Last week I had the distinct pleasure to talk with Standing Stone Games’ Jerry Snook (LoTRO Community Manager) and Chris Pierson (LoTRO Lead World Builder) to muse about dwarves in LOTRO (being The Dwarrow Scholar… what else, right?).
After last week’s announcements made at GenCon we had no choice but to pin a date and talk dwarves. So, let’s just dive into a deliciously frothy interview full of Stout-Axes, LOTRO-lore, dwarf ladies, steeds, housing… sadly no ale though… so you better bring one (or two) along, while listening to this one.
Note: some background noises have already been filtered out, but some minor ones will still be present, apologies for that.
Audio (recorded August 7th)
Full Transcript below…
Roy: Alright, so let’s dive in. We are here with Cordovan (Jerry Snook) – LOTRO’s Community Manager and Chris Pierson, Lotro’s Lead Worldbuilder to talk about… well, dwarves really. So, sharpen your axes folks – Baruk Khazâd, Khazâd ai-mênu… we’re going in!
Firstly, thank you, gentlemen, for taking the time out of your busy schedules to join me here for this interview. It’s tremendously appreciated, not only by me – but by the dwarf-loving community out there. So, thanks again.
Chris: No problem.
Jerry: Yeah, thanks for having us.
Roy: Now the reason, or well maybe… the timing rather, I’ve asked you kind people for this interview is not by chance… obviously, but – because of the news that came from Indianapolis over the weekend, at GenCon… where not only did we hear about race changes, but about a new dwarf race basically and possibilities for dwarves to pick their gender… I mean, huge, massive news, which we’ll no doubt get into, in a bit…. But massive news indeed. By the way, I also want to give a “thank you” there to Druidsfire from MMO-central for covering much of this as it was going on. Right. So, I’m guessing the direct feedback from the folks there, at GenCon, as this was announced, must have been, I don’t know… full of excitement and amazement, right? I mean, it’s a lot of what people have been asking…. and then some…. So…
Jerry: Yeah, we definitely had some big news to announce this year at GenCon. Just to put it in context, we announced it a player-meet-up, last Friday…
Jerry: … that was outside of the convention centre itself. We had a whole bunch of Lotro players and players of all of our games there, hanging out. We wanted to save some good stuff for them, so we were able to announce the stout-axe there… and if you were in person, we might have shown you a little bit of concept art too… kind of… hush-hush.
Roy: Right, well, I would have loved to be there, honestly, it sounds like an amazing event and well… fantastic time, really. Which, actually, leads me to my next question, … so when are you nice folks at SSG here going to come over to my end of pond? Are there any plans at all by chance to visit Europe… don’t know, the upcoming Gamescon Europe…in Germany for instance?
Jerry: I think Gamescon itself is probably out-of-scope for short-term and probably even medium-term plans. I would certainly never say never on that. But also, these kind happen on an opportunity base. We have a certain number of people that are already going to be there, for example. And then we are able to take advantage of that, to have this kind of meet-up. So, if the cards align, I would never say never, but I can’t really see us going to Gamescon any time soon.
Roy: Well if you folks can make it to one of the European conventions, one day, if so… barring any natural disasters, I’ll definitely be there. So, no worries there. Let’s dive into a bit of the Dwarvish news, if you will…
Stout-axes. What’s the reason you went for the Stout-axes as opposed to making the Zhelruka a playable race? After all, as a player, we’ve previously interacted with both of these somewhat friendly factions before… so?
Chris: Well, I think, one of the things that sort-of gave a genesis toward the stout-axes was a desire to create an off-shoot of the dwarves who were a little bit physically more imposing and a little bit more stouter, a little bit stronger. And we’d already… since we’d already done so much with the Zhelruka in the Grey Mountains and the Ironfold, we felt like that… we already established a look for them and we wanted to bring players in with a slightly different take on them. We also… you know the Zhelruka have some fairly-involved story at this point and we wanted the new race to be a little bit more carte blanche, as far as like the involvement with the rest of the world. So that you are still coming in as a new player or a new character, so we weren’t bumping into there being political problems with involving them as the Zhelruka – in conjunction with the Longbeards that are early in the game and stuff. Because, while they are kind of friendly, the two groups did butt heads a little bit. There was a notion of like, – not so much outcast dwarves – but dwarves that had been through some stuff that the other ones had not, that had shaped them and given them their own, sort of, very discreet identity within the world.
