Saturday, May 17, 2014

Lord of the Rings: A Different Shire

What? Already? I thought we had to go through the battle of Helm's Deep first!

Lord of the Rings (the game) recaps Lord of the Rings (the book) without any sense of urgency, and with lots of changes to the plot even in the opening area. Frodo understands the importance of destroying the Ring, knows the Black Riders are searching for him, and has been given specific instructions to get to Bree as fast as possible, but instead he lingers around the Shire for weeks, finding lost children, rescuing stray dogs, and otherwise running errands for his neighbors. 

In this, the game is no different from a host of other RPGs in which the hero temporarily but repeatedly ignores an apocalyptic threat to retrieve a family heirloom from a dungeon or collect 16 bushels of wildflowers for an alchemist. We've all been in this situation plenty of times. It's just odd to see it in an established plot. It's also odd to see Frodo joined by rangers, wizards, and dwarves that don't appear anywhere in the books.

As a game, I'm finding Lord of the Rings to be fun with a few flaws. As some of my commenters warned, the sheer size and sparseness of the maps recalls Faery Tale Adventure, which I described as "huge, boring, and empty" before quitting it. Fortunately, although LOTR has a lot of empty territory and structures that seem to serve no purpose, it's not quite as bad as Faery Tale Adventure. It might take 5-10 minutes between interesting encounters rather than 20-30.

A good 60% of the game consists of just this.

The opening map is big enough that I found it tough to explore systematically. The game starts in the upper left-hand corner, and normally in such situations I'd keep the western border visible as I moved methodically south to the bottom border, then move one screen east, then move to the top border, and so on, investigating any structures or people that I encountered on the way. LOTR makes this impossible by putting all kinds of rivers, walls, and hedgerows in the Shire, some of them long enough that you've become utterly lost by the time you get around them. I eventually resigned myself to following first the perimeter and then the road network, hoping that between the two, I encountered all the stuff in the middle.

An unfordable river.

Several interface issues significantly mar the game. The first is the inability to move diagonally, which extends the already-long journeys between points. The second is the music, which keeps playing unbidden. There's an option to tun it off, but it only silences it temporarily; it always returns later. Very annoying. The third issue is the horrible inventory and character selection system. Let's say I want to have Merry give Frodo some rations and have him eat them. This is the key sequence:

-SPACE to enter the command interface
-C to change characters
-4 to select Merry
-U to enter the "use" menu
-3 to enter the "trade" menu
-1 to trade to Frodo
-Then the number associated with the item I want to trade
-X to exit the trade menu
-X to exit the "use" menu
-C to switch characters
-1 to switch back to Frodo
-U to enter the "use" menu
-2 to enter the "equip/use" menu
-The number of the rations to eat them

Complicating this is an inability to quickly view a character's inventory, so in reality it often means repeating the first few steps multiple times until I find the character who actually has the rations.

Aside from those issues, it's a reasonably pleasant game with a lot of features that I like about RPGs, including lots of NPCs to interact with, lore to collect, side-quests to solve, and puzzles to unravel, usually using the game's skill system. It doesn't particularly excel in any of these areas, but together they make for a decent RPG experience.

This week, I explored the Shire, solved a variety of side quests, and assembled a party of companions bigger than the book's Fellowship. In doing so, I encountered areas, places, and characters that I generally recall from the films and what I read of the books--Hobbiton, Bucklebury Ferry, Buckland, the Green Dragon Tavern, the Brandywine Bridge, and so on. They seem to correspond imperfectly to maps of the Shire taken from the books, but otherwise they were familiar.

Some of the side-quests that I solved include:

  • Anson Goodbody's dog had run away. I found it nearby and used the "charisma" skill (it took me a long time to figure this out) to get it to follow me back to him. He gave me a shovel for my troubles.

If only I'd paid attention to his warning.

