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

Incenjucar

Legend
Overall it's important to avoid simplification into a trivia night answer. The influences on D&D are complex, and varied product-by-product, and trying to just put it squarely on a mere four books by a single author diminishes the visibility of thousands of other influences.

--

Serious authors... a huge portion of required reading in English literature is fantasy. Some of the most important writing in English contains fart jokes. "Serious" literature as a prestige category instead of a genre preference is an invention by people who want to feel very adult without being well-read.
 
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Dire Bare

Legend
Overall it's important to avoid simplification into a trivia night answer. The influences on D&D are complex, and varied product-by-product, and trying to just put it squarely on a mere four books by a single author diminishes the visibility of thousands of other influences.

--

Serious authors... a huge portion of required reading in English literature is fantasy. Some of the most important writing in English contains fart jokes. "Serious" literature as a prestige category instead of a genre preference is an invention by people who want to feel very adult without being well-read.
And who here is simplifying D&D influences into a "trivia night answer"?

Tolkien has a huge influence on D&D and the fantasy genre. Full stop. He's certainly not the only important influence, but no one is denying other influences, just defending Tolkien's. Whose influence is constantly under attack within fandom, ridiculously so.

@Hussar, man you nailed it.
 

I recently read Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions for the first time and I was astounded at how much D&D is taken from there. The specific dwarves noting underground tunnel slope and grade ability from 1e was not something I was expecting.
Three Hearts and Three Lions is one of the most concentrated influences on D&D in Appendix N. It's not the best in Appendix N, or the best Anderson, but pound-for-pound it has so much in it that inspired D&D.

Considering that serious authors will avoid being put in the sf genre like the plague I don’t think sf or fantasy has ever really been taken seriously.
For all the critical and academic evaluations and reevaluations, despite the seismic shift of pop culture in the last ten years, there are still plenty of people that view SF and fantasy as "nerd garbage."
 

Incenjucar

Legend
And who here is simplifying D&D influences into a "trivia night answer"?

Tolkien has a huge influence on D&D and the fantasy genre. Full stop. He's certainly not the only important influence, but no one is denying other influences, just defending Tolkien's. Whose influence is constantly under attack within fandom, ridiculously so.

@Hussar, man you nailed it.
You don't need to defend it. There are hobbitses and orcses.
 


Clint_L

Hero
Juat about the only good attempt to follow Tplkien carefully is Tad William's Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Most other attempts miss the good stuff and go after incidental features.
Tad Williams is good. Guy Gabriel Kay's stuff is amazing, but he actually worked on the Tolkien estate, and his fantasy is a much more grounded take on archetypal conflicts.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
And yet . . . despite the hobbitses and orcses and elveses and (tree)entses . . . we do. As this thread demonstrates.
I'm not sure you really do. Personally, I don't see a lot of Tolkien denialism. I think that's a rather gross spin on it since the incorporation of Tolkien is so obvious and widely known by people who maybe aren't as deeply steeped in the fantasy genre. Hell, you see a lot of people grousing about the virtual requirement to have Tolkien-influenced elves, dwarves, and halflings in the core rules to the exclusion of other options.

What I see a lot of among the long-time players and fans is promotion of other Appendix N influences to push against the otherwise overwhelming impression that D&D is influenced by Tolkien. Rather than a denialism, it's a push back against Tolkien ubiquity.
 

SteveC

Doing the best imitation of myself
As far as Tolkien being a "serious" author, he was very well regarded in his time, but that changed as time wore on. If you look at his "On Fairy Stories" (which I was also really lucky enough to read and study!) this is an attempt to explain fantasy in academic terms. It was originally delivered as a lecture, but you can also read it. Tolkien was very serious about his works and very academic. I think it would have been fascinating to have been there for his lectures.

And he was also influenced by his time. Not many people think of him as being part of the "Lost Generation" writers, but his works are seriously in response to WWI in the same way as many of the writers and poets of that era are. If you want some really interesting reading and things to think about to make your game more interesting, that's a great (if depressing) topic.
 

Clint_L

Hero
I dont know if fantasy has ever been considered as serious fiction in academic circles, Tolkien may be one of the few to actually break through the literary ceiling and rise up from the dross of ‘popular fiction’
I'm a fan of genre fiction. I mostly read genre fiction. The vast majority of genre fiction is pedestrian, at best. A lot of popular fantasy fiction is basically YA, and not very good YA. More like comfort food.

A lot of this comes from genre conventions that are inherently conservative. Fantasy basically fetishizes medievalism, and a lot of authors seem barely interested in the implications. Let's face it, the notion of all our problems being solved by a really virtuous king or Chosen One is pretty backwards. Tolkien makes it work by having the chops to elevate the material to the level of modern myth. George R.R. Martin stands out partly because he strips medievalism from that fantasy glamour and explores the human, often ugly side of warring houses and dynasties.

Science Fiction gets a lot more critical interest because of its speculative nature. As a genre, it is naturally inclined towards new ideas, unlike fantasy. Not that there isn't a ton of bad SF, but I find it much easier to find stimulating SF than to find stimulating fantasy. I find a lot of the most popular fantasy unreadable. I got about a hundred pages into The Name of the Wind and just couldn't continue. It was painful.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Considering that serious authors will avoid being put in the sf genre like the plague I don’t think sf or fantasy has ever really been taken seriously.
I wouldn't characterize it that way, although I think I know what you mean.

It's not that "serious" authors avoid SF & Fantasy, but rather that "literary" authors and academics have long held a snobbery towards genre fiction. That is less true today than it was in my youth, but still holds true for some folks.

Although, just like nerds grew up and became influential in all sorts of industries, that's also true in publishing and academia. Back in the 90s, one of my university English professors wrote academic books about SF & Fantasy! But, most of his colleagues remained pretty snobby about the genre, and I got flak for trying to write genre in my creative writing courses. Kids today have it much easier.
 

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