LOTRO is a harsh mistress

I’m still back in LOTRO, kind of deeply in fact. Raptr said I spent something like 16 hours playing last week, and it stopped tracking for a few days so it was probably over 20 hours, which is a LOT of gaming for me. I haven’t been writing about it because someone pointed out that no one wants to read about old games we’ve all played, and I couldn’t really argue with that.

But I’m having one problem. LOTRO (and every other MMO on the market) is SUCH a time sink. I have a bunch of single player games I want to check out, other older titles I’ve been itching to get back to, and my DVR is filling up with TV shows I want to watch. But…but… MUST GO TO MIDDLE EARTH!

Among my friends it feels like most of us are either MMO players or we’re non-MMO players. Sure there’s some dabbling back and forth but we all seem to have a primary focus. I’m trying to straddle the line and play both but I’m really struggling trying to find balance. I keep booting up a single player game and then thinking I need to log in to get my Hobbit Gift or how I should finish up that Journeyman Farming tier or that there are orcs what need killin’! So I shut down the single player game and log into LOTRO.

But then bedtime comes and I’m kind of sad that another day has passed without checking out Blackguards, or getting further in my Assassins Creed IV adventure. or going back to 7 Days to Die, or watching that Bonnie and Clyde mini-series I recorded last fall.

I’m almost looking forward to the day I log into LOTRO and go “Meh, I’m just not feeling this anymore.” Which is a weird thing to think. But of course, I’m never going to “finish” LOTRO and my lifestyle is such that I’m never going to have so much gaming time that I ‘play my fill’ of the game for the day and move on to something else. Every time I log off, I do it reluctantly because there was that one more thing I wanted to finish before calling it a night.

And I remember now that this is part of why I drifted away from MMOs for a time. They sort of demand that you be monogamous, and by nature I’m sort of promiscuous when it comes to gaming. There are so many great games out there waiting to be played, and life is short.

I have no solution to this dilemma. Well, I do. I know that my “Meh” day is coming. I just don’t know when. But it happens with every MMO. One day I’m thinking of using up vacation time just to play, and the next day I’m suddenly completely off the game. With me, it happens just like that. I don’t normally drift away slowly. I just suddenly stop playing.

I wish I could learn balance though. Maybe if I did, I’d actually stick with an MMO for a while.

Hendrake looks on as Sarumanís army of Uruk-hai approaches Helmís Dike.
Hendrake looks on as Sarumanís army of Uruk-hai approaches Helmís Dike.

I’m in a LOTRO state of mind

So there I was, back in LOTRO and pleased as punch, fighting for the good people of Archet and feeling like a Big Damned Hero. And then it happened.

“YOU HAVE A NEW DEED.”

OMG I’d forgotten DEEDS. If you’ve never played LOTRO, deeds are a feature similar to dropping a cement block on your toe over and over. They are THAT fun! Deeds give you some task to do, and in exchange you get a reward like a title or a trait. Traits in turn give you some kind of permanent stat increase.

Now some Deeds are fine. Deeds that task you with finding landmarks actually can be fun. Deeds that reward you for using your skills are kind of transparent.. you earn them in the course of playing. But the deeds I’m talking about are the Slayer deeds. Kill X of Monster Type Y.

My first Slayer Deed was Spider Slayer. I had to kill 30 spiders in Bree. That wasn’t so bad…I killed 15 or so in the course of doing quests. So I hung out and killed another 15. But then I was ‘rewarded’ with the Advanced Spider Slayer Deed, where I had to kill 60 more spiders. Even this isn’t bad but a shudder ran down my spine as I remembered deeds where I had to kill hundreds of a certain type of creature.

I started thinking about playing “7 Days to Die” instead of LOTRO.

But then I whined about deeds on Google+ and my buddy Scott slapped me a few times to calm me down and said “You’re not some uber raider… let go of the completionist mentality. You don’t need to worry about deeds.” (I’m paraphrasing some…my ears were still ringing from the slaps.)

