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When we first started playing LOTRO at the White Wolf office, via a free trial, a lot of us thought (or feared) that the unavoidable public conditions of an MMO would ruin any sense of real immersion into a setting that intended to take itself seriously. We joked about seeing chat channels loaded with things like:

“LFM “Quest of Mount Doom”, have lvl 50 Ranger”
“anyone seen balrog? were he respawn?”
“WTB [Ring of Power]”
“will craft Rng of Poewr have mats PST”

Here it is, eight months later, and I’m not playing for free anymore. I shell out money every month to play LOTRO, because even when players don’t take it seriously, the game continues to admirably strive for a level of sobriety that I find compelling. It takes itself seriously, to a point. It doesn’t give up on ideas just because they can seem schmaltzy. LOTRO knows that even though the part of you that types out loud on the chat channels thinks something is silly, another part of you can also think it’s sort of sweet.

So this is how I ended up being Frodo Baggins’ therapist. Maybe it’s just me and Hobbits, but when Gandalf tells you to do something, you better do it.

Gandalf!When you’ve reached somewhere around 40th level (out of 50), Gandalf offers up a quest called “Frodo’s Burden.” Here’s part of the quest-giving text:

“I do ask you this: speak with [Frodo] and gauge his feelings. Much depends on his courage and good hobbit-sense, but I am loathe to send him into danger if he is not prepared for what he may face. Speak with Frodo, tell him of your adventures, and return to me with your thoughts on his mood.”

—Gandalf in Lord of the Rings Online

This isn’t just a quest, it’s an instance. Instead of you and Frodo running off to some dungeon on a heroic adventure, though, what you get is a special, private version of Rivendell at night. The two of you—Frodo and your own character—walk around through the elf refuge’s otherworldly light and Frodo tells you how scared he is about the future, and the trip he’s about to undertake. But it’s clear that he, on top of being afraid, he is determined to do go through with it. Then his friend Sam shows up and your walk is over.
Frodo's Friends
Frodo and Sam

Click for a closer look at Frodo and Sam.

And that’s it. You take a walk with Frodo Baggins. No monsters interrupt your talk. You’re not expected to collect 25 elf tokens along the way or anything.

People actively mock this quest. Why not? It’s sort of ridiculous. But it’s also sort of ballsy, when you think about it, for the developers to go through with this quest despite that. They must know people are going to make fun of it, but they also have some degree of confidence that this unique instance is going to have more impact than that.

Even players like me, who are only casual Lord of the Rings fans, can get a sort of vicarious glee out of the illusion that your very own character is somehow important to the canon characters. As a designer, I find the whole construction of the quest remarkable—I’m struck by how much restraint and respect for the property it takes to not punch up the instance with a cheap monster encounter, and to get the whole thing through the gauntlet of inevitable mockery and into the final game. Because the people at Turbine who must have said, “That’s stupid! Are people really going to want to walk around with Frodo for five minutes while he gets all emo on them?” were, on some level, right. But so where the people who fought to keep this in.

It occurred to me later that maybe this quest is an instance as a means of generating suspense; that players are supposed to be on edge, presuming something is about to happen that could only happen in an instanced environment, like a carefully choreographed Ringwraith sighting or something.

But of course the reason it must be an instance is so to prevent interference by random passersby. Some folks in my kinship suggested getting a 24-man raid together to take this walk with Frodo, which is plenty funny. But, of course, “Frodo’s Burden” is an instance to protect the experience, and it’s a solo instance to give you a real shot at escaping into the moment… if only for a moment. Because for this quest, it’s just you and the game world, so no one else can tell you you’re a dork for reading along and choosing to get into it.

I wasn’t sure that Middle-earth could stand up to the stresses of massively multiplayer shenanigans. The idiotic antics of a juvenile public, I figured, would undermine the sometimes-serious feel of a familiar world that wasn’t built to withstand the tomfoolery that comes with intarweb attitudes. Sometimes it can’t.

Gandalf's Thanks

Gandalf gives you a staff for helping him out by checking on Frodo. Just how many staves does Gandalf have to give out? How many dudes are walking around Middle-earth with thank-you staves from the Grey Wizard, anyway?

After your walk with Frodo, you report back to Gandalf. (I love how surreptitious this makes you and Gandalf look, putting surveillance on Frodo.) Your payment for spying on the Ringbearer is a staff called “Gandalf’s Thanks.” For a time, I thought about keeping it as a sign of respect to the designers, as if the staff really meant something to my character. It would’ve been roleplaying. It also would’ve been a gesture on my behalf, as a player, signifying my appreciation for putting in such an unlikely quest. It just seemed crass to sell something I got as a gift for helping out Gandalf and Frodo.

I got a little less than four silvers for it. The fact is, these games aren’t built to facilitate keepsakes. My character can’t use staves anyway and the designers expect us to sell things we can’t use. The in-game economy is built on that idea.

The point, though, is that I did hesitate. The quest text and the silly cartoon Hobbit on my screen had an effect, even amid the overwhelming influence of an MMORPG’s pressure on forward momentum and acquisitions. On some level, it worked.

This is just how it is with MMORPGs. They have to be several things at once, and as players, we have to manage a kind of mild cognitive dissonance in order to simultaneously enjoy the illusion and succeed at the game. It’s easy to embrace your disbelief, mock a game, and then blame the designers for your inability buy into the fantasy, but the truth is it’s the player’s job to suspend her own disbelief. The best the designer can do is facilitate you by creating an environment or a circumstance where, for seconds or minutes, you’re willing to pretend. Silliness be damned.