Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The world I see from Nar's Peak

LoTRO is a WoW-clone. It follows the painfully predictable and repetitive gameplay pattern which is so reassuringly 'homey' to the average mindless consumer. The game's map is covered with monsters which look very impressive but really offer no challenge and you get told you've saved the world every time you kill one of them. They don't move around much and re-appear almost instantly after they're killed so that you don't have to work at finding them. There are no supply chains and manufacturing requirements to worry about and you get most of your loot as giftwrapped presents as you perform your mindlessly repetitive task of slicing and dicing monsters.

There are many well-designed, detailed and atmospheric locations in LoTRO: the Shire, the majestic facade of Thorin's Hall, the perfectly-proportioned Last Homely House in its hidden valley, the bittersweet perpetual autumn of Ered Luin as the elves migrate to Mithlond to depart the world they love or the airy forested Bruinen Gorges to name a few.
However, the one spot that has captivated me is a point high up on the edge of the zone Enedwaith called Nar's Peak, on the western slopes of the Misty Mountains. It has a setting but no history. It is not a blank slate but one with much blank space to fill. Standing up there, the game doesn't render all the idiotic endless numbers of instantly-respawning monsters and you're free to imagine what could've been done with that vast landscape if the game industry weren't both incapable and terrified of quality and innovation.

You are looking south-south-eastwards along the mountain range. Rivendell is rumored to lie somewhere to the right and behind the image, far to the north. North to south, in the far upper right of the image, cutting across the river, runs an abandoned road and a crumbled fort overlooks the scene from an isolated hill dominating the valley, remains of a kingdom fallen over a millenium ago.

However, it doesn't really matter what landmarks are what and in fact it's better if you're not familiar with the location in order to answer this question: what would you do with this landscape?

Assuming this same image was set in an actual persistent virtual world with no teleporting in which players needed to harvest resources in order to create goods, in which they could build houses where they wanted, in which monsters spawned and travelled unpredictably across the map and player clans waged war on one another for control of resources or sheer sadistic pleasure, what events could unfold in this landscape? Where would you build your house and what would you plant near it? Where would the best game be hunted and where would the best ore be mined? Where would the threat of aggressive players come from and how would you protect yourself?

Write your story. Write ten stories and look at the richness of what could be done, then compare it to the monomaniacal, troglodytic, static simplicity of what's commonly called an MMO. What's that? You dare me to come up with at least ten ideas as replies to this post?

You're on.


  1. I'm playing an elf. Travelling down from the north, i stayed off the road, using brush as cover since i had no gigantic glowing text floating above my head to give me away. Having skilled up my sneak skill somewhat, i know i can blend slightly with nearby terrain as long as i move slowly. It's not only a safety measure but it keeps the deer and rabbits i like to hunt from spotting me too quickly and running away. Because of course, no prey animal would have evolved to just stand there and let you walk up to it and stab it.

    I set up camp in the little copse across the river from the central hill, in the far right of the image. This involves pitching a tent i bought from a caravan of men i ran across some time ago so that i can regenerate some of my abilities and use it as storage so that i'm not encumbered while hunting.

    First order of business is a food supply. After all, elf or not, if i don't get proper nutrition now and then, my stats start degenerating. I'm not much for fishing, so i climb uphill, closer toward the peak, and hunt a couple of... marmots? with my bow.
    Ok, so they're marmots. I guess since it's pretty painless for a 3d modeller to crop a rat's tail and call it whatever, we can have a great variety of wildlife in the world. Of course you can't build a fire without wood, but every outdoorsman worth a damn keeps a hatchet along with his skinning knife.

    Belly full and arrows recovered from the marmots (what, you think i have some kind of magic quiver which infinitely resupplies them? that'd be insanely expensive magic, i'm not made of money, shut up) i set out on my real hunt. Since i'm not much of a swimmer, i decide to risk the old stone bridge across the river. I see small forms moving in the distance. There being no way to target-lock them and instantly learn every detail about them, i decide that whatever they are they're bipedal and therefore more trouble than they're worth and i keep walking from tree to tree, keeping to cover.