  • Two children missing in the "East Forest." It took me a long time to solve this one because the East Forest was one of the last areas I visited owing to my exploration pattern. The children were found in different places, surrounded by monsters. Returning them got me some rations from one family and a pony companion from the other.

Saving one of the children from a spider.

  • A dwarf in the Green Dragon was looking for someone to find his ancestor's axe, lost in some ruins. I found it while solve the "missing children" quest above, gave it to him, and got him to join me.

Equipping Druin with the axe I retrieved for him.

  • A songbird trapped in a spider web in a cave. I killed the spider and freed it, and it gave me some hints as to finding and dealing with some elves.
  • The elves in the southwest regions of the map who told me the magic word ELBERETH, which has the power to drive away Nazgul. It took me a while to find them. The area where I encounter them seems to have a certain probability of producing a Nazgul (which kills me practically instantly) and a certain probability of triggering the elf encounter.

Notice he says "TIMES of need." Not just one time. More on that below.

  • A ranger named Hawkeye who appeared in the southwest. He joined my party and I thought he'd be a permanent companion, but he only lasted a few seconds before we were attacked by Nazgul at the entrance of a cave, and he told me to run away while he held them off. I heard him die in the distance.


  • In a building called Brandy Hall, I got a ghost to leave by giving him some pipeweed. He had been haunting the library, and once he left, I read the books and got a lot of hints for future map areas.

Happily, he accepted pipeweed instead of his pipe.

Solving each quest not only produced (occasionally) a tangible reward, but also made subtle adjustments to my characters' attributes: dexterity, strength, endurance, luck, life, and willpower. There is otherwise no experience or levels in the game.

The game's combat mechanism isn't very good so far, but it has the potential to get better. When attacked, you enter a special combat mode and do the fighting from the regular command interface, where you can move, attack, use a word of power, cast a spell, use an item, or use a skill. At these opening stages, most of my characters have no weapons except torches and fists, no armor, and no magic. I haven't experimented enough to figure out what skills, if any, really help in combat. I could see the mechanism supporting much more tactical combats later in the game.

Note this game's conception of orcs. It looks like something I remember from a cartoon but can't quite put my finger on.

Post-combat, the only way I've been able to find to heal characters is to eat rations, which restore a couple of hit points but only once per day. There's no "rest" mechanism. Apparently, I'll later find a spell called "Kingshand" and some "kingsfoil" herbs, but not yet.

One possible side-quest that I didn't solve had to do with a large, ugly mill, apparently owned by Lotho Sackville-Baggins, guarded by three humans. The humans kept throwing me out the moment I entered, and none of the skills I had helped me. The episode seems to refer to the book, where Lotho allies with Saruman to take over and industrialize the Shire. I suspect that in the book, the process didn't start while Frodo was still in the Shire, but perhaps I'm wrong. In any event, I couldn't figure out what to do with the place.

My refusal to give Lobelia the key to Bag End came to haunt me later in the game, when she suddenly appeared near Bucklebury Ferry and demanded it again. When I walked away a second time, the "Shirriff" arrested me and threw me in jail to await the inevitable arrival of the Nazgul.


When the game otherwise ends through combat death, it's accompanied by an image of Sauron putting on the Ring and using it to conquer the world.

Sauron looks a lot like popular conceptions of Satan.

As I finish my explorations of the opening area, my company consists of Frodo, Sam, Pippin, Merry, Druin the dwarf, a pony, and a female wizard named Athelwyn. Druin and Athelwyn are clearly non-canonical additions to the party; also non-canonical is the way they refer to my party as "The Fellowship," which hasn't actually been established yet.

(This would be a good place to mention that One Wiki to Rule Them All has been my constant companion, filling in details about minor characters and places, and helping me understand which characters are from the book and which are invented by the game.)
 
