Brawling for Runes

It’s been a while since I wrote about good ol’ Lord of the Rings Online, because it’s been a while since I’ve been plainly obsessed with my online RPG of choice. I hardly touch my “live” characters on Landroval, instead opting to continue my journeys on the leisurely paced Treebeard server. But only since last week, with the launch of 15th anniversary and the new Yondershire zone, has LOTRO resumed its place as my hyperfixation of choice.

A big reason for this is because, as part of the generous anniversary celebration, we were given level boosters and I could not say no, despite my clean, alt-free living. Skipping the early zones is too tempting and so I made a Brawler (Hulm Hummerhorn [no relation]) and sent him to Moria. This was especially fortuitous because I had scarcely touched this new class before and they got a nice bit of improvement with the latest patch. I am now obsessed, pouring over every bit of minutiae regarding this latest and greatest player class. I even started a guide on it.

Punching my way through Middle-earth is ridiculous. I’ve thought, at considerable length, about the ways that LOTRO has had to work within the confines of the source material. They have a winning average. Even when the creative team makes dubious choices, they are at least justifiable or necessary for adapting The Lord of the Rings to the online RPG format. However, one bee that has refused to leave my proverbial bonnet is the Rune-keeper.

concept art

If you genuinely have no idea what I’m talking about, take a minute to peruse this article concerning the class.

Back? Welcome back.

Conceptually, the Rune-keeper player class works perfectly well within the world of the text. The application of runes to surfaces through “magic” (though, of course, magic is a crude term in this world and worthy of a full essay later) is featured heavily in the book, from Thorin & Co. guarding the trolls’ treasure with runes to the One Ring itself. Restricting the class to elves and dwarves further cements the Rune-keeper in its own, obscure corner of the lore. Its implementation, however, has always rubbed me wrong.

This is two-fold. The presentation of the class, while cool in game terms, is way too flashy for its context. Flying green runes, force lightning, pillars of fire; it’s all too much for me. The Lore-master pushed things far enough with its ent stomp and lightning-storm, but the Rune-keeper took things to the D&D fantasy end of the spectrum. The graphical choices are downright disturbing in a game world that has taken so much effort to cultivate a pastoral, low magic vibe.

The second element to the Rune-keeper that so irks me is their use of rune-stones instead of standard weapons. I’m told that this process of etching runes onto stones, while being tangential to combat in LOTR, is historically grounded in the Anglo-Saxon world. Be that as it may, the image of anyone (elf or dwarf) wading into battle with…a bag of rocks…instead of a sword or ax makes my teeth grind.

And then we have the Brawler.

Somehow, a Hobbit charging into the fray wielding nothing but a pair of metal gauntlets in order to punch her way through wave after wave of goblins is perfectly fine to me. At first I could not quite figure out why. Why would I be so picky and churlish towards the Rune-keeper, but absolutely love the Brawler? Why did it not prick my nerd rage in the same way?

The reason, I think, is that the Brawler is so absurdly over-the-top that it feels like an inside joke. The Rune-keeper, on the other hand, tries hard to fit into the lore but ultimately, in my opinion, fails.

This is not fair to the designers nor the intention of the Rune-keeper character, but it’s what it is. For while the Rune-keeper attempts to straddle the line between adaptation and video game, it feels to me as though the developers said “forget that” and dropped the Brawler firmly onto the fun/gamey side of the line with a nudge and wink.

Sure, Helm Hammerhand punched some people to death a few hundred years before the War of the Ring. But citing this as evidence favoring the ubiquity of hand-to-hand brawlers in Middle-earth is like saying Elves and Men hooked up all the time because Beren and LĂșthien. It’s the exception rather than the rule.

This lore friendly veneer is so thin, however, that it feels like the faintest of excuses to toss in a fun character concept somebody thought of after one mead too many at the company holiday mixer.

Because when you look at the Brawler, from its pugilistic animations to the superhero landing to the downright insane, shoryuken style uppercut, it’s clear that they had no intention of making this a proper part of their own Middle-earth. The class is pure fun, pure absurdity, and we’re all in on the joke.

If we were talking about bands, the Rune-keeper would be a well-meaning art rock band that just can’t pull it off, and so presents as pretentious and not genuine; the Brawler is a pizza thrash band.

So that’s what I’m doing in LOTRO these days: punching my way through Moria and losing any cares I had left to give. Enjoy your weekend.

image from

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