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

CreamCloud0

One day, I hope to actually play DnD.
What I want out of a fantasy game is swords and sorcery, not swords and sorcery and tech. I don't want people blowing up a lot of orcs with gunpowder bombs. I want them blowing up a bunch of orcs with a fireball.
alas, yet another way to undercut the versatility of martials in favour of magic, they can't even get to use handheld bombs.
 

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Voadam

Legend
My spouse plays a goblin artificer, Blimmig, with a pistol, a rifle, a mechanical dragon homunculus, and a toymaker's cart that transforms into a robot protector, Mr. Cart. They interpret every spell in terms of wacky goblin mechanics, so instead of casting revivify, Blimmig whips out goblin jumper cables, a la World of Warcraft. Instead of casting fly, they press a button and janky wings fold out from their backpack. Their grease spell is basically a big oily super-soaker. And so on. It's super fun!
Yeah, we do that too and it adds a lot to the feel of the game. The robot artificer's magic stone is finger guns (pew! pew!), his levitate is rocket boots, invisibility is retroreflectors, detect thoughts is a predictive AI based off of sensing the magnetic field of a brain, disguise self is a projected hologram overlay, etc.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
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.

Were longbows better or cheaper? After all, long bowmen were extremely cheap soldiers.

That single shipwreck was to have been the pride of Henry VIII's fleet, and sank while being, in effect, shown off to he and his court as the "latest and greatest".

Which means, by a very short jump of extrapolation, that had personal guns also been the "latest and greatest" military thing they too would have been prominently on display on that (very short) voyage; and that they weren't says quite a lot.

The opposite. These where English (Welsh) longbowmen, with a lifetime of training. Elite special forces for Henry's new flagship. It wasn't just any old shipwreck.

The reason firearms eventually won out of longbows is you could train anyone to use them in a couple of days. Didn't matter if they were a bad shot since the weapons where so inaccurate aiming was a waste of time. Of course, that wouldn't happen for another generation or two, when the firearms could be mass produced cheaply. You wouldn't want to equip cheap soldiers with expensive weapons.

Yet Agincourt saw the fielding of so many archers because they were so cheap that that’s what the English - not exactly the wealthiest European nation of the time, could afford to field.

Sorry but English archers were in no way “elite”. And again pointing to an English shipwreck for the “most advanced “ technology in Europe at that time isn’t exactly the proof people think it is.

That is a complete misunderstanding. The English fielded a large force of archers because they went to a lot of expense to do so. Even had laws mandating training and how many archers a region had to train.
Takes some thing like 10 years to train an archer. The French could not replicate this because the French King could not force the nobility to accept that peasants could take an important role in battle.

I think the facts support points made on many sides here. Archers are expensive in terms of training time. The bows themselves are not that expensive. Firearms were more expensive to produce, but troops to wield them are MUCH less of an investment of time and training (and food and lodging and keeping men on a payroll, again in a time before the kind of professional standing armies we think of nowadays). Archers were elite in terms of their skills and the time it took to develop them, but cheap in that ordinary yeomen not part of a standing army were expected to support themselves when not actively at war but also required to continue their training and practice at home, rather than being full-time soldiers on a payroll.

Circumstance made the Longbow a traditional weapon of the English, and beyond pure battlefield effectiveness (which gradually waned as armor and firearm technologies improved), they had cultural cachet.

The Mary Rose sank in 1545. Agincourt was in 1415. As Ezekial pointed out, hand-held guns started to be common in war a little later than Agincourt and gradually saw improvement and increasingly widespread use through the 1400s and 1500s, with the proper flintlock arriving in 1610. So the Mary Rose sank while smoothbore guns were coming into their ascendency but had not yet eclipsed the bow, but also in the cultural context of the English longbow being a symbol of national myth and pride, arguably its ultimate military triumph to that point and highest point of glory having taken place a little over a century prior.

I suggest that longbows being aboard the Mary Rose is less a sign that they were still an uncontestably better weapon, than that they were among the best still, and were a point of particular national pride. They had prestige, and had not yet been outmoded. And yes, their wielders were elite in the sense of possessing a highly trained skill.

