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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

bloodtide

Explorer
I think it is safe to say D&D and a lot of other games were "trapped in Tolkien", at least until the mid 1980's or so. Tolkien was (and is) popular, so naturally many games were made in that image.

Though most of all, I think it was just simple access. So, setting the Wayback Machine for late 70's/early 80's. Sci-Fi and Fantasy were simply not all that popular in the mainstream. If you were a fan, your local bookstore MIGHT have a single shelf of fantasy/sci fi/horror WAY in the back of the store. Even if your store did though, you were unlikely to find much of a selection or variety. They might have a couple Persis Anthony or Steven King books, but not much else. If the book store even bought, say Ursula K. Le Guin books....they would likely only buy a single "box" of five books. And the big box bookstores were not quite yet around yet....

TV and movies were even worse with fantasy being rare. And this was a lifetime before you could own or stream a movie or TV show. The VHS tape of Star Wars even did not come out until 1984 (though you could rent it starting in '82) and it took forever for the first three movie box set (1990!). But if you were lucky your local UHF station played Star Wars occasionally so you could at least see it sometimes.

In short "Tolkinen" was the only fantasy most people knew for years and years.
 

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Aelryinth

Explorer
I think it is safe to say D&D and a lot of other games were "trapped in Tolkien", at least until the mid 1980's or so. Tolkien was (and is) popular, so naturally many games were made in that image.

Though most of all, I think it was just simple access. So, setting the Wayback Machine for late 70's/early 80's. Sci-Fi and Fantasy were simply not all that popular in the mainstream. If you were a fan, your local bookstore MIGHT have a single shelf of fantasy/sci fi/horror WAY in the back of the store. Even if your store did though, you were unlikely to find much of a selection or variety. They might have a couple Persis Anthony or Steven King books, but not much else. If the book store even bought, say Ursula K. Le Guin books....they would likely only buy a single "box" of five books. And the big box bookstores were not quite yet around yet....

TV and movies were even worse with fantasy being rare. And this was a lifetime before you could own or stream a movie or TV show. The VHS tape of Star Wars even did not come out until 1984 (though you could rent it starting in '82) and it took forever for the first three movie box set (1990!). But if you were lucky your local UHF station played Star Wars occasionally so you could at least see it sometimes.

In short "Tolkinen" was the only fantasy most people knew for years and years.
That's not quite true. You just had to go back further. Conan and the pulp fantasy crew were around a long, long time before Tolkien.
Tolkien, however, was the first work of really, really serious fantasy fiction that made it into the mainstream. It oozes intellectualism, and was told like it was a true, educated, alternate history, not an adventure story.
In short, Tolkien built a really believable world.
Appendix M in the DMG is not short, after all, and the monsters of D&D drew from ALL OVER the place, not just Tolkien. Indeed, the Tolkien monsters are only the most basic creatures of myth. The devils are arguably drawn from Catholic history, daemons from evil spirits of many religions, and even most demons are non-Tolkien, barring the balrog, which is basically just a reimagined flaming devil.

So, there's core elements from Tolkien in elves and dwarves and halflings and men, and maybe orcs and goblins. But so, so much else in the game went far beyond that, that's its strange that people only focus on that small part of it.
 

Aldarc

Legend
So, there's core elements from Tolkien in elves and dwarves and halflings and men, and maybe orcs and goblins. But so, so much else in the game went far beyond that, that's its strange that people only focus on that small part of it.
Again, simple semiotic images that are often replicated, duplicated, and re-imagined in different ways. Some call it "lazy writing"; I call it conceptual history.
 

Aelryinth

Explorer
Again, simple semiotic images that are often replicated, duplicated, and re-imagined in different ways. Some call it "lazy writing"; I call it conceptual history.
Yeah, myths and legends do tend to hold to common elements. They noted on the Baba Yaga thread that although she morphs between different cultures, there's still over a thousand different stories about her, but nobody complains of Baba Yaga saturation.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Yeah, myths and legends do tend to hold to common elements. They noted on the Baba Yaga thread that although she morphs between different cultures, there's still over a thousand different stories about her, but nobody complains of Baba Yaga saturation.
Why might you think why people complain about the Tolkienesque dwarves and elves in TTRPG fantasy then?
 


Aelryinth

Explorer
Why might you think why people complain about the Tolkienesque dwarves and elves in TTRPG fantasy then?
Because its his version of dwarves, and his version of elves, that populate the standard fantasy world.
If you deviate from them, you're a Tolkien wanna-be 'my elves are different'. Elves and dwarves used to mean other things, but now, the instant you say the word, the elf and dwarf you think of are defined by Tolkien.
Then you put in humans, with all our many, many different cultures, and yet elves and dwarves remain so stable. It's a big contrast.
The fact it's that way for consistency of vision and stability doesn't occur to them. I mean, if you want weird elves, just in D&D, Eberron and Athas had VERY different takes on them.
But the main campaign is faithful to the Tolkien standard by design. It's a trope, it tells people what to expect.
 

bloodtide

Explorer
Because its his version of dwarves, and his version of elves, that populate the standard fantasy world.

No all that much though. Tolkien elves are thin, short and boring. A Tolkien dwarf is a dumb short joke, and they are weak. Legolas and Gimil are not the versions of elf and dwarf nearly everyone thinks of: THAT would be the races of Dragonlance.
 

Aelryinth

Explorer
No all that much though. Tolkien elves are thin, short and boring. A Tolkien dwarf is a dumb short joke, and they are weak. Legolas and Gimil are not the versions of elf and dwarf nearly everyone thinks of: THAT would be the races of Dragonlance.
Meh. Normal elves, who live in civilized forests and mingle with men. The high elves, who live in mountain cities and remain aloof from the world. Wood elves, who hide in the deep forest and generally disdain men.
Oops, no, not Tolkien elves. Sorry, those are the elves of Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms. The standard campaign elves... who are indeed shorter than human. It wasn't until the movies that we got elves taller then people, so I'm talking Tolkien elves, not Peter Jackson movie elves.

So, yes, very true to Tolkien elves. The movies skewed things, but not among the long-time gamers.
 

Sepulchrave II

Adventurer
I remember being annoyed in 1981 when I discovered that D&D elves were only 5ft tall and lived for less than a thousand years. First thing I did when I ran a campaign was make them taller than humans and immortal.

Dwarves were a bit short for Tolkien dwarves, so I gave them another 6 inches. Made them proper dwarves.

Hobbits were fine and didn't need any tweaking.
 

Warren Ellis

Explorer
Because its his version of dwarves, and his version of elves, that populate the standard fantasy world.
No all that much though. Tolkien elves are thin, short and boring. A Tolkien dwarf is a dumb short joke, and they are weak. Legolas and Gimil are not the versions of elf and dwarf nearly everyone thinks of: THAT would be the races of Dragonlance.
I thought Tolkien elves were big, tall, and broad? Strong, hearty, and stout all that. Even had beards and didn't really have pointy ears. Hardly the shorter, more frail elves we generally see in most D&D settings?
 

I wasn't aware that I made such arguments. This is a surprise. One minute you were agreeing with me, calling it lazy writing, but now you are castigating me as making the same anti-Tolkien argument as the OP. You're clearly angry, but maybe it would be more conducive to discussion if you stop pointing fingers around at everyone.

I was not directing my comments at you specifically, but sort of responding to the previus posts in this thread. Upon rereading said thread I realize I definitely both conflated your post with another posters and had a bit of a misconception of your "Tolkien apologists" comment as an attempt at an AD Hominem upon myself despite stating multiple times that I think Tolkien is given too much credit. It then snowballed with the subsequent reply about reductionism, and while I still maintain my opinions on both the original article and the posts I should've been referencing correctly, my behavior was out of line towards yourself.

Sorry about that, this website is an absolute nightmare to navigate on mobile (especially if one wants to do multiple quotes) and I completely dropped the ball there.
 

Aelryinth

Explorer
I thought Tolkien elves were big, tall, and broad? Strong and all that. Even had beards and didn't really have pointy ears. Hardly the shorter, more frail elves we generally see in most D&D settings?
I thought Tolkien elves were big, tall, and broad? Strong, hearty, and stout all that. Even had beards and didn't really have pointy ears. Hardly the shorter, more frail elves we generally see in most D&D settings?
It's a bit ambiguous, but his original stories are as much about fairies as elves in their derivation. Peter Jackson made them taller and superior to men, but it's intimated that humans are actually taller then the average elf after being created. They were described as fair, and pretty sure they were beardless. Stout and strong, no, always slender; their main inspiration is probably the Sidhe. You may be thinking of the Numenor, who were definitely bigger than the elves, IIRC... but hey, there has to be a Tolkien scholar out there who can give us an absolute answer.
 

For the new setting I'm creating (The Mysterious Isle), I've decided to scrap nearly all of the PHB seeds (from Odin's loins the miracle of life fell). Instead, the non-human seeds were taken primarily from Volo's Guide to Monsters, including goliaths, lizardfolk, and tabaxi. I will also included dwarves, creatures carved from living stone. I may decide to eladrin, as well, although they will be more faerie than elven.

The human Kingdom of Aubrey, also known as the Sunstone Kingdom, had built its cities along the coastline. Few are brave enough to venture into the central forest that dominates the isle. The forest is filled with monsters and ancient ruins, that provide hints of the isle mysterious past.

The primary religion of Audrey Kingdom is Christianity, complete with an archbishop and various saints. The archbishop is convinced the isle is the resting place of the Holy Grail, which has been corrupted by the serpent of the Garden of Edon to produce the strange and terrifying beasts what roam the forest. Two orders of knighthood, The Knights of the Phoenix and Knights of the Sacred Orange Tree, seek the grail and to protect the kingdom from the dangers that lurk inside the forest.

So far, the isle hasn't paid much heed to Tolkien. I have instead drawn inspiration from Arthurian legend, Greek myth, Milton, Jack Vance, Clack Ashton Smith, and the Chinese epic, Journey to the West.
 
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Mercurius

Legend
Tolkien's elves were taller than men for the most part, and generally considered more beautiful. The pointy ear thing is controversial - I am not sure if he ever said anything to that effect. I don't think any were ever depicted with facial hair, except maybe in the Hobbit.
 

JohnSnow

Adventurer
Tolkien's elves were taller than men for the most part, and generally considered more beautiful. The pointy ear thing is controversial - I am not sure if he ever said anything to that effect. I don't think any were ever depicted with facial hair, except maybe in the Hobbit.
Cirdan the Shipwright had a beard...

"As they came to the gates Círdan the Shipwright came forth to greet them. Very tall he was, and his beard was long, and he was grey and old, save that his eyes were keen as stars; and he looked at them and bowed, and said 'All is now ready.'"
- The Return of the King, "The Grey Havens."
 

Mercurius

Legend
Cirdan the Shipwright had a beard...

"As they came to the gates Círdan the Shipwright came forth to greet them. Very tall he was, and his beard was long, and he was grey and old, save that his eyes were keen as stars; and he looked at them and bowed, and said 'All is now ready.'"
- The Return of the King, "The Grey Havens."

That's right, I forgot. I think that's the only mention of a bearded elf.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
I thought Tolkien elves were big, tall, and broad? Strong, hearty, and stout all that.
They're tall (7+ feet), but more the "lean and wiry" type of strong than the "broad and stout" type.

Even had beards
Only the really old ones.

and didn't really have pointy ears.
Depends on how you interpret "leaf-shaped."

Hardly the shorter, more frail elves we generally see in most D&D settings?
THIS, I agree with.
 

Mercurius

Legend
Tolkien's elves were essentially more perfect human-like creatures, halfway between humans and angels. And of course it depends upon the type, and whether or not they went to Valinor to live amongst the Valar and Maiar (gods and demi-gods). Tolkien's breakdown is complex, but it is almost a hierarchy of proximity to the Valar.

