Right now, Lord of the Rings Online is in a brief respite between the insanity of PAX East and the upcoming March 21st release date for its next big update, Echoes of the Dead. To say that there's a lot coming with this update is a vast understatement, so it was great to get a sneak peek at the five new instances before they went live.

Earlier this year, players started to get rumblings about a major upcoming event as five mysterious relics popped up all over Middle-earth in Evendim, Forochel, Enedwaith, North Downs and the Trollshaws. By finding all five, players completed a special deed and got the title "Calm Before the Storm," foreshadowing dire events to follow. All anyone could do after that was prepare for an uncertain future.

It turns out that LotRO's players had good reason to prepare, because as of next week, five new dungeons will open their doors for business -- the business of eating adventurers alive and spitting out their bones, that is. Spurned Gaunt-lords have returned to make life for the Free Peoples of Middle-earth harder by transforming the very landscape into their hellish domain, and it's up to you to thwart their schemes.

Hit the jump as we traveled to these new instances at PAX East with LotRO Executive Producer Kate Paiz!

Spider-Hobbit, Spider-Hobbit, does whatever a Spider-Hobbit can

Two things became quickly apparent with these new endgame instances: They are meant to appeal to a wide variety of groups (as they feature three-man, six-man, and raid dungeons), and they are taking us back on a tour through nostalgic locations of the world.

For example, it's hard to step into North Cottonfarms and not recall one's early days of adventuring in The Shire, where the biggest danger would be a wolf or spoiled food. Or spiders, of course -- spiders are the archnemesis of all Hobbits, it would seem. North Cottonfarms is overrun with these eight-legged beasties, and only through cunning can you cut through them all and save the community from certain peril.

North Cottonfarms is a Shire-themed instance with a quirky backstory: Hobbits are disappearing at an alarming rate, apparently tempted by the smells of something delicious -- and perhaps deadly. As you enter, you discover webs everywhere and frightened Hobbits looking for a way out.

Kate Paiz pointed out that the team had a lot of fun creating interesting fight mechanics for each mini-boss and big boss. One of the first mini-bosses in North Cottonfarms is a giant spider named Legbarthil who occasionally lays an egg that then hatches into a cute little spider-child. As arachnids are sometimes wont to do, Legbathil will attempt to eat her young and by doing so can heal herself by a large amount. Motherhood! Thus, players are faced with the option of focusing on the mommy or splitting up to deal with the offspring.

Later on in the instance, you discover a goblin getting ready to poison the town well with a boiling cauldron of suspicious goo. Saving the town requires being light on your feet as you try to stamp out the fire while slapping dazed Hobbits -- who are following their nose to deadly food -- at the same time.

Mul-Ti-Pass

As we flitted from instance to instance, the creativity that Turbine has poured into these new adventures shone brightly. Each dungeon had its own unique feel that not only captured the flavor of the zone in which it was set but added something new to the mix as well.

North Downs' Stoneheight, a town ablaze and choked with ash, was as far from Forochel's ice-bound Sari-surma as you can get. It was neat to see fights where choices came into play, such as an encounter with a mother bear and her cubs in Sari-surma. The fight plays out differently if you attack and kill the mother first or the cubs -- and common sense should tell you that getting between a mother bear and her babies is a very, very bad idea.

Equally interesting was a mini-boss in the Trollshaws' Lost Temple, which is actually composed of a brother and sister team. By separating them, you weaken their respective powers, but once one is in danger of dying, the other will rush to his or her aid, necessitating a quick kill lest the fight go badly for your fellowship.

The Lost Temple is also home to a large assortment of glowy maggots, creatures that initially appear as unassuming as they do disgusting. However, these maggots are tenacious and will launch themselves at you to feed on your face, growing bigger in the process. We mentioned Aliens' Facehuggers to Kate Paiz and she laughed, saying that's what she thought as well.

Endgame

The four smaller dungeons are but a prelude to Enedwaith's Ost Dunhoth, a large, four-winged raid dungeon that should prove a significant challenge to all but the best parties. Fortunately, Ost Dunhoth's wings can be completed on different nights, as the raid has a one-week timer attached.

It's here that all of the Gaunt-lords make their play against you in a bid for revenge or perhaps sport. Players will find themselves dealing with each Gaunt-lord's brand of evil, from poison to disease, and will need to adjust tactics and gear accordingly.

One of the neat mechanics of the raid is when adventurers come upon a corridor filled with deep channels. Once players go into the channels, large mammoths charge out of the end with an intent to trample. There's no fighting them, and you can't run fast enough to escape them. Your only hope for survival is to throw levers that trigger doors in neighboring channels, meaning that only a split raid coordinating its efforts by juggling doors can save the whole party.

Looking for fellowship, take two

With all of the new dungeons and the terrific instant-instance interface (say that five times fast!), was Turbine thinking of how to get more players running them? When we pressed Paiz on this issue, she admitted that the team is indeed working on redesigning the Looking For Fellowship interface, although any new version would be only useful if players actually adopted it instead of ignored it.

We look forward to seeing how all of Echoes of the Dead plays out when it releases this coming Monday!

Massively's on the ground in Boston during the weekend of March 11-13, bringing you all the best news from PAX East 2011. Whether you're dying to know more about SWTOR or Guild Wars 2 or any MMO in between, you can bet we'll have it covered!

This article was originally published on Massively.