“And I was thinking to myself, ‘This could be Heaven or this could be Hell'”
SSG is running the fourth beta-round of LOTRO Update 37 on the Bullroarer test server this week. Round four of beta usually means that the live release is not too far off, perhaps a week or two going by previous experience. So sometime mid-to-late August is a good guess. Update: Based on the most recent LOTROstream, SSG aims for ca. August 22.
There are no new lands coming with U37. Among some game-mechanic updates, we get a new premium housing area near Lyndelby (the hobbit village east of the Misty Mountains) and a new race, the much talked-about and long desired river-hobbits. With these exciting things coming, all is surely jolly in the land of LOTRO-dom?
Not even close. Particularly related to the river-hobbits. The feedback thread on the official LOTRO forums is currently 38 pages, lots of which is quarreling, circle-arguments, sniping, personal attacks and the most passive-agressive use of emojis imaginable. It is still growing fast. Some are mighty pleased, others are bitterly disappointed, most seem to grow weary. SSG’s own response to the controversy has been rather lacking, although picking up slightly now.
I haven’t engaged in the debate myself so far. Partly because I don’t really plan on playing a river-hobbit, partly because reading the forum thread makes my eyes water (likely, leaks from a melted mind…). Still, things are growing a bit silly, especially from a roleplaying perspective, and it is hard not to comment on it.
So here goes.
A very short primer on hobbit migration
In their earliest known history, hobbits lived in the upper Vales of the river Anduin, east of the Misty Mountains. There were three hobbit breeds, with typical characteristics as follow:
- Harfoot: Most common and smallest. Preferred highland and hillsides. Had much to do with dwarves. Most inclined to settle in one place, lived in tunnels and holes.
- Stoor: Broader and heavier. Preferred flat lands and riversides, had an affinity for water, was used to boats. Could grow facial hair. Less shy of men.
- Fallohides: Taller and slimmer, least numerous. Loved trees and woodlands, preferred hunting to tilling. Less shy of elves, more skilled in language and song than handicrafts, more adventurous.
Eventually, the three hobbit breeds moved west from their old homeland, across the Misty Mountains. This may have been related to the multiplying of men nearby and a growing danger in Mirkwood. The initial migration happened between ca. Third Age (T.A.) 1050-1150, which is just shy of 2000 years before the events in the War of the Ring (T.A. 3018-3019).
After the mountain crossings, centuries of wandering and temporary settlements followed. Most hobbits eventually ended up near Bree, before many headed west and made a home in The Shire from T.A. 1601 onward. However, during these Wandering Days, some Stoors moved back east of the mountains and settled near the Gladden Fields. They were still living there in T.A. 2463, when the Stoor Sméagol claimed the One Ring as his birthday present. By the time of the War of the Ring more than 500 years later, the Gladden Fields settlements were deserted, and the fate of the Stoors unknown.
Who are the river-hobbits, and where do they come from?
When river-hobbits were first teased more than three years ago, I bet most LOTRO players figured they would be Stoors. I mean, Stoors are the ultimate river-hobbits; they thrive near rivers, and they can swim and use boats. Using the Stoor attributes, the river-hobbits could be tweaked to look slightly different from the current in-game hobbits, by making them a bit sturdier and adding the option for some facial hair. Perhaps they could be related to the lost Stoors from the Gladden Fields settlements? Not part of a thriving community, but wilder and living off the land, with the skill set and appearance to follow?
However, it now seems that the river-hobbits come from the village of Lyndelby. Which in-game is the last known hobbit village east of the Misty Mountains, whose inhabitants chose not to migrate near 2000 years ago. Instead, they built a well-functioning village with tilled lands and fine farms, mastering lots of crafts in the process (even creating glass for their windows and lanterns). Hobbits with these traits, settling down and developing the area, they have to be Harfoots, right?
Wrong. They are meant to be Fallohides. They even share the surnames with some Fallohides found in The Shire, like Túcca (Took) and Bolga (Bolger).
So, this is the river-hobbit setup:
When all the other hobbits up and left the Vale of Anduin, a group belonging to the most adventurous woodland hobbit breed instead chose to hide in a mountain valley quite notable for its lack of deep forests. Here, they have lived in splendid isolation for almost two millennia, doing their best to suppress their ancient instincts of hunting and adventuring, rather settling into a quiet village life with crafting, farming and growing pipeweed. And although their river activities are not a defining trait, they are called river-hobbits.
The massive smial/sett of Madelgard Túcca in Lyndelby
Why does their village look so much like The Shire?
Even though separated from their migrating cousins by near two millennia, the Lyndelby hobbits have created a home that looks oddly similar to villages in The Shire: A bit more rustic, perhaps, but you find the same basic architecture, the same advanced crafts, the same practices, the same domestic animals. They even speak the same language, bar a handful of different terms.
Why is this strange, even after accounting for ancient hobbit habits and traditions?
It is important to remember that Shire hobbits adapted and developed their skills through interactions with others, over the course of many centuries. Members of the old hobbit breeds met during the migration. They learned from each other, settled together, married and established families. Further, they soon met with other races during their journeys. They developed their building crafts by learning from both Dúnedain, dwarves and elves. They learned to read and write after the manner of the Dúnedain. They forgot their old languages and started speaking Westron. They were forever changed through meeting others.
They also met hardships on the way. The Wandering Days themselves were dangerous due to the threat from Angmar. Even Shire life wasn’t just the cozy idyll most like to portray it as. A few years after hobbits settled in The Shire, the Great Plague spread across Middle-Earth, killing many Shire-hobbits. They fought off goblins during the Battle of Greenfields. During both the Long Winter and the Fell Winter, they experienced misery, famine and death. Although they had outside help during the winters, those assisting the hobbits were astonished by their toughness and ability to survive rough times. When coupled with all the skills learned through their travels, this toughness helped hobbits make their own paradise in the Shire.
And yet… this seems like a lot of unnecessary work, when they could just have hid in valleys near their old homeland. Here, they would have found peaceful life away from big folk eyes, learned all the fab new things by themselves. They’d even shed their ancient language to learn Westron in the process, so they’re ready for the influx of outsiders who will move into the housing area next to their not-so-secret-any-longer village.
I bet the Shire hobbits will feel a bit cheated when they find out. It sort of cheapens their efforts.
Lyndelby sure looks a lot like The Shire
What’s with the eagles?
The river-hobbits aren’t totally isolated, though. For some reason, they have caught the eyes of the Eagles, who have taken the hobbits under their wings (!) to watch over them.
The Eagles. The messengers of Manwë. Proud and arrogant watchers of the land, who spend much of their time gathering news of orcs and goblins and the movement of the Nazgûl. Who apparently have such bad relations with the woodmen in Mirkwood (who shoot arrows after the Eagles whenever they circle too near their sheep), they stay well away from them.
And yet, they simply cannot keep themselves away from a valleyful of nearby river-hobbits, who also hold sheep and who are master archers to boot. Instead, the Eagles use their every spare minute interacting with the river-hobbits, watching over them, even picking up their tributes and offerings.
I suppose the Eagles could work as deities who have taught the river-hobbits all the grand things that their Shire cousins had to learn the hard way? No matter. Tolkien apparently once said, “The Eagles are a dangerous ‘machine’. I have used them sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness”. This seems like a sound message. Even for game developers.
Surely these sheep would be tempting snacks for huge eagles?
Why do river-hobbits look like scaled-down humans?
Happily, the Lyndelby hobbits look somewhat similar to their distant cousins. Even two thousand years of separation is a short time for huge biological changes.
From this village of Fallohides, who for ages have acted in the least Fallohide way possible, now comes a hobbit of remarkable courage. One who is the tallest, who grew for the longest. The most curious, the most outgoing. The one who will bring help to the other folk in the wide and dangerous world. The blood of the ancient Holbytlan truly is strong in The One.
(Yes, most of this is copied straight from the intro quest for the river-hobbits).
So they want a tall and adventurous hobbit? Alright, I can go with that, although the super-traits of this character are a bit much. And yet, I struggle with SSG’s solution for representing this hobbit. Which is to use a scaled-down version of the human player model.
This means that the playable river-hobbits not only have a different body-type and posture than the Shire-hobbits, but they also look remarkably different from their nearest kin in Lyndelby. If anything, they come across as the long-term, unhappy outcome of a late-night party between hobbits and men. They are also remarkably skinny for a race that Tolkien described as “…inclined to be fat”. And even though SSG added a height slider in the most recent beta, the visual discrepancy between the playable river-hobbits and all other hobbits around is hard to wrap your head around.
