Worlds of Design: Reassessing Tolkien’s Influence

J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is a strong influence on RPGs, but is that bad?

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.

book-5718632_1280.jpg

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?
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
Not really. Nobody seems to mind when we say Howard influenced DnD. That just gets collective nods.

But say that Tolkien has an influence and you’ll see people tripping over themselves to deny any connection.

Like I said earlier. It’s really weird.

I think it's due to an intersection of Tolkien's clear influence on it, the Tolkien Enterprises lawsuit, and Gygax's subsequent playing down of Tolkien's influence.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Parmandur

Book-Friend
I can see Iuz as similar to Sauron in forming an evil expanding empire in the world with a lot of orcs and evil people, but I am not sure who the Gandalf equivalent would have been.

Greyhawk had Mordenkainen and Tenser and Bigby as powerful PC wizards who seemed to fill the Gandalf role, Xagyg set up stuff for dungeons in Castle Greyhawk but was not with a party directly to my knowledge. Boccob is The Uncaring.
I forget his name, the god if wanderers. Super Gandalf-y. The OG box set gives a rundown in how all sorts if gods run amok.
 

Voadam

Legend
I forget his name, the god if wanderers. Super Gandalf-y. The OG box set gives a rundown in how all sorts if gods run amok.
Fharlanghn? He's a spry old man who wanders the world, speaks all tongues, and can strike unerringly with his staff which is decent image and tools for a Gandalf type. I don't particularly see him joining dwarves on an adventure, hanging out with hobbits, or dealing with various power lords though (Elrond, Denethor, Saruman, Sauron, etc.).
1701791085058.png



Celestian the Far Wanderer? He's a big wanderer but even more remote from interacting with adventures and politics.

1701791308772.png

1701791374102.png
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Without Tolkien fantasy doesn't have the surge in popularity that it saw in the 1970s, and so maybe we don't even get D&D or much of the fantasy to follow. So in the sense that it made fantasy a really viable publishing genre rather than a fringe niche, its influence was positive.

I see the negatives in terms of its impact on how a lot of subsequent fantasy was written: basically as unimaginative knock-offs. And not only that, but knock-offs written in a weirdly anachronistic style, a sort of quasi-King James-ian English that I find cringe-inducing. Kinda like Thor in Marvel comics. Tolkien's prose is famously contrived and archaic, but he makes it work because his stories, at their best, attain the grandeur of actual myth and so his weird writing style becomes a feature rather than a flaw. I can't immediately think of any other writer who has come close to pulling it off, and a whole lot who try and fail.

Edit: Maybe Frank Herbert and Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Your description sounds like you're talking about Eddison. :) The Worm Ouroborous is written in that archaic quasi-Jacobean style, and I agree with every one of your comments applied to that text. Anyone else doing it would be cringy and awkward, but Eddison makes it mythic and awesome.

Tolkien's prose comes off slightly archaic in part because he consciously uses a high proportion of older Germanic derived words and avoids those of Latinate derivation, which helps keep his prose feeling less modern, less scientific, and more poetic. But those words also tend to be simpler and shorter.

Not really. Nobody seems to mind when we say Howard influenced DnD. That just gets collective nods.

But say that Tolkien has an influence and you’ll see people tripping over themselves to deny any connection.

Like I said earlier. It’s really weird.
I think it's reflexive at this point. First inculcated repetition of Gary's post-cease & desist denials, and then folks actually learning about all the less obvious influences. Especially since a segment of the younger (although still more Gen Xers and older Millennials rather than actual young folks) community actually started digging into Appendix N and seeing all the very real and substantial stuff that clearly did go into the game. Tolkien absolutely was a huge influence, of course. I think people have a reactionary response to what they see as over-emphasis on the Tolkien influence.
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
Fharlanghn? He's a spry old man who wanders the world, speaks all tongues, and can strike unerringly with his staff which is decent image and tools for a Gandalf type. I don't particularly see him joining dwarves on an adventure, hanging out with hobbits, or dealing with various power lords though (Elrond, Denethor, Saruman, Sauron, etc.).
View attachment 337235


Celestian the Far Wanderer? He's a big wanderer but even more remote from interacting with adventures and politics.

View attachment 337236
View attachment 337238
Fharlanghn, yes, precisely. He is pretty clearly Gygax's homage to Gandalf, IMO, and can be used ad a mysterious patron for a party in a similar fashion to The Hobbit.
 

Voadam

Legend
Fharlanghn, yes, precisely. He is pretty clearly Gygax's homage to Gandalf, IMO, and can be used ad a mysterious patron for a party in a similar fashion to The Hobbit.
OK. The closest I could see in the description to him being a mysterious patron would be to get someone like Bilbo out to travel because he is a god of travel and his neutrality has a tendency towards good. Fharlanghn I could see being met on the road while traveling as a more likely role for him from the description.

I would much more expect Mordenkainen to be a quest giver or accompanying wizard on a quest in the Greyhawk context, partly from later depictions of the Council of Eight and his political machinations, partly from his actual adventuring.

Iuz looks nothing like Sauron (Iuz the old as an old man, or his big fiendish form, versus the burning eye and shadow of Sauron) but they both do the same recognizable role of evil lord corrupting and sponsoring and conquering in the world.
 


Parmandur

Book-Friend
I agree - I want to emphasize that I'm not blaming Tolkien for writing some great books. More people should write great fantasy books!

I just, personally, find most of the Tolkien-derivative stuff boring and poorly written. And there's a lot of it. That's all.
Juat about the only good attempt to follow Tplkien carefully is Tad William's Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Most other attempts miss the good stuff and go after incidental features.
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
OK. The closest I could see in the description to him being a mysterious patron would be to get someone like Bilbo out to travel because he is a god of travel and his neutrality has a tendency towards good. Fharlanghn I could see being met on the road while traveling as a more likely role for him from the description.

I would much more expect Mordenkainen to be a quest giver or accompanying wizard on a quest in the Greyhawk context, partly from later depictions of the Council of Eight and his political machinations, partly from his actual adventuring.

Iuz looks nothing like Sauron (Iuz the old as an old man, or his big fiendish form, versus the burning eye and shadow of Sauron) but they both do the same recognizable role of evil lord corrupting and sponsoring and conquering in the world.
Mordenkainen is a PC, heck he was a present in several TSR products. Fjarlanghan is more of a mysterious unpredictable benefactor who moves in mysterious ways.

The differences between Iuz and Sauron are more surface deep: they have the same Modus Operandi, and Sauron pre-Fall of Numenor was even way more like Iuz.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
I agree - I want to emphasize that I'm not blaming Tolkien for writing some great books. More people should write great fantasy books!

I just, personally, find most of the Tolkien-derivative stuff boring and poorly written. And there's a lot of it. That's all.
While of course there is poorly written Tolkeinesque fantasy, most of it (IME) is well written, but not to the level of something truly innovative, different, and ground-breaking, like Tolkein himself. Most of the Tolkeinesque fantasy I've read is good-not-great, but more importantly . . . comforting. It's fantasy comfort food. And that's okay.

And there is some great stuff in the vein of Tolkein, like Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn saga mentioned upthread. And others too!

Core D&D is the same way for me. The tropes in D&D, coming from Tolkein and other writers, is comforting and familiar. It's why my home campaign hews very close to the core D&D tropes, including a lot of very Tolkeinesque elements. And most new settings I see advertised that promise to be different . . . try too hard in ways that aren't appealing to me (most, not all).
 

Remove ads

Remove ads

Top