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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!

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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.

Intentions

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.

Now it’s your turn: In your experience, what was the change (from the “default”) in world-setting that made the biggest difference?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

imagineGod

Adventurer
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.

cover_trudvang_art.jpg
 

jasper

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'.
 



Dausuul

Legend
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.
 
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Mercurius

Legend
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.
 


Mercurius

Legend
I seem to recall that the ads for the game Talislanta had as their slogan: "No elves!"
Haven't played the game, so don't know how accurate it was in-game though.

Talislanta is my all-time favorite RPG and setting. It actually doesn't have elves, although several races are "elf-like." But the world itself has a distinctly non-Tolkien vibe, more in the tradition of Dunsany and Smith, sword and sorcery, and 1970s science fantasy, with a kind of quasi-psychedelic tone.

Actually, Talislanta is a great resource for those wanting to explore creating different races. I don't think there is a setting where there are so many distinctly different--and often-times unique--races.
 

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.

Except even in the case of Harry Potter elves still have elements of the same mythologies that Tolkien used to create his elves. House elves are still arguably connected to fey and other sorts of magical creatures and have their own forms of magic that within setting is highly unknown to humans. If anything they are closer to traditional Norse elves (which were both what we view as dwarves and elves and gnomes now) than Tolkien's versions. They also draw heavily from slavic house spirits (hint, it's where the "house" of house elves comes from) which were creatures that were often small or had the ability to hide supernaturally from human eye that would help care for peoples homes and hearth as long as they left outflow food or trinkets for them.

Her house elves are no more original than any other fictional fantasy race. Calling one author's creations as "boring and lazy" when another's draw from the same set of sources is without actually looking at the nuances they imbue within them is not a good president to set.

An example of those "tolkien" dwarves from said era of crazed fantasy: The Death Gate Cycle by Margeret Weis (yes one of the Dragonlance people) depicts dwarves as largely Tolkienian, but has several scenes where a dwarven character precedes to describe how odd they find it that humans are so eager to backstab, betray, or care only about themselves because from his perspective a large defining point of dwarven society is they care more about their clans and families than themselves and while feuding between families isn't uncommon, one person caring only about themselves or knowingly unharming a family member is unheard of.

Another example: in the Obsidian trilogy by Mercedes Lackey, she depicts elves in an almost entirely alien fashion at least initially, describing them more like fey forest ghosts until her human characters learn more about their ways, in which they are perhaps 80% tolkienian, or at least certain fit your definition of "tall slender beautiful people who live centuries". Despite that, the book takes literal chapters to describe the elven mindset in her world, where several different elves teach the humans about their cultures, the largee bulk of which include how they have a strong inclination towards perfecting everything they do, so an elven blacksmith might spend literal decades deeming each of them "worthless trash" while a human blacksmith would just deem them "good enough" simply because they can afford to have such a long lived mindset. It also talks about how they devote literally centuries towards figuring out the proper way to make tea or use a sword, and that this long lived mindset is largely why they have such friction with humans, and it isn't just a riff on Tolkien's elves (or Ents), because said mindset directly causes them to have issues training the main character to fight or rally together to help the humans and other races to fight a mutual enemy. Additionally over the course the the book the humans who are learning about them ultimately conclude that while they will never see 100% eye to eye on certain things it is the act of learning about each other's cultures that ultimately brings them together, in that a large part of how he gets them to help out the humans is by learning to participate in their elaborate tea rituals.

Both of these are exactly the same dwarves and elves that are supposedly "boring and derivative". The true problem isn't with elves or dwarves, it's with lazy writers who are off Tolkien or other works without putting in any actual effort to make them feel different than just humans with pointy ears that live in forests or short humans with beards that live underground.

And I assure you such laziness affects more than just stuff with Tolkien. Do centaur and satyr and nymphs get a pass just because Lord of the Rings didn't draw much from Greek mythology, or must we now make all centaurs have lion bodies instead of horses or have horse heads instead of human! Hate to break it to you but those also already exist and are called Lamia and Ipotane. Both are ALSO from Greek myths. They aren't more "original" just because someone might not have heard of them. Nothing is truly original and that is a problem that predates Tolkien. What matters is people actually put in the work to use things in their own way.
 
