7 June, 2009
I’ve been playing LotRO for about six months now. I’ve been playing it mostly for fun, and I’ve had the extra fun of playing it with my better half.
I figured it might be of some interest for me to write about how I approach the game and my general experiences with the game after I’ve gotten into it a bit.
Yeah, prepare for a long post.
I blame my friends
I started playing LotRO because the friends I played WoW with wanted to try it out. I went to the store and got a box for the latest expansion. In the box there were “buddy keys” that allowed a friend to play the game for 14 days. As I posted in my previous story, she got hooked. I signed up to play on the Firefoot server with my friends; the first of our friends on picked that one because it had “fire” in the name.
The original plan was to play as a group, so I tried a few character classes. I was pretty sure I wanted to play a Minstrel, so I focused on that. My GF thought the Loremaster sounded fun; in retrospect, that was a terrible class for someone almost completely new to MMOs to play.
Unfortunately, one of my friends got busy with his work, and we didn’t end up playing together too much. It also appears the guild we joined up with is having a bit of drama. Not sure what’s going on, but I don’t play the character in that guild too much.
How many character slots?
Without my other friends to play with, I got bit by altitis. At first I wanted to see how the different game mechanics worked. Then I had each character pick out different crafting professions to see how those worked.
How deep does that rabbit hole go again? Deep.
My better half started playing around with different characters as well. We started pairing up the characters, leaving one character each for soloing so that we can have some alone time if the other doesn’t want to play right then. Besides crafting, we try to play together as much as possible to keep our quests in sync.
Our character pairings are as follows: (my character, then hers)
- Elf Champion [Armsman] and Man Captain [Armourer] (Our “mains”, currently level 42)
- Man Minstrel [Tinker] and Elf Loremaster [Scholar] (our grouping characters)
- Hobbit Burglar [Yeoman] and Hobbit Minstrel [Explorer]
- Dwarf Runekeeper [Historian] and Elf Warden [Tinker]
- Dwarf Guardian [Armourer] and Dwarf Hunter [Woodsman]
- Man Warden [Woodsman] and Man Burglar [Explorer]
- Elf Loremaster [Explorer] and Elf Champion [Armsman] (our soloing characters, rarely together)
Most of our other characters are around level 25, with a few at level 20. Getting up to that point is pretty easy in LotRO, especially after they adjusted the experience curve.
Duoing is interesting because the game doesn’t seem to be precisely created for it. We tend to fly through normal quests intended for solo players, but we run into trouble on full group quests. Our mains are pretty powerful characters for their level, so we can often take “full fellowship” quests that are almost trivial to us. But, there are quite a few quests that we just couldn’t take.
Grouping with other people is… interesting. We grouped up for one really cool instance quest and the person taking charge tried to put us in different groups. I typed that we were in the same room, so it would be easier for us to stick together. While I enjoyed the quest as something different, it took a bit of just sitting around trying to find 4 other people, and then the group immediately split up after the quest was done. We haven’t done a lot of the group instances, especially at the higher end.
As I’ve mentioned before, playing with my GF has given me a different perspective on what these games are like to the relative newcomer. A lot of annoyances I write off are real thorns in her side. A lot of things I am tired of she finds new and interesting. Once again, there is no “one size fits all” in these types of games.
One neat thing is that since we have some higher level characters, we can help out our other characters as they have to do various crafting quests to advance in their professions. Doing a level 40 quest with a level 25 character is much easier with a level 40 along, although some of the quests can be pretty brutal (I’m looking at you, Artisan Cooking quest! Although it seems the Tailoring quest is going to be tough, too.)
One minor quirk is that I created a kinship (guild) and put both our alts in it, in anticipation of our friends playing more and maybe not sticking around in the original kinship we joined. My friends aren’t playing, but I now have a level 8 kinship that I don’t want to just give up. So, my GF and I tend to be a bit isolated from other people. Our “grouping” characters are still in the original guild we joined, even through the guild drama.
A citizen (and mercenary) of Middle Earth
I’m a fan of the Lord of the Rings books, so it’s fun to play the game. The developers obviously put a lot of care into developing the world. I’m not the biggest Tolkien fanboy (I have never been able to read all the way through The Silmarillion), but I see little bits and pieces of the world expressed in the game. It’s a lot of fun to go through and see how someone else imagined the game.
Perhaps the most interesting part are the epic quests. These are neat quest that let you track an alternate path, parallel to the Fellowship of the Ring. Unfortunately, a lot of these quests are group-focused, especially near the end of the chain, so I haven’t gotten to see much of the story.