And for once in my stubborn life, I listened. I immediately quit worrying about kill deeds. And then I took the advice and ran with it. The reason I was playing LOTRO was to experience the world, not squeeze it dry. So now I’m playing LOTRO for the Epic Questline (a series of quests that tell an ongoing Story about your adventures that revolve roughly around the Fellowship of the Ring).

In practice, this means I’m doing enough ‘side’ quests to keep my level high enough to do the Epic Questline. I did pretty much all the quests in Archet and Combe, but by the time I got to Staddle I started skipping quests because I was high enough level to press on with the Story quests.

While I felt a little guilty as I left Staddle with so many sad little hobbit eyes turned my way in hopes of assistance, I had bigger fish to fry than trying to sort out the love life of this one, and harvest the pipeweed of that one. The Enemy is stirring! Pick your own damned pipeweed!

I do have the advantage of being familiar with these quests, so I can pick the most interesting ones. I’ve spent very little time out in the fields killing boars and bears, preferring instead to drive the Blackwolds and Sharkey’s Men out of their lairs and into early graves.

This means all the quests I’m doing are Blue or White, so the experience rewards give me healthy chunks of progress. I remember too well trying to do everything and winding up over-level and doing Green, or even Gray, quests and watching that experience bar barely move as I grew more and more bored with the area I was questing in.

I’m also trying to do quests in chunks. So rather than grabbing half a dozen quests, I’ll grab one and then do the follow up to it and the follow-up to that, following a quest line and enjoying the story that way. In the past I’d just always do whatever the lowest level quest in my log was, and the side-stories would wind up fragmented.

So this is keeping LOTRO feeling fresh for me this go around. It’s a constant struggle for me to not fall back into that “must do everything” mind-set (which always kills me because I get bored and quit the game completely) but so far I’m doing OK.

Though I did slip up and buy a house. I probably shouldn’t have put down roots…

ScreenShot00004

Back to LOTRO

Last week there was a news item hitting the blogs saying LOTRO wouldn’t be getting any more instances or raid content in the near future. That led to some speculation about the future, or lack thereof, of the game. While Turbine’s Rick Heaton was quick to point out that Turbine and Warner Brothers have renewed the license and they have an agreement that runs through 2017, the seed was planted in my brain.

Online games have a lifetime and they’re all going to go away eventually. As a long-time Tolkien fanboy, no MMO world has captivated me like Turbine’s rendition of Middle Earth has. I’m not necessarily a fan of all the game systems, but the environment makes me geek out, so I decided to revisit the game while it and I were both still around.

It’s been a long time since I played LOTRO and much has changed. It went free-to-play of course, and I’m not sure I’ve played it seriously since then. I bought a Lifetime Membership way back in 2007 so I’m a VIP member, which you should keep in mind as you read this post.

I remember feeling like the Turbine Store was being shoved in my face every 5 minutes, so I guess I must’ve played some since the transition. This time around I haven’t felt that the Store was being promoted too heavily; I’m not sure if the game has changed or if I’ve just gotten more used to In-Game Stores.

The first order of business was overcoming the “WTF do all these skills do? What’s all this crap in my inventory?” mountain. Or alternatively, side-step it all by rolling a new character, so that’s what I did.

The very very first tutorial seemed unchanged, but as soon as I got to Archet (I rolled a Man) I started noticing differences. The quest lines seem to have been tweaked/streamlined a bit so there’s less running back and forth, which was a nice discovery.

Also through the magic of the Turbine Store, you can purchase the ability to ride a horse at level 5. You are also given a “Welcome Package” that includes a horse whistle that lasts for some limited time (I think it was a day, real time). I bought the skill and super-sized it so my mounts run a bit faster. While I was shopping I also purchased an account-wide upgrade to 6 inventory bags and some extra shared vault space.

pending_lootAnother interesting change is that you no longer have to loot corpses. All your loot goes into a “Pending Loot” interface where it stays for as long as an hour. At any time you can open this interface and take out any and everything you like. This seems like a small change but in fact it makes a HUGE difference in the pace of playing at low levels. You can move from mob to mob, being a whirling dervish of blades, and never have to pause unless your health or power is low. I LOVE this system! I have no idea how it works in groups though.

