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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

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Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
A lot of fantasy games of various mediums pull from Tolkien and generic D&D that if you aren't new to it, it wont feel fresh and it is easy to lose a sense of wonder. And many media now try to subvert so to can see newcomers having different views from the start.

Part of me wants to take all the terrains and have each major race roll for a terrain then adjust. Any race that rolls the same terrain are enemies due to closeness of borders and competition.

RollTerrain
1Arctic
2Coast
3Desert
4Forest
5Grasslands
6Mountain
7Swamp
8Underdark
9Syvlan/Feywild
10Shadow(Fell)

Now some rolls.
Dwarves get 3 and 1 for Sand Dwarves and Ice Dwarves. I guess dwarves don't like rain.
Elves got 4 and 9. Wood elves and Eladrin return. lol
Halflings got 4 twice. So I'll make the second one Jungle and now the Forest and Jungle Halflings hate Wood elves.
Orcs get Grasslands and Swamp. Horseorc Nomads and Swamp orcs.
Goblins get 3 and 9. So the Sand Goblins are at war with Sand dwarves and the goblins return to the fey to fight the Eladarin.
 

cbwjm

Hero
A lot of fantasy games of various mediums pull from Tolkien and generic D&D that if you aren't new to it, it wont feel fresh and it is easy to lose a sense of wonder. And many media now try to subvert so to can see newcomers having different views from the start.

Part of me wants to take all the terrains and have each major race roll for a terrain then adjust. Any race that rolls the same terrain are enemies due to closeness of borders and competition.

RollTerrain
1Arctic
2Coast
3Desert
4Forest
5Grasslands
6Mountain
7Swamp
8Underdark
9Syvlan/Feywild
10Shadow(Fell)

Now some rolls.
Dwarves get 3 and 1 for Sand Dwarves and Ice Dwarves. I guess dwarves don't like rain.
Elves got 4 and 9. Wood elves and Eladrin return. lol
Halflings got 4 twice. So I'll make the second one Jungle and now the Forest and Jungle Halflings hate Wood elves.
Orcs get Grasslands and Swamp. Horseorc Nomads and Swamp orcs.
Goblins get 3 and 9. So the Sand Goblins are at war with Sand dwarves and the goblins return to the fey to fight the Eladarin.
That's kind of a cool way of deciding things.

I find nowadays, I often think in terms of MtG gathering basic lands/colours for defining which race goes where (at least initially) and then determine where or not the races are generally hostile or friendly to each other. Not really all that different than what you have above, though it is less random as each race is typically already associated with a terrain type.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
That's kind of a cool way of deciding things.

I find nowadays, I often think in terms of MtG gathering basic lands/colours for defining which race goes where (at least initially) and then determine where or not the races are generally hostile or friendly to each other. Not really all that different than what you have above, though it is less random as each race is typically already associated with a terrain type.

Another thing I did for one of my main homebrew setting is have a separate continent where all the races take on a animal as a guardian beast and build their culture around a popular interpretation of that animal. Elves act like lions. Dwarves like bears. Gnomes like beavers. Orcs like boars.
 

Ravenbrook

Explorer
I think the easiest way to "escape Tolkien", if you feel so inclined, is to simply set one's world in a Greek, Egyptian or other non-Nordic, non-Celtic setting. That way, you can have satyrs and centaurs, for example, instead of halflings, elves, and dwarves. Another option would be an Arabian Nights type setting: humans, peris (Persian fey-like beings) and jinn.
 

Scott Christian

Adventurer
Your first point is debatable but misses the point either way. It is not that you can’t have a religion without a god but rather that D&D mostly has gods with half-baked afterthought religions. I hope you can understand a distinction as simple as this without further mentioning the triviality that gods and clerics exist in D&D settings.
I understand and did not miss your point. You are missing the point that when D&D talks about gods, be it magic, classes, races, etc. they are discussing a religion. You are being dismissive of all the lore, all the spell descriptions, all symbolism, all history that involves the god, and therefore - their religion.

I hope you can understand that hand waving the thousands of pages of evidence because it not talking about the priest's tippet or amice is being short sighted.

Maybe you can give me something you think D&D lacks when discussing their religions. Then maybe I will better understand your side.
 

Scott Christian

Adventurer
Religion/politics
Animism is a religion without a god.

Buddhism is a religion without a god.

And so on.

Religion is a sacred way of life.

A god is a specific kind of personification of some thing, in a way that it wields higher "authority" than a human life.

Theism is a bi-product of Bronze Age bureaucracy and slavery.

A "god" is literally a "master", and the servants of a god are literally "slaves". Theism is slavery.

Theism is highly problematic ethically.

Animism also has personifications, but humans and other personifications are understood to be each others equals, coexisting. This egalitarianism is important.
Not to debate this because this isn't the place to discuss real world religions. But even Christopher Hitchens, noted scholar on religions was criticized for including Buddhism within the definition of a religion.
As for the whole slavery thing, if that is how you see it, that is fine.
 

Scott Christian

Adventurer
Yeah. Religion in D&D seems like an afterthought to me. It's not even important to most players with cleric characters.
It might not be important to your cleric players. Many of the ones I have played with it matters quite a bit. Our Tomb campaign in Chult has a major character arc with religion; from meeting Volo and convincing him to include the PC's religion as an important part of Chult society to convincing a knight from the Order of the Gauntlet to switch his loyalty. His religion comes into play every session.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
I think the easiest way to "escape Tolkien", if you feel so inclined, is to simply set one's world in a Greek, Egyptian or other non-Nordic, non-Celtic setting. That way, you can have satyrs and centaurs, for example, instead of halflings, elves, and dwarves. Another option would be an Arabian Nights type setting: humans, peris (Persian fey-like beings) and jinn.

Psss. Have you heard about Yoon Suin?


I ran a 2 year campaign with it :)
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
I understand and did not miss your point. You are missing the point that when D&D talks about gods, be it magic, classes, races, etc. they are discussing a religion. You are being dismissive of all the lore, all the spell descriptions, all symbolism, all history that involves the god, and therefore - their religion.

I hope you can understand that hand waving the thousands of pages of evidence because it not talking about the priest's tippet or amice is being short sighted.

Maybe you can give me something you think D&D lacks when discussing their religions. Then maybe I will better understand your side.

Yes, they are describing a small part of the religion when they list spells (spells that are shared by either every Cleric or every Cleric of a deity who vaguely covers that sphere), symbols (well, the most common one or two holy symbols), and history (maybe some history, most commonly just being in a big list of other deities).

It feels like it leaves out quite a bit though (for at least most of them)... What colors are the symbols usually? The vestments? What do the colors and vestments symbolize? What are the major holy days? Why are they celebrated? How are they celebrated? How is marriage viewed by the religion? How are different races, sexes, and LGBTQ status viewed by the religion? What are its holy texts? Are the text viewed as literal or figurative? Is it actually true (either literally or figuratively)? Are there any sects within the religion? What training does a priest need? Are there sacraments or duties of the worshipers? How vital are they for the believers according to the rules and how strict are those rules enforced? Which sacraments require a priest to give them? Are all priests spell casters? How does it view other gods in the same pantheon? Are there regular worship services? When are they held? Are they mandatory? Does one need to have passed certain mysteries to fully participate? Is there a birth requirement to belong by default? What is the conversion process? What are viewed as sins? How do excommunication, atonement, and forgiveness work? How does it view other pantheons? Does it have saints and prophets? If so, what does saint or prophet mean in terms of that religion? Who leads it? How does the god communicate with the leadership? With the rest of the clergy? With the laity? What are its beliefs on the spirit or soul and the afterlife? Are its beliefs on that verifiable or unverifiable?

It might not be important to your cleric players. Many of the ones I have played with it matters quite a bit. Our Tomb campaign in Chult has a major character arc with religion; from meeting Volo and convincing him to include the PC's religion as an important part of Chult society to convincing a knight from the Order of the Gauntlet to switch his loyalty. His religion comes into play every session.

How many of those questions could the player of the cleric in your game answer? And if he can answer many, how many of them were in the published sources about the religion?

---

If the level and type of detail given couldn't tell a Mormon from a Seventh Day Adventist from Lutheran from a Catholic from a Baptist from a ... (or similar from denominations and sects in other real world religions), it feels awfully superficial and I don't think I'd call it a discussion. Almost more like a team than a faith.
 
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Aldarc

Legend
I understand and did not miss your point. You are missing the point that when D&D talks about gods, be it magic, classes, races, etc. they are discussing a religion. You are being dismissive of all the lore, all the spell descriptions, all symbolism, all history that involves the god, and therefore - their religion.

I hope you can understand that hand waving the thousands of pages of evidence because it not talking about the priest's tippet or amice is being short sighted.

Maybe you can give me something you think D&D lacks when discussing their religions. Then maybe I will better understand your side.
@Cadence does a good job giving you a rundown of what I am talking about.

This is not to say that religion is bad in all D&D settings - Eberron is a pretty good exception for a variety of reasons - but that religion is mostly an afterthought for most D&D. Consider, for example, that in Greyhawk "religion" wasn't really composed as an integral part of the setting. It came piece meal as Gygax began gradually introducing deities in his dungeon (e.g., St. Cuthbert, Hextor, Heironeous, etc.). It was mostly invented as he went along with a heavy dose of whimsy. Forgotten Realms was basically the world of a teenager who imagined gods from different mythologies finding their place in his world, but it also has the sort of religious depth that one would expect from a teenager as well whose understanding of ancient religions amounts to mostly a list of what gods they had.

For a better sense of D&D's deficiencies in religion, I would recommend taking a look into RuneQuest or Tekumel.

* In particular, Eberron creates religions that deal with possible worldviews that my stem from the world's mythos: e.g., avoiding the realm of the dead, the sacrifice of the couatls, eschatological apocalypse of the dream world, etc.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Not to debate this because this ....

Mod Note:

Morrus very specifically and explicitly told folks to not respond further to this. When you also acknowledge that you shouldn't be debating it... you make it very difficult for us to overlook it.

Next time, resist the urge.
 

I think the easiest way to "escape Tolkien", if you feel so inclined, is to simply set one's world in a Greek, Egyptian or other non-Nordic, non-Celtic setting. That way, you can have satyrs and centaurs, for example, instead of halflings, elves, and dwarves. Another option would be an Arabian Nights type setting: humans, peris (Persian fey-like beings) and jinn.
Middle Earth isn't especially Nordic or Celtic. It certainly draws from it, but it lacks a lot of other trappings from Indo-European mythology. The elves and dwarves are archetypal figures in pre-Tolkien European folklore. Their original versions are lot scarier and surreal. Nobody argues that fairytales are trapped in Tolkien's shadow.
 

Ravenbrook

Explorer
@Cadence does a good job giving you a rundown of what I am talking about.

This is not to say that religion is bad in all D&D settings - Eberron is a pretty good exception for a variety of reasons - but that religion is mostly an afterthought for most D&D. Consider, for example, that in Greyhawk "religion" wasn't really composed as an integral part of the setting. It came piece meal as Gygax began gradually introducing deities in his dungeon (e.g., St. Cuthbert, Hextor, Heironeous, etc.). It was mostly invented as he went along with a heavy dose of whimsy. Forgotten Realms was basically the world of a teenager who imagined gods from different mythologies finding their place in his world, but it also has the sort of religious depth that one would expect from a teenager as well whose understanding of ancient religions amounts to mostly a list of what gods they had.

For a better sense of D&D's deficiencies in religion, I would recommend taking a look into RuneQuest or Tekumel.

* In particular, Eberron creates religions that deal with possible worldviews that my stem from the world's mythos: e.g., avoiding the realm of the dead, the sacrifice of the couatls, eschatological apocalypse of the dream world, etc.
I think religion works well enough in D&D for what the game sets out to do. More depth probably isn't needed unless your players really want it. However, I've never come across any players that wanted more detail than is available in, say, the Greyhawk setting.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I think religion works well enough in D&D for what the game sets out to do. More depth probably isn't needed unless your players really want it. However, I've never come across any players that wanted more detail than is available in, say, the Greyhawk setting.
Sure, but I think it's important to recognize that it's fairly vestigial, and your second and third sentence does support that point. It's basically lip service to the fact that religion exists in some form or another, and this is fine for many people who play the game.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
I think religion works well enough in D&D for what the game sets out to do. More depth probably isn't needed unless your players really want it. However, I've never come across any players that wanted more detail than is available in, say, the Greyhawk setting.

Definitely. I play Clerics all the time, and don't need or want much more religion than the game has most of the time. When I world build I put more in... but more cosmology than religion I think.


But I agree with...

Sure, but I think it's important to recognize that it's fairly vestigial, and your second and third sentence does support that point. It's basically lip service to the fact that religion exists in some form or another, and this is fine for many people who play the game.

My only point was that D&D doesn't actually give much detail on Religion. Of course, thereare lots of other things it doesn't give lots of detail on, because D&D doesn't seem ot go heavy simulation at most tables. And that works just fine for me.
.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Definitely. I play Clerics all the time, and don't need or want much more religion than the game has most of the time. When I world build I put more in... but more cosmology than religion I think.
Clerics and druids are probably my most played classes in D&D by far. Partially because of the play style and partially because of the spiritual aspects that make for a great character/campaign hook.
 

I think the easiest way to "escape Tolkien", if you feel so inclined, is to simply set one's world in a Greek, Egyptian or other non-Nordic, non-Celtic setting. That way, you can have satyrs and centaurs, for example, instead of halflings, elves, and dwarves. Another option would be an Arabian Nights type setting: humans, peris (Persian fey-like beings) and jinn.

And then risk getting called out for cultural appropriation if you are not a member of one of those cultures, if recent pleathora of threads are of any indication, albeit that is an entirely different topic of discussion. This is particularly likely to occur if one's attempt at modeling said cultures is blatantly half-assed (again it's almost as people's objections are to bad and lazy writing on the part of authors).

Middle Earth isn't especially Nordic or Celtic. It certainly draws from it, but it lacks a lot of other trappings from Indo-European mythology. The elves and dwarves are archetypal figures in pre-Tolkien European folklore. Their original versions are lot scarier and surreal. Nobody argues that fairytales are trapped in Tolkien's shadow.

Precisely. Even the story of Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit are arguably liberal retellings of Ring of the Nibelung. Thorin and his family (as well as Smaug's) obsession with gold is taken directly out of Nordic folklore in where dwarves become corrupted by their lust for gold or treasure and turn into dragons. Smaug is hands down modeled after Fafnir.
 

MGibster

Legend
It might not be important to your cleric players. Many of the ones I have played with it matters quite a bit.

I find it best practice to assume most posts in these threads are prefaced with “In my experience.” It’s great that religion has been a significant part of your gaming. In my experience, that is not the typical D&D experience with religion.
 

Precisely. Even the story of Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit are arguably liberal retellings of Ring of the Nibelung. Thorin and his family (as well as Smaug's) obsession with gold is taken directly out of Nordic folklore in where dwarves become corrupted by their lust for gold or treasure and turn into dragons. Smaug is hands down modeled after Fafnir.

It's also related to Plato's Ring of Gyges.
 

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