The elves were "born" in Cuivienen, and shortly invited by Orome--the hunter god--to join the gods in the West. Those that refused were called the Avari, or "unwilling" - and never show up in any story, as far as I know. Those that heeded the call were called the Eldar.

The Eldar are sometimes sub-divided into two groups: the Calaquendi, or those who set foot on Valinor, and the Moriquendi, those who never did. All of the Calaquendi are Eldar, but some of the Eldar are Moriquendi.

Of the Eldar, there are three main groups: Vanyar, Noldor, Teleri. All of the Vanyar and Noldor reached Valinor, while some of the Teleri stopped on the way west - one group becoming the Silvan Elves of Mirkwood, another settling in Beleriand and becoming the Sindar. When the War of the Jewels took place, a host of mostly Noldor but a few Vanyar headed back to Middle-earth. After the war, I believe all of the Vanyar went home - although Galadriel is part Vanyar- most of the Noldor, and some of the Sindar.

At the time of end of the Third Age and the War of the Ring, the elves of Middle-earth were mostly Silvan (in Mirkwood and Lorien), some Sindar (a few in Lorien, Rivendell, and Lindon), and a handful of Noldor (Lorien, Rivendell, Lindon). The Avari mixed with the Silvan elves, I believe, although it is unknown whether some lived far to the east, where Cuivienen was.

The Silvan elves of Mirkwood, particularly as depicted in the Hobbit, are probably the main source for Gygax's elves. They aren't as noble or fair as even the Sindar, certainly not the Noldor or Vanyar, both of whom were very tall and beautiful, almost radiant - especially the fair Vanyar. They also didn't have the crafting of the Noldor. Gygax's high and gray elves are probably somewhat based upon the Sindar and Noldor, but don't carry the same degree of nobility and power.
 
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Aelryinth

Explorer
Tolkien's elves were essentially more perfect human-like creatures, halfway between humans and angels. And of course it depends upon the type, and whether or not they went to Valinor to live amongst the Valar and Maiar (gods and demi-gods). Tolkien's breakdown is complex, but it is almost a hierarchy of proximity to the Valar.

The elves were "born" in Cuivienen, and shortly invited by Orome--the hunter god--to join the gods in the West. Those that refused were called the Avari, or "unwilling" - and never show up in any story, as far as I know. Those that heeded the call were called the Eldar.

The Eldar are sometimes sub-divided into two groups: the Calaquendi, or those who set foot on Valinor, and the Moriquendi, those who never did. All of the Calaquendi are Eldar, but some of the Eldar are Moriquendi.

Of the Eldar, there are three main groups: Vanyar, Noldor, Teleri. All of the Vanyar and Noldor reached Valinor, while some of the Teleri stopped on the way west - one group becoming the Silvan Elves of Mirkwood, another settling in Beleriand and becoming the Sindar. When the War of the Jewels took place, a host of mostly Noldor but a few Vanyar headed back to Middle-earth. After the war, I believe all of the Vanyar went home - although Galadriel is part Vanyar- most of the Noldor, and some of the Sindar.

At the time of end of the Third Age and the War of the Ring, the elves of Middle-earth were mostly Silvan (in Mirkwood and Lorien), some Sindar (a few in Lorien, Rivendell, and Lindon), and a handful of Noldor (Lorien, Rivendell, Lindon). The Avari mixed with the Silvan elves, I believe, although it is unknown whether some lived far to the east, where Cuivienen was.

The Silvan elves of Mirkwood, particularly as depicted in the Hobbit, are probably the main source for Gygax's elves. They aren't as noble or fair as even the Sindar, certainly not the Noldor or Vanyar, both of whom were very tall and beautiful, almost radiant - especially the fair Vanyar. They also didn't have the crafting of the Noldor. Gygax's high and gray elves are probably somewhat based upon the Sindar and Noldor, but don't carry the same degree of nobility and power.
Now there's a nice summation, and clearly shows the levels of elves Gygax drew from. He just went more with the faerie model then the angel/sidhe model.
 

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