Worlds of Design: Escaping Tolkien

In my previous article we discussed technological differences; this article focuses on cultural differences. Perhaps the cultural differences aren’t as clear in one’s awareness, but can be very important and just as far-reaching. Don’t underestimate culture!

In my previous article we discussed technological differences; this article focuses on cultural differences. Perhaps the cultural differences aren’t as clear in one’s awareness, but can be very important and just as far-reaching. Don’t underestimate culture!

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Part of world building is figuring out the consequences of changes you make from the technological and cultural background that you start with. You always start with something. For example, there’s often an assumption that there are horses large enough to be ridden in the world, even though for thousands of years of real-world history, they weren’t large enough to ride.

Trapped by Tolkien

Some world builders get “trapped by Tolkien” as I like to put it. They think elves must be like Tolkien’s (even though those aren’t traditional), dwarves must be like Tolkien’s, etc. Imagine elves with the capabilities of Tolkien’s, but inclined to be Imperials! It’s a change of culture only, but a mighty one. Imagine if dwarves and orcs tended to work together! Similarly, monstrous humanoids aren’t necessarily antagonistic towards humans and vice versa. These are cultural changes that can differentiate your fantasy world from so many others and while subtle, but they can make a big difference. Turn your imagination loose, don’t let it be constrained by a single author or book.

Magical Attitudes

Attitudes toward magic make a big difference on how a setting works. In one setting the magic users may be the rock stars, while in another they may be dreaded and avoided shadowy figures; they can be as rare as professional athletes or an everyday occurrence.

Modern Attitudes

It’s probably inevitable that modern attitudes will shape how game masters create their fantasy worlds. Using slavery as one example, whether or not it “makes sense” in a world must also be balanced by how it will be represented in the game. If you are going to take on mature topics for a fantasy world that has a long history similar to our world (including the unpleasant parts), you should consider how your players will deal with the topic.


I haven’t said much about intentional versus unintentional change to a fantasy world, because in the end it’s the change that matters, not the intention. I suppose you’re more likely to figure out what changes will occur, when you’re intending to introduce changes. But a world is a huge collection of interactions, and any change is likely to affect more than you intended.

Your Turn: In your experience, what was the change (from the “default”) in world-setting that made the biggest difference?

log in or register to remove this ad

Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


I think the Swedish role playing publishers are doing great in offering fantasy that seems more authentic to the folklore of northern Europe, than the mish-mash that Tolkein brought forth in the Lord of the Rings saga.

For example, both Trudvang and Symbaroum come to mind with their take on trolls, orcs, and goblins, that differ so much from the traditional Gary Gygax take on the same.

Also, I do not know whether it was the J.R.R. Tolkein copyright on hobbits, that forced so many name changes on essentially the same fantasy species, sometimes called halflings, or kender, or other variant names, while the elves and dwarves retained the same naming convention across multiple fantasy books.



Rotten DM
Imagine Trailer Park Elves who live on the dole. Valley Girl elf who invents the California Roll. Orcs into heavy metal or Country.
Back in 1E did the math 10% of the half-orcs are good looking enough to be adventurers. What happen to the other 90%. They took over some orc tribes. My players and especially the rules lawyer were ticked off when the raid on the orc tribe did go that well.
"What do you mean the orc does not drop. I did 16 pts!"
On Slavery I had certain city states allow it and others ban it. One PC knew he could not fight the whole city state. But he started by buying one and setting her free. (She became his wife.) And he had started a slavery fund where about 25% of his loot went to buying slaves and getting them across the border.
Magical Attitudes varied. My big city was magic as tech. The Gem Gnomes were using Rock to mud and mud to rock to seed the tourist attraction. Mine your own gems. 1 GP for four hours.
Other locations were low magic or arcana magic were evil, forget the reason because no groups ever visited the place.

It should be noted though, that while much of what solidified some of the stuff for Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs was Tolkien, all of his versions of them were not 100% his creation, but come from much various versions of Nordic and Germanic folklore. While great to encourage diversity in settings so that not all settings have the same dwarves, elves, and orcs, I think it is important that we don't sort of throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and just blantently label all things vaguely resembling Norse or Germanic mythology or Tolkien as "bad" or "unoriginal!"

Though, as the other post mentioned, Swedish publishers are doing a good job sort of taking their own culture's spin on things. It is certainly perfectly fine to have settings without elves, dwarves, orcs, etc. At the end of the day what matters is that each setting makes sure to have each culture within their world actually feel fleshed out and have thought and care behind them, not just blantently rip off real world cultures half-heartedly without understanding the finer minutia that makes them work or showing respect for them. It also helps to avoid showing one culture as "the bad guys". Just sayin'.


