It is hard to get an exact measurement of just how big Lord of the Rings Online is. Initially released in 2007, the game now has nine separate expansions, each of which adds another huge playable area to the virtual Middle Earth (the most recent of which was released as recently as November 2021). Trawling through the internet, you can find different theories and videos discussing the true size of the game world, with many claiming that the entire traversable space is somewhere near 376 km², which is close to 150 miles. I have always been fascinated by the sheer scale of LOTRO and the developer’s (originally Turbine, now Standing Stone Games) dedication to recreating Tolkien’s immense fantasy landscapes. With this in mind, seven of my friends and I concocted a plan; simple in concept and likely impossible in execution — we would walk, much like the actual fellowship, from The Shire, all the way to Mordor. Eight hobbits, all level six, nothing on their persons but whatever they may have scraped together in the mandatory tutorial area, would trek from their starting position in Little Delving all the way to the level 115 intended Plateau of Gorgoroth (or at least, as close as we could get). How long might this journey take? We honestly had no idea, but we were certainly going to try.
You may notice at this point, from the title of this article, that only six of the intended eight Hobbits undertook this perilous journey. Unfortunately, our union of the vertically challenged was cut short two attendees before we could even begin. One brave Hobbit happened to create his character on a different server to the rest of us and, understandably unwilling to trudge through the opening of the game again, remained trapped in a parallel Middle Earth. Our other companion, in a less heroic fashion, was too distracted with the newly released Total War: Warhammer III to even begin his quest. Nevertheless, six of us sought to convene late one Friday night at The Ivy Bush in Hobbiton, a six-minute walk from Little Delving. I was Nobgohild, my companions were Warwick, Largeo, Knobsmugglin, Chungimungi and, of course, Rimtingler. We decided to enjoy our hometown of The Shire one last time before setting off, for we knew not when we would return. Merriment was had by all, as we downed our beer and each enjoyed a fine puff on some of the local pipe-weed. With the morning sun on our backs, we then set out Eastward towards the Bree-lands via Woodhall, the first major stop on our journey.
Spirits were high during this initial leg of the trip, the six of us trading jokes and stories as we steadily made progress towards the edge of The Shire. The road was quiet, devoid of any other players, with only occasional glimpses of named NPCs going about their daily business. The discussion inevitably turned towards the question of whether the end goal of our quest was possible. We knew already that certain zones within LOTRO had a sort of soft-level cap, in so far as mobs would aggro us instantly and, if they managed to get a hit off, would likely kill our lowly Hobbits in a matter of seconds. Still, we did not falter and, imbued with the rich atmosphere of the game world (and its absolutely insane high-definition reflective water) we crossed the bridge into the next zone. We had marked our first point of respite as The Prancing Pony in central Bree-Town, a short walk from the edge of The Shire, but one that took us past the Old Forest. Already entering an area that was beyond our experience levels, we trod the road with caution. All manner of nasty creatures lay just off the beaten track; bears, spiders and bandits loomed in the shadows of great trees, serving as a constant reminder of the fragile nature of our journey and how we could be sent back to square one at any moment. We breathed a sigh of relief upon entering Bree-Town, but not before posing for a photo on the bridge over to the outer gate. The initial half-hour of our quest had gone off without a hitch and we made ourselves comfortable at The Prancing Pony, basking in the warmth of the glowing fireplace. Our group also discovered a nearby milestone, which allowed players to mark their current location as a respawn point should they perish, which we all hastily made use of. Our plan was now to head South towards the Barrow-Downs en route to Dunland, which we believed would take us closer to Mordor. Returning to the town entrance, our party was met with a strange new phenomenon — a gaggle of fellow online players. Granted there could have only been about ten of them, it was nevertheless refreshing to see some actual human-controlled characters. As we rallied by the gate, a particularly high-level Hobbit logged in where we were standing and commented on how they had just entered into quite the ‘party’; Belta Tunnilly was her name. As a level 113 character, Belta was decked out in some seriously impressive gear and had clearly put a good deal of time into the game, despite this, she still saw fit to chat amicably with us as we prepared to resume our quest. Chungimungi decided to bless the occasion with a rendition of the Super Mario Bros. theme on his lute, which we all danced to. Belta even graciously accepted a kiss on the cheek from Knobsmugglin, the ‘bleeding heart’ of the party. There was, however, no time for romance where we were going, and the sweet thrill of blossoming love was tempered by the challenges that we would soon undertake.
Approaching the Barrow-Downs was the first mishap in a string of incidents that would come to define our LOTRO journey. No sooner had we reached Southern Bree-Land before we realised that a fortress overrun by bandits blocked the path forward. Emboldened by the ease of our travels so far, we saw fit to run into the camp head-on, hoping that our numbers would sow enough chaos for us to sneak through to the other side. Tanking hits left and right from countless enemies, we charged through and found ourselves in front of the gate to the Barrow-Downs — it was locked. Scared and disoriented, the party fractured in an attempt to stay alive. Both I and Chungimungi were mercilessly struck down by a nearby Half-Orc, finding ourselves resurrected on a hill just outside of Bree-Town. Knobsmugglin and Warwick were the next to fall, brought down by a hail of arrows. It was Largeo and Rimtingler that managed to escape with their lives, dashing back out the front entrance and managing to lose their pursuers by jumping into a nearby river. Split up as we were, we still managed to slowly reconvene by the Bree-Town gates once more, each nursing our wounds from the bandit encounter. Most of the people we had just danced with twenty or so minutes ago near the entrance to the town were gone, replaced by a single AFK Dwarf. The mood had slowly morphed from triumphant to wary. Each pulling out our maps, we quickly decided that we should try leaving Bree-Town from the East in order to head towards the Lone-Lands, our next major destination was now Rivendell.
