The Road to Mordor: Anatomy of a failed quest

Road to Mordor

After last week's column on the 10 most memorable quests in Lord of the Rings Online, I had a couple of people ask for the polar opposite: the 10 worst quests. While I know that there are many -- stupid Sara Oakheart escort! -- they don't stick in my mind the way the best ones do. However, I think it's worthwhile to examine one such quest to see how game design can fail the player in small but meaningful ways.

The quest in question? Rise of Isengard's Taking a Stand, which, coincidentally, was the only quest I've done this past week, and not because I was super-busy but because every time I'd log in I'd hit my head against it, try it a half-dozen times, and then give up out of frustration. Rinse and repeat. Since it was part of a chain and I am trying to do all the quests in RoI, skipping it wasn't a possibility. It had to be done, and it stood between me and the remainder of the content like a bully that's four times my size and has no compunction against shoving me to the ground.

So what was it about Taking a Stand that failed me so badly? And what could Turbine learn from this quest for future reference? Hit the jump as I break it down, piece by stupid piece.

Trick Me

Mission briefing

Taking a Stand is one of the last quests you'll do in Dunland proper before moving on to the Gap of Rohan. It's a regular level 72 quest, no small group or fellowship tags attached. The rewards aren't even that great, just a few slight upgrades for whatever you're wearing.

The mission is simple. You talk to a guy and get thrown into an instance, where you and a party of four NPC Rangers are tasked with protecting a tree from waves of enemies for about seven minutes. On the surface, it's nothing we haven't seen before, and as a result I just chalked up my first failed run to not paying attention. The second time I bombed, I thought it might be time to switch up tactics.

By the fifth time I died and saw my armor start to degrade, I knew I was in trouble.

Full disclosure

Before I start to analyze the quest itself, I need to be up front with you about my character. He's a level 71 Lore-master with somewhat average (quest-reward) gear for his level. So I was slightly below-level, but I'm secure enough in my character that I know what I'm doing and am able to adapt to different situations.

One other thing: I'm not complaining about challenge. I welcome challenging quests as they're a refreshing change of pace to faceroll tasks that permeate this and every other MMO. Because LMs are somewhat squishy and Rise of Isengard is -- in my opinion -- unafraid to bust out tougher solo quests that can and will slap you down to the ground, I'm not even crying because I failed once or twice. It happens.

However, this quest is different because it became the Kobayashi Maru of LotRO: the unwinnable scenario.


Stacking the odds

A few elements conspired to make Taking a Stand miserable. The first is that it's not geared toward all classes. I've read that tougher classes breezed right through it -- all they had to do is survive the full seven minutes, after all -- and even healing classes could just go healbot on the friendly NPCs and be assured in their victory. This isn't an option for other classes, however, like mine.

The second problem is that the NPCs have just some of the worst AI going on here that I've seen in the game. Grouped up together, they're formidable and will take out most anything that comes their way, but they tend to split up like they're in a horror film and get picked off, one by one. They also don't regenerate health, and they lack those absolutely massive morale pools that you sometimes see on quest NPCs.

The third problem is that the signature mobs -- and there are some in almost every wave -- are unmezzable, meaning that Turbine took away my class' main strength against an overwhelming force.

No matter what I did or what pet I tried, if I got in the thick of things or hung out in back, I realized that I was destined to die. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Trust me -- I tried everything.

Growing desperate

Having a crappy, unsoloable quest that I needed to complete to move on in my log ended up sapping my desire to even log into the game. One night I failed so many times that the client forbade me from running it for another 34 minutes because I had been in five instances that hour.

I wasn't alone in my desperation. Folks on the forums have pinpointed this as one of the more headache-inducing quests of the expansion, and they've recommended that players attempting it go in as a duo fellowship instead of solo. So I asked my kinship for assistance, and several people volunteered (yay Council of the Secret Fire!). I picked the best-looking one, and he came over to the camp. I triggered the quest, entered the instance, and... I was alone.

He didn't have the quest, you see. He'd already done it. So the system wouldn't let him come in and help.



Taking the weenie way out

Doing a little more research on the forums, I discovered that there is indeed a workaround that delivers a guaranteed quest completion. The only drawback is that it requires you to swallow your pride and stop rolling your eyes at Turbine enough to do it.

The solution? Run and hide at the edge of the map where the mobs won't find you, let the timer tick down to zero, then run back and hop on the magical quest-exiting horse before you get cut down by the enemy.

It worked, but I so did not feel like a hero doing it. On the contrary, I felt like a coward admitting defeat. And that's hardly the attitude of a battle-seasoned veteran with several campaigns under his belt, don't you think?

So what went wrong?

Taking a Stand failed me on so many levels that it's hard to identify just one spot where it went wrong. It's a perfect storm of badness, in a way. It's not that much fun of a quest to begin with. It's not balanced for every class. It has poor AI, unreasonable CC restrictions, and a brutal difficulty level for a standard quest. There's no way for someone to duo it with you unless she happens to have that quest as well. And the only way to "cheat" it is not heroic in the least.

I know it might seem like I'm making a mountain out of a shrewhill, and I recognize that in the grand scheme of things, it's just one not-so-great quest among many, many decent quests. But it's important to see that the line between a fun -- or at least serviceable -- quest and a miserable experience can be crossed easily, especially if it's not thought through.

If I were to implore Turbine to fix just one thing here, it's the duo aspect. The quest is set up to be duoed and would be much more enjoyable with a friend at your side, and there's absolutely no reason to restrict it to just those who have the same quest at that point of the chain in their log. None whatsoever.

So that's my little rant of the week, but at least I'm past it and on to greener pastures!

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.