    Most of the game in these lowlands seems to have been hunted out of scared away, so it's not until evening when i reach the thicker forest at the foot of the mountain that i find what i'm looking for: a lovely pair of antlers. Of course they're attached to a rather large buck, but that's the fun part. I set a bear-trap then circle around. He fights me at first, gets a couple of kicks in, but not being suicidally aggressive he soon turns tail and runs predictably right into the trap. As i'm shoving deer parts into my conveniently spacious backpack, i hear sounds of fighting downhill. Creeping closer, i see a man carving up his own catch, two rather large wolves. I could probably sneak up and kill him given that he's already wounded, but i choose not to. The world is still large enough to live and let live.

    Three pairs of goat horns later, i make my way back to the bridge and reach my camp by late morning. It's slow going, burdened as i am with my catch and given that i don't have a pony in my pocket. Given that i'll be leaving soon, i don't mind taking the time to fashion some items from the antlers. They'd be cumbersome to carry intact. Mostly arrowheads, one knife handle. One goat had good enough horns to make into cheap charms for spellcasters.

    I decide that my tent is getting too ragged to pack up again. I'll have to trade for a new one when i reach a settlement. For now, loaded up with supplies and sellable goods, i pack up and spend the time 'til nightfall trapping a couple of crows for their feathers, then assembling a few more arrows.

    And that's that. Two days in this valley are enough for my tastes, and under the cover of darkness i make my way south across the river and past the ancient fort. I take one last look at Nar's peak behind me. Someday i'd like to come back and climb up there, just for the view.

  2. I am a lore-master come to this valley for the work of a single night, a single moment. Our strength is in knowledge: of the tides, winds, spirits or even the stars.
    We ride slowly south along the ancient road on horseback, four elves scouting ahead of the creaking mule-cart and the three humans hired for the trip. We cast no magic yet and don little armor, trying to seem a poor merchant caravan, more trouble than we're worth. Once over the bridge, we pull the cart into a clump of trees and gear up. Two elves split off on foot, sneaking to their places across the valley. From the cart, we pull our heaviest supplies: a pouch of silver, a satchel of Moria sand untouched by sunlight, a large wood pile and... a basket full of apples. Loaded with these and now armed to the teeth, our master sets out with two of the mercenaries toward the very middle of the vale, where the snows have only begun to reach. The remaining mercenary has orders to hide a bit then walk the empty cart southwards, hopefully drawing eyes away from us.

    Lacking stealth, my destination is the farthest and most exposed: Nar's Peak. I wait as the evening deepens and night embraces the valley. Fingering the spell reagent in my pocket, i spur my horse eastwards. For some time, i follow my master's path along the river but where he and the men would have turned south i continue towards the mountains. Trudging through the snow past several cottages, i find the crude bridge we were told about, no more than a fallen log over the river. From there on it's an uphill climb, illuminated by the full moon against the snowy mountainside, too clear a mark for comfort.

    By now, as i abandon my horse and dash ahead of it up the moonlit serpentines, i know my master would have already set up camp. The others say they've met no resistance yet. I risk a glance behind, revealing both danger and hope. Two of the locals crossed the river after me but among the smaller lights of inhabited homesteads a flame lights the center of the valley. The first steps of the ritual are underway. A fire pit has been dug and lined with unlit sand being burned into a crude lens. Soon, they'll dump the apples into it. The eye i've taken out of my pocket begins to glow.

    At the peak i turn around in time to see my goal crest the horizon. The moon is almost directly overhead. My star has risen. My master gives word and we begin. As i chant, i hold up my werewolf's eye, glowing fiercely as it fills with moonlight and begins to reflect the light of the star across the world, shining from across the great sea. Its beam is met in the center of the valley by two others: from the giant-infested slopes of the Misty Mountains south of me and from the base of the ruined fortress directly across the valley from us.
    An arrow pierces my armor. I disregard it and maintain my concentration. Only the ritual matters at this point. Three more arrows hit me, poisoned and followed by a jar of burning pitch. Three stars meet the blessing of the moon and a pale light glows briefly outwards from the mirrored fire-pit. My fellows cheer as the bandits' swords cut into me. I'll try not to hold it against them. I put up a token fight, laughing all the way to the graveyard.
    We regroup by the bridge, having lost two of the four horses and the cart. One elf killed by bandits, another by a giant, lost everything we had: weapons, armor, potions, and a bit of pride. We dash across the bridge lobbing arrows and spells behind us, raining fire and lightning at our growing band of pursuers. We will soon meet up with our reinforcements, but we have no need to fight now. The master carries in his pack a treasure that would have brought every clan in the region down on us if we had given ourselves away sooner by entering the valley in force, enchantments strong enough to bless and protect any village every night for months to come: the silver apples of the moon.