Other changes I noticed right away: You no longer have to purchase skills, and in fact the whole skill system has been overhauled. Each class has 3 specialties to choose from. For my Guardian I choose to be a sword and board DPS role. I could’ve also picked a 2-handed weapon wielding role, or a more pure tank role. I *think* you can re-specialize at any time.

There’ve been some small but nice tweaks to combat. You can now turn on features that move your character to the opponent, as well as turning to face him. No longer will your hero swing his axe into thin air and say “Oops, I need to be nearer to and/or facing him.” Your hero is smart enough to turn towards his target and close the range, if needed.

All in all I’m finding the pace of the game is faster and less frustrating than it used to be. I’m enjoying it so far!

Next time: The changes I’ve made to myself to help me enjoy LOTRO

helms_deep

LOTRO – Hacked!

I went to log into LOTRO yesterday to see the new changes in the latest patch. I was able to log in to the launcher but my account was listed as BANNED.

Dammit!

After talking to friends, I learned that my characters, all of them, were last seen online on Oct 30th. I last played on September 19th. I know that’s pretty accurate because a) Raptr says that’s the last time I played and b) September 19th is Talk Like A Pirate Day and I’d logged in to see the LOTRO event built around that “holiday.”

Anyway, I put in a ticket last night but after poking through the forums learned that the backlog on those tickets is as much as 2 weeks! I decided to call instead, but by this time it was after phone support hours had shut down.

So today I called up. My hold time was essentially zero and I talked to a very pleasant gentleman by the name of Eric who looked up my account and told me what I’d already assumed…they’d detected what looked like a 3rd party accessing my account (I assume they do this via IP address??) and had locked the account to minimize damage.

He told me it’d take about an hour to re-activate the account, and once I logged in I should check each character and see what, if anything, is missing from them. Then I should open a ticket, one for each character, and they’ll see what they can do about getting me my stuff back.

I’d purchased a big chunk of LOTRO points when the game went free-to-play and had never spent many of them, and was worried about those. Eric told me they’d probably still be there since they aren’t transferrable, nor is the stuff you can buy with them, so hackers don’t generally bother with them. I hope that’s true.

I’ve already resigned myself to logging in to find a bunch of naked characters. If that happens, and if I can’t get my stuff restored, I’ve decided I’ll just RP my way through it. There’s something kind of fun (well, I’ll admit I’m looking for the silver lining here) about having a fresh start and picking myself up by my boot straps, so to speak. Mind you, I didn’t have any really epic gear on any of my characters so this attitude is a lot easier for me than it’d be for people with maxed out characters will really good gear. But I can roleplay being robbed, stripped of all my gear, and left for dead.

I’m kind of kicking myself over this. My password on that account was old and honestly not great. It was just two words strung together; these days my passwords are always pretty complex with numbers and punctuation marks. I just never got around to changing the LOTRO one.

To recap though, and I’m assuming the account will be unlocked by the time I get home (and I already changed the password), I’m not impressed by the turn-around time for submitted tickets (2 weeks, if that’s accurate, is way too long) but I am very impressed by phone support. No hold time, a no-fuss solution to my problem and a cordial customer service person. You really can’t ask for much more than that.

[Update: I got home and logged in with no problems. I checked my highest level character and as far as I can tell he still has everything he had the last time I played him. 2 gold or so in coin, a few shards, all his gear, vault still filled with junk. And my LOTRO points seem to all be there.

