Saturday, July 7, 2007

Easterling Eggs

There are some spoilers here for Book IV and V of the Epic Quest. Fair warning.

In Book IV you are tasked to find the one Nazgul who did not get destroyed at the Fords of Bruinen. In this you have the help of some pretty interesting people, including Glorfindel, Legolas, and Gimli (who, by the way, are both insane aggro magnets). Now, I am virtually certain that Tolkien intended the Witch-king to be the lone survivor, since he is not only the most powerful, but also the only one with any kind of self-will, independence, or personality of his own. I mean, if 8 out of 9 get drowned by magic river horses, it seems logical that the toughest one -- the boss -- would be the one to survive.

But that is not the direction the developers at LotRO decided to go. Apparently, the Witch-king was wasted at the river and the surviving Nazgul was our good ole boy Khamul the Easterling.

Khamul has an interesting history in LotR research. He is not mentioned by name in the novel. Instead, his name comes up in Unfinished Tales, where he is described as a tracker and scout. It was Khamul the Easterling who sniffed the Hobbits by the great tree (under which Frodo and the others hid, and he was tempted to put on the Ring) before he chased the Hobbits to Buckleberry Ferry, only to be frustrated by the river. We have no other facts about him.

What is interesting here is that Turbine does not have the rights to Unfinished Tales. We therefore see, in Legolas' dialogue concerning the surviving Nazgul, a hint to how close developers intend to go with this new material. Legolas cannot name Khamul; that would be in violation of copyright. Instead, Legolas knows only that "it is said" that one of the Nazgul was a mighty tracker from the East. Only lorehounds will know that this is a reference to Khamul. Still, this is a very interesting allusion to Unfinished Tales.

It makes you think. What else from Tolkien's legendarium might we get to see, the serial numbers properly filed off so that the lawyers don't get involved?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Why did the chicken cross the Anduin?

Turbine has this neat idea called "Session Play," which I could totally get behind. In the Ettenmoors, you can play a Ranger or a Troll, but only for one session. You buy this priviledge with a bucketload of Destiny points, and for the duration of that session you are Da Man (or Da Troll, you get the idea). Of course, Trolls and Rangers are only available when the opposing side is winning, making them a Monster Play balancing factor (albeit a very cool one).

And, let's face it, tons of people want to play a Ranger.

But there is also another surprising facet of Session Play: Chicken Play. Yes, if you don't happen to be a monster, you can still enjoy the surprises of Session Play by RPing a chicken.

Now, I can see the value in creating a small trial run for PC Session play to help work the kinks out and get people interested in the concept. And I can also see the value in creating a more light hearted (one might almost say Hobbit-ish) aspect to LotRO that young kids could get into. But ... a chicken? Why in the world a chicken?

Middle-earth is filled with many talking animals. Foxes and thrushes to name just a couple. Wouldn't they have been far more interesting than a chicken? Chickens are not dramatic, they are dull. And while there certainly are chickens in middle-earth, they never do even a single notable thing. It is like making a PC Class: Innkeeper. Sure, they're there. And they make you laugh. But when it comes to heroics, they don't cut the mustard.

Developers are constantly asked to add new features to the game. Social clothing, more quests, skill and UI fixes, new crafting recipes, ad nauseum. Their answer to these questions, 95% of the time, is: we want to do that, but we don't have enough time. Priorities. (The other 5% of the time is when people ask about flying mounts and the developers have to go laugh their ass off.)

How seriously are we to take developer excuses about priorities when they spend manhours on the Chicken Quests? If it was the Old Thrush, I would not be writing any of this -- the thrush has a critical role in the Hobbit. Smaug would have triumphed if it had not been for the thrush. And foxes ... foxes have a long tradition as the heroes of medieval folk tales, and we meet a thinking fox in LotR.

But a chicken? Okay, I guess you have Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale, and its 1979 sequel the Book of the Dun Cow. But even those are about roosters!

Yeah, okay, developers are rolling around saying, "Wait till you try it! It'll be fun!" But I maintain that the choice of hero was a poor one. Chickens are common; they have no footprint in LotR; other animals would have served far better.