  3. I'm a prospector. Sure i knife an orc or wolf now and then like most people and carry solid weapons and armour. I figure, i'm going to be encumbered with ore samples usually anyway, what's a few more plates of steel? Crawl like a snail, sting like a scorpion.

    Now, most people will tell you the Misties are the place for mithril. True in the same way that a haystack's the place to look for a needle. I mean, it's not like ore deposits just grow out of the ground so you can spot them a mile away. You're better off looking for things you'll actually find.

    Me, i came over the mountains scrounging around for stone deposits. What, you don't think we need stone? You think those construction materials for all the houses and castles in the world just magically appear out of nowhere? Unfortunately, i wasn't having any luck. Mucking about in the snow, having to eat twice as often to offset the wear and tear from environmental debuffs, i started to descend along the southern edge of the valley, taking a sample here and there. Ordinary limestone and a bit of granite, not worth pursuing this far from home. As i descended into the foothills though, i ran across a bit of platinum. Tracing the vein, i, err, got a bit careless. Aggroed a mountain giant. While busy with that, i 'aggroed' one of the locals, who thought i'd be easy prey while distracted. A few potions and a crippling litany of curses later, i continued to trace the platinum vein with the fool bandit's belongings in my backpack.

    Dwarves tend to get painted as blindly greedy. I would contest that view more vociferously were it not for the fact that i spent so long with my nose in the ground gathering shiny pebbles that... well, he had friends, you see.

    No matter. I may be short a suit of armor and a few ore samples now, but in another couple turns of the moon, every dwarf from around the Mirrormere will be pouring over the mountains. I said i'm a prospector. I lug a pick and shovel around for small stuff but we have real miners to do the extraction job properly. These idiots don't know what they're sitting on. Every one of them skilling up nothing but combat abilities and spending their time killing each other, when the ore beneath their feet would buy and sell them ten times over.

  4. I'm a hobbit. We're simple folk, we halflings, or so i'm told. I suppose just wanting to build my own little homestead with a garden and a few tame animals, master a craft and take trips to the nearest towns now and then really is simple compared to everyone's usual goal of 'kill stuff'.
    I stopped in this valley because i found a spot i liked, in a hollow on the north spur of the central hill. It's invisible from the road and from pretty much anywhere but the mountains. Granted, that's not much defense in itself. I had to join one of the local groups of toughs as means of protection. Providing them with a bit of food as payment is a minimal hassle compared to having to listen to their inane chatter.

    The first problem was getting building materials. I bought some cheap, low-quality wooden boards and nails from one of my new neighbours but lugging them all downhill still took a few trips. During the couple of days it took for my little one-room cottage to be finished, i made some trips to town up north for seeds and livestock. Hobbit-sized livestock, mind you, rabbits and a couple of sheep. They're now happily munching away at the grass i gather for them around the house, safe in their pens. The rabbits, being rabbits, are already busily creating more mouths to feed. Pretty soon i'll have to learn how to skin the little darlings. Don't look at me like that, we kill things all the time for worse reasons than fur and meat.

    Now, as the big pot constantly bubbling over my campfire can attest, cooking's my trade. I'm about as useful in a fight as, well, a hobbit with a meat cleaver, but still i accompany my newfound little band of griefers on their hunts now and then more for protection while i look for rare herbs in the foothills of the Misties than for loot. Cabbages and carrots from the garden are nice enough, but it's a rare root or piece of bark from the woods that'll give your stew that valuable +5% poison or disease resistance. Who says bandits can't have refined tastes?

    So, here i am and here i plan to stay, a hobbit cook to a murderous clan of robbers.

