The Road to Mordor: Double dragons

Last week Turbine released the concept art for one of its major bosses from the upcoming Rise of Isengard expansion: Draigoch. With it came a number of appropriate "oohs" and "ahhs," and no doubt raiders began thinking up uses for a giant dragon skull in their homes. But there was also a crowd that popped out to cry foul about lore molestation -- that this was a blatant example of Turbine pandering to MMO players by including the expected dragons even when the lore shouldn't support it.

A couple examples of quotes, first. "Yet whatever way you cut this idea, how can you integrate another dragon into the story? Smaug was the last one of his kind," Contains Moderate Peril complains. A commenter on our article sniped, "So Turbine's decided to entirely drop the pretense of sticking to the lore, then?"


As much as I am totally not attached to MMO lore in general, I feel like this might be a good time to both address this particular argument and also the larger one of Turbine's approach to Tolkien's world. Are giant dragons lore-breaking? Does Turbine simply not care about remaining faithful to source material? Do you have my decaf light mocha with cinnamon sprinkles?

The issue of dragons

Let's begin with what can be concretely addressed. Despite assumptions by some, Smaug from The Hobbit was not the last of the dragons, or even the last of the great dragons (if you want to get technical). No, dragons aren't extremely common by the time of the Lord of the Rings, but they aren't extinct either.

Jonathan "Berephon" Rudder, Turbine's "lore-monkey" in charge of making sure the studio colors within the outline of what Tolkien established, quickly addressed this in a forum post: "Smaug was the greatest of the Great Dragons remaining. Tolkien never said, nor even inferred that he was the last (in fact, I believe it was in one of the Letters that he actually debunks that idea himself.) This dragon is, in fact, a full-fledged, living dragon, well within the lore."

Tolkien has a lot to say about dragons in Middle-earth, and even responded directly to an editor who asked him if Smaug was the last. He replied, "They had not stopped; since they were active in far later times, close to our own."

So for me, at least, the issue is closed. There is room for other dragons in Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age, and it's not like the game has great dragons running all over the place willy-nilly. Draigoch is being given substantial respect and gravitas due to his size and capabilities, and the foundations of lore are preserved.

The issue of lore vs. game

This brings us to the much larger and more contentious issue of how lore is treated in LotRO. Players are more touchy about Lord of the Rings Online's lore than most other MMOs because the lore itself is so rich and so essential to the game that it cannot be separated. I simply cannot imagine how Turbine sat down to deal with the difficulties of fashioning an online RPG within the framework of Middle-earth, because it had to be a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. Pander to the game side too much and you're likely to bring down the wrath of the lore purists. Stick too closely to the lore and you won't have a very fun (or workable) game at all.

The company's solution was, to me, elegant: to stick to the lore as much as possible but allow room for creative interpretations while infusing the game with the spirit of Tolkien's words. Is it 100% lore accurate? No. Is it far more accurate than any other Lord of the Rings video game or movie adaptation? Yes.

Taking punches for the team

A while back Massively's Jef used LotRO as a punching bag when talking about how it's impossible for game companies to stay true to the lore in IPs when adapted into MMOs. Now, I love Jef dearly, but we have our disagreements, and I feel that he was too dismissive of what Turbine did in favor of the lore in this game and too harsh about how LotRO turned out as a part of the Middle-earth franchise. However, I'm willing to go partway on this and concede that, yes, LotRO has its moments where the lore is bent in such a way that you can see where the artificial mechanics are working their way into the game instead of the game being wrapped around the source.

But my disagreement is that his and other similar attacks on LotRO use a similar approach that the commenters earlier on in this article wielded; they pulled a couple of examples to harp on while ignoring the vast majority of the game where the lore and spirit of Middle-earth is preserved and developed lovingly and faithfully by the studio. In contrast to how Jef sees the game, I've always been bowled over by just how hard LotRO works to stick to the source, even as it grows outside of the boundaries that the novels set.

What we can all agree on is that no adaptation of any source material is 100% faithful (after all, it has to adapt to fit the platform on which it's being told) and that there are difficulties in doing so. Sometimes it just comes down to a matter of personal preference: What you may consider to be faithful to the lore, I may consider a gross violation of all that is holy and good. And vice-versa.

Adapting trouble

I recall watching the behind-the-scenes documentary about how Peter Jackson's films were made and the struggles that crew had in fashioning the books into motion pictures. In many cases, lore was stretched and bended, dialogue moved between characters, scenes exorcised or added, and Gollum shot first. It wasn't always faithful to the exact words, but it was faithful to the spirit of the books, and that's why a lot of lore-waving fanatics gave it a rest to simply enjoy this a labor of love for what it was.

You may rail against Turbine's inclusion of Rune-keepers, or the proliferation of Elves at this era in history, or whatnot -- and that's fine. Personal preference and all. I'm only asking that lore-thumpers be even-handed in their assessment, because if they are, I think there are vastly more areas of this game where it's true to the books than not, and it deserves credit for it.

I mean, if Turbine really didn't care about the lore, it could've just made a generic fantasy MMO with a Lord of the Rings overlay. But it didn't. It kept the magic low, it painstakingly researched the books, it recreated the world in stunning detail to what we know from Tolkien's writings, and just about every development post they have about new areas and content refers to the books in some way. I love that the studio has a guy like Rudder on the team whose job it is to make sure LotRO doesn't get away from its true roots.

In researching my article on the canceled Middle-earth Online, I read about how Vivendi came under tremendous pressure to sell out the lore in favor of "Hobbits flinging fireballs" and the like. Maybe this is a good point for you who disagree with this column to go ahead and post a comment about "that's exactly what LotRO did!" But, if you're to be fair, LotRO didn't. I may deeply want a Hobbit Lore-master, but I can see how that bends the lore too far. The female Dwarf party has tried in vain for years to be represented, but nothing doing. There may be a contingent who would love to fly on the back of an eagle, but thank God Turbine isn't going there.

If anything, from what I've seen in both playing and covering this game for Massively, Turbine cares quite deeply about staying as close to the lore as possible, and that intention really shines through as I explore this virtual world. It's not perfect, it may have more dragons than some may prefer, but I've learned more about Middle-earth and fallen more in love with Tolkien's vision of a fantasy world than I ever did before because of it.

In that, the lore of LotRO is a complete success.

When not enjoying second breakfast and a pint of ale, Justin "Syp" Olivetti jaws about hobbits in his Lord of the Rings Online column, The Road to Mordor. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.