LOTRO Legendarium: A requiem for trait lines

    
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Back in last October when Standing Stone Games announced that it would be launching the legendary server type, one of the most contentious points of discussion arose from vocal players requesting — demanding, really — that the studio reinstall character trait lines as part of this “flashback” experience. SSG claimed that it lacked the resources and ability (not to mention interest) in doing so, and that was that.

Yet the fierce outcry for trait lines during that month or so showed that part of the Lord of the Rings Online community has not forgotten nor forgiven SSG for making this drastic change to characters. Given a slim opportunity to lobby for a change back to the way things used to be, especially in light of WoW Classic’s talent trees returning this summer, some LOTRO players took it, even if it ended up being a no-go in the end.

For newer players to the game, the concept of trait lines might be mystifying. After all, we’ve had trait trees for five years now, and for some players, that’s all they’ve ever known. This legendary server discussion got me thinking about the change to the game and whether or not it’s been a net positive or negative to LOTRO as a whole.

What were trait lines?

While LOTRO has always been accused of being a mere WoW clone, the truth was that the Middle-earth MMO did take off in different directions than Blizzard’s game, especially in character development. Instead of talent trees like World of Warcraft had, LOTRO elected for a more free-form deed and trait system that still exists in a lesser form in the game today.

The idea was that players could earn special abilities and stat buffs apart from level advancement by completing deeds. Virtue deeds, for example, would add a grouping of stats to your character, while racial deeds gave you special abilities and bonuses that were tied to your specific race. While both of those are still in the game, class and legendary traits are not.

These are what most players refer to when they talk about trait lines. Over time, players would unlock seven class and three legendary trait slots that could be filled with whatever traits a player had unlocked via deeds and special quests. While initially a player would just plug in whatever he or she had managed to unlock, over time enough traits would become available to allow for a choice between them. A variety of builds emerged that were tied into set bonuses that favored more specialization in any one of the three trait lines (usually red, yellow, or blue).

The change to trait trees

Ironically, just as World of Warcraft was drifting away from talent trees, LOTRO was moving toward them. With the advent of Helm’s Deep in 2013, Turbine ditched the old trait line system for a more traditional MMO talent tree system. In it, players would specialize in one particular line that would give them cheaper traits (one point per selection) and access to set bonuses than the other two, both of which cost two points per selection and would not give any set bonuses.

It offered some choice and many familiar traits, but it was a huge shift nevertheless. The other significant change that came with the trait trees is that players could easily save and swap between builds on the fly. This would allow, for example, a Minstrel to have a DPS and healing set up without worrying about making the return trip to a bard to swap things out.

So why was the change made when players had been used to the old trait line system for so long? Turbine made the argument that trait lines “forced it into a corner” with balancing classes and skills. There were too many skills, the studio said, and every class could do pretty much everything.

“Many of those skills were redundant, unexciting and worst of all, not really getting used,” the devs said in 2013. “Something had to give. Things were just unsustainable. We needed to clean up if we wanted to make impactful skills.”

Trait trees were meant to pare down the number of skills present, increase the impact of the remaining skills, and lend more definition to specific roles within a class.

A divided consensus

The rollout of trait trees proved to be one of the most controversial moves that the dev team did over the years, right up there with free-to-play, lockboxes, and radiance gear. Right away, the community fractured into two opinionated camps: Those that loved the old trait lines and were horrified at the “dumbing down” of the system, and those that either appreciated or were indifferent to trait trees and adapted well to this new feature.

Clearly, there is still some soreness among the community over this if people were rallying hard to get trait lines back for the progression servers. We saw a lot of posts like this one from player ColMcStacky who wrote, “If we had the old trait system on a pure vanilla server with all the bugs/issues that existed back then, I would reup my subscription in a heartbeat.” The torch for trait lines is still carried among the old guard.

I’ve talked with several long-time players about this topic and seen a lot of division among the responses. Those who advocate hard for the superiority (and return) of trait lines cite a more flexible system that lent itself to a greater variety of builds and more interesting classes.

Personally, I’ve always been in the latter camp. I adapted to but never much liked the old trait line system. It was too grindy for my tastes and ended up producing the same handful of builds as everyone theorycrafted the most powerful setups. Trait trees are more intuitive, allow for some flexibility in build options, and can easily accommodate more levels and growth (as we’ve seen).