  5. I like to craft. I came to this place mainly because it's near a major road but not heavily trafficked and though lacking most high-quality resources it has a nice mix of almost everything i need. I picked a spot by the river, a bit away from the road, and talked to the local griefers about a protection scheme. This valley is... provincial, uninformed. After a bit of haggling, their attempt at extortion came so low that i can cover it with a few sales in town. After a couple of days looking for deals at the market, i took a wagon full of granite down from Bree and started the construction process. No wooden shack with a thatched roof for me; my humble abode can't be so humble that it crumbles at the slightest rumble.

    Now, the secret to practical self-sufficiency in crafting is not to attempt a true vertical monopoly. Some ingredients are always plentiful thanks to players rather one-sided, violent interests, say for instance you run-of-the-mill zombie eyeballs or goblin ears. It's the little things that you're better off hunting down yourself. When you're purifying witch's silver, rat eyeballs just won't do. You need marmots!

    So, one morning, i crossed the river for some furry little future reagents, then crossed it back further uphill grabbing a few crayfish claws and was just heading further up into the mountains for a few edelweiss blooms when i was alerted that my home was being broken into. So much for peaceful pursuits.
    By the time i got back, they had just picked the lock and gotten inside. I peeked in after them, keeping my distance - no invisibility effect is truly perfect after all - then took a few steps back. Four of them. Their first hint that something had gone wrong was the four corners of the first room suddenly smoking. The two that made it out without being killed by the explosion, i met with a barrage of explosives. One made it close enough to stab me. Poisoned weapons. Naughty burglar. I retaliated in kind, and swallowed a healing draught while watching him choke on the cloud of noxious fumes.

    I love burglars who don't check for chemical traps in an alchemist's house.

  6. I'm a trader. I've spent a fair bit of time ferrying goods between the northern cities. I mean, it's not like you can put things into a bank vault in one town and miraculously pull them out of a mailbox half a world away. All items and materials have weight. They take up space. They must be moved, by cart, ship or simple back-ache, to where they're needed.

    My recent project was a bit more ambitious. I was going to revive the trade route between the old northern and southern kingdoms of men. Just imagine: grain from Rohan in Bree, Bree-land fruit in Gondor, Gondorian fish in Bree. Not mention all the specialty items. Dunlending necromancers would kill for some high-quality wight-dust from the barrow-downs. Well, they kill for most things, but that's beside the point.
    I picked this valley because it's both on the ancient road from north to south and because the route over Nar's Peak creates a possible link to Moria. No cottage hidden in the foothills for me. I set up a large, decorated shop by the side of the highway across the central hill from Nar's Peak. Dealing with highwaymen wasn't too hard at first. My clan moved in in force, provided me enough protection to hold off the griefers.

    Pretty soon business was booming. We were moving mules over the mountains, carts full of goods along the northern road and the occasional large, well-defended caravan southwards whenever we'd gathered enough goods to make the trip worthwhile. We even used boats for local trading up and down the river. A local cook and alchemist were more than happy to supply us with imbued wire and explosives for defensive traps and all the high-quality food we wanted locally, without burdening our transports. For a while, the bandits were just another source of revenue.

    That is, until the orcs came.

  7. I'm an orc.
    u always says i'm not nice guy but i got more friends thn u
    fuckin loser elfs and dorks think they smart but everyone know they noobs cuz they gay and do like gay magic an craftin an stuf
    so we out pwnin noobs an stuf yesterday an we like finded this like big gay house by the road like blow river on map an it's like all full o stuf so we like call all awesum guys from down near isengurd (IZEN RULZ MOFOS! YEAH!) to takes it all
    an they sees us all like badass an shit an they all runs cuz they little bitches lulz noobs an they like runs inside they house with big gay colorz out front an like omg wtf??? first doods runs after those fags gets blowd up cuz fags had mines all around omg wtfwho uses dat gay shits so noob
    den like we start bombin em with like catapults an stuf cuz nobody cud like get in an kill em cuz dey gots all like gay traps an shit cuz dey noobs an cant fight an den der wuz liek a few of em who liek jus wuddn die fags musta been haxin wit all special food and potions an crap an shootin gay-ass magic arrows cuz they didn wanna fight us cuz they scared
    an our doodz r liek fuck dat shit an we jus raped da bitches cuz we awesum
    losers didn even have no ppl there liek wtf liek only ten doods inside there cuz they nerds an got no friends lulz
    so like we knocked down the buildin musta been like fifty of us lulz awesum
    but den stupid haxor dorfs come an grief us and take our lewt fuck dat shit man so gay we liek reported them all for griefin hope they get banned liek lulz noobs

