In most MMOGs, we (or “I” at any rate) can spend an inordinate amount of time on “character builds”, deciding which skills/abilities/powers to select in order to smite our foes or assist our comrades in new and interesting ways. Lengthy forum guides, spreadsheets and third party planning programmes abound to help you choose between the combat or assassination talent trees for your World of Warcraft Rogue, or determine which power pools would be best for your City of Heroes Blaster, or in Dungeons and Dragons Online whether to pick an Elf for the racial bonuses then splash a level or two of fighter for the weapon proficiencies and bonus feats as opposed to picking a human for the extra skill points and working up to a prestige class (via a couple of levels in Ranger for two weapon fighting, of course, plus a couple of Exotic Weapon feats…)
In Lord of the Rings Online, this isn’t really the case. As in WoW, you automatically gain abilities on levelling up (so long as you have enough sacks of cash to pay off the extortionist… sorry, I mean class trainer); your main decisions in customising your character comes with your choice of equipment and traits. Equipment, as ever, is a case of grabbing the biggest, shiniest stuff you can find with the most bonuses, and while traits allow you to accentuate certain aspects of your character, they’re not really something to spend hours deliberating over. By level 40, you’re selecting five class traits (which have the biggest effect on a “build”) out of a choice fifteen or so, whereas at the same level in WoW you’d be assigning 31 points between many talents in three different trees, and in CoH picking 20 powers from a selection of 18 primary and secondary powers, plus up to four pools of up to four powers each (and then assigning enhancement slots to those powers).
As well as there being fewer choices, there’s no dependence with LotRO traits, you can slot any traits you have available in any order. In WoW, you have to have spent a certain number of points at one level of a tree before you can move on to the next; in CoH, you can only select the third level power of a pool if you have the first or second level power (and the fourth only if you have two of the first three); DDO has feats like Whirlwind Attack that require you to possess other feats before they can be selected. In all those cases, some level of forward thinking is needed if you want a certain talent/power/feat at a certain time, and it’s quite easy as, say, a WoW Mage, spend a few points here and there in useful looking talents in all three available trees, then realise in later levels you’re missing out on the really juicy stuff deeper down that you can only get by focusing in one area.
To remedy such mistakes, or just change things around, there’s often a respecification (“respec“) process to change your choices, involving varying degrees of pain. WoW lets you reassign your talent points whenever you want, but it costs progressively more money each time, and you have to start from scratch assigning the points (so it costs as much to reassign a single point from one talent to another as it does to completely alter your build). CoH allows you to run a trial once every ten levels or so, with the option of a respec as a reward if you succeed, though again you have to re-do all your decisions from the start, and once you’ve had your three respecs you’re out of luck (apart from the general free respecs handed out now and again… and veteran reward respecs for subscribing to the game for so long… they’re pretty good about it, really). To change your LotRO traits, you just need to have a chat with your local minstrel, and though it costs a bit of silver (what doesn’t in Middle Earth?), you can slot and unslot any trait at a whim.
So: comparatively few choices, no prerequisites for slotting traits, and respecs at will. Good thing, or bad thing? I’m… not entirely sure at the moment. It’s certainly liberating, running around without a power-selection worry in the world, but might it pale eventually and hurt the longevity?