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The Road to Mordor: Rune-keepers under siege


Let's start today's column with a couple presuppositions, shall we? Number one: There is no set standard for being a "true" Tolkien fan. There's always someone out there who knows more than you, thinks that he is more faithful to the source material, and considers himself better than you in this regard. Like any fans, Tolkien-ites (Tolkkies?) are diverse. They may share the same passion, but they come to it from different backgrounds and with different standards.

Number two: Turbine is not out to molest the corpse of good ol' J.R.R. by turning Lord of the Rings into a farce. Yes, it's all well and good to say as such when you want to be melodramatic on the forums, but the truth of the matter is that Turbine's done an excellent job sticking to both the lore and the spirit of Middle-earth as much as possible while still fashioning a game within those boundaries. It's not in their best interests to make a mockery of this franchise.

These presuppositions converge on one of the most fiercely debated additions to LotRO, the Rune-keeper. Following the launch of the Mines of Moria expansion, fans responded with everything ranging from "Hey, it's a pretty cool class to play" to "IT'S THE END OF THE MIDDLE-EARTH!" hysteria. Seeing how passionate people are on this subject, I thought it would be worth looking into today, to answer the following questions: does the Rune-keeper have a place in LotRO, and does it break the lore and rules that Tolkien established?

A Healer Too Far?

From a game design standpoint, it's obvious why the Rune-keeper class was added to the game. It both added another healer to the game (yay!) and provided some magic razzle-dazzle effects for players who were missing a wizard-type class in the game. By being able to switch from healing to DPS, the Rune-keeper provided a flexible class which is offset only by its extreme fragility.

Adding another healer is all well and good, but the showy "magic" on top of that became the straw that broke some of the lore-purists' backs. Despite being one of the cornerstones of modern fantasy, Tolkien's Middle-earth was not a place full of visual magic and packs of spell-users roaming the countryside. In fact, when LotRO was in development, one of its key selling points was that this would be a game of "low magic" instead of brightly colored fireballs zipping everywhere. Magic had a place in the world, but it lacked the tropes we now associate with fantasy magic. LotRO players had praised classes like the Lore-master for its "practical" magic that used knowledge of nature instead of divine or arcane sources for its skills -- and then came along a class who started throwing out lightning bolts and streams of fire like he jumped ship from another MMO.

Reading Rainbow

The counter-argument to the Rune-keeper's apparent lore-breaking magic tricks is that they come from words, not a mana pool. Tolkien often described the power of words in his writings ("Speak friend, and enter"), and the Rune-keeper's conceit is that his "magic" comes from both written and spoken words. Thematically, this fits in with many previously established features of the game, such as how characters have Morale instead of health, which can be refilled through song (the Minstrel) or loud, eardrum-piercing screams (the Captain, etc.). Through the entire saga, The Lord of the Rings provides a textbook example of how a person's words, both spoken and written, can be a powerful force.

In one of the first developer diaries that mentioned Rune-keepers, Brian Aloisio immediately tackled the thorny issue: "A question I know some of you will be asking is 'Does the Rune-keeper use magic?' The answer is a little yes, and a little no. In Tolkien's world, and in our world, 'magic' is a term for explaining things that are not well understood. A perfect example of this is when Sam was offered to look in Galadriel's Mirror: 'And you? ' she said, turning to Sam. 'For this is what your folk would call magic. I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel.'"

The Professor Weighs In

Dr. Corey Olsen, also known as "The Tolkien Professor," recently guested on an episode of A Casual Stroll to Mordor, where he fielded a direct question about the Rune-keeper. While Olsen does not play LotRO, he is familiar with the game, and an expert in Tolkien lore. The hosts of the podcast outlined the class and the issue, and Olsen weighed in on the debate with the following (shortened for length):

"I can see the point about people saying that it's not really fitting in. Magic in Tolkien's world is so rarely spell-centered, so far from 'I have three 7th-level spells prepared' magic... but I do have to give props to [the Rune-keeper's] description. If there were runes and words like that, it kind of works. The main thing I think of -- and I don't doubt that's what they had in mind, associated with the Mines of Moria expansion -- is when Gandalf is in Moria doing the closest to what sounds like the casting of spells. When he talks about putting a word of command on the door to close the door to keep the enemies out, and he talks about spells of shutting and opening. As Tolkien points out in On Fairy Stories, a 'spell' means 'words', basically... the idea that words have power, that even written words have particular power that way, like with runes, makes sense.

"It's not that I can think of an actual precedent for it in Tolkien's world, because there isn't really -- I guess wizards would be the closest thing. But even though I can't think of a parallel, I think they've done a good job taking this intrinsically alien concept of a magic-user and done it in such a way as to actually make it at least kind of fit within the worldview... From everything I've heard, Turbine's done a good job walking a fine line, being very respectful and careful, and what liberties they've taken are understandable, with a lot of respect toward the world and books."

You can listen to his full answer on the podcast starting at the 62-minute mark.

Rune-keepers Under Siege

No matter what, everyone can agree that the inclusion of the Rune-keeper class has been, and will continue to be, a hotly debated topic in the LotRO community. Some are offended at the showy magic effects, some love how the class plays, some see no place for it in Tolkien lore, and some (although they won't admit it) have a little bit of class envy. While gamers who either play the class or are at peace with its presence are many, the Rune-keeper is a line of demarcation dividing the rest.

Personally, I like the approach that says Lord of the Rings Online isn't meant to be a 100% accurate representation of the books; the books are the true version, and the games and movies are more like parallel universes -- faithful in varying degrees, representing an interpretation of the source. It's here I can leave the issue in peace, even though the battle will continue to rage among the so-called "Lore Lawyers" (see the comments section).

Tavern Talk -- A look at what the LotRO community is talking about this week:

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