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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
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.
And the story of Ortnit. His father was Alberich, the dwarf who forged the ring.

I've been thinking of writing my own telling of the cursed ring cycle. Here Ortnit acquires the magic ring, the ring his father Alberich/Oberon forged from the cursed Rhine-gold, and becomes king of Nidavellir/Svartalfheim. He wants to protect the unseelie folk from persecution by the human empire. Unfortunately, he must constantly struggle against the Rhine-gold because to wield it he must renounce compassion. Would a god-king devoid of compassion save the world or destroy it?
 

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Ravenbrook

Explorer
And the story of Ortnit. His father was Alberich, the dwarf who forged the ring.

I've been thinking of writing my own telling of the cursed ring cycle. Here Ortnit acquires the magic ring, the ring his father Alberich/Oberon forged from the cursed Rhine-gold, and becomes king of Nidavellir/Svartalfheim. He wants to protect the unseelie folk from persecution by the human empire. Unfortunately, he must constantly struggle against the Rhine-gold because to wield it he must renounce compassion. Would a god-king devoid of compassion save the world or destroy it?
And don't forget Der Zauberring (The Magic Ring) by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué! It was first published in 1812. Because many of Fouqué's works were translated into English it's quite likely that Tolkien read it in his youth.
 

Scott Christian

Adventurer
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?
I believe that a lot of this information exists for many of the religions found throughout the Realms. But you are correct in the aspect that they are not all found in the same place. I will admit, it would be nice to have a book with all the information in one place. But, that is not the way it's set up. But, much of that information is there such as holidays, clothing, symbols, training, views of other pantheons, etc.
Some of the information you want is almost never defined by religions as we know them. Many of their stances, such as literal or figurative stories, are left vague. Maybe in the D&D realms it is the same?
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?
He knows all the questions, but I will concede is an avid D&D reader (official books, novels, etc...) and has a sharp memory. So he has an advantage over an average player.
 


GreenTengu

Adventurer
I think the issue is that one of three things happens when you try to move away from Tolkien in terms of the denizens of the world.

1) They just make a "big, strong guys warrior" race, a "little people" race and a "thin, magic" race and usually there are bad guys who are a "beast race", though usually there are a number of those so there are plenty of mindless goons to slaughter when you walk out of town. Anything beyond that is added and it tends to just double, triple, quadrouple up on those first three molds and it is almost always the thin, magic race as it is pretty easy to make something "magic-- just in a different way". In short, the traditional Tolkien races just get replaced with ones that have exactly the same traits (except that Dwarfs get to be taller than humans instead of shorter). All too often what there is to say about these races would nicely fit onto a single page word document in 10 point font easily. The extent to which they are successful usually depends on people taking their preconceptions of elves, dwarfs and hobbits and just projecting them onto these races. You can scribble "My OC, do not steal" all over it as much as you like-- everyone can see you just took the Tolkien races into photoshop and did a bit of color adjustment and added some horns or something.

2) It uses animal people. So they are just humans who tend to act like well-- whatever the common preconceptions about those particular animals are. And which animals get to be people and which only exist in the setting as animals is naturally entirely arbitrary. These sorts of settings almost certainly never try to build an entire culture around whatever these animal-people are as generally just what they can do as being partly that other animal is the main thing that gets focused on.

3) Okay, you actually make something original that can't be compared to the Tolkien races in any way. That also means they are so alien that no one really knows what to make of them. So there is nothing familiar there for them to latch onto. Try to hit them with all of the exposition they need to actually wrap their head around these novel things and you will probably lose their interest as it will no doubt be far too much noise all at much. And if you got to do that for 5 or more peoples? Yeah-- it gets pretty hopeless pretty fast. You could pull it off in a movie or a novel where the behavior of one of these creatures can be demonstrated to someone before you ask them to play one, but that's just the thing-- you need to show them, not tell them, and you can't ask them to play a role they know nothing about.

And, at the end of the day, the setting is probably going to feel more like a sci-fi setting than a fantasy one even if there is no sci-fi technology because it is typically sci-fi franchises that are tasked with coming up with their own array of unique races. And, on that note, I should add-- going out of one's way to make them all super unique looking can still result in them feeling super bland. Star Wars alien races are WAY more visually distinct than Star Trek ones. I have seen most of what each franchise has put out and I can understand how to play a Vulcan and an Orion and a Cardassian and a Ferangi differently, but with a Twilek and a Rodian and an Ithorian and a Duros and a Zabrak? They are basically interchangeable. So a setting going out of its way to make all of the races look super non-human isn't always going to result in them adding more to the setting.


Anyway-- this is why most successful franchises just go with the standard Tolkien race pack and then tweak them rather than trying to start from scratch. Although, really, Tolkien didn't invent any of those races-- so if one was going to create a new setting the way he did it, what you would actually do is not try to create something from absolute scratch. What you would do is take a bunch of monsters from hundreds of years old mythology that are still iconic today and use those as the common denizens of your world. Thing is with applying that to D&D though? Well-- pretty much everything that would be a good choice to use in those respects has already been implemented into D&D, usually in the form of a mid to high tier level monster.

I mean-- if one were to truly start from scratch on your setting, it is perfectly reasonable to say "this is going to be based on Greek/Roman myths, so the common non-human races are Satyrs, Nymphs, Dryads, Minotaurs, and Centaurs" -- those are all already sitting there in the Monster Manual and saying "I am using the same mythological creature, but in an entirely different role than the one the designers assigned to that creature and so please ignore virtually everything the officially WotC approved interpretation of what this word means" is quite a harder sell than just conjuring something novel up.
 

I mean-- if one were to truly start from scratch on your setting, it is perfectly reasonable to say "this is going to be based on Greek/Roman myths, so the common non-human races are Satyrs, Nymphs, Dryads, Minotaurs, and Centaurs" -- those are all already sitting there in the Monster Manual and saying "I am using the same mythological creature, but in an entirely different role than the one the designers assigned to that creature and so please ignore virtually everything the officially WotC approved interpretation of what this word means" is quite a harder sell than just conjuring something novel up.
Or you could play Mazes & Minotaurs.

EDIT: The expansions of minotaurs are way cooler than the repetitive D&D version. Some of them breath fire, have multiple heads, or psychic powers!
 

I think that Tolkein being the overshadowing fantasy seting is very 1970s/1980s with a slight resurgence in the 00s.

These days the overshadowing fantasy setting is D&D itself, with both Warcraft and Warhammer pushing Tolkein out of the top three (although Tolkein influenced D&D, D&D was subverted to make the original Warhammer Fantasy setting, and the original Warcraft setting was almost literally Warhammer with the serial numbers filed off). Drow, for example, are not part of the Tolkein race pack but are part of the default race pack - and Tolkein's races were mostly in practice pretty isolationist, fairly hierarchical, and far less kitchen-sink-y than the modern race pack is.
 




cbwjm

Hero
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.
A few days later but finally remembered to come back to this. Although I haven't done this for the individual races, I have done it for a single human culture. 8 tribes that eventually formed a grand duchy each have a totem animal and a subrace with features similar to the animal. In some cases, like the raven being an omen, the subrace has natural divination abilities. The lion tribe are proud leaders, the bear large and strong, the fox are noted (perhaps unfairly) as relentless pranksters. In general you can use standard human to represent the intermixing of the tribes, but in some individuals the old blood runs strong and so you can instead choose the subrace.
 



Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
A few days later but finally remembered to come back to this. Although I haven't done this for the individual races, I have done it for a single human culture. 8 tribes that eventually formed a grand duchy each have a totem animal and a subrace with features similar to the animal. In some cases, like the raven being an omen, the subrace has natural divination abilities. The lion tribe are proud leaders, the bear large and strong, the fox are noted (perhaps unfairly) as relentless pranksters. In general you can use standard human to represent the intermixing of the tribes, but in some individuals the old blood runs strong and so you can instead choose the subrace.

Well my idea was a test idea for new setting.

It is a humancentric world. But humans can Revere and worship animal spirits. The world evolved from a clan structure where an animal god protected the few human tribes that ended up surviving. Via dedication to their God, a human can transform to an animal race. At the current era, the world is 30% Human, 50% Full Demihuman and 20% hybrid.

Deer Tribe- Flighty Elves who turn aggressive once a deer
Bear Tribe - Dwarves whose beards follow the attack poem
Mouse Tribe- Swarms of Cartoon Halfling socialists
Beaver Tribe- Gnome Engineers
Boar Tribe- Aggressive Orc Celts
Goat Tribe- Tiefling Devilworshippers who eat metal
Dragon Tribe - Capitalist Dragonborn Merchants
Crocodile- Aggressive Lizardfolk with a food based culture
Lion tribe- Violent Leonins with strict gender roles
Hyena tribe- Matriarchal Prankster Gnolls
Jaguar Tribe- Tabaxi who sacrifice hearts to the Jaguar God
Wolf Tribe - Goblin Romans
Horse Tribe- Fake Yuan Dynasty Centaurs
Monkey Tribe- Fake Tang Dynasty Hobgoblins
 

Well my idea was a test idea for new setting.

It is a humancentric world. But humans can Revere and worship animal spirits. The world evolved from a clan structure where an animal god protected the few human tribes that ended up surviving. Via dedication to their God, a human can transform to an animal race. At the current era, the world is 30% Human, 50% Full Demihuman and 20% hybrid.

Deer Tribe- Flighty Elves who turn aggressive once a deer
Bear Tribe - Dwarves whose beards follow the attack poem
Mouse Tribe- Swarms of Cartoon Halfling socialists
Beaver Tribe- Gnome Engineers
Boar Tribe- Aggressive Orc Celts
Goat Tribe- Tiefling Devilworshippers who eat metal
Dragon Tribe - Capitalist Dragonborn Merchants
Crocodile- Aggressive Lizardfolk with a food based culture
Lion tribe- Violent Leonins with strict gender roles
Hyena tribe- Matriarchal Prankster Gnolls
Jaguar Tribe- Tabaxi who sacrifice hearts to the Jaguar God
Wolf Tribe - Goblin Romans
Horse Tribe- Fake Yuan Dynasty Centaurs
Monkey Tribe- Fake Tang Dynasty Hobgoblins

What about the Bonobo Tribe?
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
I think the issue is that one of three things happens when you try to move away from Tolkien in terms of the denizens of the world.

1) They just make a "big, strong guys warrior" race, a "little people" race and a "thin, magic" race and usually there are bad guys who are a "beast race", though usually there are a number of those so there are plenty of mindless goons to slaughter when you walk out of town. Anything beyond that is added and it tends to just double, triple, quadrouple up on those first three molds

2) It uses animal people. So they are just humans who tend to act like well-- whatever the common preconceptions about those particular animals are.

3) Okay, you actually make something original that can't be compared to the Tolkien races in any way. That also means they are so alien that no one really knows what to make of them.

What a pessimistic attitude. Basically "it can't be done right". It has been done right, more than once - have you heard of Yoon Suin?

Although I will concede that it is challenging, and sometimes it's just better to go with the tropes.
 

Tsuga C

Explorer
Escaping from Tolkien is analogous to escaping from a prime-quality surf and turf dinner: a dose of novelty on the menu helps you appreciate the greatness of the original when you return to it once more.
 

MGibster

Legend
Escaping from Tolkien is analogous to escaping from a prime-quality surf and turf dinner: a dose of novelty on the menu helps you appreciate the greatness of the original when you return to it once more.

About twenty years ago I went on vacation and got the bright idea of eating prime rib every night for dinner from a different restaurant. Each delectable dish was wonderfully pink, each establishment's aus jus the very epitome of meatiness, and when combined with a baked potato, asparagus, or sugar snap peas each meal was a veritable symphony of flavor playing across my palate those three wonderful night. But on the fourth night of my vacation I didn't order prime rib because I had grown tired of it. After eating so much prime rib I decided I needed a break and ordered something else. Sometimes I want a fine steak grilled to a perfect medium-rare and a lobster tail served with a baked potato and a nice green vegetable. But sometimes I just want a burrito.
 

You could also draw from pre-Tolkien fantasy, fairytales, and mythology. Tolkien may overshadow the fantasy genre, but that's mostly because people refuse to just ignore his contributions.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
"To this day I advise people who want to write fantastic fiction for a living to stop reading generic fantasy and to go back to the roots of the genre as deeply as possible, the way anyone might who takes his craft seriously. One avoids becoming a Tolkien clone precisely by returning to the same roots that inspired The Lord of the Rings."

- Michael Moorcock, Intro to the 2008 printing of "The Stealer of Souls"
 

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