The Road to Mordor: Frozen in time

My goat snorted as it cleared the final rise, and I pulled its reins to bring it to a halt. Raising a hand to shield my eyes from the sun, I gazed at the decrepit ruins before me.

A chill ran up my spine as I imagined the horrors that awaited me within the crumbling structure. For many days I had traveled the countryside looking for just this place, yet now that I'd found it, I was unsure whether I wanted to be here at all. My guides had long since fled in terror, abandoning gear and food in their haste to flee what they called "evil territory."

I curled my fist and summoned all of the powers of determination that remained within me. It had to be done. I had come too far and shed too much blood to turn my back on the ruins' ancient secrets right as I was on the verge of discovery. Sure, it was the beginning of every scary play ever, but I knew completely that my destiny would be made or broken in the next few minutes.

I kicked my mount into action, and we solemnly entered the deep shadows of the ruins' domain. It was do or die time.

"FREEZE TAG!" I shouted. "GAME ON!"

Freeze what?

See, here's the thing: Unbeknownst to many Lord of the Rings Online players, the devs have included fully functional tag and freeze tag minigames right smack in the middle of Bree-land. I'm not sure how much of a "secret" it is to the population at large, but every time I've mentioned it, I've been met with blank stares and a drooling "Huh? Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willis?"

But the truth is that freeze tag has been in the game since release. I wouldn't blame you if it's flown under your radar. It's off the beaten path; there are no quests that lead up to it and no deeds associated with it; and there's no purpose to it other than to just play a kid's game with some buddies. Yet I've been fascinated with the fact that a developer said to him or herself "LotRO needs freeze tag! We must make this happen!" at some point in history.

I remember joining up with kinnies back in 2007 for a fun-filled evening as we just ran around and tried not to get caught. After a while, however, my memory faded and I thought maybe I just dreamed up the whole thing. It almost seems too esoteric to be true. And yet, it really does exist. And it really is a blast.

Zen and the art of freeze tag

The tag ruins are located a little southeast of the Bree-land fairgrounds. There's one place dedicated to just normal tag, but I much prefer the freeze variant due to the strategies and teamwork involved. You can find it at 26.1S, 49.7W, near the hill range that separates the fields from Archet.

As the NPC says, the rules are pretty simple. Once you light the torch, a random player in the ruins will be designated "It" by a flashing arrow over his or her head. The job of "It" is to tag as many people as possible by running over them. If "It" does this, the "victim" is frozen in place and cannot move (if he tries to mount, the horse is frozen as well). I'm not sure whether there's a long timer attached to the freeze effect, but victims generally become unfrozen when the game resets or another player stands nearby for a few seconds.

Any player inside the ruins is automatically included in the game until he leaves the building. If the person who's "It" leaves, "It" gets transferred to someone else.

That's it. Again, it's pretty simple.

Strategy 101

Freeze tag takes place in a hollowed-out structure that has a series of platforms usable by both hunter and prey in the merry chase. This is where the strategy begins -- platforms are essential to helping you avoid being tagged, yet if you fall from too great of a height, you suffer the injured leg effect and have a decreased run speed. For a game of tag, this is a bad thing to have happen.

The ruins also have a number of bushes (great to hide in, although it's hard to remain truly hidden with your name over your head) and a deceptively tiny ledge running around at the top. Experienced "taggers" can hop on this ledge and zip around the circumference of the structure with ease, which is a good move since "It" usually wants to go for the easy freeze, not the daredevil.

I've also found that there's a small ledge that runs around the outside of the building as well, and if you use it, you're still part of the game. Very few do, however, so that became my ace in the hole.

One of the best ways to avoid being frozen is to wildly juke as you're being followed. By using the mouse to whip the camera around, you can abruptly change direction and perhaps gain a few more inches between you and your pursuer. I also liked using the stairs as a physical barrier between me and It as a last resort.

Help a Hobbit out?

For all intents and purposes, LotRO's freeze tag is a rudimentary type of PvP, although it's a tad unusual when you look at it from that perspective because only one player has the power to harm others (by locking them down). The interesting thing is that when everyone else is largely helpless as prey, the other runners tend to come together to lend a hand.

There's no real win or lose condition to the game, except when "It" manages to freeze everyone. So I found that all of the non-"It" players make it their highest goal to thaw each other out, sometimes using decoys to draw "It" away in order to make it happen.

The funny thing is that in these small moments, you can feel like a hero. We always want to be the one to pull our teammates out of the jaws of the dragon, the one to become a legendary savior of the cold and frostbitten. Here, we get that chance!

Cheaters always prosper

Of course, it's not as though Turbine's spent a lot of time balancing freeze tag in regard to the rest of the game, so it's pretty easy to cheat. In a game we hosted this week, I noticed a few techniques that were used by the participants.

The first is speed buffs. These can be as innocuous as permanent run buffs that are part of your gear or speed skills that some classes (like Hunters and Captains) can use. We're not even going to speak of mounts, but they aren't outlawed either. Naturally, all professional "taggers" frown upon such artificial enhancements, and rumor is that the International Association of Virtual Freeze Tag will ban it for the 2011-12 season.

The second cheat is stealth. Elves and Burglars can both vanish, and we had a Burglar who camped a frozen player to tag unaware rescuers as they came along.

Now, you can argue that any skills or items that can be used should be allowed as part of player ingenuity, but it's hard to have a fair game of freeze tag when the odds are in someone else's favor from the start.

Why do it? Because it's there.

OK, I know this is a pretty silly fluff piece, but apart from thinking that it's pretty cool for LotRO to have freeze tag, I think it serves to illustrate something important for the MMO industry. This week I've been beating the drum of the need for MMOs to offer more than just combat as part of their play experience, and this is a prime example of a game that delivers. Sure, it's not a main part of the game or even pointed out in any way, but LotRO's freeze tag rewards the explorer and the folks who are looking to have fun with friends, fun that doesn't necessarily include Balrog-slaying.

Maybe you see it as a waste of developer resources or ignored nonsense, but merely knowing that such fluffy events exist in this game world fills me with happiness. And if I ever meet you on the tag court, you're going to be put into carbonite freeze so fast you won't know what bounty hunter hit you.

Um, that's Star Wars. I think I may have breached the sacred IP barrier in this column. Excuse me... it's time to go on the lam.

When not enjoying second breakfast and a pint of ale, Justin "Syp" Olivetti jaws about hobbits in his Lord of the Rings Online column, The Road to Mordor. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.