Roy: Right, so more of a carte-blanche opportunity there really, what the Zhelruka really didn’t have any more…. Right, gotcha.
Roy: Sorry go ahead…
Chris: No, go ahead….
Roy: Now, alike The Zhelruka though, they… Stout-axes both originated in the east. Now, what I’ve been wondering. Or lore-nuts such as I myself will probably wonder…. In the History of Middle Earth, you’ve got the four eastern clans right, the Stonefoots, Blacklocks, etc.… now, I’m aware that those names are not on the table and can’t be used for LOTRO due to rights. But, I’m curious… to what extent have you taken this lore and these clans into account when creating dwarves like the Zhelruka and the Stout-axes? Seeing they are coming from the east, was this a source in some way?
Chris: Oh yes, I mean… while the actual names of the clans are not… (Stiffbeards, Stonefoots and whatnot) are not within our rights, sadly… the notion of there being seven clans of dwarves and the seven fathers of the dwarves, and where they all are roughly in the world, it’s very much in our minds as far as developing further dwarf related content. So, you know, the Zhelruka are basically one of those four clans we know are settled in the East and the Stout-axes are descendants of another one of those four clans, that we know that have had historical contact with the Zhelruka and other eastern peoples in the past, but have been split off in more recent years by their enslavement by Sauron.
Roy: Ok, now let’s dive in maybe to game-lore, just a little bit deeper, for a minute… when we met the Stout-axes for the last time (well, excluding Spakoth and the refugees at Erebor) they were at the Plateau of Gorgoroth, where there was, well… I guess you could call it… a great rift within their clan and their King Váskmun Greytooth renamed their clan The Firehorns, leading them into the Abyss of Mordath. So, the fate of these Firehorns is still somewhat – well I would say – unwritten … so as a player who now would play a stout-axe dwarf… are we going to see a similar dynamic between the Firehorns and Stout-axes as we saw between the Longbeards and the Dourhands? Or…is this something you folks had in mind when you set this story line up?
Chris: There is definitely a sense that the Stout-Axes… yeah, I mean… the comparison with the Dourhands is actually fairly accurate in as much as they are their own thing that has arisen from one of the other clans – The Dourhands arising from multiple clans. And then the Firehorns being more of a factional off-shoot, even from that, born out of “what-happens-now-that-Sauron-is fallen”. There is similarity there, it’s not an exact match to the Longbeards and Dourhands, but certainly the truer Stout-Axes, as opposed to Firehorns… are a theoretically less corrupted and a more noble band of people, than the Firehorns. Now, when you first, start out as a Stout-Axe that rift hasn’t actually occurred yet. Being a new character, you are actually starting out before the fall of Sauron and more, sort of, in the older days when other new players/characters start out. So, there are just Stout-Axes at that point, but they are a nation – at this point – almost more out of circumstance than any kind of centralized leadership, which is how the Váskmun vs Spakoth rift was able to develop in the first place, they are a little king-less and do their own thing. And once Sauron falls that splits in half fairly neatly.
Roy: Now, as you’ve said, as a Stout-Axe basically you start out… way… at the start of the story, Sauron still in full power, if you will. But at a certain point in the story, Sauron falls and the Stout-axes swear an oath to keep watch over the lands of Dor Amarth in Mordor. So, is the player, at the point, somehow excused from this oath, can he -or well… she- eventually wonder the lands of Middle-Earth again then, or…?
Chris: Absolutely, because your character starts out before that oath is sworn, you are already out in the world – by that point. The Stout-Axes who remained in Gorgoroth are bound by that oath, but not necessarily the ones who managed to slip the bonds of Mordor… and the very, very few, including your character, who manage to go out into the wider world.
