Latest in Gaming

Image credit:

The Road to Mordor: Time travel is possible in LotRO


Some days I get a headache trying to wrap my head around the way that time works in Lord of the Rings Online. I mean, most MMOs are pretty straightforward when it comes to the time frame; pretty much everyone, everywhere in the game is in the same point in history, give or take a phase or two. Your journey through the game gives the illusion of time passing because your story develops and you go through a series of challenges, but really everyone, NPC and player alike, is living in the same day. If the game advances the timeline, everyone moves forward with it.

LotRO is not like that. LotRO is not like any other MMO I've found, mostly thanks to the fact that it's tethered to an IP that has very time-specific events. A year or so ago, I was talking to Turbine on the phone and asked if I could look at the timeline document that the team uses to keep all of the events straight in the devs' heads. I didn't get to see this document, but ever since I've been keeping a close eye on how the game treats time.

The truth is -- and this is very weird to consider -- that we as players are adventurers not just through Middle-earth but through time as well. We slip forwards and backwards in the timeline, often without even realizing it. You didn't think time travel had a place in fantasy MMOs? Well it does here!

The Road to Mordor Time travel is possible in LotRO
Anchoring the time stream

As I said, LotRO is quite bound to its source IP, and that source IP has a very specific, very detailed timeline. It's probably one of the most studied and analyzed timelines in all of fantasy literature, and it pretty much says, "This is when this happened, this is when that happened, and if you're going to make a game out of it all, you're going to be hemmed in by the structure of it all."

So when we start asking ourselves "What day is it in Middle-earth?" the answer is... it depends. It depends on your physical location, your progress through the epic story, and even your participation in various instances. But we need to have a starting point for all of this time travel nonsense, so let's narrow it down.

After the tutorials and intro zones (which, depending on the race, can span back quite a few years prior to the game proper), LotRO dumps you out into Eriador some time after Frodo and friends have left the Shire. While you do finally encounter Frodo in Rivendell, it's sometime around October 24th or 25th, 3018. However, that's when the full Fellowship is there for the Council of Elrond, and you start the game some time before then. Your start is after Frodo leaves the Shire (September 23rd) but before Frodo arrives in Bree (September 29th). We know this because you encounter Strider in the epic story and do a couple of missions for him before he departs (behind the scenes) with the Hobbits.

So that's a good as a place as any to anchor your location in the timestream at the start of it all: September 24th to 28th, 3018. But that's only if you plunk your butt in the Shire, Ered Luin, or Bree-land and don't do much of anything.

Tracing the path of the epic story

So if Frodo is at Rivendell, how can he also not have arrived at Bree yet? The answer is, of course, that he can't. It's the developers using the game structure as an illusion to mimic Frodo's journey through Middle-earth and the timeline because while he can be in multiple places at once, you cannot.

The epic story is where the timeline starts to move forward, although what goes on in the story isn't necessarily reflected in the non-instanced game world. For the lack of a better way to put it, your character is constantly trailing after the Fellowship like a little kid who can't run fast enough to catch up with his older siblings. So the Fellowship moves time forward with its progress, and you move with it. When you get to Moria, well, the Fellowship has been through already (January 13th to 15th, 3019), so the big bridge is destroyed, the Balrog is stomping around, and the Dwarves have come in afterward to reclaim their homestead.

Your second major encounter with the Fellowship is in the period of time where it's staying in Caras Galadhon (January 17th to February 16th). After that, you get glimpses of the Fellowship's journey south on the Great River, an in-character session to the breaking of the Fellowship (February 26th), and you putter after Merry and Pippin as they head into Fangorn (February 29th). We also see the First Battle of the Fords of Isen (February 25th) shortly before our entry into Rohan.

According to the epic story, the main timeline of the game hasn't progressed five months yet! Once in a while, the epic story instances will flash a title card showing you the date, but it really isn't that consistent. I wouldn't blame you for thinking that time's either gone a lot more slowly (as in standing still) or much more quickly at this point. It's kind of like the TV show M*A*S*H, where the actual battle was just three years but the show lasted 11. It's easy to confuse the amount of time we've spent in Middle-earth so far with the actual progression of time within the game world.

The Road to Mordor Time travel is possible in LotRO
It's time to go back... to the future!

It isn't just that LotRO is slowly moving us through the months based on our progress in the epic story but that we're also jumping back and forth in time so much that we either have a time-traveling horse in our pocket or our characters have very little internal consistency compared to the game world. If I'm in Rohan in February but can return to the Shire in September or Rivendell in October any time I wish, what else would I be than a genuine time traveler?

Here's another brain-twister: If the world exists within a very specific timeframe right now, how is it also passing seasons and holding regular festivals? How many of the same birthdays can Frodo and Bilbo have in Rivendell?

Apart from the strange setup of the world and the epic story, LotRO utilizes specific time travel quests to tell additional tales that come before or after our five-month journey. These are the story sessions, and we've all seen how they can throw us back to previous generations, back to Gandalf's arrival in Orthanc (July 10th), back to when Sauron wasn't a floating eyeball, or sideways to what other characters (such as the Rangers) are doing.

Then you have skirmishes, which are all over the map, time-wise. Pineleaf at LOTRO Players made the effort to figure out when each of the game's skirmishes are set. The game's instances are even more spread out than these. Update 10's raids, for example, take place in Dale at the end of the War of the Ring (April to March 3019), which hasn't "happened" for us yet.

It's interesting to me how Turbine's managed to cram in such an expansive world and so many events while staying within the limits of a relatively short span of time. It's made me appreciate the game more now, even as I've realized my potential as a time traveler.

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.

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr