When Bad Mechanics Do Good: Lord of the Rings Online, Session Play, and Empathy

So, for once, I do not think I need to reassure you, dear readers, that I don’t really mean that something is 100% very bad no good but rather that, if you understood every word I wrote in the title, I a) am absolutely serious b) definitely do understand the … fraught feelings us LOTRO (Lord of the Rings Online) players have towards session play quests.

I have kicked the leeches. I have kicked the leeches more than once and am sure I will again. And yet – I do also have a certain fondness for session play and a desire for it to stick around as an occasional mechanic. And I also, as this article will show, think it can be used to really great purpose and effect.

Unsurprisingly, I also like epic battles. Quite a bit. But, that masochism aside (I kid, I kid, but kidding is more fun than serious answers 😛 ), it’s time to head below the “read more” cut for a discussion of consent, choice, Isildur (and his descendants) kind of being a big time jerk, point of view, empathy, and how LOTRO chooses to engage with the Paths of the Dead section of its source material.

There's also a stealthed burglar somewhere in this screencap.

Shrew’s eye view heading north in the Dead Marshes.

First off, in case you are not already familiar with Lord of the Rings Online (a MMORPG based on J.R.R. Tolkien‘s fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings) and/or its session play mechanic –

Session play is a game mechanic where you are effectively temporarily logged out of your own character and into a new temporary one with their own pre-set powers and (non-customizable) appearance. On your own screen you will still have your player character name in the upper left corner but you are playing someone else, whether a specific figure from the history of Middle Earth, a current figure, a rooster, a horse, or a troll or a ranger in the service of, respectively, the monster player or Free Peoples player side on the main player versus player map.

Here I will be talking about historical and contemporary figures because those are the session plays everyone eventually interacts with and that have earned session play a reputation for pain, aggravation, and “well I’ll just come back later (or not)”s.

Lord of the Rings Online has what it calls the Epic Story, a narrative divided up into volumes, books, and chapters that your character plays through and that is free to play for everyone, barring the last four books of Volume Three (Helm’s Deep required a brand new game mechanic so access to the necessary epic battles to play through the long night are tucked away in the game’s fourth expansion). It sometimes interacts directly with the story we know from the books, but it (and of course the vast amounts of regional content) also has completely unique narratives and adversaries that have nothing to do with the characters of the book. And also has stories where our player characters interact with events and places and people from the books in ways that are not just follow Aragorn around or carry Boromir’s schoolbooks.

More recently it has had a lighter presence (although I am really excited to see it’s being used in what seems like a good, creative way for an after the battle quest I haven’t played through yet in post-Pelennor-Fields Minas Tirith), but session play has shown up pretty prominently as part of the Epic Story and also some regional stories. It’s a way for us to see what’s been happening to the (novel’s) fellowship or to characters from our own stories and adventures or to get important information and historical grounding for something. Or sometimes more than one of those at once.

It is … not always terribly effective, enjoyable, or necessary. I mentioned leeches and you either know what quest/session play I meant (and probably groaned in remembered agony/sympathy) or got question marks of confusion above your head and … that is one of my prime examples.

There just is not anything that happens in that session play that we really needed to know that we already did not (the session play in fact ends right before our player characters would have entered and started the fight that ends the epic story instance that we would have already played through) and there is nothing fantastic atmosphere or understanding-wise from it.

Unfortunately, describing it will probably make it sound better than it is, but – you are generic Angmarim Bloodletter number nth and get sent by your boss to wind your way through the labyrinthian tower slowly killing gigantic blood leeches until you hit the required number, back track all the way, and then get sent to wind your way all the way through again, this time kicking guards awake. And then wind your way back again so you can then, of all surprises, wind your way all the way through again and watch your boss threaten imprisoned elf who your player character knows (and who has made bad choices with really bad story and personal consequences. le sigh.) until the session play ends because your player character would have showed up right about then.

Thankfully, there really isn’t a way to fail it like there is with some of the other session plays for the Epic Story, but this one is still a lengthy time suck that makes moving on with the Epic Story and your other quests take longer (and if you have limited game time, especially if you fellow with one or more other people, the time suck of session play is another vote against it as a game mechanic) and to no effect. We already know that particular character was tortured (and tricked into giving a certain bit of info away) and that we, the player characters, showed up and rescued him. We’ve also already been in the tower, so we’re seeing nothing new. And we also don’t get any real kind of inner thoughts from the captured character because we aren’t playing as him in this session play (even though it’s supposed to tell us more about his imprisonment) or from our generic enemy character either. Unless stupefyingly boring tasks in the vague hope of a promotion by someone who ends up defeated immediately afterward counts. (I don’t think it really does)

All of this is to say (besides just explaining what session play is)- when the mechanic is bad, it can be really, really bad. And sometimes the story and the players would be better served by either skipping entirely or inserting a cut scene or the game’s no longer used (at least I don’t think it is in newer volumes) “this happened elsewhere” short clips with narration saying what happened.

Other times, however, the individual session play could either use some tweaking (the lengthy Moria ones where you can fail need to at least not have fail conditions), is okay and maybe even necessary (given that the game hasn’t checked in with Frodo and Sam at all since Boromir tried to take the Ring at Amon Hen, having a session play in the Dead Marshes is kind of necessary. and I won’t argue with getting to be Sam and have “Hobbit Sense”), though not great, or really hits it out of the ballpark.

And the ballpark is where we’re going to be going today because I recently (I’ve taken one through before) got to take a character through the Paths of the Dead and through the session play set there and … the game did good. Really really good.

The screencaps directly after this one are just me watching the remaining Rangers jog pass with the other horses. And then either Elladan or Elrohir run past with a torch. And then, finally, the Lagging Dwarf (as the Dead see it), aka Gimli.

It me. I dead. And also finally realized I should be screencapping this particular session play.

It may not be surprising (and even less so once my slow-read Lord of the Rings project gets going) but I do kind of have a beef (or a whole herd of beef) with the Peter Jackson adaptation of the novel and relevant here are my beefs with the there and you miss it handling of the Dunlendings and with the passage through the Paths of the Dead and the calling on and fulfillment of the Oath of Isildur.

I suppose I could have given into peer pressure (and the good points made by that side), but that side is also gambling on Sauron a) winning b) actually keeping his word and freeing us. I get the feeling he wouldn't actually help even if he does win soooo... I'm going to bet on the descendent of jerks instead.

Time to hear the debate. And see women explicitly being included instead of implicitly excluded. Major bummer here – apparently one of the guys arguing strongly for trying our fortunes with Sauron instead of Aragorn was one of my best buds in life. Ouch.

Pardon my terminology but – a CGI ghost orgy has all the nuance of … something with no nuance. And the degree to which the fulfillment of the Oath gets dragged out (besides turning the Dead into a deux a machina for the battle of Pelennor Fields when they never travelled that far in the books and a lot of living people suffered and died and sacrificed to win the day and to have Eomer live to see it) is really uncomfortable and not okay to me. As one of the Dead involved in the debate and decisions made in LOTRO’s session play of the Paths points out, it has already taken century upon century for anyone in Isildur’s darn line to show up and offer to free them from their unnatural unlife (you kind of can’t participate in the Gift of Men and die and have your spirit travel beyond the circles of the world when you’ve been cursed like this). Trying to milk the Oath after the Dead have met the terms is not an action worthy of anybody who’s supposed to be any kind of decent person or supposed to have an iota of heroism in them.

It me! And a girl!

There’s some of the debate dialogue in the bottom left corner but I took this screencap because not only the dialogue but the extras in this scene explicitly include and confirm women.

So, besides pushing hard for Aragorn the Lone (Angsty) Hero (seriously. he’s not the hero of the novel and even with Sam being the hero, it’s hugely about the actions and cooperation and sacrifices of everyone and Aragorn had all his kinfolk who could come with him on the Paths and then many brave people of the lands of Gondor who had not already travelled towards Minas Tirith with all of them on the corsair ships after the Dead claimed them for him) and having spooky CGI ghost fest orgy inside the Paths instead of an uneventful if spooky journey, both the Dead and the Dunlendings are nothing more than homogenous masses of Enemy and Other in the Peter Jackson films.

I also think that's another female Dead floating in the upper left corner.

Well, crap. The guy who’s decided he’s in charge of those who want to try their luck with Sauron has already left, so my best buddy from life is making me pick between him and my reservations and feelings. I may need to ghost cry behind a rock for a bit.

I think you can literally sneeze and miss seeing the Dunlendings in the Peter Jackson films. And neither the appearances assigned to them (and they are all just lineless extras minus some cheering, I think) nor the dialogue from Saruman do them any justice or improve on the source material and I think that an adaptation should at least not be any worse than the source material and preferably (huge emphasis on preferably) be better and do better. And giving the Dunlendings what we are supposed to take as an unsavoury, uncivilized, crazed appearance (while still also all looking very white) and having the only mention of their legitimate and very real problems with Rohan be delivered in a way that makes it seem like just more of Saruman’s lies in order to egg them on is not an improvement or even equivalent to the source material.

He's probably also right about the free peoples being a better bet at achieving freedom than Sauron and a victory by Sauron.

Tenval isn’t exactly offering a sure bet and doesn’t seem to care as long as something happens. But he still thinks someone of Isildur’s line finally showing up is a sign.

The beef is real. The Dunlendings literally had their land taken by Gondor and given to the Rohirrim (creating the land of Rohan) as a gift for the Rohirrim’s help against an encroaching enemy and were kicked out and forced into lands that were much rockier and less suitable to farming. And then had, after a series of other keepers, Saruman, who turned out to be a traitor and extremely dangerous, put in charge of the watchtower/fortress on the edge of this sub-par substitute homeland, with him free to do basically whatever he wanted because he was trustworthy and wise and who would the Dunlendings ask for help anyways, since the Rohirrim hate them (and view them as uncivilized, which is rich because a) they took the good farmland in the first place and b) because Gondorians in turn view the Rohirrim as uncivilized) and the Rohirrim and Gondorians are the ones who put Saruman in charge in the first place.

Lord of the Rings Online has done the best job I have seen of actually getting into all of that (although I felt like we could have used some reminders once we finally got into Rohan). You spend an entire expansion and expansion sized region, plus an additional standalone quest region, with the people of Dunland and Enedwaith and with what it’s like to be essentially trapped inside your own house with an extremely dangerous man parked on your porch taking your stuff and forcing you to do things for him. Or else. But not necessarily even or else because it wasn’t him who threw that brick in your window and stole those sacks of flour and sugar. And you can’t prove he ordered someone else to do it can you?

Brb. Crying about ghosts. Again. Still.

And there it is. Ouch. Old buddy thinks it’s too late to finally do the right thing and the only option is to prove that the betrayal (likely originally made out of collective terror) was right by helping Sauron to win and conqueror all of Middle Earth.

There is no way for them to be a faceless homogenous enemy after that, even if one of the characters (Nona is my number one gal) encountered didn’t become a huge part of the Epic Story after that point and a part of the fellowship the Epic Story creates for your character, and, if anything, you kind of want to punch somebody out when you end up in Rohan (my preference was for the member of the Riders Four who almost immediately spouted racist shit upon my player character meeting him).

The line of Isildur, line of kings and king sized jerks.

As it says, my path is decided and I have come to the Stone of Erech on the Hill of Erech to see what the heir of Isildur has to say.

I was going to say I wasn’t sure if we’ve gotten this kind of treatment for the Angmarim (mercy killing animals who are suffering or ones who are straight up trying to kill you is different from doing something about game mechanics asking you to kill lots of enemy people) but, besides meeting groups and villages not allied with any of a number of big bads, there is also the Angmarim woman I will call The Artist Formerly Known As because her story is far too good to spoil by using any of her names. And it isn’t a simple Bad Person Turns Good story because the game does not really do that and that’s too simplistic and also kind of sickening in a “you’re either with us or against us” way. LOTRO is comfortable with people not playing on either team or wanting to play on either team and having good reasons for it. And in having actions and morals that are more complex than being Captain Good or Sergeant Dastardly.

Also, the names, as ever, are hilarious for the characters we know.

Umm, Aragorn, you a) asked us here b) had better not be expecting super altruistic answers when your family line has let us suffer for centuries with no relief and you are asking us for help under the terms of that darn curse/oath. On the plus side, hey, that’s our ruler from back in the session play where we saw Isildur meet with him and receive the oath.

And that brings me, finally, to the Dead. Because, if you are doing a game at all based on The Lord of the Rings, especially the type of game that’s going to have kill ten rats quests and slayer of rats deeds (there are no literal rat killing quests or deeds in LOTRO though), you are going to end up fighting and killing (or, as is usual in LOTRO, demoralizing to the point of retreat) the Dead.

Our chieftain has caught a case of the literals from Aragorn.

Are you sure all this stating the obvious isn’t going to sap my morale?

