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

Dire Bare

Legend
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.
Tolkien is certainly the most visible influence in the game, even despite the other Appendix N resources also being super influential on how the game developed. Sure.

But why is there a need for "push back"? That's what @Hussar, myself, and others just don't get.

Is it worthwhile exploring and discussing the other important influences on D&D? Yes! Is it okay if your personal preferences lean more towards Anderson, Howard, or other authors or sources of influence? Yes! But . . . "push back against Tolkien ubiquity"?? Whatever.
 

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ad_hoc

(they/them)
A lot in the OP has existed forever in stories from MacGuffins to the Hero's Journey.

Excalibur comes to mind when thinking of a fantasy MacGuffin.

I think the lasting impact is mostly the aesthetic and technology level of the fantasy world along with what the OP said about elves and dwarfs and such.

Still, I think it is likely we would have ended up with a similar technology level without Tolkien.

So while elves and dwarfs have evolved over time I think we can point to them as being rooted in Tolkien inspiration and our fantasy lineages would be very different without him.
 

ad_hoc

(they/them)
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.

I'm similar. I love sci-fi books, shows, and movies.

I engage in fantasy through games.
 

CreamCloud0

One day, I hope to actually play DnD.
Tolkien is certainly the most visible influence in the game, even despite the other Appendix N resources also being super influential on how the game developed. Sure.

But why is there a need for "push back"? That's what @Hussar, myself, and others just don't get.

Is it worthwhile exploring and discussing the other important influences on D&D? Yes! Is it okay if your personal preferences lean more towards Anderson, Howard, or other authors or sources of influence? Yes! But . . . "push back against Tolkien ubiquity"?? Whatever.
isn't it the same reason as whenever there's any monolithic influence in a genre? people push back because 'X genre is more than just Y series', they see it as limiting when people can't see outside the box this one author created.

edit: i mean, it's like how you hear such a large percentage of people claiming 'guns, warforged and artificers don't belong in DnD, they don't fit the tone' but there's no real reason why the default tone is what it is other than LotR's pseudo medieval fantasy being such a foundational keystone of the game.
 
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Incenjucar

Legend
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.
That's just the ignorant patting themselves on the back. My English degree required Shakespeare - who writes about faeries - and either Milton and his sexy Satan fanfic or Chaucer and his comedy involving fart jokes.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
isn't it the same reason as whenever there's any monolithic influence in a genre? people push back because 'X genre is more than just Y series', they see it as limiting when people can't see outside the box this one author created.

edit: i mean, it's like how you hear such a large percentage of people claiming 'guns, warforged and artificers don't belong in DnD, they don't fit the tone' but there's no real reason why the default tone is what it is other than LotR's pseudo medieval fantasy being such a foundational keystone of the game.
If you find classic fantasy limiting . . . that's fair. D&D not only has multiple influences, but it is pretty flexible and can be shaped into different genres of fantasy pretty easily. TSR/WotC did it themselves with several of their published campaign settings.

But we're not talking about folks not liking Tolkienesque fantasy . . . we're talking about folks downplaying the influence of Tolkien on the game. Love it or hate it, it's silly to downplay it. It's simply a fact, Tolkien is a huge, very visible influence on D&D's development. Not the only influence, it's not a carbon copy of the Lord of the Rings, but it's undeniable.
 

Clint_L

Hero
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.
I want to push back, gently, on the "snobbery" argument because it comes up a lot.

I'm a regular poster on this and other forums related to fantasy. I've been a fantasy RPG player since I was a kid. A dungeon master. I spend untold hours painting little fantasy miniatures. I love great fantasy fiction, film, etc. I am not a fantasy snob! To the contrary, I am always on the lookout for a good fantasy novel...but I am usually disappointed. I finally read The Name of the Wind because it appears on so many lists of great fantasy novels. To me, that, and the popularity of authors like Brandon Sanderson, says a lot about the quality of mainstream fantasy writing.

I don't have a low opinion of fantasy fiction because I'm a snob who rejects fantasy out of hand. I have a low opinion of the genre because I am incessantly looking for good fantasy to read, and can't find it.
 
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Dire Bare

Legend
I want to push back on the "snobbery" argument because it comes up a lot.

I'm a regular poster on this and other forums related to fantasy. I've been a fantasy RPG player since I was a kid. A dungeon master. I spend untold hours painting little fantasy miniatures. I love great fantasy fiction, film, etc. I am not a fantasy snob! To the contrary, I am always on the lookout for a good fantasy novel...but I am usually disappointed. I finally read The Name of the Wind because it appears on so many lists of great fantasy novels. To me, that, and the popularity of authors like Brandon Sanderson, says a lot about the quality of mainstream fantasy writing.

I don't have a low opinion of fantasy fiction because I'm a snob who rejects fantasy out of hand. I have a low opinion of the genre because I am incessantly looking for good fantasy to read, and can't find it.
You and I aren't talking about the same things.

If you find fantasy novels that rely heavily on the classic tropes uninteresting . . . that's not snobbery, that's just your preferences and it's fine.

Within literary and academic circles, Fantasy and Sci-Fi have long been looked down upon. That is the snobbery I'm referring to. That's changing, but is still a thing.

Although . . . there is a LOT of good fantasy out there being written today. Some of it is pretty tropey and Tolkienesque, much of it is not in the vein of Tolkien at all.
 

Hussar

Legend
The ironic thing is I am very much not a Tolkien fan. I’m just not. But that doesn’t mean I can’t see the impact
.
@CreamCloud0 is spot on in the edit. The push against things like guns and warforged really comes from that baseline that was set by Tolkien. After all lots of pulp and later fantasy borrowed all sorts of sf tropes. What is the Tin Man if not a warforged?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The ironic thing is I am very much not a Tolkien fan. I’m just not. But that doesn’t mean I can’t see the impact
.
@CreamCloud0 is spot on in the edit. The push against things like guns and warforged really comes from that baseline that was set by Tolkien. After all lots of pulp and later fantasy borrowed all sorts of sf tropes. What is the Tin Man if not a warforged?
The push against guns and so forth, from me anyway, comes from the fact (proven in the real world) that once such developments are out of the bag then some sort of industrial revolution won't be far behind and when it comes it'll come fast, which plays hell with the idea of a relatively slow-developing world in which the last few generations of some long-lived species haven't seen all that much change.

That said, I've nothing against a steampunk-y setting for D&D in which the industrial revolution is not only well underway but is front-and-centre. However, were such a setting to a) maintain a campaign longer than just a couple of in-game years and b) be believable, new world-changing inventions (e.g. telephone, radio, fixed-wing flight, etc.) would be coming online all the time; and I-as-DM just can't be arsed to do all the work that would entail. :)

There's an un-named but connected series of three novels by Emma Jane Holloway - the first is called A Study in Silks - in which the setting pretty much amounts to "Sherlock Holmes plus magic" and where the development of industry etc. is front and centre in the plot. The author pulls this off quite well IMO, and I could see using something very much like her setting for a short-term (in game time) D&D or D&D-adjacent campaign.
 

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