On our way through Eastern Bree-Land, we made sure to stop by a nearby copper deposit in order to pray for safe travels on our passage to the Elven city.
The Midgewater Marsh stretched out behind us and the terrifying peaks of Weathertop loomed menacingly in the distance. Upon reaching the border of the Lone-Lands, we followed a nearby signpost, which pointed us towards a dilapidated pub fittingly named the Forsaken Inn.
Our stopover at the establishment was brief, enough for a quick drink and to set our respawn at the milestone just outside the front door. We quickly marched on, single-file and as close to each other as the game would allow. The enemies in the nearby fields were more aggressive than they had been in Bree-Land, approaching us more often and in far greater numbers. The road was more akin to a dirt path, which twisted its way through the harsh, bumpy environment. As we continued, two seemingly innocuous, yet soon-to-be very important events occurred. The first was an inevitability; the sun began to set behind us. The warm orange glow that enveloped us was picturesque but served as an unwelcome reminder of the approaching nightfall. We had not taken something as ubiquitous and universal as the passage of time into account and, if we were not careful, we would soon be stuck in the wilderness in pitch darkness. The second event was the strange fact that we were now being followed, not by a mob, or by an NPC, but by another human player. Greleg, Watcher of Roads was tailing us on horseback.
This strange individual kept his distance, never getting too close, but remaining nearby all the same. Every time we thought Greleg might have left us or wandered off to continue his own quests, we saw him appear on the horizon, watching us from a hilltop. The party openly mused on this mysterious man’s origins and purpose. Perhaps he was an agent of Sauron? Sent by The Dark Lord to interrupt our quest and ensure we never made it through the Lone-Lands. Or maybe this devious human knew something we didn’t and was waiting for us to enter a PvP in order to kill us and strip us of our meager goods. All these possibilities were raised during the ten-minute stint that Greleg followed us, but none came to fruition. Instead, as we finally reached The Last Bridge, which would lead us into the Trollshaws (and onto Rivendell), we decided to call out to him. To our surprise, Greleg approached us and, without uttering a word, stood amongst us as we captured another commemorative snapshot of our adventure. We thanked the human for his time and asked where he was headed. Greleg did not respond, but there was a sort of silent understanding between all of us. He was no agent of Sauron, far from it in fact, he was our protector — the man who watched over six Hobbits as they journeyed through the Lone-Lands.
In every story there cannot be great triumph without great loss, and ours is no different. The Trollshaws would prove to be our biggest struggle yet; an area intended for level 35–40 heroes with a long trek through a dangerous forest to reach Rivendell. Our map informed us that we would have to pass through the South Trollshaws, Brumen Gorges and High Moor before reaching our goal. Despite this, we were headstrong and confident, lining up and charging over the bridge into the maws of the forest. Even Greleg, our silent friend, headed up the rear, a good thirty levels higher than us and, seemingly ready to help in any way he could. Immediately we were set upon by spiders and ghouls, aggroing us from across every corner of the zone. A pop-up in the top left corner of the screen informed us that we were way, way out of our depth. It only took three minutes before tragedy struck. A particularly vicious set of bucks set upon our party, completely obliterating most of my health bar in an instant. Greleg, in an act of selfless heroism, attacked the creatures, drawing them away from me and my fellow Hobbits. This moment of reprieve allowed us to continue on, clearing the South Trollshaws and reaching the borders of the Brumen Gorges. We quickly turned round to thank Greleg as we moved forwards. He was gone. Somewhere, far back in the forest, he had saved us and likely died in the process. This man, this silent guardian, was nowhere to be found. The loss was palpable, and we mourned for the human that had given his life to ensure our quest could continue. The collective grieving process was cut short as the party was again attacked, ambushed by more creatures. Fractured once more, several of the Hobbits managed to detour North to a safe encampment just shy of the Brumen Gorges. The same could not be said for myself and Largeo. Suffering from our wounds and afflicted with a deadly poison, we both perished at the Trollshaws crossroad. Night fell like a hammer upon Middle Earth.
