I’m loathe to call the Fellowship of the Ring “lazy,” but it’s time to get a move on. Sure, Elrond’s peaceful and magical sanctuary of Rivendell might be a safe and idyllic resting place, but as we all know, the narrative must continue. Frodo has made up his mind to accept the One Ring as its bearer, the Fellowship has formed around him as companions and bodyguards and their respite must end as they continue their journey towards Mount Doom. As those familiar with Tolkien’s epic might know, the next stop on the long and arduous road to Mordor is the ancient Dwarven stronghold of Moria.
The Fellowship’s exodus from Rivendell is the focal point for The Lord of the Rings Online‘s upcoming Book 14 – the final major content update for the game before the first expansion, Mines of Moria. Turbine’s Aaron Campbell (LotRO‘s Live Producer) and Adam Mersky offered to walk me through some of the new content and show me what was what.
The first bit Campbell showed me was actually the very scene where the Fellowship departs. My character, a Dwarf Guardian decked out in the finest gear possible, stood with Elrond and Bilbo Baggins as Frodo, Aragorn and the others resumed their journey. Gandalf thanked me for my efforts to aid the Fellowship (gratitude that will likely make more sense to players who have done the previous quests in the storyline). The devotion and enthusiasm that the LotRO developers continue to have for the source material was obvious, and I was pleased to see that even Bill the Pony was in the scene – Campbell and Mersky assured me that Bill would have his own role to come in Moria.
After seeing the Fellowship off (unable to accompany them, of course – Tolkien might have taken issue with that) I continued my tour of Book 14. Though the developers plan to launch Moria alongside a final Book 15 to lead players into the expansion, Book 14 is the last true pre-Moria patch, and as such is intended to be a sort of “bookend,” wrapping up the first days of LotRO – and simultaneously giving a sneak peek at what’s to come.
One new concept introduced in Book 14 was “session play,” which Campbell told me was inspired by the popularity of an existing quest where players take on the role of a defenseless little chicken. From this came the idea of allowing players to control a Troll in the Ettenmoors, and Campbell demonstrated the full evolution of the concept. The idea is surprisingly (perhaps deceptively) simple – session play involves players taking control of a character not their own to play through a dungeon tailor-made to this particular avatar.
The particular example I was shown involved stepping into the shoes of Laerdan, an Elf-Lord with whom players have interacted in previous quests. Whereas the story contained in those earlier questlines has led the player to believe that Laerdan has betrayed them, Elrond knows otherwise and “tells” the player his story. As the Elf-Lord, I adventured and fought my way through masses of enemies – thankfully possessing roughly 10 times the hit points of a standard LotRO character – trying to track down and rescue Laerdan’s missing daughter. Along the way I encountered not only forces aligned with Sauron but Orcs bearing the White Hand of Saruman, a portent of things to come in the story of LotRO. While I won’t spoil the conclusion of the story for players intent on experiencing it themselves, I thoroughly enjoyed my first taste of session play; more than that, I was excited for the possibilities when combined with the expansive lore of Tolkien’s world.
Campbell explained that through tools such as session play, Turbine is trying to introduce new ways to tell the stories of Middle-earth to LotRO players with the launch of Moria. Another session play event they mentioned cast the player as an Angmarim Torturer, the minion of an adversary players faced back in Book 12. By allowing the player to literally see through the eyes of their enemy, Turbine hopes to give players who are invested in the story and the lore a better understanding of the War of the Ring. For all the rest, there’s always phat lewt.
Session play offers Turbine an opportunity to explore Middle-earth in a way the current game simply doesn’t allow. Laerdan’s quest was essentially Elrond telling me his story – and from there, it’s barely a jump to allowing players to experience other tales in Tolkien’s mythology. Campbell let it slip that something they had been considering was allowing players to revisit the glory days of Moria recounted by Gimli.
A significant portion of the update – including the tale of Laerdan – focuses on Eregion, a land to the west of Moria that will play a prominent role in the expansion. Perhaps most significant amongst the features of Eregion are the Ring-Forges, the Elven furnaces in which all the magical Rings of Power were forged – save One. Now inhabited by a host of baddies, the Ring-Forges are Book 14’s new proving ground, a dungeon for players to enter in the name of smiting the wicked (and taking their stuff).
Campbell and Mersky walked me through the beginning of the zone, including a boss fight against a particularly brutal Troll Gate Warden. Fortunately, despite the monster’s crushing strength, we ultimately prevailed thanks to our admin powers. They led me a short way further into the Ring-Forges and showed me a particularly nice bit of flavor: “Beautiful Sauron.”
This mural on the wall depicts Sauron not as the fearsome villain we know and loathe, but in the beautiful and elegant form he chose to assume after pretending to reform his ways – while deceiving the races of Middle-earth and forging the Rings of Power. Though the painting shows him as benevolent and surrounded by admiring elves, its presence was enough to inspire enough Dread that even my hardy Dwarf cowered in terror while we were near it.
Having shown me a taste of the new dungeons and quests, we moved on to the brand-new cosmetic features and general tweaks players can look forward to in Book 14. There were more than a few additional items available for players to earn for their characters and in-game houses, many of which Campbell explained could be earned through seasonal festivals in the world of Middle-earth. Some of the things they showed me included vegetable, herb and flower gardens one can plant outside one’s home, as well as an assortment of silly masks characters could wear. (I thought my Dwarf looked particularly amusing in a beaver cap.)
There were a few new items for house interiors as well. Campbell demonstrated different colors of floral wallpaper and brand-new fishing trophies on which players could mount the various Big Ones they’ve caught since the addition of fishing in Book 13. After a round or two from the affectionately-described “Keg of Doom” (implemented in Book 12) that found my inebriated character waking up in a fountain in Bree, Campbell and Mersky ended my tour with an overview of two new NPC types – Town Criers and Sages.
Town Criers are precisely what one might expect: NPCs that announce ongoing events in Middle-earth (from festivals to battles) as characters walk past, letting players know if there is something going on they might want to be aware of. Players can also directly ask the Town Criers about specific events they’re more interested in learning about. As the Crier informed all nearby about the ongoing “Summerfest” held by the Dwarves of Thorin’s Hall, Campbell led me up the hill to meet the new Sage, standing by a Reflecting Pool.
Reflecting Pools are a feature that has already existed in the game for some time now, allowing players to go back and experience Quest dungeons they’ve already been through – or to help friends experiencing them for the first time. In Book 14, Sages offer more incentives to do just that, encouraging players to relive content they haven’t visited in a while. By going back to these dungeons, players can earn Marks of Triumph that function as a sort of currency with which they can barter with the Sages. Marks can be traded for items including epic-level gear, offering an alternative route for players looking to complete their equipment sets.
The players aren’t alone in returning to old instances; Campbell mentioned that the LotRO team has been looking at its previous content and tweaking, updating and rebalancing as necessary. He mentioned that players would likely be much more pleased with, for example, the encounter with Helgcham, a fledgling Watcher. The old dungeons aren’t the only things receiving a bit of touching up – the developers have been looking at some already-implemented equipment that they weren’t entirely happy with, and so come Book 14 players might see some improvements in gear they already have.
As the Fellowship heads off to Moria, so too do the players and developers of Lord of the Rings Online. Book 14 is very much a bookend to the game’s first chapter, and offers some rather nice tastes and hints of what’s to come.