At this point, I'm a little stuck and could use a hint. The only way out of the Shire seems to be a path guarded by a Nazgul (they appear in scripted locations rather than randomly), and I can't defeat him because I used ELBERETH to get by a different Nazgul on the bridge leading into Buckland. The manual had warned, and I had forgotten, that each word of power can only be used once. I think what I needed to do was to cross the river via Bucklebury Ferry rather than the bridge, thus avoiding the first Nazgul and saving ELBERETH for the second one.
Using ELBERETH on the first Nazgul.

The Nazgul doesn't seem impossible to defeat, just really really hard. He basically kills my characters with one blow, but they are capable of wounding him, and I suppose with a lot of luck, I might be able to eventually defeat him with only three or four characters lost. Obviously, I'd rather get out of the Shire with almost everyone alive. Suggestions welcome.

If I end up having to start over, I'll change my exploration pattern and see if I find anything new. For those who have played the game, these are the items that I'm carrying right now. If I'm missing anything, I'll take a light hint about it: The Ring, a sword (which no one can use), something called a "bladepart," a signet ring, a "White Hand" (no idea what it actually is), a "ghost ruby," rations, pipeweed, a "star key," a shovel, torches, a prybar, a bow, mushrooms, and an axe.

None of the discontinuity between the book and the game bothers me terribly because I don't have any particular fondness for the book. I'm curious how true Tolkien fans have felt while playing this game. Do you hate Athelwyn the same way some fans hated Arwen in the films? Or do you just shrug and go with it?

If Gimli had known as much about the loss of Moria as Druin, the Fellowship would have been saved a lot of trouble.


53 comments:

  1. The elves in the southwest regions of the map who told me the magic word ELBERETH, which has the power to drive away Nazgul.

    Ah, but with what do you engrave it?

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  2. What a nightmare of a UI. I have played crude, clumsily programmed indie games with monumentally better UI than the fourteen-step process you describe.

    I haven't played this game, but I did enjoy both the Tolkien books and the movies. And yes, I liked Arwen. Tolkien wrote a great epic, but it's overwhelmingly male-dominated. Galadriel and Eowyn are just about the only exceptions, and neither one has many pages devoted to her.

    I'm pretty sure Arwen is in the books - she's the woman that Aragon loved so much that he couldn't reciprocate Eowyn's love for him. She just had a very tiny role. Almost everything she does in the Jackson movies was invented or elaborated upon.

    There's a LOTR RPG for the PS2 called Lord of the Rings: The Third Age. In it, the player controls a party of original characters who follow in the wake of the Fellowship. Basically a fanfic plot that attempts to fit with the canon original, packaged in video game form. You'd think that would generate fan outrage if anything would, but I don't remember any great outcry. I think it was generally reviewed as a mediocre game.

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    1. I've played Third Age. I was more outraged about the battle system being an exact duplicate of Final Fantasy X, but now that I think about it that's literally the only thing I remember about the game aside from the absurdity of coming across Gandalf's big stand against the Balrog and running in to help.

      I don't REMEMBER that scene in the movies/books where suddenly four people ran up and helped him beat that thing, but it's possible I was half asleep at the time.

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    2. Come to think of it, I reviewed the bloody thing back in my Unpaid Reviewer Mook days. I liked it more than I remember, but I was ten years younger then.

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    3. The choice of Liv Tyler to play Arwen really cheapened the feel of the films for me, as it made it obvious that the role was primarily meant to be for eye candy as far as the movie creators were concerned.

      I also recall her being in some scenes later in the trilogy that struck me as being annoyingly extraneous.

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    4. With the caveat that I last read the entire trilogy in gradeschool, Arwen was definitely in the books, and while the dialogue was altered, her role in the story was not.

      Her fight with the Nazgul went down rather differently though. There was no "hey, I'm not a man, so I can kill you" moment, rather it was one of the hobbits (I forget which. Pippin I think...) sneaking in with the enchanted dagger he'd picked up near the beginning of the story. He managed to hit the thing, and that destroyed enough of its magical protection for Arwen to be able to finish it off. The backlash nearly killed them both however, and they were pretty well out of the rest of the fight.