Roy: Gotcha, ok. So, the whole kind of fear that some people on the forums had there about… Stout-Axes having… because the survivors of the Stout-axes are at Erebor, currently at least where we are. But that obviously doesn’t apply because you start as a new player when actually Sauron is still in his might, so you kind of slip your bonds, if you will, and go into the free world.
Chris: Right, yes.
Chris: The circumstances of the Stout-Axes, again it’s not identical, but it’s very similar to the Longbeards after everything went side-ways in Moria, they scattered. And with the Stout-Axes, they were all kept prisoner, but they are… – again, they don’t have a king, so they… they don’t have one set king with a demonstrable bloodline, so they are much less beholden to follow any one particular leader – even in the time after Sauron’s fall.
Roy: Alright, I see. Well, enough with the lore-related questions… at least for now at least… Let’s talk about female dwarves for a bit. Now, from what’s been announced earlier, a player creating a stout-axe dwarf would actually have the possibility to select male or female gender.
Roy: My first question on this is, seeing Longbeard Dwarves do not have a gender at all to select in the game, why this apparent change for these new dwarves?
Jerry: The “why” is simply a mix of… it’s the right thing to do and people in the community have wanted it. And when we are making this dwarf-variant, it made sense. It’s really no more than that.
Jerry: In terms of the way that we will be implementing it, unlike the typical dwarf (which on character selection you don’t select a gender, you are simply “a dwarf”), we will allow you to select a gender. Cosmetically they will look alike, we will be using the same cosmetics, under the current plan for this. So, our intention is to follow the lore while also make that an option for players who want that.
Roy: Alright. Ok, so, to confirm this again, the male and female Stout-Axes will look alike – keeping with the lore that other races could not tell them apart?
Jerry: With a caveat that not all the art is done yet, that is my understanding.
Roy: Alright.. right, ok. Now, the option of giving the player gender-choice when it comes to dwarves, will not be available for the Longbeard race when this new race hits LOTRO, as I understood. But it is something… is it something you guys are working on for the near future? Perhaps a few updates along the line… or is this not even on the table at the moment?
Jerry: I’m sorry I missed the first part of your question. Are you talking about bringing that gender-selection to the regular dwarves?
Roy: Yes, the Longbeard race, yes.
Jerry: I think it is a discussion we’d have to have. At this point, I don’t know if we have direct plans for it. The method by which it is currently available to select your gender as a regular dwarf, for the most part, fits. Now part of the discussion that cropped up in the last – oh, I don’t know – seventy-two hours or so, is that we may have some gender language through-out the regular dwarves, like say … trees and skill-descriptions and things like that. And we may need to take a pass on that to make that a little bit more gender-neutral.
Jerry: But as far as I’m aware, we are not intending to do a direct selection for the original dwarves. I don’t know if that is something we couldn’t change our mind on though.
Chris: It is definitely something that we could rethink. I mean, it does come with the additional question “what do we do with all the Longbeards that are running around out there?” – presumably male, but no one is quite clear. Because we would potentially need to come up with a system by which people could sort of – post-facto – select their sex for their already existing character, which is additional development that I don’t think we are comfortable with navigating right now.
Jerry: Technically that will be possible with one of the other things we’ve announced at GenCon, that you may be bringing about shortly… we are going to be allowing racial changes. So, theoretically, you might be able to do it through that tech, as you’ll be able to change your gender as part of that.
Chris: That’s True.
Jerry: But I think that’s not the intended scope of what that particular object is. So, I think we would probably keep it as it were, as the current dwarf selection is, unless we had a particularly compelling reason may be to change it.
Chris: I mean, lore-wise, it made sense to allow for… I mean, the conceit in Tolkien’s world, with dwarves, is that the females stay home, because there aren’t that many of them and they are needed… to… you know, they have a place of importance in the Kingdom that makes them less likely to go adventuring. With the Stout-Axes, because they’ve been taken prisoner by Sauron – and you are one that has managed to break free of that captivity – that social dynamic isn’t there. Again, all of what their clan used to be has been stripped from them, so it makes sense that some of the ones that may have managed to escape would be female – even though it would be very difficult for anyone else to tell.
