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

Hussar

Legend
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.

Not really. Cannons in various forms well predate the 19th century. I mean you had cannons mounted on ships in the 15th century. Hell, the Spanish conquered the New World with 15th century level firearms.

But there’s also the genre thing too. Basic/Expert had the whole Voyages of the Princess Ark thing going where cannons and handguns were common.

But it was largely pooh poohed because it was fantasy for kids. It wasn’t the “mature” fantasy that adnd tried to pretend it was. Again it’s that whole Tolkien thing locked right in.
 

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Not really. Cannons in various forms well predate the 19th century. I mean you had cannons mounted on ships in the 15th century. Hell, the Spanish conquered the New World with 15th century level firearms.
Cannons are usually cast, so require less advanced metalworking than a rifle, and as siege engines, displaced trebuchets and the like, but not personal weapons.

The Spanish conquered the new world largely with disease and superstition. The loud bangs and smoke did more damage than the actual projectiles. Obviously would not work in a situation where your enemy was familiar with firearms.
 
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Incenjucar

Legend
I don't like guns because they put more emphasis on the skill of the manufacturer than the user. I also grew up in a gun hobby family, so firearms are painfully mundane to me.
 

ad_hoc

(they/them)
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.

May I suggest Pirateaba's The Wandering Inn?

It is a serial so it is an ongoing plot unlike a novel.

The synopsis sounds like it will be terrible (woman is transported from our world to a fantasy world where people level up) but it is told in a real grounded way (and is sometimes scary/intense).

It is great for me because I have a hard time reading and the audio books are wonderfully voice acted.
 

Hussar

Legend
I don't like guns because they put more emphasis on the skill of the manufacturer than the user. I also grew up in a gun hobby family, so firearms are painfully mundane to me.
I know what you mean.

My Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign introduced gunpowder - but, in my version of Greyhawk, gunpowder requires dragon dung to be manufactured, thus making it exorbitantly expensive and mostly a curiosity. Then the party found an island of wyverns (well -special wyverns) whose dung would work and there were massive piles of guano that had accumulated over the centuries on the island. Thus, they became the sole owners of the only reliable source of gunpowder - on an island about a week's sail off the coast of the Sea Barons. Oh, and the only folks who knew the secret of transforming said guano into gunpowder were cultists of Baphomet.

And fun times ensued.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Speaking of firearms, I've been reading The Nightmares Underneath recently, and I'm kind of intrigued by how they handle firearms and heavy crossbows. Other missile weapons roll to hit like you'd expect- against AC. Firearms and heavy crossbows, OTOH, work like this:

Firearms Attacks
When you attack someone with a musket, pistol, or rifle, or a heavy crossbow, if your opponent is stationary and has no cover, you must roll equal to or lower than your Dexterity score on a d20 in order to hit. If your opponent is moving quickly or has cover, you must roll equal to or lower than half your Dexterity score, rounded
down, on a d20 in order to hit, unless you take a round or more to aim. If you take time to aim at a target that is moving quickly or has cover, you must roll equal to
or lower than your full Dexterity score on a d20 in order to hit. An opponent moving quickly behind cover cannot be hit. Being more than 50 feet away counts as cover. If
you successfully hit your foe
, you inflict damage as normal. If you roll a 20 to attack, your firearm is fouled or jammed and must be cleaned to be useful again. Or, the GM may rule instead that you have run out of bullets. If you have an attack bonus, it does not apply to your roll to hit with a firearm or a heavy crossbow, although assassins making a sneak attack still hit automatically and fighters still inflict damage on a miss (and twice on a hit). After discharging a firearm or a crossbow, you must spend a full combat round reloading it before you can fire it again.
(You can potentially get advantage on this roll from spell.)
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
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.
Handheld gunpowder weapons, in Europe, predate the development of "plate armor" as we understand it. Per Wikipedia, the earliest surviving handgun dates to no earlier than 1396. They were in active use during the Hussite Wars of 1419-1434.

The first suits of full plate armor only came into being around 1420.

Handguns are not an industrial-era weapon. The Robin Hood comparison is shockingly apt: the first Robin Hood folktales we know of come from the 13th and 14th centuries, meaning the 1400s to 1500s. But it would have been more accurate to say that handguns are older than Robin Hood.

Now, if you want to talk rifles, sure! Those are modern weapons, developed during industrial times. And nobody denies that smoothbore weapons were less effective than one might like. But to claim that you don't see usable, functional hand-held gunpowder weapons until the Industrial Revolution overstates the case by three whole centuries at least.

Now, none of that is to say "you should LIKE firearms in your fantasy." If you don't, cool. I can better understand the "skill shifts from user to maker" argument, but you don't even need that. Just "I don't like it" is fine. I just feel frustrated when I see what appears to be reifying personal preferences by "historical" explanations that aren't historical.
 
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mamba

Legend
Handheld gunpowder weapons, in Europe, predate the development of "plate armor" as we understand it.
reminds me of the book from 1669 in which they describe how someone gets shot squarely in the head with such a gun, and stumbled around a bit, dizzy, falling to the ground and getting up again, and developing a large bump on his forehead....
 

Handheld gunpowder weapons, in Europe, predate the development of "plate armor" as we understand it. Per Wikipedia, the earliest surviving handgun dates to no earlier than 1396. They were in active use during the Hussite Wars of 1419-1434.
Sure, they existed. But they where not good enough to replace conventional weapons. That required the development of the "lock" to make firing reliable, which in turn required complex moving parts made from metal. The Mary Rose sank in 1545. It carried cannon, but the troops on board where armed with longbows. Not because firearms did not exist, but because longbows were better. Since the ship has been recovered, this can all be verified by the archaeological evidence.
 


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