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

Clint_L

Hero
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.
I am within literary and academic circles. I have an MA in literature (I'm actually all but dissertation on a PhD). I have taught literature for decades.

Fantasy and sci-fi are not equally looked down upon; sci-fi is considered a much meatier genre. There is some knee-jerk snobbery, but a lot of that snobbery is earned. Early science fiction writers may have been rich with ideas, but were mostly bad in terms of writing ability. That genre radically improved during the 1960s or so. Fantasy has been a lot slower, and most popular fantasy is not very well written. That's not always an issue - Tolkien achieves greatness in spite of being a pretty clunky writer in many respects.

It's easy to claim that critics are just being snobs when they don't appreciate something that we like. But a lot of the time it's because the critics have a lot more expertise and knowledge. I have a lot more expertise and knowledge than I used to, and that's why I generally avoid re-reading books that I loved when I was younger. Usually when I do so, they are a disappointment. I loved Sword of Shannara when I was 13, but I'm not going to go near it now.
 

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Clint_L

Hero
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. :)
I believe that D&D-style magic should already be far more disruptive and transformative than guns and steam engines, so if I am willing to overlook that, then adding a bit of tech won't make much of a difference.
 


Within literary and academic circles, Fantasy and Sci-Fi have long been looked down upon.

Off topic -- I agree, but I don't think this is limited to the fantasy/sci-fi genre. I also read mysteries -- mostly cozies but a few hard-boiled. And I have read complaints from mystery lovers that the genre is disrespected in literary and academic circles. Then there is romance, a genre I disparage even though I don't read it. But I would bet romance lovers say the same thing.

Some of this may be a difference in priorities. In mystery, for instance, plot tends to be paramount and language/fine writing is less important. That likely doesn't sit well in high-minded literary circles.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
I am within literary and academic circles. I have an MA in literature (I'm actually all but dissertation on a PhD). I have taught literature for decades.

Fantasy and sci-fi are not equally looked down upon; sci-fi is considered a much meatier genre. There is some knee-jerk snobbery, but a lot of that snobbery is earned. Early science fiction writers may have been rich with ideas, but were mostly bad in terms of writing ability. That genre radically improved during the 1960s or so. Fantasy has been a lot slower, and most popular fantasy is not very well written. That's not always an issue - Tolkien achieves greatness in spite of being a pretty clunky writer in many respects.

It's easy to claim that critics are just being snobs when they don't appreciate something that we like. But a lot of the time it's because the critics have a lot more expertise and knowledge. I have a lot more expertise and knowledge than I used to, and that's why I generally avoid re-reading books that I loved when I was younger. Usually when I do so, they are a disappointment. I loved Sword of Shannara when I was 13, but I'm not going to go near it now.
You seem to be taking this personally. I'm not accusing YOU of being a literary snob.

But there is definitely snobbery towards genre fiction in literary/academic circles. There is much less today than there was in prior years. I'm sure the snobbery is thick in some university English departments, and non-existent in others.

I'm certainly not saying or implying folks who don't appreciate or are critical of genre fiction are inherently snobs, you're adding that in.

I would disagree that snobbery towards fantasy/sci-fi fiction is earned (and romance, mysteries, westerns, etc). Sure, a lot of it is crap. Especially stuff that relies heavily on tropes. But that is true of EVERY genre of fiction. A lot of what we consider classics today were considered trash for the masses back in the day. Shakespeare, anyone?
 

Hussar

Legend
As far as gunpowder leading to Industrial Revolution, that’s not even remotely close to real world history. Good grief. The Industrial Revolution is centuries after gunpowder.

Gunpowder is closer to Robin Hood than the Industrial Revolution. And that’s in Europe. In Asia they had gunpowder in the 9th century.
 


Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
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.
Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn books eventually end up with a mix of magic and Wild Wild West.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
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.

I believe that D&D-style magic should already be far more disruptive and transformative than guns and steam engines, so if I am willing to overlook that, then adding a bit of tech won't make much of a difference.

As far as gunpowder leading to Industrial Revolution, that’s not even remotely close to real world history. Good grief. The Industrial Revolution is centuries after gunpowder.

Gunpowder is closer to Robin Hood than the Industrial Revolution. And that’s in Europe. In Asia they had gunpowder in the 9th century.

I just personally don't like the feel of guns in my swords and magic fantasy.
This does feel to me like it reinforces the point about Tolkien's continuing hold on the genre. Firearms or ray guns are perfectly fitting in a lot of Appendix N fiction. But they absolutely don't fit Tolkien, and they violate the genre lines Lester and Judy-Lynn Del Ray established (building on the work Lin Carter did at Ballantine, but really aimed at selling to the massive numbers of Tolkien-lovers) in the 1970s between Fantasy and Science-Fiction, which were pretty much the same genre prior to that.

Appendix N has more genre mixing. A bunch of the books in it are straight up sci-fi. The John Carter stories are sword & planet, with pistols and rifles alongside swordplay. Hiero's Journey, Sign of the Labrys, and The Dying Earth are post-apocalyptic. Moorcock's Hawkmoon and Andre Norton's Witch World are science-fantasy. Conan has no firearms, being set in a mythical prehistory, but of course Howard's Solomon Kane stories do.

My own aesthetic preferences in D&D historically also shun firearms, which makes sense as I was raised on the Tolkien books before discovering D&D, and naturally latched onto D&D at the age of 10 as a way to play in a world like Middle Earth.

Speaking of industrial revolution, though, Skerples (the designer of the recent, wonderful The Monster Overhaul) did a setting focused on that a few years ago, though his is a Magical Industrial Revolution. It's a pretty great book.

 
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As far as gunpowder leading to Industrial Revolution, that’s not even remotely close to real world history. Good grief. The Industrial Revolution is centuries after gunpowder.

Gunpowder is closer to Robin Hood than the Industrial Revolution. And that’s in Europe. In Asia they had gunpowder in the 9th century.
But to turn your gunpowder into a weapon that is more effective than a longbow, trebuchet or mounted knight, it requires the same advancements in metal-working techniques that you need to manufacture an effective steam engine. The relationship isn't causal, but there is a connection.
 

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