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.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!