This could be halfway OK in a single-player game, which sets you up as the hero of the story, the only one with multiple special attributes. In a multiplayer game? Less good. Especially when visual appearance is part of it. You can disregards the fantastic backstory of other players. It is harder to ignore what they look like.
It is pretty obvious which model the river-hobbits are based on
Is it all bad then? No, things are slowly getting a bit better in the beta, at least visually. Various tweaks are done to the river-hobbit models to make them less visual sore-thumbs, and the height slider in particular is a welcome addition. They have also gotten an intro quest, even though none was originally planned. SSG has started giving some responses.
My recurring questions, though, are lots of why’s?
- Why use the human models as the basis for river-hobbits, and not the regular in-game hobbit models which pretty much establish what hobbits are supposed to look like in SSG’s game world?
- Why give the Fallohide-descending river-hobbits distinctly non-Fallohide traits, but instead make them a mashup of the other breeds?
- Why does the river-hobbit village look so much like a Shire village, even though the inhabitants are separated from each other by two thousand years? And why do they speak the same language?
- Why have the Eagles taken a such shine to the river-hobbits, when they are notoriously reluctant in their dealings with other folks?
- Why call them river-hobbits, when there is nothing river-hobbity about them?
For the first question, I suppose two answers are possible. It might be easier/less costly to use the human models. More likely, though, SSG thinks that slim and tall teen-like hobbits will sell better. I suppose that’s why SSG says the Lyndelby hobbits are Fallohides, even though story-wise it doesn’t make any sense. Fallohides were the tallest and slimmest hobbits, so let’s go with that, damn the rest of the lore.
On the last question, there was an answer on the forums, which didn’t really explain things (but perhaps did anyway?). We got lots of possible suggestions for why NPCs might use the term river-hobbits. This goes with the “blank slate“-approach that SSG initially tried: Not explaining the river-hobbit origins in detail, but instead leaving things up to the players to decide. However, when this led to an initial outcry on the forums, SSG hastily added an intro quest making it explicit that the river-hobbits come from Lyndelby.
Thus, could the rest of the why’s be attributed to a fast lore retcon aimed at meeting player demands? Well, no. Whatever SSG might say, it is pretty obvious that these hobbits were meant to come from Lyndelby all along. The original race description was:
“The last of their kind remaining east of the Misty Mountains, River-hobbits are a lithe and silvan folk, steeped in wood-lore and attuned to the mountains where they remain hidden. Dwelling among the dells of the Misty Mountains, the River-hobbits of Misthallow are a rustic folk, quick-tongued and nimble-fingered. Known mainly in old tales and songs, they seldom venture outside their secret vales.”
The last of their kind in the east, hiding in mountain dells and secret vales in Misthallow? Sounds like Lyndelby to me. Which SSG has already described as the “…last village of the holbytlan”.
The real silly thing is that the game creators, who plan to charge money for the race, seem to neither know nor care why they call them river-hobbits.
After three years of river-hobbit hype, SSG has created a version of the iconic race in the great grandfather of all fantasy works which doesn’t just stretch the lore, but threatens to rip it asunder and take a victory dance on the shreds. In-game visual consistency is also tossed out of the window, likely because of commercial cost-benefit calculations. Instead we get the Middle-Earth version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, where the pod people have replaced hobbits with slim messianic super-halflings. Possibly aided by divine intervention from The Eagles. Welcome to Hotel Holbytlania.
While Turbine/SSG has always taken some liberties with Tolkien’s stories, I think they for the most part have managed to stay reasonably true to the spirit of his works over the years. This is also a reason why LOTRO still has an active roleplaying community. However, including these river-hobbits and their background in roleplaying will take some pondering, not to mention a massive suspension of disbelief. That’s bad news for those of us who enjoy consistent stories and world-building.
But of course: Beta. Things are subject to change. Here’s hoping. But not really believing.
What do you think? Are you excited or agonized by the arrival of river-hobbits and their lore? Do you find any faults with my reasoning, or do you wholeheartedly agree? Feel free to use the comments below! But be civil, please.
There’s still a lot of work to do on the animations of the river-hobbits