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For players used to the more lush, wooded environments of Lord of the Rings Online, Book 13 may provide a rude awakening. The new zone, Forochel, lies further north than any of the previously accessible regions of Middle Earth, and it’s every bit as hostile as you’d expect. Aaron Campbell, Live Producer for LotRO, was kind enough to guide me through the zone and showcase some of the highlights of Book 13 along the way. He explained that the harsh climate there wasn’t just a product of its latitude. “[Forochel] is the remnants of the Great Cold that came out of Angmar and settled over the North, so there’s a certain edge of corruption to it. It’s not only cold, but an unnatural, supernatural cold.”

Our tour of the icy wastes of Forochel began along the coast of the frigid Ice Bay. Not the best place for a dip, but the perfect opportunity for Campbell to point out the new environmental damage type that players will contend with as they travel throughout the zone. The cold not only lowers your morale, but places an additional debuff on you that grows more severe over time. This debuff makes it more difficult for you to resist future sources of cold damage, which many of the monsters around Forochel dish out. Fortunately, removing the debuff is as simple as finding a heat source, from a campfire to a nearby steam vent.

We traveled along the coastline until we reached a small fishing outpost controlled by a group of Gauredain. These lanky fellows weren’t particularly keen on sharing their real estate with us, but after a few minutes of steel persuasion (aided by our crazy admin powers) we triumphantly reclaimed the hastily constructed hide canopies and bonfires for ourselves. But it was no use: before we could set up our hammocks and crack open a few brews, a group of nomadic Lossoth moved in and put us to work. The Lossoth are a hardy tribe of humans scattered across Forochel that aren’t particularly friendly toward you when you first enter the zone. As you liberate their camps from hostile forces and complete quests for them, they gradually begin to realize that you’re not there to kill them and entrust you with rare crafting recipes. My character, a Dwarf Guardian, was decked out in crafted Lossoth gear, a stylish Inuit-chic ensemble that grants some extra resistance to the cold.

One Lossoth fisherman politely requested that I do his work for him, and before I knew it I had my first fishing quest. Small problem: my inventory was so bloated with gear that a mere minnow could cause my pack to burst. Solution? Trash some rare and incomparable loot! Likely not a situation that players will encounter, but when you’re already invincible, purples and blues lose some of their luster. With some extra space available, I moseyed over to the shoreline and made my first cast. The mechanics of fishing are simple: click the ability once to send out your line, wait for a nibble, then click the ability again to reel in your catch. My first victim was a rare giant goldfish, a modest haul but still rather satisfying for this novice angler.

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Campbell took this fishing quest as an opportunity to point out some improvements to the quest interface. In Book 13, the quest log will feature easy-to-read visuals that indicate the status of your fellowship members on your current quests. Beyond that, it will be possible for players to look for a fellowship for a specific quest through the quest log itself which should make it even easier to find a group while questing.

With my fishing itch sufficiently scratched (it doesn’t take much), Campbell took me to the Lossoth capital, a giant hide dome peppered with bonfires and vendors. Outside the front entrance were four banners corresponding to the four Lossoth outposts in Forochel that are constantly assailed by the expansionist Gauredain; each banner shows whether the corresponding camp is occupied by the Gauredain or the Lossoth. Inside, players who have achieved a certain level of standing with the Lossoth will be able to purchase items and recipes to make their stay in Forochel a little more comfortable.

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Campbell elaborated a bit on the challenges of building the Lossoth culture essentially from scratch: The LotRO dev team had little more than a paragraph in the appendix of the Lord of the Rings to work from. So how did they arrive at the appearance and attitude that made it into Book 13? Alex Toplansky, one of the content developers, explains: “Tolkien was really first and foremost a linguist, and he was almost a cultural anthropologist; he had a lot of awareness of a lot of the different European cultures and things going on in that part of the world.

“Without going too far into some of the little trips that we put in with them, there was definitely a little bit of influence from the Sami culture, which appears all throughout the northern Scandinavian band. They’re a really interesting people with a lot of attempts to hold onto their heritage very much like a lot of Alaskan and Inuit peoples. We really got kind of carried away and swept into how they went about things. And we learned some really cool stuff that I think comes out in a lot of our content.”

The Lossoth aren’t without their humor, however. Outside the capital, we encountered a clumsy chap who appeared to be attempting to ice skate for the first time. I asked Campbell if players would every get the chance to skate in Middle Earth. “That’s one hurdle we have not been able to climb yet. For the moment, ice skates and sleds are purely the domain of the Lossoth.” In other words, it could be a while before you get to body check a Hobbit in a game of Middle Earth hockey. Someday…

We continued along a barren ice sheet populated by the local fauna: a domesticated mammoth, sabertooth cats, and even a few moose. The team argued about the last creature, and after a minute or two of fierce debate, determined that moose are actually members of the elk family. “Welcome to our world,” one of the developers interjected with an audible eye-roll.