However, some of the conventions of MMOs just don’t fit well. For example, with few exceptions, Middle Earth wasn’t inhabited by individual heroes. Even great heroes like Aragorn had others with him, working as a group. Now, I’m not saying that the return of force grouping would make the game feel more true to the setting, the concept of going it alone in Middle Earth seems a bit odd. Magic is another sticky point, since Wizards with real magic were rare. Explaining that a class uses language tricks to do damage seems a bit strange. And, I’ll talk about it being “morale” instead of “hit points” a bit later.
The main complaint about questing I have is that the quest levels and ratings are wildly inconsistent and sometimes not useful at all. It’s entirely possible that a two different quests will require you to kill the same monsters, but the quests themselves will be a few levels apart. Many “full fellowship” quests are easily done with the two of us (and should probably be “small fellowship” quests), while others surprise you by really requiring a full fellowship. The epic quests tend to be the worst, since they suddenly spring “bring a group!” on you in the middle of the chain.
Another smaller problem is that the quest content often runs out in one area, encouraging you to jump to another area. Given the large size of Middle Earth, this can require really long travel times. If you don’t travel around, you may miss some of the interesting lore….
My final complaint in this area are the slayer deeds. As I have written before, I like the idea of deeds for an area instead of a bunch of FedEx and “kill ten rats” type quests. But, having to find and kill nearly 1000 goblins just isn’t all that fun on its own.
I look pretty! So, so pretty!
One thing I like is the system for cosmetic items. Upon reaching level 20 with any character, you can equip items cosmetically. It’s nice that I can choose a nice color scheme for my character without worrying about it going away when I find an upgraded bit of gear. I sometimes cringed in WoW when I got a new piece of gear about how it would look with my existing gear (rams horns on my helmet, really???), and was often thankful in EQ2 that my Necromancer wore a robe to cover up some of the hideous pants and boots I wore for stat bonuses (before they added a cosmetic system to that game, that is).
You can also do some fun stuff with the outfit options. On my champion, I have two almost identical sets of outfits, but one has a hoodless cloak, and the other has a hooded cloak. I “put up the hood” on my cloak once it starts raining (even though Elves probably don’t need to keep their hair dry to keep it pretty….) For my Runekeeper, I have one outfit for when he’s bumming around the auction house, and another for when he’s on the road. I really think he looks like a true Tolkien Dwarf in the outfits. (I found the gear from drops for the most part.)
Ready for a hard day of undercutting other people’s AH postings.
Now he’s ready to go nuke some goblins! (Er, I mean, talk them to death.)
Home is where the extra storage is
LotRO has player housing, one of those things you’d expect WoW to have but it never delivers on. There are two sizes of houses for players, and a giant, deluxe sized house for kinships.
What I find interesting is that your house is actually owned and accessible by all the characters on your account. Each character gets a teleport to the house spell, fueled by mildly expensive travel rations. But, you can share items between characters by placing them in the storage chests in the house instead of mailing them. Getting two more large storage areas was a nice bonus.
But, as far as decorations? There are quite a few options, but even in a larger deluxe house, the rooms feel sparse. you can only place decorations on “hooks” in specific locations called “hooks”. Specific hooks can only hold certain types of items. Even a fully decorated deluxe house feels sparse. My GF, who likes to watch home improvement shows, says that the decorations violate all sorts of decorating guidelines.
I’m probably spoiled by EQ2′s housing system. Items could be placed in your house just about anywhere. There was a lot of flexibility and it was fun to decorate, even if your “house” was merely an apartment in one of the larger cities. Placing a lot of little items, like books you’ve collected from vanquishing foes, could be really fiddly. But, in the end, you could see a lot of personality in the place. It also allowed for creativity; one house I visited in EQ2 used these large stone tables placed on some rafters to create another “floor” in the apartment. Simple shelves on the wall provided a staircase up. The space was claustrophobic, but it was neat to see someone create that.
The houses are also quite a bit outside the major cities in the game. This means that if you want to go from your house to town without blowing your map cooldown, you have a bit of a run ahead of you.
Crafting: more than Dwarves singing “Hi Ho! Hi Ho!”
Along with the altoholism, I’ve gotten deep into crafting. LotRO has a few interesting systems for crafting not found in other games. Each crafting profession is a collection of three individual crafting paths. For example, the Tinker can prospect, work jewelry, and cook. A Tinker can mine the materials required to create jewelry, but will have to rely on farmers to get some of the raw materials for cooking.
All recipes are arranged in tiers, and each tier is related. Wood in tier 1 that is treated by foresters is used by Woodworkers to make tier 1 items. Making items in recipes gives you experience toward that tier. The first achievement is proficiency in a tier, which is required to get access to the next tier. You can continue to earn experience to gain mastery of a tier to have a (random) chance of creating “critical success” items. Mastery requires twice the experience points it took to originally gain proficiency in a tier.