I feel that some of the banner waving for trait lines is colored by an understandable blend of nostalgia and familiarity for what used to be. That’s very understandable to me, but it doesn’t always stand that older is better or newer is better just because of what you were used to playing.

I do agree that it was out of SSG’s capabilities to bring back trait lines for the progression servers, no matter how much anyone might have wanted them. For starters, that move would have potentially alienated as many people familiar with trees as it would have attracted those who pined for lines. Then we have to consider if the code still exists for all of this and if it could be brought back into the game client five years later. Finally, there’s the issue of Beornings (which were never present for trait lines and have none set up for them) and subsequent traits that would need to be created from scratch. It’d be way too much work, and I understand why SSG went the easier route.

This all said, I want to open up the discussion in the comments and to hear what everyone has to say about the longstanding “trait lines vs. trait trees” debate. Where do you stand? What did both bring to the table? Which was superior? Let me know below!

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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Guardian

There are certain positive qualities to both Trait Lines and the later Trees, but while I think the developers did a good job of making Trees work, there were trade offs. I liked the ability of Lines to mix and match, it was a bit more flexible in terms of builds. And who can forget Legendary traits! Those were pretty cool to finally earn. The change to Trees also broke some of the classes. Rune Keeper, for instance, was able to switch from high dps to high healing over time, the change hindered that where most of the benefits to healing or damage are separated into different Trees. It is more difficult to mix and match from different builds as the point system requires double the point to an unequipped tree. Certainly at higher levels you can get some of the lower abilities, but I do not know if it is possible to get two trees to the bottom (my main is only level 93). I like the trees, just wish they were a bit more flexible. The new system does allow you to save builds, which is amazing, and a very nice quality of life change. It also seemed to me that they made each individual line more powerful for it’s intended role granting you nice buffs for unlocking more of the tree, but again at the cost of making you commit fully to that line (the build saver helps with this however). Although I liked what the old Lines offered, I think the Trees are more straight forward and ultimately less of a hassle going forward.

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Stormwaltz

I’ve said all this before, but since you specifically asked…

The Trait redesign was so off-putting to me, I quit LotRO for three years, and only returned to something approaching my old regular play in 2018. I don’t play my old main Lore-master again (abandoned at 85, only does festivals now), and I doubt I’ll ever play the class again.

I don’t know what happened with other classes, because 98% of my time was on her, and I played her for six years straight. The trait redesign destroyed Lore-masters. The original design intent of the Lore-master, as I perceived it, was a Swiss army knife, or astromech droid. They couldn’t do any one thing particularly well, but they could do anything – DPS, tank, CC, heal/rez, de/buff.

In the old system, she was difficult to play, as the class description said – I had three hotbars of abilities I used every day. But man, was it satisfying. I couldn’t kill anything quickly, and I did die in straight on-level fights, but knowing when to use what skill was an art. It was like playing piano. I did feel like a wizard, relying on experience and wisdom as a player to survive encounters that should have slain my squishy character outright.

I had that versatility and skillful play taken away and replaced with a bone-stick-stone system of “you will DPS, or tank, or support, and may NEVER multi-role.” I had half the skills I once did. Yes, they were more individually powerful – but that wasn’t the point of the Lore-master. With my class, they didn’t just switch around how you acquired and picked traits. They altered the intent and purpose of the entire class.

For me, the trait redesign is something I won’t forget, and can’t forgive. Not after having a character I spent six years living as stolen away and replaced with a lobotomized changeling. Turbine broke my heart, and I’ve never trusted the devs again. Every change they announce now, my instinct is suspicion, not excitement.

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Alex Willis

So…Turbine’s not in charge of the game anymore…

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Stormwaltz

The devs who worked on LotRO at Turbine moved to Standing Stone and work on it there.

The exact same people are still making the decisions (barring anyone who moved on to a new job, of course).

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Ashfyn Ninegold

Unlocking some traits was difficult and took time, which we all had back then it seems, compared to today.

The old traits were not more flexible. They allowed you to mix and match as you liked when questing, but when raiding, there was always a preferred set up for the role you were assigned. Some raid leaders would check the traits of every member of the group and send them back to town to re-trait if they weren’t what was expected/needed.

Switching between specs was a royal pain. I had a notebook full of specs for this and that and after a patch or update, everything would change and what a mess that made, especially when I was in a hurry.

When joining a group, the first thing I would do was go to the bard and check to see if I had what I wanted or was asked to bring. In terms of ease of use, it was clunkier and made less sense.

