You might think you're a Tolkien scholar, having read the appendices of the Return of the King and even the whole Silmarillion. But after a few minutes chatting with the team at Turbine writing the content for Lord of the Rings Online, you'll quickly realize you know nothing. Chris Pierson, the Senior World Designer for LOTRO, took a few minutes out of his crunch time getting the Riders of Rohan expansion ready for its October 15th release to show me the slice of Middle Earth he's digitally created. From galloping along the rolling plains of the Westfold to standing above the falls of Rauros, not to mention an exclusive glimpse inside Meduseld, the golden hall of Edoras, it's clear Pierson loves Middle-Earth almost as much as Tolkien did himself.
Riders of Rohan brings the story of the five year old MMO through the Breaking of the Fellowship and the first few chapters of the Two Towers. Lord of the Rings Online is unique in that it lets players interact with the main characters of Tolkien's saga and help them out in peripheral ways. You'll be able to take on the roles of Frodo and Boromir as they wrestle for control of the One Ring and interact with the Rohirrim nation before war sets in, but there's a big challenge with this expansion focusing on just the eastern half of Rohan, before all the fun of Helm's Deep. Tolkien describes the rolling plains in detail, but doesn't mention any of the specific people who live there. Chris Pierson explains how he fleshed out the world.
As far as Rohan goes, this is effectively a big wide open ill-defined area. Places where nobody really lives that Tolkien likes to bring his characters through over the course of the books. We basically needed to say "No, really. Who lives there?" Because a large wide open area where no one lives is not good fun. We had to come with it more or less whole cloth based on what we knew about Tolkien's sources for Rohan.
We tried to make towns that felt like they would be appropriately sized. They all have their own local lords who's really effectively the king for the area. All these lords have their own ambitions and have their own squabbles. For a lot of them I drew from, there are a couple spots in the books where [Tolkien] will rattle off an Iliad-style list of guys who died in a given battle. Particularly at [the Battle of] Pelennor [Fields]. There's a list of six or seven characters that we've never heard of before and we never hear of again but we're supposed to assume that they are really cool guys who didn't make it back from Pelennor. We had the opportunity to take a couple of them and give them their own lordships and their own stories.
It's a great way to create new stories and quests that stay true to the feel of Tolkien's writing without all the problems of interacting with famous characters all the time. Of course, you do get a fair share of traveling with the Fellowship in Riders of Rohan, more so than in the previous expansion.
Senior producer Aaron Campbell explains that he's excited to get back to main storyline again.
The most important part of this expansion for me is that we're coming back to the story of the Fellowship. We're following it step-by-step and line-by-line. You're going to get to play as Frodo in a session and play as Boromir and see these places. Go on these epic quests, go to Edoras, meet Theoden, and connect with all these pieces that are so critical to this story. With the [Rise of] Isengard, we followed a line in the story - we were really talking about the rangers. Now we're with the Fellowship and that's very exciting.