Not that I’m complaining but… why bother to hack an account and then not take anything off it? I wonder if they used my account as a kind of ‘middle man’ or something? ]

A farewell to LOTRO, and other musings

I took some time tonight to pack up my housing items in LOTRO. It’s silly for me to log in every 5 or so weeks to pay 55 silver/week rent to keep the house. I just don’t have time to play MMOs anymore, and don’t see that changing while I’m working two jobs. I have a Lifetime sub to LOTRO so I can still pop in and dabble when I do find a few spare minutes, but for now it’s a game, not a world. I don’t need a house in a game. I need houses in worlds.

I have to confess, it all felt really melancholy. I miss the days of escaping to another world, a virtual world. But those days have passed me by in a number of ways. There’s my personal situation: no time and all that. But today’s MMOs just seem to be games and not worlds. EVE is the only exception that I really know about, and damn would I love to have the free time needed to play EVE seriously.

Packing up my LOTRO house had me thinking back to our guild halls and my houses in Ultima Online. That was a real world, at least to me and my guildies. There was a society in that game. There were good people and bad people. There was a dynamic economy. Towns sprang up and faded away over time. Inns would appear and be the ‘in’ (ha! See what I did there?) place to hang out for a while, until they went out of fashion and some new place sprang up.

We’d hang out, throw parties, do battle, make alliances, corner markets, have weddings… we did all kinds of things back then. It was more than a game, it was a place.

Back then, cyberspace was coming, and my then-girlfriend and I would kid about being an elderly couple sitting on the front porch in rocking chairs, jacked in via implants. But cyberspace fizzled, the same way virtual reality and the space program did. Cyberspace seemed like it’d become a place. But that never happened and now the very term seems silly.

I also saw that the beta for WOW Cataclysm is coming soon, or maybe has even started. That has me wanting to reinstall WOW to take one last look at those places where I used to hang out so much, before Blizzard plows them under to build anew.

But then I realized, you can’t go home again. Sitting out in Westfall in the wee hours, chatting with friends, having a beer or three in real life while I did so, watching the lighthouse’s beam sweep across the sea… if I went back now, it wouldn’t be the same as what it was; it’d just be depressing. Like when I go to visit my mom in my home town and pop into my old haunts and realize I’m just another tourist weekending in The Hamptons. I’m not the only one who moved on, and there’s no longer a “there” there.

Anyway, enough of being maudlin.

So LOTRO is packed away. Life is crazy hectic and unpleasant. And I keep buying (mostly single player) games. I mentioned this on Twitter today and got a few people who said they do the same thing. The busier I get, the more games I buy. Not the more games I play, mind you. I get them home, find 20 minutes to tear off the shrinkwrap and fire them up, then never get back to them.

So why do I keep buying them? I guess it’s the only way I have to feel connected to this hobby that used to be such a huge part of my life. I want to play, but can’t. Somehow the retail therapy of buying a new game scratches that itch for a few moments. I bought Monster Hunter Tri the week it came out. Played it once. 3D Dot Heroes this week. Booted it up, looked at it, haven’t had time to go back. Red Dead Redemption is coming next week. Bought the Humble Bundle of Indie games and never even got around to downloading it. Bought the Civ IV collection from Steam last night…those I did install but never booted up. And so on and on… so much wasted money!

The one bright spot right now is the iPad. I’m still playing that silly Godfinger game; it’s something I can spend 5 minutes on 3 times a day and feel like I’m making some progress, though towards what, I don’t know. When I hit level 50 I’ll just stop playing probably. Ditto We Rule. Log in a few times a day for 2-3 minutes…it’s a nice break. And a bunch of other simple fun games that I can play for a couple minutes in bed before lights out.

This patch will ease up eventually. I took the whole week of E3 off, to follow all the news and to recharge my batteries. So that, at least, I have to look forward to. And come hell or high water I’m going to find some time for Red Dead Redemption next week! I’m about at the limit of what I’m willing to do for my day job. We’ve all been doing ~12 hour days for a couple weeks (and then I have my blogging job once that’s done) and at this point it’s just starting to feel like management is taking advantage of us. Getting through an unexpected crunch is one thing, but those can’t be permanent hours (at least not without a juicy raise or some fat bonuses!)