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    5. Arwen didn't fight the Nazgul, Eowyn did. Most of Awens story is narrated in an appendix not the book itself.

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    6. And that was the one thing I really disliked about Tolkein's writing style. All the names that are only different by one or two phonemes. It's like he *wanted* you to not be able to keep track of who was who...

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    7. Laurence: As I understand it, they were fairly linguistically accurate to the languages he created. I suspect that to a native speaker of the language they'd have made perfect sense. There are a couple real languages who's names sound very similar to me, but native speakers look at me crazily when I have trouble with them. I mean, even some English names are pretty damn close (Christopher, Christine, Christian)

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    8. Long ago a friend from a foreign country taught me some expletives in his language. At one point I remarked that the uncommonly obscene word he'd just taught me, and the name of a revered national figure, differed by a single vowel. He laughed and said that had never occurred to him.

      And of course there's Pac-Man, aka Puck Man.

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  3. I like the xp system. I'm a completionist not in the sense that I have to do every possible thing in the game, (or get every achievement), but that I want to build my character as much as possible (and justified by the amount of content in the game). So character advancements by quests feels very natural to me.
    You made me think about how Sauron was actually going to use the ring, I mean he couldn't really put it on his finger because he was just an eye or something... Can you use the ring in the game? (I guess you already tried that but invisibility could help against the Nazgul, well not according to the lore but maybe in the game.) Can you combine the blade part and the ghost ruby? Does the ghost ruby give you ghost form? Can you dig your way out of the shire? I'm just brainstorming here... Maybe use the ring somewhere else to draw the Nazgul to your position?

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    1. And now, for Sauron's most devious and horrible plan.. to re-smelt the ring of power into a -monocle-!

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    2. I thought that the "eye" of Sauron was purely metaphorical and only in the movie did they turn it into a physical eye that could see and look around.

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    3. Well, the eye is described as being, basically, a kind of flame-rimmed cateye-in-the-sky when it spots Frodo sitting on the watchtower near Rauros and when he sees it in the mirror of galadriel.

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    4. The ring can be used in the game. There are consequences after a character uses it X times though.

      I don't remember it being used to solve any quest.

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    5. Sauron, being a buggering Maia, was able to reform a new body every time it was destroyed... as long as his souls still lives.

      Effectively, he is the first documented Lich in all non-Earth based fantasy literature.

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  4. It's been a looooong long time since I played this game, but... The 'one exit' you're trying to use, is it the gate to the Old Forest? That gate is locked, and I don't see the key in your inventory, but it exists, and that's the way they go in the books.

    If it's the Old Forest gate that the Black Rider is guarding, then I can't help you, I don't remember anything like that.

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    1. Yes, I don't think this is a "spoiler" given that anyone who read the book would be expecting to need the key to the Old Forest gate and the stuff that follows using it. There's no Black Rider guarding that gate.

      The only way to sneak past the humans at the mill is by using the "sneak" skill. If memory serves, you may need to temporarily drop other members of the fellowship as I can't recall if the sneak covers all the party at once.

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    2. Maybe a nice relaxing bath would help you remember where the key is?

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    3. You can "sneak" but only at night while they're sleeping, IIRC it covers all the party, I think that you have to drop the other members if you use the Ring instead.

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    4. Interesting. The day/night cycle didn't seem to have any effect on anything else, so it didn't occur to me that I might have to wait until nighttime to sneak into the mill.

      I really don't feel like slogging all the way back over there. It's not crucial to the game, is it?

      Thanks for the tip about the gate. Somehow, I overlooked it when I was circling the perimeter. After I found it, the hints the game provided were enough.

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    5. There are indeed two exits from the Shire.

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    6. I can't remember what exactly you found inside but i'm quite sure that it's not crucial and that it's more likely something to do with the background story of Saruman and the Shire.

      The day/night cycle has also its importance in Bree and with some encounters.

