This is how I've always thought of the Lord of the Rings in regard to the Free Peoples. Even through this enormous struggle against the Enemy, we know that winning still means losing something precious. In this case, it's the ascension of Men during the Fourth Age and the fading of the other races: the Ents, the Hobbits, the Dwarves, and the Elves. This grand fight for Middle-earth ultimately will preserve and strengthen just one of the races, and the most boring one at that. For Tolkien, this is because LotR is a mythological past history of our world, and we just don't see a lot of Elves walking around today except at Starbucks.
In a way, I feel as if we're starting to get into the Age of Men a bit prematurely in Lord of the Rings Online. The time for Hobbits, Elves, and Dwarves is past; the time for Men is just beginning.
A long time ago in a Shire far, far away...
To look at where we are now, we need to go back to LotRO's beginnings. The game that many of us initially encountered (Shadows of Angmar) was limited in its scope across Middle-earth. The core game focused exclusively on regions in Eriador, and not even all of Eriador. Players coming into it encountered the main four Free Peoples all rubbing shoulders together: Dwarves and Elves in Ered Luin, Hobbits and Men in Bree-land, Dwarves and Elves and Men in the North Downs, Hobbits and Men in Evendim, and so on.
One of the things that I loved about this is that there was such diversity across these areas. Seeing the different cultures interacting and exploring the various racial towns created a melting pot feel to the land. We were introduced to the themes, legacies, humor, style, conflicts, and personalities of these four Peoples, and it stirred together to make a rich concoction that cemented the "realness" of this world. Plus, if you hated Elves but loved Hobbits, you could easily avoid one to get your fix of the other.
Of course, if we're to look at the progression of the game like a marathon race, then the Hobbits were the first to drop out of the running. Past the Shire, Evendim, and Bree-land, Hobbit culture and structures were nary to be seen (save for one small example come way later). This demonstrated the limits of the IP and how Turbine was bound by the lore instead of being free to reinterpret it as desired. The Hobbits were insular and not prone to empire-building, but it didn't make their absence from the grand stage any less painful after we became attached to them.
The time of the Dwarves and Elves
The first two expansions put a strong focus on the Dwarves and Elves, respectively. Mines of Moria was Dwarf-centric through and through, taking us into one of the most important Dwarf settlements ever built. By the time we emerged from Moria, many were ready to leave Dwarves behind for good (although that's to be expected after being locked into a room with them for so long).
Then came Lothlorien and Siege of Mirkwood, which represented the Elves' time to shine. We were inundated with Elven culture and style, although Men got to peek through the cracks of content here and there. Past Lothlorien, however, I wouldn't be surprised if Mirkwood proper turned people off by not being the beautiful land of tree-hugging beauty that most people associate with cliché Elves. The place didn't feel like an Elven homeland, just an endgame zone that had a perpetual case of the gloomies.
The rise of Men
Then came the two most recent expansions, Rise of Isengard and Riders of Rohan. Moving south from Eriador into Dunland and Rohan, players found themselves shedding the coat of the previous multi-racial game and adopting a windbreaker that supported just one team. Everywhere you looked, Men covered the content: Dunlanders, Easterlings, Rohirrim, and (eventually) Gondorians. Each had their own culture, to be sure, but there was a weird sense that the game was going backwards in a respect. Zones where all of these different races were rubbing shoulders seemed like a hazy and silly memory by the time we got to the land of Men. Even worse, no matter how much the developers tried to garnish the factions of Men, it was hard for gamers to look at them and not see the most generic of fantasy races that is in every dang game.
I can sense Turbine's awareness and frustration at this regression. The studio is obviously hemmed in by how Tolkien constructed his world, and even in the later books and movies, it's primarily a Man-only show. Heck, Peter Jackson invented an Elven regiment out of thin air just to add more racial diversity during the Battle of Helm's Deep.
Turbine has been trying to keep a non-Man element going in the friendly NPC settlements. In Enedwaith, the developers introduced a Hobbit settlement based on an appendix loophole. The settlement itself wasn't that fascinating or full of rich content, but its inclusion was appreciated for those of us Hobbit fans. Then there's been the addition of Ents in a couple of the Fangorn forest zones. As I wrote previously, taking a break from the Man Show to venture into Fangorn was a wonderful relief in my adventures.
But the truth is that these are tiny exceptions to what looks to be the standard from here on out until the game goes away. Helm's Deep will undoubtedly be all about Men, as will subsequent Gondor expansions. And it's not as if Dwarves and Hobbits set up a 7-11 in Mordor either. As far as I'm aware, the lore doesn't really mention the Dwarves, Elves, or Hobbits this far south except for the Fellowship.
There are always possibilities
While the recent content has been absolutely excellent and I'm not going to throw a hissy fit if it's just Men from here on out, I do hope that the Hobbits, Dwarves, and Elves will come back in some form in the future.
There are many possibilities to make this happen. Northern Mirkwood and the Battle of Dol Guldur offer an excellent reprise for Elves. My only concern is that Southern Mirkwood has been turned into a non-essential cul-de-sac at this point and I don't see Turbine rushing to flesh out that region.
The Dwarves have their hands in many mountain pies that have yet to be seen, and their struggle in Dale with Men (as partially seen in the Update 10 raids) could be an excellent story in the making. The War of the Ring was wide-spread, more so than the main Lord of the Rings storyline showed, and Turbine has some latitude to show that.
As for the Hobbits, there's always the much-requested Scouring of the Shire to address, as well as events leading up to the perilous situation that the halflings found themselves in. I think it'd be pretty darn awesome to return to a Shire that would evolve and shift as the timeline moved forward. Be it phasing or a separate map entirely, it could be a terrific opportunity to thrust Hobbits back into the limelight.
So while the end of the Third Age signals a waning of many of these beloved Middle-earth races, I feel that there's a tale or two left for many of them. I just hope Turbine gets to tell them.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.