In the frozen land of Nador they were forced to eat Robin’s minstrels. And there was much rejoicing.
When I first started playing LOTRO and saw that the primary healers were called “minstrels” and played music to restore health, the first thing I thought was, “That’s stupid.”
After all, it really does seem kind of silly that your healer is standing in the back playing a flute/theorbo/harp/cowbell. I can accept the idea of the rune-keeper or lore master as healers. After all, Middle Earth is a fantastical world, and it seemed to me that those two classes draw their power from a kind of magic. But you can’t tell me that a guy with a lute is going to heal me after a giant steps on me or an orc tries to run me through with its spear.
I had similar reservations about the captain as a healer. The basic description of captain healing makes them seem more like cheerleaders than someone who’s going to staunch the bleeding or stop your intestines from falling out. However, after thinking about it in the context of the LOTRO lore, captains and minstrels as healers makes some sense.
The Core Mechanic
In order for me to accept a minstrel as a healer, I had to suspend my disbelief and accept the basic premise set forth by the game that your green bar isn’t health in the same sense of most games.
Having come up through role-playing games (pen n’ paper or computer), I’m used to the concept of hit points (or health, structural damage capacity et al). When the bad guys deplete your hit points, you die. Medpacs or cleric spells can restore hit points, and it was always a good idea to keep a guy around who could cast Raise Dead or Resurrection. Pretty simple, huh?
Since there is no perma-death within the game of LOTRO1, they had to come up with some mechanism to explain rez circles and player-initiated revival. I’m no authority on Tolkien, but I’ve read that in his view of the mortal races, death is not reversible, which created a quandary for the game devs.
Their solution was original, and works both within the context of the game and Tolkien lore. Instead of health/hit points, your character has “morale”, and when it is gone, you are rendered incapable of resisting (the kneeling “death” pose) or driven from the field of battle (to the rez circle). You then regain your morale and live to fight another day. This seems to be purely a concession to the Tolkien lore, since the game makes specific reference to “healing”, and it is pretty clear that you deal death out left and right; kill something and you’ll see that its remains are clearly marked “Corpse of . . .”
So the question I had was, “Is there a real life equivalent of minstrels in combat?”
Minstrels in real life
In the seminal text defining the theory of modern warfare, On War (Von Kreige), Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz wrote, “War is an act to compel our enemy to do our will.” He was one of the first modern theorists to encompass the idea of “total war” in which civilian populations acted as an extension of the military. The logical extension of this idea is one that the US military teaches as one of the nine principles of war as “Objective”: The ultimate military purpose of war is the destruction of the enemy’s ability to fight and will to fight.
Many things factor in to the will to fight: equipment, training, resources, food, transportation, etc. This will to fight is reflected both in the military which takes the field and the civilian population who supports the soldiers, sailors and airmen. If the collective will to fight is broken, a force, no matter how great its technological or tactical power, will ultimately lose. This is why the Soviets were driven from Afghanistan2 On a tactical level, if the will of a fighting force is broken, they will retreat, even if they held other military advantages. And on an individual level, when the bullets/arrows/cannonballs start flying, if a soldier loses the will to fight, he or she will retreat or surrender.
On a strategic level, what keeps a soldier’s morale high?
If you know anyone who has ever been deployed overseas, or maybe you yourself have been sent downrange, it should come as no surprise that the two most important things to keep soldiers spirits up are a warm, dry bed and good, hot food.
Do you know what the #3 thing is? If you ask most soldiers, for the vast majority of them, it’s getting mail from home. It may be a letter from a sweetheart, a care package from Mom, or even a “To any G.I.” letter.
Historically, shortly after the mail is probably entertainment; back in the day, armies organized bands to play music. Before iPods, laptop computers, Playstations or any thing electrical, songs and music were the primary social activity of a large group of soldiers. While the standard marches and tunes of the “old days” have fallen out of the modern public consciousness, the armed forces still maintain a healthy budget for military bands, the most famous of which is probably The United States Marine Band (“The President’s Own”). In addition to the service bands, entertainers (including musicians, comedians, actors, athletes and other celebrities) are instrumental (pun intended) in keeping the morale of deployed troops high. Just ask the USO.
Nowadays, it’s easy to forget how important music is to binding a culture together, but back in the old days, and in a role-playing setting like D&D or LOTRO, it would be one of the defining attributes to a group. Anyone who could play a tune would be welcome in camp. There are stories during the (American) Civil War of truces between the sides where Union and Rebel soldiers would lay down their arms for a night to sing standards. Even during World War I, there were several unofficial and unsanctioned Christmas truces when the opposing armies would exchange gifts, bury their dead, and swap prisoners. In most cases, the evening ended in the two armies singing carols before they went back to killing one another the next day.
So how would songs or music “heal” on a tactical level?
Before wireless communications, or even before wired signals like the telegraph, the principal method for a commander to communicate with his subordinates and orchestrate a battle was through music, usually drums or horns, that could be heard above the roar of battle3. Often the commands they could give weren’t very complex (ie-forward, retreat, halt), but that was the most effective way to tell a large number of soldiers what to do. In addition, each unit often had their own “code” so that they could tell whether it was their regiment being ordered to advance or the one two hills over.
If the advance was being sounded, that would mean your side was doing well. If you heard a horn sounding the retreat, maybe it was time to panic. Drums were used to keep a cadence and set the pace (march, quickstep, double-quick, etc.).