D&D will remain in thrall to Tolkien as long as it remains taken for granted that every campaign world has dwarves, elves, orcs, halflings, etc. You can say "My elves are different!" all you want, but a) that's still defining your elves by their relationship to Tolkien's elves, and b) they're probably not as different as you think. I bet they're still human-sized, slender, beautiful, graceful, intelligent, artistic, and live for many centuries. Am I right? Sure I'm right. When elves in your world look like this, maybe you'll be able to claim that you've escaped Tolkien:


But really escaping Tolkien means being able to conceive of a world with no goddamn elves at all. Most fantasy literature doesn't have elves, or dwarves, or any of the rest of it. There was an era, during the first Tolkien craze, when every world looked like Middle-Earth; but that era is long over in fantasy fiction. It's only D&D and its online descendants that remain stuck in that mold.
Last edited:


Part of the reason it is so easy to be "trapped by Tolkien" is because his creation is so exquisitely crafted, and his expressions of fantasy material so archetypal - as if he tapped into their "ur-forms" and gave them life.

Another facet is just how influential he is in the fantasy tradition. He is, in many ways, to fantasy literature what Jesus Christ is to world history--there's a meaningful before and after point, regardless of how one personally feels about him. Tolkien influenced the entire genre, from the mid-50s on; even those writers who were subversive, usually did so in relation--or opposed--to Tolkien in some way (e.g. Moorcock, Donaldson, etc). Or to put it more profanely, he's the Babe Ruth of fantasy.

That said, because of the long shadow he casts, many don't realize that there is a lot of pre-Tolkien stuff that can provide interesting sources to dive into. RE Howard and HP Lovecraft also had a significant influence on D&D, and one can look at other early fantasists like George MacDonald, William Morris, Algernon Blackwood, James Branch Cabell, Clark Ashton Smith, ER Eddison, CL Moore, Lord Dunsany and others. And of course Gary Gygax was influenced by authors contemporary to and after Tolkien such as Jack Vance, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, Ursula K Le Guin, Andre Norton, and others. And there are countless post-Tolkien authors that are unique and display "Tolkien autonomy" that can be mined for material.

It perhaps goes without saying that there are significant differences in what goes into building a world for a novel versus for a game. The former is meant to serve the story, while the latter is meant to serve the play experience. But both should be designed with what the worldbuilder's intention is, and what sort of flavors they want in their soup. There really are no limits, be it drawing from the fantasy tradition--Before or After Tolkien--or other sources. But Tolkien does provide an extremely well-crafted and beautiful expression of fantasy archetypes, and ones that many people not only are familiar with, but love.

As for my own worldbuilding, like most of my generation (X) I was deeply impacted by reading Tolkien, although read widely and had many influences. But I do remember a specific point in my career as a worldbuilder, when I not only de-tangled myself from Tolkien, but also from D&D. It was with the world setting of my stories, and I remember a point when I realized that the elves of my world weren't actually elves, they were something else. And then dwarves and other Tolkien and D&D tropes began to disappear--even dragons!--although there are beings and ideas in my world which have some degree of resonance with many more traditional forms. But they were something other, as if I found my own way into the wellspring of fantasy without the intermediary of one of the greats to guide me.

Since then--about 30 years ago--I've had a two-pronged world-building career, which I've kept pretty distinctly apart. There's the world of my writing on one hand, and on the other the settings I create for gaming. The former is an ongoing project, and has evolved over the decades (although remained relatively consistent for the last 15 years or so, with mostly small to moderate changes, and most of those in terms of deepening). The latter involves the creation of a new setting every 5 years or so, or whenever I start a new campaign. Sometimes it draws upon the previous setting, other times it has been entirely new.

My writing world is designed both to create something beautiful, and tell stories in. The RPG worlds are designed to facilitate an enjoyable play experience for me and my group. I'm more of a "purist" with the former, and thus more cognizant of being autonomous from major influences like Tolkien, but for the RPG worlds it doesn't matter as much. I'm more...omnivorous. I still care about creating something internally consistent, but the bottom line is the fun of the play experience, while my writing world is more artistic.

Or to put it another way, my writing world is my attempt at a grand symphony, and the RPG worlds are like jam bands.

Remove ads

Remove ads