  8. I'm a dwarf. Short, stout and bearded, and i dress in tin cans. A while ago, one of our prospectors came back to our town by the lake before the south gate to Moria with news of a fortune in platinum, and ever since, all we've been doing is getting ready to move on it. We're sure as hell not going to circle the Misties with siege engines just to tear down some bandit shacks, so we have to prepare to build on-site. And that means mules.
    Perhaps i'm getting ahead of myself. See, there are reliable footpaths here and there over the mountains, but they're not wide enough for carts, and stout or not, we're sure as hell not going to carry all our building supplies in our backpacks. So, after some half-horse trading with humans to the south who breed the damn things, our supply train started snaking its way westward across the goat-paths toward our descent by Nar's Peak.
    As soon as we set foot into the valley, it was clear that our situation had changed dramatically from what we'd expected. Our advance scouts, trotting along on ponies, reported that in addition to the human bandit clans from before, a large building had been constructed by the southward road and was being attacked by a gigantic orc swarm. That was still a bit west, though. We were more concerned for the moment with the scattered households in the valley, from which clusters of one to four humans were converging on the fortified central hill. Our welcoming committee.
    Now, that fort was no simple bandit camp. Its walls have outlasted every player clan in known history. It's part of the landscape... but it has weaknesses. Much of it is ruined, and the bandits have patched it up with their meager resources: limestone, pine wood, wattle-and-daub amateurism. We rush over the fallen tree which serves as a bridge and set up our construction camp just on the other side, below the peak, facing south with our backs to the stream's steep banks.
    We have little time to waste. We take shortcuts. Explosives at the roots of trees give us the large quantity of cheap wood we need for a palisade. Tamed boars and enslaved troglodytes from the depths of Moria make quick work of digging the foundations. A hollow in the ground gets built over to serve as an infirmary. We'll need it. Before we can even start to construct siege weapons, our war camp gets darkened by an unnatural smoke and arrows begin to sprinkle the small courtyard.

  9. I'm an archer. Now, aside from waylaying travelers on the ancient paved road which runs past our hill, archery's also the easiest way to hunt, plus since you're banking on mobility anyway it lets you travel light - more bag space for looting other players' corpses! The best thing about being an archer, though? When a big fight starts, you get to stay at the back of it.
    Now, when some rich bastards from up north moved in and set up shop by the road, we sort of put up with it. I mean, it just wasn't worth the trouble trying to drive them out, and they weren't really getting in the way. Dwarves, though? Dwarves make bad neighbours. They stripmine everything in sight. No way were we going to let two dozen of them move in. So though we were planning on maybe fighting the orcs for their loot after they tore down the trade post, these hairy little fags just had to go.
    The losers outside our clan tipped us off this morning, running from the mountains' foothills begging for our help. So the boss gave the word and i geared up: two bows, five quivers of arrows and some poison to go along with them, my best warg-leather armor, spear, quarterstaff, healing potions and half my supply of cloud essence and eagle blood. I, er, dabble in air magic, you see. My burden is heavy enough to slow me down but it's worth it. Most dwarves don't really -do- light armor. This'll be a long fight.
    We expected they'd be marching right up to our fort, but the bastards actually had the balls to camp right in front of us. By the time we got in sight of them, the foot of the mountain was cratered with their demolitions and they were already bringing up a palisade. We sent word to an allied clan for reinforcements but we had to force a fight now. Half a dozen short boys defending, the rest probably cooking up fuck-knows-what behind the wall. Damn they work quick!
    With no time to lose, we set up a quick opening move. Our shamans brought on a bit of cloud cover, and the alchemist we'd recruited a while back deepened the shade with some smoke cover on top of their fortifications. Anything to try to force them out. We started trying our luck from the longest distance possible. My opener is a reinforced yew longbow. It takes forever to draw, but its insane range lets me sit back behind even the other archers and most spellcasters, especially with air-magic boosting my arrows. Why would i risk my neck just to get kills?
    There's no way of knowing if i've hit anything at that range, of course. No, there is no mysterious intuition which would tell you just how hard you hit something. We had one of our shamans send his spirit out to try to see inside the camp, but he said the assholes had a couple of abjurers shredding any stable magic within twenty paces of their wall. Seeing that we were getting nowhere, the boss ordered us in. I switched to my shortbow and hoped for the best. Our first fight wasn't even with the dwarves themselves. Seeing us approach, they sent their slaves and animals at us. We picked off some mules they hadn't managed to fit inside the camp and cut down a few troglodytes before they reached us, but the boars managed to stall us a bit, charging us too quickly for arrows alone.
    And that's when we realized we'd gotten too close.