If you’ve made the Dunlendings and the Angmarim into people instead of homogenous, Othered baddies, what then do you do with the Dead? They are not living members of either of those groups although they are historically related. Do you just pass it over as a storytelling and empathy area? If not, how do you individualize and empathize with the Dead when the player character is going to have to fight against some of them (although also beside some of them, or to make way for some of them. or following in the wake of the terror they caused amongst people and animals alike) and when the player character is not directly with the characters from the novel when they travel the Paths of the Dead and call upon the Oath of Isildur?

That's why the line from Rioc has the edge cut off of it. Too much to look at at once.

Brb. Crying about ghosts again. Also laughing at Elladan and Elrohir being labelled as “Servants of Gil-galad.”

You session play it. As an individual named ghost interacting with, relating to, talking with, debating and arguing and deciding with (and against) other ghosts before, during, and after Aragorn makes his appearance and calls upon the Oath and passes on through to wait at the Stone of Erech on the Hill of Erech, where you gave the Oath that you then broke. And you let the player decide whether or not their individual ghost will answer the Oath and place hope for freedom in the Free Peoples or reject it and place hope for freedom in Sauron. And you use that session play and all the decisions, emotions, and information therein to provide context and names and attachment for all of the subsequent quests and kill ten rat assignments and rat slayer of [region] deeds and warband fights that deal with the Dead for all across Gondor.

Do I need to purchase the East Gondor quest pack? I don't think ghosts can earn Turbine points.

How long have we been waiting again? Also, do I need a travel permit for going to Pelargir in East Gondor?

As evidenced by all the screencaps I have been seeding throughout my discussion, that is exactly what the game does and it works. Arguably, the game needed to hit on what happened in the Paths of the Dead in some way. It’s too important to the remaining book story and to our personal Epic and non-epic stories, especially our questing in West Gondor (want to know what it was like for everyone trapped in the wake of Aragorn’s ghostly conga line? you will find out), to skip over.

I hope he checks the rating on the hotel.

I guess Aragorn is going to arrange travel.

However, just straight up showing us it via a cutscene or voice-over explanation or via a session play where we are Aragorn or a member of his party would have added zero value or understanding, at best, and also would likely have been boring and a waste of time that could be spent doing actual questing and exploration. And, again, if an adaptation is to do better, especially one where it involves killing x number of mobs for y quests and z deeds, enemies need to not be homogenous, Othered masses.

Lord of the Rings: Crying About Pixellated Ghosts Online

He’s not actually going to make us wait that long. One battle to get the guy some boats and we’re done and free, finally free.

I am kind of petering out on explanation and discussion (my word count and the number of screencaps I needed to take and edit and then add in kind of explains it) but the session play here really shines and really helps to sort out the problem of inevitably having to kill the Dead when the Dead are a) at times fighting on the same side as you b) are people, not ill animals in need of mercy killing. And, as I mentioned much earlier in this article, this session play happens fairly early on in questing in West Gondor (the first area of Gondor you come across), so you have all of this empathy and emotional investment and context as you go to do things like investigate a spooky cave for some locals and find a married couple who don’t really want to be on a side anymore and simply want to be left alone together, fight a warband led by a member of the Dead who has decided to embrace the curse and harry the living of the area instead of trying to pursue freedom from either leader fighting in the war for Middle Earth, and, after having done much to help the people of Ringlo Vale in Central Gondor (aka, reach kindred level reputation) and being asked to investigate reports of a dangerous leader of the Dead returning to their lands, find Drugat (one of the side with Sauron voters from the interlude debate) and find that he does not want to fight anymore and instead wants to talk and to ask for one last kindness and favour before he and his men return beneath the Mountain.

I really don’t have anything to add at this point other than a hearty round of applause for the game developers (with a side of yes, yes, more of this pointing – pleeeaaase give us humanizing, empathy-inducing storytelling for the Haradrim and Suhalar now too. it’s not too late and you’ve proven you can do it) and bestowing upon LOTRO a secondary title –  Crying About Ghosts: The Game.

Unstealthed burglar in this screencap.

The horse that will bear us swiftly away from the Dead Marshes.

Image credits are pretty darn easy here, since everything in this post is a personal screencap with player character name edited out. And I think I said the game’s name enough times. 😛

Also, if you liked this massive piece of work and would possibly like more in the same vein (I haven’t even covered the much expanded and well done role of Eowyn in the game’s Rohan story), I do have donation info if you’d like to help me keep my internet running, my site up, and maybe get me some food too. 🙂

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