Anyway, that’s what’s going on at Dragonchasers HQ. If you’re someone I used to chat with on Twitter or in blog comments, please forgive my disappearance. It just can’t be helped. I do miss my social networking chums, though. Hope everyone is doing well out there!

Play the game, don’t let the game play you!

I spent a lot of time playing LOTRO this weekend. For the first half I was playing my baby Rune Keeper (who hit 26) and having some fun but after a while I got the urge to see some new sights, so I switched back to my Champion “main” who, you’ll be amused to hear, is level 41. Yes, I’ve been playing since launch (though he wasn’t my first character), and yes, he is my highest level.

I’ve been avoiding playing him though. Every time I do, I feel like I’m treading water and not making any progress. I’d play for a few hours and it would seem like the exp bar hadn’t moved. I remembered my Champion being really fun, so what happened?

Finally tonight it dawned on me. I wasn’t playing LOTRO. LOTRO was playing me. When the Yule Festival hit I started hanging out around Bree to do daily quests to get tokens and my horse. After that I rode up to the North Downs and started chipping away at those quests. I have a ton of Fellowship Quests that were green or even gray, but I was trying to solo them. That meant they’d take a long time, and often I’d fail. Even if I didn’t, the experience I got for the quest wasn’t much, and the experience I got for killing baddies along the way was even less.

So why was I doing them? Because I have this freaky A-B-C personality. I don’t like jumping around in a sequence so I always find myself trying to complete my lowest level quests no matter what. Even though I was having no fun, I felt compelled to try to finish these quests. In effect, LOTRO was controlling me, rather than the other way around (OK really my own neuroses were controlling me, via the structure of LOTRO).

Tonight I finally shook myself loose from that mentality and headed to Evendim, an area that has lots of solo quests that are light blue. I immediately started finding the joy in LOTRO again, which is why I’m writing this post when I should be in bed.

I’m sharing this mostly for my future self. Maybe the next time I let a personality quirk start sucking the fun out of a game I’ll come back and re-read this post. These are games we’re playing. We should play them in such a way that they’re fun for us. Not the way someone says we’re “supposed” to play, nor should we approach them like they’re a chore to be dealt with. If you’re playing and not having fun, go find something else to do in your game. And if there isn’t anything else, then just take a break.

Now all that said, I’m really going to miss out on a lot of content if I skip all the Fellowship Quests (with the skirmish system we can all level to max without doing Fellowship Quests if we choose to). But I’m not a big fan of PUGs. So I’m thinking it might be time to find a Kinship on Landroval. But I’m not sure there’s a Kinship out there that I’d be comfortable in. Nor am I sure it’s the right time to be looking for a Kinship with Star Trek Online a few weeks out. I figure I’ll be playing that one pretty heavy when it launches, and LOTRO will go unplayed for a month or two (the beauty of a Lifetime Sub).

Side-tracking and late night blathering at this point so I’ll just stop. But future me (and dear readers), don’t make the mistake I made. Don’t do in-game things that you *should* do. Do in-game things that you *want* to do and that are fun!

The old new player experience

I don’t hide that fact that I have a rather unusual MMO playing style. Did you know that my LOTRO “main” was level 33 a year ago, and is level 40 today. At this rate it’ll probably take me another 5 years to get him to cap, assuming Turbine continues to bump up the cap every 12-18 months.

Anyway, my characters always act as a kind of hive-mind, particularly in terms of crafting. And my woodworker finally got to where he needed some yew, but I didn’t have a character that could collect it. I had a level 8 or so Rune Keeper/Explorer collecting dust, so I decided to level him up to where he could get the woodworker some yew.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. He’s level 23 now. He went through the revamped Ered Luin, which I liked a lot more than I used to. Then he moved on to BreeTown. The new Bree experience is very, very much improved over the way things used to be. You’re shuttled logically from quest hub to quest hub. At one point the ‘quest path’ branches, with one branch heading into the Barrows and the other going north up the Greenway. Which ever one you pick, you’ll be kept in a fairly small area for nice chunks of time, with quest difficulty flowing smoothly.