Music was played to buoy the spirits of an army, and this is the key to tactical healing as it applies to LOTRO. Sometimes, bands would play as soldiers would march by and in to battle. In a few documented instances, musicians played on the field, some being more successful than others. At the Battle of Dargai Heights (in what is now Pakistan), George Findlater, a piper with the Gordan Highlanders was awarded the Victoria Cross for playing his pipes as the Highlanders and Gurkhas advanced and carried the day4. If you’ve seen The Longest Day, you saw piper Bill Millin playing his pipes (in violation of standing orders from the English War Office) as the First Special Service Brigade landed on Sword Beach.
While I think it is something of a reach to have a gazillion minstrels roaming Middle Earth and providing as much healing as they do, it’s not something that is unheard of in the context of the morale mechanic and real life examples.
Captains in real life
Once you reconcile the idea of morale as the green bar, the step to captain healing is a short one.
After all, LOTR captains are at the front of the charge, and they hold the line in the face of an advancing foe. If you want to be inspired by what captains do, listen to the Captain’s Roundtable and forward to about the 35 minute mark. If that doesn’t make you want to play a captain, send me the name of your hunter or champion and remind me not to heal you.
The captain’s primary healing skills (Rallying Cry, Words of Courage, Muster Courage) are aptly named for their role and lore within the context of LOTRO and fit seamlessly into the morale mechanic. Good leadership is often the difference between victory and defeat. It should go without saying that all things being equal, a force that has better leaders will triumph over a force with lesser leaders. It is also true that an inferior force may overcome a superior force if its leadership is good. The most commonly cited example is the Army of Northern Virginia under the leadership of Robert E. Lee and his primary subordinates, Lieutenant-Generals James Longstreet and Thomas Jackson. From the Seven Days Battles to Chancellorsville, they went on an unprecedented winning spree against numerically superior Union forces under a string of uninspiring leaders, the rebels often routing the Army of the Potomac.
A tactical example would be the Allied landings on Omaha Beach. The Germans held the high ground and had every inch of the beach zeroed in on their machine guns and mortars, yet it was the individual bravery of squad leaders, senior non-commissioned officers and platoon commanders in the First Infantry Division (“The Big Red One”) and the Twenty-Ninth Infantry Division (“Blue and Grey”) that got the invaders out of the kill zones and off the beach. It helped that in some places, the units defending the Normandy coast were made up of conscripts from the Ostlegionen batallions who were not as well-trained or as motivated as volunteer soldiers5.
The other captain mechanic that has a real life equivalent is the banner.
A few paragraphs ago, I mentioned how music was used to signal maneuvers from the commander to their army. The other device historically used by armies was the battle standard. Each regiment had a flag that was distinctive to their unit. The names of engagements they had participated in were sewn on to the flag (streamers were added to ceremonial flags). If soldiers didn’t know where to go or what to do, they simply followed the battle flag. If the colours were moving forward, they advanced. If the colours were moving to the rear, it was time to retreat.
Being a part of the colourguard or even being the standard bearer was considered a great honour, even though it meant that your life expectancy just dropped. Conversely, to capture an enemy flag became a point of pride. Lieutenant Thomas Custer was awarded the Medal of Honor on two separate occasions for capturing two battle standards6. I don’t have an exact number, but a large percentage of the Medals of Honor awarded during the Civil War had to do with actions around the battle flag7.
In LOTRO, the captain’s banner has a nice healthy glow to it, so much so that you can see it over the crest of a hill and even through smoke, fog and night. From a role-playing point of view, whenever a captain plants a banner, you (and your character) should be inspired to do great things.
Minstrels and captains: Not as silly as you think
I think of all the healing mechanics in the game, the captain’s Rallying Cry and banner skills are probably the most “realistic”8, but within the framework of the game, I can see how both minstrel and captain healing work to fit the lore of Middle Earth. I still find it a little odd to think that a cowbell or clarinet can cure a nasty frontal AOE or poison DOT, but who am I to question the value of inspiring words or a melodious tune?
Shines the name, Rodger Young!
Fought and died for the men he marched among.
To the everlasting glory of the Infantry
Lives the story of Private Rodger Young.
- Character deletion is an out-of-game event. ↩
- Vizzini’s Classic Blunder #1: Never get involved in a land war in Asia. ↩
- I hate to break it to you, but Alexander the Great and Robert E. Lee didn’t have Vent or Teamspeak ↩
- So don’t laugh at the next minstrel playing the bagpipes because the pipers have a Victoria Cross and the LMs and RKs don’t. ↩
- The Ost Battalions were “recruited” from eastern Europe who were incorporated into the Reichswehr. Some were volunteers, but many were pressed into service. Due to this, they often operated in support roles under the supervision of German sergeants who would shoot deserters. ↩
- Yes, Thomas was George Armstrong Custer’s younger brother and died at Little Big Horn in 1876. ↩
- Just to be clear, there is no such thing as the “Congressional Medal of Honor”. It’s the Medal of Honor. It is given by the President in the name of Congress, but it’s not part of the name. I’d also like to get on my soapbox for a second, and tell you that the Medal of Honor—or any combat award—is not “won”. You “win” a football game. You “win” a prize at the fair. You “win” $50 at the blackjack table. Combat medals—whether they are the Navy Commendation Medal with “V” device, Silver Star, or Distinguished Flying Cross—are earned or awarded, and the men and women who wear them are “recipients”, not “winners”. Rant over. ↩
- Not that anything in a fantasy game should be confused with “reality” ↩