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  5. <nerd>Actually, Druin is referring to the first loss of Moria, which Gimli, of course, knew about. Balin had set out to recolonize Moria, and the Fellowship thought his colony would still be there when they arrived. They couldn't have known that the Balrog murdered all the dwarves before they got there.</nerd>

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  6. The orc looks exactly like Oscar the Grouch!!

    And I thought, just like in the books you have to go through the Barrow Downs and meet Tom Bombadil when you leave the Shire to avoid the Nazgul (unless that's where the bridge leads that you're trying to cross).

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    1. Close, but still not quite what I was thinking of.

      My conundrum was solved. I had simply missed the existence of an alternate exit from the Shire.

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  7. I think you can pass this three humans in house with using the Ring (it turns you invisible, but you should know this yourself maybe). About rider - i think you need use Forest route, i played long ago but for sure i didnt had to pass nazgul using bridge, i left by going thru forest (another exit from shire - i think its to the South-east?)

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    1. Yeah, that was it. Somehow I completely missed the gate while I was circling the perimeter. I thought the only way out was the Nazgul-guarded road.

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  8. I... hate to admit I even thought this, but the Orc picture seriously looks like the henchmen the bad guy used in the old Laser Tag Saturday morning cartoon...

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  9. This brings me wayyyy back. The obvious intended choice for gamers in your position is to go to the Old Forest as this is how it happens in the book. However, as a kid. I remember doing it differently.

    First, in my game, Hawkeye did not die. I think there is a way to recruit him and leave the forest without meeting the nazguls and that shouldn't be too hard. Maybe you cannot complete his sidequest if you do that though. Then, I recruited Athelwyn. And I made it so that she wass in front of my party and Hawkeye second. I then remember trying to leave the Shire on the northern exit going east. The Nazgul will pop and immediately attack Athelwyn. Make all the characters run the hell away from battle. And you are done. You can leave the Shire and bypass Old Forest and Barrow Wights and can come back to these parts with a more powerful party.

    I also remember walking very slightly north of the road to Bree to avoid the wolf encounters.

    At this point of the game, every fight poses a problem. Getting to Rivendell and having Gandalf, Legolas, Boromir and Gimli join your party is a game changer.

    Oh, and no need for being sad about Athelwyn getting the hit. Something will happen with her in your party. You will see.

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    1. There is a way of saving Hawkeye without going into the cave, but in that case you miss out on an item he has in the cave. I am not sure you can return later and beat the living daylights out of the Nazgul, but I suspect it should be possible.

      Besides Gandalf, Legolas, Boromir and Gimli, Rivendell has two more NPCs that made me drop a couple hobbits too! ;)

      Another good point of this game is the amount of joinable NPCs who are not what they seem to be or as useful as they seem to be! ;)

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  10. thta orc reminds me of beastman in he-man https://www.google.com/search?q=beatman&client=firefox-a&hs=mHz&rls=org.mozilla:fi:official&channel=np&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=wX94U9TvKPD64QSYu4G4DQ&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAQ&biw=1680&bih=949#channel=np&q=beastman&rls=org.mozilla:fi:official&tbm=isch

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    1. Not quite what I was thinking of, but I agree it's close. When I first saw it, I swore that it looked like Gurgi in The Black Cauldron, but then I looked up Gurgi, and that's clearly not what I was thinking of. It's driving me crazy.

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    2. Animal, from the Muppets, perhaps?

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  11. On this site (a german test from 1990):

    http://www.kultpower.de/archiv/heft_powerplay_1991-03_seite43

    The Tester says:
    "...many of the time of gameplay is wasted to walk about the shire."...

    :)

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  12. You figured it out yourself - the ferry is the way to go. I haven't played this in 20+ years myself, but it seems like I remember getting out of The Shire and being able to avoid any Nazgul. Then again, I believe I had the buggy, earlier version of the game, so who knows if that was intended as a possibility or not!