I headed up the Greenway and did a bunch there. You go from a cabin just north of Bree to Thornley’s Work Site to that ranger outside his cottage across the road from Thornley’s to the Old Greenway Fort to Hengstacer Farm (the horse farm). All of these are now solo quests (no more LFG to do Breaking Alliances, yay!) At this point my Epic Quest to go talk to Tom Bombadil had gone green, so I recalled to Bree and headed out to see old Tom.

As you enter the Barrows you’ll find a corpse. It starts a quest that leads you to the Old Barrows road that runs between the Barrows and Bombadil’s house. On that road is a camp of expedition survivors who’ll give you all the low level Barrow quests. These were all green by the time I got there. They then pass you off to Dead Man’s Peak (?) farther south in the Barrows, where the rest of the expedition is hiding. I haven’t gone there yet.

Bonus points to Turbine for putting a traveling merchant at Thornley’s Work Site and at this came on the Old Barrows road. You can sell your vendor trash there, but you can’t repair for some reason.

The Old Forest is less annoying now. Those mobile trees and their root friends are no longer aggro, and they either die easier or the Rune Keeper is really powerful. But I’m still going to have to use a map to find all the flowers in there.

I realize that this is all old news, but if like me you’ve been hesitant about creating a new alt because of all the rather tedious running back and forth in Breeland, fear no more. Leveling through Bree is a BREEze (ha! I slay me) these days.

Siege of Mirkwood Launches

As everyone knows, today was the launch of LOTRO’s latest expansion, The Siege of Mirkwood.

I ran the patcher while I was at work, so everything was good to go when I got home. I wasted no time heading to a Skirmish Camp to get the Skirmish Tutorial quest, then headed back to Evendim to get the drops I needed for said quest while knocking out some ‘kill those dudes who think they’re wolves” (I’m pretty sure that’s how Tolkien described them) quests.

Drop rate wasn’t too bad and I finished 2 quests at the same time. Then I Mapped back to Esteldin and ran through the tutorial, which is pretty much unchanged from when I did my brief report from the preview.

Then finally it was time to start Skirmishes for real. There were two open to me to solo at level 40, one taking place in Noglond and the other on Weathertop. I’d done the Weathertop one in the preview so I went off to Noglond. My soldier was traited as an herbalist and I was feeling pretty confident.

And I died. And died. And died another 4 or 5 times. It was *much* harder than Weathertop during the preview. I did “win” the Skirmish, but my repair costs were about 200 silver from doing it (and I earned 70-ish silver as a quest reward). The problem was my soldier was being a terrible healer, which wasn’t something I saw in the preview.

I took the Marks I’d earned and re-invested them in my Soldier’s Herbalist traits, then headed to Weathertop. I did much, much better there, winning without any deaths, and my healer was doing a good job of healing. Then I did the same skirmish again, and noticed at one point my healer stopped healing and the ranger in the skirmish stopped fighting. And I died.

I’m wondering if that’s what happened in Noglond? I’d have 10% health, my soldier would have full energy, we’d be between waves of enemies and… no heals.

So I’m going to write that off to launch day lag and not worry too much about it.

Skirmishes are awfully fun though! And tense! You get a few short breaks in them but mostly it’s constant fighting for 15-20 minutes. I don’t think I could handle more than 3 a night; I was too stressed out (not to mention out of potions…but DC commenter Grid was nice enough to help me out with that problem).