Roy: Right, Ok, I see. So, what classes, when we are talking about the Stout-Axe dwarf here, what classes will be available when this launches? Has this been determined actually yet, at this point?
Jerry: I’m sure, if not determined, at least on the path to that internally. But we’ve not yet announced what classes the Stout-Axe dwarf will be, that will be coming later. Or as we get towards previews and things like that.
Roy: Ok, so we can expect this latest addition to the dwarvish family, if you will, when Minas Morgul comes out, – as I understood – any ball-park idea at this stage when that would be, roughly?
Jerry: *chuckles* There might be a date on a page somewhere, but… Uhm, no, we have not, again, said publicly other than “our intention is to do it later this year”.
Roy: Ok, fine, that’s fine, that’s fine… I’m not holding you under shot-gun here, it’s all good.
Jerry: It’s still on track with our earlier announcement for having it later this year.
Roy: Alright, ok… so the Stout-Axes and Longbeards have a rather different look obviously, so when we look at their beard-styles and moustaches… Are there any plans for players with existing Longbeard characters, who don’t actually want to take advantage of the new race change as well, to have access to these newer facial hair options? Maybe – I don’t know… with an extra beard/ hair “pack” in the LotRO store or something?
Jerry: That is not the current plan.
Roy: Ok, so no plans there. Unfortunate for those that hoped for a new moustache, but ah well, it is what it is.
Jerry: I guess I can’t fully commit to that, but that’s my understanding… is that the Stout-Axe will have their own options available to them at character creation that would be exclusive to the Stout-Axe.
Roy: Alright, no worries. We’ve basically known about the Stout-Axes for just… well, actually, over two years now really. Wow, it’s been… it’s mind-boggling to think the Mordor Expansion came out August 2nd 2017… that is unbelievable…. Anyway… Talking about the look and style of the Stout-Axes. I’m curious, where did you get the inspiration for their rather distinctive look, any real-life historic cultures or passages from Tolkien’s work that inspired you to form them?
Chris: I think, culturally, for them, they are from a similar part of the world as the Zhelruka, so we were looking – at least for their cultural background – again, much of which has been forgotten, I was looking towards – not necessarily toward the Slavs, but other Northern/North-Eastern European peoples for the Stout-Axes and the … more so for the clan that was captured by Sauron and turned into the Stout-Axes by years of captivity. In the time since, because they’ve been stripped of their background, they’ve become more of a mish-mash from a bunch of different influences. Whether it’s other clans that have either come to serve Sauron or have been forced to serve Sauron (like the Stout-Axes have). Or just general almost sort-of post-apocalyptic feel from having dwelt for centuries in the furnaces of Udûn and Gorgoroth. So, they are much more of a ragged band that has adopted what they have been able to find along the way to carve out their own identity. And there are somethings in the history that I’ve worked out for them that have a direct influence on them, like some of the beard-styles that they choose. But I can’t really get into that right now, because I want our content designers to be able to bring that stuff out in good time in the game.
Roy: Ok, considering the fact that it has been about two years since the players first met the Stout-Axe dwarf and now they are being introduced as a playable character, has the design department had to look at them again, perhaps, maybe do a bit of a redesign on them, for this?
Chris: I haven’t seen any. And to be honest, the models are just coming together for them. Oh my god, I’ve just been seeing our artists working out the – I guess – final versions of them, as opposed to the concepts that we’ve been doing. So, I’m not entirely sure what the plan is for the existing Stout-Axes.
Jerry: I think typically, historically in-game, NPCs for example, that maybe don’t coincide completely with newly introduced races, like maybe the high-elf – I don’t think we went back… and you know…
Chris: Yeah, we didn’t go back …
Jerry: So, I would expect similar behaviour here. But that said, I guess, if there was something that glaringly didn’t seem right, we could always do that kind of work.
Roy: Right, ok… if we compare the Longbeards to the Stout-axes for a moment, they’ve travelled very different paths historically to get to this moment in time, if you will. These Stout-axes must have developed rather differently than their Longbeard brothers, as you said earlier as well Chris… both in culture and stature… considering they were enslaved by a Black Númenórean and their house was brought to ruin by none-other-than Sauron himself. How does this translate for the player… apart from being in a different starting zone? How does this translate for the player?
