In the past, I’ve mentioned the wise decision made by both Peter Jackson and Ralph Bakshi to remove certain elements from the early parts of The Lord of Rings. One is that damnable Tom Bombadil. The other is something far more interesting. Well, interesting when one has the time to wander through the Old Forest and the Barrow-downs.
Like, say, in an online multiplayer game based on the novels.
In the early days of The Lord of the Rings Online, all the roads led to Bree and, inevitably, up to the Barrow-downs. It’s clear the designers were proud of the region, as the epic storyline leads you up there on orders from Aragorn to deal with a problem in the Great Barrow. The epic cannot continue until you defeat a lord of the Barrow-wights and claim some token from him. Being an MMO, this also meant getting some possibly sweet loot along the way.
While the starter areas all had group quests, it wasn’t until this time that forming a fellowship — as grouping is known in the game — felt essential and, for a casual gamer like me, that meant a certain amount of stagnation waiting for groups ready to face the perils within the mist-covered Cardolan ruins. Even then, the path could be brutal on personnel and equipment. It also says something that Tom freaking Bombadil shows up and saves our asses from one of the brutal elite Barrow-wights at one point.
Subsequent trips to the Great Barrow for higher level quests could be equally demoralizing with many retreats, plenty of toxic goop thrown at us, and more spiders and crawling hands than anyone should have to deal with.
The Barrow-wights themselves are one of Tolkien’s more curious ideas. They are the walking corpses of a long-dead kingdom perched atop the foothills near Bree. Let me reiterate the important part: they are undead. Despite the first book of the The Lord of the Rings being a gentle sequel to The Hobbit, the professor put some zombies into his work just to make things a little bit more serious. This was the encroaching darkness that he tried to dispel over several drafts until he gave into the will of the story and went to places that would eventually become Moria, the Path of the Dead, and so on.
The professor wasn’t beyond Halloween style ghouls, either. Vampires and werewolves had their place in the First Age of Middle-earth, with Sauron going lupine to lead the charge. The Dark Lord Morgoth’s fortress was filled with the assorted specimens of the night. One story from that era features a Man taking on one of Morgoth’s trusted Vampire lieutenants.
Back in the Barrow-downs, one finds the former warriors of Cardolan ready to defend their tombs from would be robbers (like yours truly) or the well-meaning adventure swept up in the tides of on-coming war. Above ground, one generally faces archers and sword-wielding skeletons … but one type of wight one finds on the hill likes to vomit shit at you, bringing on the Dread buff which does … something. The math of MMO is fuzzy to me at best. I know Dread temporarily decreases maximum hit points. All I know is I take a potion when beset with Dread.
I told you, I’m pretty casual at all this.
The key thing, really, is that the Barrow-downs offered the first taste of underground dungeons. Five years ago, when the game just starting and balanced differently, the thrill of entering that location was pretty staggering. It didn’t look like anywhere else your character had been up to that point and it was filled to the brim with some serious enemies to defeat. To hear the roar of a Gaunt-lord at 3AM could actually be frightening. There have been a few places that have been tougher, but none of had the same magic combination as that first stroll up the Barrow-downs to face the undead.