Moments later, I was told to look up and gaze at Forochel’s version of aurora borealis. It was a surprisingly striking, soft purple glow that ebbed and flowed across the horizon. It’s certainly far more dramatic than the Northern Lights that I’ve seen back home in Minnesota, but then again I was less drunk this time around so it’s hard to make a direct comparison.

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The ice sheet spilled into a sparse, taiga-like forest. Campbell explained part of their world-building philosophy for the zone: “We really didn’t make excessive use of trees in Forochel. Instead a lot more of it is about ice, about vertical division of landscape, rocks, vistas and viewpoints, a lot more about the decorations items such as mammoths skulls that you’ll find across the landscape, and then a few ruins out there as well, in keeping with the sort of ancient nature of the area.” Before long we were back onto another ice sheet, this time with substantially more aggressive enemies.

A few wandering ice giants greeted us, and if we weren’t all invulnerable they would have certainly brought the pain. Campbell demonstrated an effective tactic for less omnipotent characters to employ: pull the giants to a nearby steam vent and they become much more manageable. Why an ice creature vulnerable to any heat source would make its home near a steam vent is anyone’s guess, but Campbell speculates, “Well, you know, they like their sauna.” A few paces away, a new monster type floated docilely until I got close enough to aggro it: the Grim, a swirling ice spirit.

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From there, Campbell teleported the group to a cavernous ice cave that will greet players as they enter the zone for the first time. This biome is sort of a proof of concept for the LotRO dev team going into the upcoming expansion. It was created using a new process that Campbell called “dual-height map technology,” basically a streamlined method for creating large underground spaces. We journeyed through the tunnel, inhabited by a few solitary Grim, before reaching a small Lossoth staging area on the other side. It’s a typical woodland biome, covered with a light layer of snow. But the rest of Forochel will expand on the idea of “unnatural, bitter cold,” as Campbell puts it.

Speaking of the cold, Campbell gave me a brief demonstration of the new blizzard effects that the developers have added in Book 13. At first, the snowfall seemed rather unremarkable. But as the storm intensified, a more disorienting whiteout effect enveloped my character, making it difficult to even discern the outlines of nearby NPCs. This effect isn’t unique to Forochel, either; existing zones like the Misty Mountains will also make use of this mechanic after Book 13 goes live.

Campbell and company then led me into a crystalline ice cavern where the epic questline will culminate. I was cautioned not to reveal too much to players, as there are a few big surprises for those who have been captivated by the story so far. Thankfully, I didn’t have a clue what was going on! We followed a sinister bloke through a series of scripted encounters that ended in an open-air chamber with a polished-ice floor. Then things got serious. If we weren’t all invulnerable, this is where I would have wiped the group numerous times while running around in circles and marveling at the gorgeous starry sky above us. “We like to pull out the extra stops for the epic quests,” Campbell boasted.

Thoroughly exhausted from attempting to pretend like I knew what I was doing, Campbell took pity on me and teleported me to his apartment, where he showed me some of the new items available for display in player housing. Campbell’s personal favorite? The Frost Antler head. “Because who can go without a good elk head on the wall?” Campbell added, “I would have said ‘moose head,’ but I’ve been corrected.”

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No system exists in a vacuum in LotRO, and the same is true for fishing. The developers are clearly taking a holistic approach to new game mechanics, making sure to weave them into other aspects of the game as they are introduced. “[We] try to extend out some of these systems, as we add in new content to the game, making sure we give that love back to housing, back to other systems in the game such as crafting and cooking,” Campbell noted.

We closed the session by taking a look at the Orc Defiler, the new monster-play class that Book 13 will introduce. The Defiler has a lanky, hobbled appearance that is both sinister and a little pathetic. Their main skills are healing and reviving teammates and casting powerful curses on enemy combatants; they have a couple direct-damage attacks but the class was built from the ground up as a primary healer, a role that monster players have clamored for.

The Defiler sports a fetching skull helm with its own upgrade path: You start out wearing a deer skull, then move up to a bear skull, an auroch skull, and finally a drake skull. It’s both a cool incentive for monster players wishing to gear out their characters and an indicator of your level of experience to foes. Every member of our party wore a different helm, and while we weren’t likely to take anyone down with a group full of primary healers, at least we were guaranteed to stay topped-off during our brief foray into the Ettenmoors.

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