The “new” trait trees make it a lot easier since you can have multiple set ups. As a Minstrel, I have four set ups, red DPS, blue pure healer, yellow buff healer, and red/yellow that I only run with my kin. Since I can switch into any of these at will, it’s a lot easier to adjust to the group or the fight.

While it is true that it doesn’t allow for you to trait all the most powerful skills your class has, as the old system did, and some traitlines are studiously avoided for their shortcomings, it also helps you to better define and flesh out what you like to play. My Champion will never give up the delight of shing-shing, no matter what.

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Alex Willis

I HATED when raid leaders used to do trait checks before raid. That kind of snobbery bothered me a lot in a game like LOTRO.

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Guardian

The days of writing down trait specs, haha! I still have mine for Warden and Minstrel in a little notepad.

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MilitiaMasterV

Huh. They must have removed those right after I left. I’d been studying them on my numerous characters (I bought lots of character slots and ran numerous alts…think I had up to like 16 character slots open) trying to figure out what was best to work on getting.

Never saw talent trees when I was playing. If the game wasn’t so clunky/odd to play, I’d probably go back to play again to see what changed, as I used to have a lot of fun there and didn’t make it much farther than level 35ish on any of my multitude of characters.

I’d need to actually focus more if I did, because last time around I suffered major burnout and haven’t really felt up to going back.

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Guardian

When they made the change, I left for awhile and only recently came back. The Trees take some time to relearn and adjust to, but are more straight forward. I’ve been enjoying the changes so far.

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Alex Willis

Trait lines were crazy grindy and dull. No tears shed over here at their loss.

No surprise that the same people clamouring for nostalgia servers are the same ones clamouring for trait lines. Probably old gamers who dislike change. They’d make good hobbits!

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Tobasco da Gama

My biggest issue with the trait trees has always been — going back to the Council discussions at the time, even — that there are just too damned many boring point sinks along the way. The multi-tiered traits in particular are all just filler to give the illusion of “progression”. If it had been up to me, we’d have no multi-tiered traits and about 1/3 as many available points.

But then this is an MMO we’re talking about, and lots of MMO players like that sort of illusory progression, so probably my version would have been even less popular. :P

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styopa

You’re precisely right, actually.
Skinner boxes require a more or less constant trickle of endorphin rewards to maintain interest.
It actually takes a fairly careful design to balance level gain with rewards. For example wow did what you’re suggesting (so there would also be a huge complaint that motto is just aping wow…again) and imo now they have have too few meaningful character empowerments spread over way too many levels (like butter scraped over too much bread….) making leveling even duller, so they significantly increased leveling speed making actual level gain feel meaningless.

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Weilan

I always wanted to get into this game, but it’s so expensive. I hear they sold lifetime packs at one point, but then stopped. I still want to try it, but I fear I will spend hundreds of dollars on a game that keeps losing players.

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Erik Von Drachenfeld

1) You can, as your probably know, try it out for free with restrictions. Meaning you can play some classes to around level 30 without much issue – Thats 20 hours of gameplay
2) It will never cost “Several hundred dollars”, unless you go crazy. If you like the game, just get a subscription for what..9.95 dollars, and you are good to go.

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Maggie May

Although I am not a big fan of how the game monitizes the additional quests, instances and vip, its important to note that this game is pretty old school. What I mean is that there are a multitude of quests, instances etc. to go through. You won’t reach lvl cap in a month like more modern games. After you get to trollshaws, evendim, north downs a vip will keep you busy for a while. When you get to Moria you can get that and be busy for a while and can drop vip (if alting maybe not) etc. I am a slow lvler and I am not dropping hundreds of dollars. Over the lifetime of my playtime, maybe, but I have been playing on and off for 7 years. Vip gives you a stipend which you can save for the expansions and there are sales which lower the price of a couple of them together.

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Weilan

Yeah I know about how it’s free up to 30 level or so. But that’s why I don’t want to do that, because I fear I will get hooked on it. I prefer one-time purchases over subscriptions. I’ve also made a rough estimation that getting every zone and expansion is about $200. So yeah, “several hundred dollars”

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Maggie May

Yea, if its a money issue then I totally understand. For me its more about
the entertainment value, I may spend that but it over a long time, so I am not that bothered. I ignored my sub at one point and ended up having enough to get moria and isenguard. I am facing Rohan coming up then the biggie Helms deep. The speed I play, I do get the value out of it. It wouldn’t suit someone who speed lvls or gets bored easily. I tend to play it to death then get burned out and take a break.