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I absolutely love Tolkien and my earliest fantasy settings were heavily influenced by him. But these days I'm pretty bored with the classic fantasy with European medieval style and the usual cast of tropey fantasy races. Sure, Tolkien did it superbly, many later imitations, including several D&D settings, both official and of my own making less so. So these days I prefer to do something a bit more different. It may not be objectively any better in quality, but perhaps at least a bit more fresh and surprising for the players. Then of course one can argue that by intentionally trying to avoid doing a Tolkien-pastiche one is still in effect being influenced by him.
 

Mercurius

Legend
An interesting thing about Tolkien's elves is that they were, in some sense, subversive of Shakespeare. He felt that the Bard's depiction of Fairie represented a degradation of the "true" mythic sources. The cute and mischievous pixies and such of Shakespeare are a far cry from the Irish Tuatha de Danaan, who are probably the primary source for Tolkien's elves.

Tolkien didn't primarily world-build in order to write novels. That came as a result of the world-building, not the other way around - as is the case with the vast majority of authors. He wanted to create a cohesive mythology or "mythic cycle" for his British homeland, drawing upon mythology and folklore from throughout (mostly) Northern Europe. And of course it is well known that his "hook" into world-building was through creating languages. The world was formed around and from the languages he made, with resulting myths and stories.
 

ART!

Adventurer
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.

I think this is an essential thing to know about writing and gaming. I'm trying to figure out how much of my GMing desire is actually a need to write.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
I seem to recall that the ads for the game Talislanta had as their slogan: "No elves!"
Haven't played the game, so don't know how accurate it was in-game though.
Could not believe this was a thing, but did find some old adverts were that was a unique selling point. Wow!
Yeah, I remember passing their booth at GenCon 2019 with that slogan proudly displayed. I remember thinking at the time, "You won't catch me by telling me what you don't have--tell me what you do have."

While looking it up just now, I found out that the creator has decided to make all the original books (apart from the "Savage Land" series that was Kickstarted a few years ago) available for free download. You can find them on Drivethrurpg ...


... or from this website:

 

MGibster

Legend
Honestly, I don't think of D&D as being trapped by Tolkien so much as I think of it as being trapped by it's own machinations and success. I don't have a problem escaping Tolkien I have difficulty escaping D&D even when I run fantasy games with other systems. In a Savage Worlds game a few years back, I had the PCs encounter a giant of epic proportions, think of the giant big enough to wear a good sized sailing ship as a hat from the movie Time Bandits. More than one of the players kind of blanked out on my description after hearing giant and just assumed it was anywhere between 18-25 feet tall. Something they could easily take.

But this is part of D&D's success I think. You can walk into just about any setting and know what an elf, dwarf, and halfling are with no problem.
 

Mercurius

Legend
I think this is an essential thing to know about writing and gaming. I'm trying to figure out how much of my GMing desire is actually a need to write.

Yeah, I've struggled with that - although not really for some years. My "solution" was realizing that my deeper passion was writing (and world-building), and that as long as I actively engage in that, it actually frees gaming up to be what it is - and not try to fill the void of something it cannot.

In the process, I separated the two - so I have my writing and its world, and I have gaming and the various settings I create for campaigns. I might draw upon the former for the latter, but separating them has helped free me up to engage in them in different ways, and not confuse my underlying "needs" (in a Maslowian sense).
 


Retreater

Legend
Tolkien is an easy, familiar baseline fantasy for many new players. It can be a useful shorthand description of assumptions for new players who can be overwhelmed by your unique campaign world. But deviation from that assumption can be needed for the group.
The main concern I would have is how much it's baked into the core design of D&D. For example, if you want to play Mistborn, there's a system for that. And if you're just re-skinning things, what's the point?
 

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