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.


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


Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
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).
Had the numbers of archers in England so declined that early? There were 250 bows on the Mary Rose, with a normal wartime complement of 185 soldiers, or up to around 400 cramming the ship for a raid or land invasion. At Agincourt a hundred-odd years prior, the English fielded approximately 5,000-6,000 archers, right?

My understanding is that conversion to firearms was in part a product of declining stocks of yew for bow staves (and them becoming more and more expensive to import) and in part the improvement of firearms technology.

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Had the numbers of archers in England so declined that early?
Probably not, I just put it in as an out-there speculation. But Henry had lost quite a lot of troops fighting in Europe and Scotland as well. I'm not sure there is much hard documentary evidence of what numbers and type of troops could be fielded for that period. If I had to guess, it would be under Mary that England started to expand it's personal firearms capacity, given her close ties to Spain.
My understanding is that conversion to firearms was in part a product of declining stocks of yew for bow staves (and them becoming more and more expensive to import) and in part the improvement of firearms technology.
Looking at Europe as a whole, improved manufacturing was the big factor, since only England was significantly dependant on yew. There was a campaign to plant more yew trees in England around that time though.


Re: Gunpowder, yeah, limits on chemistry do limit martials vs magical, and keeps the flavor of a magical world. I write a fantasy series, and there are several rules which inherently limit technology and so favor magic.
1) That which is most combustible is the most likely to spontaneously combust (random fire elementals love the stuff). This cuts down on all manner of chemical incendiaries and explosives.
2) That which is not natural doesn't endure. Purely synthetic chemicals rot and degrade quickly, sometimes explosively. This takes out many modern rubbers and plastics, and even fancier ceramics.
3) Electricity doesn't always follow the path of least resistance. This naturally shuts down the whole computer industry and most electrical engineering.

There are ways around these limits, like massive dead magic zones and the like, but bringing a function firearm outside such a zone is just asking for the ammunition to blow up on you. Alchemical ammunition is possible, but it just can't be produced at the scale of normal ammo, and man, do fire elementals love that stuff. It's like the finest steak in the world to them.

It is ignoring the reality of humanity's capacity to innovate and not explaining why we are stuck at tech level x that constitutes poor fantasy. Just stick in those three rules and you have to be REALLY clever to do technology, with it basically maxing out somewhere in steampunk.


I'm playing in a version of the World of Greyhawk that is at about 15C of development in its most developed parts, so firearms are starting to be common - but not with the fringe groups my players are fighting. And no player has shown interest - the artificer used one early on, but didn't stay with it. I've read what's been said here with interest and agree with much of it.
The Ottomans never had access to longbowmen, so mass production of firearms was a higher priority.
The Ottomans had mounted archers that were very proficient, but few. By the very nature of mounted archery they could not be as tightly deployed as longbowmen, they were skirmish cavalry. But the trick shooting they could do was very impressive. Classic eastern mounted archery tactics were more about skirmishing and raiding. Less useful for winning battles in Europe, but still of use for winning wars.
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I do think that right now, what's inspirational for the common fantasy nerd isn't literature but video games and TV/Movies.


Generic "Fantasy" in film and video games has moved forward in time. Much of fantasy today is steampunk, or at least roughly renaissance, if with a more Chinese framing.

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