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Weilan

It’s not the lack of money, but where that money goes. I’ve already invested some money in ESO and I plan on continuing, but am currently waiting for them to issue that combat update they are talking about before I come back.

I can invest into LOTRO too, but I can’t play both games at the same time, it’s hard to become “double-invested” (emotionally and time-wise).

The other concern I have is that I fear that LOTRO is way past its prime and I read a lot of negative reviews of people playing for over 1500 hours saying it used to be better. So I feel like if I invest, the game won’t last very long.

And I don’t want to pay for subscriptions, because they force me to play when I don’t feel like it, I prefer B2P over subscription. I also wish there was an option in the West like in China for WoW where you can buy a certain amount of time and it would deplete only when you play.

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Maggie May

Yea, I get it. I only play one at a time too, and I am taking a break from ESO. LOTRO was my first mmo, so for me its like comfort food. I generally only do one subscription as well. I played GW2 which was probably the most cost effective but I found lvling too quick and the living story (and jumping) drove me away. Funily enough coming back this time I wasnt bothered but the clunkiness or oldness, it has its own charm, but I am an elder too … 😊

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PanagiotisLial1

Yes for someone working its usually 2 games per week tops and maybe have a coffee-break mmo that isnt demanding too, at least if you want to have some actual progress.

Its why I also think part of the mmo crisis is we got too many mmos for a non really growing(in numbers) mmo fanbase.

Going back to LOTRO topic its a good game but you need a sub if you dont want to pay questpacks in addition to expansions. It seems it would get someone closer to 150 than 200 usd to get started with all and no sub which still is a big amount. A matter is also what combat you like. This one has a closer combatpace to WoW than to lets say GW 2 so if you like actionish combat its not for you. If you like casual wow-like combat and lots of lore/storyline its awesome and since you play ESO I guess you like storylines. That said doesnt have the same polish with ESO – cause ESO has every single npc voice-acted.

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Weilan

I liked the combat of Vanilla WoW, not the retail one. I also played ESO for the story and voice acting on everything rather than the combat. I’ve spent a couple hundred hours in ESO and the combat is a mixture of action and TAB targeting, so it’s not that special. In fact ESO’s combat is currently boring me, I read opinions about it on the forums when I was just starting with the game and I didn’t believe them, I thought the combat was fine and will always be fun for me, but after I played for a few hundred hours, I went from having fun to not being able to stand it.

Good thing they announced they will be focusing on making the combat good, so now I’m not playing ESO, just logging in to train my mount and collect my daily rewards, waiting for them to fix combat before I invest more time and money into it.

So LOTRO’s combat is good for me, but the way they built that paywall is bugging me. I’m willing to spend $200 or $300, heck even $500 and get a lifetime subscription/VIP account or whatever and not having to worry about that. Or just making LOTRO like ESO – you buy the base game (or have it free) and each DLC, chapter or whatever they are (expansions, zones, IDK) to cost money and getting this to be all one needs to play the game. The idea of having to pay for a subscription isn’t to my liking, that’s why I don’t play WoW anymore and avoid subscription-based games like it and FF14 for that matter.

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PanagiotisLial1

Well LOTRO is expensive but not as much as you say for base expansions and quest packs. Still more expensive than TESO.

The combat is also a bit of a matter of taste. It actually kind of resembles ES: Daggerfall combat – just doesnt have the classic ES freedom on how to build a char. I actually like TESO combat but can feel weird if you arent used to older ES games so I understand you there

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Maggie May

Vip opens some perks so a lot of people just vip for one month.

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styopa

Agreed, they were much like the virtues today – grindy AF, bafflingly inconsistently valued (“you can have +0.5% morale and +1% armor, or +20% dps and -20% cooldown” – no, internet, those are only imagined examples, not specific ones) and the main love for them was nostalgia.

After all, now with the talent trees the way they are now, you can’t really call them WoW-style any more since WoW long ago (stupidly) abandoned them. So if it makes you feel better call them LotRO style?

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Sean Smith

The move to trait trees is one of the main reasons I don’t come back to LOTRO – even the progression server wasn’t enough, once I realised I’d still not have the trait lines back. It’s been five years, but I still haven’t forgotten – or forgiven.

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PanagiotisLial1

I will be honest, I both liked that LOTRO moved into using the spec trees and disliked WoW junking them