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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

Tonguez

Legend
This is a fascinating case where the title - the editor's title, not mine, mine was something like "World-building: effects of cultural change" - has gotten more attention than my intention, which was to write about how cultural change must modify a world from whatever people think is the norm or expectation or the real world.

a similar thing happened in the last (technology change) article too - a whole lot of the response focussed on Star Trek rather than Technology change in Fantasy Worlds but thats that nature of social media discussions. Its may be advisable in future articles to not use the hooks with such rampant fandom, having more obscure examples might allow the discussion to focus on the actual content of the article
 
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jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
This is a fascinating case where the title - the editor's title, not mine, mine was something like "World-building: effects of cultural change" - has gotten more attention than my intention
Isn't this, like, the third time that's happened? No offense to your editor(s), but maybe you should get more input into the titles they choose.
 



Mercurius

Legend
This is dedication.

Well, I should clarify re: "dedication." Not a "brand new" setting, but a modified hybrid of previous settings. I take parts of what I want to carry forward, modify and add bits and pieces that I've thought up in the interregnum.
 

Sepulchrave II

Adventurer
Some years ago I read a piece by Ursula LeGuin - I can't remember the exact context - where she wrote of Tolkien (whom she loved), but how glad she was that she didn't read the Lord of the Rings until she was in her twenties, when she had already found a style and voice of her own.

Her point was that, had she read it when she was younger, it might have cast a shadow so long that she would never have been able to escape it.
 

Coroc

Hero
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!


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?


Well, try out Darksun then.

I am more bored by todays anything goes mentality, with which i mean the thinking, that a campaign is great and creative, if the people are allowed to play good aligned monsters, when in reality most people fail to depict even a clasic elf correctly in a RP sense, and only 50% can portray a dwarf and his ambitions and culture, w/o resenting to scottish drunkard stereotype every second sentence.
 

Krachek

Adventurer
the work of Tolkien is all about friendship, redemption and resisting to the attraction of absolute power.
taking care of the stereotype of elves and dwarves and orcs is looking at the lesser part of his work.
 

I'm a fantasy nut, and a good fantasy work doesn't require fantastical creatures or epic battles where mages hurl spells, but...I like those things. I like my elves, my dragons, my gods, my epic magic. I like subtle fantasy (or low fantasy, I guess?), as well, but fantasy as a genre has really expanded, and as it expands, sometimes the "generic fantasy" is a comfort food. For me, I don't care how many books or games have elves in them (though I'm an elf lover, so I'm admittedly biased), because even if the elves scream Tolkien...they're aren't Tolkien. They're the writer's, which means that no matter how stereotypical the elves may be (long-lived, beautiful, artistic, forest-dwelling), they're going to be unique in their own way, because the world isn't Middle Earth (even if we can point to obvious similarities).
 


Cadence

Legend
Supporter
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.

Glen Cook is my favorite author - Black Company? No humanoids. Dread Empire? No humanoids. Garrett Files? A lot more that would be PC reaces than core D&D, but not particularly Tolkienian with lots of inter-breeding.

In some other classics. Earthsea? No humanoids. Conan? No humanoids. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser? Well, there's the Ghouls which were pretty cool.

How is it that there are so many great settings that don't have the classic humanoid races, but it's hard to get them out of D&D worlds? In one of the many discussions on Greyhawk it was apparently a stopper for some to not allow Tieflings and Dragonborn (although I grant the world could fit them just fine). For how many DMs would running Theros or Ravnica cause trouble with some players if you didn't want Dwarves or Gnomes or whatever didn't fit naturally in a given world?

I wonder about this sometimes with classes too. What if this world doesn't have <insert a core class or two here>?

