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With the 2014 vote final raising the game's profile, I thought it might be useful to give an up to date overview for new players about the game's model and some purchasing ideas for how to get started.
The game uses Turbine Points (TP) as a real money based currency. These can be purchased in-game through the store, and are also earned by completing quests and deeds. Deeds are essentially achievements, anything from killing a certain number of mobs (like 20 bandits around Bree) to discovering areas or using class abilities.
You can earn TP for the same deeds on every character on every server. If you subscribe (become a VIP) you receive 500 TP per month on your account as part of the deal. All of the game's content can be purchased with TP, and almost all of it outside of the expansions is included in the sub.
Quest Packs and Regions
As with most games, the open world is divided into areas suited to a level range. The areas aimed at levels 1-30 are free for everyone, but after this content is either purchased for your account with TP or real money as regional quest packs or expansions. Many of these areas overlap in terms of level, so it's not necessary to buy all of them. As a subscriber you get full access to all quest packs, except the five expansion packs. You have access to all content you buy regardless of whether you subscribe or not. The epic quest storyline is also free up to Helm's Deep. A full list of quest packs, suggested level ranges and price in TPs is here:
You can still enter areas you haven't purchased, but you'll be seriously limited in the number of quests you can do. So there's no problem just doing the main storyline, or going through an area to get to another, but if you want to level in that area or do the instances you'll need the quest pack or expansion.
If you're happy to spend a small amount to get started, the best option in my view is the physical Mithril edition. It can be hard to get hold of, but it's very cheap (as little as $5 USD sometimes). It includes 2,000 TP and four quest packs, with potential level ranges:
It also includes an exclusive steed, worth about 2,000 TP.
Expansion Packs and VIP
Purchasing anything with real money gives you 'Premium' status, which permanently unlocks a few things, such as removing the 2 gold currency cap. Detail for VIP, Premium and Free are here:
With expansions, the quad pack via cash is the best value. Depending on sales it ranges from $10 to $20 USD, and is also available in Steam sales. This includes Moria, Mirkwood, Isengard and Rohan -- i.e all of the expansions except Helm's Deep. The Moria expansion also includes the Runekeeper and Warden classes and two extra character slots per server. You can buy these in-game with TP, but do not buy TP outright for them as it's more expensive.
Most people recommend VIP for at least the first month ($15 USD). That way you get 500 TP, full access to all content under level 50, all of the benefits of VIP, and all account unlocks of Premium status. Alternatively, the Mithril edition will get you to level 60, and comes with enough TP to buy a further 2-3 quest packs. If you want a slightly larger outlay, three months' VIP status is a great deal.
If you don't want to spend anything at all, you can get by easily up to about level 35 as a free player. During that time you should be able to earn a few hundred TP without any real grinding. That can be repeated on every character per server if you do wish to grind. It's possible to unlock all game content this way, but it'd be very tedious. While you can get by as a completely free player, the game is much more enjoyable if you subscribe or buy some content.
All players receive one 'silver Hobbit present' a day per server. These are mostly store convenience items, such as experience boosts, run speed boosts etc. VIP players receive one 'gold' present a week additionally, which has a higher chance for more valuable items, but is mostly useless. The game website also provides a voucher once per week for a named store item.
The game's website also offers a weekly sale on items under a general theme. The details are here: