Worlds of Design: Reassessing Tolkien’s Influence

In September 2020 I wrote a column about Tolkien’s influence and how world builders are “trapped” by his influence. I was not writing with Tolkien in my sights. But now I am.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Tolkien’s List​

How influential has J.R.R. Tolkien’s work been on RPGs, and is that influence a problem? I’ve made a list of some characteristics of Tolkien’s world (in no particular order):
  • Characteristics of Dwarves and Elves
  • Very low-magic levels of Middle-earth
  • Lack of religion, of “gods” that interfere
  • Impossibly long history without significant change in technology
  • An overarching “dark lord”
  • A single magical object that can determine overall success or failure (The Ring)
  • Group quest
  • “Monsters” and other detail

Dwarves and Elves​

Dwarves and Elves in RPGs are usually Tolkien-like, much different than earlier folklore notions. Consider the dwarfs of the Nibelungenlied, and the small and often nefarious elves of many stories about the Fey world. This may be where Tolkien’s influence is most obvious. (If you haven’t read the older stories you might not be aware of the striking difference. It’s like the so-called “classic” pirate accent (yaarrhh) – it didn’t exist in movies before 1950’s Treasure Island and Long John Silver’s west Cornish accent.)

Low-Magic Levels​

What evidently hasn’t influenced RPGs at all is the low-magic levels of Middle-earth. Magic items are just about non-existent. Spell-casters are just about non-existent. An inhabitant may hear of such things, but actually getting involved with one in any way, even just to see it, is nearly unheard of. In the USA today you’re as likely to see the President of the United States up close and personal as to see a magic-user in person in Middle-earth. Similarly, you’re more likely to see a gold bar in the USA than to see a magic item in Middle-earth.

Lack or Organized Religion​

Tolkien’s lack of organized religion, and of “gods” that interfere hasn’t been an influence. Gods that manifest in the world, if only through the spells of clerics/priests, are common in RPGs, perhaps heavily influenced by D&D. Gods that interfere in the “real world” are also common from what I hear of RPG campaigns (something I don’t use myself).

Little Technological Advancement​

Impossibly long history without significant change in technology. This is a big influence on literature as well as games. As an historian I recognize that this is virtually impossible. Yes, technology changed much more slowly in, say, 2500 BCE. But it did change immensely over time, and in so many games (and books) it doesn’t seem to change at all over many millennia. Heck, even the science fantasy Star Wars has very little technological change in tens of thousands of years. Having said that, my wife reminded me of the new “infernal/demonic engines” of Saruman, both at Isengard and in Hobbiton. Yet those technologies were very much frowned upon by the “good guys.”

A Dark Lord​

An overarching “dark lord” threatening the world. I have never used a Sauron-equivalent in my campaigns, but I’d guess that many GMs do. This is hardly an invention of Tolkien, but Lord of the Rings could certainly have influenced many GMs. There’s no evidence as to how much, though.

A MacGuffin​

A single magical object that can determine overall success or failure (The Ring). More than just a MacGuffin (“an object or device in a movie or a book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot”), it is the be-all and end-all of the entire story-arc. In LOTR it is Sauron’s lost Ring of Power, of course. Not something I’ve used (I avoid “saving the world” situations), but who knows how many others have used it? It’s more practical if the magical effect is much reduced, and the story scaled back from “saving the world” to accomplishing something worthwhile.

Was this new with Tolkien? Only an expert in pre-Tolkien fantasy fiction and myth could answer this question. What first comes to mind is the Ring in Wagner’s Nibelungenlied opera cycle, but that ring was not the overwhelming object of Power that Sauron’s Ring was. As with several of these questions, even if Tolkien was not the first, he may have been far better known than any preceding work.

A Group Quest​

Group Quest. Early science fiction and fantasy was dominated by a single protagonist hero, or hero and sidekick. Tolkien’s main books depicted quests by groups of characters rather than by individuals. How much this actually influenced RPGs, I have no idea.

Archetypical Monsters​

“Monsters” and other details. Apart from the characterizations of dwarves and elves, Tolkien’s influence shows in other species respects. For example, Orcs are direct transfers from LOTR, as are Hobbits (now changed to halflings). Ents (now changed to treants) are from LOTR, as are Balrogs (changed to Balor). Also, there is a “Common Tongue” in Middle-earth. This is a convenience for gaming that might have been invented by anyone, but Tolkien showed the way.

Does It Matter?​

I’m not trying to gauge whether Tolkien’s influence is “bad” or not. His work certainly influences RPGs, but perhaps less than many think. Newer gamers, coming to Tolkien through the movies, may see more of his influence than older gamers do. Some GMs are certainly more influenced than others. Yet I’m not sure how any literary influence on RPGs could be “bad”, insofar as inspiration can come from anywhere, and be used for any purpose. Any game designer is free to ignore Tolkien, or not, as preferred.

Your Turn: How do you incorporate (or avoid) Tolkien's influence in your campaigns?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

GothmogIV

Explorer
My group is currently playing The Lord of the Rings 5e game from Free League and enjoying it. As you pointed out, Tolkien's world is low magic, and the other constraints placed on characters--fewer bonus actions per level, restrictions in class and heritage, fewer magic items--has actually made the 5e experience better for us than RAW D&D 5e. My issue with 5e from the beginning has been how overpowered the characters are; Tolkien's setting specifically has sanded a lot of that down.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
You know Gandalf, Saruman and Eyeball are all ‘gods’ directly interfering in the world? Sure theyre called wizards and maia but its the same concept as the Immortals of Mystara.

Lack of Technological advancement is a mythology thing, a result of telling stories about an imagined past but calling on contemporary cues to understanding. Its one of the many reasons DnDs ‘medieval’ is so anachronistic.

When Gary Gygax had his thread going here, I raised with him the Group Quest (rather than individual ala Conan) coming from Tolkien and he was quick to dismiss that, saying that the group approach wasnt Tolkien but a natural outcome of the game where a group get together to play characters in a story - it was a reasonable case.

I do concede that Elfs and Dwarfs and Orcs have been remolded into the Tolkien form though, which is a pity, though it does seem things are starting to change (eg Elfs being acknowledged as fey, harking back to the tuatha de Danann)
 

aco175

Legend
I can see Tolkien in the earlier editions more than the newer ones. There may have been just less stories and history of the game to be able to branch out at the time, and the point that one only played in the local area and the internet had not been able to spread other ways of gaming all over faster then back then.

I also recall the larger party size where you would have henchmen named Merry, Pippen, Sam, Boromir, and the DMNPC Gandalf. Still needed a cleric concept so the Gods needed to be developed with it.

The Tolkien story works well as a story and creates a great world. Trying to force the same on players in D&D makes an ok story unless the players feel railroaded and offers little reward other than saving the world- which is a bit like a soldier's life coming home from WW1.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
When Gary Gygax had his thread going here, I raised with him the Group Quest (rather than individual ala Conan) coming from Tolkien and he was quick to dismiss that, saying that the group approach wasnt Tolkien but a natural outcome of the game where a group get together to play characters in a story - it was a reasonable case.
It is, but the Fellowship is STILL the obvious prototype of virtually every D&D adventuring party. A collection of heroes of varying races and skills assembled for a mission/quest/to fight evil. Three Hearts & Three Lions has a small party but it's really just the heroic knight/paladin and a couple of NPCs who become retainers, more or less. Before we get into that OD&D uses the exact same four races fitting almost the exact Tolkien descriptions (elves are adulterated a bit with Anderson)'s, that the first additional class added was the burglar-style thief, and that one of the other early ones is "Aragorn, the Class".

I do concede that Elfs and Dwarfs and Orcs have been remolded into the Tolkien form though, which is a pity, though it does seem things are starting to change (eg Elfs being acknowledged as fey, harking back to the tuatha de Danann)
Well, I think that connection to the Irish Aos Si is actually something Lew is missing in the OP. Elves being tiny fey creatures is a bit later period, being more Victorian era. The fairy folk from Irish legend are human sized.
 
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Hussar

Legend
I’ve always kinda wondered why people try so hard to deny the influence of Tolkien. Never mind DnD - Tolkien’s influence on the genre can’t really be overstated. So much of the fantasy of the twentieth century is either emulating or reacting to Tolkien.

I mean good grief we had thirty years of Tolkien races forming the basis of the phb plus gnomes which nearly no one actually plays.

It took thirty years just to get a non Tolkien race into the phb. That’s how big a shadow Tolkien casts.
 

Blue Orange

Gone to Texas
Tolkien was much more into Nordic myth.

Nonetheless after restarting the fantasy genre in the 50s (ironically as a setting for his conlangs; he was a professor of what you'd now call comparative languages) you'd expect him to cast a long shadow. People wanted new myths; he gave them one.

Dude deserves credit; it's enough to have an impressive career in one field, but two?
 

Dire Bare

Legend
You know Gandalf, Saruman and Eyeball are all ‘gods’ directly interfering in the world? Sure theyre called wizards and maia but its the same concept as the Immortals of Mystara.
Yes and no.

The wizards of Middle-Earth are angelic type creatures incarnated in the mortal world, sure. But, the archetype Gandalf fills in the stories is "wizard" not "god" or "angel". And that addresses @lewpuls point about the setting being low-magic compared to D&D also. Yes, it certainly is. But the core Middle-Earth stories, "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" prominently feature Gandalf, a wizard, who underpins the D&D archetype.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
I’ve always kinda wondered why people try so hard to deny the influence of Tolkien. Never mind DnD - Tolkien’s influence on the genre can’t really be overstated. So much of the fantasy of the twentieth century is either emulating or reacting to Tolkien.

I mean good grief we had thirty years of Tolkien races forming the basis of the phb plus gnomes which nearly no one actually plays.

It took thirty years just to get a non Tolkien race into the phb. That’s how big a shadow Tolkien casts.
This.

Tolkien wasn't the only influence on early D&D, but he was definitely huge . . . both on D&D and the larger fantasy genre. To push back on this doesn't make any sense to me, not even when Gygax himself did it back in the day.
 

Divine2021

Adventurer
The One Ring is very good, but the 5e version will be getting play on my table. It’s simply a lot of fun, cause it breaks down a certain type of Dnd to its most basic essence. I think the original article above captures that well.

Also, to the person who says nobody plays gnomes—statistically that may be true, but I love play gnomes!
 

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