(But seriously, not bashing Tolkien, I'll take a reread of Hurin or Fingolfin or Beren and Luthien any day).
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
But this thread is about "escaping Tolkien." And if your setting has beautiful slender human-sized quasi-immortal elves, and bearded blacksmithing underground dwarves, and stealthy agile little halflings... you haven't "escaped Tolkien." You're still living in the House That Tolkien Built. You can put tremendous work into decorating that house, and there's nothing wrong with that if that's what floats your boat, but it's still the Tolkien House and always will be.

Personally, I find that house pretty confining. It's a beautiful house, and I like to visit it from time to time, but I don't want to live there all the time. There is so much more out there, and I really wish D&D would stop pushing "Everyone lives in the Tolkien House!" as if it were the be-all, end-all of fantasy.

The article was about culture, but the thread has certainly centered around Tolkien :)

Personally, I like the look of the house. I do enjoy subverting what people expect their Elves, Dwarves etc. to be like. I did this with the world too. I want things to look like "the real world" and "Tolkien" Elves, etc. I stop with the looks.

My world is built on the basis of the 4 elements and spirit (the non physical element). No cells, no science, no biology, gunpowder, etc. The world is flat, you can fall off. And one of my PCs did once. Doing a "whitewater" canoe run right out into empty air :)

The "races" can be the same. As the article suggested culturally different. Mine are. Mostly. I made my Dwarfs kind of stereotypical, but don't worry they are faking it :D The look of the world is really useful. When you say "Elves", "Dragon" etc. people can "see" what it is. The real exploration (besides geography) of a world is in the behavior, cultures, and interactions of peoples in the world. The trappings of classic Tolkien fantasy are useful visual guides that obviate an awful lot of description / artwork / grunt work for the DM. If you make your primary human culture reasonably familiar in shape it sets off the other cultures (human or inhuman) quite well. It makes the familiar looking world rather exotic when the PCs look "under the hood". And when you do introduce those new / different things you can spend the time / effort introducing it without burning your time describing the more common elements of your fantasy world.

Is it wholly original? No, because what is? It's different enough to be interesting, to get your players into accurately role playing your non humans, and interested in the cultures around them. That is what I need (or want really) in a game world.

So, in short Tolkien's house is d@mn useful. Like any movie prop or familiar visual reference that helps you "complete" the world and focus on the really fun and interesting stuff.
 

AdmundfortGeographer

Getting lost in fantasy maps
One of my favorite aspects of Dark Sun is how the standard archetypes of the PHB races were tossed out and subverted.
Bearded dwarves? Nope, they’re hairless.
Halflings that love comfort and a well cooked meal? Well, they’re the creator race descended to barbarians who love a well-cook character.
Elves who love forests and fey creatures? Here they’re amoral desert wanderers who would will slit your throat over a bad deal.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I object to using "Tolkien" as shorthand for "bland and boring."
You are barking up the wrong tree. Nowhere does lewspuls say, much less imply, that Tolkien is bland or boring.

Nothing is all that fantastic in D&D settings and that is the difference between LotR and most RPG fantasy settings. The Elves were strange and wonderful to the Hobbits when they first met them. LotR is "low fantasy" in a lot of ways and I feel such a settings is less commonly played.

A celestial fire breathing half-orc barbarian titan mauler is not all that interesting to play, or special, because everyone is just as wacky as you are. The Default has become "high fantasy" where every character stands out so much that no one stands out so much at all, and no one is all that surprised when a fiendish beholder ghast teleports into the middle of the tavern, buys everyone a drink, and splits an english muffin with the city watch.

There is a definition to the word fantastic that is "so extreme as to challenge belief". Nothing in D&D challenges the characters beliefs, or players expectations when the settings are so permissive to allow just about anything. Don't get me wrong, I have made many wacky characters. But I want to return a sense of wonder to my games, a sense of wonder that LotR produced. Not the ho-hum that Forgotten Realms does for me.

I don't think new players would feel this way. This is about perspective. Someone who has never played D&D or watched/read LotR might feel like Game of Thrones is the default and find Elves and Dwarves quite novel.
This is actually one reason why I have valued playing Numenera. It's fantasy with the veneer of "science," but its bestiary lies outside of the usual gamut of creatures, which keeps things fairly weird and fantastical for players. This would likely change over time as the new becomes old, but for now, I enjoy seeing players encountering new things.

Glen Cook is my favorite author - Black Company? No humanoids. Dread Empire? No humanoids. Garrett Files? A lot more that would be PC reaces than core D&D, but not particularly Tolkienian with lots of inter-breeding.

In some other classics. Earthsea? No humanoids. Conan? No humanoids. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser? Well, there's the Ghouls which were pretty cool.

How is it that there are so many great settings that don't have the classic humanoid races, but it's hard to get them out of D&D worlds?
Probably because players want to not only encounter the fantastical, but, rather, they want to be fantastical themselves.
 

Mercurius

Legend
Some years ago I read a piece by Ursula LeGuin - I can't remember the exact context - where she wrote of Tolkien (whom she loved), but how glad she was that she didn't read the Lord of the Rings until she was in her twenties, when she had already found a style and voice of her own.

Her point was that, had she read it when she was younger, it might have cast a shadow so long that she would never have been able to escape it.

Yes, I read that as well (huge Le Guin fan) and was struck by it.

I think there's a somewhat similar phenomena with younger Millenials and Gen Z with regards to film, as most of them saw the LotR films before reading the books, or simply never read the books, so for many Middle-earth is Peter Jackson, not Tolkien.

Anecdote: About eight years ago I led some students in a creative visualization exercise in which they imagined a world and explored it. After, one of the students--a big Middle-earth fan--told me that she happily rediscovered the pre-films Middle-earth of her youth. When she saw the films as a kid after reading the books, they "took over" her imagination and she "lost" the Middle-earth of her imagination. But with this exercise, she was able to "find" her original Middle-earth. To her it felt more alive and vibrant, and was her own.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
Nowhere does lewspuls say, much less imply, that Tolkien is bland or boring.
No, but he's using "Tolkien" to denote the default D&D stuff that we're supposed to "escape" for something fresh. (The D&D versions of things like elves and dragons are really their own thing and shouldn't be categorized as Tolkien IMO anyway, but that's a separate discussion.)

Probably because players want to not only encounter the fantastical, but, rather, they want to be fantastical themselves.
Bingo! I really like that point. I think that's a reason why I'm usually not much drawn to low-magic settings as a player, although I enjoy them as a reader.
 

Aldarc

Legend
No, but he's using "Tolkien" to denote the default D&D stuff that we're supposed to "escape" for something fresh. (The D&D versions of things like elves and dragons are really their own thing and shouldn't be categorized as Tolkien IMO anyway, but that's a separate discussion.)
I think you are reading a little too much into this and unnecessarily trying to defend Tolkien from a non-attack.
 

Ace

Adventurer
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.

It wasn't really. In my read through many not Elves were essentially elves.

However its a good game and the very generous creators have made it all free and legal to download here.
 

Blue Orange

Explorer
Ever seen Citizen Kane? They did things like deep focus shots, multiple narrators, ceiling shots, and aiming the camera at different angles on characters' faces to convey weakness and strength for the first time. If you see the film now it looks hackneyed and overdone because every film coming after it is riffing off the film grammar it made.

As people here have said (and was pointed out in the GURPS simulation of it, Dungeon Fantasy), D&D has become its own genre, with elements such as gender equality, multiple nonhuman intelligent races working together, vast metropolises selling magic items, and massive underground complexes that never existed in either the source material or the historical Middle Ages. Wizards, with their predefined spells, objective, analytical approach, and academic towers and books, behave much more like scientists of the supernatural than anything else. (One of the Chaosium BRP supplements has the shamanic, priestly, and wizardly approaches to magic, and this has it to a T).