By the end of the night I’d lost about 100 silver, gained about half a level, completed a couple of Skirmish traits, bumped my soldier to a level 3 herbalist, and most of her skills to level 4 and I have all kinds of special marks and bits and bobs that I can trade in to the Skirmish NPCs for rewards. I decided to wait until things quieted down a bit before I went shopping. It was getting way late for me, and the skirmish camps were mobbed.

All in all, an awesome first night of Skirmishes. My only concern is that I’m just going to out-level all my questing content doing these things! Aside from the potential lag issue I mentioned, the servers seemed stable, but wow, were there a lot of folks playing! No queue for me, but I’m east coast; maybe I got in ahead of any queues.

Congrats to Turbine for what looks to be a great expansion! If I never get to Mirkwood I’ll still be happy with the Skirmish system!

The Calm Before the Expansion

Gah! I hate the weekend before an MMO expansion releases!

In just a few short days I’ll be able to experience all kinds of new content and game system changes, so I get totally pumped to play the game (LOTRO in this case, and the expansion is Siege of Mirkwood). But suddenly the “old” non-expanded game seems a bit tattered and worn. If there’s some specific thing I want or need to finish before the expansion launches, I’m fine, but otherwise it just feels like killing time before the new shinies arrive.

Mind you, this is all in my head this time out. The old content won’t really feel tattered and worn once Mirkwood launches. And it isn’t like I’m at the level cap and ready to charge into the forest. Hardly. I haven’t even been to Moria!

But I did preview the expansion and already have some Skirmish-earned armor picked out and I just want to get working on earning it NOW. I’m ready to start my quest to enable Skirmishes.

I feel like a kid waiting for Santa to arrive!

More on Skirmish Traits (LOTRO)

I realize I kind of skimmed over the whole skirmish trait system in my last post. Here’s more detail.

You’ll talk to a Skirmish Captain to organize your traits. Here’s an empty trait panel — it’ll feel pretty familiar to any LOTRO player:
Empty Skirmish Trait Panel

And here’s my “full” panel, tricked out for a healing companion:
Full Skirmish Trait Panel

You’ll see there are slots that I need to unlock as I advance, same as with normal traits.

The top trait row, Attribute, basically sets the ‘class’ for your soldier. Right now I have two choices, Warrior (essentially a Champion) which I got via the tutorial, and Herbalist (a healer) which I bought with Skirmish Marks. You put a Role Attribute trait in slot 1 of this row; I’m as yet unsure what goes into the other slots in this row. I couldn’t slot both Herbalist and Warrior. There are some cosmetic traits; maybe those go in the other slots? If you want your Companion to be a hobbit-lad, for instance, you can buy that feature with skirmish marks. Maybe someone can fill in the gaps here.

Here’re the pop-ups for the two Roles I currently have:
Warrior Role   Herbalist Role

If you notice the red text at the bottom of the Warrior Role, it’s because I had the Herbalist Role slotted when I took the screen shot.

Next two rows are Skills and Training. I’m honestly not clear on what the difference between the two is. As a reward for completing the Skirmish Tutorial, I took “Herbalist Education” which gave me a bunch of herbalist traits; two each of Skills and Training. (Note I had to buy the Herbalist role in order to put these to use).

Skills:
Herbalist Skill #1   Herbalist Skill #2

Training:
Herbalist Training 2   Herbalist Training 1

The last row is for Personal traits which directly impact your character. I only have one of these to show off:
Personal Trait

Changing skirmish traits costs silver, same as changing normal traits does.

And that’s as far as I’ve taken this. I was going to do some more experimenting but the Skirmish Join panel says I’ve exceeded the max number of skirmishes I can take part in this week!! I assume that’s a bug (since I only fought in 1 skirmish), but it does indicate that there are systems in place for preventing you from doing nothing but grinding skirmishes all day.

Obviously this is all new to me and I can’t say how I’ll feel about the system come springtime, but for now I’m pretty excited. Hopefully there’ll be lots of traits to unlock and/or purchase which will give the player many options for customizing exactly the kind of companion he or she will be taking into battle.