Every MMORPG comes bundled in with what we call "lore" – that is, the background story of the entire world, the framework which holds the game together. Although some people claim to ignore the lore of the game to "just play it," everyone's aware of the lore at least to a certain point. Without it, we'd be generic heroes fighting generic mobs in generic settings.
Lore provides the Who, the What, the Where and the Why of the virtual world around us. Who are those guys I'm fighting against? Why is it important that I beat them? Where did they come from? What history do they have? By providing context, lore enriches the game experience, and as such, it's a vital part of constructing a good MMO. Don't believe me? Think back to some of the blander MMOs that you've played or seen – chances are, they're pretty weak in the lore department.
There are, of course, two types of MMOs when it comes to lore. There are games that have an original setting, in which case the devs are free to craft and shape the lore as they see fit. Then there are titles based on an established IP, which requires the game to be shaped around the lore instead of vice-versa. LotRO lands in this latter category, which was both a boon and a restriction to making Tolkien's Middle-earth into a MMORPG. For my money, Turbine's done an excellent job merging the two while being respectful and as accurate as possible.
Lost and Found
If you've ever felt lost playing LotRO while trying to follow the story and keeping straight all of the characters and plots and settings around you, well, you're not alone. Tolkien wasn't just a storyteller, but a world-builder as well, and Middle-earth has some of the richest, complex and intricate lore of any fantasy setting out there. For starters, Lord of the Rings and LotRO takes place at the tail-end of an era called The Third Age (the end of LOTR ushers in The Fourth Age), which means that there's just gobs of history that's happened up to this point – hence why there are so many ruins around Middle-earth.
It's tempting to give up on trying to understand the lore of LotRO -- especially when you bump into your 114th character with an impossibly long name -- and to just play the game like a standard fantasy title. The problem is, once you get into that mindset, then there's really little tethering you to LotRO over any other game. LotRO is its lore; the two cannot be separated and then expected to endure.
Instead, I'm here to bring you both hope and help in this, your darkest of hours. I'm here to say that if I, one of the densest English majors of all time, can eventually grasp, appreciate and love Tolkien's world, then you can as well!
Trust Me, You Already Have an Associates Degree in Middle-earth
Chances are, you already know a lot about the basic infrastructure of Middle-earth, simply by knowing products derived from Tolkien – Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft, almost anything of the modern fantasy genre. You can get a basic grasp of hobbits – short, passionate, funny, emotive beings – by knowing other games' gnomes and Halflings. The same goes for dwarves, orcs, goblins, wizards, elves, the Big Evil Unstoppable Foe, dragons and the like. Of course, these things didn't necessarily originate with Tolkien, but he reutilized them in such an iconic way that they became the de facto standard of fantasy tropes from that point onward.
My point is, Tolkien is familiar to you already because you're most likely familiar with one of the works based off of Lord of the Rings. With a starting ground rooted in a basic grasp of fantasy concepts, it's a hop, skip and a jump to learning about his specific world, how it's set up, how it functions, and how we're meant to approach it.
One small disclaimer: although Tolkien had a large hand in starting many typical fantasy clichés that we know today, it's a mistake to assume the clichés we know are anything like what he originally wrote. For instance, Tolkien's wizards (such as Gandalf) aren't your now-typical cloth-wearing, firebolt-spewing fragile old men. You start to see that when the dude wields a sword as well as a staff, and is revealed to be of an ancient and incredibly powerful race of beings. So keep your assumptions in check, even though you may think you know everything just by virtue of their fantasy setting.
Baby Steps into Middle-earth
It may seem like I've rerolled a captain here – Captain Obvious, to be exact – but there are three common-sense steps to getting a handle on LotRO lore. The first is, simply enough, to actually pay attention to the quest text. I know, I know, it's long and contains words and it strains the brain, but Turbine isn't just typing this stuff to pad their resumes. Quest text contains a lot of threads of the lore, which weaves together over time as you soak it in. Sooner or later, these pieces "click" together and you start realizing how everything is connected in the story and the world.
The next two steps are equally obvious: read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and watch the Peter Jackson movies. The movies might not be 100% faithful to the books, but they do an excellent job visualizing them and helping you to get an overall grasp on the major players and locations. The books, however, tie in with the game wonderfully, and if you've played LotRO to any extent, you'll be reading along and suddenly realize that you've seen this in the game as well. For instance, I'm currently re-reading LOTR, and I got a laugh out of the part where the party is crossing Midgewater Marshes and Sam nicknames the giant bugs as "Neeker-Breekers" – the very same bugs I recall slaughtering for a few quests.
Resources for the Road
Of course, as lengthy and in-depth as Tolkien's lore is, you and I need some additional assistance to filling in the gaps and strengthening our overall understanding of the world. So I've taken the liberty of compiling a few excellent resources for a leg up on LotRO lore:
- The Tolkien Professor -- Several friends urged me to start listening to this guy, a Washington College professor who does a class on Tolkien and puts out his lectures as podcasts. Really great, accessible stuff that helps to tie together the world and themes.
- LoreCast -- Every once in a while, the folks over at LOTROCast do a shorter podcast called "LoreCast" where they discuss the lore of a specific area of Middle-earth.
- The Complete Guide to Middle-earth -- This is seen as one of the better attempts to summarize all of Tolkien's worldbuilding into a single book, even if it doesn't contain some of his posthumous publications.
- Online Cliff's Notes to Lord of the Rings -- My English profs would kill me for mentioning this, but hey, if you're looking for a quick summary of the lengthy novels, this is the place to go.
- The Encyclopedia of Arda -- A good-looking wiki that is attempting to cover all things Middle-earth. I like how they place a timeline bar at the top of most of the articles.
- LOTRO-Wiki -- This doesn't just cover game mechanics, but also the history of the people and places of Middle-earth, if you're just up for some light browsing.
- Middle-earth on Wikipedia -- Speaking of light browsing, Wikipedia proper has a ton of Middle-earth articles, and they're another good source for a condensed version of the lore.
Tavern Talk is the part of the column when we kick back with a pint of ale and highlight what's going on in the LotRO community this week:
- Games and Geekery wraps up the Spring Festival with a search for fortunes
- LOTRO Reporter looks at the game from the other side of the pond
- Exploring War Like Worlds lists some of the more amusing titles you can get in-game
- mmorsel LOTRO runs down all of the racial traits in this great guide
- Podcast Round-up: A Casual Stroll to Mordor #31b, #31c, #31d, Through the Palantir #3