One of the best aspects of The Lord of the Rings Online is the quality of its story telling. More specifically is its ability to not shy away from the darker elements of Tolkien’s world. The new Stout Axe Dwarves showcase this ideal perfectly with their new tutorial questline and story of how they came to take part in the grand stories of Middle-earth.
Oh, and before we go further: spoilers for the early moments of the Stout Axe Dwarves in LotRO.
Thralls of Mordor, the Stout Axe Dwarves start out in the dungeons of Barad-dur. Locked in a cell with two fellow dwarves, you begin your journey eating slop and learning of a strange, lanky prisoner the Dark Lord intends on releasing. Since this all takes place in Third Age 3017 – i.e. the year Gollum is tortured and released by Mordor – one can only assume the “prisoner” they speak of is the same gangly creature.
The dwarves themselves are defeated, morose, and resigned to their fate for the most part. The seeds of rebellion are spread by some, but otherwise the Stout Axes feel as though they have no hope.
This hopelessness permeates through the whole tutorial experience. You’ll bring exhausted dwarves their water, clear the prison and labor yard of rats and maggots. You’ll even be expected clean up soiled plates that you and the other prisoners have used. It’s labor – and the quests themselves feel like it.
As someone who really has never played a dwarf in The Lord of the Rings Online, it was an interesting experience to say the least. The hardy folk, even those who labor as thralls of Mordor, evoke the grim nature that Gimli conveys in the books – the grief over a long-proud race fallen and open contempt of Sauron and his minions reminded me of the Son of Gloin as I moved through the tutorial area.
It’s this grim setting and subject matter that makes me respect what the team at Standing Stone Games has done. Instead of shying away from the inherent darkness in Tolkien’s stories, but rather embracing it throughout the twelve year history of the game. It’s not like other games haven’t done this either – one of the main draws of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was the darker tone it brought to Tolkien’s works.
However, LotRO has never shied from this. The very first iteration of The Lord of the Rings Online – Shadow of Angmar – had players dealing with resurrected Dourhands and Zombie-Dragons, as well as combating the loss and pain Angmar wrought on the Northern Kingdom of Arnor. The stories that line the pages of the Epic Quests are full of loss and regret, and it feels like the stories told by the Stout Axes will be no different.
As I moved through the tutorial, a rebellion was sparked before I could meet the Mouth of Sauron (would have been so cool to see him before Aragorn lobs his head off at the Black Gate) the Stout Axes staged a rebellion. Orc and Dwarf fought on the causeways and bridges that make up the tower of Sauron. Gollum, in a way, leads you out of Barad-dur much like he leads Frodo and Sam into the Black Land itself.
It all felt a little short, to be honest. One minute I’m killing maggots and cleaning plates, the next I’m killing orcs and leaving my dwarvish companions to hold a bridge so I can make a run for it. It makes me wonder if the Bullroarer server’s tutorial area was missing some key moments in the tale so the live version didn’t get fully spoiled. The last time the team put a new race in the game, the High Elves, I felt the starting quests to be a tad too long. If this is the full experience, SSG might have gone the complete opposite side of the coin.
The tutorial ends with you witnessing the rise of the Dourhand dwarves with the newly resurrected Skorgrim. Having felt the lash of the enemy you urge the Dourhands not follow Skorgrim, but the refuse – all but one. You make your way to Thorin’s Hall and there you begin the long Epic Quest twelve years in the making.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Stout Axes fit into the larger Lord of the Rings Online world. As someone who rarely plays alts, I’m not sure it’s compelling enough to get me to start over with a new character, but for many it’s just another reason to power through the stories that have made The Lord of the Rings Online so entrancing to play for more than a decade.
The origin of the Stout Axe Dwarves has me hopeful we’ll see more stories that investigate the tales that are lesser explored in The Lord of the Rings once again. We saw this early on with the stories in the North Downs and the tales surrounding Fornost. We explored the City of the Kings in the city of Annuminas. Forochel brought those who may not have studied the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings like I have the take of the last king of Arnor, Arvedui. However, over the years the tales have turned to the One Ring quest, and since Mordor released its aftermath. I would love to see more exploration of the Stout Axe origins and how they came to be thralls of Mordor. Moreover I’d love to see LotRO explore more of the unexplored.
Take me to Rhun and let me discover what happened to the other two Wizards.
Take me to Lindon and the Grey Havens so I can watch the last ships leave and journey for the Narrow Road.
Finally, take me to Harad where the stars are strange.
The Stout Axe Dwarves will be coming with LotRO’s upcoming expansion, and it’ll be interesting to see what role they play, if any, of that narrative. One thing is for certain – as LotRO continues to refuse to shy away from the grittier stories that can be told in Middle-earth, I’m hopeful to see whether this leads to more incredible tales – and places – for us to explore in the years to come.
Featured image via YouTube