Upon completion of the Skirmish tutorial quest which, becomes available at level 30 (Aaron assured me that players long past level 30 will know exactly where to go for this), you are also given the Soldier ability to rely upon inside of Skirmishes. Though the soldier is only usable inside of Skirmishes, you'll quickly come to rely on him for extra support in those encounters. Customizable to be a healer, archer, or tank type of companion, the Soldier is a pet of sorts and will fight alongside you whenever you call them to battle. Through the procurement of Skirmish Marks (sort of tokens awarded for completing Skirmishes, and the objectives tied to them) you can beef up and pimp out your soldier to become a formidable addition to your party. In my short time with my healing buddy, I found them to be quite capable of managing on their own based on the roles and traits you assign them.
I don't wish to spoil too much of the encounter for you before the expansion launches, but needless to say what I found was a quickly paced mini-dungeon that has its own system of rewards as incentive for playing and replaying each one. There are daily quests tied to each Skirmish which award marks for completion, so there is reason not only to repeat each encounter but to spread the love around and not just play the one you find the easiest each time. These Skirmish Marks can be used not only to improve your soldier but to purchase extremely valuable sets of weapons and armor as well. You'll spend these marks at several locations spread across Middle-earth called Skirmish Camps, which are just as the name sounds. The free peoples are banding together and preparing for war, and the world will finally be reflecting this when Mirkwood launches.
However the Skirmish system is not the only change coming to Middle-earth this December. Skirmishes are another layer of things to do and enjoy in LotRO, but that doesn't mean Turbine's forgotten about the rest of the game. Dol Guldur, the Tower of the Necromancer, is the focal point of evil and Sauron's forces in this expansion, so it only makes sense that this is where the bulk of the fellowship-driven content will stem from. There are three small fellowship instances, one full fellowship instance, and one 12-man raid all housed within the battlements of Dol Guldur, and each have daily quests tied to them as well as challenge modes for those players who like to push the envelope.
Aaron gave me a little taste of one of the small fellowship instances called the Sword Hall. Sort of like the Lieutenant of Dol Guldur's own private arena, you march into this massive battle-scarred fighting pit to find the Ringwraith perched upon his flying steed, with Olog-Hai (the trolls' answer to the Uruk-Hai) surrounding the balconies. After taunting you and telling you how pathetic you are like all good villains do, the fight begins. Hordes of enemies swarm out of one of three gates, and as you defeat them you're given a brief respite to recollect your group and heal up. Eventually you will fight one boss for each of the gates, and each of them has their own nasty tricks up their sleeve. My favorite of the bunch was one of the Olog-Hai. Without spoiling anything, be prepared to jump when he raises that huge axe above his head.
When we managed to fell the beasties, Aaron explained to me how each instance's boss will drop a reward chest for players to get loot from, and each player will be awarded a Medallion of Dol Guldur. These are tokens which are needed to purchase the Dol Guldur raid armor. What was encouraging to me was that even the small-fellowship players will get these Medallions to use on the raid armor needed for the final instance on Dol Guldur... it just might take them a wee bit longer to obtain it.
And with our defeat of the Sword Hall's minions, my tour of Mirkwood was over. I felt like we'd just gotten started, but Aaron gave me some lame excuse about "launch dates" and "overtime" so I let it slide. There are tons of additional changes coming along with the Skirmishes, Soldiers, and new instances too. Combat has been made far more responsive. The auto-attack now runs in the background so that players' skills will always trigger as soon as they select them. Mounts have been totally revamped. They're no longer inventory items, but rather skills. Plus you can use e-motes from atop your steed! Huzzah! Even the Legendary Item system has been entirely revamped.
I haven't really dug into Lord of the Rings Online for over a year aside from the occasional visit back to see how the game was coming along. But with everything Aaron showed me during my tour, I quickly purchased the Mines of Moria off of the Turbine site and resubscribed for three months so that I could take advantage of nabbing Siege of Mirkwood for free. War is finally coming to Middle-earth, and this nerd couldn't be more excited to see how it plays out.