You also have crafting guilds which your characters can join, which focus on a specific crafting path. My Tinker, for example, as joined the Jeweler’s Guild; her only other option was the Cook’s Guild, there is no Prospector’s Guild. Access to the Guild is basically a faction grind, where you can create special emblems to turn into the guild. However, you can also use the emblems in special guild-only recipes; common recipes allow you to create 5 component items for the cost of 1 component (plus the emblem). Or, you can create “critical success” versions of one-use recipes without relying on the fickle random number generator. Note that you can only create these emblems (and the special guild recipes they fuel) once per a specific time period: either one day, three days, or one week. Also, creating the emblems give you the best experience gain for resources spent.
I intended for my Loremaster character to be my primary gathering character, since I was told that they solo the best. Even though he’s only level 25, through frequent pet sacrifices I can run to the Trollshaws to collect Lebethron Wood for my woodworker. I thought I was living on the edge until I saw a level 15 Hunter doing the same one night. I’ve spent a lot of money mailing resources from one character to another, though; unlike WoW, the cost to mail an item increases with the price of the item.
Most of my characters have Artisan or Master level in crafting. I’ve mostly made the crafting emblems and turned them in for faction. I’ve also used some to craft exceptional items for different characters.
One problem is that most of the goods have very limited usefulness for a character. The lower levels pass by so fast it seems a bit silly to try to make rare/crit goods for them. My Weaponcrafter is fairly accomplished, but I’ve used less than 1% of the items she’s made as actual weapons on my character. I see the profession getting useless at the higher levels, because the legendary weapons will be the preferred equipment, not whatever stuff my character can make.
The auction house: a fountain of money
My most accomplished crafting character is my Yeoman, who has Supreme Farming and Cooking. He’s has maximum faction with the Cook’s Guild. Farming and Cooking are interesting because they require quite a bit of funds to be poured into them to get going; the two professions require lots of recipe and goods purchases from vendors with few drops available. Many farmed or cooked items don’t sell for a lot. Until you get to the highest level, of course. Due to an experience grind to level up special weapons, teas which temporarily increase the experienced gained by the weapon that only a supreme cook in the Cook’s Guild can make sell well. I can make about 2 gold pieces (2000 silver pieces) per week selling just the teas.
Even before this fountain of cash, I was pretty good at playing the Auction Hall in LotRO. At level 35 I was able to buy a horse for myself and half the horse for my GF. (She’ll probably say I bought the back half… :P) As I mentioned before, I just recently purchased a deluxe home for my characters, and easily have enough money for another horse for any other characters we might work up. Without an enhancement like Auctioneer, I think fewer people are willing to play the market, making it easier for those of us who pay attention to make some quick cash. Having all the alts and all the crafters gives me insight into what people will want when selling goods. I could probably do more speculating by making items and putting them up on the auction, but I’m not eager to do that much extra work. I already spend enough time listing drops up on the AH, particularly recipes and special items from the holiday events.
What I haven’t seen yet
With all this playing, I haven’t seen many of the larger group quests or instances yet. I’ve finished Book 1 and Book 3 through fortunate grouping with other characters. I haven’t done any raiding yet, but after WoW raiding I’m not eager to get into that. I also haven’t been high enough level to go set foot in Moria yet, so besides the classes and Supreme level crafting, I haven’t enjoyed that part of the game yet.
I also haven’t been playing that long, so I haven’t seen many changes to the game over the long haul. I’ve heard that Turbine has added a lot of content to the game and has really worked to make the game more enjoyable; not surprising given their reputation from Asheron’s Call. But, I haven’t seen how the game has evolved first-hand.
And since I haven’t been playing too long, I haven’t felt the nerf bat come down on any of my characters yet. I guess that melee characters had their damage “adjusted to acceptable levels” leaving the tactical classes (Minstrel, Loremaster, and Runekeeper) at the top of the heap; I don’t feel like a weakling with my Champion, but I know my Minstrel can pour out some serious damage in the right situation. I’ve heard the tactical classes will get their own special brand of love in the next major patch, and Champions are going to get clamped down a bit since properly specced people prefer them to tank rather than Guardians, the official tank class. This could suck, because it could also affect my duoing with my GF; she often throws some minor heals from her Captain on me if I pull aggro. (Hey! Sometimes it’s intentional to get them to stop kicking her so hard!) I worry that Turbine is focusing too much on balancing one type of gameplay (raiding) that it ignores others (small fellowships).
The good, the bad, the ugly
If you’re just skimming, read this section for a summary of my thoughts.
The Good: I love the setting and the immersive nature of the world. It’s fun to see what how the game’s vision of Middle Earth fits into the vision I’ve had since I read The Lord of the Rings all those years ago. It’s also awesome to be playing with my significant other for a change, even if my friends abandoned me to go back to WoW. The crafting system is inexplicably appealing, even though the items produced have questionable usefulness, especially for weaponcrafting.
The Bad: It’s a bit disappointing that the game sticks so close to the standard formula for DIKU type games. Instead of just calling hit points “morale” in the game, why not introduce some new, interesting mechanics that support that idiom? For example, have special attacks that depend on morale. At high morale they do extra damage, at low morale they do less damage but can restore morale. Or, perhaps give players a risky attack that does good damage, but it takes morale if it fails. There is a lot that could be done, and that’s just with based on them coming up with a different name for hit points.
The Ugly: Yeah, let me say it: The Grind. I haven’t run into too much of it so far (other than having to commit genocide on orcs, goblins, trolls, etc. for some of the deeds), but I definitely see some of the grind coming up for the factions of the world. How many quests do I have to do for the Rangers before they’ll sell me some cosmetic item? Grinding means doing content that’s probably going to be trivial to you, stealing monsters from people trying to do quests. Better hope that one soloable goblin area isn’t already camped by someone when you decide to do the deed!
What I would do differently
Of course, I’m a developer, so sometimes strange thoughts go through my head while playing. Sure, I’m enjoying the game well enough as a player, and unlike Richard Bartle I can play mostly for fun, but the developer in me still leaps to the forefront on occasion and points out where something could be different.
The obvious caveats apply here. I’m not on the dev team. I didn’t even weasel my way to get a comped account like I have for other games, so I don’t have any inside access to the developers, either. I’m not sure what restrictions they were under by the license holder (and I’ve heard they can be pretty strict). I don’t have my financial security and professional reputation (such as it is) at stake. So, while I say I would like to do things differently, that doesn’t mean the developers did it wrong or even could do it different in any way.
As I mentioned above, I think there’s a bit of missed opportunity for interesting gameplay beyond the DIKU model. Getting rid of xp for murdering monsters and focusing on deeds to advanced as I mentioned in my previous post would have been neat. Doing more with the concept of “morale” instead of hit points would have been great, too. Although I imagine the experiences with AC2 might have made some people wary of trying anything experimental with the gameplay.
I would have put more focus on the interesting crafting system. Get rid of most item rewards from quests and just focus on money. Have the shops in towns sell some semi-useful items instead of just having them stock non-magical items nobody would ever buy in the game as it currently stands. If you encourage people to go to the auction hall to find good items, then they’ll get used to doing that.
In addition, I would not rely so heavily on randoms for the critical success items in crafting. It’s very frustrating to spend time and/or money to get your critical chance up to 63% then fail 3 times in a row in creating an item you really want for your character, consuming resources (and the special crit item) every time. It’s also frustrating that you have to level up characters to get better crit chances (use better tools, read higher scholar scrolls, etc.) The rest of crafting isn’t heavily level dependent (other than having to have friends help you get through some rough quests at the higher levels), but then getting critical successes favors higher levels so much.
I would have found something else besides a faction grind for higher level gameplay. It seems silly that I’ve done pretty much everything the Ranges of Esteldin have asked me to do in the zone, but they only consider me a friend (instead of an ally or kindred). I don’t want to go slaughter orcs for medallions just to show I’m really hard-core enough to be able to wear the high-end pretty gear.
Related to that, I think having the characters on one account be more interrelated would be nice. All characters on my account can access a house I bought, so why not share other gameplay elements like faction? Why do I have to go grind to the highest levels with the Rangers in one area, then repeat the same process with another character? That’s not encouragement to get all my characters to higher levels to keep playing in the long term….
Finally, I think it would be interesting to do more scaling based on group size. As I said before, a lot of the quests are really easy with two people (especially if we’re just cleaning out green quests for lore and profits), but there are few quests marked as “small fellowship” or that present a challenge to two people without seriously wiping them out. Our Champion/Captain duo can handle some of the full group quests ourselves, but some of our other duos won’t have a chance. Not everyone likes to solo (even if games are going that direction), and not everyone has five other friends they can often rely on. More mid-range content (or scaling up the difficulty for more people, like the normal vs. heroic setting on dungeons in WoW) would be a nice way to include more people.
Whew! That was a lot!
So, there are my thoughts. I wanted to get all of them into one monster post instead of appearing to become a LotRO blogger. I’m still really enjoying the game, and would recommend it to others. I’ve signed up for another year’s worth of subscription; we’ll see if that was a mistake or not. :)
If there are any questions, post them in the comments and I’ll answer them as I can.