You might think you’re a Tolkien scholar, having read the appendices of the Return of the King and even the whole Silmarillion. But after a few minutes chatting with the team at Turbine writing the content for Lord of the Rings Online, you’ll quickly realize you know nothing. Chris Pierson, the Senior World Designer for LOTRO, took a few minutes out of his crunch time getting the Riders of Rohan expansion ready for its October 15th release to show me the slice of Middle Earth he’s digitally created. From galloping along the rolling plains of the Westfold to standing above the falls of Rauros, not to mention an exclusive glimpse inside Meduseld, the golden hall of Edoras, it’s clear Pierson loves Middle-Earth almost as much as Tolkien did himself.

Riders of Rohan brings the story of the five year old MMO through the Breaking of the Fellowship and the first few chapters of the Two Towers. Lord of the Rings Online is unique in that it lets players interact with the main characters of Tolkien’s saga and help them out in peripheral ways. You’ll be able to take on the roles of Frodo and Boromir as they wrestle for control of the One Ring and interact with the Rohirrim nation before war sets in, but there’s a big challenge with this expansion focusing on just the eastern half of Rohan, before all the fun of Helm’s Deep. Tolkien describes the rolling plains in detail, but doesn’t mention any of the specific people who live there. Chris Pierson explains how he fleshed out the world.

As far as Rohan goes, this is effectively a big wide open ill-defined area. Places where nobody really lives that Tolkien likes to bring his characters through over the course of the books. We basically needed to say “No, really. Who lives there?” Because a large wide open area where no one lives is not good fun. We had to come with it more or less whole cloth based on what we knew about Tolkien’s sources for Rohan.

We tried to make towns that felt like they would be appropriately sized. They all have their own local lords who’s really effectively the king for the area. All these lords have their own ambitions and have their own squabbles. For a lot of them I drew from, there are a couple spots in the books where [Tolkien] will rattle off an Iliad-style list of guys who died in a given battle. Particularly at [the Battle of] Pelennor [Fields]. There’s a list of six or seven characters that we’ve never heard of before and we never hear of again but we’re supposed to assume that they are really cool guys who didn’t make it back from Pelennor. We had the opportunity to take a couple of them and give them their own lordships and their own stories.

It’s a great way to create new stories and quests that stay true to the feel of Tolkien’s writing without all the problems of interacting with famous characters all the time. Of course, you do get a fair share of traveling with the Fellowship in Riders of Rohan, more so than in the previous expansion.

Senior producer Aaron Campbell explains that he’s excited to get back to main storyline again.

The most important part of this expansion for me is that we’re coming back to the story of the Fellowship. We’re following it step-by-step and line-by-line. You’re going to get to play as Frodo in a session and play as Boromir and see these places. Go on these epic quests, go to Edoras, meet Theoden, and connect with all these pieces that are so critical to this story. With the [Rise of] Isengard, we followed a line in the story – we were really talking about the rangers. Now we’re with the Fellowship and that’s very exciting.

Despite the aging graphics engine, the artists at Turbine have wonderfully translated the beauty of Rohan and its surrounding landmarks . You can really believe you are just like Frodo on the Seat of Seeing overlooking the River Anduin, or a ranger arriving at the pile of burning orc bodies on the eaves of Fangorn Forest. You’ll meet Treebeard the Ent and even a certain wizard, now dressed in white.

But of all the places I visited in my short digital tour of Rohan, Meduseld, the golden hall of Edoras, was the most impressive. Here the designers and artists worked closely to recreate the hall with as much detail and grandeur as possible, all inspired by Tolkien’s writing as Chris Pierson explains:

All these banners [Tolkien] just describes as “many colored banners.” Fine, great. What are these banners? Each of these is a different emblem for one of the provinces of Rohan. Most of the symbols on them also draw from the ‘Where is the Horse and the Rider’ poem that Aragorn recited. “Where now are the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? Where is the hand on the harpstring?” The poem is kind of a catalogue of stuff that’s important to the Rohirrim. It’s meant as an elegy to the faded glory of Rohan to think that the king would talk about “Where are all of my lords? Where is the lord of the horn? Where is the lord of the harp?” The poem has a sense of the mustering of the lords of Rohan at the same time.

The ability to take small passages and translate them into a visual medium of a 3D videogame served Turbine well in the rendering of the hall of Edoras. The tapestries lining Meduseld are another great example. Tolkien describes one as Eorl riding a white horse before the saving Gondor, resulting in the gift of the lands of Rohan, but says little of the rest. Pierson and his team filled in the blanks left by Tolkien with the remaining tapestries showing beautifully rendered images such as Helm Hammerhand punching a countryman to start a war and Saruman receiving the keys of Isengard. Just walking around the great hall felt like I was strolling around inside the books I love so much. Even though that throne is totally inspired by a different fantasy series …

Beyond raising the level cap to 85 and the chance to interact with the breaking of the Fellowship, the gameplay of Lord of the Rings Online gets a major new system with the addition of mounted combat. Other games let you ride on horses or magical beasts, but in riders of rohan each class gets a whole new set of combat abilities usable only while mounted. Momentum and turning are extremely important on your mount, as you can quickly ride by your target before you land your blow and you can’t exactly stop on a dime. It’s a tough to get used to having to slow down before you stop, but the designers wisely added a toggle ability that automatically plots a figure eight pattern for your mount so you can focus on timing your attacks. Of course, you can level up your mount and customize its stats and abilities in three talent trees and Campbell explained some of the special abilities each type of mount gets.

In terms of unique skills, there’s just some fun stuff to play with. Light steeds for example are going to have an evasion skill. Medium steeds have a fear ability – Intimidate. Heavy steeds have one of my favorite abilities which is actually a charge attack. That lets you knock back and trample an opponent which is a whole bunch of fun.

In what’s a genius way to keep the free-to-play bucks flowing , you can kit out your mount in all kinds of cosmetic gear from the LOTRO store. Some of the stuff is available through quest rewards in the game, but the store’s there if you want to make your horse look like the cavalry of Rohan as soon as the expansion goes live on October 15th. The mounted combat system is a nice addition to the MMO formula, and Turbine picked the perfect moment in the epic story to bring it out in Lord of the Rings Online.

From everything I saw in my brief tour of Riders of Rohan, the fourth expansion looks like it’s a worthy addition to the venerable MMO. Lord of the Rings Online has always had a reputation for staying as true to the vast lore of Tolkien as possible, and the team has not wavered in its dedication. I’m only sad that I don’t have the 70 or 80 hours you need to level up from 0 to take advantage of all that Riders of Rohan brings to this already glorious MMO.

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