  10. I'm an... opportunist. I was on the north bank when all the ruckus started. Nothing as dangerous and profitable at once as a big battle. Sure everyone's armed to the teeth but also too busy to notice one more little goblin. So I went to the camouflaged pit I'd dug just behind the big boulder near the two pines where the stream bends, stripped off my light green-and-white mountain gear and brought out a dark brown and green set: cheap leather, plus a magic amulet. I sometimes use a buckler but it interferes with crawling. For weapons, a dagger, poison and a couple dozen throwing weapons.
    By the time I crossed the stream, the ground was shaking under the dwarf charge. Perfect timing. Panicked bandits were scattering in all directions. I dropped one with a poisoned javelin and a couple of stabs as he tried to make for the stream and did a quick check of his gear. Trash, not worth the backpack space... oooh, except for those thunder flasks and fire protection salve. As I advanced slowly toward the cover of a bush, the dwarf charge rolled past: half a dozen chariots drawn by donkeys and goats. Not the fastest cavalry around, but much faster than the steel-plated passenger each carried. Another wounded bandit runs past my bush. I turn and backstab him as he stumbles past. Poor sap. This one had a fine brand-new steel shortsword. I tossed my rusty iron dagger. Some distance away an archer was falling back, lightly side-stepping the dwarf catapults' grapeshot and blowing it aside with gusts of wind. Air magician, eh? I crawl slowly into position and wait for him to back into me, backstab him and cut his tendons. He finally realizes where the damage is coming from and pulls out a quarterstaff. Instead of laying into me he parries blow after blow, but my shortsword is too light, my attacks too quick, for that to buy him much time. I break his staff, but turn and run immediately. A warhammer swung from an oncoming chariot knocks him off his feet. I curse him for his stalling. Would it have hurt him to let me have his loot instead of the beardies?
    I dive into a hollow and play possum. A few dwarves make a quick round of the area, looking for whatever-it-was the bandit was fighting, but quickly give up and continue on their way toward the bandit fort. As their rear-guard passes, I peg one of their magicians in the back with a javelin coated with a poison called "pang" I bought from a witch downstream. Quick jabs of damage causing muscle spasms, very nasty when you're trying to concentrate on casting spells. He calls out to his buddies and three of them turn on me. I dash away behind some rocks. They turn again to rejoin the main force. I swallow a speed potion and dash up to poke him again. Lethargy-inducing poison this time. He downs some cures and they turn again... and again I run. We repeat the dance. More poison. Another cure. With my last javelin, I manage to separate him enough from the pack that I decide to take my chances. A couple of throwing axes to the face don' seem to do much. Stupid dwarven heavy helms. He's on me knocking me down with an enchanted staff-strike. He tries to cast again but the poison interrupts him - enough for me to spot the tell-tale orange glare of fire magic. He breaks a jar of pitch over my head then knocks me down again. Cursing, I get up a second time and manage to use the salve from earlier before he lights me up. We trade a few blows as his buddies near us again. I run a few steps back and take the chance of throwing my last dart at him. Critical headshot! He's down.
    Toss the thunder flasks at the other dwarves, stunning them, then run for my life. They can't afford to stop to loot now. Battle's the other way. A minute later, the field is mine - some bodies looted, but still all the loot I can carry. Ignoring the noises in the distance, I focus on filling up my secret cache.
    It's a good day to be a sneaky goblin. But really, even if they'd gotten me, what would I have lost? A rusty dagger and throwaway leather armor?