LOTRO Legendarium: Wait a minute, LOTRO, you lost me


If WildStar will go down in gaming history as the MMO with the consistently shortest quest text, then Lord of the Rings Online has to take home first place for the longest. And not just the longest text boxes, either, but the most dense as well.

It can actually be a shock for the average MMO player who was raised on bite-sized quest instructions to encounter the infamous blue box of LOTRO’s bequeathals. While there are some quests that kick off with only a brief paragraph or two, more often than not, you’re going to encounter walls of text that are higher and mightier than those guarding Helm’s Deep. If you’re not a reader, you will find yourself crit for a couple thousand words, some of which are clearly made up on the spot. Yet these quests offer excellent writing and a deep connection to lore, which is not something you always get in such games.

In short, Lord of the Rings Online’s quests can be either a burden or a blessing, depending on the type of player you are. For me, I have to admit that while I’m a reader and have a fairly good (but not perfect) memory for names and details, these quests can lose me.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a master world-builder, and whether or not you actually like his worlds, you can’t deny that the man put a ton of effort into creating full-fledged histories of fictitious peoples, places, and countries. His attention to detail was such that it extended into his favorite realm of linguistics (which included song). The stories of the books piggy-backed on the enormous world that he made and are almost — but not quite! — incidental to that monumental achievement.

Why am I bringing this up? Because as a game that attempts to be faithful to the books and IP, LOTRO is saturated in lore that is even greater than a pretty expansive MMORPG. It’s a feature that works both for and against the game, in that it provides a “realness” to Middle-earth that other MMOs simply don’t have, but that it also requires the mother of all flow charts and timelines to keep track of who’s who, what’s what, and when what happened.

On the spectrum of Tolkien fandom, I’d be somewhere deeper than “casual Peter Jackson movie-watcher” but not quite as in it as “sit down and let me tell you the lineage of Bilbo’s family on both sides lecturer.” The game has certainly helped me understand the world of the books through immediate context, and I have attested that going back to read the Lord of the Rings after playing the MMO is a pretty enriching experience now that I have visual landmarks to go with it.

As one of the main appeals of the game, the lore is a big pull for many players. I suspect that a lot of us are further along on the spectrum of a serious fan than not. But save for the rare uber-lore nerd among us, we don’t know all. We’re learning, a bit at a time — or a massive chunk at a time, considering the length of the quest text.

So we’re drinking from the lore hose at a fairly heavy rate with some of these quests. The writers don’t give us a watered-down version that’s more suitable for console audiences (Shadow of Mordor this is not). In short, the quest text contains:

  • A large amount of words
  • Occasionally archaic language (older use of English words and spelling variants)
  • Different speech patterns
  • Observations from your character’s perspective (non-dialogue)
  • Names of people, places, and events

The problem I have is that all of this sometimes clarifies the world of Middle-earth — and sometimes it adds just more noise, more details, more “stuff” until it’s hard to keep track of it all. And let’s face it, it’s not as if any of these proper nouns are easy to understand, especially when they share common prefixes or spellings.

I lost count of how many times LOTRO would tell me in a quest to go to a certain place, and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember where that was in the vast expanse of the game world. While other MMOs have shorter name mashups like Blackvale or Steamy Swamp, LOTRO is chock-full of locales like Aughaire, Echad Naeglanc, Brockenborings, Glâd Ereg, Länsi-mâ, Zelem-melek, and Taur Drúadan. True, go to these places enough and quest around them, and chances are that you’ll start to remember them, but there have been so many times that I hopped on a horse at a stable master and selected the wrong destination because I forgot what place was where.

The cast of this ongoing saga is larger than any Tolstoy novel, and their names and relationships are equally confusing. While some NPCs are here only for a quest or two, others will pop back up time and again over the course of two, three hundred hours, and you’ll be scratching your head trying to remember who that was and what they were about.

One recent example is going through the Mordor expansion. The idea of seven or so villains vying for power in the vacuum that was created following Sauron’s death is intriguing, but I got a headache trying to keep these characters sorted out, especially since we only saw or heard about them once in a while.

What I’m trying to get around to say is this: LOTRO does lose me in the story every so often. It’s a good story, mind you, but it’s also big, complex, and full of names that aren’t always the easiest to remember. And with all of the side quests, breaks, dead ends, and other distractions, picking back up on these narrative threads can be difficult. How often have we jumped back into a quest with no idea why we were doing these activities and what the context was for them?

So how can LOTRO help us keep track of all this? One answer is that it is up to both our memories and external sources, such as LOTRO Wiki, to sort out specific queries. But that shouldn’t let the game off the hook for refreshing our memories.

While it’s probably far too late in the game’s development to do this, I would love to see a story summary-to-date on at least the epic story. SWTOR included the major recent plot points on its loading screens, which is always handy to getting us up to date.

I also wouldn’t mind little story catch-ups when LOTRO picks back up on an old thread — such as the return of a character or following up on an event — to remind us of what happened 60 hours and 245 quests ago in the game.

A much more sensible solution is to keep the story arcs smaller, more interesting, and more clear. Recently I went through a murder investigation in Lake-town that I thought had just the right number of quests, amount of activities, and narrative focus. I was actually engaged and interested without getting lost in a sea of names or obscure details.

At least when LOTRO loses me, I know that sooner or later, I’ll be found again.

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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