Chris: It’s more of a spring-board for the players to set their characters up from… their starting experience will be fairly different from most of the other characters, particularly from the Longbeard dwarves. Their initial experience in the game will be different. They will obviously be getting involved in a lot of the same adventures as a lot of the existing characters, as they are still going to be able to engage in the content we have throughout the game. But their initial introduction to the game makes it much clearer that they are out-casts, that they aren’t a part of the power-dynamic that – say – that existed between the Longbeards and the Dourhands in Ered Luin. They are more of a wild card that is thrown into that mix.
Roy: Hmm, alright, well, we’ve touched on this a tiny little bit earlier, but it is known from Tolkien’s lore that Dwarvish females were very well protected by the males of their house and only in greatest need would venture out the door – and when they did, dressed alike the male dwarves. Now, with the ring destroyed… the question basically that I have is.. what’s the great need? What LOTRO-lore reason has been devised to get these fine Stout-axe ladies out the door? Or is it – and I think you’ve touched on that earlier a bit- is it more of a cultural thing of the Stout-axes – perhaps both male and females performed the same slave tasks under their masters, which has earned them the right to venture out like the males? Don’t know, what’s the reason, what’s the great need here?
Chris: That’s basically it, they aren’t as concerned with preserving their bloodline, as the Longbeards, as they are with getting out of their bonds and making their way out into the world where they can breathe the free air for the first time in centuries. So, their priorities are very different.
Chris: I would think, dwarves being dwarves, ultimately, I think that – if they have the opportunity to settle down again – they may have to enter into the same kind of situation as the Longbeards, but that’s not even close to being a concern of theirs in the current state. Even after the fall of Sauron, there is a still a lot of chaos, a lot of trouble going on in Mordor that the ones that stayed behind are bound to keep an eye out and are still figuring out what their role is going to be in the world after the fall of Sauron.
Roy: Hmm, right. Let’s talk about housing and items for a bit… With the introduction of the Figments of Splendour players had the chance to barter for some very dwarvish cosmetics and furniture, which was absolutely great to see those introduced, I’ve got to tell you. Some of those, well some of the players like myself had been waiting a long time to get those… so thank you for that. Any chance we’ll be seeing more dwarvish furniture added to the barter list? Perhaps some Stout-axe furniture as part of the Stout-Axe Reputation barter items? If this system will still exist, I’m guessing it will, that the Stout-Axes will have their own rep items and barter items and what-not?
Jerry: I think that’s a pretty safe bet, but I don’t know if I’ve seen that work confirmed yet, but I would assume that. Yeah, if we are debuting a new race, we are going to have some cosmetics to support it, through multiple channels.
Roy: Well, the furniture was definitely a hit, so if I can tell you one thing, guys… dwarf furniture… go for it. Right, when I briefly worked together with you Chris on U23: Where Dragons Dwell, I was tremendously surprised – and unbelievably grateful by the way – that you folks had actually put an NPC in the game with my name, in the Scholar’s abode. So, that’s me getting my own exclusive little bit of Erebor real estate. My question here is… with Rohan housing on the horizon, any chance of players getting their hands on some Erebor housing property? Is that somewhere in the plans?
Jerry: We don’t have… right? We do not have Erebor housing…
Chris: We don’t have it planned. I mean, we throw around tons of ideas around here. And certainly, when we make lists of places where we would like to do housing neighbourhoods… you know… Rohan is the number one… so it’s the one we’ve been focusing on. But certainly, the notion of something in or around Erebor has come up in the past. It’s just a question of when we have time to do this stuff. New housing neighbourhoods is not a small task for us.
Jerry: And we have committed to, at some point in the relatively near future, Rohan housing as well.
Jerry: So that clearly would be the next…
Chris: Yes, absolutely. That one, in my opinion, has been overdue.
Jerry: I’m sure they would love it, if we just said… “hey, can you do Erebor too?”
