Road to Mordor
Here's an odd confession for a Lord of the Rings Online columnist to make: I haven't been playing the game much in the past month. I've been, for all intents and purposes, on a gaming sabbatical from Middle-earth.

It's not as bad as it looks at first glance because I do this all the time with any MMO I play. I found out the hard way years ago that nonstop gaming in a singular dedicated title was a terrific recipe for spectacular, many-onlookers-injured flaming burnouts. No matter how good that pixelated pizza is, we've been told, if you have it for every meal, sooner or later it will taste like moldy routine in our mouth. And that's not good for anyone.

The good news is that my sabbatical is at an end after only flitting into LotRO on occasion over the holidays, and I'm rested up and recharged for another great year of slaughtering wildlife in Tolkien's honor. Before I do that, however, I'd like to take this opportunity to share why I feel that it's OK to "go on sabbatical" from LotRO... and why it even benefits the game as a whole for its fans not to play once in a while.

Skeleton attack
Taking a holiday

My sabbatical began when the MMO-that-must-not-be-named released last month and I, along with what seemed like half of the world's population, traded up fantasy for fantastic sci-fi. Sure, I'd feel a little bad every day when I'd look at my lonely LotRO icon, but I consoled it with a promise of "soon, be patient" while I explored a new game world.

It's the age-old story of something that's shiny and new taking attention away from a reliable, older source of entertainment. An entire genre of children's books centers around this concept, and I'm not immune. I try not to be the ADD-style gamer who has to flit to every single new thing like an unsatisfied hummingbird sampling 500 types of nectre, but it's in my blood to be curious at least.

I found that my sabbatical, semi-unplanned as it started, was exactly what I needed for my LotRO career. Apart from my multi-year stint in World of Warcraft, I've never played an MMO for as long as I have played LotRO. As of last month, I'd been in the game constantly for two years solid, with additional sessions dating back to beta. No matter how well-designed the games are, I feel that MMOs strain under the weight of time the longer a person plays them because the newness does go away. The fun of earlier sessions becomes a chore in later ones. Progression takes longer the higher up in levels you go. Eventually you feel like you've seen it all. And right at this point, the yellow warning light indicating an approaching burnout starts flickering.

So between forcing yourself to keep "playing" or crashing in the worst possible way is a third option: take a break. Give yourself permission to go on a sabbatical without its being some referendum on the game as a whole. Trust me, even MMO devs stop playing their own games to have fun in others -- if they didn't, they'd go insane. So why not you?

Rivendell approach
Why sabbaticals help

Back in the day when the subscription model ruled the landscape like the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex, players were under a lot of pressure to develop monogomous gaming habits to justify the monthly cost. Those who didn't either had a lot of money to blow or had developed a breakthrough in perspective. The sub model trained us to develop what I see as unhealthy, unnatural gaming habits when it comes to MMOs: sticking with one title until all of the fun and life is sucked out of it and all that is left was a husk of former glory that you feel compelled to keep playing due to social connections or the gear grind.

Fortunately, we're pretty much past this point in the MMO industry as of around two years ago, and I for one couldn't be happier. Before I played MMOs, I played multiple titles, so now being able to play multiple MMOs without breaking my budget feels natural for me. With so many free-to-play titles out there, a gamer could conceivably still subscribe to one game (or none) and flit between several more without a financial consequence.

But the absolute best part of gaming sabbaticals is that they really do help rejuvenate interest in a game. You know the phrase "absence makes the heart grow fonder?" Well, it's true in this case. I've lost count of the times that I've seen bloggers write about how they've come back to a game after months or even years away from it, and they gush about how incredible it is and how they've forgotten how fun it could be. You see, you can't ever get back that Day One experience when everything is fresh and new, but by stepping away for a while and then returning, you can call forth an echo of that by allowing your brain to disconnect and forget a bit.

For the community as a whole, sabbaticals are just so very important in keeping things positive. Probably the most morale-sinking event that can happen is when a long-time player hits her burnout point and does not decide to fade quietly into the night. Nay, she must rant at great lengths on the forums, to guildies, and in chat about the game's failings and how we're all suckers to still be here, etc. I've seen this way too many times, and I can't help but wonder whether this wouldn't have happened if this person had just given herself permission to take a break. When you don't play anything else, sooner or later the fairy tale is going to end badly, and there's this desire to drag down everyone with you. It doesn't benefit the people who are still enjoying it, and I feel bad for those who ragequit in such ways because they could've seen the warning light a long time ago and taken steps to walk away without a fuss.

Ticked off dinobeaver
The darker side of sabbaticals

Sabbaticals aren't without flaws. People will judge you for leaving, even if for a set period of time, especially if you're a well-known player, blogger, or popular member of your kinship. Whether or not you mean for your leave of absence to be a referendum on the game, others will take it as such, and it's hard to explain why you might need that out-of-game rest and rejuvenation.

By leaving for a while, you'll also be unplugging from the day-to-day connections and updates from your in-game friends and probably from the game itself. Sure, there's the LotRO news page and Massively's LotRO coverage, but I find that if I'm not actively playing or anticipating a game, my awareness of what's going on in it is quite low in comparison. The longer you're away, the more this compounds, and if you don't have systems in place to keep in touch with your buddies or with the current news, you could drift away entirely.

Of course, those taking a break will no longer be on top of the progression curve, if such things matter to you. Content will be added, others will be running instances and gearing up more, and you might find yourself in a catch-up position, which might hurt later if you relish being at the top of the heap.

Probably the most common issue I've had and heard from others is the difficulty of re-entry following a good amount of time away from the game. LotRO's complex classes and full-to-the-brim hotbars can be just downright intimidating to any returning player as he or she tries to fire up the neurons of memory to recall just what does what, how fight rotations progress, and so on. Even worse, your first day back will be greeted with a screen shouting information at you: quests chains in progress, deeds that you were working on, legendary item reset notices, reputation increases from the previous patch, tutorial popups concerning new features, and so on. What you want is a nice, quiet re-entry; what you get is a loud crash course that can jar you right back out of the game.

Patch-and-reload

Some of these issues can be taken care of in advance by doing some simple prep work prior to leaving, much like cleaning up your house before heading off on vacation. Let your kinship know you're going on sabbatical and why, write yourself a few quick notes about what your character was working on, and make sure that you bookmark the LotRO news feed and check in once a week or so.

Most importantly: Relax! Try something new. Escape the mentality of the "one game to rule them all" and realize that it's OK to take breaks and OK to like more than one MMO. I think that if you do, you'll find like me that you'll extend your interest in Middle-earth far past its earlier expiration date.

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.