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.
Yup.
The 1500s saw several developments in improved firearms tech, including the wheellock, doglock, snaplock, and snaphance. True, the proper flintlock that outshone them all didn't arrive until 1610, but that would still put it midway between the original Robin Hood (mid-1400s) and the Industrial Revolution (earliest dates I can find say ca. 1760.)

I don't think anyone here is talking about them replacing conventional weapons. But it is fact that the Hessite Wars included soldiers armed with handguns as part of their "war wagons." Volley fire, which enabled the formation of entire units of harquebusiers rather than just individual people, was developed no later than the end of 1594, and the more heavily-armored cuirassier was likewise a major part of cavalry in the early 17th century.

More or less? While technology certainly needed to catch up, a bigger part of it was that new tactics had to be developed. New weapons worked in ways that old ones didn't. You're always fighting the last war, not the current one. Etc.

I disagree with that. I think it's a common misconception that as soon as gunpowder appears on the scene there is no place for swords and bows. Whereas they overlapped with firearms for hundreds of years.
I agree with you both. Obviously D&D is highly anachronistic in having full plate armor without common firearms. There's definitely room for overlap if one wants a more historical game.
 
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So the Mary Rose sank while smoothbore guns were coming into their ascendency
They where used for a different purpose. Firearms - various forms of hand-cannon at the time where used as terror weapons, not battlefield weapons. You would only have a few because they where so expensive to make, so you would use them to terrorise superstitious presents with the noise, smoke and bloody death they could inflict. In order for personal firearms to become effective battlefield weapons you needed to be able to assemble a massed rank of them, enough so it didn't matter that they didn't shoot straight.
 

Clint_L

Hero
I think a huge impetus behind 5e's design choices was to make it easy for lapsed players to come back to. And it certainly worked! So I think that, should your friend so choose, he won't find 5e a very difficult adjustment.
 

CreamCloud0

One day, I hope to actually play DnD.
I think a huge impetus behind 5e's design choices was to make it easy for lapsed players to come back to. And it certainly worked! So I think that, should your friend so choose, he won't find 5e a very difficult adjustment.
did you perhaps intend to post this in the 'sell me on 5e' thread?
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
They where used for a different purpose. Firearms - various forms of hand-cannon at the time where used as terror weapons, not battlefield weapons. You would only have a few because they where so expensive to make, so you would use them to terrorise superstitious presents with the noise, smoke and bloody death they could inflict. In order for personal firearms to become effective battlefield weapons you needed to be able to assemble a massed rank of them, enough so it didn't matter that they didn't shoot straight.
For longbows to be effective at battlefield scale you also need massed ranks of them. Absolutely the bows were more accurate (assuming you had competent archers), but they both required deployment en masse. The Ottomans started volley fire with matchlock muskets as early as 1536, and some folks were doing it with arquebuses before that, right? So production must have been ramping up to effective levels around that period.
 

For longbows to be effective at battlefield scale you also need massed ranks of them. Absolutely the bows were more accurate (assuming you had competent archers), but they both required deployment en masse.
Indeed. Which was why trained longbowmen were so valuable, and hence why training was compulsory in England. The loss of so many on the Mary Rose may have forced the English to invest in the development of firearm units (I don't think there is any record of how many died, but swimming was not a common skill).
The Ottomans started volley fire with matchlock muskets as early as 1536, and some folks were doing it with arquebuses before that, right? So production must have been ramping up to effective levels around that period.
The Ottomans never had access to longbowmen, so mass production of firearms was a higher priority. But through the 16th Century you see a gradual improvement in manufacturing techniques across Europe, so that by the 17th you could field cheap troops with cheap firearms. This is the point when bows and traditional armour became obsolete.
 
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If we wanna get really for-real about this, the existence of Wizards and Sorcerers with effective AoE Spells might cause a problem for low tech, high density firearm military formations. Hard to get that mass firing line going with flaming spheres roving the field...
This is the Eberron approach. There is no point in developing firearms, because magic is better.
 

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