Roy: *laughs* Well, we can only ask guys, we can only ask, right? Right, is there, I don’t know if that is actually the case… I do know… and you’ve confirmed again Rohan is the priority for housing, which is fine obviously… but is there any revamp, maybe, of the existing housing areas scheduled any time soon? Or is it more “let’s focus on expanding the housing first”?
Jerry: We have plans in the nebulous longer-term future (aka not like the next update or the one after that) to do some work on kinships. But what level of work and depth of that work… what that entails, has not yet been determined.
Roy: Ok, so the kinship updates will, somehow, also be connected with the housing updates because of the kinship house…
Jerry: Really at this point, it gets more to the point of internally we’ve had people planning let’s find time for – quote “kinship update” – and that’s probably about the scope and extent that we can talk about it at this point.
Roy: Ok, that’s fine, that’s fine… jumping back to the Stout-axes for a bit, but still on the topic about revisiting some older content, will you be replacing the… and I think we’ve touched on that a little bit – the standard “he/him” when the player is referred to by an NPC quest giver? Or will you keep the “he/him” even though it is a female character, which might be the case with the Stout-Axes… seeing the outsiders should not be able to see the difference? Or what if the NPC quest giver is a dwarf for instance… wouldn’t they be able to tell that it’s “her/she” instead of “he/him”? If that makes sense…
Chris: Those are very good questions. And they are questions we’ve been batting around here, but we don’t have a firm….
Jerry: … solution for it…
Chris: …. one way or the other on it. Because it is a complicated thing and it is not something when one designs a means of identifying gender for characters that one doesn’t necessarily take up the… that’s probably the gender male, but I can’t be completely sure. Which is really what the dwarves tend to be.
Jerry: I think there may just be some basic logic-tech between determining all the pronouns.
Chris: Yeah. I keep switching my opinion about how I want to… how we ought to address that, because there are pros and cons to both sides.
Chris: I will…. WE will eventually pick something.
Roy: It’s a tricky thing, absolutely. When… ok. Let’s talk dwarvish “mounts” for a moment, if we can. Some on the forum have called for war-goats.
Roy: Now I can understand…. Now…. we’ll you’ve heard it and probably read it before guys… now I can understand that… (apart from any potential technical challenge) that this wouldn’t, at least from my point of view, be appropriate for Rohan, the initial region where you get your war-mount is going to be a horse, that’s it. But any plans to get like a secondary region where the war-steed system is used, which would, by chance, allow war-goats? Is that ever going to materialize? I mean, you could bury this war-goat thing right now guys, if you want to, I’m just saying….
Jerry: Well I appreciate…. It’s actually from my understanding, as much of a largely an internal cultural meme…
Jerry: … as well as a serious request to get a war-goat, but we definitely don’t have… as far as I am aware, any plans to further work on that system.
Chris: I would… yeah.
Roy: Ok, fine… on the topic of steeds guys. Seeing that neither goats nor war-goats are lore, have there ever been thoughts about introducing steeds like, I don’t know…. boars for dwarves. Especially when the Hobbit movies were out there was a lot of talk about that at the time – because, you know… one of the main characters was riding a boar… , that seems to never really have died down. If you check the forums, there is always someone talking about “hey… we want a boar…” Any potential plans on that or can you confirm LOTRO… or maybe you just want to stick with horses, ponies, goats and the occasional elk? I don’t know….
Chris: I don’t want to say never. But, I kind of appreciated Dáin war-swine in the movie and I wouldn’t…. If someone came up to me in the company and said “we’ve got a bit of time to put together war-pigs”, I would potentially be interested, but I don’t think we have any firm plans to do that at this time.
Roy: Ok, so war-goats seem to be out of the question, but there is hope for boars folks… so that’s good. Right, ok, guys, I can’t wait for the new update and the Stout-axe dwarves to hit LOTRO. Thank you so much for your time, Jerry and Chris. It has been a real pleasure talking to you guys. Have an awesome rest of your day gentlemen and thank you again.
Chris: Thank you.
Jerry: Yeah, thanks.