ring is what everyone knows, and expects/wants to play.

Would I enjoy a Silmarillion, 1st-2nd age game, movie? Of course, any Tolkien geek would, but that’s either a long way’s off, or we won’t get that, too obscure.

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Paragon Lost

(Gathers his gear for the War of Wrath in Beleriand) I’m game! :)

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