LotRO: Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey

One of the more interesting bits in the Lord of the Rings Online MMO is the fact that the events within the game are taking place roughly within the timeframe of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

I say “roughly”, because some of the stuff you experience happens well in the past. The ‘starter zone’ storyline for the elves occurs roughly 600 years prior to The Hobbit, for example, while in the Dwarf starting events you’re actually seeing Thorin & Co off on the very start of their journey to the Lonely Mountain. After the first couple scenes, both of those timelines advance to a few years prior to the beginning of the Lord of the Rings, and finally ‘catch up’ to the Man and Hobbit timelines at around level six.

In addition, there are flashback scenes throughout the game that take you back to scenes like…

  • Sauron’s time in Hollin as the “lord of gifts”.
  • The Fall of Moria.
  • The final stand of Balin’s habitation of Moria.
  • The years just after Numenor is broken and cast into the sea, and Ilsidur et al arrives in Middle Earth.

Finally there’s the simply fact that, because of the way the game is organized, moving (physically) along the path of the Fellowship effectively moves you forward (and, it you’re going the other way, backward) in time, if it’s not handled properly.

And all this is necessary. Some amount of the ‘epic story’ stuff you’re doing in the first part of the game has to do with either trying to figure out where the hell Frodo &c disappeared to when they left Crickhollow (then Bree), followed by trying to cover for them and mislead the Enemy. When, after doing this, you finally reach Rivendell yourself, you do (and should) feel entitled to introduce yourself to the Fellowship and receive some well-deserved pats on the back. After all, it’s not as though they wouldn’t be there at that point: after the Council of Elrond, the Nine Walkers were actually the Nine Sit Around and Planners for two months before they got moving again. (Crossing a mountain range in early January, Gandalf? Really?)

The problem is, what happens when the Fellowship finally leaves, and you come back to Rivendell for some reason? Obviously, you shouldn’t see them anymore, but at the same time some newer character who’s coming to The Last Homely House for the first time should.

Turbine has been solving this problem in various ways since they first started the game up.

Option 1: Instanced Areas
One of the things that really blew my mind when I first started playing LotRO was that I started in this quaint little village that a few days later gets basically burnt to the ground, and (wonder of wonders) actually stays that way. Turbine accomplished this by starting me out in an instanced version of the village, then loading me into the burnt-out version once I finished the intro. Simple to explain now, but damned near magical at the time. I still love the sense of a changing world this imparts.

They’ve used this kind of instanced access a lot — simply by putting a key character in a room with a door, they can control your access to that character and thus make them ‘not there’ when they shouldn’t be, according to your personal timeline. For example, early in the Epic storyline, you meet with Strider in the Prancing Pony, but when you come back a few days later, he’s not in his room anymore, there’s been a bit of a hullaballoo, and Gandalf is letting out the same room, and wants to know who the hell you are, how you know Strider, and what you know about this Mr. Underhill. Clever. There’s another memorable bit during what used to be the level 50 ‘end game’ epic storyline where three rooms in a secret camp in Angmar are used to conduct an elaborate shell game with about five NPCs who all take turns being available, missing, alive, dead, or in-between. Again, it works, but it’s a bit of a telltale: “Oh, he’s in a room — he’ll disappear at some point.”

Option 2: “If you’re here, this is when you’re here.”

I’ve only seen this solution used once, but it strikes me as elegant when used sparingly, at least in part because it involves no technical magic at all. There’s a point where you’re in Lorien, and you visit a particular hill where Legolas, Gimli, Sam, and Frodo all happen to be. They are not behind any doors. How do the developers address this?

Easy. When you get close enough to the location, you see the “location notification” come up on your screen, as it does pretty much everywhere in LotRO’s largely non-instanced, zoning-free game. However, in this case, you aren’t just told Where you are, you’re told WHEN you are: It’s not just “Cerin Amroth” but “Cerin Amroth, January 23rd”. Since that’s when you’re there, there’s no problem with seeing some of the Fellowship there as well.

Like I said, Simple and Elegant… unless you just got back from the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

Option 3: Now You See Me, Now You Don’t
Turbine was never entirely happy with these solutions, and ever since we started heading in the direction of Isengard and Rohan has been using what I like to think of as “Instanced People”.

Let’s say you have a quest to talk to Halbarad (the second-in-command of the Dunedain and Aragorn’s standard bearer, for those of you with less of a LotR obsession than me) as he’s traveling south with the Grey Company to meet up with his Liege. If that’s the case, when you get to the village where he’s stopped for the night, you will see him standing out in the center of town. If you do not have that quest, then he’s not there.

This, in a word, is excellent, because it opens a whole pile of opportunities for a variable world that is different for every player.

But it can result in a few… technical oddities.

Especially if (for example) you’re playing through the epic storyline on your fourth character and doing things a bit out of order.

For example…

Last night, I was on Radigwen, my loremaster. The Rise of Isengard expansion has been out for a week or so at this point, but I’ve haven’t yet ventured into the new areas because none of my characters felt like they were quite ready. Still, I’m getting fairly close, and on Radigwen I really just had the last few scenes in the previous Chapter of the epic’s “Book” to get through before I was ready to move on.

So, I’m up in this ancient library, doing a bit of poking around at the behest of one of the Rangers traveling south to meet up with Aragorn (they hope). Once the research is done, the Ranger tells me I should go back to Halbarad and tell him we’ve got the information he needs.

But he also has another quest for me. Specifically, this is also the guy who kicks off the “Lets get out of here and head off down to Dunland” questline that opens up The Rise of Isengard epic book.

Now, I know I’m close to the end of the Book I’m currently working on (because I’ve already done the damn thing a couple times), and I don’t want to backtrack up here, so I just get this other quest right now.

This other quest ALSO wants me to talk to Halbarad and tell him “Let’s get the hell out of here.” Perfect.

So I ride down to the town where Halbard is, walk up to him, and try to finish the Book I’m working on, but he doesn’t want to talk about that. He just wants to talk about Dunland.

“I’ve got your research,” I tell him.

“It is past time we leave for Dunland.”

“But, the research?”

“Dunland!”

“But -”

“Dunland Dunland Dunland!”

“I don’t even –”

“Dunlannnnnnnd.”

Then I look behind him.

Just over his shoulder.

About twenty feet away.

And I see this.

Crap. I ruptured the Space-Time Continuum, didn't I?

“Dude,” I say to Halbarad Prime. “Don’t turn around.”

“Dunland.”

“Whatever.”

I walk over to Halbarad Mark 2, remaining wary. He has a goatee, after all.

Actually, they both do. Crap.

“Hey there.”

“Greetings! Have you discovered anything about that rese–”

“Ohmygoshyestakethispleaseanddon’timplodetheuniverse.”

Then I ran. I ran as far and as fast as I could.

To Dunland.

Luckily, I didn't see anything else amiss.

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