(Indeed, there is even a niche fantasy genre, LitRPG, that transposes the RPG into a narrative, with characters often having statistics and known skills.)
 

Please don't put other people's words in my mouth. I never claimed that Rowling's house-elves were particularly original, and I never called anything "boring and lazy." Everything has roots in something else; drawing on folklore and myth and other literature is the foundation of the fantasy genre.

But this thread is about "escaping Tolkien." And if your setting has beautiful slender human-sized quasi-immortal elves, and bearded blacksmithing underground dwarves, and stealthy agile little halflings... you haven't "escaped Tolkien." You're still living in the House That Tolkien Built. You can put tremendous work into decorating that house, and there's nothing wrong with that if that's what floats your boat, but it's still the Tolkien House and always will be.

Personally, I find that house pretty confining. It's a beautiful house, and I like to visit it from time to time, but I don't want to live there all the time. There is so much more out there, and I really wish D&D would stop pushing "Everyone lives in the Tolkien House!" as if it were the be-all, end-all of fantasy.

Perhaps I was a bit aggressive in quoting yourself, it was not my intention to imply you said those words directly. It was, however, on theme with the thread as you described it. I VEHEMENTLY disagree with many of the points this article is trying to argue and frankly feel that at best it is poorly researched or quickly written and being granted more credibility than it deserves by being a front page article rather than just a forum post, and at worst it is ACTIVELY spreading misinformation and deflecting from what is the real problem here. I suspect the author of this article is the one who dislikes lazy authors as I described in my previous post and has not realize that this is his real issue. At least that's what I hope is the case because the other real possibility is that they are hypocritically just as lazy as those others he fails to correctly critique.

And as for your comments regarding 'decorating a house', I again disagree with your point both in principle and in practice. In principle the mere existence of elves and dwarves does NOT mean you are aping Tolkien. Elves being long lived forest connected beings comes from celtic mythology. Dwarves and gnomes as we know them being associated with metal, earth, and crafting are from Nordic myths. THEY PREDATE TOLKIEN. PERIOD. Arguably the only original thing he created was halflings/hobbits. Hell even his story about a magic cursed ring is an obvious retelling if the Nibelungenlied from Germanic myths and Tolkien has even gone on record as stating he was heavily influenced by Wagner's play. I am not belittling his contribution to fantasy in that many people have taken elements (often lazily) from his works, but by YOUR very definition of other authors only decorating a house if they don't make brand new structures, all Tolkien did was slap up some wallpaper on Germanic and Christian myths. It was top quality wallpaper and the furniture was crafted by an absolute master mind you, but it was still just decorating none-the-less.

The reason I bring up this point is to once again show why I disagree with your assertion in practice: execution is precisely what matters. You are welcome to disagree with this opinion if you wish, but I will fervently argue that crafting a world by adding your own details on classic imagery is no less important than making something new. I don't give a d*** if someone has elves and dwarves in their setting, what matters is what they do with them, and I personally find the idea of belittling a work for having classic elements as inherently lazy or bad as insulting not only to other authors, but also to Tolkien himself.

A quick example of such: are we to fully argue that Game of Thrones is mere windowdressing in Tolkien's house or does G.R.R. Martin's works have a very different feel to Lord of the Rings. He has even stated in interviews that he deliberately wrote his books to be a critique of Tolkien and has spoken about his influence from him on multiple occasions. Are the children of the forest or Others merely just elves? They fit the description of long-lived superhuman nature aligned humanoids with pointy ears. Has Martin escaped the house of Tolkien? I'd argue yes strongly, but there is a lot of evidence to say he has not. It is why we cannot just boil this down to something as simplistic as if there are elves, it's still Tolkien.

Again, this is what the original article seems to imply is the case and if the person who posted it (or this site itself for that matter) are going to be making money or ad revenue off of it, then they deserve to be open to criticism and dissenting discussion (which is what I'd assume is the intent behind having it be on a forum).
 
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