The Road to Mordor: How LotRO explores what it means to be a hero

Developers, journalists, and bloggers alike have spent gobs of time chewing on the concept of heroism in MMOs: what makes us heroes, how these games can be tailored to make us feel heroic, whether games should force us to be heroes, and whether heroism is a desirable trait for a gamer. What we can agree on is that, if nothing else, the term has been so widely used and abused that we don't even think about the fact that "hero" is often used synonymously with the term "player character." It's just accepted that we're all heroes in MMOs as a base characteristic.

But am I a hero? At the start of an MMO, no, I am not. I am a blank slate. My character has no backstory inside of the game, no accolades under her belt, and no past adventures in which she showed herself to be anything out of the ordinary. That's another thing about heroes, apparently: They can't be ordinary. They have to become uber-elite and save the world, preferably on a weekly basis by beating something to death with an axe or immolating it with a fireball spell.

Lord of the Rings Online and its dev team may not be innocent of trying to shove us into the roles of heroes and play to that allegedly universal fantasy, but what I do appreciate is that this game has made me truly consider what it is to be a hero and how most MMOs get it wrong.

1. Heroism isn't about feeding egocentrism

Here's what bugs me about developers who prattle on and on about how their MMO will make a character feel like the central hero of a grand story: Not only do they falsely assume that this is what every player wants, but it's a blatant play to the most unheroic side of us: the self-centeredness that begs someone to feed our ego. The game should be all about us because we feel we are worthy of that!

But the heroes I know are exactly the opposite. Some of the most heroic folks I've met are what you might consider "support staff," helping to do the dirty work so that the person in the limelight will succeed. It's the spouse who sacrifices so the other spouse can get that degree or finish that project. It's the people that put others first because their eyes are on a greater prize than garnering public praise.

Because the core story of LotRO is set in stone, we the players will never be the central characters of the War of the Ring. We are the support staff, helping to get Frodo & Co. to Mount Doom and assisting everyone else in need so that the greater war effort will come out on the side of the good guys. We are here for others, and through that we go on a journey to become true heroes. I see how this approach has echoed in the community interactions as well because I've never been part of an MMO where players are so freely generous with each other and are always looking to prop up others and lend a hand to fellow gamers in need.

2. Opportunities for heroism often manifest themselves in small, unnoticed acts

I've heard some griping about how LotRO has a lot of quests in which our characters are asked to perform fairly menial tasks. Those disgruntled will point to the fact that they are battle-hardened elite soldiers whose efforts would be best put to use on the front lines instead of erecting barricades, assisting evacuees, or rescuing kittens from trees.

But soldiers actually do all of these good acts and then some in the real world, so it's silly to get into such a narrow definition of what your character is capable of and "deserves" to do that "fighting" is the only answer for everything. Step away from games for a minute and think of what a real hero means to you. Maybe it's someone inspiring or someone who gave greatly of himself or someone who perseveres in doing the right thing day in and day out. In my book, it's all of those things plus an embrace of service.

This is why I welcome quests that have me doing these small, seemingly inconsequential acts. The path to becoming a hero isn't just about my slaying Sauron; it's about a hundred small things such as rescuing a lost girl, foraging for herbs to heal a sick soldier, taking the time to listen and counsel the distressed, and even helping Hobbits with their stupid spoiled pies.

3. Heroes can be quite ordinary and seemingly weak

I've always loved how Reader's Digest took time to highlight what it calls "everyday heroes": people who rose to the occasion to help others out in a variety of impressive ways. Sure, some heroes are medal-of-honor-winning soldiers, but even more are housewives, retirees, teenagers, nebbish geeks, and otherwise unassuming folk that wouldn't be picked for a Hollywood epic in a hundred years. I am more inspired by hearing their stories of generosity, bravery, self-sacrifice, and compassion than I am imagining a massive beefcake cutting the head off of a 26-story dragon.

Again, Lord of the Rings Online's IP focuses the writers' and designers' efforts in showcasing what Tolkien did with his books. His central heroes are the most ordinary, visually unassuming beings ever, yet they show an inner courage and a strength of character that evil incarnate cannot overcome. LotRO is replete with NPCs and situations where the weak step up to save others, where the mighty are shamed while the weak are exalted, and where we are taught to get past the prejudices that stereotypes cultivate in us to look for what truly makes someone a hero.

4. Heroes come in a wide spectrum

While our characters are somewhat forced down the path that the game leads us without the option to be anything less than virtuous (unless we're willfully ignorant and choose to avoid quests), we are treated to the full spectrum of heroes and villains in the people we encounter. Many of these NPCs may have good intentions but are fighting to overcome a personal flaw, such as pride, stubbornness, greed, prejudice, or impulsiveness. We see these morality tales played out as the quests go on, with some of the characters ultimately proved to be heroes in their own right and some shown to be fools who are hoisted by their own petards.

I'm reminded of a Hobbit who joined me for an early adventure through a Blackwold cave to retrieve his lunch. Upon discovering and conquering the bad guys, he chooses to share his meal with people he realizes are starving men. A more recent example that comes to mind is the wife of a Thane in Rohan who is forced to become a leader to a group of refugees. She's clearly not a natural leader and is freaked out because of it, but she also knows that her position demands she become one or else people will die. So over a few missions, she steps up into that role and shows that she's not perfect, but she makes the right call and shows backbone when she needs to. That is heroism to me. That made me proud to fight at her side.

What a hero is and how a game makes you feel like one (or gives you the opportunity to feel) is incredibly subjective. All I know is that Lord of the Rings Online does a better job than most in showing the depth and breadth of heroism while teaching me a thing or two about myself along the way.

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 or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.