What follows was the lowest point in our entire journey. Through my own inattentiveness, I had failed to activate the milestone at Forsaken Inn and respawned at Bree-Town. I set out on the long walk back to the Trollshaws, as did Largeo (albeit from the closer locale of the Low-Lands). Meanwhile, Warwick, Rimtingler, Chungimungi and Knobsmugglin tried to decide what steps to take next. It was too dangerous to continue to Rivendell, and equally as treacherous to turn back to retrieve myself and Largeo. The group was impossibly split, and our quest was under dire threat of collapsing completely. We were a hell of a long way from Mordor and barely scratching the edges of Rivendell. In the throes of desperation, we searched for any passers-by who might assist us in reuniting. Largeo and I, upon meeting up at The Last Bridge, yelled throughout the Low-Lands for someone to help guide us through the forest. The other Hobbits explored the small encampment where they were sheltering, desperately seeking other human players. No one came. The very few online characters we did find ignored us — either completely AFK or wrapped up in their own separate chats. We even concocted a scheme to pool all of our funds together and send them via mail back to Bree-Town, so that Largeo and I could pay for a horse to transport us to the encampment. It was through this scheme that we learned that the areas you can travel to are locked behind certain level thresholds, and there are not many places a level six Hobbit can hope to fast travel. It was in this moment, however, this pit of despair, that several revelations occurred. Chungimungi, having had the foresight to send a friend request to the high-level Belta Tunnilly all the way back in Bree-Town, reached out to her via private message. A cry for help, deep from the Trollshaws, a plea to rescue the two missing Hobbits stuck at The Last Bridge. The request did not fall on deaf ears and, with incredible swiftness, Belta replied saying she would be there shortly. Concurrently, Knobsmugglin had privately contacted our lost friend Greleg, telling him in no uncertain terms that we desperately required assistance. We did not expect any sort of reply — after all, we had spent a large amount of time in the man’s company and had not heard him utter a single word. Three words entered Knobsmugglin’s chat bar, cutting through the vale of our uncertainty like the sharpest knife imaginable — ‘on my way’.
It was at The Last Bridge and under cover of darkness that Belta Tunnilly appeared before Largeo and I. She greeted us warmly and told us to follow her. We set out on the path that had quite recently been our grave, but this time, we had a new friend to back us up. Belta deftly and expertly one shot every creature that came anywhere near us. A single arrow was all it took each time, our fallen enemies piling up on the roadside. Halfway along, a heroic figure emerged from the brush. Greleg, now clad in a roguish white hood, appeared anew before us, sword in hand, returned from death with renewed vigour. He joined our party, pulling monsters away from us and assisting Belta in their swift dispatch. The journey towards the encampment was truly something, a triumph that assuaged all our initial doubts and fears. If the unlikely duo of Belta and Greleg wasn’t enough, we were also suddenly joined by an elegant female Elf. The enigmatic Ealotiel Swift Arrow, a surprise third party, helped us out during the final stretch to reunite with our Hobbit friends. This Elf, as we soon found out, was recruited by Warwick (who initially believed the player to be AFK) and despite being late, was more than willing to assist us. As we wound up the hill to finally re-join the group, great jubilation broke out in the Trollshaws. Music was played, praise was lavished upon our three heroes and all nine of us danced by the campfire. After this well-deserved celebration, we made one final request of our new friends; would they escort us through the remaining stretch of wilderness to Rivendell? Belta wholeheartedly agreed, Ealotiel said nothing, but seemed to ready herself for the journey and Greleg, in true Greleg fashion, simply nodded.
We were no longer a simple party of Hobbits, but a true, honest-to-God fellowship. Belta, Ealotiel and Greleg, complete strangers to us and to each other, guided us through the pitch-black forest while asking not a thing in return. Passing through the Brumen Gorges and High Moor we were attacked by all sorts of villains, including some positively massive trolls (who would’ve been inactive during daytime hours). These giants were, however, no match for our trio of guardians, who dealt with them with ease. These high-level players formed a protective circle around us, their adopted Hobbit companions. It was with great relief that we finally crossed the border into Rivendell and began our descent from the hills into the center of the beautiful city. Even in the still of night, the blooming flowers and grand architecture of the Elven hub thrummed with a wonderous energy. A grand bridge marked the entrance to the city and, of course, we just had to stop and take a picture to mark the occasion. I (Nobgohild), Warwick, Chungimungi, Rimtingler, Largeo, Knobsmugglin, Belta, Ealotiel and Greleg all posed for a photo — the impressive Rivendell waterfall serving as the perfect backdrop. While we had not yet made it to Mordor, we had certainly made it somewhere. Far out of their comfort zone, deep within areas intended for powerful characters, a small group of level six Hobbits now resided. The perilous journey was wrought with danger, but through the kindness and companionship of strangers turned friends, we could now say that we were at least a third of the way there. In the end, this story really wasn’t even about us, it was superseded by the three legendary players who made it all possible; genuine heroes, who gave up two hours of their time just to ensure that six fools with a dream made it as far as they did. It was truly a play session that I will never forget, one of those rare, beautiful moments where a video game transcends into a true, unmistakable adventure. The characters that made themselves known to us, their arcs and mannerisms, the fact that they were all real people sat at their own computers God knows where in the world — the planets aligned and created something special. The quality of LOTRO’s player base, if Belta, Ealotiel and Greleg are anything to go by, is truly one of a kind. I can only thank all three (and my five real-life friends) for one of the best MMO experiences I’ve ever had. And you know what the most exciting thing is? The journey has only just begun.