The Geography of LOTRO: Part 1 The Shire
One of the most engaging aspects of The Lord of the Rings is the expansive and detailed world that Tolkien has created. His love of maps combined with his detailed descriptions of the geography of Middle Earth, makes a credible and living environment. The Shire in particular is described in great depth, becoming a character in itself within the narrative. So, when Turbine developed LOTRO a decade ago, they were faced with an extremely difficult task of adapting this territory into a suitable MMO environment. However, the results have been well received and this region has remained a firm favourite with LOTRO players. So, I thought it would be interesting to look in more detail at selected areas of Middle Earth and explore the subtle differences between the game and the source text over a series of blog posts. So, let us start where the story begins, in The Shire.
One of the most important factors to consider with regard to an MMO map, is size. No matter how much of a Tolkien purist you are, I do not think that any game player would be happy with an exact scale realization of Middle Earth. It would mean taking days to travel anywhere, which far from practical for an MMO. Remember that it took Frodo, Sam and Pippin two and a half days to get from Hobbiton to Crickhollow on foot. So Turbine have reduced the scale in a measured and reasonable way. They have also morphed the in-game map to give locations a more even spread . This is quite noticeable in "The Shire". Green Hill Country has been drastically reduced in size and several northern settlements such as Oatbarton and Dwalling removed from the map and relocated to the next in-game area. It should also be noted that at present, the entire "South Farthing" is absent from the game. In light of Standing Stone Games recent acquisition of the game, perhaps this area will appear later in a future expansion.
Despite these adaptations, Turbine have still managed to recreate the spirit of The Shire. They have maintained the rustic feel with the farmlands, orchards and such embellishments as waterwheels and windmills. It is easy to balk at the encompassing mountains ranges that effectively fence in each gaming area but one is hard pressed to come up with a suitable alternative. As a gamer, I have never been a big fan of invisible barriers as they are jarring and can break immersion for some. The Shire is also filled with a wealth of features taken directly from the book, varying from the well-known to the subtle. Various taverns and farms can be found which most readers will be familiar with, as well as more esoteric landmarks such as Three Farthing Stone.
When you contrast the in-game map with one from the books, you discover much that is missing from LOTRO. As mentioned earlier, some may well feature in future expansions. Currently in LOTRO, The Shire has a gate not far from the homestead entrance, that separates the "South Farthing". Beyond this should lie such settlements as Hardbottle, Sackville and Longbottom. The latter being the main area for the cultivation of pipe-weed in The Shire. Another thing to consider is the substantial reduction in size of Green Hill Country. Although I can see the necessity to do so, it does mitigate a plot point. Unspoilt areas of forest such as the Woody End, were rare in this region of Middle-earth. This was a main reason that the High Elves still visited The Shire and is therefore of significance in terms of the story. It should also be noted that much of the infrastructure of the area (roads and bridges) were originally established by the Dunedain. The region was initially was a part of Arthedain, and as such a part of Arnor. It was at one time part of the farm land for that kingdom.
The Shire remains one of the most popular areas in LOTRO. Turbine managed to create a depiction of Tolkien's work, that despite practical compromises, has not been trivialised or suffered from "Disneyfication". It captures the essence of the source text, which in itself is based on pre-industrial West Midlands of England and offers a very striking visual interpretation. As one of the first areas made for the MMO, The Shire has a level of attention to detail that has been missing from some of the more recent zones. Perhaps that is why it resonates so well with the community. You’ll find region bustling with players throughout the year.