    When I originally played this game I hadn't played much in the way of RPGs - C or otherwise - and I remember the huge game map inspiring awe in 12-year-old me. It is, as you mention, somewhat empty, but I think I've carried the enjoyment of that to present day. Even now, in a game like Fallout 3, I can spend hours just puttering around the large game world, poking about for things to discover.

    Anyway, this has been a great and nostalgic read so far, looking forward to the rest!

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  13. Like Bruco says,the ferry is how you're supposed to do it. I never figured out years ago that !ELBERETH made Nazgul run away, that would have been incredibly useful.

    Lord of the Rings has more possible forks than it might appear, too. Hawkeye the Ranger can survive, and he has a little scene later on in the game if he does. Heck if I can remember how you get him away, though.

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    1. Someone else said that. I can't imagine how. Right after he joins, he has a scripted event where he whisks the party to a nearby cave, and the Nazguls attack in another scripted event. There are two or three of them, so even if I ELBERETHed one of them away, I'd have to fight and defeat the other two. Maybe by running away? But they attack first and kill in one blow.

      I'm not doubting it can be done; I just don't see the mechanism.

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    2. I think you can have a couple !Elbereth by then. A single Nazgul isn't that impossible to defeat in single battle, although it may take some reloads.

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  14. You are going at least to have one !Elbereth as Frodo available at some point. Else...

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    1. I hope I find the word again, then.

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    2. I don't remember it being needed again after leaving the Shire.

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    3. You need it later in at least one place but you can also use another word...

      Anyway, I think that Aragorn have one when you recruit him so don't worry..

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    4. Isn't it Frodo that needs it though?

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    5. Now that you recall it, you're right.

      I'm pretty sure that there's at least one place where you can get the other word after the Shire although I don't remember where, an encounter with elves or something.

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    6. I'm not 100% sure but I seem to recall Frodo not being essential in the Fellowship. Or is he? I am 100% sure that Sam, Pippin and Merry aren't essential.

      Either way, the Nazgul at the Shire are the hardest monster in the game when comparing to the strength of the available party.

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    7. The "moment" we are talking is one where Frodo or the Ringbearer have to face alone that situation.

      Although maybe there is a way to avoid the moment that leaves Frodo/Ringbearer alone and allows toface it with a full party; so many years since I last played. What I'm pretty sure is that you can't resolve the situation by classic combat, you need a Word of Power.

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  15. Possible spoilers for things you missed:
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    1) Near Hawkeye's cave, there's a "quest" where you have to walk in a spiral rotation on grass and you get a reward, I think it's another Elbereth word of power?

    2) Hawkeye can be a permanent companion. Don't run away after he tells you to, a couple Nazgul will appear. If you don't have two Elbereth's by now, use Elbereth on one, pounce on the other with a full party (4 hobbits, dwarf, witch, hawkeye, mule). It should be doable without deaths (even though I think I lost my mule somewhere in one of these fights)

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    1. 1) WTF? How would a player ever find that?

      2) The Nazgul seemed nigh-unbeatable to me, but I admittedly didn't reload a lot of times. In any event, that ship has sailed.

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    2. 1) I vaguely remember markings on the ground spiral shaped, and a message when you step on the beginning of those markings. Sorry I can't be more precise.

      2) There will be better NPCs so no big loss, just a useful character to have around until said NPCs are available. He would leave you on a certain event/quest anyway (which can still happen when he's dead, just with a different resolution)

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  16. The Orc reminds me of the bear man from The Shining:
    http://hewholaughs.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/bear_shining_costume.jpg

    -BelatedGamer

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  17. Sorry I'm late to the party... You're thinking of "Van Go Lion" from Zoobilee Zoo as the Lion --

    https://www.google.com/search?q=zoobilee+zoo+van+go+lion&es_sm=93&biw=1024&bih=550&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=mBo2VKLgG4Hd8AHu0oHIAg&ved=0CCYQsAQ

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